Secret war is anathema to free government. Period. Now, you can argue that it’s necessary, that the world has changed, that dangers come upon us too quickly, that the length and breadth of the evil in the world has made the perils Madison described quaint and irrelevant. You can do all that and people will applaud you and elect you president. But you cannot make the argument that secret wars conducted by the Executive are consonant with constitutional government, because they are not, and they never will be, and because, sooner or later, you wind up lying about the rape and murder of nuns.
(Hell, you can’t really even argue that open warfare conducted by the Executive, even with fig-leaf legislation from a cowardly and compliant Congress, is consonant with constitutional government. The Founders would laugh at you.)
I bring all of this up because I just recently caught up with this piece in National Journal which describes how “comfortable” Barack Obama has become with waging his secret wars in Pakistan and in other places. Some of the quotes in the piece, especially from the people at the CIA, are mindbogglingly banal in their illustration of just how far from the Constitution our presidents have strayed, and how happy everyone is that they’ve done so….
One senior official inside the CIA is forthright about the issue, at least when speaking anonymously. “It’s a lot simpler and easier for a sniper to shoot or to use a Predator to launch a lawful attack than to detain and interrogate prisoners,” he says. “Once they’re dead, then Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International doesn’t bring a habeas [corpus] case for them. If we’re not going to hold them, we’re ‘pure.’ We may not have information or intelligence, but we do ensure that no one in the human-rights community is yelling and screaming at us.”
Well, god forbid that should happen. It might ruin an entire afternoon.
And, no, this is not about killing Osama bin Laden. This is about conducting a general war overseas in an ad hoc fashion entirely from within the Executive branch. The constitutional distance between what President Obama is doing and “The Enterprise,” which was the Reagan administration’s term for the foolishness that ended in the Iran-Contra scandal, is not vast.
We can applaud the president’s “strong leadership” in this area. We can even re-elect him based on it. But it doesn’t have anything to do with what we were designed as a nation to do. We can fool ourselves that all of this is constitutional, but it’s not, and no hack White House lawyer can make it so. Secret wars are lies institutionalized and, sooner or later, we’re all praying for the repose of the souls of nuns murdered so long ago that hardly anyone remembers them.