2006: A Year of Living Dangerously
For the last six years, the Republican-controlled Congress has been the great enabler of Bush Administration's efforts to subvert the Constitution. There will likely be investigations of Bush Administration malfeasance by the incoming Democratic Congress. Just how far they are likely to go is unclear--and highly contested.
Key leaders of the new Democratic majority have pledged to open investigations. Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy recently wrote in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, "The photographs and reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere that have emerged during the past two years depict an interrogation and detention system operating contrary to U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions." The American people deserve "detailed and accurate information about the role of the Bush Administration in developing the interrogation policies and practices that have engendered such deep criticism and concern at home and around the world." He has just announced that he will establish a new Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee to be headed by Dick Durbin--memorable for his vigorous hearing room confrontation with Alberto Gonzales over torture at Abu Ghraib.
Incoming Senate majority leader Harry Reid told the New York Times that "the first order of business" when Democrats take over in January will be to reinvigorate Congressional scrutiny of the executive branch, with a focus on Iraq. He told Bob Geiger, "We're going to find out how intelligence was manipulated, taking us to war. We have to look back to be able to look forward."
Senator Jay Rockefeller has promised to complete the Senate Intelligence Committee's stalled investigation of the political misuse of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Senator Carl Levin says he plans to investigate "extraordinary rendition."
On the House side, Representative Dennis Kucinich, likely chair of the Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, has called for hearings on Iraq. The election, he told Truthdig.com's Joshua Scheer, does not end "the questions about those who led us into war based on lies." When the people elected Democrats "they also voted for accountability." Kucinich, now a candidate for President, is not afraid to raise such painful issues as US responsibility for civilian deaths in Iraq; he recently held a briefing with the authors of the Lancet study that estimated 650,000 deaths under the occupation.
Beyond investigations, there will undoubtedly be efforts to strengthen the barriers to war crimes through legislation. Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a presidential candidate and the son of a Nuremberg prosecutor, has introduced legislation restoring portions of the War Crimes Act that were gutted by the Military Commissions Act.
Human rights groups, from the Center for Constitutional Rights to the ACLU, have led the way in challenging the legality of Bush Administration actions. Hundreds of lawyers from major corporate firms have joined the defense of the Guantánamo captives. Religious groups have formed a National Religious Campaign Against Torture; an affiliated group in Connecticut called Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice successfully projected the issue of prisoner abuse at Guantánamo and elsewhere into the Congressional elections--even putting up billboards on major highways identifying those in the state's Congressional delegation who had voted to "allow torture" through the Military Commissions Act.
Some on the left have long called for prosecution of top US officials for war crimes, and charges that "war crimes are high crimes" have been part of the campaign to impeach Bush and Cheney. Similar calls are also now heard from the right. The libertarian Cato Institute report, "Power Surge: The Constitutional Record of George W. Bush," warns that we now have "a president who can launch wars at will, and who cannot be restrained from ordering the commission of war crimes, should he choose to do so."
Each of these initiatives is occurring in a different arena, with its own protagonists, strategies, targets and timetables. But striking synergies are emerging:
• The suits against Rumsfeld and other policymakers would not have been possible without the ACLU Freedom of Information Act suits that revealed the role of top officials in setting the rules for Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.
• The 2005 leak in Britain of the Downing Street Memo promoted American disillusionment with the war and the public support for investigations of its origins.
• Congressional interest in restoring the War Crimes Act has been substantially strengthened by the Supreme Court's forthright stand in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case.
• The Senate Judiciary Committee's expected investigation of "rendition" will rely on the work of European human rights "plane spotters" who uncovered the CIA's phantom jets secretly landing and taking off at their countries' airports.
As the new year unfolds, there are no guarantees that the Bush Administration will be held accountable for its abuse of executive power or for the war crimes it has committed. Its war in Iraq will almost certainly continue, despite the clear disapproval of the American people. But the forces of accountability are assembling. Whether and when they will pierce the Bush Administration's shield depends primarily on how vigorously the public demands it.