Al Gore "Constitution In Grave Danger"
Complete text of Al Gore's speech at Constitution Hall
01/16/06 : "ICH" -- -- Former Vice President Al Gore delivered
the following address today at Constitution Hall in Washington,
In spite of our differences over ideology and politics, we are
in strong agreement that the American values we hold most dear
have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of
the Administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of
As we begin this new year, the Executive Branch of our
government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of
American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the
unilateral right to continue without regard to the established
law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses.
It is imperative that respect for the rule of law be restored.
So, many of us have come here to Constitution Hall to sound an
alarm and call upon our fellow citizens to put aside partisan
differences and join with us in demanding that our Constitution
be defended and preserved.
It is appropriate that we make this appeal on the day our nation
has set aside to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr., who challenged America to breathe new life into our
oldest values by extending its promise to all our people.
On this particular Martin Luther King Day, it is especially
important to recall that for the last several years of his life,
Dr. King was illegally wiretapped-one of hundreds of thousands
of Americans whose private communications were intercepted by
the U.S. government during this period.
The FBI privately called King the "most dangerous and effective
negro leader in the country" and vowed to "take him off his
pedestal." The government even attempted to destroy his marriage
and blackmail him into committing suicide.
This campaign continued until Dr. King's murder. The discovery
that the FBI conducted a long-running and extensive campaign of
secret electronic surveillance designed to infiltrate the inner
workings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to
learn the most intimate details of Dr. King's life, helped to
convince Congress to enact restrictions on wiretapping.
The result was the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA),
which was enacted expressly to ensure that foreign intelligence
surveillance would be presented to an impartial judge to verify
that there is a sufficient cause for the surveillance. I voted
for that law during my first term in Congress and for almost
thirty years the system has proven a workable and valued means
of according a level of protection for private citizens, while
permitting foreign surveillance to continue.
Yet, just one month ago, Americans awoke to the shocking news
that in spite of this long settled law, the Executive Branch has
been secretly spying on large numbers of Americans for the last
four years and eavesdropping on "large volumes of telephone
calls, e-mail messages, and other Internet traffic inside the
United States." The New York Times reported that the President
decided to launch this massive eavesdropping program "without
search warrants or any new laws that would permit such domestic
During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the
President went out of his way to reassure the American people on
more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is
required for any government spying on American citizens and
that, of course, these constitutional safeguards were still in
But surprisingly, the President's soothing statements turned out
to be false. Moreover, as soon as this massive domestic spying
program was uncovered by the press, the President not only
confirmed that the story was true, but also declared that he has
no intention of bringing these wholesale invasions of privacy to
At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA's domestic
surveillance. What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping
virtually compels the conclusion that the President of the
United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and
A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure
of our government. Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they
had established a government of laws and not men. Indeed, they
recognized that the structure of government they had enshrined
in our Constitution - our system of checks and balances - was
designed with a central purpose of ensuring that it would govern
through the rule of law. As John Adams said: "The executive
shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or
either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws
and not of men."
An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the
legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free
of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that
the Founders sought to nullify in the Constitution - an
all-powerful executive too reminiscent of the King from whom
they had broken free. In the words of James Madison, "the
accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and
judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many,
and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly
be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet, "On Common Sense" ignited the
American Revolution, succinctly described America's alternative.
Here, he said, we intended to make certain that "the law is
Vigilant adherence to the rule of law strengthens our democracy
and strengthens America. It ensures that those who govern us
operate within our constitutional structure, which means that
our democratic institutions play their indispensable role in
shaping policy and determining the direction of our nation. It
means that the people of this nation ultimately determine its
course and not executive officials operating in secret without
The rule of law makes us stronger by ensuring that decisions
will be tested, studied, reviewed and examined through the
processes of government that are designed to improve policy. And
the knowledge that they will be reviewed prevents over-reaching
and checks the accretion of power.
A commitment to openness, truthfulness and accountability also
helps our country avoid many serious mistakes. Recently, for
example, we learned from recently classified declassified
documents that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized
the tragic Vietnam war, was actually based on false information.
We now know that the decision by Congress to authorize the Iraq
War, 38 years later, was also based on false information.
America would have been better off knowing the truth and
avoiding both of these colossal mistakes in our history.
Following the rule of law makes us safer, not more vulnerable.
The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from
terrorism is all too real. There is simply no question that we
continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attack on
September 11th and that we must be ever-vigilant in protecting
our citizens from harm.
Where we disagree is that we have to break the law or sacrifice
our system of government to protect Americans from terrorism. In
fact, doing so makes us weaker and more vulnerable.
Once violated, the rule of law is in danger. Unless stopped,
lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the executive grows,
the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform
their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside its
constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access
to information that would expose its actions, it becomes
increasingly difficult for the other branches to police it. Once
that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we
become a government of men and not laws.
The President's men have minced words about America's laws. The
Attorney General openly conceded that the "kind of surveillance"
we now know they have been conducting requires a court order
unless authorized by statute. The Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act self-evidently does not authorize what the NSA
has been doing, and no one inside or outside the Administration
claims that it does. Incredibly, the Administration claims
instead that the surveillance was implicitly authorized when
Congress voted to use force against those who attacked us on
This argument just does not hold any water. Without getting into
the legal intricacies, it faces a number of embarrassing facts.
First, another admission by the Attorney General: he concedes
that the Administration knew that the NSA project was prohibited
by existing law and that they consulted with some members of
Congress about changing the statute. Gonzalez says that they
were told this probably would not be possible. So how can they
now argue that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force
somehow implicitly authorized it all along? Second, when the
Authorization was being debated, the Administration did in fact
seek to have language inserted in it that would have authorized
them to use military force domestically - and the Congress did
not agree. Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Jim McGovern,
among others, made statements during the Authorization debate
clearly restating that that Authorization did not operate
When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him all
the power he wanted when they passed the AUMF, he secretly
assumed that power anyway, as if congressional authorization was
a useless bother. But as Justice Frankfurter once wrote: "To
find authority so explicitly withheld is not merely to disregard
in a particular instance the clear will of Congress. It is to
disrespect the whole legislative process and the constitutional
division of authority between President and Congress."
This is precisely the "disrespect" for the law that the Supreme
Court struck down in the steel seizure case.
It is this same disrespect for America's Constitution which has
now brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in
the fabric of the Constitution. And the disrespect embodied in
these apparent mass violations of the law is part of a larger
pattern of seeming indifference to the Constitution that is
deeply troubling to millions of Americans in both political
For example, the President has also declared that he has a
heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any
American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our
nation, and that, notwithstanding his American citizenship, the
person imprisoned has no right to talk with a lawyer-even to
argue that the President or his appointees have made a mistake
and imprisoned the wrong person.
The President claims that he can imprison American citizens
indefinitely for the rest of their lives without an arrest
warrant, without notifying them about what charges have been
filed against them, and without informing their families that
they have been imprisoned.
At the same time, the Executive Branch has claimed a previously
unrecognized authority to mistreat prisoners in its custody in
ways that plainly constitute torture in a pattern that has now
been documented in U.S. facilities located in several countries
around the world.
Over 100 of these captives have reportedly died while being
tortured by Executive Branch interrogators and many more have
been broken and humiliated. In the notorious Abu Ghraib prison,
investigators who documented the pattern of torture estimated
that more than 90 percent of the victims were innocent of any
This shameful exercise of power overturns a set of principles
that our nation has observed since General Washington first
enunciated them during our Revolutionary War and has been
observed by every president since then - until now. These
practices violate the Geneva Conventions and the International
Convention Against Torture, not to mention our own laws against
The President has also claimed that he has the authority to
kidnap individuals in foreign countries and deliver them for
imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic
regimes in nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their
techniques for torture.
Some of our traditional allies have been shocked by these new
practices on the part of our nation. The British Ambassador to
Uzbekistan - one of those nations with the worst reputations for
torture in its prisons - registered a complaint to his home
office about the senselessness and cruelty of the new U.S.
practice: "This material is useless - we are selling our souls
for dross. It is in fact positively harmful."
Can it be true that any president really has such powers under
our Constitution? If the answer is "yes" then under the theory
by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can
on their face be prohibited? If the President has the inherent
authority to eavesdrop, imprison citizens on his own
declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?
The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing
the Executive Branch's claims of these previously unrecognized
powers: "If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit
torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction
slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution."
The fact that our normal safeguards have thus far failed to
contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power is
deeply troubling. This failure is due in part to the fact that
the Executive Branch has followed a determined strategy of
obfuscating, delaying, withholding information, appearing to
yield but then refusing to do so and dissembling in order to
frustrate the efforts of the legislative and judicial branches
to restore our constitutional balance.
For example, after appearing to support legislation sponsored by
John McCain to stop the continuation of torture, the President
declared in the act of signing the bill that he reserved the
right not to comply with it.
Similarly, the Executive Branch claimed that it could
unilaterally imprison American citizens without giving them
access to review by any tribunal. The Supreme Court disagreed,
but the President engaged in legal maneuvers designed to prevent
the Court from providing meaningful content to the rights of its
A conservative jurist on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals
wrote that the Executive Branch's handling of one such case
seemed to involve the sudden abandonment of principle "at
substantial cost to the government's credibility before the
As a result of its unprecedented claim of new unilateral power,
the Executive Branch has now put our constitutional design at
grave risk. The stakes for America's representative democracy
are far higher than has been generally recognized.
These claims must be rejected and a healthy balance of power
restored to our Republic. Otherwise, the fundamental nature of
our democracy may well undergo a radical transformation.
For more than two centuries, America's freedoms have been
preserved in part by our founders' wise decision to separate the
aggregate power of our government into three co-equal branches,
each of which serves to check and balance the power of the other
On more than a few occasions, the dynamic interaction among all
three branches has resulted in collisions and temporary impasses
that create what are invariably labeled "constitutional crises."
These crises have often been dangerous and uncertain times for
our Republic. But in each such case so far, we have found a
resolution of the crisis by renewing our common agreement to
live under the rule of law.
The principle alternative to democracy throughout history has
been the consolidation of virtually all state power in the hands
of a single strongman or small group who together exercise that
power without the informed consent of the governed.
It was in revolt against just such a regime, after all, that
America was founded. When Lincoln declared at the time of our
greatest crisis that the ultimate question being decided in the
Civil War was "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived,
and so dedicated, can long endure," he was not only saving our
union but also was recognizing the fact that democracies are
rare in history. And when they fail, as did Athens and the Roman
Republic upon whose designs our founders drew heavily, what
emerges in their place is another strongman regime.
There have of course been other periods of American history when
the Executive Branch claimed new powers that were later seen as
excessive and mistaken. Our second president, John Adams, passed
the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts and sought to silence and
imprison critics and political opponents.
When his successor, Thomas Jefferson, eliminated the abuses he
said: "[The essential principles of our Government] form the
bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our
steps through an age of revolution and reformation... [S]hould
we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us
hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone
leads to peace, liberty and safety."
Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, suspended habeas corpus
during the Civil War. Some of the worst abuses prior to those of
the current administration were committed by President Wilson
during and after WWI with the notorious Red Scare and Palmer
Raids. The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII marked a
low point for the respect of individual rights at the hands of
the executive. And, during the Vietnam War, the notorious
COINTELPRO program was part and parcel of the abuses experienced
by Dr. King and thousands of others.
But in each of these cases, when the conflict and turmoil
subsided, the country recovered its equilibrium and absorbed the
lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.
There are reasons for concern this time around that conditions
may be changing and that the cycle may not repeat itself. For
one thing, we have for decades been witnessing the slow and
steady accumulation of presidential power. In a global
environment of nuclear weapons and cold war tensions, Congress
and the American people accepted ever enlarging spheres of
presidential initiative to conduct intelligence and counter
intelligence activities and to allocate our military forces on
the global stage. When military force has been used as an
instrument of foreign policy or in response to humanitarian
demands, it has almost always been as the result of presidential
initiative and leadership. As Justice Frankfurter wrote in the
Steel Seizure Case, "The accretion of dangerous power does not
come in a day. It does come, however slowly, from the generative
force of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in
even the most disinterested assertion of authority."
A second reason to believe we may be experiencing something new
is that we are told by the Administration that the war footing
upon which he has tried to place the country is going to "last
for the rest of our lives." So we are told that the conditions
of national threat that have been used by other Presidents to
justify arrogations of power will persist in near perpetuity.
Third, we need to be aware of the advances in eavesdropping and
surveillance technologies with their capacity to sweep up and
analyze enormous quantities of information and to mine it for
intelligence. This adds significant vulnerability to the privacy
and freedom of enormous numbers of innocent people at the same
time as the potential power of those technologies. These
techologies have the potential for shifting the balance of power
between the apparatus of the state and the freedom of the
individual in ways both subtle and profound.
Don't misunderstand me: the threat of additional terror strikes
is all too real and their concerted efforts to acquire weapons
of mass destruction does create a real imperative to exercise
the powers of the Executive Branch with swiftness and agility.
Moreover, there is in fact an inherent power that is conferred
by the Constitution to the President to take unilateral action
to protect the nation from a sudden and immediate threat, but it
is simply not possible to precisely define in legalistic terms
exactly when that power is appropriate and when it is not.
But the existence of that inherent power cannot be used to
justify a gross and excessive power grab lasting for years that
produces a serious imbalance in the relationship between the
executive and the other two branches of government.
There is a final reason to worry that we may be experiencing
something more than just another cycle of overreach and regret.
This Administration has come to power in the thrall of a legal
theory that aims to convince us that this excessive
concentration of presidential authority is exactly what our
This legal theory, which its proponents call the theory of the
unitary executive but which is more accurately described as the
unilateral executive, threatens to expand the president's powers
until the contours of the constitution that the Framers actually
gave us become obliterated beyond all recognition. Under this
theory, the President's authority when acting as
Commander-in-Chief or when making foreign policy cannot be
reviewed by the judiciary or checked by Congress. President Bush
has pushed the implications of this idea to its maximum by
continually stressing his role as Commander-in-Chief, invoking
it has frequently as he can, conflating it with his other roles,
domestic and foreign. When added to the idea that we have
entered a perpetual state of war, the implications of this
theory stretch quite literally as far into the future as we can
This effort to rework America's carefully balanced
constitutional design into a lopsided structure dominated by an
all powerful Executive Branch with a subservient Congress and
judiciary is-ironically-accompanied by an effort by the same
administration to rework America's foreign policy from one that
is based primarily on U.S. moral authority into one that is
based on a misguided and self-defeating effort to establish
dominance in the world.
The common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to
intimidate and control.
This same pattern has characterized the effort to silence
dissenting views within the Executive Branch, to censor
information that may be inconsistent with its stated ideological
goals, and to demand conformity from all Executive Branch
For example, CIA analysts who strongly disagreed with the White
House assertion that Osama bin Laden was linked to Saddam
Hussein found themselves under pressure at work and became
fearful of losing promotions and salary increases.
Ironically, that is exactly what happened to FBI officials in
the 1960s who disagreed with J. Edgar Hoover's view that Dr.
King was closely connected to Communists. The head of the FBI's
domestic intelligence division said that his effort to tell the
truth about King's innocence of the charge resulted in he and
his colleagues becoming isolated and pressured. "It was evident
that we had to change our ways or we would all be out on the
street.... The men and I discussed how to get out of trouble. To
be in trouble with Mr. Hoover was a serious matter. These men
were trying to buy homes, mortgages on homes, children in
school. They lived in fear of getting transferred, losing money
on their homes, as they usually did. ... so they wanted another
memorandum written to get us out of the trouble that we were
The Constitution's framers understood this dilemma as well, as
Alexander Hamilton put it, "a power over a man's support is a
power over his will." (Federalist No. 73)
Soon, there was no more difference of opinion within the FBI.
The false accusation became the unanimous view. In exactly the
same way, George Tenet's CIA eventually joined in endorsing a
manifestly false view that there was a linkage between al Qaeda
and the government of Iraq.
In the words of George Orwell: "We are all capable of believing
things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally
proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that
we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this
process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that
sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality,
usually on a battlefield."
Whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable it almost
inevitably leads to mistakes and abuses. In the absence of
rigorous accountability, incompetence flourishes. Dishonesty is
encouraged and rewarded.
Last week, for example, Vice President Cheney attempted to
defend the Administration's eavesdropping on American citizens
by saying that if it had conducted this program prior to 9/11,
they would have found out the names of some of the hijackers.
Tragically, he apparently still doesn't know that the
Administration did in fact have the names of at least 2 of the
hijackers well before 9/11 and had available to them information
that could have easily led to the identification of most of the
other hijackers. And yet, because of incompetence in the
handling of this information, it was never used to protect the
It is often the case that an Executive Branch beguiled by the
pursuit of unchecked power responds to its own mistakes by
reflexively proposing that it be given still more power. Often,
the request itself it used to mask accountability for mistakes
in the use of power it already has.
Moreover, if the pattern of practice begun by this
Administration is not challenged, it may well become a permanent
part of the American system. Many conservatives have pointed out
that granting unchecked power to this President means that the
next President will have unchecked power as well. And the next
President may be someone whose values and belief you do not
trust. And this is why Republicans as well as Democrats should
be concerned with what this President has done. If this
President's attempt to dramatically expand executive power goes
unquestioned, our constitutional design of checks and balances
will be lost. And the next President or some future President
will be able, in the name of national security, to restrict our
liberties in a way the framers never would have thought
The same instinct to expand its power and to establish dominance
characterizes the relationship between this Administration and
the courts and the Congress.
In a properly functioning system, the Judicial Branch would
serve as the constitutional umpire to ensure that the branches
of government observed their proper spheres of authority,
observed civil liberties and adhered to the rule of law.
Unfortunately, the unilateral executive has tried hard to thwart
the ability of the judiciary to call balls and strikes by
keeping controversies out of its hands - notably those
challenging its ability to detain individuals without legal
process -- by appointing judges who will be deferential to its
exercise of power and by its support of assaults on the
independence of the third branch.
The President's decision to ignore FISA was a direct assault on
the power of the judges who sit on that court. Congress
established the FISA court precisely to be a check on executive
power to wiretap. Yet, to ensure that the court could not
function as a check on executive power, the President simply did
not take matters to it and did not let the court know that it
was being bypassed.
The President's judicial appointments are clearly designed to
ensure that the courts will not serve as an effective check on
executive power. As we have all learned, Judge Alito is a
longtime supporter of a powerful executive - a supporter of the
so-called unitary executive, which is more properly called the
unilateral executive. Whether you support his confirmation or
not - and I do not - we must all agree that he will not vote as
an effective check on the expansion of executive power.
Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts has made plain his deference to
the expansion of executive power through his support of judicial
deference to executive agency rulemaking.
And the Administration has supported the assault on judicial
independence that has been conducted largely in Congress. That
assault includes a threat by the Republican majority in the
Senate to permanently change the rules to eliminate the right of
the minority to engage in extended debate of the President's
judicial nominees. The assault has extended to legislative
efforts to curtail the jurisdiction of courts in matters ranging
from habeas corpus to the pledge of allegiance. In short, the
Administration has demonstrated its contempt for the judicial
role and sought to evade judicial review of its actions at every
But the most serious damage has been done to the legislative
branch. The sharp decline of congressional power and autonomy in
recent years has been almost as shocking as the efforts by the
Executive Branch to attain a massive expansion of its power.
I was elected to Congress in 1976 and served eight years in the
house, 8 years in the Senate and presided over the Senate for 8
years as Vice President. As a young man, I saw the Congress
first hand as the son of a Senator. My father was elected to
Congress in 1938, 10 years before I was born, and left the
Senate in 1971.
The Congress we have today is unrecognizable compared to the one
in which my father served. There are many distinguished Senators
and Congressmen serving today. I am honored that some of them
are here in this hall. But the legislative branch of government
under its current leadership now operates as if it is entirely
subservient to the Executive Branch.
Moreover, too many Members of the House and Senate now feel
compelled to spend a majority of their time not in thoughtful
debate of the issues, but raising money to purchase 30 second TV
There have now been two or three generations of congressmen who
don't really know what an oversight hearing is. In the 70's and
80's, the oversight hearings in which my colleagues and I
participated held the feet of the Executive Branch to the fire -
no matter which party was in power. Yet oversight is almost
unknown in the Congress today.
The role of authorization committees has declined into
insignificance. The 13 annual appropriation bills are hardly
ever actually passed anymore. Everything is lumped into a single
giant measure that is not even available for Members of Congress
to read before they vote on it.
Members of the minority party are now routinely excluded from
conference committees, and amendments are routinely not allowed
during floor consideration of legislation.
In the United States Senate, which used to pride itself on being
the "greatest deliberative body in the world," meaningful debate
is now a rarity. Even on the eve of the fateful vote to
authorize the invasion of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd famously
asked: "Why is this chamber empty?"
In the House of Representatives, the number who face a genuinely
competitive election contest every two years is typically less
than a dozen out of 435.
And too many incumbents have come to believe that the key to
continued access to the money for re-election is to stay on the
good side of those who have the money to give; and, in the case
of the majority party, the whole process is largely controlled
by the incumbent president and his political organization.
So the willingness of Congress to challenge the Administration
is further limited when the same party controls both Congress
and the Executive Branch.
The Executive Branch, time and again, has co-opted Congress'
role, and often Congress has been a willing accomplice in the
surrender of its own power.
Look for example at the Congressional role in "overseeing" this
massive four year eavesdropping campaign that on its face seemed
so clearly to violate the Bill of Rights. The President says he
informed Congress, but what he really means is that he talked
with the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate
intelligence committees and the top leaders of the House and
Senate. This small group, in turn, claimed that they were not
given the full facts, though at least one of the intelligence
committee leaders handwrote a letter of concern to VP Cheney and
placed a copy in his own safe.
Though I sympathize with the awkward position in which these men
and women were placed, I cannot disagree with the Liberty
Coalition when it says that Democrats as well as Republicans in
the Congress must share the blame for not taking action to
protest and seek to prevent what they consider a grossly
Moreover, in the Congress as a whole-both House and Senate-the
enhanced role of money in the re-election process, coupled with
the sharply diminished role for reasoned deliberation and
debate, has produced an atmosphere conducive to pervasive
The Abramoff scandal is but the tip of a giant iceberg that
threatens the integrity of the entire legislative branch of
It is the pitiful state of our legislative branch which
primarily explains the failure of our vaunted checks and
balances to prevent the dangerous overreach by our Executive
Branch which now threatens a radical transformation of the
I call upon Democratic and Republican members of Congress today
to uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop
going along to get along. Start acting like the independent and
co-equal branch of government you're supposed to be.
But there is yet another Constitutional player whose pulse must
be taken and whose role must be examined in order to understand
the dangerous imbalance that has emerged with the efforts by the
Executive Branch to dominate our constitutional system.
We the people are-collectively-still the key to the survival of
America's democracy. We-as Lincoln put it, "[e]ven we here"-must
examine our own role as citizens in allowing and not preventing
the shocking decay and degradation of our democracy.
Thomas Jefferson said: "An informed citizenry is the only true
repository of the public will."
The revolutionary departure on which the idea of America was
based was the audacious belief that people can govern themselves
and responsibly exercise the ultimate authority in
self-government. This insight proceeded inevitably from the
bedrock principle articulated by the Enlightenment philosopher
John Locke: "All just power is derived from the consent of the
The intricate and carefully balanced constitutional system that
is now in such danger was created with the full and widespread
participation of the population as a whole. The Federalist
Papers were, back in the day, widely-read newspaper essays, and
they represented only one of twenty-four series of essays that
crowded the vibrant marketplace of ideas in which farmers and
shopkeepers recapitulated the debates that played out so
fruitfully in Philadelphia.
Indeed, when the Convention had done its best, it was the people
- in their various States - that refused to confirm the result
until, at their insistence, the Bill of Rights was made integral
to the document sent forward for ratification.
And it is "We the people" who must now find once again the
ability we once had to play an integral role in saving our
And here there is cause for both concern and great hope. The age
of printed pamphlets and political essays has long since been
replaced by television - a distracting and absorbing medium
which sees determined to entertain and sell more than it informs
Lincoln's memorable call during the Civil War is applicable in a
new way to our dilemma today: "We must disenthrall ourselves,
and then we shall save our country."
Forty years have passed since the majority of Americans adopted
television as their principal source of information. Its
dominance has become so extensive that virtually all significant
political communication now takes place within the confines of
flickering 30-second television advertisements.
And the political economy supported by these short but expensive
television ads is as different from the vibrant politics of
America's first century as those politics were different from
the feudalism which thrived on the ignorance of the masses of
people in the Dark Ages.
The constricted role of ideas in the American political system
today has encouraged efforts by the Executive Branch to control
the flow of information as a means of controlling the outcome of
important decisions that still lie in the hands of the people.
The Administration vigorously asserts its power to maintain the
secrecy of its operations. After all, the other branches can't
check an abuse of power if they don't know it is happening.
For example, when the Administration was attempting to persuade
Congress to enact the Medicare prescription drug benefit, many
in the House and Senate raised concerns about the cost and
design of the program. But, rather than engaging in open debate
on the basis of factual data, the Administration withheld facts
and prevented the Congress from hearing testimony that it sought
from the principal administration expert who had compiled
information showing in advance of the vote that indeed the true
cost estimates were far higher than the numbers given to
Congress by the President.
Deprived of that information, and believing the false numbers
given to it instead, the Congress approved the program.
Tragically, the entire initiative is now collapsing- all over
the country- with the Administration making an appeal just this
weekend to major insurance companies to volunteer to bail it
To take another example, scientific warnings about the
catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming were
censored by a political appointee in the White House who had no
scientific training. And today one of the leading scientific
experts on global warming in NASA has been ordered not to talk
to members of the press and to keep a careful log of everyone he
meets with so that the Executive Branch can monitor and control
his discussions of global warming.
One of the other ways the Administration has tried to control
the flow of information is by consistently resorting to the
language and politics of fear in order to short-circuit the
debate and drive its agenda forward without regard to the
evidence or the public interest. As President Eisenhower said,
"Any who act as if freedom's defenses are to be found in
suppression and suspicion and fear confess a doctrine that is
alien to America."
Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of
discourse and opens the door to the politics of destruction.
Justice Brandeis once wrote: "Men feared witches and burnt
The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed
in their endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The
very existence of our country was at risk.
Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on
establishing the Bill of Rights.
Is our Congress today in more danger than were their
predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol?
Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological
enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched
against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is
America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism
on the march-when our fathers fought and won two World Wars
It is simply an insult to those who came before us and
sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to
be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our
freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.
We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens' right not
only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that
immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against
the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the
part of the Executive Branch and the President's apparent belief
that he need not live under the rule of law.
I endorse the words of Bob Barr, when he said, "The President
has dared the American people to do something about it. For the
sake of the Constitution, I hope they will."
A special counsel should immediately be appointed by the
Attorney General to remedy the obvious conflict of interest that
prevents him from investigating what many believe are serious
violations of law by the President. We have had a fresh
demonstration of how an independent investigation by a special
counsel with integrity can rebuild confidence in our system of
justice. Patrick Fitzgerald has, by all accounts, shown neither
fear nor favor in pursuing allegations that the Executive Branch
has violated other laws.
Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress should
support the bipartisan call of the Liberty Coalition for the
appointment of a special counsel to pursue the criminal issues
raised by warrantless wiretapping of Americans by the President.
Second, new whistleblower protections should immediately be
established for members of the Executive Branch who report
evidence of wrongdoing -- especially where it involves the abuse
of Executive Branch authority in the sensitive areas of national
Third, both Houses of Congress should hold comprehensive-and not
just superficial-hearings into these serious allegations of
criminal behavior on the part of the President. And, they should
follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Fourth, the extensive new powers requested by the Executive
Branch in its proposal to extend and enlarge the Patriot Act
should, under no circumstances be granted, unless and until
there are adequate and enforceable safeguards to protect the
Constitution and the rights of the American people against the
kinds of abuses that have so recently been revealed.
Fifth, any telecommunications company that has provided the
government with access to private information concerning the
communications of Americans without a proper warrant should
immediately cease and desist their complicity in this apparently
illegal invasion of the privacy of American citizens.
Freedom of communication is an essential prerequisite for the
restoration of the health of our democracy.
It is particularly important that the freedom of the Internet be
protected against either the encroachment of government or the
efforts at control by large media conglomerates. The future of
our democracy depends on it.
I mentioned that along with cause for concern, there is reason
for hope. As I stand here today, I am filled with optimism that
America is on the eve of a golden age in which the vitality of
our democracy will be re-established and will flourish more
vibrantly than ever. Indeed I can feel it in this hall.
As Dr. King once said, "Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us.
If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner
being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in
need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around
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