If The President Does It It's Not Illegal

by digby

Oh for Gawd's sakes. Tom Brokaw is on Matthews boo-hooing that this NSA story stepped on Junior's wonderful Iraq triumph. He explains that when you are at war you need to do things that are difficult and believes that most people in the country will agree that the administration needed to spy on Americans after 9/11. He agrees with analyst Roger Cressy (who I used to think was sane) that once the "window" of a possible impending attack closed they should have gone up to the hill and sought permission to keep spying on Americans with no judicial oversight. (I haven't heard about this "window" before. Tom and Roger both seem to have a fantasy that the administration would not simply say that the "window" remains open as long as evil exists in the world.)

Look, the problem here, again, is not one of just spying on Americans, as repulsively totalitarian as that is. It's that the administration adopted John Yoo's theory of presidential infallibility. But, of course, it wasn't really John Yoo's theory at all; it was Dick Cheney's muse, Richard Nixon who said, "when the President does it, that means it's not illegal."

This was not some off the cuff statement. It was based upon a serious constitutional theory --- that the congress or the judiciary (and by inference the laws they promulgate and interpret) have no authority over an equal branch of government. The president, in the pursuit of his duties as president, is not subject to the laws. Citizens can offer their judgment of his performance every four years at the ballot box.

After the election, George W. Bush said this:

The Post: ...Why hasn't anyone been held accountable, either through firings or demotions, for what some people see as mistakes or misjudgments?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election.

He, like Nixon, believes that the president has only one "accountability moment" while he is president. His re-election. Beyond that, he has been given a blank check. And that includes breaking the law since if the president does it, it's not illegal, the president being the executive branch which is not subject to any other branch of govenrment.

John Yoo, the former deputy attorney general who wrote many of the opinion undergirding these findings (on torture as well as spying) explains that the congress has no right to abridge the president's warmaking powers. Its only constitutional remedy to a war with which they disagree is to deny funding; they can leave the troops on the field with no food or bullets.

I suspect that there are many more of these instances out there in which the administration has simply ignored the law. They believe that the constitution explicitly authorizes them to do so.

After 9/11 these people went crazy and convinced themselves that the country was in such mortal, exitential danger that this theory of imperial presidential perogative was a necessity. They say they are doing it to protect the citizens of this country. But one thing that American conservatives used to understand was that our system of government was forged by people who understood that too much power invested in one place is dangerous and that sometimes the people needed to be protected from their own government. That's fundamental to our laborious process of checks and balances and a free press. (Indeed, it was that principle on which they based their absolutist stand on the second amendment.)

Now we hear conservative commentators like Ronald Kessler, who was just interviewed (alone) on FoxNews, opining that the president did nothing illegal and was completely within his rights to spy on Americans. There is no longer any question that the government would ever abuse its power by, for instance, spying on Americans for political purposes and even if it did, we're fighting for our lives and we have to accept these infringements for our own safety. I'm quite sure he'll agree that a President Howard Dean should be given the same level of trust, aren't you?

I think the president said it best:

"If this were a dictatorship we'd have it a lot easier. Just so long as I'm the dictator."


A commenter to Larry Johnson's post over at TPM (reminding us that John Bolton was involved in some doing about NSA intercepts and American citizens) gives a nice historical view of the Yoo Doctrine:

Re: Spying on Americans and John Bolton (5.00 / 2) (#31)
by JamesW on Dec 16, 2005 -- 06:23:50 PM EST

The second part of the Yoo Doctrine is critical: it's the President, not Congress, who decides whether the country is at war or not.

In an extreme Tory argument, Yoo can just about argue that this was English 18th-century doctrine, but since Parliament rigorously controlled the purse-strings, it surely wasn't practice after 1688. [Yoo does make this argument --- ed] I doubt if English Whigs like Fox accepted the theory either, let alone American rebels.

Where Yoo surely parts company with any sane constitutional thinking since the Roman Republic is the extension that the monarch/president gets to decide what counts as a war. For George III, George Washington, Lincoln. Woodrow Wilson and FDR, war is an organised conflict between societies or social groups. Police actions against pirates, slavers, and terrorists are not war. By treating the rhetorical "war on terror", infinitely redefinable, as a real war with war's legal consequences, the Bush administration has entered the 1984 terrain of totalitarianism.