Commentary: A shining city on a hill can't have dungeons in its basements

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 5, 2009 

It turns out that even the most paranoid among us were right to be afraid of what George W. Bush's White House and Justice Department were up to in the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

This week the Justice Department declassified and released two memos and seven so-called legal opinions that, taken together, informed President Bush that, as a wartime chief executive, he had unfettered dictatorial powers.

We already knew that Bush dispensed with the Fourth Amendment, suspended the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures and ordered warrantless wiretapping and surveillance of untold billions of e-mails and telephone calls to and from American citizens.

But who knew that his political appointees in the White House counsel's office and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel were telling him that he could also suspend the First Amendment in a nation that was founded on guarantees of freedom of freedom of speech and of the press?

The Republican legal vultures — John Yoo, Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury — told the panicked cowboy president that he could do anything he chose, anyway he saw fit, and not only was it legal, it also wasn't subject to any congressional or judicial oversight.

In other words, the United States of America — the home of the free — was for a time on the brink of falling into the hands of a dictatorship.

The Bush administration authorized the detention without charges or trial of American citizens _ a de facto suspension of the right of habeas corpus.

It authorized a massive program of intercepting and sifting through phone calls and e-mails and financial transactions and other records in search of terrorists and their agents.

It authorized the detention, torture, other extreme methods of interrogation and extraordinary rendition — the practice of shipping detainees off to their home countries where we knew they'd be tortured by the local authorities — of "suspected enemy combatants." Many of them, my colleague Tom Lasseter revealed last year, were low-level Taliban grunts or were innocents turned in by tribal rivals or for cash bounties.

In short, former President Bush and his agents violated any number of federal and international laws and trampled the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights with only the fig leaves of bogus legal opinions to cover themselves.

They also had at their fingertips legal clearance to go another half-step and gut democracy, censor the media and fill detention camps with as many Americans as they deemed necessary in the name of national security.

Some of the worst of these legal opinions were withdrawn in a few years, and in a blatant effort to cover some asses the Justice Department in October 2008 and again on January 19, 2009, withdrew the rest of them.

The courts had slapped down the Bush administration in several key cases, and it had become clear as their days dwindled down to a happy few that their house of cards was collapsing.

I don’t for one minute believe that the release of these documents by the new Justice Department represents anything more than the tip of a massive iceberg of illegality in the name of national security during the Bush years.

But they do add up to a compelling argument in favor of a thorough investigation of George Bush’s closet full of horrors by prosecutors and by a congressional Truth Commission.

In spite of what the former president’s lawyerly handmaidens told him, in the United States no one is above the law. Not even a wartime president.

Legal scholars of every political persuasion were shocked by the shoddy work of a Justice Department that first was neutered, and then turned into an arm of the White House political operatives.

President Barack Obama has signaled that he wants to remain above this fray and stay focused on the main task at hand — the melting economy he inherited six weeks ago — and that's well and good.

But his new attorney general, Eric Holder, and our representatives on Capitol Hill must pursue the truth with great vigor and without fear or favor. Those who took this proud nation to the brink of dictatorship must answer for that, and if they violated our Constitution, our laws and international law, then they must be brought to justice.

We cannot be the shining city on the hill if our gleaming buildings have dungeons and torture chambers in their basements. We cannot be a beacon of hope in a chaotic world if our hands are bloody and our ears still ring with the screams of helpless prisoners.

It’s time to get to work cleaning up those dark corners in the White House and the Justice Department and all the other departments that had a hand in George W. Bush’s excellent adventure.

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