Abuse of Power

Don't sacrifice the liberties that make our nation worth defending.


Abuse of power was the topic of the final plenary panel at American Civil Liberties Union annual membership conference the past Tuesday in Washington, D.C. The panel was introduced by retired U.S. Army Col. Michael Pheneger, a lifelong Republican who is now a member of the ACLU's board of directors. Pheneger's intro can be summed up in his declaration that the Bush Administration wants "sacrifice the liberties that make our nation worth defending."

The panel consisted of John Dean, the former Nixon aide turned Watergate whistleblower who knows a thing or two about the abuse of power; Alberto Mora, former U.S. Navy general counsel who warned the Bush Administration about abusing detainees held at Guantanamo Bay; Steve Shapiro, who has been the ACLU's legal director since 1993; Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation. The panel was moderated by Jackie Northam, the national security correspondent for National Public Radio.

Northam began by asking Dean and Mora how hard it is to "push back" from within the system. Dean opened with an oldie but goodie that didn't have much to do with Northam's question: President Bush is out cycling with two secret service agents in Crawford, Tex., when the President sees a little boy on the side of the road with a box full of puppies. The President cycles over to the kid and asks him, "Young man, are those good Republican puppies?' The boy replies, "Yes, they are good Republican puppies." The President pats him on the head and cycles off. About a week later, the President is out cycling with Laura and he sees the boy again. He turns to Laura and tells her to go over and ask the boy what kind of puppies he has. Laura goes over and asks, "So, young man, what kind of puppies are those?" The boy replies, "They are all good independent and Democratic puppies, ma'am." The President loses his smile and says to the boy, "Hold on boy, a week ago, you told me that they were Republican puppies." The boy replied, "Yes, Mr. President, I did. But since then they've opened their eyes."

Dean continued to tell the ACLU audience about his experience in the Nixon White House. He said that while working in the White House aides owe the President the benefit of doubt. Most people don't tell a president that he's full of beans and that you're going to go blow the whistle on them. Generally, presidents do live in a bubble and people tell them what they want to hear. Dean described the famous conservation about Watergate burglars in which he told Nixon that a cancer was growing on this presidency. He warned Nixon that burglars might want money for their silence. Dean told the ACLU audience that he expected Nixon to respond with an order to find out who authorized the burglary and fire them or something like that. Instead, Nixon asked, "How much might they want?" Hoping to discourage this line of questioning, Dean pulled a big number out of his head, "Maybe a million dollars." Nixon replied, "We can get a million dollars." At that point Dean said that he determined that he wasn't going to lie for anyone, not even a president.

Unlike Dean, Mora had no contact with the president. In his capacity as Navy general counsel, Mora came across documents that appeared to authorize the application of cruelty to detainees held in Guantanamo Bay. Mora took his concerns to his higher ups at the Pentagon. He told the ACLU audience, "I thought that what I was doing was helping them adopt the right policies. I thought that is was a simple mistake that they would instantly correct it." In fact, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld did rescind the authorizations for cruel treatment three weeks after Mora raised the alarm. However, as it subsequently came to light the same sorts of "alternative interrogation techniques" authorized at Guantanamo were exported to Abu Ghraib and other detainee prisons.

Katrina vanden Heuvel warned, "We are at a grim moment in history." She added, "This is not a matter of Left or Right. It's do you defend the Constitution or do you subvert the Constitution?" Steve Shapiro opined, "I don't know which is worse—the fact that so many members of Congress voted for the PATRIOT Act without knowing what was in it or the fact that so many members of Congress voted for the Military Commissions Act knowing full well what was in it." With regard to the Military Commissions Act which President Bush just signed into law on Tuesday, Shapiro said, "This bill is truly unconstitutional and I have very little doubt that the courts will say so." Shapiro pointed out that despite the chain of Supreme Court cases that have gone against the Bush Administration's detainee policies, not a single detainee has gotten out of Guantanamo due to those court decisions.

In response to a question of whether or not the Guantanamo detention facility should be closed, Mora said it should be closed because it is now seen by the world as a place were American injustice is meted out. He pointed out that the application of cruelty is a criminal act in every European country. So by applying cruelty to prisoners, European officials who have been helping the United States in the "War on Terror" are liable to be charged with cruelty in their own countries. In the future, officials in other countries will be reluctant to help us fight terrorism because they can't trust our government to not engage in cruelty and torture.

Mora reminded the ACLU audience that there is a real terrorist threat. Three thousand Americans died in the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001 and the desire of every American to be secure from terrorism is real. However, he argued that surrendering our values is not the way to defend ourselves. Katrina vanden Heuvel pointed out that the U.S. government engaged in unconstitutional excesses in previous wars, e.g., the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II. However, the nation managed to right itself and restore constitutional protections after each war. If this is a war without end, she asked, how will we right ourselves in the future? Shapiro declared that measures like indefinite detention, secret prisons, torture and the suspension of habeas corpus has not made less safe and less free.

Mora warned that we can't win the battle against terrorists by ourselves. If we don't adopt and defend the right values, we will not be able to build the global coalition of nations that we need to help us defeat terrorism. If we are not seen to have the right values, no one will join us.

Let me end my sojourn among the members of the ACLU with a quotation from Alberto Mora's John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage acceptance speech:

"We need to be clear. Cruelty disfigures our national character. It is incompatible with our constitutional order, with our laws, and with our most prized values. Cruelty can be as effective as torture in destroying human dignity, and there is no moral distinction between one and the other. To adopt and apply a policy of cruelty anywhere within this world is to say that our forefathers were wrong about their belief in the rights of man, because there is no more fundamental right than to be safe from cruel and inhumane treatment. Where cruelty exists, law does not."


Disclosure: Here is again is why I became a card-carrying member of the ACLU back in 2003.