Democracy's Battle Joined, Again
By Robert Parry
December 22, 2005
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have reignited a long-smoldering war fought over the Imperial Presidency, a conflict that flared in the mid-1970s, after the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam disaster, and resumed a decade later in the Iran-Contra Affair.
This time, however, the legions for the Imperial Presidency seem poised to overwhelm the weakened defenders of the traditional American democratic republic who for years have chosen retreat over confrontation.
That is the real back story behind the disclosures that Bush is asserting his inherent powers to jail citizens without charge, order the physical abuse of detainees, spy on Americans without a court order, ignore treaties, and invade countries without the necessity of congressional authorization.
Bush and Cheney are saying that in the War on Terror, they must be a law onto themselves with the flexibility to do whatever they deem necessary. When they say they are operating within the law, what they mean is that their interpretation of the law gives them unlimited powers.
As Cheney told reporters aboard Air Force Two on Dec. 20, I do believe that especially in the day and age we live in, the nature of the threats we face, the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy. [NYT, Dec. 21, 2005]
So, this White House has thrown down the gauntlet to Congress, the courts, the press and the broader American public to anyone who opposes an autocratic Executive daring them to a fight to the finish.
In this looming showdown, the confidence of Bush and Cheney is buoyed by the fact that they have a huge right-wing media infrastructure that treats whatever they say as truth and will disparage anyone who criticizes them.
This right-wing media machine built over three decades from the ashes of Vietnam and Watergate demonstrated its power in the 1980s by containing the Iran-Contra scandal and in the 1990s by nearly hounding a Democratic president out of office. [For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]
In contrast, American progressives opted for a strategy that eschewed a counter-media infrastructure. Over the past three decades, liberal funders invested mostly in social projects, such as feeding the poor, and in local organizing with the slogan, think globally, act locally. [For details on this strategy, see Consortiumnews.coms The Lefts Media Miscalculation.]
The consequences of the Rights investments in national media are now becoming obvious, as the Bush-Cheney administration uses its committed defenders to protect against negative public reaction to its historic power grab.
While the White House can count on the Rights vertically integrated media machine from cable TV to talk radio, from newspapers and magazines to book publishing and the Internet the opposition has mostly scattered voices on the Internet and in fledgling progressive talk radio to make its case.
In recent months, the mainstream press humiliated over its credulous coverage of Iraqs nonexistent weapons of mass destruction has published a few revelations from government whistleblowers upset over Bush-Cheney abuses. But the major news media still shies away from going so far as to invite a right-wing backlash.
How else to explain why New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. held the story about Bushs warrantless wiretaps for more than a year, when timely publication before Election 2004 would have given the American voters a chance to deliver a judgment on this extra-legal program. [See Consortiumnews.coms Spying & the Publics Right to Know.]
Instead of informing the nation, Sulzberger bowed to the administrations demands that the Times spike the story. It was finally published on Dec. 16, 2005, because it was about to be revealed in a book written by one of the reporters, James Risen.
Cant Say Liar
Also note how the mainstream press continues to choke on calling Bush a liar even when the facts are obvious. For instance, the disclosure that Bush signed his order for warrantless wiretaps in 2002 led researchers back to an assurance he made to the American people in a speech in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 20, 2004.
After calling for renewal of the USA Patriot Act, Bush veered off into a broader discussion of wiretaps. By the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires a wiretap requires a court order, Bush said. Nothing has changed, by the way. When were talking about chasing down terrorists, were talking about getting a court order before we do so.
Though a clip of Bushs statement was carried on network news programs, it was followed by the White House explanation that Bush was only talking about the Patriot Act. The network news reporters presented that claim as the final word on the subject.
But Bushs wording indicates that he is not talking only about wiretaps under the Patriot Act. He clearly deviates from that discussion when he says by the way and adds any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap. He then insists that nothing has changed when the policy had changed two years earlier.
Perhaps, a listener should conclude that whenever Bush inserts the words by the way thats a signal hes lying. Or maybe theres some semantic argument about what the words any time mean.
If Bill Clintons spokesmen had tried to spin such an obvious lie by their boss, they would have been ridiculed; the right-wing news media would have hammered away at this proof of Clinton lying and the mainstream media would have heartedly agreed.
In this Bush case, however, the outcome is the opposite. The right-wing media defends or simply ignores Bushs lie, and the mainstream press accepts the false explanation.
The pattern has been evident before, for instance, when Bush has repeatedly lied about Iraqs Saddam Hussein refusing to admit United Nations weapons inspectors, thus forcing a reluctant Bush to order the invasion in March 2003.
The truth is the opposite. Hussein relented and let U.N. inspectors into Iraq in November 2002 and eventually gave them unfettered access to whatever suspect-WMD sites they wanted to inspect. According to chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix, Bush forced the U.N. inspectors to leave in March 2003 so the invasion could proceed. [For details, see Consortiumnews.coms President Bush, With the Candlestick ]
Watergate & Vietnam
But the Bush-Cheney revival of the Imperial Presidency cant be understood without knowing the history of the last 30 years. This constitutional battle was previously joined in the mid-1970s after exposure of Richard Nixons Watergate spying operations and the loss of 57,000 American soldiers in the failed Vietnam War.
Congress began reasserting its traditional position as the Founding Fathers first branch of government, with control over the purse strings, the power to declare war, and the authority to impeach members of the Executive Branch.
The War Powers Act was passed in 1973, restricting the presidents authority to send U.S. troops into war zones for extended periods. In 1974, Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment over Watergate. A year later, Congress required the president to give timely notification about intelligence operations. In 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act set standards for national security wiretaps.
During key years of this struggle, Dick Cheney was White House chief of staff under President Gerald Ford, and in 1976, George H.W. Bush was CIA director. Both men chafed against these intrusions by Congress, the press and the public into the cloistered world of the national security elite.
CIA Director Bush launched one of the first counterattacks in defense of the Imperial Presidency by successfully lobbying to block release of a report on CIA abuses investigated by Rep. Otis Pike, D-N.Y.
The White House resistance to congressional interference surged again after Ronald Reagans inauguration in 1981, with Bush as his vice president. The Reagan administration clashed often with Congress over covert U.S. military activities in Central America and intelligence operations in the Middle East.
These tensions led Reagan and Bush to take some of their initiatives underground to avoid congressional objections to policies, such as military aid to Nicaraguan contra rebels and arms-for-hostage trades with the Islamic fundamentalist government of Iran.
In effect, Reagan and Bush were asserting again that the Imperial Presidency held intrinsic powers over foreign policy that allowed the White House to ignore laws that barred arming the Nicaraguan contras and shipping weapons to states, like Iran, designated as supporters of terrorism.
After the administrations Iran-Contra operations were exposed in fall 1986, the constitutional tug of war resumed. Initially, the White House retreated under a barrage of negative publicity focused on the wacky scheme of funneling some profits off the Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras.
Protect the President
To protect the president, chief of staff Don Regan cobbled together a plan of action shortly before the Iran-Contra diversion was announced on Nov. 25, 1986. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and his colleagues on the National Security Council staff were to take most of the blame.
Tough as it seems, blame must be put at NSC's door rouge operation, going on without President's knowledge or sanction, Regan wrote. When suspicions arose he [Reagan] took charge, ordered investigation, had meeting with top advisers to get at facts, and find out who knew what. Anticipate charges of out of control, President doesn't know what's going on, Who's in charge?
Suggesting that Reagan was a deficient leader wasnt a pretty option, but it was the best the White House could do at that moment. The other option was to admit that Reagan had authorized much of the illegal operation, including arms shipments to Iran through Israel in 1985 that some senior administration officials had warned not only were illegal but possibly amounted to an impeachable offense.
So, North was fired and his boss, national security adviser John Poindexter, resigned. The White House press office spun the scandal as a case of a few men of zeal operating outside the authority of Reagan and Bush.
By February 1987, this containment strategy was making progress. A presidential commission headed by former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, wrote a report that found no serious wrongdoing, though it criticized Reagan's management style.
The Tower Board said the scandal had been a failure of responsibility and chastised Reagan for putting the principal responsibility for policy review and implementation on the shoulders of his advisers.
Cheney to the Rescue
When the Iran-Contra investigation switched to Congress in mid-1987, the White House got a strong helping hand from Cheney, then a Wyoming congressman and an emerging Republican star. He aggressively defended Reagan, Bush and other party leaders.
North received congressional immunity for his testimony and described the White House cover-up that had followed the Iran-Contra disclosures. He called it a fall guy plan with him as the fall guy.
But congressional Democrats were faced with a tough choice, especially when the Cheney-led Republicans made clear they would fight the investigation every step of the way and pro-Reagan activists across the country rallied to Norths defense.
In effect, the Democrats, who then controlled both houses of Congress, had three options: one, they could get to the truth, show that Reagan had authorized illegal operations and seek his impeachment; two, they could reveal Reagans central role and take no action, thus creating precedents for circumventing Congress in the future; or three, they could blame Oliver North and a few other men of zeal.
The Democrats led by accommodating figures such as Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana picked option three, largely ignoring evidence pointing toward Reagan, Bush and the CIA. By accepting North as the fall guy, Congress put a fig leaf over its prerogatives, even as those powers shrank.
But conservatives learned an important lesson. They could resist congressional incursions against the Imperial Presidency by both battling inside Congress and turning loose their emerging media power and energized right-wing operatives. They discovered that the Democrats would buckle.
The Republican Iran-Contra success also encouraged conservatives to keep building the media infrastructure, adding major new voices on right-wing talk radio, Fox News and influential Internet sites through the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, on the Left, progressive funders continued to spurn proposals to build media.
After Texas Gov. George W. Bush wrested the presidential election away from Vice President Al Gore in 2000, the advocates of the Imperial Presidency were ready to consolidate their gains.
Bush announced as much in December 2000 when he joked that if this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier so long as Im the dictator. On Jan. 20, 2001, in one of his first acts in office, Bush signed an executive order expanding secrecy over the historical records of the Reagan and Bush I presidencies.
Again, Dick Cheney was at the forefront of the offensive.
As vice president, Cheney asserted secrecy over the meetings of his energy task force in early 2001. And after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he helped formulate the strategy for pronouncing Bush as the all-powerful war president who had the right to wield whatever authority he wanted as long as the War on Terror lasted.
In his discussion with reporters on Dec. 20, 2005, Cheney elaborated on his vision about the inherent powers of the presidency.
Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam both during the 70s served, I think, to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area, Cheney said as Air Force Two took him on an inspection tour of the Middle East.
Part of the argument in Iran-Contra was whether or not the president had the authority to do what was done in the Reagan years, Cheney said. And those of us in the minority wrote minority views that were actually authored by a guy working for me, one of my staff people, that I think was very good at laying out a robust view of the presidents prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters.
Cheney also warned Democrats who dont accept this assertion of robust presidential powers that they can expect to be punished politically. Either were serious about fighting the War on Terror or were not, Cheney said. [NYT, Dec. 21, 2005]
So, the gauntlet has been thrown down and there are no prospects this time for finessing the outcome as Hamilton and the Democrats tried to do in the Iran-Contra Affair.
The choice is clear to American citizens, too. Either they accept the Imperial Presidency that gives Bush the authority to do whatever he wants in the name of fighting terrorism from imprisonments without trial to detainee abuse to spying on anyone deemed a security threat or they act now.
The battle lines are forming.
On one side are the White House legions arrayed with superior organization, extraordinary resources and state-of-the-art media artillery. On the other side are defenders of the democratic republic, a tattered band armed mostly with a belief that an unrestrained Executive is anathema to all that Americans have fought and bled for since an earlier generation of patriots confronted the forces of King George III on Lexington Green and at Concord Bridge.
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.'
Back to Home Page