Constitutional Democracy Colloquium

Constitutional Democracy Colloquium

The slanting of intelligence estimates, early plans for the war in Iraq concealed from the Congress and from the secretary of state, internal memos to create a rationale for torture and the abrogation of due process-it would be hard to deny a cumulative meaning to these acts. These are the effects of an imperium in imperio, a power within the power of government. Lewis Libby, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Stephen Cambone, these men and others have worked with a sinister piety to subvert the Constitution. Yet our secret government is an open secret: a condition that cannot last. It will become more powerful and more secret, or it will yield to the traditions of liberty and public discussion.

Nothing is more dangerous to the morals of a free people than the belief that “We are good.” Once believe that you are good, and anything you do will be excusable by the purity of your motives. During the cold war, action on that basis was mostly confined to the Central Intelligence Agency, the special forces, and other peculiar adjuncts of the government and the military. Then, in the mid-1980s, it passed into the mainstream. The testing ground was Central America. The diversion of illicit money to the contra rebels came at an important moment in the careers of both Dick Cheney and G.W. Bush. It showed them what was possible. The outlaw policy and the higher-law excuses of the past three years do not date from 9/11. They date from Iran-contra. Several names are the same-Poindexter, Abrams, Negroponte-and the operating method is the same.

In 1985, a government within the government, recognizing that no existing institution could serve its needs, set up an alternative focus of clandestine operations outside the CIA. A similar pattern was observable in 2002-2003. In 1986, illegal missions were jointly run by elements of the National Security Council and the State Department, whereas, in 2002, the substitute intelligence was relocated to Defense and overseen by the Office of the Vice-President. There are other disturbing parallels. In 1985, Israeli interests uneasily crossed with American interests in the agreement by Israel to ship American arms to Iran. The years 2002-2003 saw the campaign by Likud partisans such as Richard Perle and Tom DeLay to draw America into preemptive war on Iraq. Here again, separate interests were uneasily joined, and the war hardened the identity of America and Israel as terrorist targets in command of occupying armies.

The Bush administration wants to annex to itself extraordinary powers until they come to seem ordinary. This requires it to sustain the claim that we now live in a permanent state of emergency. Constitutionally speaking, that is an abuse of language, for if the state is permanent, it is not an emergency. Emotionally, it may hold us nonetheless. But for the claim to be plausible, three forces must be brought into alignment: foreign ...