On October 25, 1983, the first of 7,000 U.S. troops landed on the shore of Grenada under the command of President Ronald Reagan. The goal of the mission? Put down a violent coup that threatened to put the country in the Communist bloc and give the Soviet Union another foothold in America’s backyard.
Just as President Reagan acted decisively to protect American interests in 1983, so too must America today be prepared to respond to the threats of terrorist forces in the wake of September 11, 2001. But who bears the responsibility for ensuring America’s security? The President? Congress? Today at The Heritage Foundation, former U.S. Attorneys General Edwin Meese III, John D. Ashcroft, and Michael B. Mukasey will discuss that question and their views on the Constitution as it pertains to presidential power and the role of Congress and the Supreme Court during war time. (Click here to watch the event live online from 12 to 1 PM ET.)
Following September 11, questions of the proper balance between Congress and the President–as well as the role of the courts–came to the fore. Issues including the capture and treatment of detainees, interrogation techniques, surveillance, the Geneva Conventions, wiretapping, Guantanamo, or the role of the courts during war time all became subjects of intense debate–and the 2008 presidential election.
The question of who is responsible for America’s security dates back to the Declaration of Independence, which announced the sovereignty of the United States and, with it, the “full Power to levy War.” The Framers viewed the security of the nation to be the federal government’s foremost responsibility, and it devised a series of checks and balances to ensure that the powers reside neither in committee alone nor the hands of just one person. Meese describes that balance in a special Understanding America report:
In theory, these delegations give rise to a tension between the President and the Congress. The former has ultimate discretion over the deployment of soldiers and nearly all aspects of the conduct of war. The latter holds the power of the purse, by which it may stymie executive initiative. Yet in practice, rather than stand in opposition, the two branches’ respective powers over national security have proved complementary, and rare disputes have been settled in compromise, not duel.
That control of the greatest force ever known to mankind should be governed by compromise for over two centuries would be a miracle if it were not by design.
Meese also points to the President’s authority under the Constitution to act swiftly and decisively in ensuring America’s security as a key element of the Founders’ genius design. It is a power that enabled Reagan to execute the Grenada operation, and it is a power that will help the President protect America in the wake of September 11.
Though the Framers could never have imagined the events of September 11, 2001, or the terrorist forces that have made America their enemy, they built a republic that could endure and defeat all external threats and prosper. The war on terrorism, being fought against an enemy with few assets and dead aim on soft targets, has only increased the importance of swiftness and secrecy.
The President has the power, and bears the responsibility, to make tough decisions at a moment’s notice–whether to trust fresh but uncertain intelligence, bomb an al-Qaeda safe house, target a terrorist for drone attack, or arrest a terror suspect. These decisions are not subject to legislative check or veto. Nor, in an age where a rogue state or stateless terrorist group may threaten the lives of million of Americans, could they be, if the safety of the nation is to be maintained.
James Madison wrote, “Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society. It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.” Today, as America continues its worldwide fight against terrorist forces, it is vital to remember who is ultimately responsible for America’s security, what the Constitution provides, and what the Founders intended.