Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

To Investigate or Not: Four Ways to Look Back at Bush

Posted in Barack Obama, politics, torture, war crimes by allisonkilkenny on February 22, 2009

New York Times

POISON DARTS Senator Frank Church, whose committee looked into intelligence abuses, shows a dart gun from a C.I.A. lab in 1975. (Henry Griffin/AP)

POISON DARTS Senator Frank Church, whose committee looked into intelligence abuses, shows a dart gun from a C.I.A. lab in 1975. (Henry Griffin/AP)

WASHINGTON — Two days after his re-election in 1864, with Union victory in the Civil War assured, Abraham Lincoln stood at a White House window to address a boisterous crowd of supporters. He spoke of the lessons of the nation’s calamitous recent history.

“In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and as good,” Lincoln said. “Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”

Today there are new calls for such study, not universal but certainly loud enough, directed this time at the Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism. Interrogation techniques that the United States had long condemned as torture, secret prisons beyond the reach of American law and eavesdropping on American soil without court warrants are at the top of a lot of lists.

But as Lincoln knew, one man’s wisdom is another’s vengeance. Repeatedly in American history, and in “truth commissions” in some two dozen countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe since the 1980s, it has turned out to be a tricky business to turn the ferocious politics of recent events into the dispassionate stuff of justice and the rule of law.

A USA Today/Gallup poll this month found that 62 percent of Americans favor either a criminal investigation or an independent panel to look into allegations of torture. Still, many people, primarily Republicans, insist the Bush policies were vital to protect the country, and the Obama administration is treading gingerly. When Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, proposed a commission to investigate torture and eavesdropping, President Obama didn’t embrace the idea.

Already grappling with two wars and an economic meltdown, Mr. Obama said he was “more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” But the door was ajar; he also declared that “nobody is above the law.”

Mr. Leahy is undeterred. In an interview, he laughed and described the president’s remarks as “an enthusiastic endorsement.” He said he would work to build support for the idea in Congress.

As a senator under seven presidents, Mr. Leahy said, he has learned that the temptation to abuse powers in a crisis is bipartisan, and the commission’s review should include the role of Democrats in Congress in approving the Bush policies. The work should be done in one year, he added, to avert accusations that it was being dragged out for political gain.

Mr. Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters remain passionate about “looking backwards,” arguing that the Bush policies darkened the United States’ reputation, to Al Qaeda’s benefit. They include Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the House Judiciary chairman, who has sponsored a bill to set up an investigative panel.

Many Republicans, however, say the lofty appeals to justice and history mask an unseemly and dangerous drive to pillory the Bush administration and hamstring the intelligence agencies.

That was precisely the view of an aide in Gerald Ford’s White House named Dick Cheney when a Senate committee led by Frank Church of Idaho looked into intelligence abuses in the mid-1970s. A quarter-century later, as vice president, Mr. Cheney would effectively wreak vengeance on that committee’s legacy, encouraging the National Security Agency to bypass the warrant requirement the committee had proposed and unleashing the Central Intelligence Agency he felt the committee had shackled.

If advocates of looking back have their way, what are the options? Some past inquiries offer models, each with different potential winners and losers.

A CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION (IRAN-CONTRA)

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said at his confirmation hearing that he, like Mr. Obama, did not want to “criminalize policy differences” by punishing officials for acts they believed were legal. The same language was used in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush when he pardoned six officials charged in the Iran-contra investigation. Mr. Bush called the charges “a profoundly troubling development in the history of our country: the criminalization of policy differences.”

The Iran-contra case illustrates the obstacles to any prosecution that unfolds in a polarized political atmosphere. An independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, worked for six years to untangle shady arms deals, defiance of Congress and a cover-up. But because of the pardons and court rulings, the key figures escaped all punishment except large legal fees and damaged reputations.

The sharpest critics of the Bush programs insist that only prosecution can restore the law to its proper place. They note that some 100 terrorism suspects have died in American custody and say a prosecution for conspiracy to torture could target both the high-level officials who approved the likes of waterboarding and lawyers who justified it.

But many legal experts believe that the Justice Department would be hard pressed to prosecute as torture methods that the department itself declared in 2002 not to be torture. And if an important goal is to determine who devised the policies, a push to prosecute might only persuade past officials to lawyer up and clam up.

A CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATION (CHURCH)

If there is a close precedent for the investigation now being debated, it is the inquiry led by Senator Church in 1975-76, which recorded in stunning detail some of the darkest chapters in American history. Its reports chronicled the C.I.A.’s bumbling attempts to assassinate foreign leaders; the N.S.A.’s watchlisting of civil rights and antiwar activists; and the F.B.I.’s campaign to drive the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide.

The reports led directly to a series of reforms, including President Ford’s ban on assassinations, the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve national-security eavesdropping and the establishment of Congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies.

But some Republicans saw Mr. Church as a showboat and his committee as overreaching. To Mr. Cheney, the Church legacy was a regrettable pruning of the president’s powers to protect the country — powers he and Bush administration lawyers reasserted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

A BLUE-RIBBON PANEL (9/11 COMMISSION)

Though Mr. Leahy praised the Church Committee, his own proposal would take the investigation away from Congress in favor of “a group of people universally recommended as fair minded.” He also suggested subpoena power and, perhaps most important, a South Africa-style trade-off: immunity for officials who testify truthfully.

Investigative commissions date at least to 1794, when George Washington used one to negotiate a settlement of the Whiskey Rebellion. The 9/11 commission, a recent example, largely overcame partisanship and drew generally positive reviews.

A commission would free Congress to focus on current problems, including the economic crisis. And promises of immunity might answer concerns expressed last month by the departing C.I.A. director, Michael V. Hayden — that any investigation would discourage intelligence officers from acting boldly for fear of later second-guessing.

DOING NOTHING

Or more accurately, finishing up and rolling out the inquiries already under way. Even if the push for a broad investigation loses momentum, the Bush programs will not soon be forgotten. Among major inquiries expected to conclude soon: a report from the Justice Department’s ethics office on legal opinions justifying harsh interrogations; the criminal investigation of the C.I.A.’s destruction of interrogation videotapes; and a report by the Justice Department inspector general on the N.S.A.’s warrantless eavesdropping.

Meanwhile, thousands of documents relating to secrets of the Bush years are being sought by journalists and advocates. Mr. Obama has directed agencies to lean strongly toward disclosure.

Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., who served as chief counsel for the Church Committee and has called for a new commission, said there is no telling what a thorough investigation may turn up. He recalled his shock as he sat in a secure room at the C.I.A. in 1975 and read that the agency had recruited the Mafia in a scheme to kill Fidel Castro.

“It may seem that we already know a lot,” Mr. Schwarz said. “But based on my experience, I’m certain there’s a lot that went on the last eight years that we still don’t know.”

What We Don’t Know Will Hurt Us

Posted in Barack Obama, Economy, media, politics, torture by allisonkilkenny on February 22, 2009

Frank Rich

self-denialAND so on the 29th day of his presidency, Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill. But the earth did not move. The Dow Jones fell almost 300 points. G.M. and Chrysler together asked taxpayers for another $21.6 billion and announcedanother 50,000 layoffs. The latest alleged mini-Madoff, R. Allen Stanford, was accused of an $8 billion fraud with 50,000 victims.

“I don’t want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems,” the president said on Tuesday at the signing ceremony in Denver. He added, hopefully: “But today does mark the beginning of the end.”

Does it?

No one knows, of course, but a bigger question may be whether we really want to know. One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans’ reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly “changed everything,” slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obama’s toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door.

This phenomenon could be seen in two TV exposés of the mortgage crisis broadcast on the eve of the stimulus signing. On Sunday, “60 Minutes” focused on the tawdry lending practices of Golden West Financial, built by Herb and Marion Sandler. On Monday, the CNBC documentary “House of Cards” served up another tranche of the subprime culture, typified by the now defunct company Quick Loan Funding and its huckster-in-chief, Daniel Sadek. Both reports were superbly done, but both could have been reruns.

The Sandlers and Sadek have been recurrently whipped at length in print and on television, as far back as 2007 in Sadek’s case (by Bloomberg); the Sandlers were even vilified in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch last October. But still the larger message may not be entirely sinking in. “House of Cards” was littered with come-on commercials, including one hawking “risk-free” foreign-currency trading — yet another variation on Quick Loan Funding, promising credulous Americans something for nothing.

This cultural pattern of denial is hardly limited to the economic crisis. Anyone with eyes could have seen that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire resembled Macy’s parade balloons in their 1998 home-run derby, but it took years for many fans (not to mention Major League Baseball) to accept the sorry truth. It wasn’t until the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plame saga caught fire in summer 2003, months after “Mission Accomplished,” that we began to confront the reality that we had gone to war in Iraq over imaginary W.M.D. Weapons inspectors and even some journalists (especially at Knight-Ridder newspapers) had been telling us exactly that for almost a year.

The writer Mark Danner, who early on chronicled the Bush administration’s practice of torture for The New York Review of Books, reminded me last week that that story first began to emerge in December 2002. That’s when The Washington Post reported on the “stress and duress” tactics used to interrogate terrorism suspects. But while similar reports followed, the notion that torture was official American policy didn’t start to sink in until after the Abu Ghraib photos emerged in April 2004. Torture wasn’t routinely called “torture” in Beltway debate until late 2005, when John McCain began to press for legislation banning it.

Steroids, torture, lies from the White House, civil war in Iraq, even recession: that’s just a partial glossary of the bad-news vocabulary that some of the country, sometimes in tandem with a passive news media, resisted for months on end before bowing to the obvious or the inevitable. “The needle,” as Danner put it, gets “stuck in the groove.”

For all the gloomy headlines we’ve absorbed since the fall, we still can’t quite accept the full depth of our economic abyss either. Nicole Gelinas, a financial analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, sees denial at play over a wide swath of America, reaching from the loftiest economic strata of Wall Street to the foreclosure-decimated boom developments in the Sun Belt.

When we spoke last week, she talked of would-be bankers who, upon graduating, plan “to travel in Asia and teach English for a year” and then pick up where they left off. Such graduates are dreaming, Gelinas says, because the over-the-top Wall Street money culture of the credit bubble isn’t coming back for a very long time, if ever. As she observes, it took decades after the Great Depression — until the 1980s — for Wall Street to fully reclaim its old swagger. Not until then was there “a new group of people without massive psychological scarring” from the 1929 crash.

In states like Nevada, Florida and Arizona, Gelinas sees “huge neighborhoods that will become ghettos” as half their populations lose or abandon their homes, with an attendant collapse of public services and social order. “It will be like after Katrina,” she says, “but it’s no longer just the Lower Ninth Ward’s problem.” Writing in the current issue of The Atlantic, the urban theorist Richard Florida suggests we could be seeing “the end of a whole way of life.” The link between the American dream and home ownership, fostered by years of bipartisan public policy, may be irreparably broken.

Pity our new president. As he rolls out one recovery package after another, he can’t know for sure what will work. If he tells the whole story of what might be around the corner, he risks instilling fear itself among Americans who are already panicked. (Half the country, according to a new Associated Press poll, now fears unemployment.) But if the president airbrushes the picture too much, the country could be as angry about ensuing calamities as it was when the Bush administration’s repeated assertion of “success” in Iraq proved a sham. Managing America’s future shock is a task that will call for every last ounce of Obama’s brains, temperament and oratorical gifts.

The difficulty of walking this fine line can be seen in the drama surrounding the latest forbidden word to creep around the shadows for months before finally leaping into the open: nationalization. Until he started hedging a little last weekend, the president has pointedly said that nationalizing banks, while fine for Sweden, wouldn’t do in America, with its “different” (i.e., non-socialistic) culture and traditions. But the word nationalization, once mostly whispered by liberal economists, is now even being tossed around by Lindsey Graham and Alan Greenspan. It’s a clear indication that no one has a better idea.

The Obama White House may come up with euphemisms for nationalization (temporary receivership, anyone?). But whatever it’s called, what will it mean? The reason why the White House has been punting on the new installment of the bank rescue is not that the much-maligned Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is incapable of getting his act together. What’s slowing the works are the huge political questions at stake, many of them with consequences potentially as toxic as the banks’ assets.

Will Obama concede aloud that some of our “too big to fail” banks have, in essence, already failed? If so, what will he do about it? What will it cost? And, most important, who will pay? No one knows the sum of the American banks’ losses, but the economist Nouriel Roubini, who has gotten much right about this crash, puts it at $1.8 trillion. That doesn’t count any defaults still to come on what had been considered “good” mortgages and myriad other debt, whether from auto loans or credit cards.

Americans are right to wonder why there has been scant punishment for the management and boards of bailed-out banks that recklessly sliced and diced all this debt into worthless gambling chips. They are also right to wonder why there is still little transparency in how TARP funds have been spent by these teetering institutions. If a CNBC commentator can stir up a populist dust storm by ranting that Obama’s new mortgage program (priced at $75 billion to $275 billion) is “promoting bad behavior,” imagine the tornado that would greet an even bigger bank bailout on top of the $700 billion already down the TARP drain.

Nationalization would likely mean wiping out the big banks’ managements and shareholders. It’s because that reckoning has mostly been avoided so far that those bankers may be the Americans in the greatest denial of all. Wall Street’s last barons still seem to believe that they can hang on to their old culture by scuttling corporate jets, rejecting bonuses or sounding contrite in public. Ask the former Citigroup wise man Robert Rubin how that strategy worked out.

We are now waiting to learn if Obama’s economic team, much of it drawn from the Wonderful World of Citi and Goldman Sachs, will have the will to make its own former cohort face the truth. But at a certain point, as in every other turn of our culture of denial, outside events will force the recognition of harsh realities. Nationalization, unmentionable only yesterday, has entered common usage not least because an even scarier word — depression — is next on America’s list to avoid.

Death in the USA: The Army’s Fatal Neglect

Posted in Afghanistan by allisonkilkenny on February 20, 2009

Mark Benjamin & Michael de Yoanne, Salon

Check out the entire excellent series “Coming Home” here.

Series Introduction:

On Oc. 30, 2008, Army Pvt. Adam Lieberman attempted to kill himself via prescription drug overdose at Fort Carson, Colo. After swallowing the pills, he painted a suicide note on the wall of his barracks that read, "I FACED THE ENEMY AND LIVED! IT WAS THE DEATH DEALERS THAT TOOK MY LIFE!" (Salon)

On Oc. 30, 2008, Army Pvt. Adam Lieberman attempted to kill himself via prescription drug overdose at Fort Carson, Colo. After swallowing the pills, he painted a suicide note on the wall of his barracks that read, "I FACED THE ENEMY AND LIVED! IT WAS THE DEATH DEALERS THAT TOOK MY LIFE!" (Salon)

FORT CARSON, Colo. — Preventable suicides. Avoidable drug overdoses. Murders that never should have happened. Four years after Salon exposed medical neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ultimately grew into a national scandal, serious problems with the Army’s healthcare system persist and the situation, at least at some Army posts, continues to deteriorate.

This story is no longer just about lack of medical care. It’s far worse than sighting mold and mouse droppings in the barracks. Late last month the Army released data showing the highest suicide rate among soldiers in three decades. At least 128 soldiers committed suicide in 2008. Another 15 deaths are still under investigation as potential suicides. “Why do the numbers keep going up?” Army Secretary Pete Geren said at a Jan. 29 Pentagon news conference. “We can’t tell you.” On Feb. 5, the Army announced it suspects 24 soldiers killed themselves last month, more than died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

But suicide is only one manifestation of the unaddressed madness and despair coming home with U.S. troops. Salon’s close inspection of a rash of murders and suicides involving soldiers at just one base reveals that many of the deaths seem avoidable. Salon put together a sample of 25 suicides, prescription overdoses and murders among soldiers at Colorado’s Fort Carson since 2004. Intensive study of 10 of those cases exposed a pattern of preventable deaths, meaning a suicide or murder might have been avoided if the Army had better handled the predictable, well-known symptoms of a malady rampant among combat veterans: combat-related stress and brain injuries. The results of Salon’s investigation will be published in a weeklong series of articles that begins today with “The Death Dealers Took My Life!”

Salon chose Fort Carson as a laboratory almost by chance. The story started to emerge on its own last summer during reporting at Fort Carson that exposed an alleged friendly fire incident involving soldiers posted there. It was clear during several visits to interview soldiers who’d witnessed the deaths of their colleagues that there was psychological turmoil on the base. Paranoid soldiers were running around with guns. There was prescription and illicit drug abuse, extremely heavy drinking, suicide and murder.

The soldiers seemed to be suffering classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: explosions of anger, suicidal and homicidal ideation, flashbacks, nightmares and insomnia. The Army was responding, for the most part, with disciplinary action rather than treatment, evincing little concern for possible underlying problems. The soldiers self-medicated further. Predictable outcomes followed.

The Army handled the families of the disturbed and neglected soldiers callously. Last November, as detailed today in the first of Salon’s multi-part series on preventable deaths at Fort Carson, officers provided paint for a mother to paint over her son’s suicide note, which he had scrawled on a barracks wall. Two years after his return from Iraq, Army doctors still hadn’t properly diagnosed him with PTSD. Two other troubled soldiers died after the Army handed them a brutally heavy and in one case toxic combination of drugs for their symptoms. In a moving prison interview, another soldier explained to Salon how better treatment might have prevented him, a month after returning from his second tour in Iraq, from being involved in the November 2007 murder of a fellow soldier.

Keep reading…

(more…)

Obama’s War on Terror May Resemble Bush’s in Some Areas

Posted in Afghanistan, Barack Obama, CIA, politics, torture, War on Terror by allisonkilkenny on February 18, 2009

Update: Greenwald has written an excellent companion post to this article. Highly recommended.

Charlie Savage, New York Times

Even as it pulls back from harsh interrogations and other sharply debated aspects of George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism,” the Obama administration is quietly signaling continued support for other major elements of its predecessor’s approach to fighting Al Qaeda.

Leon F. Panetta opened a loophole in the Obama administration’s interrogation restrictions while testifying before a Senate panel this month. (Michael Temchine for The New York Times)

Leon F. Panetta opened a loophole in the Obama administration’s interrogation restrictions while testifying before a Senate panel this month. (Michael Temchine for The New York Times)

In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently, Obama nominees endorsed continuing the C.I.A.’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.

The administration has also embraced the Bush legal team’s arguments that a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees should be shut down based on the “state secrets” doctrine. It has also left the door open to resuming military commission trials.

And earlier this month, after a British court cited pressure by the United States in declining to release information about the alleged torture of a detainee in American custody, the Obama administration issued a statement thanking the British government “for its continued commitment to protect sensitive national security information.”

These and other signs suggest that the administration’s changes may turn out to be less sweeping than many had hoped or feared — prompting growing worry among civil liberties groups and a sense of vindication among supporters of Bush-era policies.

In an interview, the White House counsel, Gregory B. Craig, asserted that the administration was not embracing Mr. Bush’s approach to the world. But Mr. Craig also said President Obama intended to avoid any “shoot from the hip” and “bumper sticker slogans” approaches to deciding what to do with the counterterrorism policies he inherited.

“We are charting a new way forward, taking into account both the security of the American people and the need to obey the rule of law,” Mr. Craig said. “That is a message we would give to the civil liberties people as well as to the Bush people.”

Within days of his inauguration, Mr. Obama thrilled civil liberties groups when he issued executive orders promising less secrecy, restricting C.I.A. interrogators to Army Field Manual techniques, shuttering the agency’s secret prisons, ordering the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, closed within a year and halting military commission trials.

But in more recent weeks, things have become murkier.

During her confirmation hearing last week, Elena Kagan, the nominee for solicitor general, said that someone suspected of helping finance Al Qaeda should be subject to battlefield law — indefinite detention without a trial — even if he were captured in a place like the Philippines rather than in a physical battle zone.

Ms. Kagan’s support for an elastic interpretation of the “battlefield” amplified remarks that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. made at his own confirmation hearing. And it dovetailed with a core Bush position. Civil liberties groups argue that people captured away from combat zones should go to prison only after trials.

Moreover, the nominee for C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, opened a loophole in Mr. Obama’s interrogation restrictions. At his hearing, Mr. Panetta said that if the approved techniques were “not sufficient” to get a detainee to divulge details he was suspected of knowing about an imminent attack, he would ask for “additional authority.”

To be sure, Mr. Panetta emphasized that the president could not bypass antitorture statutes, as Bush lawyers claimed. And he said that waterboarding — a technique that induces the sensation of drowning, and that the Bush administration said was lawful — is torture.

But Mr. Panetta also said the C.I.A. might continue its “extraordinary rendition” program, under which agents seize terrorism suspects and take them to other countries without extradition proceedings, in a more sweeping form than anticipated.

Before the Bush administration, the program primarily involved taking indicted suspects to their native countries for legal proceedings. While some detainees in the 1990s were allegedly abused after transfer, under Mr. Bush the program expanded and included transfers to third countries — some of which allegedly used torture — for interrogation, not trials.

Mr. Panetta said the agency is likely to continue to transfer detainees to third countries and would rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment — the same safeguard the Bush administration used, and that critics say is ineffective.

Mr. Craig noted that while Mr. Obama decided “not to change the status quo immediately,” he created a task force to study “rendition policy and what makes sense consistent with our obligation to protect the country.”

He urged patience as the administration reviewed the programs it inherited from Mr. Bush. That process began after the election, Mr. Craig said, when military and C.I.A. leaders flew to Chicago for a lengthy briefing of Mr. Obama and his national security advisers. Mr. Obama then sent his advisers to C.I.A. headquarters to “find out the best case for continuing the practices that had been employed during the Bush administration.”

Civil liberties groups praise Mr. Obama’s early executive orders on national security, but say other signs are discouraging.

 

For example, Mr. Obama’s Justice Department last week told an appeals court that the Bush administration was right to invoke “state secrets” to shut down a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees who say a Boeing subsidiary helped fly them to places where they were tortured.

Margaret Satterthwaite, a faculty director at the human rights center at the New York University law school, said, “It was literally just Bush redux — exactly the same legal arguments that we saw the Bush administration present to the court.”

Mr. Craig said Mr. Holder and others reviewed the case and “came to the conclusion that it was justified and necessary for national security” to maintain their predecessor’s stance. Mr. Holder has also begun a review of every open Bush-era case involving state secrets, Mr. Craig said, so people should not read too much into one case.

“Every president in my lifetime has invoked the state-secrets privilege,” Mr. Craig said. “The notion that invoking it in that case somehow means we are signing onto the Bush approach to the world is just an erroneous assumption.”

Still, the decision caught the attention of a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Two days after the appeals court hearing, they filed legislation to bar using the state-secrets doctrine to shut down an entire case — as opposed to withholding particular evidence.

The administration has also put off taking a stand in several cases that present opportunities to embrace or renounce Bush-era policies, including the imprisonment without trial of an “enemy combatant” on domestic soil, Freedom of Information Act lawsuits seeking legal opinions about interrogation and surveillance, and an executive-privilege dispute over Congressional subpoenas of former White House aides to Mr. Bush over the firing of United States attorneys.

Addressing the executive-privilege dispute, Mr. Craig said: “The president is very sympathetic to those who want to find out what happened. But he is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency. So for that reason, he is urging both sides of this to settle.”

The administration’s recent policy moves have attracted praise from outspoken defenders of the Bush administration. Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page argued that “it seems that the Bush administration’s antiterror architecture is gaining new legitimacy” as Mr. Obama’s team embraces aspects of Mr. Bush’s counterterrorism approach.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the sequence of “disappointing” recent events had heightened concerns that Mr. Obama might end up carrying forward “some of the most problematic policies of the Bush presidency.”

Mr. Obama has clashed with civil libertarians before. Last July, he voted to authorize eavesdropping on some phone calls and e-mail messages without a warrant. While the A.C.L.U. says the program is still unconstitutional, the legislation reduced legal concerns about one of the most controversial aspects of Mr. Bush’s antiterror strategy.

“We have been some of the most articulate and vociferous critics of the way the Bush administration handled things,” Mr. Craig said. “There has been a dramatic change of direction.”

Wall Street Has Spawned Our Greatest Terrorist Threat

Posted in Capitalism, Economy, politics, poverty by allisonkilkenny on February 17, 2009

Chris Hedges, Truthdig

Riots have become common occurrences in many countries as the financial meltdown continues. The U.S. military is preparing to quell civil unrest at home. (AP)

Riots have become common occurrences in many countries as the financial meltdown continues. The U.S. military is preparing to quell civil unrest at home. (AP)

We have a remarkable ability to create our own monsters. A few decades of meddling in the Middle East with our Israeli doppelgänger and we get Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida, the Iraqi resistance movement and a resurgent Taliban. Now we trash the world economy and destroy the ecosystem and sit back to watch our handiwork. Hints of our brave new world seeped out Thursday when Washington’s new director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He warned that the deepening economic crisis posed perhaps our gravest threat to stability and national security. It could trigger, he said, a return to the “violent extremism” of the 1920s and 1930s.

It turns out that Wall Street, rather than Islamic jihad, has produced our most dangerous terrorists. You wouldn’t know this from the Obama administration, which seems hellbent on draining the blood out of the body politic and transfusing it into the corpse of our financial system. But by the time Barack Obama is done all we will be left with is a corpse—a corpse and no blood. And then what? We will see accelerated plant and retail closures, inflation, an epidemic of bankruptcies, new rounds of foreclosures, bread lines, unemployment surpassing the levels of the Great Depression and, as Blair fears, social upheaval.

The United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimates that some 50 million workers will lose their jobs worldwide this year. The collapse has already seen 3.6 million lost jobs in the United States. The International Monetary Fund’s prediction for global economic growth in 2009 is 0.5 percent—the worst since World War II. There are 2.3 million properties in the United States that received a default notice or were repossessed last year. And this number is set to rise in 2009, especially as vacant commercial real estate begins to be foreclosed. About 20,000 major global banks collapsed, were sold or were nationalized in 2008. There are an estimated 62,000 U.S. companies expected to shut down this year. Unemployment, when you add people no longer looking for jobs and part-time workers who cannot find full-time employment, is close to 14 percent.

And we have few tools left to dig our way out. The manufacturing sector in the United States has been destroyed by globalization. Consumers, thanks to credit card companies and easy lines of credit, are $14 trillion in debt. The government has pledged trillions toward the crisis, most of it borrowed or printed in the form of new money. It is borrowing trillions more to fund our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And no one states the obvious: We will never be able to pay these loans back. We are supposed to somehow spend our way out of the crisis and maintain our imperial project on credit. Let our kids worry about it. There is no coherent and realistic plan, one built around our severe limitations, to stanch the bleeding or ameliorate the mounting deprivations we will suffer as citizens. Contrast this with the national security state’s strategies to crush potential civil unrest and you get a glimpse of the future. It doesn’t look good.

“The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” Blair told the Senate. “The crisis has been ongoing for over a year, and economists are divided over whether and when we could hit bottom. Some even fear that the recession could further deepen and reach the level of the Great Depression. Of course, all of us recall the dramatic political consequences wrought by the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, the instability, and high levels of violent extremism.”

The specter of social unrest was raised at the U.S. Army War College in November in a monograph [click on Policypointers’ pdf link to see the report] titled “Known Unknowns: Unconventional ‘Strategic Shocks’ in Defense Strategy Development.” The military must be prepared, the document warned, for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States,” which could be provoked by “unforeseen economic collapse,” “purposeful domestic resistance,” “pervasive public health emergencies” or “loss of functioning political and legal order.” The “widespread civil violence,” the document said, “would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security.”

“An American government and defense establishment lulled into complacency by a long-secure domestic order would be forced to rapidly divest some or most external security commitments in order to address rapidly expanding human insecurity at home,” it went on.

“Under the most extreme circumstances, this might include use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States. Further, DoD [the Department of Defense] would be, by necessity, an essential enabling hub for the continuity of political authority in a multi-state or nationwide civil conflict or disturbance,” the document read.

In plain English, something bureaucrats and the military seem incapable of employing, this translates into the imposition of martial law and a de facto government being run out of the Department of Defense. They are considering it. So should you.

Adm. Blair warned the Senate that “roughly a quarter of the countries in the world have already experienced low-level instability such as government changes because of the current slowdown.” He noted that the “bulk of anti-state demonstrations” internationally have been seen in Europe and the former Soviet Union, but this did not mean they could not spread to the United States. He told the senators that the collapse of the global financial system is “likely to produce a wave of economic crises in emerging market nations over the next year.” He added that “much of Latin America, former Soviet Union states and sub-Saharan Africa lack sufficient cash reserves, access to international aid or credit, or other coping mechanism.”

“When those growth rates go down, my gut tells me that there are going to be problems coming out of that, and we’re looking for that,” he said. He referred to “statistical modeling” showing that “economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period.”

Blair articulated the newest narrative of fear. As the economic unraveling accelerates we will be told it is not the bearded Islamic extremists, although those in power will drag them out of the Halloween closet when they need to give us an exotic shock, but instead the domestic riffraff, environmentalists, anarchists, unions and enraged members of our dispossessed working class who threaten us. Crime, as it always does in times of turmoil, will grow. Those who oppose the iron fist of the state security apparatus will be lumped together in slick, corporate news reports with the growing criminal underclass.

The committee’s Republican vice chairman, Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, not quite knowing what to make of Blair’s testimony, said he was concerned that Blair was making the “conditions in the country” and the global economic crisis “the primary focus of the intelligence community.”

The economic collapse has exposed the stupidity of our collective faith in a free market and the absurdity of an economy based on the goals of endless growth, consumption, borrowing and expansion. The ideology of unlimited growth failed to take into account the massive depletion of the world’s resources, from fossil fuels to clean water to fish stocks to erosion, as well as overpopulation, global warming and climate change. The huge international flows of unregulated capital have wrecked the global financial system. An overvalued dollar (which will soon deflate), wild tech, stock and housing financial bubbles, unchecked greed, the decimation of our manufacturing sector, the empowerment of an oligarchic class, the corruption of our political elite, the impoverishment of workers, a bloated military and defense budget and unrestrained credit binges have conspired to bring us down. The financial crisis will soon become a currency crisis. This second shock will threaten our financial viability. We let the market rule. Now we are paying for it.

The corporate thieves, those who insisted they be paid tens of millions of dollars because they were the best and the brightest, have been exposed as con artists. Our elected officials, along with the press, have been exposed as corrupt and spineless corporate lackeys. Our business schools and intellectual elite have been exposed as frauds. The age of the West has ended. Look to China. Laissez-faire capitalism has destroyed itself. It is time to dust off your copies of Marx.

Do We Still Pretend That We Abide By Treaties?

Posted in Barack Obama, politics, torture, war crimes by allisonkilkenny on February 16, 2009

Glenn Greenwald

hypocrisy1On Friday in SalonJoe Conason argued that there should be no criminal investigations of any kind for Bush officials “who authorized torture or other outrages in the ‘war on terror’.”  Instead, Conason suggests that there be a presidential commission created that is “purely investigative,” and Obama should “promis[e] a complete pardon to anyone who testifies fully, honestly and publicly.”  So, under this proposal, not only would we adopt an absolute bar against prosecuting war criminals and other Bush administration felons, we would go in the other direction and pardon them from any criminal liability of any kind.

I’ve already written volumes about why immunizing political officials from the consequences for their lawbreaking is both destructive and unjust — principally:  the obvious incentives which such immunity creates (and, for decades, has been creating) for high-level executive branch officials to break the law and, even worse, the grotesque two-tiered system of justice we’ve implemented in this country (i.e., the creation of an incomparably harsh prison state for ordinary Americans who commit even low-level offenses as contrasted with what Conason calls, approvingly, “the institutional reluctance in Washington to punish political offenders”).  Rather than repeat those arguments, I want to focus on an issue that pro-immunity advocates such as Conason simply never address.

The U.S. really has bound itself to a treaty called the Convention Against Torture, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1994.  When there are credible allegations that government officials have participated or been complicit in torture, that Convention really does compelall signatories — in language as clear as can be devised — to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution” (Art. 7(1)).  And the treaty explicitly bars the standard excuses that America’s political class is currently offering for refusing to investigate and prosecute:  “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture” and “an order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture” (Art. 2 (2-3)).  By definition, then, the far less compelling excuses cited by Conason (a criminal probe would undermine bipartisanship and distract us from more important matters) are plainly barred as grounds for evading the Convention’s obligations.

There is reasonable dispute about the scope of prosecutorial discretion permitted by the Convention, and there is also some lack of clarity about how many of these provisions were incorporated into domestic law when the Senate ratified the Convention with reservations.  But what is absolutely clear beyond any doubt is that — just as is true for any advance promises by the Obama DOJ not to investigate or prosecute — issuing preemptive pardons to government torturers would be an unambiguous and blatant violation of our obligations under the Convention.  There can’t be any doubt about that.  It just goes without saying that if the U.S. issued pardons or other forms of immunity to accused torturers (as the Military Commissions Act purported to do), that would be a clear violation of our obligation to “submit the [torture] case to [our] competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.”  Those two acts — the granting of immunity and submission for prosecution — are opposites.

And yet those who advocate that we refrain from criminal investigations rarely even mention our obligations under the Convention.  There isn’t even a pretense of an effort to reconcile what they’re advocating with the treaty obligations to which Ronald Reagan bound the U.S. in 1988.  Do we now just explicitly consider ourselves immune from the treaties we signed?  Does our political class now officially (rather than through its actions) consider treaties to be mere suggestions that we can violate at will without even pretending to have any justifications for doing so?  Most of the time, our binding treaty obligations under the Convention — as valid and binding as every other treaty — don’t even make it into the discussion about criminal investigations of Bush officials, let alone impose any limits on what we believe we can do.

What was all the sturm und drang about in 2003 over Bush’s invasion of Iraq without U.N. approval, in violation of the U.N. charter?  Wasn’t it supposed to be a bad thing for the U.S. to violate its own treaties?  What happened to that?  Conason himself was actually one of the clearest and most emphatic voices presciently highlighting the deceit on which the pro-war case was based, stridently warning of “ruined alliances and damaged institutions.”  Why, then, is it acceptable now to ignore and violate our treaty obligations with regard to torture and other war crimes committed by high-level Bush officials?  What’s the argument for simply pretending that these obligations under the Convention don’t exist?

* * * * *

On a related note, Conason, in the very first paragraph of Friday’s article, plainly misstated the  results of a new Gallup poll on the question of whether Bush officials should be prosecuted and/or investigated.  I have no doubt it was unintentional, but his error highlights a very important point about how this debate has proceeded.  Here’s what Conason wrote in his first paragraph (emphasis added):

More than 60 percent of Americans believe that alleged abuses and atrocities ordered by the Bush administration should be investigated either by an independent commission or by federal prosecutors, according to a poll released yesterday by the Gallup Organization. A significant minority favors criminal sanctions against officials who authorized torture or other outrages in the “war on terror” — yet a considerably larger minority of nearly 40 percent prefers that the Obama administration leave its wayward predecessors be.

That last assertion (the one I bolded) is simply untrue.  As Jim White notes here, the Gallup poll asked about three different acts of Bush lawbreaking:  (1) politicization of DOJ prosecutions, (2) warrantless eavesdropping on Americans, and (3) torture.  For each crime, it asked which of three options respondents favored:  (1) a criminal investigation by the DOJ; (2) a non-criminal, fact-finding investigation by an independent panel; or (3) neither.  The full results are here.

For all three separate acts of alleged crimes, the option that receives the most support from Americans is criminal investigations (i.e., the exact opposite of what Conason wrote).  And the percentage that favor that nothing be done is in every case less than the percentage that want criminal investigations, and the “do-nothing” percentage never reaches 40% or close to it (the highest it gets is 34% — roughly the same minority of pro-Bush dead-enders that continue to support most of what was done).

As White notes, the breakdowns are even more revealing.  For all three areas of lawbreaking, majorities of Democrats (which, by the way, is now the majority party) favor criminal investigations.  For each of the three areas, more independents favor criminal prosecutions than favor doing nothing, and large majorities of independents — ranging from 59% to 71%  — want either a criminal investigation or an independent fact-finding investigation.  A Washington Post poll from a couple weeks ago found very similar results:  majorities of Americans (and large majorities of Democrats) favor investigations into whether Bush officials broke the law and, by a wide margin, oppose the issuance of pardons to Bush officials.

Imagine what those numbers would be in a world where virtually every establishment political pundit — literally:  whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative — weren’t uniting together to oppose prosecutions for torture and war crimes.  Even with that unified anti-prosecution stance from a trans-partisan rainbow of Beltway opinion-makers, criminal investigations remain the leading position among Americans generally and among majorities of Democrats specifically.  Those are just facts.

As is always the case, the mere fact that majorities of Americans believe X does not mean that X is right or true.  But pundits, journalists and politicians should stop claiming that they’re speaking for most Americans when they argue that we should just “move on”  — or that the belief in investigations is the province of the leftist fringe — because that claim is demonstrably false.

Recall when opposition to the Iraq War and a demand for a withdrawal timetable was routinely depicted by the Beltway class as a “liberal” or even Far Left position — even though large majorities of Americans held exactly those views.  Apparently, the Far Left encompassed more than 60% of the country.  Or recall when Time‘s Managing Editor, Rick Stengel, went on national TV andclaimed that Americans don’t want Bush officials and Karl Rove investigated for the U.S. Attorney scandal even when polls showed that large majorities of Americans favored exactly those investigations (a false claim which, to this day, Stengel refuses to retract).

That is the same flagrant distortion of public opinion that one finds here in the debate over investigations.  The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius claims that a desire for investigations of Bush crimes is confined to “liberal score-settlers.”  Lindsey Graham asserts that only the “hard Left” wants criminal investigations.  Newsweek‘s Jon Barry is certain that the desire for investigations is only about “vengeance, pure and simple.”

Apparently, huge numbers of Americans — majorities, actually — are now liberal, vengeance-seeking, score-settlers from the Hard Left.  What we actually have is what one finds again and again:  establishment journalists who will resort to outright distortions about American public opinion in order to render it irrelevant, by claiming that “most Americans” believe as they believe even where, as here, that claim is categorically false.  It’s hardly surprising (except to an insular Beltway maven) that Americans, who know that they will be subjected to one of the world’s harshest and most merciless criminal justice systems if they break the law, don’t want political elites exempted from the rule of law.  Imagine that.

* * * * *

Finally, Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff — echoing a report from John Yoo’s Berkeley colleague, Brad DeLong — reports that an internal DOJ probe (initiated during the Bush administration) has preliminarily concluded that Bush DOJ lawyers who authorized torture (John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Stephen Bradbury) violated their professional duties as lawyers by issuing legal conclusions that had no good faith basis, and that this behavior will be referred to their state bar associations for possible disciplinary action.  Those conclusions so infuriated the allegedly honorable Michael Mukasey that he refused to accept the report until changes were made.  Now it is up to Eric Holder to accept and then release that report.

The implications of this event can’t be overstated.  One of the primary excuses offered by Bush apologists and those who oppose investigations is that Bush DOJ lawyers authorized the torture and opined that it was legal.  But a finding that those lawyers breached their ethical obligations would mean, by definition, that the opinions they issued were not legitimate legal opinions — i.e., that they were not merely wrong in their conclusions, but so blatantly and self-evidently wrong that they were issued in bad faith (with the intent to justify what they knew the President wanted to do, rather than to offer their good faith views of what the law permitted).

The Convention Against Torture explicitly prohibits the domestic legalization of torture, and specifically states that it shall not be a defense that government officials authorized it. So whether or not these legal opinions were issued in good faith is irrelevant to our obligations under that treaty to investigate and prosecute.  But a finding that these legal opinions were issued in bad faith — with the deliberate intent to knowingly legalize what was plainly criminal behavior — will gut the primary political excuse for treating Bush officials differently than common criminals.

UPDATE:  Citing numerous leading international law authorities, Valtin has an excellent discussion of the obligations the U.S. has to criminally investigate Bush crimes, not only under the Convention Against Torture but also under the Geneva Conventions.   If we don’t consider ourselves bound by the treaties we sign, we should just say so and abrogate them.  Those demanding criminal immunity for Bush officials are advocating that we can and should violate our treaty obligations; they really ought to be honest about it.

UPDATE II:  On June 28, 2004, George Bush commemorated the U.N. Day to Support Torture Victims and vowed that the U.S. “will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction.”  In doing so, he specifically cited the U.S.’s binding obligation under the Convention to do so (h/t leftydem):

To help fulfill this commitment, the United States has joined 135 other nations in ratifying the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. America stands against and will not tolerate torture. We will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction. American personnel are required to comply with all U.S. laws, including the United States Constitution, Federal statutes, including statutes prohibiting torture, and our treaty obligations with respect to the treatment of all detainees. . . .

The United States also remains steadfastly committed to upholding the Geneva Conventions, which have been the bedrock of protection in armed conflict for more than 50 years. . . . [W]e will not compromise the rule of law or the values and principles that make us strong. Torture is wrong no matter where it occurs, and the United States will continue to lead the fight to eliminate it everywhere.

If George Bush, citing our obligations under the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions, can publicly vow that “we will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture,” why can’t Democratic politicians and liberal pundits simply cite the same treaty obligations and make the same commitment?

Counting the Walking Wounded

Posted in Afghanistan by allisonkilkenny on January 26, 2009

Lawrence M. Wein

ptsdkikoshouse350The American troops in Iraq daily face the risk of death or injury — to themselves or their fellow soldiers — by homemade bombs and suicide attackers. So it is not surprising that post-traumatic stress disorder is a common problem among returning soldiers. But how many, exactly, are affected?

This question is key to determining how large an investment the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to make in diagnosing and treating the problem. The United States Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team, which conducted a survey of more than 1,000 soldiers and marines in September 2006, found that 17 percent suffered from P.T.S.D. Similarly, a Rand study put the number at 14 percent.

But these estimates do not take into account the many soldiers who will eventually suffer from P.T.S.D., because there is a lag between the time someone experiences trauma and the time he or she reports symptoms of post-traumatic stress. This can range from days to many years, and it is typically much longer while people are still in the military.

To get a better estimate of the rate of P.T.S.D. among Iraq war veterans, two graduate students, Michael Atkinson and Adam Guetz, and I constructed a mathematical model in which soldiers incur a random amount of stress during each month of deployment (based on monthly American casualty data), develop P.T.S.D. if their cumulative stress exceeds a certain threshold, and also develop symptoms of the disorder after an additional amount of time. We found that about 35 percent of soldiers and marines who deploy to Iraq will ultimately suffer from P.T.S.D. — about 300,000 people, with 20,000 new sufferers for each year the war lasts.

Consider that only 22 percent of recent veterans who may be at risk for P.T.S.D. (based on their answers to screening questions) were referred for a mental health evaluation. Less than 40 percent of service members who get a diagnosis of P.T.S.D. receive mental health services, and only slightly more than half of recent veterans who receive treatment get adequate care. Those who seek follow-up treatment run into delays of up to 90 days, which suggests there is a serious shortage of mental health professionals available to help them.

Proper P.T.S.D. care can lead to complete remission in 30 percent to 50 percent of cases, studies show. Thorough screening of every soldier upon departure from the military, immediately followed by three to six months of treatment for those who need it, would reduce the stigma that is attached to current mental health referrals. The Rand study estimates that treatment would pay for itself within two years, largely by reducing the loss of productivity. This is the least we can do for our veterans.

Lawrence M. Wein is a professor of management science at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Iraq to Reopen Abu Ghraib

Posted in torture by allisonkilkenny on January 24, 2009

Al Jazeera

1_203097_1_5The Iraqi government will reopen the notorious Abu Ghraib prison next month under the name of Baghdad Central Prison, a senior justice official has said.

The announcement came as the US military began handing over detainees in its custody to the Iraqis under a new security agreement.

Busho Ibrahim, Iraq’s deputy justice minister, said on Saturday the Abu Ghraib prison had been renovated to meet international standards.

“We have named it Baghdad Central Prison because of its bad reputation as Abu Ghraib prison, not just because of what the Americans did there but also because of what the regime of Saddam has done,” he said.

Abu Ghraib shot into notoriety after photographs of US prison guards torturing inmates at the facility just outside Baghdad surfaced.

While Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s deposed leader, was in power, his administration held thousands of inmates at the prison.

‘Solving problems’

Iraq has been under pressure to increase the capacity and quality of its prisons and improve the transparency and efficiency of its criminal justice system.

Under a pact which took effect on January 1, US forces in Iraq lost the power to hold without charge the approximately 15,000 detainees they have and are supposed to turn them over to Iraqi justice or set them free.

Ibrahim said the prison would house 3,500 inmates when it reopens in mid-February and would have a capacity for at least 15,000 by the end of this year.

“This prison will solve many problems for us – huge problems,” he said.

Abu Ghraib is in an area where heavy fighting took place during the early years of the US invasion in Iraq. The US military closed the facility in 2006 after constructing a giant, purpose-built prison camp in the desert on the Kuwaiti border.

Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press

Posted in media by allisonkilkenny on January 18, 2009

Jay Rosen
Daniel C. Hallin's Spheres of Consensus, Controversy and Deviance
In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized– connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding. I will try to explain why.

It’s easily the most useful diagram I’ve found for understanding the practice of journalism in the United States, and the hidden politics of that practice. You can draw it by hand right now. Take a sheet of paper and make a big circle in the middle. In the center of that circle draw a smaller one to create a doughnut shape. Label the doughnut hole “sphere of consensus.” Call the middle region “sphere of legitimate debate,” and the outer region “sphere of deviance.”

That’s the entire model. Now you have a way to understand why it’s so unproductive to argue with journalists about the deep politics of their work. They don’t know about this freakin’ diagram! Here it is in its original form, from the 1986 book The Uncensored War by press scholar Daniel C. Hallin. Hallin felt he needed something more supple—and truthful—than calcified notions like objectivity and “opinions are confined to the editorial page.” So he came up with this diagram.

Let’s look more carefully at his three regions.

1.) The sphere of legitimate debate is the one journalists recognize as real, normal, everyday terrain. They think of their work as taking place almost exclusively within this space. (It doesn’t, but they think so.) Hallin: “This is the region of electoral contests and legislative debates, of issues recognized as such by the major established actors of the American political process.”

Here the two-party system reigns, and the news agenda is what the people in power are likely to have on their agenda. Perhaps the purest expression of this sphere is Washington Week on PBS, where journalists discuss what the two-party system defines as “the issues.” Objectivity and balance are “the supreme journalistic virtues” for the panelists on Washington Week because when there is legitimate debate it’s hard to know where the truth lies. There are risks in saying that truth lies with one faction in the debate, as against another— even when it does. He said, she said journalism is like the bad seed of this sphere, but also a logical outcome of it.

2. ) The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. Here, Hallin writes, “journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.” (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.)

Consensus in American politics begins, of course, with the United States Constitution, but it includes other propositions too, like “Lincoln was a great president,” and “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can succeed in America.” Whereas journalists equate ideology with the clash of programs and parties in the debate sphere, academics know that the consensus or background sphere is almost pure ideology: the American creed.

3.) In the sphere of deviance we find “political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of society reject as unworthy of being heard.” As in the sphere of consensus, neutrality isn’t the watchword here; journalists maintain order by either keeping the deviant out of the news entirely or identifying it within the news frame as unacceptable, radical, or just plain impossible. The press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant view, says Hallin. It “marks out and defends the limits of acceptable political conduct.”

Anyone whose views lie within the sphere of deviance—as defined by journalists—will experience the press as an opponent in the struggle for recognition. If you don’t think separation of church and state is such a good idea; if you do think a single payer system is the way to go; if you dissent from the “lockstep behavior of both major American political parties when it comes to Israel” (Glenn Greenwald) chances are you will never find your views reflected in the news. It’s not that there’s a one-sided debate; there’s no debate.

 

Complications to keep in mind.

The three spheres are not really separate; they create one another, like the public and private do. The boundaries between regions are semi-porous and impermanent. Things can move out of one sphere and into another—that’s what political and cultural change is, if you think about it—but when they do shift there is often no announcement. One day David Brody of Christian Broadcasting Network shows up on Meet the Press, but Amy Goodman of Democracy Now never does.

This can be confusing. Of course, the producers of Meet the Press could say in a press release, “We decided that Pat Robertson’s CBN is now to be placed within the sphere of legitimate debate because… ” but then they would have to complete the “because” in a plausible way and very often they cannot. (“Amy Goodman, we decided, does not qualify for this show because…”) This gap between what journalists actually do as they arrange the scene of politics, and the portion they can explain or defend publicly—the difference between making news and making sense—is responsible for a lot of the anger and bad feeling projected at the political press by various constituencies that notice these moves and question them.

Within the sphere of legitimate debate there is some variance. Journalists behave differently if the issue is closer to the doughnut hole than they do when it is nearer the edge. The closer they think they are to the unquestioned core of consensus, the more plausible it is to present a single view as the only view, which is a variant on the old saw about American foreign policy: “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” (Atrios: “I’ve long noticed a tendency of the American press to take the side of official US policy when covering foreign affairs.”)

Another complication: Journalists aren’t the only actors here. Elections have a great deal to do with what gets entered into legitimate debate. Candidates—especially candidates for president—can legitimize an issue just by talking about it. Political parties can expand their agenda, and journalists will cover that. Powerful and visible people can start questioning a consensus belief and remove it from the “everyone agrees” category. And of course public opinion and social behavior do change over time.

Some implications of Daniel Hallin’s model.

That journalists affirm and enforce the sphere of consensus, consign ideas and actors to the sphere of deviance, and decide when the shift is made from one to another— none of this is in their official job description. You won’t find it taught in J-school, either. It’s an intrinsic part of what they do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded. Worse than that, these decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.

When (with some exceptions) political journalists failed properly to examine George W. Bush’s case for war in Iraq, they were making a category mistake. They treated Bush’s plan as part of the sphere of consensus. But even when Congress supports it, a case for war can never be removed from legitimate debate. That’s just a bad idea. Mentally placing the war’s opponents in the sphere of deviance was another category error. In politics, when people screw up like that, we can replace them: throw the bums out! we say. But the First Amendment says we cannot do that to people in the press. The bums stay. And later they are free to say: we didn’t screw up at all, as David Gregory, now host of Meet the Press, did say to his enduring shame.

“We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.”

Deciding what does and does not legitimately belong within the national debate is—no way around it—a political act. And yet a pervasive belief within the press is that journalists do not engage in such action, for to do so would be against their principles. As Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Postonce said about why things make the front page, “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.” I think he’s right. The press does not permit itself to think politically. But it does engage in political acts. Ergo, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good. When it is criticized for this it will reject the criticism out of hand, which is also not good.

Atrios, the economist and liberal blogger with a big following, has a more colorful phrase for “maintaining boundaries around the sphere of legitimate debate.” He often writes about the “dirty f*cking hippies,” by which he means the out-of-power or online left, and the way this group is marginalized by Washington journalists, who sometimes seem to define themselves against it. “In the late 90s, the dirty f*cking hippies were the crazy people who thought that Bill Clinton should neither resign nor be impeached,” he writes. “In the great wasteland of our mainstream media there was almost no place one could turn to find someone expressing the majority view of the American public, that this whole thing was insane.” Sometimes the people the press thinks of as deviant types are closer to the sphere of consensus than the journalists who are classifying those same people as “fringe.”

How can that happen? Well, one of the problems with our political press is that its reference group for establishing the “ground” of consensus is the insiders: the professional political class in Washington. It then offers that consensus to the country as if it were the country’s own, when it’s not, necessarily. This erodes confidence in a way that may be invisible to journalists behaving as insiders themselves. And it gives the opening to Jon Stewart and his kind to exploit that gap I talked about between making news and making sense.

“Echo chamber” or counter-sphere?

Now we can see why blogging and the Net matter so greatly in political journalism. In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized— meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a followingand serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

Which is how I got to my three word formlua for understanding the Internet’s effects in politics and media: “audience atomization overcome.”

 

* * * 

After MatterNotes, reactions & links…

Daniel C. Hallin writes in with a response. I urge you to read it. He says there has been a “de-centering” of the mass media since the Vietnam War era. He also thinks the echo chamber is a plausible outcome of that process:

Many of those who posted seem to believe that what is on the internet is closer to “real public opinion” than what is in the mainstream media, but I’m not sure we really know this. Some of the posts seem based on the assumption that “the people” are always wise, but I would question this, and also point to Alexis deToqueville’s old observation that the greatest barrier to real freedom of thought in America is often not top-down control but public opinion itself.

More Hallin: “I think journalists often play an important role as an independent source of information, and in many ways I’d like to see them playing a stronger role, not a weaker one, in shaping the public sphere.” Me too! My reply:

I think a strong, independent press can be undermined by thoughtless press bashing, phony populism and culture war excess. Definitely. I also think a strong independent press is undermined when the professionals in it fail to recognize that there’s a politics to what they do, which can go wrong, fall out of alignment, or even implode, failing the country.

David Westphal, former head of McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau and now a journalism professor at USC, cheers Hallin on in the comments. “The role of the independent press needs to be strengthened, not brought down in victory-lap celebration.”

Glenn Greenwald did a Salon Radio podcast with me about this piece and the arguments behind it. Here’s his post introducing it. (About a 25-minute listen. There’s also a transcript.) Sample:

The ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision — “well it’s pragmatic, let’s be realistic” — what we’re really doing is we’re speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they’re likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we’ve learned from the media even if we are skeptics.

Always remember what Raymond Williams said, “There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” During the age of mass media, these ways of seeing sunk deeply into us. It’s harder to get them out than you think. I speak to that in the podcast with Glenn.

So far no comment, reaction, link or other gesture from journalists in the national press. This after I told Chris Cillizza, who does The Fix blog for the Washington Post, “I wrote this for you, especially you. When you have a moment, give it a gander.” (That was on Twitter.) Of course we are exchanging presidents in DC this week so maybe they have other things to do 🙂

You can follow me on Twitter, if you’re on Twitter. It’s like PressThink for the live web.

In the comments: the return of lefty blogging legend Billmon, who is posting at Daily Kos again…

The established media—particularly the Washington-based political media—are not passive agents here. They have an overt bias for consensus and against “deviancy”, which means they want the doughnut hole to be as big as possible and they want to exclude as much “deviancy” as possible from admission to the sphere of “legitimate” debate.The result is that the doughnut itself keeps getting thinner. Issues, particularly big issues, tend to migrate inward, into the sphere of conventional wisdom (the intelligence proves there are WMDs in Iraq; financial deregulation promotes economic growth; the Social Security system is going bankrupt) while alternative—or even worse, radical—points of view, which might enliven the sphere of “legitimate” debate are consistently excluded.

 

Who is Billmon? I met him once. Cool guy.

Investigative reporter John McQuaid says at his blog that “it’s good to have a million voices calling BS on big media’s persistent, strange, Reagan-era take on American politics.”

Obviously, you can’t turn back the clock. You can’t leverage authority that no longer exists. A new configuration of old/new media is still taking shape. So: will a vastly more diverse but also more diffuse media ecosystem still have the ability (via individual media outlet, or via a swarm) to bring pressure to bear on the upper levels of government?

Atrios—who has a speaking part in this post—reacts at Eschaton. “I think the most fascinating thing is how willfully blind many journalists are about this stuff. I don’t know if they really can’t see it, or if it’s in their interest to pretend not to see it.”

Longtime PressThink reader Tim Schmoyer collected some good pointers to writers and scholars who define the news media as a political institution, as I do. Many of the problems discussed in this piece and the podcast with Glenn Greenwald originate in the professional journalist’s felt need to deny this basic observation. That’s why it’s an important observation.

The controls have been loosened, says Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:

I’m heartened by Bob Fertik’s efforts and the transparency of the Obama administration that allowed 70,000 people to show up and demand a Special Prosecutor on the change.gov site. It’s the kind of “critical mass” event that defies the ability of a few people to limit the sphere of debate as easily as they have in the past, and shifts the power of defining “consensus” even if slightly in favor people willing to connect and speak up.

“I think you nailed it in your explanation of the spheres,” says Daniel Weintraub, political reporter and columnist for the Sacramento Bee. “But when you use the Iraq war run-up as an example where the press supposedly defined opposition as outside the sphere of legitimate debate, you contribute to what I think is a flawed conventional wisdom.” Read the rest.

The discussion of this post at Metafilter is amusing, at times enlightening and at times a lot of jeering.

Over at Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas—Kos—says that “another word for the ‘sphere of consensus’ is ‘conventional wisdom,’ which plays an important role in my last book, Taking on the System. The person who controls the CW controls the terms of the debate. Modern activism is in large part a battle to capture thatCW.

Some people think the right model for that battle is The Overton Window. Typically, they mention it.

An example of a view confined to the sphere of deviance that might have helped the press over the last seven years is my own opinion (shared with a few) that President George W. Bush was a radical, not a conservative or traditional Republican. The press never took it seriously; in my view, that was a bad decision— if we can call it that.

Other reactions of note:

  • Rumproast, a blog new to me, extends the analysis here to an urgent matter. Investigating Bush is a Must! <> Deviant opinion or sphere of legitimate debate?

Click here to return to the top of After Matter.

Forgive And Forget?

Posted in Barack Obama, Bush, environment, politics, torture, war crimes by allisonkilkenny on January 16, 2009

Paul Krugman

war-crimes1Last Sunday President-elect Barack Obama was asked whether he would seek an investigation of possible crimes by the Bush administration. “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law,” he responded, but “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

I’m sorry, but if we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. It’s not just torture and illegal wiretapping, whose perpetrators claim, however implausibly, that they were patriots acting to defend the nation’s security. The fact is that the Bush administration’s abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies.

At the Justice Department, for example, political appointees illegally reserved nonpolitical positions for “right-thinking Americans” — their term, not mine — and there’s strong evidence that officials used their positions both to undermine the protection of minority voting rights and to persecute Democratic politicians.

The hiring process at Justice echoed the hiring process during the occupation of Iraq — an occupation whose success was supposedly essential to national security — in which applicants were judged by their politics, their personal loyalty to President Bush and, according to some reports, by their views on Roe v. Wade, rather than by their ability to do the job.

Speaking of Iraq, let’s also not forget that country’s failed reconstruction: the Bush administration handed billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to politically connected companies, companies that then failed to deliver. And why should they have bothered to do their jobs? Any government official who tried to enforce accountability on, say, Halliburton quickly found his or her career derailed.

There’s much, much more. By my count, at least six important government agencies experienced major scandals over the past eight years — in most cases, scandals that were never properly investigated. And then there was the biggest scandal of all: Does anyone seriously doubt that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into invading Iraq?

Why, then, shouldn’t we have an official inquiry into abuses during the Bush years?

One answer you hear is that pursuing the truth would be divisive, that it would exacerbate partisanship. But if partisanship is so terrible, shouldn’t there be some penalty for the Bush administration’s politicization of every aspect of government?

Alternatively, we’re told that we don’t have to dwell on past abuses, because we won’t repeat them. But no important figure in the Bush administration, or among that administration’s political allies, has expressed remorse for breaking the law. What makes anyone think that they or their political heirs won’t do it all over again, given the chance?

In fact, we’ve already seen this movie. During the Reagan years, the Iran-contra conspirators violated the Constitution in the name of national security. But the first President Bush pardoned the major malefactors, and when the White House finally changed hands the political and media establishment gave Bill Clinton the same advice it’s giving Mr. Obama: let sleeping scandals lie. Sure enough, the second Bush administration picked up right where the Iran-contra conspirators left off — which isn’t too surprising when you bear in mind that Mr. Bush actually hired some of those conspirators.

Now, it’s true that a serious investigation of Bush-era abuses would make Washington an uncomfortable place, both for those who abused power and those who acted as their enablers or apologists. And these people have a lot of friends. But the price of protecting their comfort would be high: If we whitewash the abuses of the past eight years, we’ll guarantee that they will happen again.

Meanwhile, about Mr. Obama: while it’s probably in his short-term political interests to forgive and forget, next week he’s going to swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That’s not a conditional oath to be honored only when it’s convenient.

And to protect and defend the Constitution, a president must do more than obey the Constitution himself; he must hold those who violate the Constitution accountable. So Mr. Obama should reconsider his apparent decision to let the previous administration get away with crime. Consequences aside, that’s not a decision he has the right to make.