the blog of DC Drinking Liberally

December 19, 2005

Checks and Balances in Bushworld


At his own blog, my co-blogger AltHippo calls attention to this bit from Bush’s press conference this morning:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. I wonder if you can tell us today, sir, what, if any, limits you believe there are or should be on the powers of a President during a war, at wartime? And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we’re going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I disagree with your assertion of “unchecked power.”

Q Well —

THE PRESIDENT: Hold on a second, please. There is the check of people being sworn to uphold the law, for starters. There is oversight. We’re talking to Congress all the time, and on this program, to suggest there’s unchecked power is not listening to what I’m telling you. I’m telling you, we have briefed the United States Congress on this program a dozen times.

This is an awesome responsibility to make decisions on behalf of the American people, and I understand that, Peter. And we’ll continue to work with the Congress, as well as people within our own administration, to constantly monitor programs such as the one I described to you, to make sure that we’re protecting the civil liberties of the United States. To say “unchecked power” basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the President, which I strongly reject.

Q What limits do you —

THE PRESIDENT: I just described limits on this particular program, Peter. And that’s what’s important for the American people to understand. I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country.

So Bush enumerates two checks on his power to torture, detain indefinitely without charges, spy on American citizens, or do whatever the hell he wants in the War on Terrorism. The first check is “people being sworn to uphold the law”. I’m sure we can all rest easy in the knowledge that no one who has sworn to uphold the law would ever think of violating that oath.

The second check is “talking to Congress”. The administration apparently actually talked to only a handful of members of Congress about the program of warrantless wiretaps on American citizens, and those members were prohibited from telling anyone about the conversations. So they couldn’t talk to other members (not even those who were also on the intelligence committees) and take congressional action. They couldn’t consult legal or constitutional experts. They couldn’t alert the public. The best they could do was write a letter of protest and file it away in secret. What sort of check could such conversations possibly provide?

I do agree with Bush when he says, “I am doing what you expect me to do”. It’s not what I’d hope for, or what I’d expect most presidents to do, but it is the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from Bush. He and his gang have made clear in the past that they believe a president has absolute power in a time of war — and that we’re now in the midst of a war that can have no clear ending.

Perhaps rather than checks the president would look better in stripes.

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