Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, whose "Our Man in Paris" columns appear each week in Just Above Sunset, seems to be amused by what he sees in the European press that seems to all point back to California, and maybe Hollywood specifically, as the center of some sort of madness. People always think that of Hollywood, but they may be onto something.
Tuesday, December 27th, Ric pointed me to the exploits of an extremely wealthy car dealer, Robert Holmes Tuttle, whose father, Holmes Tuttle, ran a group of dealerships in and around Beverly Hills. The son expanded that. Until recently he was managing partner of the Tuttle-Click Automotive Group down in Irvine, in ultra-conservative Orange County, home of the John Birch society and all that. This Tuttle-Click Automotive Group is one of the largest chains of dealers in the country - they're all over California and Arizona. But Robert Holmes Tuttle doesn't do that any longer. He's now our ambassador to Saint James Court, or, if you will, our ambassador to Great Britain. He's been there since the middle this year, putting his foot in his mouth.
Selling cars is something he could do. International diplomacy seems a bit more difficult for him. As with Michael Brown, who made the transition from the American Arabian Horse Society, where he was in-house council, to running FEMA, presidential appointments can make you feel real good about yourself, even if you have no qualifications for the job. But then things can turn to dust real fast.
So what's up with the fellow Ric calls "Tuttle, Hometown Hollywood Boy" these days?
Well, there's this -
That's from The Guardian (UK), as it seems our embassy there was forced to correct a claim by ambassador Tuttle, that there is "no evidence ... that there have been any renditions carried out in the country of Syria."
- US Embassy Close to Admitting Syria Rendition Flight
- Statement Contradicts Ambassador's Interview
- Correction Could Leave Britain Open to Challenge
There is. And now he's put the Brits in an awkward position. He claimed we would never fly suspected terrorists to Syria. Syria has one of the worst torture records in the Middle East. But a clarifying statement acknowledged media reports of a suspect taken from the United States to Syria.
Yep, he's got that administration problem. Say it simply never happened, discover it's all over the press and there's pretty good evidence it did happen, then say perhaps it might be true but we should all be patient until all the facts are in. Then get rid of the damned facts, if you can. The obvious two lessons to be learned here are clear. Say very little - don't ever issue blanket denials - and read the papers, or at least have someone coach you on current events.
Like he'd never heard of Maher Arar, that Canadian software engineer whose family long ago immigrated to Canada from Syria? He was arrested in New York three years ago and transferred to Jordan, then to Syria, where he said he was tortured. He first came up in these pages here (December 2003) and five other times (most recently here last August). This was big deal and all over the press, particularly in Canada of course. It's not like no one knew of such a thing.
So what does this glorified car salesman say in his BBC interview? This - "I don't think there is any evidence that there have been any renditions carried out in the country of Syria. There is no evidence of that. And I think we have to take what the secretary [Condoleezza Rice] says at face value. It is something very important, it is done very carefully and she has said we do not authorize, condone torture in any way, shape or form."
Trust Condi. We'd never do such a thing. But then our embassy spokeswoman two days later says the ambassador "recognized that there had been a media report of a rendition to Syria but reiterated that the United States is not in a position to comment on specific allegations of intelligence activities that appear in the press."
That fits the pattern mentioned above.
Perhaps someone should offer to provide Tuttle a press summary every few days, a briefing on what's happening in the world, and quiz him to make sure he gets the basics, kind of like the White House staff preparing that CD of news stories for the president three days after Hurricane Katrina, so he could catch up on the news - "There was a big Hurricane, sir, and perhaps you should be briefed." Someone should have told Tuttle about the Arar thing. Maybe someone should start briefing him on current issues in the world of diplomacy. Then he might have not stepped into a flat denial but been a little more, say, diplomatic.
But now the spokeswoman had to say things regarding the reports the CIA used British airports to refuel for rendition flights, which would contravene British law - "We take our actions in the fight against terrorism with full respect for our international obligations and with full respect for the sovereignty of our partners."
She covered for him, but he came pretty close to an admission of at least one flight to Syria refueling in the UK. When asked if he knew whether we had sought permission from Britain, Tuttle said Rice had maintained that rendition would respect each country's sovereignty. His reply would seem to imply we had sought permission, possibly leaving the British government open to challenge. They're sweating now.
Such things happen when you send a Beverly Hills car salesman in to do a job international diplomacy. The item notes also last month Tuttle "vigorously denied British media reports that American forces used white phosphorus as a weapon in Iraq," only to be undercut by an admission from the Pentagon the next day.
This guy needs to get in the loop. He needs a quick primer on what's going on. Someone must have told him that wasn't necessary. He was misinformed.
So who is he? The official blurb on him, from the embassy is here - Stanford and an MBA from USC, and a successful businessman and all that. And the unofficial version is here -
You get the idea. He paid his dues. He got the gig. No one told him he had to do anything. Typical.
A managing partner of the Tuttle-Click Automotive Group, Tuttle also worked as director of presidential personnel in the Reagan White House. His father, Holmes, earned a footnote in the history books in 1946 when he sold a car to an out-of-work actor named Ronald Reagan.
Tuttle and his immediate family made at least $201,725 in political contributions during the 2000, 2002 and 2004 election cycles, none of which went to Democrats. That figure includes $8,000 to the Bush campaign, $25,000 to Bush's second inaugural committee and $5,000 to the Bush-Cheney recount fund established after the 2000 election. Separately, Tuttle's automotive company donated $100,000 to the president's first inaugural committee. Tuttle was also listed as a Pioneer for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign for having raised more than $100,000 in contributions for the president.
So what else did Ric in Paris notice?
This in the December 27th New York Times from Richard Bernstein - Hometown Snubs Schwarzenegger Over Death Penalty. Parisians would see that in the International Herald Tribune, the Times' European paper. And of course that got bigger play there than here. As one of the few countries in the world that still executes criminals, we are seen there as somewhat barbaric for insisting governments have the right to kill their own citizens. France dropped that in the eighties. There is no death penalty in Europe. They do think it barbaric.
Here in California, two-thirds of the population doesn't. Schwarzenegger knows that. Here the story was a joke on the news shows.
From the Times -
The Williams execution was covered in these pages, in detail, here, but what's going on with Graz is a whole different thing. Schwarzenegger had already sent back the town's Ring of Honor, and tried to preempt these folks by telling them to take his name off everything there.
For years the quaint Austrian town of Graz trumpeted its special relationship with its outsize native son, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Born in a village nearby and schooled in Graz, Mr. Schwarzenegger was an honorary citizen and holder of the town's Ring of Honor. Most conspicuously, the local sports stadium was named after him.
But early on Monday, under cover of darkness, his name was removed from the arena in a sort of uncontested divorce between the California governor and the town council, which had been horrified that he rejected pleas to spare the life of Stanley Tookie Williams, former leader of the Crips gang, who was executed by the state of California two weeks ago.
The 15,000-seat stadium had been named after Mr. Schwarzenegger in 1997 as an act of both self-promotion and fealty toward the poor farmer's son and international celebrity, who has always identified Graz as his native place.
But when he declined to commute Mr. Williams's death penalty, the reaction was swift and angry in Graz, which, like most places in Europe, sees the death penalty as a medieval atrocity.
"I submitted a petition to the City Council to remove his name from the stadium, and to take away his status as an honorary citizen," Sigrid Binder, the leader of the Green Party, said in a recent interview. "The petition was accepted by a majority on the council."
Why? He's in deep trouble out here. He's up for reelection next year, and running at thirty-six percent approval ratings. His special election to change the rules went down in flames - all six of his initiatives were defeated. He told everyone the public employees unions were all greedy bastards, and then the folks rallied behind the police and teachers and firemen. He had said he'd never consult and work with the state legislature on tax issues and state funding - they were all "economic girly-men." It was his way or nothing. Now he can't get anything done.
All that backfired.
And then the people of Graz did him a favor. Folks out her really like executions. Now he has leverage. He told these wimps to stuff it. He gets points out here for that. It's something.
Ric in Paris also sent along this from The Guardian from March 2003 -
This of course ties into the current issue here, Bush authorizing the NSA to spy on American citizens without any warrants, telling the NSA to ignore the clear law in the matter, and saying the law did not apply to anything he ordered, as he was the president.
The United States is conducting a secret 'dirty tricks' campaign against UN Security Council delegations in New York as part of its battle to win votes in favour of war against Iraq.
Details of the aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York, are revealed in a document leaked to The Observer.
The disclosures were made in a memorandum written by a top official at the National Security Agency - the US body which intercepts communications around the world - and circulated to both senior agents in his organisation and to a friendly foreign intelligence agency asking for its input.
Why did Ric send this now? Perhaps because of this - Rice Authorized National Security Agency To Spy On UN Security Council In Run-Up To War, Former Officials Say (Jason Leopold, Tuesday, December 27, 2005, Raw Story) -
The "news" (this is old stuff) was that even though Bush says all this massive scanning of telephone conversations and emails was to protect us from terrorism, it was too good a source of information to pass up in other matters.
President Bush and other top officials in his administration used the National Security Agency to secretly wiretap the home and office telephones and monitor private email accounts of members of the United Nations Security Council in early 2003 to determine how foreign delegates would vote on a U.N. resolution that paved the way for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, NSA documents show.
Two former NSA officials familiar with the agency's campaign to spy on U.N. members say then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice authorized the plan at the request of President Bush, who wanted to know how delegates were going to vote. Rice did not immediately return a call for comment.
The former officials said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also participated in discussions about the plan, which involved "stepping up" efforts to eavesdrop on diplomats.
This news of the NSA spying on the UN received some coverage in newspapers at the time, but now we're talking about using the NSA intercepts for political purposes too, not just tracking down communications regarding potential terrorist threats. The old story becomes new again.
We were wiretapping Hans Blix, and the home phones of diplomats to see how they'd vote and why. Eavesdropping on UN diplomats is authorized under the US Foreign Intelligence Services Act, even if it's still considered a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
But the lie is the problem. The tool to uncover potential terrorist threats is really useful. The administration says they only use it for that purpose. But that doesn't seem so.
So what else was it used for, or on whom? John Kerry? Patrick Fitzgerald? Ex-wives? One never knows.
Oddly, though, for some of us the worrisome thing is not in these "big brother" issues.
There's something even more troubling than the government sweeping all electronic communication and consolidating its power by spying on everyone.
Of course Robert Steinback in the Miami Herald covers that and other matters here -
But that is where we are. The president has thrown down the gauntlet. He is changing things, and this is a direct challenge. He broke the law, and will continue breaking it. This changes how the country is run, and the question is, are there enough people who will congratulate him for the change, so he can become something like "dictator for life," or will enough folks say no.
If, back in 2001, anyone had told me that four years after bin Laden's attack our president would admit that he broke U.S. law against domestic spying and ignored the Constitution - and then expect the American people to congratulate him for it - I would have presumed the girders of our very Republic had crumbled.
Had anyone said our president would invade a country and kill 30,000 of its people claiming a threat that never, in fact, existed, then admit he would have invaded even if he had known there was no threat - and expect America to be pleased by this - I would have thought our nation's sensibilities and honor had been eviscerated.
If I had been informed that our nation's leaders would embrace torture as a legitimate tool of warfare, hold prisoners for years without charges and operate secret prisons overseas - and call such procedures necessary for the nation's security - I would have laughed at the folly of protecting human rights by destroying them.
If someone had predicted the president's staff would out a CIA agent as revenge against a critic, defy a law against domestic propaganda by bankrolling supposedly independent journalists and commentators, and ridicule a 37-year Marie Corps veteran for questioning U.S. military policy - and that the populace would be more interested in whether Angelina is about to make Brad a daddy - I would have called the prediction an absurd fantasy.
The man likes big gambles - like the preemptive war based on thin evidence of a justifiable threat. That's the way he thinks. Grab for what you want, and see what happens.
This is the biggest gamble. Has he read the situation right? Is this the moment he can take ultimate power? Maybe so.
In any event, that issue is what Ric in Paris inadvertently raised in the third item. Ric should send even more news nuggets. They get you thinking, even if that's alarming at times.