A Republic If You Can Keep It

220px-BenFranklinDuplessisPresident_Barack_ObamaBelow is my column in Al Jazeera on the expansion of presidential powers in the United States. While there is growing recognition of the threat posed by the current powers exercised by the White House, it is important to keep the issue before the public if we are going to realign the tripartite system back to its original balance between the balances.

In the summer of 1787, a crowd gathered around Independence Hall to learn what type of government their representatives had formed for the new nation. When Benjamin Franklin walked out of the Constitutional Convention, Mrs Powel could wait no longer. Franklin was one of the best known of the “Framers” working on the new US Constitution. Powel ran up to Franklin and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin turned to her and said what are perhaps the most chilling words uttered by any Framer. He said, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”

Franklin’s words were more than a boast. They were a warning. The curious thing about a democratic system is that it contains the seeds of its own demise. Freedom is not something guaranteed by any parchment or promise. It is earned by each generation which must jealously protect it from threats, not only from outside, but from within a nation.

Some 226 years after those fateful words were uttered, the true import of Franklin’s warning has become all too real for Americans. The last 10 years has seen the rise of a security state of unprecedented size and the diminishment of privacy and core protections for citizens. Recently, a federal judge ruled that the massive NSA surveillance programme was unconstitutional. US District Court Judge Richard Leon not only said that the collection of “metadata” constitutes an unreasonable search or seizure, but that the Framers like Franklin would be “aghast” at the very thought of it.

The great irony is that the greatest loss of constitutional protections has occurred under a man who came to office promising to reform security laws and often refers to himself as a former constitutional law professor. An iconic figure for many liberals, President Barack Obama has divided the civil liberties community and expanded both the security state and his own unchecked powers. He has taken actions that would have made Richard Nixon blush – from warrantless surveillance to quashing dozens of privacy lawsuits, to claiming the right to kill any citizen, on his sole authority. He has also rolled back key international principles in expanding drone attacks and promising not to prosecute officials for torture.

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham scoffed at the notion that privacy is even relevant since only a terrorist would object to such powers.

War on privacy

With his healthcare programme mired in bureaucratic snafus and issues like gun control and immigration floundering in Congress, Obama is entering his final years in office with few clear successes. One of his most notable and ignoble successes has been in his war on privacy in the United States. Obama has not simply ordered massive surveillance of calls and emails of citizens, but he has campaigned to change people’s expectations of what privacy means. His administration advocates a surveillance-friendly form of privacy in a new fishbowl society where the government can track citizens in real time from their purchases and messages. Obama has attempted to convince citizens to trust the government and that they have nothing to fear because he will personally guarantee that these powers are not abused. At the same time, he has opposed any effort to get judicial review of these programs – beyond a laughable secret court with a history of rubber-stamping surveillance demands.

The result is a surveillance state of unprecedented size. Whistle blower Edward Snowden is now a hunted man under the protection of Russia. However, while Obama is demanding Snowden’s arrest, his Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted to lying about the surveillance programmes before Congress. Yet, the Obama Administration has refused to investigate let alone prosecute him for perjury.

Snowden’s disclosures have revealed a massive surveillance system under Obama. The disclosures show that the US has intercepted communications of its closest allies like German Chancellor Andrea Merkel while intercepting calls around the world – 60 million calls in Spain alone. For US citizens, the government has created an almost total transparency in the collection of hundreds of millions of calls and emails. These calls are stored and security officials have instant access to information on the location, time and duration of communications. The Obama Administration has also put journalists under surveillance in an assault on the freedom of the press.

Other politicians have chimed in that only people with something to hide would be concerned over such surveillance. Thus, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham scoffed at the notion that privacy is even relevant since only a terrorist would object to such powers.

‘Online promiscuity’

Of course, the government must often read your mail and listen to calls to determine if you are a terrorist…or just a target. A recent report documented how the National Security Agency has been gathering records of online sexual activity to be used to harm the reputation of people considered radicals. Among the targets is at least one individual identified as a “US person”. The NSA is gathering dirt such as “viewing sexually explicit material online”, and “using sexually explicit persuasive language when communicating with inexperienced young girls”. Shawn Turner, director of public affairs for National Intelligence, responded to media requests with little more than a shrug, saying such activities “should not be surprising” since the “the US government uses all of the lawful tools at our disposal” against people deemed enemies of the state. Of course, it is available at their disposal because of increased and unchecked powers assumed by this President.

Inside Story – The diplomatic cost of US surveillance
This “watch list” apparently includes people with unpopular views. The published documents refer to one target as attracting the NSA’s ire by arguing that, “Non-Muslims are a threat to Islam,” and then identified his vulnerability as “online promiscuity”. Another academic dared to write in support of the concept of “offensive jihad” and so the NSA targeted him for his “online promiscuity” and noted he “publishes articles without checking facts”.

Bush Administration officials are already applauding Obama for his administration’s gathering of dirt on targeted individuals. Indeed, supporters are now citing the president’s “kill list” as a rationale for this new controversial system under a lesser evil rationale. Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the NSA in the George W Bush administration, insisted that, “on the whole, it’s fairer and maybe more humane” than vaporizing them.

In a prior conference, Obama repeated the siren call of authoritarians throughout history: While these powers are great, our motives are benign. So there you have it. The government is promising to better protect you if you just surrender this last measure of privacy. Perhaps we deserve little better. After all, it was Benjamin Franklin who warned: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and has testified before Congress on the dangerous expansion of presidential powers.

70 thoughts on “A Republic If You Can Keep It”

  1. Laser, Calling ANYONE on horseshit is what makes Mr. Turley unique. In my lifetime[early 60’s] that was commonplace. That quality of “Calling it the way you see it” is now found only on the baseball field by umps, and by a select few pundits, our host being one.

  2. JT,

    That was an excellent summation.

    However, you could have also titled it …

    “Forget it Jake; it’s Chinatown.”

  3. It is disingenuous to attack issues by barking about complaints of other issues; instead of sticking with the facts at hand.

    Like our quest for justice against Romney & Gang;
    who is no longer a POTUS wannabe.

    Attack Cheney, and/or Bush and/or McCain and/or Obama upon the merits in articles that detail those issues separately.

    Professor Turley has been outspoken against POTUS Obama’s policies when he has felt the calling to do so; and that’s what makes this realm SUPER.

    This Org is one based on integrity and good faith – and I’m proud to know of it!

  4. It’s the sad story of our Republic…….Thugs All Over. Some are just wealthier than others. Walker has handed over a big hunk of northwest Wisconsin to Koch so Koch Industries can mine it. But I’m sure the following had NOTHING to do with Walker’s gift to Koch.

    Contributions to Scott Walker[edit]According to Mother Jones Magazine, Koch Industries’ Political Action Committee contributed the second largest donation to Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor of Wisconsin. It donated $43,000, second in size only to PAC donations of $43,125 from Wisconsin realtors and Wisconsin home builders.[43] The maximum contribution allowed by law is $43,128.[53] That contribution amounted to less than one half of one percent of Walker’s campaign total [54] because of the limits placed on campaign contributions.[53] Most support for Walker actually was in the form of independent expenditures estimated at $3 million from Americans for Prosperity.[55] After Walker took office, he and the Republican representatives in the Wisconsin House enacted legislation that placed limitations on collective bargaining by public employees. Widespread protests ensued. In February 2011, the New York Times reported that Americans for Prosperity had actively supported Walker’s proposed bill.[56] Due to Koch’s contribution to Walker’s campaign, David Koch became a symbolic target for the protests.[54]

    According to the Palm Beach Post, David Koch has been very active in Wisconsin politics with the group Americans for Prosperity. Americans for Prosperity reportedly spent $700,000 on ads supporting Governor Scott Walker’s changes to collective bargaining

  5. Jonathan, I have been a supporter of yours for a LONG time… I admire the quality about your ability to think sideways… Independently …. Uniquely… With this diatribe, it seems to me you have fallen into a swill pool somewhere and just seem to not be able to get up, OR YOU ACTUALLY LIKE being in this particular swill pool. What happened ??? Barack Obama DID NOT DO THIS ALL ALONE. This behavior is NOT unique to Obama’s tenure in the office of the President. It DID NOT START THERE.

    If you and colleagues would do a side-by-side straw man of Obama versus Cheney, the TRUTH would be show a DEEP tear in the fabric of our Nation when Cheney was trying to take over the world versus where we are today. It was SO OBVIOUS, even to the average man on the street, that Cheney was pushing us hard into a planet ending conflict, where as today we may have a slice of a chance in surviving another few days.

    I DO NOT SUPPORT what Obama and many of his people are doing. Many of their actions are not forgivable on any platform. There will be a huge price for them to pay over the years of history left in their existence. But there is the difference in what we are today versus what we MAY have been had the elections had different outcomes. I truly believe we, as a nation, would NOT EXIST TODAY, if McCain and his gang of certifiable supporters had been guiding the country over the past few years. We, simply, would have been destroyed.

  6. Great piece. Obama has brought Chicago politics to DC. People who have “leaked” from the West Wing say that Axelrod and Jarrett have the ear of the prez, two classic Chicago pols. They call the shots. I’m sure those thugs are spending a lotta time and taxpayer money finding those leakers. This administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers and leakers than all former administrations combined. Nixon is green w/ envy as he watches…from Hell!

  7. I enjoyed the piece and agree. In light of Klayman v Obama, ACLU v Clapper and more it seems the Supreme Court will have to address it.

    What will they decide?

    Could be a pivotal moment for our Country.

    This all begs the question for me which is if we feel compelled to surrender our freedom in order to protect it, have we won or lost the war on terror? have we “lost the republic” to quote Franklin?

  8. ya’ know… since our President has received over 400% more death threats during his time so far than ANY OTHER PRESIDENT IN U.S. HISTORY, maybe there’s a reason for “safety, liberty and transparency”…did you ever consider that? I mean, come on…if you are going to “blame” President Obama for our loss of privacy, HIS SAFETY, HIS LIBERTY TO MOVE ABOUT… damned straight he’s got the right of way!!!
    the hate speech from the religious righteous have brought this particular brand of ‘over sight’ upon themselves…all they had to do was shut up and get along!
    blame THEM!

  9. Excellent article. It properly frames the concerns of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin with the loss of privacy and freedom under President Obama.

    The only way to reverse course other than by revolution is for public pressure to rise up to such a degree that tyrants feel pressured to stop. This happened with President Nixon. I just don’t know if we have a culture anymore that recognizes the errors enough to do it. Nixon’s White House Plumbers would not even be considered scandalous by today’s standards, much less a basis for impeachment or for a President to resign from office.

    1. david Since I and others who I know personally were the targets of Nixon’s illegal activities, you are woefully ignorant of the full extent of his criminal actions. Then there is his statement that if the President orders it, it is legal which is FAR beyond anything that some accuse Obama of doing. Nixon was worse since he ordered or allowed the murder of US citizens who were not engaged in any illegal acts against the US or acts of violence. At least the persons who have been killed overseas were clearly outside all laws and were engaged in violent warfare against the US. As I pointed out earlier, if the US kills any Muslim students on spring break enjoying the beaches in Afghanistan, Yemen, or Pakistan, THEN I most certainly will join the chorus denouncing such killings.

      If you can find similar actions of Obama getting people fired from their jobs for their political views, getting records of bank accounts illegally, sending the IRS against his opponents, breaking and entering residences, burglary, theft, illegal wire taps, attempted and actual murder in the US of US citizens, and many other criminal activities, THEN you might have a point. In fact, the US is a FAR freer country now than when I was growing up and for much of my adult life. THAT is why there is no such outcry against Obama since I and millions of others DO remember the reality of those bad old days. In short, GIVE US A BREAK when you call Nixon not as bad as the current situation.

      1. RandyJet wrote: “Since I and others who I know personally were the targets of Nixon’s illegal activities, you are woefully ignorant of the full extent of his criminal actions.”

        Please fill us in on the details so that we will not remain ignorant.

        RandyJet wrote: “Nixon was worse since he ordered or allowed the murder of US citizens who were not engaged in any illegal acts against the US or acts of violence.”

        Can you be a little less vague about what you are talking about here? I hope you are not talking about Kent State.

  10. Great post. Thank you Professor Turley.
    I am amazed at the number of posters that disagree and think that our government breaking the Constitution is just fine. One of the posts even bragged bout all the goodies Obama gave him. In other words, pay me off and you can do anything you want.

    We have a Constitution that is a contract between people and its government. Sure, we the people have to obey laws and pay consequences if we break them. The government also has obligations that it can and cannot do. Reading your mail or monitoring your phone calls is one of those things that we have a 4th amendment prescribing exactly how the government can do this if they suspect you are a threat.

    How does anyone think that dropping bombs in foreign lands, killing men, women and children, is not an act of War? Where is the declaration of War?

    1. I see that Paul has little or no knowledge of US history or the Constitution in addition to not understanding English. First off, the first military actions the US took after the Revolution was the undeclared war against the Barbary States in which the US Navy bombarded a number of MUSLIM cities. I assume that a number of civilians were being blown up along with the pirates since accuracy was not a long suit back then. So I guess the people who WROTE the Constitution had NO idea of what it said. Yet I know that Paul knows far more about it than they according to himself.

      Then we have the fact that ALL governments have different laws that apply in wartime than in peace. Under the US Constitution, we have the clause which allows for the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in case of invasion or civil insurrection. That means that the bill of rights is suspended in fact. Of course, in our history, the Bill of Rights has only recently had any substance and was not applied to the states at all until recently. So there was no freedom of the press, speech, and in many states, no freedom of religion. The 14th amendment is what expanded those rights to the internal regimes of the states, and even then in the south it was a dead letter until the 60s.

      I wish that Paul would read what I actually wrote in response to the accusation that Obama has had few accomplishments other than the security state. I was NOT saying that his infractions which I do NOT approve of is OK as long as I get some payoffs. I can understand his confusion since that may be how he functions. For a point of FACT, the Obama care law is working quite well now since my wife and millions of others now have health care insurance. Not too bad since NO President has even accomplished as much on that subject in our history, apart from LBJ and his reform was not as sweeping. I will take such success any day, as will most historians. I am quite happy to have a job, and I have Obama to thank for that as well. If you are wealthy or have a job, I see that such things like health care and employment mean little to you as long as YOU have them.

  11. “Metadata, metadata, nothing but trash..” So say the Clappers. When I emailed a retail company about a part that they sold I began getting ads on my screen for the same items from competitors. Google was reading my email. Those of you who think that the NSA is just following paths of phone calls or perhaps the paths of emails should open the mind. They are reading your email. They can read this email even if I is not published on he blog here. If I email my Congressman and ask him to vote against the NSA on some bill they know that it was I who petitioned my government for redress of grievances and furher they know what I said in the form of free speech. If I email the ACLU and ask them to file suit to stop the NSA I am trying to organize folks, this is the right to assemble under the First Amendment. The NSA has full knowledge of the ACLU lawsuit and is leaning on the district court judge before it is even filed. The NSA knows about some legislator’s daughter getting laid out of wedlock and bends the arm of the legislator. Old lady Feinstein cant swear Clapper to testify under oath. So he can lie under pretense of oath.

    It is true that if the FBI and CIA knew in advance that seven or so arabs were going to arm themselves with box cutters and take over a plane and fly it into the Pentagon or Twin Towers that they might have stopped it. Which is why we are in Afghanistan looking for arabs with box cutters.

  12. Justice Holmes: I was asked to do a couple of pieces for AJ by friends. I am always glad to reach a new audience like that one but I remain a columnist at USA Today. I will occasionally write for other newspaper like the Washington Post etc.

    bmaz: I agree. There is a degree of simplification in columns due to the extremely limited space. It is the cost of writing for some outfits. Your point is still a good one.

  13. Great article Professor. I do believe that until we get money out of politics, we have no hope of curing many of these ills that you speak of. Citizens United needs to be over turned and then restrictions put on donations by real people and corporations will be necessary before any substantial improvement can occur.

  14. Anonymously Yours 1, January 5, 2014 at 10:31 am

    What has been thrown away in the name of security will take more than an undoing of the McCarthy years….. When will someone in power take on those with power….

    It is incredible how powerful American propaganda is, I mean on the cognition of American citizens:

    2. A poll of people in 65 countries, including the United States, finds that the United States is overwhelmingly considered the greatest threat to peace in the world. The consensus would have been even stronger had the United States itself not been polled, because the 5 percent of humanity living here is largely convinced that the other 95% of humanity — that group with experience being threatened or attacked by the United States — is wrong. After all, our government in the U.S. tells us it’s in favor of peace. Even when it bombs cities, it does it for peace. It’s hard for people under the bombs to see that. We in the U.S. have a better perspective.

    3. Polls in the United States through the 2003-2011 war on Iraq found that a majority in the U.S. believed Iraqis were better off as the result of a war that severely damaged — even destroyed — Iraq[1]. A majority of Iraqis, in contrast, believed they were worse off.[2] A majority in the United States believed Iraqis were grateful.[3] This is a disagreement over facts, not ideology. But people often choose which facts to become aware of or to accept. Tenacious believers in tales of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” tended to believe more, not less, firmly when shown the facts. The facts about Iraq are not pleasant, but they are important. To believe that the people who live where your nation’s government has waged a war are better off for it, despite those people’s contention that they are worse off, suggests an extreme sort of arrogance — and a misplaced arrogance because you’ve just proven that a few slick politicians can make you believe up is down.

    4. According to U.S.ians the greatest threat to peace on earth is a nation that hasn’t threatened any other, and hasn’t attacked any other in centuries, a nation that suffered horrible chemical weapons attacks and refused to use chemical weapons in response, a nation that has refused to develop nuclear weapons but been falsely accused of doing so by the U.S. government for decades. That’s right: a bit of laughably bad propaganda, regurgitated in variations for 30 years, and the smart critical thinkers of the Land of the Free declare a nation with a military budget below 1% of their own — Iran — the Greatest Threat to Peace.[4] Edward Bernays is cackling wickedly in his grave.

    5. Because no cartoon character has ever been named after Edward Bernays, nobody’s ever heard of him.

    6. In poll after poll after poll, 75% to 85% in the United States say their system of government is broken. Yet, what remains the top piece of advice to agitators for change? That’s right: “Work within the system.” And what remains the fallback ultimate reliable justification for launching or escalating or continuing a war: That’s right: “We need to bring our system of government to others.”

    (Top 10 Proofs People Can Be Completely Manipulated Without Hypnosis).

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