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Was it a High Crime?

by Daniel Meltzer

Two Campaigns Aim To Impeach Bush
The British Parliament is investigating charges that Prime Minister Tony Blair misled his nation by either deliberately or recklessly exaggerating alleged evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- specifically, by stating unequivocally that Saddam Hussein's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons could be launched on as little as 45 minutes notice.

American journalist Pete Hamill writes that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell should resign if it turns out he knew or even suspected the evidence he presented to the United Nations and the world in early March to support a pre-emptive war against Iraq was either false or unreliable. Mr. Hamill cites former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines as a leader who took ultimate responsibility for fraud committed on his watch, and honorably fell on his sword.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer stated repeatedly and unambiguously that the United States was in imminent danger from Mr. Hussein's lethal toys. Mr. Rumsfeld said he knew where they were.

President Bush, speaking gravely from the Oval Office, ominously when on the road, and at least once smiling confidently on a golf course, told us he had no doubt that Mr. Hussein had mustard gas, anthrax and nuclear weapons and intended to use them against Americans, that he was in cahoots with al-Qaida and that invasion and regime change in Baghdad were our only recourse.

Independent journalists and most foreign governments, including two of our closest allies, disputed these claims. One lone Democratic senator, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, inveighed tirelessly and eloquently against the rush to battle.

The question that must now be asked, as it needed to be asked back when it had become apparent that President Richard Nixon was implicated in the illegal cover-up of a burglary committed on his own behalf, is: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

Did Mr. Bush know there was at least a reasonable doubt about the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq? Did he knowingly lie to the American people when he said there wasn't? Law professor and former Nixon White House counsel John W. Dean III has written that such a deliberate deception would, under the Constitution, constitute a "high crime" and, as such, an impeachable offense.

Unless Iraqi WMD of significant quantity are found soon, or unless compelling evidence is presented to prove the president was deceived by his advisers, Mr. Bush, if we are the nation of laws we claim to be, would appear to be in serious trouble.

In his presidential oath, Mr. Bush swore to uphold the honor of his office. Lying to Congress to justify a war -- one that has to date killed nearly 200 Americans and thousands of Iraqi civilians, wounded many thousands more and jeopardized America's position as a force for peace and justice in the world -- would constitute a very high crime.

I was at ABC News during the Watergate era. Early in the investigation, veteran reporter and anchorman Howard K. Smith had a one-on-one prime-time interview with President Richard Nixon, what was called then a "special." The day after it aired, I overheard someone in the newsroom ask Mr. Smith why, in their exchange, he didn't get into the whole Watergate business with Mr. Nixon. Mr. Smith's reply, which I have never forgotten, was "Well, he is the president." (Emphasis Mr. Smith's).

Journalism is nothing if not a quest for the truth. Timidity has no place here. The Fourth Estate has played stenographer to the White House and the Pentagon long enough. Reporting is not just telling the public what the government tells you.

Shakespeare's Claudius may have been a strong king and committed to the defense of his country. But he had murdered his predecessor and then lied about it. There truly was "something rotten in the state of Denmark."

If President Bush launched a lethal war, one whose ultimate domestic and global consequences still cannot be foreseen, on the basis of evidence he either knew was false or about which he should have been judiciously skeptical, then in the words of Mr. Bush's own father, former President George H. W. Bush, "this cannot stand," and he should resign or be impeached.

Daniel Meltzer teaches journalism at New York University. A version of this essay appeared in the Baltimore Sun

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Albion Monitor July 1, 2003 (

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