By Timothy Villareal
According to the initial reports in the New York Times last year, the Obama administration was aiming for “plausible deniability” when it launched a cyber war on the Iranian nuclear weapons installations. (Author’s note: Those who deny Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, not nuclear energy, tend to be the same people who refuse to publicly address Israel’s nuclear weapons aresenal, in effect, turning a blind-eye to both.)
Given the dire repercussions of warfare, be it of the cyber variety like Stuxnet or the bullet variety, it would seem that a self-respecting democracy would afford itself some role in the decision of whether to go to war in the first place. According to Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, “Were a foreign country to disable the U. S. nuclear arsenal through cyber attack, we would most assuredly consider it an act of war. We should not be surprised that a foreign country might consider a U. S.-orchestrated cyber attack against its nuclear program in a similar light.”
Americans would do well to ask the following question: How did we get from Point A) a government supposedly by and for the people, to Point B) a government that is willing to engage in de facto acts of war – all without the consent of the governed?
Arguing for the Constitution in Federalist No. 46, James Madison admonished the Anti-Federalists by writing, “They [Anti-Federalists ] must be told that the ultimate authority, wherever the derivative may be found, resides in the people alone, and that it will not depend merely on the comparative ambition or address of the different governments, whether either, or which of them, will be able to enlarge its sphere of jurisdiction at the expense of the other. Truth, no less than decency, requires that the event in every case should be supposed to depend on the sentiments and sanction of their common constituents.”
It goes without saying that the American people have never been engaged on the question of whether the advantages of launching a cyber attack against Iran’s nuclear installations outweigh the disadvantages, namely the potential for a retaliatory attack by Iran; an attack that could be just as “plausibly deniable” as the one our own government launched.
The framers of the Constitution rightly vested Congress with the power to declare war on other nations; a necessary and proper instrument to avoid a descent into de facto monarchical rule, of which executive warmongering is a most essential ingredient. But principles, including separation of powers, when in any way tethered to magical thinking, lose their force. The United States Senate, treasured by many as a bulwark against a tyrannical, or potentially tyrannical, Executive branch is anything but.
The recent cyber war is a prime example of the Senate’s failure. The unresolved questions of international law vis-à-vis cyber attacks aside, the reported action against Iran clearly had a military aim – to disrupt Iran’s de facto military installations – and therefore the question must be asked: Has the modern United States Senate – that “august” guarantor of state sovereignty -done anything whatsoever to rein in the Executive branch’s unilateral war making abilities toward foreign nations, including cyber war-making?
On the contrary, instead of seeking legislation to rein in the Executive branch’s ability to launch secret de facto wars against foreign nations, which could ignite similar retaliations upon us, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has passed, overwhelmingly, a bill to prevent Executive branch whistleblowers from speaking with journalists. Among other disclosures, the leaks that informed the American people that our government has indeed engaged in a cyber war against a foreign nation, which could invite retaliation, serves as the basis for the U.S. Senate’s crackdown on executive branch truth-tellers – as if we need less, not more of them. (After the Senate Intelligence Committee passed the bill a media furor erupted. Bill Keller of the New York Times and others identified the dranconian nature of the bill. Senator Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is now “seeking alternatives” to the bill.)
As Madison wrote, “Truth, no less than decency, requires that the event in every case should be supposed to depend on the sentiments and sanction of their common constituents.” The United States Senate in 2012, as an institution, has no grounds on which to base its implicit claim: namely, that the states its members supposedly represent have sanctioned, or would sanction, taking the entire Republic not only into the dangerous realm of offensive cyberwar – a realm in which frenzied actions outpace intellectual consideration – but into that even more dangerous zone of politics that the framers rightly warned against: the ability of the Executive branch to take the entire nation into foreign wars without the consent of the governed.
To suggest that the existing structure of the United States Senate has done anything to safeguard the independence of states in the face of an overbearing federal government is magical thinking indeed.