July 21, 2008

The Myth of American Dictatorship

By Dave

I was listening to arch-kook Alex Jones on the radio this weekend – largely by accident – when he spouted one of his classic lies and reminded me that it needs to be addressed here. He said “On the cover of PD61 it says right there that the president is a dictator.” Jones managed to get the number of the directive wrong, unless energy security policy from the Clinton administration is his main concern. Based on his website, what he meant to refer to is Presidential Policy Directive 51, of which he says:

“Oh, let’s not forget PDD51, National Security Presidential Directive 51. It allows Bush to fully realize his role as the decider-commander and chuck Congress and the resilient (read, continually besieged by government) American citizen by the way side.”

This conspiracy theory falls pretty much in the ‘Bush is Hitler’ category which usually signifies when extremists on the left or right have really jumped the shark and should just be ignored. When Jones or his acolytes bring this up in conversation it’s easy to be prepared to tear them to shreds.

First off go and actually read the document and pay particular attention to the history of the directive and to the conditions under which it actually applies. Rather than suspending the Constitution as Jones suggests, its stated objective is the preservation of “Enduring Constitutinal Government” which includes “the capability of all three branches of government to execute constitutional responsibilities.” That hardly sounds like replacing our government with a dictatorship, and the repeated references in the document to protecting all three branches of government certainly doesn’t sound like the intent to “chuck Congress” which Jones refers to.

Contrary to what Jones is suggesting, this executive order only comes into play in a situation where the country is under so severe a threat that the regular government cannot operate – Congress can’t convene because DC has been evacuated, for example. It also does not provide for a long-term replacement government or a permanent dictatorship or even direct presidential rule. It provides for temporary caretaker management of the nation until order can be reestablished and normal government restored. Again and again the document stresses that its purpose is to “protect the constitution” and the details on the restoration of constitutional government. The actual thrust of the document is to establish a procedure by which law and the constitution and our way of government will be protected and preserved in a time of crisis – very much the opposite of what Jones suggests.

It’s also very important to note when it goes into effect. It didn’t give Bush dictatorial powers when it was signed as conspiracy mongers commonly claim. It only applies in a “catastrophic emergency” which is defined as:

“any incident, regardless of location, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the U.S. population, infrastructure, environment, economy, or government functions.”

That hardly sounds like an every day situation, and it hardly sounds like conditions which are in effect right now. Note the adjectives “extraordinary” and “severely”. They do have specific legal meanings and they rule out the day to day application of the directive.

Although Jones and his followers will try to say that this directive is a Bush/Neocon plot, they are just demonstrating historical ignorance. It is in fact only a revision of a standing order which was last updated and reissued in 1998 during the Clinton administration and which has existed in some form going back to just after WW2, so it’s not exactly a Bush power grab. The first such directive was enacted in 1947 and the current version is actually much less ambiguously worded and much clearer on the limitations of its applicability. Every president since Truman has signed off on a version of this directive.

As with so many of these hysterical claims, when you go to the actual document referenced, it becomes clear that no rational person could reach the conclusions of the conspiracy crazies from reading the source material. It takes a remarkably twisted mind to read “Ensuring the continued functioning of our form of government under the Constitution” and “Defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and come to the conclusion that the document suspends the constitution and creates a dictatorship. As is so often the case, Jones is just throwing out a reference to a source, assuming that his listeners will either not read the document or that they are just as loony as he is and will see in it what he tells them to see.

To anyone rational, all that is being offered here is paranoia and hogwash.

33 Responses to “The Myth of American Dictatorship”

  1. Sasha Says:
    July 22nd, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    I’d love to go into the many glaring assumptions that you make in this pseudo-news article, but I doubt that I’d be doing much more then wasting my time. You’d do well to get your head into reality and RPG some truth into what amounts to just poor journalism. You wanna start: 1933 fascist plot to overthrow America – look into the players.

  2. Dave Says:
    July 22nd, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Perhaps, like so many of the conspiracy devotees you’re all hat and no cattle? Surely you can easily provide some real evidence of this dictatorship we live in? The evidence ought to be all around us.


  3. Steve Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    I believe you hit the nail on the head when you said Alex assumes his listeners won’t actually read the document, but will just take what he says as gospel. It’s ironic to me that he calls everyone who doesn’t buy into his lunacy “sheep” when in fact it’s his blindly devoted listeners who are the real sheep!
    Keep up the good work, Dave!

  4. Mike Says:
    September 2nd, 2008 at 6:00 am

    Being as how I’ve read PDD 51 (which was difficult since I have no background in legalese) I know that the stipulations of the document only go into effect on a national emergency, and it still worries me. Why? Because the president gets to declare the emergency. Bush declared more emergencies in his eight years than any president before him, as a note.

    What REALLY worries me about the document is that what is available to the public at whitehouse.gov (and to members of congress) isn’t the full document. The rest is, perhaps understandably, classified (as it may contain protocols to relocate gov’t to particular locations that shouldn’t be known by the enemies that will have forced us into such a state). But given the steps this administration has taken expanding the powers of the executive branch, we have every reason to want to know what the rest of that document actually says.

    I like it when you rip on Alex Jones, but sometimes you border on dangerous naivete.

  5. Dave Nalle Says:
    September 2nd, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Mike, he may have declared more emergencies – though I’m not confident that is true – but he didn’t invoke that order in any of them, which argues against your thesis that he would abuse it.

    As for the secret parts, I actually discussed them about 6 months ago with someone who has read all the classified text and he was pretty confident that it was no more threatening than the part that’s available for public consumption. I’m not going to go into details, but I promise you he had no reason to lie and was beyond any threat of coercion by any conspiracy.


  6. Mike Says:
    September 2nd, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    To be totally honest most of those emergencies probably didn’t warrant being truly declared emergencies, as none of them have been in response to an act of terrorism or an attack on the United States. If we are to believe that there are terrorists who wish to do Americans harm, then why shouldn’t we be worried about what Bush would do in the event of the next 9/11 or actual military attack on our country? The context that the piece of information about the number of emergencies declared was that many of these events didn’t warrant being called emergencies… so we don’t really know.

    About your friend… it’s just hearsay (and somewhat hard to believe that members of the House Homeland Security Committee don’t know the contents of the classified portions of the document, but your source does). Not to say that either of you are lying or have any reason to lie, but evidence is what we as skeptics are supposed to rely on. Sy Hersh has sources in the intelligence community that reportedly told him the U.S. has been stepping up clandestine operations in Iran. Is that unbelievable or implausible? Absolutely not. We’ve been beating the Iranian war drum for over a year, Sy Hersh is a respected journalist, and the CIA have been involved in some seriously shady business, particularly in Iran (Mosaddeq, anyone?) But it’s just hearsay. Larry Lessig, a law professor at Stanford, recently said at a conference that over dinner with counter terrorism czar Richard Clarke, he questioned the rapidity with which the massive piece of legislation called the Patriot Act appeared after the events of 9/11, he was met with a response that it had been written long before 9/11 and was simply waiting for the appropriate event to be brought out. He was then told that there already exists an “i-Patriot Act” ready to make its way through congress following an “i-9/11.” Unbelievable? Absolutely not. Hearsay…? You get my point.

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