03/14/2007 03:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Whose Head Will Roll Next?

Does any of the following sound familiar?

A country's leader, facing a hostile legislature (hostile for many reasons, one being the ruinous debt the country faced due to financing a risky war), insists on his "absolutist" rights, which proclaim that the executive "is released from the laws" -- or that he can do anything he wants, since he's "above" the law. One of the ugliest manifestations of this is the use of letters issued by the executive (without a judge's review) used to indefinitely imprison or exile anyone the executive decrees -- with absolutely no legal recourse for the victims.

President George Bush should put down the books he's reportedly been reading on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and read up on the history of France's King Louis XVI instead. For Louis XVI (the last king of France before the revolution) is the executive described above.

Some historical facts are necessary here. From Wikipedia's definition of lettres de cachet:


In French history, lettres de cachet were letters signed by the king of France, countersigned by one of his ministers, and closed with the royal seal, or cachet. They contained orders directly from the king, often to enforce arbitrary actions and judgments that could not be appealed.

In the case of organized bodies lettres de cachet were issued for the purpose of preventing assembly or to accomplish some other definite act. The provincial estates were convoked in this manner, and it was by a lettre de cachet (in this case, a lettre de jussipri), or by showing in person in a lit de justice, that the king ordered a parlement (a court of justice) to register a law in the teeth of its own refusal to pass it.

The best-known lettres de cachet, however, were penal, by which a subject was sentenced without trial and without an opportunity of defense to imprisonment in a state prison or an ordinary jail, confinement in a convent or a hospital, transportation to the colonies, or expulsion to another part of the realm. The wealthy sometimes bought such lettres to dispose of unwanted individuals.


Now consider the following:

*   The French monarchy had Justinian law, which clearly stated: "Rex solutus est a legibus" ("The King is released from the laws"). George Bush had legal advisors John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales insisting on the concept of a "unitary executive" (basically, "the executive, especially in times of war, is absolute and must not defer to the other branches of government").

*   Pre-revolutionary France had lettres de jussipri. George Bush has "signing statements," where he explains why the law he is signing into effect doesn't really apply to him, or to his executive branch.

*   King Louis XVI could, with a single piece of paper, send you for life to an insane asylum, or perhaps exile you to the countryside or even the colonies. George Bush has "extraordinary rendition."

*   Louis XVI could chuck you into the Bastille for no reason whatsoever (other than his own whim), and he could keep you there as long as he wished, with no judicial oversight. George Bush has "enemy combatants," and Guantánamo Bay.

*   The French king handed out patronage jobs to political allies and close friends. George Bush hired plenty of people just like Michael "heck of a job" Brown (who headed FEMA even though he had virtually no qualifications), and had Alberto Gonzales fire his own Republican federal prosecutors for not being loyal enough (ironically enough, today's scandal du jour).

*   There's one parallel that doesn't quite fit this mold, however. George Bush sent our country from being in surplus to being heavily in deficit in order to pay for a very expensive and risky war and (incidentally) to give lots of tax breaks to rich folks. France had a huge debt not (as you might think) because they were screwing poor people to make the aristocracy richer, but because they had just spent all their money financing a risky proxy war against their hated enemies, the British. The French, to a large extent, financed the American Revolution (it's true... we'd all still be drinking tea and singing "God Save The Queen" today if not for the French). The French Revolution may not have even taken place (or may have been postponed by decades) if their treasury wasn't bare due to footing the bill for America's war of independence.


Such comparisons became even more embarrassingly obvious with the recent release of a report by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's Inspector General. The report concerns "National Security Letters" (NSLs) which can be issued by the FBI and are the equivalent of a search warrant. The very existence of NSLs is a blatant end-run around the fourth amendment to the Constitution, of course; but that's an old argument that goes back to the beginning of the Cold War, when the first National Security Acts started shredding constitutional rights in the name of "national security." In today's world, the magic word is "terrorism" and anyone the FBI deems even tangentially "relevant" to a terrorism case can be targeted by these NSLs. This has been widely reported (even in the conservative press), and subsequently condemned by the mainstream media ever since the story broke late last week.

Over 150,000 of these letters have been issued in the past three years, up from only 8,500 issued in 2000. Many were "exigent" or "emergency" letters which didn't even have to go through the few requirements a normal NSL would have -- a single signature on an "exigent" letter gave the FBI search warrant powers wherever they wanted. According to the report, the FBI "seriously misused" these powers. Not that they're admitting it, mind you -- the FBI only owned up to a total of 26 cases of misuse to a review board; but the Inspector General found 17 cases in only the 77 he reviewed -- a percentage that (if it held consistent) would mean over 33,000 of the 150,000 total would be classified as abuses of power.

Historically, back in 1789 France (just before the revolution broke out), towns, villages, professional guilds and corporations were invited to present cahiers de doléances (or lists of grievances) for discussion to the imminent States-General meeting (kind of like today's lobbying). From one example, from the town of Vire:

"12. That the liberty of citizens be protected, no lettre de cachet may be accorded except upon demand of families appearing before the local judge; that the governors and commandants of the provinces may not, under any circumstances, restrict the liberty of citizens there residing without a preliminary hearing by a competent judge." [26 Feb. 1789]

The bit about families was due to one of the most prominent abuses of the day, in which a rich relative might have you locked up for any reason whatsoever, in order to "save the family's honor." The Marquis de Sade was probably the most famous of these prisoners (he got on the wrong side of his wealthy mother-in-law), but by no means the only one.

Back in modern times, if you think the FBI and the whole national security apparatus is above spying on the political enemies of the president, or really, whoever the president wishes, then you should do a little reading about the COINTELPRO program and what the Church Committee found (or just read the official Senate Church Committee summary). Absolute power corrupts absolutely, every time.

Recently, FBI Director Robert Mueller bravely tried to take charge of the growing scandal: "I am the person responsible, I am the person accountable, and I am committed to ensuring that we correct these deficiencies and live up to these responsibilities."

But as I suggested to President Bush earlier, he might want to read up on the history of the French Revolution. I direct his attention now to the consequences of such executive excess... because things didn't work out so well for Louis XVI and his advisors.

Due in part to the French Revolution (and Docteur Guillotin's efficient namesake invention), we have a phrase that works just as well figuratively today as it did literally back then: "Heads will roll." The scandal-hungry citizenry is now eagerly anticipating which high-ranking Bush official will be the next to resign in disgrace. (Will it be Karl Rove? Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace? Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? FBI Director Mueller? Place your bets!)

Because we're all looking over Madame Defarge's shoulder at this point, to see which name she knits next.


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