During his two terms in office, George W. Bush stepped outside the boundaries of the Constitution and assembled an amazing toolbox of powers that greatly increased the authority of the Executive branch and the reach of the federal government.

Bush expanded presidential power to, among other things, allow government agents to secretly open the private mail of American citizens; authorize government agents to secretly, and illegally, listen in on the phone calls of American citizens and read our e-mails; assume control of the federal government following a “catastrophic event"; and declare martial law.

Thus, the groundwork was laid for an imperial presidency and a potentially totalitarian government — a state of affairs that has not ended with Barack Obama’s ascension to the Oval Office, despite hopes to the contrary that President Obama would fully restore the balance between government and its citizens to a pre-Bush status quo. As Charlie Savage reports in the New York Times, “Signs suggest that the administration’s changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies.”

The fact is that the problem is bigger than Obama or any individual who occupies the White House.

We already have a federal police force comprised of Secret Service agents who are authorized to “carry firearms; make arrests without a warrant for any offense against the United States committed in their presence.” A recent incident demonstrates the increased and immediate involvement of federal agents in local matters with the assistance of local police. Chip Harrison, a construction worker in Oklahoma, was pulled over by local police because of an anti-Obama sign proclaiming “Abort Obama, not the unborn” in his pickup truck window. The sign was confiscated by local police, and Harrison was informed that the sign could be considered a threat to the president. The local police contacted the Secret Service, who, within a matter of hours, came to Harrison’s home and investigated the matter. So much for the freedom of expression.

According to the Army Times, we now have at least 20,000 U.S. military troops deployed within our borders to “help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack.” I am not alone in believing that we are just one incident — be it a terrorist attack, a major financial blowout or a widespread natural disaster — away from martial law being declared in this country. And once that happens, the Constitution and Bill of Rights will be suspended and what government officials believe and do, no matter how arbitrary, will become law.

For those who have been paying attention, such as former war correspondent Chris Hedges in his Truthdig article, “Bad News From America’s Top Spy,” it’s clear that the groundwork for a seamless transition into martial law under a totalitarian state of government has been laid. And local law enforcement, which has already been serving as a de facto military force, will be the key to maintaining martial law under a police state. Given the interconnectedness of our federal, state and local agencies, you can be sure that all of this will happen quickly.

This danger was made clear in a U.S. Army War College report issued last fall. As Hedges reports, “The military must be prepared, the document warned, for a ‘violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States,’ which could be provoked by ‘unforeseen economic collapse,’ ‘purposeful domestic resistance,’ ‘pervasive public health emergencies’ or ‘loss of functioning political and legal order.’ The ‘widespread civil violence,’ the document said, ‘would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security.’”

Right now, all we can do is sound the alarm. Become educated. Form local citizens groups in your community. Educate your neighbors on their rights and inform them about the grave possibilities we face in the event of a government-declared emergency.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.