Saturday, January 28, 2006


During a lively conversation over dinner the other night, a friend asked if any of us thought that it would be possible for a dictator to gain power in the U.S. This question was in the context of our discussion about the Bush administration and FSA spying activities on U.S. citizens. The consensus was that our Constitution has mechanisms and structures to prevent such a take-over.

But the question got me thinking. What is a dictator, and how does one get into power? Could it happen here (in the U.S.?)

The Wikipedia definition of "dictator" contains the following:
In modern usage, dictator refers to an absolutist or autocratic ruler who governs outside the normal constitutional rule of law.
Dictators often acquire power in a coup d'etat, or by suspending the existing constitution. Ordinarily democratic nations may temporarily give dictatorial power to leaders during a state of emergency.
In states with democratic traditions, dictators frequently emerge in times of war, or during an economic or social crisis. Most notably, Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitlar in Germany, achieved office by democratic means and once in power gradually eroded constitutional restraints.


While I don't think George Bush is a Dictator, I do think there are imaginable scenarios within which he, or a future President, could assume such a role. Consider the following:
1. The last two presidential elections in this country, particularly the 2000 election, left many citizens wondering if the election was really "stolen" through questionable balloting and voting tactics (e.g. Florida), and legal manuevering in the State and Federal courts. While not exactly fitting the definition of coup d'etat, the 2000 election was a constitutional crises of major proportions.
2. The recenly exposed spying by the NSA on U.S. citizens, conducted outside the legal framework of the Foreigh Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), is being defended by President Bush as within the executive powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief. Many legal scholars and government officials, including Republicans, do not agree with Bush on this legal point. In essence, Bush is saying that the constitutional protections do not apply in his War on Terrorism.
3. President Bush took the United States to war (invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation) based on lies, and there is strong evidence (the Downing Street Memo) that the decision to invade Iraq was made first, and the intelligence information ginned up to support the decision.
4. President Bush, as Commander-in-Chief, has supported the torture of prisoners, holding of prisoners, including U.S. citizens without due process, the transporting of prisoners to other countries for torture. All of these actions are done under the cover of the "War on Terror" and protecting U.S. citizens from terrorists and "evildoers."
5. The Bush adminstration has paid journalists to publish or "report" government propaganda.
6. In December 2005, the Congress passed an anti-torture amendment, which President Bush reluctantly signed. At the same time, however, Bush specified, in an e-mailed "signing statement" that he would construe the law "in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to supervise the unitary executive branch and as commander in chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on judicial power" with the objective of "protecting the American people from further terrorist attack." In other words, Bush will ignore the law if he sees fit to do so.

So, does all of this mean that George W. Bush is a dictator? No. But it gives us a glimpse of how a President can erode the authority and protections of the Constitution of our country and usurp a greater amount of power than we might want him (or her) to have.

And what will happen the next time there is a terrorist attack in the United States? What if terrorists set off a nuclear device, or unleash a chemical or biological weapon that results in very wide-scale loss of life and tremendous economic disruption? The President might declare a state of emergency in such a situation, declare martial law, suspend specific constitutional rights, etc., all in the name of protecting us from further terrorist attacks.

We are inching in that direction. It could happen here.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Item 1. In a December, 2005 article "Up in the Air" in The New Yorker (, journalist Seymour Hersh discussed the future of the US war in Iraq. Based on extensive interviews with government/pentagon and other sources, Hersh described how US ground troops would be withdrawn starting in 2006, and US air strikes would be increased. These air strikes, aimed at targets identified by US or Iraqi ground sources, would be carried out by both manned and un-manned aircraft.

Item 2. The Steven Spielberg film "Munich" is a chilling look at the part of the spy game focused on assassination, in this case the Israeli retaliations targeting leaders of the Black September group who were responsible for planning the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. This is a purposely brutal film that raises a number of important questions about government policy that are very relevant to the "war on terrorism" being waged today. Assassination is not as straight forward as it might seem, we find in the film. How do we know who the "enemy" really is? What do we do about innocent people killed along with the target? Is our cause more just than theirs? How are the agents of other governments, including our "friends" involved, and for what political reasons? Do our retaliatory actions result in more retaliations by the enemy? And in the end, does the elimination of enemy individuals do any good, or are they merely replaced by others who are as bad or worse, and their deaths result in more recruits to their cause?

Item 3. On January 13, 2006, the U.S. CIA, using an un-manned aircraft, destroyed one or more houses in the village of Damadola, Pakistan. The target was Ayman al-Zavahiri, the number 2 leader of al-Qaida. Initial reports were that no al-Qaida were killed, but that members of a family, including women and children, were the victims. A confusing series of news reports followed:

January 18 - 4 or 5 "foreign militants" were killed in the raid (source: the provincial government)
January 19 - 2 senior members of Al Qaeda and the son-in-law of al-Zawahiri were killed (source: two Pakistani officials)
January 20 - there is "no tangible evidence" that al-Qaida operatives were killed (source: the Prime Minister of Pakistan)

The CIA has no comment. Other US officials, however, were trotted out and had things to say:

"We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again. We have to do what we think is necessary to take out al-Qaida, particularly the top operatives." (Sen. John McCain)

"It's a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?" (Sen. Evan Bayh)

In other words, we'll just keep doing what we do, and if innocent people are in the way, we'll apologize, say it's regrettable, and that's that!

This is not a new issue; clandestine operations to eliminate specific "targets" have gone on throughout history. But that doesn't make it right. Just as it can be argued (and is, by many experts) that torture is not an effective interrogation method, so can it be argued (and it is) that assassination is not an effective method to fight terrorism.

And what constitutes "terrorism" anyway? If the U.S. drops bombs on a village and kills a bunch of civilians, thus terrorizing the local population, does this fit the definition? Now before you jump all over me on this one, try googling "define terrorism." Spend a few minutes reading a variety of cites - and I'm sure you'll see, as I did, that the definition of terrorism depends on who is defining it.

I hope this posting is food for thought. Do we, citizens of the United States, support state-sponsored assassination? Is it OK to drop bombs on villages, in our name, and brush off the deaths of innocent people with simple platitudes and shoulder shrugs? Will we easily condone the continuation of the Bush war in Iraq as an air war, in which bombs and missles are dropped/flown into houses because someone thinks an evil-doer might be inside?

Think about it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Rain. Lots of it. Hillsides and houses responding to the pull of gravity on the saturated soil of steep slopes. Street corner ponds formed where fall leaf covered catch basins are unavailable to stormwater runoff. Streams and rivers, cappuccino-colored and straining to be reacquainted with their floodplains, provide headlines for the local news.

It's winter. It's Oregon. You've got to love it!