Can the secret service override the president?

■ Politics by secret order: Reagan issued a total of 300 secret orders, and Bush is following suit

Eve Pell

In spite of 200 years of civil liberty and popular sovereignty, how does the United States manage to sabotage other governments that it does not value? How do they manage to stifle the voices of their government employees and launch invasions of foreign countries without informing their citizens? How do US politicians, who teach every foreigner about the superiority of our form of democracy, manage to carry out clandestine operations that would not stand up to public discussion or the constitutional legislative and control process?

The justification for excluding citizens is always "national security": it is about survival, about things that are too complicated for the common man. The government argues that in such a case a public discussion would only benefit “the other side”, whereas totalitarian regimes could be hindered in their dictatorship through democratic processes.

For the execution of such unpopular and, from a legal point of view, extremely questionable operations, use is usually made of a little-known institution, a hyper-secret decree called the National Security Decision Directive (NSDD, for example: instruction notice regarding national security). An NSDD gives the president a great deal of leeway to act unilaterally in questions of foreign policy - or wherever he sees national security threatened.

These secret decisions have brought the United States some of the most dramatic complications of the past 40 years: in Cuba, Vietnam, Lebanon and Grenada, men and women have fought and died as a result of such directives. And yet most US citizens have no idea about this political tool that can intervene so effectively in their lives.

In his eight-year tenure, Ronald Reagan has issued about 300 NSDDs, and George Bush is about to follow suit. According to Harold Relyea, a government expert on research at the Library of Congress, "the President can use one of these directives to bring us to war."

An NSDD slipped $ 19 million into the CIA to arm and train the Contra, and it was also an NSDD that detonated an American car bomb in Beirut, killing 80 civilians in a failed anti-terrorist murder attempt. The invasion of Grenada was ordered by an NSDD. And it was an NSDD that forced millions of employees and contractors of the US government to sign confidentiality agreements. According to a report in the Washington Post, it was also an NSDD that forced NASA to tightly schedule space shuttle flights and thus probably contributed to the Challenger disaster.

The NSDD instructions are only published at the highest level of the executive. Unlike presidential executive directives, which are published in the Federal Register, or intelligence reports to the president, which the Congressional Intelligence Committee is informed of, NSDDs do not need to be disclosed to any other agency or government agency. The level of secrecy is absolutely astonishing: of the 300 orders of Reagan, only 50 have been fully or partially revealed by the National Security Council, which decides on the possible publication of NSDDs without any other bodies or controls.

The legal basis of the NSDD instructions is vague. The National Security Act of 1947, formulated at the beginning of the Cold War, implicitly allows the President to issue national security policy papers; the right to formulate political directives is traditionally granted to the president as a principle of power. In the course of time, general statements on politics have finally turned into concrete directives which - according to a recently published congressional report - can determine national policy and authorize the use of federal funds.

Secret instructions, which have become known through official announcements or through the press, show their broad spectrum. To name just a few: There are NDSSs on the use of nuclear weapons, on Central America, Star Wars, dealing with secret reports, arms deals, civil defense, food aid abroad, summits and the war between Iran and Iraq. However, it is still not known in which areas the largest part, the 200 Reagan NSDDs that are still secret, happened; not even its subject may yet be revealed.

And what could these 200 secret orders be about? Is there perhaps a plan how the constitution can be suspended in the event of large-scale demonstrations against the government? Are old military bases being prepared as concentration camps for political opponents and illegal foreigners? In the past eight years there have been repeated articles in the press suggesting the existence of such plans in one of the still secret NSDDs. Have laws and regulations or publicly announced measures been undermined and sabotaged by secret instructions from the President? Who actually determines the people who carry out such orders? What percentage of the tax money is spent on paying them? The American citizen just doesn't know.

In the past, these national security directives were called differently, but their power was no less great. The National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) number 31 of President John F.Kennedy allowed the invasion of Cuba; Lyndon B. Johnson's NSAM 273 expanded the war in Southeast Asia by allowing it to invade Laos. Truman's NSC-68, enacted in 1950 and kept secret for 25 years, opened the door to breaking the law in the name of “national security”. It said: "The integrity of our system will not be called into question by any action, be it overt or secret, violent or non-violent, the task of which is to thwart the Kremlin's plans."

Recommended were "secret operations in the field of economic, political and psychological warfare with the perspective of wiping out unrest and revolts in selected satellite states".

Under Reagan's presidency, secret orders became the basis of covert government. According to Congressional Library expert Relyea, Reagan's NSDDs took shape in a number of ways. Some were initially granted at the middle administrative level, passed through various bodies of the National Security Council, by which they were reformulated, and then came back to the Oval Office as a secret resolution of the presidential advisers. Others emerged from ad hoc discussions between the President and his advisers, where they were worded on the fly.

“The NSDDs indicate a very dubious shift in the place where a federal decision is traditionally made. The players come from the individual states, the defense and justice sectors, and they all make their political cut, ”says Scott Armstrong of the National Security Archive in Washington. “The National Security Council, the highest body for inter-ministerial decision-making, coordinates the various areas; and since its director acts without a supervisory authority, this process bypasses Congress entirely. Articles 1 and 2 of the constitution are repealed, because this is where the executive makes laws. "

Despite this questionable legal basis, very few civil organizations involved in government observation have ever asked questions about the use of the NSDDs. An exception is the group "People for the American Way", whose 270,000 members deal with freedom of communication and censorship in the USA. The organization published an investigation summarizing that secret instructions support "illegal politics"; the group's lawyer recommended to a Senate committee that NSDDs should in all cases be reported to Congress.

Only a few members of the congress have taken an open position against the NSDDs. Texas MP Jack Brook, who called them "secret laws," asked the White House in March 1987 for a list of all NSDDs since 1981. The White House refused. The former Congress Speaker (for example: Speaker of Parliament) Jim Wright, who had also campaigned for a list, argued in his motion: “Congress cannot express itself on questions of national security if these are negotiated behind closed doors by the executive branch be. ”He was also denied insight into the secret instructions.

Representative Louis Stokes, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the NSDDs are "sometimes the only documents about secret political measures". He asks, "Is America's secret policy really the same as it is known about in areas as sensitive as terrorism (and) secret paramilitary operations?" Congress, he said, should know. California Congressman Anthony Beilenson said that members of his committee had requested NSDDs from the White House and were phased out on the grounds that the directives were "Presidential Documents." In his opinion, the secrecy of the NSDDs prevented Congress from having a realistic insight into national security policy.

Other critics such as Allan Adler of the ACLU (Washington) suggest that the existence of the directives is not so much the problem; its abuse by overzealous presidents or the national security council is dangerous. The White House's argument that the NSDDs merely provided confidential instructions from the President to his staff does not hold out. Because even if Ronald Reagan has withdrawn to his ranch, his NSDD 84 continues to bind millions of government employees to their oaths of secrecy (against the express wish of Congress). The NSDD secret orders have de facto become the state's legislative vehicle in matters of national security.

Perhaps in 20 years we will know what exactly is the secret legacy of Ronald Reagan, which he left behind in his 200 NSDDs that have not yet been released. Until then, however, nobody knows which time bombs may be behind it.

On February 2, 1989, George Bush renamed the presidential secret laws. They are now called National Security Directives, or NSDs. So far he has published at least one on the subject of “Afghan freedom fighters”. Its content is of course secret.

Eve Pell is a journalist at the Center for Investigative Journalism in San Francisco. This text is the abridged version of an article that first appeared in 'The Nation'. The research was funded by the “For Constitutional Government” fund and the “Public Concern” foundation.

(As a reminder: the entire federal parliament of the United States, the “Congress”, consists of two chambers, the “Senate” and the “House of Representatives.” Only in the much larger “House of Representatives” the Democrats currently have one Substantial majority. The "ruling party, ie party of the president, is the republican party, the official seat of the president is called the" White House "or" Oval Office ". UR)