New Entanglements

The October 8 issue of the New York Review of Books includes this short piece by Gary Wills, a damning account of how little Barack Obama has done to restore the system of checks and balances:

George W. Bush left the White House unpopular and disgraced. His successor promised change, and it was clear where change was needed. Illegal acts should cease—torture and indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus and legal representation, unilateral canceling of treaties, defiance of Congress and the Constitution, nullification of laws by signing statements. Powers attributed to the president by the theory of the unitary executive should not be exercised. Judges who are willing to give the president any power he asks for should not be confirmed.

But the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the “war on terror”—all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941–2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.

The truth of this was borne out in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency. At his confirmation hearing to be head of the CIA, Leon Panetta said that “extraordinary rendition”—the practice of sending prisoners to foreign countries—was a tool he meant to retain. Obama’s nominee for solicitor general, Elena Kagan, told Congress that she agreed with John Yoo’s claim that a terrorist captured anywhere should be subject to “battlefield law.” On the first opportunity to abort trial proceedings by invoking “state secrets”—the policy based on the faulty Reynolds case—Obama’s attorney gen- eral, Eric Holder, did so. Obama refused to release photographs of “enhanced interrogation.” The CIA had earlier (illegally) destroyed ninety-two videotapes of such interrogations—and Obama refused to release documents describing the tapes.

You can read it all here.

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