Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2011

Presidential Power In An Age Of Terror

Abraham Wagner

May 2011

Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies


Questions about Presidential or executive power and its abuse, particularly in times of national crisis, have been recurring at least since the time of Lincoln. Important examples can be seen at the time of World War I during the Palmer raids; during World War II with the internment of Japanese Americans; as well as an attempt to nationalize the steel mills during the Korean War. Following the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on the U.S., the Bush Administration embarked on military campaigns, in Afghanistan and Iraq in a “Global War on Terror,” seeking to deal with both foreign and domestic threats. The Bush administration fearlessly used the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) statute to run roughshod over the Constitution, federal law, and anything else that stood in their path to “making the nation safe.” While their ultimate objectives may have been noble, the path taken leaves questions as to their ultimate legality, as well as whether they were operationally useful. The most serious concerns here include: (1) the detainment of foreign nationals; (2) torture of prisoners and detainees; and (3) domestic surveillance programs intended to aid counter-terrorism efforts. The Supreme Court has already ruled that some of Bush’s actions were unconstitutional, and others are still before the federal courts. This was not the first time the president exceeded constitutional limits in a time of crisis, and there can be no guarantee that it will be the last. The nation has survived intact, and is not sliding into a great constitutional abyss where American core values have been damaged beyond repair. Given the relative transparency of the actions taken, and the speed with which the courts dealt with the problem, future presidents will certainly be aware that abusing the Constitution cannot be done in secret for long, if at all, and that such new transparency and enhanced oversight will constrain Presidential abuses in the future, even if they cannot be eliminated forever.