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ROBERT KUTTNER

Cheney's still dangerous

ONE BUMPER STICKER proposes: Impeach Cheney First.

Vice President Dick Cheney has now suffered back-to-back humiliations, with the conviction of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, and the wresting of key foreign policy decisions by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But if anything, he is even more dangerous wounded.

The Bush administration keeps handing the opposition party loaded guns, the latest being the clumsy, politically motivated firings of eight US attorneys, a rare oasis of professionalism. These prosecutors are appointed by the president, but, unlike ordinary presidential appointees, they are not normally removed except for cause. In every case, the purpose seems to have been either to punish a prosecutor who did not capitulate to political pressure or to open up a slot for up-and-coming politicians. All this will now be laid bare in congressional investigations.

In another new case of lawlessness, the Justice Department's own inspector general issued a withering report on how the FBI has issued thousands of "administrative" subpoenas, fishing for information without the knowledge of the target. These are permitted under the Patriot Act, subject to narrow guidelines and special "exigencies," but the FBI has not been following its own internal rules.

With Democrats now in the congressional majority, the administration has lately been running on two tracks. On one track, grown-ups seem to have regained a measure of control. Rice was able to negotiate a long-delayed deal with the North Koreans to limit that nation's nuclear ambitions in exchange for the beginning of normalized relations. The deal has been available for six years. Rice was able to win its approval only by keeping Cheney out of the loop and requesting National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley to take the agreement directly to President Bush.

This weekend's regional diplomatic conference on Iraq, with representatives of the Iranian government sitting with US envoys, also represents a victory of pragmatists over extremists. The US line, dictated by Cheney and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, had been that we can't talk directly to Iranians as long as they are pursuing nuclear weapons. That strategy had produced a stalemate, and US threats to bomb Iran -- which mainly frightened the Europeans and our few remaining Middle East allies. Bush has pulled back from that course, and is now willing to try direct diplomacy -- another setback for Cheney.

Yet, at the same time, the contempt for law continues, such as the firing of US attorneys. And Cheney may be down but he is far from out.

After the conviction of Libby for lying about his smear campaign against Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband, Joseph Wilson, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald declared his investigation over. One juror, Denis Collins, spoke for many Americans when he wondered aloud why Libby was made the fall guy, when he was so clearly doing the bidding of the vice president and his larger campaign to take America to war based on a tissue of lies.

The faked case for war, and Cheney's role, has been partly exposed in the press. The Libby trial provided new details, but still an incomplete picture. All this deserves a full congressional airing.

In our democracy, there are two ways of expunging a lawless leader. The normal way is to vote in the opposition. The exceptional way is via impeachment.

As more details of the serial assaults on the Constitution emerge, one could make a good case that Cheney and Bush deserve impeachment at least as much as Richard Nixon did. Contempt for the rule of law is just what the framers had in mind when they devised impeachment as an extraordinary remedy.

However, most Democrats in Congress conclude that the memory of the Clinton impeachment is too fresh, that an impeachment proceeding would be too divisive and would divert attention from the very serious substance at issue. My bet is that impeachable offenses will emerge from Congressional investigations. What will protect Bush and Cheney from that fate is less the merits of the case than the electoral calendar. It is simply too close to the 2008 election.

So, as with the Iraq war, the stalemate with Iran, the budget mess, and the trade imbalance -- all of which will be left to Bush's successor -- the administration's main hope for saving its own skin is running down the clock. America surely deserves better.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a fellow at Demos. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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