No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post
A very busy week. First up:
Troubling indications are emerging that the government is building a massive, virtually oversight-free domestic surveillance apparatus that could be cataloging private information on untold numbers of innocent Americans all under the guise of fighting terrorism, a new report warns.“Fusion centers” is the new phrase to watch out for, brought to you by the administration’s National Strategy for Information Sharing. Considering the dishonest and Orwellian language they their allies have used in the past this is remarkably restrained language.
Senator Obama has promised to “review every executive order signed by President Bush” if elected. That’s the kind of statement that could be an encouraging indication of his desire to roll back some of the excesses of the current administration or it could just be feel-good blather. Not to seem cynical but I lean towards the latter. Obama is a politician and therefore is sometimes willing to trade positions on issues for different reasons (e.g. his new willingness to consider offshore drilling). I’m not critical of that in general (though there have been issues - FISA and the Iraq war in particular - where a line had to be drawn) and I’m sympathetic to the need to adjust. But that also means, let’s not be naïve either. There will be a lot of pressure to go along and get along, let bygones be bygones, not litigate the past, not criminalize policy differences, etc. A President Obama might be very tempted to let them be as a goodwill gesture to the authoritarians in Washington D.C. Having all those expanded powers at his disposal would just be gravy I’m sure.
I didn’t cover this in my post on Thursday but part of the problem with our current Attorney General is that the press either ignores him or publishes contemptible nonsense that focuses on his personal virtue and ignores the radicalism of his actions as AG. For example, when the department he leads tries to keep challenges to the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) secret I don’t especially care that “[h]e doesn’t do politics, and he doesn’t do popularity contests. He doesn’t do flavor-of-the-month. He does law.” Bullshit.
(The fact that so much attention is focused on officials’ private conduct and so little on the way their actions in office affect the people they represent is generally beyond the scope of Pruning Shears but when it bumps up against a topic here I like to point it out. A lot of reporters are less concerned with what happens from 9 to 5 than what happens from 5 to 9.)
I neglected to point this out last week, but just for future reference: When I write with a low opinion of Cass Sunstein this is the reason why (via).
From the “wouldn’t it be nice” file comes the news that “U.S. District Court Judge John M. Facciola ordered the Bush administration to locate the missing communications on portable devices and individual workstations.” Even if all the emails existed on some combination of devices there probably isn’t a master list of all such devices, and even if there were how would Facciola’s order be enforced? How would even a single device be certified as having been properly searched?
Britain doesn’t trust us? Why on earth not?
Libby pointed to a report that the President is trying to marginalize the CIA. More than any other agency the CIA has produced inconvenient analysis for the administration so it isn’t really a surprise that he wants to squash it like a bug.
The court did note, in several places, that Congress likely has (again, at least in theory) the inherent authority to arrest and detain Executive Branch officials who refuse to comply with their Subpoenas. But they have demonstrated no appetite for exercising that power, and short of something truly threatening like that, it is difficult to envision Bush officials being meaningfully forthcoming in any Congressional investigation.Here’s a comment I left at Marcy’s place this week on another topic:
Sorry, but this kind of crap is a waste of time. Congress needs to enforce existing violations of the law instead of trying to think of every loophole that a creative administration will dream up in the future. That’s a fool’s errand - the problem isn’t that the law is ambiguous, it’s that the administration is contemptuous of laws and the body that creates them. Every time they do one of these “let’s criminalize waterboarding again and then it will be really illegal” exercises they are playing into the administration’s hands. Don’t those guys get tired of being beaten like a drum?Congress doesn’t need more laws. It needs to take action.
On a happier note, see here and here [WHOA! Link broken! - Dan] (via) for two examples of signs of life in the GOP. If Republicans in Congress are becoming willing to challenge the President we may have finally turned a corner. Let’s hope it’s not just a summer mirage.
Finally, a note on economics and politics. John McCain has released a tax plan that is transparently false and it is being treated like a realistic proposal. Let’s go back to the thoughts of a certain candidate for Senate on the election year reporting in 2000:
[I]n the second debate, Bush said, “By far, the vast majority of my tax cut goes to those at the bottom.” (Actually, only 13 percent of his proposed tax cut went to the bottom 60 percent.) Did the press say anything? No. Why? Because their attitude was, shrug, “He doesn’t know.”When that is the starting point for economic policy reporting don’t be surprised if it leads to disastrous results. Unless you are lazy or of below average intelligence there is no reason to give such dishonesty a free pass.
I have written previously about how the administration will be more concerned with covering its tracks than anything else in its final months, and recently the pace has picked up. Maybe the passage of the new FISA bill kicked it off in the same way Memorial Day informally starts summer in America (and Labor Day ends it - you can keep all your fancy solstices and equinoxes). Whatever the cause though, the effort is underway to run out the clock, cloud the law and excuse the guilty. A key leader is Michael Mukasey. He has already shown a willingness to be a demagogue on terrorism and an apologist for torture. Now he is wants Congress to ignore the Boumediene decision with a leap of logic that would - literally - create the permanent environment of a police state:
[A]ny legislation should acknowledge again and explicitly that this Nation remains engaged in an armed conflict with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated organizations, who have already proclaimed themselves at war with us and who are dedicated to the slaughter of Americans-soldiers and civilians alike. In order for us to prevail in that conflict, Congress should reaffirm that for the duration of the conflict the United States may detain as enemy combatants those who have engaged in hostilities or purposefully supported al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated organizations.
This is a classic administration attempt to take a narrow need and expand it to contain whole new worlds of authority. (Remember, the only fix needed for FISA was a law allowing warrantless surveillance for foreign-to-foreign communication that passed through American infrastructure.) What is needed is for the military in Afghanistan and Iraq to operate prisoner of war camps. Even this is a little bit slippery because there will not be a Missouri or Appomattox moment in these wars, but eventually our soldiers will stop serving in combat roles. At that point we will have reached the closest we will get to a definitive conclusion. With that as a rough guide we could target a final disposition for all enemy combatants.
That isn’t what Mukasey wants, though. He wants anyone “dedicated to the slaughter of Americans-soldiers and civilians alike” to be the target, not those who are actively fighting us (the possession of such dedication would presumably be determined by enlightened souls such as…Michael Mukasey). He wants to set up a system where an unknowable quantity like bad intent is the standard for detaining people. The fact that the administration has been doing so and has suffered four consecutive reversals by the Supreme Court does not seem to trouble him. What he really wants is for Congress to give legal cover for the executive branch’s illegal detention system.
Equally disturbing is the duration of this alternate justice system. The effective suspension of habeas corpus will be “for the duration of the conflict”, which the administration prefers to mean “as long as anyone in the world wants to do America harm.” In other words, permanently. The actual scope of what we are (or should be) doing from a military perspective is very limited: Having soldiers capture or kill the remnants of al Qaeda and their Taliban sponsors somewhere in the remote regions of Afghanistan (and maybe the Pakistan border too). We could probably limit it even more - the Taliban have been routed from power and al Qaeda no longer has training camps from which to plan new attacks. We could just keep watching the area, keep them on the run and disrupt any attempts to settle down and organize. The formal military campaign against the people who attacked us has been over since December 2001.
What is left is tracking those who survived the campaign in those areas and law enforcement efforts elsewhere. John Kerry was derided for making that suggestion in 2004 but he was right. Even formerly reliable allies of the President have begun to concede this obvious point. The bulk of our efforts should focus on intelligence gathering (a substantial part of which can be accomplished by activities as prosaic as reading local newspapers), identifying cells of activity in both friendly and hostile countries, and finding ways to disrupt them. (One more obvious point: Identifying and detaining potential terrorists is easier when the country they operate in has a favorable impression of us.) It is a serious threat but not an existential one, and anyone looking to characterize it as such - as an endless war with no well defined enemy or articulation of victory - may fairly be suspected of ulterior motives. The effort did not require the erosion of civil liberties that have already happened, and our ongoing efforts against those who would do us harm do not require further concessions to extremists like Mukasey.
Britain should no longer rely on assurances by the United States that it does not torture terrorism suspects, an influential parliamentary committee said in a report released [July 20th].It’s almost turning into drudgery to catalog all the different ways our country’s torture program is a bad idea. One of our closest allies now believes we are untrustworthy, and there’s no reason to fault such a conclusion.
You know you’ve got a weak case when evidence starts getting thrown out of your custom-made kangaroo court.
Memo to Linda Sanchez: Unlike me, you can actually do something about Karl Rove’s illegal defiance of Congress. Leave the blogging to the amateurs, you twit. Just do your job.
The Miami Herald has been doing a fantastic job covering Guantánamo and even has a dedicated page for it. Carol Rosenberg’s latest dispatch (via) reports that the U.S. released one of the actually important suspects it captured, and did so for
no apparent reason. We’ve more or less resigned ourselves to
criminally incompetent behavior from the government on the domestic
front, but as more and more gets revealed about its conduct in foreign
affairs it is becoming increasingly obvious that “heckuva job”-level
hackery is a primary characteristic there as well. Forget bad PR
internationally over torture - the administration might be fighting
transparency and oversight so ferociously because they know what the
American public will think when its abysmal performance is revealed
there as well. (The Herald’s Guantánamo page has been added to my “Window Washers” blogroll, and I certainly hope more lofty recognition is in the offing.)
Finally, a non-executive power note. The video of the President saying “Wall Street got drunk” got lots of attention, but what jumped out at me more than anything was: “The question is, how long [until it sobers up], and not try to do all these fancy financial instruments?” Did he really say “all these fancy financial instruments”? Isn’t it embarrassing that our Harvard MBA President sounds like a rube whose idea of financial planning is stuffing money under a mattress? And isn’t it outrageous that he doesn’t know even the most basic particulars of the meltdown? Isn’t it a damning indictment that he apparently never picked up the phone and said “Paulson, get in here!” That he evidently never asked anyone “what are these here HELOCs I keep hearing about?” I don’t expect the President to be a financial wizard - though lately it seems no one is, just a bunch of impostors - but isn’t it reasonable to expect him to take the time for a quick tutorial on a handful of the major details? “Fancy”?! God help us.
So was born, lived a little space, and died the Progressive party. At its birth it caused the nomination, by the Democrats, and the election, by the people, of Woodrow Wilson. At its death it brought about the nomination of Charles E. Hughes by the Republicans. It forced the writing into the platforms of the more conservative parties of principles and programmes of popular rights and social regeneration. The Progressive party never attained to power, but it wielded a potent power.
The two party system in America is remarkably durable. Just the phrase “third party” conjures up images of John Anderson, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot and George Wallace. These are all people who exited or were never inside the system. It implies actors at the margins engaged in Quixotic (though see here and here) attempts to fundamentally alter conventional politics. It also postulates two parties as though they are fixed poles on the political map. Nearly everything about the way we talk and think about American politics assumes the context of two major parties fighting for majority control.
In general it has served us well and seems reasonable enough. Short version: We have one party for each side of the political spectrum. If you favor a more active government in domestic affairs and a predisposition for collaboration internationally vote Democrat. If you favor less spending on social programs and a more assertive “peace through strength” attitude abroad vote Republican. Anyone anywhere on the political spectrum has to choose one of these, and in doing so the most radical elements on both sides will be usefully channelled into moderate positions, resulting in generally prudent policymaking that changes on a gradual and sustainable slope. You won’t have governments falling every nine months and the kind of turbulence associated with whipsaw changes in direction.
This model only becomes problematic if the tension and adversarial nature assumed in it turn into cooperation and collusion, as in the quadrennial orgy of bribery and corruption at the party conventions. A look at the FISA reform circus tells you all you need to know about how united the Democrats and Republicans are on eroding our civil liberties. Yes, some of the former opposed it (Dodd and Feingold in particular were passionate and articulate) while the latter were nearly unanimous in their support. That difference noted, the Democratic leadership and enough of its members were fully on board, and let’s face it - the end result is all that matters. Glenn Greenwald summed it up beautifully: “While there are substantial, important differences between Republicans and Democrats, critical political debates are at least as often driven not by the GOP/Democrat dichotomy, but by the split between the Beltway political establishment and the rest of the country.”
In a situation like this supporting a third party candidate like Bob Barr or a true major-party maverick like Ron Paul can serve a great purpose. Looked at from a horse race perspective these candidacies are almost uniformly failures. The most successful in the last generation - Ross Perot - did not win a single electoral vote. But he won 19% of the popular vote on a candidacy centered on, if not almost entirely based on, balancing the federal budget. The deficit reached a then-high of 316 billion dollars in July of 1992 - and was balanced by January of 1998! There are plenty of reasons for the turnaround, and the US economy is unfathomably complex; on such a scale it is basically impossible to draw a 1-to-1 correspondence with any kind of cause and effect. But Perot’s candidacy put the issue on the table and made fiscal responsibility in Washington a priority.
Those of us deeply disappointed with the Democrats and who are partially redirecting our energy, time and money elsewhere can aspire to much the same result. No one seems to think the Libertarian Party is poised to replace one of the current major parties (though such seismic shifts have happened occasionally), and there is no reason to expect additional ones as long as the Lani Guinier Heresy is alive and well. But we are not fighting to change the anatomy of the body politic, rather to inject some unpopular ideas into it. Political, media and cultural leaders at the highest levels are very much at ease with a system where criminality is mere mischief and the natural result of policymaking. Such things are to be grappled with in academic settings and think tanks, not prosecuted in court. Changing that environment would result in a great deal of discomfort and there is an enormous predisposition to just look discreetly away. (Please see Andrew Sullivan’s demolition of this monstrous proposition). If we can help to end the polite ignoring of lawlessness, the treating of felonies as shuttlecocks to be batted around as part of a delightful but inconsequential game - if we can get at least some of them to start living by the rules the rest of us must live by - then our efforts will be a success regardless of whether or not they ultimately result in an ongoing movement.