Periodically, executives ask me why the Leadership for a Democratic Society program at the Federal Executive Institute places such emphasis on the U.S. Constitution. They recognize that the Constitution is a foundational document for government service and highlights the country’s core values. Nonetheless, given the program’s short duration and broad curriculum, they question why so much time and attention is given to the subject, so much so that “thinking constitutionally” is one of the program’s three major themes.
My response is simple: “Because your time will come.” I explain that whether their federal service career spans four or 40 years, they will eventually face a “constitutional crossroad.” By that I mean a juncture where they are called upon to make a decision that either validates or violates the U.S. Constitution. At the intersection where personal values and professional obligations cross, they will need to choose the course that is constitutionally correct. Often confronted with dubious looks, reflecting doubt on my intelligence and integrity, I rephrase my response: “because you will face an ‘Ollie North moment.’ ”
A decorated Marine Corps officer, Lt. Col. Oliver “Ollie” North swore to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.” While serving as deputy director for political military affairs in the National Security Council from 1981 to 1986, he broke that vow. During his assignment North managed a number of sensitive missions, which include leading the hunt for the terrorists responsible for the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing and helping plan both the 1983 invasion of Grenada and the 1986 bombing of Libya. The constitutionality of his activities did not come into question until the Iran-Contra affair, when he devised a plan to divert profits from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran to Contra rebels fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
Knowing the conflict was funded by the cocaine trade, Congress previously enacted legislation to halt the flow of money from the U.S. to Nicaragua. The Boland Amendment (to the 1982 House Appropriations Bill) prohibited the appropriation of U.S. funds by intelligence agencies for the support of the Contras. So, despite his patriotic intent to safeguard democracy at home and abroad, North’s actions defied the U.S. Constitution (specifically the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches), violated U.S. law, and broke trust with the American people. North was dismissed by President Reagan. Seemingly unaware and openly unrepentant, North defended his actions in July 1987 during testimony before a joint congressional committee. He stated that he believed in aiding the Contras, whom he perceived as patriots combating the socialist regime. Arguing the ends justified the means, he said, “And I still to this day, counsel, don’t see anything wrong with taking the Ayatollah’s money and sending it to support the Nicaraguan freedom fighters.” His secretary, Fawn Hall, went further in defending his actions, stating, “Sometimes you have to go above the written law.” Or as Sen. John Kerry summarized the situation: “They were willing to literally put the Constitution at risk because they believed somehow that there was a higher order of things.”
Like Ollie North, I reached a constitutional crossroad as a military officer in October 2005. As the chief of operations for the U.S. Central Command Joint Intelligence and Operations Center, I monitored all military operations in the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa. Over the previous months, pirating of commercial vessels off the coast of East Africa had increased significantly. While considered a cost of doing business by the shipping industry, these acts were seen by the U.S. combatant commander (who was concurrently managing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan) as acts of international terrorism. Annoyed by the distraction and angered by the affront to U.S. regional security efforts, he wanted the piracy to stop—and stop immediately.
This was the situation on Oct. 18, 2005, as I sat at my desk in the JIOC, reviewing reports and awaiting the next crisis. With negotiations under way for the release of two commercial vessels, I received notification of a third act of piracy. The Liberian-flagged MV Panagia had been seized 90 nautical miles off the coast of Somalia. Within hours, I was deep into facilitating the release of the captured ship, crew and cargo. All three lines of my telephone were active: one to the captain of the pirated ship anxious for release, a second to the ship’s insurance company prepared to negotiate with funds, and a third to a U.S. Navy squadron poised to respond with force.
Amidst the chaos, a watch officer hurriedly approached me with a fourth telephone in tow. He explained that on the line was the commander of ground forces in Puntland, a stable, self-proclaimed autonomous state in northeastern Somalia. Wide-eyed, the officer explained that upon my direction, the Puntland commander was prepared to launch a 300-man military force down the coast to attack the pirate camp and secure the ship’s release. Dumbfounded, I stared into the mouth of the phone, stunned by the sudden and unexpected arrival of my “Ollie North moment.” Knowing I could approve the attack, save the ship and alleviate the commander’s concerns, I also knew I could not. I knew I couldn’t “pull the trigger” because it would violate the Constitution—in both letter and spirit. Through my study of history, I knew precedent existed for such bold acts. But through my study of the Constitution, I knew it would violate our nation’s most sacred principles. Diplomatically declining the offer, I dove back into the protracted negotiations process. A month later the MV Panagi was released without further incident, and I realized I’d chosen the right path.
As a federal executive, you never know when you will arrive at a constitutional crossroad, but you will. Yours may not be as obvious or easy as mine; it may involve health care, not warfare, or politics, not piracy. But, be assured, you will stand at the same juncture. As you rise in grade and tenure, you will increasingly operate in the gray area of policy and politics, that murky, unmarked region where personal and professional values collide and short-term priorities conflict with enduring principles. At that intersection, your actions will either stabilize or shake the constitutional structure that supports our republic. Thus, it is incumbent upon the Leadership for a Democratic Society program to prepare you for that moment; to provide you with intellectual guideposts to aid you in navigating the tricky terrain. President George Washington was adamant: “The Constitution is the guide which I will never abandon.” Nor should you.
Michael F. Belcher is a faculty member at the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Executive Institute. He previously was director of the Marine Corps War College before retiring from military service in 2011. This article first appeared in FEI’s Executive Summary.