Posts Tagged ‘Dick Cheney’

Dammit, Reddit! You know I sorta love you, but sometimes…

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Reddit, you know I sorta love you. You’re my source for news that doesn’t get covered enough in the American press, for pictures of cats doing cute things, for viral videos. You’re the main reason I’ve already seen every cool link on the internet before anyone else. In other words, I kinda love you.

But Easter morning, I woke up to see this:

Which reminded me of the side of reddit that pisses me off. The way uninformed but sufficiently cynical sentiments go unchallenged, complete with “facts” that aren’t facts. It reminds me that as great as you are at finding the holes in the mainstream media coverage, sometimes you too fall prey to group-think. And that not even facts can arrest the momentum of a rapidly rising story.

Because – you see, reddit, there are a few problems with that post.

1) It talks of “the wiretapping program” as if it were one thing. It isn’t. There have been a number of programs that have existed before 9/11 and that evolved in the years afterwards. (More on that in a minute.)

2) Most importantly, no ongoing wiretapping program is illegal. Or at least,  even as it’s hard to state something with certainty about classified programs whose operations are behind a veil of secrecy, the main part of Bush’s wiretapping program that was illegal was eventually authorized by Congress – first temporarily with the Protect America Act of 2007, and then permanently in the summer before the 2008 elections with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act.

This was the infamous bill that gave the telecoms immunity and was all over reddit at the time. It’s main purpose was to authorize certain changes to the FISA bill.

——–

That summarizes what I’m annoyed at. But for some history:

FISA had been proposed by Ted Kennedy to rein in the abuses of the CIA and the executive branch that the Watergate and Church Committee investigations uncovered. (These abuses were largely by the CIA which, though prohibited from operating within America, had abused it’s authority to spy on foreign agents within America to spy on Americans opposed to the Vietnam War and conduct operations on American soil.) FISA was an attempt to check presidential authority by restraining the surveillance capabilities in a few specific ways. (This was parallel to the checks on governmental power that the FBI and other domestic police organizations abided by requiring more proper warrants.)

FISA permitted two types of surveillance:

  • Without a court order, but with the Attorney General’s certification, the president could authorize the surveillance of a communications between foreign powers and their agents so long as “there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” These would include non-American citizens operating overseas.
  • The president could authorize the surveillance of the communications between foreign powers and their agents so long as “proposed minimization procedures” for the interception of communications to which a United States person is a party if they applied for a warrant from a special FISA court within 72 hours after surveillance began. These would include foreign agents operating in America – or later, international terrorists.

After September 11, NSA Director Michael Hayden expanded surveillance to some (undetermined) degree, but believed he lacked the authority to go further. Under the FISA system, a judge for the FISA Court who was driving by the Pentagon when it was attacked, issued a number of emergency warrants from his phone in his car. But Hayden believed he could be more effective if he were authorized to expand “surveillance of what would be classified as ‘international communications’ — because one end of the communication is outside the United States even though one end is here.”  Hayden reportedly pushed back against requests from Dick Cheney to spy on purely domestic targets, but the program continued to broaden. Bush asserted the authority to act outside of the FISA Court and the NSA began to analyze call and email metadata as well without authorization from Congress or the FISA Court. Some unknown program – likely related to metadata analysis – triggered the infamous hospital room standoff that nearly sparked the resignations of the Attorney General and the top levels of the Justice Department, the Director of the FBI, and possibly the top lawyers in the CIA, State Department, and Pentagon.

Congress, under Democratic control after 2006, pushed back with Amendments to FISA in 2008 which conceded to Bush in giving immunity for the telecom companies who cooperated with him and authorized most of the surveillance that he had asserted the authority to do without legislation. What the bill did do was specifically restrain the executive branch from overriding it by invoking war powers and legislate specific rules for how surveillance could be conducted. The new legislation:

  • Increased the time allowed for warrantless surveillance to continue from 48 hours to 7 days. (This includes pen registers and trap & trace surveillance.)
  • Required FISA court permission to wiretap Americans who are overseas.
  • Required government agencies to cease warranted surveillance of an American who is abroad if said person enters the United States. (However, said surveillance may resume if it is reasonably believed that the person has left the States.)
  • Prohibited targeting a foreigner to eavesdrop on an American’s calls or e-mails without court approval.
  • Allowed the FISA court 30 days to review existing but expiring surveillance orders before renewing them.
  • Allowed eavesdropping in emergencies without court approval, provided the government files required papers within a week.

As far as we know, the surveillance currently being conducted by the Obama administration follows these rules and is thus legal, though subject to Constitutional challenge and of course challenges on policy grounds.

On policy grounds, there are two main arguments I’m sympathetic with. First, that collecting too much untargeted data leads to information overload.  And second, that it creates the apparatus that could be used for – as Shane Harris, author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, warned in a Cato Institute event:

The government is already collecting so much information…especially in the meta-space where you’re talking about …transactional logs and phone records and emails and that sort of thing…

There are very few technological and legal impediments anymore to the government getting information one way or another.

That’s not 100% the case but information is sort of there and it will be obtained.

I think that right now, generally speaking, their interest does lie in monitoring for foreign threats and for foreign terrorists and their connections in the United States. My concern is that we’re developing a capability and a capacity that in a different environment, with a different mindset, that that could be turned in very targeted ways on individuals or groups of individuals…

The government is really good at – once someone is in the sights …and they know a target – they’re pretty good at finding out a lot of information about that person and diagramming his network. The hard part is these threats that are existing out there beyond the sights, beyond the crosshairs, and this book is largely about people who exist in that space.

I guess the alarm call that I’m raising is if the government ever want to take that and target it very selectively for reasons that we might find appalling right now and unthinkable, they could in fact know a lot. [my emphasis]

How the Media Undermines Civility

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Civility in political discourse is a difficult thing to maintain – as people engage in politics often because they believe strongly in what they are advocating. One of the ways to maintain this is to politely refrain from accusing your opponents of dastardly deeds – and instead, be circumspect and try to make uncontroversial points of agreement that undermine your opponents. For example, when debating the recent Supreme Court decision on corporate political spending, you might plausibly say in the course of argument that, “Without free speech, we would live in tyranny,” or “Attacking the First Amendment is un-American.” While the thrust of your argument may be that your opponents are – given the rest of what you’re saying – undermining the First Amendment, you don’t claim that they are advocating tyranny or are un-American. You don’t call them names, in other words. You criticize their actions as you perceive them. It’s a fine line – but an important one.

However, the news is 24/7, right?

And every minute needs to be filled up with some new scandal, some new story-of-the-day. This is how uncontroversial statements become provocative headlines – specifically provocative headlines that tap into a narrative the public already knows. These provocative headlines then quickly become talking points for someone as they attempt to use the news to push their message. So, for example, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer publish an op-ed in USA Today which – rather uncontroversially – claims:

Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American.

Suddenly, the right wing begins complaining of the McCarthyite push for health care. (Pelosi called the Tea Party crowd “un-American”!!!!)

Now, again, John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor, writes in an op-ed for USA Today:

Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda. Terrorists are not 100-feet tall. Nor do they deserve the abject fear they seek to instill.

Relatively uncontroversial, you would think. But for those lacking the time to read this short piece, Jake Tapper summarizes it:

WH: Some Critics ‘Serving the Goals of al Qaeda’

Matt Drudge though saw the need to remove a few qualifiers in his big headline of the day:

WHITE HOUSE: OBAMA CRITICS HELPING AL QAEDA

The common thread here is this: in the midst of making an argument, an uncontroversial point is made. News reporters, eager to make their quota of new scandals for the day, remove all qualifiers from the sentence, take only a word or two, and recast the entire argument as pure demonization of the overall target of the piece.

This is one of the essential aspects of the Freak Show that is our Washington news.

——

Of course, some politicians seem to deliberately cross over these lines to make their points. Perhaps I’m biased here – and if so, tell me. But I think there’s a difference in how Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin often talk. At one point, for example, Cheney claimed that:

I think [the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammad as a civilian is] likely to give encouragement — aid and comfort — to the enemy.

By rather directly describing the Obama administration’s actions as meeting the legal standard of treason, Cheney seems to be crossing a line. And of course, Sarah Palin famously “asked”:

Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?

I wonder – is it just my bias that makes me see the distinction between these two sets of statements? Or are they clearly of a different sort?

[Image by me and sysop licensed under Creative Commons.]

Americans Want a Second Bush-Cheney Administration?

Monday, February 1st, 2010

Sometimes, I’m not sure when Andrew Sullivan means something literally and when he means something as a politically challenging debating point. I say this with the knowledge that the same can be said of me at times. When I tweeted the following, I was challenged to back up this “assertion”:

The Scott Brown Effect? DOW down almost 200 points since election of 41st Republican makes it harder for US to tackle fiscal matters.

I retreated eventually:

In all honesty, this Scott Brown thing was a reaction to the near-constant harping of people on the right about the “Obama effect” on the stock market. It was a way to gain a cheap political point in the short-term while planting the seed of doubt in the mind of those who actually thought Obama was the cause of the stock market drops last fall or today.

In other words, I was trying to win a debate point against those who decried Obama’s effect on the stock market. I wonder if Sullivan is doing something similar himself here:

From Day One, the GOP has had one strategy, utterly unrelated to the country’s interests, and utterly divorced from any responsibility for their own past: the destruction of any alternative to Bush-Cheney conservatism.

They believe that the policies of 2000 – 2008 are the right ones for the future…

It is the second sentence which seems more of a debate point meant to box your opponents in than a legitimate one – because as Sullivan has acknowledged before – the Bush administration’s views changed dramatically around 2004/2005. Which is why its not quite clear to me what one might describe as “the policies of 2000 – 2008.” With regards to national security and terrorism specifically – Bush took office nonchalant about terrorism, panicked after September 11, and then backed away from those panicked positions substantially while defending them as correct rhetorically.

This has been one of Sullivan’s main theses, and one which has profoundly shaped my views of both the Bush administration and the Obama administration in terms of national security policy. For while the Bush administration gradually scaled back the worst abuses, often due to court or rarely, Congressional, intervention, it never repudiated the precedents it set in the panic, precedents that if invoked would create an authoritarian executive. This is what bothered most of the liberals, what they feared. They saw in Bush’s immediate response an understandable panic, but in the precedents he set by refusing to repudiate the measures he took, the seeds of the destruction of our republic.

This is part of the reason Obama’s response has been significant – as he has attempted to gradually move the country to deal with terrorism rationally, in a nonpartisan fashion, and as a matter of law – to deal with it from a coherent strategic-legal framework rather than as the panicked, emergency, tough-seeming Bush policies. Obama has grasped the essential truth: What needs to happen – what is more essential than justice – is for our nation to come to a consensus on how we will deal with terrorism.

While Cheney, et al. attack Obama for abandoning the framework they created for the War on Terror (as they attempt to preemptively politicize the aftermath of the next attack), it is important to keep pointing out that Bush himself stopped using much of the Cheney framework by the time he left office. What we desperately need is for national security policy to become less polarized, less partisan. Mario Cuomo in the winter of 2007 foreshadowed this moment in history, as he called on Americans fed up with George W. Bush to seek:

Something wiser than our own quick personal impulses. Something sweeter than the taste of a political victory…

He called on Americans to instead turn to:

“Our Lady of the Law,” as she comes to us in our Constitution ─ the nation’s bedrock.

Because this is what many right wingers today reject as they defend – not the Bush administration as a whole – but this hard core Cheneyite view that Bush himself turned away from by the end of his time in office. They defend the panicked policies and fearful abandonment of American values as “tough” – asserting that it was this panicked response that “kept us safe” because they cannot quite bring themselves to acknowledge that no president can keep them safe.

What we so desperately need as a nation – if we are to maintain our power and not fritter away the rule of law and other strengths overreacting to terrorism – is to come to a national, bipartisan consensus on how to deal with terrorism. (We also need to come to a similar consensus on how to deal with our impending fiscal catastrophe – but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Andrew Sullivan sees the stakes – it is he who so often pushes me to confront them – to see that what we face is at its core “a crisis of civic virtue, a collapse of the good faith and serious, reasoned attention to problems.” To resolve this crisis, the ideologues and Cheneyites must be defeated; and they can only be defeated if we are able to take back control of the political conversation from the idiocrats.

Andrew Sullivan convinced me in his moving op-ed last year that the single individual most able to create this consensus is the man who so disgraced himself while in office: George W. Bush. Which is why I think it is a mistake to paint his administration’s policies with such a broad brush. We should condemn the Bush policies of 2001 – 2004, and embrace his gradual evolution to more nuanced positions. We must split those who supported Bush from those who supported Cheney in order to form a broader consensus; even if that distinction barely exists now – we must create it. From that barest of cracks is the beginning of a national consensus and the final marginalization of the Cheneyite view of executive power.

[Image by amarine88 licensed under Creative Commons.]

Get It Through Your Heads: No President Can Keep You Safe

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Speaking of rooting for catastrophes, it’s hard to see anther reason for Dick Cheney’s continued attempts to politicize national security issues and terrorism. There is a ghastly calculation at work – as Cheney is attempting to set the scene for a Republican reemergence in the aftermath of the next successful terrorist attack.

There is so much glaring idiocy at work in the opinion page responses to the attempted Christmas bombing. Few seem willing to admit the obvious truth: No centralized power can keep us safe. No intelligence system will be perfect. No watch list will be all-inclusive. No screening procedures are foolproof. We can make it harder for a terrorist to succeed, but in order to win, we need to prevent every attack; while they only need to slip through the cracks once. And there will always be cracks. Even in a totalitarian regime, there are cracks. Part of the price we pay for a free society is vulnerability.

Yet, instead we seem to blame or credit the President himself for whether or not he kept us safe. We “got lucky” this time – it is said – but the President should get his act together and prevent another attempt. It was nonsense to say that George W. Bush kept us safe after September 11. And it is nonsense to say that Barack Obama has kept us safe since being elected. They simply do not have the power to do this, fictional narratives like Vince Flynn’s and 24 notwithstanding.

What the president is responsible for – along with the rest of the government – is creating policies and enforcing laws that balance freedom and security. There were failures that allowed the now-spayed bomber to get through security. But – and let me speak clearly here – assholes like Rep. Pete King, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, and former Vice President Dick Cheney who are trying to exploit Al Qaeda’s bombing attempt to score political points are beyond contempt. Cheney especially seems to have made the calculation that he can preemptively politicize the aftermath of the next attack.

What further demonstrates the bad faith of these assholes is that they offered no such criticisms of George W. Bush after the “shoe bomber” slipped through security and attempted to blow up another plane in December, after which Bush failed to immediately call it terrorism, and after which he did not immediately comment. I didn’t blame Bush for this at the time – and neither did the Democrats. Yet now, when Al Qaeda attempts an attack, rather than unifying us, provides yet another excuse for King, Hoekstra, and Cheney to bash the man whose agenda they despise.

Even worse, in doing so, they support the illusion that a tough President has the power to keep us safe – that if only we acceded enough power to Big Brother, everything would be alright.

Political Number Games

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

A more proper post coming later, but for the moment, I wanted to provide you with two graphs and one poll result.

First, from the always insightful Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, who points out that all these polls touting the fact that Americans are almost evenly split on the health care legislation before Congress, 12% of those counted against the bill are those that want it to move farther to the left:

By “left,” Silver means those who think the bill doesn’t go far enough to reform health care – though I suppose those could be people on the right as well. Either way, breaking down the data like this gives a lot more insight than the headline numbers.

Via Andrew Sullivan, an enterprising individual mapped out the “geography of the recession,” with the mounting job losses per county places on a map of the United States and animated over time.

Finally, in a rather misleading piece of analysis, Andrew Malcolm of the LA Times uses recent poll data to suggest that Sarah Palin has a shot in an electoral race against Obama. Rather than looking at head-to-head polling results, he looks at the favorability ratings of Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Dick Cheney. He points out that Obama’s are dropping and Palin’s and Cheney’s are rising. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that these last two individuals have no power and thus those favoring them are only supporting the vague promise of an individual. But – on the other hand – this does demonstrate that Palin and Cheney have become the voice of the Republican Party, and does bode well for my prediction that at least one of the two will be on the Republican ticket come 2012. Those suggesting we write them off and ignore them because they represent fringe views are engaging in wishful thinking.

A Unified Theory of Obama

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Last week, Politico’s John F. Harris wrote a story detailing 7 different stories “Obama doesn’t want told.” Its a misleading headline – as it is about anti-Obama memes that Republicans are trying to get the media to cover. Andrew Sullivan takes the set of Republican talking points offered as a news story, observing:

What strikes me about the attacks is how scattershot they are. The right wants to argue both that Obama is a mean-ass Chicago pol and a push-over… The inconsistencies are legion, because, I suspect, Obama’s enemies have yet to get a single, compelling narrative that rings true. They didn’t manage it in the campaign and they have not managed it since. He’s too big and interesting a figure to be caricatured that way. [my emphasis]

I think both Harris and Sullivan have missed something though – a single, compelling narrative that has been developing about Obama, and one that rings true to a significant subset of Americans. I call it the Unified Theory of Obama. It involves several, though not all, of these narratives listed by Harris. Charles Krauthammer wrote the best single synthesis of this theory in a cover piece for The Weekly Standard last month entitled “Decline is a Choice.” The piece was a brilliant example of “the Big Lie” which is plausible only after a leap of faith, but which because of its sheer audacity affects the entire political conversation. The core “insight” Krauthammer offered was that Obama’s liberalism is a deliberate attempt to undermine America’s power in the world both domestically and abroad. Postulating that the decline of American power is a choice, he suggests that Obama is deliberately choosing to make America decline in power.

You can see this narrative coming together if you listen to enough talk radio. See this interview with Rush Limbaughthis article by Charles Krauthammerthis speech, upon which the article was based; this interview with Krathammer; and this profile of Krauthammer in the National Review which oddly is behind a firewall unlike most of National Review‘s content.) You can see the narrative animating the statements of Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, of Charles Krauthammer, of Sean Hannity, and of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (though these last two also have potential to go off script.)

The narrative goes like this:

This narrative is audacious. And it’s compelling. And it ties so many anti-Obama memes together. It goes well with the ominous music constantly playing on Sean Hannity’s television show. It goes well with the transformation of right wing politics and media into a form of entertainment in which news is presented as if it is the plot of a thriller.* This narrative explains why Obama is popular around the world. (“Europeans like to see the hegemon diminished, and Obama is the perfect man to do that.”) It provides an explanation (about the only plausible one) for why Republicans should be so adamant in their opposition to everything Obama proposes. It provides a storyline that can rally the base behind any alternative candidate. It taps into the inchoate sense that “something’s wrong.” It provides a scapegoat for the end of America’s unipolar moment. Those who feel they are “losing the America they knew” are also given a scapegoat. (“America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.”) It plays off of the foundation of anti-Obama attacks from the 2008 campaign – that he was somehow foreign, un-American, radical. The various factual inaccuracies in this narrative are unimportant – because it is fundamentally so at odds with reality that it requires a leap of faith to believe in the first place.

All of these pieces are directed only to the faithful. They aren’t meant for the general public. They are meant to keep the faithful in line. And despite the fact that Krauthammer has articulated this Unified Theory of Obama to the faithful, his columns have not pushed this rather extreme take on the President. Instead, Krauthammer chips away at Obama with smaller pieces attacking this and that, while for the sake of each column conceding that Obama might not be an anti-American radical intent on destroying the nation, as he tries to get the public to see this bigger picture one piece at a time.

This, I believe, is the narrative that the next Republican nominee will carry into the 2012 election in some form. I believe it will founder specifically because most Americans will balk at someone characterizing the president as anti-American. But Krauthammer and his allies have several years to try to figure out how to sell this message – how to convince a majority of Americans to accept it, or barring that how to rally the base using it while keeping it away from the rest of us. And The Weekly Standard has already determined the logical proponent of this Unified Theory of Obama, the logical response to Obama’s “new liberalism – someone to carry Republicans to victory in 2012 by leading a “new populist” movement:

Someone who will give voice to the millions who don’t want government aggrandizing the powerful; who don’t want government risking dangerous fiscal imbalances; who do want public policies that create the conditions for a general prosperity. Someone, in other words, who can play the same role in contemporary politics that Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan did in the past.

She lives in Alaska.

Edit: Two other “unified theories of Obama” that are more sympathetic can be found in Jonathan Chait’s description of Obama using civility and respect as political weapons and in Andrew Sullivan’s description of Obama as a Road Runner constantly inducing his opponents to overstep a la Wile E. Coyote.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

*Not my own idea. It’s from a piece in The New Republic from this November which I can’t find online. Update: The piece by Jason Zengerle is now online.

Limbaugh claims Obama is a radical leftist because he supports programs Republicans proposed a generation ago.

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Charles Krauthammer, and other right wingers have begun to converge on a unified theory of Obama – a systematic critique of who he is, what he stands for, and what he is trying to do. Part of this theory – one of the core themes being developed – is that Obama is the most far left American leader ever. Rush Limbaugh expresses this as well as anyone – and I’ve spliced together two clips from his interview this past Sunday with Fox News. (Full interview here.)

Let’s take two of these quotes out for a moment:

We’ve never seen such radical leadership at such a high level of power…

I don’t know of any Republican who would try to take over one sixth of the U.S. economy. I don’t know one Republican who would put forth this…this…irresponsible cap and trade bill. I don’t know one Republican who would actually do that.

To understand why this is such a bizarre thing to say you need to look at some history.  It illustrates what I mean when I call the Republican Party and the right wing – and much of our public debate as it attempts to find the middle ground between the right and left – unhinged. Take a minute to look at the history of the policy proposals regarding the two examples Limbaugh cites – health care and cap and trade.

Health Care

The plans moving through Congress now have an historical precedent in most of their aspects in the two serious Republican attempts to reform health care after LBJ’s introduction of Medicare and Medicaid – Richard Nixon’s health care proposal in 1974 and the Dole-Chafee bill in 1993. Between the two bills, they contained a technocratic institution to reign in health care spending by looking at medical practices – similar to the IMAC that Sarah Palin called a death panel (Richard Nixon’s proposal); an individual mandate, an extension of Medicaid eligibility (the Dole-Chafee plan); an end to insurance industry abuses – for example, banning people with preexisting conditions, subsidies or vouchers for individuals who couldn’t afford health insurance to purchase it, and the creation of a standard minimum level of benefits for health insurance plans (both plans.)

Those who developed the base model that of health care reform now – used these models as the base onto which they grafted a health insurance exchange and a public option. They combined market forces with decentralized decision-making – the exchange on which private companies would offer health insurance – with a more top-down centralized approach – the public option which would compete with the private companies. Clearly, though the plan is distinctly liberal, it was developed by people who have a deep appreciation for some of the central conservative critiques of government planning and New Deal/Great Society-style liberalism. The plan is also clever politically – as a great majority of the American people, in their wisdom, see great value in having a choice between public option and a private one. Michael F. Cannon of the libertarian Cato Institute accidentally justified the rationale behind this popular sentiment:

Any payment system creates perverse incentives…which is why we need competition between different payment systems to temper the excesses of each.

Unlike the Dole-Chafee bill which sought to undermine the current system with the hope that something else would develop, the plans working through Congress now are more conservative as they seek to preserve the status quo while introducing an alternative model that people could opt into if it works.

You wonder how far to the right the Republican Party Rush imagines is if he claims he doesn’t know any Republican who would propose anything like this.

How about Mitt Romney, Bob Dole (who incidentally endorsed a version of the bill currently moving forward), Richard Nixon?

The one thing that makes this plan distinctly liberal is the public option. Yet, if anyone believes that after dropping it, the Republicans would support a health care bill, they haven’t been paying attention.

(For more on the similarities on health care, see this post from yesterday.)

Cap and Trade

On climate change, the story is even more dramatic.

Cap and trade started out as a hair-brained scheme to solve the problem of acid rain thought up by a Reagan administration lawyer, C. Boyden Gray. Environmentalists and liberals hated the idea. They saw it as a license to pollute, a “morally bankrupt” “license to kill,” or more reasonably as a “scheme for polluters to buy their way our of fixing the problem.” They preferred the more “command-and-control” approach of top-down regulation. Regulators resisted the idea – as it forced them to surrender “regulatory power to the marketplace.” Industry opposed it, claiming it “was going to shut the economy down.”

But George H. W. Bush thought that free market principles could realign the incentives to fix this problem – and he wanted to placate the Canadians who were bearing the brunt of the acid rain.

So he pushed through a cap and trade scheme to eliminate acid rain over these strong objections. It beat all expectations. Eventually environmentalists came around and industry continued to thrive. This Republican success on solving a major environmental issue without top-down regulation made cap and trade a popular, bipartisan idea. Eventually, Bill Clinton saw it as a way to tackle global warming. But as a significant minority of Republicans continued to question whether or not global warming was real and whether or not it was man-made (along with every other scientifically moot question that industries raised) any possible deal was postponed. Still, as late as 2008, the Senate had strong bipartisan support for a cap and trade program – with Joe Lieberman and John McCain taking the lead. Now McCain is a major opponent of the cap and trade legislation, complaining about the lack of support for nuclear reactors in the bill as a reason to oppose it. This when as late as a year ago, he reiterated his statements of the past eight years in saying that global warming demanded “urgent attention” – that we must “act quickly” to “dramatically reduce our carbon emissions” with a “cap-and-trade” program.

As I said regarding health care, if anyone thinks that McCain will come around to support this legislation that is so similar to what he supported as essential a year ago if the Democrats just tossed some more money into nuclear energy, then you haven’t been paying attention. McCain will likely start calling it a “power grab” and a “government takeover” of the world, echoing Cheney and Krauthammer by the time the bill is up for a vote.

Conclusion

In both cases, Republicans proposed ideas based on core conservative principles – on a respect for the free market, on avoiding rapid change, on avoiding top-down regulation. And now Democrats led by Barack Obama have taken up these proposals – amending them somewhat to take into account liberal ideas such as a distrust of large corporations and a concern for community goods – hoping to pass bipartisan legislation.

What they are met with instead is screams of “Socialism!” and “Government takeover!” and “Unprecedented!” “Attacks on liberty!” and “Why do you hate America?”

Is The Secret Plan Panetta Found Hersh’s “Executive Assasination Ring”?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Sam Stein of the Huffington Post got there first – but when I first heard the news about the secret plan so shocking that CIA Director Leon Panetta immediately shut it down and informed Congress late last week – my first thought was of the vague remarks by Seymour Hersh this March about “an executive assassination ring” run by Vice President Cheney.

Last night, reading the Wall Street Journal piece by Siobhan Gorman, this inkling seemed confirmed. Gorman reported:

According to current and former government officials, the agency spent money on planning and possibly some training. It was acting on a 2001 presidential legal pronouncement, known as a finding, which authorized the CIA to pursue such efforts. The initiative hadn’t become fully operational at the time Mr. Panetta ended it…

One former senior intelligence official said the program was an attempt “to achieve a capacity to carry out something that was directed in the finding,” meaning it was looking for ways to capture or kill al Qaeda chieftains.

Most of the other pieces on this subject have linked it specifically to Cheney – which is little surprise as most of the more extreme measures taken in the aftermath of September 11 were instigated by Cheney. Stories have also noted that this program is not related to the interrogation of prisoners or the wiretapping of information.

Compare this to Hersh’s comments back in March:

Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command – JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him…

Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.
Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.

It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized.

In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people.

The glaring discrepancy between the program Hersh is describing – and the one news reports are now – is that one point being emphasized in the current coverage of the concealed program is that it was never fully operational. But Sam Donaldson – in an unusual bit of worthwhile commentary – pointed out Sunday on This Week that we didn’t know how operational was being defined. He asked: Were there pilot programs? Was this tested in the field? Was there training? These questions are important – especially given how a word such as torture was parsed out of existence. And of course the most basic question, being fooled once, can we trust that this secret operation was not actually operational?

[Image by askpang licensed under Creative Commons.]

Experimenting With National Security Policy

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

On September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was taken by surprise. Their immediate reactions are forgivable, if disheartening – the 7 1/2 minutes reading a book after being told “America is under attack;” the quick spreading of false information at the top levels as officials thought that the State Department had been attacked and that taxi cabs were planning on blowing themselves up in front of major Washington buildings; the order by Cheney to take out a civilian airliner, usurping the role of the president. President Bush and Condi Rice clearly panicked – as Rice has essentially admitted since leaving office:

Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what the second-guessing that would really have hurt me – if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn’t do everything we could to protect them.

Karl Rove, seeing his dream of a realignment of the electorate threatened by the biggest terrorist attack in American history likewise panicked.

Cheney though was emboldened – his sense of purpose, his disdain for America’s delicate system of checks and balances, and his radicalism imbued Bush’s first term with a reactionary fervor. The War on Terror became synonymous with Cheney’s goal of creating an imperial presidency. At this point, in the aftermath of this devastating attack, Rove began to plan for ways to turn this glaring weakness into a strength; and Cheney attempted to change the American structure of government – believing that 9/11 would have been prevented if only the president had more power. Thus, Cheney began to systematically use this crisis to centralize more power in the White House – and to assert greater executive powers and to outright reject the powers of the legislative, judicial, and quasi-independent branches of government to check his or the president’s power. Laws were read in such a way as to maximally expand presidential power – with a statute declaring war on Al Qaeda secretly being understood to overturn decades of legislation, for example; vast areas of law were secretly held to be unconstitutional checks on the president’s power and were ignored. In so doing, Cheney began to fundamentally alter the American social bargain.

It wasn’t until far right-wingers from Office of Legal Counsel Director Jack Goldsmith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and quite a few other top CIA, FBI, and Justice employees were about to resign that Bush finally realized how radical his administration had become. By Bush’s second term, he began to walk most of his more radical policies back – though refusing to admit any fault and maintaining his authority to do all of it.

Now that Bush is no longer in office, liberals, libertarians, progressives, and other Bush administration opponents had two basic conceptions of how to move forward and how to look at the radicalism of Bush’s first term and his assertions of executive power that he maintained until he left office. The first conception was well expressed by Tom Malinowski of the Human Rights Watch at a Congressional hearing on June 11, 2009:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

On the other side, some who opposed the radical actions of Bush-Cheney still saw within September 11 something similar to what Cheney did – a unique threat to our way of life. What these individuals are forced to do is balance the threat of catastrophic terrorism with the desire to preserve our way of life. Rather than starting with the assumption that a stronger president with fewer checks on his or her power is the only way to prevent terrorism, these individuals believe we must experiment with our laws and institutions, to tinker with them, to achieve this right balance – all within the public realm and with the consent of the people, rather than in secret.

In an interview with a British paper, Philip Bobbitt, for example, makes the case for why we need to experiment with our national security policy – focusing specifically on the idea of stockpiling laws:

I think when you go to weapons of mass destruction you’re talking about just a completely different level of horror and disruption…We must come, as societies, to some understanding of what we’re facing, and in these times of tranquillity organise ourselves and debate about what we will do if a catastrophe should come to pass. We should stockpile laws for such an eventuality, just as we stockpile vaccines. Then I think we have an excellent chance of getting through these attacks with systems of consent in place. But if we don’t do that, if we say oh, get real, this isn’t another second world war, surely you’re exaggerating the threat, this couldn’t possibly threaten our society now! It hasn’t yet! And if you don’t use the democratic process to put laws in place now, then in a way you become the ally of the terrorists because when a truly terrible series of mass atrocities really does occur and you don’t have anything to fall back on, that’s when you get martial law, that’s when you get the system that’s in democratic collapse, and you become the source of terror yourself. No, Bin Ladin isn’t going to invade and occupy Westminster and put Mullah Omar in the House of Lords, he’s not going to take over. If Britain becomes a state of terror it will be because we did it to ourselves and we did it because we did not prepare when we had the time and the peace to do so by law and by consensual systems.The United States can do the same thing. If we are busy throwing away laws, the one steady craft we have to get through this, Washington will turn us into a state of terror, we’ll do it. We’ll embrace it enthusiastically…

We need to focus on making our society more resilient in the event of an attack, on spreading information regarding terrorism so that citizens can make informed choices (as was successful in preventing the fourth attack on September 11). The laws regarding continuity of government – from my understanding – are incomplete Cold War relics. We need to take the threat of terrorism from the realm of fear and bring into the realm of rational thought. Obama, as president, is uniquely positioned to do this.

It seems to me that Malinowski’s approach – while understandable – is misguided. In a changing world,  our government must adapt, must experiment. And the threat from catastrophic terrorism – the threat inherent in a globalized world, with technology increasing the power of individuals exponentially – is real. It must change the calculus, the balancing test. We need to experiment with our national security policies – and get away from the Culture War politics that thanks to Rove and Cheney have come to dominate this arena. The Rule of Law and our way of life is better protected if we reflectively plan for an emergency now rather than overreacting in fear in the moment.

A New Phase in the Culture War: National Security

Monday, June 15th, 2009

As Barack Obama and Dick Cheney prepared their dueling speeches last month, Reihan Salam observed:

National security has become part of the culture wars, only with Dick Cheney as the new Jerry Falwell. It doesn’t matter that Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan or that he’s embraced rendition. To Cheney, Obama’s anti-torture stance represents the moral vanity of a naïve one-worlder.

We’ll be hearing much more about this new culture clash. During the hearings on Obama’s first Supreme Court appointment, Republicans will spend more time hammering the Democratic nominee on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush than about Roe v. Wade. At the moment, Obama looks untouchable. But the politics of national security could prove his undoing.

This observation is seeming more and more apt as the months go by. And yesterday morning’s appearance by Mitt Romney on This Week With George Stephanopoulos suggested that if Romney has anything to do with it, the Culture War will extend to foreign policy as well.

Foreign policy and national security have always been matters of contention between the political parties – but Culture War issues functioned a certain distinct way.

In some sense, the Culture War can be traced back to the “psychodrama of the baby boom generation” as they fought over Vietnam and then social issues. By the 1990s, the Baby Boom generation dominated most institutions in the country and  a large number of Americans had divided into two warring camps along a familiar lineup of issues: abortion, homosexuality, guns, censorship, separation of church and state, etcetera. Each party became dominated by those with the most extreme positions on these issues. There were only two ways for savvy politicians to position themselves – to triangulate and try to find some reasonable accommodation; or alternately to find a reasonable position and  make sure that they were wrong – but on the right side of the issue. During this time, issues of national security and foreign policy didn’t break down in the same partisan way. Republicans opposed Clinton’s proposed anti-terrorism measures; Democrats were more hawkish than Republicans in Bosnia – and in both cases, neither side was completely aligned. These issues weren’t litmus tests – but matters upon which reasonable people could and did disagree.

Then came September 11 and George W. Bush’s and Karl Rove’s explicit decision to use the War on Terror as a political weapon. There were no mainstream Democrats opposed to most aspects of Bush’s emergency measures, so Rove tried to make any slight suggestion of disagreement tantamount to treason. Though this worked well enough as a political tactic, it still hadn’t moved national security issues into the Culture War entirely.

The turning point came when allegations of torture began to surfare – and the photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib came to light. Everyone was shocked – Republican and Democrat. Everyone condemned it. Except the far-right partisans. I remember reading The Corner and other blogs around this time – and an extraordinary thing happened. For weeks, these men and women had been insisting that America did not torture – only, maybe  some bad apples  - and that to suggest we did torture was a form of America-hating. Then, almost overnight, all of these same men and women began to talk about ticking time bombs and demanding to know why we shouldn’t torture a terrorist who hated America!

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was an election year – and with everything viewed through this prism, it’s easier to justify something awful. But regardless of the reason, in that moment, national security became part of the culture war. Karl Rove accomplished what he had been trying to do. He polarized the electorate so that it became necessary for any savvy politician on the right to be wrong on the right side of these issues.

By 2008, this was evident – as the sensible position that there had been overreach in Bush’s War on Terror – and that for example, Guantanamo should be closed down – gave way to Mitt Romney declaring that he would “double Guantanamo” to cheers. It’s a nonsense phrase – but the Culture War isn’t about policy – but about position.

Now, Romney is continuing this – and pushing it into foreign policy.

Yesterday morning, Romney, adopting the freedom of expression and lack of accountability typical of  party out of power, launched a critique of Obama’s response to the Iranian elections – and to the Middle East in general:

Romney criticises Obama’s use of “sweet words” (sounding eerily similar to Zawahiri who denigrated Obama’s “elegant words“) – yet his only suggestion for how to react differently to the Iranian elections would be to use Romney’s own words – which admittedly aren’t as “sweet” or “elegant.” And of course while Romney denigrates Obama for relying on words without action – Romney’s only response to the Iranian election is to use his own words.

(This brings up an interesting difference: Obama uses the power of words to affect what is going on, as in his Cairo speech, his race speech, his speech on national security – while Romney insists we must use our words to express ourselves and to show what side we are on. This difference in the use of language is precisely what makes Obama an effective speaker – but this is a topic for a different day.)

What Romney forgets is that – in Andrew Sullivan’s words:

This is not about us. It’s about them.

The time may come for the president to stand with the majority of Iranians – to voice his support – but Romney’s demand for instant moral clarity demonstrates a Culture War view of foreign policy – of a need to be wrong on the right side of the issue. As a candidate, this Culture War take on national security and foreign policy can be effective – but as a governing tactic, it is disastrous.