The Presidency Problem: High Crimes
by Greg Guma
If staging coups, waging secret wars,
suspending civil liberties, or torturing people were merely aberrations
pursued by a handful of zealots, Congress could simply punish
the offenders and get back to "business as usual." But
the obvious, and yet unspoken, truth is that destabilizing other
governments, unnecessary (and sometimes covert) wars, and abuses
of power - at home and abroad - are standard tactics of the modern
After first denying such "initiatives,"
the Reagan and Bush II administrations turned ultimately to a
more credible (though not more creditable) response: they had
decided that the presidency isn't bound by the normal rule of
law, especially congressionally-imposed limits, when pursuing
its "higher" goals. The defense was both the "necessity"
of combating evil (aka communism and more recently terrorism)
by any means, and the inviolability of presidential authority
in most matters of foreign policy and anything defined as a question
of "national security."
Yet, the real culprits weren't Reagan
or Bush, although they clearly encouraged a "survival of
the fittest" approach to governance. Even in the wake of
scandals, no one charged that the president personally ordered
torture or collaboration with arms dealers and drug merchants.
On the other hand, neither did anyone deny that this has happened
regularly in the past. At the root, the problem isn't a particular
group of conspirators but rather an executive structure that supports
and condones wanton disregard for the sovereignty of nations and
rights of individuals.
The continuing transfer of power to the
executive branch is a largely untold story of the last half century,
abetted by the cult of commander-in-chief authority, a global
network of military outposts, a vast intelligence apparatus, the
withholding of information on spurious grounds, and a permanent
state of emergency. The process continues in the Obama administration.
As John Podesta, Obama's transition chief, explained shortly after
the 2008 election, "There's a lot that the president can
do using his executive authority without waiting for congressional
action, and I think we'll see the president do that." This
time around, conservatives are worried and most liberals cheer
Presidential sovereignty stems from the
widely accepted notion that only a single executive can manage
US foreign affairs. At the urging of various private interests,
this has led to hundreds of US interventions around the world,
often with Congress partially, wholly or willingly kept in the
dark. The pattern, which began with President James Polk's 1846
calculated provocation of war with Mexico, ultimately went public
in the 1980s with the exposure of a worldwide crusade to arm,
train and direct various Contra forces. It wasn't "approved"
public policy, yet it nevertheless served as the centerpiece of
presidential foreign policy during the Reagan years.
Such activities are difficult to manage
and control, however, since they require the mobilization of elite,
often underground networks and a conscious effort to mislead other
parts of the government (not to mention allies and the general
public). In the case of the Contra wars, the connection between
arms shipments, drug smuggling and assassinations was an organic
development, but one the administration could not fully "manage."
Once the "enterprise" was outted,
the old alliances no longer held firm but the "initiatives"
couldn't be aborted by presidential decree. And, in truth, there
was really no sincere attempt to change course. The Reagan, Bush
and Clinton administrations continued to promise military aid
or backing in exchange for concessions, promote coups in countries
whose policies threatened US interests, arm mercenaries in Latin
America, Africa and Asia, manipulate elections in "fragile
democracies," distribute disinformation, and harass the opponents
of US policies.
In Costa Rica, journalists Tony Avrigan
and Martha Honey uncovered the private network behind much of
the Reagan-era mayhem long before the Tower Commission and Iran-Contra
Committee launched their investigations. Working with the Christic
Institute, they eventually filed a lawsuit charging 29 US citizens
with conspiracy. The specific instance spurring the suit was the
1984 bombing of a press conference held by Contra leader Eden
Pastora. The "Secret Team" making that attempted assassination
possible, and ultimately causing the deaths of eight people, had
roots that stretched back over 25 years. Featuring Contragate
figures such as Richard Secord, Thomas Clines, Theodore Shackley
and an assortment of Cuban exiles and ex-military men, the "team"
had handled numerous sensitive, often illegal operations at the
behest of the US government. In fact, it had been an instrument
of US policy from the early days of Castro (when some members
helped plot the leader's death), in Laos and Vietnam, in the overthrow
of Salvadore Allende in Chile, in propping up the Shah of Iran,
and throughout Central America.
Various researchers and investigations
ultimately established the following executive branch participation
in the "alleged" Contra conspiracy: Vice President George
Bush and his national security advisers had close ties with a
secret air-re-supply operation in El Salvador. The State Department,
in particular Elliott Abrams, was involved in coordinating Contra
activities, bringing together State, the National Security Council,
and the CIA. But this was only part of a massive inter-agency
program masterminded by CIA Director William Casey. The Defense
Department planned airdrops over Nicaragua and provided troops
to build the Contra infrastructure. A private aid network, including
John Singlaub's World Anti-Communist League, various non-profit
fronts, mercenary groups and CAUSA, the political wing of the
Moonies, provided cover for an operation that led back to the
The Secret Team, eventually headed by
Richard Secord, used money from Iran arms sales and other sources
to acquire weapons and channel them to Central America, South
Africa, and Angola. The Team and the aid network worked with both
the Ilopango Airlift in El Salvador and the South Front, coordinated
from John Hull's Costa Rican ranch. Drugs and guns moved back
and forth. One beneficiary of these efforts was the Nicaraguan
Democratic Force led by Adolfo Calero and former Somocistas. Over
80 people, in and out of government, actively worked in this network,
with additional financial support from Saudi Arabia and Brunei.
The President was aware of and approved most phases of this covert
Still, this was only one episode in a
much longer and more convoluted tale. An earlier "Contra"
war had been mounted against Cuba under the direction of Richard
Nixon, then vice president, beginning in the late 50s. With the
cooperation of Mafia don Santo Trafficante, a private "sub-operation"
had been developed to assassinate Cuban leaders. Members of the
"shooter team" included Rafael "Chi Chi" Quintero,
who later coordinated arms shipments to the Contras with Secord;
Felix Rodriguez, a CIA operative who headed the Ilopango operation
during the 80s and met several times with Bush; and several of
the future Watergate burglars. The Cuban operation was supervised
by Secord associates Shackley and Clines.
The Team's activities stretched around
the world. In Australia, they used opium money and weapons profits
to help destabilize the Labour government in 1975. In Nicaragua,
they assisted Somoza after Carter and Congress had banned further
aid; after the dictator's fall, they armed and advised ex-National
Guardsmen until the CIA assumed control of the Contra war. When
Congress cut off aid in 1984, Oliver North, who had worked under
Singlaub in Laos, reached out to the Team to illegally recommence
funding and re-supply the Contras. During the 1980s operations
in Central America, they established major supply bases in Honduras,
El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica. In the meantime, CIA Director
Casey developed other Contra operations in Africa. In return for
South African assistance in ferrying arms to Central America,
for example, he arranged with Saudi Arabian King Fahd to provide
aid to the South African-backed UNITA rebels fighting the Angolan
After the White House connections to the
Secret Team were exposed, three material witnesses died mysteriously.
Others were threatened, and groups involved in bringing the administration
and its partners to justice were burglarized and harassed. Christic
Institute attorney Dan Sheehan charged that ultra-right elements
threatened key witnesses and that, in its embassies in Central
America, the US had "a series of fascist and hitlerite cells"
controlled by the CIA.
Not all of this emanated directly from
the President's office, National Security Council, or even the
Company. But the presidential system makes such policies commonplace
and, unless exposed in an unfavorable way, acceptable US "policy
initiatives." Reagan's assertion that the Boland Amendment
didn't apply to him or his staff was merely another attempt to
assert unilateral executive power, which in turn could be delegated
to associates in and out of government. By extension, attempts
to "protect the initiative" became part of the authority
flowing from the sovereign. The Bush administration clearly took
a page from this text in designing its defense of torture and
When Barack Obama became president, many
of his supporters assumed that he would reverse the unilateral
and authoritarian policies of his predecessor. Yet his CIA chief
Leon Panetta soon made it clear that extraordinary rendition wouldn't
end, his Attorney General used "state secrets" as the
rationale to block a trial, and Obama personally refused to release
photos of enhanced interrogation. He also said that detainees
could still be tried in "military tribunals" and that
past official crimes would not be prosecuted. It was audacious,
but not an auspicious beginning.
The Bush regime has left Obama with broad
latitude for executive intervention, both domestically and in
countries with which the US isn't at war. Using that power, Team
Obama's new overseas strategy seems to be rollback, which, according
to researcher James Petras, means reversing any gains made by
opposition governments and movements during the Bush years. Rollback,
explains Petras, involves a combination of open military intervention,
seductive diplomatic rhetoric, and deniable covert operations.
The most transparent manifestation thus far has been the buildup
of military forces in Afghanistan, defined by Obama as a "necessary"
war. The most covert, on the other hand, could be the recent ouster
of Honduran President Zelaya.
There has been no admission of US involvement
in the Honduran coup. But US policy clearly shifted after Zelaya
decided to improve relations with Venezuela in hopes of securing
petro-subsidies and aid. Then he joined ALBA, a regional organization
sponsored by Venezuelan President Chavez to promote trade and
investment among its member countries, rather than a US-promoted
regional free trade pact.
The Honduran military, whose officer corps
has been US-trained and cultivated over several decades, seized
Zelaya in June and "exiled" him to Costa Rica; the local
oligarchy meanwhile appointed one of their own as interim President.
Latin American governments condemned the coup and called for Zelaya's
reinstatement. But Obama and Secretary of State Clinton opted
to condemn only unspecified "violence" and called for
"negotiations" between the coup-plotters and exiled
Even after the UN General Assembly demanded
Zelaya's reinstatement, Obama refused to call it a coup. After
all, that classification would have led to a susp ension of $80
million in annual US military and economic aid. Every country
in the OAS - except the US - withdrew its Ambassador. Instead,
the US embassy began to negotiate with the Junta. Whether Zelaya
returns to office or not, the coup serves as a lesson to any other
country that considers joining Venezuelan-led economic programs.
The blunt message, Petras concludes, is that any such moves will
result in presidentially-approved sabotage and retaliation. Don't
expect hearings, or public oversight of any kind.
Two centuries after the US constitutional
system was created, it has unraveled under the explosive force
of the imperial presidency. The framers, though they could not
predict the global dominance of the US, were certainly aware of
the dangers of a drift toward monarchy. Unfortunately, their handiwork
no longer meets the test. Even though the president needs congressional
approval for expenditures and declarations of war, almost anything
is permissible if the appropriate "national security"
rationale can be manufactured.
Even impeachment won't counter the long-term
drift toward executive sovereignty, since a president can only
be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors" while
most of the covert or "illegal" actions condoned or
promoted by presidents are tried-and-true policies that Congress
dare not condemn, criminal as they may be. According to historian
Barbara Tuchman, the office itself "has become too complex
and its reach too extended to be trusted to the fallible judgment
of one individual." Thus, she and others have suggested restructuring
ideas; for example, a directorate or a Council of State to which
the executive would be accountable. Ironically, such ideas were
discussed and rejected at the Constitutional Convention.
Basic changes are obviously needed. Presidents
will continue to seek expanded power until clear limits are imposed
and public pressure reverses the trend. In the end, the US may
need another Constitutional Convention. As during the original,
a stated, narrow purpose may be eclipsed by some "revolutionary"
move to revamp the entire document. There is clearly a risk that
something worse might be imposed, along with draconian restrictions
on basic rights and freedoms. But more positive outcomes are also
possible, and, given the way things are going, the risk may turn
out to be preferable to the inexorable drift toward presidential
War Crimes & Criminals