One of the charades that all too many Americans, especially conservatives, continue to subscribe to is the notion that the federal government is a “limited government” — that is, one whose powers are limited in nature and scope. They like to say that this is what distinguishes the U.S. government from totalitarian regimes.
Limited government was the original idea behind the formation of the federal government. To allay people’s concerns about the new government becoming totalitarian in nature, the Framers set forth in the Constitution a small list of limited, specific, enumerated powers that the federal government was permitted to wield and exercise. If a particular power wasn’t enumerated, the federal government didn’t have it.
To make certain that federal officials got the point, the American people demanded the passage of the Bill of Rights immediately after the Constitution was ratified. It expressly guaranteed fundamental rights of the people from federal infringement as well as procedural rights and guarantees when the government targeted people for punishment.
The point is that our American ancestors didn’t trust the federal government and the type of people that government power attracts into office. That’s why they didn’t call into existence a federal government with unlimited powers to do whatever its officials believed was “right.”
Yet, consider the type of government under which we now live.
The president, the military, and the CIA wield the omnipotent power to assassinate any person anywhere in the world. That includes Americans.
One important example of this power was demonstrated in Chile in 1973. The CIA and the military participated in the assassination of two young American men, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. To this day we don’t know if the military and the CIA did this on their own or on orders of President Nixon. It didn’t matter. There was never any official investigation by U.S. officials, including Congress and the Justice Department, into the murders. Whether President Nixon gave the order or not was obviously considered irrelevant. What mattered was that the murders were committed as part of a “national-security” operation, which provided absolute immunity to the murderers.
Those two murders were committed during the federal government’s global “war on communism.” Since the nation was at “war,” it was considered entirely legitimate to kill communists anywhere they could be found. Since Horman and Teruggi were sympathetic to the administration of Salvador Allende, a socialist-communist who had been elected president of Chile, that made them fair game for the U.S. national security state, especially since the U.S.-supported military coup that ousted Allende from power had “national security” implications for the United States.
Needless to say, the power to assassinate communists wasn’t limited to Americans. Don’t forget the repeated attempts by the CIA, especially as part of its partnership with the Mafia, to assassinate Fidel Castro, whose communist regime in Cuba never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so. Since Castro held communist beliefs in his mind, that made him fair game for a “national-security” assassination.
The national-security mindset that legitimatized the murders of Horman and Teruggi and the attempted murder of Fidel Castro didn’t expire with the end of the Cold War. Instead, it was carried forth as part of the federal government’s “war on terrorism.” After 9/11, it became openly legitimate for military and CIA officials to murder any American and any foreigners labeled a “terrorist.”
The assassinations of Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman come to mind. Just as with the Horman and Teruggi murders, there have never been any official investigations into the al-Awlaki murders. Federal officials have barely even acknowledged the killings. They don’t have to. They wield the omnipotent power to assassinate anyone they want and don’t have to explain or justify their actions, so long as they relate the killings to some “national security” event.
The principle, of course, applies to all Americans and not just to Americans who happen to be living or travelling overseas. Since the war on terrorism, like the war on communism, is global in nature, they wield the omnipotent power to kill anyone they deem is a threat to “national security” wherever the threat might be found, including right here in the United States. So long as they connect the killings to a “national-security” operation, the killers are absolutely immune from civil and criminal liability.
The military also wields the omnipotent power to take American citizens into military custody and hold them indefinitely as “terrorists” in military installations. It also has the power to torture them while in custody. That’s what the Jose Padilla case was all about. It confirmed that when it comes to “national security,” the federal judiciary isn’t going to interfere with military round-ups and torture of American citizens. While it’s true that such power isn’t currently being exercised, that’s doesn’t mean that the power isn’t now wielded by U.S. officials.
They also wield the omnipotent power to kidnap people and transfer them to partner totalitarian regimes for the purpose of torture and punishment. That’s what that CIA kidnapping in Italy and the rendition of the kidnap victim to the brutal military dictatorship in Egypt was all about. Even though the CIA agents were convicted of the criminal offense of kidnapping in Italy, the U.S. position was that they were immune from liability given that the kidnapping was done as part of a “national security” event.
It’s no different with respect to spying on the citizenry. The federal government obviously now wields the power to spy on and monitor the personal lives of every American citizen and to collect and maintain all the information it acquires. It has the authority to keep track of everyone’s telephone calls, record their calls, sweep up and read their emails, watch what websites they visit, and maintain a gigantic database of everything it collects.
And let’s face it: Nothing is going to happen to federal officials who do whatever is necessary to keep the people safe in the name of “national security.” They can follow people, keep files on them, intimidate them, and blackmail them, just as they did with Martin Luther King. In fact, they can do everything they did with their secret Cointelpro program and if anyone finds out, everyone knows that no one is going to be jailed, fined, or otherwise punished for it, so long as he states that it was part of a “national security” event.
Now, I ask you: How can this type of government — a government with the omnipotent power to kill people, incarcerate them in military installations, torture them, kidnap and rendition them, and spy, monitor, and blackmail them — genuinely be considered “limited government”? Even if every other aspect of government has limited powers, it’s quite irrelevant. All that’s needed to make a government an unlimited one is one department or agency with unlimited powers.
It goes without saying that the federal government our ancestors called into existence had none of these totalitarian powers. Our ancestors were right to be concerned about the federal government they were calling into existence ultimately ending up with totalitarian powers. That’s the fundamental change to our constitutional order wrought by the adoption of the national-security state, a change that all too many Americans, unfortunately, would rather not confront.