Interrogations and Presidential Prerogative

Recently, an Episcopal church in Bethesda, Md., displayed a banner with the following words: "God bless everyone (no exceptions)." I confessed to the rector of my own church that, try as I might, I simply could not obey this injunction. Judging by what he had to say about "enhanced" interrogations, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., N.C.) seems not to share my difficulty.

Mr. Graham believes that we're either a rule-of-law nation or we're not, and no exceptions. "I don't love the terrorists. I just love what Americans stand for," he said in an interview with Newsweek in 2006. His point was that our definitions of torture should not vary with the sort of person being questioned--terrorists, for example, or merely prisoners of war.

Mr. Graham's position is similar to the one taken by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney during the Civil War. In 1861, Confederate sympathizers in Maryland were burning railroad bridges, tearing up their tracks, and attacking federal troops so as to prevent them from reaching the national capital. Since local officials did nothing about this, Abraham Lincoln did. He ordered the military to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of John Merryman, a leader of the sympathizers.

The Framers provided for an executive significantly different from--and significantly more powerful than--the executives provided for in the early state constitutions of the revolutionary era.

Chief Justice Taney ruled in Ex Parte Merryman (1861) that only Congress could suspend the writ of habeas corpus and ordered Merryman released. Lincoln disobeyed the order, believing that the executive must sometimes do things it would not do in ordinary times. Would he have done this if the issue had been the interrogation of terrorists? Does the law have something to say about this?

And would Taney and Graham find support for their views in the writings of our Founders or their philosophical mentors, particularly John Locke, the 17th century Englishman sometimes referred to as "America's philosopher"? Locke is the source of our attachment to the rule of law and the priority of the legislative power.

Locke argued in the Second Treatise of Civil Government that the "first and fundamental law is the establishment of the legislative power." And so it is that the first article of the U.S. Constitution is devoted to the legislative power. There is safety in law, he said; the law is "promulgated and known to the people," and everyone without exception is subject to it.

But Locke admitted that not everything can be done by law. Or, as he said, there are many things "which the law can by no means provide for." The law cannot "foresee" events, for example, nor can it act with dispatch or with the appropriate subtlety required when dealing with foreign powers. Nor, as we know very well indeed, can a legislative body preserve secrecy.

Such matters, Locke continued in the Second Treatise, should be left to "the discretion of him who has the executive power." It is in this context that he first spoke of the "prerogative": the "power to act according to discretion, for the public good without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it." He concluded by saying "prerogative is nothing but the power of doing public good without a rule" (italics in the original).

Did the Framers find a place in our Constitution for this extraordinary power? What, if anything, did they say on the subject or, perhaps more tellingly, what did they not say?

They said nothing about a prerogative or--apart from the habeas corpus provision--anything suggesting a need for it. But they provided for an executive significantly different from--and significantly more powerful than--the executives provided for in the early state constitutions of the revolutionary era. This new executive is, first of all, a single person, and, as the Constitution has it, "he shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy." This is no mean power; Lincoln used it to imprison insurgents and to free the slaves.

The Framers seemed to be aware of what they were doing when they established the office. I draw this conclusion from their reaction when the office was first proposed.

According to the "Records of the Federal Convention of 1787," on June 1, a mere two weeks into the life of the convention, James Wilson "moved that the Executive consist in a single person." Charles Pinckney seconded the motion. Then, "a considerable pause" ensued, and the chairman asked if he should put the question. "Doc Franklin observed that it was a point of great importance and wished that the gentlemen would deliver their sentiments on it before the question was put and Mr. Rutledge animadverted on the shyness of gentlemen. . . ."

Why the silence? Why were they shy? Apparently because the proposal was so radically different from the executives provided in the state constitutions (and the fact that there was no executive whatsoever under the Articles of Confederation). All of these governmental bodies (except New York), and especially those whose constitutions were written in the years 1776-78, included "almost every conceivable provision for reducing the executive to a position of complete subordination," as Charles C. Thach Jr., noted in "The Creation of the Presidency, 1775-1789." The gentlemen were also shy because the provision for a single executive reminded them of George III and of what he had done.

This new, single executive is also required to take an oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." This was the provision of his oath President George W. Bush used to capture, hold and interrogate terrorists.

Questions arise: Was the Constitution or, better, the nation actually in jeopardy after 9/11? Was Mr. Bush entitled to imprison the terrorists in Guantanamo? Were the interrogations justified? Were they more severe than necessary? Did they prove useful in protecting the nation and its citizens? These are the sorts of questions Locke may have had in mind in his chapter on the prerogative. Who, he then asked, shall be judge whether "this power is made right use of?" Initially, of course, the executive but, ultimately, the people.

The executive in our case, at least to begin with, is represented by the three Justice Department officials who wrote the memos that Mr. Graham and many members of the Obama administration have found offensive. They have been accused of justifying torture, but they have not yet been given the opportunity in an official setting or forum to defend what they did.

That forum could be a committee of Congress or a "truth commission"--so long as, in addition to the assistance of counsel, they would be judged by "an impartial jury," have the right to call witnesses in their favor, to call for the release of evidence including the CIA memos showing the success of enhanced interrogations, and the right to "confront the witnesses" against them as the Constitution's Fifth and Sixth Amendments provide. There is much to be said for a process that, among other things, would require Nancy Pelosi to testify under oath.

Walter Berns is a resident scholar at AEI.

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