Guest Blogged by Joy & Todd Williams
Representative John Conyers (bio) has served in the U.S. House of Representatives for over 20 terms, having represented the 14th Congressional District in Detroit since 1964. For all those years he has fought for our democracy. From his website: “In his role on the Judiciary Committee, Representative Conyers has introduced and endorsed legislation to advance civil liberties, ensure equal protection and access to the voting booth and combat violence against women.”
In July of last year he led a citizens' movement to deliver 500,000 signed petitions to the White House which questioned George Bush about his attempt to “fix the facts around the policy” as revealed in the infamous “Downing Street Memo”. This “fixing of the facts” eventually led to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Additionally, he held hearings about the Ohio voting irregularities during 2004, and published What Went Wrong in Ohio which enumerates most of the irregularities and abuse of the election process in that state. He has now published a new book, Constitution in Crisis, which documents the Bush administration’s violations of the Constitution in over 26 different categories, and in many cases multiple violations within each category.
You can support Representative Conyers' Campaign here as he will become the chair of the powerful U.S. House Judiciary Committee if the Democrats, by some fluke of nature, take the majority this November.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him a couple of weeks ago while he was en route to the airport to return to his constituents during the Congressional break. He’s a very gracious, experienced and thoughtful representative of the 14th district and for all Democrats everywhere.
Our exclusive interview with the good congressman follows...
BRAD BLOG: I wanted to interview you about your new book, and because I’m doing a series of interviews called “Democracy in Crisis” for The BRAD BLOG, since you seem to be fighting for democracy more than anyone I know…
REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, as a matter of fact, the title of my study that’s being published is “Constitution in Crisis” so we are on the same wave-length. We’ve got a 371-page book that revises the first material we put out at the end of last year, and my committee staff on the Judiciary cannot be praised too much for the work they did. The book came about as a result of President Bush’s failure to respond to a letter submitted by 122 members of Congress and individual signed petitions of well over 500,000 Americans asking him in July of last year, whether the assertions set forth in the so-called “Downing Street Minutes” were accurate. We couldn’t get any response from him.
So what we started to do was to track all the reported information that suggested that we had a serious crisis. We got no information from the Intelligence Committee. There is no information (in the report) that is classified or confidential. As a matter of fact, we document everything that we say, and of course the whole thing boils down to whether the Bush administration made misleading statements about the decision to go to war, whether the intelligence was in fact manipulated, whether this administration facilitated and countenanced torture. They gave their approval to it. And there was the problem of classified information that was used to out a CIA agent, and finally the violation of federal surveillance and privacy laws. Unlike the other crises that we’ve had --- like Watergate or Iran-Contra --- the majority party has not been interested in basic oversight or even in questioning the administration directly. The media has been incredibly intimidated, although they are beginning to come out of that now. We’ve had some very serious problems that, to me, reach the magnitude of what happened in the Civil War, when habeas corpus was suspended; what happened after WWI, during the Palmer raids; the anti-immigrant activity of the Department of Justice, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; and COINTELPRO [Counter Intelligence Program] that came out of the White House which was spying on people who opposed the Vietnam War.
BB: Like when the FBI eavesdropped on Martin Luther King…
JC: We think that these raw acts of wrongdoing that we’ve documented are as serious as any of the ones I’ve just mentioned.
BB: In your book, you list 26 different categories where the U.S. Constitution was violated by this administration, and in some cases numerous violations occurred within the same category. In your opinion, which violation was the most egregious?
JC: You know, if you ask me on different days I’d probably list different ones. The major thing that personally agitates me is that we’ve been misled into the wrong war against the wrong nation, to the terrible disadvantage of the people that were in that country. A further source of agitation is what it has done to us as a country, a country that was upholding the rule of law, and that supported international treaties and the Geneva Conventions. These things had caused America to be held in high esteem. It seems to me that this esteem has about dissipated, that the respect that many nations and many, many people around the world had for us all went down the drain. To accomplish that dissipation the Bush Administration committed a number of violations, at least a couple of dozen. So what we do now is document them, and do more than just a staff study, to see where it leads us in terms of revealing just how cynical and manipulative this present administration has been. We put this together not just to continue to gripe about them, but to also see what it is we ought to do in the future to make sure this never happens again.
We believe that we’ve got to get more investigative authority to access documentary information, which we have not been privy to, for this report. We’ve got to make it clear that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act contains exclusive means for conducting surveillance in the United States, and we’ve got to provide FISA with the personnel and resources that are needed. And then we’ve got to make sure that the President reports to us about any intention to pardon any official in his administration who can implicate the President and other officials as a result of these investigations.
We want to enhance whistle-blower protection, which is not very strong right now, and we want to implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations, which also found serious lapses in effectiveness on the part of our present administration. Those recommendations were: that we have to enhance port security; that we have to protect the infrastructure much more than we do now; that we have to provide chemical plant security for those plants that need it; and that we have to make sure that all the nation’s nuclear materials are secure to the best of our ability. So, that’s the whole idea.
We want to make sure that what we pull together is documented beyond question, so that this will not be just a little blip on the screen of history. We also want to take the steps that will ensure that Congress, when it chooses to, will be given far more tools to have at its disposal than when we did this incredible report.
BB: Mike Malloy of Air America sent me a note because he knew I was going to interview you, and he wanted to know “How soon after the new Democratic House takes office in January, 2007, will impeachment hearings begin?”
JC: I wish I knew the answer to that question. We’re putting together agendas in the leadership, on my part and on the part of the senior members in the House Judiciary Committee, and so it’s not clear to me that we can resolve what our priorities should be, much less what order they are going to be in. We’ve not addressed the question yet. As a matter of fact, to me, it’s a little premature to be talking about what I’m going to do when I win, when we’re roughly three months away from the election.
BB: Well, he asked and a lot of us were wondering about impeachment, and we really want you all to take back the house…
JC: Yes, and we’ve got to take it back first! My first order of business is what our political opponents don’t want to do. We want to maximize participation in the voting process, which is the most direct way of determining who governs in Washington. We’ve got to make sure that all of the voter rights laws, the Civil Rights Act, the Department of Justice and everybody concerned with fair elections, are maximized. We want to eliminate some of the tactics that turned up in Ohio and Florida that showed that there were those whose main purpose was to coerce or intimidate voters, or to give them incredibly wrong information and hope that they would be demoralized to the extent that they wouldn’t participate in the process. We think people who do that have a selfish motivation and it goes against the spirit of participatory democracy.
BB: I have a question along those lines. The book you released last spring, What Went Wrong in Ohio, enumerates many of the things that happened during the 2004 election in that state. You held hearings in Ohio because of all the wrongdoings. Considering what happened in San Diego recently, are you considering holding any further hearings about voter suppression or vote fraud?
JC: Well we might. The reports coming in from San Diego leave us all quite disappointed in the system. We had the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) after the 2000 Florida debacle and, can you believe it, that in Ohio they would not honor the provision in HAVA for provisional voting? There were people who were denied the right because they weren’t at the right precinct to cast their ballot, which was the whole point of provisional balloting. It was to make sure that a person got a chance to vote even if their precinct had been changed or if they were in the wrong place, but were in the right state and actually could be validated to be on the voter rolls. If they weren’t, there would be a paper trail for us to determine that they were unqualified, or did not meet the standards to cast the ballot. It would not be just something that happened on Election Day for a brief 12 hours and then after that it’s all history and allegations and counter allegations.
BB: I remember watching people get in two lines in a high school gym, and some people ended up in the wrong precinct because they were in the wrong line and had to go all the way to the back of the other line and start all over again.
JC: It was amazing. Especially in Ohio, where there were misleading instructions and statements, where there was no record of people who had voted for years from the same address and the same precinct, and who were then disqualified from voting or who were in areas inside the city where the machines were faulty, or were insufficient in number; one thing after another. Standing in the wrong line could get you disqualified. The whole thing was “Orwellian”, actually. When my Democratic colleagues, the Ohio Congressional Representatives and I, held those hearings in Columbus, I never saw so many angry voters and citizens who came to demonstrate how totally disgusted they were with the procedures that had stripped so many people of their precious right to vote.
BB: It must have been something else…
JC: It was something I’ll never forget! And it makes me want to go out to San Diego, and if I can, I will.
BB: Well we sure would like to have you come out here…
JC: We are in recess from now through August and all I need to do is get enough time to conduct this investigation and make sure I can get a few members to come out with me. I thank you for your asking me to re-examine whether we are going do something about it for all those people in San Diego. I will investigate this today, and tomorrow.
BB: Mike Papantonio and Bobby Kennedy Jr., are filing lawsuits against the voting machine companies for fraud. How hopeful are you about these cases?
JC: I have not heard about the lawsuits, but I hope that there are some in progress, because Diebold and at least one other have to be very carefully scrutinized for the kind of practices that have apparently become commonplace and which we must guard against, starting with this November election.
BB: These are qui tam suits, which are about fraud against the government, and they have whistle-blowers from all kinds of different voting machine companies that have come forward.
JC: Oh great! That sounds like the kind of good work that Kennedy would do, and I’m really happy that he’s looking at it, because it’s so absolutely important as more and more technology enters the counting and tabulating of election day votes. It gives rise to another kind of fraud and mischief that we never had to deal with before. When it was just paper ballots, you used to just throw some away, like what happened in Chicago (years ago). I was there when Harold Washington ran for mayor, and those trying to throw the election would just throw sacks of ballots into Lake Michigan. Somehow or other they would be retrieved and it would be determined that they may not have been counted. But now it’s far more sophisticated. One skillful person can influence a county or a municipal or state election with relative ease, and that has to be guarded against – and that requires that there’s a paper trail on every ballot cast for President. I don’t see how we can get around that anymore.
BB: Or even for the local races.
JC: We are racing against the clock to get a responsible safeguard that we still don’t have from the voting section of the Department of Justice. We did get the Voter Rights Act of 1965 successfully extended, but there are a lot of other on-the-ground preventive measures that the voting section of the Department of Justice should be taking that we don’t see them implementing. There’s a de-emphasis on voting integrity, and we think there should be greatly increased attention to this subject.
BB: One thing that really concerns me is, before the 2004 vote in Ohio, I was making phone calls into Ohio to warn people to bring an ID card with them to the polls because the voter might be challenged when they got to the ballot box. I’m worried that the Republican Party will use this kind of intimidation again, in 2006, against citizens who are trying to vote. How do we stop this intimidation and disenfranchisement against people who are trying to exercise their civil rights?
JC: Well, now that we’re on to it, we have to exact ever-increasing watchfulness. You know the old saying “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” And we’ve got to deal with these folks as best we can.