Sometimes paranoid people aren’t completely delusional.
Conspiracy theorists were driven to frenzy when the Bush White House quietly issued National Security Presidential Directive 51 (NSPD 51) back in May 2007. The purpose of the Directive was to enunciate roles and responsibilities for keeping the federal government functioning in the event of a man-made or natural disaster. Some viewed it as an attempt by Bush (and Cheney) to lay the legal groundwork for extending their term in office past January 2009.
On its face, NSPD 51 appeared to be a rational and prudent measure in the age of terror. In the event of a national emergency, it designates the President as the coordinator of a cooperative effort among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches ‘to preserve our constitutional framework.’ All executive branch departments and agencies are tasked with developing continuity plans to maintain operations in the event of an emergency. The Directive names the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security as the National Continuity Coordinator. It even covers such benign items as directing the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that each agency has adequate funding to develop continuity plans.
What had the conspiracy community buzzing when the Directive was first issued was the potential for the Bush Administration to use the measure to indefinitely remain in office. The scenario they painted looked something like this: A minor security incident would occur around the time of the November elections. Citing security concerns, President Bush would invoke NSPD 51 to suspend the elections. Months go by but the President still would refuse to declare an end to the crisis and America would be stuck with Bush as President in perpetuity. The more hard-core Bush haters believed the Administration would actually manufacture a catastrophic incident in order to trigger NSPD 51.
While it was not inconceivable to believe that Messrs. Bush and Cheney would have liked to keep their former jobs, it was difficult to imagine the American people sheepishly going along with this scenario. President Bush was effectively fired in November 2006, and remained deeply unpopular for the remaining two years of his term. Had Bush invoked NSPD 51 as a ploy to remain in power, one could have easily imagined nationwide strikes and boycotts, Moveon.org membership tripling overnight and ‘Go Back to Texas NOW!’ bumper stickers flying off the store shelves. Perhaps the loudest protest would have come from John McCain and Republican members of Congress who, upon seeing their beloved GOP brand on life support, would have joined the call for the President to step aside. Bush would have been forced to hold the election to choose his successor, most likely mere days after he initially invoked NSPD 51.
With Bush back in Texas and Obama safely ensconced in the White House, does this mean we have nothing more to worry about from this seemingly innocuous document? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
The language of NSPD 51 is much too vague to be relied upon as the basis for constitutional government in an emergency. It invests the President with seemingly unlimited powers. The definition of ‘catastrophic emergency’ is so broad that the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma could conceivably be interpreted by the President as a triggering event. The duties of Congress and the Supreme Court are not enumerated, other than to say that they are to work in a cooperative manner with the President in a spirit of ‘comity’ or goodwill, a bit of a stretch in this age of hyper partisanship. Oversight of the executive branch is conspicuously absent. Perhaps most disturbing are the secret annexes to NSPD 51 that were not published because of ‘national security concerns.' What additional information is hidden in these annexes is anyone’s guess and the Bush Administration refused to allow even some members of Congress who sit on the Homeland Security Committee to view them.
The real danger of a document like NSPD 51 is in the hands of a President who is coming to the end of his or her two terms, has high approval ratings and is significantly more popular than either the Democratic or Republican candidates vying for the job. If such a President were to invoke NSPD 51, the majority of Americans might actually let it stand, blithely going about their business, content that the country is in the hands of someone they know and, ironically, trust. Now that’s a scenario worth worrying about.