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March 2006 Issue [Essay]

The Case for Impeachment

Why we can no longer afford George W. Bush

On December 18 of last year, Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D., Mich.) introduced into the House of Representatives a resolution inviting it to form “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.” Although buttressed two days previously by the news of the National Security Agency’s illegal surveillance of the American citizenry, the request attracted little or no attention in the press—nothing on television or in the major papers, some scattered applause from the left-wing blogs, heavy sarcasm on the websites flying the flags of the militant right. The nearly complete silence raised the question as to what it was the congressman had in mind, and to whom did he think he was speaking? In time of war few propositions would seem as futile as the attempt to impeach a president whose political party controls the Congress; as the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee stationed on Capitol Hill for the last forty years, Representative Conyers presumably knew that to expect the Republican caucus in the House to take note of his invitation, much less arm it with the power of subpoena, was to expect a miracle of democratic transformation and rebirth not unlike the one looked for by President Bush under the prayer rugs in Baghdad. Unless the congressman intended some sort of symbolic gesture, self-serving and harmless, what did he hope to prove or to gain? He answered the question in early January, on the phone from Detroit during the congressional winter recess.

“To take away the excuse,” he said, “that we didn’t know.” So that two or four or ten years from now, if somebody should ask, “Where were you, Conyers, and where was the United States Congress?” when the Bush Administration declared the Constitution inoperative and revoked the license of parliamentary government, none of the company now present can plead ignorance or temporary insanity, can say that “somehow it escaped our notice” that the President was setting himself up as a supreme leader exempt from the rule of law.

A reason with which it was hard to argue but one that didn’t account for the congressman’s impatience. Why not wait for a showing of supportive public opinion, delay the motion to impeach until after next November’s elections? Assuming that further investigation of the President’s addiction to the uses of domestic espionage finds him nullifying the Fourth Amendment rights of a large number of his fellow Americans, the Democrats possibly could come up with enough votes, their own and a quorum of disenchanted Republicans, to send the man home to Texas. Conyers said:

“I don’t think enough people know how much damage this administration can do to their civil liberties in a very short time. What would you have me do? Grumble and complain? Make cynical jokes? Throw up my hands and say that under the circumstances nothing can be done? At least I can muster the facts, establish a record, tell the story that ought to be front-page news.”

Which turned out to be the purpose of his House Resolution 635—not a high-minded tilting at windmills but the production of a report, 182 pages, 1,022 footnotes, assembled by Conyers’s staff during the six months prior to its presentation to Congress, that describes the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq as the perpetration of a crime against the American people. It is a fair description. Drawing on evidence furnished over the last four years by a sizable crowd of credible witnesses—government officials both extant and former, journalists, military officers, politicians, diplomats domestic and foreign—the authors of the report find a conspiracy to commit fraud, the administration talking out of all sides of its lying mouth, secretly planning a frivolous and unnecessary war while at the same time pretending in its public statements that nothing was further from the truth.1 The result has proved tragic, but on reading through the report’s corroborating testimony I sometimes could counter its inducements to mute rage with the thought that if the would-be lords of the flies weren’t in the business of killing people, they would be seen as a troupe of off-Broadway comedians in a third-rate theater of the absurd. Entitled “The Constitution in Crisis; The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Coverups in the Iraq War,” the Conyers report examines the administration’s chronic abuse of power from more angles than can be explored within the compass of a single essay. The nature of the administration’s criminal DNA and modus operandi, however, shows up in a usefully robust specimen of its characteristic dishonesty.

That President George W. Bush comes to power with the intention of invading Iraq is a fact not open to dispute. Pleased with the image of himself as a military hero, and having spoken, more than once, about seeking revenge on Saddam Hussein for the tyrant’s alleged attempt to “kill my Dad,” he appoints to high office in his administration a cadre of warrior intellectuals, chief among them Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, known to be eager for the glories of imperial conquest.2 At the first meeting of the new National Security Council on January 30, 2001, most of the people in the room discuss the possibility of preemptive blitzkrieg against Baghdad.3 In March the Pentagon circulates a document entitled “Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oil Field Contracts”; the supporting maps indicate the properties of interest to various European governments and American corporations. Six months later, early in the afternoon of September 11, the smoke still rising from the Pentagon’s western façade, Secretary Rumsfeld tells his staff to fetch intelligence briefings (the “best info fast … go massive; sweep it all up; things related and not”) that will justify an attack on Iraq. By chance the next day in the White House basement, Richard A. Clarke, national coordinator for security and counterterrorism, encounters President Bush, who tells him to “see if Saddam did this.” Nine days later, at a private dinner upstairs in the White House, the President informs his guest, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, that “when we have dealt with Afghanistan, we must come back to Iraq.”

By November 13, 2001, the Taliban have been rousted out of Kabul in Afghanistan, but our intelligence agencies have yet to discover proofs of Saddam Hussein’s acquaintance with Al Qaeda.4 President Bush isn’t convinced. On November 21, at the end of a National Security Council meeting, he says to Secretary Rumsfeld, “What have you got in terms of plans for Iraq? . . . I want you to get on it. I want you to keep it secret.”

The Conyers report doesn’t return to the President’s focus on Iraq until March 2002, when it finds him peering into the office of Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor, to say, “Fuck Saddam. We’re taking him out.” At a Senate Republican Policy lunch that same month on Capitol Hill, Vice President Dick Cheney informs the assembled company that it is no longer a question of if the United States will attack Iraq, it’s only a question of when. The vice president doesn’t bring up the question of why, the answer to which is a work in progress. By now the administration knows, or at least has reason to know, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, that Iraq doesn’t possess weapons of mass destruction sufficiently ominous to warrant concern, that the regime destined to be changed poses no imminent threat, certainly not to the United States, probably not to any country defended by more than four batteries of light artillery. Such at least is the conclusion of the British intelligence agencies that can find no credible evidence to support the theory of Saddam’s connection to Al Qaeda or international terrorism; “even the best survey of WMD programs will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile and CW/BW weapons fronts …” A series of notes and memoranda passing back and forth between the British Cabinet Office in London and its correspondents in Washington during the spring and summer of 2002 address the problem of inventing a pretext for a war so fondly desired by the Bush Administration that Sir Richard Dearlove, head of Britain’s MI-6, finds the interested parties in Washington fixing “the intelligence and the facts … around the policy.” The American enthusiasm for regime change, “undimmed” in the mind of Condoleezza Rice, presents complications.

Although Blair has told Bush, probably in the autumn of 2001, that Britain will join the American military putsch in Iraq, he needs “legal justification” for the maneuver—something noble and inspiring to say to Parliament and the British public. No justification “currently exists.” Neither Britain nor the United States is being attacked by Iraq, which eliminates the excuse of self-defense; nor is the Iraqi government currently sponsoring a program of genocide. Which leaves as the only option the “wrong-footing” of Saddam. If under the auspices of the United Nations he can be presented with an ultimatum requiring him to show that Iraq possesses weapons that don’t exist, his refusal to comply can be taken as proof that he does, in fact, possess such weapons.5

Over the next few months, while the British government continues to look for ways to “wrongfoot” Saddam and suborn the U.N., various operatives loyal to Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld bend to the task of fixing the facts, distributing alms to dubious Iraqi informants in return for map coordinates of Saddam’s monstrous weapons, proofs of stored poisons, of mobile chemical laboratories, of unmanned vehicles capable of bringing missiles to Jerusalem.6

By early August the Bush Administration has sufficient confidence in its doomsday story to sell it to the American public. Instructed to come up with awesome text and shocking images, the White House Iraq Group hits upon the phrase “mushroom cloud” and prepares a White Paper describing the “grave and gathering danger” posed by Iraq’s nuclear arsenal.7 The objective is three-fold—to magnify the fear of Saddam Hussein, to present President Bush as the Christian savior of the American people, a man of conscience who never in life would lead the country into an unjust war, and to provide a platform of star-spangled patriotism for Republican candidates in the November congressional elections.8

The ad campaign rolls out on September 7, when Britain’s Tony Blair stands in front of the television cameras at Camp David, Maryland, with President Bush to say that a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency shows new activity at Iraq’s nuclear weapons sites.9 On September 8, National Security Advisor Rice appears on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, to picture a mushroom cloud in America’s future, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, on Face the Nation, invites Bob Schieffer to “imagine a September 11 with weapons of mass destruction.” On the same day, Vice President Cheney shows up on Meet the Press to assure Tim Russert that “first of all, no decision’s been made yet to launch a military operation.” The President stays on both messages, informing reporters gathered at an Oval Office photo op on September 25 that when discussing the War on Terror, “You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam,” and then on October 1, after meeting with members of Congress, “Of course, I haven’t made up my mind if we’re going to war with Iraq.”10 The autumn sales promotion reaches its crescendo on October 7, when the President, speaking to a live television audience from the Cincinnati Museum Center, pulls all the dead rabbits out of Karl Rove’s magic hat—Saddam possessed of “horrible poisons and diseases and gasses and atomic weapons … we know that Iraq and A1 Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade…. America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud . . . ”

Four days later in Washington, on the evening of October 11, Congress passes HJ Resolution 114, granting President Bush the power to “use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” The grant excuses the President from the obligation to consult Congress on a formal declaration of war; its preamble reiterates the administration’s fantastic assertions about “Iraq’s demonstrated capability and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction, the risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its Armed Forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so, and the extreme magnitude of harm that would result to the United States and its citizens from such an attack, [combining] to justify action by the United States to defend itself …” Passage of the resolution, by a vote of 77 to 23 in the Senate, certifies as true what is known to be false and thus enlists Congress as an accomplice in the systematic perpetration of a criminal fraud.

Its war policy thus firmly established in all the major media markets, the Bush Administration over the span of the next five months holds fast to the policy of deceiving itself as well as the American people and the Congress. While the Pentagon assembles its forces for Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003, President Bush continues to present himself as the victim of outrageous circumstance. In answer to a reporter’s question at a White House press conference, he says, “You said we’re headed to war in Iraq—I don’t know why you say that. I hope we’re not headed to war in Iraq. I’m the person who gets to decide, not you.” Vice President Cheney tells Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, that unless his scouts soon find Saddam’s WMD in Iraq, the United States “will not hesitate to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament”; meanwhile, having come to believe the lies stuffed into his mouth by informants paid to do just that, he appears on Meet the Press to say, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” President Bush in his State of the Union Address on January 28 falsely informs Congress that Saddam has been trying to buy enriched uranium in Africa; at the U.N. Security Council on February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell conjures up the “sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.”11

The Conyers report doesn’t lack for further instances of the administration’s misconduct, all of them noted in the press over the last three years—misuse of government funds, violation of the Geneva Conventions, holding without trial and subjecting to torture individuals arbitrarily designated as “enemy combatants,” etc.—but conspiracy to commit fraud would seem reason enough to warrant the President’s impeachment.12 Before reading the report, I wouldn’t have expected to find myself thinking that such a course of action was either likely or possible; after reading the report, I don’t know why we would run the risk of not impeaching the man. We have before us in the White House a thief who steals the country’s good name and reputation for his private interest and personal use; a liar who seeks to instill in the American people a state of fear; a televangelist who engages the United States in a never-ending crusade against all the world’s evil, a wastrel who squanders a vast sum of the nation’s wealth on what turns out to be a recruiting drive certain to multiply the host of our enemies. In a word, a criminal—known to be armed and shown to be dangerous.13 Under the three-strike rule available to the courts in California, judges sentence people to life in jail for having stolen from Wal-Mart a set of golf clubs or a child’s tricycle. Who then calls strikes on President Bush, and how many more does he get before being sent down on waivers to one of the Texas Prison Leagues?

Last December when Representative Conyers introduced House Resolution 635—together with two ancillary resolutions censuring President Bush and Vice President Cheney, each of them for “failing to respond to requests for information” about the origins of the Iraq war—the word “impeach” was still regarded as excessive hyperbole, the unmentionable “I-word,” not to be seen or heard in the circles of proper Washington opinion. A month later and the word was in general circulation, if not with reference to the misbegotten killing in Iraq at least in the context of the President’s directing the NSA to monitor, if necessary without first obtaining a court order, any and all telephone and email traffic, in, out, or around the United States, that might turn up a reference (ideological, operational, metaphorical, coincidental, or conversational) to an act (factual or fictional, past, present, or future) of terrorism. So wide a spreading of government flypaper obviously was bound to collect (by accident, if not by design) a great deal of information about a great many American citizens under the impression that their words were their own. The President’s directive, a felony under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine), also nullified the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

As was to be expected, the first stirrings of objection appeared in the left-wing blogs, tens of thousands of citizens posting violently worded dissents on, also at and On December 19, two days after President Bush affirmed his commander in chiefs right to affix wire taps whenever and wherever he so chose, Senator Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) issued a statement saying that “we are a nation of laws and not men…. I defy the Administration to show me where in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or the U.S. Constitution, they are allowed to steal into the lives of innocent Americans and spy…. These astounding revelations about the bending and contorting of the Constitution to justify a grasping irresponsible administration under the banner of ‘national security’ are an outrage….” Representative John Lewis (D., Ga.) told a radio interviewer in Atlanta that George W. Bush “is not a king, he is President,” going on to say that if the chance presented itself he would sign a bill of impeachment. John Dean, White House counsel in the Nixon Administration and a man familiar with the arts of bugging phones and obstructing justice, observed, in conversation with Senator Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), that “Bush is the first president to admit to an impeachable offence.”14

In the conservative quarters of opinion the objections were equally vigorous. On December 19, Norman Omstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute allied with the Republican doctrine of small governments supporting large armies, sat for an interview on a Washington public radio station known for its liberal bias and audience. “I think that if we’re going to be intellectually honest here,” he said, “this really is the kind of thing that Alexander Hamilton was referring to when impeachment was discussed.” The next day, writing in the Washington Times, Bruce Fein, former associate deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, said of President Bush that he “presents a clear and present danger to the rule of law”; he later extended the thought by saying that if the President “maintains this disregard or contempt for the coordinate branches of government, it’s that conception of an omnipotent presidency that makes the occupant a dangerous person.”

By the third week in January the word “impeachment” had been mentioned often enough in polite company to achieve a presence in the vocabulary of Senator Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Appearing on ABC’s This Week on January 15, Specter said that he planned a February hearing on the matter of the warrantless domestic spying program, but even if it were to be found that the President exceeded his authority, impeachment was not the appropriate rebuke. Pressed on the point by George Stephanopoulos, Specter said: “Impeachment is a remedy. After impeachment, you could have a criminal prosecution, but the principal remedy, George, under our society is to pay a political price.”15

Would that it were so. The Bush Administration doesn’t believe in the theory of parliamentary government, much less in the notion of paying political prices. Its agents prefer the more frugal and efficient practice of stealing elections, gagging the voice of the Democratic minority in Congress, slandering people who presume to doubt either its wisdom or its virtue, conducting the business of government behind closed doors, alone with its Bibles and its pet Bismarcks in soundproof rooms. On the off chance that any God-fearing citizen didn’t know what to expect, the President clarified the position in late December and again in early January, responding to what he clearly regarded as annoying questions about his directive to the NSA. Yes, he had told the NSA to take precautions, had done so more than once, would do so again. That was his job, to defend the American people; in time of war the Constitution gave him the right to do as he pleased, so did the act of Congress passed on September 14, 2001, three days after the loss of the World Trade Center. The fact that he was compelled to address the subject was “shameful,” impertinent, and unpatriotic on the part of the reporter who inquired about “unchecked executive power” and ascribed to him “some kind of dictatorial position … which I strongly reject.” Such questions also were dangerous, apt to bring on more terrorist attacks in the manner of 9/11. The latter point was repeatedly reinforced by Vice President Cheney, who firmly reminded audiences in New York and Washington—audiences composed primarily of lobbyists for the country’s media syndicates and weapons manufacturers—that we live in a dangerous world, demanding a robust executive authority in the White House to ward off the forces of moral anarchy and social chaos.

“We’re at war,” the President said on December 19, “we must protect America’s secrets.”

No, the country isn’t at war, and it’s not America’s secrets that the President seeks to protect. The country is threatened by free-booting terrorists unaligned with a foreign government or an enemy army; the secrets are those of the Bush Administration, chief among them its determination to replace a democratic republic with something more safely totalitarian. The fiction of permanent war allows it to seize, in the name of the national security, the instruments of tyranny.

The question posed to the assembly is whether enough people care, and, if so, how do they respond when, in the language of the Declaration of Independence, “a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.”

Although the abuses and usurpations are self-evident, obvious to anybody who takes the trouble to read the newspapers, the Bush Administration makes no attempt to conceal the Object evinced in the design of its purpose, because it counts on the romanticism as well as on the apathy of an American public reluctant to recognize the President of the United States as a felon. Who wants to believe such a thing, much less acknowledge it as a proven fact?

More people than dreamed of in the philosophy of Karl Rove or by the content providers to the major news media. The heavy volume of angry protest on the Internet, reflected in the polls indicating the President’s steady decline in the popular esteem, suggests that at least half of the American electorate, in the red states and the blue, knows that the Bush Administration operates without reference to the rule of law, also that the President believes himself somehow divinely ordained, accountable only to Jesus and the oil companies, at liberty to wave what he imagines to be the scepter of the Constitution in whatever ways he deems best. But in the news media they find no strong voice of dissent, in the Democratic Party no concerted effort to form a coherent opposition.

Which places the work of protecting the country’s freedoms where it should be placed—with the Congress, more specifically with the Republican members of Congress. What else is it that voters expect the Congress to do if not to look out for their rights as citizens of the United States? So the choice presented to the Republican members on the Judiciary Committee investigating the President’s use of electronic surveillance comes down to a matter of deciding whether they will serve their country or their party. I don’t envy them the decision; the rewards offered by the party (patronage, campaign contributions, a fat retirement on the payroll of a K Street lobbying firm) clearly outweigh those available from the country—congratulatory editorials in obscure newspapers, malicious gossip circulated by Focus on the Family and Fox News, an outpouring of letters and emails from grateful citizens not in positions to do anybody any favors.

To the cameras on ABC’s This Week Senator Specter said that impeachment was probably not the best remedy for the President’s misconduct, and if the February hearings proceed along the lines of most Senate hearings, they will find that the best remedy is no remedy. In rebuttal to testimony arguing that the President’s breach of federal law constitutes a crime, other witnesses will say that the Constitution authorizes the President to overrule the law, and after a prolonged mumbling of lawyers about the balance that must be struck between civil liberties on the one hand and the national security on the other, it will be discovered that the balance sometimes shifts to meet the circumstances, which is why, thank God, America is a great country—because it allows for the appearance of meaningful debate while at the same time making sure that the words have no consequences.

If, however, the committee rises to the recognition of its constitutional task—that of correcting the imbalances of power that sometimes can foul the machinery of fair and honorable government—it will take to heart the meaning of the word “remedy”—a corrective measure, not a punishment. It isn’t the business of the Congress to punish President Bush. Any competent court in the country could arraign the President on charges identical to those brought against the crooked executives at Enron and Tyco International (fraud, misuse of stockholder funds, manipulation of intelligence) and send him off to jail dressed in an orange jump suit. Nor is it the responsibility of Congress to sit in moral judgment; the sermons can be left to the Reverend Pat Robertson and the Yale Divinity School. It is the business of the Congress to prevent the President from doing more damage than he’s already done to the people, interests, health, well-being, safety, good name, and reputation of the United States—to cauterize the wound and stem the flows of money, stupidity, and blood.

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