Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
The Imperial Presidency: A Bipartisan Threat to Constitutional Government
In the 1960s, the term "imperial presidency" became popular and served as the title of a 1973 volume by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., to describe the growing centralization of power in the modern chief executive.
Things have progressed a great deal since those days. Who ever would have thought that a president of the United States would arrogate to himself the power to kill American citizens - without a trial or judicial finding of any kind, making himself, in effect, judge, jury and executioner?
Yet, this appears to be the power now claimed by President Obama. The confirmation hearing for John Brennan as director of the CIA has produced a much-needed discussion of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policy. It also shows that President Obama's claims of executive power are different from the views he expressed about George Bush's counterterrorism policies.
Early in his first term, Obama rejected the protests of the CIA and ordered the public disclosure of secret Justice Department legal opinions on interrogation and torture that had been written in the Bush administration. In the case of his own Justice Department's legal opinions on assassination and the "targeted killing" of terrorism suspects, however, Obama has taken a different approach. Though he entered office promising the most transparent administration in history, he has refused to make those opinions public, notably one that justified the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed an American, Anwar el-Awlaki. His administration has withheld them even from the Senate and House Intelligence committees.
Now, with the disclosure of a Justice Department document offering a detailed legal analysis of the targeted killings of Americans - similar to the leaks of interrogation memos in 2004 under President Bush, public discussion about whether and when a president can order the execution of a citizen based on secret intelligence and without a trial has finally emerged.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been consistent. It was harshly critical of Bush administration interrogation policies and now calls the Obama material "chilling." Amnesty International has also been consistent, saying there is increasing evidence that administration practices were "unlawful, violating the fundamental human right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one s life."
Republicans and Democrats, with a few rare exceptions such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), have not been quite as consistent. Democrats who criticized Bush interrogation policies, now support Obama's targeted killing. And Republicans, who defended the Bush policies, are now criticizing those of the current president. Unfortunately, the philosophy of "my party, right or wrong" seems to dominate much of congressional thinking.
According to the White Paper, the Constitution and the Congressional authorization for the use of force after the attacks of 9/11 gave the president the right to kill any American citizen that an "informed, high-level official" decides is a "senior operational leader of al Qaeda or an associated force" and presents an "imminent threat of violent attack."
Yet, it never defines who an "informed, high level official" might be and the authors of the memo have redefined the word "imminent" in a way that diverges from its customary meaning.
Anwar al-Awlaki was clearly a dangerous and deadly figure. He had become a leader of the terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and was believed to be directly involved in the near-miss "underwear bomber" plot to bring down an airliner on Christmas Day 2009, as well as planting two bombs on Chicago-bound cargo planes in 2010. Still, the fact remains that U.S. citizens have constitutional rights. Do we really want one man - the president - to be able to decide that those rights no longer apply?
Awlaki was certainly a legitimate target. But it should take more than the president or a "high level official" to make the judgment without appropriate judicial oversight. When the government wants to invade a citizen's right to privacy with wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance, a judge from a special panel - the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) - has to give approval. There should be at least as much judicial review when it comes to taking a life. It is not difficult to imagine a future president extending the power to kill Americans to U.S. soil. All it would take would be to label a group as "domestic terrorists."
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney expressed agreement with much of what President Obama has done with his powers as chief executive, including an embrace of the president's claim to sole authority to expand drone strikes to kill terrorists abroad. Expressing little interest in Congress' role in declaring war, Romney reserved for the president the right to deploy U.S. military power to world hot spots and to engage in unilateral action against Iran. He supported President Obama's position on indefinite detention of U.S. citizens deemed "enemy combatants" who, the administration argues, are not entitled to habeas corpus.
Republicans and Democrats, it seems, are united in embracing the Imperial Presidency we now have. This is a clear contradiction to the American political tradition of constitutional government, checks and balances, and division of powers. The written and spoken words of the men who launched our nation give us numerous examples of their fear and suspicion of unchecked centralized power. Samuel Adams asserted that:
There is a degree of watchfulness over all men possessed of power or influence upon which the liberties of mankind depend. It is necessary to guard against the infirmities of the best as well as the wickedness of the worst of men.
Therefore, he declared, "Jealousy is the best security of public liberty."
James Madison argued that checks and balances are an essential bulwark for liberty; by setting branch against branch, the structure of our government minimizes encroachments on fundamental rights. Today, the separation of powers is hard to find, as the Imperial Presidency grows. Perhaps the concern over a president acting as judge, jury, and executioner will cause increasing numbers of Americans to rethink their support for such unbridled power in the hands of the chief executive.
Concerns Are Growing About the Use of Drones - Both Abroad, and in the Future at Home
It has been a decade since the first strike by an armed U.S. drone killed an al Qaeda leader and five associates in Yemen. Since then, there have been approximately 500 "targeted killing" drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia - countries where the U.S. is not fighting a conventional war.
Weaponized drones have produced results. They have eliminated 22 of al Qaeda's top 30 leaders. They lessen the need to send our troops into harm's way, reducing the number of U.S. casualties.
The costs of drone strikes have received less attention. The numbers of innocent civilians killed are far greater than the number of terrorists killed. A recent study connected by Stanford Law School and the New York University School of Law, found that the number of innocent civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes is much higher than what the U.S. government has reported, at least 700 people since 2004, including 200 children.
In Djibouti, a small state on the Gulf of Aden, the U.S. has turned a former French Foreign Legion outpost, Camp Lemonnier, into the most important base for drone operations outside the war zone of Afghanistan. An investigation by The Washington Post found that Predator drones take off round the clock on missions over nearby Somalia and Yemen. Their pilots are in Creech, at an Air Force hub 8,000 miles away in Nevada.
It is President Obama himself who approves a "kill list" of targets, one of whom has been a U.S. citizen, radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, until a drone killed him. In this - and other - cases, as conservative columnist Timothy Carney points out, "Obama was the judge and jury. Obama's drones were the executioners."
Both Republicans and Democrats have embraced this use of drones, and the almost unprecedented power given to the president to determine who is worthy of execution, even U.S. citizens who, under the Constitution, have a right to be charged and tried in a court of law.
Critics, on both the left and right, are expressing concern about this unprecedented executive power.
Kurt Volker, who served as U.S. ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush and is now executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University, argues that drones have made killing too easy:
What do we want to be as a nation? A country with a permanent kill list? A country where people go to the office, launch a few kill shots, and get home in time for dinner? A country that instructs workers in high-tech operations centers to kill human beings on the far side of the planet because some government agency determined that those individuals are terrorists?
In Volker s view:
In establishing a long-term approach, a good rule of thumb might be that we should authorize drone strikes only if we would be willing to send in a pilot or soldier to do the job if a drone were not available. . . . More people have been killed in drone attacks than were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. . . . This is not to say that the U.S. should never use drones for targeted attacks. We should. But we should also be creating standards and practices that are entirely defensible, even - and perhaps especially - if others were to adopt them.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) believes that:
Congress must require an independent judicial review of any executive branch kill list. The U.S. legal system is based on the principle that one branch of government should not have absolute authority. Congress should object to that concentration of power, especially when it may be used against U.S. citizens. A process of judicial review would diffuse executive power and provide a mechanism for greater oversight.
Beyond this is the question of the use of drones within the U.S. itself. While domestic drones are now uncommon, the Federal Aviation Administration has predicted that within 20 years, 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying in U.S. skies.
Drones could be equipped with surveillance technologies to identify people or license plates. "In the near future," report researchers at the Congressional Research Service:
. . . law enforcement organizations might seek to outfit drones with facial recognition or soft biometric recognition, which can recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender and skin color.
Analyzing past court cases, the researchers conclude that police would likely have to obtain a search warrant to use nano drones or heat-sensing imaging to spy on people within their homes. But the report says that it is unclear how courts will treat drone surveillance of a person's backyard, swimming pool, deck or porch.
Lawmakers have already introduced several bills to limit how police could use drones to gather information. Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act to require that police obtain a warrant in most circumstances before using drones.
"The current state of the law is inadequate to address the threat, as drone technology becomes cheaper, the threat to privacy will become more substantial," says Amie Stepanovich, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
At the present time, unmanned aerial vehicles - drones - are used only by the military and law enforcement agencies. They are to become available for personal and commercial use as early as September 2015, raising new concerns. "Drones operated by private entities open new doors to spying, harassment, and stalking," says Stepanovich.
The New York Times notes that:
The idea of watchful drones buzzing overhead like Orwellian gnats may seem far-fetched to some. But Congress, in its enthusiasm for a new industry, should guarantee the strongest protection of privacy under what promises to be a galaxy of new eyes in the sky.
The questions which are being asked about the use of drones at the present time abroad - and in the future at home - are being asked by only a handful of conservatives and liberals concerned about the potential abuse of executive power and a potential threat to privacy. Most Republicans and most Democrats have been strangely silent on the subject. It is high time that we had a real national conversation about how to apply our traditional values to this new technology before things get even further out of hand.
Despite Declining Public Approval, Congress Continues to Do (Self-serving) Business as Usual
In December, Congress received good or excellent marks for its job performance from only 9 percent of likely U.S. voters. This is the lowest approval rating in 38 years of polling.
Despite the low esteem in which it is held, Congress continues to do business in exactly the same self-serving way that has led to its declining reputation. This is true of both Democrats and Republicans.
In January, the "fiscal cliff" bill passed by Congress contained a windfall for lobbyists, extending supports for Puerto Rican rum distillers, Hollywood studios, tribal-lands coal, electric-scooter makers, and other corporate interests that Congress will subsidize through the tax code into the future.
One such windfall is the production tax credit (PTC) for wind energy. Extending the decades-old subsidy will cost more than $12 billion through 2022, according to Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation. Even the wind industry agreed in December that, after two decades of direct assistance, Congress should set the PTC to phase out by 2019. The only change Congress made was to make the subsidy more generous.
The "cliff" bill also extended the 2008 farm bill, which The Washington Post described as "a monstrous money-waster." Or consider another congressional action in January, when Senators who play a major role in healthcare financing helped Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology company, evade Medicare cost-cutting controls by delaying price restraints on a class of drugs used by kidney dialysis patients, including Sensipar, a drug made by Amgen. Amgen has 74 lobbyists in Washington and pushed aggressively for this provision. The delay will cost the Medicare program up to $500 million over a two-year period. Those who pushed this delay on price restraints were Senators Max Baucus (D-Montana), who leads the Senate Finance Committee, and Orin Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking Republican on the committee. The current lobbyists for Amgen include former chiefs of staff for both Senators Baucus and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). A top aide to Mr. Hatch, who was involved in the negotiations, worked as a health policy analyst for Amgen.
In mid-January, about a dozen members of Congress gathered in New York to discuss, among other things, "Why does America hate us?" Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) asked: "Did you hear about the poll? Congress is now rated slightly above or below cockroaches and colonoscopies." (Actually, it was below.)
"We are incentivized to do crazy things," said Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), who pointed out how angry diatribes delivered on the House floor made celebrities out of lawmakers.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) noted that each party ignores the truth when it does not suit its purpose. "Congress is a fact-free zone," he declared.
Congress, we often fail to understand, responds to the incentive structure we have established. This was explained very well by Nobel Prize winning economist James Buchanan, who died at the age of 93 in January.
Dr. Buchanan, who taught at George Mason University, was a leading proponent of public choice theory, which assumes that politicians and government officials, like everyone else, are motivated by self-interest - getting reelected or gaining more power - and do not necessarily act in the public interest.
He argued that their actions could be analyzed, and even predicted, by applying the tools of economics to political science in ways that yield insights into the tendencies of governments to grow, increase spending, borrow money, run large deficits, and let regulations proliferate.
It was Buchanan's view that the pursuit of self-interest by modern politicians often leads to harmful results. Courting voters, for example, legislators will approve tax cuts and spending increases for projects and entitlements favored by the electorate. This leads to ever-rising deficits, public debt burdens, and increasingly large governments.
Buchanan accurately forecast that deficit spending for short-term gains would evolve into a "permanent disconnect" between government outlays and revenue. No matter which party is in power, as he predicted, government power - and deficits continue to grow.
Because Congress refuses to eliminate non-germane amendments to key pieces of legislation, special interests are regularly rewarded. In the relief bill for Superstorm Sandy, such amendments included: $25 million to improve weather and hurricane intensity forecasting; $118 million for Northeast Corridor upgrades; $10 million for FBI salaries and expenses; $2 billion for Federal Highway Administration to spend on roads across the country, and $16 billion for the Community Development Fund that would go not only to Sandy-effected states, but to any major disaster declarations since 2011.
While some of these items may be worthy recipients of federal money, they should be subject to the normal budgetary process and not inserted into a bill designed to help victims of the mega-storm which ripped through parts of the eastern United States in October.
Congress, it is safe to say, will continue doing business as usual until we change the incentive structure we have created. Only 9 percent of Americans may have a favorable view of Congress, but incumbents usually have little trouble being re-elected, in the largely one-party districts that state legislatures have gerrymandered in their behalf. As long as we permit this incentive structure to continue, we should prepare ourselves for more of the same.
Absence of Fathers Is Leading to Many of the Social Problems We Face
Many of the social problems we face - from poor academic achievement levels, to teenage pregnancy, to drug use and crime - cannot be properly understood without considering the impact of the absence of fathers in more and more homes.
At the present time, 15 million American children, or 1 in 3, live without a father. In every state, the portion of families where children have two parents, rather than one, has dropped significantly over the past decade. Even as the country added 160,000 families with children, the number of two-parent households decreased by 1.2 million. In Baltimore, 38 percent of families have two parents. In St. Louis, the portion is 40 percent.
The problem is particularly acute in the black community, although those who point this out are usually shunned as being politically incorrect. Among blacks, nearly 5 million children, or 54 percent, live only with their mother.
A report from the Institute for American Values notes that over the past fifty years "the percentage of black families headed by married couples declined from 78 percent to 34 percent." In the thirty years from 1950 to 1980, households headed by black women who never married jumped from 3.8 per thousand to 69.7 per thousand.
"For policymakers who care about black America, marriage matters," wrote the authors, a group of black scholars. They called marriage in black America an important strategy for "improving the well-being of African-Americans and for strengthening civil society."
In his book Enough, the respected black journalist Juan Williams points out that:
The answer to the question of how to create opportunities for the poor is to get them to take school seriously - to set high academic expectations for their children and to insist on high expectations from teachers in good schools. It is also a personal matter of self-control that begins with understanding the power of the family and putting love, romance, and children (as well as knowing how to be good parents) in their proper order.
Linda Chavez, the former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, argues that the "chief cause of poverty today among blacks is no longer racism - it is the breakdown of the traditional family."
Those who make this point, Juan Williams laments, are often accused of "blaming the poor." He states:
They say this answer puts pressure on the poor. They say this with a straight face, even though nearly 70 percent of black children are born to single women, damning a high number of them to poverty, bad schools, and bad influences. They say this knowing that in 1964, in a far more hostile and racist America, 82 percent of black households had both parents in place and close to half of those households owned a business.
President Obama himself made this point in a 2008 Father's Day speech in Chicago:
If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that too many fathers are . . . missing . . . from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weakening because of it. You and I know how true this is in the African-American community. We know that more than half of all black children live in single parent households, a number that has doubled since we were children.
Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime. They are nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.
The Urban Institute finds that the percent of black women who are married declined from 53 percent to 25 percent over the past half century. Marriage is declining among whites and Hispanics as well, although less dramatically. The drop in marriage for white women in the past half century has been from 65 percent to 52 percent, and among Hispanic women from 67 percent to 43 percent.
A recent Department of Education study shows that a child's grades were more closely correlated to how many times the father came to a school event than any other factor. Children with involved fathers measure as having higher IQs by age three, higher self-esteem, and in the case of daughters, grow up to be less promiscuous.
A new study from the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, "The State of Our Unions," tracks the decline of marriage among Americans of all races who have high school but not college educations. By one estimate cited in the report, which was written by five family scholars, the cost to taxpayers when stable families fail to form is about $112 billion annually - or more than $1 trillion per decade.
In the 1980s, only 13 percent of children were born outside of marriage among moderately educated mothers. By 2010, the number had risen to 44 percent. The lead author of the new study, Elizabeth Marquardt, writes:
Marriage is not merely a private arrangement; it is also a complex social institution. Marriage fosters small cooperative unions - also known as stable families - that enable children to thrive, shore up communities, and help family members to succeed during good times, and to weather the bad times. Researchers are finding that the disappearance of marriage in Middle America is tracking with the disappearance of the middle class in the same communities, a change that strikes at the very heart of the American Dream.
We ignore the absence of fathers in a growing number of families and the decline of marriage itself at our peril. When, in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his report about the alarming rise of African American children born out of wedlock, it set off a major national discussion, The latest findings - equally disturbing and reflecting trends among Americans of all races - are being largely ignored. This may tell us a lot about the strange set of priorities that dominates what passes for public discourse. *