Things change fast, when they finally do. For more than two years, the daily reports of American casualties and car bombs in Iraq, questions about how the White House had led the country into the Iraq War, and the torture memos and “extraordinary renditions” -- with their subterranean narrative of an almost wholly undebated U.S. policy to commit torture -- had bounced off the Teflon presidency of George W. Bush. The media had decided after September 11 that Bush was America's Churchill. That was the story line -- and for endless and maddening months, there was no dislodging it.
But then, ushered in by a hurricane, all of these events -- individually almost weightless -- accrued into something with political heft, critical mass. And they did so suddenly: When future historians chronicle the fall of the Bush presidency, they'll point to a single week in late October and early November when the Bush White House's reputation for competence in national-security matters was punctured, its chokehold on Congress was brought to a crashing low, and a torrent of questions about the means by which the White House took the country into war in Iraq gained new urgency.
It began on Tuesday, October 25, the day a terrible threshold was passed as the 2,000th U.S. soldier was killed in Iraq. Three days later, after weeks of anticipation, the grand jury convened by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald handed down an indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's powerful chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, on five counts of obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements related to Libby's alleged efforts to cover up his role in outing a CIA officer to the media in retaliation for her husband's criticisms of the intelligence rationale by which the Bush administration took the country to war. And then, four days after the Libby indictment, on November 1 -- one day shy of the first anniversary of the election that delivered Bush and Cheney a second term and increased the Republican majority in Congress -- the Democrats shut down the Senate, taking the chamber into closed session to demand the release of a long-stalled Senate Intelligence Committee probe into policy-makers' use of pre–Iraq War intelligence.
By mid-November, Bush was below 40-percent approval in every poll. In one survey, 58 percent of respondents questioned his integrity -- not his job performance, his personal integrity. Almost overnight, Churchill morphed into Nixon. And while the Bush presidency still has three more years, the “9-11 presidency” -- the way in which the administration has used the threat of terrorism to advance its aims and bully its opponents -- is definitely over. Bush will never be Churchill again.
The details of the demise -- the gruesome milestone, the indictment, the Senate Democrats' action -- are dramatic enough, given the stranglehold the administration has had on Washington since September 11. But the larger narrative is even more striking, and it shows much more emphatically that something profound has happened in Washington in these recent weeks.
It's a commonplace now that the Bush administration has sought constantly to consolidate its political power and crush dissent. It has done this not solely through rhetoric. It has achieved those ends through systemic abuse and misuse of the institutions of government. Devices and safeguards built into our system of government for the precise purpose of seeing to it that the White House -- any White House -- could not operate unchecked have been perverted, circumvented, and ignored. Divisions and departments that exist to provide independent analyses have been disregarded, and employees who tried to carry out their responsibilities were threatened with their jobs. (Remember Medicare actuary Richard Foster, who was told he'd be fired if he revealed the true cost of the 2003 Medicare bill?) The Department of Justice -- by design, the one executive department that is supposed to monitor the administration -- became just one more political outpost under John Ashcroft, with his ever-so-timely announcements of new terrorist arrests (arrests rarely followed up with successful prosecutions). And most of all, Congress itself -- the greatest constitutional check on the executive we have -- became, under Republican control, just one more yes-man, holding almost no oversight hearings and initiating no fights at all with the administration (except over amounts of pork).
For the first four and three-quarters years, Bush bit Washington, and Washington yelped and slunk into the corner. But now Washington is finally biting back. The institutions that Bush pushed and pushed to the breaking point are snapping back to their normal state. The Department of Justice, whatever its other shortcomings, finally operated on this one matter as it is meant to, as it did under Bill Clinton and George Bush Senior and Ronald Reagan: An independent investigation launched from its offices -- Fitzgerald was appointed to the CIA–leak case by Deputy Attorney General James Comey after Ashcroft recused himself -- has checked potential wrongdoing by the White House. That Fitzgerald's probe was above reproach, unlike another certain recent special prosecutor's -- no overreach, no leaks, no final report with all the gory details, no unctuous testimony before Congress -- added mightily to the gravity of the charges against Libby.
Fitzgerald dropped a bomb on Washington. But, at least to observers who'd become inured to Democratic timidity, Minority Leader Harry Reid dropped an even bigger one when he invoked an obscure procedural rule (Rule 21) to force the Senate to deal with the issue of possible Iraq intelligence manipulation by the Bush administration. If the Democrats make gains in 2006, it will be the culmination of a more than two-year-long process by which Democrats were finally pushed to their breaking point, forcing the Senate finally to do what it was created to do.
Since right around the time the Iraq War officially “ended” in April 2003, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had been receiving briefings on an almost weekly basis by the head of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA–led Iraq weapons-hunting group -- first David Kay, later Charles Duelfer. And each week, it was getting the same report: There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Committee Democrats grew increasingly restless with each week's report. Eventually they demanded that the committee perform its oversight duty and investigate the question of how the United States had gotten Iraq intelligence so wrong. But the committee's Republican chairman, Pat Roberts of Kansas, wouldn't budge for months. “The majority was not willing to look at any issue related to prewar intelligence,” says an aide to the committee's ranking Democrat, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. “There was very significant concern going back to the time when David Kay and later Charles Duelfer were briefing the committee on a weekly basis on the survey's findings. And with each briefing, with no weapons identified, it became increasingly clear that something was very wrong.” Rockefeller, this aide says, “was pressing. ‘Something is very wrong, we need to start figuring out what happened.' Roberts kept saying, ‘It's premature.'”
Eventually, in June 2003, Roberts agreed to a probe -- but designed only to focus on the intelligence community's errors. The question of how the White House may have misused intelligence was something Roberts wouldn't agree to look into. Meanwhile, the Republicans pushed back on Rockefeller, carrying leaks to the right-wing media in an effort to make it appear as if Democrats were trying to politicize the Iraq blunders. An internal staff memo from a top Senate Intelligence Committee staffer's office urging Rockefeller in the fall of 2003 to call for an independent commission to investigate the Iraq intelligence issue got into Republican hands, and it mysteriously made its way to Sean Hannity's radio show, where it led to a hysterical outcry in right-wing media outlets that Democrats were trying to politicize intelligence questions.
In its own way, the Republican pushback against Democratic calls for a wider intelligence investigation was not so unlike the covert campaign the White House organized against Joseph Wilson and his CIA officer wife, Valerie Plame. The same war-room tactics, the same use of ill-gotten and covert data slipped to right-wing media outlets to intimidate those who would speak out into shutting up and make the question of how the White House led the country into war taboo.
It was vicious and effective. More importantly, it pushed the issue of whether the Bush administration had misled the country into war in Iraq past the 2004 presidential elections: In order to get Roberts and committee Republicans to agree to an expanded probe to look into issues such as the administration's use of intelligence, the role of Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, and the Pentagon's controversial “Team B” intelligence efforts, Rockefeller had to accept the terms that the results would not be made public until 2005.
Fade in now to late October 2005. Fitzgerald indicted Libby, and Libby resigned. Fitzgerald implicitly left open at his press conference the possibility that Karl Rove was still in legal jeopardy. Cheney appointed David Addington, his secretive general counsel, to replace Libby. The day before the indictment, Murray Waas had reported in The National Journal that Addington had been a key player in advising Cheney and Libby to withhold documents from the Senate Intelligence Committee. The fact that Cheney's office had resisted cooperating even with the Republicans running the probe was something that some Democrats hadn't quite known. The table was set for the Democrats to act.
“In terms of this whole thing erupting,” explained one Democratic staffer, who asked not to be identified, “the basic thought that the Libby indictment tipped people off to is, rather than do a ‘busted for this' or ‘busted for that' kind of tiny thing, it was time to get back to a broader message: that the whole war was a sham. All that CIA stuff was manipulated.”
And so, at 6:15 p.m. on Halloween evening, the “Gang of Four” -- Democratic Senators Reid, Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan -- gathered for one of their weekly Monday-night dinners in Reid's second-floor offices.
An adviser to Reid (some staff identified senior policy adviser Randy DeValk, but this could not be confirmed) had once researched using the Rule 21 option -- an obscure procedure that allows any senator to order nonmembers from the chamber -- for former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. At the time, Senate staffers say, Daschle had been disinclined to move on it. Rule 21 had been used by agreement of both parties, but it had never in anyone's memory been sprung on one party by the other without notice. “Others had this idea last year, and Senator Daschle didn't want to do it,” one Senate aide, who asked not to be identified, told the Prospect. “He felt under siege. It wasn't his style, or not safe for him -- just said he wouldn't do it.”
But now the situation was different. In addition to the whirlwind of late-October developments, one other factor spurred the Democrats to act: hatred (which is not too strong a word) of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Again, the theme of institutions being perverted to serve political ends appears. Democratic leadership had not forgotten how Frist went into South Dakota to campaign against Daschle on behalf of Daschle's victorious opponent, John Thune. It was the first time in the history of the Senate that a party leader had campaigned personally against the other party's sitting leader. “Frist is reviled for many reasons,” a senior Democratic aide told the Prospect. “This is one of them. He is a liar. He is weak. I don't think he respects the institution.”
The Gang of Four agreed that night to use Rule 21 to bring the question of the missing Phase II intelligence report to the full Senate the next day. Influencing the timing of the decision was the fact that no votes were called for the next day, and Frist was not likely to have a quorum of Republicans in the chamber to prevent the maneuver. “Reid called Rockefeller Monday night,” a Rockefeller staffer told the Prospect. “Reid said, ‘I think we should do this tomorrow.' And Rockefeller said, ‘Absolutely.'”
The plan was so hush-hush that Reid did not announce it to the larger Democratic caucus during the weekly Tuesday lunch in the LBJ room. Before that lunch, however, Reid had gotten unanimous consent that he would be recognized when the Senate session resumed after lunch. Shortly after 2 p.m. Tuesday, Reid went to the floor, and was recognized. “I demand,” he said, “on behalf of the American people, that we understand why these investigations are not being conducted, and in accordance with Rule 21, I now move the Senate go into closed session.” He was seconded by Durbin. Staffers, journalists, and C-SPAN cameras were shooed from the room, and senators were required to hand over their cell phones.
Some observers labeled what the Democrats did a stunt. But the move -- and Reid's vow that he would do it again until Roberts acquiesced -- gave the Democrats leverage they'd never had before. During the closed session, Reid got Frist to agree to form a bipartisan, six-member senatorial task force to come up with a work plan for the Phase II investigation. After months of having been stalled and outmaneuvered, Democrats pronounced themselves thrilled with the results. “After months and months and months of begging, cajoling, writing letters,” Reid, emerging from the closed session, was quoted as saying by the San Francisco Chronicle, “we're finally going to be able to have Phase II of the investigation regarding how the intelligence was used to lead us into this intractable war in Iraq.” Appearing on CNN the next night, Rockefeller told Lou Dobbs that “we got more done in two hours than we had in the 20 months prior to that.”
Senate Democrats swear that their action was not a one-off, and that they will not let themselves be stonewalled by Frist or Roberts again. “It signals a new aggressive phase,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley told the Prospect. “Senator Reid obviously deliberated before making the decision [to shut down the Senate.] He also understood that the Republicans would react harshly to this maneuver. He also said … that unless they got a satisfactory answer to these questions [of prewar intelligence], they would come back and do this maneuver again.”
But early signs were that they might not have to -- at least not on pushing forward the Phase II investigation. In the wake of the Senate shutdown, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers were reporting “good, bipartisan progress” on the long-stalled probe, which is now expected to be completed sometime in early 2006.
“The answer is, it worked,” e-mailed Rockefeller spokeswoman Wendy Morigi. “It forced the Republicans to keep their word and live up to their agreement.” Morigi warned that there was likely to be “disagreement” on the final Phase II report, with “Democrats pushing for accountability and trying to prevent a whitewash” and Republicans “pushing to justify administration actions.” But even Roberts was making very different noises after the closed session than he had before. “I think a lot of us would really stop and think a moment before we would ever vote for war or to go and take military action,” Roberts told FOX News Sunday on November 13. “We don't accept this intelligence at face value anymore.”
Meantime, in the wake of November elections results that delivered Democratic victories in two key governor's races, even House GOP moderates were in revolt against the hard-liners on issues including Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling. The Fitzgerald investigation proceeded, with continuing news reports suggesting that the probe was getting awfully close to the vice president's doorstep. With Libby's defense attorneys indicating that Libby planned to vigorously fight the charges in court and “clear his good name,” the case seemed headed for a trial that would inevitably shine a new public spotlight on the role of the secretive vice president's office in pitching the flawed intelligence case for war and strategizing how to go after the critics who disparaged elements of its case. Even with the possibility still on the table that Bush might eventually pardon Libby, the Fitzgerald indictment could continue to do more lasting damage to the Bush administration's credibility and the president's personal integrity.
Bush will be the president for three more years. He will still have the powers that come with the office. In all likelihood, he'll have an opportunity to remake the Supreme Court. He has time to reignite some sort of domestic agenda. And even in the realm of foreign policy, he still has time to achieve some victories (although it's interesting to note that victories now are more likely to be built around negotiation than warmongering, as is the case with Condoleezza Rice's recent talks with the Israelis and the Palestinians). The Bush era -- unfortunately -- isn't over.
But the 9-11 era is. When Bush told a carefully selected military audience in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania, on Veterans Day that Democratic attacks on him “send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will,” the media did not reflexively adopt his perspective, as it had in the past, and the Democrats did not duck and run, as they have in the past. Four days after Bush's speech, it was instead Senate Republicans who ducked and ran, putting forward a proposal calling on the administration to lay out its plan for ending the war (legislators don't want Iraq hanging around their necks in 2006).
Having already lost the American public on Iraq, Bush is now beginning to lose even his own party. His presidency as we have known it thus far is over.
Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.