The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty—and the destiny of the republican model of government—are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked out on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. — President George Washington, First Inaugural Address
Having often criticized the junior senator from New York for her tepid and too rare responses to Bush administration attacks on the Constitution’s “sacred fire of liberty,” I must credit her now for a September 28 speech on the floor of the Senate during the debate on the Military Commissions Act of 2006—which gives the presidency the most radical expansion of power in American history.
Senator Hillary Clinton’s warning to her colleagues and the nation received scant press at the time and has been washed away by Mark Foley’s e-mails and North Korea’s bursting pride in having joined the nuclear club. Hillary, speaking of the June Supreme Court decision (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld)—which forced Congress to pretend to correct Bush’s unconstitutional military commissions at Guantánamo, and his five-year violations of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of our prisoners anywhere in the world—said of the new military commissions bill, since passed by House and Senate, that “it allows a discredited policy . . . to be largely continued and to be made worse.”
For example, Clinton continued, “the bill before us allows the admission of evidence [against prisoners] of statements derived through cruel, inhuman, and degrading interrogation. This sets a dangerous precedent that will endanger our own men and women in uniform overseas.”
She then gave the senators a history lesson that may well have been new to them, and to most Americans, in view of the steady disappearance of courses in American history throughout our school systems. Between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the Constitution in 1787, New York and Long Island were captured by the British. George Washington and the Continental Army retreated to Pennsylvania, with huge casualties, and crossed the Delaware. In a pivotal victory at Trenton, Washington captured over 1,000 foreign mercenaries.
“The British,” Senator Clinton added, “had already committed atrocities against American prisoners, including torture. . . . There are accounts of injured soldiers who surrendered being murdered; countless Americans dying in prison hulks in New York harbor . . . and other acts of inhumanity perpetrated against Americans confined to churches in New York City.”
What were General Washington’s orders on the treatment of thousands of new prisoners and other British soldiers captured? As reported by Hillary Clinton, Washington commanded: “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.”
The senator from New York then turned to today’s commander in chief, George W. Bush: “This military commissions bill undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the president to issue executive orders to redefine what are permissible interrogation techniques. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach? By allowing this administration to further stretch the definition of what is and is not torture, we lower our moral standards to those whom we despise, undermine the values of our flag wherever it flies, put our troops in danger, and jeopardize our moral strength in a conflict that cannot be won simply with military might.” (Emphasis added.)
The day before Hillary Clinton’s unveiling of the “compassionate conservative” in the White House, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—himself previously unfocused on Bush’s five-year authorization of torture—woke up too. Speaking on the Senate floor about this Military Commissions Act, which tears apart our vaunted “rule of law,” Reid, declaring his vote against the bill, said that it “authorizes a vast expansion of the president’s power to detain people—even U.S. citizens—indefinitely and without charge.” For terrorism suspects caught in its unrestrained definition of unlawful enemy combatants, Reid said, “no due process is provided, and no time limit on the detention is set.”
You can be designated an “unlawful enemy combatant” by the president or Donald Rumsfeld for “purposely and materially” supporting the enemy—by contributing to suspect Muslim or other charities listed in government data banks as having terrorist connections.
Democratic congresswoman Doris Matsui of California is chilled by this expanded definition of “unlawful enemy combatant.” She was born in an Arizona detention camp during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s roundup of Japanese Americans, approved by the Supreme Court in the heat of the Second World War. On September 27, Doris Matsui told National Public Radio:
“From my family’s perspective, I know something about what can happen to the rights of Americans when the executive overreaches in a time of war.”
After George Washington, who turned down an invitation to be king, no president has overreached as far as George W. Bush. And now, in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Congress has overturned the restrictions on his power imposed on him by the Supreme Court in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, as well as in the Court’s 2004 ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor declared: “We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of American citizens.” (Rasul v. Bush on the same day included noncitizens.)
In the Military Commissions Act, Congress has given Bush a sheath of blank checks. And if there’s another 9-11, will Congress rush to give whomever then is president what is left of the Constitution? Even if the Democrats by then control the Congress and White House?
In her admirably blunt speech, Hillary Clinton did not, however, go on to call for a filibuster of the Military Commissions Act. Neither did Harry Reid. The midterm elections are looming, and Senate Democrats were afraid that the dread Karl Rove machine would skewer them as unpatriotic. So this bill, with 32 Democrats voting against it, including Clinton and Reid, passed.
If Senator Clinton does ascend to the Oval Office, I hope many George Washington-style patriots will send her copies of her September 28 speech.