Conservative and Liberal Groups Ask Candidates to Denounce Expanded Presidential Powers
San Fran Chronicle
Groups on left, right ask candidates to reject Bush's wider powers
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
October 14, 2007

President Bush's drive to expand executive power over surveillance, detention, interrogation and the meaning of new laws has drawn largely ineffectual protests from Congress. But a group of liberals and a handful of prominent conservatives are pressing would-be successors to renounce those powers before they take office.

Both the liberal American Freedom Campaign and the conservative American Freedom Agenda have adopted platforms complaining of administration muscle-flexing on issues ranging from the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the Justice Department's threats to prosecute reporters for espionage.

The liberal group also has asked all presidential candidates to sign a pledge of limited executive authority, reading, "We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people's phones and e-mails without court order, and above all we do not give any president unchecked power. I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from attack by any president."

None of the nine Republican candidates has responded. The pledge has been signed by five Democratic hopefuls: Sens. Barack Obama and Chris Dodd, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Sen. Mike Gravel.

The other three Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Biden and former Sen. John Edwards, have not signed, but issued promises covering roughly the same ground. Letters from all three included renunciations of torture, wiretapping of U.S. citizens without court approval and imprisonment without judicial review.

The conservative campaign has asked candidates of both parties to endorse its detailed 10-point platform. Only one, Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas Republican with libertarian leanings, has signed it, although Edwards has posted the document on one of his campaign Web sites.

The competing pledge campaigns reflect a degree of bipartisan frustration with political leaders' silence about what their backers see as Bush's effort to tip the government's balance of powers.

Bush acted on his own, without consulting Congress or seeking court approval, when he ordered the National Security Agency to wiretap calls between Americans and suspected foreign terrorists shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He unilaterally established military tribunals to try foreign captives, and his Justice Department rewrote legal rules governing torture to authorize the infliction of intense pain during interrogation.

Bush has also stressed the president's need for secrecy in wartime. He has brushed off congressional demands for internal documents, citing either national security or the importance of obtaining confidential advice. More than any of his predecessors, he has invoked state secrecy to seek dismissal of lawsuits accusing his administration of violating individual rights.

In addition, Bush has challenged Congress' right to limit his actions. In more than 1,000 cases - more than all previous presidents combined - he has issued statements asserting the power to disregard newly signed laws on the grounds that they encroach on presidential authority.

Congress has largely acquiesced, passing laws that ratified the wiretapping program and the military tribunals after their legality was questioned. The Patriot Act, the administration's overhaul of search and detention laws in the wake of Sept. 11, was speedily enacted without public hearings and remains virtually intact.

When lawmakers won Bush's signature in 2005 for a prohibition on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment during interrogations, the president quietly issued a signing statement saying he would override the ban when necessary to protect the nation.

Asked about campaigns to promote a limited view of presidential powers, White House spokesman Trey Bohn referred to Bush's statement Oct. 5, after the New York Times reported the Justice Department had authorized harsh interrogation methods by the CIA.

Bush did not expressly deny the Times report, but repeated his insistence that "this government does not torture people." The interrogation methods, he said, are used by "professionals who are trained in this kind of work to protect the American people."

He also said the techniques have been "fully disclosed to appropriate members of the United States Congress," a statement disputed by congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

Although most of the public criticism of Bush's position has come from the left, the first organized effort to make presidential powers a 2008 campaign issue came from the right.

In unveiling the American Freedom Agenda in March, several veterans of the conservative movement contended Bush was damaging the constitutional structure of checks and balances and laying the groundwork for abuses by future presidents.

"As fellow conservatives, we believe we have a greater responsibility than most to stand up to this particular administration and demand that it respect the checks and balances established by the founding fathers," said the campaign's chairman, Bruce Fein, a Justice Department official under President Ronald Reagan.

Other organizers included David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Richard Viguerie, whose fundraising innovations helped launch the modern conservative movement; and Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman from Georgia who was a leader in the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.

The pledge they circulated to candidates of both parties went beyond disavowals of torture and unauthorized wiretapping. It included a promise to dismantle Bush's military tribunals and halt "extraordinary renditions," in which foreign suspects are abducted by U.S. agents and flown to countries with histories of torturing prisoners.

The pledge also called for a curb on invoking state secrecy to fight information requests from Congress or dismiss lawsuits over government wrongdoing, renunciation of threats to prosecute journalists for espionage when they report classified information, and an end to the use of signing statements to disregard laws.

Fein said any candidate, Democrat or Republican, who won't make a detailed commitment to reverse Bush's policies is tacitly endorsing them. He said the more generally worded language of the liberal campaign pledge doesn't go far enough.

"We think they (candidates) have to be specific," Fein said. "A general statement, 'I'll follow the law,' doesn't mean anything. President Bush could say, 'I'll follow the law.' "

Steve Fox, spokesman for the liberal American Freedom Campaign, acknowledged that the two-sentence "We are Americans" pledge it circulated to candidates in August was subject to varying interpretations.

"We wanted to make it simple," he said. By signing the pledge or submitting their own statements, Fox said, candidates are at least expressing an "intent to reverse the constitutional abuses that have occurred."

The liberal campaign - whose leaders include Wes Boyd, co-founder of the Internet-based activist organization, and author Naomi Wolf - also has a 10-point manifesto that is virtually identical to the conservative group's. But the liberal group has circulated that statement only to members of the public, with the help of supporting organizations such as, Amnesty International and the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

More than 130,000 signatures have been collected so far on the petitions, which are aimed at Congress as well as presidential hopefuls, Fox said.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the need for a campaign to defend constitutional rights should be clear in San Francisco, where federal courts are considering the foundation's suit accusing AT&T of illegally collaborating with the administration's surveillance program. She noted that a former AT&T employee has testified that e-mail traffic was copied and rerouted to the government at the company's office at 611 Folsom St. in San Francisco.

A pledge to curb wiretapping and interrogation abuses may not be ironclad, Cohn said, but it's "one of the ways we as voters can get candidates to say what they stand for, so we can hold them to it once they get into office."

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