Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cheney & Co. Wanted to Deploy the U.S. Military on American Soil

The Virginia Bar Exam looms, but I'm taking a break from studying to draw your attention to this.

The New York Times reports in this article that the Bush Administration toyed with the idea of using the military to round up terrorists on U.S. soil. Such an action is banned by the Posse Comitatus Act which says that the military cannot be used on U.S. soil to carry out police or law enforcement operations unless expressly authorized by the Constitution or the U.S. Congress. Bush officials considered trying to circumvent this law specifically in the instance of the arrest of the Lackawanna Six which was a terrorist cell located just outside of Buffalo, NY.

In my opinion, this is the most disconcerting idea of an administration that came up with some truly terrible ones. I think that this is worse than the "enhanced interrogation techniques" or the military detention at Guantanamo Bay. It's worse because it shows just how power hungry and out of touch major players in the Bush administration were. I don't defend torture or the detention at Gitmo, if you've read my blog you would know that, but I can see how a misguided sense of patriotism might lead someone to think that the war on terror necessitates taking extreme steps. If you torture people maybe you can get them to talk and you can save lives and avert disaster. If you lock up terrorists indefinitely then you can stop them from carrying out terrorist attacks. Neither of these practices stands on solid legal ground, but you can rationalize them because you can make a logical argument that they are aimed at keeping Americans safe and generally keeping the peace. That logic is completely missing when you talk about using the military to arrest terrorists on U.S. soil. Can you imagine the panic that would ensue if people saw the military rolling down their street? Imagine sitting at home one afternoon watching The Price is Right and you look out of your window and see an Abrams tank parked on your neighbor's yard with a group of soldiers breaking down the door. I can see two obvious arguments as to why this is a terrible idea - one argument is basically ideological and one is practical.

First of all, from an ideological standpoint, that is the kind of thing you would expect to see in some third-world country where the government uses its military to keep control of the people. It's like having a loaded gun pointed at the populus. The government uses the military to keep people in check through fear brought about by the coercive presence of the military. This is the United States. This is supposed to be a place where the people are free of oppression and tyranny. We have a system of laws in place that is meant to stop someone from centralizing too much power and using it to control the country. There is no more powerful thing in this country than the military. In fact, the United States military is the most powerful force on the planet. Allowing it to be deployed domestically would tip the scales of power dramatically towards whoever controlled it.

Secondly, from a practical standpoint, if your goal is to keep Americans safe and allow them to carry on with their daily lives, sending the military out into the streets is not the way to do it. That is what the police and federal law enforcement agencies are for. Americans are under the belief that domestic law enforcement agencies are capable of keeping us safe here at home. The message that would be sent in sending the military out to perform the work of police forces is that the problem has gotten so out of hand that those forces that have protected here at home for so long are no longer capable of protecting Americans. That kind of message doesn't comfort people, but rather makes them scared and hyper-paranoid.

Some of you may be able to guess the officials that supported this plan. It's the usual suspects that were behind all of Bush's worst ideas: Dick Cheney, John Yoo, and David Addington. There were others as well, but these seem to be the most vocal of the group. There's absolutely no explanation for this idea other than their penchant to raise the stakes in every situation and try to squeeze every drop of power possible from the leeway the American people gave to the federal government after September 11th. The justification for the plan was that arresting terrorists on American soil was a national security action, not a police action, and therefore it would not be barred by the Posse Comitatus Act. That is just absolutely absurd, but even if that justification were true, why would you do it? Local and federal police authorities are perfectly well equipped to arrest terrorists. They've done it many times, and never once has someone said "Man, we really should have brought the military in on this one." These terrorists in America try to blend in to the community. They try to live just like all of us, in houses or apartments. They don't construct heavily fortified structures that we need military level strength to penetrate. Sending in the military is a complete overreaction. The thought of using soldiers to apprehend terrorists here would almost be a laughable overreaction if the precedent it would have set wasn't so terrifying. It seems like the creators of this idea simply wanted to do it just because they thought they could. They can't have thought about how extreme the consequences would be. The lengths to which these people thought they were justified in going is disturbing, luckily more level heads such as Condoleeza Rice and John Bellinger prevailed, but I shudder to think what would have happened if they didn't.

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