When asked if the President can break the law, presumably in the interests of National security, incumbent Attorney General Michael Mukasey answered: The president has “the authority to defend the country.”
Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, declared that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal.”
Both of these quotations, though I’d heard them before, were called to my mind by Senator Chris Dodd’s recent speech on the retroactive immunity bill, which even most of the Democrats are about to let slide. I myself was a bit unsure about the bill before reading his speech — I’d been told before that the wiretapping had only gone on overseas (not true) and wondered if the telecom companies could really be held liable when the Justice Department assured them that the presidential injunctions were legal. Well, turns out that if this bill is defeated, that is exactly what would be decided in our courts of law — the way legality is usually determined in this country, last time I checked. The bill, however, would exonerate the telecoms behind closed doors, barring access to the case for ever and aye. And, as far as I can tell, would essentially consist of the (Democratic) congress voting “yea” to legality being determined by executive fiat.
A good classicist or historian would know that the Roman Republic, aware of the need to balance security and liberty, had an “emergency dictator” position that could last for a set number of years in a crisis to ensure authority and military coordination, and then expire. But Julius Caesar, citing the dangerous times, decided that the position would have to be lifelong, thereby ending some 500 years of liberty from tyrants. No, I’m not saying that George W. Bush is Caesar or plans to extend his term for life. But the constant harping of the executive branch and its neo-con allies that the war on terror is “unprecedented” and therefore necessitates extraordinary measures, is not unprecedented at all — it is terribly, regrettably, and frighteningly banal.
Now, on a lighter note: the top movie of this week, Get Smart, is absolutely hilarious and takes a fantastically lighthearted view of the workings of federal security agencies. I went to see it because I’ll watch anything with Steve Carell in it, and because the trailer was really funny. I wasn’t disappointed, and was placed in the awkward, but even more funny, position of cracking up by myself in a movie theater.
Highlights included the Vice President boasting about his “new pacemaker,” the president falling asleep during the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and The Rock stapling a piece of paper to a coworker’s head. It’s great — one of the few recent comedies I’ve seen with a screenplay that is more witty than sophomoric. So, especially if you’re sick and tired of hearing pompous talk about National security, go and see this movie. It’s an apt and not at all bitter satire …