Saturday, December 31, 2005

Is Clinton's History in Bush's Future?

Published on Friday, December 30, 2005
 
by Rosa Brooks
 

IT'S HISTORY.

You know, the Clinton impeachment thing. Remember that? It had something to do with an intern, secretly taped conversations and a cigar. But it happened in the late 1990s, and it's getting harder and harder to remember the details of that long-vanished era.

When the Associated Press reported this week that the impeachment of President Clinton had finally made it into the major high school history textbooks, it seemed only fitting. Most adults forgot about the impeachment the instant it was over. Now high school kids can read the story, and as soon as their exams are over, they too can forget it.

So someday, 2005 may be recalled as the year the Clinton impeachment was relegated to the dustbin of history. But it may also be recalled as the year that paved the way for George W. Bush's impeachment.

With the mid-December revelations of a secret Bush administration domestic wiretapping program carried out by the National Security Agency, commentators — including some Republicans — are once more murmuring about "high crimes and misdemeanors." And with good reason. On its face, the president's no-longer-secret wiretapping program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The president asserts that on Sept. 14, 2001 — when Congress authorized him to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against those connected to the 9/11 attacks — Congress implicitly repealed the act's restrictions on presidential surveillance powers. Besides, he says, as commander in chief, he has the inherent constitutional power to do anything he deems necessary in time of war, Congress be damned.

SUZANNE SPAULDING, a former CIA assistant general counsel, recently pointed out that this is a bizarre and disturbing legal argument. If Congress' 9/14/01 resolution rendered moot any prior legislative restraints on the president's power to conduct domestic surveillance, or if the president's inherent wartime powers trump congressional control anyway, then why did the administration bother to seek renewal of the Patriot Act?

Those history books that have now been revised to feature the Clinton impeachment presumably still carry a few paragraphs on the Declaration of Independence. The founding fathers included good reasons for rebelling against Britain's King George III: "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power … [he is] abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our Governments…. " That's why our Constitution created checks and balances.

But maybe President Bush didn't take American history at Andover. Just last year, the Supreme Court tried to get him up to speed: "We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president." But that's the Bush administration for you: all checks, no balances.

The NSA's domestic surveillance program is not the only impeachable offense with which the president could plausibly be charged.

The House Judiciary Committee's Democratic staff recently released a report concluding that Bush "misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war with Iraq." And the 273-page minority report goes on to conclude that "there is a prima facia case" that "the President, Vice President and members of the Bush administration violated a number of federal laws, including 1) Committing a Fraud against the United States; 2) Making False Statements to Congress; 3) The War Powers Resolution, 4) Misuse of Government Funds; 5) federal laws and international treaties prohibiting torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment; 6) federal laws concerning retaliating against witnesses and other individuals, and 7) federal laws concerning leakings and other misuses of intelligence."

It's true that as long as Republicans are in control, members of Congress are no more likely to impeach Bush than they are to vote themselves a pay cut. But I'm predicting that this impeachment talk won't go away in the new year. The coming weeks will likely bring more bad news for the Republican Party, and if the Democrats take control of Congress in 2006 — a prospect that is becoming less implausible — the president could find himself in deeper doo doo than his daddy ever dreamed of.

The whole business almost makes me nostalgic for the Clinton impeachment, which now seems as quaint as the Geneva Convention: a relic of a happier, more innocent time in American history, a time when we fretted about secret tape recordings made by Linda Tripp instead of secret recordings made by the NSA.

It's enough to make you want to curl up with a high school history textbook.

© Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

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