As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers has become the point man on three of the most contentious upcoming political battles: the fight over Bush's desire to make permanent the temporary FISA law rushed through Congress this summer; Congressional attempts to restore habeas corpus rights to military detainees; and the ongoing investigation into the politicization of the Justice Department -- especially the expected showdown over the White House's refusal to provide relevant documents, and possible contempt citations against Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten.
Given all this, I thought Conyers would be the perfect person to inaugurate our new Video Chat feature.
Connected by ooVoo's software, I sat down at my desk in Los Angeles, facing my latptop. Conyers sat down at his desk in his Congressional office in Washington -- and off we went. Before we launched into matters of state, the Congressman surprised me by noticing that I had a different (though, trust me, not that different) hairstyle than when we'd last seen each other in Washington in July, and he admonished me to stop cutting my hair. "I'm an old-fashioned guy; I like long hair," he said. Harriet Miers, take note.
Before you dive into the videos below, a little background:
Conyers' top priority is the ongoing investigation into the US Attorneys scandal, which has become emblematic of an imperial White House which considers congressional oversight and constitutionally mandated checks and balances even more quaint than the Geneva Conventions.
The White House's efforts to avoid accountability have been taken to darkly comedic heights. In refusing Conyers' latest request for documents in the Justice Dept probe, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski asserted: "We want to avoid any perception that the conduct of our criminal investigations and prosecutions is subject to political influence." And Phil Spector decided not to testify in his trial to avoid any perception that he might have shot Lana Clarkson in the face. Benczkowski clearly has no shame -- but he does have a future as a writer on The Daily Show if he wants one.
Before Congress recessed for the summer, Democratic leaders promised aggressive action on contempt citations for Bolten and Miers but, since their return, have slowed the process considerably -- running the risk of looking like they are all bark and no bite. Again. I asked Conyers about this, and also about whether Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales scurrying off to Texas -- and the lecture circuit -- will take the wind out of the sails of the investigation. As you'll see, Conyers was crystal clear that it won't.
On the FISA front, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell testified in front of Conyers' committee last week about the White House push to make permanent the new FISA warrantless wiretapping law. At the hearing, Conyers aggressively challenged McConnell on his late-to-the-dance support of the legislation, charging that the Director had succumbed to pressure from the White House when he reneged on compromise language that had been agreed on and instead pushed for the more intrusive bill that eventually passed.
McConnell, like many in the administration, has been very selective about what he considers privileged information -- and about what disinformation he is willing to put forth. McConnell has been roundly criticized in the blogosphere for having falsely claimed that the new FISA law was instrumental in the thwarting of a major terrorist plot in Germany. Only after Democrats and intelligence officials strenuously complained did he retract his bogus statement -- calling into serious question his future credibility.
Conyers also intends to hold future hearings as part of an ongoing attempt to restore habeas corpus rights to military detainees. Last week, a GOP filibuster quashed bipartisan legislation that would have restored those rights. A majority of the Senate voted to bring the measure to a final vote, 56-43, but the tally was four votes short of the 60 needed to end the filibuster.
Conyers is determined to rectify the Military Commissions Act of 2006, according to which habeas corpus rights have been suspended not just for a few hundred military detainees in Guantanamo, but also for an estimated 12 million permanent residents in the US -- people who work here, pay taxes, etc. but who, under the current law, can be detained without limits and without the ability to challenge their detention in court.
With the vital battle for hearts and minds around the world a key to our future safety, reversing the undermining of the principles our nation was founded on seems like a no-brainer. But, apparently, 43 members of the Senate don't see it that way. Conyers hopes his House hearings on the topic will help change the dynamic of the national discussion.
Enough set-up. Roll tape...
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