Al Gore's Speech on Martin Luther King Day
January 16, 2006
Congressman Barr and I have disagreed many times over the years, but we
have joined together today with thousands of our fellow
citizens-Democrats and Republicans alike-to express our shared concern
that America's Constitution is in grave danger.
In spite of our differences over ideology and politics, we are in
strong agreement that the American values we hold most dear have been
placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the
Administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power.
As we begin this new year, the Executive Branch of our government has
been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has
brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue without
regard to the established law enacted by Congress precisely to prevent
such abuses. It is imperative that respect for the rule of law be
restored in our country.
And that is why many of us have come here to Constitution Hall to sound
an alarm and call upon our fellow citizens to put aside partisan
differences insofar as it is possible to do so and join with us in
demanding that our Constitution be defended and preserved.
It is appropriate that we make this appeal on the day our nation has
set aside to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
who challenged America to breathe new life into our oldest values by
extending its promise to all of our people.
And on this particular Martin Luther King Day, it is especially
important to recall that for the last several years of his life, Dr.
King was illegally wiretapped-one of hundreds of thousands of Americans
whose private communications were intercepted by the U.S. government
during that period.
The FBI privately labeled King the "most dangerous and effective Negro
leader in the country" and vowed to "take him off his pedestal." The
government even attempted to destroy his marriage and tried to
blackmail him into committing suicide.
This campaign continued until Dr. King's murder. The discovery that the
FBI conducted this long-running and extensive campaign of secret
electronic surveillance designed to infiltrate the inner workings of
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to learn the most
intimate details of Dr. King's life, was instrumental in helping to
convince Congress to enact restrictions on wiretapping.
And one result was the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act
(FISA), which was enacted expressly to ensure that foreign intelligence
surveillance would be presented to an impartial judge to verify that
there was indeed a sufficient cause for the surveillance. It included
ample flexibility and an ability for the executive to move with as much
speed as the executive desired. I voted for that law during my first
term in Congress and for almost thirty years the system has proven a
workable and valued means of affording a level of protection for
American citizens, while permitting foreign surveillance to continue
whenever it is necessary.
And yet, just one month ago, Americans awoke to the shocking news that
in spite of this long settled law, the Executive Branch has been
secretly spying on large numbers of Americans for the last four years
and eavesdropping on, and I quote the report, "large volumes of
telephone calls, e-mail messages, and other Internet traffic inside the
United States." The New York Times reported that the President decided
to launch this massive eavesdropping program "without search warrants
or any new laws that would permit domestic intelligence collection."
During the period when this eavesdropping was still secret, the
President seemed to go out of his way to reassure the American people
on more than one occasion that, of course, judicial permission is
required for any government spying on American citizens and that, of
course, these constitutional safeguards were still in place.
But surprisingly, the President's soothing statements turned out to be
false. Moreover, as soon as this massive domestic spying program was
uncovered by the press, the President not only confirmed that the story
was true, but in the next breath declared that he has no intention
stopping or of bringing these wholesale invasions of privacy to an end.
At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA's domestic
surveillance. What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping
virtually compels the conclusion that the President of the United
States has been breaking the law repeatedly and insistently.
A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our
government. Our Founding Fathers were adamant that they had established
a government of laws and not men. They recognized that the structure of
government they had enshrined in our Constitution - our system of
checks and balances - was designed with a central purpose of ensuring
that it would govern through the rule of law. As John Adams said: "The
executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or
either of them, to the end that it may be a government of laws and not
An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the
legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the
check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the Founders
sought to nullify in the Constitution - an all-powerful executive too
reminiscent of the King from whom they had broken free. In the words of
James Madison, "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive,
and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and
whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be
pronounced the very definition of tyranny."
Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet, "On Common Sense" ignited the American
Revolution, succinctly described America's alternative. Here, he said,
we intended to make certain that, in his phrase, "the law is king."
Vigilant adherence to the rule of law actually strengthens our
democracy, of course, and strengthens America. It ensures that those
who govern us operate within our constitutional structure, which means
that our democratic institutions play their indispensable role in
shaping policy and determining the direction of our nation. It means
that the people of this nation ultimately determine its course and not
executive officials operating in secret without constraint, under the
rule of law.
And make no mistake, the rule of law makes us stronger by ensuring that
decisions will be tested, studied, reviewed, and examined through the
normal processes of government that are designed to improve policy, and
avoid error. And the knowledge that they will be reviewed prevents
over-reaching and checks the accretion to power.
A commitment to openness, truthfulness, and accountability helps our
country avoid many serious mistakes, that we would otherwise make.
Recently, for example, we learned from just declassified documents,
after almost forty years, that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which
authorized the tragic Vietnam war, was actually based on false
information. And we now know that the decision by Congress to authorize
the Iraq War, 38 years later, was also based on false information. Now
the point is that America would have been better off knowing the truth
and avoiding both of these colossal mistakes in our history. And that
is the reason why following the rule of law makes us safer, not more
The President and I agree on one thing. The threat from terrorism is
all too real. There is simply no question that we continue to face new
challenges in the wake of the attack on September 11th and that we must
be ever-vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.
Where we disagree is on the proposition that we have to break the law
or sacrifice our system of government in order to protect Americans
from terrorism. When in fact, doing so would make us weaker and more
And remember that once violated, the rule of law is itself in danger.
Unless stopped, lawlessness grows. The greater the power of the
executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches
to perform their constitutional roles. As the executive acts outside
its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to
information that would expose its mistakes and reveal errors, it
becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police its
activities. Once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened
and we become a government of men and not laws.
The President's men have minced words about America's laws. The
Attorney General, for example, openly conceded that the "kind of
surveillance" we now know they have been conducting does require a
court order unless authorized by statute. The Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act self-evidently does not authorize what the NSA has
been doing, and no one inside or outside the Administration claims that
it does. Incredibly, the Administration claims, instead, that the
surveillance was implicitly authorized when Congress voted to use force
against those who attacked us on September 11th.
But, this argument simply does not hold any water. Without getting into
the legal intricacies, it faces a number of embarrassing facts. First,
another admission by the Attorney General: he concedes that the
Administration knew that the NSA project was prohibited by existing law
and that is why they consulted with some members of Congress about the
possibility of changing the statute. Genl. Gonzalez says that they were
told by the members of congress consulted that this would probably not
be possible. And so they decided not to make the request. So how can
they now argue that the Authorization for the use of military force
somehow implicitly authorized it all along? Indeed, when the
Authorization was being debated, the Administration did in fact seek to
have language inserted in it that would have authorized them to use
military force domestically - and the Congress refused to agree.
Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Jim McGovern, among others, made
clear statements during the debate on the floor of the house and the
senate, respectively, clearly stating that that Authorization did not
operate domestically. And there is no assertion to the contrary.
When President Bush failed to convince Congress to give him the power
he wanted when this measure was passed, he secretly assumed that power
anyway, as if congressional authorization was a useless bother. But as
Justice Frankfurter once wrote: "To find authority so explicitly
withheld is not merely to disregard in a particular instance the clear
will of Congress. It is to disrespect the whole legislative process and
the constitutional division of authority between the President and the
This is precisely the "disrespect" for the law that the Supreme Court
struck down in the steel seizure case during the Korean War.
It is this same disrespect for America's Constitution which has now
brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric
of the Constitution. And the disrespect embodied in these apparent mass
violations of the law is part of a larger pattern of seeming
indifference to the Constitution that is deeply troubling to millions
of Americans in both political parties.
For example, as you know the President has also declared that he has a
heretofore unrecognized inherent power to seize and imprison any
American citizen that he alone determines to be a threat to our nation,
and that, notwithstanding his American citizenship, that person
imprisoned has no right to talk with a lawyer-even if he wants to argue
that the President or his appointees have made a mistake and imprisoned
the wrong person. The President claims that he can imprison that
American citizen -- any American Citizen he chooses -- indefinitely for
the rest of his life without an even arrest warrant, without notifying
them about what charges have been filed against them, without even
informing their families that they have been imprisoned. No such right
exists in the America that you and I know and love. It is foreign to
our constitution. It must be rejected.
At the same time, the Executive branch has also claimed a previously
unrecognized authority to mistreat prisoners in its custody in ways
that plainly constitute torture and have plainly constituted torture in
a widespread pattern that has been extensively documented in U.S.
facilities located in several countries around the world.
Over 100 of these captives have reportedly died while being tortured by
Executive branch interrogators and many more have been broken and
humiliated. And, in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, investigators who
documented the pattern of torture estimated that more than 90 percent
of the victims were completely innocent of any criminal charges
whatsoever. This is a shameful exercise of power that overturns a set
of principles that our nation has observed since General George
Washington first enunciated them during our Revolutionary War. They
have been observed by every president since then - until now. They
violate the Geneva Conventions and the International Convention Against
Torture, and our own laws against torture.
The President has also claimed that he has the authority to kidnap
individuals on the streets of foreign cities and deliver them for
imprisonment and interrogation on our behalf by autocratic regimes in
nations that are infamous for the cruelty of their techniques for
torture. Some of our traditional allies have been deeply shocked by
these new, and uncharacteristic patterns on the part of Americans. The
British Ambassador to Uzbekistan - one of those nations with the worst
reputations for torture in its prisons - registered a complaint to his
home office about the cruelty and senselessness of the new U.S.
practice that he witnessed: "This material we?re getting is useless,?
he wrote and then he continued with this ? ?we are selling our souls
for dross. It is in fact positively harmful."
Can it be true that any president really has such powers under our
Constitution? If the answer is "yes" then under the theory by which
these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be
prohibited? If the President has the inherent authority to eavesdrop on
American citizens without a warrant, imprison American citizens on his
own declaration, kidnap and torture, then what can't he do?
The Dean of Yale Law School, Harold Koh, said after analyzing the
Executive Branch's extravagant claims of these previously unrecognized
powers: "If the President has commander-in-chief power to commit
torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to
promote apartheid, to license summary execution."
The fact that our normal American safeguards have thus far failed to
contain this unprecedented expansion of executive power is, itself,
deeply troubling. This failure is due in part to the fact that the
Executive Branch has followed a determined strategy of obfuscating,
delaying, withholding information, appearing to yield but then refusing
to do so and dissembling in order to frustrate the efforts of the
legislative and judicial branches to restore a healthy constitutional
For example, after appearing to support legislation sponsored by John
McCain to stop the continuation of torture, the President declared in
the act of signing the bill that he reserved the right not to comply
with it. Similarly, the Executive Branch claimed that it could
unilaterally imprison American citizens without giving them access to
review by any tribunal. And when the Supreme Court disagreed, the
President engaged in legal maneuvers designed to prevent the Court from
providing any meaningful content to the rights of the citizens affected.
A conservative jurist on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that
the Executive branch's handling of one such case seemed to involve the
sudden abandonment of principle, and I quote him, "at substantial cost
to the government's credibility before the courts."
As a result of this unprecedented claim of new unilateral power, the
Executive branch has now put our constitutional design at grave risk.
The stakes for America's democracy are far higher than has been
These claims must be rejected and a healthy balance of power restored
to our Republic. Otherwise, the fundamental nature of our democracy may
well undergo a radical transformation.
For more than two centuries, America's freedoms have been preserved in
large part by our founders' wise decision to separate the aggregate
power of our government into three co-equal branches, each of which, as
you know, serves to check and balance the power of the other two.
On more than a few occasions, in our history, the dynamic interaction
among all three branches has resulted in collisions and temporary
impasses that create what are invariably labeled "constitutional
crises." These crises have often been dangerous and uncertain times for
our Republic. But in each such case so far, we have found a resolution
of the crisis by renewing our common agreement to live together under
the rule of law.
The principle alternative to democracy throughout history has, of
course, been the consolidation of virtually all state power in the
hands of a single strongman or small group who exercise that power
without the informed consent of the governed.
It was in revolt against just such a regime, after all, that America
was founded. When Lincoln declared at the time of our greatest crisis
that the ultimate question being decided in the Civil War was, in his
memorable phrase, "whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and
so dedicated, can long endure," he was not only saving our union, he
was recognizing the fact that democracies are rare in history. And when
they fail, as did Athens and the Roman Republic upon whose designs our
founders drew heavily, what emerges in their place is another strongman
There have of course been other periods in American history when the
Executive Branch claimed new powers later seen as excessive and
mistaken. Our second president, John Adams, passed the infamous Alien
and Sedition Acts and sought to silence and imprison critics and
political opponents. And when his successor, President Thomas
Jefferson, eliminated the abuses, in his first inaugural he said: "[The
essential principles of our Government] form the bright constellation
which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of
revolution and reformation... [S]hould we wander from them in moments
of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain the
road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety."
President Lincoln, of course, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil
War. Some of the worst abuses prior to those of the current
administration were committed by President Wilson during and after WWI
with the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids. The internment of
Japanese Americans during WWII marked a shameful low point for the
respect of individual rights at the hands of the executive. And, of
course, during the Vietnam War, the notorious COINTELPRO program was
part and parcel of those abuses experienced by Dr. King and so many
thousands of others.
But in each of these cases throughout American history, when the
conflict and turmoil subsided, our nation recovered its equilibrium and
absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.
But, there are reasons for concern this time around, that conditions
may be changing and that the cycle may not repeat itself. For one
thing, we have for decades been witnessing the slow and steady
accumulation of presidential power. In a globe where there are nuclear
weapons and cold war tensions, Congress and the American people
accepted ever enlarging spheres of presidential initiative to conduct
intelligence and counter- intelligence activities and to allocate our
military forces on the global stage. When military force has been used
as an instrument of foreign policy or in response to humanitarian
demands, it has almost always been as the result of presidential
initiative and leadership. But, as Justice Frankfurter wrote in that
famous Steel Seizure Case, "The accretion of dangerous power does not
come in a day. It does come, however slowly, from the generative force
of unchecked disregard of the restrictions that fence in even the most
disinterested assertion of authority."
A second reason to that believe we may be experiencing something new --
outside that historical cycle -- is that we are, after all, told by
this Administration that the war footing upon which he has tried to
place the country is going to "last? in their phrase, ?for the rest of
our lives." And so, we are told that the conditions of national threat
that have been used by other Presidents to justify arrogations of power
will, in this case, persist in near perpetuity.
Third, we need to be keenly aware of the startling advances in the
sophistication of eavesdropping and surveillance technologies with
their capacity to easily sweep up and analyze enormous quantities of
information and then mine it for intelligence. And this adds
significant vulnerability to the privacy and freedom of enormous
numbers of innocent people at the same time as the potential power of
those technologies grows. Those technologies do have the potential for
shifting the balance of power between the apparatus of the state and
the freedom of the individual in ways that are both subtle and profound.
Don't misunderstand me: the threat of additional terror strikes is real
and the concerted efforts by terrorists to acquire weapons of mass
destruction does indeed create a real imperative to exercise the powers
of the Executive Branch with swiftness and agility. Moreover, there is
in fact an inherent power conferred by the Constitution to the any
President to take unilateral action when necessary to protect the
nation from a sudden and immediate threat. And it is simply not
possible to precisely define in legalistic terms exactly when that
power is appropriate and when it is not. But the existence of that
inherent power cannot be used to justify a gross and excessive power
grab lasting for many years and producing a serious imbalance in the
relationship between the executive and the other two branches of
And there is a final reason to worry that we may be experiencing
something more than just another cycle. This Administration has come to
power in the thrall of a legal theory that aims to convince us that
this excessive concentration of presidential power is exactly what our
This legal theory, which its proponents call the theory of the unitary
executive but which ought to be more accurately described as the
unilateral executive, threatens to expand the president's powers until
the contours of the constitution that the Framers actually gave us
become obliterated beyond all recognition. Under this theory, the
President's authority when acting as Commander-in-Chief or when making
foreign policy cannot be reviewed by the judiciary, cannot be checked
by Congress. And President Bush has pushed the implications of this
idea to its maximum by continually stressing his role as
Commander-in-Chief, invoking it has frequently as he can, conflating it
with his other roles, both domestic and foreign. And when added to the
idea that we have entered a perpetual state of war, the implications of
this theory stretch quite literally as far into the future as we can
This effort to rework America's carefully balanced constitutional
design into a lopsided structure dominated by an all powerful Executive
Branch with a subservient Congress and subservient judiciary is
ironically accompanied by an effort by the same administration to
rework America's foreign policy from one that is based primarily on
U.S. moral authority into one that is based on a misguided and
self-defeating effort to establish a form of dominance in the world.
And the common denominator seems to be based on an instinct to intimidate and control.
This same pattern has characterized the effort to silence dissenting
views within the Executive branch, to censor information that may be
inconsistent with its stated ideological goals, and to demand
conformity from all Executive branch employees.
For example, CIA analysts who strongly disagreed with the White House
assertion that Osama bin Laden was linked to Saddam Hussein found
themselves under pressure at work and became fearful of losing
promotions and salary increases.
Ironically, that is exactly what happened to the FBI officials in the
1960s who disagreed with J. Edgar Hoover's assertion that Martin Luther
King was closely connected to Communists. The head of the FBI's
domestic intelligence division testified that his effort to tell the
truth about King's innocence of the charge resulted in he and his
colleagues becoming isolated within the FBI and pressured. And I quote:
"It was evident that we had to change our ways or we would all be out
on the street.... The men and I (he continued) discussed how to get out
of trouble. To be in trouble with Mr. Hoover was a serious matter.
These men (he continued) were trying to buy homes, mortgages on homes,
children in school. They lived in fear of getting transferred, losing
money on their homes, as they usually did. ... so they wanted another
memorandum written to get us out of the trouble that we were in."
The Constitution's framers who studied human nature so closely
understood this dilemma quite well. As Alexander Hamilton put it, "a
power over a man's support is a power over his will." (Federalist No.
In any case, quite soon, there was no more difference of opinion within
the FBI. And the false accusation became the unanimous view. In exactly
the same way, George Tenet's CIA eventually joined in endorsing a
manifestly false view that there was a linkage between al Qaeda and the
government of Iraq.
In the words of George Orwell: "We are all capable of believing things
which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong,
impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.
Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an
indefinite time: the only check on it is that, sooner or later, a false
belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield." 2,200
American soldiers have lost their lives as this false belief bumped
into a solid reality.
And indeed, whenever power is unchecked and unaccountable it almost
inevitably leads to gross mistakes and abuses. That is part of human
nature. In the absence of rigorous accountability, incompetence
flourishes. Dishonesty is encouraged and rewarded. It is human nature
-- whether for Republicans or Democrats or people of any set of views.
Last week, for example, Vice President Cheney attempted to defend the
Administration's eavesdropping on American citizens by saying that if
it had conducted this program prior to 9/11, they would have found out
the names of some of the hijackers.
Tragically, he apparently still does not know that the Administration
did in fact have the names of at least 2 of the hijackers well before
9/11 and had available to them information that could have led to the
identification of most of the others. One of them was in the phonebook.
And yet, because of incompetence, unaccountable incompetence in the
handling of this information, it was never used to protect the American
It is often the case, again, regardless of which party might be in
power, that an Executive branch, beguiled by the pursuit of unchecked
power, responds to its own mistakes by reflexively proposing that it be
given still more power. Often, the request itself it used to mask
accountability for mistakes in the use of power it already has.
Moreover, if the pattern of practice begun by this Administration is
not challenged, it may well become a permanent part of the American
system. That?s why many conservatives have pointed out that granting
unchecked power to this President means that the next will have
unchecked power as well. And the next President may be someone whose
values and belief you do not trust. And that is why Republicans as well
as Democrats should be concerned with what this President has done. If
his attempt to dramatically expand executive power goes unquestioned,
then our constitutional design of checks and balances will be lost. And
the next President or some future President will be able, in the name
of national security, to restrict our liberties in a way the framers
never would have imagined possible.
This same instinct to expand its power and to establish dominance has
characterized the relationship between this Administration and the
courts and the Congress.
In a properly functioning system, the Judicial branch would serve as
the constitutional umpire to ensure that the branches of government
observed their proper spheres of authority, observed civil liberties,
adhered to the rule of law. Unfortunately, the unilateral executive has
tried hard to thwart the ability of the judiciary to call balls and
strikes by keeping controversies out of its hands - notably those
challenging its ability to detain individuals without legal process --
by appointing judges who will be deferential to its exercise of power
and by its support of assaults on the independence of the third branch.
The President's decision, for example, to ignore the FISA law was a
direct assault on the power of the judges who sit on that court.
Congress established the FISA court precisely to be a check on
executive power to wiretap. And yet, to ensure that the court could not
function as a check on executive power, the President simply did not
take matters to it and did not even let the court know that it was
The President's judicial appointments are clearly designed to ensure
the courts will not serve as an effective check on executive power. As
we have all learned, Judge Alito is a longtime supporter of a powerful
executive - a supporter of that so-called unitary executive. Whether
you support his confirmation or not - and I respect the fact that some
of the co-sponsors of this event do. I do not ? but whatever your view,
we must all agree that he will not vote as an effective check on the
expansion of executive power. Likewise, Chief Justice Roberts has made
plain his deference to the expansion of executive power through his
support of judicial deference to executive agency rulemaking.
And the Administration has also supported the assault on judicial
independence that has been conducted largely in Congress. That assault
includes a threat by the Republican majority in the Senate to
permanently change the rules to eliminate the right of the minority to
engage in extended debate of the President's nominees. The assault has
extended to legislative efforts to curtail the jurisdiction of courts
in matters ranging from habeas corpus to the pledge of allegiance. In
short, the Administration has demonstrated a contempt for the judicial
role and sought to evade judicial review of its actions at every turn.
But the most serious damage in our constitutional framework has been
done to the legislative branch. The sharp decline of congressional
power and autonomy in recent years has been almost as shocking as the
efforts by the Executive to attain this massive expansion of its power.
I was elected to the Congress in 1976, served eight years in the house,
8 years in the Senate, presided over the Senate for 8 years as Vice
President. As a young man, I saw the Congress first hand as the son of
a Senator. My father was elected to Congress in 1938, 10 years before I
was born, and left the Senate after I had graduated from college.
The Congress we have today is structurally unrecognizable compared to
the one in which my father served. There are many distinguished and
outstanding Senators and Congressmen serving today. I am honored to
know them and to have worked with them. But the legislative branch of
government, as a whole, under its current leadership now operates as if
it were entirely subservient to the Executive branch. It is astonishing
to me, and so foreign to what the Congress is supposed to be.
Moreover, too many members of the House and Senate now feel compelled
to spend a majority of their time not in thoughtful debate on the
issues, but instead raising money to purchase 30 second TV commercials.
Moreover, there have now been two or three generations of congressmen
who don't really know what an oversight hearing is. In the 70's and
80's, the oversight hearings in which my colleagues and I participated
held the feet of the Executive branch to the fire - no matter which
party was in power. Yet oversight is almost unknown in the Congress
The role of the authorization committees has declined into
insignificance. The 13 annual appropriation bills are hardly ever
actually passed as bills, anymore. Everything is lumped into a familiar
single giant measure that is not even available for members of Congress
to read before they vote on it. Members of the minority party are now
routinely excluded from conference committees, and amendments are
routinely disallowed during floor consideration of legislation.
In the United States Senate, which used to pride itself on being the
"greatest deliberative body in the world," meaningful debate is now a
rarity. Even on the eve of the fateful vote to authorize the invasion
of Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd famously asked: "Why is this chamber
empty?" In the House of Representatives, the number who face a
genuinely competitive election contest every two years is typically
less than a dozen out of 435.
And too many incumbents have come to believe that the key to continued
access to the money for re-election is to stay on the good side of
those who have the money to give; and, in the case of the majority
party, the whole process is largely controlled by the incumbent
president and his political organization.
So the willingness of Congress to challenge the Executive branch is
further limited when the same party controls both Congress and the
Administration. The Executive branch, time and again, has co-opted
Congress' role, and too often Congress has been a willing accomplice in
the surrender of its own power.
Look for example at the Congressional role in "overseeing" this massive
four year eavesdropping campaign that on its face seemed so clearly to
violate the Bill of Rights. The President says he informed Congress,
but what he really means is that he talked with the chairman and
ranking member of the House and Senate intelligence committees and
sometimes the leaders of the House and Senate. This small group, in
turn, claimed they were not given the full facts, though at least one
of the committee leaders handwrote a letter of concern to the
Though I sympathize with the awkward position in which these men and
women were placed, I cannot disagree with the Liberty Coalition when it
says that Democrats as well as Republicans in the Congress must share
the blame for not taking sufficient action to protest and seek to
prevent what they consider a grossly unconstitutional program. Many did.
Moreover, in the Congress as a whole-both House and Senate-the enhanced
role of money in the re-election process, coupled with the sharply
diminished role for reasoned deliberation and debate, has produced an
atmosphere conducive to pervasive institutionalized corruption that
some have fallen vulnerable to.
The Abramoff scandal is but the tip of a giant iceberg threatening the integrity of the entire legislative branch of government.
It is the pitiful state of our legislative branch which primarily
explains the failure of our vaunted checks and balances to prevent the
dangerous overreach by the Executive Branch now threatening a radical
transformation of the American system.
I call upon Democratic and Republican members of Congress today to
uphold your oath of office and defend the Constitution. Stop going
along to get along. Start acting like the independent and co-equal
branch of American government you are supposed to be under the
Constitution of our country. But there is yet another Constitutional
player whose pulse must also be taken and whose role must be examined
in order to understand the dangerous imbalance that has accompanied
these efforts by the Executive branch to dominate our constitutional
We the people are-collectively-still the key to the survival of
America's democracy. We-must examine ourselves. We - as Lincoln put it,
"[e]ven we here"-must examine our own role as citizens in allowing and
not preventing the shocking decay and hollowing out and degradation of
American democracy! It is time to stand up for the American system that
we know and love! It is time to breathe new life back into America?s
Thomas Jefferson said: "An informed citizenry is the only true
repository of the public will" America?s based on the belief that we
can govern ourselves. And exercise the power of self-government. The
American idea proceeded from the bedrock principle that all just power
is derived from the consent of the governed.
The intricate and carefully balanced constitutional system that is now
in such danger was created with the full and widespread participation
of the population as a whole. The Federalist Papers were, back in the
day, widely-read newspaper essays, and they represented only one of
twenty-four series of essays that crowded the vibrant marketplace of
ideas in which farmers and shopkeepers recapitulated the debates that
played out so fruitfully in Philadelphia.
And when the Convention had done its best, it was the people - in their
various States - that refused to confirm the result until, at their
insistence, the Bill of Rights was made integral to the document sent
forward for ratification.
And it is "We the people" who must now find, once again, the ability we
once had to play an integral role in saving our Constitution. And here
there is cause for both concern and for great hope. The age of printed
pamphlets and political essays has long since been replaced by
television - a distracting and absorbing medium which sees determined
to entertain and sell more than it informs and educates.
Lincoln's memorable call during the Civil War is now applicable in a
new way to our dilemma today: "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then
we shall save our country."
Forty years have passed since the majority of Americans adopted
television as their principal source of information. And its dominance
has now become so extensive that virtually all significant political
communication now takes place within the confines of flickering
30-second television advertisements, and they?re not the Federalist
The political economy supported by these short but expensive television
ads is as different from the vibrant politics of America's first
century as those politics were different from the feudalism which
thrived on the ignorance of the masses of people in the Dark Ages.
The constricted role of ideas in the American political system today
has encouraged efforts by the Executive branch to believe it can and
should control the flow of information as a means of controlling the
outcome of important decisions that still lie in the hands of the
The Administration vigorously asserts its power to maintain secrecy in
its operations. After all, if the other branches don?t know what is
happening they can't be a check or a balance.
For example, when the Administration was attempting to persuade
Congress to enact the Medicare prescription drug benefit, many in the
House and Senate raised concerns about the cost and design of the
program. But, rather than engaging in open debate on the basis of
factual data, the Administration withheld facts and actively prevented
the Congress from hearing testimony that it had sought from the
principal administration expert who had the information showing in
advance of the vote that, indeed, the true cost estimates were far
beyond the numbers given to Congress by the President. And the workings
of the program would play out very differently than Congress had been
Deprived of that information, and believing the false numbers given to
it instead, the Congress approved the program. And tragically, the
entire initiative is now collapsing- all over the country- with the
Administration making an appeal just this weekend to major insurance
companies to volunteer to bail it out. But the American people, who
have the right to believe that its elected representatives will learn
the truth and act on the basis of knowledge and utilize the rule of
reason, have been let down.
To take another example, scientific warnings about the catastrophic
consequences of unchecked global warming were censored by a political
appointee in the White House who had no scientific training,
whatsoever. Today, one of the leading scientific experts in the world
on global warming in NASA, has been ordered not to talk to members of
the press, ordered to keep a careful log of everyone he meets with so
that the Executive branch can monitor and control what he shares of his
knowledge of global warming. This is a planetary crisis ? we owe
ourselves a truthful and reasoned discussion.
One of the other ways the Administration has tried to control the flow
of information has been by consistently resorting to the language and
politics of fear in order to short-circuit the debate and drive its
agenda forward without regard to the evidence or the public interest.
President Eisenhower said this: "Any who act as if freedom's defenses
are to be found in suppression and suspicion and fear confess a
doctrine that is alien to America."
Fear drives out reason. Fear suppresses the politics of discourse and
opens the door to the politics of destruction. Justice Brandeis once
wrote: "Men feared witches and burnt women."
The founders of our country faced dire threats. If they failed in their
endeavors, they would have been hung as traitors. The very existence of
our country was at risk.
Yet, in the teeth of those dangers, they insisted on establishing the full Bill of Rights.
Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when
the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more
dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of
thousands of nuclear missiles ready to be launched on a moment?s notice
to completely annihilate the country? Is America in more danger now
than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march-when the last
generation had to fight and win two World Wars simultaneously?
It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so
much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than
they did. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it?s up to
us to do the very same thing!
We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens' right not only to
life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore
vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to
safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the
intrusive overreaching on the part of the Executive branch and the
President's apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law.
I endorse the words of Bob Barr, when he said, and I quote: "The
President has dared the American people to do something about it. For
the sake of the Constitution, I hope they will."
A special counsel should immediately be appointed by the Attorney
General to remedy the obvious conflict of interest that prevents him
from investigating what many believe are serious violations of law by
the President. We?ve had a fresh demonstration of how an independent
investigation by a special counsel with integrity can rebuild
confidence in our system of justice. Patrick Fitzgerald has, by all
accounts, shown neither fear nor favor in pursuing allegations that the
Executive branch has violated other laws.
Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress should support the
bipartisan call of the Liberty Coalition for the appointment of this
special counsel to pursue the criminal issues raised by the warrantless
wiretapping of Americans by the President, and it should be a political
issue in any race -- regardless of party, section of the country, house
of congress for anyone who opposes the appointment of a special counsel
under these dangerous circumstances when our Constitution is at risk.
Secondly, new whistleblower protections should immediately be
established for members of the Executive branch who report evidence of
wrongdoing -- especially where it involves the abuse of authority in
these sensitive areas of national security.
Third, both Houses of Congress should, of course, hold
comprehensive-and not just superficial-hearings into these serious
allegations of criminal behavior on the part of the President. And,
they should follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Fourth, the extensive new powers requested by the Executive branch in
its proposal to extend and enlarge the Patriot Act should, under no
circumstances be granted, unless and until there are adequate and
enforceable safeguards to protect the Constitution and the rights of
the American people against the kinds of abuses that have so recently
Fifth, any telecommunications company that has provided the government
with access to private information concerning the communications of
Americans without a proper warrant should immediately cease and desist
their complicity in this apparently illegal invasion of the privacy of
Freedom of communication is an essential prerequisite for the restoration of the health of our democracy.
It is particularly important that the freedom of the Internet be
protected against either the encroachment of government or efforts at
control by large media conglomerates. The future of our democracy
depends on it.
In closing, I mentioned that along with cause for concern, there is
reason for hope. As I stand here today, I am filled with optimism that
America is on the eve of a golden age in which the vitality of our
democracy will be re-established by the people and will flourish more
vibrantly than ever. Indeed I can feel it in this hall.
As Dr. King once said, "Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it
is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be
sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way
beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."
Thank you, very much.