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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Administration tells Congress (again) - We won't abide by your "laws"

The Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee submitted detailed questions to the Bush Administration regarding the NSA program, and the DoJ's responses to both the Democrats' questions and its responses to the Republicans' are now available.

There are numerous noteworthy items, but the most significant, by far, is that the DoJ made clear to Congress that even if Congress passes some sort of newly amended FISA of the type which Sen. DeWine introduced, and even if the President "agrees" to it and signs it into law, the President still has the power to violate that law if he wants to. Put another way, the Administration is telling the Congress -- again -- that they can go and pass all the laws they want which purport to liberalize or restrict the President's powers, and it does not matter, because the President has and intends to preserve the power to do whatever he wants regardless of what those laws provide.

Question number (5) from the Committee Republicans asked "whether President Carter's signature on FISA in 1978, together with his signing statement," meant that the Executive had agreed to be bound by the restrictions placed by FISA on the President's powers to eavesdrop on Americans. This is how the DoJ responded, in relevant part:

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and any statutes inconsistent with the Constitution must yield. The basic principle of our system of government means that no President, merely by assenting to a piece of legislation, can diminish the scope of the President's constitutional power. . . .

Just as one President may not, through signing legislation, eliminate the Executive Branch's inherent constitutional powers, Congress may not renounce inherent presidential authority. The Constitution grants the President the inherent power to protect the nation from foreign attack, and Congress may not impede the President's ability to perform his constitutional duty.“ (citations omitted).

Can that be any clearer for you - Congressmen, Senators, journalists? The President is bestowed by the Constitution with the unlimited and un-limitable power to do anything that he believes is necessary to "protect the nation." Thus, even if Congress passes laws which seek to limit that power in any way, and even if the President agrees to those restrictions and signs that bill into law, he still retains the power to violate it whenever he wants.

Thus, Sen. DeWine can pass his cute little bill purporting to require oversight, or Sen. Specter can pass his, or they can do nothing and leave FISA in place. None of that matters, because no matter what Congress or even the President do with regard to the law, the law does not restrict what the President can do in any way. They are telling the Congress to its face that all of the grand debates it is having and the negotiations it is conducting are all irrelevant farces, because no matter what happens, the President retains unlimited power and nothing that Congress does can affect that power in any way.

The reality is that the Administration has been making clear for quite some time that they have unlimited power and that nothing -- not even the law -- can restrict it. But here, they are specifically telling Congress that even if Congress amends FISA and the President agrees to abide by those amendments, they still have the power to break the law whenever they want. As I have documented more times than I can count, we have a President who has seized unlimited power, including the power to break the law, and the Administration -- somewhat commendably -- is quite candid and straightforward about that fact.

I believe that even people who are aware of these facts have not really ingested or accepted the reality that we have an Administration that has embraced this ideology of lawlessness. Yesterday, I received numerous e-mails from people asking why I had not written about this report from the Boston Globe, which reported:

When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers.

The reason I didn't was because, as extraordinary as this signing statement is in one sense, it really reveals nothing new. We really do have an Administration which believes it has the power to break all laws relating, however broadly, to defending the country. It has said this repeatedly in numerous contexts and acted on those beliefs by breaking the law -- repeatedly and deliberately. They are still breaking the law by, for instance, continuing to eavesdrop on Americans without the warrants required by FISA.

This is not theory. The Administration is not saying these things as a joke. We really do live in a country where we have a President who has seized the unlimited power to break the law. That's not hyperbole in any way. It is reality. And the Patriot Act signing statement only re-iterates that fact.

In response to the Republicans' question (number 27) about whether President is exceeding his power by not just executing the laws but also interpreting them, the DoJ said this:

In order to execute the laws and defend the Constitution, the President must be able to interpret them. The interpretation of law, both statutory and constitutional, is therefore an indispensable and well established government function. . . .

The President's power to interpret the law is particularly important when he is engaged in a task -- such as the direction of the operations of an armed conflict -- that falls within the special and unique competence of the Executive Branch.

The "unique competence of the Executive Branch," to them, encompasses pretty much everything of any real significance, including what can be done to U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. With regard to all such matters, the President not only executes the law, but interprets it, and Congress is without power to do anything to restrict the power in any way. Here they are -- saying exactly this, again.

Put another way, the Administration has seized the power of Congress to make the laws, they have seized the power of the judiciary to interpret the laws, and they execute them as well. They have consolidated within themselves all of the powers of the government, particularly with regard to national security. This situation is, of course, exactly what Madison warned about in Federalist 47; it really is the very opposite of everything our Government is intended to be:

From these facts, by which Montesquieu was guided, it may clearly be inferred that, in saying "There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates," or, "if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers," he did not mean that these departments ought to have no partial agency in, or no control over, the acts of each other.

His meaning, as his own words import, and still more conclusively as illustrated by the example in his eye, can amount to no more than this, that where the whole power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of another department, the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted. This would have been the case in the constitution examined by him, if the king, who is the sole executive magistrate, had possessed also the complete legislative power, or the supreme administration of justice; or if the entire legislative body had possessed the supreme judiciary, or the supreme executive authority.

As usual, the most amazing aspect of all of this is not that the Administration is claiming these powers. It is that even as it claims them as expressly and clearly as can be, the Congress continues to ignore it and pretend that it still retains power to restrict the Administration by the laws it passes. And the media continues to fail in its duty to inform the country about the powers the Administration has seized, likely because they are so extreme that people still do not really believe that the Administration means what they are saying. What else do they need to do in order to demonstrate their sincerity?

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