Imperial Assumptions
By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 20, 2005; Page A31

It seems that the Imperial Presidency has been restored. The nation's
highest office was cut down to constitutional size three decades ago, when
Richard Nixon helicoptered out of town, but listening to George W. Bush in
his latest come-out-swinging media blitz has been like an audience with an
impatient monarch whose ungrateful subjects won't just shut up and do as he

On Saturday, he was wrathful. How dare someone reveal that for years his
administration has been eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of
American citizens? How dare the New York Times publish its story about the
illegal surveillance? Investigations would be convened, he warned, and the
leakers could be outed.
On Sunday, in his address from the Oval Office, he was expansive. Yes, he
acknowledged, some misguided Americans may have disagreed with his decision
to invade Iraq. He will be generous enough to forgive that impertinence, as
long as everyone now gets with the program. The only options are "victory"
and "defeat," he warned -- without really defining either -- so everyone
should just stop asking when the troops will come home. "I have never been
more certain that America's actions in Iraq are essential to the security of
our citizens," he said. And, obviously, his certainty trumps all of our

At his news conference yesterday, he took advantage of the sovereign's
divine right to rewrite history. Clearly outraged at the Senate's
recalcitrance on the USA Patriot Act, the president issued a challenge:
"These senators need to explain why they thought the Patriot Act was a vital
tool after the September the 11th attacks but now think it's no longer
necessary." The president conveniently forgot to mention that Congress
originally set a "sunset" date for the act to expire precisely because
members were so deeply concerned about the extent to which it compromised
our liberties.

He also sought to explain why he believes he has the right to order the
National Security Agency to conduct electronic surveillance of Americans
without first getting a warrant. He cited Article II of the Constitution,
which of course doesn't mention telephones or the Internet. When it's
convenient, the president recognizes that "strict constructionism" has its

None of this is really unexpected from a president whose apparent goal from
the beginning has been to reinflate the presidency and unshackle it from
those inconvenient restraints that Congress or the courts might seek to

Think about the powers this White House has asserted: to detain terrorist
suspects indefinitely, without charges or due process. To kidnap suspects
and hold them in secret CIA-run prisons, with no acknowledgment that the
suspect is even in U.S. custody. To inflict on these prisoners inhumane and
degrading treatment that amounts to torture.

And now the president claims the unilateral right to tap your phone and mine
whenever he wants. Never mind that there is a legally established procedure
to obtain warrants for such domestic surveillance; never mind that this
lawful process is conducted quickly and in total secrecy. The imperial
president does not bow to lowly courts. He just does what he believes he
needs to do.

In his brief prepared remarks at his news conference yesterday, the
president mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks eight times. None of us who lived
through that awful, world-changing day will ever be able to forget it. I
remember how surreal it was to see the great plume of smoke rising from the
Pentagon; I remember how vulnerable I felt, how angry, how full of patriotic
resolve. I understand how any president would immediately decide that his
prime task, above all others, was making sure that nothing like Sept. 11
ever happened again. I get the sense that the president wakes up every day
with the sour fear of another attack in the pit of his stomach.

But every American felt the same way after Sept. 11 as the president and his
Cabinet did. It's just that many of us have concluded that defeating Islamic
fundamentalism cannot be accomplished by abandoning basic American values.

The president invokes Sept. 11 to foreclose debate about Iraq, about
torture, about secret prisons and, now, about electronic surveillance of
American citizens. The law permitting domestic spying doesn't allow him to
move quickly enough, the president said. So why, in these four years, hasn't
he asked Congress to change the law?

I checked, and the Constitution that the president loves to cite -- but only
when it's convenient -- says clearly that he works for all of us. Not the
other way around.


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