My Take

We have good reason to worry about US power

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 3:05am

"When the president does it, that means it is not illegal."

This famous statement from the late Richard Nixon, made during his TV interview in 1977 with David Frost, is again in the news as obituaries and tributes flow in for the legendary British broadcaster who died, aged 74.

The late president didn't know how prescient he was. Frost and most Americans thought he was talking about himself, but Nixon was commenting on the presidency. Today, the world has seen what unrestrained powers means after Edward Snowden's revelations, after the "war on terror" under George W. Bush, and how those powers have been reaffirmed by Barack Obama. Perhaps scarier is that such powers and immunity from prosecution have been extended to cabinet members such as the defence secretary and vice-president.

Under Bush, presidential powers and the reach of the US government were affirmed to be unconstrained by international laws and conventions, and even domestic US laws: kidnapping, torture, assassinations, imprisonment without trial, the use of kangaroo courts and almost universal surveillance of Americans and foreigners. Obama eased up on torture and kidnapping, but stepped up target killings by drones.

None of these are really new. The latest news cycle in the US is that AT&T has been supplying its government with domestic phone data of American citizens dating back decades. We just thought those nasty things ended after the cold war, during which Washington couldn't find a right-wing dictator it didn't like or an anti-communist death squad it didn't train.

Some Americans still think Nixon's fate proved that "the system works". But Nixon was ousted as much by Deep Throat as he was by Woodward and Bernstein. Who was Deep Throat? He was Mark Felt, the FBI's No 2 who effectively ran the agency after J. Edgar Hoover's death in 1972. With the FBI acting against the White House, the Soviets thought Watergate was a coup.

Political philosopher Sheldon Wolin describes the US government system as "inverted totalitarianism", that is, total "soft" control without all the blood and gore. It is far more apt than "the world's greatest democracy".