Published on Monday, August 11, 2003 by Long Island (NY) Newsday
Today We Face Another 'Watergate'
by Samuel Dash
Thirty years ago the Senate of the United States prevented President Richard Nixon from destroying constitutional democracy in our country. Watergate was a wrenching turning point in our history and its lessons must be learned and re-learned.
Now our lives as a free people are also being threatened by an administration bent on grabbing unprecedented power, a timid Congress and an uninformed electorate. That is why the Watergate experience remains so relevant to our republic today.
Watergate was much more than a bungled burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building by agents of President Nixon to obtain information that would help Nixon get re-elected in the presidential election of 1972.
It was the culmination of a series of criminal acts authorized by Nixon and carried out by his in-house secret espionage team to maintain his power, smother dissent and punish his enemies. Former Attorney General John Mitchell, who headed Nixon's re-election campaign and authorized the Watergate burglary and wiretaps, called these criminal acts by the president and his aides "the White House horrors," which had to be covered up if the president was to be re-elected.
The most serious horror was that Nixon and his aides believed that Nixon as president had the absolute power and right to order these crimes to be committed. Nixon told an interviewer, "When the president does it, it can't be wrong."
Mitchell testified before the Senate Watergate Committee that he would have "done anything" to get Richard Nixon re-elected. "Anything?" asked a senator. "Would that include murder?" Mitchell puffed on his pipe and replied, "That's a tough question, Senator."
It was a scary time in America when we almost lost our constitutional freedom and democracy. But fortunately our constitutional system of separation of powers worked. The Senate Watergate Committee, chaired by Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. of North Carolina, a courageous public leader, successfully performed the checkand-balance oversight role of Congress. Its dramatic public hearings informed millions of Americans glued to their television sets of the criminal acts of the president and the constitutional crisis in the country.
Many Americans wrote to Congress and the White House, expressing their outrage and demanding the removal of the president. It was this response of the people, the ultimate sovereign in a democracy, and the articles of impeachment voted by the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives that forced Richard Nixon to resign.
The Founders of our nation foresaw that a president could abuse power. They created a constitutional system of equal and separate powers in Congress, the courts and the executive - each with the power to check the others. It worked in Watergate and Congress and the courts checked a president who was asserting absolute power.
But, as in all human institutions, there is no guarantee that it will always work this way. Each of the branches must have the leadership and the courage to do its job. For, if the Congress and the courts are passive in the face of a president's assertion of excessive power, and the people are uninformed of the danger, the country can once again face the loss of precious constitutional freedoms.
This lesson of Watergate is particularly pertinent now. In responses to terrorists' attacks on our country that threaten our national security, President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have sought and obtained from an acquiescent Congress unprecedented powers that are inconsistent with the Bill of Rights' protections. It is not that these powers are necessary to fight terrorism. Prior to 9/11, Congress and the Supreme Court had already given competent federal law enforcement agencies all the power and authority they need to successfully keep our country secure.
The government overreaches when it employs its war against terror to attack the liberties of American citizens. We now face sweeping federal wiretapping, secret searches and seizures, arrest and detention without trial or right to counsel, infiltration by FBI agents in our places of worship and in our social and political clubs and associations. Not even what we read, either from libraries or bookstores, is respected.
It is the time of the anonymous informer and the chilling threat, reminiscent of Watergate, that dissent is unpatriotic and giving aid to the enemy. The logic of the government appears to be that the only way we can preserve our freedom and liberty from the efforts of terrorists to destroy them is to temporarily destroy them ourselves. But true security comes from our being a free society blessed with constitutional democracy and a Bill of Rights - rights that if lost cannot be easily recovered.
An alert Congress would check the administration's grab for greater power than the Constitution permits. It would hold hearings and inform the people of the dangers they faced. Unfortunately, Congress today is shirking its constitutional responsibilities. There are no Sam Ervins in the Senate now. Instead of offering leadership, our congressional representatives defer to the White House in an attempt to show they are as patriotic as the president.
The lesson of Watergate should teach them that a president free to assert excessive power could, even unintentionally, irreparably harm our democracy. Benjamin Franklin wisely wrote, "They that would give up essential liberty to attain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Samuel Dash is professor of law and director of the Institute of Criminal Law and Procedure at Georgetown University Law Center. He served as chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee.
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