Saturday, February 28, 2009

Another Unitary in the White House?

Now that the lovefest with President Obama approaches its sixth week, it might be time to test the waters, and question some recent eye-opening positions his administration has recently taken on a range of issues from invoking state secrets, backing immunity for telecoms who illegally spied on ordinary Americans to opposing a lawsuit that would require his predecessor, George W. Bush, to publicly divulge the contents of 14 million e-mails which just conveniently surfaced after having been mysteriously "misplaced" for years.

While Obama is said to have initially opposed immunizing telecoms from prosecution, he reportedly voted for the new spy bill Congress passed last summer because it gives the "U.S. presidency broad, warrantless surveillance power." (Wired) In light of Mr. Bush's hyperactive executive branch, it is not unthinkable to consider whether our new president will follow suit.

As you may recall, both Republicans and Democrats gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up for legazing the egregious Bush White House practice of allowing communication behemoths to perform warrantless wiretaps with legislation that allows for even greater domestic surveillance in addition to granting what amounts to unlimited legal amnesty to those telecoms that acted in collusion with the government in breaking existing FISA laws making for a dangerous precedent.

But, a judge in a San Francisco district court isn't entirely sure he's buying into the "state secrets" argument first dished out by Bush, and now scooped up by the Obama Justice Department. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is challenging telecom immunity, as well as the existence of what they claim is a hidden room in a San Francisco AT&T office building specifically designed to provide the National Security Agency with "raw internet traffic."

Recent Obama appointee, and Attorney General, Eric Holder, says there is no reason to think the new administration will differ from its predecessor, and that telecom immunity will continue to be what a Justice Department official calls "the law of the land."

It isn't just a couple of thousand intercepted phone calls, or several million executive branch e-mails, that are of concern here. We are concerned about a pattern of abuse in the implicit affirmation, and application, of expanded presidential powers.

The fact that Justice would defend the George W. Bush's brazen noncompliance with the Presidential Records Act, and ludicrous attempt to disappear many millions of White House e-mails, many of which might be illuminating as to the real reasons behind the invasion of Iraq, has red flag written all over it.

No one would question the assertion that being a wartime president has its challenges. And, surely, the War Powers Act of 1973 allows for a more muscular, and autonomous, executive branch, as well as the right of the president to bypass Congress when taking the country to war in the event of an attack on our own soil. But, it must also be remembered that the War Powers Act was passed on the watch of the first U.S. president to resign the office of the presidency in disgrace, Richard M. Nixon. Moreover, isn't the underlying motive behind Watergate that a chief executive may do whatever it takes to stay in power even if that means trying to subvert free elections?

The excesses of the Nixon era are like a walk in the park compared with those of Bush and Cheney. George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney, took the notion of "executive privilege" to a whole new level which future historians may well see as the real prize in Iraq---not the oil, but more power at home; a presidency on steroids, and the voluptuaries of profit would want nothing less.

While he may be willing to trade immunity for greater wartime authority, it would be reassuring to know that the president who recently took the reins with a popular mandate is one who plans to do more than hold photo-ops with Congress.

We are confident that Mr. Obama, as a constitutional lawyer, is well aware of the pitfalls of presidential hubris, and that he is a firm believer in separation of powers which is why his support for the state secrets argument, his approval of immunity for telecoms that broke privacy laws, and his siding with the former administration's need to keep their own electronic communications from public view alarms as does the idea that any commander-in-chief could find being in the war business a compelling way to broaden their own powers.