More Bush Legal Memos Released-More Abuse of Power?

| by Cato Institute

by David Rittgers

The Justice Department just released some more Office of Legal Counsel memoranda. As you may already know, these legal interpretations facilitated the worst of the Bush administration’s approach toward terrorism — forget the lawful tools that we have on hand; let’s craft a whole new legal regime that tosses out barriers to executive authority and upends the rule of law. Posse Comitatus and the First Amendment got you down? No problem. Non-Detention Act preventing you from detaining American citizens as enemy combatants? Whatever. Geneva Conventions, War Crimes Act, and Convention Against Torture barring coercive interrogation? Crank it to eleven.

Jack Balkin has a good summary with some highlights. On Iraq:

On October 21st, 2002, five days after Congress authorization of the use of military force against Iraq, John Yoo explains why it was legally irrelevant that Congress authorized the Iraq War, noting that the President could have attacked Iraq without anyone’s permission. Delightfully, Yoo cites President Clinton’s use of force in Bosnia, which Yoo himself had questioned when the Republicans were out of power. But perhaps being in power gave him a different perspective.

Yoo sums up his argument this way: “There is no expression in the Constitution of any requirement that the President seek authorization from Congress prior to using military force. There is certainly nothing in the text of the Constitution that explicitly requires Congress to consent before the President may exercise his authority as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief to command U.S. military forces.” I’m glad we straightened that out.

This should not be surprising. The same claim of unitary executive authority was bandied about in the run-up to the Gulf War. Guess who said this:

It was my view at the time [that] we were absolutely committed to getting Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait one way or the other, no matter what we had to do. We had to have the Saudis as allies in that venture, but if no-one else had been with us if it had just been the United States and Saudi Arabia, without the United Nations, without the authorisation of the Congress, we were prepared to go ahead. I argued in public session before the Congress that we did not need Congressional authorisation. That in fact we had the Truman precedent from the Korean crisis of 1950 that the Senate and all ratified the United Nations charter. By this time the UN Security Council had authorised the use of force back in November saying that we could do it by January 15th if he wasn’t out by then and that legally and from a constitutional stand point we had all the authority we needed.

I was not enthusiastic about going to Congress to ask for an additional grant of authority.

The Founders made an inherently inefficient form of government as a check against arbitrary use of the power of the state. The President doesn’t declare war, Congress does. When we allow the government to write itself a waiver to constitutional limitations that are part and parcel of its contract with the people, it’s time for the people to let the government know who the boss is in this employer-employee relationship.

Timothy Lee’s idea is looking better all the time.