By Robyn E. Blumner
For any form of tyranny to succeed, there have to be people who roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Repression doesn’t just happen. It has to be organized, arranged, justified and marketed to a willing populace. In other words, it takes a team.
Most tyrannies aren’t the epic variety involving a Stalin or a Hussein. They are more subtly subversive, sapping freedom from a fragile system that precariously depends on the integrity of those in charge. It doesn’t take much more than a corrupt sheriff, a mayor who helps a developer grab private property with eminent domain or a president who claims that terror suspects have no rights to negate our foundation of liberty and fairness.
And aides to petty and great tyrants alike have a central role in this. Their job is to dispense with the rules that protect the vulnerable from the strong, and make the strong stronger.
In a nation of laws like the United States, it is the lawyers who are the most helpful in this regard, and the Bush administration has had two standouts: David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s current chief of staff, former counsel and longtime associate; and John Yoo, a law professor at UC Berkeley who worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, a small office that advises the executive branch on the constitutionality of policy.
These men successfully embroidered the legal justifications for a kinglike presidency that may disregard federal law, constitutional rights and the express terms of ratified treaties if the president believes it furthers national security.
Emanating from this one tyrannical idea has come an entire legal regime giving the president the power to approve torture, secret prisons, indefinite detention, kangaroo military commissions and warrantless domestic surveillance. These are all programs contrary to law and, not irrelevantly, our moral code.
New York Republican congressman Peter King has been throwing around the term “treason” against the New York Times for informing the American people about the Bush administration’s surveillance of international financial transactions. But what the New York Times did in disclosing a follow-the-money program that the administration has been essentially crowing about for years is piffle compared to the acts of Yoo and Addington. These men, working at the behest of Bush and Cheney (okay, mostly Cheney), have conspired to undo our checks and balances by enabling the president to assert despotic powers. Theirs is sabotage from within.
In a thoroughgoing piece in the July 3 New Yorker, reporter Jane Mayer lifts the veil off the secretive Addington and describes a man obsessed with setting forth a “New Paradigm” in which the commander in chief may “disregard virtually all previously known legal boundaries.”
The plan predates 9/11, according to Bruce Fein, a Republican activist who worked in the Reagan Justice Department and has known Cheney and Addington for decades. “The idea of reducing Congress to a cipher was already in play,” Fein told Mayer. “It was Cheney and Addington’s political agenda.”
Insiders told Mayer that administration lawyers who raised questions about the plenary powers being seized by the president were dismissed by Addington as giving away the store.
This doctrine also fit the thinking of John Yoo, who quickly rose in the OLC to be the go-to legal analyst on war powers questions. His popularity had to do with his answers, which were always tilted toward expanding presidential power.
Yoo was a primary author of the notorious memo giving legal cover to torture, and he opined that the administration may deny the Taliban and prisoners captured in the “war” on terror the protections of the Geneva Conventions. On these points, Yoo’s reasoning was as dangerous as it was strained.
But the U.S. Supreme Court has just made mincemeat of Yoo’s manifesto on executive branch unilateralism, and he has been on the sputtering defensive since.
In Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, five members of the court said the president didn’t have the authority to put Guantanamo detainees through show trials of his own making. The court retrieved Common Article 3 of the Conventions from the dustbin into which Yoo had thrown it, and said its fair trial protections for prisoners do apply to the detainees at Guantanamo.
The watershed ruling was a moment of sense and salvation for our nation, and a respite from the disastrous course on which we’ve been set by All the Vice President’s Men.
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