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Bush Acting as Imperial President
Published on Wednesday, July 3, 2002 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Bush Acting as Imperial President
by Helen Thomas
 

WASHINGTON -- The imperial presidency has arrived. On the domestic front President Bush has found that in many ways he can govern by executive order. In foreign affairs he has the nerve to tell other people that they should get rid of their current leaders.

Amazingly, with Americans turning into a new silent majority and Congress into a bunch of obeisant lawmakers, he is getting away with such acts.

The lawmakers are worried that Bush will play the "patriot card" in the November elections to attack dissenters and opponents. The Democratic leaders have already rolled over. They have given him a blank check by passing the USA Patriot Act, which permits outrageous invasions of privacy, and by seconding Bush's foreign policy with a weak "me too."

Whatever happened to congressional oversight? I remember all too well the senators who gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a free hand to do whatever he believed was necessary in Southeast Asia. They lived to regret it. The result was the Vietnam War that ripped our country apart.

The list of the president's self-empowerment moves grows almost daily and will continue unless the Supreme Court calls his hand.

Did I say Supreme Court? Forget it. Not with this court. It handed him the 2000 election, and it would probably cite some World War II decisions that allowed the government to violate citizens' civil rights, especially those of Japanese Americans, in the name of national security.

Civil rights are now clearly being ignored by government agents in the war on terrorism who want to make the vulnerable detainees talk. The agents' methods of extracting information are not disclosed. And the imprisoned suspects and material witnesses cannot get in touch with lawyers or their families.

I'm not talking about Russia's infamous gulags. I am talking about us. The president made the arbitrary decision to designate as a foreign "enemy combatant" the Brooklyn-born Jose Padilla, who is suspected of being an al-Qaida scout seeking to locate targets for a "dirty bomb" attack. He is being held incommunicado in a military brig without due process of law and without being charged.

Where are the great constitutional law experts who might protest such treatment? It appears they have bowed to the exigencies of our time and are accepting Bush's end-runs around the law involving some 2,400 detainees, who are reportedly being held indefinitely by U.S. authorities. Can Americans really tolerate the denial of rights to these people?

Overseeing much of the chipping away at our privacy and other civil liberties is Attorney General John Ashcroft.

He is enthusiastically using the patriot law to let federal agents wiretap and access the e-mail of untold numbers of citizens and to listen in on conversations between lawyers and clients. Now FBI agents are checking lists of readers at libraries and book stores. Is book burning in our future?

Ashcroft also sent a memo to federal agencies promising that the Justice Department will back them up anytime they want to deny freedom of information requests from scholars and journalists.

Here, he is protecting Bush from criticism over the administration's clamp-down on government information. Rest assured he could not do this without the imprimatur of the White House.

We should not forget that Bush, early in his tenure, blocked the implementation of the release of President Reagan's White House papers. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, his official documents were to be available to the public 12 years after he left office. So they were due for release last year, but Bush simply overrode that law.

Was he trying to protect Reagan from the probing of historians and the media? Or was he really trying to protect his father, George H. W. Bush, who was Reagan's vice president and who succeeded him as president? White House aides issued a flimsy excuse-- that the order was designed to institute an orderly release of the papers. But my guess is that No. 43, as W calls himself, was trying to protect No. 41.

Equally blatant examples of Bush's arrogance of power are in his foreign policy. What right does he have to tell Yasser Arafat that he has to go or to tell the Palestinians they cannot vote for Arafat in coming elections? Bush's speech could have been written by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Although he speaks of his compassion for the suffering Palestinians under Israel's military occupation, Bush is tightening the screws by making it clear he will deny them any aid unless Arafat is deposed.

Plans to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein have also been on the president's radar screen since he took office.

When did the United States get the right to tell other countries and people who should lead them?

The president has been flexing America's military muscles and threatening pre-emptive first strikes against nations suspected -- suspected! -- of wanting to harm the United States. That also is a break with our past traditions.

Bush is due for a reality check. We need allies whenever we contemplate such drastic actions, and our allies are worried about his constant saber rattling. Some day he is going to try to give a war and nobody is going to come.

© Copyright 2002 Hearst Newspapers.

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