The Underlying Criminal

Speaking of impeachment — last Friday Patrick Fitzgerald filed a sentencing memorandum for Scooter Libby. Today Dan Froomkin discusses it.

Special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald has made it clearer than ever that he was hot on the trail of a coordinated campaign to out CIA agent Valerie Plame until that line of investigation was cut off by the repeated lies from Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. …

… In Friday’s eminently readable court filing, Fitzgerald quotes the Libby defense calling his prosecution “unwarranted, unjust, and motivated by politics.” In responding to that charge, the special counsel evidently felt obliged to put Libby’s crime in context. And that context is Dick Cheney.

Libby’s lies, Fitzgerald wrote, “made impossible an accurate evaluation of the role that Mr. Libby and those with whom he worked played in the disclosure of information regarding Ms. Wilson’s CIA employment and about the motivations for their actions.”

It was established at trial that it was Cheney himself who first told Libby about Plame’s identity as a CIA agent, in the course of complaining about criticisms of the administration’s run-up to war leveled by her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. And, as Fitzgerald notes: “The evidence at trial further established that when the investigation began, Mr. Libby kept the Vice President apprised of his shifting accounts of how he claimed to have learned about Ms. Wilson’s CIA employment.”

The investigation, Fitzgerald writes, “was necessary to determine whether there was concerted action by any combination of the officials known to have disclosed the information about Ms. Plame to the media as anonymous sources, and also whether any of those who were involved acted at the direction of others. This was particularly important in light of Mr. Libby’s statement to the FBI that he may have discussed Ms. Wilson’s employment with reporters at the specific direction of the Vice President.” (My italics.)

Not clear on the concept yet? Fitzgerald adds: “To accept the argument that Mr. Libby’s prosecution is the inappropriate product of an investigation that should have been closed at an early stage, one must accept the proposition that the investigation should have been closed after at least three high-ranking government officials were identified as having disclosed to reporters classified information about covert agent Valerie Wilson, where the account of one of them was directly contradicted by other witnesses, where there was reason to believe that some of the relevant activity may have been coordinated, and where there was an indication from Mr. Libby himself that his disclosures to the press may have been personally sanctioned by the Vice President.” (My italics.)

Later in the column:

Nexthurrah blogger Marcy Wheeler blogs at the Guardian about how Libby’s “defense team solicited his friends and associates to write letters to the judge arguing that Libby deserves a reduced sentence. Last Friday, Libby’s lawyer Bill Jeffress submitted a filing opposing the release of those letters to the public. In it, he writes: ‘Given the extraordinary media scrutiny here, if any case presents the possibility that these letters, once released, would be published on the internet and their authors discussed, even mocked, by bloggers, it is this case.’ ”

Concludes Wheeler: “Jeffress’ invocation of bloggers is a cheap attempt to dismiss precisely what bloggers bring: an appropriate scrutiny of the motivations and actions of those who lied us into war and outed Valerie Plame.”

At The Guardian, Marcy’s response to this was admirably genteel. The suggestion that the people’s right to know is less important than keeping VIPs from being discussed, even mocked, might have annoyed the hell out of me.

Big update: NBC News

An unclassified summary of outed CIA officer Valerie Plame’s employment history at the spy agency, disclosed for the first time today in a court filing by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, indicates that Plame was “covert” when her name became public in July 2003.

The summary is part of an attachment to Fitzgerald’s memorandum to the court supporting his recommendation that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Cheney’s former top aide, spend 2-1/2 to 3 years in prison for obstructing the CIA leak investigation. …

The employment history indicates that while she was assigned to CPD, Plame, “engaged in temporary duty travel overseas on official business.” The report says, “she traveled at least seven times to more than ten times.” When overseas Plame traveled undercover, “sometimes in true name and sometimes in alias — but always using cover — whether official or non-official (NOC) — with no ostensible relationship to the CIA.”

I wonder what righties will say about this.

Still Crazy After All These Years

Via Cliff Schecter:

Sen. Tom Coburn is mulling an entry into the Republican presidential primary, according to sources inside and outside the Senate. Coburn, a senator from Oklahoma, is believed to be receiving encouragement from a small group of wealthy businessmen and philanthropists in the Oklahoma-Kansas-Texas region of the country.

He’s all about faith, lower taxes, and staying the course in Iraq,” says an adviser outside of the Senate who has been speaking to Coburn.

Just what we need more of, huh? Coburn also favors the death penalty for abortion providers.

Devil’s Advocate

Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers describes a groundswell of support for impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

More than 70 cities and 14 state Democratic parties have urged impeachment or investigations that could lead to impeachment. The most common charge is that Bush manipulated intelligence to lead the country into the Iraq war. Other charges include spying on Americans and torturing suspected terrorists in violation of U.S. and international law.

Most recently, the Massachusetts Democratic Party voted to push impeachment of both men. The 2,500 state convention delegates voted almost unanimously against Cheney; the vote against Bush was closer.

Massachusetts’ Democratic Party thus joined 13 others on the investigate-or-impeach bandwagon, including: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

Among the cities and towns, the largest and most recent is Detroit, where the city council voted 7-0 this month to urge Congress to impeach Bush and Cheney for “intentionally misleading Congress and the public regarding the threat from Iraq in order to justify the war.”

“There’s a lot growing in support,” said Tim Carpenter, the director of the liberal group Progressive Democrats of America. “Whether Congress will respond, that’s another question.”

Thomma goes on to describe three reasons Dems in Congress are dragging their feet. IMO these three reasons are bad reasons.

The first is that they haven’t yet found that Bush/Cheney have committed an impeachable offense. Oh, puh-LEEZE. We have a broad selection of impeachable offenses to choose from.

The second is that Dems fear a political backlash, the way Republicans were “punished” in public opinion polls (but not, notice, at the voting booth) after they’d impeached Bill Clinton. I don’t think this excuse is applicable, either. I believe most of the public by 1998 had grown heartily sick of the Republicans’ perpetual investigations of Clinton’s every twitch and the hysterical frenzy with which they repeatedly attacked Clinton for so much as breathing. Piranha politics can be effective when people are looking for excuses to dislike a president, but not so much when the guy is charming and doing a reasonably satisfactory job.

The third reason:

The third is that they’re eager to keep Bush and Cheney around as punching bags for Democratic candidates in the 2008 campaign.

“The political lens they’re looking through is the 2008 election,” Carpenter said. “They want to see Bush and Cheney dangling so the election is a referendum on them. That is not the correct lens.”

I think it’s possible impeachment hearings might actually help the Dems and make them look stronger and more principled in contrast to the GOP snivelers who will (probably) still make excuses for Bush. The 1973-74 Watergate investigations and hearings in the Senate and House certainly didn’t hurt Dems in the 1974 midterms (Dems picked up 49 seats). Several previously obscure Dems became stars; Barbara Jordan is one example.

Whether impeachment hearings would reflect well or badly on the Dems might depend on how they went about it. As much as possible I’d want them to frame impeachment as an act of due diligence to protect the Constitution, not as a way to punish Bush and Cheney for being bad. Take a look at Barbara Jordan’s opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee:

I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution. …

… We know the nature of impeachment. We have been talking about it awhile now. “It is chiefly designed for the president and his high ministers” to somehow be called into account. It is designed to “bridle” the executive if he engages in excesses. “It is designed as a method of national inquest into the public men.” (Hamilton, Federalist, no. 65.) The framers confined in the congress the power if needbe, to remove the president in order to strike a delicate balance between a president swollen with power and grown tyrannical, and preservation of the independence of the executive. The nature of impeachment is a narrowly channeled exception to the separation-of-powers maxim; the federal convention of 1787 said that. It limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors and discounted and opposed the term “maladministration.” “It is to be used only for great misdemeanors,” so it was said in the North Carolina ratification convention. And in the Virginia ratification convention: “We do not trust our liberty to a particular branch. We need one branch to check the others.”…

… The drawing of political lines goes to the motivation behind impeachment; but impeachment must proceed within the confines of the constitutional term “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Of the impeachment process, it was Woodrow Wilson who said that “nothing short of the grossest offenses against the plain law of the land will suffice to give them speed and effectiveness. Indignation so great as to overgrow party interest may secure a conviction; but nothing else can.”

Common sense would be revolted if we engaged upon this process for insurance, campaign finance reform, housing, environmental protection, energy sufficiency, mass transportation. Pettiness cannot be allowed to stand in the face of such overwhelming problems. So today we are not being petty. We are trying to be big because the task we have before us is a big one.

We must not be petty. Or smarmy. Or hysterical. We must be measured and solemn and undertake this act only when the acts of the Executive are potentially injurious to the Constitution itself. The charges against Bill Clinton didn’t come within ten miles of those criteria. I think most of the nation understood that the articles of impeachment brought against Clinton were petty, and part of a partisan war being waged by the Right. The lynch mob hysteria exhibited by Republicans in 1998 in no way resembled the gravity and solemnity with which Congress approached impeachment in 1974.

There’s a fourth reason not listed in Steven Thomma’s article, and that reason should be considered very carefully.

As you probably remember, articles of impeachment — essentially accusations against the President — must originate in the House. I believe such articles need only a simple majority to pass. Once impeached, a president is tried in the Senate. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote.

What happens if Bush is impeached, tried … and not convicted? Wouldn’t he then be exonerated? Wouldn’t impeachment then be rendered into an empty gesture?

At the moment there is no way two-thirds of the Senate would convict Bush. That might change after public hearings. But the burden of proof is huge. It’s not enough to prove that Bush did something unethical or even broke a law. Instead, it must be shown without doubt that Bush’s conduct in office has rendered serious damage to the Constitution and our system of government itself, and that the survival of our Republic depends on making it clear to all future presidents that this will not stand.

I think that case can be made. But if there’s any doubt, then I’d have to reluctantly agree that impeachment may not be the best move.