Ten Reasons Congress Must Investigate Bush Administration Crimes

No Lie Can Live Forever

Ten Reasons Congress Must Investigate Bush Administration Crimes

Jeremy Brecher
Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2006

Submitted to Portside

Few elections in history have provided so clear a mandate. As the New York Times put it, Democrats were "largely elected on the promise to act as a strong check on[Bush's] administration."[1] But the first response of the new Congressional leadership has been to proclaim a new era of civility and seek accommodation with the very people who need to be held accountable for war crimes and subversion of the Constitution.

Democratic strategists who argue for this kind of bipartisanship maintain that the American people want their political leaders to address the problems of the future, not pursue recriminations about the past. They therefore oppose the kind of penetrating investigation that a White House strategist told Time would leadto a "cataclysmic fight to the death"[2] if Democrats start issuing subpoenas. If such "peace at any price" Democrats prevail, the result will be a catastrophe not only for the Democratic party but for American democracy.

Establishing accountability will require a thorough investigation of the actions of the Bush administration and, if they have included crimes or abuses, ensuring that these are properly addressed by Congress and the courts. The purpose of such action is not to play "gotcha" based on hearsay and newspaper clippings. Investigation, exposure, and even prosecution or select committee proceedings, should they become necessary, are primarily means for reestablishing the rule of law. But such investigations may be blocked by the Democratic leadership unless American citizens and progressive Democrats in particular demand them. Here are ten reasons why they should:

1. The US faces a constitutional crisis that goes far beyond either partisan politics or isolated acts of wrongdoing. The Bush administration has tried to replace the constitutional rule of law with the power of the Executive branch to disregard both the laws established by the Legislative branch and the judgments of the Judicial branch. It has cloaked this power grab with a mantle of secrecy. Only by demonstrating the power of Congress to know what the Executive branch does can even the possibility of constitutional checks and balances be restored. The prerequisite for oversight is the right to know. Unless Congress successfully asserts that right, the Executive's usurpation of power will be permanent and unlimited.

2. The Democrats are in danger of walking into a death trap the Bush administration and the Republican leadership are setting for them. The Democrats won the election on ending the Iraq war and holding the President accountable. In the current courtship they are being invited to come up onto the bridge of the Titanic and share responsibility for the catastrophe. Ifthey do that, they will end up at the 2008 election with a disillusioned public (especially their own base) who give them equal blame for the war and its catastrophic consequences. As the Nation recently editorialized, "Democrats must not forget the voters' message. If they collaborate in allowing continued bloodletting in Iraq, they will pay the price themselves in future elections."[3]

3. Defending the Constitution by investigating breaches in the rule of law will allow Democrats to appeal to new bases of support among independents and others concerned about the rule of law. It provides a way of reaching out without selling out.

The potential for such a broad and powerful coalition is exemplified by a recent statement by the Constitution Project -- which includes both liberals and conservatives like David Keene, Chair of the American Conservative Union --that hails the election result as "an opportunity to restore checks and balances." It says, "The president has asserted that he has virtually unrestrained authority and that Congress and the courts have none. Congress must exercise, and the president must respect, its constitutional obligation to legislate and conduct oversight on issues like NSA wiretapping, military commissions, the detention and treatment of 'enemy combatants,' habeas corpus, and the power to declare war." If the Republicans were able to win by running on the Bible, Democrats can do far better by running on the Constitution and restoring the rule of law.

4. Bush still holds most of the institutional cards on foreign policy, especially given his claims that the President can exercise authority without Congressional constraint. Short of an unlikely cutoff of funds, he can continue to conduct foreign policy and command the military as he chooses. Congress has few direct levers to impose Democratic proposals for new diplomatic initiatives or troop redeployments. It does not even have effective institutional means to stop further Bush administration adventures, such as an attack on Iran.

The key to establishing power over foreign and military policy is to so discredit the Administration in the eyes of the public that neither Republican politicians nor the military, the intelligence agencies, the foreign policy establishment, or the corporate elite will allow it to continue on its catastrophic course. And that requires not friendly negotiations with the White House to find a formula for bipartisan packaging of policy decisions Bush has already made, but a devastating exposure of the criminality, corruption, stupidity, and false premises of those who are making the decisions.

5. A Democratic Congress that fails to assert its prerogatives against the President will soon find itself losing the initiative in the face of the President's capacity to frame issues. While investigations are sometime portrayed as purely negative acts, by putting the Administration on the defensive they may actually lay the groundwork for constructive Democratic proposals.

6. A majority of the American people and an overwhelming proportion of grassroots Democrats want the President impeached. A mobilization forimpeachment was kicked off last weekend with speeches by Elizabeth Holtzman, Cindy Sheehan, and others. Serious investigation of Bush administration malfeasance is probably the only way that Democratic leaders reluctant to pursue impeachment can avoid themselves becoming the target of this constituency. Indeed, impeachment advocates can be encouraged to direct some of their energy to supporting such investigations on the grounds that exposure of high crimes and misdemeanors might be the only way to put impeachment "on the table."

7. Exposing the truth about America's actions in the world over the past years, and holding those responsible for it accountable, is the prerequisite to setting relations with the world on a new, more constructive basis. As Philippe Sands, professor at University College London and a leading international human rights lawyer, puts it, "If the United Statesis to re-engage effectively with the rest of the world they have to resurrect accountability for their high officials."

8. The US government under the Bush administration has systematically and flagrantly violated national and international law. If the perpetrators of these crimes are given permanent impunity with the collusion of Congress, future law-breakers will assume that they can commit similar crimes with impunity. Whether or not Bush administration officials can be subject to criminal prosecution or impeachment, the exposure of their acts can subject them to the kind of public repudiation they deserve. That can begin setting us back on a track toward international law that restrains crimes by the leaders of all nations, however great or small. For as Antoine Bernard, executive director of the International Federation of Human Rights, has said, "The key to peace and democracy building world-wide is accountability for internationalcrimes."

9. Hearings and investigations are crucial means to establishing institutional and cultural barriers to future crimes. At the close of the Vietnam war, the Church Committee established significant limits on executive authority, such as a strengthened Freedom of Information Act and a ban on assassination of foreign leaders. These were originally passed over the objection of then presidential aide Dick Cheney, and he devoted his Vice-Presidency to dismantling them. Investigation of such Executive abuses is the prerequisite for restoring public access to government information and developing new oversight mechanisms to enforce bans on torture, wiretapping, aggression, executive secrecy, and other illegal and unconstitutional executive activity.

10. Setting the public record straight about what has happened over the past six years is essential for reestablishing discourse based on reality that can be tested by evidence and argument, rather than on fantasy propagated by national leaders and amplified by their media sycophants. A respect for truth pursued through honest dialogue based on evidence and argument will be essential not only for beginning to heal the wounds created by Bush's illegal war of aggression, but for addressing problems like global warming that a fantasy-based public discourse has evaded.

52% of Americans believe that investigating the origins of the Iraq war is a high priority and 58% want Congress to pursue contracting fraud in Iraq.[4] But that will not automatically translate into action by Congress. Convincing the Democratic leadership to support investigations will require sustained pressure from outside groups. This pressure needs to build early -- before the new legislative session begins -- so the Leadership perceives efforts to squash committee action as politically hazardous.

Fortunately, progressive activists are elegantly positioned to mobilize such pressure. They were the troops on the ground for virtually every victorious Democrat. They can set up district meetings with Members, organize phone banks for support calls, submit op-eds and letters to the editors, and organize town meetings on accountability. The time to start is now.

Jeremy Brecher is a historian whose books include Strike!, Globalization from Below, and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond(Metropolitan/Holt). He has received five regional Emmy Awards for his documentary film work. He is a co-founder of


Brendan Smith is a legal analyst whose books include Globalization From Below and,with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, of In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan). He is current co-director of Global Labor Strategies and UCLA Law School's Globalization and Labor Standards Project, and has worked previously for Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and a broad range of unions and grassroots groups. His commentary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, CBS, YahooNews and the Baltimore Sun. Contact him at

[1]RobinToner, "A Loud Message for Bush," New York Times, ll/8/06.

[2]Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen, "It's Lonely at the Top," TimeMagazine, October 29, 2006. Available at:,8816,1552033,00.html

[3]Posted 11/9/06.

[4]Marcus Marby, "Are the Faithful Losing Their Faith?" Newsweek, Oct21, 2006. Available at:

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