(update below - updated again)
The Washington Post Editorial page has been one of the most establishment-defending organs over the last six years, repeatedly minimizing or dismissing criticisms of the Bush administration and reserving its vigor primarily for attacking Bush critics (and for supporting the Iraq war). That's what makes its Editorial this morning regarding James Comey's testimony -- entitled "The Gonzales Coverup" -- so striking, and potentially indicative of a compelled acknowledgement by the Beltway class of how serious the NSA scandal is and how serious it has been all along.
The Editorial begins with this question and answer:
Why is it only now that the disturbing story of the Bush administration's willingness to override the legal advice of its own Justice Department is emerging? The chief reason is that the administration, in the person of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, stonewalled congressional inquiries and did its best to ensure that the shameful episode never came to light.
The Editorial is referring to the series of steps Gonzales took back in February of last year -- which I documented here -- whereby Gonzales, along with other DOJ officials, successfully blocked Ashcroft and Comey from testifying about the DOJ internal rebellion by falsely insisting they had nothing to add.
And that's all true enough. As has been the case repeatedly over the last six years, the administration issued false denials of wrongdoing and then expected/demanded we place blind faith in those assurances and thereby accept that there was no need to investigate further or compel disclosure of their conduct. After all, the administration itself has assured us that there was no wrongdoing here, that there were safeguards in place, etc. etc.
But the equally significant answer to Hiatt's question -- "why is it only now that the disturbing story of the Bush administration's willingness to override the legal advice of its own Justice Department is emerging?" -- is that the Beltway establishment, led by the likes of Hiatt, decided that the President's lawbreaking was really nothing to be too bothered by, that those who objected to it were shrill and hysterical, and they found justification, or at least sufficient mitigation, to look the other way and acquiesce to the notion that the Bush administration could break the law at will and that there ought to be no real consequences arising from that behavior.
For Hiatt to now act all bewildered and ask "why is it only now" that we are learning of this misconduct is disingenuous in the extreme, given that so much of the cause for that is found in the behavior of the Fred Hiatts of the world. Perhaps, though, the Comey revelations are so extreme that the Beltway establishment can no longer pretend that there is a normal state of affairs with regard to how our government is operating. Consider the uncharacteristically inflammatory rhetoric which Hiatt then proceeds to spout:
If you were Mr. Gonzales, you'd certainly want to make sure they stayed quiet. . . . Mr. Gonzales's lack of candor is no longer surprising. . . .
What was the administration doing, and what was it willing to continue to do, that its lawyers concluded was without a legal basis? Without an answer to that fundamental question, the coverup will have succeeded.
To say that Alberto Gonzales' "lack of candor is no longer surprising" is to say that the Attorney General of the United States is a serial liar. Is that a state of affairs that we can just passively accept, leaving it up to George Bush to decide whether he will remove his most loyal follower as the country's chief law enforcement officer? If Bush decides (as he almost certainly will, for many reasons) to keep Gonzales, then do we just meekly accept the fact that we have an Attorney General who lies continuously -- not even with noble intentions, but merely to conceal his own wrongdoing and illegality and that of the President's?
And Hiatt's demand that we learn "what the administration was doing" prior to Ashcroft and Comey's intervention -- and his statement that, unless we find out, "the cover up will have succeeded" -- by itself compels a full-scale confrontation with the administration on these issues. How can Hiatt, having finally acknowledged how profound a lawbreaking crisis this is, do anything other than relentlessly demand all-out efforts to compel the administration finally to disclose what happened here?
As former OLC official Marty Lederman noted last night, John Ashcroft and James Comey are both Republican ideologues who proved that they were willing to endorse and defend even the most radical (and illegal) behavior (including the lawless detention of Jose Padilla and the administration's "refashioned" -- though still illegal -- warrantless eavesdropping program). If they were insisting that the conduct of the Bush administration was not only illegal, but so illegal that they were ready to resign en masse over it, then, as Lederman asks: "can you even imagine how bad it must have been?"
There is just no excuse left for allowing the administration to keep this behavior concealed from the country. What James Comey described on Tuesday is the behavior of a government completely unmoored from any constraints of law, operating only by the rules of thuggery, intimidation, and pure lawlessness. Even for the most establishment-defending organs, there are now indisputably clear facts suggesting that the scope and breadth and brazenness of the lawbreaking here is far beyond even what was known previously, and it occurred at the highest levels of the Bush administration.
We are so plainly beyond the point of no return with this criminality. It is now inescapably evident even for those who struggled for so long to avoid acknowledging it. Here is one of the most establishment-friendly voices of the Bush administration proclaiming the Attorney General of the United States to be a chronic liar and accusing the Bush administration -- as part of events in which the President was deeply and personally involved -- of engaging in deliberate cover-up of blatant lawbreaking.
So what comes next? Hiatt doesn't really say. He calls for investigations, but the administration has demonstrated that it will, to use Hiatt's word, "stonewall" those investigations, rely upon precarious invocations of privileges to prevent disclosure of key facts, conceal or "lose" evidence if necessary, ignore subpoenas, and reflexively lie about what it did.
James Comey's testimony amounts to a statement that -- even according to the administration's own loyal DOJ officials -- the President ordered still-unknown spying on Americans, and engaged in that spying for a full two-and-a-half-years, that was so blatantly and shockingly illegal that they were all ready to resign over it. And the President's Attorney General then lied to ensure that this episode remain concealed. Mere one-day calls for a Congressional investigation are woefully inadequate here.
There is clear and definitive evidence of deliberate lawbreaking. In addition to Congressional investigations, there is simply no excuse for anything other than the immediate commencement of a criminal investigation by a Special Prosecutor. And the administration ought to be pressured every day to account for what it did here. This is not a one-day or one-week fleeting scandal. These revelations amount to the most transparent and deliberate crimes -- felonies -- by our top government officials, not with regard to private and personal matters but with regard to how our government spies on us.
Hiatt-like protests are welcome (even if inexcusably belated), but they must be accompanied by genuine and relentless demands for follow-up and accountability otherwise they will amount to nothing more than inconsequential rhetoric. The Attorney General lied continuously, and the administration concealed pervasive criminality at the highest levels of our government. Even Fred Hiatt says so. So now what?
UPDATE: Behold the royal hubris from the President's press conference today. Bush categorically refuses to answer questions about whether he sent Card and Gonzales to obtain Ashcroft's authorization for his illegal eavesdropping while Ashcroft was in intensive care. The reason, of course, is because the Terrorists are out there and are scary and want to kill us. Therefore, Bush does not have to answer questions about what he did.
These are the type of facially absurd and democracy-subverting shenanigans to which we have been subjected for the last six years. They will continue unless and until the press, the Democrats in Congress and/or Americans generally decide that they will no longer tolerate it.
UPDATE II: Tonight at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, I'll be on Open Source with Christopher Lydon -- along with Bruce Fein, Laurence Tribe and perhaps one other person -- to discuss the issues arising from the Comey testimony. Details about the program are here, and it can be heard here. Local listings are here. There will also be a podcast uploaded that can be listened to any time after the program.