For those who remember Watergate, the years of the Bush administration have often induced a sense of deja vu. Not only do the same issues keep coming back – executive privilege, illegal wiretaps, congressional subpoenas, presidential pardons – but even some of the same actors are still on the stage.

Former senator (and Law & Order star) Fred Thompson, for example, who seems certain to officially launch a presidential bid this month, first came to public attention as minority counsel on the Senate Watergate committee. He was the one who asked the question that revealed the existence of Richard Nixon’s secret White House taping system.

Then last week the Bush administration rejected a set of subpoenas from Congress in relation to last year’s mass sacking of US attorneys, and looks poised to do the same when it comes to the illegal surveillance program.

The White House counsel who made the refusal is another Watergate figure, Fred Fielding, who used to be John Dean’s deputy and was once a prime suspect for the identity of “Deep Throat”.

And this morning comes further news that, despite the constant reminders, the lessons of Watergate have not been learned.

President Bush used his power of clemency to allow Lewis “Scooter” Libby, convicted last month of perjury and obstruction of justice, to avoid going to jail. He will still have to pay a fine and remain on probation, but the two and a half year term of imprisonment has been commuted.

Democrats were scathing in their response. Senate majority leader Harry Reid said “history will judge him harshly for using that power to benefit his own Vice President’s chief of staff who was convicted of such a serious violation of law.”

Presidential candidate Barack Obama said the decision “cements the legacy of an administration characterized by a politics of cynicism and division, one that has consistently placed itself and its ideology above the law.”

Libby is a relatively small fish; no-one really doubts that the conspiracy which he lied to protect goes much higher. A third of a century ago, Congress – assisted by the media, public opinion and an independent judiciary – was able to crack the Watergate case despite the president’s best endeavors.

But the Iraq war and its associated abuses are bigger than even Nixon imagined, and it’s not clear that the chief perpetrators will ever be called to account.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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