President Bush

On Tuesday, July 17, President Bush issued an executive order that could be interpreted to outlaw anti-war protest.

This new executive order empowering the federal government to freeze the assets of people who threaten Iraq’s stability and its government is so broad it could be applied to any domestic opponent of the Iraq war who has assets in the U.S., charges a former Reagan administration official.

White House press secretary Tony Snow explained the order targets terrorist and insurgent groups not covered by existing authorities who come across the border from countries such as Iran and Syria.

But constitutional lawyer Bruce Fein charged the order violates the Fifth Amendment’s requirement that no person shall be deprived of property without due process of law. Fein, associate deputy attorney general under Reagan, asserts it “empowers the president to destroy anyone he says plays a significant risk of undermining the rehabilitation or political reform in Iraq.”

“The is a stunning assertion of executive power that creates a Sword of Damocles over anyone opposed to the war or otherwise who might come under the umbrage of the president,” Fein told me.

Last year, Fein testified in favor of a Senate resolution to censure Bush for authorizing the National Security Agency to monitor without a warrant some U.S.-based calls with suspected links to terrorists.

Bush’s new order authorizes government agencies to freeze the property of anyone who has committed or might plan acts of violence in Iraq. It also targets anyone seeking to disrupt reconstruction efforts or harm humanitarian workers in the country.

Entitled “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Who Threaten Stabilization Efforts in Iraq,” the first paragraph of the order justifies the president freezing private property of offenders because of “the unusual and extraordinary threat to national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by acts of violence threatening the peace and stability of Iraq.”

The Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Stuart Levey, argues the order will help the U.S. cut down on the flow of money aiding insurgents.

“There are now groups or individuals that we will now be able to target that would have been difficult prior to this executive order,” Levey said. “For example, Shia militia groups linked to Iran, Sunni insurgent groups that are taking sanctuary in Syria and indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups that are not covered under pre-existing authorities.”

But Fein insists the executive order is “so sweeping and broad that it permits the president to threaten virtually anybody who opposes our policy in Iraq.”

“It’s significantly likely that someone could give money or other support to someone in Iraq who may then try to undermine [Prime Minister Nouri] Malaki, and then you’re guilty,” he said. “Or maybe you criticize Iraq and that creates political convulsions that threaten the new Iraqi constitution.”

Said Fein: “The frightening thing about this executive order is that there is no opportunity to respond. There isn’t even a requirement that when the president identifies you as a tainted person whose assets can’t be used that you even have to be notified.

“These are (more) fundamental violations of any precept of the rule of law than has ever been witnessed in any previous conflict, and the Iraqi war is hardly the Civil War or World War II,” said Fein.

The problem is the language of the executive order is reminiscent of the World War I-era “Alien and Sedition Acts” that defined anti-war crimes so broadly that vigorous political dissent was outlawed.

The socialist labor activist Eugene V. Debs was convicted and sent to prison for 10 years under the Espionage Act of 1917 for giving a speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, in which he opposed World War I and urged resistance to the draft.

While the July 17 executive order does not specifically define criminal penalties, it allows the seizure of the private property of those persons who are found to have damaged the war effort or impeded the process of Iraqi reconstruction.

The order allows the president to order the executive branch to seize the private property of violators, abrogating important Fifth Amendment protections that no person shall be deprived of property without due process of law.

The new executive order follows a series of orders Bush has issued under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, similarly “blocking the property” of people who threaten stability in Darfur, Zimbabwe , Ivory Coast , Syria , Belarus , Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of these countries, the only one in which the U.S. is directly involved in a war is Iraq.

Under the executive order involving Syria, the Treasury Department on Jan. 18, 2006, designated Syrian Military Intelligence Director Assef Shawkat as a supporter of terrorism, contending he maintained close ties with Lebanese and Palestinian organizations. Making this determination, Treasury froze any assets Shawkat may have had under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibited any American from engaging in transactions with him.

The IEEPA already authorizes the president to declare an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the U.S. that originates in whole or in part outside the country and seize property of any persons viewed to be attacking the country.

Bush’s order of last week expands the powers under several previous executive orders he has issued:

  • Executive Order 13303 (May 22, 2003), which declared a national emergency to protect the Development Fund for Iraq;

  • Executive Order 13315 (Aug. 28, 2003), which expanded the scope of the national emergency to block the property of the former Iraqi regime and its senior officers, as well as their family members;

  • Executive Order 13350 (July 29, 2004), which expanded the previous executive orders on Iraq to include persons associated in the past with the prior Iraqi regime; and

  • Executive Order 13364 (Nov. 29, 2004), which expanded the previous executive orders to include transactions undertaken by the Central Bank of Iraq.

While the thrust of these orders has been to block the property of foreigners involved in disrupting U.S. objectives, the language of the July 17 executive order is not limited to foreign nationals.

The White House did not return a phone call asking why this new executive order on Iraq was needed now. What additional powers does the July 17 executive order give the executive branch that the previous executive orders did not grant?

One answer appears to be that the July 17 executive order appears the broadest of all these executive orders, applying to anyone who could be tied to acts of violence that adversely affect peace, reconstruction or the continuity of the Iraqi government.

Still unanswered is what specific threat the Bush administration anticipates having to deal with in Iraq that the previous, similar executive orders on Iraq did not address.

Related special offers:

Framed Bill of Rights

Sen. Tom Coburn’s “Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders”

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.