July 20, 2007

waiting to exhale

As I begin this, Bush is supposed to have 549 days, 23 hours and 32 minutes left in office. I know this because I have a Bush Countdown Clock on my desktop. You can have one too, freely available from such sites as nationalnightmare.com. Think about that as a sign of the times. The vast majority of the people in America ask the same question: where are we going? And why are we in this handbasket? So much so that a wide variety of outlets offer Bush Countdown Clocks for installation on your desktop, so you can check to see how far down the road toward liberation we are when you boot up each morning.

As for his actual departure: I'll believe it when I see it. I find it comforting that the Republican Party has a field of presidential candidates. They seem to believe that the normal election cycle will be operative in 2008. That's how spooked I am about what this out-of-control maniac might be up to. God might tell him He needs George to stay on, to "finish His work." Under assault by the Democratic Party, Bush is not backing off. If anything, he seems determined to provoke a true crisis. This is a key distinction between Bush and Clinton. Clinton, as you'll recall, was so afraid of being impeached that he offered to cut deals with Congress to avoid it. Just censure me, he said, I know I deserve something. Clinton said this although there was never any danger of his actual removal from office. The votes weren't there. In the Senate trial, he actually received a majority vote for acquittal. Bush is well aware that on any given workday in the House of Representatives, a vote could be scheduled to impeach him. The simple majority is there. Bush doesn't give a shit, because he knows he can't lose in the Senate. Indeed, the sooner the impeachment proceedings begin, the better his chances of survival.

He's provoking another fight now over executive privilege. As I've written before, and as John Dean writing in Findlaw.com appears to concur, executive privilege would not seem to apply to deliberations of the Justice Department over the hiring and firing of personnel, and it certainly has nothing to do with the issues involved in the Pat Tillman case. In the latter situation, the White House seems to assert that its right to mislead the public about an accidental death in combat is a matter of national security.

Somewhere, in a dark cavern in the Executive Office Building or some such haunt, a shadowy character who goes by the name of David Addington is dreaming this stuff up. Addington graduated from Sandia High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1974, which strongly suggests that he might be the product of some sort of nuclear accident. Whatever, he has been joined at the hip to Dick Cheney for a very long time, including his tenure as Republican counsel during the Iran-Contra affair. He achieved early notoriety as the author of a "controversial" minority report on the scandal. You can probably imagine which way he tilted the controversy. He went to Duke Law School, and I suspect he is as smart and creative as Bush is dumb and robotic. All these recent crises seem traceable to Addington, including the spooky assertion that Cheney is his own branch of government, and now the argument that it is up to the Executive Branch alone to decide whether to allow the Justice Department in the District of Columbia to prosecute Harriet Miers or Karl Rove for contempt in refusing to appear before Congressional committees.

Among the unintended consequences of Patrick Fitzgerald's half-assed prosecution of Scooter Libby is that we got rid of Scooter and got stuck with this guy as Cheney's new Chief of Staff, bringing with him all his necrotic ideas about torture and the unlimited power of the Executive during "wartime." I think that Addington and Cheney have their own countdown clock, and what they've decided is to test the outer limits of the most absurd, disturbing Constitutional arguments they can come up with. I will confess that is probably every lawyer's dream. How nuts can I make this and still have a chance to win? That's the problem: the Executive Branch does control the Justice Department, it does appoint all the judges, it does have the system gamed. These screwy arguments can work because the people who will decide whether they're tenable or not are people who owe their jobs to Bush/Cheney & Co. Let us face it: with all deference to the flawless perspicacity of the Founding Fathers, this is a major hole in the system. While the effort was made to design a government that would survive even bad people running it, it might not work where the heads of state are determined to break it apart, and where no one seems to pay that much attention to their efforts. That is why conservative lawyers such as Bruce Fein, who served in the Justice Department under Ronald Reagan, and John Dean himself, have become such vociferous critics of Bush & Co. and their Constitutional depredations. They are aware of how outlandish, how dangerous these ideas are that are emanating on nearly a daily basis from Cheney and his mouthpiece. Somewhere in the cavern, you can hear their chilling laughter: moooooAAAAHHHHHaaaahhhhhaaahAAAAH. They have, according to my Countdown Clock, 549 days, 22 hours and 5 minutes to wreak unholy havoc. Don't think for a minute they won't use it.

July 19, 2007

Plame goes down swinging

Valerie Plame Wilson's lawsuit against Cheney, Rove, Libby, Armitage, et alia, has been dismissed. She was seeking damages for the destruction of her career at the CIA, proximately caused by the vindictive, and treasonous, retaliation by Rove and Libby, acting in concert with Cheney (or maybe at his direction) to discredit the criticisms of Valerie Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson. My own passing familiarity with the concept of sovereign immunity, inherited like so many American legal concepts from British jurisprudence, leaves me unsurprised at the result. This was an uphill battle, as Plame's lawyers admitted at each step of the case. In essence, sovereign immunity shields government officials from civil damages which result from actions performed in the course of their official duties. No doubt, in general, this is a salutary principle. It is hard enough to find decent and qualified people to run for office as it is. If you add to the existing risks the idea you can be sued for a policy decision which goes awry (or perhaps accomplishes the very purpose you intended), then even more crazy people would infest the halls of government. Imagine if George W. Bush were civilly liable for the damages caused by his disaster of a war against Iraq. Yes, nice to imagine...but could the damages even be calculated? How to chalk board those, as the lawyers say.

Still, I was hoping she would get somewhere with the lawsuit. Patrick Fitzgerald used the excuse of Libby's perjury to shy away from the true jugular of the case, which was the intentional disclosure of an undercover agent's identity. It seems to me the case was there; Fitzgerald, whose refusal to say anything explanatory about his decision not to pursue the main or substantive case has always struck me as exceedingly weird, simply didn't want to take on the bigwigs. He settled for a set of technical charges against one errand boy, and in the end the President, who doesn't care at all about legality or honesty, took even this hollow victory away from him.

So Rove, Armitage and Libby, along with the Vice President, engaged in a concerted plan to make public, to reporters and the world at large, the secret identity of an undercover operative working in the field of weapons of mass destruction, under the business cover of Brewster Jennings. She would have had contacts in the field, and some of them would have operated under that same cover in dangerous territory. Her disclosure, along with the wholly gratuitous disclosure by Robert Novak of her trade cover, exposed those agents and cooperators to arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution. And no one in Washington who was instrumental in blowing her cover, for rolling up those networks, will pay any price whatsoever. The administration will not conduct an investigation to find out what the consequences were of this blown cover. The civil lawsuit has been dismissed. The criminal conviction has been vitiated. No one even lost their security clearance. The White House never even initiated an internal investigation by its own office of security.

I don't think the idea of sovereign immunity was ever meant to go that far. It's a measure, however, of where we are on the road to a completely unaccountable government.

July 18, 2007

Mr. Mumbles and his lousy end game

If you want to play chess, you first learn the moves. Indeed, old chess hands refer to learning the game in just these terms: "I learned the moves when I was six years old," for example. There is a humility in this formulation; no one can ever say, "I learned chess." All knowledge of chess is partial, approximate. And all qualitative statements about strategy break down in the heat of battle, for example, "control the center of the board," "maintain your pawn structure." Heuristic clues, that's all we have here. They can't guide a specific move, which depends entirely on context and your wits in figuring out what to do, right then and there. Against a good player, a single blunder is fatal. There are "standard" openings which can at least get you to the middle game with your chances more or less intact. Given the myriad complexities involved in an early situation with 32 pieces covering 64 squares, all with different vector lines and potentialities, it's useful to master certain formulas which avoid the worst of the mistakes you might otherwise make if you attempted to figure it out from scratch.

In the world of politics, such as the initiation of the Iraq War, the opening was the Joint Resolution passed by Congress in the fall of 2002. In honor of our imperial leader, we might call this the King's Gambit. Bush/Cheney & Co. successfully browbeat the Congress into support of their preconceived (that is: prior to 9/11) notion of invading Iraq, deposing Saddam, and seizing control of Iraq's oil reserves. The Democrats blundered badly, especially in the Senate, where the 60-vote rule, about which we now hear so much, would have prevented the Republican majority from conducting a floor vote on the Joint Resolution. Among the 77 senators voting to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq (and there could have been little doubt that's exactly what he had in mind), was Harry Reid, Democrat from Nevada, currently Senate Majority Leader.

So, you screwed up the opening, Mr. Mumbles. And now your end game is a shambles, and here's why: the rules of the game. Once you sign the resolution, you transfer the power to make war to Bush. To take that power away (so you've convinced yourself), you actually need 67 Senators, enough to override all of Bush's vetoes of every single "timeline, benchmark, troop rotation" concoction you can come up with. See how the game is played? Pawns can move forward, two squares on their first move, one square thereafter, and they take other pieces on the diagonal. You can withhold power from the President with only 41 votes, but once you give it to him, you need 67 votes to take it back. Simple, huh? All games have their rules. If you don't know the rules, you'll never be very good at playing the game.

Now, the rule book (the U.S. Constitution) does say that all the money for the war in Iraq has to be appropriated by the Congress. Bush has to have money to keep fighting this disastrous war until January 20, 2009, which is his stated intent. You keep thinking, Mr. Mumbles, that if you make the Senate stay up all night, and say lots of fierce things, that you can change Bush's mind. You apparently believe that a President with an approval rating of 25% will be persuaded if he's concerned it might drop to 24. This seems to be your approach. Or, more likely, you'll do anything to avoid the "radical" approach of Senator Russ Feingold, which is to say to Bush, "no more money." That's a move, allowed by the rule book, which permits you to say "checkmate."

So face it, Mr. Mumbles. You're afraid to win this game, so you're going to keep making moves which you know can't win, all the while pretending that it's part of a brilliant strategy. Alekhine, Capablanca, Bobby Fischer would all just shake their heads in bewilderment: if you can move your queen to KB8 and announce your victory, why would you castle and lose the game?

July 16, 2007

Delusion & Criminal Enterprises

(Thoughts after attending a talk by Richard Dawkins at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park on Saturday...)

The author of "The God Delusion" arms himself well for the predictable assaults on his character and reasoning directed at his "blasphemous" positions on religion, although he finds humor even in that very accusation. As he quoted from a bumper sticker at the talk: "Blasphemy is a victimless crime." Religion has worked itself so much into the warp and woof of everyday thinking that it's hard to appreciate that we're always talking about ghosts, goblins and spooks who just aren't there. Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist from Oxford, leads the counter-attack of atheism with grace, good humor and bravery, I think. It's valuable work, and probably more necessary than the legions of atheists would probably like to admit. There was a huge crowd at Kepler's, the audience completely filling the bookstore and all its aisles. Maybe you'd expect that so close to a citadel of great learning, Stanford University. But I had the same experience when I went to Book Passage in Corte Madera to hear Christopher Hitchens talk about his atheist work, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." Something is in the air these days. Nonbelievers are tired of getting pushed around by people who think "The Passion of the Christ" is a documentary, who believe that humanoids with white feathery wings are floating around just out of view. They're sick of the psychological child abuse of Sunday school brainwashing, the hell-fear bestowed upon the innocent and described so perfectly in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Or physical abuse, as we see today in Los Angeles, where the archdiocese is putting together $660 million to buy up the rest of the 508 claims against diddling priests and other perverts in its direct employment. If you really take to heart the idea that god is not only not great but nonexistent, is a completely fabricated mass delusion intended to supply an easy answer to an infantile wish for certainty about the meaning of life -- if you really get to that point, with the able help of courageous thinkers like Dawkins, Hitchens, Sam Harris and one of the bravest pioneers of all, physicist Steven Weinberg (who was out there taking the body blows of the religious crazies before many others in the scientific establishment) --when you arrive at that point of certainty, and then you look at the Catholic Church with its cassocked legions of child molestors, and you realize there is actually no mitigating reason whatsoever for what has gone on there, that it's all a fraud and a sham, an elaborate game of make-believe involving the investment of billions, all of it milked out of defrauded "believers," in ornate buildings and stained glass, and in all the schools and colleges selling this hokum, and in the other what-not propping up the mythology -- then you begin to appreciate the need for a massive counterforce to oppose such pervasive madness. And leading the charge is this brilliant, funny, polite --and fearless --Englishman with the droll wit and uncompromising attitude essential to the job at hand. Godspeed, as it were, to the good Professor Dawkins.