5.16.2007 | A republic, if you can keep it

With the revelation yesterday that the president may have intervened directly to keep a domestic surveillance program going despite threats of resignation from two top administration officials – then-Attorney General John Ashcroft of the Justice Department and director Robert Mueller of the FBI – we now have a basis for impeachment, a sentiment echoed by constitutional scholar John Turley in the video below:

It's not just the high officials invovled; it's the fact that the president knew what he was doing when he ordered the program to continue, and that the law involved is so clear.

This isn't the first time that the executive branch has tried to make an end run around the law. We last saw this in the Iran-Contra scandal, when the defense then that allowed Reagan off the hook was ignorance. Supposedly, he had no knowledge of the illegal actions that were taking place, a strategy called "plausible deniability" (a far cry from "The buck stops here"). The testimony offered by the Bush administration's own former deputy attorney general yesterday dashes even that defense to bits.

Unlike other critics of the Bush administration (and some Republicans in the Clinton era), I don't take impeachment lightly, and I don't believe it should be used as a political tool. As much as I disagreed with the president's decision to go to war in Iraq, and as much as his administration bungled the occupation afterwards, I don't believe that being quick on the trigger or the monumental mismanagement of a war alone makes for an impeachable offense.

I do believe, though, that if Congress allows a program that exists outside the law to continue to exist without consequences for the administration and its officials, we have a template for future presidents to follow with impunity. I do not consider this a partisan issue; I consider it a patriotic issue. The rule of law is what distinguishes a democracy from a dictatorship, a republic from the reign of royalty. Our very system of government is at stake.

Benjamin Franklin, when asked what form of government the founders had come up with at the end of the constitutional convention, said, "A republic – if you can keep it." These are trying times, and our republican form of government needs defending now more than ever.

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