The press release announcing the January 20 hearing was sent out by Conyers’ office on January 18, 2006, and featured the headline, "Conyers and Others To Hold Democratic Hearing On Domestic Spying Program." In the release, Conyers wrote, "…last month all 17 House Judiciary Democrats called on Chairman Sensenbrenner to convene hearings to investigate the President’s use of the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance involving US citizens on US soil, in apparent contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As our request has since been ignored, it is our job, as Members of Congress, to review the program and consider whether our criminal laws have been violated and our citizens’ constitutional rights trampled upon. We simply cannot tolerate a situation where the Administration is operating as prosecutor, judge and jury and excluding Congress and the courts from providing any meaningful check or balance to the process."
Presiding over the hearings along with Conyers were Representatives Bobby Scott, Chris Van Hollen, Adam Schiff, Maxine Waters, Jerrold Nadler and Maurice Hinchey. The remarkable line-up of witnesses included Bruce Fein, who served as Associate Deputy Attorney General under the Reagan administration, Professor Jonathan Turley of George Washington Law School, Richard Hersh director of The Truth Project (truthproject.org), James Bamford, researcher and author of two best-selling books on the National Security Agency, Caroline Frederickson, Washington Legislative Director of the ACLU and Kate Martin, Director of the Center for National Security Studies.
Witness testimony was nothing short of stunning. One after the other, each testified eloquently and definitively about the egregious nature of the president’s violation of the Constitution (he is sworn to protect) and the criminal nature of the Bush Administrations’ unprecedented disregard for the rule of law. The hearing began with a statement from Conyers, wherein he noted, "There can be little doubt that we are in a constitutional crisis that threatens the system of checks and balances that have [heretofore] preserved our fundamental freedoms…there is no better illustration of that crisis than the fact that the president…is violating our nation’s laws by authorizing the NSA to engage in warrantless surveillance of US citizens…"
Conyers’ statement was followed by those of other representatives including that of Rep Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). Looking tired, discouraged and a little disheveled, Nadler’s words articulated the essence of the three hour hearing. The Administrations’ conduct, he said, amounted to "a criminal conspiracy by the president, vice-president [and others]…we need a special prosecutor for that reason…" The president’s arguments, "are not even debatable…they’re frivolous…he is claiming absolute power that no one in American history has ever claimed…that the president [admits to this] is unprecedented…"
The remainder of the hearing was equally profound. Testimony was, in fact, breathtaking in both gravity and scope. From academics to political veterans like Ronald Reagan’s Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Fein to peace activist Richard Hersh, who testified that he didn’t think his group qualified as "terrorists" when they met at a member’s home to discuss military recruitment in schools, the testimony was chilling. The hearings left little doubt as to the historical depths this country has reached under the Bush Administration. There was no gloating here, only outrage, disbelief and a palpable sense of sadness.
Jonathan Turley, a Law School Professor at the prestigious George Washington Law School reminded those present that, "the infamous torture memo…asserted that imposing limitations would be unconstitutional…devoid of any limiting principal…" and would inevitably lead to what Turley called a "maximum leader." He noted that President Bush "already stated quite clearly that he believes he can violate federal law.
"That," he said, "for our system, is the equivalent of a declaration of war on the separation of powers. The framers [of the constitution] designed a unique system that was supposed to ensure that no one branch of government can govern alone…[the president’s actions are] in direct contradiction of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA]." With a trembling voice, Turley then declared, "What the president ordered in this case was a crime…federal law makes it clear…[it is an] alarming circumstance when the president can announce that he has violated a federal principal 30 times and will continue to do so unless and until someone stops him…[FISA] is the most user-friendly law any president has ever been given. That the president can violate the fourth amendment is "the most dangerous claim of all," Turley warned. "It’s a duty for congress to protect the legacy they have been given…what’s at stake is a president who has committed crime under the pretext of legality…saying that he has that authority…it’s now up to us, we are called to account to do something and not to remain silent."
A hearing of such historical significance would surely have been considered newsworthy at any other time in US history – and in any other country. But these are strange times indeed. While the January 20 hearing was covered extensively by the international press, here in the US the story didn’t even make the playlist. Were it not for C-SPAN – which aired the Conyers hearing live that Friday morning – there would have been no television coverage at all. Not on cable, not on the networks, not that day, not even that evening.
That same day, Bush strategist Karl Rove – all but cloistered since the Valerie Plame (CIA) incident – was dusted off and trotted out to give a pep talk to fellow Republicans at their annual Republican National Committee’s (RNC) meeting to defend the warrantless domestic surveillance program, saying it was "in our national security interest."
The following weekend, Sunday talk show hosts were fired up – but not over the hearings. Instead, NBC’s Tim Russert, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, ABC’s George Stepanopolous, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and the rest were all aflutter over the Bin Laden tape, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s ‘chocolate city’ remarks and Hillary ("you know what I mean") Clinton’s now infamous congressional plantation analogy. That Monday, the president appeared in an internationally-aired press conference to announce to the world that, " the spying should be termed a "terrorist surveillance program" and insisting that he has the backing of legal experts, key lawmakers and the Supreme Court.
So it is that a critical moment in American History, like the proverbial tree in the forest, just wasn’t heard. While the Conyers’ hearings remained in the basement, airwaves were spammed with a dazzling array of Bush apologists, including Bush henchman Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who shamelessly upheld the president’s specious legal defense. That defense was repeated throughout the day and well into the next – no questions asked.
But the unearned deference and cowardly complicity of the mainstream media to a criminal Administration should come as no surprise. After all, this is the same media that has failed all along to hold the president accountable to the the rule of law. This administrations’ behavior has been entirely consistent throughout its tenure and it has never been properly held to account. The domestic surveillance of unsuspecting citizens is the Bush Administration’s coup de gras in a pattern of behavior that began at its inception. From its appointment by the Supreme Court, to its contemptuous discounting of any other ruling body that doesn’t suit its agenda including the United Nations, "Old Europe," Congress, US citizens, prisoners abroad and finally the US Constitution, a clear and present pattern has been well established.
When, in December of last year, after the warrantless spying disclosures were revealed by the NY Times, the Republican-controlled Senate and the Justice Department announced that rather than investigate blatant violations of the Constitution by a US president, they would instead open a criminal investigation into the disclosures of those violations, it barely made the mainstream media’s radar screen. It was, in fact, treated as a reasonable response. That transparent attempt by the administration to make the disclosures of NSA spying the Real Issue continues to this day.
Representative John Conyers is a nineteen-term Congressman who has led a host of challenges against the White House from Ohio election fraud to the Downing Street Memo. He has spoken eloquently about the critical nature of the struggle to maintain our democracy. He has challenged not only the Administration, but his own party, to uphold principles of peace, rule of law, civil liberties and economic and political justice. Conyers further deserves credit for introducing House Resolution 635, which calls for establishment of a select committee with subpoena authority to investigate possible impeachable offenses with regard to the Iraq war and has demanded that "official bipartisan hearings" be conducted on the president’s domestic surveillance program.
But he doesn’t make the news very often.
Having bought into the current media spin that "activism" is out, "coolness" is in and "freedom" applies only to those with the capital to engage in the spoils of war, US citizens might just be getting exactly what they paid for. With Justice Samuel Alito sitting on the Supreme Court bench, even that heretofore sacrosanct national treasure, the US Constitution, is likely doomed to irrelevancy.
But that may not be newsworthy either.
Sandy Leon Vest is a renewable energy activist and journalist and editor of the Stinson Solar Times. She freelances for progressive publications including TowardFreedom.com, the SF IndyMedia and the Coastal Post in her home town in Marin County. Her work has been distributed nationally and internationally through the National Radio Project in Oakland and she has produced news and public affairs programming for public and community radio, including KPFA, in Berkeley, KPFK in Los Angeles and KWMR in Marin County.