by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
George Bush is presently engaged in yet another attempt to get Congress to pass the US equivalent of the March, 1933 Nazi-German Enabling Act (which gave Hitler dictatorial powers under the cloak -- yes, this is the one Hitler used -- of "dealing with matters of national security"). The main piece of legislation is the one that would allow the Georgites to unilaterally amend the Fourth Amendment on their own authority to permit warrantless wiretapping when they say that it is justified to do so. It has already been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee (see BuzzFlash, Sept. 13, 2006). I have read the Constitution numerous times and I find nothing in it that permits such actions, other than going through the Constitutional amendment process itself. But Bush wants to be able to amend the Constitution on his own and the Republican Congress appears now to be giving him that power.
At the same time, Bush is in trouble with his "military tribunals" bill (see BuzzFlash, Sept. 15, 2006) which to the outside world is known as the "torture has been common practice under my Administration and now I want it codified" bill. In addition to empowering the Administration to torture at will, the bill would empower Bush, on his own authority, to lock up anyone he accused of being a "terrorist" or of aiding or abetting "terrorism" without having any of the Constitutional protections applying to criminal procedures, and then try that person, if he so chose, under a "military tribunal" system. In practice the latter means, in part: no right to confront accusers, no right to see evidence against, no right to legal representation of their choice, no right to be present at the trial. Bush knows that the system he established without Congressional authorization was recently ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. He is counting on the Coulter "we-hope-the-liberal justices-will-succumb-to-mortality" doctrine to knock off one or more of the liberal Justices so that by the time his "law" got to the Court again, he would have his Scalia-ite majority.
So George has gotten the big fish: he can ditch the Fourth Amendment on his own authority. But he is still upset. He appears to have lost one in the vote of the Senate Armed Services Committee on this bill. (I said "appeared." Senate Republicans have caved to Bush on more than one occasion. "Discussions" are underway. This could become another caving episode.) But the question becomes why is Bush so upset about the refusal, for now at least, of the Armed Services Committee to approve the use of torture in violation of the Geneva Conventions?
Is it that he really thinks that torture is a good weapon in fighting terrorism? Well, Bush himself is a well-known bully from childhood and he personally may like the idea, but as far as Georgite policy concerned, that's not it. Virtually every interrogation expert who has expressed an opinion on the matter (and I am not including "Death Squad" Negroponte in the "expert" list on this subject, although he seems to be an expert on death squads) tells us that it is useless for extracting reliable and useful information from torturees.
Is it that he really thinks that Guantanamo would have to be shut down if torture is not permitted? Well, no, for Guantanamo could well stay in place, just without the use of torture and the provision of due process for its inmates. As for the CIA and its procedures themselves, the CIA has been operating under the provisions of the Geneva Conventions for decades and no one has ever complained, out loud at least, about them getting in the CIA's way, as written.
No, what the Georgites are really upset about is that if the Senate Committee decision stands, the Congress will have re-asserted itself, for the time-being at least, over the Executive Branch. It will have, on the Senate side and most tenuously to be sure, re-established some balance of powers within the Federal government. By golly, they would have actually checked and balanced him. So far, skillfully using the "terrorism" argument (just as Hitler did) the Georgites have been on their way, at a leisurely pace to be sure, to establishing a dictatorship for Bush. The Supreme Court threw up a roadblock in Hamdan, but as noted, Supreme Court justices, like the rest of us are mortal. One more Supreme Court seat and Bush will have his majority there.
So Bush views having the Senate, especially, say "hold on there" even on a relatively minor matter (except to those being tortured and/or being held without charges, and etc.) about the use of this useless technique in fighting the war on flanking maneuvers, as a serious setback on his road from being the decider to being THE DECIDER. And it could be. For violating the Geneva Conventions, which under Article VI of the Constitution are part of it, is violating the Constitution.
The only Constitutional way for the Georgites to "re-interpret" any part of the Geneva Conventions would be to re-negotiate them with all of their signatories. (Interestingly enough, the Republican rebels are not using Constitutional arguments, for the most part. The focus is on "morality" [as if the Geneva Conventions did not exist] and what might happen to captured US service people in the future if the torture system stays in place [that is, if any old country could then "interpret" the Geneva Conventions as they saw fit].) That's why George is so upset. Even though those Republicans aren't focused on the Constitution, this one could become a roadblock to Georgites proceeding upon their merry way to creating that "Unitary Executive" of their dreams, regardless of what the Constitution says about how our great nation is to be governed. Or it might not. George will continue to be very unhappy if it is. Do stay tuned.
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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) a weekly Contributing Author for The Political Junkies (www.thepoliticaljunkies.net) and a Columnist for BuzzFlash.