As crazy as it sounds today, Deputy Asst. Attorney General John Yoo wrote a memo in 2001 that claimed that because of the war on terror, the president had the power to suspend Americans’ First Amendment Rights. It seems that we came a lot closer to a post-9/11 dictatorship than many of us even imagined.
The chilling sentence in the memo titled, “Memorandum Regarding Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities within the United States (10-23-2001) states the belief that, “First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully.” Yoo also used several cherry picked Supreme Court decisions to claim that, “Thus, the Supreme Court has recognized that the Government’s compelling interests in wartime justify restrictions on the scope of individual liberty.”
This opinion stood in the administration for five years until an October 2006 memo rescinded by stating, “These statements too, were unnecessary to the opinion, and overbroad and general, and are not sufficiently grounded in the particular circumstances of a concrete scenario, and therefore can not be viewed as authoritative.” In layman’s terms they are saying that Yoo’s interpretation was baseless and went too far. The 2006 memo tries to justify this opinion as a reaction to the post-9/11 climate, but there is no excuse for administration to believe that they have the right to suspend the First Amendment.
The Bush administration had refused for years to release these memos, and now we all understand why. Using the logic of this memo the president could declare on any concept or tactic and suspend First Amendment rights. LBJ could have done it with the war on poverty. Reagan could have done it with the war on drugs. The flaw in Yoo’s reasoning is simple. It is impossible to carry out a constitutional war on a tactic. He expanded traditional wartime powers to the concept of war, not war itself.
Imagine an America where it is illegal for the media to criticize the president, and dissenters are thrown in jail. Come to think of it, this version of America sounds a lot like the Bush administration’s description of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The ultimate hypocrisy of the Bush administration will always be the fact that they tried to justify the invasion of Iraq as necessary to spread freedom, while at the same time they were considering and in some areas acting to repress the rights of United States citizens. This may be the closest the U.S. ever came to dictatorship.