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William Rivers Pitt: Conyers Report - An Interview

The Conyers Report - An Interview

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 17 August 2006

When Ned Lamont defeated Joseph Lieberman in the Connecticut primary last week, the prattling mass of GOP talking heads cried with one voice: the vote was evidence that the "Loony Left" had taken over the Democratic Party. It was a good talking point, and empty vessels like MSNBC's Chris Matthews happily ran with it for a while. Sadly for the Republicans, reality decided to intrude. Poll numbers came out which established that opposition to the Iraq occupation is now the majority position of the American people. The so-called Loony Left hadn't taken over the party. Instead, they had managed to convince the moderate middle that the war was just plain wrong.

Before the ink was dry on the Lamont stories, along came the bombshell: a roomful of terrorists were arrested in Britain for conspiring to blow nine commercial airliners out of the sky. Once again, the right-wing echo chamber ramped up. This is why we need to stay the course in Iraq, they said. This is why we are there. Again, however, these talking points jumped the tracks. The American occupation of Iraq is not curbing terrorism, but is instead inspiring it.

Just after noon on Thursday, August 17th, a report was broadcast stating that a Federal District Court in Detroit had ruled that the Bush administration's use of the NSA to spy on American citizens was unconstitutional. Judge Anna Diggs opinion on the ruling read, "In this case, the President has acted, undisputedly, as FISA forbids. FISA is the expressed statutory policy of our Congress. The presidential power, therefore, was exercised at its lowest ebb and cannot be sustained."

A lot of different threads to tie together here, to be sure. Thankfully, Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has managed to do so in historic fashion. He has released a 350-page report titled "The Constitution in Crisis; The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Coverups in the Iraq War, and Illegal Domestic Surveillance."

Within the pages of this report lies the hard, ugly truth of our sorry situation. The lies that led us into Iraq, the horrors of torture at Abu Ghraib, the unrelenting attacks against critics, and the frightening desiccation of Constitutional protections are described in scathing detail.

"The single overriding characteristic running through all of the allegations of misconduct identified in our Report," reads the conclusion, "has been the unwillingness of the Bush Administration to allow its actions to be subject to any form of meaningful outside review. Not only were 122 Members of Congress unable to obtain any response to their questions posed regarding the Downing Street Minutes, but neither the House nor the Senate has ever engaged in any serious review of the facts surrounding the NSA domestic spying programs. The institutional damage resulting from such constitutional neglect will likely be felt for many years, if not generations. The lesson of this Report is that if we allow intelligence, military and law enforcement to do their work free of political interference, if we give them requisite resources and modern technologies, if we allow them to 'connect the dots' in a straight frward and non-partisan manner, we can protect our citizens. We all want to fight terrorism, but we need to fight it the right way, consistent with our Constitution, and in a manner that serves as a model for the rest of the world."

Rep. Conyers was kind enough to grant an interview regarding his report, the substance of which is as follows.

William Rivers Pitt: The scope and detail of this report is staggering. How long did it take to compile all the data before you reached your conclusions? How many people worked on its preparation?

John Conyers: We started work on the Constitution in Crisis immediately after the basement hearing we had on the Downing Street Minutes back in June of last year. My Judiciary Committee Staff spent six months on a preliminary version of this report that we released in December. But, as things tend to develop here in Washington, we kept finding new abuses, and with the warrantless wiretapping we had plenty of new ground to cover. So our release this August represents more than a year's work.

William Rivers Pitt: If you had to sum up the essence of this report in a few sentences, what would you say?

John Conyers: We have found that there is substantial evidence the President, the Vice-President and other high ranking members of the Bush administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq; misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for such war; countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Iraq; permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of their administration; and approved domestic surveillance that is both illegal and unconstitutional. We also have found there has been no independent review of the circumstances surrounding the Bush administration's domestic spying scandals.

William Rivers Pitt: What do you hope the impact of this report will be?

John Conyers: I wanted to publish this report to make sure that everyone was aware of all the facts that we had compiled. The last 6 years have witnessed a crippling diminution in the power of Congress. I hope this report will serve as an important step toward restoring the balance of powers that are the basis of our Constitution and American democracy as a whole.

William Rivers Pitt: The 9/11 Commission released their report in book form. Are there any plans to do the same with this report?

John Conyers: I understand Chicago Academy Publishers will be putting this volume to print in September, along with a foreword by Ambassador Joseph Wilson.

William Rivers Pitt: What do you feel is the most damning aspect of this report?

John Conyers: The failure of the GOP Congress to conduct any meaningful oversight of the many documented allegations of abuse by the administration.

William Rivers Pitt: As much as the Bush administration can be faulted for this Iraq mess and the domestic spying scandal, much of the onus would seem to fall upon the shoulders of Congress. Why do you think the Republican majority has been so willing to abandon its Constitutional responsibilities, and what can be done to reverse this trend?

John Conyers: This is an administration that thrives on secrecy, and has convinced the Republicans in Congress that their political viability depends on merely serving as cheerleaders and rubberstamps for the administration, even when they are demonstrably wrong. That is the message they are hearing from Karl Rove. When Democrats were in control, both Republican and Democratic Presidents knew they would be held accountable for misconduct. A subpoena from John Dingell or Jack Brooks meant something - it served as a check on power. That is unheard of today. I think the trend can only be reversed by a change in control of Congress.

William Rivers Pitt: In light of the information provided in this report, how crucial are the upcoming midterm elections?

John Conyers: The upcoming elections couldn't be more important. If we want to have real government - as our founding fathers envisaged - a Congress with a Constitutional system of checks and balances holding the administration accountable, then now is the time we need to take back control of Congress.

William Rivers Pitt: If the Democrats should re-take the House in November, you will in all likelihood become Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. If this does happen, do you plan on calling hearings regarding the information contained in this report?

John Conyers: I don't want to be presumptuous as to who the Democratic Caucus would select to chair the Judiciary Committee, or lose sight of what should be the prevailing interest of anyone seriously upset by the contents of this report. We need to win back the House of Representatives, plain and simple.

William Rivers Pitt: One gets the sense, after reading this report, that the damage done to the Constitution and the separation of powers by this administration and a complicit Congress may be irreparable. Do you agree? If not, what steps must be taken to undo all that has been done?

John Conyers: You start with oversight and a sense of institutional and Constitutional responsibility. We need to change the present mindset - for too long the Bush administration has seen Congress as an institution that would not stand up for its own prerogatives or independently represent the American people. I think we can come back from the brink, but we need a new Congressional majority to do so.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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