Moral Relativism

Bush Administration, torture

After years of hearing the right-wing decry the ‘moral relativism’ of ‘liberals’, I was at a loss for the proper description of Rudy Giuliani’s approach to waterboarding.

Linda Gustitus, who is the president of a group called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, began her question by saying that President Bush’s nominee for attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey (who happens to be an old friend of Mr. Giuliani’s) had “fudged” on the question of whether waterboarding is toture.

“I wanted to ask you two questions,’’ she said. “One, do you think waterboarding is torture? And two, do you think the president can order something like waterboarding even though it’s against U.S. and international law?’’

Mr. Giuliani responded: “O.K. First of all, I don’t believe the attorney general designate in any way was unclear on torture. I think Democrats said that; I don’t think he was.’’

Ms. Gustitus said: “He said he didn’t know if waterboarding is torture.”

Mr. Giuliani said: “Well, I’m not sure it is either. I’m not sure it is either. It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it’s been defined in the media, it shouldn’t be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that’s the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn’t be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is. Because I’ve learned something being in public life as long as I have. And I hate to shock anybody with this, but the newspapers don’t always describe it accurately.”

It depends on who does it?

It depends on the circumstances?

I have to see what the real description of it is?

So, suppose, just for the sake of argument, that US forces were trying to pacify a foreign land, which was plagued by a fanatical insurgency, and we needed to get information from suspected insurgents or sympathizers? American lives are being lost to brutal attacks, and even the friendly locals may be turning around and supporting the insurgents when our backs are turned? Would that be appropriate circumstances?

Towards the end of 1900, the Americans declared martial law. To combat guerrilla warfare, they launched a scorched-earth “pacification” campaign. Every Filipino was viewed as an enemy regardless of whether he or she took up arms. Entire towns were held responsible for the actions of guerrillas. Mere objection to the Americans was termed treason. Villages sympathetic to the guerrillas were burned and people indiscriminately killed. Torture was systematically used to elicit information from suspected guerrillas or their sympathizers. One form of torture was the “water cure” treatment where the victim was forced to drink excessive amounts of water after which he was stomped on the stomach. One U.S. soldier bragged in a letter that Americans were shooting Filipinos “like rabbits.” Even though the U.S. War Department imposed blanket censorship, these atrocities became widely known because American soldiers wrote to their families and relatives in the U.S. and related stories of abuse. Some of these letters were eventually published in American local newspapers, highlighting the brutality of these “pacification” campaigns, leading to Congressional investigation, public outrage, and considerable embarrassment for the White House.

Part of the strategy was the introduction of “reconcentration”, a policy of hauling thousands of Filipinos (whom Americans referred to as their “little brown brothers”) into concentration camps to flush out the guerrillas among them and to cut their material support to the resistance movement. In the process of reconcentration, whole towns suffered from starvation and disease. Villagers were taken from their sources of livelihood and were not decently fed. Worse, living conditions were less than adequate, with people confined in overcrowded camps without proper sanitation. Camps then became breeding grounds for the spread of deadly diseases such as cholera.

The guerilla war for independence did not immediately end with Aguilnaldo’s capture on March 23, 1901; the insurrection lasted until July 1902. In the end, it took over three years to “pacify” the Philippines. More than 120,000 American soldiers served in the Philippines, 4,200 of whom died. It was estimated that 25,000 Filipino rebels and 200,000 civilians also died.

Since Rudy wants to know the details, perhaps he should hear about how it was previously done by American forces:

Riley, a sergeant in the Twenty-sixth Regiment, the son and brother of reputable men well known in Northampton, wrote home on November 25, 1900, as follows:

Arriving at Igbaras at daylight, we found everything peaceful; but it shortly developed that we were really “treading on a volcano.” The presidente, the priest, and another leading man were assembled, and put on the rack of inquiry. The presidente evaded some questions, and was soon bound and given the “water cure.” This was done by throwing him on his back beneath a tank of water and running a stream into his mouth, a man kneading his stomach meanwhile to prevent his drowning. The ordeal proved a tongue-loosener, and the crafty old fellow soon begged for mercy and made full confession…. The presidente was asked for more information, and had to take a second dose of “water cure” before he would divulge.

Of course, experts like Torquemada had a more refined technique, apparently unknown to ‘reputable men well known in Northampton’:

The methods of torture most used by the Inquisition were garrucha, toca and the potro. The application of the garrucha, also known as the strappado, consisted of suspending the criminal from the ceiling by a pulley with weights tied to the ankles, with a series of lifts and drops, during which arms and legs suffered violent pulls and were sometimes dislocated. The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had impression of drowning. The potro, the rack, was the instrument of torture used most frequently.

In modern parlance, I think they call garrucha a “stress position”.

Still, it may be there have been some refinements in modern times. If one is to believe the biased liberal media, it has been discovered that actual ingestion of the water is no longer necessary for the psychological effect of drowning. Perhaps Rudy believes that covering the face with cellophane makes the process something other than torture. Not surprisingly, Human Rights Watch disagrees:

The Convention Against Torture prohibits practices that constitute the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.” The federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2340A, similarly prohibits acts outside the United States that are specifically intended to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

Waterboarding is torture. It causes severe physical suffering in the form of reflexive choking, gagging, and the feeling of suffocation. It may cause severe pain in some cases. If uninterrupted, waterboarding will cause death by suffocation. It is also foreseeable that waterboarding, by producing an experience of drowning, will cause severe mental pain and suffering. The technique is a form of mock execution by suffocation with water. The process incapacitates the victim from drawing breath, and causes panic, distress, and terror of imminent death. Many victims of waterboarding suffer prolonged mental harm for years and even decades afterward.

Waterboarding, when used against people captured in the context of war, may also amount to a war crime as defined under the federal war crimes statute 18 U.S.C. § 2441, which criminalizes grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (in international armed conflicts), and violations of Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions (in non-international armed conflicts). Waterboarding is also an assault, and thus violates the federal assault statute, 18 U.S.C. § 113, when it occurs in the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” a jurisdictional area which includes government installations overseas. In cases involving the U.S. armed forces, waterboarding also amounts to assault, and cruelty and maltreatment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

John McCain has his own opinion:

“All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today,” Mr. McCain, who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, said in a telephone interview.

Of presidential candidates like Mr. Giuliani, who say that they are unsure whether waterboarding is torture, Mr. McCain said: “They should know what it is. It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.”

But of course, according to Rudy that’s all an exaggeration. It all depends on the circumstances.

See Digby and the Anonymous Liberal for more.

(cross-posted from Ratiocination.)

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Please, Make Him Stop!

Bush Administration

I’ve written before about our president’s poor understanding of history. I’ve noted repeatedly that he will often use a historical reference that not only doesn’t actually support the point he thinks he’s making, but makes the opposite point instead.

But today he’s just gone too far. It actually hurts my brain. It’s not merely egoistic grandiosity anymore, it’s frankly aggressive, abusive treatment. It’s like he is actually trying to damage the minds of anyone who knows their 20th Century American history, or is old enough to have lived through it themselves.

How is it possible to withstand such an elemental force of bizarre rhetoric? How are we, who are limited by a lingering memory of sanity, a habit of believing in consensual reality, and an inability to wake each day and accept that everything we knew previously is wrong, to confront such an assault?

For years, Vietnam has served as the icon of American military failure. In fact, as long as Bush has been talking about invading Iraq, critics have been comparing it to Vietnam as an example of a misguided, strategically questionable, poorly planned, expensive military misadventure, where thousands of lives were lost and billions wasted for no apparent long-term value. So, what did Mr. Bush do today?

He alluded to Vietnam to support his war in Iraq.

No. Really. He did.

I know.

Sit down, it’ll begin to pass in a few moments.

Sputtering? Good, good. That’s a sign. You’re recovering. (Some can’t get over the initial catatonic shock and just dissociate.)

‘How?’ ‘Wha?’ Indeed.

It’s a frontal assault on the rational mind.

The collision of the concepts ‘George W. Bush’ and ‘Vietnam’ might lure you into recalling that Bush avoided service in Vietnam, choosing to defend the skies and bars of Alabama when his generation was called to war. Some particle of an obsolete sense of decency might make you wonder how he could dare to stand before the Veterans of Foreign Wars and make a reference to his own cowardice, and Deferment Dick’s, that way.

But before your mind can fully process that conundrum, it gets buffeted by other absurdities.

Starting at the beginning of his speech, the pummeling begins. Did he really draw an equivalence between the militarists of WWII Japan, the Communists in Korea, the Communists in Vietnam, and “the terrorists who wage war in Iraq and Afhanistan”? Yes, yes he did. Did he actually say that the “lesson of Asia’s development is that the heart’s desire for liberty will not be denied?” Yes. (He does know that North Korea is still in Asia, right? And China? Are you sure?)

Wait, what? He’s seriously suggesting the experiences of two culturally and ethnically homogeneous nations like Japan and Korea, both of whom experienced American troops in completely different contexts, hold an example for what we can expect in diverse Iraq after an unprovoked invasion? Ow. Ow. Ow. Headache!

No. He didn’t just refer to the culturally-sensitive actions of the post-war occupation forces in Japan as an example. He did. He really did. He’s going for it: he’s actually suggesting that the way the US handled Japan and Korea are comparable to the way we handled and are handling Iraq.

Wait, our sticking by South Korea taught the Communists that aggression didn’t pay? (Then what the hell was Vietnam about?)

The mind reels. He is skillful, this Bush. All this about Japan and Korea, how American involvement spread the seeds of liberty and led to the growth of vibrant Asian economies (like China? no. shut up.), it’s just a warm-up, softening the mind for the coup de grace: Vietnam.

— See, there were doubters about Vietnam, just like there are now about Iraq. You know, there were even people way back when who said we should never get involved there in the first place? And there were even people saying we were making things worse, not better. —

Then, just as reasonable minds are about to proceed to the next rational thought “And they were right”, comes the bomb: The “one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like “boat people,” “re-education camps,” and “killing fields.””

Yup. That’s right. The big mistake in Vietnam wasn’t getting into a stupid, pointless war, and staying in it until the American people had finally had all they could stand. The big mistake in Vietnam was ending it. (Just like Iraq presumably. It wasn’t a mistake going in, it hasn’t been a long string of mistakes since, the mistake would be leaving.)

Brilliant. Vietnam, the war he himself wouldn’t fight, is the very war we should have continued to fight, but didn’t. We must not make that mistake again, huh?

Just before you have a moment to think things like “Wait, weren’t the killing fields in Cambodia, which was thrown into chaos by our bombing and incursions before the Khmer Rouge took power?”, there comes yet another blow, perhaps the most brutal, to the very fabric of a rational universe.

There was another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today’s struggle — those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001. In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that “the American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.”

His number two man, Zawahiri, has also invoked Vietnam. In a letter to al Qaeda’s chief of operations in Iraq, Zawahiri pointed to “the aftermath of the collapse of the American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents.”

Ai-yiii! There it is, our great failure as a nation.

If only our leaders in the 70s had understood that decades later, very bad men would take the lesson that the American people will not continue to support expensive, pointless wars for vague objectives indefinitely! And that they would taunt us after we’d gotten ourselves involved in just such a war!

Then we might have been spared our current fate, doomed to remain engaged in said expensive and pointless war, just to spite them and prove the taunts of the terrorists wrong. The American people will SO support expensive, pointless wars indefinitely! We’ll show YOU, Osama. So there!

— See, if we were to leave Iraq, the terrorists would be emboldened and gain new recruits. (Whereas, if we stay, they are emboldened and gain … oh, never mind.)

So, there you have it.

The lesson of our military involvements in Asia is that the seeds of liberty spread by American military forces grow into thriving economies. And the lesson of Vietnam is that the big mistake is to pull out of the killing too soon, because then lots of local people kill each other instead, and only after is there a thriving economy. And, just as importantly, you get a reputation as a country that’s not really up for years of pointless violence and killing in foreign lands.

Which I guess is a really bad thing, if you want the US to be involved in decades of pointless violence and killing in foreign lands.

Something like that. But he must know, since he’s like, a Vietnam veteran and all, right? Oh, yeah. Hmm.

Just to show he wasn’t at all tired, Bush wrapped up his speech with a claim that we’ve captured more al Qaeda guys in Iraq than there are al Qaeda guys in Iraq, a passage about how people across the Middle East are longing for freedom and to be treated with dignity and respect (which I guess, is why we are supporting a military ruler, several monarchies and ‘democracies’ like Egypt), and a reference to how the Japanese war machine was brought down by men who’d been ordinary folks just months before, (in case you’d forgotten that Japan attacked us, we have no draft and the Iraq war has dragged on longer than the entire war in the Pacific.)

It’s at times like this that I get most demoralized. How can such a raving loon be allowed not just to wander about his ranch in Texas, but to actually hold the reins of power in our country? I can’t take too much more of this. He’s only getting worse.



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Listening To The People On The Ground

Iraq War

While the folks in DC tussle over whether the Oh-So-Very-Important words of General Petraeus will be delivered publicly or in a closed-door session, and whether the White House did or did not want it to be closed, a number of experienced soldiers have spared us the bother.

In what may for them be a career-limiting error, they have joined together to publish an op-ed in the New York Times. It is clear and refreshing in its honesty and willingness to confront the complexity of issues in Iraq. Particularly when set against the raft of statements from politicians and others who’ve dropped in for a few days of high-level military briefings, the words of these infantrymen and non-coms at the end of a 15-month deployment have a powerful credibility.

Read the whole thing. Here are some samples.

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at United States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.

As for the political situation,

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks. It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

We could listen to the perspective of these men on the front lines, confront the contradictions in our policies and change our approach. Or we could accept the reports from Brookings Institution fly-bys on what the brass told them, and brave words from Senators who travel with armored vehicle escorts and helicopter cover.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, this op-ed won’t just ‘disappear’, but will become something for the cable-news talking heads to furrow brows over. Maybe some will be prompted to demand that the decision-makers in DC, even if not the Decider himself, actually listen to the people on the ground.

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Katrina Isn’t Over

Bush Administration, Hurricanes

Since Maha started today with a post about one government cover-up, I thought I’d post this item about another. I wrote about it last week on my own blog, but since then this story seems to have failed to penetrate the broader media. I’d hate for it to be missed. – Paul

What’s worse than having your house destroyed and being forced to wait for a FEMA trailer to live in?

Having to live in that FEMA trailer.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday.

A trail of e-mails obtained by investigators shows that the agency’s lawyers rejected a proposal for systematic testing of the levels of potentially cancer-causing formaldehyde gas in the trailers, out of concern that the agency would be legally liable for any hazards or health problems. As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.

Ironic, isn’t it, that we can now add George Bush to the list of leaders who gassed their own people?

It’s clear that, despite the embarrassment of Katrina, FEMA’s morally upstanding, gung-ho, do-what-it-takes-for-the-disaster-victim attitude is just as strong as ever:

On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced and a month after a trailer resident sued the agency, a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency’s Office of General Counsel “has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA’s ownership of this issue.” A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: “Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.”

Of course, they did have reason to expect that, if they did do testing they’d find problems. Because problems existed.

FEMA tested no occupied trailers after March 2006, when it initially discovered formaldehyde levels at 75 times the U.S.-recommended workplace safety threshold and relocated a south Mississippi couple expecting their second child, the documents indicate. Formaldehyde, a common wood preservative used in construction materials such as particle board, can cause vision and respiratory problems; long-term exposure has been linked to cancer and higher rates of asthma, bronchitis and allergies in children.

One man in Slidell, La., was found dead in his trailer on June 27, 2006, after complaining about the formaldehyde fumes. In a conference call about the death, 28 officials from six agencies recommended that the circumstances be investigated and trailer air quality be subjected to independent testing. But FEMA lawyers rejected the suggestions, with one, Adrian Sevier, cautioning that further investigation not approved by lawyers “could seriously undermine the Agency’s position” in litigation.

“Yeah, people are dying, but before we do anything, we really need to check with the lawyers.” Nice. Of course, now FEMA has reversed itself and has ordered tests. Why?

On the eve of yesterday’s hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, FEMA reversed course on the issue and said it has asked federal health officials to help conduct a new assessment of conditions in trailers under prolonged use.

How about that? Oversight. Imagine.

But revelation of the agency’s earlier posture — in documents withheld by FEMA until they were subpoenaed by Congress — attracted harsh bipartisan criticism.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) decried what he called FEMA’s indifference to storm victims and said the situation was “sickening.” He said the documents “expose an official policy of premeditated ignorance” and added that “senior officials in Washington didn’t want to know what they already knew, because they didn’t want the legal and moral responsibility to do what they knew had to be done.”

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said FEMA had obstructed the 10-month congressional investigation and “mischaracterized the scope and purpose” of its own actions. “FEMA’s reaction to the problem was deliberately stunted to bolster the agency’s litigation position,” Davis said. “FEMA’s primary concerns were legal liability and public relations, not human health and safety.”

About 66,000 households affected by Katrina remain in the trailers at issue. FEMA has replaced 58 trailers and moved five families into rental units. The Sierra Club in May 2006 reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast, and some residents filed a class-action lawsuit last month in federal court in Baton Rouge against trailer manufacturers.

Three trailer residents who testified before the panel described frequent nosebleeds, respiratory problems and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors that they or family members have suffered. They also said veterinarians and pediatricians have warned that their pets and children may be experiencing formaldehyde-related symptoms.

You can see why the FEMA folks might want to make Congress subpoena the records instead of just handing them over. What a swell bunch of folks. They’re still doing a “heckuva job.”

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Yeah, You And What Army?

Bush Administration

From the Washington Post:

Bush administration officials unveiled a bold new assertion of executive authority yesterday in the dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, saying that the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege.

The position presents serious legal and political obstacles for congressional Democrats, who have begun laying the groundwork for contempt proceedings against current and former White House officials in order to pry loose information about the dismissals.

Under federal law, a statutory contempt citation by the House or Senate must be submitted to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, “whose duty it shall be to bring the matter before the grand jury for its action.”

But administration officials argued yesterday that Congress has no power to force a U.S. attorney to pursue contempt charges in cases, such as the prosecutor firings, in which the president has declared that testimony or documents are protected from release by executive privilege. Officials pointed to a Justice Department legal opinion during the Reagan administration, which made the same argument in a case that was never resolved by the courts.

It’s not like we couldn’t see this coming. Still, there was a vanishing hope that, given their problems with Iraq, historically low approval ratings, and a long list of scandals, the administration might choose not to provoke a Constitutional crisis.

That hope, of course, forgets the role that Dick Cheney has in running the White House agenda. Dick Cheney, as you may recall, ranks among the world’s historical sore losers. Having been on the wrong side in Watergate, he has made it his life’s mission to “restore” to the Presidency powers it never was meant to have. As if bitten by a radioactive spider emerging from Dick Nixon’s drunken dream of power, Cheney has gained powers unknown to any previous Vice President, spinning a theory of Executive power that would have been extreme at Runnymede.

As long ago as 1215, the notion that there ought to be and were limits, that others could over-rule the King, was established. No wonder Dick Cheney seems so cranky all the time; it must be hard to feel personally responsible to correct a mistake made eight centuries ago.

Still, he’s been doing his part for years. Cheney, then a Congressman, leapt to the barricades in defense of Oliver North and the Iran-Contra conspiracy, writing an infamous minority report denying the ability of Congress to limit Presidential power.

In the Cheney view of Presidential power, Congress’ role is to write the checks that pay for whatever the President chooses to do, and to smile about it. And if, for some ridiculous reason, Congress gets the idea that the Executive owes it anything, they should get over it. It’s a Congressman’s job to protect Executive authority, not to assert any independent power of his own.

And the suggestion that someone in the Department of Justice might work for the United States Government (having taken an oath to uphold the Constitution) and not just for the President? That’s a notion that really needed to be smacked down, and hard. Cheney can’t have people getting confused, like former White House aide Sara Taylor.

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A Failing Grade Calls For Parental Involvement

Bush Administration, Iraq War

I don’t know what it was like at Andover, but in my public school education I took a number of tests and quizzes. Never was it possible to earn a passing grade without getting the right answer on most of the questions.

That was particularly true if you hadn’t gotten any answer for more than half of the questions, say 10 out of 18.

That was true even if a very generous teacher gave partial credit on some of the ones you did answer. That was true even if, for three of the 18, the teacher essentially gave you credit for writing your name, the date and the name of the class at the top of the page.

And, while I did once have a math teacher who wryly described his tests as “opportunities,” as in “an opportunity to improve your grade”, I don’t think even he would have been so mordant as to describe a big red “F” at the top of a graded exam as “a cause for optimism.”

Luckily for Mr. Bush, the press grades easier than the most generous teacher. A quick sampling of wire service and TV coverage of his report on Iraq suggests that it was a “mixed” report. (Little Jimmy, remember that word for next time: that paper with the red marks all over it, the one with the big “F” on it, it’s not a failure, it’s “mixed.”)

But as Fred Kaplan notes at Slate, the administration definition of what counts as “satisfactory” is ridiculous. Not even the most desperate schoolboy would try to claim credit as they do. Unless, as with Mr. Bush, the alternative was a big fat zero.

This wasn’t a “mixed” report. This was documented, outrageous failure.

A parent confronted with a test result like this would certainly decide that something had to change. Despite little Georgie’s protestations that he’s got it under control, a grade like this can’t be acceptable. It’s time to stop letting Georgie determine his own study policy. Adults must take charge.

The House has taken the first step.

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Warp Factor Nine

Bush Administration, Iraq War, War on Terror

WASHINGTON (AP) – A new threat assessment from U.S. counterterrorism analysts says that al-Qaida has used its safe haven along the Afghan-Pakistan border to restore its operating capabilities to a level unseen since the months before Sept. 11, 2001.

A counterterrorism official familiar with a five-page summary of the document – titled “Al-Qaida better positioned to strike the West” – called it a stark appraisal. The analysis will be part of a broader meeting at the White House on Thursday about an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate.

Down in the Engineering Sub-Basement at the White House, a voice barks from an intercom: “We need more power!” A man with a Scottish accent yells back: “Cap’n! The reality-distortion crystals are almost fused after that speech in Cleveland. I canna give ya no more power or the spin engines will IMPLODE!”

“Dammit, Scott! I need maximum spin, and I need it NOW.”

At his news conference Thursday, President Bush acknowledged the report’s existence and al-Qaida’s continuing threat to the United States. He said, however, that the report refers only to al-Qaida’s strength in 2001, not prior to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The group was at its strongest throughout most of that year, with well-established training camps in Afghanistan, recruitment networks and command structures.

Bush used the new threat assessment to show his administration’s policies are the right course.

“Because of the actions we’ve taken, al-Qaida is weaker today than they would have been,” he said. “They are still a threat. They are still dangerous. And that is why it is important that we succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq and anywhere else we find them.”

Yes, I suppose that in some sense, colossal failure does indicate why it is important to succeed. But as I recall, back in September of 2001, just about everyone in the civilized world agreed that success in dealing with those who had attacked us was a good thing. Even many who loathed you, Mr. Bush, and thought you’d stolen your office, agreed that we as a nation should succeed in defeating that threat, and supported you toward that goal.

So why is it, six years later, that what you have to show is a reiteration that they are dangerous?

Why is it, almost six years to the day after your infamously ignored daily briefing entitled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US”, you are being handed a document entitled “Al-Qaida better positioned to strike the West”?

It seems to me there was a tall, horsey-faced guy running around a few years ago, complaining about a place called Tora Bora, and shifting focus onto Iraq. Huh. How about that?

We’ve now spent somewhere around a trillion dollars on our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s a one followed by twelve zeroes. It’s a room full of a million boxes, and when you open each box, inside there is a million dollars!

And yet, six years and a trillion dollars later, the President himself will admit that “They are still a threat. They are still dangerous.” Does he say this in his resignation speech, shamefully acknowledging his failure, before being allowed to honorably retire behind closed doors with a revolver?

No! He does it in irrational defense of his own policies, and in the same breath asserts the importance of success!

Mr. Bush, we all agree about the need for success. That’s what you’re being paid to deliver, and why you were re-hired in 2004. Success against al Qaeda.

Where is it?

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Excessive Heat Warning

Bush Administration

(Maha has graciously also offered me a set of keys to her place while she’s away. It looks like it’ll be a party! So before I go to digest the latest in her Wisdom of Doubt series, below, and the tech support leave town, here’s my post, cross-posted from my regular playpen, Ratiocination. –Paul, aka biggerbox)

The National Weather Service has issued an Excessive Heat Warning for my home city today. But in reading the news, I see there should also be a warning about excessive heat in Washington, DC. Specifically, at the Department of Justice, in the area around the Attorney General’s pants. They are, once again, quite visibly, on fire.

From the Washington Post:

As he sought to renew the USA Patriot Act two years ago, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales assured lawmakers that the FBI had not abused its potent new terrorism-fighting powers. “There has not been one verified case of civil liberties abuse,” Gonzales told senators on April 27, 2005.

Six days earlier, the FBI sent Gonzales a copy of a report that said its agents had obtained personal information that they were not entitled to have. It was one of at least half a dozen reports of legal or procedural violations that Gonzales received in the three months before he made his statement to the Senate intelligence committee, according to internal FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The acts recounted in the FBI reports included unauthorized surveillance, an illegal property search and a case in which an Internet firm improperly turned over a compact disc with data that the FBI was not entitled to collect, the documents show. Gonzales was copied on each report that said administrative rules or laws protecting civil liberties and privacy had been violated.

Spinmeisters at the DOJ lept into action, assuring us that perhaps Mr. Gonzales had not read the notification that his pants were flammable, that everybody’s wearing flaming pants these days, and besides, they aren’t really large flames.

Justice officials said they could not immediately determine whether Gonzales read any of the FBI reports in 2005 and 2006 because the officials who processed them were not available yesterday. But department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that when Gonzales testified, he was speaking “in the context” of reports by the department’s inspector general before this year that found no misconduct or specific civil liberties abuses related to the Patriot Act.

“The statements from the attorney general are consistent with statements from other officials at the FBI and the department,” Roehrkasse said. He added that many of the violations the FBI disclosed were not legal violations and instead involved procedural safeguards or even typographical errors.

Oh, typographical errors? Well then, nothing to be concerned about, eh, Mr. Buttle?

Gonzales received another report of an NSL-related violation a few weeks later. “A national security letter . . . contained an incorrect phone number” that resulted in agents collecting phone information that “belonged to a different U.S. person” than the suspect under investigation, stated a letter copied to the attorney general on May 6, 2005.

At least two other reports of NSL-related violations were sent to Gonzales, according to the new documents. In letters copied to him on Dec. 11, 2006, and Feb. 26, 2007, the FBI reported to the oversight board that agents had requested and obtained phone data on the wrong people.

Now, I realize that I have a reputation for being a mite tetchy about the rights my ancestors fought the British for, but if I were to find out that the FBI had been snooping around my phone records, without a judge’s permission, for no reason other than a ‘typographical error’, I’d be pretty ticked off. It seems like the very definition of an unreasonable search.

You know, the kind of unreasonable search that the Fourth Amendment says I am to be “secure from”, by a right that “shall not be violated”. I don’t know where Mr. Gonzales starts his enumeration of civil liberties, but me, I think the Bill of Rights is a good place to begin.

Now, odds are that it wasn’t my phone records the Feds were snooping through. Though I don’t know. Somebody, or rather several somebodies, had FBI agents prying into their lives for no good reason. It might have been me. It might have been you. That’s the point. We are not ‘secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ The safeguards that have been in place to ensure that right shall not be violated have been removed.

In March of this year, the FBI inspector general released a report detailing many abuses. As TPMmuckraker reminds us, at the time, Attorney General Gonzales was quoted as being “incensed”, and order FBI director Robert Mueller to clean it up.

But, as today’s news shows, he’d been receiving reports of such abuses and violations for years by then. And yet, like Louis in Casablanca, he seemed shocked -shocked!- by the news in March.

How could it be that the Attorney General of the United States would tell Congress what he did, and how could he have been surprised by news in the spring of this year that had been being reported to him for years? It seems impossible.

Until one remembers that the legal brains of the Bush administration went to the Lewis Carroll School of Law:

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

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