The Obama administration, thus far making good on its promise to be more transparent and less secretive than the previous administration, has released several secret legal memos issued by the Bush administration following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These secret opinions asserted that the executive branch had vast war-making powers which the other governmental branches did not have the authority to check, and which severely infringed on the civil liberties of American citizens.
The most disturbing item in the memos states that "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully." All Americans should be shocked that any administration would declare this, and had this single item been made public during Bush's tenure, he should have immediately been impeached. The right of every citizen to express his opinion is a natural right that the government cannot infringe upon.
This recalls the memory of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the Federalists in 1798, when it was feared war would soon break out with France. Although ostensibly a national security measure, and despite the fact that they were obviously unconstitutional, the laws were soon used to arrest newspaper editors who supported Jefferson's party. Many were thrown in jail, and countless others intimidated into silence. It wasn't until Jefferson became President in 1801 that the laws were repealed.
One wonders what use the suppression of First Amendment speech and press rights could have in anti-terrorist activities. Did the Bush Administration envision action against citizens who merely voiced opposition to its policies? We know that some people within the administration were willing to make public the identity of a covert CIA officer in retaliation for such talk on the part of her husband (which very possibly lead to the deaths of American agents overseas). If they were willing to do that, what else were they willing to do?
The memos also show that the Bush administration felt it had the right to ignore the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Along with free speech and freedom of the press, the right to be protected against unreasonable search and seizure is a natural human right. The idea that a President of the United States asserted the right to search and seize at whim, without the countervailing balance of judicial approval, would shock and sadden Jefferson.
Another disturbing aspect of these released memos are the blunt assertions that, on virtually any issue dealing with national security, the executive branch had the right to act without approval from Congress, or even without notifying Congress. This blatant breach of the doctrine of the separation of powers, one of the pillars on which our republic is based, should enrage all citizens of this country.
The single most problematic thing about the federal government in the modern age is the concentration of power within the executive branch. These newly-revealed memos show clearly that the Bush administration had no respect for the Constitution and was willing to throw it away in pursuit of its own narrow goals. It shows why the American people must always be vigilant and ever wary of those in power, because the distance between freedom and despotism is not as big as we might like to think.