Saturday, October 29, 2005

Conspiracy to Defraud 

Former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega's cover story from the upcoming issue of The Nation is now online at TomDispatch. As site host Tom Engelhardt points out, the feds couldn't nail Al Capone for murder, racketeering, bootlegging, extortion and the like -- but when he neglected to itemize his ill-gotten gains on a form 1040, they sent him upriver for income tax evasion. Ms. de la Vega suggests a similarly oblique approach to the prosecution of "The White House Criminal Conspiracy": while the war itself, which has so far cost the lives of 2000 Americans and countless Iraqis, may not have been illegal, the tactics Bush, Cheney et al used to sell it probably were:
The Supreme Court has defined the phrase "conspiracy to defraud the United States" as "to interfere with, impede or obstruct a lawful government function by deceit, craft or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest." In criminal law, a conspiracy is an agreement "between two or more persons" to follow a course of conduct that, if completed, would constitute a crime. The agreement doesn't have to be express; most conspiracies are proved through evidence of concerted action. But government officials are expected to act in concert. So proof that they were conspiring requires a comparison of their public conduct and statements with their conduct and statements behind the scenes. A pattern of double-dealing proves a criminal conspiracy.

The concept of interfering with a lawful government function is best explained by reference to two well-known cases where courts found that executive branch officials had defrauded the United States by abusing their power for personal or political reasons.

One is the Watergate case, where a federal district court held that Nixon's Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, and his crew had interfered with the lawful government functions of the CIA and the FBI by causing the CIA to intervene in the FBI's investigation into the burglary of Democratic Party headquarters. The other is U.S. v. North, where the court found that Reagan administration National Security Adviser John Poindexter, Poindexter's aide Oliver North, and others had interfered with Congress's lawful power to oversee foreign affairs by lying about secret arms deals during Congressional hearings into the Iran/contra scandal . . . .

Conspiracies to defraud usually begin with a goal that is not in and of itself illegal. In this instance the goal was to invade Iraq. It is possible that the Bush team thought this goal was laudable and likely to succeed. It's also possible that they never formally agreed to defraud the public in order to attain it. But when they chose to overcome anticipated or actual opposition to their plan by concealing information and lying, they began a conspiracy to defraud -- because, as juries are instructed, "no amount of belief in the ultimate success of a scheme will justify baseless, false or reckless misstatements."

From the fall of 2001 to at least March 2003, the following officials, and others, made hundreds of false assertions in speeches, on television, at the United Nations, to foreign leaders and to Congress: President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Under Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. Their statements were remarkably consistent and consistently false.
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