Civil libertarians, including many conservatives, have been increasingly concerned over the president's conviction that, in fighting this war against terrorism, he can ignore the Constitution's mandate of the separation of powers, when he deems it necessary, and act unilaterally. In all the debates so far, no Republican contenders have questioned his insistence on this issue. Since unchecked powers become precedents, will you, as president, follow George W. Bush's lead, including his large-scale use of "signing statements" allowing him to disregard bills he has signed into law?
On July 20, for one example, the president issued an executive order on the "alternative" interrogation techniques the CIA can use to get information from suspected terrorists, including in its secret prisons. Although the administration claims that the order bans torture and cruel, inhuman treatment as mandated by Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the permitted coercive techniques are not described in the executive order. They are classified.
Moreover, the president's executive order does not specifically bar the CIA interrogations that the International Red Cross recently found to be "tantamount to torture." Nor does the order exclude other clearly cruel, inhuman CIA treatment that has been extensively documented in such recent reports as "Leave No Marks" by Human Rights First and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
These abuses by the CIA including the kidnapping and "renditions" that have sent terror suspects to be tortured in countries known for that practice have lowered this country's reputation among many citizens of nations that are our allies, and have been very useful recruiting tools for our enemy. As president, what will you do to restore our respect in other democracies during this war of ideas as well as force?
This administration has repeatedly invoked the "state secrets" privilege to prevent a court from conducting due-process hearings on cases brought by victims of CIA "renditions" and by American citizens claiming standing to object to this administration's warrantless surveillance and databasing (recently expanded by Congressional approval).
Justice Department lawyers claim they cannot explain, in any way, what these "state secrets" are that make it impossible for our courts to function in these cases.
As one objecting judge has said, "Democracy dies behind closed doors." As president, would you be concerned with this abdication of "due process" the core of our system of justice? If so, what would you do to prevent such unrestrained invocation of "state secrets" that would enclose even more of our constitutional system of justice in darkness?
In their debates, the Democratic presidential contenders have with only a very few exceptions, and then only glancingly expressed concern about a growing uneasiness among Americans across the political spectrum that was distilled recently by U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle, Wash.:
"If we render our Constitution obsolete out of fear, the terrorists will have won."
Furthermore, in this war against homicidal terrorists, which, as Donald Rumsfeld, among others, has said will last for decades, what can a new president do to regenerate Americans' understanding of, and faith in, our Constitution?
In 1944, speaking at an "I Am an American Day" in New York, Judge Learned Hand focused on "The Spirit of Liberty" at a time, he said, when "our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty." He gave a warning of how eroded that spirit can become in this nation founded on that spirit. His words during that war are acutely contemporary no matter which political party next controls the White House and the Congress:
"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it."
How firm is liberty in the hearts of Americans now? On Sept. 12, 2001, President George W. Bush, pledged: "We will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms."
I'm sure he meant that and still does. But few if any presidents in our history have received such bad advice from their closest advisers on how to keep that promise and this promise has not been kept as unilateral presidential powers keep expanding as our civil liberties keep being eroded with the president still maintaining he is the decider in matters of national security.
The No Child Left Behind Act necessarily emphasizes raising reading and math scores; but throughout the country, our schools, to meet that requirement, have largely abandoned what used to be called civics classes. Fewer young Americans know why they are Americans. In a real sense, the president is the head teacher of this country. What will you do, as president, to teach in acts, as well as words, how the spirit of liberty here at home can be regenerated and maintained through the Bill of Rights?
These may be the only such questions you will get during this campaign.