March 16, 2007

Eenspector Georges W. Clouseau Wahs Naht On Zee Case!

"To assist the Committee in its investigation into these issues, I request that you provide the Committee with a complete account of the steps that the White House took following the disclosure of Ms. Wilson's identity (1) to investigate how the leak occurred; (2) to review the security clearances of the White House officials implicated in the leak; (3) to impose administrative or disciplinary sanctions on the officials involved in the leak; and (4) to review and revise existing White House security procedures to prevent future breaches of national security." Text of part of letter dated March 16, 2007 from Henry Waxman, U.S. Rep., (D-Los Angeles) to Joshua Bolten, White House Chief of Staff following yesterday's "Plame" hearings.

George W. Bush must have great fun at Henry Waxman's expense. Behind closed doors, of course, with the other Administration bullies around to regale, Bush must search his meager vocabulary for the stinging words of derision appropriate to this bald, diminutive, buck-toothed, bespectacled Jewish son of a Los Angeles pharmacist who represents his native city in the House of Representatives. It is true that Waxman, who does indeed look like a rabid chipmunk wearing a pair of magnifying glasses, is not possessed of movie star looks.

However, after watching Mr. Waxman preside over the Valerie Plame hearings yesterday morning, televised in their entirety on C-Span, I think Georgie Boy had better laugh while he can. He is in deep, deep trouble. Of course, Bush is always in trouble, but this is different. Not to be excessively dramatic, not that I would say something corny like "mark my words." But -- mark my words. In the Watergate scandal, it was the almost incidental disclosure by Alexander Butterfield, a White House subordinate, that Nixon taped everything said in the Oval Office that led to Nixon's disgraceful departure. Bush may just have had his "Butterfield Moment." Friday morning, we heard from
Dr. James Knodell, Director of the White House's Security Office. Dr. Knodell clearly did not want to be there. I would describe his facial expression as that of a man who has been severely constipated for two weeks and felt, just before being sworn in, the sudden and extreme urge to go. He apparently did not know he would be appearing before the Committee until Thursday, when the White House must have concluded they had to send somebody to answer questions about the White House's "response" to leaks of classified information (Waxman would not take no for an answer), and sent this mild-mannered bureaucrat who used to think he had one of those enviable government jobs. Good pay, no responsibility.

Dr. Knodell had an awful morning, because he saw, after a few game evasions, that he was going to have to tell the truth. Fortunately for him, he's a career civil servant with, no doubt, a secure pension. He's going to be unpopular back at the White House, where loyalty always trumps honesty and ethics. It was, he admitted, standard procedure to investigate leaks of classified information from the White House. Executive Orders required that anyone involved in the leak of classified information report himself to Knodell's office. It was also standard procedure to initiate an investigation where it was suspected that White House personnel were involved; since Novak's column of July 14, 2003, identified "two Administration officials" as his sources, and since the Washington Post followed soon after with a description of "two top White House" aides talking to about six reporters, this was not exactly a leap of faith.

Knodell grimly admitted that there was never any investigation whatsoever. No one turned himself in. No one lost his security clearance except Scooter Libby, upon indictment. Not a single piece of paper exists in any investigatory file, because there is no file. The Director of White House Security, charged with protecting classified information from unauthorized disclosure, has not done anything about the gravest breach of security of the Bush Administration to date.

For a while, Dr. Knodell halfheartedly tried to hide behind the White House's standard evasion, that there was "an ongoing criminal investigation" and it was not the practice of the Security Office to run "collateral investigations." Unfortunately, his co-panelist, Bill Leonard, head of something called the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives and Records, contradicted this easy out. There is no such practice, he authoritatively said. The primary responsibility for determining the ongoing propriety of giving security clearances to White House personnel lies with Dr. Knodell's office. As one would assume. (Mr. Leonard, indeed, appeared so genuinely outraged by what the White House had covered up that he fell all over himself to help the Committee get to the true, fetid bottom of this mess.)

So when Inspector Georges promised in 2003 to "get to [that same] bottom" of the Plame leak, how did he intend to go about it? Ah, I think I just figured it out. At the moment he made his specious pledge, as he impersonated once again a man with the faintest trace of moral probity, he had already gotten to the bottom of it. He knew who had done it, because he was in on it. Zoot alors! Eye haff zahlved zee case!

March 15, 2007

Bush's Hombre de la Bolsa

Alberto had a good run. I think it is true, as argued forcefully by Sen. Charles Schumer, that the Attorney General's basic problem is that he fundamentally misconstrues his role as the head of the Department of Justice. Instead, Gonzales has always seen himself as Bush's mouthpiece, a wily, malleable and often devious advocate for Bush's bad idea-of-the-week. Such jobs have a built-in short life expectancy, as many Bush loyalists are learning, one by one.

In 1996 George W. Bush, then recently elected Governor of Texas, was summoned to jury duty on a drunk driving case. This presented, of course, a matter of extreme delicacy for Bush, as indeed almost anything which requires Bush to disclose something about his early life inevitably does. Bush went to the court house with Alberto, his chief counsel. Prospective jurors do not usually report for duty with a lawyer in tow, it should be noted. Accounts vary, but the most likely scenario is that Alberto called for a meeting in chambers with the judge and lawyers and advanced a novel argument. It was possible, said Gonzales, that Bush, as governor, might someday be called upon to consider a pardon request from the DUI defendant; thus, Bush's service as a juror presented a possible conflict of interest. Again, in the most believable scenario, the defense lawyer did not want Governor Bush, a "law and order" type, on the jury anyway, and Bush was excused.

The questionnaire Bush was required to complete in connection with his jury duty also posed some ticklish dilemmas. Among other uncomfortable questions, the form wanted Bush to disclose whether he had ever been a defendant in a criminal matter. Actually, he had. In 1976 he was arrested and convicted of a drunk driving charge in Maine. This part of the form was left blank. In his confirmation hearings for Attorney General, Alberto explained to the Administration's nemesis, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, that this was a "frequent practice" on such questionnaires.

Both arguments that Gonzales was willing to make for his single client were, of course, utterly absurd. It is characteristic of Alberto that he will say any fool thing Bush needs him to say to get Bush out of a tight corner. Since Bush spends most of his life in tight corners, this is an exceedingly valuable quality in a Bush retainer. It has led Alberto, for example, to argue for Bush's rights to walk all over the Fourth Amendment and the FISA law, restricting (indeed, criminalizing) warrantless wiretaps. Alberto led the way on torture, lining up a posse of similarly ethically-compromised lawyers to sign off on violations of the Geneva Conventions, which Alberto called "quaint."

Alberto gained further notoriety recently in Senate testimony by advancing the head-scratching argument that the Suspension Clause of the Constitution did not imply the existence of a preexisting right to the "ancient" writ of habeas corpus. The Suspension Clause reads as follows:

"The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

Reacting to my own patriotic impulses, I have considered how I might assist George Bush's reactionary agenda of eliminating American freedoms. My first target begins at the beginning, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. This "quaint" provision reads like this:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Notice that this weakly-worded amendment does not positively state that freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly or petition actually exist. It just says Congress can't abridge them. But that hardly means the government has to recognize or protect them, any more than it has to recognize or protect the writ of habeas corpus.

Pienso que yo puedo ser un hombre de la bolsa tambien. Not that I want to brag. It's just clear that my extension of Alberto's argument is far more powerful than his puny abolition of the writ of habeas corpus. Hell, that just wipes out any hope for foreigners. Mine strikes at the true enemies of the Administration, the American people.

A funny thing happened after getting to the Forum 2,051 years ago today

I wonder if the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C., would have been viewed differently were it not for the plays of William Shakespeare. Not to mention Dick and Liz. After all, Marc Antony's "friends, Romans and countrymen" speech is difficult to counter. The delicious irony of the refrain, "but Brutus is an honorable man," outclasses any prosaic recitation of Caesar's self-aggrandizing moves to consolidate power after he crossed the Rubicon. It's worth bearing in mind, however, that Brutus, Cassius & Co. viewed themselves as the ancient Roman equivalent of the German generals who tried to assassinate Hitler with a bomb; that is, as engaged in tyrannicide, not a coup.

It's 2,051 years later and the imperial pretender who walks all over the American Constitution and violates statutes (or signs "statements" vitiating the effect of new ones which inconvenience his autocratic designs) is in no similar danger from his own Senate. For one thing the Star System of the old Hollywood studios is gone; who would play Mr. Mumbles (Harry Reid) and La Diva (Nancy Pelosi)? Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston? I don't think so either. The modern American Senate is full of the Boy Emperor's (in Chalmers Johnson's descriptive term) enablers who are aware of Bush's numerous outlandish high crimes and misdemeanors but consider it impolitic to do anything about it. I have thought since November 2006 that the importance of impeaching George W. Bush is less about the immediate benefits of removing a dangerously incompetent leader with totalitarian instincts from office than it is about the cleansing and expiatory effect of reaffirming the Constitutional rule of law. If we tolerate, for example, the wholesale violation of the Fourth Amendment and the FISA law by Bush and his cronies, and allow them to cloak the true extent of their invasions in secrecy; if we permit Bush to maintain a vast gulag of CIA prisons in foreign countries where "terrorist suspects" are routinely tortured in violation of the Geneva Conventions; if we buy into the patent nonsense that "enemy combatants" can be jailed indefinitely without judicial recourse by a specious analogy to the treatment of Japanese and German soldiers during a conventional war with a finite duration; if we aid and abet the continuation of a war started on false pretenses under the color of an "authorization" that is clearly no longer even putatively applicable; if we do all this, and considerably more, then we are saying that from now on we will tolerate the concept that Presidents can act illegally without any consequences other than pointless "criticism" or the occasional demand that some subservient official be symbolically canned by the Administration.

I do not understand why Nancy Pelosi believes that impeachment must be "off the table." The clearest case ever presented for impeachment now exists. The House Judiciary Committee would probably need five or six months to air out all the misprision and illegality in which Bush & Co. have engaged during their first six sordid years.

Yet I suppose the Democrats are going to let it ride. They are so enmeshed in Beltway politics and personal careerism that they have lost sight (with a few blessed exceptions, such as Patrick Leahy, Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold) of the big picture. If this neglect persists, I am concerned a terrible price will be paid down the road. The original idea that no President is above the law will be lost as the "precedents" established during the Bush Administration cohere into fixed tradition. Exceptions to Constitutional principles for "national emergencies" and "dire threats" will be seen as routine and tolerable, and Americans will get used to the idea of police state tactics and "necessary" curtailment of liberties. A terrible mistake, anticipated many times in history. Brutus and Cassius saw it coming in their own day. They just needed someone writing better lines to vindicate their legacy.

March 13, 2007

Godless Liberal(s) Invade(s) Congress

"Secular groups Monday applauded a public acknowledgment by Rep. Pete Stark that he does not believe in a supreme being, making the Fremont Democrat the first member of Congress — and the highest-ranking elected official in the U.S. — to publicly acknowledge not believing in God." Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2007.

Well, there goes the neighborhood. Also, my own cover story for not running for office. In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, he makes the point that a higher percentage of Americans voice their unqualified opposition to an atheistic candidate for President than for any other defining characteristic in a standard survey. Americans who have no qualms about voting for a woman or a minority for President draw the line at voting in a heathen. In Dawkins's view, in other words, a substantial majority of Americans demand that the President, first and foremost, be delusional. Certainly no one promoting deism in politics could have much to complain about in the last 7 years.

If Pete Stark is the "highest-ranking elected official" in the U.S. to renounce belief in God, then I suppose that none of the other 434 Representatives and none of the 100 Senators has ever done likewise. Thus, we're at the point where either (1) not one of the other nonbelieving 534 members of Congress has the courage to proclaim his/her apostasy, seeing it as political suicide; or (2) there is no such person; they all believe in God.

I was recently in a conversation about such beliefs where I was described as an agnostic, and I found myself saying, "beyond that." "Atheist?" she asked. "Beyond that too," I responded immediately. I wonder what I meant. Maybe something along these lines: If you tell me that thunderclaps are caused by Thor throwing his hammer while being carted around in the sky in a chariot drawn by his two goats, I will, of course, honor your belief and nod gravely in the way that my politically correct, respectful generation tends to respond to declarations of arrant nonsense. We're so-o-o nice and afraid of giving offense. If, however, you ask me whether I share this "belief," I will think (though probably not say) that the question is simply not meaningful. There aren't "two sides" to this "question." You believe something nuts and I don't think about it.

I liked Steven Weinberg's response to a religious group who asked him to participate in a "constructive dialogue" with religious thinkers. He declined, saying he maybe believed in a dialogue, but not a "constructive dialogue." Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist probably best known for uncovering the cause of Reality (barely an exaggeration), has the right idea, if you ask me. What can science learn from religion, other than the importance of science as an escape from obscurantism? I don't see much difference between positing the idea of a god creating the Universe with lightning bolt-like conjurations and Thor throwing his Mjolnir and making the dogs run under the bed. The Biblical God is an update of the Nordic Thor; modern religion simply retreats before the advance of science by making God murkier and more ethereal, and doing away with the vaudeville routines of burning bushes and parting seas.

I suppose, if I'm running for President, I can finesse the point by telling the truth and saying I find the question of belief meaningless, along the lines of the above meandering explanation. I doubt it will work. Americans are intolerant of vacillation on matters of belief. They much prefer a straightforward declaration of lunacy.

Unapologetic Cassandra-ism; or, Foreseeing the End of the American Republic

Cassandra was a good-looking gal, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, who was so alluring to men that Apollo himself came on to her and granted her the power of prophecy. Cassie, however, could not dig the Greek God's action (he wasn't Yanni, after all). So her power, in effect, became a curse. It did not stop her from predicting the fall of Troy, however, and she added yet another cliche to our always-burgeoning trove with her "beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

My old prof at Berkeley, Chalmers Johnson, has now completed his Cassandra-ish "Blowback" trilogy. The last volume, "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic" warns us that the military-industrial complex sitting at the very center of American life acts as a kind of Trojan Horse full of devastating potentialities that threaten the Constitutional basis of our democracy. If we're lucky in a society, we find among ourselves a few brilliant polymaths with that rare capacity to take it all in, to contextualize recent history, to describe the interplay of the moving parts of our governmental and social apparatus. Noam Chomsky, for all his unquestioned brilliance, seems (to me) simply too stridently "off" to offer much help this way. It's as if he never much liked the United States in the first place. His rants have no capacity to redeem because they are nihilistically devoted to complaining as an end in itself. When someone is absolutely insistent on never placing one's country in a broader context of mistake-prone polities, but attacks unmercifully every failure and peccadillo, I think of motivations such as "Daddy" issues as the root of the emotional antipathy.

If, on the other hand, you essentially like America, once served it as a Naval officer and CIA analyst (like Prof. Johnson), and are just disappointed in how screwed up it's gotten, then Chalmers may be the sort of Cassandra for you. I think there's a reason so many of us are nostalgically drawn to tales of World War II. Say what you will about America's questionable decisions during the War (internment of Japanese, the firebombing of civilians in Germany and Japan, the use of atomic bombs at the end), one could at least say that if these were mistakes, they were errors made under tremendous threats to our survival, and there is no doubting the overall moral righteousness of our cause, especially when compared to the evil intentions of Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini and even of our "ally" Stalin.

Chalmers Johnson writes about the problems engendered by never leaving the wartime economy of World War II, the "Keynesian militarism" of the military-industrial complex. He lays it out so it is plain to see. The United States has become a New Sparta, or in his formulation, the New Roman Empire, the republican nature of which foundered after 44 B.C. when Rome sank into a series of military dictatorships. We're dominated by our military institutions, and they are threatening the Constitutional basis of our country. The same thing happened to Rome. There are many facts and figures in "Nemesis" to support the thesis. The United States has at least 737 military installations, many of them large bases and airfields, worldwide. Adding up all the money spent through all agencies (e.g., the nuclear bomb budget of the Department of Energy, and the budgest of the many intelligence agencies), the United States spends 3/4 of a trillion dollars a year on the military and on defense of the country. This is 50% of the discretionary spending of the federal government (outside of entitlements) and more than 25% of the total federal budget. Using this figure, it can be said that the United States spends more money on defense and intelligence (and "homeland security") than the rest of the world put together.

Of course, we can't afford this. We're giving up all kinds of social programs (universal health care, for example, or useful mass transit) that other civilized nations take for granted. We borrow the money at a reckless pace to keep it all going while our manufacturing base for everything except weapons and munitions is shipped overseas (3 million jobs lost since 2001). Everyone agrees that the trade deficit, the national debt, the looming bankruptcy of the entitlement programs are "unsustainable," but we keep trying to sustain them anyway. In one of many lapidary moments, Chalmers Johnson explains that Keynesian economics has been short-circuited in America's militaristic world. The idea was that the government could stimulate short-term development to avoid recessions by taking on deficits to finance, e.g., public works programs which increased employment and the free flow of money; and then, in prosperous times, to retract such programs and to use tax revenues to pay down the deficits created.

The foxes, however, have completely taken over the hen house. There is no brake on spending on the military because militarism is now what the United States does. Congress does not "oversee" the process except to enable it. (Note that the planned response of the Democrat-controlled House Appropriations Committee to Bush's request for "supplementals" for Iraq and Afghanistan is to give him more than he asked for.) It's why we're always at war. It's why we spend more and more on defense even when it's completely irrational, for example, to keep beefing up the standard military when we see our main enemy as disparate groups of Islamic militants engaged in "asymmetric warfare," where a large standing army and lots of overkill bombs are inappropriate and probably useless. Yet when you have all these hammers, every problem looks like a nail.

One effect of reading the book is to understand that George W. Bush is at the extreme end of a gradual process of evolution toward a militaristic, anti-Constitutional movement which has gained momentum over the last 50 years. He did not come out of nothing; the ground was prepared by all the Presidents since World War II. His Manichean, apocalyptic tendencies (and limited comprehension, which makes him susceptible to easy manipulation) have simply quantumly pushed things in a direction they were already going. He's made clear the central thesis of "Nemesis," that a militaristic nation intent on foreign adventurism and domination cannot also maintain a free democracy at home. Not in Ancient Rome, and not now.