Thursday, January 26, 2006

“The Idiot Defense”


Washington, Jan. 26 –

The impeachment trial of President Bush, opening October 5 in Washington, will feature the most high-level application of the so-called “idiot defense” in legal history. In the idiot defense—sometimes called the “ostrich defense”—the defendant argues that he should not be held accountable because he was ignorant of what was taking place. With high-ranking officials, the normal strategy is to blame underlings for wrongdoing.

Accordingly, President Bush plans to tell the House Committee on Impeachment that he knew nothing about the numerous crimes and unconstitutional measures taken during his time in the White House. In a tour of carefully selected friendly venues, Bush has contended that his only mistake was in trusting Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Condoleezza Rice, all of whom, he says, gave him faulty advice or knowingly misled him.

“No President knows everything going on in his administration,” Bush argued in a speech at the War College, “so no one should expect me to take responsibility for the crimes Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the others were committing. The torture, the kidnappings, the unconstitutional detaining of prisoners without charge, the unlawful wiretappings, the illegal invasion of Iraq—all those were undertaken without my knowledge.”

Mr. Bush admitted that he had made numerous speeches advocating and defending those crimes, but claimed such remarks should be inadmissible as evidence. “Everyone understands that I didn’t write those speeches,” he said. “I just read what somebody put in front of me. They could have been cookie recipes, for all I knew.”

When shown his signature on various incriminating documents, such as those authorizing the unlawful wiretappings, Mr. Bush said, “Look, every morning Dick [Vice President Cheney] brought in a pile of things for me to sign, and then I could go work out in the gym. I might as well have been autographing souvenir baseballs. If Dick slipped something in the pile that shouldn’t have been there, shame on him.”

As it happens, the idiot defense is also the legal strategy being employed by the defense team for Kenneth Lay, former Enron Chairman and Mr. Bush’s biggest financial backer throughout his political career. As with Lay, the key question is obvious: How could an experienced executive—Bush, after all, served five years as governor of Texas prior to his two terms in the White House—claim ignorance about such monumental crimes carried out over such an extended period of time?

“We’re not talking about governmental trivia. These were major policy decisions driven against public opinion by pressure from the very highest levels,” said Mark Spott, a presidential performance expert at Potomac State College. “If the President isn’t responsible for these things, what in hell is he responsible for?”

Ben Snidegood, a former presidential prosecutor, concurs. “It’s a tough sell to claim that somebody whose father was President, who is a former governor, and who has served five years in the Presidency himself, could be that ignorant. This is a high-risk defense.”

Nonetheless, many legal scholars believe the impeachment committee has its work cut out for it. They will require conclusive proof that Mr. Bush knew what was going on when the crimes were committed. “Saying ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face’ and ‘He had to be aware of it’ won’t cut the mustard,” said Snidegood.

That standard of proof may be difficult to attain. Mr. Bush has been on vacation at least twenty per cent of the time while in office. He has a reputation for exhibiting no intellectual or scholarly interests. His only contact with newspapers or news magazines is said to be his daily reading of the sports section, and he receives all his briefings and options from a small, tightly knit circle of advisors. Preliminary surveys of his calendar over a period of several months show only half an hour a day devoted to meetings with cabinet officials and others, with the bulk of his brief workday taken up by photo ops, exercise, personal grooming, and watching sports events on TV.

Snidegood admitted, “He’s a perfect candidate for the idiot defense.”

- © Tony Russell, 2006

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