Last week, Bill Kovach, former Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Times and the founding chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, blasted the U.S. media for its failure to ask tough questions of both presidential candidates regarding their opinions of the Bush administration’s unprecedented adherence to the controversial “unitary executive theory” of government.
The theory, which became prominent in the Reagan administration, but has peppered U.S. history, contends that, when he wishes, the president is entitled to act unilaterally, without interference from Congress or the judiciary. This is in direct contravention of the separation of powers on which the United States was founded, and critics have long contended that it is nothing less than an attempt by the executive to seize the dictatorial powers that the Constitution was designed to prevent.
Under the cover of the wartime powers granted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and with encouragement from lawyers including, in particular, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff (and former legal counsel) David Addington, President Bush has pursued the theory relentlessly, issuing a record number of “signing statements” to laws passed by Congress, designed to prevent the nation’s politicians from interfering in the executive’s quest for unchecked power.
He has also approved a number of secret memos, which, in conjunction with various “signing statements,” have authorized what numerous critics of the administration regard as war crimes. These include detaining prisoners seized in the “war on terror” as “illegal enemy combatants” and holding them without charge or trial, dismissing the protections of the Geneva Conventions, redefining torture and approving its use by the U.S. military and the CIA, and authorizing “extraordinary rendition” and the use of secret prisons.
As if to prove what he was saying, Bill Kovach’s speech to a meeting of international journalists in Washington, D.C., went unreported in the U.S. media (and I located it only on the website of a Jamaican newspaper). And yet in many ways Kovach could have gone further, and could also have asked why the presidential candidates themselves have been silent about the current administration’s crimes.
The answer, sadly, is that the executive’s thirst for unfettered executive power is not a priority for voters, even when it spills out of foreign wars and offshore prisons and onto the U.S. mainland. Too many Americans, it seems, are unconcerned or unaware that the president can even hold U.S. citizens and legal residents as “enemy combatants” and can imprison them indefinitely on the U.S. mainland without charge or trial, as the cases of Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri reveal in horrific detail.