A Drive for Unrestricted Executive Power

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The New York Times comes out with a strong editorial, calling for an investigation into Bush administration security abuses, now that it is clear that the practices were not necessary to protect the national interest.

We’ve known for years that the Bush administration ignored and broke the law repeatedly in the name of national security. It is now clear that many of those programs could have been conducted just as easily within the law — perhaps more effectively and certainly with far less damage to the justice system and to Americans’ faith in their government.

The editorial cites a recently released inspector generals’ report on warrantless wiretapping that condemned the “extraordinary and inappropriate” secrecy surrounding it.

The report shows that the longstanding requirement that the government obtain a warrant was not hindering efforts to gather intelligence on terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the argument that the law was an impediment was concocted by White House and Justice Department lawyers after Mr. Bush authorized spying on Americans’ international communications. We know less, so far, about the Bush administration’s plan to send covert paramilitary teams to assassinate Al Qaeda leaders. But what is overwhelmingly clear is that there was no legal or rational justification for Vice President Dick Cheney’s order to conceal the program from Congress. The plan was never put into effect, apparently because it was unworkable. But it’s hard to imagine Congress balking at killing terrorists.

So why break the law, again and again? Two things seem disturbingly clear. First, President Bush and his top aides panicked after the Sept. 11 attacks. And second, Mr. Cheney and his ideologues, who had long chafed at any legal constraints on executive power, preyed on that panic to advance their agenda.

That’s a strong claim. It suggests that Cheney and company were pursuing some unstated long-range objective, one that is almost certain to fuel suspicions about the actual events preceding and around 9/11 itself. Wanting unrestricted executive power is a means, not an end.

Americans still don’t have the full story. . . . President Obama has refused to open a full investigation of the many laws that were evaded, twisted or broken — pointlessly and destructively — under Mr. Bush. Mr. Obama should change his mind. A full accounting is the only way to ensure these abuses never happen again.

There’s obviously a lot more going on here. The central theme of my 2009 book, Family of Secrets, is that more profound agendas, never fully discussed in the media, are often the real story of our country’s trajectory. It would be nice if Obama opens an investigation. But the reality is that he is unlikely to be able to unearth and discuss those more profound agendas. It is nearly as tough for traditional media organizations to do the job. That’s why we need new media organizations free of the pressures from large corporate interests. That’s why we started WhoWhatWhy.

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