In many ways, Election 2006 not only marks the last
chance to exact some accountability from those responsible for the
disastrous Iraq War and other failures, but it also represents a point
of no return for a nation hurtling toward a future of endless warfare
abroad and a new-age totalitarianism at home.
Indeed, one could argue that the trivialization of
this important U.S. election – with major U.S. news outlets devoting two
days of breathless coverage to Senator Kerry’s clunky joke – is
confirmation of America’s rapid descent into a dark fantasy world
incapable of separating meaningful fact from silly irrelevancies.
More than 2,800 American soldiers are dead along
with possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in what is likely just a
small down-payment in blood for President Bush’s Iraq War – yet the U.S.
press corps is obsessed with Kerry’s supposed affront to the troops,
though the joke seemed actually to be aimed at Bush and the former Democratic presidential nominee isn’t even on the
All that’s left now is for the Washington pundits –
many of the same people who climbed aboard the Iraq War bandwagon in
2002-03 – to explain to the nation on Election Night how Bush and his
political team brilliantly engineered a dramatic come-from-behind win or
how the Kerry gaffe and the overconfident Democrats blew it.
But the recent goofiness aside, the stakes for the
Nov. 7 congressional elections remain extremely high and are likely to
get even higher.
The elections have become a referendum on whether
the United States will wage a virtually endless “World War III” against
Muslim radicals – a kind of global version of Iraq – and whether the
U.S. Constitution will be effectively repealed, replaced by a new system
without “unalienable rights” for citizens and with an all-powerful
If Bush follows the pattern of 2002 and 2004, he
will interpret a Republican victory on Nov. 7 as a mandate for pursuing
and expanding his policies.
Continued Republican majorities in the House and
Senate will amount to an endorsement of Bush’s assertion of “plenary” –
or unlimited – powers as Commander in Chief for the duration of the “war
The founding notion of the United States – that
power rests in the hands of the citizens who possess unshakeable rights
spelled out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – will have
effectively come to an end.
Rather than citizens possessing “unalienable
rights,” Bush will get to decide which rights are allotted to which
Americans. After all, if Bush possesses unlimited “plenary” powers, that
means other Americans only get to have the rights that he is willing to
share, much like a Medieval monarch granting favors to his subjects.
That is the tradeoff of liberty for safety at the
heart of Bush’s argument for a Republican victory. As Bush has stated
repeatedly, he views the fundamental duty of the government as
protecting Americans, rather than the traditionalist view that the
primary responsibility of the President and other officials is to defend
During a typical stump speech on Oct. 28 in
Sellersburg, Indiana, Bush explained his view of his historical legacy:
“When people look back at this period of time, the
question will be, did we do everything in our power to protect the
American people and win the war on terror? And we are in a war. It came
to our shores on September the 11th, 2001, and on that day, I
vowed to use every element of national power to defend the American
people and to defeat the terrorists.”
Bush’s words were greeted with cheers and chants of
“USA! USA! USA!”
Yet, Bush’s goal of doing “everything in our power”
to make Americans safe and to eliminate something as vague as terror is
a recipe for totalitarianism.
Bush began asserting his claim to unlimited power
shortly after the 9/11 attacks, though often in secret or in patchwork
ways that left the larger meaning unclear.
For instance, in spring 2002, Bush ordered the
indefinite military detention of American citizen Jose Padilla as an
“enemy combatant.” Administration officials deemed Padilla a “bad guy”
who was contemplating a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack, though no such
charges were ever filed and no evidence ever presented in court.
The point of the Padilla case was that Bush could
override habeas corpus rights of a fair trial and detain anyone
he wanted indefinitely. Only 3 ½ years later – facing likely reversal by
the U.S. Supreme Court – did Bush turn Padilla over to the civilian
courts to face unrelated charges of supporting a terrorist group.
But Bush now knows he has four solid Supreme Court
votes for his reinterpretation of the U.S. system of government – John
Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. All Bush
needs is one more vacancy among the five other justices to secure the
court’s blessing for his all-powerful executive.
Bush also has relied on the Republican majority in
Congress to save the kangaroo courts he devised for trying alleged
“unlawful enemy combatants.” After a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court
struck down Bush’s tribunal plan in June, Bush and GOP leaders pushed
through a legislative version.
The Military Commissions Act of 2006 explicitly
stripped non-U.S. citizens of habeas corpus rights, but also
included vague wording that would seem to cast American citizens who
allegedly aid terrorists into the same draconian system.
“Any person is punishable as a principal
under this chapter who commits an offense punishable by this chapter, or
aids, abets, counsels, commands, or procures its commission,” according
to the law, passed by the Republican-controlled Congress in September
and signed by Bush on Oct. 17.
“Any person subject to this chapter who,
in breach of an allegiance or duty to the United States, knowingly
and intentionally aids an enemy of the United States ... shall be
punished as a military commission … may direct.”
The references to “any person” and specifically to
those with “an allegiance or duty to the United States” would seem to
apply to American citizens, placing them inside the military commissions
and outside the reach of regular civilian courts.
Another provision of the law states that once a
person is detained, “no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction
to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever … relating
to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission under
this chapter, including challenges to the lawfulness of procedures of
That court-stripping provision – barring “any claim
or cause of action whatsoever” – would seem to deny American
citizens habeas corpus rights just as it does for non-citizens.
If a person can’t file a motion with a court, he can’t assert any
constitutional rights, including habeas corpus.
Other constitutional protections in the Bill of
Rights – such as a speedy trial, the right to reasonable bail and the
ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” – appear to be beyond an American
detainee’s reach as well.
Padilla asserted in court papers that he was not only held in
a small isolation cell but tortured, including threats of execution and long
periods in “stress positions” – actions allegedly taken even before the Military
Commissions Act was passed, solely on Bush’s authority. [NYT, Nov. 2, 2006]
The new tribunal law also applies to alleged spies,
defined as “any person” who “collects or attempts to collect information
by clandestine means or while acting under false pretenses, for the
purpose of conveying such information to an enemy of the United States.”
Since the Bush administration and its political
allies often have accused American journalists of conveying information
to terrorists via stories citing confidential sources, it’s conceivable
that this provision could apply to such articles, either for journalists
or their sources.
It’s also likely that Bush would execute these
powers during a serious terrorist incident inside the United States.
Amid public anger and fear, Bush or some future President could begin
rounding up citizens and non-citizens alike with little thought about a
limited interpretation of the law.
It could take years before the U.S. Supreme Court
even addresses these detentions and – given the increasingly right-wing
make-up of the Court – there would be no assurance that the justices
wouldn’t endorse the President’s extraordinary powers.
Since 9/11, Bush also has asserted his right to
ignore the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a court warrant for
searches and seizures. Bush took that action in secret when he approved
the wiretapping of Americans making or receiving overseas phone calls.
Bush bypassed a special court created to handle such matters under the 1978 Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act.
When the secret wiretapping was revealed by the New
York Times in December 2005, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended
the program, citing inherent presidential powers during wartime.
Through extensive use of so-called “signing
statements,” Bush also has claimed the right to ignore or reinterpret
laws as he sees fit.
Bush’s rationale for his unlimited power is being
sold to his excited supporters as he stumps for Republican candidates in
the days before Election 2006. In the Indiana speech, Bush portrayed the
choice in stark terms, between his sensible approach to the “war on
terror” and the recklessness of the Democrats.
“When al-Qaeda or an al-Qaeda affiliate is making a
phone call from outside the United States to inside the United States,
we want to know why,” Bush said. “In this new kind of war, we must be
willing to question the enemy when we pick them up on the battlefield.”
Referring to the capture of alleged 9/11
conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Bush said, “when we captured him, I
said to the Central Intelligence Agency, why don’t we find out what he
knows in order to be able to protect America from another attack.”
Bush then contrasted his eminently reasonable
positions with those held by the nutty Democrats.
“When it came time on whether to allow the Central
Intelligence Agency to continue to detain and question terrorists,
almost 80 percent of the House Democrats voted against it,” Bush said,
as the crowd booed the Democrats.
“When it came time to vote on whether the NSA
[National Security Agency] should continue to monitor terrorist
communications through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, almost 90
percent of House Democrats voted against it.
“In all these vital measures for fighting the war
on terror, the Democrats in Washington follow a simple philosophy: Just
say no. When it comes to listening in on the terrorists, what’s the
Democratic answer? Just say no. When it comes to detaining terrorists,
what’s the Democrat answer?”
Crowd: “Just say no!”
Bush: “When it comes to questioning terrorists,
what’s the Democrat answer?”
Crowd: “Just say no!”
Bush: “When it comes to trying terrorists, what’s
the Democrat’s answer?”
Crowd: “Just say no!”
Yet, Bush realizes that the Democrats are not
opposed to eavesdropping on terrorists, or detaining terrorists, or
questioning terrorists, or bringing terrorists to trial.
What Democrats – and many conservatives – object to
are Bush’s methods: his tolerance of abusive interrogation techniques;
his assertion of unlimited presidential authority; his abrogation of
habeas corpus rights to a fair trial; and his violation of existing
laws, such as FISA which already gives the President broad powers to
engage in electronic spying inside the United States, albeit with the
approval of a special court.
Bush’s critics argue that all his “war on terror”
objectives can be achieved without throwing out more than two centuries
of American constitutional traditions or violating human rights, such as
prohibitions against torture.
In Bush’s exaggerated attacks on his enemies and
the frenzy of his followers, Bush’s rallies sometimes have the look and
feel of proto-fascism.
Another crucial issue before the voters on Nov. 7
is whether Bush will continue getting a blank check to wage the “global
war on terror,” which might well mean extending the conflict to Iran in
the months ahead, especially if it resists demands for curtailing its
Bush and his military advisers also have cited both
Iran and Syria as allegedly supporting insurgents inside Iraq and aiding
Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. If the Republicans hold both houses on
Congress, Bush might well see that outcome as a carte blanche to
double up on his Iraq wager by escalating and expanding the conflict.
That would presumably please neoconservative
activists and prominent Republicans, such as former House Speaker Newt
Gingrich, who have spoken eagerly about waging “World War III” against
Islamic militants around the globe.
Since much of the “World War III” talk is tossed
about in a cavalier fashion, it is not clear if its promoters have
weighed the likely consequences of fighting a global conflict with many
of the world’s one billion Muslims. How the United States would muster
the vast numbers of troops needed for such an endeavor has never been
In his stump speeches, Bush agrees that Election
2006 represents a crucial turning point for the nation, although his
warning is of the dire consequences from a Democratic victory.
Bush urged the crowd in Sellersburg, Indiana, to
contact their friends and “remind them the outcome of this election will
determine whether this government does its most fundamental job, and
that is to protect the American people.”
On Oct. 30 in a speech in Statesboro, Georgia, Bush
added, “However they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to
this: The terrorists win and America loses.”
Despite the sometimes over-heated rhetoric,
Election 2006 does come down to these fundamental questions:
Does the public’s desire for more safety from
terrorists trump the nation’s historic commitment to constitutional
liberties? Should the United States abandon its founding principles as a
Republic where citizens possess “unalienable rights” and trade that in
for a system where one man decides where to wage war and whom to
Is “World War III” between the United States and
Islamic militants inevitable or should other alternatives be tried first
aimed at reducing tensions and isolating the hard-core extremists?
Granted, these are difficult and complex issues
for the U.S. press corps to explain. It’s a lot easier to frame a story
around John Kerry’s joke.
But no American should go to the polls on Nov. 7 – whether voting
Republican or Democratic – without recognizing what that vote will mean.
The United States is at a dangerous crossroads. Indeed, it may be at a
point of no return.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'