The National Defense Authorization Act is not a leap from democracy to tyranny, but it is another major step on a steady and accelerating decade-long march toward a police state. The doomsday clock of our republic just got noticeably closer to midnight, and the fact that almost nobody knows it, simply moves that fatal minute-hand a bit further still.
I'm not referring to the “doomsday” predicted by Leon Panetta should military spending be scaled back to the obscenely inflated levels of 2007. I'm talking about the complete failure to keep the republic that Benjamin Franklin warned we might not. Practices that were avoided, outsourced, or kept secret when Bill Clinton was president were directly engaged in on such a scale under president George W. Bush that they became common knowledge. Under President Obama they are becoming formal law and acceptable policy.
Obama has claimed the power to imprison people without a trial since his earliest months in office. He spoke in front of the Constitution in the National Archives while gutting our founding document in 2009. So why not pick the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights to further codify its elimination? President Obama has claimed the power to torture "if needed," issued an executive order claiming the power of imprisonment without trial, exercised that power on a massive scale at Bagram, and claimed and exercised the power to assassinate U.S. citizens. Obama routinely kills people with unmanned drones.
As Obama's Justice Department has broken new ground in the construction of state secrecy and immunity, the Bush era advancers of imperial presidential power have gone on book tours bragging about their misdeeds. One can expect the next step to involve serious abuse of those who question and resist the current bipartisan trajectory.
So what does the latest bill do, other than dumping another $660 billion into wars and war preparation? Well, it says this:
"Nothing in this section is intended to limit or expand the authority of the President or the scope of the Authorization for Use of Military Force."
In other words, Congress is giving its stamp of approval to the unconstitutional outrages already claimed by the president. But then, why create a new law at all? Well, because some outrages are more equal than others, and Congress has chosen to specify some of those and in fact to expand some of them. For example:
"Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war."
"The disposition of a person under the law of war as described in subsection (a) may include the following: (1) Detention under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force."
Jon Stewart explained when those detained without trial under the law might be released: “So when the war on terror ends, and terror surrenders and is no longer available as a human emotion, you are free to go.”
An exception for U.S. citizens was kept out of the bill at President Obama's request.
So why did Obama threaten to veto the bill initially and again after it passed the Senate? Well, one change made by the conference committee was this:
"The Secretary of Defense President may, in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence, waive the requirement of paragraph (1) if the Secretary President submits to Congress a certification in writing that such a waiver is in the national security interests of the United States."
The reference here is to military tribunals. The President – that is, the current one and future ones – need not hand someone over even to a military tribunal if . . . well, if he (or she) chooses not to.
President Obama wanted a bill that limited him in no way, and he is likely to issue a law-altering signing-statement that further removes any offensive limits on absolute tyrannical power. This type of signing statement is another example of something done secretly by Bush, exposed, turned into a temporary scandal, denounced by candidate Obama, then utilized by President Obama, formally established by executive order, and now more or less accepted by everyone as the norm.
That is what will happen with trial-free imprisonment and assassination as well. And the presidents who engage in these practices will be from both major political parties. So readers should weigh the acceptable crimes and abuses of the good tyrants on their team against the risk of presidents from the other team doing the same. Of course, this team loyalty is the main reason the streets of Washington are not filled with protesters. The corporate media believes that outrages agreed to by both parties are not news. Many Democrats believe any power a Democratic president wants he should have, even though all of his successors will have it too. And many Republicans back whatever comes out of a Republican House of Representatives.
A large majority of Republicans in the House voted to eviscerate our Bill of Rights, and the Democrats split 93 to 93. In the Senate both parties overwhelmingly voted "Aye."
If ever there was a time to build an independent, principled movement based in activism rather than elections and to put a few more minutes back on the doomsday clock, this is it. While Obama's decision not to veto this bill has discouraged many, at RootsAction we've continued demanding a veto because we think the Constitution should be upheld and improved, not dismantled. If signed into law, we will demand that this elimination of our rights be repealed by Congress or overturned in court, and we will use that campaign to educate the public about what just happened.