Carl Bernstein / Vanity Fair – 2006-04-24 07:47:25
In this VF.com exclusive, a Watergate veteran and Vanity Fair contributor calls for bipartisan hearings investigating the Bush presidency. Should Republicans on the Hill take the high road and save themselves come November?
Worse than Watergate? High crimes and misdemeanors justifying the impeachment of George W. Bush, as increasing numbers of Democrats in Washington hope, and, sotto voce, increasing numbers of Republicans — including some of the president’s top lieutenants — now fear?
Leaders of both parties are acutely aware of the vehemence of anti-Bush sentiment in the country, expressed especially in the increasing number of Americans—nearing 50 percent in some polls—who say they would favor impeachment if the president were proved to have deliberately lied to justify going to war in Iraq.
John Dean, the Watergate conspirator who ultimately shattered the Watergate conspiracy, rendered his precipitous (or perhaps prescient) impeachment verdict on Bush two years ago in the affirmative, without so much as a question mark in choosing the title of his book Worse than Watergate. On March 31, some three decades after he testified at the seminal hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee, Dean reiterated his dark view of Bush’s presidency in a congressional hearing that shed more noise than light, and more partisan rancor than genuine inquiry. The ostensible subject: whether Bush should be censured for unconstitutional conduct in ordering electronic surveillance of Americans without a warrant.
Raising the worse-than-Watergate question and demanding unequivocally that Congress seek to answer it is, in fact, overdue and more than justified by ample evidence stacked up from Baghdad back to New Orleans and, of increasing relevance, inside a special prosecutor’s office in downtown Washington.
In terms of imminent, meaningful action by the Congress, however, the question of whether the president should be impeached (or, less severely, censured) remains premature. More important, it is essential that the Senate vote — hopefully before the November elections, and with overwhelming support from both parties — to undertake a full investigation of the conduct of the presidency of George W. Bush, along the lines of the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigation during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
How much evidence is there to justify such action?
Certainly enough to form a consensus around a national imperative: to learn what this president and his vice president knew and when they knew it; to determine what the Bush administration has done under the guise of national security; and to find out who did what, whether legal or illegal, unconstitutional or merely under the wire, in ignorance or incompetence or with good reason, while the administration barricaded itself behind the most Draconian secrecy and disingenuous information policies of the modern presidential era.
“We ought to get to the bottom of it so it can be evaluated, again, by the American people,” said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on April 9. “The President of the United States owes a specific explanation to the American people … about exactly what he did.” Specter was speaking specifically about a special prosecutor’s assertion that Bush selectively declassified information (of dubious accuracy) and instructed the vice president to leak it to reporters to undermine criticism of the decision to go to war in Iraq. But the senator’s comments would be even more appropriately directed at far more pervasive and darker questions that must be answered if the American political system is to acquit itself in the Bush era, as it did in Nixon’s.
Perhaps there are facts or mitigating circumstances, given the extraordinary nature of conceiving and fighting a war on terror, that justify some of the more questionable policies and conduct of this presidency, even those that turned a natural disaster in New Orleans into a catastrophe of incompetence and neglect.
But the truth is we have no trustworthy official record of what has occurred in almost any aspect of this administration, how decisions were reached, and even what the actual policies promulgated and approved by the president are. Nor will we, until the subpoena powers of the Congress are used (as in Watergate) to find out the facts— not just about the war in Iraq, almost every aspect of it, beginning with the road to war, but other essential elements of Bush’s presidency, particularly the routine disregard for truthfulness in the dissemination of information to the American people and Congress.
The first fundamental question that needs to be answered by and about the president, the vice president, and their political and national-security aides, from Donald Rumsfeld to Condoleezza Rice, to Karl Rove, to Michael Chertoff, to Colin Powell, to George Tenet, to Paul Wolfowitz, to Andrew Card (and a dozen others), is whether lying, disinformation, misinformation, and manipulation of information have been a basic matter of policy — used to overwhelm dissent; to hide troublesome truths and inconvenient data from the press, public, and Congress; and to defend the president and his actions when he and they have gone awry or utterly failed.
Most of what we have learned about the reality of this administration — and the disconcerting mind-set and decision-making process of President Bush himself — has come not from the White House or the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security or the Treasury Department, but from insider accounts by disaffected members of the administration after their departure, and from distinguished journalists, and, in the case of a skeletal but hugely significant body of information, from a special prosecutor.
And also, of late, from an aide-de-camp to the British prime minister. Almost invariably, their accounts have revealed what the president and those serving him have deliberately concealed—torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and its apparent authorization by presidential fiat; wholesale N.S.A. domestic wiretapping in contravention of specific prohibitive law; brutal interrogations of prisoners shipped secretly by the C.I.A. and U.S. military to Third World gulags; the nonexistence of W.M.D. in Iraq; the role of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney’s chief of staff in divulging the name of an undercover C.I.A. employee; the non-role of Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the events of 9/11; the death by friendly fire of Pat Tillman (whose mother, Mary Tillman, told journalist Robert Scheer, “The administration tried to attach themselves to his virtue and then they wiped their feet with him”); the lack of a coherent post-invasion strategy for Iraq, with all its consequent tragedy and loss and destabilizing global implications; the failure to coordinate economic policies for America’s long-term financial health (including the misguided tax cuts) with funding a war that will drive the national debt above a trillion dollars; the assurance of Wolfowitz (since rewarded by Bush with the presidency of the World Bank) that Iraq’s oil reserves would pay for the war within two to three years after the invasion; and Bush’s like-minded confidence, expressed to Blair, that serious internecine strife in Iraq would be unlikely after the invasion.
But most grievous and momentous is the willingness — even enthusiasm, confirmed by the so-called Downing Street Memo and the contemporaneous notes of the chief foreign-policy adviser to British prime minister Tony Blair — to invent almost any justification for going to war in Iraq (including sending up an American U-2 plane painted with U.N. markings to be deliberately shot down by Saddam Hussein’s air force, a plan hatched while the president, the vice president, and Blair insisted to the world that war would be initiated “only as a last resort”).
Attending the meeting between Bush and Blair where such duplicity was discussed unabashedly (“intelligence and facts” would be jiggered as necessary and “fixed around the policy,” wrote the dutiful aide to the prime minister) were Ms. Rice, then national-security adviser to the president, and Andrew Card, the recently departed White House chief of staff.
As with Watergate, the investigation of George W. Bush and his presidency needs to start from a shared premise and set of principles that can be embraced by Democrats and Republicans, by liberals and centrists and conservatives, and by opponents of the war and its advocates: that the president of the United States and members of his administration must defend the requirements of the Constitution, obey the law, demonstrate common sense, and tell the truth. Obviously there will be disagreements, even fierce ones, along the way.
Here again the Nixon example is useful: Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee, including its vice chairman, Howard Baker of Tennessee (“What did the president know and when did he know it?”), began the investigation as defenders of Nixon. By its end, only one was willing to make any defense of Nixon’s actions.
The Senate Watergate Committee was created (by a 77 to 0 vote of the Senate) with the formal task of investigating illegal political-campaign activities. Its seven members were chosen by the leadership of each party, three from the minority, four from the majority. (The Democratic majority leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield, insisted that none of the Democrats be high-profile senators with presidential aspirations.)
One of the crucial tasks of any committee charged with investigating the Bush presidency will be to delineate the scope of inquiry. It must not be a fishing expedition—and not only because the pond is so loaded with fish. The lines ought to be drawn so that the hearings themselves do not become the occasion for the ultimate battle of the culture wars. This investigation should be seen as an opportunity to at last rise above the culture wars and, as in Watergate, learn whether the actions of the president and his deputies have been consistent with constitutional principles, the law, and the truth.
Karl Rove and other White House strategists are betting (with odds in their favor) that Republicans on Capitol Hill are extremely unlikely to take the high road before November and endorse any kind of serious investigation into Bush’s presidency—a gamble that may increase the risk of losing Republican majorities in either or both houses of Congress, and even further undermine the future of the Bush presidency.
Already in the White House, there is talk of a nightmare scenario in which the Democrats successfully make the November congressional elections a referendum on impeachment—and the congressional Republicans’ lockstep support for Bush—and win back a majority in the House, and maybe the Senate too.
But voting now to create a Senate investigation—chaired by a Republican—could work to the advantage both of the truth and of Republican candidates eager to put distance between themselves and the White House.
The calculations of politicians about their electoral futures should pale in comparison to the urgency of examining perhaps the most disastrous five years of decision-making of any modern American presidency.
There are huge differences between the Nixon presidency and this one, of course, but surprisingly few would appear to redound to this administration’s benefit, including even the fundamental question of the competence of the president.
First and foremost among the differences may be the role of the vice president. The excesses of Watergate—the crimes, the lies, the trampling of the Constitution, the disregard for the institutional integrity of the presidency, the dutiful and even enthusiastic lawbreaking of Nixon’s apparatchiks — stemmed from one aberrant president’s psyche and the paranoid assumptions that issued from it, and from the notion shared by some of his White House acolytes that, because U. S. troops were fighting a war —especially a failing one against a determined, guerrilla enemy in Vietnam —the commander in chief could assume extraordinary powers nowhere assigned in the Constitution and govern above the rule of law. “When the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” Nixon famously told David Frost.
Bush and Cheney have been hardly less succinct about the president’s duty and right to assume unprecedented authority nowhere specified in the Constitution. “Especially in the day and age we live in … the president of the United States needs to have his Constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national-security policy,” Cheney said less than four months ago.
Bush’s doctrine of “unimpairment”—at one with his tendency to trim the truth—may be (with the question of his competence) the nub of the national nightmare. “I have the authority, both from the Constitution and the Congress, to undertake this vital program,” Bush said after more than a few Republican and conservative eminences said he did not and joined the chorus of outrage about his N.S.A. domestic-surveillance program.
“Terrorism is not the only new danger of this era,” noted George F. Will, the conservative columnist. “Another is the administration’s argument that because the president is commander in chief, he is the ‘sole organ for the nation in foreign affairs’ … [which] is refuted by the Constitution’s plain language, which empowers Congress to ratify treaties, declare war, fund and regulate military forces, and make laws ‘necessary and proper’ for the execution of all presidential powers.”
A voluminous accumulation of documentary and journalistic evidence suggests that the policies and philosophy of this administration that may be unconstitutional or illegal stem not just from Bush but from Cheney as well — hence there’s even greater necessity for a careful, methodical investigation under Senate auspices before any consideration of impeachment in the House and its mischievous potential to create the mother of all partisan, ideological, take-no-prisoners battles, which would even further divide the Congress and the country.
Cheney’s recognition of the danger to him and his patron by a re-assertion of the Watergate precedent of proper congressional oversight is not hard to fathom. Illegal wiretapping —among other related crimes —was the basis of one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon passed by the House Judiciary Committee.
The other two were defiance of subpoenas and obstruction of justice in the Watergate cover-up. “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority … [that] the president needs to be effective, especially in the national-security area,” Cheney has observed. Nixon did not share his decision-making, much less philosophizing, with his vice president, and never relegated his own judgment to a number two. Former secretary of state Colin Powell’s ex-chief of staff, retired army colonel Larry Wilkerson, has attested, “What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.”
Here it may be relevant that Powell has, in private, made statements interpreted by many important figures in Washington as seemingly questioning Cheney’s emotional stability, and that Powell no longer recognizes the steady, dependable “rock” with whom he served in the administration of George W. Bush’s father.
Powell needs to be asked under oath about his reported observations regarding Cheney, not to mention his own appearance before the United Nations in which he spoke with assurance about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and insisted that the United States was seeking a way to avoid war, not start it.
Because Powell was regarded by some as the administration “good guy,” who was prescient in his anxiety about Bush’s determination to go to war in Iraq (“You break it, you own it”), he should not be handed a pass exempting him from tough questioning in a congressional investigation.
Indeed, Powell is probably more capable than any other witness of providing both fact and context to the whole story of the road to war and the actions of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the others.
One of the similarities between Bush and Nixon is their contempt, lip service aside, for the legitimate oversight of Congress. In seeking to cover up his secret, illegal activities, Nixon made broad claims of executive privilege or national security, the most important of which were rejected by the courts.
Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their colleagues have successfully evaded accountability for the dire consequences of their policies through a tried-and-true strategy that has exploited a situation in which the press (understandably) has no subpoena power and is held in ill repute (understandably) by so many Americans, and the Republican-controlled Congress can be counted on to ignore its responsibility to compel relevant, forthright testimony and evidence — no matter how outrageous (failure to provide sufficient body armor for American soldiers, for example), mendacious, or inimical to the national interest the actions of the president and his principal aides might be.
As in Watergate, the Bush White House has, at almost every opportunity when endangered by the prospect of accountability, made the conduct of the press the issue instead of the misconduct of the president and his aides, and, with help from its Republican and conservative allies in and out of Congress, questioned the patriotism of the other party.
As during the Nixon epoch, the strategy is finally wearing thin. “He’s smoking Dutch Cleanser,” said Specter when Bush’s attorney general claimed legality for the president’s secret order authorizing the wiretapping of Americans by the N.S.A. — first revealed in The New York Times in December.
Before the Times story had broken, the president was ardent about his civil-libertarian credentials in such matters: “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,” Bush said in a speech in Buffalo, New York, in April 2004.
Obviously, Bush’s statement was demonstrably untrue. Yet instead of correcting himself, Bush attacked the Times for virtual treason, and his aides initiated a full-court press to track down whoever had provided information to the newspaper. “Our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk,” he declared, as if America’s terrorist enemies hadn’t assumed they were subject to all manner of electronic eavesdropping by the world’s most technologically sophisticated nation.
As in the Nixon White House, the search for leakers and others in the executive branch who might be truthful with reporters has become a paranoid preoccupation in the Bush White House. “Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country,” Bush added. (The special prosecutor’s revelation that Bush himself — through Cheney — was ultimately behind Scooter Libby’s leaking to undermine Joseph Wilson has ironically caused Bush more damage among Republican members of Congress than far more grievous acts by the president.)
The irony of the Valerie Plame affair, like the Watergate break-in itself, is its relative insignificance in terms of the greater transgressions of a presidency that has gone off the tracks. The “third-rate burglary,” as it was famously dismissed by Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, was actually the key to unlocking the rest of the White House secrets and their cover-up by the President and his men.
Absent the knowledge of those other illegal activities of the Nixon presidency, the vehemence with which Nixon, Mitchell, Haldeman, Ziegler, Colson, et al. denied any knowledge of the Watergate break-in, or even its tangential connection to the White House, never made such sense.
As in the case of the Watergate break-in and the Nixon White House, it is now evident that the Plame investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has opened the door to larger questions of transgression: at minimum giving clarity to how far this president and his men and women have been willing to go to protect their knowledge of the false premises and pretenses on which they went to war and sold it to the Congress, the people, the press, the United Nations, and the world.
Contrary to all the denials of the President’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, the White House sought “to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson,” according to the special prosecutor. And, Fitzgerald told the U. S. District Court, “It is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to punish Wilson.”
Carl Bernstein is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. His biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton will be published by Knopf next year.
Continued in Part 2
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