Monday, August 17, 2015

David Marcus - Permanent Emergency: The Bomb and the Democratic Process

In 1946, Congress passed an innocuous-sounding bill called the Atomic Energy Act that granted the president sole authority over the use of the atomic bomb. At the time, the bill did not seem to depart drastically from the status quo. During the Second World War, Congress had already extended the president’s war powers so that the executive branch could respond more effectively to wartime emergencies—an extension of executive power that helped Roosevelt to secretly develop the atomic weapons program and that allowed Truman to deploy the bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki with devastating, horrifying effect.

But the Atomic Energy Act and the National Security Act that followed in 1947 have had much greater implications than the war powers given to the presidency during the Second World War. As Garry Wills details in his history of the atomic bomb and the rise of the modern presidency, they helped create the security and surveillance systems that we still live with today, granting the executive branch an extraordinary amount of power to act on its own not only in times of war but also in those of peace. The president could now build an elaborate network of cloak-and-dagger agencies (the Atomic Energy Commission, the CIA, the NSA) that were only accountable to himself and his cabinet, and he could disburse funds, administer espionage networks, and employ the most frightening of all weapons with very little congressional or judicial oversight. 

While our security policies needed to be expanded after the Second World War, the authority granted to these institutions dangerously threatened our democratic process. As the political scientist Robert Dahl warned in a 1953 examination of these new powers, “as a plain statement of fact, the proposition is scarcely debatable: the political processes of democracy do not operate effectively with respect to atomic energy policy.”

The permanent emergency powers were invoked during the Korean War, the botched Bay of Pigs coup in Cuba, the 1965 occupation of the Dominican Republic, and the invasions of Grenada and Panama—all military actions that were escalated without a congressional declaration of war. But perhaps one of the darkest legacies of the Atomic Energy and National Security Acts has been the past two decades, when the Bush administration embarked on one of the greatest circumventions of our democratic process, breaching civil liberties and human rights norms, employing rendition, torture, and indefinite detentions, and building an elaborate surveillance network that intercepted the communications of American citizens without warrants.


One could argue that these security powers, invoked in the wake of September 11, were unrelated to those granted after the dropping of the bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that was not how the Bush administration saw it... read more: