How can powers which Bill Clinton exercised without controversy suddenly be impeachable ofences?
Dateline 04 January 2006
September 11th 2001 was a major event in the consciousness of America. There has been a major shift in what people expect the US to do to counter terrorism. The constitution and the law still apply, but within those parameters, that which is politically acceptable has shifted. The view of major media organizations has also changed. Oddly, the view adopted by the media has shifted in the opposite direction to that of the rest of the populace.
Let us take, for example, the issue of wiretaps and warrantless searches. From (at least) the 1860s to the 1990s the legal and political situation was absolutely clear. Lincoln authorized the reading of telegraphs and this continued until telegraphs more or less ceased a hundred years later. Since then other presidents, including Carter and Clinton, authorized, numerous eavesdropping activities. This was not secret. It was publicly affirmed in numerous court cases, including a Supreme Court ruling in 1972.
For wholly domestic crime, warrants are required for searches or eavesdropping under the Bill of Rights. But in defending the US against external threat the constitution has only one thing to say: that the President is Commander in Chief.
In parliamentary systems control of the armed forces – like other executive powers – is owned by parliament and loaned to the government. The executive remains accountable on a day to day basis to parliament. The US has an utterly different system. The President’s powers derive from his constitutional role as head of one of three co-equal branches of government, and he does not report to Congress or the courts any more than they report to him.
The media shared the view of the courts and of Congress that, under the first 42 presidents of the republic, there was no controversy surrounding the exercise of the president’s role as commander in chief. This was the right call. “Commander in chief gives legal and uncontroversial orders to Pentagon” is not exactly a riveting headline.
When Bill Clinton authorized spying on Osama bin Laden, including on his communication with persons inside the US, the only newsworthy angle was that when bin Laden used satellite phones the CIA could not only listen in, but also identify his exact location. Since bin Laden engaged in several high profile and deadly attacks on the US during Clinton’s presidency, including the World Trade Center bombings of 1993, it makes you wonder why nothing was done with this information. He was, even then, the most wanted man in the world. The US knew where he was, and did nothing.
When the media reported that he could be tracked by his satellite phone, he stopped using one, which is a shame. We can be sure that if the Bush administration had been able to identify his location it would have done more than put the information on file.
But now, in the post-9/11 world, powers thought uncontentious under Bill Clinton are considered illegal and a scandal under George W Bush. A few extreme partisans, like Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter and some of the more wacky political websites, are even calling for impeachment. Presidential powers which were not even considered newsworthy under Clinton are now grounds for impeachment? When was this constitutional amendment passed? Who agreed to strip the executive branch of its authority to confront dangers to the security of the US?
Or is it just that Newsweek, along with Time, the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, NBC and CNN, long ago stopped reporting in the public interest and replaced news reporting with partisan commentary?
Copyright © Quentin Langley 04 January 2006