One of the best and smartest members in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Rush Holt, has rejected the “look to the future – not the past” Orwellian mantra, at least when it comes to the highly consequential though still unresolved anthrax attack:
HOLT INTRODUCES ANTHRAX COMMISSION LEGISLATION
Bill Would Create 9/11 Commission-Style Panel to Investigate
Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-12) today introduced the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act of 2009, legislation that would establish a Congressional commission to investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks and the federal government’s response to and investigation of the attacks. . . . Holt has consistently raised questions about the federal investigation into the attacks.
“All of us – but especially the families of the victims of the anthrax attacks – deserve credible answers about how the attacks happened and whether the case really is closed,” Holt said. . . .
Under Holt’s legislation. . . [t]he commission would hold public hearings, except in situations where classified information would be discussed. The commission would have to consult the National Academies of Sciences for recommendations on scientific staff to serve on the Commission.
I’ve written repeatedly and at length about the huge questions that still remain with regard to the anthrax attacks, with a particular focus on the early and quite successful efforts (aided by ABC News’ Brian Ross) to blame the attacks in the public’s mind on Saddam Hussein, followed by the extremely unconvincing FBI assertion last year that it was now-deceased U.S. Army research scientist Bruce Ivins, and Ivins alone, who perpetrated that attack. The FBI’s case is riddled with glaring inconsistencies and numerous internal contradictions, enormous evidentiary holes, and pretenses of scientific certainty that are quite dubious (my interview with a scientist specializing in biosecurity over some of the scientific holes in the FBI’s case is here). Doubts about the FBI’s casecontinue to emerge.
Holt’s skepticism about the FBI’s claims is notable for several reasons. It was Holt’s Congressional district from which the anthrax letters were apparently sent, and the attacks imposed a serious disruption on the lives of his constituents. More significantly, Holt, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is a trained physicist. Before entering Congress, he taught physics as a faculty member at Swarthmore College and also headed the State Department’s Nuclear and Scientific Division of the Office of Strategic Forces during the Reagan administration. Both his interest in this matter and his knowledge of it are at least as great as any other member of Congress. That he maintains extreme skepticism over the FBI’s case and vehemently believes in the need for an independent investigation should, by itself, be quite compelling to any rational person (I interviewed Holt about the anthrax case in September of last year – here).
But Holt is hardly alone in the doubts he expresses about the FBI’s claim to have solved the anthrax case. An unusually wide and diverse range of even establishment voices have expressed the same doubts.
One of the two Senate targets of the attack, Sen. Pat Leahy, flatly stated at a Senate hearing last September that he does not believe the FBI’s case against Ivins, and emphatically does not believe that Ivins acted alone. GOP Sen. Arlen Specter, at the same hearing, told the FBI they could never have obtained a conviction against Ivins in court based on their case — riddled, as it is, with so much doubt — and he also demanded an independent evaluation of the FBI’s evidence. GOP Sen. Charles Grassley has been a long-time skeptic of the FBI’s anthrax investigation and has expressed serious doubts about the case against Ivins (see this interview I did with Sen. Grassley last year).
The ultimate establishment organ, The Washington Post Editorial Page, issued numerous editorials expressing serious doubts about the FBI’s case against Ivins and called for an independent investigation. The New York Times Editorial Page echoed those views. Even The Wall St. Journal Editorial Page, citing the FBI’s “so long and so many missteps,” argued that “independent parties need to review all the evidence, especially the scientific forensics” and concluded that “this is an opportunity for Congress to conduct legitimate oversight.”
In the wake of the FBI’s accusations against Ivins, the science journal Nature flatly declared in its editorial headline – “Case Not Closed” — and demanded an independent investigation into the FBI’s case. After the FBI publicly disclosed some of its evidence against Ivins, The New York Times reported “growing doubts from scientists about the strength of the government’s case.” The Baltimore Sun detailed that “scientists and legal experts criticized the strength of the case and cast doubt on whether it could have succeeded.” Dr. Alan Pearson, Director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation – representative of numerous experts in the field – expressed many of those scientific doubts and demanded a full investigation.
There may be legitimate grounds for doubting whether an independent, 9/11-type Commission of the type Holt proposes is the ideal tribunal to conduct a real investigation, but it is clearly the best of all the realistic options. The only other plausible alternative — an investigation by Congress itself — is far inferior, as anyone who has observed any so-called “Congressional investigation” over the last decade should immediately recognize (here, as but one example, is the account I wrote about a House hearing last September attempting — with cringe-inducing ineptitude and total futility — to “grill” FBI Director Robert Mueller about the FBI’s case against Ivins). How effective an independent investigative Commission like this will be will depend on the details of its structure — its subpoena powers, punishments for defiance, and the independence of its members. That Rush Holt will play a key role, if not the key role, in overseeing its creation is a reassuring feature that the bill he introduced can be actually productive.
The importance of full disclosure of all facts surrounding the anthrax attacks cannot be overstated. This was the opposite of a run-of-the-mill crime. To the contrary, the anthrax attacks — by design, as everyone acknowledges — had an immense political impact on the country. Contrary to endless claims from Bush supporters that Bush allowed no more terrorist attacks on “the homeland” after 9/11, the anthrax attack was exactly such a terrorist attack.
For reasons I’ve detailed previously, I actually believe that the anthrax attacks played a larger role than the 9/11 attack itself in elevating America’s fear levels to hysterical heights, which in turn put the citizenry into the state of frightened submission that enabled so many of the subsequent events of the Bush presidency. The 9/11 attacks appeared to be a one-time extraordinary event, but it was multi-staged anthrax attacks — coming a mere four weeks later — that normalized and personalized the Terrorist threat. As Atrios put it in his inimitably succinct style:
I’ve long been fascinated by the erasure of the anthrax attacks – which, in their own way, freaked out the country more than 9/11 did* – from our collective memory.
*People object when I suggest this, but while the 9/11 attacks were of course The Big Ones, anthrax was this creepy shit which was KILLING US THROUGH THE MAIL. While most people didn’t expect a plane to fly into their building, the anthrax attacks created a heightened sense of OMIGOD THIS COULD HAPPEN TO ME. 9/11 was terrible, but the anthrax attacks were terrifying to people.
Anthrax was what made things like “mobile chemical weapons labs” sound so scary. Not everyone agrees, but I think more than 9/11 the anthrax freaked the country out. 9/11 was horrible, but the anthrax made it seem like we’d reached a new era where some horrible creepy shit was going to happen every day.
And then it was all forgotten.
Whatever one’s views are on the abstract 9/11-anthrax comparison, there is no question that the anthrax attacks were a major political crime. According to the FBI, the anthrax letters were directed at U.S. Senators (Leahy and Daschle) due to their political views (specifically their opposition to the Patriot Act, their allegedly “soft on terrorism” approach, and their pro-choice views). And perhaps most importantly, the anthrax attacks — again, according to the FBI itself — came from a U.S. Army laboratory, perpetrated by a U.S. Government scientist. As the aforementioned Dr. Pearson put it:
If Ivins was indeed responsible for the attacks, did he have any assistance? Did anyone else at the Army lab or elsewhere have any knowledge of his activities prior to, during, or shortly after the anthrax attacks? . . . .
It appears increasingly likely that the only significant bioterrorism attack in history may have originated from right within the biodefense program of our own country. The implications for our understanding of the bioterrorism threat and for our entire biodefense strategy and enterprise are potentially profound.
Re-read that bolded sentence, which few dispute. The self-evident significance of this case — combined with the extreme doubts being expressed by a wide range of ideologically diverse (and bipartisan!) establishment sources, along with mainstream scientists of all types — should make quick support for Holt’s bill an easy choice. After all, if Ivins wasn’t the culprit and/or didn’t perpetrate the attacks by himself, then it means that those who did are still unidentified.
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Speaking of investigations, The New York Times today suggests that yesterday’s release of those nine bluntly authoritarian Bush DOJ memos is increasing the political pressure for an investigation into crimes by Bush officials. One would hope so (see this Andrew Sullivan post from yesterday as to why there those memos create a heightened urgency for such investigations).
This morning, beginning at 10:00 a.m. EST, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on Sen. Leahy’s proposal to create a Truth Commission to investigate detention, interrogation and surveillance crimes of Bush officials. That hearing can be watched here. Unraveling these strings — patiently and methodically, though relentlessly — is how one event can lead to another, how one disclosure can lead to others, and the entire ball can become unwound.
(updated below - Update II - Update III)
Dick Cheney’s interview yesterday with Fox’s Chris Wallace was filled with significant claims, but certainly among the most significant was his detailed narration of how the administration, and Cheney personally, told numerous Democratic Congressional leaders — repeatedly and in detail — about the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program. And, according to Cheney, every one of those Democrats — every last one — not only urged its continuation, but insisted that it be kept secret:
WALLACE: Let’s drill down into some of the specific measures that you pushed — first of all, the warrantless surveillance on a massive scale, without telling the appropriate court, without seeking legislation from Congress.
Why not, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the spirit of national unity, get approval, support, bring in the other branches of government?
CHENEY: Well, let me tell you a story about the terror surveillance program. We did brief the Congress. And we brought in…
WALLACE: Well, you briefed a few members.
CHENEY: We brought in the chairman and the ranking member, House and Senate, and briefed them a number of times up until — this was — be from late ’01 up until ’04 when there was additional controversy concerning the program.
At that point, we brought in what I describe as the big nine — not only the intel people but also the speaker, the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, and brought them into the situation room in the basement of the White House.
I presided over the meeting. We briefed them on the program, and what we’d achieved, and how it worked, and asked them, “Should we continue the program?” They were unanimous, Republican and Democrat alike. All agreed — absolutely essential to continue the program.
I then said, “Do we need to come to the Congress and get additional legislative authorization to continue what we’re doing?” They said, “Absolutely not. Don’t do it, because it will reveal to the enemy how it is we’re reading their mail.”
That happened. We did consult. We did keep them involved. We ultimately ended up having to go to the Congress after the New York Times decided they were going to make the judge to review all of — or make all of this available, obviously, when they reacted to a specific leak.
But it was a program that we briefed on repeatedly. We did these briefings in my office. I presided over them. We went to the key people in the House and Senate intel committees and ultimately the entirely leadership and sought their advice and counsel, and they agreed we should not come back to the Congress.
Cheney’s reference to the “additional controversy concerning the program” that arose after 2004 and that led to additional Congressional briefings is ambiguous and creates a somewhat unclear time line: is he referring to late 2004, when the White House learned that The New York Times knew about the NSA program and was considering writing about it (only to then obey the President’s orders to keep it a secret), or is he referring to the time when,more than a full year later, in December 2005, the NYT finally got around to writing about it, once Bush was safely re-elected?
Either way, Cheney’s general claim is as clear as it is incriminating. According to him, key Congressional Democrats were told about the illegal NSA spying program in detail, and they not only actively approved of it, but far beyond that, they insisted that no Congressional authorization should even be sought, based on what was always the patently inane claim that to discuss the fact that the administration was eavesdropping on our conversations without warrants (rather than with warrants, as the law required) would be to reveal our secrets — “our playbook” — to Al Qaeda.
It is certainly true that Dick Cheney is not exactly the most scrupulously honest public servant around. In fact, he’s almost certainly the opposite. Still, what he said yesterday was merely an expanded and more detailed version of what has previously been publicly reported and, to some degree, confirmed about the knowledge and support of Democratic leaders for the NSA program. Cheney’s claims encompasses the following key Democrats:
- Nancy Pelosi (Ranking Member, House Intelligence Committee, House Minority Leader);
- Jane Harman (Ranking Member, House Intelligence Committee);
- Jay Rockefeller (Ranking Member, Senate Intelligence Committee);
- Harry Reid Tom Daschle (Senate Minority Leader).
Unsurprisingly, Pelosi, Harman and Rockefeller all voted last July to legalize warrantless eavesdropping and to immunize telecoms from liability, thereby ensuring an end to the ongoing investigations into these programs. And though he ultimately cast a meaningless vote against final passage, it was Reid’s decisions as Majority Leader which played an instrumental role in ensuring passage of that bill.
One would think that these Democratic leaders would, on their own, want to respond to Cheney’s claims about them and deny the truth of those claims. After all, Cheney’s statement is nothing less than an accusation that they not only enthusiastically approved, but actively insisted upon the continuation and ongoing secrecy, of a blatantly illegal domestic spying program (one that several of them would, once it was made public, pretend to protest). As Armando says, “The Democratic members who participated in this meeting have two choices in my mind – refute Cheney’s statements or admit their complicity in the illegal activity perpetrated by the Bush Administration.”
I’m going to spend the day calling these members and trying to get some response to Cheney’s claim. If I’m unable to obtain any responses, I’ll post their numbers and encourage everyone to make similar calls. As I wrote on Saturday – and documented before: “As a practical reality, the largest barrier to any route to prosecution — including this one — is that the Congressional Democratic leadership was complicit, to varying degrees, in the illegal programs.” That’s true not only of the NSA program, but also the Bush/Cheney torture program.
One last point: there is much consternation over Dick Cheney’s “Nixon/Frost moment” yesterday, where he expressly endorsed the idea that, as a “general proposition,” a “wartime” President can do anything he wants — even if it violates duly enacted statutes — as long as it’s justified in the name of national security. In one sense, Cheney was being so explicit yesterday about his belief in Bush’s lawbreaking powers in part because he’s taking pride in being so defiant on his way out the door — daring a meek and impotent political class to do anything about his lawlessness — and also because Chris Wallace conducted one of the best interviews (and, revealingly, one of the only interviews) about the Bush/Cheney view of executive power.
But that this was the Bush administration’s central operating principle is something that — as was true for Cheney’s involvement in America’s torture regime — was long known. As I wrote all the way back in December, 2005, days after the NSA scandal was first revealed:
These are not academic questions. Quite the contrary, it is hard to imagine questions more pressing. We are at a moment in time when not just fringe ideologues, but core, mainstream supporters of the President — not to mention senior officials in the Administration itself – are openly embracing the theory that the President can use the power and military force of the United States to do whatever he wants, including to and against U.S. citizens, as long as he claims that it is connected to America’s “war” against terrorists – a war which is undeclared, ever-expanding, and without any visible or definable end.
While Bush advocates have long been toying with this theory in the shadows, the disclosure that Bush ordered warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens in undeniable violation of a Congressional statute has finally forced them to articulate their lawless power theories out in the open. Bush got caught red-handed violating the law, and once it became apparent that no argument could be made that he complied with the law, the only way to defend him was to come right out and say that he has the right to break the law. So that debate — over the claimed limitlessness of George Bush’s power — can’t be put off any longer.
By itself, the long-disclosed September 25, 2001 Yoo Memorandum left no doubt that our Government had formally and explicitly adopted an ideology of lawlessness. As a country, we just chose to ignore all of that, chose to do nothing about it. The absues and extremism of the last eight years began as a Bush administration initiative, but it culminated as something for which both political parties, our leading political and media institutions, and our citizenry generally bear collective responsibility.
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On a somewhat related note, this creepy little post inserted onto Matt Yglesias’ Center for American Progress blog by Jennifer Palmieri, the CEO of CAP’s “Action Fund”, is a vivid exhibit illustrating how Washington works, for reasons which Matt Stoller, Markos Moulitsas, and Brendan Nyhan all describe. Matt very well may not consider it to constitute interference with his editorial autonomy, but it nonetheless illustrates the potential constraints that can come from writing for an organization like that.
When I first joined Salon, the commitment they made, which for me was non-negotiatiable, was absolute editorial independence. Though that’s an unusual commitment for a magazine to make, they did make it, and they never once — in almost two years of my being here — even came close to violating it. Even as I’ve waged quite acrimonious mini-wars with friends and former colleagues of top editors and officers here, and even as I’ve aggressively advocated views that were, at times, the opposite of the ones top editors here were advocating, there’s never been a hint of interference or even pressure, and I couldn’t even fathom their doing anything like sticking a note onto my blog of the type Palmieri just inserted onto Matt’s blog.
Editorial independence is quite rare and quite valuable. It’s still one of the key distinguishing features between blogs/alternative media outlets and establishment media. As Atrios suggests: “contemplate the issue of editorial independence, and the various revenue models which make it possible or not.” It’s worth supporting the bloggers who practice it and the media venues that allow and encourage it.
UPDATE: As I said, Cheney’s time line is unclear, and it’s possible, when he references an “additional controversy,” he’s referring to the DOJ’s objections to the NSA program in March, 2004 — not anything having to do with the New York Times. That would mean the detailed, expanded briefings he’s describing would have included then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, but not Harry Reid (who only became Minority Leader in 2005, once Daschle lost). If Cheney is describing 2005 briefings, they would have included Reid. That’s all the more reason why responses from leading Democrats here is required.
That key Democrats were briefed on the NSA program is anything but new. USA Today reported in 2006 that Democratic leaders including Pelosi were repeatedly briefed on the program. There is some marginal dispute about what they were and weren’t told, but no dispute about the existence of the briefings and the complete lack of any real efforts by Democrats to stop it or even object.
UPDATE II: Via email, several very knowledgeable bloggers — including Marcy Wheeler and Christy Hardin Smith — are arguing, persuasively, that Cheney did not really disclose any specific new facts yesterday about Democratic complicity, that while he may have emphasized more clearly than ever before the approval he claims Democrats gave, all of the facts, in one venue or another, have been previously disclosed. Cheney yesterday was almost certainly talking about the March, 2004 White House briefing (that would have included Pelosi, Harman and Rockefeller — but not Reid), which has been reported.
Re-examining what Cheney said, they’re probably right. But none of that, as Spencer Ackerman points out, undermines at all the need for Congressional Democrats finally to give a full accounting of what they knew, what they were told, and what they said about these programs. Particularly given how publicly Cheney is taunting them for having approved of the NSA program, they should respond specifically to Cheney’s claims — confirm the parts that are true and deny the parts, if any, that aren’t.
The reason the law requires that Congressional leaders be briefed on intelligence programs is not because it’s nice in the abstract for someone to know. It’s because Congressional leaders have the right and the obligation to take action to stop illegal intelligence programs — something all briefed Democrats clearly failed to do. Cheney, on his way out the door, is answering questions about what he knew and approved. It’s way past time for Pelosi, Harman and Rockefeller, at the very least, to do the same.
UPDATE III: Last week, I was interviewed by Fox News’ Jim Angle regarding the John Brennan controversy. For those interested: his story will air tonight on Brit Hume’s Fox News broadcast, at 6:00 p.m. EST.