House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers issued a report Tuesday documenting what he says are extraordinary claims of executive power during President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. Conyers said disturbing evidence his committee has gathered begs for an independent criminal investigation into controversial and possibly illegal policies sanctioned by the White House, including torture, and domestic surveillance, and the politicization of the Department of Justice.
The scathing 486-page report is the clearest sign yet that the 111th Congress plans to probe the depths of the Bush administration’s most controversial policies. Last week, The Public Record was the first to report that Conyers proposed legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel of outside experts to probe the “broad range” of policies pursued by the Bush administration “under claims of unreviewable war powers,” including torture of detainees and warrantless wiretaps.
Tuesday’s report is aimed at providing lawmakers in Congress the documentary evidence needed to support the bill, which currently has 10 sponsors.
The report, “Reining in the Imperial Presidency: Lessons and Recommendations Relating to the presidency of George W. Bush,” contains 47 separate recommendations that includes continued investigations into the Bush administration’s “excesses and abuses”, a blue ribbon commission to fully investigate administration activities, and independent criminal probes.
It was released on the same day that the Justice Department’s inspector general released a report that found Bradley Schlozman, the former head of the agency’s civil rights division, used a political litmus test to hire and fire staffers in violation of federal law and then lied to a Senate committee about it.
Conyers said the recommendations contained in his report to continue probing the Bush administration’s policies are not intended as political payback, rather the goal is to “restore the traditional checks and balances of our constitutional system.”
“Even after scores of hearings, investigations, and reports, we still do not have answers to some of the most fundamental questions left in the wake of Bush’s Imperial Presidency,” Conyers said, using allegations of torture, extraordinary rendition, warrantless domestic surveillance, the Valerie Plame Wilson-leak, and the U.S. attorney scandal as examples. “Investigations are not a matter of payback or political revenge – it is our responsibility to examine what has occurred and to set an appropriate baseline of conduct for future administrations.
“The Bush Administration’s approach to power is, at its core, little more than a restatement of Mr. Nixon’s famous rationalization of presidential misdeeds: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” Conyers said in a foreword included in the report. “Under this view, laws that forbid torturing or degrading prisoners cannot constrain the president because, if the president ordered such acts as Commander in Chief, “that means it’s not illegal.” Under this view, it is not the courts that decide the reach of the law – it is the president – and neither the judiciary nor Congress can constrain him.
Conyers has been one of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration’s extraordinary claims of executive powers. His committee has probed numerous scandals that unfolded over the years, including the politicization of the Department of Justice, the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, and prewar Iraq intelligence.
Last year, Conyers called on Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether the Bush administration committed war crimes. Conyers was criticized, however, late last year when he refused to allow his committee to vote on Articles of Impeachment presented against Bush by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio fearing such a move would hurt Democrats’ chances of securing a larger majority of Congress and could hinder Barack Obama’s chances of being elected president. Instead, Conyers’ committee held an impeachment substitute of sorts; a one-day hearing devoted to testimony by Bush’s critics about the administration’s alleged abuses of power.
In the report, Conyers said he believes that the Bush administration’s abuses warranted impeachment hearings and acknowledged that “some ardent advocates of impeachment have labeled me a traitor – or worse – for declining to begin a formal impeachment inquiry in the House Judiciary Committee.”
“Many think these acts rise to the level of impeachable conduct. I agree,” Conyers wrote in the report’s foreword. “I have never wavered in my belief that this President and Vice-President are among the most impeachable officials in our Nation’s history, and the more we learn the truer that becomes.”
“While I reject particular criticism [that he refused to take up impeachment], I want to make clear how much I respect those who have given so much time and energy to the cause of fighting for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. While we may not agree on the best path forward, I know they are acting on the basis of our shared love of this country. These citizens are not fringe radicals, and they are obviously not motivated simply by personal feelings about President Bush, however strong those feelings may be at times. They are individuals who care deeply about our Constitution and our Nation, and who have stood up to fight for the democracy they love, often at great personal cost.
“However, as I have said, while President Bush and Vice President Cheney have earned the dishonorable eligibility to be impeached, I do not believe that would have been the appropriate step at this time in our history, and I would like again to briefly explain why that is the case. Contrary to assertions by some advocates, the predecessor to this Report – the Judiciary Committee then-Minority staff’s “Constitution in Crisis” – did not call for impeachment. Rather, it concluded that there was substantial evidence of impeachable misconduct and that there should be a full investigation by a select Committee armed with subpoena power.”
The new report Conyers prepared signals that the Michigan Democrat is not inclined to immediately “move forward” now that Obama has been elected. In fact, Conyers said he firmly rejects “the notion that we should move on from these matters simply because a new Administration is set to take office.”
On Sunday, Obama signaled in an interview on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulus,” that he will not likely recommend that his Justice Department launch a criminal probe into the Bush administration’s past practices, particularly policies that authorized torture.
Obama told Stephanopolous that he held “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward.”
But Conyers has made three major recommendations that stand in contrast with Obama’s philosophy:
- First, that the Judiciary Committee pursue its document requests and subpoenas pending at the end of the 110th Congress.
- Second, that Congress create an independent blue ribbon commission or similar body to investigate the host of previously unreviewable activities of the Bush Administration, including detention, enhanced interrogation, extraordinary rendition, ghosting and black sites, and warrantless domestic electronic surveillance.
- Third, that the new Administration conduct an independent criminal inquiry into whether any laws were broken in connection with these activities…there never has been an independent, comprehensive review of these very serious allegations with a full report to the American public. The investigations to date have either been limited in scope or authority, hidden from the public and the Congress, or stonewalled or obstructed by the outgoing Administration behind impenetrable walls of classification and privilege. The purpose of the above-described investigations is not payback, but to uphold the rule of law, allow us to learn from our national mistakes, and prevent them from recurring. Such an effort would be a welcome sign to our friends, and a warning to our foes, that this Nation can indeed serve as a beacon of liberty and freedom without weakening our ability to combat terrorism or other threats. The Report makes clear that even after scores of hearings, investigations, and reports, Congress and the American public still do not have answers to some of the most fundamental questions concerning the Bush Imperial Presidency.
On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that the Bush administration must turn to President-elect Barack Obama’s staff documents it has been withholding from Congress related to the White House’s role in the firing of the nine U.S. Attorneys.
Conyers’ committee has been pursuing testimony and documents from White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers about their involvement in the decision to fire the federal prosecutors. President George W. Bush has asserted executive privilege in blocking Bolten and Miers, who were both subpoenaed, from testifying before Congress. Last week, a new set of House rules were passed that revived subpoenas issued during the 110th Congress. In addition to Miers, Conyers’ committee subpoenaed former White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Conyers said unanswered questions revolving around the U.S. Attorney firings, such as the individual responsible for creating the list of federal prosecutors to fire, calls for aggressive an investigation. He said other matters that still need to be investigated by Congress and perhaps a criminal probe include whether any laws were broken as a result of the administration’s authorization that tactics such as waterboarding could be used to interrogate suspected terrorists, extraordinary rendition, and domestic surveillance.
Additionally, Conyers wants to find out “to what extent were President Bush and Vice President Cheney involved in the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson and its aftermath.”
“There is considerable evidence that culpability for the outing of Valerie Plame Wilson and subsequent obstruction goes above and beyond Scooter Libby,” Cheney’s former chief of staff who was convicted last year of obstruction of justice and perjury.
“While…evidence strongly suggests vice presidential and/or presidential involvement, complete understanding of this matter has been obstructed by both the President’s assertion of executive privilege and threatened assertion to deny the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Judiciary Committee access to relevant information, and by Mr. Libby’s lies to FBI interviewers and the grand jury convened to investigate the leak,” the report says. “As Special Counsel [Patrick] Fitzgerald emphasized during his closing argument, Mr. Libby’s lies put a “cloud over what the Vice President did.”
Conyers subpoenaed documents last year related to the Plame leak, including testimony Bush and Cheney gave to Fitzgerald, but the Justice Department refused to turn over the materials.
“Given that so many significant questions remain unanswered relating to these core constitutional and legal matters, many of which implicate basic premises of our national honor, it seems clear that our country cannot simply move on. As easy or convenient as it would be to turn the page, our Nation’s respect for the rule of law and its role as a moral leader in the world demand that we finally and without obstruction conduct and complete these inquiries. This can and should be done without rancor or partisanship.”