Congressman John Conyers, D-Michigan, began his career in the House of Representatives in 1964, which makes him the second most senior member in the chamber. He has spent much of his tenure trying to maintain the Congressional role of oversight. He was part of the House panel that investigated the impeachment of President Nixon. More recently, he has looked into alleged irregularities in the 2004 election, and sued the president for his unorthodox method of signing his recent Budget Resolution (Bush signed two different versions, which, Conyers believes, is against the law).
Lately, the dapper, velvet-voiced representative is the name in Congress most associated with the push for impeachment, which Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, said she opposes. It was Conyers who called for a special committee to investigate impeachable offenses—everything from allegations of illegal wiretaps, misuse of intelligence before the country’s disastrous involvement in Iraq, use of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and his administration’s retaliation against critics such as Joseph Wilson.
If you read Conyers’s blog, you might sense anger (he prefers “tenaciousness”) at the Bush administration, Republicans in Congress, and the media. And he’s outspoken to a fault. In Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, it was Conyers who admitted that Congressmen don’t always have time to read what they vote on. But to listen to him speak is to hear a voice that is eminently composed. I interviewed him recently by phone.
[Interview by Joel Whitney]
I wonder if what [Republicans] are trying to do to ensure that there won’t be an impeachment proceeding might be having a reverse effect on a lot of citizens, to be honest with you.
Guernica: Tell me about the committee you’ve proposed to investigate possible impeachable offenses by the president. What are the key events you’re looking into?
John Conyers: This is a traditional way of conducting oversight [that] creates a select committee following the Sam Ervin-style model that was used during the Nixon activities of a generation ago. What we did [with Bush] was we started off with an examination of these questions ourselves. Our lawyers spent months working on a report that amazed those who’ve seen it, and it was the first collection of some of the big problems that we’ve had with this administration in terms of [their] comporting with the law.
We looked at questions like when preemptive strikes are feasible, and when warrantless wiretaps should be allowed in this country and if they can even be allowed without going through a court process. There was a lot of commentary, especially on the Downing Street memo—among the people that knew about that—about if there was a manipulation of prewar intelligence. Which raises a question about how we go into war and whether the president was ever really waiting for the Congress to give him some authority. And there’s the question of Abu Ghraib and other places, the torture question.
Has this administration really lived up to the Geneva Courts with reference to torture of people that are taken prisoners or those that are given the designation ‘enemy combatants’—and other people? Some are just labeled terrorists and we don’t know where they are. For this country which is the beacon of constitutional democracy to be moving around in this kind of slipshod fashion… I am really just trying to make sure that we don’t let a number of issues go by in a Congress controlled by Republicans refusing to look into any of it. It requires that we really get some much clearer answers about this.
Do we countenance torture? That’s a fundamental question, and we need to know that. And finally there’s the question of whether the administration has retaliated improperly against its critics. And this committee to me is [where] it is most appropriate for this inquiry to happen.
Guernica: When Republicans raised the specter of impeachment as a rallying cry, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi all but promised they wouldn’t seek impeachment if they were to take either house of Congress. Is there some disagreement among Democrats over whether to pursue impeachment at all?
John Conyers: I’ve never sought the impeachment of the president. The fact of the matter is that if these violations have occurred, they could be grounds for high crimes and misdemeanors. But a select committee could be exculpatory as much as it could be incriminating if we really went into something like this. So it isn’t like there is a pro-impeachment crowd versus an anti-impeachment crowd. But I don’t think that I would leave it to myself to unilaterally go forward without the cooperation of the leadership—but would only do so working closely with them.
Guernica: If the Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress, in your view, is this conversation about oversight doomed?
John Conyers: Well, neither of us knows, but it looks like we’re going to take the House back. That’s what the polls I read say. It looks like the president’s popularity has been steadily sinking. It goes up now and again but then it goes back down. I’m not trying to measure what we do in terms of a political objective. What I’m doing right now is what I would do if we were in charge, [as well as] what I would do if we weren’t in charge. In either case I would have collected this information. I’ve worked on questions of presidential impeachment more than most people in Congress. And it seems to me that gathering the facts together is a very simple—and shouldn’t be very exciting—process. I’m getting more people calling me up and encouraging me to go forward than I ever have before. I wonder if what [Republicans] are trying to do to ensure that there won’t be an impeachment proceeding might be having a reverse effect on a lot of citizens, to be honest with you.
When I held a meeting with my experts on this, one said that in his opinion this is the first president who’s ever admitted to an impeachable offense.
Guernica: Michael Ratner in The Nation recently cited a poll that found that 51% of Americans believe the president should be impeached if he lied about Iraq, compared to 28% of Americans who believed President Clinton should have been impeached at the height of the Monica Lewinsky affair. How do polls and public perceptions play into this process?
John Conyers: First of all, I think that, for Republicans, the polls play in pretty largely. What they’re afraid of is that those numbers are going to keep growing and are going to persuade more members of Congress, especially in the next Congress, to take action. All I’m trying to do—and I am not poll-driven—is what I think an absolute duty. I don’t know how I would explain that I sat through all of this administration, which has claimed more powers that fall loosely under commander-in-chief, while you can question whether he’s commander in chief of an effective effort against terrorism… For him to claim that many of these things, which are not found in the Constitution or laws of the country and have not been granted by Congress, are exclusively within his domain only infuriates more people to do exactly what [Republicans] are afraid might happen: namely, the president could end up in hot water.
But I’ve got to find answers to my questions. These are serious questions that are going to be examined and turned over. There’s been a lot of examination of them already, but not in the House of Representatives and certainly not in the Judiciary Committee. All I’m trying to do is without the benefit of polling, without trying to jump the gun—I think impeachment is a very serious, rarely used tool that should be entered into as prudently as possible. We should be very careful moving into this area. And that’s what I intend to do. And so the hyping it up by people who want us not to look at these questions I think has a reverse effect.
Guernica: One of the things you cite on your website as a reason for the special committee on impeachment is the domestic surveillance program, which Bush’s nominee to head the CIA supports and even spearheaded at NSA. When questioned about the wiretapping program in January, President Bush said, ‘there’s no doubt in my mind it is legal.’ He said it’s also ‘designed to protect civil liberties, and it’s necessary.’ He even claimed that talking about ‘how the program works … will help the enemy.’ I take it you disagree?
John Conyers: Well, look, talking about Constitutional prerogatives with the president is sometimes a futile exercise. When I held a meeting with my experts on this, one said that in his opinion this is the first president who’s ever admitted to an impeachable offense.But [the president] said that he’s above the law, that the FISA law doesn’t apply to him, that there are no statutes governing this. But everybody in America has their privacy protected, and he doesn’t think that that’s the case. He’s taken an oath of office to protect and defend the law. He’s precluded from going outside the scope of his authority. We have a tripartite system of government, yet the Congress has been completely run over. And sometimes the media is influenced in the way that the president wants them to go.
All I’m saying is that I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. But if he’s right, then they don’t have to worry about whether we have a select committee on this question or not. Because then it will be proven and established that it’s perfectly permissible for the president to wiretap citizens without the benefit of a court order or a FISA authorization. That’ll be big news to a lot of people. But we can’t just leave it as a ‘one party said’ and ‘the other party replied’ situation.
I want to move forward in a way that will escape any accusations of partisanship.
Guernica: There is that moment in Fahrenheit 9/11 when you confessed to Michael Moore what I guess many of us not in Congress hadn’t considered, that lawmakers don’t read every bill that you vote on. Has the Bush Administration challenged you to rethink that a little?
John Conyers: Those in the Bush Administration are the ones who make it impossible for us to read everything. They substituted a Patriot Act that had been unanimously passed by the Judiciary Committee over night in the Rules Committee, and there were two copies out—one on the Republican side some several hundred pages long, and one on the Democratic side—and they said vote on it. Not only was it not read, but it was not even fully understood.
Guernica: You mentioned earlier your experience with matters of impeachment. I know that in the ‘70s you sat on the panel to impeach President Nixon. Do you see similarities in scope or degree between these two situations?
John Conyers: It just strikes me that the 43rd president has gone considerably beyond some of the things we were worried about during President Nixon’s dealings. I’m trying to determine how accurate our information is that was pulled together through the hard work of our staff. I’m not prepared right now to call Nixon a president who violated his responsibilities while in office more or less than Bush. But the comparisons are already being made.
We’ve got a president here whose whole bent is apparently toward retaliating against critics in a very dangerous way; [along with] countenancing torture, manipulating intelligence that leads us to decide to go into war, [and determining] whether citizens and how many of them can be wiretapped rather than getting the authority from a court which is easily—even retroactively—available. So, I want to move forward in a way that will escape any accusations of partisanship.
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