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Overriding Democracy

May 10, 1987

Richard V. Secord, retired Air Force major general, weighed the cause of the rebels in Nicaragua and found it to be just. Acting on this judgment, he melted into the shadows of a world where the few earn fortunes peddling hand grenades to the many so that they may blow each other up in just causes. With the help of like-minded men in the U.S. government, he directed a web of operations that ferried missiles to Iran and kicked bales of weapons and ammunition out of planes and into rebel camps in the Central American jungles. It was, as he took pains to remind us over and over during his testimony in Washington last week, the patriotic thing to do.

But surely something is wrong here. Was not the Constitution of the United States drafted for the express purpose of preventing one American, or one group of Americans, from sorting out the just causes from the unjust and committing all Americans to that judgment? Was it not drafted in revulsion at the exercise of such claims of divine right by royal families in Europe, an exercise from which the drafters of the Constitution or their parents or grandparents had fled to the New World? As J. S. Mill wrote 100 years ago, "All trust in constitutions is grounded on the assurance they may afford, not that the depositories of power will not, but that they cannot, misemploy it."

Secord--poised, knowledgeable, tough, contemptuous of the lawyer who grilled him so tenaciously before the joint investigating committee last week--was a good witness, but a false witness. Buried, but still visible, beneath the polished flow of answers was a clear train of thought: The democratic process is inadequate to cope with situations that require the clear vision of a military man. The fact that Congress has agonized over the propriety of this nation's trying to topple a sovereign government, and has come down narrowly at times on the side of intervention, was a sign of weakness in the face of danger. The American public's opposition to involvement in Nicaragua as shown in poll after poll would clearly fall into the same category.

Secord may have been correct when he told the committee that the Boland Amendment, which for two years prohibited aid to the contra rebels, was as full of holes as Swiss cheese. But a prohibition it was nonetheless.

Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) went to the heart of the matter when he asked Secord at one point: "Did you not even have a moment of humility about your judgment in substituting yourself for the constitutional processes of this country?"

The general seems to have overlooked that basic problem. He seems still to miss that point, telling the committee as he did that the most important lesson he learned from the experience was that "this should have been lawyered."

The record is clear that Secord was not alone in drawing a line between what he considered patriotic duty and the normal processes of democratic government as it was structured by the Constitution. He had friends in high places helping him with supplies of weapons and phone calls from the White House to break through red tape--friends like Adm. John M. Poindexter, head of President Reagan's National Security Council, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a Poindexter deputy, and the late William J. Casey, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency. At one point Secord said he was led to believe that the President himself knew of his work and approved.

That such arrogation of the right to choose among just and unjust causes is possible under the Constitution whose 200th year of legal guidance the nation celebrates this year is a painful lesson for Congress and for all Americans. The Constitution draws its strength not from its quaint and elegant use of the English language, but from the many Americans who do not regard it as a guide to be abandoned in the name of patriotism.

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