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.
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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."
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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 two.
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.
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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 Constitution intended.
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 imagine.
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.
Go read it after you read Dr. King's letter from the Birmingham jail, linked below.