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New Watergate Soaks White House

by Carolyn Eisenberg, Co-Founder of Brooklyn for Peace
Contact info: hiscze@aol.com | 347–743–8401.

As alarming evidence of the Bush administration's mendacity began to surface this summer, there came an odd voice from the past. In a public television documentary marking the 30th anniversary of the Senate Watergate hearings, President Richard Nixon's White House operative Jeb Stuart Magruder confessed to hearing Nixon order the break-in of the Democratic headquarters.

Few Americans under the age of 50 will recognize his name. But in the distant summer of 1973, millions of people were glued to their TV sets, watching Magruder and his colleagues testify before Congress. Would these Nixon stalwarts incriminate their boss? And would they answer the riveting question: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Today's Congress is avoiding this kind of tough inquiry. Two weeks ago the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee issued an interim report citing the "dearth" of hard data underpinning the National Intelligence Estimate, which was used to justify the war on Iraq. They evaded the more fundamental question of whether members of the Bush administration engaged in fraud. So far congressional Republicans have blocked a full-scale investigation, while the Democrats are quiescent.

As presidents, the famously proactive Nixon and the notoriously inattentive Bush have little in common. Nevertheless, the Watergate experience has particular relevance to our present condition. Though sometimes forgotten, the cluster of crimes and misdeeds associated with the White House "plumbers" unit was the outgrowth of a rancorous dispute inside the administration over U.S. intervention abroad.

Nixon's transgressions originated in the Vietnam War. Once he decided to begin withdrawing troops, an American defeat was inevitable. Yet he and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger obsessively pursued victory, generating bitter conflict with career officials inside the Departments of State, Defense and the CIA, who objected to squandering more money and American lives for a doomed enterprise.

Viewing this dissent as "disloyalty," Nixon and Kissinger developed the habit of breaching normal governmental procedures: wire-tapping their own subordinates, doctoring classified documents, deceiving cabinet members and violating the military chain of command. Eventually their preoccupation with "leaks" produced the plumbers and precipitated the chain of events that led to the Watergate burglary.

In the George W. Bush administration, the usurpation of power has been carried out by a small group of neo-conservative political appointees, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Wanting a war with Iraq for their own reasons, they recast their mission as a response to terrorism. By positing a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein and circulating hair-raising claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, they prodded a frightened nation into war. Among those trampled in the stampede were the experts inside the national security bureaucracies whose information did not sustain the desired conclusions. The retaliation against former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, by naming his CIA-employed wife, is part of this pattern.

It took four years before Nixon and Kissinger abandoned their incoherent Vietnam strategy. By then almost 20,000 more American soldiers were dead, many times that number were wounded in body and spirit, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had perished. Will Congress allow the Bush administration to duplicate their willful blindness, when the outlines of our current disaster are already clear?

It is the same disdain for inconvenient facts, which characterized the Cheney-Rumsfeld drive to war, that currently underpins the failure of the occupation. Having marginalized their own Middle East specialists and those military people who had experience of nation-building, they indulged a fantasy of a euphoric liberation. For that illusion our youngsters in uniform are dying almost every day. Before their suffering and that of Iraqi civilians overwhelms our nation, Congress should do its job. Its first responsibility is to illuminate the process by which our public was gulled into an invasion. For that purpose, it needs to obtain the testimony of the career officers in the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. These people have an important story to tell, and a vigilant Congress should elicit their sworn statements, swiftly and publicly.

The new euphemism is that Bush officials made "selective use" of intelligence. Perhaps this is so. An open investigation can clarify whether "selective use" became lies and if exaggerations became deliberate deception. Until that inquiry takes place and the culpable officials are removed, it would be a grave error to hand the administration an additional $87 billion for its ill-conceived project.

If Jeb Magruder is telling the truth, we can finally put to rest the old Watergate mystery: "What did the president know and when did he know it?" As for Bush, the public has a right to learn whether he participated in a hoax or was simply the first dupe.

That can help us determine whether he should be impeached or simply retired at the next election. In either case, it is time for Congress to step up to its constitutional responsibility.

Carolyn Eisenberg is a professor of history at Hofstra University and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Drawing the Line: The American Decision to Divide Germany.