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Return of the Imperial Presidency

Nixon lives!

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 17, 2007.

Ever since Watergate, when Congress grew resurgent and brought down another Imperial Presidency, Dick Cheney and other Bushies have feared that the executive branch – the one that hypothetically could react best to the modern world’s accelerating threats – had been hamstrung. He wanted to rectify that. From the very beginning on September 11, 2001, this administration has devoted itself to the institutionalization of excessive executive power under the cover of national security. While their foreign wars have been denoted by incompetence above the military level, unintended consequences, and failure, domestic police power has accumulated back to the executive at an alarming rate, the primary goal.

As we speak, they’re still doing it. The energies of the administration in the last two weeks have not been entirely to solve the myriad problems engendered by the so-called War on Terror. No, under cover of the hangings of Saddam, an utterly bogus imminent nuclear threat from Iran, and other smoke and mirrors, the administration has been firing – seven by last count – federal prosecutors, all of whom are and have been successful convicting corrupt government officials, mostly Republican. Normally, this action - so clearly reminiscent of Nixon’s frenzy of firing in the Saturday Night Massacre when he tried to get out of impeachment - would get a lot more coverage than it has. But the distractive breadcrumbs of hangings and public reaction and interviewers terribly concerned about the interviewee’s feelings as opposed to knowledge, trod known paths for predictable durations. So tell me: would Bush dare fire Patrick Fitzgerald, who is taking Scooter Libby to trial this week? Can he?

It’s different now from the Watergate years. The President can legally do what he has done under the odious Patriot Act, which coincidently allows the executive to block and prevent legal examinations of the administration’s equally repellent friends because it’s somehow national security.

How did this happen? Easy enough. The media used the term ‘masterminds’ and “evil genius” to describe what in reality was a fairly easy heist job of point and fly airliners. If any of numerous entities done the jobs for which they had been hired and paid that day, 9-11 would not have happened. Had the underpaid and publicly derided security guys not waved the terrorists through, had lazy pilots and chatty cabin crew not propped open doors into the cockpits as they often did, it’s highly unlikely anything like 9-11 could have occurred, and the Patriot Act empowered. But because of the terminology chosen and how the media works, it was. Because the media deals with airtime and quotable sound bytes and not insight, the Patriot Act seemed both needed and reasonable, when in reality it provides nothing that would have prevented what happened.

It works well in drug cases, public control surveillance, and – most ominously – taking money away from the public sector – whether schools, public defenders, or even the military – and giving it to private contractors. The public still pays the tab – oh, how it pays the tab – but it now goes into unresponsive entities that exist under no laws applicable to their chores, and which can declare bankruptcy, and have no meaningful sanctions for incompetence or acts endangering this nation as, say, the military would.

While Rumsfeld wanted to slim down the military, he was also knowingly inflating the ranks of mercenary armies of contractors. This way, they can say they’ve decreased the size of the military, which they have, and made the military more lethal, which they also have. It’s just not relevant to the jobs that need to be done. In the future, Halliburton and Bechtel and their like may have more people under arms than our military itself. Even today, there may be more contractors armed in Iraq than soldiers. We don’t know, actually. What we do know is that when contractors screw up or get kidnapped, American soldiers often have to engage in risk to look for them. Contractors and their employers may not feel the same duty to our soldiers.

In 2001, the administration utilized the media’s penchant for hysteria and familiar journalism templates to distract the public, both the Left and Right, which fell into easily predictable channels of behavior. While the Right provided Chickenhawk bravado and idiocy, the Left provided pointless activity and energy-sucking diversions. The media is coming around now, not out of shame but profit motive. The ad buying public’s once unthinking support for the war is becoming unthinking antagonism.

It’s important that investigation and perhaps prosecutions for Bush’s Iraq War be kept separate from the genuine national security issues that now actually threaten us. And no bigger threat exists than an Imperial Presidency with expanded police powers beyond all imagining that was created while we were watching FoxNews or idiotically arguing that a Tomahawk missile, not an airplane, hit the Pentagon.