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This Week In Tyranny

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post


UPDATE:  See this from Larisa Alexandrovna.  I can tell you firsthand that ice has been a problem in northeast Ohio this year.  We had lots of snow about a month or so ago, then a big warm up, then an ongoing cold snap - in other words, a really effective recipie for ice.  Lots of roads have looked deceptively clear recently, so it makes sense that a runway might too.  I knew nothing of Michael Connell and can only offer condolences to his family on its loss - an especially hard thing this time of year.  From a public perspective it also means someone with “information that he was ready to share” will never do so.


While the vice president was making news in other areas last week, I thought he made another statement worth keeping in mind.  It can’t be said often enough - the changes and assertions made by this administration will persist unless they are actively, explicitly repudiated.  How about it, Mr. Obama?


In a bit of good news, “A federal appeals court ruling late Monday is the cause célèbre of the American Civil Liberties Union, as another provision of the Bush administration’s Patriot Act falls to the judicial system.”  That’s the kind of activity I like to see.


I’ve got VP on the brain these days because in addition to his remarkably defiant interviews I’m also reading Angler, and boy howdy is it fascinating.  I think the “Darth Vader” characterization is unhelpful because it is too vague about what he has done - it paints him as having nearly supernatural powers instead of a mastery of entirely ordinary ones.  Gellman’s fleshing out of the details ends up prompting a grudging respect for how comprehensively he understands the nitty gritty of how the federal government works.  For example, see this on page 69:

One of his first assignments to his staff was a fast-track review of Bill Clinton’s departing executive orders.  That would have been a routine step, sooner or later, but Cheney had the savvy to call a halt to operations at the Government Printing Office.  Not many aides would have thought of it.  Cheney knew regulations have no legal force until they are published in the Federal Register.

Face it, you want someone that knowledgeable in charge - of the policies you approve of.  His ability to maneuver is remarkable as well.  Even as forceful an operator was Lyndon Johnson was not able to get in to the weekly Senate Democrat strategy luncheons.  Cheney got in (via) and laid out a fiercely partisan agenda for them, which they fell in line behind.  And not to single out CNN but see this contemporaneous account for some good laughs:

Cheney lunched Wednesday afternoon with a group of five Senate moderates to discuss aspects of a likely Bush administration. Next year, with the Senate evenly split along party lines, earning the support of GOP moderates will be all the more critical.

The five GOP moderates —Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Jim Jeffords of Vermont — said they spent their time with Cheney talking about potential Cabinet picks and a likely legislative agenda, and that Cheney, as president of the Senate, would become a regular fixture in the chamber.

“We had an excellent meeting,” said Jeffords. “We all agreed we’ve got to move good legislation through that is receptive to the needs of the people and this nation.”

Snowe added that the group touched upon legislation “that Governor Bush talked about during his campaign,” such as education, prescription drugs, tax cuts, campaign finance reform and health care.

Also discussed, they said, was Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling that the Florida recount efforts were unconstitutional, and ways to heal any rifts with Senate Democrats who may be embittered by the protracted battle for the White House.

“We intend to meet with them halfway and to ask them to listen to our ideas and we intend to listen to their ideas,” Specter said of Senate Democrats. “There is no question about the necessity for healing and for the need to come together across party lines to do that.”

“In the aftermath of the presidential election, it’s going to be all the more important,” Collins added.

“They recognize how significant it will be for them to reach out and work across party lines,” Snowe said of the Bush-Cheney team.

They certainly did.  (Lisa Mascaro has another good executive-legislative power article over here.)


I continue to loathe the bailout.


I kept waiting for something else to tie this to, but it seems like one way to increase good will abroad would be to stop being arms supplier to the world.


UNPACKING JANE: From page 190, on the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) program being adapted for use in interrogation:

The trademark techniques of the SERE program soon popped up in Guantánamo and other U.S. military prisons holding suspects from the war on terror around the globe.  Hooding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, temperature extremes, and psychological ploys designed to induce humiliation and fear suddenly seemed legion.  Michael Gelles, the chief clinical forensic psychologist for the Navy’s Criminal Investigation Service, who was assigned to aid the CITF, had a ringside view of this.  He explained that the community of military and intelligence experts who have classified clearance to interrogate terrorists is small and ingrown.  “It’s a community where people communicate with each other, and there’s a lot of sharing of information,” he said.  The extraordinary legal authority granted by the president to the CIA may have been intended for only a handful of exceptional cases.  But, said Gelles, the reverse-engineering of SERE techniques was “like a germ.  It spread.”

Which is why you don’t do it in the first place.  People in the pro-torture camp have a willfully naïve view of human nature - both in regard to what will “work” on them and in regard to the possibilities of segregating cruelty.

A Policy Subject To Interpretation

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) released its report on detainee abuse, and considering the magnitude of its conclusions it was relatively quietly received. Dan Froomkin, Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton and a few others gave it serious attention, and Andrew Sullivan has been particularly good about highlighting the issue recently. But Horton points out the New York Times will not even use the word “torture” except “when a neighbor plays his stereo too loudly in the apartment next door.” Discussing actual torture is simply verboten, and in fact just the opposite is the case - its opinion pages are reserved for apologists like Reuel Marc Gerecht. Note that in Gerecht’s reading the United States uses “aggressive interrogation” but engaged in “the extrajudicial rendition of terrorist suspects to countries that practice torture”. In other words, other countries torture - not us.

It is not that the big media outlets have refused to cover the story at all, which is a frustrating and deceptive defense that seems to be used fairly often. The magnitude and duration of coverage is enormously important as well. Think about the saturation coverage given to the governor of Illinois, a man with at best a tenuous connection to the president-elect. There has been a constant daily drumbeat of stories going over the same ground, and for what purpose? Between the day it broke and today what has been added? More to the point, it has been featured over and over again in all major media outlets and the breathless hints of trouble for Barack Obama have been on an endless loop. In cases like this it makes perfect sense to use a generalized term like “the media” because the individual players have moved in a herd. As a result the public gets it continually reinforced as a major story, and many become persuaded that it is.

That kind of coverage is a far cry from the treatment of the SASC report; the difference was of both degree and kind. In degree it was mentioned in the top stories of the of the day but generally did not receive the in-depth analysis reserved for whole segments of news programs. If it did get anything more than a summary treatment it generally received it below the latest foibles of Rod Blagojevich. The difference of kind is that it was usually dropped after that. Instead of hammering away on it day after day, interviewing members of the committee, asking them about their remarkable unanimous vote on the final report, asking about possible legal consequences, and generally letting its impact and implications play out for the public to consider, it was simply let go. (There have been some important exceptions, but they are just that - exceptions.)

It is hard to overstate what a disservice that is to the public, because it is an extraordinary document that truly deserves ongoing reflection. In referring to the now-infamous “Torture Memo” signed by the president on on Feb. 7, 2002 the report says it “replace[d] well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation”. It accuses the administration of systematically breaking the law in the plainest (“legal compliance”) possible language.

If the media needed to advance the story somehow with additional facts (though ceaseless speculation is acceptable for a juicy enough (via) story) the vice president provided it this week. In an interview he flatly stated that he approved the waterboarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. I used to think a high government official like a vice president freely admitting to a war crime would be absolutely enormous news. Instead it was met with mostly indifference. As Greenwald pointed out, part of the reason for the studious ignoring of the issue by the media is that “most of the establishment supported these crimes and the criminals who unleashed them.” This is the same reason the Congressional Democratic leadership is reluctant to aggressively pursue an investigation, much less criminal charges, against an administration that is more and more brazen in publicly acknowledging its criminal behavior.

Those of us who are appalled by the increasingly obvious wrongdoing by our leaders are therefore faced with some enormous obstacles. It is not enough to blame the president and say that his administration is responsible for all our troubles. He was certainly the author of them, but had some important assistance: A political leadership that was apparently more concerned with being in on the secrets than doing anything about them, and a press corps that values access and sources over skepticism and investigation. Both willingly allowed themselves to be compromised, and both are desperate to keep the secrets of this era buried. Those who want to unearth them have a lot of work to do.

This Week In Tyranny

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post


Three items - two from Wired’s Threat Level - that I had queued up last week but overlooked:  First, retroactive immunity for the telecoms is getting a look in U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s San Francisco courtroom.  Right now it is the only faint hope left that we will ever learn about the details of the rampant lawbreaking they engaged in - in the name of doing their “patriotic duty” as defined by the executive branch.  And in an extremely disturbing development it appears the Obama administration will be fully supportive of that policy.  Not to sound too cynical, but if you were expecting rainbows and butterflies starting January 20th you might be disappointed.

Third item

Former Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former U.S. prosecutor at Guantanamo, told BBC yesterday in his first interview since resigning earlier this year that Guantanamo detainees were treated in a “wrong, unethical and finally, immoral” manner. Vandeveld was so “appalled” by the conditions at Guantanamo that he consulted his Jesuit priest, who told him to resign. “I never suffered such anguish in my life about anything,” he said.

I wonder how many times we will have to hear this before it sinks in.  And just for the record, a single minute of the since-destroyed videotaped interrogations would have brought it home and then some.  Reports of it - even sincere and compelling firsthand accounts like Vandeveld’s - are dry, clinical and easy to ignore by comparison.  Sadly.


The Wall Street Journal editorial page is still certifiably insane.  Which is why I don’t for a moment believe the gossip that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t really, deep in his heart of hearts, enjoy providing a platform for bullies, authoritarians, know-nothings and majestically indifferent greedheads.  He’s got the media empire he wants, trust me.


This could be interesting:

The US Supreme Court will hear a case Wednesday on whether cabinet-level officials could be held accountable for controversial tactics President George W. Bush ordered as part of the US-led “war on terror.”

If major players like John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller start to get exposed to criminal sanction we might see the mother of all circular firing squads.


Just for the record, I understand that creeping tyranny is much better than tyranny fully realized.  But that shouldn’t be our measuring stick, either.


Torture is bad (sigh).  Should. Be. Obvious.  Spencer also was the first one to relay this to me, but it deserves a post of its own (and will get it on Thursday).  And one of his FDL colleagues tipped me to the Inspector General of the NSA’s proposed investigation into its extensive domestic surveillance programs.  That would be, as looseheadprop says, potentially huge.


David Fiderer has a great post about how President Obama could greatly clarify some of the most pressing questions about criminality and malfeasance in the last eight years in 2 easy steps

  • Disclose the transcript of Patrick Fitzgerald’s joint interview with George Bush and Dick Cheney.
  • Disclose the documents requested by Congress pursuant to investigations into Katrina.

He wouldn’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do so.  Will he?  Will he take an active approach and prompt these disclosures, or just sit back and acquiesce to requests like this only if they cross his desk?  With any luck an obstreperous bureaucracy will help him make up his mind.


The road to the bailout.


UNPACKING JANE:  After describing the murder of Manadel al-Jamadi on pages 252-5 Mayer points out on page 258 that in the view of the administration the killing of al-Jamadi broke no laws.  Whenever you hear anyone in the administration protest their innocence or otherwise insist they did nothing wrong please keep in mind that their views of legality encompass the entire sequence of events that led to his death.

The Theory of the Idiot Actor

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

An aspect of the coming Obama administration that I am greatly looking forward to is never again having to type the words “Attorney General Michael Mukasey”. He deserves to be remembered as a much worse AG than Alberto Gonzales because there was never any real sense that Gonzales was independent. Mukasey’s distinguished and separate career prior to becoming AG gave him a measure of credibility, and people generally gave him the benefit of the doubt. When he turned out to be just as willing to do the White House’s bidding it therefore was much more damaging. Unlike his predecessor he could not be dismissed as just another crony brought in with the Texas gang.

Maybe the president’s bubble is large enough to allow for additional occupants, because Mukasey seems to have a fairly loose grip on reality. In addition to the illusion that all is basically going well he also seems to have convinced himself of his own invulnerability. That is the most plausible explanation for this:

Mr. Mukasey told reporters that there was “absolutely no evidence” that anyone involved in developing the policies “did so for any reason other than to protect the security in the country and in the belief that he or she was doing something lawful”…[Mukasey] said the lawyers who authorized the surveillance and interrogation programs had done so in the belief that they were following the law. “In those circumstances,” he said, “there is no occasion to consider prosecution, and there is no occasion to consider pardon.”

That combination of hubris and naïveté might be the cause of a lot of headaches down the road. The president is focusing on his legacy these days and may be unwilling to implicitly acknowledge the systematic wrongdoing that a pardon spree would require. He may feel he has his hands full figuring out how to finesse the Al-Marri case since he is racking up Washington Generals level numbers in going up against the Supreme Court. Disposing of existing problems may crowd out preempting new ones considering there is barely more than a month left (vacations not included).

Still, his reasoning doesn’t seem to hold a whole lot of water. I have a hard time believing that lawyers have carte blanche provided they believe “that they were following the law.” Lawyers do not ultimately adjudicate legality; we have a legal system - with case law, courthouses, judges, juries and everything - to determine whether or not something is legal. Asserting that a lawyer’s belief is sufficient to establish legality negates all of that, or more properly substitutes the lawyer’s judgment for it.

I suspect there are plenty of sharp legal minds out there ready to take apart that particular vision of justice. What is more troubling to me is the complementary role of the client. Mukasey endorses a system where the advocate provides opinions that may then be taken to entirely comprise the client’s understanding of the law. Those who retain counsel are merely empty vessels into which lawyers pour advice, and once filled up are absolved in any course of action. In this model there are two types of people: lawyers and idiots (insert joke here). There is no expectation that these glorified robots might have any kind of independent evaluation of the advice, or any kind of ethics, morality or conscience regarding what they are told. There is no allowance for having qualms about it, nor for the possibility that the client might be getting led astray (i.e. that the lawyer might not be perfect). There is no place for a layman’s understanding of what might or might not be legal, no expectation that a reasonable person would balk at outrageously bad and wrongheaded advice. There is just a simple and perfectly closed circle: The lawyer believes it is legal, so it is. The client is told as much, and is blameless.

Such a theory might fly; who knows. The Supreme Court has delivered a series of rebukes to the White House over its tactics, but the theories that animated them are not exactly getting swatted away. But it still seems like Mukasey is wagering an awful lot on their durability. Maybe he truly thinks he is untouchable, or maybe he thinks Congress will not be willing to respond to a crisis even when provoked (though to be fair he has plenty of evidence to support the latter). Still, the fact that he feels comfortable with this theory of preemptively exonerated lawyers directing empty headed, obedient dolts tells you just how much contempt he has for his chosen profession.

This Week In Tyranny

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post


Today is Break The Bailout day.  Please consider giving at whatever level you feel comfortable.  If you’d like yet another reason consider John Cole’s fantastic post from Thursday.  I hadn’t thought of it until he mentioned it, but the ratings agencies are as deeply implicated as the investment banks; how have they completely escaped notice?


Rest in peace, Tanta.  I read her from time to time, and was always very impressed with her depth of knowledge and ability to explain complex financial situations in a very readable way.  I was genuinely sad (and shocked) to read of her passing.


Torture is bad.  So bad the New York Times can’t even mention it.  And since Pat Leahy is the master of hollow bluster I’ll just say I’ll believe this when I see it.  Maybe when a Democrat becomes president he’ll actually have the courage to follow through on something.


I’m still trying to decide if this is another example of the corrosive effect of the politicization of the Justice Department or garden variety bad behavior, but I’ll pass it along just in case.


Glenn published emails detailing NBC’s attempts to excuse presenting war profiteer Barry McCaffrey as an objective analyst.  The following was particularly remarkable:

Our relationship with General McCaffrey is based on trust, a basic tenant of journalism. He has provided us with periodic, detailed reports on his outside activities and meetings. He has assured us that he is not directly incentivized in any of his outside business relationships.

Trust and skepticism are roughly opposites, no?  Doesn’t that make calling trust a basic tenet of journalism almost 180 degrees wrong?  How on earth do his assurances carry so much weight with them?  Do they as a news organization generally give such weight to assurances?


Andrew says “if you think modern governments aren’t as liable to violating freedom as the worst in the past, you’re misreading human nature.”  God that’s good.


UNPACKING JANE:  On page 144 Mayer mentions the Phoenix Program in Vietnam.  Between that and the recent suggestion (via) “that very little has been going on since [Sept. 11] that hasn’t gone on for the last 30 years” we might want to get ready for lots of moral relativism and suggestions that this is what we’ve always done.  Yes we have unsavory episodes in our past, but the systematic implementation of it in the last eight years, especially in light of the reforms put in place the last time intelligence agency excesses were exposed, make this time around very different.  Don’t be fooled.