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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 23rd, 2008 - 00:31:05

Impeachment now or apocalypse later?
By Bernard Weiner
Online Journal Guest Writer

Apr 23, 2008, 00:11

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The political noose seems to be tightening on the key members of the remaining miscreants down in the White House bunker -- mainly Bush, Cheney, Rice, Addington and Mukasey. (Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Gonzales, Powell and Tenet were pushed out the door earlier.) But will the Democrats, having been provided with smoking gun-type evidence of these officials' high crimes and misdemeanors, take the next logical step to end this continuing nightmare of law-breaking at the highest levels?

Torture authorized from on high

After eight years, the multiple examples of ethical and felonious crimes of the Bush administration are now abundantly clear and beyond rational dispute. Most compelling among them is the crime of authorizing torture as state policy.

In recent days, we've learned that George W. Bush signed orders authorizing torture, and admitted that he approved of the deliberations by his National Security Council's Principals Committee on the torture regime being set up for a few high-value prisoners. (Which, of course, filtered down to how thousands of suspected terrorists were maltreated.)

Bush has conceded that his Principals (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Ashcroft, Powell, Tenet) kept him apprised of their deliberations on which suspected terrorists would undergo which forms of torture, according to ABC News' recent blockbuster story.

The meetings of the Principals, according to ABC, took place in early 2002 at least four months before the administration's famous Bybee/Yoo memos were issued that retroactively sought to provide legal justification for the torture. (Short version of those memoranda: The president is above all U.S. laws and international treaties.)

During those Principals' meetings, Dick Cheney was a driving force behind the use of "harsh interrogations" of the prisoners in U.S. care. Other members were more worried about what they were doing. In the ABC story, according to a top official, John Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor, aggressively chaired the Principals' torture meetings. Despite some occasional misgivings voiced by Ashcroft and Colin Powell about the "enhanced interrogation" techniques being employed, Rice told the CIA: "This is your baby. Go do it."

Trying to make torture "legal"

Torture, as commonly understood and defined, is illegal under both U.S. law and international treaties that American governments have ratified over the decades. Bush&Co. had to come up with a way to torture suspects but not to appear to be doing so. Here's how it worked: Officials felt they could honestly assert that the administration didn't approve of or authorize torture because under the new definition supplied in the Bybee/Yoo memos, it was torture only if the prisoners were near-death or their internal organs were about to fail as a result of their treatment. In other words, the administration simply made everything else legal: beatings, near-drownings, electroshocks to the genitals, stress positions, sexual abuse, etc. Only if the interrogators killed the prisoners or were close to doing so would they have crossed over the line. See my Control the Dictionary, Control the World.

It turns out that David Addington, Cheney's then-legal counsel who has since replaced Scooter Libby as Cheney's chief of staff, was at the locus of the cockamamie reasoning behind both the Bybee/Yoo torture memos and the "unitary executive" theory of governance. The latter asserts that the president is in charge of basically everything governmental and can't be touched; further, the Bybee/Yoo memos assert the president cannot be second-guessed when he claims to be acting as "commander in chief" during "wartime."

Of course, there has been no congressional Declaration of War, as the Constitution requires; the "war" -- at an estimated cost of several trillions(!) of dollars -- is the "War on Terror," which, since it's being waged against a tactic, can never be completely won and thus is never-ending. In short, the president, under this asserted legal cover, can act more or less as a dictator forever, including declaring martial law whenever he deems an "emergency" situation prevails. (Suppose, for example, the ballot-counting books are cooked in November and the Democratic candidate once again has a victory stolen away. There could be mass protests, perhaps even riots, in the streets. A potential "civic emergency" right there.)

Mukasey's false testimony

Michael Mukasey, who promised he would be an independent attorney general, has turned out to be just as much of a lackey for the administration as his predecessor, Alberto Gonzales. Mukasey seems to feel, as Gonzales did, that he doesn't work for the public but is there to ensure that his bosses stay out of jail. (Interesting side note: Barack Obama says that, if elected, he would ask his attorney general to investigate whether Bush and Cheney might have committed indictable crimes while in office.)

But what really got Mukasey into hot water in recent days was his assertion that the U.S. knew that a terrorist in Afghanistan was calling someone inside the U.S. prior to the 9/11 attack but the supposedly "outdated" FISA laws wouldn't permit the administration to tap that phone call and thus prevent the 9/11 events from happening. Mukasey was using that fallacious argument in 2008 as a scare tactic for why the Bush administration needed congressional reauthorization immediately of the NSA's domestic-spying program, complete with built-in amnesty for the big telecom companies working in cahoots with the administration.

But Mukasey's explanation is total B.S.

As Glenn Greenwald and others have made clear, under then-existing FISA law, the Bush administration could have eavesdropped on the pre-9/11 call and didn't really need any more draconian spying programs. (Mukasey has since tried to tap dance away from having misled Congress.)

The whole object of the Bush administration, in this and every other matter, has been to amass total control of information and intelligence in the White House, cutting out the courts (in this case, specifically the FISA Court) and Congress. They want full freedom to operate outside the law, with nobody -- no judges, no legislators, no reporters -- looking over their shoulders at what they might be up to, and telling them what they can or cannot do. It's possible that at least one aim of the domestic spying programs is to learn from secret phone-taps and emails what their political enemies are thinking.

Things on and off the table

Okay, so Cheney, Bush, Rice, Mukasey, Addington (and no doubt others not quite as prominent) are dirty; involved in activities beyond and outside the law. In other words, they have engaged, and are still engaged, in high crimes and misdemeanors. What's to be done?

There's more than enough documented evidence to justify, at the very least, an impeachment hearing in the House. Potentially, if the committee voted to go forward, there could well be enough support to convict in the Senate from both Democrats and Republicans worried about their electoral chances in 2008.

But nothing can happen unless or until the majority Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate make the collective decision to begin the impeachment process with hearings in the House Judiciary Committee.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers are sticking to their guns that impeachment is "off the table."

Their reasons for avoiding action

Let's examine the main reasons why the congressional Democratic leaders refuse to budge from this policy, and how they might be made to change their minds. Their arguments appear to rest on four basic premises:

1. Breaking the impeachment cycle. The Democrats moved to impeach Republican President Richard Nixon (who resigned before articles of impeachment were adopted), then the Republicans impeached Democratic President Bill Clinton and tried him in the Senate (not for treason or malfeasance in office but for lying about a sexual dalliance. He was acquitted). Putting Cheney and Bush on trial in the Senate, according to this reasoning, might be seen as tit-for-tat partisan vengeance.

In this argument, the impeachment option is being overused for political reasons and risks becoming cyclical each time one party controls Congress and the other controls the White House.

A Democrat may win the presidency in 2008. Unless the impeachment cycle is broken now, this reasoning goes, a future Democratic president might become the object of a vendetta by forces of the Republican right wing, anxious for some payback.

2. Impeachment would hamper getting essential congressional business done. The Democratic leadership says that preparing and conducting impeachment hearings would use up all the political oxygen and energy in Congress, making it virtually impossible to deal legislatively with important matters.

The question is whether the Democrats are having any success right now dealing with these important legislative matters. Looking at the situation realistically, it's obvious that not much essential business is being conducted, let alone completed.

The Republicans filibuster, or threaten to, at which point the Dems back off their legislation; if a bill by the Democratic majority does manage to sneak through, Bush either vetoes it or issues a "signing statement" saying he won't obey the new law. Virtually all matters of import are being postponed until after the new president is installed next January.

3. Why rock the boat? Why risk the opprobrium of Independent and moderate-Republican voters in November, who might think the Democrats are "piling on" for partisan, electoral reasons, and thus decide to vote for the Republican nominee?

The Democratic leadership's argument goes: "Look, the Republicans are on the ropes as a result of this incompetent, corrupt, greedy, war-mongering administration. As a result, we're well positioned to enlarge our electoral gains in the House and the Senate, maybe to the point of being able to prevent obstructionist Republicans from filibustering needed legislation. And we may well take back the White House. So why rock the boat?

"Let's just last out CheneyBush's final months in office [the Dem argument continues]. Since we know that this unpopular pair will continue to earn the disdain and anger of the American public by continuing their extremist ways until Inauguration Day in January. It's better they remain in office rather than risk firing up GOP-base passions during the election campaign by putting Bush and Cheney in the impeachment dock. Besides, if we impeached them, the public's focus would fasten on Bush and Cheney rather than on the Republican nominee and the dangers of a possible McCain presidency."

In short, the American people, this reasoning goes, want to quickly move away from thinking about the godawful CheneyBush administration of the past eight years and head to a more optimistic, hopeful future.

4. The fear of being slimed. The Democrats don't want to be accused of being "unpatriotic" by putting a "wartime" president into the impeachment dock. Even though Bush is the most unpopular president in history, and though more than three-quarters of American citizens think under his leadership the country is "on the wrong track," the Democrats, anxious for an election sweep in the House and Senate, remain terrified of Rovian-type Swiftboating smears that could possibly cost them some votes in November and in the 2010 midterm election.

Realizing that the Bushistas still control the mainstream, corporate-owned media, and, thus, have all sorts of TV/radio/newspaper organizations that could dump on them big time, the Democrats continue to roll over and make nice to the shrinking but noisy Republican base and their TV/radio pundits. In other words, the Dems are perennial wimps and haven't yet figured out how best to confront the smash-mouth, take-no-prisoners politics of Rove & Co.

I strongly disagree with these four rationales for inaction, but at least I can understand where they're coming from. But the Democrats, especially their leaders, are simply ignoring some essential arguments.

Rebuttal: Why not impeachment?

1. Nine months is a longnnnnnnnnnnnnng time. Between now and January 2009, a full nine months from now, CheneyBush are capable of doing a hell of a lot of further damage to the body politic, to the economy, to the Constitution, to the reputation of the U.S. abroad, to the armed forces, to the "enemy" countries in their crosshairs. The propaganda campaign being catapulted against Iran, for example, is nearly a carbon copy of what took place before the U.S. bombed, invaded and occupied Iraq. The neocons in the administration, especially Cheney and Bush, are salivating at the prospect of an enormous air assault on Iran's military establishment and laboratories, have positioned attack forces near and around Iran, and are ready to rumble. All they need is an acceptable causus belli.

A cornered CheneyBush&Co. down in the bunker may decide what the hell, to unleash the dogs of war again, even though their two previous unleashings have been disasters. Iraq is a catastrophic quagmire of epic proportions, and a somewhat ignored Afghanistan is heating up again with the Taliban reasserting control of larger and larger portions of the country.

In addition, John McCain is making it clear that he will be continuing the administration's foreign and domestic policies if he were to win in November. He's said it would be fine for America to stay in Iraq for a hundred years or more; he's indicated that he's quite amenable (maybe even eager) to "bomb, bomb, bomb" Iran; he won't do much to help deal with the consequences of global warming; he has little to offer in the way of solutions for the financial mess the country is in -- we're talking a possible foreign policy-economic-environmental apocalypse here!

2. The danger of a green light. Impeachment is an important and necessary step Americans can take to rein in an out-of-control administration that is endangering the country's national security with its reckless, extreme misadventures.

Taking the possibility of impeachment "off the table" is to fight the CheneyBush administration with one hand tied behind the back. Bush&Co. have demonstrated over the past eight years that they understand, and respond to, only one thing: countervailing power that refuses to give in. The ultimate effective weapon in the legislative branch's arsenal is the fear of impeachment and conviction and removal from power, to be followed either by "war crimes" charges internationally and felony and civil suits inside the U.S.

Absent the possibility of impeachment, Cheney and Bush feel they have a green light to do whatever they wish in the time remaining of their tenure. Waxman and Leahy can try to humiliate and embarrass them in their congressional one-day hearings, but they will face no real accountability or punishment for their actions. So why not continue the corruption, attack Iran, appoint more ideologues to the courts and into high administrative positions, postpone any global warming solutions, etc. etc.?

3. The precedent of respecting the law. Whenever leaders are not punished for their unethical policies or criminal misdeeds, the rule of law suffers. Impeachment is mentioned several times in the Constitution as the legal and required remedy for extreme misrule. It's the last option for citizens, through their legislators, to discipline errant leaders.

If the Congress does not impeach this president and vice president, who have nearly taken the country down as a result of their reckless, dangerous, incompetent, authoritarian behavior, then the rule of law stands for nothing. And future elected leaders can legitimately believe that they more or less can also get away with anything they wish to do.

Putting Cheney and Bush into the impeachment dock is to assert the primacy of the rule of law under our system of governance, and would serve as a clear warning shot across the bow of future presidents.

4. Force CheneyBush to play defense. There is one other advantage to initiating impeachment hearings ASAP for Bush and Cheney. The Bush&Co. juggernaut is most effective when on the offensive and their opponents are put on the defensive. The Bushistas don't like, and don't do well, when they're forced to play defense. Tying them up in defending themselves in impeachment hearings and/or impeachment trials might well prevent them from doing more mischief before they give up the reins of power. (Many Republicans were convinced they would never convict Bill Clinton in the Senate but figured the trial was worth doing anyway because it would hog-tie Clinton's agenda for the rest of his presidency -- and they were correct.)

A final side-benefit  of impeaching Bush and Cheney: John McCain would find himself on the campaign trail being forced to take positions on torture and signing statements at the heart of the impeachment hearings, and, more often than not, would wind up either defending those unpopular policies or promising never to repeat them.

Will the Dems surprise us all?

Will the congressional Democratic leaders change their attitude toward impeachment?

I think the answer is a clear No, unless their constituencies loudly and unwaveringly tell them they have to or risk the consequences at the ballot box, or in the possible establishment of a new, grassroots-engendered party after the November election that will demonstrate the courage and passion for ethical and reality-based government that is so lacking in today's timid, Bush-enabling Democratic Party.

That, unfortunately, is where we are politically in the spring of 2008. It doesn't have to be this way.

Copyright � 2008 Bernard Weiner

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers. To comment, write

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