Lying to Congress has become a Republican principle, literally

The history of Republican officials lying to Congress is now lengthy and continuous because they view it as a form of legitimate executive power.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

Revelations about White House involvement in the firing of the U.S. Attorneys means that the testimony of top Justice Department officials to Congress was fundamentally false. And everyone knows that now. As The Washington Post reports:

Administration officials say they are braced for a new round of criticism today from lawmakers who may feel misled by recent testimony from Gonzales, Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty and William E. Moschella, principal associate deputy attorney general. Several Democrats have called in recent days for Gonzales to resign.

Lying to Congress is what this administration generally — and the DOJ specifically — has done continuously. They lied to Congress about the FBI’s use of NSLs in order to induce re-authorization of the Patriot Act, and — now that those lies are exposed — they are now forced to retract those statements and change their false testimony made under oath. Alberto Gonzales made repeated false statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the state of the President’s eavesdropping activities, some of which he had to retract and some of which he still has not. And, of course, the false statements made over the years to the Congress by the administration regarding Iraq are literally too numerous to chronicle.

None of these acts occur in isolation. They are all part of the broader view of the Bush administration that the President’s power cannot be constrained by the law or by the Congress. They believe they have the right to lie to Congress about their behavior, even though lying to Congress is, as Atrios noted today, a felony.



It’s so vital to note that this Republican belief in the right to lie to Congress has deep roots back in the Reagan administration and, even before that, in the Nixon administration. I recommended this once before but I really urge you to watch this 1987 PBS documentary by Bill Moyers called The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis. There are multiple clips from the Iran-Contra scandal and the serial, proud lying to Congress and the American people in which top Reagan officials engaged.

Oliver North became a beloved hero among Republicans because of how proudly he admitted to misleading the Congress. The North footage is just striking. It begins at 5:20 of the video, and it is really worth watching because his boastful tone cannot be conveyed by the transcript, but this an exchange North had with House counsel John Nields that made North a superstar among the Republican faithful:

NORTH: I will tell you right now, counsel, and to all the members here gathered, that I misled the Congress.

NIELDS: At that meeting?

NORTH: At that meeting.

NIELDS: Face to face?

NORTH: Face to face.

NIELDS: You made false statements to them about your activites in support of the Contras?

NORTH: I did.

North then goes on to “justify” why lying to Congress was the patriotic thing to do. Days later, North’s loyal secretary, Fawn Hall, described the prevailing ethos at the Reagan National Security Council this way: “Sometimes you have to go above the written law.”

All of that lying began with President Reagan himself, who, exactly at the time when the U.S was defying its own embargo on Iran by offering weapons to the Ayatollah Kholmeni in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages, was beating his chest with tough-sounding — and totally false — proclamations like this: “Let me further make it plain to the assassins in Beirut and their accomplices wherever they may be, that the U.S. will never make concessions to terrorists.”

In November, 1986, Reagan went on national television and issued this flat-out and totally false denial:

The charge has been made that the U.S. has shipped weapons to Iran as ransom payment for the release of American hostages in Lebanaon — that the U.S. undercut its allies and secretly violated American policy against trafficking with terrorists. Those charges are utterly false.

Reagan officials Eliot Abrams and John Poindexter were both convicted of charges arising out of their lying to Congress, and both were given highly sensitive jobs in the Bush administration, where Abrams remains today. Obviously, not only is lying to Congress not considered a disqualifying flaw by the Bush administration, it is considered a virtue, an exercise of a legitimate right on the part of the President. The heroes of the Republican movement in the 1980s were heroes not despite their lying to Congress, but because of it. It’s considered heroic and noble.

Of course, the reason that lying to Congress is a felony is because Congress is composed of the representatives of the American people, and when executive branch officials lie to Congress, they are lying to the country. They subvert the entire constitutional order by preventing the American people from exercising overisight over the executive branch through their representatives in Congress, and it turns the President into an unchecked, unaccountable ruler. That is precisely why lying to Congress is considered to be virtuous and an entitlement by this administration and the movement which spawned it (the truly bizarre demands for Lewis Libby’s pardon further reflect not merely an indifference, but this same admiration, for those who lie in pursuit of The Right-Wing Cause).

Illegal behavior — in the form of, among other things, continuous and deliberate deceit of the Congress — is pervasive at the highest levels of the Bush Justice Department and it has plainly become a central part of the Republican ethos. It’s become a plank in their ideology, literally. Is it really necessary even to make the case as to why we cannot allow that, and must begin — now — enforcing the law and imposing consequences for this rampant law-breaking?

UPDATE: Kudos to Jay Carney of Time for acknowledging his error in judgment in being dismissive of this story, and giving credit to Josh Marhsall and others in the blogosphere who kept pushing it. Says Carney: “The blogosphere was the engine on this story, pulling the Hill and the MSM along. As the document dump proves, what happened was much worse than I’d first thought. I was wrong. Very nice work, and thanks for holding my feet to the fire.”

That’s a pretty significant acknowledgment from Time‘s Washington Bureau Chief. Like with anything else, the more interaction there is with bloggers, the more difficult the caricatures will be to sustain.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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