Unimpeachable Sources


On the stump in New Hampshire last week, Democratic presidential contender and former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham said that if George W. Bush made false statements that led the nation into war, there were grounds to impeach him. He didn’t call for impeachment, but pointed out that if Bush lied, it would be “more serious” than Clinton’s personal transgressions. “If in fact we went to war under false pretenses, that is a very serious charge,” Graham said.

John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel during Watergate, said pretty much the same thing last month: “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.”

Grounds for impeachment are set forth in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution: “The President, Vice President, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Speaking of “civil officers” besides the president: During the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, Congress made no effort to investigate and showed little interest in obtaining independent information; instead, it meekly endorsed the resolution to go to war. If there are high crimes and misdemeanors involved, Congress is complicit in them.

While legal scholars parse the niceties of common-law precedents for impeaching a president, the long and the short of it—as the fiasco involving Bill Clinton clearly demonstrated—is raw political partisanship. Gerald Ford called it right when he said after Nixon’s ouster, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

In the case of Bush and Iraq, it will never come to that, because the Republicans control both houses of Congress and their committees, and with an election drawing near would block any serious move to impeach. A party that could pull off the Florida coup wouldn’t have any trouble with that task. Anyway, there is something truly absurd in even thinking that a group of male politicians who meticulously studied whether a young woman gave the president of the United States a blow job could decide what is or isn’t a high crime.

And that’s the central issue of impeachment—at least when it comes to developing legal rationales for embarking on the process. Scholars are fond of quoting Alexander Hamilton, who said impeachable offenses are those that “proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to the injuries done immediately to the society itself.”

And when Congress does go to the trouble, it’s arduous. The procedure involves the House deciding, by majority vote, whether to approve impeachment. If it does, the Senate conducts a trial, run by the chief justice and with a verdict decided by a two-thirds vote. Since 1797, 16 federal officials have been impeached, including presidents Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Nixon resigned before his impeachment could begin.

After Nixon covered up the Watergate burglary and refused to turn over evidence, the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee sought impeachment by the full House in July 1974, voting to charge the president with illegal wiretapping, perjury, bribery, obstruction of justice and other abuses of power. As Dean has pointed out, “all presidents are on notice that manipulating or misusing any agency of an executive branch improperly is a serious abuse of presidential power.”

But even if there is evidence that Bush deliberately lied over a period of months to the American public and misused the CIA by distorting its intelligence information, any sort of impeachment procedure would, in the words of Graham himself, be pretty much of an “academic” exercise.

In the first place, most of the facts now coming to light in the media were all known, and most of them were discussed publicly during the ramp-up to war—the UN statements and weapons reports being the primary ones. Last fall, independent scientists seriously questioned whether Saddam Hussein had the capability of making nuclear weapons, and they scoffed at the idea that he could respond quickly with, at best, a limited chemical and biological arsenal. Congress—especially the Intelligence committees—had all this information available to it. Graham has suggested that the administration perhaps was engaging in a cover-up.

Of course, Graham was chair of the intelligence committee and if he thought there was a cover-up under way, everyone else on those committees surely knew what was going on—and none of them did anything.

Additional reporting: Phoebe St John