[UPDATE] VastLeft’s Open Letter to John Cusack in response to this conversation.
I don’t know how I found this page, probably from Twitter which has been leading me in some interesting directions lately but, I really don’t know. It begins with the actor, John Cusack, sharing some thoughts about “what it would mean to vote for Obama” — not bad, lots of nodding – I’m sure you’ve read stuff like it yourself.
But those thoughts are followed by the transcript of a telephone conversation between him and “Jon Turley, one of the smartest and intellectually honest authorities on the Constitution” (in quotes because that’s what it says on the page and I don’t have enough/any experience in judging authorities on the Constitution to form my own description of him)
This is just a tiny bit of what must have been a thrilling conversation:
Turley: Indeed. I heard from people in the administration after I wrote a column a couple weeks ago about the assassination policy. And they basically said, “Look, you’re not giving us our due. Holder said in the speech that we are following a constitutional analysis. And we have standards that we apply.” It is an incredibly seductive argument, but there is an incredible intellectual disconnect. Whatever they are doing, it can’t be called a constitutional process.
Obama has asserted the right to kill any citizen that he believes is a terrorist. He is not bound by this panel that only exists as an extension of his claimed inherent absolute authority. He can ignore them. He can circumvent them. In the end, with or without a panel, a president is unilaterally killing a U.S. citizen. This is exactly what the framers of the Constitution told us not to do.
Cusack: The framers didn’t say, “In special cases, do what you like. When there are things the public cannot know for their own good, when it’s extra-specially a dangerous world… do whatever you want.” The framers of the Constitution always knew there would be extraordinary circumstances, and they were accounted for in the Constitution. The Constitution does not allow for the executive to redefine the Constitution when it will be politically easier for him to get things done.
Turley: No. And it’s preposterous to argue that.
Cusack: When does it become — criminal?
Turley: Well, the framers knew what it was like to have sovereigns kill citizens without due process. They did it all the time back in the 18th century. They wrote a constitution specifically to bar unilateral authority.
James Madison is often quoted for his observation that if all men were angels, no government would be necessary. And what he was saying is that you have to create a system of law that has checks and balances so that even imperfect human beings are restrained from doing much harm. Madison and other framers did not want to rely on the promises of good motivations or good intents from the government. They created a system where no branch had enough authority to govern alone — a system of shared and balanced powers.
So what Obama’s doing is to rewrite the most fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution. The whole point of the Holder speech was that we’re really good guys who take this seriously, and you can trust us. That’s exactly the argument the framers rejected, the “trust me” principle of government. You’ll notice when Romney was asked about this, he said, “I would’ve signed the same law, because I trust Obama to do the right thing.” They’re both using the very argument that the framers warned citizens never to accept from their government.
Cusack: So basically, it comes down to, again, just political expediency and aesthetics. So as long as we have friendly aesthetics and likable people, we can do whatever we want. Who cares what the policy is or the implications for the future.
Turley: The greatest problem is what it has done to us and what our relative silence signifies. Liberals and civil libertarians have lost their own credibility, their own moral standing, with the support of President Obama. For many civil libertarians it is impossible to vote for someone who has blocked the prosecution of war crimes. That’s where you cross the Rubicon for most civil libertarians. That was a turning point for many who simply cannot to vote for someone who is accused of that type of violation.
Under international law, shielding people from war-crime prosecutions is itself a form of war crime. They’re both violations of international law. Notably, when the Spanish moved to investigate our torture program, we now know that the Obama administration threatened the Spanish courts and the Spanish government that they better not enforce the treaty against the U.S. This was a real threat to the Administration because these treaties allow other nations to step forward when another nation refuses to uphold the treaty. If a government does not investigate and prosecute its own accused war criminals, then other countries have the right to do so. That rule was, again, of our own creation. With other leading national we have long asserted the right to prosecute people in other countries who are shielded or protected by their own countries.
Cusack: Didn’t Spain pull somebody out of Chile under that?
Turley: Yeah, Pinochet.
Cusack: Yeah, also our guy…
Turley: The great irony of all this is that we’re the architect of that international process. We’re the one that always pushed for the position that no government could block war crimes prosecution.
But that’s not all. The Obama administration has also outdone the Bush administration in other areas. For example, one of the most important international principles to come out of World War II was the rejection of the “just following orders” defense. We were the country that led the world in saying that defendants brought before Nuremberg could not base their defense on the fact that they were just following orders. After Nuremberg, there were decades of development of this principle. It’s a very important point, because that defense, if it is allowed, would shield most people accused of torture and war crime. So when the Obama administration –
Cusack: That also parallels into the idea that the National Defense Authorization Act is using its powers to actually not only put a chilling effect on whistleblowers, but actually make it illegal for whistleblowers to bring the truth out. Am I right on that, or is that an overstatement?
Turley: Well, the biggest problem is that when the administration was fishing around for some way to justify not doing the right thing and not prosecuting torture, they finally released a document that said that CIA personnel and even some DOJ lawyers were “just following orders,” but particularly CIA personnel.
The reason Obama promised them that none of them would be prosecuted is he said that they were just following the orders of higher authority in the government. That position gutted Nuremberg. Many lawyers around the world are upset because the U.S. under the Obama administration has torn the heart out of Nuremberg. Just think of the implications: other countries that are accused of torture can shield their people and say, “Yeah, this guy was a torturer. This guy ordered a war crime. But they were all just following orders. And the guy that gave them the order, he’s dead.” It is the classic defense of war criminals. Now it is a viable defense again because of the Obama administration.
Cusack: So would you say this assassination issue, or the speech and the clause in the NDAA and this signing statement that was attached, was equivalent to John Yoo’s torture document?
Turley: Oh, I think it’s amazing. It is astonishing the dishonesty that preceded and followed its passage. Before passage, the administration told the public that the president was upset about the lack of an exception for citizens and that he was ready to veto the bill if there was a lack of such an exception. Then, in an unguarded moment, Senator Levin was speaking to another Democratic senator who was objecting to the fact that citizens could be assassinated under this provision, and Levin said, “I don’t know if my colleague is aware that the exception language was removed at the request of the White House.” Many of us just fell out of our chairs. It was a relatively rare moment on the Senate floor, unguarded and unscripted.
Cusack: And finally simple.
The temptation to swipe the whole thing is killing me — Please, go read it yourself!!!