One of the common misconceptions about the United States is that the federal government is a “limited government,” unlike tyrannical regimes, which are characterized as “omnipotent government” or “unlimited government.”
Limited government means that the government’s powers are limited in nature and scope. Omnipotent or unlimited government means that the government can do whatever it wants.
Limited government certainly was the founding principle of the U.S. government. That’s what the Constitution was all about. By enumerating the powers that the federal government would be permitted to exercise, the Framers were establishing limited government. The first ten amendments to the Constitution further restricted the powers of the federal government.
Yet, how can anyone really say that the United States is still characterized by limited government?
Consider the CIA, which is one of the premier agencies of the U.S. government. It wields the power to kidnap people, incarcerate them in secret prisons anywhere in the world, torture them, rendition them to friendly tyrannical regimes, or assassinate them.
There are no limitations on the exercise of such powers.
How do you get more unlimited than that?
One might say that the CIA doesn’t do any of these things on its own initiative but rather only on the orders of the president.
But even if that’s true, what difference does it make? It simply means that the president’s powers are unlimited and that he has the means — the CIA and, for that matter, the enormous military establishment — at his disposal to exercise those unlimited powers.
Does the CIA’s unlimited power extend to Americans?
Of course it does. That’s what the assassinations of Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman were all about. The CIA assassinated both of them.
Or consider the 3-year incarceration and torture of Jose Padilla, another American citizen, at the hands of the U.S. military.
What is important to understand is that under U.S. national-security law, neither the president nor his national-security officials has to answer to anyone for incarcerations, torture, or assassinations. If surviving family members file wrongful death actions, the federal courts will summarily throw them out of court to ensure that the wall of national-security protection that the CIA and Pentagon have been built around themselves is never penetrated.
The Congress doesn’t get involved because that would mean tangling with the CIA, and few congressmen want to go down that road. And even if a congressman were to demand an investigation, the CIA and the Pentagon have sufficient power and influence over Congress to easily squelch or limit a full investigation.
Moreover, the president and the CIA can easily decline to respond to congressional inquiries into assassinations, detention, and torture by simply citing “executive privilege” or “we’re at war and I’m the president.” The Congress and, for that matter, the federal judiciary effectively lack the actual power to enforce subpoenas in an actual confrontation with the military and the CIA.
Consider the executions of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. They were both American citizens. They were living in Chile in 1973 when U.S. officials decided to take them out. Rather than do the dirty deed themselves, U.S. officials, likely operating under CIA orders, got Chilean military brutes to murder both men. To this day, the CIA refuses to release all its records on the Chilean coup and the Horman and Teruggi executions, on grounds of “national security,” and there isn’t anyone in the federal government willing or able to force the CIA to release such records.
Needless to say, no one has ever been brought to U.S. justice for those two murders, owing to the wall of protection that has been constructed around national-security state operations. When Horman’s widow filed suit for wrongful death in federal court, the federal judiciary summarily dismissed her case on grounds of “national security,” refusing to permit her to depose federal officials.
One might say that since it’s only the CIA and the military — i.e., the national-security establishment — that wield unlimited power, that doesn’t make the entire government an unlimited government. But of course it does. All that is necessary for a government to be unlimited is to have only one agency that has unlimited power. That then will be the point of the spear. All other government agencies will be operating in support.
Someone else might say that even though the federal government wields the unlimited power to deprive people of their lives, it lacks the unlimited power to deprive them of their property.
But that’s not exactly the case. With having the power to set the percentage of income taxes people pay, the government actually does wield the power to take as much of people’s income it wants. In an “emergency,” especially one in which the government is broke, there is nothing that could legally prevent the federal government from seizing 70,80, 90, or even 100 percent of people’s income. That’s about as unlimited as a government can get.
Moreover, let’s not forget the federal government’s seizure of people’s gold coins during the economic emergency known as the Great Depression, a seizure that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Once that precedent was established, the nationalization of property was added to the arsenal of unlimited powers that the federal government now wields.
What all too many Americans fail (or refuse) to comprehend is the extent to which the embrace of the welfare state and the warfare state transformed the nature of the U.S. government, especially from a government of limited powers to one of unlimited powers, one that now wields the same omnipotent powers exercised by tyrannical regimes.