Responsibility

A few days ago, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush talked about responsible debate. “The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it,” he said.

So what did Mr. Responsibility’s spokesman do today? He attempted to deflect criticism of his policies with smears and lies. Yeah, real responsible.

Alleged journalist for the Associated Press Nedra Pickler wrote today,

The White House accused former Vice President Al Gore of hypocrisy Tuesday for his assertion that President Bush broke the law by eavesdropping on Americans without court approval. …

… [White House Press Secretary Scott] McClellan said the Clinton-Gore administration had engaged in warrantless physical searches, and he cited an FBI search of the home of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames without permission from a judge. He said Clinton’s deputy attorney general, Jamie Gorelick, had testified before Congress that the president had the inherent authority to engage in physical searches without warrants.

“I think his hypocrisy knows no bounds,” McClellan said of Gore.

Pickler, uncharacteristically, did some fact-checking.

But at the time that of the Ames search in 1993 and when Gorelick testified a year later, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required warrants for electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes, but did not cover physical searches. The law was changed to cover physical searches in 1995 under legislation that Clinton supported and signed.

In December I wrote about this new variation on the righties’ favorite excuse — “Clinton did it too!” — and linked to a report on the Ames investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that says the FBI had obtained the required search warrants and was in compliance with the FISA law in effect at the time. What the righties have done is take part of Jamie Gorelick’s (admittedly confusing) testimony out of context as “proof” of warrantless wiretapping, in spite of other documentation that shows the Clinton administration acted within the law. See also Jack at Ruminate This.

Alberto Gonzales also repeated the lie on last night’s Larry King Live; Think Progress provides a smackdown. See also Steve Soto.

You know righties; once they got some excuse for bad Bush behavior in their heads, no amount of debunking will flush it out. But usually the White House has surrogates spread these little stories, to create some distance between the lie and the President. It seems they’re getting reckless.

In other smear news, E.J. Dionne admits that he “underestimated the viciousness of the right wing.”

Last November, Rep. John Murtha, a Democrat and a decorated Marine combat veteran, came out for a rapid American withdrawal from Iraq. At the time, I wrote: “It will be difficult for Bush’s acolytes to cast Murtha, who has regularly stood up for the military policies of Republican presidents during his 31 years in Congress, as some kind of extreme partisan or hippie protester.”

No, the conservative hit squad didn’t accuse Murtha of being a hippie. But a crowd that regularly defends President Bush for serving in the Texas Air National Guard instead of going to Vietnam has continued its war on actual Vietnam veterans. An outfit called the Cybercast News Service last week questioned the circumstances surrounding the awarding of two Purple Hearts to Murtha because of wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.

The only surprise, of course, is why a smart guy like E.J. is surprised. Here’s the essential part:

What’s maddening here is the unblushing hypocrisy of the right wing and the way it circulates — usually through Web sites or talk radio — personal vilification to abort honest political debate. Murtha’s views on withdrawing troops from Iraq are certainly the object of legitimate contention. Many in Murtha’s party disagree with him. But Murtha’s right-wing critics can’t content themselves with going after his ideas. They have to try to discredit his service.

Like duh, E.J. Those of us out here in the leftie blog trenches spend most of our time countering rightie smear and disinformation campaigns. Not that it does any good. But it’s a damn shame that, with all the serious problems we face, we can’t have civilized debates based on facts.

And you know what’s funny? Right now I’m listening to Chris Matthews chrip away on Hardball. And he’s asking if Hillary Clinton should apologize for a speech she made yesterday. It’s OK to smear and lie to undermine the Constitution and deceive the American people, but you don’t dare insult the gawdallmighty Republican Party.

Update:
Tweety dedicated his entire bleeping program today to Hillary Clinton’s speech, just because she used the word “plantation” to describe Congress. The day after the former vice president of the United States accused the president of breaking the law; and after the White House, through the press secretary and the attorney general, issued lies to smear that former vice president — Tweety spends an hour talking about Hillary Clinton and the “P” word. Bleeping unreal.

Update update:
Nice quote by Thomas Frank in the February 2006 Harper’s (not online):

Get a conservative talking about the importance of character” and before long the word “strength” will come up. This is a quality treasured by the right, both on the battlefield and in the risk-taking world of business, and yet the distinguishing stylistic feature of the anti-liberal genre is precisely the opposite: irritability, a keen sensitivity to every last little insult. … Not only is conservatism the ideology of the powerful but conservatives are in command of all three branches of government. And yet the offense taking persists. Outrage is the melodramatic resolution to which all the action inevitably leads, the canned emotional response that every anecdote generates. …

… A convenient rhetorical benefit of this emphasis on electronic speech is that it solves the difficult problems of real-world power – by which I mean a problem that is difficult for conservatives populists who like to depict themselves as society’s victims. If offensive speech is the raw material of politics, then things like ownership or wealth distribution are not worthy of consideration. Nor can the threat posed by liberals be minimized or made to mean less dire by pointing out those liberals’ inability to win elections: as long as liberals exist, getting their ten seconds on TV or posting their liberalisms on the Internet, the danger to America is clear and present.

Staggering Incompetence

Today’s New York Times story by Lowell Bergman, Eric Lichtblau, Scott Shane and Don van Natta Jr. — “Spy Agency Data After Sept. 11 Led F.B.I. to Dead Ends,” is not the first to question whether the once-secret NSA wiretapping program was effective. On January 4 Mark Hosenball posted a Newsweek web exclusive that asked the same question — illegal or not, did it work?

Hosenball writes,

Did the National Security Agency’s controversial eavesdropping program really help to detect terrorists or avert their plots? Administration officials have suggested to media outlets like The New York Times—which broke the story—that the spying played a role in at least two well-publicized investigations, one in the United Kingdom and one involving a plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge.

But before the NSA’s warrantless spying program became public, government spokesmen had previously cited other intelligence and legal tactics as having led to major progress in the same investigations. In the Brooklyn Bridge case, officials indicated that the questioning of a captured Al Qaeda leader had led to investigative breakthroughs in Ohio. In the British case, Justice Department officials told NEWSWEEK a year ago that investigators had made progress by using a controversial provision of the Patriot Act which allows authorities to monitor potentially suspicious activities in public libraries.

In other words, if next week we learn the White House has been getting intelligence from a Ouija board, expect the Bushies to claim the Ouija board helped save the Brooklyn Bridge.

NEWSWEEK reported extensively on these cases when government investigations were coming to fruition. In both instances, officials originally indicated that key investigative developments came from sources other than NSA electronic eavesdropping—then still a closely guarded secret.

And if we’d had that Ouija board before 9/11 — the WTC towers would be standing today.

In the New York Times story linked above, Bergman et al. report that the FBI found the NSA “intelligence” to be a nuisance — “tips” that required a lot of legwork to check out but led to dead ends.

F.B.I. field agents, who were not told of the domestic surveillance programs, complained that they often were given no information about why names or numbers had come under suspicion. A former senior prosecutor who was familiar with the eavesdropping programs said intelligence officials turning over the tips “would always say that we had information whose source we can’t share, but it indicates that this person has been communicating with a suspected Qaeda operative.” He said, “I would always wonder, what does ‘suspected’ mean?”

“The information was so thin,” he said, “and the connections were so remote, that they never led to anything, and I never heard any follow-up.”

More critically, Bergman et al. reveal that the NSA did too snoop on communications that were entirely within the United States.

Officials who were briefed on the N.S.A. program said the agency collected much of the data passed on to the F.B.I. as tips by tracing phone numbers in the United States called by suspects overseas, and then by following the domestic numbers to other numbers called. …

… in bureau field offices, the N.S.A. material continued to be viewed as unproductive, prompting agents to joke that a new bunch of tips meant more “calls to Pizza Hut,” one official, who supervised field agents, said.

I’m assuming nobody was ordering pizza from Pakistan.

The New York Times article raises several more questions. One, was the NSA program in fact counterproductive because it wasted FBI time and resources playing Trivial Pursuit?

In the anxious months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the National Security Agency began sending a steady stream of telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and names to the F.B.I. in search of terrorists. The stream soon became a flood, requiring hundreds of agents to check out thousands of tips a month.

But virtually all of them, current and former officials say, led to dead ends or innocent Americans.

F.B.I. officials repeatedly complained to the spy agency that the unfiltered information was swamping investigators.

And, of course, we are still arguing over the legality of warrantless snooping on American citizens. One argument from the Right is that the nature of data mining makes warrants too cumbersome. On last night’s Hardball someone with expertise in FISA regulations (transcript not yet available) said that it has always been understood that warrants are not necessary for keyword searches, because they don’t involve people. But once the keyword search identifies a “U.S. person,” then law clearly requires a warrant. Seems to me that the process of applying for a warrant, as time consuming as that might be, would have forced the NSA to distinguish dead ends from genuine risks, thereby saving the FBI considerable time. Sort of the old “measure twice, cut once” principle.

Further, it is obvious the NSA program was not limited, or controlled, as the White House claims. We’re being lied to again. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you …