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Dick Cheney’s accountability moment may finally be arriving.

After years of pulling punches, Democrats in the Senate are throwing them at Cheney, following the revelation that the man who operated as something akin to a co-president during George Bush’s first term ordered the CIA to withhold information about a secret counterterrorism program from Congress.

There “absolutely” needs to be a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of Cheney’s assault on the system of checks and balances outlined in the essential sections of the US Constitution, argued Senate majority whip Dick Durbin.

“The executive branch of government cannot create programs like these programs and keep Congress in the dark. There is a requirement for disclosure,” the chamber’s number-two Democrat said on ABC’s This Week program. “(Any investigation) has to be done in an appropriate way so it doesn’t jeopardize our national security, but to have a massive program that is concealed from the leaders in Congress is not only inappropriate; it could be illegal.”

We have heard calls for investigations before. But the former vice president’s disregard for the vagaries of constitutional governance seems to have returned to haunt him. So serious are the charges against Cheney that Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who for too long worked too closely with the Bush-Cheney administration on so many issues, appears finally to be accepting that an inquiry is going to be required.

“This is a big problem, because the law is very clear,” Feinstein said as the details of Cheney’s wrongdoing began to come to light. “If the Intelligence Committees had been briefed, they could have asked for regular reports on the program, they could have made judgments about the program as it went along. That was not the case, because we were kept in the dark. That’s something that should never, ever happen again.”

The intelligence committee chair–whose power is usually matched only by her caution–bluntly suggested that Cheney had acted illegally. “I think you weaken your case when you go outside the law,” Feinstein said. “We should have been briefed before the commencement of this kind of sensitive program.”

Of course, there will be pushback from the defenders of the indefensible. “It is not out of the ordinary for the vice president to be involved in an issue like this,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl. Kyl’s point is well taken; the Arizonan has worked with several vice presidents who have been “involved in an issue like this.” George Herbert Walker Bush was all wrapped up in the Iran/Contra scandal, and Cheney’s regard for the rule of law is so dismissive as to make him a prime suspect whenever a shredded copy of the Constitution is uncovered.

But the fact that the Congress failed to hold the elder Bush to account for his high crimes and misdemeanors does not absolve Cheney of responsibility for what he has done. Nor, it should be noted, does it absolve Congress.

Durbin is precisely right when he says,

[We] know that Vice President Cheney played an unusual role with President Bush in the early days of the administration. That seemed to change over time.

But it is inappropriate for the vice president or the president to be ordering that a program be kept secret and not disclosed at the highest levels of Congressional leadership.

We have to have a check and balance in our system. To give to the president unbridled power and authority goes way beyond what our Constitution has in mind.

That system of checks and balances has been battered to the breaking point over the past four years. The process of restoring it will only be completed if those who were responsible for the battery are held to account. And the list of these wrongdoers begins with the name Dick Cheney.