By William Rivers Pitt
Friday 30 June 2006
A rolling sense of awe has enveloped the mainstream news media since yesterday's Supreme Court decision on Guantanamo. The specifics of the decision are part of the discussion, to be sure, but the sense of amazement has a more basic root. After all this time, after a seemingly endless series of over-reaching power grabs by the Bush administration, someone with a big enough stick finally got in the way and said, "No."
"In rejecting Bush's military tribunals for terrorism suspects," reads the analysis in Friday's Washington Post, "the high court ruled that even a wartime commander in chief must govern within constitutional confines significantly tighter than this president has believed appropriate."
In short, the fellow in the Oval is beholden to the law, and to the Constitution. Not so very many years ago, that simple statement was held as axiomatic. A president's powers are broad and deep on the best of days, but for a very long time the legal boundaries held. Presidents who tested those boundaries - Lincoln and FDR leap to mind - had the new lines of demarcation they established erased and redrawn by Congress or the courts before too much time went by. In the case of Nixon, an attempt to broaden the powers of the Executive in defiance of law led to the annihilation of the entire administration.
It is a fascinating event - the prison at Guantanamo becoming the this-far-no-farther moment for the Bush administration - considering what else has transpired. A covert CIA agent was exposed, intelligence analysts were intimidated into delivering politically acceptable data, hundreds of laws were summarily ignored by way of "signing statements," the FISA courts were bypassed during surveillance of American citizens, activist groups with no terrorism ties were intimidated, and the invasion and occupation of a foreign country was undertaken under brazenly false premises. A lot of people have died, and a staggering amount of taxpayer money has been redirected into the coffers of companies with deep ties to the White House.
When all of it is boiled down, the invasion of Iraq and the "War on Terror" in general haven't really had much at all to do with defeating Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, and have had even less to do with protecting the nation. It wasn't about certain people getting paid, or about defending Israel, or even about establishing a permanent presence in the Mideast. Not entirely, anyway.
So much of this, in the end, has been about Dick Cheney being annoyed by Watergate.
Think about it. All this, and everything else besides, has been the deep set of footprints left by an administration bent on gathering to itself as much power as possible. Cheney is the true mind and muscle of this White House. The catastrophe of Nixon, as far as Cheney is concerned, was all the authority and autonomy surrendered by the Executive branch once the scandal was over and done with. Cheney started with Nixon in 1969 before becoming a senior member of the Ford administration, and later was Defense Secretary under the first president Bush. He suffered for Nixon's debacle for a very long time, under three different Republican presidents, before finally getting a chance to set things to rights.
It has been shown time and again throughout American history that the best moment for a president to seize unprecedented powers always comes during a time of war or national emergency. September 11 opened the door, and Cheney ran right through. His partner in this was Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, who may go down in history as the most savage bureaucratic infighter in the history of government. Rumsfeld, at the behest of Cheney, made sure the "War on Terror" was run out of the Pentagon and not the CIA. Rumsfeld, with Cheney's help, convinced George W. Bush that Iraq needed to be the so-called "central front" of the whole thing after Afghanistan.
The debacle of Iraq belongs to both these men, but most fulsomely to Mr. Cheney. An invasion and a war create the perfect premise for the establishment of a Unitary Executive, after all. 9/11 wasn't enough; we needed to be at war. Cheney would not have been able to stage-manage the profligate expansion of presidential powers otherwise, and when you cut right down to the bone, that is a lot of the reason we are over there today.
It can be safely assumed that this Supreme Court decision will not deflect the central intentions of Mr. Cheney and this administration; power is, after all, its own reward, and this White House has never been much for lingering over setbacks. In the end, though, it is the simplicity of the moment that gives pause. Someone finally got around to telling the Bush administration, out loud and in public, that they are bound by laws and treaties. It will be interesting to see if this decision has any force or effect over an administration that has shown no interest in being thwarted.
The fact that this White House made up its mind to believe and act otherwise, and chose to fight a war as a means of establishing new boundaries of Executive power, will be their lasting legacy when the final pages are written. That no one in a position to curtail them chose to do so until now will be the lasting legacy of a lot of people who should have known better.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.