3:00 a.m. 15.Jul.99.PDT
For many Y2K fanatics, the scariest threat on 1 January 2000 is not technology at all. It's the far more sinister specter of a power-mad president imposing martial law.
Dark visions of US Marines stomping through backyards on New Year's Eve 1999 are a staple of innumerable Y2K discussion groups. A typical post: "There is nothing secret about the fact [that the] US, UK and Canada are preparing for martial law."
These sorts of ruminations are no longer the sole domain of fringe conspiracy buffs. They got a boost Wednesday from a conference hosted by the staid US Reserve Officers Association, an eminently respectable organization that Congress chartered in 1920 http://www.roa.org/.
During the full-day meeting, titled "National Conference on Presidential Powers and Executive Orders," and organized by an anti-UN advocacy group, legislators and lawyers warned that President Clinton could see Y2K disruptions as a convenient excuse to call out the troops and declare martial law.
"President Clinton might take that opportunity?" asked an audience member from Concerned Women for America.
"That is my fear," replied Representative Jack Metcalf (R-Washington). "It seems to me that the only emergency that we might see coming is the Y2K. [With] a power-hungry president, who knows what he might do."
Conference organizer Cliff Kincaid agreed: "It appears we don't have a President anymore. We have a king." Kincaid is head of America's Survival, which is devoted to combating global organizations in general and the UN in particular http://www.usasurvival.org/.
Attendees seemed suitably scared. Carolyn Betts, who was reading The Day After Roswell, said she suspected a clandestine agency had bombarded her office in Washington with high-frequency audio. "Both the people and the dogs had diarrhea," said Betts, and the masonry started to crumble.
For real Y2K conspiracy fans, the highlight of the day was a presentation by William Olsen, a lawyer at a McLean, Virginia, law firm. "We're headed on the road to tyranny," he said.
Olsen declined to predict whether martial law -- or similar restrictions, such as military courts, seizure of private property, and suspension of normal due-process rights -- would definitely happen due to Y2K.
But he did distribute to the 30-person audience a 27-page legal document he had coauthored. It shows, in exhaustive detail, that whoever occupies the Oval Office has near limitless power to declare emergencies and call out the troops, as President Wilson did in 1914 when he ordered the Army into Colorado with orders to disarm all residents and even police.
Could it happen again? Quite possibly, Olsen said. "One wonders what the reaction will be next time."
There have been earlier signs that some Washingtonians are considering an aggressive response to Y2K.
Senator Robert Bennett, the Utah Republican who chairs the Senate Y2K task force, has asked the Pentagon what plans it has "in the event of a Y2K-induced breakdown of community services that might call for martial law," and a House subcommittee has recommended that President Clinton consider declaring a Y2K "national emergency."
Like Olsen, other conference-goers cited history as evidence that martial law could go into effect. They pointed to President Lincoln, who usurped constitutional authority in well-chronicled ways.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Lincoln's government arrested and tried civilians in military and civilian courts, ignoring rules of habeas corpus. This led to the passage of the Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts using the military for domestic law enforcement.
Lincoln's justification was the inherent power of the commander-in-chief and his duty to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully Executed."
When it comes to the use of troops to restore order during riots, however, the President can suspend the Posse Comitatus Act with the stroke of a pen. The law doesn't cover soldiers deployed as authorized by the Constitution or exempted from the act by statute.
Further, some worry that courts may not be willing to confront the military during a time of genuine crisis. "A court may simply avoid deciding an important constitutional question in the midst of a war," Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in All the Laws but One.
All the more reason to limit presidential authority, especially executive orders, says Congressman Metcalf. "The President's use of executive orders and proclamations is reckless," he said.
Metcalf has introduced a nonbinding resolution that says, "It is the sense of the Congress" that executive orders be curtailed. He said he has 71 co-sponsors, including House Judiciary committee chairman Representative Henry Hyde (R-Illinois).
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