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America's Point of No Return

By Robert Parry
November 2, 2006

Now that George W. Bush has reframed Election 2006 around John Kerry’s “botched joke” and the notion that a Democratic victory means “the terrorists win,” Americans must begin looking seriously at what the continuation of Republican majorities in Congress would mean for the country.

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 ballot.

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III” against Muslim radicals – a kind of global version of Iraq – and whether the U.S. Constitution will be effectively repealed, replaced by a new system without “unalienable rights” for citizens and with an all-powerful President.

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.

Plenary Powers

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 on terror.”

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 the Constitution.

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.

Tribunal Law

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.” [Emphases added]

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 military commissions.”

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.

All-Powerful President

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.

Endless War

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 nuclear ambitions.

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 explained.

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 imprison?

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.'

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