Prosecutor Scandal Is the Beginning of Bush's End

About a year from now, pundits and instant historians will point back at the firing of the federal prosecutors and say, "That's where the impeachment began."

I'm glad that it began with, or at least around, Alberto.

The attorney general takes an oath to uphold the constitution and execute the law. When controversial matters come up, his role, traditionally, is often to be the guy who says, "We can't do that, it's against the law."

Gonzales took a different approach. He brought the ethics of a corporate lawyer to his office. He took it to be his job to find, or invent, a theory that would allow the administration to go forward. If the theory wouldn't hold up in court, or made little sense, that didn't matter. They could still maintain, with straight faces, that they believed what they were doing, on the advice of the attorney general, was legal and constitutional. If worst came to worst, they'd back off and move on, so long as the profit outweighed the penalty.

The most flagrant example is when Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld decided they wanted to torture people.

Aside from the moral, practical, and traditional problems with torture, there were legal problems. America's own War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions prohibit torture, torture lite, and even real life re-enactments of episodes from the TV show "24."

So Gonzales and his legal team came up with the theory: the Geneva Conventions don't apply to opponents in the War on Terror. Neither does domestic law. Indeed, nothing applies. They invented a category of person who has no rights, even if they're American citizens. Gonzales knew exactly how illegal it was. That's why he wrote a memo that explained, explicitly, that the reason to employ his theory was to "provide a solid defense to any future prosecution."

The administration also wanted to snatch people off the street - usually abroad, but here too -- and not bother with all the legal mumbo jumbo. Annoying. Cumbersome. Too expensive.

Unfortunately, Article 1, Section 9, of the Constitution says, "The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." Habeas corpus means that if you are arrested or detained, the government has to bring you into the legal system and say why. Without that right, you don't have any other legal rights. You can't defend yourself, you can't call a lawyer, you can't notify your family. You just disappear.

Gonzales came up with the astonishing theory that the Constitution doesn't give people the automatic right to habeas corpus, it only says that if they happen to have it, it can't be taken away.

Gonzales was also the architect of the legal theory that "permits" the NSA -- and now we know the FBI and probably other agencies yet to be discovered -- to spy on U.S. citizens without warrants. He combined two ideas, that the War Powers Act, which Congress unfortunately passed after 9/11, allowed the president to do anything that could be said to be necessary to pursue the War on Terror, and that his authority as commander-in-chief trumped legal niceties such as Article IV of the Bill of Rights: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause ..."

He was not above using such thinking for his own benefit. The Office of Professional Responsibility, a government watchdog group, began an investigation of the NSA program of wiretaps without warrants. Gonzales learned he would be a likely subject of the investigation. He then advised President Bush to deny security clearances to the investigators. Bush did so, which brought the probe to a dead stop.

But that's not why I'm so happy it's starting with Alberto. It's that Gonzales starred in my favorite love-to-hate moment, so far, in the strange fog of madness and deception that fell over the country during this administration. It occurred on February 6, 2006, when he was called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about that NSA program.

Democrats, then in the minority, asked that Gonzales testify under oath. An astonishing little charade was played out. Gonzales got to say he was glad to do so. The chairman at the time, Arlen Specter (R-PA) -- who totally adores the rhetorical high ground of posing to be a tough defender of the Constitution and the rule of law -- stepped in and ruled that it would not be necessary.

It must be acknowledged that not being under oath is a courtesy frequently extended to members of the executive branch. However, Gonzales was being questioned about a program he helped keep secret from Congress, that on the face of it was unconstitutional, and that explicitly evaded the FISA laws. Furthermore, the program had been briefly suspended during the run-up to, and during Gonzales' confirmation hearing, when he did have to testify under oath. Presumably so that when he was asked, in a necessarily general way, if the administration would engage in a program that evaded or broke the laws of the United States, in the name of national security, he could say that the question was a hypothetical and he could avoid answering and thus avoid committing perjury. Shortly after he was confirmed, the program was resumed. Yet Specter insisted that Gonzales, our top law enforcement officer, didn't have to be under oath.

Now, we get to Prosecutorgate. A few short months ago, Specter would still have been chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And like all the Bush scandals of the last six years, it would have languished and disappeared into obfuscation, unsworn testimony, secret testimony without transcripts, and no testimony.

After all, Specter enabled the scandal. He was the one who 'slipped' the special clause into the Patriot Act that allowed the administration to avoid the confirmation process for the replacement federal prosecutors. Specter has explained, in that special Republican way, that it was really his chief of staff who did it and that he himself didn't even know about it.

But now, as Nancy Pelosi so gleefully said, "There's a new Congress in town." With subpoena power. In short order, we've already learned that:

  • The reasons given for the firings were false.

  • Gonzales lied (including under oath).

  • The culture of present Justice Department makes no distinction between partisan politics and public policy, indeed they believe they should be one and the same.

  • That people at the Justice Department were conscious they were not using the law as intended.

  • The administration was pushing the Justice Department to help disenfranchise minority voters (under the doublespeak name 'voter fraud). Disenfranchising minority voters got Bush close enough in 2000 for the Supreme Court to toss him the election, it won him Ohio in 2004. Making sure black people (likely Democratic voters) don't vote is among the Republican Party's most vital programs. The opposite, getting more people to vote, from any walk of life, is presumably in the national interest.
  • There is a pattern that the fired prosecutors were investigating important Republican office holders.

  • The next person along the food chain wants to take the Fifth rather than testify.

  • Two of Bush's closest advisors, Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, were involved.

  • Out of another investigation, we have learned that when members of the administration wanted to do something that they knew was illegal or unethical, they used other computers for their e-mails.

The trail of testimony has already gone into the White House. It is a fantasy to think this took place without Bush's knowledge, involvement, and approval. The trail of breadcrumbs goes right down the hall and into the Oval Office. Prosecutorgate is not about Alberto Gonzales. It's about impeachment.

Not because Democrats want impeachment, but because testimony under oath, under the penalty of perjury, will reveal that high crimes and misdemeanors were committed. And additional ones, such as destruction of evidence, were subsequently committed in the process of covering up the original crimes.

The White House has already begun to make claims of executive privilege and is trying to block testimony, and higher up it goes, the more adamant they will be about refusing testimony. They will speechify, name call, and stall. They will hide documents and probably destroy some. They will search for distractions. If they can find generals on the Joint Chiefs reckless enough to go along, they may even start a new war.

In resisting, they will create new impeachable offenses. Perhaps the Supreme Court, which made him president, will try to save him by supporting executive privilege. The only way for Congress to then get at the truth, past the Court's roadblock, is through impeachment.

Perhaps Karl Rove will fall on his sword (It was all me! Farewell, I die for my Caesar! To become a billionaire lobbyist-consultant instead! Such sweet sorrow!). But then who will they blame for the next scandal, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

From Prosecutorgate, every road leads to impeachment. And it's right that it started with Alberto.

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