This post presents an "October surprise" scenario, which, in itself, may be improbable, but serves to illustrate a way that the current administration might abuse its power in a last minute effort to influence the outcome of the November presidential election.
This mid-October afternoon is sunny, mild and breezy, the kind of weather Atlantans pray for all summer long. Barack Obama is up in the national polls and, more to the point, is developing a significant lead in the electoral college nose count. The McCain-Palin character assassination machine has been revving its engine, but so far has succeeded only in further damaging the public's opinion of the Republican candidates, themselves.
It would seem that we Obama-backing Democrats would at last be able breathe a sigh of relief, or, at least, be able to let down our guard a bit. Sadly, that is not the case. Although the McCain campaign team may have shot its political wad, the man in charge at the White House - Dick Cheney, that is - has a couple of tricks left up his sleeve, and, if his track record is any indication, he won't hesitate to use them.
The Cheney-Bush administration has played fast and loose with the law - both domestic and international - these past 8 years. They have brazenly defied the Constitution (for example, with presidential signing statements) when it suits them, but they have, at times, preferred to exploit the cloaks of executive privilege and of national security to provide them with the political cover and, more importantly, the get-away time that they need to accomplish their goals. Thus they cooked the intelligence community books with regard to Saddam Hussein and his alleged possession of nuclear and chemical arms, knowing full well that by the time their claims about WMD were revealed to be false, the invasion of Iraq would be a done deal.
Dick Cheney is not the sort of man to sit on his hands with the election of Barack Obama looming. If he can do anything within the limits of the law (at least, his interpretation of the law), anything that provides him with sufficient plausible deniability to dodge accusations of wrong-doing in the short run, he will act to attempt to frustrate a Democratic victory. The question remains is how he might manipulate circumstances to such an end.
Here is one scenario among many possible ones.
On October 8th Judge Ricardo Urbina of Federal District Court in Washington ordered the release of 17 Uighur detainees, Chinese nationals who had been taken into custody by U.S. forces during its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and held in detention at Guantánamo Bay since then. From all appearances, they have not violated any U.S. laws or could they be construed in any demonstrable way to be combatants against this country. Meanwhile Judge Urbina's order has been stayed by an appeals panel, and the timing of a resolution of the question of the release of these prisoners remains in question.
What happens if the panel's stay is rescinded by late October and the decision to proceed with the release of the prisoners is upheld by a higher court? What happens. then, if the administration refuses to comply with the orders of this court by claiming, that the ruling undermines the security interests of the United States and will lead to the release of all prisoners from Guantánamo? What happens, next, when outraged citizens take to the streets of Washington, D.C. to protest these egregious violations by the administration of the Constitutional protections of individual liberty and the established balance of power between the three branches of government?
What happens is this. The Department of Homeland security, accountable to no one outside the executive branch, with the active encouragement of the Vice President of the United States, makes a determination that, because of civil unrest in the nation's capital, and because of the threat posed by the impending release from Gitmo of a large number of declared enemies of this country, and because of other reliable intelligence reports, the national threat level be raised from yellow to orange, indicating a high risk of terrorist attack.
What happens is this. John McCain, who has by now become an old hand at suspending his campaign, does just that so that he can rush back to Washington and assume the role of acting anti-terrorism commander-in-chief, hoping, of course, for better results than his previous auditions as acting market meltdown bailout deal closer and acting Hurricane Gustav emergency response manager during the Republican nominating convention.
There's no telling whether creating such an atmosphere of fear, which would leverage off the slander of Obama "palling around with terrorists" that Sarah Palin has been spreading this past week, will play to the GOP advantage, but the effectiveness of this kind of maneuver is consistent with the widely held belief that, once people enter the voting booth, fear trumps reason. McCain's military service experience will once again be marched front and center in a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate his dying presidential bid, and some undecided voters will find that reassuring enough.
This kind of corruption of our national security and intelligence apparatus exploited by this administration to support the invasion of Iraq might not prove to be a winning tactic for Cheney and his neocon crew in their attempts to influence the general election, but it may be the only card that they have left to play come the end of October. It seems that as election day approaches we should genuinely be on alert - alert that is to the potential abuse of the national threat level alert system.