I don't agree that impeachment divides, and I don't agree that it diverts. ... I do think, however, that the failure to act now, given the litany of abuses and the seriousness of abuses, could simply set the groundwork for future presidents to do the same or worse. If we want to preserve our democracy, then we have to act to hold the President and the Vice President accountable.
-- Elizabeth Holtzman, four-term Congresswoman, former House Judiciary Committee member, and coauthor, The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens
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Rare is the person in public life who has enough conviction and courage to stand up for her beliefs, when standing up means standing virtually alone in the corridors of power. Elizabeth Holtzman is such a person. She cut her teeth in the 1970s serving on the House Judiciary Committee as a freshman congresswoman. That committee impeached Richard Nixon, who quit his office a half year after the committee began investigating. Holtzman sees the Bush/Cheney administration's actions as warranting the same careful, judicious investigation now. She urges American citizens to get that ball rolling. She believes it's not too late, and our letters and calls to Congress can make it happen.
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BuzzFlash: In December of 2006, we interviewed you about your book, Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens. Just last week, you had an op ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on encouraging the House Judiciary Committee to move to impeach Bush and Cheney. Since we interviewed you in December 2006, what happened or changed?
Elizabeth Holtzman: What's happened is you have a few members of the House now who have supported a resolution calling for the impeachment of Dick Cheney. But as important, three members of the House Judiciary Committee, which is the committee generally charged with impeachments, have called for hearings on the issue of impeachment. That's really a major breakthrough, in my opinion.
Of course, three isn't everybody, but it's a crack in this granite wall that Congress has surrounded itself with on the issue of impeachment. So I think that that's important.
Of course, there have been other issues that have come to light. There's no question now, for example, that waterboarding, which is considered torture, was conducted by the CIA. The U.S. attorney scandal has come out -- and, of course, that raised the question of the President's own personal involvement. We don't know about that. We do know that Karl Rove and others in the White House were involved in the removal of U.S. attorneys, which could be either criminal or simply an abuse of power. Congress refused to investigate that. So I think those are new developments.
Just recently, a private organization put out a list of over 200 instances in which the President and his team lied to the American people about going to war in Iraq. So, if anything, the case has become stronger, and we now have some members of Congress speaking out on the need for impeachment. In fact, Dennis Kucinich, who ran for President, called for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney.
BuzzFlash: The three members you're speaking of who actually sit on the Judiciary Committee are Robert Wexler, Luis Gutierrez and Tammy Baldwin. Wexler has started a petition, which has gotten over 200,000 signatures. But isn't the issue here that Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who is deeply respected, has said that it's not going to happen because the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has said we're not going to do it. You've served in Congress, and you served on the Judiciary Committee that oversaw the impeachment of President Nixon. have we just sort of run up against a brick wall, if the Speaker of the House says we're not going to proceed?
Elizabeth Holtzman: Not necessarily. I don't agree that she's a total brick wall. Remember, when I was in the House of Representatives during Watergate, there was no interest in the Congress in doing impeachment. That only happened when the American people became infuriated at President Nixon's abuse of power by firing the special prosecutor who was investigating Watergate. The American people said we don't want to see America become a banana republic. They insisted that Congress take action.
If the American people want to see impeachment happen, they can make it happen, just as happened during Watergate. Congress is experiencing inertia. Unless there's pressure on Congress, it's not going to do something. There has to be pressure on Congress. The American people need to pressure Congress.
And the arguments against doing it, in my view, don't hold any water. The argument is that there's other business. Well, there's very little that's going on in Congress these days because what the Democrats want to accomplish, the administration doesn't want to see happen. In any case, even if they had a huge agenda -- we had a huge agenda during Watergate -- and yet the House Judiciary Committee did its investigation, conducted its hearings. The House of Representatives did its business. The Senate did its business.
So that's not a distraction. It wasn't a distraction during Watergate, and it doesn't need to be a distraction now. In other words, impeachment hearings can be done without distracting from the other work of the Congress. That's really not an argument that's historically valid.
The second argument is that it could divide the country. I don't think so. If it's done fairly and responsibly and properly, it'll bring the country together. With Watergate, when the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment, there was overwhelming support by the public because the process was fair. It was bipartisan. It was open. The American people could see what was going on, and they judged.
And, by the way, the impeachment of Nixon has totally withstood the test of history. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever claimed that the impeachment process wasn't proper, or that it was unwarranted. It brought the country together, because Americans understood that, more important than any president, and more important than any political party, was preserving the rule of law. So I don't agree that it divides, and I don't agree that it diverts. I don't think that those arguments are substantial objections or merited objections.
I do think, however, that the failure to act now, given the litany of abuses and the seriousness of abuses, could simply set the groundwork for future presidents to do the same or worse. If we want to preserve our democracy, then we have to act to hold the President and the Vice President accountable.
BuzzFlash: You're not only a former congresswoman, but also a prominent attorney in New York and a former prosecutor. Why are you so passionate about this when the leadership of the Democratic Party just kind of wants to see it go away? The movers and shakers in the Democratic Party, including Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the leading candidates for president at the current time, don't talk about it. None of them support it. Yet you're a mainstream Democrat, with a long history in the party.
Elizabeth Holtzman: I love this country, and I know the consequences of what happens when presidents get to abuse their power. To me, one of the most interesting things that I learned in my research for the book that I wrote, which is the basis for the article, was that Justice Jackson in the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that President Truman didn't have a right as Commander in Chief to seize steel mills. He said we're a country of laws, and the President doesn't have this right. And if you read the opinion carefully, you saw the reason Justice Jackson came to this conclusion. It's a very famous opinion.
President Bush, on the other hand, says, I have the power as Commander in Chief to do anything. But the Supreme Court has said very clearly that, as Commander in Chief, you don't have any more powers than you would not as Commander in Chief. In other words, you have to follow the law. The president is not above the law.
Well, Jackson was the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. Jackson saw what happened when you get tyranny, when you get dictatorship. And nobody wants to see that happen in this country. I mean, we fought in a revolution. My parents fled to America from communism. My grandparents fled seeking freedom from persecution and oppression and tyranny. Why are we going to hand these precious rights over to somebody who will abuse them? And why will we see them fritter away?
So, to me, it's a very deep-seated cause. But it takes a long time sometimes for other people to see the justice of it, although the polls in this country show dramatically that most Americans want to see Cheney impeached. Slightly less than that want to see Bush impeached. Those aren't bad numbers. It's not that the country's against it.
Also, some people don't understand what impeachment's about. Senator Obama said impeachment is undemocratic. Wait a minute -- it's in our Constitution. The whole point of impeachment is to save democracy. It can't be undemocratic, per se, by definition. So there is a lot of misunderstanding. I think the other thing is we've just become so timid in terms of fighting for basic preservation of our democracy. We can't let that happen.
BuzzFlash: Let me take one of the most basic issues at this time, which you address in the Philadelphia Inquirer article. We're less than a year away from the next inauguration, January 20. On top of everything else, conventional wisdom would say, we're in a very pitched and heated campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and on the Republican side, an equal one. All the attention is on that. People are preparing for who is going to be the next president. So the conventional wisdom is, we've got less than a year. Why even bother? This guy's going to be out of here.
Elizabeth Holtzman: Well, the question is not that he's going to be out of there. Of course he'll be out of there. That's not the point. The point is: Is he going to be held accountable for the abuses of power, for the serious and grave abuses of power, that he's committed? He got us into a war. He drove this country into a war on the basis of lies and misstatements, deliberate and knowing. Thousands of Americans have died. More than twenty thousand have been wounded physically. How many untold numbers are wounded mentally? A trillion dollars or more going to be spent on this war which we need desperately here at home, not to mention the devastation in Iraq, not to mention allowing al-Qaeda to grow.
Here's a president who turned away from the danger of Osama bin Laden and the danger of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, took the troops away, and sent them to Iraq. And now we have a growing problem in Afghanistan and a real threat to the region, to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and the world. He has not only cost us in blood and in treasure, but he has endangered the United States of America.
So what's the next president going to say? Well, we want to start a war, we can lie, too? Or we want to eavesdrop on the American people -- who cares what the law says? We want to arrest Elizabeth Holtzman because we don't like her book? Who cares what the law says? I'm Commander in Chief. Is that where we want to go? I don't think so. I hope not.
And we have time to do it -- I went back and checked the dates. The official instruction to the House was given in February 1974, and we completed our hearings in July, and the President resigned in August.
BuzzFlash: You just brought up the wire-tapping issue. Let me just try to connect a few dots here, because I think, even to our readers, who tend to be quite informed, the whole FISA debate is extremely complicated. Many people don't quite understand what's at stake. In late January, the Democrats succeeded in filibustering an attempt to pass a bill with telecom immunity. But then the Democrats lost a vote on a 30-day extension on what is now a temporary FISA bill, but would not include telecom immunity. All the Republicans voted against the Democratic effort for the 30-day extension -- in essence, voted with the White House, because Bush threatened to veto it. The telecom immunity issue, from our perspective, is very key because it's our belief that the White House, and Cheney, in particular, are fighting so hard because, if they get telecom immunity, it's like taking one step further to get immunity for themselves.
Elizabeth Holtzman: Well, they did get immunity for themselves from the War Crimes Act. Let's make that explicit and perfectly clear.
BuzzFlash: They did.
Elizabeth Holtzman: Both Cheney and the administration pardoned themselves, in effect, and got immunity from prosecution under the War Crimes Act, which, by the way, carries the death penalty. A criminal statute makes it a federal crime to violate certain portions of the Geneva Conventions, and to engage in torture, mistreatment, or degrading treatment of detainees. So they were very worried about criminal liability -- so worried that they got themselves immunity under the War Crimes Act. So, yes, I think that would be the next step. You might even see a pardon by George Bush before he leaves office.
BuzzFlash: Now on the FISA bill, there's one specific issue I want to bring up, which is how the media has sort of ignored all of these prosecutable and potential impeachment violations and indictments. You mentioned a study that came out last week that said over 200 administration lies led up to the Iraq war. But that came and went in less than two news cycles. The press, I think, has had the attitude -- well, we already know he lied. It's not news.
The second thing I wanted to bring up was a piece in the print New Yorker, not online, this past week, in which the author of a book called Looming Tower, which has to do with heroism, states that he was wiretapped by the Bush administration on outgoing calls, which the Bush administration has claimed it never does. He says he made calls, and they wire-tapped him, as an American citizen. And the FBI actually came to visit him and questioned him about some of the calls he made. He's a non-fiction author who, before this book, was investigating terrorism. That is a direct violation of what the administration claims -- let alone that it has bypassed the FISA court.
But it says under its proposed FISA law, it would still never tap a call originating in the United States unless it were a call that had been routed to the United States and back overseas from someone who initiated it overseas. What happened to him is in direct violation of that promise, a direct violation of the existing law at the time, and the current law. I didn't see anything about it in the mainstream media, or a discussion in Congress. You wouldn't know about this, unless you read closely on the Internet, or you picked up that edition of The New Yorker. Yet here you had a clear indication of a FISA violation with an American citizen being wire-tapped.
Elizabeth Holtzman: Well, I haven't read that article yet. It's sitting on my desk, because I do subscribe to The New Yorker, and I've been meaning to read it. But that's the whole point of the FISA law. It sets up a check against the President, because we saw this in Nixon and in Watergate. The President said: Oh, I want to wiretap these newspaper reporters. And I want to wiretap the White House staff, so I'm just going to do it. That was one of the grounds the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment.
And it was against that background that Congress enacted FISA. We said: You know something? We're going to give the President the right, in national security cases, to wiretap foreigners -- to do intelligence surveillance. But we're not going to let him do it on his own say-so, because we've seen with Richard Nixon that when a president does this, and there's no check, there's no balance. So that's what FISA is. Now you have Bush saying: I am above the law. I am Commander in Chief, and I don't have to obey a law that was put into place to make sure that there was independent scrutiny of what the president was doing. And it was intended exactly to protect the right of free speech and free press in the United States. Journalism is not a threat to our country, yet. It shouldn't be.
But you're absolutely right -- the media has been so supine, so lethargic, so cynical, so uninterested. I remember I was at a debate in New York about a month ago. Some very prominent reporter on NBC was there, and he's: Oh, impeachment. Bush is terrible and he's done all these abuses. But impeachment? Who could be for impeachment? Then we started to go through the arguments. And he said, "You know, you've convinced me."
It's a cynical, blasé press corps that feels they know everything, and they won't deal with this issue in a serious way. So the public doesn't really understand what its options are. And the basic option is, you have the right to petition for redress of grievances under the Constitution, and you have freedom of speech. So people who care about these abuses ought to be going to their Congressional representative and saying: Sign on to the resolution for the impeachment of Cheney. Join Reps. Wexler and Gutierrez and Baldwin calling for hearings on the impeachment of Bush-Cheney. Let's move this forward. They need to contact their representatives. Congressmen need to hear from people in their districts. Other members of the House Judiciary Committee need to hear from people in their districts. Nancy Pelosi and other leaders in the House need to hear from people in their districts. If the American people want this to happen, it still can happen.
BuzzFlash: But without the media, how do the American people get a real sense of the abuses that have occurred?
Elizabeth Holtzman: That's a very good question. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg situation. If the American people knew, they would demand. If the press were to inform them, that would help the process. But the press is uninterested, and so it becomes very difficult. I don't know what the answer is.
I just keep writing. Others keep writing. There are groups organizing all over the country on this. There's an effort in the State of Washington, I think, as we speak, to try to get the state legislature to adopt a resolution calling for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney. So people are still active all over this country.
BuzzFlash: First of all, I just want to commend you. There are so many people who take the safe route, rather than the patriotic route. You are doing this out of your passion for our Constitution, for democracy. But if you could sit down with Nancy Pelosi and make the case to her in a couple minutes, what would you tell her? How would you try to persuade her to go ahead with allowing the House Judiciary Committee members to go ahead with impeachment?
Elizabeth Holtzman: Maybe what she should say for starters is that it's not off the table, if the American people want it on the table. Let the American people know that they can have a say in this. I think if she said that, and people thought that there was some hope, then the media might say, gee, if the American people want it, then it's not off the table -- she said that -- I think that would make a huge difference. I don't think she has to say we're going to have hearings. I think she should at least say the American people want us to begin this process. We are the people's House. And we are prepared to listen.
BuzzFlash: I might point out, as a follow-up -- and I may be reading into this, because, of course, we're just talking about the newspaper article -- but the way I read Speaker Pelosi's statement, she said it's like these people have these anti-impeachment buttons, and they're just waiting for me to arrive in the airport. Rather than saying the logical thing and the common-sense thing, which is there are a lot of people wearing these buttons. It's not that anyone knows the Speaker of the House is going to arrive at the airport. It just represents the broad sentiment for impeachment. And she happens to show up in the airport, and there's a lot of people with the buttons. Do you think that, in a democracy, the will of the people should be heard? Do you think that, again, this is possible with a very heated presidential primary going on?
Elizabeth Holtzman: Well, I've seen it happen in my lifetime. I've seen how the American people can turn things around. I saw them turn around the war in Vietnam, which was based on lies. Ultimately the American people forced the Congress to end the war. That's how the war ended. The American people forced that.
I saw what happened in the South during the time of segregation. People came and said, we've had enough, and they ended it. The whole system of Jim Crow -- they ended it. With the guns and the water hoses, and the police dogs -- they ended it. And I saw that.
And they ended the tenure of an abusive presidency by Richard Nixon. The American people can make that difference. But they have to know they have that power. And the press needs to advise them and play a responsible role here. And I think the leadership doesn't have to endorse impeachment, but I don't think there's any harm in saying the American people want this. We know how to respond. And open the process to allowing the American people to have a say about whether we're going to continue as a robust full-throated democracy, or are we tip-toeing our way -- maybe not even tip-toeing -- hurtling our way into a military dictatorship?
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much.
Elizabeth Holtzman: Nice talking to you.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Judiciary Committee should move to impeach Bush and Cheney, by Elizabeth Holtzman, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Elizabeth Holtzman (Wikipedia)
The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens (Paperback) by Elizabeth Holtzman
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW