This one is a couple of weeks old, but just for the record the administration is so much in favor of torture that they are willing for American citizens to be subject to it in order to keep it available to them:
Philippe Sands: Let me put it in yet another way. Could you imagine any circumstances in which the use of water boarding on an American national by a foreign intelligence service could be justified?
John Bellinger: One would have to apply the facts to the law, the law to the facts, to determine whether any technique, whatever it happened to be, would cause severe physical pain or suffering.
Time columnist Joe Klein was given worthy grief (hat tip Jane Hamsher) over his most recent effort. If he wrote the world was flat he wouldn’t be being provocative, he’d just be an imbecile. If people pointed that out forcefully they wouldn’t be overreacting - that’s an appropriate response to a major voice in the media making such an elementary mistake. No one with standards that low should be employed by a major outlet, unless of course the outlet’s standards were that low as well. UPDATE: Klein provided his own update here in which among other things he calls the controversy over basket warrants “relatively obscure and unimportant technical details”. He’s also still in favor of telecom amnesty. Memo to self: When issuing a correction, set the record straight and shut up. Or as a wonderful bit of folk wisdom has it, when you’re in a hole the first rule is to stop digging.
The NSA’s wiretapping program continues to be illegal. Here is this week’s evidence. And Bush’s mania for secrecy continues to be a bad idea in practice. It hiders our ability to prosecute terrorists. Where do you think this fits in the “with us or against us” framework?
One of the things that clearly unsettled residents of Greenport was that the immigrants were arrested in their homes, without warrants, an immigration enforcement tactic that has been used more and more since 2005.
And if you think it doesn’t apply to you because you aren’t a suspected illegal immigrant then 1) never underestimate this government’s ability to suspect you and 2) don’t imagine that’s where the intrusions end (hat tip Raw Story).
Here are some thoughts from Congressman Lamar Smith about the RESTORE Act:
“Democrats today failed to protect the American people by ignoring urgent requests from the intelligence community to update tools and modernize laws governing intelligence gathering,” stated Ranking Member Smith. “The RESTORE Act undermines our national security and increases the risk of a future attack on our country. Democrats are playing politics by claiming that this bill ‘restores’ checks and balances,” continued Smith. “But politics should never come before national security. This bill restores nothing but a legal loophole for terrorists and spies. Today’s vote comes at the expense of our national security. Contrary to Congress’s intent when FISA was originally enacted, this bill requires the government obtain a court order to conduct surveillance of overseas targets,” said Smith. “The implications of this requirement alone could be catastrophic. The RESTORE Act requires intelligence officials to obtain a court order to conduct surveillance on Osama Bin Laden, but does not require one to conduct surveillance on an illegal immigrant,” Smith added. “The bill gives terrorists overseas more rights under the law, than individuals inside the U.S. That is simply absurd. This bill does nothing to protect America, nothing to preserve civil liberties and nothing to promote national security,” concluded Smith. “So what does this bill do? It ignores 30 years of precedent in intelligence gathering and panders to special interests groups. Americans would be better served if lawmakers listened to their requests, rather than playing politics with the safety and security of our nation.”
I included the extended quote because I don’t want to be accused of cutting out some allegedly crucial point, so there it is in all its glory. Rep. Smith is a perfect example of mainstream Republican thinking these days. He shows why the party is in dire need of a philosophical makeover, extremely unpopular and seemingly prepared to go down the drain with their leader. Here are a few responses to the Congressman.
First of all, what special interest groups are being pandered to? The telecommunication companies quietly lobbying for amnesty are certainly being pandered to by Senator Jay Rockefeller and heaven knows who else. Has Congressman Smith received money from them, and if so wouldn’t his position be considered pandering to a special interest? I don’t want to get into the man’s psychology but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s projecting his own compromised character onto those opposing him. Moreover, what special interest is pushing against amnesty? Is someone going to profit from telecom amnesty? Those with pending lawsuits may ultimately profit, so I guess the Electronic Frontier Foundation may be in for a big payday. Of course a self-described “donor-funded nonprofit” probably isn’t salivating over the huge sum this class action lawsuit could bring in. It would be a lot more probable if some large company like Google stood to profit from their distress. And actual evidence of special interest activism would be most persuasive of all. From all appearances the anti-amnesty people are motivated by Constitutional principle and a belief in the rule of law - they will see no personal profit from succeeding, which obviously can’t be said on the other side.
As for the urgent requests from the intelligence community, there is precisely one loophole in the FISA law that needs to be closed: Foreign-to-foreign communications that go through U.S. infrastructure. The temporary lifting of that requirement expires in February and it needs to be made permanent. There are no other tools that need updating or laws that need modernizing. Under FISA the President can begin wiretapping any old time he likes. He doesn’t need to get clearance from anyone first, he doesn’t need to wait for anything to get approved, he can just jump right in with both feet. Of course, he also has to get a retroactive warrant within 72 hours from the famously compliant (and secret) FISA court. In President Bush’s view any form of executive accountability is intolerable, so even setting the bar that low for him is unacceptable. But the fact is, the intelligence community is not in any way hamstrung by the legal requirements of FISA and it is dishonest to say otherwise.
The real mind bender from the Congressman is that officials would need a court order to surveil Osama bin Laden. Let’s assume Joe Spook at the NSA picks up a phone call from someone he thinks is the guy. Joe can start tapping immediately and get the warrant later. If the foreign-to-foreign loophole is closed he doesn’t even need to do that. Either way we’re listening. So what kind of scenario does this refer to? I suppose if John Lindh was in Pakistan talking to his parents in America then there would be a warrant required. If Mohammed Atta in Miami was calling Mullah Omar in Afghanistan then there may not be any warrant needed. That might satisfy the foreign-terrorists-but-not-individuals-here scenario. In no event is anyone forced to wait before acting and in any event his reasoning is extremely convoluted. That probably is not an accident - actual logic doesn’t make the case too well.
Rep. Smith’s dark warnings about undermining national security and increasing the risk of attack is simply the basest form of fearmongering. We don’t seem to be responding as viscerally to that line of propaganda these days but it still has a crude effectiveness. Sooner or later the haze of fear will lift, and when it does we will have a sober assessment of the risks we face. We will look at how to reduce or thwart them without compromising essential liberties and what to do to prepare for the worst case. We will look back at this period as some kind of national fugue state and wonder at our panicked state of mind. We will also take a hard look at the contemporary leadership, and the judgment against those who enabled the President to act with such impunity will be harsh. Rep. Smith and his colleagues are declaring with their actions that they consider themselves Republican before American. Each day they continue to do so the verdict of history will weigh heavier against them.
There will probably be lots of wrangling this week over the RESTORE act. Defenders of retroactive immunity are getting the word out; here’s one example from former CIA director R. James Woolsey:
Senior U.S. officials asked telecommunications companies to assist the government in intercepts involving terrorist groups such as those that had just attacked us and killed thousands of people.
If some future senior government official needs to make a call on a CEO of the sort I did, and that others did after 9/11, we and our children will be better off if the official can answer the question “Can you guarantee that my company won’t be sued if we help the country?” with “If it happens, we’ll get protective legislation approved as in 2007.”
No, we and our children will be better off if we don’t create an authoritarian executive. We and our children will also be better off if future senior government officials obey the law and future businesses make it a point to do the same. We and our children will be far better off if we don’t listen to arguments that try to frighten us into allowing anything and present us with false choices. Most of all, we and our children will be orders of magnitude better off when Woolsey and his disgraceful brand of lawlessness and fearmongering is entirely discredited. That day can’t come soon enough.
It wasn’t too long ago that the right loved to mention how they were the ones with ideas and all liberals had to offer was obstructionism. During the Social Security debate in 2005 it seemed to reach its apogee. Now that all they have to offer is their own obstructionism the crowing has tapered off quite a bit. The ideas they are left with run the spectrum from being pro war to being pro torture (hat tip Glenn Greenwald). They have no claim to fiscal discipline: A Republican President and Congress inherited a budget surplus and turned it into a massive deficit. They have no small-government credibility: Spending exploded, pork barrel projects went through the roof and they created the biggest entitlement program since Medicare. They have no respect for parliamentary norms and traditions: The vote that made the prescription drug benefit a law was an appalling spectacle. Conservatives approved of all of this. They may have clucked a little here and there but for all intents and purposes they went along. We saw during the immigration debate how forceful they can be when they want to.
In short things look bleak, and I’ll go out on a limb and say they’ll get worse before they get better. They do control one thing though, and that is how quickly they’d like to hit bottom. Their principles have become only so many collateralized debt obligations waiting to be written down. They can either use the Goldman Sachs approach and write it all off immediately or they can use the Citigroup model and declare losses gradually and grudgingly. All of the Congressional leadership and most of the current candidates for the Republican nomination represent the latter. They are putting on a brave face, embracing the current policies and insisting the big problem has been implementation. We’re right on the idea, they say, but the devil is in the details. We just need to tweak it like this and everything will be fine; voters will come back to us. Hogwash, I say. The current brand has suffered a permanent loss of capital. It needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, the sooner the better. If they try to hang on they will see big losses in the 2008 election and no substantial gains for at least a couple thereafter. It will be a long, cold, lonely season that will only end when they decisively repudiate this generation’s leadership and attempt to regain their majority by persuading a skeptical public with no reason to trust them. Or they could just crash and burn right now and get on with it.
There is a big upside to a properly done Goldwater-type blowout next year and the best candidate for the job is Ron Paul. I can’t imagine he’d win more than a handful of states in the general election; off the top of my head I’d say some mountain west states like Montana and Idaho would be pretty good bets but the rest of the country not so much. The upside for this is instant rehabilitation of the Republican brand. He alone in the field is vehemently against the current unconservative Republican agenda. He voted against the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. He voted against the USA Patriot Act in 2001 and 2005. During the period that Republicans were cheerfully selling their souls for George W. Bush’s political benefit Ron Paul was a lonely voice on the right trying to get his caucus to stick by its principles. His willingness to do so looks better and better all the time.
Paul was far outside the mainstream of the party at the time and he still largely is. But he also represents the only viable option in facing the voters. Until the mainstream makes its way to him Republicans will be left with wholly unpalatable options. They may try to paint the Democrats as “tax and spend” liberals, but voters have learned the hard way one virtue of tax and spend: At least you’re paying as you go. Republicans offer “spend and don’t tax and let the next generation pay for it.” They may cry over the evil of big-government Democrats, but given the levers of power they provided incompetent, intrusive and even bigger government. Once again voters ruefully note how much better the Democratic version is in hindsight. The current crop of Republicans are wedded to this train wreck and will continually lose until they can uncouple from it. Ron Paul has the credibility to do that right now.
Last week I wrote about the back and forth between Glenn Greenwald and Colonel Steven A. Boylan, spokesman for General David Petraeus. Boylan disputed authorship of the initial email and the dispute took off from there. At the time I posted there still seemed to be a lot up in the air over it, so I just referred to the “response” to Greenwald; I didn’t attribute it to Col. Boylan since that didn’t seem settled.
It’s now been over a week since Farhad Manjoo published what seems like the last word on the controversy. It goes into considerable detail on how the email was almost certainly from Boylan or someone authorized to act on his behalf. As far as I know Manjoo’s analysis hasn’t been disputed anywhere and since it appeared in the same outlet where the controversy began I think it’s safe to say all concerned parties are aware of it. All of which leads to the following conclusion: Boylan wrote it, and in it played a childish word game to dispute political influence on the military from the White House. His actions prove that that is precisely what is happening, and is the latest sign the military is in the midst of an attempt to compromise its integrity. How it responds may shape how much trust America places in it in the future.
From a distance it looks like one side is led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and CENTCOM head Admiral William Fallon. The people in this camp believe in the traditional role of the military as a strictly nonpartisan operation and understand that its effectiveness is greatly diminished if that stops. They understand the military implications of keeping Guantánamo Bay open, the folly of using our presence in Iraq to initiate a war in Iran, the cross purposes soldiers and mercenaries currently live under, and in general appreciate the real-world difficulties of our situation at the moment. Those problems can’t be glossed over or ignored - even if they conflict with some (maybe dubious) larger narrative or grand design. They need at least to be acknowledged.
The other side looks to be a Bush/Cheney/Petraeus operation that seems to prefer military action as something less than a last resort. With the heightened climate of fear after 9/11 and the traditionally strong Republican leaning of the military it must have been irresistible for the administration to make use of it: some ominous sounds, get Congress to agree to a nearly blank check and have the military go along with gusto. Now that antiwar candidates are getting almost three quarters of the military’s campaign contributions it’s probably safe to say at least a plurality and maybe a sizeable majority of service members disagree with the administration’s policy. All of which means the struggle for the soul of the military pits a handful of politically minded officers at the top and their allies at the White House against the career (and to my mind more professional) officers who know they will stay in the military as politicians and their parties wax and wane.
There has been no shortage of people who have swallowed reservations about the administration until they could no longer do anything about it, so if the career officers do so as well it won’t be a huge shock, but it will be a huge setback for our government. What does it say about control of the military that the President has sent political advisors to Iraq to help spin the war in the most favorable way to him? What does it say that in advance of Petraeus’ September testimony the Pentagon set up a campaign-style war room to quickly respond to politically unfavorable reports? Or that a Pentagon press secretary (presumably with a straight face) said “[i]t’s more like a library” and a “smarter way of doing business”? What business are they trying to do smarter, and more importantly why more word games?
General Petraeus is clearly political and would like to follow in the footsteps of Washington, Grant and Eisenhower. His future ambitions align nicely with the Administration’s current ones and he seems only too happy to use the military to assist in that. Those generals who will be left behind to clean up the mess need to make some important decisions in the next year or so. Under the Constitution the President commands the military in the field but Congress ultimately controls its use. Do they agree with that or not; if called to testify before Congress will they do so as impartially as possible or will they look to give the administration political cover; and if they are pressured to mouth (or worse, act on) Bush’s talking points against their better judgment how do they intend to respond? How about if it isn’t just against their better judgment but their understanding of their obligation to the country? It looks from this far away as though that battle may already have been joined. Here’s hoping they prevail.