ORONO, Maine — The news that an Italian court convicted on Wednesday a base chief for the CIA and 22 other Americans for the crime of rendition was evidence that the executive branch of the U.S. government has too much power, activist and author David Swanson told a small group of people Thursday afternoon at the University of Maine.
The crime for which the Americans were convicted surrounded the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003, according to a story Wednesday in The New York Times. The cleric was flown from an American air base in Italy to a base in Germany and then on to Egypt, where he asserts that he was tortured, the newspaper said.
“Kidnapping is still a crime in some places, but not [to U.S. government operatives]. Here it’s not a crime,” said Swanson, who spoke in the Bangor Room of the Memorial Union as part of UMaine’s Socialist and Marxist Studies Series. Swanson is on tour supporting his new book, “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union.”
The incident in Italy may be one example that the executive branch of the U.S. government has too much power over other branches of the government and at times has overstepped Congress, he said.
“I think future presidents are going to have a huge impact on what happens in our country and in the rest of the world,” Swanson added, “and I think how future presidents behave is going to be determined above all by how they are permitted to behave, what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do.”
A Charlottesville, Va., resident, Swanson’s professional background includes a stint as press secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign and three years as communication coordinator for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.
Swanson is the co-founder of AfterDowningStreet.com and the creator of ProsecuteBushCheney.org, both of which seek to hold accountable President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for what Swanson’s sites contend are crimes of abuse of power such as the alleged torture of terror suspects.
Swanson said he believes the executive branch has overstepped its power to the point that “there’s this idea that Congress doesn’t exist anymore.”
“We can’t go protest wars now because that would be protesting a popular president, as if a war and a president were identical entities, when the Constitution gives Congress the responsibility to decide where and when we have wars,” he said.
The executive branch now has the power to spy on people without warrants, the power to imprison people with no charge or process, the power to torture, the power of rendition, as in the Italian case, and the power to “behave without fear of any sort of accountability, without impeachment, without prosecution,” Swanson said.
Swanson said he hopes Congress can assert its own powers over the executive branch to start a pullout from Iraq.
“The Congress last week gave their blessing to this end date of being out of Iraq at the end of 2011 and to their credit they require monthly reports from the Pentagon on how it’s going,” he said. “The question is what, if anything, will [Congress] do when those reports don’t come, aren’t honest, [and] don’t indicate a withdrawal but rather the maintenance of permanent cities we call bases.”
Swanson also was scheduled to speak Thursday evening at the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine in Bangor and will attend an anti-war rally at 5 p.m. in Portland’s Monument Square.