Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Quick Muse: An Epic Battle of Poets!

(Perseus' use of free verse confounds the iambic tetrameter approach of the Kraken.)

The newsletter of Florida State University (one of my many alma maters) reports that "FSU Creative Writing Professor Julianna Baggott will be "competing" tonight against former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in a new-style online "poetry slug-fest" (all in good literary fun!) in which notable poets square off to see who can write the best poem in 15 minutes."

A previous bout between poets Paul Muldoon and Thylias Moss is up on the very young but witty website Quick Muse. A New York Times article on Quick Muse can be read here (try this link after the first one goes defunct), while Quick Muse publisher Ken Gordon speaks about the series in Poets & Writers here.

I'm intrigued by Pinsky's involvement because while he's not at all a snob and not opposed to "poetry slams," nonetheless he doesn't view slam poetry as poetry per se, and Quick Muse smacks a little of a highbrow slam. (I view poetry slams as much more performance art than poetry, similar to Pinsky's view.) Quick Muse features three key differences. Firstly, unlike a slam, which typically features pre-written poems, or a rap-off, which offers only a few minutes to compose a diss of one's opponent, Quick Muse poets sit down to write for 15 minutes. Secondly, Quick Muse gives the poets a passage or quotation for inspiration (for Muldoon and Moss it was a wonderful passage by Elizabeth Bishop on the difficulty of writing poetry!). Lastly, Quick Muse is not competitive. It's fascinating and elucidating to see how two accomplished poets attack the same task, each with a different emphasis and style. (While my loyalties are divided for tonight's bout, I have to "back" Pinsky - if such a thing is even possible! Meanwhile, Muldoon and Moss both produced striking work of radically different feel and form.) Really, when poetry's celebrated and promoted, how can there be any losers?

Godspeed, Quick Muse!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Alberto Mora's Stand Against Torture

Alberto Mora provides a splendid op-ed for The Washington Post today entitled ”An Affront To American Values.” The Post explains that Mora, “who retired as Navy general counsel last year, wrote a memo to Pentagon officials two years before the Abu Ghraib scandal that warned against circumventing international agreements on torture and detainee treatment. This article is excerpted from remarks he made upon receiving a 2006 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.”

Mora’s full remarks can be read here. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s write-up of him can be read here. Christy Hardin Smith of Firedoglake posted on the Profiles in Courage Awards here, quoting Ted Kennedy’s speech about Mora and the other recipient this year, Democratic Congressman John Murtha.

Mora first became known to the wider public thanks to Jane Mayer’s excellent 2/20/06 article “The Memo” for The New Yorker. Mayer’s article online now allows readers to download Mora’s 22-page memo about torture and the treatment of prisoners. Mora is one of many career professionals in the government who stood up against what he saw as the abuse of the law and a violation of core American values. Mayer quotes more than one colleague that remarks on Mora’s “intellectual courage” and “personal integrity.” A conservative Republican, Mora is not of the partisan “My President right-or-wrong” school, but of the rule of law, civil rights, protect-the-Constitution school. We need more like him. As Mayer describes him:

Mora was a well-liked and successful figure at the Pentagon. Born in Boston in 1952, he is the son of a Hungarian mother, Klara, and a Cuban father, Lidio, both of whom left behind Communist regimes for America. Klara’s father, who had been a lawyer in Hungary, joined her in exile just before the Soviet Union took control. From the time Alberto was a small boy, Klara Mora told me, he heard from his grandfather the message that “the law is sacred.” For the Moras, injustice and abuse were not merely theoretical concepts. One of Mora’s great-uncles had been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, and another was hanged after having been tortured. Mora’s first memory, as a young child, is of playing on the floor in his mother’s bedroom, and watching her crying as she listened to a report on the radio declaring that the 1956 anti-Communist uprising in Hungary had been crushed. “People who went through things like this tend to have very strong views about the rule of law, totalitarianism, and America,” Mora said.

Mayer’s article is essential reading if you missed it before (or all of the subsequent articles on Mora from other publications). Important battle lines were drawn, not always with Mora’s knowledge, between competing forces in the government. Needless to say, his conscience and scholarship were not welcomed by all parties. Mora discussed at length these issues of torture with William Haynes, the Pentagon’s general counsel, but:

In confronting Haynes, Mora was engaging not just the Pentagon but also the Vice-President’s office. Haynes is a protégé of Cheney’s influential chief of staff, David Addington.

A must-read profile of Addington recently appeared in U.S. News and World Report (I’ll be doing a separate post on Addington soon, I hope.) The conflicts of Cheney, Rumsfeld and their allies against Powell and the State Department are well-documented by now. Mora was not alone in his battles, but he was now going up against a powerful machine:

Lawrence Wilkerson, whom Powell assigned to monitor this unorthodox policymaking process, told NPR last fall of “an audit trail that ran from the Vice-President’s office and the Secretary of Defense down through the commanders in the field.” When I spoke to him recently, he said, “I saw what was discussed. I saw it in spades. From Addington to the other lawyers at the White House. They said the President of the United States can do what he damn well pleases. People were arguing for a new interpretation of the Constitution. It negates Article One, Section Eight, that lays out all of the powers of Congress, including the right to declare war, raise militias, make laws, and oversee the common defense of the nation.” Cheney’s view, Wilkerson suggested, was fuelled by his desire to achieve a state of “perfect security.” He said, “I can’t fault the man for wanting to keep America safe, but he’ll corrupt the whole country to save it.” (Wilkerson left the State Department with Powell, in January, 2005.)

It’s particularly troubling that Haynes told Mora that:

Rumsfeld was suspending his authorization of the disputed interrogation techniques. The Defense Secretary also was authorizing a special “working group” of a few dozen lawyers, from all branches of the armed services, including Mora, to develop new interrogation guidelines.

Mora, elated, went home to his wife and son, with whom he had felt bound not to discuss his battle. He and the other lawyers in the working group began to meet and debated the constitutionality and effectiveness of various interrogation techniques. He felt, he later told me, that “no one would ever learn about the best thing I’d ever done in my life.”

It was a cruel move by Haynes, because as the article goes on to show, he outright lied to Mora. While Mora and other government lawyers worked hard to craft effective and ethical detention guidelines, Haynes, working with figures such as Addington and John Yoo, labored to codify a policy of torture. Rather than addressing Mora's crucial concerns, Haynes and his faction increasingly him cut out of the loop. The Rumsfeld-Cheney “cabal,” as Wilkerson calls them (more here and here), effectively did an end-run around Mora, the military code of conduct, and the Constitution.

It’s impossible to avoid the fact that the Bush administration is not ignorant of the mistakes they have made. But they do not view them as mistakes, or at the very least did not at the time. Whether it comes to the 4th Amendment, judicial review, and the illegal NSA eavesdropping program — or using discredited reports of Nigerian uranium sales to sell the case for war — or disregarding plans for the reconstruction of Iraq — or pushing for a policy of torture — they have been warned of the dangers and proceeded anyway. The Bush administration has not been given solely bad counsel. It has ignored, suppressed, and aggressively attacked good counsel. Given the ongoing disastrous consequences, “hubris” is just too tame a word.

Edmund Burke famously stated that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Alberto Mora deserves praise as a good man who followed his conscience out of respect for the law and essential American principles. But right now, we need many more good men and women in Washington.

(On the related subject of torture, Jane Mayer also wrote “The Experiment,” which appeared online for The New Yorker on 7/4/05.)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Specter May Enforce the Law

(Really, it's a sad post title, isn't it? Such are the times we live in... )

In a recent post I wrote about a chilling, infuriating move by GOP lawmakers to obstruct judicial review of the illegal NSA eavesdropping program. However, with a new bill co-sponsored with Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), it appears Arlen Specter (R-PA) may have regained his soul after all by enforcing existing FISA law. This is extremely heartening. As with the previous post, I’m drawing on the invaluable work of Glenn Greenwald, who reports this latest development here. As Greenwald notes in his updates, Specter characteristically equivocates in his statements about the bill, which really merely reinforces existing law. The real test for Specter (as for many a politician) is always his actions.

While this new bill is merely common sense, and enforcing a sensible and successful law should never be a radical move, Specter deserves immense credit if he does the right thing and fights for its passage. This should not be a partisan issue. It’s possible that even if the bill becomes law, Bush will continues to break it, thus forcing the Constitutional showdown he’s been working to avoid (the showdown may come sooner than that anyway, with other challenges in the works). It's important in such a showdown that Congress chooses the right side: The Constitution over any political party.

Gay is the New Blind

This must be seen to be believed. The female newscaster in this video clip perpetrates one hell of a Freudian slip, thus upholding the high standards local newscasts are renowned for. (Hat tip to Wonkette.)

Apparently, the newscaster in question, Cynthia Izaguirre, works for the ABC affiliate in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her webpage reports:

If you see her around town while she's doing her favorite activities (running marathons, skiing, and shopping), say "hello!" Cynthia loves to make new friends.

And if you're lucky, Cynthia will respond with a friendly "You're gay!"

Stephen Colbert for Tom DeLay... Right?

One would think that after Stephen Colbert was lambasted by conservatives for daring to challenge George W. Bush with a brilliantly satirical stint at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, more conservatives would be clued into the fact that it's an act. Stephen Colbert is not a conservative. He has created the persona of a pompous ass who knows very little but thinks he knows it all (and has little need to learn anything more). Colbert the anchor is modeled primarily on Bill O'Reilly but also other figures such as Stone Phillips. Colbert plays it so straight, I can see some people being thrown initially, but no intelligent person with a sense of irony and humor can miss what he's doing for long.

However, in one of the weirdest, funniest moves of the year, Tom DeLay's Defense Fund has sent out an e-mail touting how documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who just finished a documentary on DeLay, "crashed and burned" when interviewed by Colbert. Delay's people also posted the video on their site. (I first saw this reported by Wonkette.)

The e-mail is of course slanted, but outright lies at least once in claiming that Delay brought "legal and Constitutional redistricting to Texas" since a group of lawyers (including several conservatives) at the Department of Justice unanimously disagreed. (If you missed it, the lawyers were put under a unusual gag order, they were overruled by senior officials and later banned from evaluating such matters in the future.) I suppose Delay could argue the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on the matter, but come on, it's not like he's operating at that level of nuance.

However, the real joy is the video. You see, you've got conservatives thinking a liberal is a conservative because he mocks conservatives by adopting... oh, never mind.

A couple possibilities exist:

1) DeLay's people are really dumb.
2) DeLay's people think their donors are really dumb.
3) They sort of get Colbert's act, but watched the segment and thought, "That Colbert made some great points and sure showed Greenwald!"
4) Some bizarre combination of the above.

If nothing else, this incident is an immense compliment to Colbert's satirical powers, since evidentally he channels the Delay camp so perfectly. Either that, or they're really desperate... It's probably both. Really, all one can do is cry out:

The irony! The irony!

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Hiding of Illegal Actions

Glenn Greenwald has produced two more splendid, definitive columns. Unquestionably one of the best writers in any medium on the illegal NSA wiretaps, Greenwald points out that the Bush administration always knew the program was illegal in "Gen. Hayden admits the Administration knew it was violating FISA." And, if you missed it, this weekend Attorney General Alberto Gonzales stated that the Bush administration can and may prosecute journalists for publishing leaked, classified information that makes it look bad. Crooks and Liars has the video here. In "Imprisoning Journalists," Greenwald observes that even Nixon didn't go this far, and persuasively argues that the illegality and the efforts to cover it up are of course related. However, the main thrust of his post is a passionate defense of Freedom of the Press. The only sad thing is that it's at all necessary to write in the first place.

(In a third post, Greenwald also has a nice account of National Review editor Rich Lowry's latest hypocrisy.)

When hostility toward the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the Constitution are accepted as mainstream ideas, we're in deep trouble. When essential civil liberties are viewed as an inconvenience and basic honesty is seen as a nuisance by the key players in the White House – and no one with the power to do so challenges them - we're in grave danger.

The consistent line of the Bush administration has been: "The incompetence and illegality of our actions is not the problem. It's the damn media reporting it." Greenwald cites a Thomas Jefferson quotation that's been much used on the blogosphere of late:

"If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter."

A Mother's Nightmare in Iraq

Ellen Knickmeyer pens an absolutely chilling tale in today's Washington Post titled "An Iraqi Mother's Most Dreaded Mission: Search for Missing Son in Baghdad Only Adds to Loss and Uncertainty." Riyah Obeid, 27, goes to replace a lost ID card, which sets in motion of series of horrible events. Honestly, it reminds me the most of accounts of Nazi Germany or the Rwandan genocide. Given the situation, it's astounding any good reporting can be done in Iraq. The Shia-Sunni conflict is plainly deadly not only for high profile figures but ordinary Iraqis. As the article captures one family's growing tragedy, without chance of justice from an indifferent or hostile system, it also clearly shows their situation is frighteningly common.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Froomkin versus Kurtz on Snow

I read The Washington Post almost every day, and two of my must-reads are the weekday online columns of Howard Kurtz and Dan Froomkin. Normally, they overlap somewhat on what they cover and don't clash too directly on analysis, but their columns yesterday (Wednesday 5/17/06) on new White House Press Secretary Tony Snow were strikingly different. From Kurtz we have "Melting Snow" which focuses on the personal nature of Snow and gives him good marks overall. In contrast, Froomkin's "Two Faces of Tony Snow" highlights not only Snow's evasiveness but also how most of the press gave him both a glowing review and a pass on some glaring gaffes.

Kurtz writes:

Snow was actually . . . interesting to listen to. He seemed to be engaging the press in a conversation, rather than spending his time in a defensive crouch. Yes, he split plenty of hairs in trying to discuss the domestic eavesdropping program without confirming or denying its existence, which seems a bit silly at this stage. He occasionally seemed to wander into rhetorical trouble.

But he didn't insult the press by saying, in effect, no matter what questions you ask, I'm going to repeat the same boilerplate phrases. Maybe that will change as the talk show aura wears off. As for pulling the plug on televised briefings, I still think it's hard to grasp why President Bush would hire a Fox News veteran as his press secretary and then allow the cameras to be kicked out.

In his coverage, Froomkin quotes Kurtz but then offers a rejoinder:

"But he didn't insult the press by saying, in effect, no matter what questions you ask, I'm going to repeat the same boilerplate phrases."

Nope, he found new ways to insult the press.

How so? Froomkin covers elements Kurtz downplays or ignores, noting Snow's equivocation and evasiveness on several issues, along with Snow's use of the term "tar baby." Froomkin highlights the sections of Snow's performance I found the most maddening:

"Q In his news conference with John Howard, was the President giving kind of a back-handed confirmation of the stories that the NSA is compiling telephone --

"MR. SNOW: No, he wasn't. If you go back and listen to the answer he gave you, he was talking about foreign-to-domestic calls. The allegations in the USA Today piece , which we'll neither confirm or deny, are of a different nature. So, no, he was not giving a back-handed confirmation."

If in fact you go back to look at that transcript , there was no mention of foreign-to-domestic calls. Bush did say "if al Qaeda is calling into the United States, we want to know, and we want to know why," but then he clearly referred again to the original question, which was about the domestic database.

At his briefing, Snow proceeded to engage in precisely the same sort of back-handed discourse, actually referring to aspects of the USA Today story when it served his purposes -- but then refusing to answer any questions, when it didn't.

Here's part of his exchange with Hearst columnist Helen Thomas:

Snow: "[Y]ou're mentioning a USA Today story about which this administration has no comment. But I would direct you back to the USA Today story itself, and if you analyze what that story said, what did it say? It said there is no wiretapping of individual calls, there is no personal information that is being relayed. There is no name, there is no address, there is no consequence of the calls, there's no description of who the party on the other end is.

"Q Privacy was breached by turning over their phone numbers.

"MR. SNOW: Well, again, you are jumping to conclusions about a program, the existence of which we will neither confirm, nor deny."

When Snow turned away from Thomas to Martha Raddatz of ABC News, she followed up:

"Q You might repeat the same thing, but why not declassify this? I mean, the President did talk about the surveillance program a day after The New York Times broke that story. This would seem to affect far more people, and it did sound like the President was confirming that story today. He was answering Terry's question --

"MR. SNOW: Well, if you go back -- if you go back and you look through what he said, there was a reference to foreign-to-domestic calls. I am not going to stand up here and presume to declassify any kind of program. That is a decision the President has to make. I can't confirm or deny it. The President was not confirming or denying."

Then Snow continued: "Again, I would take you back to the USA Today story, simply to give you a little context. Look at the poll that appeared the following day. While there was -- part of it said 51 percent of the American people opposed, if you look at when people said, if there is a roster of phone numbers, do you feel comfortable that -- I'm paraphrasing and I apologize -- but something like 64 percent of the polling was not troubled by it. Having said that, I don't want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program -- the alleged program -- the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.

"Q But there are polls that show Americans are very concerned about it.

"MR. SNOW: The President -- you cannot run a security -- you cannot base national security on poll numbers. As the President of the United States you have to make your own judgments about what is in the nation's best interest.

"Q You just brought it up, though.

"MR. SNOW: Well, I did bring it up because what you were talking about is how people were concerned about privacy issues, and I tried to relate to you what happened. It was interesting, when people were given the specifics in that story, they did not seem to be terribly troubled."

Let's unpack that. First of all, not only was Snow citing poll results when it suited him, then getting righteously indignant when a reporter cited poll results that didn't, but he didn't have his facts straight.

I think Froomkin nails it here. The pretense is annoying. Qwest confirmed the program's existence, as did the President indirectly. And speaking in defense of it, Orrin Hatch has subsequently confirmed the program exists. Talking to the American people and the press as if they're idiot children isn't exactly encouraging. One more look at my favorite paragraph:

Snow: "[Y]ou're mentioning a USA Today story about which this administration has no comment. But I would direct you back to the USA Today story itself, and if you analyze what that story said, what did it say? It said there is no wiretapping of individual calls, there is no personal information that is being relayed. There is no name, there is no address, there is no consequence of the calls, there's no description of who the party on the other end is.

Give that man a doublespeak award! Here Snow essentially says, "There's no reason to be worried about a program that I won't confirm exists." More than that, here and in other responses, he argues that if this program that may exist existed, the American people wouldn't be bothered by its existence! How exactly can one boast about the restraints of a non-existent program? He refuses to comment on and thus indirectly challenges the essential point of the USA Today article, that this call-tracking program exists, then cites the article itself as support for his mollifications! This is all just silly.

My own take is that Tony Snow deserves a little slack as he gets used to the job, but if he goes on like this, I certainly won't respect him any more than Bush whipping boy and ineffective PR flack Scott McClellan. The "let's all pretend that I'm not lying" tact wears out veeery fast.

As to the "tar baby" reference, it clearly was not intended as a racist comment (ironically, Snow used the term "segregate" only a minute or so previously). I'm frankly a bit heartened to see a Bush administration use a non-sports metaphor. However, as evocative a metaphor as "tar baby" is, the term is loaded these days because of its use as a racial insult. Snow has pledged not to use it again, even if he's decried people for taking offense. I give him a pass on this one.

Tony Snow also managed some inadvertent comedy when he forget he no longer worked for Fox and referred to ABC as a "competing network."

As to Kurtz and Froomkin, I feel both do valuable work. Kurtz is officially The Post's media critic and also hosts a weekend show on CNN. Froomkin is officially a columnist and his work is labeled "opinion." While Kurtz gets bashed by the liberal blogosphere at times, sometimes deservedly so, overall I feel he does a good job. He can get testy at times when challenged, but he does admit mistakes. His fault as I see it is that he's essentially civil but also assumes that all other media combatants are as well. Very much part of the professional chattering class, Kurtz tends to fall into the false equivalency trap of “he said, she said” at times without always grilling folks that lie or distort things. He also quotes, far too often, shallow conservative blowhards like John Hinderaker and Jonah Goldberg. I prefer my conservatives intelligent; spare us the JV pundit team.

Froomkin, meanwhile, is fiercely pro-accountability. He grilled the Clinton administration as well, but the Bush administration has given him a wealth of material. What’s particularly refreshing about Froomkin is he’s willing to come out and say someone lied if they did. He brings some of the irreverence of a good editorial cartoonist to a researcher’s zeal for detail and is dedicated to journalistic transparency. Case in point: he made a mistake in the column I’ve linked above. He amended a correction to it by about 6:00pm that night and directly addressed it as an item in his column today. I like that. Kurtz is more measured but sometimes overly cautious, Froomkin is more opinionated and biting. Both provide a great round-up of the major stories of the day with a glimpse at what everyone’s saying about them. And both do champion the work of bloggers.

(Finally, having recently been the victim of an atrocious copy editor, I feel compelled to point out I'd never make it in that position. Copy editors inevitably adore bad puns for article titles and would inevitably have worked the already overused pun "snow job" into this blog post title. Or then there's "Kurtz Sunny on Snow, Froomkin Rains on Parade.")

Waas' Plamegate Coverage

Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher has a great post that links every single Plamegate article by investigative reporter Murray Waas, complete with dates and 1-2 sentence summaries. Jane also provides an entertaining supposition for how Plamegate coverage develops in the news. Needless to say, Waas continues to be the pioneer (or as Jane puts it, "Exhibit A"), breaking the majority of developments in this affair and featuring the highest level of accuracy to date.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Republicans Move to Obstruct Judicial Review of NSA Program

Glenn Greenwald links to an article from The Hill that reports:

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and conservative members of his panel have reached agreement on legislation that may determine the legality of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program, GOP sources say.

Specter has mollified conservative opposition to his bill by agreeing to drop the requirement that the Bush administration seek a legal judgment on the program from a special court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

Instead, Specter agreed to allow the administration to retain an important legal defense by allowing the court, which holds its hearings in secret, to review the program only by hearing a challenge from a plaintiff with legal standing, said a person familiar with the text of language agreed to by Specter and committee conservatives.

Glenn's post on this is one of the most chilling, dismaying things I've read in a long time. As bad as the systematic attack on civil liberties by the Bush administration has been, I had wanted to believe that when push came to shove, Congress would stand up for the Constitution. One absolutely infuriating paragraph reports:

Conservative Republicans who pushed for the change say that it will help quell concerns about the measure’s constitutionality and allow the White House to retain a basic legal defense.

BULLSHIT. The change does not help quell "concerns about the measure's constitutionality." It avoids them. This is unconscionable. If this move succeeds, it will cause lasting, serious harm to the Constitution and our country. How the hell can anyone who serves in Congress believe for a second that this move is either moral or responsible? This move is so transparently vile civility cannot stand. As The Hill reports:

An expert in constitutional law and national security, however, said that the change would allow the administration to throw up huge obstacles to anyone seeking to challenge the program’s legality.

The Hill article goes on to quote this expert, "Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University who specializes in constitutional law" at some length over the serious problems this move creates.

As Glenn Greenwald points out yet again:

Could anything be more obvious at this point than the fact that the Bush administration deeply fears having the legality of its eavesdropping activities adjudicated by a federal court? They have engaged in one maneuver after the next to prevent that adjudication.

One would think that if they really believed that they had the clear-cut legal justification for warrantless eavesdropping which they claim to have, they would be eager to have a court rule on this issue so that this unpleasant controversy -- with all of these mean-spirited and utterly baseless allegations of lawbreaking -- can finally be put to rest. And yet, time and again, they do precisely the opposite: they desperately invoke every available measure to prevent any judicial ruling as to the legality of their behavior.

Specter has sold out the American people and apparently his own conscience. Despite all his talk of oversight, of scrutinizing the NSA program, or grilling Bush's nominee to head the CIA, General Michael Hayden, when the time for meaningful action comes, Specter backs down. This is the man who refused to put Attorney General Alberto Gonzales under oath even after Gonzales had clearly lied to Congress. If Jack Cafferty's right that Specter "might be all that stands between us and a full blown dictatorship in this country," we are in deep trouble.

No reasonable person objects to hunting down terrorists. And there may be some far right politicians who truly believe the currently illegal NSA programs should be legal. This move has nothing to do with that, however, because it seeks to avoid having that discussion in the courts. This move is about avoiding accountability and protecting political power, nothing more. The politicians pushing for this are trying to avoid a greater scandal, greater public backlash, and personal embarrassment. Ironically, in their attempt not to look bad, they're revealed themselves as utterly craven. They're conducting a fundamental assault on American democracy for short-term political gain. The danger of this cannot be overestimated and no rhetoric opposing it can be too alarmist. The center cannot hold. It has been ransacked by the right.

The Hill article reports that more than 20 cases are "in the pipeline" that could challenge the NSA program, although if this GOP legislation passes, those cases will face an uphill battle. Let's hope Specter and other key Republicans rediscover their souls before then. In the meantime, it's time for some progressive activism.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Gutting of the CIA?

Even as George Tenet's failings and merits as CIA head continue to be evaluated in books and articles, the recently ousted Porter Goss remains a polarizing figure, as does the man President Bush has tapped to take over this important job, General Michael Hayden. What state has Goss left things in?

Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report did a guest post at Crooks and Liars on 4/25/06 detailing how recently ousted CIA head Porter Goss was given instructions to purge Democrats from the CIA.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius provides further insight into the dynamics of the CIA under Goss in a great 5/11/06 piece entitled How the CIA Came Unglued. A new Newsweek article by Mark Hosenball on "Dusty" Foggo supports Ignatius' piece and touches briefly on what many bloggers are calling "Hookergate."

Before delving into the Ignatius and Hosenball pieces, for a broader perspective I wanted to visit a conservative who champions both Goss and Hayden. In a Washington Post online chat, Peter Brookes, "a former intelligence officer with the CIA's Directorate of Operations and now a senior fellow in National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation," provided some interesting responses:

Washington, D.C.: What sort of job has Porter Goss done and why would Hayden be any better or worse?

Peter Brookes: Porter Goss did a good job under very difficult circumstances. The agency was in disarray after 9/11 and the failure to find WMD in Iraq. In my view, he shook things up and set the agency off in a new direction. It's a good time for someone else to step in and take the helm.

Note that Brookes blames the CIA for the failure to find WMD in Iraq. Hmm, shouldn't someone that works in a think tank be aware of the 11,000th whistleblower article on how the Bush administration misused prewar intelligence? They ignored not only significant internal dissent in the CIA as to whether Iraq possessed WMD or posed any serious threat, but also actively ignored or suppressed evidence that Iraq did not posses nuclear material and was not building a centrifuge.

Brookes pleads ignorance on the witch hunt charges, which is fine, I suppose, but it raises questions about how tapped in he really is:

San Diego, Calif.: Do you have a comment about the recent reports that Director Goss was conducting a review of the political party affiliations of CIA personnel? If that's true, did it play a part, one way or the other, in Goss's departure?

Peter Brookes: Haven't heard anything like that...

Brookes does take at least one polite but fairly pointed question on Goss:

Richmond, Va.: Thanks for taking questions. The Bush administration has blamed the CIA for bad intel about WMD in Iraq (and I don't believe them). This administration has outed an operative as a means of discrediting her husband, and claimed that they can declassify information at will. This administration has chosen to place a greater value on the DOD intelligence group. Putting Porter Goss in as Director served to purge a lot of valuable talent out of the agency. It seems to me Gen. Hayden could be just the fellow to finish the CIA off, or get pretty close to it. Your thoughts?

Peter Brookes: There is another school of thought that says that many of those that left the CIA since Goss came in were responsible for many of the failures in recent years. So should Goss have kept them? I don't think Hayden is being sent to Langley to close the place down.

Brookes essentially offers a "there are two sides to every story" defense of Goss while completely ducking the most troubling points made by the questioner. I find it hard to believe that any intellectually honest person following the news could believe that the Bush administration did not misuse and cherry-pick intelligence. While the CIA had its problems, it's clear that the Bush administration scapegoated the CIA (Tenet's role taking the undeserved blame regarding the uranium claims in the SOTU is well-documented at this point; for just a taste, see a Slate piece by Saletan from 2003 and a 2005 piece by Dickerson).

To be fair to Brookes, an online discussion necessitates expediency, and you can read his opinions in more depth here, including an enthusiastically pro-Hayden piece. Regarding Hayden, he takes a supremely relevant question:

Louisville, Ky.: Gen. Hayden seems to have a shocking misunderstanding of the Fourth Amendment, pleading ignorance of probable cause in recent interviews.
Please calm my fears that Hayden disagrees with the President, and does not think it acceptable to spy on average Americans without a warrant.

Peter Brookes: My belief is that the NSA wiretapping program should be legal and focused on the bad guys. That said, I think we'll see a lot more discussion of this during Hayden's confirmation hearings.

Brookes' answer is cursory and somewhat unclear here. Does he then acknowledge that both revealed NSA programs are currently illegal? Does he acknowledge that the call-tracking program currently targets innocent Americans by collecting everyone's phone records versus only the "bad guys?" I can credit Brookes for taking a good question, but he immediately loses all credit by completely ignoring it! Here he ducks the glaring issue of the 4th Amendment and also glosses over Hayden's apparent ignorance of, or disregard for, the essential law that governs his very important job! At this point, I have to put Brookes in the polite cheerleader camp. He trusts the guys in charge and will not address any of the glaring, serious concerns about their conduct. I'm using Brookes as an example because he purports to be a serious thinker and is much more civil than many another Bush administration backer (and his responses have been much on my mind).

As to evaluating the job Goss did, on 5/11/06 Dana Priest provided some insight in her weekly WaPo online chat:

Pittsburgh, Pa.: How do you read the move to reinstate Stephen Kappes at the CIA? This seems very unusual does it not? Do you know him?

Dana Priest: I certainly know of him, so to speak. It was truly a stunner, given the direct political slap it was to Goss' judgment. Kappes was the first senior officer to leave in protest when Goss took over. I read it as a way for the White House, through Negroponte, to ask for forgiveness and to get them back into business. I would also think he would actually be running the place much like George Tenet did and maybe Hayden would do more of the interagency work and vision thing.

Meanwhile, Ignatius' column reports on the deadly trio at the CIA, Porter Goss, his staff director Patrick Murray, and Goss' #3, "Dusty" Foggo, whose house was recently raided by FBI agents with the cooperation of the CIA. Ignatius posits that Foggo's "rise illustrates the conservative cronyism, leak paranoia and political vendettas that undermined Goss's tenure." He elaborates by describing the dangerous agency culture created by Goss:

When Goss and Murray arrived at the CIA in the fall of 2004, their first choice for the agency's No. 3 job of executive director was a former CIA officer named Michael Kostiw, who had many friends in conservative political circles. But Kostiw's nomination was sabotaged when a CIA insider leaked the fact that he had once been accused of shoplifting. The charges were dropped after Kostiw resigned and agreed to seek counseling. Kostiw's past made him an inappropriate choice for such a senior position, in the view of many career CIA officers, but to Murray the leak was evidence of a liberal cabal at the CIA that was determined to obstruct the Bush administration's agenda.

Goss's second choice for executive director was the ingratiating logistical officer. As is standard procedure with such senior appointments, Murray and other senior aides were briefed on Foggo's file, which included what one former CIA official describes as instances of "dumb personal behavior." The briefers included Mary Margaret Graham, then chief of counterintelligence, and Jeanette Moore, then head of the Office of Security, who, according to ABC News, had once reprimanded Foggo about alleged insubordination, though the CIA says a formal letter was never filed. Murray rejected the material about Foggo as petty and is said to have warned Graham, "If this leaks, you're dead."

Foggo was duly installed on the seventh floor and, to the amusement of his colleagues, began placing pictures of himself prominently around headquarters. Meanwhile, a period of internal bloodletting ensued that was worthy of the Soviet NKVD under Joseph Stalin. The associate deputy chief of the CIA's Directorate of Operations, Michael Sulick, complained angrily to Murray about his tongue-lashing of Graham, arguing that he was treating CIA officers as if they were Democratic congressional staffers. An indignant Murray thereupon demanded that Sulick be fired for insubordination. His boss, Operations Deputy Director Stephen Kappes, refused Murray's demand, and both he and Sulick resigned.

The aforemention Newsweek article by Mark Hosenball supports the views of Priest and Ignatius (Newsweek is owned by The Post, which also owns Slate):

May 22, 2006 issue - Until a few days ago, Kyle (Dusty) Foggo was one of the most feared men at the CIA. A hot-tempered former cop, Foggo was chosen by CIA Director Porter Goss to be the powerful No. 3 man at the agency, in charge of hiring and firing. Foggo seemed to put a lot of effort into firing. With Goss's blessing, he carried out what amounted to a purge of the agency, forcing out most of the CIA's top management, as well as spies and analysts who were thought to be too close to former director George Tenet, or too close to the Democrats. When Foggo walked down the corridor, people worried he was coming for them.
It's now up to Goss's replacement—presumably Gen. Michael Hayden, if he survives the confirmation process—to clean up the mess the Goss crew left behind. Last week Negroponte said he wants to appoint Stephen Kappes to fill the job of deputy director. The announcement was a very public slap at Goss. A former Marine and veteran case officer with a storied career, Kappes was head of the CIA's clandestine service when Goss took over the agency. Years earlier, when Bill Clinton was president, Goss's Capitol Hill aides had feuded with Kappes over an incident at the CIA station in Belgrade. CIA officers, informed they were about to be attacked, fled the building without first burning all of the secret papers. Goss's aides demanded that the station chief be fired, even though an investigation, led by Kappes, showed no secrets had been compromised. Kappes refused to fire the official. Goss and his aides never forgot it, and when Goss became director Kappes was one of the first to be shoved out. Kappes, who now lives overseas, has been back to Washington for talks and is believed to be interested in returning to Langley. Thanks to the previous tenants, there will be plenty of work for him to do—and undo.

But what sort of mandate will exist to fix the CIA? And according to whose idea of "fixing?" Ignatius concludes his column:

The chronic mismanagement of the CIA under Goss and Murray has been an open secret for many months, and the real question is why it took the Bush White House so long to fix it. When I posed this question a few weeks ago to a senior administration official, he repeated the line that the agency was full of leakers and obstructionists. The political vendetta against the CIA went to the top, in other words. It did real damage to the country before President Bush finally called a halt.

Goss apparently still has fierce champions in the Bush administration, even though Brookes is apparently unaware of the party line on this, pleaded ignorance, or tried to adopt a disinterested stance. Who really made the call on Goss stepping down, or pushed for it, and why? While tensions did exist at the agency, the firing criteria for Bush has almost exclusively been perceived disloyalty and never horrible mismanagement. Goss was rooting out Bush's perceived enemies, and it's hard to see him objecting to that. Despite the official denials, the most credible narrative right now remains that Goss' resignation was primarily (but not necessarily exclusively) to minimize the erupting scandal centered on the activities of Dusty Foggo.

Moving forward, Kappes appears to be highly regarded by just about everybody. Meanwhile, some reporters and pundits posit that Negroponte wants Hayden to serve as a bulwark against the highly influential Donald Rumsfeld (Dana Priest discusses this view here). How partisan is Negroponte, and how much is Hayden? Hayden has critics and supporters of every political stripe. He deserves intense scrutiny as the head of the NSA during its highly controversial and unconstitutional warrantless spying programs. While it seems Kappes' return to the CIA would surely make the agency better, Hayden's stated ignorance of, or disdain for, the 4th Amendment does not give great comfort. I'll be watching Specter's NSA and CIA hearings with great interest.

Reporters' Phones Tapped?

I doubt there's any major reporter that didn't wonder about his or her phone being tapped when news broke of the NSA call-tracking program. Today, there's evidence that even if reporter's phones are not being tapped, their phone records are being scrutinized. Joshua Micah Marshall at Talking Points Memo links a story posted by ABC's Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross:

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

How worried should they be? Well:

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

Does this impulse originate from the CIA or the White House, and are they in accord? Because Porter Goss, a partisan Bush political appointee, has until very recently been running the CIA, it's highly unlikely this activity would proceed without Bush's implicit approval and may be the result of an explicit order from his administration.

Ross reports ABC is under scrutiny because of their reporting on CIA secret prisons and the CIA use of predator missiles in Pakistan. At The New York Times, the targets would undoubtedly include James Risen and Eric Lichtblau for their Pulitzer-winning work revealing another illegal NSA program of domestic surveillance. At The Washington Post, one of the targets would have to be Dana Priest, who also just won a Pulitzer, for her excellent reporting about CIA black op prisons located in foreign countries and the practice of "extraordinary rendition."

In Dana Priest's weekly online chat on 5/11/06, one interchange made the rounds in the blogosphere:

Rockville, Md.: Isn't it possible that the massive database of phone records could also be used to expose whistleblowers, reporters onto stories damaging to the Bush administration, and/or political opponents of the current administration?

Dana Priest: hmmm. sure hope we can answer that for you, and for me, by the end of the day.

Two other interchanges received less play on the web but are also essential:

Anonymous: Dana - How does the NSA data "drift net" that was exposed today differ from the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program led by Poindexter that was supposedly disbanded? Did the Pentagon just continue the program under a different name?

Dana Priest: That's a possibility. We don't know yet.
Washington, D.C.: In response to anonymous and TIA, this from Feb 2006--The National Journal reports that the Pentagon transferred two of the most important TIA components of TIA to Advanced Research and Development Activity (ARDA), located at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. One piece was the Information Awareness Prototype System. It helped extract, analyze and disseminate data collected under the project. Once the Senate cut off funding, ARDA stepped forward to fund the program and it was given a new name "Basketball." All references to TIA were dropped

Dana Priest: thank you. passing on...

The National Journal article can be read here. William Arkin has previously reported on his Washington Post blog Early Warning similar news. When the Pentagon was criticized for performing surveillance on Quakers, vegetarians, lesbians and peace groups (NBC's account here and Arkin's account here), and illegally retained records they were required to destroy, essentially they merely moved the program to escape further scrutiny.

So are Dana Priest's phone records being scrutinized, along with other recent Pulitzer winners at The Times? Considering the track record and mentality of the Bush administration, I'd frankly be shocked if they hadn't at least inquired about such an action. If they already possessed the records, provided by the NSA call-tracking program, and they wanted to track down the government officials who leaked information that made them look bad, what would restrain them? Unless there was serious internal dissent, I can't imagine them holding back… After all, in the Plame affair, Bush has not launched his own investigation, fired people, acknowledged a problem and pledged to do things differently (in fact, he authorized Libby to leak classified information while publicly decrying leaking!). Similarly, with their secret torture policy, the Bush administration faced serious opposition in private from career officials of integrity such as Alberto J. Mora but merely did an end-run around them. The same pattern has played out again and again: we can do anything we want to do, we will not be forthcoming, and we will only reveal information or act in an honorable fashion when outmaneuvered and forced to do so.

The exact extent of any activity against reporters is of course unclear, but the Bush administration doesn't need much information to work with, and who the hell trusts these guys? As Ross reports:

Under Bush Administration guidelines, it is not considered illegal for the government to keep track of numbers dialed by phone customers.

The official who warned ABC News said there was no indication our phones were being tapped so the content of the conversation could be recorded.

A pattern of phone calls from a reporter, however, could provide valuable clues for leak investigators.

Who watches the watchmen? And who are the watchmen? On Friday, 5/14/06, The New York Times' Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau reported that after 9/11 Vice President Dick Cheney and key aide David Addington pushed the NSA to conduct warrantless wiretaps, according to "two senior intelligence officials":

If people suspected of links to Al Qaeda made calls inside the United States, the vice president and Mr. Addington thought eavesdropping without warrants "could be done and should be done," one of them said.

He added: "That's not what the N.S.A. lawyers think."

The other official said there was "a very healthy debate" over the issue. The vice president's staff was "pushing and pushing, and it was up to the N.S.A. lawyers to draw a line and say absolutely not."

Healthy debate? Riiiiight. When in the history of the Office of the Vice Presidency has Dick Cheney and his staff ever backed off? From the Iraq war, to torture policy, to energy policy, to taxes, to transparency, to unilateral executive power, the occasions Cheney has not gotten his way are few, if any exist. The fact that a program he wanted currently exists suggests that the usual pattern of Cheney prevailing continued.

As to these latest revelations about reporters under scrutiny, Josh Marshall cogently observes:

I think part of the issue for many people on the administration's various forms of surveillance is not just that some of [their] activities seem to be illegal or unconstitutional on their face. I think many people are probably willing to be open-minded, for better or worse, on pushing the constitutional envelope. But given the people in charge of the executive branch today, you just can't have any confidence that these tools will be restricted to targeting terrorists. Start grabbing up phone records to data-mine for terrorists and then the tools are just too tempting for your leak investigations. Once you do that, why not just keep an eye on your critics too? After all, they're the ones most likely to get the leaks, right? So, same difference. The folks around the president don't recognize any real distinctions among those they consider enemies. So we'd be foolish to think they wouldn't bring these tools to bear on all of them. Once you set aside the law as your guide for action and view the president's will as a source of legitimacy in itself, then everything becomes possible and justifiable.

Power without checks and balances, without oversight, almost always leads to abuse. As with most issues with the Bush administration, this really comes down to, do you trust these guys? If Bush's current job approval ratings are any indication, over 70% of the country says no (Bush's personal ratings have plummeted as well). Given that this administration has never restrained its own power through governmental oversight or simple moral conscience, why would anyone believe they would voluntarily start doing so now?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

"Cheney Penned Note About Plame"

The Washington Post’s Jeffrey Smith reports that Vice President Dick Cheney wrote a note about Valerie Plame Wilson, according to a filing by Patrick Fitzgerald. The article suggests that Cheney wrote this note after Joseph Wilson penned his now-famous op-ed in The New York Times and before Libby revealed Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity and position to reporters. The article is very short but absolutely essential reading if you’ve been following this case:

After former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV publicly criticized a key rationale for the war in Iraq, Vice President Cheney wrote a note on a newspaper clipping raising the possibility that the critique resulted from a CIA-sponsored "junket" arranged by Wilson's wife, covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, according to court documents filed late Friday.

The filing by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is the second that names Cheney as a key White House official who questioned the legitimacy of Wilson's examination of Iraqi nuclear ambitions. It further suggests that Cheney helped originate the idea in his office that Wilson's credibility was undermined by his link to Plame.

Even though the note raises precisely the line of attack used on Joseph and Valerie Wilson, Cheney of course still has deniability:

Fitzgerald does not allege in his filing that Cheney ordered Libby to disclose Plame's identity. But he states that Cheney's note to Libby helps "explain the context of, and provide a motive for" many of the later statements and actions by Libby.

The main purpose of the filing by Fitzgerald appears to be establishing this motive for Libby:

Fitzgerald also says in the filing that after columnist Robert D. Novak published the first newspaper article mentioning Plame's name on July 14, 2003 -- the disclosure that sparked Fitzgerald's investigation -- a CIA official discussed in Libby's presence "the dangers posed by disclosure of the CIA affiliation of one of its employees."

This conversation, Fitzgerald said, directly undermines Libby's claims that he had no reason to believe he or others had done anything wrong and had no reason to lie to the FBI. It also helps explain, Fitzgerald said, why Libby told a grand jury he thought Wilson was fully qualified to go on the trip and he was unsure if Wilson was even married.

This is huge. This strongly suggests:

1. Libby’s defense that he learned of Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity and position from reporters is completely blown out of the water (I suspect it was already).

2. Libby knew Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert status and that it was sensitive, but revealed it anyway. At the very least, he knew it was wrong to do so and perhaps he specifically knew it was illegal to do so.

3. Fitzgerald has proof of Libby lying beyond what’s he’s been indicted for: Libby definitively knew Wilson was married but pretended otherwise to the grand jury. This is important because it establishes a pattern of deceptive behavior and helps establish motive: Libby knew what he did was wrong and therefore tried to cover it up. Libby also apparently spoke well of Wilson to the grand jury ('I have nothing personal against Wilson' or something similar, I'm sure). Previous reports by Murray Waas and others paint a picture of Libby being obsessed with Wilson. While there's some possibility such stories were planted to depict Libby as a rogue agent and thus distance him from Cheney and others, I suspect Ftizgerald has both testimony and Libby's own meticulous notes to establish Libby's interest was rabid, not dispassionate. None of that helps his credibility with a jury.

4. Cheney had a much more direct hand in this than previously disclosed, although he still has deniability. Libby can claim he acted overzealously on behalf of his boss.

5. The defense "Of course I didn't lie, because I'd have to be stupid to do have done so" is less convincing when there's proof positive you've lied. Then all you've established is that you're a stupid or arrogant liar instead of just a liar. Just a thought.

While none of the above is shocking to those that have followed this case closely, it’s nice to have more evidence. Even though previous reports indicated that Cheney told Libby about Plame, now we know specifically about Cheney’s note and the article quotes some of its contents.

The filing also establishes a pattern of recklessness and misusing privileged information for political purposes:

The new filing also expands on Fitzgerald's revelation last month that Libby had disclosed portions of a previously classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq by describing portions of it to a Times reporter. It states that Libby also provided -- "through another government official" -- a copy of portions of the NIE to the Wall Street Journal before it published a July 17, 2003, editorial on that subject.

Dan Froomkin had a great summary of the NIE leak news back in his 4/10/06 WaPo column. The revelatory news was that President Bush, in what appears to be glaring hypocrisy, authorized Libby’s leak. I feel Froomkin summed it better than anyone else when he wrote (emphasis mine):

To the extent that McClellan said anything related to the Libby revelation, it was to suggest that the president is incapable of leaking classified information -- because once he utters it, it is automatically declassified. By contrast, he had nothing but scorn for leaks of classified information that he said could compromise national security.

By that logic, however, the White House owes us answers to these questions: How was is it in the public interest or the national security interest to leak highly selective, misleading excerpts from a discredited document in an attempt to disparage someone making what turned out to be accurate charges that the administration exaggerated prewar intelligence?

Is there any evidence that Joseph Wilson's charges were doing any damage to national security -- rather than to Bush's political standing and credibility?

And conversely, is there any evidence that national security was compromised by the other leaks that the administration has responded to so ferociously? And would most Americans not agree that knowing about such things as domestic spying or secret prisons is in the public interest?

Libby provides a clear pattern of leaking classified information for political purposes. In the case of the NIE, he was authorized to do so by Cheney and Bush. Was he authorized to leak Plame's identity? This is still unknown. I suspect Bush is not hands-on enough to have authorized it, but Cheney is another matter. At the very least, Cheney and David Addington unquestionably would have approved of Libby's actions even if they didn't know the details. There's little doubt these guys both play hardball and feel entitled to take out anyone they view as an enemy. I find it hard to believe, though, that they didn't know about it. But Cheney has a long history of getting other folks to throw themselves on their swords for him. Barring a Colonel Jessup moment of Cheney brazenly admitting his role and justifying it (Libby's defense has flirted with this approach by trying to attack the irrelevant issue of Wilson's credibilty), I don't envision Cheney's true role coming out. (And I think even boy scout Patrick Fitzgerald would pause before pursuing the Vice President and President.)

While Fitzgerald likely could nail Libby for revealing Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert status (the original subject of the investigation) the relevant statute makes it difficult to prove. Even if he has the goods, Fitzgerald may feel it’s too distracting... but going back to his original press conference, the entire issue at that time was that Fitzgerald could not bring charges because of Libby’s obstruction of justice. Fitzgerald is very by the book and the fact he didn’t bring those charges then does not preclude him from doing so in the future. There’s little doubt Libby knew what he was doing would at the very least look very bad if revealed. He may well have known what he was doing was illegal, but that may be a point of contention still. Finally, Fitzgerald may wish to avoid punishing the act of leaking itself because of the potentially chilling effect on future reporting.

My take on this entire affair has always been this was business as usual for Rove, Libby, and Cheney, but this time at least two of them got caught because by accident or design they happened to break the law. I do not believe knowing the law would have dissuaded them, however, only made them more cautious in their smear of Wilson. I do not think they ever expected to get caught, out of a combination of hubris and the fact that loyalist John Ashcroft was originally in charge of the investigation.

As to their defense strategy, even in a White House busy with "doing the people's business" or waging a brain-numbing disinformation campaign where those pesky "details" slip away, there's no way Rove and Libby "forgot." Wilson was a prominent, credible critic that forced an administration unwilling to admit mistakes to publicly acknowledge a huge and embarrasing mistake. Murray Waas also posits that Rove was worried more information would come out, for instance that Bush was briefed on the serious doubts about the aluminum tubing intel,and that such revelations could fatally derail Bush's re-election. The obvious motive and modus operandi of Libby and Rove is "slander your opponents." However, Waas essentially invokes Nixon by offering a more urgent motive: to preserve George W. Bush's presidency.

In the spirit of making bold, irresponsible predictions, I suspect the Karl Rove will be indicted for perjury and making false statements... I’m less sure of obstruction of justice charges, but I’ll go with that, too. I suspect Fitzgerald will make the announcement in the next two weeks (Firedoglake was taking bets; I'm guessing most likely between Wednesday 5/24 and Friday 5/26). I’d be surprised if it took more than a month for some sort of announcement. There’s an outside chance Rove may be completely cleared, but I’d put the odds of that at 10% or less.

UPDATE: Jeralyn Meritt of TalkLeft has posted the actual filing and provides links to some of the usual suspects' analysis of it (firedoglake, emptywheel, and Tom Maguire, who provide greater legal acumen than I possess). I'm in dire need of sleep now, but I've glanced over some of the commentary and look forward to reading the actual 38-page document. Currently, my main question would be the date of Libby's note. Does Jeffrey Smith possess independent verification of the date? Smith reports the note was written on a newspaper clipping of the Wilson op-ed itself, therefore it seems safe to assume that Cheney penned it very soon after publication, certainly far in advance of Novak's infamous column revealing Plame's CIA status. More sensible analysis tomorrow, I hope.

UPDATE II: Blame a tired brain. Smith states, and Maguire picks up on the same point, that Fitzgerald describes Libby as being warned about the sensitivity of Plame's status after the publication of Novak's column. This does not preclude that Libby knew this beforehand. Really, he should have known, since he reportedly knew Plame was involved in curtailing WMD proliferation. However, charging Libby under the specific leaking statute originally posited would requiring proving that Libby knew what he was doing. While Fitzgerald may suspect this and even have proof, currently he is offering evidence not to charge Libby with the leak itself, but to establish Libby's motives for lying to the grand jury.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Doonesbury: BD's PTSD

If you missed it, Gary Trudeau ran an exceptional series of strips for Doonesbury not long ago. If you haven't been following the strip for a while, the strip's most staunchly conservative character, B.D. (they guy who previously always wore a helmet), lost part of his leg in Iraq. In addition to dealing with physical therapy, B.D. has been struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He's reluctantly been seeing a vet counselor, Elias (Trudeau provides links for vets seeking similar services). Trudeau's managed to broach some very delicate subjects with great sensitivity and humour. It's easy to argue the humour makes the subject matter more palatable, but striking the right balance with the humour is anything but easy.

This latest storyline, on PTSD, starts up on April, Monday, 4/17/06, but really takes off with the Wednesday strip, running for two weeks up to Saturday, 4/29. There's a related stand-alone Sunday strip the next day, 4/30 (it won the WaPo humour columnist Gene Weingarten's Comic Pick of the Week).

Personal note: Once upon a time, I wanted to be a cartoonist or comic book artist, and even took a few no-credit classes as a kid in the summer at the Smithsonian. Walt Kelly's Pogo for me is still probably the pinnacle for its blend of great artwork, good gags even a kid can appreciate, and deeper sophistication for adults. His political satire on McCarthy remains one of the triumphs of the medium. But Doonesbury is without question one of the all-time greats. Trudeau was in the running for a Pulitzer for a moving, tasteful AIDS-death storyline years ago. I hope the Pulitzer board recognizes his work soon.

The Iceberg Cometh

I find I disagree with William Arkin's analysis occasionally, but his Washington Post blog Early Warning often provides valuable information about the U.S. intelligence community. His coverage of the Pentagon's surveillance programs were among the most comprehensive you'd find anywhere. Today, his entry is "Telephone Records are just the Tip of NSA's Iceberg." He reports:

The National Security Agency and other U.S. government organizations have developed hundreds of software programs and analytic tools to "harvest" intelligence, and they've created dozens of gigantic databases designed to discover potential terrorist activity both inside the United States and overseas.

These cutting edge tools -- some highly classified because of their functions and capabilities -- continually process hundreds of billions of what are called "structured" data records, including telephone call records and e-mail headers contained in information "feeds" that have been established to flow into the intelligence agencies.

The multi-billion dollar program, which [sic] began before 9/11 but has been accelerated since then. Well over 100 government contractors have participated, including both small boutique companies whose products include commercial off-the-shelf software and some of the largest defense contractors, who have developed specialized software and tools exclusively for government use.

Arkin goes on on to list "some 500 software tools, databases, data mining and processing efforts contracted for, under development or in use at the NSA and other intelligence agencies today." I'd be interested to know how many of the programs Arkin mentions are domestic versus foreign, and how many of these programs target ordinary, innocent Americans. As one commentator points out, one program is ironically named "Freedom." Other commentators added a few more programs to the list!

The Post typically has some very smart, well-informed readers. A few other comments struck me:

"1. A secret spy agency under investigation by the US Department of Justice told the Justice Department to stop... and it did.
2. I paraphrase Benjamin Franklin "Those who would give up liberty for a sense of security deserve neither."

"Didn't Bush say yesterday, when questioned about NSA's examination of phone records: "We're not mining or trawling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. . ." I know Bush claims they are not examining the content of the calls, only usage patterns, etc., but isn't Bush's statement denying "mining or trawling" simply not true? Has the press pointed this out?"

""The multi-billion dollar program, which began before 9/11 but has been accelerated since then." I find this potentially very alarming. How long "before" 9/11 did this program begin ? who asked
for it, what were the stated reasons at the time (before 9/11) ????"

"Spying is a necessity in a hostile world and this has been recognized for ages. What is new and very dangerous is that this is now happening in America WITHOUT OVERSIGHT."

Yet again, no sane American would claim that the government should not monitor terrorists. However, there's no reason not to do it legally. Any system without oversight and accountability invites abuse. For all this activity, Osama bin Laden is still free… and guess what, he's not hiding out in Topeka and making phone calls to Domino's. Despite the consistent, obtuse cries that revealing such programs helps the enemy, of course terrorists, like mobsters, suspect every phone call might be tapped! Bin Laden reportedly uses hand-written notes and I'm sure al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations use disposable cell phones. The Moussaoui trial reminds us that the FBI's problem regarding 9/11 was not that they lacked the intelligence they needed; they didn't act on it. It's really quite shameful that bin Laden has still not been caught, especially since we had the opportunity to do so at Tora Bora. However, the Constitution, and its observance domestically, is a much more important issue. Fear should never lead to curtailing essential civil liberties. But even that misses the point somewhat; choosing between fighting terrorism and upholding the Constitution is a false dilemma dangerous to embrace.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Laws? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Laws!

One of the most important stories of the past two weeks is Charlie Savage’s Sunday feature from 4/30/06 in The Boston Globe about the systematic disregard for the law by President Bush, who has disregarded no fewer than 750 U.S. laws. The news about the secret and illegal NSA call-tracking program makes the article all the more relevant. If you missed it, here it is. Here’s the first three paragraphs:

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, ''whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.

Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ''to take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ''execute" a law he believes is unconstitutional.

The disregard for whistle-blower protection and due process statutes are particularly troubling. But the article clearly shows that the NSA call-tracking program is perfectly in line with the Bush ideology, although not the law.

The NSA Call-Tracking Program

I think it's safe to say that the liberal blogosphere is more shocked that USA Today is the paper to break an essential story than they are by the story itself: The NSA has been collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans for the past five years or so in a massive database with the full, willing knowledge of three of the biggest phone carriers - At&T, Verizon, and BellSouth.

Anyone who remembers Alberto Gonzales parsing his words carefully before the Senate about the NSA warantless wiretap program, and his refusal to answer a question about whether other hidden NSA programs existed, will not be shocked. Anyone who's been following this administration will not be shocked. President Bush defied logic today when he:

denied that the government listens to Americans' phone calls without court approval and maintained that citizens' privacy "is fiercely protected in all our activities."

"We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of Americans," Bush said. "Our efforts are focused on links to al-Qaeda and their known affiliates."

How al-Qaeda is targeted by casting a wide net over innocent Americans is beyond me. This is not a surgical strike we're talking about. This is a massive data collection effort. How this does not violate the 4th Amendment is also beyond me.

Not surprisingly, Glenn Greenwald has written the most superb early post on this matter (that I've read, anyway). I have no doubt he'll pen more, but he highlights the same two key elements that struck me. First, per the USA Today article, these guys use bullying tactics to get their way:

The NSA, which needed Qwest's participation to completely cover the country, pushed back hard.

Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.

In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.

A second, more important issue is raised by the next two paragraphs:

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.

As Greenwald incisively observes:

We continuously hear that the Bush administration has legal authority to do anything the President orders. Claims that he is acting illegally are just frivolous and the by-product of Bush hatred. And yet, as I detailed here, each and every time the administration has the opportunity to obtain an adjudication of the legality of its conduct from a federal court (which, unbeknownst to the administration, is the branch of our government which has the authority and responsibility to interpret and apply the law), it does everything possible to avoid that adjudication.

This continuous evasion of judicial review by the administration is much more serious and disturbing than has been discussed and realized. By proclaiming the power to ignore Congressional law and to do whatever it wants in the area of national security, it is seizing the powers of the legislative branch. But by blocking courts from ruling on the multiple claims of illegality which have been made against it, the administration is essentially seizing the judicial power as well. It becomes the creator, the executor, and the interpreter of the law. And with that, the powers of all three branches become consolidated in The President, the single greatest nightmare of the founders.

As horrendous as the situation in Iraq still is, as bad as the aftermath of Katrina still is, as dire as the fiscal mismanagement has been, I have long felt that it's the Bush administration's consistent, aggressive, and systematic assault on civil liberties, due process and the Constitution itself that represent the gravest and most lasting threat to our country. An assault on the law itself – and good, essential law at that – will be far harder to reverse than the other mistakes. It sets a horrible precedent. For god's sake, has anyone in this administration read The Federalist Papers?

There is absolutely no reason America cannot fight terrorism (and of course it should) within existing laws. There is absolutely no reason to bypass FISA other than to avoid oversight and accountability. If Gonzales wants to complain about the paperwork again, perhaps he should resign and allow someone who can handle the workload to do the job. If Bush cannot honor the oath he swore to "uphold the Constitution" he should do the same.

I predict this NSA story will be the dominant one at least until Monday, and that Bush's approval ratings will finally drop below 30% (most polls place him at 31% now, with a 3% margin of error). Certain issues deserve widespread public outrage and full disclosure, and this is one of them.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Orwell Watch: Sowing the Seeds from whence Spring the Tomatoes of Freedom

The Washington Post's Al Kamen published an absolutely stunner of a column on Monday, 5/8/06 on the Bush administration's distribution of pro-Bush talking points on the state of Iraq... to the United States Department of Agriculture. His lede:

Career appointees at the Department of Agriculture were stunned last week to receive e-mailed instructions that include Bush administration "talking points" -- saying things such as "President Bush has a clear strategy for victory in Iraq" -- in every speech they give for the department.

"The President has requested that all members of his cabinet and sub-cabinet incorporate message points on the Global War on Terror into speeches, including specific examples of what each agency is doing to aid the reconstruction of Iraq," the May 2 e-mail from USDA speechwriter Heather Vaughn began.

What form does this take? Well,

The e-mail provided language "being used by Secretary [Michael O.] Johanns and deputy secretary [Charles F.] Conner in all of their remarks and is being sent to you for inclusion in your speeches."

Another attachment "contains specific examples of GWOT messages within agriculture speeches. Please use these message points as often as possible and send Harry Phillips , USDA's director of speechwriting, a weekly email summarizing the event, date and location of each speech incorporating the attached language. Your responses will be included in a weekly account sent to the White House."

I'm sure there will be gold stars and ice cream given for the best entries. Kamen's article is short and funny, so read it over. A few examples of how this works:

Now, you might still be scratching your heads, trying to figure out how this is going to work when people expect a talk about agriculture issues. Not to worry. The attachments -- which can be viewed at http://www.washingtonpost.com/fedpage
-- show how easy it is to work a little Iraq happy talk into just about anything.

There's a sample introduction: "Several topics I'd like to talk about today -- Farm Bill, trade with Japan, WTO, avian flu . . . but before I do, let me touch on a subject people always ask about . . . progress in Iraq." See? Smooth as silk.

Or there's this gem:

Be crop-specific. "The Iraqis have also discussed specific products, like tomatoes, which they are anxious to export into the world community," the e-mail notes.

If you read over the document linked above, showing some of the helpful examples of how to praise Bush's progress in Iraq while nominally speaking about corn, it's impossible not to laugh, even though this really is appalling. Every company has its own fashionable buzz words it promotes, but this is the U.S. Government! I think it's safe to say that career officials at the USDA didn't realize that promoting Bush's foreign policy was part of their job description!

Remember, it's all about politics, not policy. It's all about PR, not performance.

This really is Ministry of Truth territory, although as practiced by Commissar Barney Fife and the ilk John DeIulio dubbed "Mayberry Machiavellis."

But enough of such talk. Pass me two more of those Iraqi-grown tomatoes for the sauce. Taste that? That's freedom. And that's not the scent of garlic – that's the smell of victory.

UPDATE: The New York Times has a short op-ed on Kamen's piece titled "An Agriprop Guide to Cluck and Awe."