June 17, 2003
The Man Who Told Richard Nixon That There Was a Cancer on His Presidency
John Dean Talks to BuzzFlash.com About George W. Bush, Watergate, Evidence of Misconduct and Possible Impeachment (If There Were Justice)
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
John Dean is someone who knows about the impeachment process, so when he recently wrote an article reflecting on George W. Bush and impeachment, it spread across the net like wildfire. Not that anyone thinks that with Tom DeLay pulling the strings in Congress, you will even hear a pip-squeak of criticism out of the rabid right wing that controls the House. But one can dream about justice, can't one?
BuzzFlash has found John Dean's ongoing legal and political commentary incisive, trenchant and compelling. Forever known as the man who "warned" Nixon of the "cancer on his presidency" (i.e., Watergate), Dean has emerged as one of the most articulate analysts warning of the threats to our Constitutional and civil rights that we face under the Bush administration and the right wing direction of the federal bench and Supreme Court. He is the author of many books, including "The Rehnquist Choice."
In this BuzzFlash.com interview, Dean further explains his thoughts on the accusations being made that George W. Bush engaged in official misconduct, and the implications for Bush and our country. Or as BuzzFlash charges, Bush lied a nation into war.
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BUZZFLASH: In a recent article in FindLaw.com [LINK], you wrote:
"In the three decades since Watergate, this is the first potential scandal I have seen that could make Watergate pale by comparison. [...] To put it bluntly, if Bush has taken Congress and the nation into war based on bogus information, he is cooked. Manipulation or deliberate misuse of national security intelligence data, if proven, could be 'a high crime' under the Constitution's impeachment clause. It would also be a violation of federal criminal law, including the broad federal anti-conspiracy statute, which renders it a felony 'to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.'"
If investigating committees can prove that there was no reason to go to war at this time, at least not on the grounds that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat, Bush's crimes would be considered far more reprehensible than Nixon's. Based on your political and government experience, what's your gut reaction about how this will play out? Do you think impeachment hearings are potentially possible? Particularly given Republican control of the House of Representatives, where impeachment proceedings would have to be initiated?
JOHN DEAN: Let me start from the end of your question and work back, addressing your last two sub-questions first. Given the fact that Republicans control the Congress, there is absolutely no chance, because of the way Bush has handled the matter of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, escalating into impeachment proceedings. Impeachment is a political proceeding, of quasi-legal nature. Republicans are not going to impeach their president. To the contrary, it is very clear they would defend him.
While the political soothsayers believe it a long shot, it is not impossible that the Democrats could regain control of Congress with the 2004 election, and should that happen it would be a different story. With that thought -- however remote -- in mind, let me address your "if" question. If an investigation established that the president had lied to Congress and the American people to take the country to war in Iraq, and that in fact Hussein did not pose an imminent threat, would that be "more reprehensible" than Nixon's abuses of power?
Clearly it is more reprehensible than the abuses that fall under Watergate, which is a litany of activity that related to domestic matters. You will recall that there was an effort in 1973-74 to impeach Nixon for his unauthorized and secret bombing of Cambodia -- which resulted in untold deaths of innocent Cambodians. Nixon was charged with "false and misleading statements to the Congress" concerning that bombing. But the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment inquiry did not address the question of the president's lying, rather whether he had conducted an unlawful war.
By a vote of 26 to 12 the committee decided Nixon had not committed an impeachable offense, because he had informally informed a few select members of Congress of his action, and that he was acting within his powers as commander-in-chief to protect American troops in Vietnam. President Bush, of course, had Congressional authority, if not United Nations authority, for his actions in Iraq. But he certainly didn't have authority to lie.
BUZZFLASH: Could you explain the specific steps that would lead to charges being brought against Bush or anyone in his administration? What sort of evidence would be needed to prove that intelligence data was manipulated or misused? Would it have to be proven that Bush knew he was using lies to lead the American public into war? Would he be let off the hook if an aide said, "I withheld information from the president that he was assuring Americans about information that we knew was likely false, or knew to be a lie?"
DEAN: Some of the most interesting evidence developed so far, which is public, has been largely ignored. It is the work of one of the country's best investigative journalists -- who has not become part of the establishment. I am referring to the work of Sy Hersh in The New Yorker, specifically his essay "Selective Intelligence" in the May 12, 2003 issue [LINK].
Sy presents a powerful case that Rumsfeld's team -- no doubt with Dick Cheney's support -- knew what they wanted and managed to intimidate the rest of the intelligence community into agreeing with them. That they, in effect, had a pre-determined conclusion and simply ignored any and all information that conflicted with their conclusion. Needless to say, this is not intelligence gathering. Hersh's work is precisely the type of information that can start opening up the closed doors. Indeed, Sy has done this before, and his work resulted in the revelatory hearings by the Senate (the Church Committee) and the House (the Pike Committee) during the mid-1970s. Sy doesn't get it wrong very often, and if he does, he will be the first to say so.
Both the House and Senate intelligence committees have scheduled what they are calling "reviews" of the pre-war intelligence. They are going through all the boxes of documents that have been given to them now, and then they will meet with witnesses. Unless the inter-agency/department internecine war between the Defense Department and the CIA, or the Defense Intelligence Agency and Rumsfeld's Office of Special Plans erupts before one of these committees, I doubt much will surface. More likely, hard information -- if it exists -- will be uncovered by a reporter like Hersh, who has been digging and has a good source. That, I suspect, will be how any misconduct will be discovered.
To more specifically answer your question, it will take either documentary evidence, like e-mails or memoranda, or sworn testimony, to make a case of misconduct. There also may be recorded telephone conversations, because making such recordings is very common in the intelligence community, and it appears from some of the leaks that there is a good bit of typical bureaucratic "CYA" thinking going on. [Editor's note: CYA refers to "cover your ass."]
What will have to occur is the entire pre-war period will need to be carefully reconstructed: Who said what to whom and when. Then it will be known if there was a deliberate, or improper, manipulation of the pre-war intelligence. Given George Bush's executive style, and the fact that he has no background or experience with national security intelligence, the person I suspect has been guiding Bush through this is Cheney. Indeed, Cheney is to a war like a Dalmatian dog is to a fire: He wouldn't miss it.
I have little doubt that Cheney is the player in the middle of all this intelligence business, but the likelihood of his testifying about it is nil. Dick Cheney is the most secretive man in government, the most powerful, and the most unaccountable with no responsibility other than to give the president behind-the-scenes help. I doubt we will ever know what transpired between Cheney and Bush; therefore, I doubt we will ever know the true story. I am reluctant to speculate further because whether Bush could defend himself by claiming he was not given the information will depend on the facts. We are still very, very early in the efforts to unravel all this. So no one should jump to any conclusions, even if the aroma has a bit of a stench about it.
BUZZFLASH: If Bush manages to get away with starting on a war based on false information, what does this mean for future presidencies in terms of extending presidential powers?
DEAN: It is a sad but unfortunate truth that our history is filled with examples of presidents misleading the country about wars. President Madison did not exactly lay all the facts and mixed motives on the table in seeking a declaration of war with England in 1812, nor did President Polk in leading the nation to war with Mexico in 1846. President McKinley glossed over facts when calling for war to "free" Cuba in 1898, just as President Wilson did in 1917 with World War I. President Franklin Roosevelt campaigned in 1940 with a pledge that American boys were not going to be sent into any foreign wars and President Lyndon Johnson used a similar ploy in 1964 regarding Vietnam.
It will be a sorry commentary if another president is added to this list, which I have only partially set forth. Yet historians and presidential scholars regularly have the highest historical praise for presidents who take us to war, regardless of how they do it -- not those who keep us out of war. This has always struck me as not only ironic, but moronic. It may be the best reason in the world to start electing women presidents, because that will end measuring presidents by their machismo -- although lots of Americans like Bush's warmongering, and like our nation being a bully. The fact that such people have an aberrant gene is another story.
BUZZFLASH: You had personal experience with the Watergate scandal, as the legal counsel to President Nixon. You warned him that there "was a cancer" on his presidency. Is there currently a "cancer" on the Bush presidency?
DEAN: No signs of cancer, yet. But he certainly has a viral infection that could weaken his immune system.
BUZZFLASH: In the FindLaw.com article, you identified six speeches in which Bush unequivocally stated that Iraq possessed chemical and biological weapons. Looking back, are you surprised that he spoke with such certitude? Clearly this was not merely an attempt at innuendo on his part.
DEAN: Actually, I was stunned when I went back and pulled all of his pre-war statements about WMDs. None of them is the slightest bit equivocal. To the contrary, he speaks like a man who has actually seen the weapons. These pre-war declarative statements make glaring his most recent statement where he now has become equivocal. His last public statement was that Iraq had "a weapons program." A program, of course, is only a plan, not actual possession. This is an inconsistent statement that calls into question his prior statements. While the White House has tried to spin it, the president’s latest statement effectively undercut all his prior statements.
As lawyers know, when a witness gives inconsistent statements it is said he or she has been impeached. Once a witness is impeached it takes additional evidence to rehabilitate that witness. What the White House needs to rehabilitate the president is obvious: They must find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or this president's credibility is in trouble.
BUZZFLASH: What about the responsibility of our elected officials to investigate Bush's claims? How could members of Congress not have known about the shoddy intelligence and overwhelming flaws of Bush's argument before jumping on the war bandwagon? Even before the Iraq war, some of the key pieces of Bush administration "evidence" against Iraq were being seriously challenged in the British press.
DEAN: Absent a public outcry, Congress will do nothing. The only conception of "checks and balances" remaining in the Congressional conscience are campaign contribution checks, and whether they have met or exceeded the balance of the last campaign. While there are a few members of Congress trying to flush out the facts, like Congressman Henry Waxman, he is the exception, not the rule.
BUZZFLASH: Though U.S. television programs like Nightline and several notable columnists have been on top of the "Where are the weapons?" story, the issue seems to be causing more of a stir in other countries, such as Britain. In America, it is generally still not a front-page story. After all, a recent poll indicated that more than 40 percent of Americans thought that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. And Bush claimed that two mobile vans were WMDs, despite evidence to the contrary. Is the American press asleep at the wheel?
DEAN: No one knows better than BuzzFlash and its readers how this administration plays to public ignorance, and has become one of the most effective presidencies at manipulating the news media. It is remarkable that this story has run as many news cycles as it has. And it does pop up on the front page. On Sunday, June 15, the Los Angeles Times did a front page story, along with an extensive inside story on the missing WMDs. But the implication of your question is correct. Let me explain:
In the aftermath of Watergate, the news media became highly vigilant of the presidency. Before Watergate, presidents were given the benefit of any doubts. After Watergate, they had to make their case, and quickly. But in late 2000, after the Florida election recount debacle, there was a collective mood change in the news media. While there are a few exceptions, as you mention, by and large, reporting has returned to its pre-Watergate status: Almost any news is more important than the potential of presidential failures or screw ups.
BUZZFLASH: Finally, not even the Democratic leadership in Congress is making much of a deal about Bush misleading the nation. What would it take to move public opinion to the point that lying about going to war would be considered at least as impeachable an offense as lying about sex?
DEAN: If this issue has not been resolved by the time the Democrats nominate their standard bearer next summer, I believe it will become a campaign issue -– potentially a serious issue for Bush if he has not been able to put it away by then. At that time, it could become a real problem for Bush. In fact, he will have trouble launching another war until he gets this issue resolved. Other than that, only Barney showing up at a White House press briefing to announce he is leaving home over the issue, is it likely to get widespread public attention. Needless to say, if such weapons are found, Bush will have a great "I told you so" that you can be sure will be exploited in the 2004 campaign, as he and his father parachute into New York City for the GOP 2004 Convention, and then proceed down Wall Street, wearing flight suits with helmets under their arms, in their tickertape parade.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
otherwise noted, all original