Imperial Assumptions

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It seems that the Imperial Presidency has been restored. The nation's highest office was cut down to constitutional size three decades ago, when Richard Nixon helicoptered out of town, but listening to George W. Bush in his latest come-out-swinging media blitz has been like an audience with an impatient monarch whose ungrateful subjects won't just shut up and do as he says.

On Saturday, he was wrathful. How dare someone reveal that for years his administration has been eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of American citizens? How dare the New York Times publish its story about the illegal surveillance? Investigations would be convened, he warned, and the leakers could be outed.

On Sunday, in his address from the Oval Office, he was expansive. Yes, he acknowledged, some misguided Americans may have disagreed with his decision to invade Iraq. He will be generous enough to forgive that impertinence, as long as everyone now gets with the program. The only options are "victory" and "defeat," he warned -- without really defining either -- so everyone should just stop asking when the troops will come home. "I have never been more certain that America's actions in Iraq are essential to the security of our citizens," he said. And, obviously, his certainty trumps all of our doubts.

At his news conference yesterday, he took advantage of the sovereign's divine right to rewrite history. Clearly outraged at the Senate's recalcitrance on the USA Patriot Act, the president issued a challenge: "These senators need to explain why they thought the Patriot Act was a vital tool after the September the 11th attacks but now think it's no longer necessary." The president conveniently forgot to mention that Congress originally set a "sunset" date for the act to expire precisely because members were so deeply concerned about the extent to which it compromised our liberties.

He also sought to explain why he believes he has the right to order the National Security Agency to conduct electronic surveillance of Americans without first getting a warrant. He cited Article II of the Constitution, which of course doesn't mention telephones or the Internet. When it's convenient, the president recognizes that "strict constructionism" has its limits.

None of this is really unexpected from a president whose apparent goal from the beginning has been to reinflate the presidency and unshackle it from those inconvenient restraints that Congress or the courts might seek to impose.

Think about the powers this White House has asserted: to detain terrorist suspects indefinitely, without charges or due process. To kidnap suspects and hold them in secret CIA-run prisons, with no acknowledgment that the suspect is even in U.S. custody. To inflict on these prisoners inhumane and degrading treatment that amounts to torture.

And now the president claims the unilateral right to tap your phone and mine whenever he wants. Never mind that there is a legally established procedure to obtain warrants for such domestic surveillance; never mind that this lawful process is conducted quickly and in total secrecy. The imperial president does not bow to lowly courts. He just does what he believes he needs to do.

In his brief prepared remarks at his news conference yesterday, the president mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks eight times. None of us who lived through that awful, world-changing day will ever be able to forget it. I remember how surreal it was to see the great plume of smoke rising from the Pentagon; I remember how vulnerable I felt, how angry, how full of patriotic resolve. I understand how any president would immediately decide that his prime task, above all others, was making sure that nothing like Sept. 11 ever happened again. I get the sense that the president wakes up every day with the sour fear of another attack in the pit of his stomach.

But every American felt the same way after Sept. 11 as the president and his Cabinet did. It's just that many of us have concluded that defeating Islamic fundamentalism cannot be accomplished by abandoning basic American values.

The president invokes Sept. 11 to foreclose debate about Iraq, about torture, about secret prisons and, now, about electronic surveillance of American citizens. The law permitting domestic spying doesn't allow him to move quickly enough, the president said. So why, in these four years, hasn't he asked Congress to change the law?

I checked, and the Constitution that the president loves to cite -- but only when it's convenient -- says clearly that he works for all of us. Not the other way around.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company