The War on the Professionals

Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reports that a former NSA official wants to spill the beans to Congress.

Russ Tice, a whistleblower who was dismissed from the NSA last year, stated in letters to the House and Senate intelligence committees that he is prepared to testify about highly classified Special Access Programs, or SAPs, that were improperly carried out by both the NSA and the DIA.

“I intend to report to Congress probable unlawful and unconstitutional acts conducted while I was an intelligence officer with the National Security Agency and with the Defense Intelligence Agency,” Mr. Tice stated in the Dec. 16 letters, copies of which were obtained by The Washington Times.

Susanhu of Booman Tribute points out that this news falls way short of being a scoop. Even so, this morning rightie bloggers dutifully leaped into action to discredit Tice. Scott Johnson at PowerLine lets us know that “a Defense Department psychologist concluded that he [Tice, not Scott Johnson] suffered from psychotic paranoia.” And how does Johnson know this? The link he provides takes us to an article about Tice in which Tice alleges this psychologist issued a phony report to discredit him.

As Kevin Drum says, Tice is either a genuine whistleblower or a genuine screwball. Time, I hope, will tell.

In the same post, Mr. Johnson wrote something else that bears discussion.

In his interview with Katie Couric earlier this week, James Risen sympathetically described the motives of the “nearly a dozen” leakers who discussed the NSA program with him roughly as follows:

    “The checks and balances that normally keep American foreign policy and national security policy toward the center kind of broke down. You had more of a radicalization, in which the career professionals were not really given a chance to forge a consensus within the administration. The principals — Rumsfeld, Cheney Tenet and Rice — were meeting constantly, setting policy and never allowing the experts, the people who understand the region to have a say.”

According to Risen and his sources, national security policy is to be set by “career professionals” rather than by the elected and appointed officials to whom he refers. When the elcted and appointed officials assert the prerogatives of their office, “career professionals” will take the law into their hands and work together with the New York Times to set things right. (Thanks to reader Charles McFarling for the rough transcript of the Risen quote.)

I couldn’t find a transcript of the Couric-Risen interview and cannot verify that the quote of Risen is accurate. But let’s look at Scott Johnson’s comment, “According to Risen and his sources, national security policy is to be set by ‘career professionals’ rather than by the elected and appointed officials to whom he refers. When the elcted and appointed officials assert the prerogatives of their office, “career professionals” will take the law into their hands and work together with the New York Times to set things right.”

That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that the “career professionals” aren’t trying to set national security policy. They are trying to obey the law, which was (after all) written by elected officials. Johnson is arguing that Bush and his appointees have the power to decide what the law is without going through regular legislative channels, and proper career professionals had better do what they’re told.

We are witnessing a slow-motion coup d’état, in progress. “A coup consists of the infiltration of a small but critical segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder,” said Edward Luttwak, which is a pretty fair description of what the Bushies are trying to do. Behind the smokescreen of the “global war on terror,” the Bush White House functions as an absolute power unto itself, for the most part unchecked by Congress or courts. The White House interprets law and the Constitution as it likes. The White House has surveillance capabilities to use for its own ends. The White House has (somehow) intimidated enough of the press and political opponents into being very, very cautious about issuing challenges to executive actions and power.

At Salon, Sidney Blumenthal writes that Bush is engaging in a war on those very career professionals because they get in the way of the coup.

Bush’s war on professionals has been fought in nearly every department and agency of the government, from intelligence to Interior, from the Justice Department to the Drug Enforcement Administration, in order to suppress contrary analysis on issues from weapons of mass destruction to global warming, from voting rights to the morning-after pill. Without whistle-blowers on the inside, there are no press reports on the outside.

Bush Administration “investigations” into the New York Times‘s source for the NSA story and the Washington Post‘s source for the secret prison system are designed, Blumenthal says, to put reporters and the career professionals on notice that speaking up is dangerous.

Scott Johnson implies that the “career professionals” are putting themselves above the law and the will of officials elected by the people. But it seems some elected officials are more equal than others. Blumenthal writes,

Bush has built a secret system, without enabling legislation, justified by executive fiat and presidential findings alone, deliberately operating beyond the oversight of Congress and the courts, and existing outside the law. It is a national security state of torture, ghost detainees, secret prisons, renditions and domestic eavesdropping.

The arguments used to rationalize this system insist that the president as commander in chief is entitled to arbitrary and unaccountable rule. The memos written by John Yoo, former deputy in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, constitute a basic ideology of absolute power.

Congress, at best, is held in contempt as a pest and, at worst, is regarded as an intruder on the president’s rightful authority. The Republican chairmen of the House Armed Services and Senate Intelligence committees, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, have been models of complicity in fending off oversight, attacking other members of Congress, especially Republicans, who have had the temerity to insist on it, using their committees to help the White House suppress essential information about the operations of government, and issuing tilted partisan reports smearing critics. This is the sort of congressional involvement, at White House direction, that the White House believes fulfills the congressional mandate.

Sure enough, today Scott Shane of the New York Times reports,

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee said on Wednesday that the limited Congressional briefings the Bush administration has provided on a National Security Agency eavesdropping program violated the law.

In a letter to President Bush, the representative, Jane Harman of California, said the briefings did not comply with the National Security Act of 1947. That law requires the House and Senate Intelligence Committees to be “kept fully and currently informed” about the spy agencies’ activities.

Now Republicans and Democrats in Congress are squabbling over whether the very limited briefings satisfied the law or not. Opinions will fall along party lines, and the party with the most clout wins.

Blumenthal continues,

During his first term, President Bush issued an unprecedented 108 statements upon signing bills of legislation that expressed his own version of their content. He has countermanded the legislative history, which legally establishes the foundation of their meaning, by executive diktat. In particular, he has rejected parts of legislation that he considered stepped on his power in national security matters. In effect, Bush engages in presidential nullification of any law he sees fit. He then acts as if his gesture supersedes whatever Congress has done.

Political scientist Phillip Cooper, of Portland State University in Oregon, described this innovative grasp of power in a recent article in the Presidential Studies Quarterly. Bush, he wrote, “has very effectively expanded the scope and character of the signing statement not only to address specific provisions of legislation that the White House wishes to nullify, but also in an effort to significantly reposition and strengthen the powers of the presidency relative to the Congress.” Moreover, these coups de main not only have overwhelmed the other institutions of government but have taken place almost without notice. “This tour de force has been carried out in such a systematic and careful fashion that few in Congress, the media, or the scholarly community are aware that anything has happened at all.”

BTW, the author of this strategy was a lawyer named Samuel Alito. You may have heard of him.

Rightie views of democracy generally boil down to “might makes right.” If you have a majority, however slim, you have a mandate to do whatever you want. If your party has the most clout in Congress, you may interpret the law and the Constitution any way you please.

Also in Salon, and elsewhere, Tom Engelhardt writes about the cult of presidential power.

The “cabal,” as Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department, has called Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and various of their neoconish pals, stewed over this for years, along with a group of lawyers who were prepared, once the moment came, to give a sheen of legality to any presidential act. The group of them used the post-9/11 moment to launch a wholesale campaign to recapture the “lost” powers of the imperial presidency, attempting not, as in the case of Nixon, to create an alternate national security apparatus but to purge and capture the existing one for their private purposes. Under George Bush, Dick Cheney, and their assorted advisers, acolytes, and zealots, a virtual cult of unconstrained presidential power has been constructed, centered on the figure of Bush himself. While much has been made of feverish Christian fundamentalist support for the President, the real religious fervor in this administration has been almost singularly focused on the quite un-Christian attribute of total earthly power.

Righties will call this paranoid. But what else does one make of the secret NSA program? Bush has yet to present a plausible explanation for bypassing FISA. Even if, as some claim, request for FISA warrants was too time-consuming and cumbersome, surely after 9/11 Congress would have tripped all over itself streamlining the process to White House specifications, had they been asked.

Engelhardt continues,

For these cultists of an all-powerful presidency, the holy war, the “crusade” to be embarked upon was, above all, aimed at creating a president accountable to no one, overseen by no one, and restricted by no other force or power in his will to act as he saw fit. And so, in this White House, all roads have led back to one issue: how to press ever harder at the weakening boundaries of presidential power. This is why, when critics concentrate on any specific issue or set of administration acts, no matter how egregious or significant, they invariably miss the point. The issue, it turns out, is never primarily — to take just two areas of potentially illegal administration activity — torture or warrantless surveillance. Though each of them had value and importance to top administration officials, they were nonetheless primarily the means to an end.

The hazily defined and potentially endless “global war on terror” provided the Bushies with the perfect smokescreen behind which to operate. “War powers” are evoked, and calls for oversight or limits are swatted down as threats to national security. And the only witnesses to Bush’s usurpation of power are the career professionals being co-opted into the Bush Regime’s schemes.