News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

An Abuse of Power

The NSA wiretapping scandal is an object lesson in how the American presidency -- not just this president -- has gained too much power.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

The New York Times ' bombshell report on Dec. 16 about President Bush's authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct unwarranted wiretapping on American citizens offers the most breathtakingly simple and clear-cut case for impeachment we have seen in George Bush's five years in office. Soon after the report came out, Bush by his own admission confirmed the allegations in the story in a public radio address.

Bush defended his more than 30 unwarranted wiretapping authorizations under the mantle of national security and brazenly stated that he would continue to do so where he saw fit, ignoring the requirements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a law Congress passed in 1978. Created in direct reaction to Richard Nixon's abuse of executive power, FISA established boundaries on electronic monitoring and set up a secret court to consider legal requests for electronic surveillance from the executive branch.

Legal experts and scholars like John Dean, former counsel to President Nixon, have concluded that Bush has, in essence, confessed to committing an impeachable offense. "There can be no serious question that warrantless wiretapping, in violation of the law, is impeachable," Dean wrote. "After all, Nixon was charged in Article II of his bill of impeachment with illegal wiretapping for what he, too, claimed were national security reasons."

To borrow a phrase from former CIA Director George Tenet, this should constitute a "slam-dunk" case for impeachment. John Conyers has already introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to force a determination whether there are grounds for Bush's removal. Barbara Boxer has publicly mulled whether to do the same in the Senate, and she has sent a letter to presidential scholars asking them for their opinions on Bush's conduct. These are appropriate reactions to George W. Bush's abuse of power.

But the public and partisan focus on impeachment proceedings in the NSA wiretapping scandal overlooks some of the larger issues this story exposes about the state of our national political system.

The driving engine of the political process for most of 2005 has been legal investigations -- from Tom DeLay's Texas redistricting case to the Plame investigation to the web of corruption surrounding Jack Abramoff. The political focus on these legal proceedings by Democrats and their supporters is time they should spend pushing for reform policies to prevent another Tom DeLay. It is detrimental to our political system to establish that legal proceedings are appropriate means to political ends.

But it's understandable why so many pro-Democratic supporters have found cause to rejoice; most of these cases undermine leaders in the Republican Party, and it's one of the few arenas in the past five years where progressives can raise the victory flag. But it's vital to remember that the scandals that mire George Bush and his colleagues don't represent electoral victories in the name of progress. Step back from the fray and witness the comprehensive breakdown of accountability over the executive branch in our political process, and this wiretapping story has all the ingredients of systemic decay -- from the press, to the role of the legislative branch, to the party of opposition:

Free press: The New York Times suppressed the story for a year, acceding to the request of the White House. In the same report, the Times disclosed that it continues to withhold information, also at the White House's request, under the reasoning that national security issues are at stake. "Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted," the Times report reads. This is the same White House that has on multiple occasions used its national security apparatus for political gain, from its issuance of terror alerts during election time to revealing the name of a covert operative to pursue its case for war.

Congressional oversight: Just as it did with manipulated intelligence that the White House used in its case for Iraq, Republican leadership overlooked its constitutional responsibility to conduct checks and balances on the executive branch. Members in the Republican leadership caved in to self-justifying arguments from the executive about the president's powers in wartime, and did not conduct the oversight the Constitution gives it power to uphold.

And they had years to deal with this. Since the New York Times story has been published, some Republicans, including Senate Judicial Committee chair Arlen Specter, have promised to conduct hearings on NSA wiretapping. "When the Bill of Rights is involved, it's time to go into it very deeply," said Sen. Specter. "The public has a right to know as much as possible. It's hard to see how a resolution on the use of force can be extended to the conduct involved here."

But even as Specter has promised hearings, he's been rather mum on the recent moves by the Department of Justice -- which Specter's committee is supposed to oversee -- to open legal investigations into the whistleblowers who helped expose the wiretapping scandal in the first place. Not only this, the congressional leadership among the Republicans have far more constitutional power than the ability to hold hearings. They can wield their power to pass laws ordering the executive to cease and desist, even as they investigate possible presidential infractions of the law.

Party of opposition: A few of the Democrats in Congress were briefed by the White House -- the minority leadership in House and Senate had been informed, along with Intelligence Committee members. The initial reaction by Democratic leadership after the Times story came out was to point to evidence they weren't complicit in any of the executive's push for unwarranted wiretapping, and had covertly protested against it. Jay Rockefeller, the current ranking Democrat of the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed a letter he sent to Dick Cheney in 2003 expressing his inability to "endorse" the White House's actions. And House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for a letter she sent to the White House about the wiretapping to be declassified.

But exposing years-old clandestine opposition to unwarranted wiretapping is to avoid taking advantage of the political opening George Bush has handed the Democrats. Because Bush has insisted he will continue to authorize unwarranted wiretaps on American citizens, the first thing for congressional Democrats to do is insist that George Bush stop it immediately. It makes for good politics, as well as commencing the necessary and hopefully inevitable process of recovering power from the executive branch.

If we are going to chose the path of impeachment, it must be under the banner that the presidency, not just this president, has gained too much power. The movement to remove George Bush from office has to find a means of holding his successor accountable.

Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.