No Comment — August 2, 2007, 7:06 am

The Impeachment Dilemma

This morning, the momentum for impeachment of Alberto Gonzales is building decisively. My friends in the Washington scene, who told me with assurance a month ago that it wouldn’t happen because of the opposition of Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders, now say the tide has turned. They expect the process to move forward quickly.

A group of more than a dozen former prosecutors and judges in the House has introduced a resolution calling on the Judiciary Committee to commence hearings for a Bill of Impeachment against Gonzales. Speaker Pelosi is now said to have come around on the issue, largely on the strength (or rather, extraordinary weakness) of Gonzales’s last appearance before the Senate, at which he perjured himself repeatedly. Both Gonzales and the White House were given an opportunity to correct Gonzales’s false statements, or to explain them, but the letters they offered were so ludicrous and insulting that they seem to have shifted more Republicans into hostile ground.

As of this morning the press sees an increase in the probability of a Gonzales impeachment. Time has published a piece by Massimo Calabresi in which he asks why on earth Gonzales hasn’t resigned, then offers several explanations. Topping the list is the one that I offered more than a month ago: Gonzales is needed to maintain a blocking position on prosecutions of crimes committed at the pinnacle of the administration. Any responsible law enforcement official would have long since appointed one or more special prosecutors, but Gonzales is blocking this for an obvious reason–an investigation would boomerang back to him, among other key figures:

Gonzales is all that stands between the White House and special prosecutors. As dicey as things are for Bush right now, his advisers know that they could get much worse. In private, Democrats say that if Gonzales did step down, his replacement would be required to agree to an independent investigation of Gonzales’ tenure in order to be confirmed by the Senate.

Over at Salon, Sidney Blumenthal makes a variation on the same theme, also focusing on the phenomenon that I have been documenting—the pervasive appearance of the rules of omertà among the Bush justice team and White House:

Omertà (or a code of silence) has become the final bond holding the Bush administration together. Honesty is dishonorable; silence is manly; penitence is weakness. Loyalty trumps law. Protecting higher-ups is patriotism. Stonewalling is idealism. Telling the truth is informing. Cooperation with investigators is cowardice; breaking the code is betrayal. Once the code is shattered, however, no one can be trusted and the entire edifice crumbles.

It looks increasingly like Alberto Gonzales will go down in the history books as a first—not as the first Hispanic attorney general, but as the first cabinet officer to be impeached and removed from office for high crimes and misdemeanors. (Footnote for you historical sticklers: one of President Grant’s secretaries of war was impeached, but he had actually resigned and had his resignation accepted first, so that doesn’t really count).

Still, it seems to me that there are a number of pluses and minuses about the impeachment of Gonzales. No doubt about it, he has earned impeachment. But the step will come at some cost.

First, it will focus attention on Alberto Gonzales personally as the Bush Administration’s whipping boy. The fact is, they’ve picked him for that theatrical slot. Gonzales is not a key decision-maker in this Administration. How could he be? He’s a lawyer in an Administration whose most fundamental principle is contempt for the law. Gonzales’s role is simple: he is an enabler. Today we associate Gonzales with the introduction of torture, of warrantless surveillance, of ideas of an Imperial Presidency, of political prosecutions. But in truth Gonzales isn’t the author of any of these ideas. As he demonstrated at prior hearings, he isn’t even well versed in them. He understands his role as essentially that of a pipefitter. Boss wants to do x, then my job as lawyer is to tell him “Fine, it’s legal for you to do x.” If the law stands in the way, no matter, he’ll come up with some preposterous argument why it doesn’t.

The real malefactors who emerge—even in connection with the corruption of the Department of Justice—are Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. Cheney (with a key helping hand from his amanuensis David Addington) is the author of torture, renditions, and the Big Brother state. Rove is the man who pushed political prosecutions and the idea that prosecutors should just be an extension of the electioneering plans of the G.O.P.

Second, the impeachment process will entail a massive diversion of energy and resources from Congress. Other affairs will go neglected, at a time when most Americans are vitally concerned that Congress assert its political leadership on a variety of issues, starting with the Iraq War.

Notwithstanding those concerns, I think the move to impeachment is a correct one. Gonzales is not just any cabinet officer. He is the man responsible for the administration of justice. But he has used his office to corrupt our institutional standards of justice and to politicize everything. This first became apparent in the torture debate, but it has since become a sort of Gonzales leitmotif. While many cabinet posts have in the past and will in the future be politicized, there is a special risk when this happens in the Justice Department. An impeachment effort is throwing down a marker for the future and saying that this sort of conduct will not be tolerated. Given what has happened, the risk of a wholesale politicization of the office in the future is simply too great.

Next, the impeachment process offers an opportunity to look at specific programs and policies that the Administration has adopted, and in which Gonzales had a hand, and call them unlawful. This includes torture, renditions, warrantless surveillance, and the politicization of the prosecutorial function. For six years, Congress has responded with often half-hearted measures, hoping these practices will simply go away. That was naïve. The Bush Administration has warped and deformed America’s reputation in the world, but within the country it has demonstrated that it can act in defiance of the Constitutions and law with total impunity. In the end, impeachment is the only practical tool Congress has to deal with this culture of lawlessness.

Finally, apart from these rather more long term considerations, impeachment is warranted. Gonzales has abused his office in a grotesque way. President Bush inherited a Justice Department which was in many respects a model for and the envy of the world. It was not without problems, but on the whole it was a model of polished professionalism, with political affairs held carefully on the margins. Under the current administration, that reputation has been demolished—and it is now apparent that the rot was driven from the outset by the White House with the collaboration of Alberto Gonzales. In his defense, Gonzales likes to cite the hardworking career professionals at Justice. They exist and Congress needs to keep them in mind. What will it take for this now completely demoralized group to be able to hold up their heads again? Removing and shaming Gonzales will be a constructive start.

Nothing so well defines a society as its understanding of justice. Of all our core values, this is the most essential. And the struggle for the impeachment of Alberto Gonzales is not, in the end, about a lawyer who lost his sense of professional responsibility and integrity. It is about what we and the generations to follow will consider to be just.

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