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Undoing the Imperial Presidency: An Interview with David Swanson

By John W. Whitehead
June 24, 2010

David Swanson (Photo by MarDavid Swanson is the author of Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union (Seven Stories Press, 2009) and of the introduction to The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush by Dennis Kucinich (2008). Swanson holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Swanson is Co-Founder of, creator of and Washington Director of, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, the Backbone Campaign, Voters for Peace, and the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution, and chair of the Robert Jackson Steering Committee.

Beginning in November 2009 Swanson served as an online organizer and blogger for a campaign to oppose First Amendment free speech rights for corporations and served on a volunteer basis for another similar campaign. Swanson's website,, was named a Most Valuable Progressive by The Nation magazine's John Nichols in 2005, 2006, and 2007. In 2009, Swanson created a website for CODE PINK and Global Exchange to market a company investing in wind energy in Iran and another website for Cindy Sheehan's counter recruitment effort.

Swanson works for as its Washington Director and spends a lot of time in our nation's capital. He does paid work for other peace and justice groups, including creating websites and organizing campaigns. He consults for Dennis Kucinich each time he runs for president. He also earns money speaking at events, selling ads and raising donations on, and writing articles and books. The AfterDowningStreet website is funded by

David took a few minutes to sit down with OldSpeak to discuss his views on the emerging imperial presidency.

John W. Whitehead: As I look around America today, I see a government that doesn't listen to us anymore. It ignores us. On the other side of that coin, I see an apathetic populace that just lets things happen. You, on the other hand, attempt to irritate government officials and force them to respond to the citizenry. And you try to get people involved, as well.

David Swanson: Absolutely. I want to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We all think—and we are led to think by various organizations we get involved with for noble purposes—that we have a government that more or less represents us and it is split into two teams. That's wrong. The teams are us and the government.  Just recently, the White House instructed Congress to strip out of its financial regulations bill a measure that might have allowed shareholders to put some restraints on CEO salaries.  That was just not permissible.  In response to the Citizen's United ruling by the Supreme Court for unlimited corporate money in politics, the Democrats in Congress came back with this very, very limited tame measure, the main point of which was to allow us to know who was funding the propaganda. This is the Disclose Act.  Nancy Pelosi just took that out of consideration, at least for the moment, basically at the instructions of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce.  So the teams are you, me and the rest of us versus elected officials.  Those are the two teams.  It is not Republicans versus Democrats because there is just no difference between them.

DaybreakJWW:  You point out in your book Daybreak that the government is not really on our team. What we have in the White House is an imperial presidency. You fought Bush-Cheney, and I am sure at one point you thought Obama might come in and change some of these things.  Or did you?

DS:  If you go back and read what I was writing before the election and during the campaigns, I was pointing out how outrageously horrible Obama was, but I still felt that McCain was worse.  I felt that it might be good just for state politics for Virginia, for the first time in its history, to vote for the less racist of the two candidates and for it to be a black guy.  I thought that might do some good for Virginia.

JWW:  —and the nation.

DS:  And the nation. And I thought that it would send a pretty bad message to the world for us to vote for someone as crazy and militaristic as John McCain—someone from the same party as George W. Bush who was, of course, never elected but people think we elected him twice.

JWW:  Obama has the biggest war budget since World War II. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he is a war president.  What does that say?

DS:  In absolute terms, it is the biggest military budget ever—and a bigger war budget than Bush and Cheney ever had—and greater powers and more abusive practices. And we have shifted from capturing people and torturing them to murdering them.

JWW:  You're talking about the Bush civil liberties aggressions on the Constitution.

DS:  Yes. Obama has cemented in place the abusive powers that Bush and Cheney claimed, including ones that Obama campaigned against and new ones he has added.  Obama has put in place practices of assassination and murder. 

JWW:  Assassinations of American citizens around the world.

DS:  Yes. As long as they are outside U.S. borders, they can be murdered by the U.S.  You know, if they chase a U.S. citizen into the United States and then murder him or her, we are simply going to be told that that is now legal because the President simply informs Congress.  Obama sent the Director of National Intelligence to Congress to tell Congress what the law would be now, and the law would now be that murder was legal.  So there is a major problem in how things are decided.

JWW:  In late 2009, the ACLU challenged Obama over the government's rendition program and its torturing of prisoners.  We thought those practices were going to stop with Obama. Yet many Americans are not aware of Obama's dismal track record when it comes to civil liberties or the extent to which he has continued many of the anti-constitutional policies of the Bush administration. George Bush supposedly once said that the Constitution is just a piece of paper.  It would appear that Barack Obama has not only bought into that mindset but is acting on it.

DS:  Well, Obama stood in front of that piece of paper in the National Archives and threw out habeas corpus and said we are going to formalize this policy. Habeas corpus is an 800-year-old tradition. It is a basic fundamental right of American citizens that says you can't be grabbed and locked up without any legal process.  Well, of course, Bush did this in ways that his predecessors had not. But Obama is making it into a formal policy that we just won't have habeas corpus.  We can lock anybody up from anywhere in the world and other places outside of any process, any rule of law.  But we will have routine inspections and reviews and do paperwork and make it seem like something legal.  This is something that no one president could have done.  It takes two of them.  It takes one from each party.  And that is what is being done to us by Bush and Obama. 

JWW:  Let's talk about health care.  I remember when health care was being debated early on, Barack Obama was meeting secretly in the White House with people in the health care industry, and Biden, his vice president, was meeting secretly with them in his home.  What happened with health care? What are the concerns there?

DS:  Well, we had all the outrage over Dick Cheney and Bush not revealing the White House visitor's logs regarding what CEOs they were meeting with in these secret energy task forces. Now we know that BP and the rest of them were meeting with Cheney, deciding our war policy and our energy policy.  Obama was meeting with the heads of the drug companies and the heads of the health insurance companies and telling them what the bill coming out of Congress will do. It will not allow us to negotiate lower drug prices. It will not threaten the profits of the insurance companies that eat up a third of our money and give us this disastrous health care industry in this country. You can't see the visitor's logs—same as Bush and Cheney. Obama campaigned on the fact that he was going to live stream meetings on the internet. Everything was going to be transparent. Of course, that did not happen.

JWW:  Obama's government is one of the most secretive of all time.

DS:  I was beating up on the ACLU for refusing to support the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, and the minute Bush had done a full eight years' worth of damage, they jumped in with "let's prosecute them."  You mentioned the ACLU going after Obama for torture. I haven't seen that yet.  What I have seen is the ACLU going after Obama for protecting Bush and Cheney's torturing. But the torture is ongoing under Obama.  And the Obama White House continues to claim the power to torture and rendition and so forth. But it is not something that the ACLU has gotten to yet as far as I can tell. So I am still pushing them.  But what Obama's Justice Department has been doing is claiming powers of secrecy and government privilege that Bush and Cheney never dreamed of and, ironically, to protect Bush and Cheney.

David Swanson

JWW:  How dangerous is President Obama's war policy?

DS:  It is making the world more dangerous, and it is making this country more dangerous.  The blowback that we have seen thus far has included a man trying to set off a bomb in Times Square.

JWW:  Are we creating terrorists?

DS:  The global war on terror is creating terrorism.  Terrorism has increased over the past several years in response to our actions.  The terrorists don't hate our freedoms. They hate what we are doing to their countries.

JWW:  History shows that people hate occupying armies.  They always have. The American Revolution was waged against an occupying army.

DS:  Of course it was.

JWW:  Is this blowback?

DS:  We are getting blowback, and it could destroy us all.  I mean, there is the energy problem. There are these wars for oil, and the biggest user of all, of course, is the military which is in the process of conducting the wars. We are destroying the atmosphere and possibly now the ocean. Now we have the problem of military blowback. The Obama White House has put out a new nuclear policy that the U.S. will not attack any non-nuclear states except Iran.  Israel has sent ships with nuclear weapons to the coast of Iran.  Almost on a weekly basis, the White House Press Secretary says nothing is off the table meaning the U.S. can start a war against Iran.  We are very close to provoking a nuclear war which is quite likely to become a global nuclear war.  This would mean the death of everybody—not just that strange foreign-language-speaking group of people from some other religion. Everybody. It is the most dangerous place we have been.

JWW:  Polls have indicated that the majority of American people weren't in favor of the war in Afghanistan or the health care legislation. The Obama administration did not listen to the American people. The government is not listening to the American people.  Not too long ago, Nancy Pelosi showed up at the Omni Shoreham and got heckled by progressives.  They almost had to pull her out of the room.  What will get the government's attention?  Is it time for civil disobedience?

DS:  Well, I don't think voting is completely useless.  I think it could be a very, very powerful tool, and I think we could use it much more effectively if we set aside our loyalty to the parties. If we transpartisanly organize independently and say to every one of the politicians, "If you don't start listening to us, we will vote you out," we might get some results. But it is long since time for nonviolent resistance, for disruption, for counter recruitment in the military, for building independent media, and for interfering and getting in the way of this machine.