Civil authority, the CIA and two scary thoughts

The basic principle of constitutional government is that any government agency or official authorized to use lethal force is subject to legitimate civilian authority.

Governments, according to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, are instituted so that people may enjoy their alienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

gallup.confidenceininstitutions

Click to enlarge.

If the police, the military or secret intelligence agencies become laws unto themselves, then they become the government, and so-called American freedom and democracy becomes a sham.

The greatness of George Washington was that he always followed the directives of the Continental Congress, however misguided he may have thought them to be, and that, after the success of the Revolution, he refused the temptation to make himself dictator and retired to Mount Vernon until called to public service by the people.

Washington’s decision, and the precedent he set, saved the infant USA from the fate of the new Latin American republics, whose military forces regard themselves as the ultimate authority and who think they have a right and duty to step in when the civilian authority falters.

Then there was Germany in 1919-1933, prior to the rise of Hitler, when the German General Staff set its own foreign and military policy in disregard of the elected government, which did not dare to challenge it.

Our Pentagon and CIA have come to be political forces in their own right, not defying the elected government but letting it be known that their views are not necessarily the views of the elected government.

John Brennan, the head of the CIA, openly disagrees with President Obama’s condemnation of torture, and the President has not reprimanded him.  Neither has he tried to dismiss torturers from government service.  He appears to argue with his appointment, but not to exercise his authority as commander-in-chief.

Why not?  One likely possibility is that the President is not sincere in his condemnation.  Another is that he does not believe the public would support him.

A Gallup poll indicates that the American public has more confidence in the military than in any other American institution, and less confidence in Congress than any other instituion.  Twice as many have confidence in the military than in the presidency.   It’s a bad sign for a democracy when the public has more confidence in the military than in the civilians it elected.

Here’s a scary thought.

Maybe the President fears that if he ordered the CIA to operate within the Constitution and the law, it would not obey.

Here’s a scarier thought.

Maybe the President already has ordered the CIA to operate within the Constitution and the law, and it did not obey.

∞∞∞

[Added 12/28/14]

In the original version of this post, I linked to an article by Charles P. Pierce in Esquire on why the supremacy of civil authority over police and the military is the foundation of a free society, but, on second thought, I believe it deserves direct quotation.

[The King] has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

==Complaint in the Declaration of Independence

Here’s something interesting about the Declaration of Independence, which we all revere … … . In the long bill of particulars on which the Continental Congress arraigned King George III — and there are 27 counts on that indictment — there’s only one mention of taxes.

Writing_the_Declaration_of_Independence_1776_cph.3g09904Rather, every one of the charges … … has to do with the illegitimate use by the king, and by his agents in the American colonies, of existing political institutions against the people themselves, either directly (by quartering troops, for example), or by rigging those institutions so they functioned for his benefit and not for the benefit of the people of the colonies.

The men who signed the Declaration had long experience with what happens when the legal and political institutions of a state, and the people charged with their operation, suddenly consider themselves above the civil power they are supposed to serve — which, or so said Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. That, they saw, was the true danger to their liberties posed by the government of the colonies at that time.

For the past two weeks, on two different fronts, we have been confronted with the unpleasant fact that there are people working in the institutions of our self-government who believe themselves not only beyond the control and sanctions of the civil power, but also beyond the control and sanctions of their direct superiors.

torture-method-enemyWe also have been confronted with the fact that there are too many people in our political elite who are encouraging this behavior for their own purposes, most of which are cheap and dangerous.

In Washington, John Brennan, the head of the CIA, came right up to the edge of insubordination against the president who hired him in the wake of the Senate report on American torture.

Meanwhile, in New York, in the aftermath of weeks of protests against the strangulation of Eric Garner by members of the New York Police Department, two patrolmen, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were murdered in their squad car by a career criminal and apparent maniac named Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

In response … … the NYPD is acting in open rebellion against Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, and the civil power he represents over them.  This is an incredibly perilous time for democracy at the most basic levels.

It is very simple.  If the CIA is insubordinate to the president, whom the country elected, then it is insubordinate to all of us.  If the NYPD runs a slow-motion coup against the freely elected mayor of New York, then it is running a slow-motion coup against all the people of New York.  There is no exemption from this fundamental truth about the way this country and its system is supposed to work.

The military — and its civilian analogues in Langley and in the precinct houses — always is subordinate to the civil power which, no matter how much it may chafe them, means that they always are subordinate to politicians.

If we render our torturers superior to the political institutions of the government, and if we render the police superior to the civil power of elected officials, then we essentially have empowered independent standing armies to conduct our wars and enforce our laws, and self-government descends into bloody farce.

If Our Torturers Are Superior to the Political Institutions of Government, Self-Government Descends Into Bloody Farce by Charles P. Pierce for Esquire.

 

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