In The Nation, Jonathan Schell publishes The Hidden State Steps Forward, a cogent blueprint for what he describes as an “embryonic” Bush dictatorship:
Bush’s choice [to admit and defiantly defend his executive order] marks a watershed in the evolution of his Administration. Previously when it was caught engaging in disgraceful, illegal or merely mistaken or incompetent behavior, he would simply deny it. “We have found the weapons of mass destruction!” “We do not torture!” However, further developments in the torture matter revealed a shift. Even as he denied the existence of torture, he and his officials began to defend his right to order it. His Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, refused at his confirmation hearings to state that the torture called waterboarding…was prohibited. Then when Senator John McCain sponsored a bill prohibiting [torture] of prisoners, Bush threatened to veto the legislation…It was only in the face of majority votes in both houses against such treatment that he retreated from his claim.
But in the wiretapping matter, he has so far exhibited no such vacillation. Secret law-breaking has been supplanted by brazen law-breaking. The difference is critical. If abuses of power are kept secret, there is still the possibility that, when exposed, they will be stopped. But if they are exposed and still permitted to continue, then every remedy has failed, and the abuse is permanently ratified. In this case, what will be ratified is a presidency that has risen above the law.
The danger is not abstract or merely symbolic. Bush’s abuses of presidential power are the most extensive in American history. He has launched an aggressive war (“war of choice,” in today’s euphemism) on false grounds. He has presided over a system of torture and sought to legitimize it by specious definitions of the word. He has asserted a wholesale right to lock up American citizens and others indefinitely without any legal showing or the right to see a lawyer or anyone else. He has kidnapped people in foreign countries and sent them to other countries, where they were tortured. In rationalizing these and other acts, his officials have laid claim to the unlimited, uncheckable and unreviewable powers he has asserted in the wiretapping case. He has tried to drop a thick shroud of secrecy over these and other actions.
There is a name for a system of government that wages aggressive war, deceives its citizens, violates their rights, abuses power and breaks the law, rejects judicial and legislative checks on itself, claims power without limit, tortures prisoners and acts in secret. It is dictatorship…
With Bush’s defense of his wiretapping, the hidden state has stepped into the open. The deeper challenge Bush has thrown down, therefore, is whether the country wants to embrace the new form of government he is creating by executive fiat or to continue with the old constitutional form. He is now in effect saying, “Yes, I am above the law–I am the law, which is nothing more than what I and my hired lawyers say it is–and if you don’t like it, I dare you to do something about it.”
Members of Congress have no choice but to accept the challenge. They did so once before, when Richard Nixon, who said, “When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal,” posed a similar threat to the Constitution. The only possible answer is to inform Bush forthwith that if he continues in his defiance, he will be impeached.
If Congress accepts his usurpation of its legislative power, they will be no Congress and might as well stop meeting. Either the President must uphold the laws of the United States, which are Congress’s laws, or he must leave office.
I’m so pleased that we’re starting to see in the progressive media (Slate, Salon, The Nation, etc.) a coherent argument for impeachment take shape. I think that Schell’s piece passionately articulates the reason why this debate is essential for preservation of our democracy. In fact, if I were a member of Congress contemplating the possibility of impeachment proceedings (admittedly a bit far-fetched at the moment), I’d keep this article taped to my wall because it makes an awfully good start toward actual articles of impeachment.