by Chris Edelson, Assistant Professor of Government, American University School of Public Affairs
In March 2009, about a month after President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left office, Scott Horton declared that “[w]e may not have realized it, but in the period from late 2001-January 19, 2009, this country was a dictatorship. That was thanks to secret memos crafted deep inside the Justice Department that effectively trashed the Constitution.” Some of the most infamous of these memos were drafted by John Yoo, an Office of Legal Counsel attorney from 2001-2003. Yoo and others – most notably, Cheney’s counsel, David Addington – advanced the unitary executive theory, a theory of presidential power Cheney had personally favored for decades.
The unitary executive theory, as implemented by the Bush administration, was claimed to justify effectively unchecked presidential power over the use of military force, the detention and interrogation of prisoners, extraordinary rendition and intelligence gathering. According to the unitary executive theory, since the Constitution assigns the president all of “the executive power”, he can set aside laws that attempt to limit his power over national security. This is an enormous power: critics charge that it effectively places the president above the law. Advocates of broad presidential power argue it is necessary to defend the nation against the threat posed by terrorism.