Like many people, the last-minute change of location for John Conyers' hearing on the Downing Street Memo  forced me to watch the event on C-Span 3  . The perspective it gave me, however, was important. Viewing the hearings through the lens of the television camera combined with today's coverage of the event in the papers made me realize just what the effort gained and just what the effort left on the table.
First, the good news. With the exception of the embarassingly cynical coverage  by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, the Associated Press , The New York Times , CNN , and the The Guardian  all covered the hearings as the serious political development it was.
That, I believe, was a significant breakthrough. Of course, it was amplified and strengthened by nearly simultaneous introduction of legislation in the House and Senate to require the president to develop an exit strategy for Iraq; the adoption by the more centrist Democratic leadership of a link between the Downing Street memo and John Bolton; and the release of new polling data showing Bush has only 37 percent support for his handling of Iraq.
While I would not go so far to say that these four comprise some kind of perfect storm, I would say that the credible reporting, the legislative ferment, and the president's weakening polls place the hearings on more solid footing.
Now the criticism. My big beef with the hearings is that it smacked more of a teach-in than a dignified presentation of evidence to a panel of elected United States representatives in the Capitol Building.
The Downing Street Memo reveals, for the first time, that the highest British officials, including the prime minister, were aware that the Bush administration was planning to "fix the facts" around the policy, i.e., to deceive the Congress and people of the United States into war. Deceiving the Congress is a felony, and it is the president who, in the March 19 Congressional Record , submitted to Congress his case for war. If that case is knowingly false, the president has commited a felony that is an impeachable offense.
This hearing needed to make that case. While the president's polls are sagging, the Republican control of Congress ensures that it will take a bombshell to establish official hearings. Not to mention that the distance between poor job performance and a belief that the president committed a felony is enormous.
This hearing did not make that case—but not because that case cannot be made. It certainly can.
To do that you need credible witnesses to attest to very specific "facts." First, you need to authenticate the memo. Then you need to establish the credibility of MI-6 Director Richard Dearlove's statement. Next, you need to establish that the president's submission to Congress on March 19, 2002, was factually inaccurate. After that, you have to undermine the Robb-Silberman Commission report that blamed the intelligence community "group-think" for the faulty intelligence. Then you must show evidence that supports the conclusion of "facts were fixed." Then, finally, you need to establish that making such a false statement to Congress is an impeachable offense.
Aparently, the witnesses and the chair were not aiming at that goal. Rep. Conyers did not lay out the larger framework. Joe Wilson and Ray McGovern described three episodes that illustrate that the administration fixed the facts. Cindy Sheehan spoke of the tragic human consequences, but did not materially support the case. John Bonifaz did lay out the constitutional arguments, but too much of the other pieces of the case were missing to allow his arguments to resonate.
Ultimately, this effort will not be successful unless it produces U.S. documents that attest to the manipulation of intelligence. That will happen in one of two ways. Either someone will leak them or someone will subpoena them. The best way to move forward now is to create a credible series of hearings that even more people can take seriously. That will allow the next Mark Felt to feel confident that his or her risk will be worth it.