Carl Burnstein / Vanity Fair – 2006-04-24 07:45:54
Lost in most accounts of the complicated Plame backstory is its relevance in terms of Bush’s 2004 re-election, and hence the obvious concern by Rove and other presidential deputies: that if Wilson’s credentials and information were not undermined they would serve as confirmation during the presidential campaign that Bush had knowingly used false claims (that Saddam Hussein had been trying to seek nuclear materials from Niger) in his 2003 State of the Union address to publicly justify going to war.
The parallel with potential damage from Watergate to Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign is almost eerie (and equally complicated): if the insistent denials about White House involvement in the Watergate break-in had been proven false at the time, or the door opened on the other illegal activities of the President and his men, Nixon might have been a far more vulnerable candidate for re-election in 1972.
Literally dozens of investigations have been ordered at the C.I.A., the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, and elsewhere in the executive branch to find out who is talking to the press about secret activities undertaken in Bush’s presidency. These include polygraph investigations and a warning to the press that reporters may be prosecuted under espionage laws.
Bush’s self-claimed authority to wiretap without a court order — like his self-claimed authority to hold prisoners of war indefinitely without habeas corpus (on grounds those in custody are suspected “terrorists”) — stems from the same doctrine of “unimpairment” and all its Nixonian overtones: “The American people expect me to protect their lives and their civil liberties, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with this [N.S.A. eavesdropping] program,” asserted Bush in January.
When Nixon’s former attorney general John N. Mitchell was compelled to testify before the Watergate Committee, he laid out the sordid “White House horrors,” as he called them — activities undertaken in the name of national security by the low-level thugs and high-level presidential aides acting in the president’s name. Mitchell, loyal to the end, pictured the whole crowd, from Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Colson down to Liddy and the Watergate burglars, as self-starters, acting without authority from Nixon.
The tapes, of course, told the real story — wiretapping, break-ins, attempts to illegally manipulate the outcome of the electoral process, routine smearing of the president’s opponents and intricate machinations to render it untraceable, orders to firebomb a liberal think tank, the Watergate cover-up, and their origin in the Oval Office.
In the case of the Bush administration’s two attorneys general, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, there are indications that—as in the Nixon White House—they approved and/or promulgated policies (horrors?) that would appear intended to enable the president to circumvent the Constitution and the law.
Ashcroft expressed reservations as early as 2004 about the legality of the wiretapping authority claimed by Bush, according to recent disclosures in the press, but Ashcroft’s doubts — and the unwillingness of his principal deputy attorney general to approve central aspects of the N.S.A. domestic eavesdropping plan—were not made known to the Congress.
Gonzales, as White House counsel, drew up the guidelines authorizing torture at American-run prisons and U.S. exemption from the Geneva war-crimes conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners. (His memo to the president described provisions of the conventions as “quaint.”)
“Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country,” said Bush when confronted with the undeniable, photographic evidence of torture. “We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.”
The available facts would indicate this was an unusually evident example of presidential prevarication, but we will never know exactly how untruthful, or perhaps just slippery, until the president and the White House are compelled to cooperate with a real congressional investigation.
That statement by Bush, in June 2004, in response to worldwide outrage at the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, illustrates two related, core methodologies employed by this president and his cadre to escape responsibility for their actions: First, an Orwellian reliance on the meaninglessness of words.
(When is “torture” torture? When is “ordered” “authorized”? When is “if someone committed a crime they will no longer work in my administration” a scheme to keep trusted aides on the payroll through a legal process that could take years before adjudication and hide the president’s own role in helping to start—perhaps inadvertently—the Plame ball rolling?)
“Listen, I know of nobody — I don’t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information,” the president was quoted saying in Time magazine’s issue of October 13, 2003. Time’s report then noted with acuity, “Bush seemed to emphasize those last two words [‘classified information’] as if hanging onto a legal life preserver in choppy seas.”
The second method of escape is the absence of formal orders issued down the chain of command, leaving non-coms, enlisted men and women, and a few unfortunate non-star officers to twist in the wind for policies emanating from the president, vice president, secretary of defense, attorney general, national-security adviser to the president, and current secretary of state (formerly the national-security adviser).
With a determined effort, a committee of distinguished senators should be able to establish if the grotesque abuse of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo was really the work of a “few bad apples” like Army Reserve P.F.C. Lynndie England wielding the leash, or a natural consequence of actions and policies flowing from the Oval Office and office of the secretary of defense.
In a baker’s dozen of hearings before pliant committees of Congress, a parade of the top brass from Rice to Rumsfeld, to the Joint Chiefs, to Paul Bremer has managed for almost three years to evade responsibility for — or even acknowledgment of — the disintegrating situation on the ground in Iraq, its costs in lives and treasure, and its disastrous reverberations through the world, and for an assault on constitutional principles at home. Similarly, until the Senate Watergate hearings, Nixon and his men at the top had evaded responsibility for Watergate and their cover-up of all the “White House horrors.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now almost impossible to look at the president’s handling of the war in Iraq in isolation from his handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Certainly any investigation of the president and his administration should include both disasters.
Before 9/11, Bush and Condoleezza Rice had been warned in the starkest of terms — by their own aides, by the outgoing Clinton administration, and by experts on terrorism — of the urgent danger of a spectacular al-Qaeda attack in the United States. Yet the first top-level National Security Council meeting to discuss the subject was not held until September 4, 2001— just as the F.B.I. hierarchy had been warned by field agents that there were suspected Islamic radicals learning to fly 747s with no legitimate reasons for doing so, but the bureau ultimately ignored the urgency of problem, just as Bush had ample opportunity (despite what he said later) to review and competently execute a disaster plan for the hurricane heading toward New Orleans.
There will forever be four indelible photographic images of the George W. Bush epoch: an airplane crashing into World Trade Tower number two; Bush in a Florida classroom reading from a book about a goat while a group of second-graders continued to captivate him for another seven minutes after Andrew Card had whispered to the president, “America is under attack”; floodwaters inundating New Orleans, and its residents clinging to rooftops for their lives; and, two days after the hurricane struck, Bush peeking out the window of Air Force One to inspect the devastation from a safe altitude.
The aftermath of the hurricane’s direct hit, both in terms of the devastation and the astonishing neglect and incompetence from the top down, would appear to be unique in American history. Except for the Civil War and the War of 1812 (when the British burned Washington), no president has ever lost an American city; and if New Orleans is not lost, it will only be because of the heroics of its people and their almost superhuman efforts to overcome the initial lethargy and apparent non-comprehension of the president. Bush’s almost blank reaction was foretold vividly in a video of him and his aides meeting on August 28, 2005, the day before Katrina made landfall.
The tape — withheld by the administration from Congress but obtained by the Associated Press along with seven days of transcripts of administration briefings — shows Bush and his Homeland Security chief being warned explicitly that the storm could cause levees to overflow, put large number of lives at risk, and overwhelm rescuers.
In the wake of the death and devastation in New Orleans, President Bush refused to provide the most important documents sought by Congress or allow his immediate aides in the White House to testify before Congress about decision-making in the West Wing or at his Crawford ranch in the hours immediately before and after the hurricane struck.
His refusal was wrapped in a package of high principle — the need for confidentiality of executive-branch communications — the same principle of preserving presidential privacy that, presumably, prevented him from releasing official White House photos of himself with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff or allowing White House aides to testify about the N.S.A. electronic-eavesdropping program on grounds of executive privilege.
The unwillingness of this president — a former Texas governor familiar with the destructive powers of weather — to deal truthfully (“I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” he said in an interview with Good Morning America three days after the hurricane hit) and meaningfully with the people of the Gulf Coast or the country, or the Congress, about his government’s response (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) to Hurricane Katrina may be the Rosebud moment of his presidency.
The president’s repeated attempts to keep secret his actions and those of his principal aides by invoking often spurious claims of executive privilege and national security in the run-up to the war in Iraq — and its prosecution since — are rendered perfectly comprehensible when seen in relation to the Katrina claim. It is an effective way to hide the truth (as Nixon attempted so often), and —when uncomfortable truths have nonetheless been revealed by others —to justify extraordinary actions that would seem to be illegal or even unconstitutional.
Is incompetence an impeachable offense? The question is another reason to defer the fraught matter of impeachment (if deserved) in the Bush era until the ground is prepared by a proper fact-finding investigation and public hearings conducted by a sober, distinguished committee of Congress.
We have never had a presidency in which the single unifying thread that flows through its major decision-making was incompetence — stitched together with hubris and mendacity on a Nixonian scale. There will be no shortage of witnesses to question about the subject, among them the retired three-star Marine Corps general who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war’s planning, Gregory Newbold.
Last week he wrote, “I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat—Al Qaeda. I retired from the military four months before the invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11’s tragedy to hijack our security policy.”
The decision to invade Iraq, he said, “was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions — or bury the results.” Despite the military’s determination that, after Vietnam, “We must never again stand by quietly while those ignorant of and casual about war lead us into another one and then mismanage the conduct of it.… We have been fooled again.”
The unprecedented generals’ revolt against the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is—like the special prosecutor’s Plame investigation —a door that once cracked open, cannot be readily shut by the president or even his most senior aides. What outsiders long suspected regarding the conduct of the war has now been given credence by those on the inside, near the top, just as in the unraveling of Watergate.
General Newbold and his fellow retired generals have (as observed elsewhere in the press) declared Rumsfeld unfit to lead America’s military at almost exactly the moment when the United States must deal with the most difficult legacy of the Bush presidency: how to pry itself out of Iraq and deal with the real threat this administration ignored next door, from Iran.
Rumsfeld appeared Friday on an Al Arabiya television broadcast and said, “Out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defense of the United States, it would be like a merry-go-round.”
This kind of denial of reality — and (again) Orwellian abuse of facts and language —to describe six generals, each with more than 30 years military experience, each of whom served at the top of their commands (three in Iraq) and worked closely with Rumsfeld, is indicative of the problem any investigation by the Senate must face when dealing with this presidency.
And if Rumsfeld is unfit, how is his commander-in-chief, who has steadfastly refused to let him go (as Nixon did for so long with Haldeman and Ehrlichman, “two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know”), to be judged?
The roadblock to a serious inquiry to date has been a Republican majority that fears the results, and a Democratic minority more interested in retribution and grandstanding than the national weal. There are indications, however, that by November voters may be far more discerning than they were in the last round of congressional elections, and that Republicans especially are getting the message. Indeed many are talking privately about their lack of confidence in Bush and what to do about him.
It took the Senate Watergate Committee less than six months to do its essential work. When Sam Ervin’s gavel fell to close the first phase of public televised hearings on August 7, 1973, the basic facts of Nixon’s conspiracy — and the White House horrors — were engraved on the nation’s consciousness. The testimony of the president’s men themselves — under oath and motivated perhaps in part by a real threat of being charged with perjury — left little doubt about what happened in a criminal and unconstitutional presidency.
On February 6, 1974, the House voted 410 to 4 to empower its Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment investigation of the president. On July 27, 1974, the first of three articles of impeachment was approved, with support from 6 of the 17 Republicans (and 21 Democrats) on the committee. Two more articles were approved on July 29 and 30. On August 8, facing certain conviction in a Senate trial, Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president.
In Watergate, Republicans were the ones who finally told Richard Nixon, “Enough.” They were the ones who cast the most critical votes for articles of impeachment, ensuring that Nixon would be judged with nonpartisan fairness. After the vote, the Republican congressional leadership — led by the great conservative senator Barry Goldwater — marched en masse to the White House to tell the criminal president that he had to go. And if he didn’t, the leadership would recommend his conviction in the Senate.
In the case of George W. Bush, important conservative and Republican voices have, finally, begun speaking out in the past few weeks. William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the modern conservative movement and, with Goldwater, perhaps its most revered figure, said last month: “It’s important that we acknowledge in the inner counsels of state that [the war in Iraq] has failed so that we should look for opportunities to cope with that failure.”
And “Mr. Bush is in the hands of a fortune that will be unremitting on the point of Iraq.… If he’d invented the Bill of Rights it wouldn’t get him out of this jam.” And “The neoconservative hubris, which sort of assigns to America some kind of geo-strategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country.”
Even more scathing have been some officials who served in the White House under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s father. Bruce Bartlett, a domestic-policy aide in the Reagan administration, a deputy assistant treasury secretary for the first President Bush, and author of a new book, Impostor: How George Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, noted: “A lot of conservatives have had reservations about him for a long time, but have been afraid to speak out for fear it would help liberals and the Democrats “— a situation that, until the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, existed in regard to Nixon. “I think there are growing misgivings about the conduct of the Iraq operation, and how that relates to a general incompetence his administration seems to have about doing basic things,” said Bartlett.
After Nixon’s resignation, it was often said that the system had worked. Confronted by an aberrant president, the checks and balances on the executive by the legislative and judicial branches of government, and by a free press, had functioned as the founders had envisioned.
The system has thus far failed during the presidency of George W. Bush—at incalculable cost in human lives, to the American political system, to undertaking an intelligent and effective war against terror, and to the standing of the United States in parts of the world where it previously had been held in the highest regard.
There was understandable reluctance in the Congress to begin a serious investigation of the Nixon presidency. Then there came a time when it was unavoidable. That time in the Bush presidency has arrived.
Carl Bernstein is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. His biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton will be published by Knopf next year.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.