The Path to Power
Bill Moyers Journal
October 26, 2007
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL… Some of you will remember that back in July the conservative scholar Bruce Fein was here on the JOURNAL expressing outrage over expansion of presidential powers under Bush and Cheney.
BRUCE FEIN: Take for instance the assertion that he’s made that when he’s out to collect foreign intelligence, no other branch can tell him what to do. That means he can intercept your emails, your phone calls, open your regular mail, he can break and enter your home, he can even kidnap you, claiming I’m seeking foreign intelligence there is no other branch – Congress can’t make it illegal, judges can’t say this is illegal. I can do anything I want.
BILL MOYERS: Many others have joined Bruce Fein’s chorus of concern. This week it’s the muckraking populist Jim Hightower. Writing in his newsletter the Hightower Lowdown, shown here on the Web site Alternet, he asks the question: “Is a presidential coup under way?”
He goes on to say, “The Constitution is being trampled, the very form of our government is being perverted, and nothing less than American democracy itself is endangered.”
We’ve posted Jim Hightower’s Lowdown on our web page at pbs.org so that you can read the whole of his argument about it.
But here’s some background as to why so many people of different political stripes are alarmed. President Bush and Vice President Cheney espouse the theory of the unitary executive. That means the President’s orders can’t be reviewed, questioned, or altered by the other two branches of government. He alone can say what the law means, or whether or not it will be enforced or ignored. In effect, George W. Bush says his powers must be unilateral and unchecked.
Critics claim the President has used the war on terror to put himself above the law and that he has created a secret presidency of classified decisions and orders, that approve extraordinary renditions, torture, illegal detentions, and wiretapping without warrants with the collaboration of big telecom companies. This boundless secrecy and surveillance evokes images counter to American values.
Remember “The Lives of Others” – the movie that won this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language film….a story of life under East Germany’s secret police. The critic Roger Ebert said: “The movie is relevant today, as our government ignores habeas corpus, practices secret torture, and asks for the right to wiretap and eavesdrop on its citizens. Such tactics, he said, did not save East Germany; they destroyed it, by making it a country its most loyal citizens could no longer believe in.” You want to say it couldn’t happen here but we’ve been close before. During the cold war with the Soviet Union and then the hot war in Vietnam, a secret government mushroomed in this country.
SENATOR FRANK CHURCH (1976): The attitude in the White House seemed to be, “If in the wake of Vietnam I can no longer send in the marines, then I will send in the CIA.
BILL MOYERS: Thirty two years ago, at the end of the Vietnam War, Congress turned over the rock and found all kinds of things squirming under it — lethal activities from electric pistols and poison pellets to Mafia connections and drug experiments. As well as illicit acts by the executive branch ranging from secret attempts by the CIA to subvert foreign democracies to unlawful domestic spying under such code names as Chaos, Cable Splicer, Garden Plot and Leprechaun. The Select Senate Committee headed by Frank Church found, no mailbox, no college campus, no television had been safe. The Church Committee led Congress to reject presidential claims of ‘inherent authority’ and restore some checks and balances, including putting an end to electronic surveillance without warrants.
WALTER MONDALE:This kind of unrestrained, illegal, secret intimidation and harassment of the essential ability of Americans to participate freely in American political life shall never happen again.
BILL MOYERS: But advocates of presidential prerogatives chafed at the restrictions and began then to try to reverse them. One of the people who argued most vociferously that a president could exceed the laws was a former White House Chief of Staff who had been elected to Congress. His name. Dick Cheney.