Scott McClellan’s book has started some extremely interesting conversations. His allegations are not especially important by themselves, mainly because it is easy to suspect ulterior motives. A number of critics have noted he has no natural allies in Washington and could not expect a soft landing at a lobbying firm or think tank; the only way for him to cash in is with blockbuster sales. Another reason could be self-justification, which may well be one of the few high growth areas created by the current administration. The broad contours of this Presidency are clearly visible now, and even the most blinkered partisans know the judgment of history will be extraordinarily harsh. As an amusing consequence there is already a budding industry of entertaining attempts to show how successful it has been (or will be). For example, Ross Douthat floated a trial balloon suggesting that if Iraq is not a complete hellhole thirty years from now the conventional wisdom will be to credit the forty third President. It was almost immediately swatted down and then essentially retracted (via). All I can add to the discussion is to refer you to John Maynard Keynes.
In any event, McClellan is not a very persuasive messenger. His argument that being caught up in the “permanent campaign” attitude in the White House does not hold up very well considering that he will not now admit to any wrongdoing. Dan Froomkin pointed back to a very ugly press briefing where McClellan defended an administration claim of authority to torture. When pressed he implied those opposed to it were against the administration “doing all [they] can to protect the American people”. Those are not the words of a stooge or a useful idiot, they are the words of an enthusiastic and dutiful propagandist. He now writes how senior officials “allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie”. He claims they used him to launder their untruth, and he was nothing more than the ventriloquist’s dummy through which their disguised voices passed. He himself had no agency; all he could do is uncritically repeat the breezy assurances he was given.
His unconvincing rationalizations point to an important truth, though. And that truth is, fear dominates our nation’s capitol. Press coverage has noted his reversal on criticism in hindsight. As press secretary he said of Richard Clarke’s book, “[i]f he had such grave concerns, why didn’t he come out with them sooner?” Now people are asking the same of him, and his answers do not have the ring of truth. He was no unwitting dupe - he knew the concerted effort to push certain parts of the case for war, ignore inconvenient aspects of it and present dramatic claims from dubious sources like Chalabi and Curveball amounted to a propaganda campaign designed to deceive the American people. His knowingly restricting his scope does not absolve him of what he did out of (at best) pure ignorance. No, he knew what he was doing, and he kept on doing it for a very different reason. Thankfully some have started to notice.
The administration has successfully intimidated the most important parts of the Washington D.C. establishment. Those who work in the chain of command in the executive branch know that if they do not follow the party line they will be dismissed. Those who are uncomfortable being apparatchiks eventually leave, but they know speaking out will provoke a fierce response (as McClellan is now finding out). The Democrats control Congress but have shown no willingness to force a showdown over any of the administration’s broad claims of authority, and with all due respect to Marcy Wheeler I don’t see Henry Waxman gearing up for a game of Constitutional hardball. Even though they could forcefully push back against an unpopular lame duck President, they are afraid to.
Major media outlets spiked stories critical of the White House and admitted a reluctance to even try because “it’s live, it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there”. Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) was an admirable exception to the trend and is the only outlet to credibly argue it was not ruled by timidity. And last week we saw the latest example of what happens when someone resigns and speaks out. Within the administration, throughout the executive and legislative branches, in the press - the word is out. Speak up and your job, reputation and employment prospects may be ruined. There is no bubble, no Constitutional roadblock, no lack of solid evidence. There is just pure, unvarnished fear.
I spent two years in Tanzania teaching secondary school math as a Peace Corps volunteer. The only Swahili left in my head is greetings and curses (one of the latter is substantially more offensive than anything we’ve come up with in English) along with a few memorable phrases. One phrase is “bahati mbaya” which literally translates as “bad luck.” The reason it’s memorable is because it was also used to describe completely predictable bad outcomes. If you started drawing a bath, for some reason left the house for a few hours and came back to a flooded living area…bahati mbaya. It is a wonderfully diplomatic way to avoid saying, wow was that stupid. It is in that spirit that I write: This is the bahati mbaya President.
His unwillingness to change course has been a major source of such misfortune. He came into office championing tax cuts and got them. Initially the argument was that we ought to reduce rates since we were running a surplus, and would be able to continue to do so even if the cuts were enacted (a position that became politically acceptable in large part due to its endorsement by Alan Greenspan). There were two problems. First, in 1998 we had just gotten back to surpluses after decades of deficits. Since it took so long it may have been prudent to leave the tax structure in place for a while and see if the new surpluses were ephemeral. Second, the surplus was helping us pay down the national debt, so even if they proved to be durable - and even if we paid it off even sooner than expected - there was real good coming out of it. Instead we plunged right back into deficits and now have a devalued currency as a result. The corresponding loss of confidence in the dollar as a store of value may have even greater impact down the road.
Another foreseeable disaster was the Iraq war. You did not have to be Sun Tzu to recognize that Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” strategy was not designed for a long occupation. He clearly wanted to go in, decapitate the government and get out. There was no intention to leave soldiers there for years and therefore it was never part of the design. The military is breaking beneath the strain of a burden it was not supposed to carry. It did not become overtaxed and overstretched because the stars aligned against it but because those in charge deliberately ignored the implications of moving from major combat operations to occupation. In fact, the administration and its supporters have made looking away a political strategy. David Brooks wrote last year of us being in a postwar period. This week Tom Coburn wrote an analysis for one of the most important newspapers in the country and never once mentioned the Iraq war, except as a budget item. The problem is, as long as our nation’s blood and treasure continues to be spilled in the sands of the Middle East we will be very much aware of it. This election season it will be the (dead) elephant in the room.
I began thinking about unsurprising terrible results this week because of immigration policy. Along with tax reform and Social Security reform, immigration reform stands as a failed second term policy initiative. The President appears to have been surprised at his inability to keep his base in line, and as President he can do more than just stamp his feet when he has a fit of pique. In what appears to be his only case of actually changing a policy due to a negative response, he appears to have decided on a policy of draconian enforcement. Dave Neiwert has an invaluable summary of an immigration raid in Iowa last week that included the menace of federal helicopters hovering overhead and using a meat processing plant as a detention facility (the administration may have an unrealized gift for brutal symbolism). The President, denied his legislation, decided to begin applying the law in as punitive a way as possible. The result was chaos and cruelty, and no one should pretend it happened like that because this particular operation was cursed by the gods. Of course, it could also have been the preferred outcome. Having federal agents round up people into a makeshift holding pen in the middle of the heartland is an impressive display of executive power. We have been complacent so far in the face of audacious new claims of authority; presumably we will allow this to go unchallenged as well. And as we do so we knowingly take that many more steps into this new, unhappy territory.
Or in other words, bahati mbaya.
He seems to believe the judicial system has no obligation to evaluate such messages, just that lawyers should get their marching orders and follow them. If those orders are to “push the limits of the law” or to operate with more “flexibility” (a hateful euphemism) then so be it. That is his vision of the Justice Department - the political environment sets the agenda and legal reasoning gets contorted to meet it.
In short, the message sent to our national security lawyers in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks was clear; it was bipartisan; and it was all but unanimous. It was that the legal culture in our intelligence agencies, and in the Justice Department, was too risk-averse. It needed to be more aggressive, it needed to push to the limits of the law, to give policymakers and operators the most flexibility possible to confront the existential threat of international terrorism.
Well, it’s a holiday weekend; the McCain campaign dumped some pastors, tax returns and allowed some privileged souls to have a brief look at his medical records; and the Democratic primary is engulfed in controversy. This rare hat trick of distractions in an excellent opportunity to make some progress on FISA capitulation: “Republicans unveiled their latest compromise offer Thursday to rewrite electronic surveillance rules, saying they can make no more concessions to Democrats.” Details are sketchy but here is an ominous sign: “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), is now insisting on tight language in any rewrite of the FISA law to establish the statute as the ‘exclusive means’ for conducting domestic electronic surveillance.” This is in response to a just-released memo from the Justice Department that blandly asserts the FISA language of its being the “exclusive means” of authority for surveillance means…not exclusive. Lambert points out FISA has always been exclusive. Having a new law say it again is counterproductive - Pelosi et. al. just need to enforce the existing one. (Presumably this is the kind of flexibility our execrable Attorney General favors.)
Of course, for as bad as all this is, it could be worse. Carol Chodroff provides a look inside Guantánamo this week, and it is obvious that the entire system is set up to keep those prisoners hidden away forever. And don’t be fooled - the only way to believe we are stuck with it is if you suffer from a poverty of imagination or humanity.
Last year Kung Fu Monkey produced one of the great political analyses of our time in his essay on shamelessness. Among other points he wrote “[y]ou reveal a man’s corrupt, or lying, or incompetent, and what does he do? He resigns….Public shame has up to now been the silver bullet of American political life.” Unfortunately our current leaders appear immune to such pressure, and the brazenness may have leaked into the rank and file as well. It may in fact be another reason why Republicans are in such trouble this time around. Their policies are very unpopular, but consider the climate for scandals as well: Democrats - Mark Dann, Eliot Spitzer - resigned, while Republicans - Larry Craig, David Vitter, Vito Fossella - are all still proudly serving. Public opinion has turned against them and disaster looms for their party, but they stubbornly remain in office. People notice such things.
In the end such chutzpah is for voters of Idaho, Louisiana and New York to pass judgment on. All of us, though, should be concerned about the White House openly defying what should be a coequal branch of government. The most galling recent move was in its fight with the House Judiciary Committee. The HJC is trying to force the testimony of Harriet Miers and Josh Bolten; Congress wants a judge to compel it. Administration attorneys argue that such questions should not be resolved in court. They say Congress could force the President’s hand with blocked appointments or withheld funding of Executive branch agencies, among other tactics. Conflicts have traditionally been resolved with just such give and take. The lawyers essentially said, “you dummies, don’t waste your time pursuing this in court. You have all the tools you need and could have used them all along.” And of course they are right. We now have the spectacle of the executive branch telling the legislative how it is supposed to work. Even more remarkably, Congress knows as much and used such tactics less than a year ago to get the Vice President to back down on one of his more outrageous claims.
Congress could also look into a new memorandum signed by the President that would replace the “Sensitive but Unclassified” information category with “Controlled Unclassified Information.” It looks like another situation where Congress could demand some answers or threaten consequences in short order. The key change appears to be introducing the word “Controlled”, because the Post quotes the National Archives and Records Administration as saying controlling information “may inform” its response to FOIA requests. Given the track record of the last few years I don’t think there is any “may” about it, but we need to start thinking ahead, too. Changes being made now - even in a lame duck period when everyone is paying attention to election year politicking - can have profound effects long after the next President takes office. If this change goes through, the Archives could flatly refuse valid requests by a claim that the information needs to be controlled. It might not withstand court scrutiny, but that would take a long time to wind through the system. While it did so we would presumably have other refusals. And of course it might be upheld, which means that much less transparency from government. It would be much better to have it challenged by Congress before it ever gets the chance to start down that road.
The most disturbing abdication of responsibility was outlined in Radar Magazine by Christopher Ketcham. His 5,000 word investigation “The Last Roundup” describes a program centered around a previously-unknown government database called Main Core. Ostensibly created to facilitate government function in the event of a catastrophic attack, it now is a system swelled with details on over eight million Americans. As seems to be the pattern the administration prefers to have this questionably legal program quietly working in the background and not used in any way that might prompt a challenge. They understand that the longer they are able to assert new powers, the stronger their case will be if they ever need to defend it. Unless Congress gets involved we should expect this latest piece of our burgeoning surveillance state to become permanent. Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration Justice Department official, says in the article, “[i]t’s really up to Congress to put these things to rest, and Congress has not done so.” And so we continue to wait for its concept of oversight to move from “an omission or error due to carelessness” to “watchful care.”
(“ThinkProgress hat tip” edition)
LATE UPDATE: Please consider submitting a comment on a proposed change to the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 that would allow the government to take your DNA and keep it on file permanently if you are arrested at a demonstration on federal property. Comments are only taken until tomorrow so I apologize for the late notice. Two notes: 1) This has more in common with the behavior of a police state than a democracy and 2) note how it is included in the “Child Protection and Safety Act.” Who could possibly be against that, right?
Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) has introduced a bill (via)putting some restrictions on signing statements. It’s a long way from having actual impact - I doubt it would be signed by the current President and who knows if it would stand up to court scrutiny. And since signing statements themselves have ambiguous authority it’s even harder to say what its impact will really be. On the other hand it represents Congress pushing back on the executive branch a little bit, which heaven knows has been a novelty these last few years. That it comes from the GOP could just be self-interested distancing in an election year or anticipation of a Democrat in the White House next year, but whatever the motivation it’s a welcome sign.
Through a FOIA request the ACLU has obtained new information on detainee deaths in Iraq. Now that we’re mostly over the whole “few bad apples” nonsense let’s have a quick review: The President sets the policy, his team gets the word out and it gets implemented. While he didn’t say “let’s kill some prisoners at Abu Ghraib” he did send out word to implement inhumane treatment. The outcomes are his responsibility as well. The Pentagon, again under his leadership, is reluctant to release documents that show the gruesome outcomes of such a policy; good on the ACLU for successfully demanding some of them. This is just the latest example of how letting the executive make extraordinary claims and avoid oversight leads to poisonous results. None of this should be surprising.
Even if you ignore the moral dimensions of torture (!) there are practical reasons not to engage in it, one of which being that it renders useless for trial those you employ it against. And it doesn’t allow you to extract any useful information from their brains either. Let’s be clear: Those in charge put the pure sadistic thrill of torture and a steady stream of “oh God I’ll say anything to make it stop” gibberish ahead of interrogation methods that are known to work.
According to the Star-Telegram (via) “Former White House counsel Harriet Miers predicted that her constitutional clash with Congress over executive privilege and the separation of powers doctrine may not be settled until after President Bush leaves office next year.” It may well be, but if I were her I would hope not. The terrain is unfriendly at the moment but it will only get worse, and once she no longer has an ally in the Oval Office it will get substantially worse. This is just a hunch, but I suspect a lot of these issues will drag on for years but will ultimately end in a series of stinging rebukes. I also suspect the administration figured all the loose ends would be tied up by the time it left office.
Finally, this isn’t executive power related but a big thanks to Balloon Juice commenter Notorious P.A.T. for reminding us that the president has more in common with Chamberlain than Churchill. Of course, for all we know maybe the President just thinks Chamberlain’s weakness on defense led to a string of titles for the Boston Celtics.