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Bush/Cheney Succeedin Reviving Imperial Presidency

Bush/Cheney Succeedin Reviving Imperial Presidency

Interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning,
Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage,
conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney came to Washington determined to restore the power of the executive branch restrained by Congress in the aftermath of the Nixon era Watergate scandals. After 9/11, the Bush administration used the justifiable concerns of the American people over security, and transformed their fear into a power grab.

Over the course of the last seven years, President Bush has unilaterally renounced international treaties, ordered the detention of suspected terrorists without charge or trial, authorized the abuse and torture of prisoners, approved warrantless wiretapping of American's phone and email communications, and imprisoned U.S. citizens as enemy combatants. Taken together, these actions make clear President Bush's intention, and success, in setting precedents for strengthening the power of the Oval Office while undermining constitutionally mandated checks and balances.

In 2007, Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of national legal affairs focusing on the Bush administration's attack on the separation of powers. He has written extensively on President Bush's more than 750 signing statements on congressionally passed-laws that he claims the unilateral right to re-interpret or disregard. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Savage about his new book titled, "Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy."

CHARLIE SAVAGE: The central agenda of this administration -- something that Cheney was using his extraordinary influence over the administration to promote, long before 9/11 -– we think about this I think, superficially as though it's a war and wartime presidential power always goes up. This goes well beyond National Security issues and it was something that was a consciously articulated agenda from their first day in office.

Part of the thing in my book, "Takeover" is, based on on-the-record interviews with people who were in the room, describe the first meeting of the White House legal team the day after the inauguration in January 2001, at which White House counsel Alberto Gonzales conveys from Bush and Cheney the instructions that they are going to use this time in office to expand the power of the presidency, not just to achieve some particular policy end, but as an end to itself.

Cheney has talked about this a lot. He'd seen this erosion of the authority of the president starting from his baseline, which was the absolute maximum power that a president had ever wielded, which was the Nixon administration. He wanted to put it back; he thought those reforms were a bad idea.

The very first fight we saw on this before 9/11 was the fight over Dick Cheney's energy task force. There were laws on the books that said that those kinds of task forces had to operate subject to the scrutiny of the public and the Congress. The same laws that had been used to force Hillary Clinton 10 years earlier to reveal what her health care task force was up to. But unlike the Clinton White House, the Bush White House, fought because this was their agenda, all the way to the way to the Supreme Court and they won precedents that gutted those open government laws. And so not only did Cheney succeed in keeping secret whom his task force had met with, but all future presidents will now have the power to have policymaking bodies like that operate totally outside of the public view. Maybe Hillary Clinton will have that power, too, if she gets elected president.

That's just one of the many ways in which they very successfully, very ably, expanded the fortress of secrecy that surrounds the upper levels of the executive branch. Their secrecy push in turn, is just one of the many different tactics that they very successfully employed to expand executive power generally –- not just for themselves, but for all future presidents.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There has been a lot of discussion since the Sept. 11 attacks that we have to balance our liberty with our security and therefore, these presidential powers are seen by some –- not all of the population -- as a necessary evil to protect the country. I wonder how you respond to this large-scale power grab on the part of President Bush and what, if anything, it has to do with keeping this nation more secure?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Bush could have gone to the Congress in October of 2001 after 9/11 and said, "give me all these powers, put them in the Patriot Act, I need them," and they would have fallen all over themselves to rubberstamp everything he asked for. But the very act of doing that would have conceded that what Congress says matters, and that means that down the road, if Congress decides things have gone too far, Congress could change the law, and the president wouldn't be able to do that any more. That's one of the reasons they were very interested in doing it unilaterally, just to show that, to establish as an historical fact that presidents set their own rules, especially when it comes to matters of national security, and that no statute passed by Congress and signed by some previous president -- or this president for that matter, when you think about the McCain torture ban (Senate legislation) –- or no treaty negotiated by some previous president, signed by some previous president, and ratified by the Senate –- like the Convention Against Torture, which was a Reagan administration product –- can bind the hands of commander-in-chief if he doesn't want to obey it.

And so, this is coming up in the context of "oh, the president needs power to protect us from terrorists." It almost doesn't matter whether that's true or not, in any of these specific powers because it's sort of above the policy question, it's above the politics. It's a question of who decides? If these powers are necessary, shouldn't the Congress, won't the Congress just sign off on them if they truly are? Congress is made up of the elected representatives of the people – that's what democracy is all about.

And if Congress is un-persuaded, then, maybe those aren't such a good idea. Or maybe the people will vote Congress out next time, and put in people that will vote the right way. But, the point is American-style democracy is separation of powers. It's the president not being able to set his own rules or her own rules, whoever that president happens to be at any given moment. It's the president having to operate within the rules that Congress sets. It’s the checks and balances that prevents the concentration of government power in any one officials' hands.

This goes back to the founders' insight that human beings are flawed, that it's inevitable because people are flawed, that from time to time, we'll have misguided leaders, bad leaders, foolish leaders, incompetent leaders. You know, you want to have a system where in between elections you still have some constraint and some limit on what the government can do. That is American-style democracy and that is what has been eroding so much over the last seven years so dramatically.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's been the public response to the imperial presidency? Do you think the public, if outraged, has the ability at some point in the future to reverse the erosion of constitutional checks and balances?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, I think if that's going to happen, it has to happen through elections. It has to happen by these kinds of issues being on the table before the primaries are over, when we're sort of kicking between who's going to be the Republican nominee, who's going to be the Democratic nominee? It has to be on the table before general election day. I think that everyone who's running for president, from now on, regardless of their party, ought to be told, required to explain in a detailed way what limits if any, they will respect on their own authority if voters entrust one of them with the White House. What legal theories do they think are true and which ones do they think are outlandish? What is it that they think their role would be as president and what limits would be on that role? And voters ought to know that before they cast ballots, and the only way that's going to happen would be if there was a greater awareness of these issues and people start to ask these questions in Iowa and New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Debate moderators can carve out a couple minutes per debate to ask some real questions, some specific questions about these kinds of issues in addition to all the other things that are so important.

I hope that the book helps educate people enough that that happens before 2008, but we'll have to see.

For more information on the book or to read articles by Charlie Savage, visit his website at:


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Nov. 9, 2007. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.

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