By any serious definition of the word, Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a rat. His decision to enter guilty pleas Tuesday to three felony counts of defrauding his own clients merely added a personal acknowledgement of the fact to the official record. Frank Clemente, the director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, summed things up succinctly, and accurately, when he said Tuesday: "Make no mistake about it: Abramoff is a crook."
In Washington, more so than in most places, it remains true that there is no honor among thieves -- nor among rats.
So the notion that Abramoff will now rat out his former associates, including Republican members of the House and Senate, is not a particularly difficult one to comprehend -- even for conservatives commentators who are generally unwilling to admit even the slightest signs of shakiness in the Republican infrastructure. Radio ranter Rush Limbaugh was already warning his listeners on Tuesday about the "A-bomb" that is expected to explode when Abramoff starts cooperating with Justice Department investigations of members of Congress. Limbaugh suggested that the scandal will become "a modern-day version of term limits" that potentially could do more damage to Republicans than the increasingly widespread public discontent with the unwavering support most GOP members of Congress have given to the Bush administration's failed Iraq policies.
There is no question that the potential for damage to GOP political prospects from the Abramoff scandal -- with its deliciously detailed evidence of bribery, influence peddling, pay-to-play politics and sweeping abuses of the public trust -- is great. Between 2001 and 2004, close to 220 members of Congress collected more than $1.7 million in political contributions from Abramoff and the lobbyist's associates and clients. More than 200 of those members still serve in the House, and the vast majority of them are Republicans.
But the difference between the potential that fallout from the scandal could loosen the GOP's grip on the House and Senate and the reality of a transforming "throw-the-bums-out" vote in 2006 remains significant. While Clemente says that the scandal "is likely to take down a number of members of Congress and members of their staffs," the precise number has yet to be established. And if it is limited merely to those members of Congress that Abramoff's testimony places in the prosecutorial crosshairs, then both chambers could well remain in Republican hands.
To be sure, some of the members of Congress who have been most closely linked with Abramoff, a former elected chairman of the College Republicans who counts among his longtime associates people like Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed, will have a very hard time getting reelected -- if they even choose to run.
That list is topped by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose onetime aide, Michael Scanlon, was Abramoff's primary partner in crime. Like Abramoff, Scanlon is cooperating with the investigation and it is hard to imagine that DeLay's name won't be among the first to come up. Already under indictment for campaign abuses in Texas, DeLay faces a serious challenge from former Democratic Representative Nick Lampson, who this week filed the necessary paperwork to make the race. Lampson's campaigning as a bipartisan reformer in a district that is now one of the more competitive in Texas, and the Abramoff scandal will give him a great deal of ammunition.
Even more vulnerable than DeLay at this point is Ohio Republican Bob Ney, who for some time has been identified as "Representative No. 1" in the Abramoff investigation. Ney is in big trouble. The chairman of the House Administration Committee, he already stands accused of accepting overseas trips, gifts and hefty campaign donations from Abramoff, allegedly in exchange for using his position to advance the interests of the Indian tribes and casinos that were among the lobbyist's big-ticket clients. If Abramoff lays out the dirty details of his relationship with Ney, Republicans will start pushing for the congressman to drop his reelection bid.
Montana Senator Conrad Burns, who accepted $150,000 in campaign contributions from the lobbyist's operation and helped an Abramoff client score a $3 million federal grant, is the most vulnerable senator. Burns has just announced that he will return the money he took from Abramoff and the lobbyist's clients and associates, but that's not going to be enough to get the senator off the hook legally -- or politically. Up for reelection this year, he has suffered a damaging drop in the polls since details of the scandal have begun to dominate media in Montana, which was already trending in a Democratic direction before the scandal surfaced.
Several other prominent Republicans are now likely, because of their associations with Abramoff, to face more serious challenges in 2006 than had previously been expected. They include: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, who collected more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004 and in 2003 urged Interior Secretary Gail Norton to favor the lobbyist's clients in an Indian-gaming dispute; House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, who accepted more than $10,000 from Abramoff's firm and clients between 2001 and 2004, and who intervened at least three times in matters involving those clients; and California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, who accepted thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Abramoff and turned up as a financial reference for the lobbyist's purchase of a casino cruise line. Dozens of Republican House members, including vulnerable incumbents such as Connecticut's Bob Simmons, have banked direct contributions from Abramoff.
The extent to which the Abramoff scandal is of political significance in 2006 will depend on just how many of those members who accepted contributions from the lobbyist and his associates and clients are implicated in the Justice Department investigation. If the numbers move into the double digits, this scandal could pose a genuine threat to GOP control of the House. But it is important to remember that there are Democrats who have Abramoff problems, as well, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who appears to have collected more than $65,000 in Abramoff-linked contributions between 2001 and 2004.
If a desire to protect Reid and other Democratic recipients of the lobbyist's largesse causes the opposition party to pull its punches, Democrats will gain no more ground as a result of this scandal than it did from the Enron imbroglio. Thus, the ultimate question does not boil down to what Abramoff will reveal. Rather, it is this: Will Democrats hold every member of Congress who has been implicated to account. If Democrats are smart, they will recognize that this is, at its core, a Republican scandal. And they will say: Throw all the bums out -- just as Republican Newt Gingrich did in the early 1990s when several Republican House members were linked with scandals that generally involved Democrats. Only by being genuine in their commitment to clean up Congress will Democrats turn the Abramoff scandal fully to their advantage. And, as everyone in Washington knows, it has been a long time since Democrats were that genuine -- or that smart politically.
Sometimes, only The Onion gets it right.
The satirical weekly, which does for print journalism what Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" does for cable news, finished off 2005 with a headline that summed up the unspoken reality of last year's media coverage of the debate about the Iraq War.
The headline read: "U.S. troops draw up own exit strategy."
It appeared above an article that began: "BAGHDAD -- Citing the Bush administration's ongoing refusal to provide a timetable for withdrawal, the U.S. troops stationed in Iraq have devised their own exit strategy."
A fictitious Staff Sgt. Cornelius Woods tells the newspaper, "My Marines are the best-trained, best-equipped, most homesick fighting force in the world. Just give us the order, and we will commandeer every available vehicle to execute a flanking maneuver on the airstrips of Mosul. By this time tomorrow, we will have retaken our positions at our families' dinner tables in full force."
At the end of a year that saw the U.S. death toll in the war rising toward 2,200, and the toll of wounded go to more than ten times that number, there is still an assumption on the part of much of the media that the U.S. military is enthusiastic about this war. There is also an assumption that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be difficult.
Both assumptions are wrong, as any serious examination of recent events will confirm.
When Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps the most ridiculous cheerleader for the war, visited Iraq just before Christmas, he was confronted by the reality of frustrated troops. Even in the highly controlled context of a meeting between carefully selected soldiers and the vice president, the first comment to Cheney came from Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, who said, "From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains. We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains."
Of course, Cheney was not listening, as his over-the-top attempt at delivering an applause line to the troops indicated. When he growled, "We're in this fight to win. These colors don't run," not one of the troops clapped, not one of the troops cheered.
While Bush and Cheney are unlikely ever to wake up to the full reality of the mess they have made, some other officials did begin listening in 2005. And when they did they quickly recognized the reality on the ground.
One of the few members of Congress who actually has a history of paying attention to what soldiers say went to Iraq and spent serious time -- as opposed to the "photo-op" time devoted to the task by members of the administration -- with commanders and their troops. As a result, that members, U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., changed his position from one of supporting the war to one of supporting a quick withdrawal.
So The Onion was not far off the mark with its imagining that U.S. troops in Iraq would want to devise an exit strategy.
Nor was The Onion's imagining of a plan to get the troops out of Iraq at a rapid rate unrealistic. Indeed, one of the worst failings of most major media in the United States has been the acceptance of the Bush-Cheney line that there is no easy nor smart way out of the mess they got our troops into.
Murtha's call for withdrawal was met with cries of complaint from arm-chair warriors in Washington who said it would be impossible not to mention "disastrous" to exit the quagmire. Yet Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran with close ties to the Pentagon, has devised a plan to get all the troops out of Iraq in six months. He echoes the view of many military strategists who say that the faster U.S. forces and their allies leave, the faster Iraqis will step up to their policing responsibilities and the country will begin to stabilize.
So, as we bid something less than a fond farewell to a year in which the media generally got the story of the war in Iraq wrong, it seems only appropriate to begin the new year by tipping the hat to The Onion for imagining dramatically more accurate coverage of the conflict than what we have gotten -- and what we can expect to get -- from most of the major broadcast and cable television networks, talk radio and all too many newspapers.
John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has reported on conflicts in Central America, Africa and southern Asia. His book on American wars of conquest, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published in 2005.
In the dark days after the election of 2004, the mainstream media was touting the making of a permanent rightward shift, and the progressive community was deeply deflated. It was difficult, in those times, to maintain a sense of hope--as corruption, war, lies and injustices large and small loomed all around, and outrage about the Right's assault on our democracy threatened to overwhelm us.
A year later, the dark and menacing clouds that hovered over The Nation's November 2, 2004 cover ("Four More Years") seem to be slowly lifting. Millions of us are organizing, agitating, mobilizing--and there are many hard-fought victories to celebrate.The attempt to destroy Social Security has been successfully blocked, the movement for withdrawal has captured the majority of the public's support, the mainstream media is slowly rousing from its slumbers, the White House's surveillance state is being revealed, there is talk of impeachment in the air, Vice President for Torture Cheney suffered a stinging rebuke when John McCain's torture ban passed, the GOP is mired in corruption and cronyism ( "Jack Abramoff seems to have the whole party on his payroll,"Katha Pollitt writes in her end of year review for The Nation), and scores of local, statewide, and national victories have been won.Here are some of my favorite "sweet victories" of '05--to savor as we head into 2006.
Portland, Oregon becomes the first city in the country to approve full public financing of elections.
Connecticut passes the strongest campaign finance reform bill in the country, banning contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. Additionally, the legislation creates a publicly funded election system encompassing all statewide races, including House and Senate seats (also a first).
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
Maine becomes the sixth and final New England state to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, and education.
Residents of Topeka, Kansas rejected Fred "Got Hates Fags" Phelps' attempt to overturn the city's ordinance banning discrimination of gays in municipal hiring. And in the city council primary, Phelps' granddaughter and fellow anti-gay activist, Jael Phelps, lost big to Topeka's first and only openly gay council member, Tiffany Muller.
Massachusetts General Hospital announced the creation of the Disparities Solution Center--the first institution specifically dedicated to bridging the racial gap in health care service.
Iowa's Governor Tom Vilsack restored voting rights to thousands of Iowans, reversing an unjust state law that imposes lifetime disenfranchisement for anyone convicted of a felony. Reform was badly needed in Iowa, where, despite the state's two percent black population, 25 percent of those affected by the disenfranchisement law were African-American--the highest percentage in the country. In March, Nebraska also overturned its lifetime disenfranchisement law for convicted felons, and currently only four states--Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia--continue to uphold this absurdly punitive law.
Montana became the fifth state to officially condemn the USA Patriot Act. Joining Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont--not to mention more than 375 local governments--Montana's state legislature passed the strongest statewide resolution against the Patriot Act yet.
Environment and Health
California's Safe Cosmetics Bill is signed into law. The bill--which requires manufacturers to disclose to the California's Department of Health Services any product ingredients linked to cancer, mutations, or birth defects--is the first of its kind in America.
Six new Democratic governors--Rod Blagojevich (IL), Jim Doyle (WI), Christine Gregoire (WA), Ted Kulongoski (OR), Janet Napolitano (AZ), and Brian Schweitzer (MT)--joined an earlier three--Jennifer Granholm (MI), Ed Rendel (PA), and Bill Richardson (NM)--in embracing the Apollo Alliance's goal of achieving sustainable American energy independence within a decade.
Colorado passes the Renewable Energy Initiative. A precedent-setting victory for renewable energy, the bill requires the state's largest electric companies to increase their use of renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and small hydro from less than two percent today to 10 percent by 2015. Amendment 37 is expected to save Coloradans $236 million by 2025, create 2,000 jobs, and significantly reduce gas prices in the state.
New York City agrees to issue taxi medallions for hybrid cars, the latest in a string of victories for the "Green Fleets" movement. Earlier, legislators in Charlotte, NC voted to hybridize the city's municipal fleet, and Denver, Seattle, and Madison have also made strides in converting their fleets to green.
Labor and Economic Rights
Vermont, New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Wisconsin vote to raise state minimum wages. Meanwhile, the national minimum wage has remained stagnant for nine years, the second longest period in U.S. history.
In California, an Alameda County judge ordered uniform giant Cintas to pay 219 workers more than $1 million of back wages in what is being hailed as a landmark decision. Paul Sonn of NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, called it "the first large scale enforcement effort involving a large group of workers in a class action suit."
Students at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and Washington University of St. Louis stage protests and convince administrators to provide a living wage for university employees.
After a massive three-year boycott against Taco Bell, Yum Brands Inc.--the world's largest fast-food corporation and the chain's parent company--agrees to improve working conditions for its tomato pickers in Florida, increasing their wages by paying an extra penny per pound of tomatoes picked.
Maryland passes the Fair Share Health Care Act, requiring Wal-Mart and other large companies in the state to provide health benefits for employees. Throughout the year, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart--who helped get the bill passed--wage a tireless campaign to reform Wal-Mart, forcing the retail behemoth into P.R. crisis mode.
Antiwar & Peace Movement
Chicago's City Council votes 29 to 9 to become the largest US city to pass the "Bring Them Home Now" resolution. The Windy City joins Philadelphia, San Francisco, Sacramento and more than fifty other municipalities that have called for withdrawal.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus--comprised of the strongest anti-war voices in Washington--gets in gear, hiring Hill veteran Bill Gould as its first full-time staffer.
The United Methodist Church and the Union for Reform Judaism pass resolutions calling for withdrawal.
Let's dance, sing and laugh on New Year's eve-and celebrate these victories and the organized efforts behind them. But let's also admit that there's little time for pause. Much important work remains to be done and many critical battles loom ahead for all those who wish to rebuild America into a country we can be proud of once again. (As of January 2006, The Nation will chronicle "Sweet Victories" as a regular feature in the magazine. If you have a victory you'd like to share with us, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. And with many thanks to my co-conspirator on this project--writer and documentary filmmaker Sam Graham-Felsen.)
It is hard to complain about a year that began with George Bush bragging about spending the "political capital" he felt he had earned with his dubious reelection and ended with the president drowning in the Nixonian depths of public disapproval.
But the circumstance didn't just get better.
A handful of elected officials, activist groups and courageous citizens bent the arc of history toward justice.
Here are this one columnist's picks for the Most Valuable Progressives of 2005:
* MVP -- U.S. Senate:
This is an easy category. While California Democrat Barbara Boxer deserves credit for refusing to go along with the certification of the dubious presidential election results from Ohio, and Arizona Republican John McCain merits praise for forcing the administration to back down from its pro-torture stance, there's no question that Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold was the essential senator of 2005. He was the first member of the chamber to call for a timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq -- a stance that initially was ridiculed but ultimately drew support from many of Feingold's fellow Democrats and even a few Republicans. And he ended the year by forging a bipartisan coalition that beat back the Bush administration's demand for the long-term extension of the Patriot Act, scoring one of the most significant wins for civil liberties that Congress has seen in years.
* MVP -- U.S. House:
There are plenty of members of the House who deserve credit for standing up to the administration on critical issues -- from Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who led the fight against Central American Free Trade Agreement, to Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, who was the point man in the battle to fix the Patriot Act, to North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, who courageously broke with the administration to oppose the war. And, of course, there was Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, the decorated Vietnam veteran who forced the House to get serious about the war he called for a speedy withdrawal. But the essential member of the House in 2005 was Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the ranking member of his party on the Judiciary Committee. No one used their bully pulpit better in 2005 than Conyers, who gathered damning information about electoral irregularities in the 2004 Ohio presidential voting and then led the challenge to the certification of the results, held hearings on the Downing Street Memo's revelations regarding the Bush administration's doctoring of pre-war intelligence, and ended the year by moving resolutions to censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney for lying to Congress and the American people -- and to set up a committee to examine the issue of impeachment.
* MVP -- Executive Branch:
Yes, there was one. It's Lawrence B. Wilkerson, the retired U.S. Army colonel who served as chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin L. Powell until Powell exited the State Department in January, 2005. After leaving his position, Wilkerson began revealing the dark secrets of the Bush-Cheney interregnum, telling a New America Foundation gathering in October that during his years in the administration: "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." Wilkerson warned that, with "a president who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them either," the country is headed in an exceptionally dangerous direction. "I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita and I could go on back, we haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time," Wilkerson explained. "And if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence." That is truth telling of a quality and a scope all too rarely witnessed in the Washington of Bush and Cheney.
* MVP -- Law Enforcement Branch:
While Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald deserved all the headlines and the credit he got for indicting I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the now former chief-of-staff for Vice President Dick Cheney and a key player in faking up the "case" for war with Iraq, Fitzgerald's work is just beginning. His most important indictments are yet to come. The prosecutor who took the greatest risks and who secured the most consequential indictment of 2005 was Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who brought down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The man who ran Congress for most of the Bush years has not been convicted -- yet -- but DeLay was forced to step down as majority leader and no one who watches Washington thinks he will ever regain that position. Earle got his man, and began the long process of cleansing a Congress that, after all these years of being run by a pest-control specialist, is in serious need of fumigation.
* MVP -- Citizen Branch:
In August, when Democrats leaders in Washington were still talking about working with the Bush administration on Iraq -- effectively leaving Americans who were growing increasingly ill-at-ease about the war without a voice in the chambers of power -- the mother of a slain soldier followed Bush to his Crawford, Texas, ranchette and asked him to take a few minutes away from his month-long vacation to talk about the quagmire. Cindy Sheehan put the issue of the war back at the forefront of the national agenda, forcing even the dysfunctional White House press corps to start covering dissenters and getting D.C. Democrats to wake up to the reality that the American people had lost faith in the president and his military misadventure.
* MVP -- Watchdog Branch:
The media did a slightly better job of monitoring political wrongdoing in 2005 than it did during the first four years of the Bush-Cheney presidency -- when it actually would have mattered. But the real work of exposing the misdeeds of the administration is still being done by activist groups. And the most inspired of these in 2005 was After Downing Street, the coalition of groups that describes itself as "working to expose the lies that launched the war and to hold accountable its architects, including through censure and impeachment." In conjunction with Progressive Democrats of America, the able activist group that seeks to create an actual opposition party in America, After Downing Street is pushing the political envelope in exactly the direction it needs to go. Check out their website at www.afterdowningstreet.org website and keep ahead of the action in 2006.
In 1998, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, currently under indictment on corruption charges, proclaimed: "This nation sits at a crossroads. One direction points to the higher road of the rule of law...The other road is the path of least resistance" in which "we pitch the law completely overboard when the mood fits us...[and] close our eyes to the potential lawbreaking...and tear an unfixable hole in our legal system." That arbiter of moral politics was incensed about the possibility of Bill Clinton escaping unpunished for his "crimes."
Fast forward to December 2005. Not one official in the entire Bush Administration has been fired or indicted, not to mention impeached, for the shedding of American blood in Iraq or for the shredding of our Constitution at home. As Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter put it--hours after the New York Times reported that Bush had authorized NSA wiretapping of US citizens without judicial warrants--this President has committed a real transgression that "goes beyond sex, corruption and political intrigue to big issues like security versus liberty and the reasonable bounds of presidential power."
In the last months, several organizations, including AfterDowningStreet, Impeach Central and ImpeachPAC.org, have formed to urge Bush's impeachment. But until very recently, their views were virtually absent in the so-called "liberal" MSM, and could only be found on the Internet and in street protests.
But the times they are a' changin'. The I-word has moved from the marginal to the mainstream--although columnists like Charles "torture-is-fine-by-me" Krauthammer would like us to believe that "only the most brazen and reckless and partisan" could support the idea. In fact, as Michelle Goldberg reports in Salon, "in the past few days, impeachment "has become a topic of considered discussion among constitutional scholars and experts (including a few Republicans), former intelligence officers, and even a few politicians." Even a moderately liberal columnist like Newsweek's Alter sounds like The Nation, observing: "We're seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator."
As Editor & Publisher recently reported, the idea of impeaching Bush has entered the mainstream media's circulatory system--with each day producing more op-eds and articles on the subject. Joining the chorus on Christmas Eve, conservative business magazine Barron's published a lengthy editorial excoriating the president for committing a potentially impeachable offense. "If we don't discuss the program and lack of authority of it," wrote Barron's editorial page editor Thomas Donlan, "we are meeting the enemy--in the mirror."
Public opinion is also growing more comfortable with the idea of impeaching this president. A Zogby International poll conducted this summer found that 42 percent of Americans felt that impeaching Bush would be justified if it was shown that he had manipulated intelligence in going to war in Iraq. (John Zogby admitted that "it was much higher than I expected.") By November, the number of those who favored impeaching Bush stood at 53 percent--if it was in fact proven that Bush had lied about the basis for invading Iraq. (And these polls were taken before the revelations of Bush's domestic spying.)
For those interested in some of the most compelling charges against the president, I offer a brief summary:
* Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean argued in his aptly-named book Worse than Watergate that Bush's false statements about WMDs in Iraq--used to drum up support for an invasion--deceived the American people and Congress. This constituted "an impeachable offense," Dean told PBS' Bill Moyers in 2004. "I think the case is overwhelming that these people presented false information to the Congress and to the American people." Bush's actions were actually far worse than Watergate, Dean contends, because "no one died for Nixon's so-called Watergate abuses."
Lending credence to Dean's arguments, the Downing Street Memo revealed that Britain's MI-6 Director Richard Dearlove had told Tony Blair that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" by the Bush Administration. John Bonifaz, a Boston-based attorney and constitutional law expert, said that Bush seemingly "concealed important intelligence which he ought to have communicated," and "must certainly be punished for giving false information to the Senate." Bush deceived "the American people as to the basis for taking the nation into war against Iraq," Bonifaz argued--an impeachable offense.
* Rep. John Conyers argued as well that the president committed impeachable offenses" because he and senior administration officials "countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Iraq" at Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, including Guantanamo Bay and the now-notorious "black sites" around the world.
* The most compelling evidence of Bush's high crimes and misdemeanors is the revelation that he repeatedly authorized NSA spying on US citizens without obtaining the required warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. Constitutional experts, politicians and ex-intelligence experts agree that Bush "committed a federal crime by wiretapping Americans." Rep. John Lewis--"the first major House figure to suggest impeaching Bush," said the AP--argued that the president "deliberately, systematically violated the law" in authorizing the wiretapping. Lewis added: "He is not King, he is president."
Meanwhile, Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington University School of Law--a specialist in surveillance law--told Knight Ridder that Bush's actions "violated federal law" and raised "serious constitutional questions of high crimes and misdemeanors." It is worth remembering that an abuse of power similar to Bush's NSA wiretapping decision was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974. [This comparison was brought home in the ACLU's powerful full page ad in the New York Times of December 22nd.]
And at the end of the year, John Dean weighed in on the parallels between the two Presidents. In his powerful article, George W. Bush as the New Richard M. Nixon: Both Wiretapped Illegally, and Impeachably, Dean documents how these new revelations add weight to the case for impeaching Bush: "There can be no serious question that warrantless wiretapping, in violation of the law, is impeachable. 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. ...Indeed, here, Bush may have outdone Nixon: Nixon's illegal surveillance was limited; Bush's, it is developing, may be extraordinarily broad in scope....Reports have suggested that NSA is 'data mining' literally millions of calls--and has been given access to the telecommunications companies to 'switching' stations through which foreign communications traffic flows. In sum, this is big-time. Big Brother electronic surveillance."
There are many reasons why it is crucial that the Democrats regain control of Congress in '06, but consider this one: If they do, there may be articles of impeachment introduced and the estimable John Conyers, who has led the fight to defend our constitution, would become Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Wouldn't that be a truly just response to the real high crimes and misdemeanors that this lawbreaking president has so clearly committed?
I thought that Bush administration officials believed in narrow and restrained interpretation of the law. At least, that's what they say when it comes to selecting judges. And some Bush allies in the judicial wars believe in literally interpreting the Constitution: if the words aren't there, the ideas are not. Anyone who attempts to read into the text--or who seek to apply the ideas behind the text to modern situations that could not have been foreseen by the guys who came up with the Constitution--is accused of committing the sin of "judicial activism." Of course, conservative judges often engage in such activism themselves when they impose their views (narrow or broad) upon the implementation of laws passed by legislative bodies. Still, it is the rightwing, with Bush shouting "Amen," that has made the end of liberal judicial activism a holy cause.
That's why I have been bemused in recent days by the Bush administration's attempt to justify Bush's order that instructed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without seeking warrants--not even after-the-fact in emergency circumstances (as is permitted by existing law). In a letter sent to Congress, Bush's Justice Department acknowledged that Bush's snooping order did not comply with "the 'procedures' of" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which set up a secret intelligence court and made it a crime to conduct electronic surveillance without obtaining a warrant form that court, except in certain situations authorized by the law. But in that letter, Assistant Attorney General William Moschella claimed that Congress implicitly established an exception to FISA when it passed a resolution days after 9/11 that authorized Bush to use military force in response to the that attack. This law contained not a single reference to surveillance. Yet Moschella claimed that NSA snooping was covered by this authority.
How liberal of the Bush Justice Department. At that time, Bush was free to ask specifically for such authority. And if it had been shoved into the Patriot Act, it probably would have won congressional approval. Moreover, Tom Daschle, who was then Senate majority leader, notes that the Bush White House did indeed ask for war-making authority "in the United States" and that Congress rejected that formulation. If true, this undercuts Bush's case that Congress essentially granted his administration permission to snoop domestically without a warrant within the United States.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been pushing this implied-powers argument, too. He has pointed to a 2004 Supreme Court decision--a four-member plurality--that declared that the 2001 resolution did implicitly permit Bush to detain American citizens suspected of terrorism. But that ruling did note that such detainees must be given access to the courts--that is, that there had to be some degree of due process. The Court maintained that the president could not do whatever he wanted in this matter. Gonzales, who has previously pushed a president-is-king position--is practically saying that this Supreme Court decision allowed the president rewrite or ignore any law he wishes to if he can say he is doing so to prosecute the war on terrorism. Now that's legal activism. Gonzales' recent statements also echoes a Justice Department memo regarding torture that claimed Bush was not bound by existing law when he takes actions as commander-in-chief--a memo that Gonzales did disavow when the White House was under fire for seeming to justify the use of torture. Clearly, Gonzales still believes in the intellectual underpinnings of that memo.
The Bushies--with Dick Cheney beating the drum--are mounting the most extensive power-grab seen in decades. Yes, there is a war. Yes, Abraham Lincoln did suspend habeus corpus. Still, this band is fiercely challenging the general constitutional balance, and, worse, they are doing it in secrecy. Consequently, they are trying to prevent citizens from seeing and debating the arguably unconstitutional actions they are taking, supposedly in the name of protecting the citizenry. This is hardly traditionalism; this is radicalism.
Alfred Anderson died last month at the very ripe old age of 109.
But it was not the Scotsman's many years that made him remarkable at the end of his long life. It was that, to his last days, he well recalled participating in the Christmas Truce of 1914 -- that brief respite from the carnage of World War I that saw soldiers of both sides in the conflict lay down their arms, climb out of their trenches and celebrate together along the 500-mile Western Front.
Anderson was the last surviving old soldier known to have participated in what he would refer to in his later years as "a short peace in a terrible war."
That peace, which was initiated not by presidents or prime ministers, but by the soldiers themselves, serves to this day as a reminder that war is seldom so necessary -- nor so unstoppable -- as politicians would have us believe.
So it comes as no surprise that the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a bit of history that many in power have neglected over the past 90 years.
But Anderson's long survival, and his clear memory, made it impossible to write this chapter out of history.
On December 25, 1914, Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier serving with 5th Battalion, Black Watch, of the British Army, one of the first to engage in the bloody trench warfare that was the ugliest manifestation of a war that claimed 31 million lives. But on that day, there was no violence.
Rather, Anderson recalled in an interview on the 90th anniversary of the truce, "there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted 'Merry Christmas,' even though nobody felt merry."
The calls of "Merry Christmas" from the Brits were answered by Germans singing: "Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht."
The Brits responded by singing "Silent Night" in English. Then, from the trenches opposite them, climbed a German soldier who held a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, "Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot."
Thus, began the Christmas Truce. Soldiers of both armies -- more than a million in all -- climbed from the trenches along the Western Front to exchange cigarettes and military badges. They even played soccer, using the helmets they had taken off as goalposts. And they did not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the Front, the truce lasted into January of 1915.
Finally, distant commanders forced the fighting to begin anew.
Thus, it has ever been with war. As George McGovern, the decorated World War II veteran who would become one of America's greatest champions of peace, "old men (are always) thinking up wars for young men to die in."
But Alfred Anderson remembered, well beyond the century of two world wars and too many lesser conflicts, that the young men of opposing armies often have more in common with one another than they do with the old men who send them into battle.
Once, on a Christmas Day that ought not be forgotten, the young men decided to make a short peace in a terrible war.
The memory of the courage of those who chose, however briefly, to see the humanity in one another, and to lay down the arms of one of the most brutal wars this planet has ever seen, offers hope this weekend, as Christians mark the birth of the Nazarene who was called Prince of Peace. Perhaps, someday, we will make a Christmas truce that lasts not merely through the hours of good cheer on this Holiday but the whole year long.
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who four years ago stood alone in the Senate to defend the Bill of Rights, finished this year by scoring a dramatic win in his fight to preserve civil liberties.
The Senate's decision to block a Bush administration push for long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act -- which would have enshrined in law for years, and in some cases permanently, assaults on basic rights contained in the measure -- came after Feingold threatened a filibuster and then organized a bipartisan coalition of senators to back him up.
The fight grew increasingly intense last week, after Senate Republican leaders fell seven votes short of the total they needed to thwart a filibuster.
As the December 31 deadline for reauthorization of the act approached. Feingold and his allies offered to accept a short-term extension, so that the Patriot Act could remain in force while senators of both parties address Constitutional concerns.
But President Bush was not in the mood to compromise.
To the very end, the president -- doing his best King George immitation -- attacked Democratic and Republican senators for seeking to reform the act, which was hastily approved after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Dismissing attempts to reconcile the need for security with the requirements of the Constitution, Bush attacked the Senate's refusal to reauthorize the act in the form he demanded as "inexcusable" and said that Feingold and his allies were endangering America.
"The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," grumbled Bush in one of a series of public rejections of any talk of a temporary renewal.
But, for all his bluster, Bush had to back down.
The Senate deal that ended the filibuster threat extends the act only for six months and provides critics with clear openings to debate contentious provisions, particularly those that permit the FBI to conduct "sneak-and-peak" searches of private homes and businesses, to wiretap telephones and examine of emails, and to obtain secret warrants for library, medical, business and personal records of Americans who are not suspected of committing crimes. (On Thursday, the House voted for an even shorter extension of one month, a move Feingold applauded. The two chambers must now reconcile their different measures before the end of the year.)
The opportunity that has now been created to debate components of the act -- rather than merely pass the law in its entirety -- is what Feingold has been demanding since 2001, when he cast the sole Senate vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. And so it came as no great surprise that the senator was celebrating a win Wednesday -- not just for his own political crusade of the past four years, but for the Constitution that he and his fellow senators have sworn to uphold.
"Today is a victory for the American people and the bipartisan group of Senators who have been fighting against efforts to extend the Patriot Act permanently without protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens," Feingold announced Wednesday evening, after the Senate Republican leadership abandoned Bush's line."I am pleased that the Republican leadership backed down from their irresponsible threat to let the Patriot Act expire and agreed to a six-month extension of the provisions that would have sunset at the end of this year," the senator said. "This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism. Those of us who stood up to demand modest and reasonable protections of our liberties never wanted to stop Patriot Act reauthorization. We just want to get it right this time around."
Feingold also took an appropriate swipe at Bush and his allies for creating a false crisis as the deadline for reauthorization approached.
"We could have avoided these last-minute negotiations if the House had just adopted the Senate version of the Patriot Act that passed unanimously earlier this year," explained the Democrat. "As we move forward, I hope that the Republican leadership in the Senate and the administration will continue down the path they started on tonight so that we don't find ourselves in this same situation six months from now. One thing is clear - what happened in the Senate over the past few weeks shows that (long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act in the version favored by Bush) is dead."
And the Bill of Rights is alive and kicking.
In the history of the ongoing battle between science and faith, Dover, Pennsylvania, has written the latest chapter. Last month, the residents, who usually vote Republican, ousted eight school board members who had backed intelligent design. This week, a federal judge in Harrisburg ruled that it was unconstitutional for the Dover school district to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.
In a sweeping decision, Judge Jones, a Republican appointed by President Bush, declared that intelligent design was not science but "creationism relabeled," because it seeks to change the very definition of science to include supernatural explanations. This is obviously a victory for science. What is less obvious is that it is also a victory for faith.
The most pernicious aspect of the ID movement is its commingling of science and faith, its attempt to use science and mathematics to prove the existence of an intelligent designer. Not only does this undermine science, it undermines faith, which by its very definition is "a belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." If ID scientists were to prove, for example, that the double helix is the stairway to heaven, then the existence of God would cease to be an article of faith and become instead a scientific fact.
By drawing a bright line between science and faith, Judge Jones has done as much to protect faith from science as he has done to protect science from faith.
As President Bush and his aides scramble to explain new revelations regarding Bush's authorization of spying on the international telephone calls and emails of Americans, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has begun a process that could lead to the censure, and perhaps the impeachment, of the president and vice president.
U.S. Representative John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who was a critical player in the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations into presidential wrongdoing, has introduced a package of resolutions that would censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney and create a select committee to investigate the Administration's possible crimes and make recommendations regarding grounds for impeachment.
The Conyers resolutions add a significant new twist to the debate about how to hold the administration to account. Members of Congress have become increasingly aggressive in the criticism of the White House, with U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, saying Monday, "Americans have been stunned at the recent news of the abuses of power by an overzealous President. It has become apparent that this Administration has engaged in a consistent and unrelenting pattern of abuse against our Country's law-abiding citizens, and against our Constitution." Even Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, are talking for the first time about mounting potentially serious investigations into abuses of power by the president.
But Conyers is seeking to do much more than schedule a committee hearing, or even launch a formal inquiry. He is proposing that the Congress use all of the powers that are available to it to hold the president and vice president to account – up to and including the power to impeach the holders of the nation's most powerful positions and to remove them from office.
The first of the three resolutions introduced by Conyers, H.Res.635, asks that the Congress establish a select committee to investigate whether members of the administration made moves to invade Iraq before receiving congressional authorization, manipulated pre-war intelligence, encouraged the use of torture in Iraq and elsewhere, and used their positions to retaliate against critics of the war.
The select committee would be asked to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment of Bush and Cheney.
The second resolution, H.Res.636, asks that the Congress to censure the president "for failing to respond to requests for information concerning allegations that he and others in his Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for the war, countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in Iraq, and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of his Administration, for failing to adequately account for specific misstatements he made regarding the war, and for failing to comply with Executive Order 12958." (Executive Order 12958, issued in 1995 by former President Bill Clinton, seeks to promote openness in government by prescribing a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information.)
A third resolution, H.Res.637, would censure Cheney for a similar set of complaints.
"The people of this country are waking up to the severity of the lies, crimes, and abuses of power committed by this president and his administration," says Jon Bonifaz, a co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, an alliance of more than100 grassroots groups that has detailed Bush administration wrongdoing and encouraged a Congressional response. Bonifaz, an attorney and the author of the book, Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George Bush (Nation Books), argues that, "Now is the time to return to the rule of law and to hold those who have defied the Constitution accountable for their actions."
Bonifaz is right. But it is unlikely that the effort to censure Bush and Cheney, let alone impeach them, will get far without significant organizing around the country. After all, the House is controlled by allies of the president who have displayed no inclination to hold him to account. Indeed, only a few Democrats, such as Conyers, have taken seriously the Constitutional issues raised by the administration's misdeeds.
Members of Congress in both parties will need to feel a lot of heat if these improtant measures are going to get much traction in this Congress.
The grassroots group Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), which has had a good deal of success organizing activists who want the Democrats to take a more aggressive stance in challenging the administration, will play a critical role in the effort to mobilize support for the Conyers resolutions, as part of a new Censure Bush Coalition campaign. (The campaign's website can be found at www.censurebush.org)
PDA director Tim Carpenter says his group plans to "mobilize and organize a broad base coalition that will demand action from Congress to investigate the lies of the Bush administration and their conduct related to the war in Iraq."
Getting this Congress to get serious about maintaining checks and balances on the Bush administration will be a daunting task. But the recent revelations regarding domestic spying will make it easier. There are a lot of Americans who share the view of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, that Bush and Cheney have exceeded their authority. As Feingold says of Bush, "He is the president, not a king."
It was the bitter experience of dealing with King George III led the founders of this country to write a Constitution that empowers Congress to hold presidents and vice accountable for their actions.
It is this power that John Conyers, the senior member of the House committee charged with maintaining the system of checks and balances established by those founders, is now asking the Congress to employ in the service of the nation that Constitution still governs.
An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols' biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president's use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher's Weekly describes the book as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."