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The Breaking Strain
By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective, www.truthout.org
The framers of the Constitution devised an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure our liberty by making sure that no person, institution or branch of government became so powerful that a tyranny could be established in the United States of America. Impeachment is one of the checks the framers gave the Congress to prevent the executive or judicial branches from becoming corrupt or tyrannical.
- Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Opening Statement, Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, 10 December 1998
A long time ago - before the Iraq invasion, before the elections in '02 and '04, before all the unprecedented governmental violations of trust we have discovered and endured - I wrote something for a book.
"This is America," I wrote. "At bottom, America is a dream, an idea. You can take away all our roads, our crops, our people, our cities, our armies - you can take all of that away, and the idea will still be there as pure and great as anything conceived by the human mind. I do very much believe that the idea that is America stands as the last, best hope for this world. When used properly, it can work wonders. That idea, that dream, is in mortal peril. You can still have all our roads, our crops, our people, our cities, our armies - you can have all of that. But if you murder the idea that is America, you have murdered America itself in a way that ten thousand 9/11s could never do. No terrorist can destroy the ideals we hold dear. Only we can do that."
The breaking strain has been reached, and those ideals we hold so dear are indeed in mortal peril. The President of the United States of America has declared himself fully and completely above the law. The Constitution does not matter to him, nor do the Amendments. Laws passed to safeguard the American people from intrusive governmental invasion have been cast aside and ignored, simply because George W. Bush finds it meet to do so.
As has been widely reported, Mr. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens. He activated this program in 2002, and has since reauthorized the program thirty times. No one knows for sure exactly who in this country has unwittingly endured investigation by the powerful and secretive NSA. Cindy Sheehan? Patrick Fitzgerald? Joseph Wilson? Non-violent protest organizations? You? Me? No one knows, but the unanswered questions shake the existence of our democracy to its bones.
It is not enough that Mr. Bush blew through the Fourth Amendment, which defends the citizenry from unreasonable searches and seizures. It isn't enough that Mr. Bush blew through the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires a warrant from a special FISA court be obtained before such surveillance is undertaken. For the record, this special FISA court has granted more than 19,000 such warrants, and has denied exactly four.
The worst part of this whole mess is the simple fact that Mr. Bush does not see anything wrong in this. This administration has steadfastly adhered to the idea that the Executive branch is supreme, beyond the bounds of the justice system and further empowered because we are "at war."
Of course, Mr. Bush was careful to speak otherwise. For example, during a speech in Buffalo back in April of 2004, Bush said, "Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires - a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution."
We're talking about getting a court order, he said. We value the Constitution, he said.
Mr. Bush, in fact, brought the editors of the New York Times into the Oval Office to browbeat them into not running their story on these illegal NSA activities. "Bush was desperate to keep the Times from running this important story - which the paper had already inexplicably held for a year - because he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker," wrote columnist Jonathan Alter for Newsweek on Monday. "He insists he had 'legal authority derived from the Constitution and congressional resolution authorizing force.' But the Constitution explicitly requires the president to obey the law. And the post 9/11 congressional resolution authorizing 'all necessary force' in fighting terrorism was made in clear reference to military intervention. It did not scrap the Constitution and allow the president to do whatever he pleased in any area in the name of fighting terrorism."
Even Attorney General Gonzales agrees with these sentiments. During his January 2005 confirmation hearings before Congress, Sen. Russ Feingold queried Gonzales on whether Mr. Bush has, "at least in theory, the authority to authorize violations of the criminal law under duly enacted statutes simply because he's commander in chief?" Gonzales replied, "Senator, this president is not - I - it is not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes."
Mr. Gonzales, it appears, did not get the memo.
Rep. John Conyers and the Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee have compiled a massively detailed, impeccably-researched report on the activities of this administration titled "The Constitution in Crisis: The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Coverups in the Iraq War." The report runs some 273 pages. A portion of the Executive Summary reads as follows:
In brief, we have found that there is substantial evidence the President, the Vice President and other high ranking members of the Bush Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war with Iraq; misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for such war; countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and other legal violations in Iraq; and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of their Administration.
There is a prima facie case that these actions by the President, Vice-President and other members of the Bush Administration violated a number of federal laws, including (1) Committing a Fraud against the United States; (2) Making False Statements to Congress; (3) The War Powers Resolution; (4) Misuse of Government Funds; (5) federal laws and international treaties prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; (6) federal laws concerning retaliating against witnesses and other individuals; and (7) federal laws and regulations concerning leaking and other misuse of intelligence.
While these charges clearly rise to the level of impeachable misconduct, because the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have blocked the ability of Members to obtain information directly from the Administration concerning these matters, more investigatory authority is needed before recommendations can be made regarding specific Articles of Impeachment. As a result, we recommend that Congress establish a select committee with subpoena authority to investigate the misconduct of the Bush Administration with regard to the Iraq war detailed in this Report and report to the Committee on the Judiciary on possible impeachable offenses.
This report was completed before the revelations of Bush-authorized domestic spying, and its release has added to the maelstrom. Upon issuance of the report, Rep. Conyers put forth three resolutions for consideration by the House of Representatives:
H.RES.635 : Creating a select committee to investigate the Administration's intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment.
H.RES.636 : Censuring President George W. Bush for failing to respond to requests for information concerning allegations that he and others in his Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for the war, countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in Iraq, and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of his Administration, for failing to adequately account for specific misstatements he made regarding the war, and for failing to comply with Executive Order 12958.
H.RES.637 : Censuring Vice President Richard B. Cheney for failing to respond to requests for information concerning allegations that he and others in the Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for the war, countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in Iraq, and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of the Administration and for failing to adequately account for specific misstatements he made regarding the war.
Columnist John Nichols offered an astute analysis of the meaning behind the Conyers report, the proffered resolutions, and their issuance on the heels of the NSA revelations. "The Conyers resolutions add a significant new twist to the debate about how to hold the administration to account," wrote Nichols. "Members of Congress have become increasingly aggressive in the criticism of the White House, with U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, saying Monday, 'Americans have been stunned at the recent news of the abuses of power by an overzealous President. It has become apparent that this Administration has engaged in a consistent and unrelenting pattern of abuse against our Country's law-abiding citizens, and against our Constitution.'"
"Even Republicans," continued Nichols, "including Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, are talking for the first time about mounting potentially serious investigations into abuses of power by the president. But Conyers is seeking to do much more than schedule a committee hearing, or even launch a formal inquiry. He is proposing that the Congress use all of the powers that are available to it to hold the president and vice president to account - up to and including the power to impeach the holders of the nation's most powerful positions and to remove them from office."
Many political pragmatists will tell you that impeachment is a pipe dream. If the God of the Righteous roared down from Heaven and denounced George W. Bush from the top of the Capitol dome, Republicans in Congress would denounce Him as a traitor, paint Him as standing against the troops, and accuse Him of aiding in the War on Christmas. In other words, the odds that enough Republican members of the House would turn against this administration and support impeachment are about as good as the odds of my cat winning next year's Kentucky Derby.
Even if the odds are defied and impeachment hearings are successfully undertaken, one must go many steps down the ladder to find an official worthy of the office. Impeach Bush and you get Cheney. Impeach Cheney and you get Dennis Hastert. Impeach Hastert and you get Ted Stevens, the 82-year-old Senator from Alaska who recently threatened to resign from the Senate if funding for his "Bridge to Nowhere" was stripped and delivered to aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Pragmatism is good, but hardly the point in this matter. We have gone far beyond consideration of the odds, of the smartest and safest course. This is not about Clintonian lies about sex, nor is it even about Nixonian spying on political appointees. In the simplest terms, we now have a self-appointed dictator occupying the highest office of the land. Of course, the catch-all excuse for these reprehensible actions is that Bush is protecting our freedoms against the terrorists. But if our freedoms are destroyed, what is left to protect? If the rule of law no longer has meaning, why bother? If that which makes this nation good and great is burned out from within, there is nothing left to defend.
Calls for the impeachment of George W. Bush must be heeded, and the House must act. This must happen not because it is pragmatic, not because it stands a chance of succeeding. This must happen because the issues at hand demand it. If we as a nation do not impeach a sitting President for such a vast array of blatantly illegal activities, activities directed at the American people themselves, then as a nation of laws we have lost our way. We have no meaning. We are finished, and the ideals for which so many have served and fought and died are ashes.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.