DUMMERSTON, Vt. — Dictatorships thrive on secrecy. The ability to operate free of public scrutiny, oversight and accountability is the cornerstone of a totalitarian state.
Such is the case with the Bush administration. Everything it has done over the past six years — from unauthorized wiretapping of Americans, to the suspension of habeas corpus, to the detention of prisoners is the legal limbo that is Guantanamo — has been cloaked in secrecy and shielded from public oversight in the name of national security.
So it was hardly shocking to hear President Bush and Vice President Cheney declare late last week that the offices of both men are exempt from independent oversight.
Cheney got all the attention last week when he said that the vice president is not actually part of the executive branch, and thus does not have to comply with any rules or orders applying to the executive branch. But his statement is not nearly as outrageous as what the president did when no one was watching.
In March 2003, Bush issued an executive order requiring all government agencies that are part of the executive branch submit to the Independent Security Oversight Office — which is part of the National Archives — to monitor the handling of classified materials.
Cheney's office filed the reports in 2001 and 2002. It stopped filing them in 2003. Not so coincidentally, that is about the time his office leaked the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame in order to intimidate her husband, Joseph Wilson, who was critical of the intelligence used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Bush apparently hasn't had a problem with Cheney not filing the reports because, according to a White House spokesman, Bush's executive order wasn't meant to apply to either his office or Cheney's.
So, the two offices that have access to the most highly classified information in the federal government claim they are completely exempt from any independent monitoring on how that information is used.
Not only have both Bush and Cheney declined to cooperate with the Information Security Oversight Office, they have tried to eliminate it altogether. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., revealed that bit of information last week.
Even worse, who must the Information Security Oversight Office turn to in seeking resolution on the matter? The Justice Department, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Any guesses on how he will rule in this dispute?
This whole affair is in keeping with the Bush administration's pattern of avoiding accountability for their actions. And the Plame leak shows that the White House cannot be trusted with sensitive information, because they have more than demonstrated a pattern of putting political considerations ahead of national security.
Bigger than that, however, is what might be called the Nixon Principle. This comes from what Richard Nixon said to David Frost in 1977 during their now infamous interviews: "When the president does it, that means it is not illegal."
Bush and Cheney have clearly operated under this principle. They don't see the need to follow rules, and thus set the example for everyone else. If the president and vice president can ignore executive orders and subpoenas from Congress, why should anyone else follow the rules?
Bush and Cheney are dead wrong in their interpretation of the law. They are subject to the same laws as any other member of the executive branch. But it's hard to get a band of lawless men to obey the Constitution, not when Congress and the courts will not effectively challenge them. And it's even hard to rein in a band of lawless men when the American people are still snoozing fitfully, unaware of the damage that has been done.
It's time to demand accountability and respect for the rule of law. Without it, this nation becomes nothing more than a land ruled by tin pot dictators.<