WASHINGTON - The other day, I quoted some e-mails calling for the impeachment of President Bush on grounds he misrepresented or lied about an imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction to justify invading Iraq. Why, some other readers immediately asked, didn't I use the "I-word" myself?
An e-mailer from Los Angeles wrote: "You seem to be perfectly willing to use the word impeachment when you can attribute it to a reader. Why not go on record in your own words?"
Another asked: "Why not mention impeachment yourself in your articles? Start saying that Bush lied, allowed people to die and that his abuse of the Constitution equates to an impeachable offense."
My response is that I prefer to extend to President Bush the additional time he declined to give the U.N. inspectors to find those weapons of mass destruction before launching his pre-emptive war.
Rather than take the extreme step of articles of impeachment, what I believe is in order is a thorough congressional or, even better, independent inquiry into whether intelligence data were hyped or politicized by the administration to sell the invasion to Congress and the American people.
Judging from the squabble between congressional Republicans and Democrats over conducting an investigation in closed or open session, the outlook for that sort of even-handed review does not seem very encouraging.
On the Republican side, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, says his panel can handle the matter in secret: "I won't allow the committee to be politicized or to be used as an unwitting tool for any political strategist." But wouldn't the way to guard against that be to hold hearings in public? The House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Porter J. Goss of Florida, apparently is taking his own inquiry behind closed doors as well, as is Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, head of the Armed Services Committee.
Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence panel, and Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on Armed Services, have called for a special joint committee meeting both in public and private with full subpoena powers, but the Republicans have rejected the proposal.
What is an impeachable offense? In the case of former President Bill Clinton, Democrats argued that his personal misconduct did not rise to that level (though in my mind lying to a grand jury certainly did). In this case, it seems irrefutable that if a president knowingly led the country into war on the basis of faulty or hyped intelligence, such conduct would reach that level.
Practically speaking, Mr. Bush's popularity and stature as a wartime president make it unlikely right now that anybody in Congress would consider taking the drastic step of introducing articles of impeachment against him.
In January, a University of Illinois law professor, Francis A. Boyle, drafted articles and tried to sell them to Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, a critic of invading Iraq and ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. Mr. Conyers declined. So did Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, perhaps Congess' most militant antiwar member, who was revving up his bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Mr. Boyle says he and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, long prominent in war protests going back to Vietnam, are now leading "Impeach Bush" grass-roots campaigns that seem to be creating considerable Internet chatter, but not much else so far. "This is going to take some time," Mr. Boyle says. "It's not going to happen tomorrow." He says he's still trying to find a member of Congress to carry the ball, and expresses hope that the furor over missing WMD will help him.
In the meantime, the little corner of my own e-mail world indicates there is some modest support for the effort, though still countered by fervent and heated defenses of the president for initiating his war to save us from that imminent threat.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
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