Chimpeach the chimperor

Allow me to be earnest and a bit breathless about this.

On Tuesday, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey gave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about events in March 2004 that had already partially come to light in the press. The details of Comey’s narrative are dramatic and astonishing. Then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and then-White House Counsel (now Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales tried to strong-arm a terribly ill John Ashcroft, who was disoriented and in intensive care, into re-certifying the administration’s warrantless electronic eavesdropping program. There’s a motorcade race across Washington to Ashcroft’s hospital, dire orders to FBI agents to prevent dirty tricks or worse by Card and Gonzales, Comey refusing to meet with Card without a witness present. I would say it’s a tale of some of the highest-ranking members of the administration acting more like members of the Soprano family than White House officials, but illegal and thuggish actions are hardly an anomaly in Bush’s White House.

The transcript of Comey’s testimony is here; video is here.

The main points, setting aside the Mafia/banana-republic theatrics, are that when the administration sought to re-certify its ongoing warrantless wiretapping program, the Justice Department of John Ashcroft, hardly a defender of civil liberties, decided that the program had “no legal basis.” Comey, Ashcroft, and FBI Director Robert Mueller blocked an attempt by Card and Gonzales to get Ashcroft to sign off on the program from his hospital bed. The next day, Bush went on to reauthorize the program without the Justice Department certification, which was apparently required by the Executive Order that Bush had used to inaugurate the wiretapping. That is, the merest fig-leaf of legality was ripped away.

The Justice Department officials who had contributed to the decision not to re-certify were prepared to resign en masse ; their number apparently included Ashcroft himself. Subsequently, Bush agreed (probably against the advice of Cheney and his legal counsel, David Addington , who cooked up the eavesdropping program) to change either the justification for the wiretapping program or how it operated (or, probably, both) in order to make it acceptable to the Justice Department.

Glenn Greenwald’s discussion is invaluable. He makes some informed speculations about the nature of the changes that were made to satisfy the Justice Department and prevent a mass resignation. Greenwald writes:

The overarching point here, as always, is that it is simply crystal clear that the President consciously and deliberately violated the law and committed multiple felonies by eavesdropping on Americans in violation of the law.

Marty Lederman, thinking along the same lines, notes that by refusing to re-certify the program in 2004, the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel effectively decided that the administration and the telephone companies had been violating federal law since it began in October 2001. And as Greenwald and Lederman both write, Bush re-authorized the program despite DOJ’s refusal to re-certify. He knew he was breaking the law and did it anyway.

It’s long been clear that Bush has committed impeachable offenses. Dennis Kucinich has introduced articles of impeachment against Dick Cheney for manipulating intelligence in the runup to the Iraq invasion and for illegally threatening to use force against Iran. Bush’s highest crimes also involve Iraq. But the general contempt for legal constraints demonstrated by Bush, Cheney, and their administration has provided fertile soil for other specific acts of criminality. The warrantless wiretapping program is now coming to light like a mushroom emerging from a fungus-riddled pile of shit.

(Details in Comey’s testimony about Gonzales’s behavior should make clear that his resignation or impeachment is past due. But as always with Gonzales, he’s just a lieutenant carrying out Bush’s orders. He’s far from the most important perp here.)

The Watergate burglaries brought down a presidency because they were a dramatic focal point that the public could grasp. The articles of impeachment against Nixon specified his “high crimes and misdemeanors” as obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress. The charges arose out of the coverup of the burglary, and in general in Washington it’s the coverup rather than the original incident that gets people in real trouble. (Ask Scooter Libby about that.)

In the case of the wiretapping program, though, the program itself consisted of actions that are felonies under federal law — and that also violate the spirit if not the letter of Constitutional privacy protections. The problem is, it’s a bit abstract, and the program is still so secret that we don’t really know very much about it.

As a matter of institutional character, Congress is usually reluctant to make a move on impeachment. What has to happen first, as with Watergate, is serious work by the press to bring facts to light. Only when the public is fully informed about the issue will the level of outrage be enough to force Congress to act. Senate committees have some advantages as investigative tools, but the press really needs to get out in front on this one.

And it just might be that James Comey’s dramatic narrative of nighttime shenanigans will be the little tap that sends the Bush administration careening into ruin.

10 responses to “Chimpeach the chimperor”

  1. Marley says:

    In the series The West Wing, The press secretary says something like, that is why I believe in our system- because we have free speech and a free press, it provides a check-and-balance (where the political leaders cannot run a muck without people knowing about it). You should run for office Dave, we’ll support you.

  2. MF says:

    I’d vote for you, too Dave. Especially if you promised to use phrases like “a mushroom emerging from a fungus-riddled pile of shit” in your speeches.

  3. Stephanie Wells says:

    I hate to be completely bleak (though I am)–but it’s hard to be hopeful about this when, to me, the administration has such a history of stuff like this, always completely getting away with outrageously illegal acts (including the last election itself), that it’s hard to see how this will be any different. I have been shocked so many times, certain so many times that this couldn’t POSSIBLY stand up, only to be reminded that there is no power high enough to prevent them from doing whatever dictatorial things they want, Democratic congress or no. Of course this is an impeachable offense. So has almost everything else been. Of course I’m shocked an outraged. I’ve been that way for so long that it feels like numbness. I want to believe you, Dave, but it’s gone way too far for that to happen. Don’t get my hopes up. Impeaching him for this would almost imply that all the rest has been acceptable.

  4. UncleDaveforCongress says:

    I am happy to announce my candidacy for 2008. Rise up America and vote for Dave.
    Rock the Vote

  5. Dave says:

    4: I’m actually quite happy with my representative in Congress.

    Steph, I’m actually as skeptical as you are that Bush will really be held accountable. But this seems to me like the kind of thing that could lead to impeachment if we get very, very lucky. Nixon bombed Cambodia but was driven from office over petty dirty tricks. Al Capone was locked up for tax evasion.

  6. lisa t. says:

    I watched a teacher yesterday encourage 9th graders to begin with MLK’s principles for non-violent social change when they approach their problem/solution projects. The most important aspect of these principles, he reminded them, was “self-purification,” seeing yourself and admitting that you are part of the problem. A little self-accountability (what a concept!). The kids were connecting the principle to hypocrisy– and one student said “no one listens to a hypocrite.”

    I hope the “moral majority” has stopped listening to the hypocrites.

  7. lisa t. says:

    oh, wait, the “moral majority” are the hypocrites.

  8. bacon says:

    I shall never curse at another DC motorcade chase again…which is hard since they happen about once a day.

    Well, unless it is the afternoon northbound Penn Ave motorcade with those fascist motorcycle police who bang their fists on the hoods of cars manned by hapless driviers who have found themselves caught up in a losing battle they never enlisted in, like so many soldiers in Iraq. That of course would be our VP trying to make it home before the beef stroganoff got cold.

  9. […] weekend papers? Dave, who had driven up with Slade from the city, reminded us that he had predicted here, back in May,¬†exactly how big this story looks likely to turn out to be. (Okay, I realize I just […]

  10. […] U.S. persons without a warrant. This secret program was the occasion of Fredo Gonzales’s dramatic visit to the hospital sickbed of John Ashcroft and has been the subject of ongoing Congressional […]