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From Watergate to Gonzogate

by Col. DAN SMITH

April 27 on Public Broadcasting System (PBS) television saw an all-too-brief and much-too-rare analysis of the ever-shifting influences that drive policy formulation and program implementation of an administration under siege.

Should you have missed the program–the inaugural of a new series, “Bill Moyer’s Journal” for Friday, April 27–it undoubtedly can be purchased from PBS. The segment of interest comes near the beginning, and it is so trenchant that a number of Internet sites carry it on-line. Moyers, a veteran journalist who also was a White House insider in the Johnson administration, discusses political developments of the week just ended with Jon Stewart, host of the fake news program “The Daily Show” carried on Comedy Central. When Moyers refers to Stewart as a journalist, Stewart demurs and reiterates his comedic profession and calling.

Perhaps, but he is a comedic commentator and societal gadfly in the serious tradition of Will Rogers and, to an extent, Mark Russell and even Bill Maher–a tradition that has its roots in the biting satire of Jonathan Swift in Britain and Voltaire in France.

The specific event that Moyers and Stewart discussed was the testimony of the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, April 19, relative to the role Gonzales played in the December 2006 firing of eight federal prosecutors. The public record, including sworn testimony from current and past Justice Department officials was full of contradictions and missing documents.

The entire procedure suggested that the choice of these eight (of 93 nationwide) and the timing of the dismissals was quite intentional, political, and possibly done in some cases because the prosecutors were investigating allies of the Bush White House. If the dismissals were timed to occur when Congress was in recess, the Senate would not have the opportunity to review the qualifications of the new prosecutors and render its “advice and consent.”

Gonzales had at least three weeks notice of the hearing in which he reportedly “rehearsed” his answers to questions posed by Justice Department officials role-playing as the Senate committee. The shooting incident at Virginia Tech on April 16 prompted the Senate committee to postpone Gonzales’ appearance from April 17 to April 19. Despite all that time available to search records and calendars, the Attorney General, under oath, responded 74 times–45 times before the committee broke for lunch–with some version of “I don’t recall specifically,” “I have no recollection,” “I don’t recall remembering,” or “I can only testify as to what I recall.” (Alternate counts say 64 “I don’t know” answers over five hours–either way, quite a few.) Were that not frustrating enough for both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Gonzales went out of his way to assert and reassert: “I firmly believe that nothing improper occurred.” This is virtually an epistemological miracle: even though he could not remember any details of meetings he attended and conversations he had, he is sure everything done was proper.

Stewart’s satiric streak was on display when Moyer’s ran an excerpt from the April 19 “Daily Show” broadcast. But the real depth of Stewart’s insight was his assertion on Moyer’s program that Bush administration officials seem to believe that the American public gets one chance every four years to “say its piece.” Once an election is over, the public–as well as the Congress–ought to simply slip into the background scenery of democracy and leave the executive branch run the country, according to the president’s gang.

In this administration’s view, Congress, of course, does have responsibilities under the Constitution, and these are best fulfilled by quickly approving all requests from the White House. The Senate may hold hearings to consider presidential nominees for office, but, again, the process should be rapid and should not pry too deeply into what the administration is doing or plans to do.

Neither Moyers nor Stewart claims that the policy the Bush White House is following is fundamentally different from attempts by previous administrations to control what information reaches the public or to conceal events that might be embarrassing or even on the margins of illegality. But they both seem to be of the view that the Bush administration has been more intent, more aggressive, than other recent administrations in refusing to provide records and send officials to testify before Congress in open session as that body seeks to exercise oversight necessary for a meaningful system of checks and balances that protect individual rights.

By chance, PBS also broadcast on April 28 the classic film “All the President’s Men,” the Hollywood version of the Nixon administration Watergate scandal. The film was followed by a 2003 PBS documentary, “Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History.” This looked at both the events of Watergate and the investigation and hearings before the Senate Watergate Committee (formal title in the enabling legislation is the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities) in 1973-1974. What was eerie about the documentary are the parallels between then and now:

* a president who ignored the public’s growing opposition to a war that should never have been started;

* an expansion of the war either through secret bombing raids or adding additional thousands of troops to the war;

* a presidential assertion of expanded powers to intercept communications of U.S. residents using the “commander-in-chief” clause of the constitution;

* “missing” or irretrievable documents or tapes (the infamous 18 minute gap in the Nixon tapes); and

* the obvious administration stonewalling of Congress.

On the last point, I must concede that, as often as Alberto Gonzales could not remember what he did or what he said, even though he firmly believed everything done was done properly, the frequency of his memory lapses pale when compared to the 130 times that Nixon Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, during his appearance under oath before the Watergate committee, claimed he could not recall events or conversations about Watergate or the cover-up.

Haldeman, unrepentant for his role in subverting justice, went to jail for his role in the planning and cover-up of criminal activity. Alberto Gonzales, by denying any recollection of events surrounding the dismissal of presidential appointees, may well be remembered in the annals of the second George W. Bush administration as one of the nation’s most politically loyal and, therefore, most ineffective Attorney Generals ever to hold that office.

As disgraceful as Haldeman’s activities were and those of Nixon, in the end, justice was served: one man went to jail and the other resigned in disgrace. For Gonzales and Bush, what the outcome is remains unclear. At the very least, however, placing political loyalty above loyalty to the Constitution remains a dangerous threat to the integrity of constitutional processes designed to hold both elected and appointed officials accountable for what they do or fail to do.

In this regard, both president and attorney general ought to refresh their individual memories about two principles of law: The first has its origins in Rome, reads “Ignorantia juris non excusat”–“Ignorance of the law does not excuse.”

The second is known as “willful blindness.” This occurs when a person with a responsibility to know whether something was or was not done, and was in a position to ask the status of a policy or an action, deliberately chooses not to ask so that he could deny any knowledge (and responsibility for) an outcome. Such “willful blindness” under the law would be the equivalent of the diplomats “plausible deniability;” both are figments.

And, in some locales and justice systems, purposely practicing “willful blindness” is regarded as equivalent to possessing knowledge, for how else would one know what it is that he or she is trying to remain ignorant of?

Which, ironically, leads back to Watergate and the ranking Republican committee member Senator Howard Baker’s famous summary question–“What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Gonzales’ loyalty to the president has led Ccongress, now, to that question.

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.

 

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