A Shining City on a Hill Can't Have Dungeons in Its Basements

It turns out that even the most paranoid among us were right to be
afraid of what George W. Bush's White House and Justice Department were
up to in the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

This week the Justice Department declassified and released two memos
and seven so-called legal opinions that, taken together, informed
President Bush that, as a wartime chief executive, he had unfettered
dictatorial powers.

We already knew that Bush dispensed with the Fourth Amendment,
suspended the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable
searches and seizures and ordered warrantless wiretapping and
surveillance of untold billions of e-mails and telephone calls to and
from American citizens.

But who knew that his political appointees in the White House counsel's
office and the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel were
telling him that he could also suspend the First Amendment in a nation
that was founded on guarantees of freedom of freedom of speech and of
the press?

The Republican legal vultures - John Yoo, Jay Bybee
and Steven Bradbury - told the panicked cowboy president that he could
do anything he chose, anyway he saw fit, and not only was it legal, it
also wasn't subject to any congressional or judicial oversight.

In other words, the United States of America - the home of the free -
was for a time on the brink of falling into the hands of a dictatorship.

The Bush administration authorized the detention without charges or
trial of American citizens _ a de facto suspension of the right of
habeas corpus.

It authorized a massive program of intercepting
and sifting through phone calls and e-mails and financial transactions
and other records in search of terrorists and their agents.

authorized the detention, torture, other extreme methods of
interrogation and extraordinary rendition - the practice of shipping
detainees off to their home countries where we knew they'd be tortured
by the local authorities - of "suspected enemy combatants." Many of
them, my colleague Tom Lasseter revealed last year, were low-level
Taliban grunts or were innocents turned in by tribal rivals or for cash

In short, former President Bush and his agents violated
any number of federal and international laws and trampled the
Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights with only the
fig leaves of bogus legal opinions to cover themselves.

They also
had at their fingertips legal clearance to go another half-step and gut
democracy, censor the media and fill detention camps with as many
Americans as they deemed necessary in the name of national security.

of the worst of these legal opinions were withdrawn in a few years, and
in a blatant effort to cover some asses the Justice Department in
October 2008 and again on January 19, 2009, withdrew the rest of them.

courts had slapped down the Bush administration in several key cases,
and it had become clear as their days dwindled down to a happy few that
their house of cards was collapsing.

I don't for one minute
believe that the release of these documents by the new Justice
Department represents anything more than the tip of a massive iceberg
of illegality in the name of national security during the Bush years.

they do add up to a compelling argument in favor of a thorough
investigation of George Bush's closet full of horrors by prosecutors
and by a congressional Truth Commission.

In spite of what the
former president's lawyerly handmaidens told him, in the United States
no one is above the law. Not even a wartime president.

scholars of every political persuasion were shocked by the shoddy work
of a Justice Department that first was neutered, and then turned into
an arm of the White House political operatives.

President Barack
Obama has signaled that he wants to remain above this fray and stay
focused on the main task at hand - the melting economy he inherited six
weeks ago - and that's well and good.

But his new attorney
general, Eric Holder, and our representatives on Capitol Hill must
pursue the truth with great vigor and without fear or favor. Those who
took this proud nation to the brink of dictatorship must answer for
that, and if they violated our Constitution, our laws and international
law, then they must be brought to justice.

We cannot be the
shining city on the hill if our gleaming buildings have dungeons and
torture chambers in their basements. We cannot be a beacon of hope in a
chaotic world if our hands are bloody and our ears still ring with the
screams of helpless prisoners.

It's time to get to work cleaning
up those dark corners in the White House and the Justice Department and
all the other departments that had a hand in George W. Bush's excellent

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