We are the most powerful nation in the world. There is no excuse, only corruption.
The newly released secret laws of the Bush administration
(updated below – Update II – Update III)
I looked at the front page of the paper this morning and wondered for a moment if I was looking at one of those historical documents about which scholars would wonder if those who read it in real time had a clue about the scale of what was happening.
There’s a run on the banks in Ukraine, the world’s biggest insurer suffered the highest quarterly losses in corporate history, Europe is starting to come apart — with Germany being the lead player. Major change seems to be rumbling in a bunch of different ways right now — with echoes of the past overlaid with things we’ve never seen before. Maybe it’s just a blip. But maybe not.
Various universal perception biases always make it difficult to assess how genuinely consequential contemporary events are: events in the present always seem more important than ones in the past; those that affect us directly appear more significant than those that are abstract, etc. (though powers of denial — e.g.: all of those bad things I’ve read about in history can’t happen to me and my country and my time — undercut those biases). Whatever else is true, it seems undeniably clear, at the very least, that the extreme decay and instabilities left in the wake of the Bush presidency will alter many aspects of the social order in radical and irrevocable (albeit presently unknowable) ways.
One of the central facts that we, collectively, have not yet come to terms with is how extremist and radical were the people running the country for the last eight years. That condition, by itself, made it virtually inevitable that the resulting damage would be severe and fundamental, even irreversible in some sense. It’s just not possible to have a rotting, bloated, deeply corrupt and completely insular political ruling class — operating behind impenetrable walls of secrecy — and avoid the devastation that is now becoming so manifest. It’s just a matter of basic cause and effect.
Yet those who have spent the last several years pointing out how unprecedentedly extremist and radical was our political leadership (and how meek and complicit were our other key institutions) were invariably dismissed as shrill hysterics. As but one of countless highly illustrative examples, here is a November, 2004 David Broder column scoffing at the notion that there was anything radical or unusual taking place in the U.S., dismissively deriding the claim that there was anything resembling an erosion of basic checks and safeguards in the United States:
Bush won, but he will have to work within the system for whatever he gets. Checks and balances are still there. The nation does not face “another dark age,” unless you consider politics with all its tradeoffs and bargaining a black art.
That was (and still is) the prevailing attitude among our political and media elites: it was those who were sounding alarm bells about the radicalism and damage of the Bush administration — not Bush officials themselves — who were the real radicals and, worst of all, were deeply Unserious.
* * * * *
Justice Department drops appeal in Watada case
The U.S. Justice Department under the Obama administration has decided to drop its appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that 1st Lt. Ehren Watada cannot face a second court-martial resulting from his high-profile 2006 refusal to go to Iraq with his Fort Lewis brigade.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday granted the Justice Department’s request to drop its appeal of a federal judge’s earlier ruling that the second court-martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada on that count would represent double jeopardy and a violation of Watada’s constitutional rights.
This is the latest development in the long legal battle of Watada, whose 2006 decision not to join his Stryker brigade in Iraq turned the Hawaiian-born officer into a national symbol of the anti-war movement.
But Watada’s legal troubles may not be over.
He could still face a military tribunal for two other counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, according to a Fort Lewis spokesman.
Those counts were not thrown out by the federal court. They result from two interviews Watada gave in 2006, in which, among other comments, he attacked then-President George Bush for betraying the trust of the American people. He also said that Bush’s conduct made him ashamed to wear his Army uniform.
“At this point the leadership at Fort Lewis is considering a full range of judical and adminstrative options, which could range from court martial to adminstrative actions and discharge,” said Joe Piek, a Fort Lewis spokesman.
Watada’s first court martial, in February 2007, ended with a mistrial.
To block a second court martial, Watada’s attorneys sued in U.S. District Court. The unusual move left the U.S. Justice Department arguing the case on behalf of the Army.
In October, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma ruled that Watada could not be prosecuted again by the Army on charges of missing his deployment to Iraq. He also blocked court-martial for comments made in a news conference and while speaking at a Veterans for Peace national convention.
But Settle left open the possibility that the Army could retry Watada on the two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.
The Army has consistently maintained that a second trial on all the counts would not be double jeopardy. In December, in the waning days of the Bush Administration, the Justice Department filed a notice of appeal that kept open the option of trying to overturn Settle’s ruling.
After a more lengthy review, the Justice Department in the Obama administration opted to withdraw that appeal. That decision was made by the department’s Office of Solicitor General, which determines what cases should be appealed, according to Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorneys Office in Western Washington.
Through the course of this legal battle, Watada has been assigned a desk job at Fort Lewis. Eventually, he hopes to return to civilian life and attend law school, said Kenneth Kagan, one of Watada’s attorneys.
The 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division that left for Iraq without Watada was deployed for 15 months. The brigade returned to Fort Lewis and is preparing to serve again in Iraq later this year.
Hal Bernton: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Government opts for secrecy in wiretap suit
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
(04-06) 15:26 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — The Obama administration is again invoking government secrecy in defending the Bush administration’s wiretapping program, this time against a lawsuit by AT&T customers who claim federal agents illegally intercepted their phone calls and gained access to their records.
Disclosure of the information sought by the customers, “which concerns how the United States seeks to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security,” Justice Department lawyers said in papers filed Friday in San Francisco.
Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lawyer for the customers, said Monday the filing was disappointing in light of the Obama presidential campaign’s “unceasing criticism of Bush-era secrecy and promise for more transparency.”
In a 2006 lawsuit, the AT&T plaintiffs accused the company of allowing the National Security Agency to intercept calls and e-mails and inspect records of millions of customers without warrants or evidence of wrongdoing.
The suit followed President George W. Bush’s acknowledgement in 2005 that he had secretly authorized the NSA in 2001 to monitor messages between U.S. residents and suspected foreign terrorists without seeking court approval, as required by a 1978 law.
Congress passed a new law last summer permitting the surveillance after Bush allowed some court supervision, the extent of which has not been made public. The law also sought to grant immunity to AT&T and other telecommunications companies from suits by customers accusing them of helping the government spy on them.
Nearly 40 such suits from around the nation, all filed after Bush’s 2005 disclosure, have been transferred to San Francisco and are pending before Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker. He is now reviewing a constitutional challenge to last year’s immunity law, which the Obama administration is defending.
Walker is also considering a challenge to the surveillance program by the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct charity that was inadvertently given a government document in 2004, reportedly showing that its lawyers had been wiretapped during an investigation that landed the group on the government’s terrorist list.
The Obama administration is also opposing that suit and has challenged Walker’s order to let Al-Haramain’s lawyers examine the still-classified surveillance document.
The administration’s new filing asks Walker to dismiss a second suit filed in September by AT&T customers that sought to sidestep the telecommunications immunity law by naming only the government, Bush and other top officials as defendants.
Like the earlier suit, the September case relies on a former AT&T technician’s declaration that he saw equipment installed at the company’s San Francisco office to allow NSA agents to copy all incoming e-mails. The plaintiffs’ lawyers say the declaration, and public statements by government officials, revealed a “dragnet” surveillance program that indiscriminately scooped up messages and customer records.
The Justice Department said Friday that government agents monitored only communications in which “a participant was reasonably believed to be associated with al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist organization.” But proving that the surveillance program did not sweep in ordinary phone customers would require “disclosure of highly classified NSA intelligence sources and methods,” the department said.
Individual customers cannot show their messages were intercepted, and thus have no right to sue, because all such information is secret, government lawyers said. They also said disclosure of whether AT&T took part in the program would tell the nation’s enemies “which channels of communication may or may not be secure.”
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
Ex-lawmaker’s records subpoenaed in firings probe
Associated Press – February 11, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) – A federal grand jury has subpoenaed records of former Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico.
Career federal prosecutor Nora R. Dannehy is looking into whether former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, other Bush administration officials or Republicans in Congress should face criminal charges in the dismissals of U.S. Attorneys.
The grand jury subpoena for some of Domenici’s records has been confirmed by two private attorneys who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not representing the former senator.
Domenici’s attorney, K. Lee Blalack, has declined to comment.
Domenici made three phone calls to Gonzales in 2005 and 2006 complaining about the performance of U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. Iglesias was fired for what the Justice Department’s inspector general said were political reasons.
The Grand Dame of Blogs, Jane Hamsher and the Tough, Smart Glenn Greenwald Are Getting it Done
Glenn Greenwald has been rightfully indignant about the Obama DoJ’s use of Bush’s “state secrets” argument to cover up charges of rendition and torture. The NY Times this morning says “It was as if last month’s inauguration had never occurred…..Voters have good reason to feel betrayed if they took Mr. Obama seriously on the campaign trail when he criticized the Bush administration’s tactic of stretching the state-secrets privilege to get lawsuits tossed out of court.”
But Bush’s “state secrets” claims aren’t the only White House holdovers. Glenn also singles out Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic today for being a DC stenographer whose idea of “reporting” is calling up administration sources, granting them anonymity without cause, and then writing it up mindlessly without critique or context:
What possible justification is there for granting administration officials anonymity to explain why they are embracing a Bush-era weapon that they have long criticized? And why does an administration swearing great levels of transparency and accountability — and vowing to use secrecy only when absolutely necessary — need to hide behind a wall of anonymity in order to explain why they did what they did here? Why can’t they attach their names to this explanation, so that they can be questioned about it and held accountable?
Why would he do that? Well, possibly because that’s the only way they’ll talk to him — or anyone else. New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston has also written about this “business as usual” quality of White House press relations:
My questions to LaBolt and Singh prompted a return phone call the next day from Nick Shapiro, who spelled his name, but had to be prodded several times to give his job title: assistant press secretary.
During our brief conversation, Shapiro, like LaBolt (whose name Shapiro did not recognize), started one sentence with “off the record.” Told that the journalist grants the privilege, and that none would be granted here, Shapiro expressed surprise. His surprise was double-barreled, at both the idea that the reporter issues any privilege and that any reporter would decline to talk “off the record.”
The reportorial practice of letting government officials speak without taking responsibility for their words has been an issue with the public and is being questioned now by some journalists, as shown by this article from Slate’s Jack Shafer.
Questions about whether Shapiro knows the difference between off-the-record, background, deep background, and on-the-record did not get asked, because Shapiro made it clear he had no interest in answering anything about how the Obama press secretary’s office is operating and what its tone will be. He said questions should be submitted in writing by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I sent Shapiro an e-mail outlining the contours of what would be covered in an interview, but have not received a response as of this writing, the following day.
Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter whose book, Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense [and Stick You with the Bill] is indispensible for anyone wanting to understand how the taxation and legislative system has been gamed to favor the rich. He’s a superb journalist and sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s still employed at the Times. (note: Johnston has left the NYT.) An administration interested in transparency should be ecstatic about working with him.
But what is going on right now in the world of DC journalism finds its most naked expression in Ambinder’s piece, though I’ve seen other glaring examples of late — journalists are scrambling for who gets “access” to the White House. So there’s no end to the bullshit they’ll write to ingratiate themselves to potential sources, or the inconvenient facts they’ll edit out in order to be the new Bob Woodward. (Though Ambinder does deserve some praise on this front — he wrote what everyone else knows but isn’t saying about White House plans: “encouragement of moderate Democrats,” “entitlement reform” and “standing up to Speaker Pelosi.”)
You can see it in the horror with which the traditional media is responding to Sam Stein getting called on at the President’s press conference — there are rules, there is a pecking order, and This Is Not How It’s Done. While it’s great Sam got recognized — he’s a really good journalist and he asked a critical question — it’s not much more than “window dressing” if the day-to-day interaction with the press stays the same as it did during the Bush years. And with Rahm managing the relations between the White House and the media these days, it looks like that’s exactly what’s happening.
Update: And the stenography continues: Ambinder calls back his “administration sources” so they can respond to Glenn but neither names him nor links to him. “They’re sensitive to the politics of the case, but they’re not motivated by what civil libertarians may write on their blogs.” The administration people don’t want you at the slumber party Glenn Greenwald, and they don’t give anonymous quotes to you, Glenn Greenwald, and they certainly aren’t going to RESPOND to you, Glenn Greenwald, well okay they DID and Ambinder just wrote PARAGRAPHS about it but they are going to just turn their backs and pretend you’re not there. Feh.
(God Bless You Guys)
Iraqis applaud charges against Blackwater guards
The shooting that killed at least 17 in a Baghdad traffic circle last year resonates strongly among Iraqis, who believe it was unjustified and are eager for justice.
By Tina Susman and Usama Redha
December 10, 2008
Reporting from Baghdad — The traffic circle hums on a cool and sunny afternoon, as motorists round the center median with its fake orange palm tree that sparkles at night, blooming flower beds and chunky sculpture.
On such a calm day in Baghdad, it is hard to imagine the carnage that erupted here in Nisoor Square in September 2007, when Blackwater Worldwide security guards killed at least 17 Iraqis in a hail of machine-gun bullets and grenades, but the evidence remains.
Bullet holes pock the small shelter where traffic cops dived for cover. Splotches scar the wall of a school off the square that prosecutors say was hit by American gunfire. Memories rankle people familiar with the story, which still resonates powerfully in Iraq even as the legal repercussions have shifted to courthouses thousands of miles away in the U.S.
Five Blackwater employees, all of them U.S. military veterans, were charged Monday with manslaughter and attempted manslaughter in the case, which strained U.S.-Iraqi relations and galvanized Iraqi opposition to the Western security companies that had operated with impunity here.
Starting Jan. 1, private security details such as Blackwater will be subject to Iraqi jurisdiction if accused of crimes committed while off American bases, a change demanded by Iraq’s government after the Blackwater incident and others involving different companies that resulted in civilian deaths on a smaller scale.
The current Blackwater defendants won’t face trial in Iraq, but they could face decades in prison in the United States if convicted, something that pleases Iraqis such as Ali Abdul Ali.
“This is good,” said Ali, an unemployed military veteran. “It means no one is above the law, even if he’s an element of foreign forces. It also means the victims will get justice.”
Ali, who comes often to an abandoned bus stop near Nisoor Square to sit in the sunshine and think about life, has a friend whose mother was among 20 Iraqis shot and wounded in the incident. Like other Iraqis in the circle that day, the friend said the shooting was unjustified, he said.
“These people were armed and they were shooting innocent people,” Ali said.
That’s not how the Blackwater guards tell it. They say their convoy came under attack as they escorted U.S. State Department officials and that they fired in self-defense.
In the square Tuesday, the sound of gunfire was constant and clear over the cacophony of car engines, tooting horns and sirens from the intimidating convoys that still tear through the circle, but it was from an Iraqi police firing range nearby.
Police officers stationed in the circle were happy to discuss the Blackwater case and to show off the bullet holes from that day. One of them quickly interrupted his lunch of beans, rice and bread to weigh in.
“I heard about [the charges against the Blackwater employees] yesterday on the news,” said the officer, who like his colleagues was not authorized to speak to reporters and would not give a name. “Because they killed 17 innocent people, of course they should be arrested.”
The policeman, who has worked this spot for five years, was not in the square the day of the shooting but came to work the next day to see wrecked cars, blood-stained streets, bullet casings. He pointed to a section of gnarled concrete in the busy street a few feet away.
“That’s where the doctor and her son died,” he said, referring to Mahasin Mohssen Khadum Khazali and her son, Ahmed Haitham Ahmed Rubaie, who were in a white sedan that the Blackwater guards said they suspected of being rigged to explode.
“Justice should be served. These victims — their rights should be taken into consideration,” said another policeman, edging in front of the first cop and quickly taking over the conversation. This officer said that if the Blackwater guards are convicted, they should die.
“This is the law of God. In the Arab world, anyone who kills someone, he should be killed,” he said.
They scoffed at the idea that the guards might have felt genuinely threatened because of the situation in Baghdad at the time. Violence was far worse then, when attacks on U.S. forces were daily events. That month, 70 foreign troops, including 66 Americans, were killed across Iraq, according to the independent website icasualties.org. Last month, the total was 17.
“This place is surrounded. It is secure,” the second officer said, noting the national guard base on one side of the square and another government building on the other. “It’s impossible” that anyone could have felt threatened, he said.
Minutes later, a U.S. military convoy entered the circle. Civilian traffic ground to a halt to let the vehicles pass, but they stopped midway through. A group of U.S. soldiers walked toward the Iraqi police.
“Let’s have it,” one of them sternly said to a U.S. journalist who had been filming the square, referring to the memory chip of his video camera.
The soldier uttered an obscenity about filming the convoy but backed off without taking the memory chip after another American intervened, satisfied that the journalists were more interested in the scene at the square, not the convoy that had rolled into view.
Afterward, one policeman joked that it was good the journalists were of the “same tribe” as the soldiers. If they’d been Iraqis, he said, they would have been locked up.
Susman and Redha are Times staff writers.
-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich-
A day after Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and Chief of Staff John Harris on charges of corruption, alleging that, among other transgressions, they meddled with Tribune’s troubled businesses, including the auction of the Chicago Cubs.
The Chicago Tribune’s editorial page has been critical of the governor, and suspicious of his activities; if the government’s allegations turn out to be true, then they had plenty of reason to be wary. Interestingly, Blagojevich was equally suspicious of the Tribune’s editorial board, and allegedly sought to trade his influence in the auction of the Cubs and Wrigley Field in exchange for the Tribune firing its editorial board. Below is the Department of Justice’s allegations against Blagojevich that specifically involves the Tribune:
According to the affidavit, intercepted phone calls revealed that the Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs, has explored the possibility of obtaining assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority (IFA) relating to the Tribune Company’s efforts to sell the Cubs and the financing or sale of Wrigley Field. In a November 6 phone call, Harris explained to Blagojevich that the deal the Tribune Company was trying to get through the IFA was basically a tax mitigation scheme in which the IFA would own title to Wrigley Field and the Tribune would not have to pay capital gains tax, which Harris estimated would save the company approximately $100 million. Intercepted calls allegedly show that Blagojevich directed Harris to inform Tribune Owner and an associate, identified as Tribune Financial Advisor, that state financial assistance would be withheld unless members of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board were fired, primarily because Blagojevich viewed them as driving discussion of his possible impeachment. In a November 4 phone call, Blagojevich allegedly told Harris that he should say to Tribune Financial Advisor, Cubs Chairman and Tribune Owner, “our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get ’em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support.”
On November 6, the day of a Tribune editorial critical of Blagojevich , Harris told Blagojevich that he told Tribune Financial Advisor the previous day that things “look like they could move ahead fine but, you know, there is a risk that all of this is going to get derailed by your own editorial page.” Harris also told Blagojevich that he was meeting with Tribune Financial Advisor on November 10.
In a November 11 intercepted call, Harris allegedly told Blagojevich that Tribune Financial Advisor talked to Tribune Owner and Tribune Owner “got the message and is very sensitive to the issue.” Harris told Blagojevich that according to Tribune Financial Advisor, there would be “certain corporate reorganizations and budget cuts coming and, reading between the lines, he’s going after that section.” Blagojevich allegedly responded. “Oh. That’s fantastic.” After further discussion, Blagojevich said, “Wow. Okay, keep our fingers crossed. You’re the man. Good job, John.” In a further conversation on November 21, Harris told Blagojevich that he had singled out to Tribune Financial Advisor the Tribune’s deputy editorial page editor, John McCormick, “as somebody who was the most biased and unfair.” After hearing that Tribune Financial Advisor had assured Harris that the Tribune would be making changes affecting the editorial board, Blagojevich allegedly had a series of conversations with Chicago Cubs representatives regarding efforts to provide state financing for Wrigley Field. On November 30, Blagojevich spoke with the president of a Chicago-area sports consulting firm, who indicated that he was working with the Cubs on matters involving Wrigley Field. Blagojevich and Sports Consultant discussed the importance of getting the IFA transaction approved at the agency’s December or January meeting because Blagojevich was contemplating leaving office in early January and his IFA appointees would still be in place to approve the deal, the charges allege.
The reference to “Tribune Owner” would seem to mean Sam Zell. If that’s the case, is Zell in hot water? Did he help the government? What impact if any will the Blagojevich allegations have on Tribune’s bankruptcy filing? In the end, it’s doubtful that Blagojevich’s alleged role in the Cubs auction, which may have slowed the sale, was directly material to its bankruptcy filing. The team, for instance, is not part of the filing. Nonetheless, it offers some colorful insight into the auction. – Matthew Wurtzel
Matthew Wurtzel is the editor of Dealscape.