Today is a day that the United States of America celebrates its independence. The Declaration of Independence, which was dated July 4, 1776, contains some of the most familiar political language in world history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Those last clauses are kind of interesting because people seldom think about the circumstances that might cause a government to be replaced whole cloth.

In an era of overt political “regime change,” perhaps this idea should receive more attention.

Setting aside the question of Iraq, the Bush administration has spent some time since 9/11 thinking about the unthinkable: a necessary transformation of the U.S. government in response to a catastrophic emergency.

On May 9, the White House and Department of Homeland Security released Presidential Directives on National Security (NSPD 51) and Homeland Security (HSPD-20) that dealt explicitly with “National Continuity Policy” to “enhance the credibility of our national security posture and enable a more rapid and effective response to and recovery from a national emergency.”

Some parts of the directives are classified, but the public portion identifies a number of “national essential functions” (NEFs) and declares simply that “The President shall lead the activities of the Federal Government for ensuring constitutional government” after a “catastrophic emergency.”

On the internet, you can find critics who equate this order with a declaration of “martial law.” One blogger on DailyKos said it provided the Bush administration with a “lever that could well be used to end democracy in the United States.”

Part of the problem is that the definition of “catastrophic emergency” would seem to extend even to 9/11-scale attacks or Katrina-level natural disasters.

We’ve had two of those events in less than six years.

Before your pulse starts racing, I would note that the first NEF is “Ensuring the continued functioning of our form of government under the Constitution, including the functioning of the three separate branches of government” and that “each branch of the Federal Government is responsible for its own continuity program.”

Nonetheless, the document is kind of scary in that it allows for the possibility of fundamental change in American democracy 231 years after the “Declaration of Independence.”

Has anyone here read Annihilation from Within; The Ultimate Threat to Nations? by former Defense undersecretary Fred Iklé? The Financial Times review last November explained one of its core points:

Mr Iklé’s apocalyptic fears focus less on radical Islamists or a nuclear-armed North Korea and more on the danger of a would-be tyrant seizing power by annihilating his government from within, possibly through the use of weapons of mass destruction that would be blamed on others.

One weakness of Iklé’s book is that it does not really reveal much that a country can do in advance to preclude these events from happening. Then again, the neoconservative does not predict this scenario fo rthe U.S. The FT again

He does not see the US as vulnerable to such a coup because of the “powerful influence of its body politic and the hallowed position of the constitution” – but there are likely candidates in the semi-dictatorial regimes of central Asia, the Middle East, or even Russia.

Of course, the conspiracy-minded might note that the author was writing before NSPD 51.

Do we live in a new world?

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