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Can democracy function when government systematically hides the truth?

By Reviewed by James Bamford
Sunday, October 14, 2007

TAKEOVER

The Return of the Imperial Presidency

And the Subversion of American Democracy

By Charlie Savage

Little, Brown. 400 pp. $25.99

NATION OF SECRETS

The Threat to Democracy

And the American Way of Life

By Ted Gup

Doubleday. 322 pp. $24.95

TOP SECRET

When Our Government Keeps Us

In the Dark

By Geoffrey R. Stone

Rowman & Littlefield. 138 pp. $19.95

"Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of the state."

The man who uttered those words was the guiding hand behind a weak leader. He was a clever strategist who centralized power, did not hesitate to mix religion with politics and dealt ruthlessly with domestic opponents. He also helped push his nation into a costly war.

The quote and description might fit Vice President Dick Cheney, at least according to his critics. In fact, the words were spoken about 400 years ago by Cardinal Richelieu, the top advisor to King Louis XIII of France.

In his illuminating and biting new book, Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage shows how Cheney has emerged as Bush's Richelieu, the most powerful vice president in history. "Cheney made no secret of his agenda of expanding -- or 'restoring' -- presidential power," Savage writes in Takeover. "He repeatedly declared that one of his goals in office was to roll back what he termed 'unwise' limits on the presidency that were imposed after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal."

To help do that, Savage says, Cheney brought on board a one-time CIA and Pentagon lawyer named David Addington. The hidden hand's hidden hand, Addington was described by Lawrence Wilkerson -- former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff and, thus, a bureaucratic rival to Addington -- as a force who both used Cheney's influence and influenced Cheney in turn. According to Wilkerson, Addington was the leader of a small group of administration ideologues who stood behind their policy-making bosses, "whispering in their ears . . . telling them they have these powers, that the Constitution backs these powers, that these powers are 'inherent' and blessed by God and if they are not exercised, the nation will fall."

It was just such arrogance, Savage argues, that had led to the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan presidency. And vigorously defending the administration's right to ship arms to Iran and cash to Nicaraguan fighters were a young congressman, Dick Cheney, and his young aide, David Addington.

Among Cheney's more recent accomplishments, Savage says, was a key role in President Bush's use of signing statements to, in effect, cross his fingers when enacting laws. The practice allows a president to sign a statute while simultaneously asserting that the law doesn't mean what it seems to or is constitutionally faulty and can be ignored, at least in part. Savage won a Pulitzer Prize this year for articles showing that while other presidents occasionally used this device, Bush has employed it with unprecedented frequency.

In Takeover, Savage reports that the "chief architect" of the expanded policy was Addington. He says Cheney ensured that all legislation would be routed through the vice president's office before reaching the president's desk, and "Addington then scoured the bills for any new laws that he believed would infringe on the president's constitutional powers as he saw them, drafting signing statements for Bush to sign." After seven years in office, Savage notes, "Bush had attached signing statements to about 150 bills . . . challenging the constitutionality of well over 1,100 separate sections in the legislation." By contrast, all past presidents combined had used the technique to challenge about 600 sections of bills.

The CIA's use of harsh interrogation tactics was another area where Cheney applied his muscle, according to Savage. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced an amendment to prohibit methods outlawed by the Geneva Conventions, Cheney immediately began lobbying Congress against the measure. The amendment passed by lopsided votes of 90 to 9 in the Senate and 308 to 122 in the House, effectively making it veto-proof, "but Cheney and the administration's legal team weren't finished," Savage writes. Late on a Friday night, the White House quietly issued a signing statement in dense legalese, referring to sections of the bill only by their numbers; it rendered a year of congressional debate irrelevant by asserting that the president still had authority to waive the torture ban whenever he saw fit.

Ted Gup is similarly concerned about the rise of secrecy, though he sees it as a problem throughout society. A former Washington Post investigative reporter and author of a book about the CIA called The Book of Honor, Gup devotes several chapters in his new book, Nation of Secrets, to national security issues. But he also explores the more subtle and nuanced aspects of the topic: how secrecy affects us in our everyday lives, in city councils, corporations, courts, clinics and universities.

Traditionally, campuses embrace openness and transparency. But increasingly, Gup writes, "at universities and colleges around the nation, presumptions of openness have given way to a permissive secrecy, mirroring government's own move into the shadows." At Georgetown University, for example, David Shick, a junior, died when his head hit the pavement after a fellow student punched him. Yet Shick's parents were not allowed to learn the results of a university hearing on the matter unless they signed an agreement barring them from revealing the information, even to their two other children.

Federal law requires universities to report all serious crimes, but, Gup points out, "compliance is shoddy at best." The University of California, for example, reported that in 1998 its nine campuses had a total of 90 rapes. The Sacramento Bee found that more than twice that number actually had been documented by campus officials.

Courts, too, are under pressure to seal their records in product liability, police brutality and discrimination cases, thus preventing the public from learning what cars or toys to avoid, which cops are bad and how businesses discriminate. One study cited by Gup found that fewer than 1 percent of the cases brought before the federal bench resulted in sealed settlements. But of the records that were sealed, a very high proportion (40 percent of one sample of 1,270 cases between 1997 and 2001) were in lawsuits of "special public interest," the most serious malpractice and product liability cases. In other words, secrecy is most common in exactly those circumstances where openness would be of most benefit to the public.

When and how state secrets should be protected is the topic of Top Secret, by Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. His slender but extensively researched book wrestles with complex legal issues that have arisen since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He notes that in an effort to stop leaks, Bush administration officials have considered prosecuting not just public employees who give classified information to the press, but also reporters who receive the information. "This is a novel question," Stone writes. "In all American history, no journalist has ever been prosecuted under such a theory."

Looking at the question strictly as a matter of constitutional law, Stone comes down largely on the administration's side. The government could punish a reporter for receiving classified information from a public employee, he contends, if the journalist expressly sought the leak, knew it would result in imminent and grave harm to national security and realized that publishing the information would not meaningfully contribute to public debate.

But even if the government could bring such a case, Stone argues, that doesn't mean it should. "The United States has made it through more than 200 years without ever finding it necessary to prosecute a journalist for soliciting a public employee to disclose confidential national security information," he writes, suggesting that wise officials ought to accept customary limits on their power. Cardinal Richelieu would probably disagree. ¿

James Bamford is the author of "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret NSA" and "A Pretext For War: 9/11, Iraq and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies."

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