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The Would-Be Dictator

December 20, 2005
By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers

"If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just as long as I'm the dictator."

-- George W. Bush, December 18, 2000 (during his first trip to Washington as President-elect)

It's clear that Bush violated the law by ordering the National Security Agency to engage in domestic spying. So, once again, I have a question for those who, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, voted for George Bush: NOW do you get it?

I posed that same question several months ago, in the wake of the stupendous Bush Administration incompetency that left thousands dead and homeless after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Now more and more facts are being revealed (about spying, torturing, lying) that should make it obvious that those residing in the White House are not only bumblers on a grand scale but dangerous to the current and future health of our democratic republic. They should be impeached and removed ASAP before they take us all down with them.

We already knew how they lied and deceived the nation into supporting a war against a country that was weak, contained, posing little or no imminent threat to any of its neighbors, and certainly not to the United States. (Recent polls indicate that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the war was a mistake and the figures are rising for those who think the occupation should be ended as soon as possible.) We already knew how the Bush Administration had effectively turned over environmental and public-health regulation to the polluting industries and drug companies.

But these new revelations about secretly ordering warrentless domestic spying is, as one senator said, an "astounding" violation of how America works as a country of laws.

How could this have happened in a free society? The reasons are many and various, including a corporate-owned mass media that knew a lot more than it was telling its readers. But before we get to the spying and torture scandals - and the twisted legal reasoning that Bush&Co. use to justify their violating laws whenever they feel like it - here's my abbreviated chronological take on how we got to this place:

THE "OPPORTUNITY" AFFORDED BY 9/11

One could begin with the reasonable presumption that plans for various Administration moves - making control of oil abroad a military priority, invading Iraq, packing the courts with Hard-Right judges, restricting civil liberties, etc. - were being discussed even before the election of 2000. But so much of that was secret.

Let's just start with something more public: the tragic events of 9/11. The Bush Administration may not have known the details of those terrorist attacks - the date, time, and exact targets - but a barrage of intelligence reports were coming into the White House from allies around the globe that a "spectacular" event was about to be launched by al-Qaida on the U.S. mainland in the summer of 2001.

In the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 6, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," Bush was told that the FBI had found evidence of "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York....CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives." (The Bush Administration apparently ignored intelligence gained after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center indicating that the terrorists wanted to use airplanes to strike government buildings in Washington.)

Given the warnings from foreign governments along with this PDB, the logical, intelligent, professional thing for Bush to do would be to summon all his key military, intel and emergency-preparedness advisors and figure out how to disrupt the impending attack or, if that was impossible, how to deal with the aftermath. What did Bush and his colleagues do? Absolutely nothing. They chose to look the other way. Nearly three thousand innocents died.

On the morning of the attack, what did Bush do? Absolutely nothing. He sat there with those elementary-school students, and took photos with the teacher and kids, even after his chief-of-staff whispered in his ear that the second tower had been hit and America was under attack. Normally, when there's a possible threat to the president, the Secret Service is trained to surround the guy and whisk him immediately to safety; why was no such policy followed here? Very strange indeed.

What did Rumsfeld do at the Pentagon? Absolutely nothing. He was incommunicado at a meeting in another part of the building when the Twin Towers were hit and collapsed, and when the Pentagon was attacked. He emerged only after all the mass-murders had taken place.

Whether all this behavior was simply evidence of utter confusion or total incompetence (or, as some would have it, something more sinister) isn't clear. The point is that the Bush Administration did nothing until after the attacks had transpired.

Some days later, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told NSC staffers that the key question was "how do you capitalise on these opportunities" to fundamentally change American doctrine, and shape the world, in the wake of September 11? "It's important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions," she said.

In that sense, 9/11 was analogous to Pearl Harbor, freeing an administration to act boldly, both internally and abroad, in the face of enemy attacks. (Recall the telling quotation, referring to radical military reform, from a 2000 Project for The New American Century report: "[T]he process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event - like a new Pearl Harbor." (Note: The HardRight founders of PNAC - among them Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush, John Bolton, Zalmay Khalilzad, et al. - a year later became those in charge of U.S foreign/military policy.)

Shortly after 9/11, deadly anthrax spores were mailed to media outlets and to Democratic leaders of Congress, causing additional fright and panic. Nobody has been charged in the anthrax attacks; the spores were traced back to stock from the Army's Fort Detrick Biological Weapons Lab.

Congress, with little calm debate, was urged to urgently pass the so-called USA Patriot Act, even though virtually no members had the chance to read the final version from the White House. Large sections of the Patriot Act consisted of bills introduced by Hard-Right conservatives over the years but which were rejected by earlier Congresses as far too violative of civil liberties. (Four years later, finally, the Senate is standing up for the Constitution, refusing to extend the worst aspects of the Patriot Act.)

In short, 9/11 gave the Bush Administration a green light to do whatever it said was necessary to locate and destroy those responsible, and to block future terrorists from doing damage to the U.S. again.

But, as we learned years later, that wasn't all that the Bush Administration was engaged in.

THE DOMESTIC SPYING SCANDAL

The Bush crew claim that whatever seemingly shady actions they take are done to protect Americans from future terrorist attacks. For the sake of argument, let's assume that they are acting out of those best intentions.

Even if one were to give them the benefit of the doubt, why would they constantly and consistently find it necessary to hide and disguise what they're doing (even paying media types to publicize their spin) and to violate the law and the Constitutional protections of due process? Why wouldn't they explain what they're doing, why, and get Congress (with the GOP controlling both houses) to pass the necessary authorizing legislation? And, most importantly, why would they do everything possible to ensure that the appropriate federal courts would have no role in evaluating the legal correctness of their approach? Consider:

Bush ordered the NSA to begin secret domestic spying, even though the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act restricts the NSA to spying abroad. With Bush's order in hand, the NSA could forget about seeking court-ordered warrants for phone-taps, computer invasions, email readings, and who knows what else. (Breaking and entering? Sneak and peek black-bag jobs?)

Alberto Gonzales, the Bush toady who then was White House Counsel (now Attorney General), devised a legal philosophy claiming that the President is permitted to violate laws whenever he says he's acting as "commander-in-chief" in "wartime." Since Bush unilaterally has declared that the U.S. is at "war" - a war with no foreseeable end against terrorists - he feels he's home free to do whatever he feels is required.

So far as is known, even though the Supreme Court shot down Richard Nixon when he asserted that Presidents are above the law, the memos establishing this authoritarian legal strategy are still operative; indeed, Bush used the "commander-in-chief" rationale in his most recent radio address about his ordering the NSA to spy inside the country. To "protect the American people," Bush effectively said, I did it, I'll do it again, what are you going to do about it?

Similarly, to get around U.S. laws and international treaties against torture, Gonzales and Rumsfeld's lawyers at the Pentagon, redefined torture to authorize anything that doesn't kill or nearly kill the person being interrogated. If the interrogation doesn't go over that line, ipso facto it's not "torture," and Bush and Rice and the others can baldly assert that "we don't torture." (They have yet to explain the estimated 100+ or more deaths of detainees in U.S. care. Oops.)

Uncooperative high-value detainees are either spirited to secret CIA prisons around the globe for interrogation - in Poland, Romania, North Africa, etc. - or are "rendered" to countries (Egypt being one) that are less squeamish about rigorous torturing. The CIA even has its own planes to fly those suspects to the secret CIA prisons or to the "rendering" countries.

One could go on and on, but you get the central idea: the Bush Administration believes itself to be, and acts in accordance with that belief, that it is above the law, untouchable. By any definition, that is a dictatorship - maybe not a total dictatorship, yet, but heading full-steam in that direction.

This arrogant, in-your-face attitude, it should be noted, mirrors the philosophy behind the brazen foreign/military policy laid out by PNAC in 2000 and which became the National Security Strategy of the United States two years later: acting unilaterally, courting no competitors for power, steamrolling and destroying opposition, by any and all means necessary.

The time-honored "checks and balances" between the three branches of government, under Bush & Co., are no longer valid - they're sort of "quaint," to borrow Gonzales' term about the Geneva Conventions. The Judicial Branch is either frozen out of the equation where possible, or packed with like-minded Hard-Right ideologues who believe in Executive dominance. The Legislative branch is run pretty much by the GOP leadership as an appendage to the White House's political agenda, with the Democrats (made to seem "unpatriotic" if they question Bush's war and torture policies and the like) shuffled off into a backwater, with no real power or influence. The corporate-owned mainstream media, the Fourth Estate, which normally would be the public's watchdog over legislative and executive perfidy, seems content to play lapdog to the ruling powers-that-be.

DOWNGRADING THE JUDICIARY

On those rare occasions when the Judicial and/or Legislative branches stand up and assert their rightful place in the checks-and-balance system of government, the Bush Administration finds ways to go around whatever restrictions are placed on Executive power. Let's take three recent examples:

1. The Bush Administration, exercising what amounts to police-state powers, began rounding up terrorist suspects - including American citizens - and throwing them in prisons without recourse to any judicial review, or even contact with an attorney. Several years later, the U.S. Supreme Court finally received a case about such authoritarian treatment of detainees, and ordered the Administration to grant the prisoners access to the court system where they could challenge the legality of their incarceration.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was as blunt about the Administration's illegal misbehavior as could be imagined - and she's a conservative: the court, she wrote in reference to American citizen Yaser Hamdi, "made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."

The response of the Bush Administration to the detainee issue was, in effect, to ignore the court's order. Promises were made, some papers were shuffled, etc., but in practice not much changed. Some prisoners, who had been imprisoned for several years ("the worst of the worst," we were assured when they were first incarcerated), were released as not being threats after all. Few have had their day in court in Bush's military tribunals, and attorneys furnished them by the Administration have denounced the process as pretty much of a fixed farce. Lower courts, packed with Bush appointees, have been supportive, and the Administration is hoping that with two new justices appointed to the Supreme Court - who will support wide-sweeping Executive power during "wartime" - the original Hamdi ruling will be overturned.

2. Last week, facing rebellion in his own GOP ranks and a united Democratic opposition, Bush seemed to cave on the McCain Amendment that would put the U.S. officially on record as not permitting torture to be carried out on prisoners in U.S. care. Politically it was, on the surface, a major humiliation for Bush, who had vigorously opposed the McCain Amendment and threatened to veto any legislation to which it was attached.

McCain came off looking good, but, in reality, he'd been outsmarted by Rove and Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Bush agreed to McCain's language because that trio already had neutered the impact of the amendment. They were able to carve out enough legalistic wiggle room to permit the continuation of torture, without much fear of political or judicial retribution.

For example, those who can reasonably assert that they are following what they believe to be lawful orders would be permitted to continue their "enhanced" interrogation methods. (It's the old "I was only following orders" ploy - a defense used by Nazi war-criminals that was disallowed at the Nuremburg Tribunals.)

Note that the McCain amendment said nothing about the ongoing practice of "extraordinary renditions" to countries allied with the U.S. where tortures of high-level suspects are carried out for the Bush Administration.

3. Finally, McCain and others tied their ban-on-torture amendment to the well-respected Army Field Manual that carefully defines what constitutes acceptable interrogation methods and what would go over the line into abuse and torture. Pulling the rug out from under McCain, Rumsfeld simply had the Army Field Manual rewritten to permit much more "harsh" interrogation methods - and stamped with a "classified" label, to prohibit quoting from it. (An unnamed Pentagon official suggested that the alteration of the Field Manual was designed to be "a stick in McCain's eye.")

As in all things, he who controls the dictionary controls the world. Torture now means what the Bush Administration says it means, so there - unless enough ruckus can be generated to get them to back off. (Assistant Defense Secretary Stephen Cambone still has to approve the final language.)

In short, thanks to George Bush and Friends, U.S. torture is unapologetically alive and well, despite the reasonable words that appear on a no-torture amendment overwhelmingly ratified by Congress. Needless to say, the Bush Administration's torture practices are the best recruiting tool for Muslim extremists, doing great damage to America's long-term national security.

IMPEACHMENT AS AN URGENT NECESSITY

Momentum is moving against the Bush Administration as more and more indictments are delivered against key aides and supporters in the innumerable scandals. (You may wonder why so few Democrats are being indicted. Early on, they were frozen out of the power loop, therefore the corrupt lobbyists and bribers went to the locus of power - i.e., to the Republicans.)

Since we don't have official "votes of no-confidence" in our system of government, electorally we have to wait until November 2006 to get the Republicans out of power in the House so that impeachment hearings can begin, and in the Senate, so that a possible conviction can be obtained. (All this pre-supposes that we finally get an honest, verified voting system in place, with no more outsourcing of vote-counting to partisan corporations, in this case Republican-supporting, who use secret coding to add up the tallies.)

But non-electoral solutions are available:

  • So much citizen pressure could be put on Democratic and Republican incumbents, anxious to preserve their jobs, that they will vote to initiate impeachment hearings in the next few months. Certainly, there are enough grounds to justify, at the least, calling for impeachment hearings in the House: the felonious outing by Administration officials of a CIA agent for political reasons, Bush's unlawful order to the NSA to spy inside the country, committing perjury before Congress to obtain authorization for war on Iraq - well, those will do for starters. There are no shortages of willful "high crimes and misdemeanors" in the Bush Administration.

  • Or, another option, perhaps a bit more fanciful at the moment, though perhaps more realistic next year: Republican corporate and political leaders will see the handwriting on the wall - and the long-term effects on the economy of their continuing to support the corrupt Bush Administration - and urge Bush and Cheney to resign, for the good of the party and the country.

So our job now, as I see it, is first to supply energy and political cover to the Democrats, Independents and traditional Republicans who want to see the reckless reign of Bush & Co. ended, while we're moving the impeachment ball forward day by day by leaning on our opinion-makers and elected officials to start the process of transformation back to a government of which we can be proud once again.

If this takes massive civil disobedience to convince the elected officials that we're serious, and that they may be ousted at the ballot box if they don't get on board, so be it. It's time to move; America can't take much more.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bernard Weiner has updated this article since it was published on Democratic Underground. The updated version can be read here.

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers. Send comments to crisispapers@comcast.net.

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