Al Gore’s Constitution Hall Speech – 2006-01-20 09:24:50
WASHINGTON, DC (January 16 2006) — Congressman Barr and I have disagreed many times over the years, but we have joined together today with thousands of our fellow citizens-Democrats and Republicans alike-to express our shared concern that America’s Constitution is in grave danger.
In spite of our differences over ideology and politics, we are in strong agreement that the American values we hold most dear have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the Administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power.
As we begin this new year, the Executive Branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without regard to the established law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses.
It is imperative that respect for the rule of law be restored.
So, many of us have come here to Constitution Hall to sound an alarm and call upon our fellow citizens to put aside partisan differences and join with us in demanding that our Constitution be defended and preserved.
It is appropriate that we make this appeal on the day our nation has set aside to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who challenged America to breathe new life into our oldest values by extending its promise to all our people.
On this particular Martin Luther King Day, it is especially important to recall that for the last several years of his life, Dr. King was illegally wiretapped-one of hundreds of thousands of Americans whose private communications were intercepted by the U.S. government during this period.
The FBI privately called King the “most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country” and vowed to “take him off his pedestal.” The government even attempted to destroy his marriage and blackmail him into committing suicide.
This campaign continued until Dr. King’s murder. The discovery that the FBI conducted a long-running and extensive campaign of secret electronic surveillance designed to infiltrate the inner workings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to learn the most intimate details of Dr. King’s life, helped to convince Congress to enact restrictions on wiretapping.
The result was the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA), which was enacted expressly to ensure that foreign intelligence surveillance would be presented to an impartial judge to verify that there is a sufficient cause for the surveillance. I voted for that law during my first term in Congress and for almost thirty years the system has proven a workable and valued means of according a level of protection for private citizens, while permitting foreign surveillance to continue.
Yet, just one month ago, Americans awoke to the shocking news that in spite of this long settled law, the Executive Branch has been secretly spying on large numbers of Americans for the last four years and eavesdropping on “large volumes of telephone calls, e-mail messages, and other Internet traffic inside the United States.” The New York Times reported that the President decided to launch this massive eavesdropping program “without search warrants or any new laws that would permit such domestic intelligence collection.”
During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the President went out of his way to reassure the American people on more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is required for any government spying on American citizens and that, of course, these constitutional safeguards were still in place.
But surprisingly, the President’s soothing statements turned out to be false. Moreover, as soon as this massive domestic spying program was uncovered by the press, the President not only confirmed that the story was true, but also declared that he has no intention of bringing these wholesale invasions of privacy to an end.
At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA’s domestic surveillance. What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the President of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently.
A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government. Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they had established a government of laws and not men. Indeed, they recognized that the structure of government they had enshrined in our Constitution – our system of checks and balances – was designed with a central purpose of ensuring that it would govern through the rule of law. As John Adams said: “The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.”
An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution – an all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet, “On Common Sense” ignited the American Revolution, succinctly described America’s alternative. Here, he said, we intended to make certain that “the law is king.”
Vigilant adherence to the rule of law strengthens our democracy and strengthens America. It ensures that those who govern us operate within our constitutional structure, which means that our democratic institutions play their indispensable role in shaping policy and determining the direction of our nation. It means that the people of this nation ultimately determine its course and not executive officials operating in secret without constraint.
The rule of law makes us stronger by ensuring that decisions will be tested, studied, reviewed and examined through the processes of government that are designed to improve policy. And the knowledge that they will be reviewed prevents over-reaching and checks the accretion of power.
A commitment to openness, truthfulness and accountability also helps our country avoid many serious mistakes. Recently, for example, we learned from recently classified declassified documents that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the tragic Vietnam war, was actually based on false information. We now know that the decision by Congress to authorize the Iraq War, 38 years later, was also based on false information. America would have been better off knowing the truth and avoiding both of these colossal mistakes in our history. Following the rule of law makes us safer, not more vulnerable.
The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is all too real. There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attack on September 11th and that we must be ever-vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.
Where we disagree is that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government to protect Americans from terrorism. In fact, doing so makes us weaker and more vulnerable.
Once violated, the rule of law is in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its actions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we become a government of men and not laws.
The President’s men have minced words about America’s laws. The Attorney General openly conceded that the “kind of surveillance” we now know they have been conducting requires a court order unless authorized by statute. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act self-evidently does not authorize what the NSA has been doing, and no one inside or outside the Administration claims that it does. Incredibly, the Administration claims instead that the surveillance was implicitly authorized when Congress voted to use force against those who attacked us on September 11th.
This argument just does not hold any water. Without getting into the legal intricacies, it faces a number of embarrassing facts. First, another admission by the Attorney General: he concedes that the Administration knew that the NSA project was prohibited by existing law and that they consulted with some members of Congress about changing the statute. Gonzalez says that they were told this probably would not be possible. So how can they now argue that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force somehow implicitly authorized it all along? Second, when the Authorization was being debated, the Administration did in fact seek to have language inserted in it that would have authorized them to use military force domestically – and the Congress did not agree. Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Jim McGovern, among others, made statements during the Authorization debate clearly restating that that Authorization did not operate domestically.
When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him all the power he wanted when they passed the AUMF, he secretly assumed that power anyway, as if congressional authorization was a useless bother. But as Justice Frankfurter once wrote: “To find authority so explicitly withheld is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional division of authority between President and Congress.”
This is precisely the “disrespect” for the law that the Supreme Court struck down in the steel seizure case.
It is this same disrespect for America’s Constitution which has now brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric of the Constitution. And the disrespect embodied in these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political parties.
For example, the President has also declared that he has a heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our nation, and that, notwithstanding his American citizenship, the person imprisoned has no right to talk with a lawyer-even to argue that the President or his appointees have made a mistake and imprisoned the wrong person.
The President claims that he can imprison American citizens indefinitely for the rest of their lives without an arrest warrant, without notifying them about what charges have been filed against them, and without informing their families that they have been imprisoned.
At the same time, the Executive Branch has claimed a previously unrecognized authority to mistreat prisoners in its custody in ways that plainly constitute torture in a pattern that has now been documented in U.S. facilities located in several countries around the world.
Over 100 of these captives have reportedly died while being tortured by Executive Branch interrogators and many more have been broken and humiliated. In the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, investigators who documented the pattern of torture estimated that more than 90 percent of the victims were innocent of any charges.
This shameful exercise of power overturns a set of principles that our nation has observed since General Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War and has been observed by every president since then – until now. These practices violate the Geneva Conventions and the International Convention Against Torture, not to mention our own laws against torture.
The President has also claimed that he has the authority to kidnap individuals in foreign countries and deliver them for imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes in nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for torture.
Some of our traditional allies have been shocked by these new practices on the part of our nation. The British Ambassador to Uzbekistan – one of those nations with the worst reputations for torture in its prisons – registered a complaint to his home office about the senselessness and cruelty of the new U.S. practice: “This material is useless – we are selling our souls for dross. It is in fact positively harmful.”
Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our Constitution? If the answer is “yes” then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can’t he do?
The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing the Executive Branch’s claims of these previously unrecognized powers: “If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.”
The fact that our normal safeguards have thus far failed to contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power is deeply troubling. This failure is due in part to the fact that the Executive Branch has followed a determined strategy of obfuscating, delaying, withholding information, appearing to yield but then refusing to do so and dissembling in order to frustrate the efforts of the legislative and judicial branches to restore our constitutional balance.
For example, after appearing to support legislation sponsored by John McCain to stop the continuation of torture, the President declared in the act of signing the bill that he reserved the right not to comply with it.
Similarly, the Executive Branch claimed that it could unilaterally imprison American citizens without giving them access to review by any tribunal. The Supreme Court disagreed, but the President engaged in legal maneuvers designed to prevent the Court from providing meaningful content to the rights of its citizens.
A conservative jurist on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that the Executive Branch’s handling of one such case seemed to involve the sudden abandonment of principle “at substantial cost to the government’s credibility before the courts.”
As a result of its unprecedented claim of new unilateral power, the Executive Branch has now put our constitutional design at grave risk. The stakes for America’s representative democracy are far higher than has been generally recognized.
These claims must be rejected and a healthy balance of power restored to our Republic. Otherwise, the fundamental nature of our democracy may well undergo a radical transformation.
For more than two centuries, America’s freedoms have been preserved in part by our founders’ wise decision to separate the aggregate power of our government into three co-equal branches, each of which serves to check and balance the power of the other two.
On more than a few occasions, the dynamic interaction among all three branches has resulted in collisions and temporary impasses that create what are invariably labeled “constitutional crises.” These crises have often been dangerous and uncertain times for our Republic. But in each such case so far, we have found a resolution of the crisis by renewing our common agreement to live under the rule of law.
The principle alternative to democracy throughout history has been the consolidation of virtually all state power in the hands of a single strongman or small group who together exercise that power without the informed consent of the governed.
It was in revolt against just such a regime, after all, that America was founded. When Lincoln declared at the time of our greatest crisis that the ultimate question being decided in the Civil War was “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure,” he was not only saving our union but also was recognizing the fact that democracies are rare in history. And when they fail, as did Athens and the Roman Republic upon whose designs our founders drew heavily, what emerges in their place is another strongman regime.
There have of course been other periods of American history when the Executive Branch claimed new powers that were later seen as excessive and mistaken. Our second president, John Adams, passed the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts and sought to silence and imprison critics and political opponents.
When his successor, Thomas Jefferson, eliminated the abuses he said: “[The essential principles of our Government] form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation… [S]hould we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety.”
Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Some of the worst abuses prior to those of the current administration were committed by President Wilson during and after WWI with the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids. The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII marked a low point for the respect of individual rights at the hands of the executive. And, during the Vietnam War, the notorious COINTELPRO program was part and parcel of the abuses experienced by Dr. King and thousands of others.
But in each of these cases, when the conflict and turmoil subsided, the country recovered its equilibrium and absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.
There are reasons for concern this time around that conditions may be changing and that the cycle may not repeat itself. For one thing, we have for decades been witnessing the slow and steady accumulation of presidential power. In a global environment of nuclear weapons and cold war tensions, Congress and the American people accepted ever enlarging spheres of presidential initiative to conduct intelligence and counter intelligence activities and to allocate our military forces on the global stage. When military force has been used as an instrument of foreign policy or in response to humanitarian demands, it has almost always been as the result of presidential initiative and leadership. As Justice Frankfurter wrote in the Steel Seizure Case, “The accretion of dangerous power does not come in a day. It does come, however slowly, from the generative force of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in even the most disinterested assertion of authority.”
A second reason to believe we may be experiencing something new is that we are told by the Administration that the war footing upon which he has tried to place the country is going to “last for the rest of our lives.” So we are told that the conditions of national threat that have been used by other Presidents to justify arrogations of power will persist in near perpetuity.
Third, we need to be aware of the advances in eavesdropping and surveillance technologies with their capacity to sweep up and analyze enormous quantities of information and to mine it for intelligence. This adds significant vulnerability to the privacy and freedom of enormous numbers of innocent people at the same time as the potential power of those technologies. These techologies have the potential for shifting the balance of power between the apparatus of the state and the freedom of the individual in ways both subtle and profound.
Don’t misunderstand me: the threat of additional terror strikes is all too real and their concerted efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction does create a real imperative to exercise the powers of the Executive Branch with swiftness and agility. Moreover, there is in fact an inherent power that is conferred by the Constitution to the President to take unilateral action to protect the nation from a sudden and immediate threat, but it is simply not possible to precisely define in legalistic terms exactly when that power is appropriate and when it is not.
But the existence of that inherent power cannot be used to justify a gross and excessive power grab lasting for years that produces a serious imbalance in the relationship between the executive and the other two branches of government.
See America in Distress, Part Two