EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE: ANOTHER PRESIDENTIAL LIE

Ted Rall

Why George III Would Be Jealous of Obama

The Phoenix bureau of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sold over 2,000 guns to operatives they believed to be working for Mexican drug cartels between 2006 and 2010. According to the ATF, "Operation Fast and Furious" was an attempt to track the weapons to higher level criminals.

Things went south--literally--when ATF guns began turning up at crime scenes, including the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Now, as part of its investigation, the GOP-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is demanding that the Obama Administration turn over documents relevant to the botched ATF operation.

President Obama has refused, invoking "executive privilege."

I put "executive privilege" in quotes because, like terms such as "enemy combatant," it does not appear in law. Presidents of both parties--indeed, presidents of parties that no longer exist, all the way back to 1796--have asserted that the constitutional separation of powers grants the executive branch an "inherent" right to ignore subpoenas issued by Congress or the judiciary.

The standard argument is that compliance would reveal the internal deliberations of the President, his Cabinet officers and other government officials who require the presumption of privacy in order to engage in internal debates and deliberations.

This is Obama's first use of "executive privilege," but both by historical and current legal standards it is radically overreaching. The closest we have to a definitive word on executive privilege dates to the Watergate scandal, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Richard Nixon's attempt to stonewall Congress. As long as a prosecutor could argue that the relevant documents were essential to the justice of a case, and did not compromise national security, Chief Justice Warren Burger said, the president would have to fork over the documents.

Operation Fast and Furious, a law enforcement matter, doesn't qualify under the Burger ruling. It's hard to imagine making a credible case that national security would be compromised if the details were made public. Since run-of-the-mill ATF memos would be covered, the usual top-level internal deliberations justification doesn't apply either: "Obama's claim broadly covers administration documents about the program called Operation Fast and Furious, not just those prepared for the president," reports Larry Margasak of the Associated Press.

Once again Obama is following precedent established by George W. Bush, whose legal advisors seem to have missed the class about how Americans decided not to be ruled by a King. Bush, who promoted another legal fiction, a "unitary executive" branch, invoked "executive privilege" six times, such as when refusing to release the minutes of Dick Cheney's meetings with corporate energy executives, Karl Rove's refusal to testify in the politically-orchestrated firings of federal prosecutors, and in the cover-up of the "friendly fire" shooting of former football player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.

We've come a long way since 1796. Because the Constitution grants the Senate (but not the House) the right to ratify treaties, George Washington refused to turn over notes about the negotiations of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain to the House, claiming "executive privilege." But he did give them to the Senate. And the Supreme Court overruled Thomas Jefferson's 1807 claim that providing his private correspondence to Aaron Burr's defense in his treason trial would imperil national security.

In case after case, the whole idea of executive privilege has been made up, used by both parties to protect secrets and cover up malfeasance, yet has little to no constitutional basis. But it's hardly the only example of how the Constitution is routinely ignored. The most glaring, of course, is the way presidents have stolen the exclusive right to declare war from one wimpy Congress after another. By some measures the U.S. has fought hundreds of wars, yet only five have carried the legal standing of an official Congressional declaration of war.

Americans enjoy the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair and speedy trial, by a jury of their peers, under the Sixth and Seventh Amendments. Yet President Obama--building on a secret assassination program against so-called "terrorists" begun under Bush--asserts the right not only to deprive U.S. citizens of these rights, detaining them indefinitely and denying them a trial, but to assassinate them. According to The Washington Post, all they need to subvert more than two centuries of constitutional law is an internal memo: "The Justice Department wrote a secret memorandum authorizing the lethal targeting of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born radical cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike [on September 30, 2011], according to administration officials," reported The Post. "The document was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the administration. There was no dissent about the legality of killing Aulaqi, the officials said."

We're not even allowed to look at the text of the secret memo.

"Executive privilege."

Too bad the Tea Party's Constitutional purism is so inconsistent, focusing more on fighting the Democrats than protecting our freedoms. With no one to push back, we're no longer a democracy. We're Might Makes Right, not a nation of laws.

What's worse, most Americans don't care.

The United States is un-American.

(Ted Rall's new book is "The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt." His website is tedrall.com. This column originally appeared at MSNBC.com's Lean Forward blog.)

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