The power of the presidency. Vice President Dick Cheney has been working for three decades, often behind closed doors, to validate the President as the ultimate and last authority over the executive branch. Some of his friends claim that he has changed since September 11, 2201. The commentator on the PBS program Frontline reports that Cheney is an absolute fanatic about Executive Power.
The story is that Dan Quail came to Cheney after the election and told him that he would be doing things like going to funerals that the President does not want to do. Cheney reportedly smiled and said, “The President and I have a different understanding.”
33 year old Dick Cheney was in the front seat of the Nixon Administration and was the Chief of Staff for Gerald Ford in 1975. Cheney came to believe that the congress unduly regulated and controlled the President. Cheney became a congressman, then Secretay of Defense for the first Bush Administration. Cheney argued that the President did not need congressional approval to go to war with Iraq in 1991. The President agreed to a congressional vote in spite of Cheney’s advice.
By 2000 Dick Cheney had found a new president, who brought with him Alberto Gonzales, a loyal follower who had virtually no experience of national security or constitutional law.
All of the most crucial decisions of this administration seem to be taking place in the Vice President’s office. After September 11 – the world of the White House changed. Cheney’s was heard to say, “We are a country that must be ruled by man rather than by law… What power will the president need to fight this war?…” The staff studied the history or Presidential powers in times of crisis and they pulled out the stops.
The Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department passed legal judgment on anything the Administration wanted to do. John Hughes was an attorney there who drafted the documents granting ‘all necessary means.’ The White House did try to get congress to go along, to grant war time authority at any time. The Gulf of Tonkin had taught congress to be careful. Cheney was rebuffed, but decided that they were in a state of emergency and asked the Justice Department for legal justification to use broad constitutional power to use force when deemed necessary.
The central problem here is that the Administration took it upon themselves to use any means necessary against anyone the choses. Sweeping decisions were made to keep captured combatants as far from courts as possible. Special military tribunals were established.
Colin Powell was shocked by the quick pace of change, without total staff input. Condi Rice was also kept out of the loop. Even the conservative Attorney General, John Ashcroft was dismayed that some of his employees had become ‘yes men’ to the White House, offering legal justification for extreme measures. There were employees within the justice department who were committed to upholding the law of the land.
The reigns of power were only drawn in with a threatened revolt of about thirty key Justice Department personnel, including John Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller. Only this strong opposition caused the President to pause.
The President and Vice President were reelected and Ashcroft and other Justice Personnel left the administration – leaving the door open for Bush and Cheney to appoint loyal cronies. Cheney had feared opposition from the congress and the challenge was beginning. Congressmen like John McCain and others forced the White House to change course.
The President used a little know tactic called a ‘signing statement’ to modify legislation at the President’s signing. The statement claimed the congress was acting unconstitutionally to limit the powers of the President. The process is simple – at the signing of legislation the President merely strikes that which he disagrees with and writes his own version.
I don’t quite know what to make of all of this – except that we have three branches of government for a reason. There is no centralized power. There is centralized authority over the executive – but the administration must follow the rule of law – law passed by congress.
These are tough times – we really are under attack by fanatical wackos – but it seems to me that to violate our constitution is to play into the hands of the terrorists.