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2006 News of the Nation

—By Borgna Brunner (as of Sept. 28)

Presidential Power and Terrorism

In response to what he has called a “new kind of war,” President Bush has sought a significant expansion of executive powers in the fight against terrorism. The administration has embraced the doctrine of the “unitary executive,” which maintains that the president's inherent powers as commander in chief give the executive branch authority over the other branches of government during wartime. Supporters of broader presidential powers assert that decisive, timely leadership unhampered by Congressional or judicial oversight is critical to national security. According to John Yoo, the influential former Justice Department adviser, “We are used to a peacetime system in which Congress enacts the laws, the president enforces them, and the courts interpret them. In wartime, the gravity shifts to the executive branch.” Many Democrats, and a number of moderate Republicans, have countered that the war on terror has been used to justify an alarming overreach of presidential authority, skewing the system of checks and balances that is the foundation of U.S. democracy. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) put it, “There is a strain of legal reasoning in this administration that believes in a time of war the other two branches have a diminished role or no role.” Critics have also pointed out that unlike a conventional war, the “war on terror” is a long-term struggle with no clear end in sight, which means that the expansion of presidential powers, rather than being a temporary, emergency measure, would extend indefinitely.

In 2006, a number of issues on the national security agenda added to an ongoing debate concerning executive privilege.

Domestic Surveillance. In late Dec. 2005, the New York Times disclosed that in 2002 President Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to wiretap domestic phone calls and emails without obtaining legally required warrants. Although the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) already permitted the administration to wiretap on an emergency basis and apply for warrants retroactively, the administration maintained that FISA was too cumbersome when urgent issues of national security were at stake. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales offered two justifications for the legality of the domestic spying program, asserting that the president had the “inherent authority under the Constitution, as commander in chief, to engage in this kind of activity” and that Congress, “when it authorize[d] the president to use all necessary and appropriate force” against al-Qaeda in 2001, indirectly sanctioned it. Critics objected that the wiretapping infringed on civil liberties, sidestepped the legislative branch, and placed the president above the law. In August 2006, a federal judge in Detroit ruled the wiretapping program unconstitutional; the Bush administration has appealed. In the fall, legislation authorizing the president's wiretapping program was introduced in Congress.

Signing Statements. In the first 51/2 years of his presidency, George W. Bush signed more than 1,100 bills and vetoed just one (on stem cells). But the president has issued “signing statements” signaling that he would not comply with approximately 800 provisions included in about 100 laws—issuing more challenges than all previous presidents combined. Many of President Bush's signing statements involved substantial changes to legislation, including his intention to ignore whistle-blower protections for federal employees and to disregard a law forbidding the administration to withhold scientific data requested by Congress. The most controversial of these was the president's exception to the McCain Detainee Amendment, a provision banning “cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment” of prisoners in American custody, which had passed in the Senate by an overwhelming 90–9 vote. The American Bar Association condemned the practice of signing statements in August, noting that unlike a veto—which permits the president to reject a law, but also grants Congress the opportunity to override the president's veto—signing statements allow the president to sidestep specific provisions of a law without consulting Congress. They in effect give him the power once provided by the line-item veto, a presidential prerogative the Supreme Court struck down in 1998, declaring it an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers.

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. In June, the Supreme Court issued the most significant ruling regarding the limitations of presidential powers since Watergate. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld addressed the legality of special military tribunals created by the executive branch to try detainees held at Guantanamo Bay for war crimes. The Supreme Court ruled that the administration's failure to obtain Congressional approval for the military tribunals rendered them unconstitutional. Moreover, the Court stated, the tribunals violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. As designed, the administration's plan for tribunals omitted many of the safeguards of a military trial: they permitted the admission of hearsay and evidence obtained under coercion, and allowed secret evidence that would be shown to the jury but not the defendant. In addition, the defendant could be excluded from portions of his own trial. A major setback to the president's assertion of wide-ranging wartime powers, the ruling left President Bush with two options: adhere to the rules of existing military courts-martial or ask Congress to change the laws. Administration-backed legislation containing essentially the same provisions struck down in Hamdan was submitted to Congress in late summer. A number of moderate Republicans joined Democrats in attempting to modify the legislation, arguing that failure to abide by the Geneva Conventions would damage America's standing in the world. But in the final draft, the president achieved most of what he sought, including the ability to unilaterally reinterpret the Geneva Conventions.

Guantánamo and Black Sites. In September, President Bush announced that 14 high-level al-Qaeda prisoners had been transferred to the Guantánamo prison camp from secret CIA “black sites” around the world. It was the president's first official acknowledgement of extraordinary rendition, the practice of transferring suspected terrorists to detention centers in foreign countries where U.S. laws do not apply and detainees can be subjected to “alternative interrogation procedures,” which the president has strongly defended as necessary to the thwarting of future terrorist plots. Along with Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo has become a political liability for the administration, a symbol for many of an inhumane and ineffective strategy in combating terrorism. The transfer of high-level al-Qaeda operatives to Guantánamo for prosecution (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks) was part of the administration's efforts to strengthen the credibility of its detainee policies. In its five years of existence, Guantánamo has held roughly 760 al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects, including several minors. More than 300 prisoners, all held without charges and legal recourse, were eventually released. Just ten prisoners have been charged with crimes, none of which involved the Sept. 11 attacks. Hunger strikes, riots, and suicide attempts by prisoners protesting their indefinite detention have kept Guantánamo in the news and led to widespread criticism.

Corruption Scandals

In March 2006, powerful Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was convicted of fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. In return for a reduced sentence, he agreed to testify against politicians and former colleagues in a wide-ranging corruption investigation. Abramoff had collected millions in fees in exchange for Congressional support of legislation benefitting his clients, which included Indian gambling casinos and sweat shops in the Marianas Islands. In June, former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) resigned from Congress because of an indictment involving improper fundraising and the taint of his long association with Abramoff—two of DeLay's aides were convicted in connection with the scandal in 2006. In September, Representative Robert Ney (R-Ohio) became the eighth individual and the first member of Congress indicted in the scandal. He pleaded guilty to accepting tens of thousands of dollars worth of bribes in exchange for handling the legislative bidding of Abramoff's clients. Federal prosecutors suggested indictments of a number of Bush administration officials and members of Congress may follow.

A separate corruption scandal resulted in the March 2006 conviction of former congressman Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.), who was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking at least $2.4 million in bribes from military contractors. Democrats had one member of their own to add to the “culture of corruption”: Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was the target of an FBI sting that uncovered $100,000 in alleged bribe money.

In February, a Pew Research Center survey revealed that 81% of Americans believed it is “common behavior” for lobbyists to bribe members of Congress. Despite Congress's stated intentions to pass bold ethics reforms and clean up lobbying abuse, by the end of the legislative year just one minor reform bill had passed: earmarks (pet projects benefiting a particular district) would be publicly identified. While the use of earmarks has ballooned from 958 instances in 1996 to 15,877 in 2005, and projects like the $223 million Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” have become notorious examples of wasted taxpayer money, Congress's modifications to the practice of earmarking did little to address the real issues of Congressional corruption.

Yet another ugly scandal engulfed Congress in October, when Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned from the House after if was revealed that for years he had been sending sexually explicit messages to teenage male Congressional pages. Foley had been head of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. The scandal intensified when it was revealed that the Republican leadership had known about the emails for months. Further tainting the Republicans was the resignation of Ted Haggard, an influential evangelical minister who had been a liaison to the White House for the Christian Right, after allegations of drug use and an affair with a gay male prostitute.

Immigration Reform

In nationwide demonstrations in April and May, more than a million immigrants, primarily Hispanic, staged marches in more than 100 cities. Protestors called for immigration reform, which included allowing America's 11 million undocumented workers the opportunity to work legally and establishing legal procedures that would eventually permit them to gain citizenship. Many of the protestors had been mobilized by a Dec. 2005 House bill, since stalled, that would have turned illegal aliens into felons, ineligible for any legal status (lack of documentation currently constitutes a violation of civil, not criminal, law). But by the end of summer, the nascent immigrant rights movement had lost significant momentum. The marches also galvanized strong anti-immigrant sentiment, propelling a number of state and city governments to enact laws limiting housing, jobs, and medical care for undocumented immigrants. A Pew Hispanic Center survey in March indicated that 52% of Americans considered immigrants a burden on the country. Although President Bush had favored a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, including a guest-worker program, Congress submitted legislation favored by conservatives aimed at tightening border security, including a 700-mile fence spanning the Mexican border, which the president signed into law at the end of October.

The Iraq War

Polls throughout 2006 indicated that the issue of greatest concern among Americans was the ongoing war in Iraq. Spiraling Sunni-Shiite violence and the diminishing hope that at least some of the roughly 140,000 U.S. troops would be able to withdraw before year's end led to slipping approval ratings for the Bush administration. Although the inauguration of Iraq's first democratically elected parliament in April brought the promise of political stability, Shiite political dominance exacerbated sectarian divisiveness, limiting the effectiveness of the fragile “government of national unity.” New Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to stem the violence, but hope in his ability to heal the country's sectarian divisions quickly faded when it became clear that the prime minister would not abandon his political alliance with Moktada al-Sadr, the radical, anti-U.S. Shiite cleric who headed the Madhi militia. The prime minister seemed unwilling or unable to rein in the rapidly proliferating Shiite death squads, who have kidnapped, tortured, and murdered thousands of Iraqis.

The killing by U.S. troops of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most-wanted terrorist in the country, was a victory against the insurgency. Yet the violence in Iraq in fact increased over the course of the year—in July, the UN announced that during the first six months of 2006, civilian deaths in Iraq had increased by 77% and now averaged about 100 per day. Roughly 50,000 Iraqi civilians are thought to have been killed since the war began. The UN also reported that about 1.6 million Iraqis have been internally displaced, and up to 1.8 million refugees have fled the country. At the end of July, the U.S. announced it would move more U.S. troops into Baghdad from other regions of Iraq in an attempt to bring security to the country's capital, which had increasingly been subject to lawlessness, violence, and sectarian strife. But by October, the military acknowledged that its 12-week campaign to establish security in Baghdad had failed. In August, Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. military's top commander in the Middle East, reported that sectarian violence in Iraq had grown so strong that the country “could move towards civil war,” echoing the conclusion of numerous analysts. As one political scientist put it, the level of sectarian violence was “so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945.” The White House, however, continued to reject the term, as it would be far more difficult to justify the role of American troops in an Iraqi civil war.

Reconstruction has also significantly faltered. Three years into the war, oil and electricity production remain well below pre-war levels. According to the April report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, more than 75% of oil and gas restoration projects are incomplete, as well as 50% of electrical and 40% of water and sanitation projects. In April it was also reported that Parsons, the U.S. company awarded multibillion dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq's health and security infrastructure, would finish just 20 of 150 clinics planned. Insurgent attacks have hindered reconstruction progress and security concerns have added to the costs. In addition, incompetence and fraud have characterized numerous projects. In August, Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General, was pursuing 82 investigations into corruption by corporations.

To shore up flagging support for the war, the president used the fifth anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001, attacks to emphasize the link between Iraq and winning the broader war on terrorism, asserting that “if we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.” But a far different assessment of the war emerged just weeks later in a leaked version of the classified National Intelligence Estimate—a consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, signed off by Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte > which concluded that the “the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse.” In December, the bipartisan report by the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of state James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, concluded that “the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating” and “U.S. forces seem to be caught in a mission that has no foreseeable end.” The report's 79 recommendations included reaching out diplomatically to Iran and Syria and having the U.S. military intensify its efforts to train Iraqi troops. The report heightened the debate over the U.S. role in Iraq, but President Bush kept his distance from it, indicating that he would wait until Jan. 2007 before announcing a new Iraq strategy.

On Dec. 30, Saddam Hussein was hanged after an Iraqi court had sentenced him to death in November for the killing of 148 Shiites in Dujail in 1982. The many other crimes he was accused of—including the killing of up to 100,000 Kurds during the 1988 Anfal campaign him—went untried. On the last day of 2006, the U.S. death toll in Iraq reached 3,000, and at least 50,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the conflict.

See also Iraq War Timeline 2006.

Mid-Term Elections

November mid-term elections led to a seismic shift in the political landscape, with Democrats gaining control over the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in twelve years. Democrats needed a gain of 15 seats in the House of Representatives to swing the balance of power from Republican to Democrat; they picked up 31. In the Senate, Republicans had held 55 seats, Democrats 44 (there was one Independent). Democrats gained six Senate seats—which included victory in the Republican strongholds of Missouri, Montana, and Virginia—which gave them control of the Senate. Senator Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was slated to become the next Speaker of the House.

The increasingly chaotic war in Iraq, the president's low approval ratings, and a number of Republican corruption scandals were responsible for the Democrats' victory. A day after the election, President Bush, acknowledging that his party had taken a “thumping,” announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose intransigent Iraq policies had made him the bete noir of Democrats and many Republicans. Robert Gates, a former head of the CIA under the first President Bush, became Rumsfeld's successor.

See also Midterm Election Results: The Senate, The House, and Governors.


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