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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Wednesday, 4 January 2006

Topic: Couldn't be so...

Perspective: Making Much of Little, Perhaps

Wednesday, January 4th, midweek, the national dialog was filled with the voices of those trying to figure out just what was going on. This took place on several fronts. The most immediate was discussion of how the media manage to collectively get a major story completely wrong, with some effort to put that story into a larger context, trying to connect it, somehow or other, to the big story of the week, the one of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleading guilty to multiple crimes and, in return for reduced sentences, revealing payoffs to congressmen that will end the career of those congressmen, and pretty much expose how the Republican Party actually works as an arm of special interests with no particular interest in "the people's business," as they say. (The Democrats work this way too, or have in the past, but they now have no power, control nothing, and are generally irrelevant - in fact, one columnist, Howard Fineman, here suggests that the Republicans are in such deep trouble we may see a third party arise, making no mention of the Democrats at all. That they might do well now doesn't seem to occur to him at all.) The less immediate puzzling over things regards, of course, the NSA "spying on Americas outside the clear law about that." Mid-afternoon, Chris Matthews on his MSNBC talk show, Hardball, said he had been out for a few days when this all broke and was amazed the story was still going strong - but then he has been trying hard to say this is not a partisan story, that Jack Abramoff is one bad apple (like Duke Cunningham) and most every congressman is really honest. He says this perhaps because he himself personally helped Jack Abramoff raise money for a sham charity (one percent of donations go to any charity work.) But it's not going away, and now its seems a CNN reporter, whose husband worked on the John Kerry campaign staff, may have been a target - all of her telephone conversations and those of her husband since 2001 may have been recorded by the NSA. That throws a new light on the last presidential election.

So let's get to it.

The story that was mishandled was the mine disaster - "Sago, West Virginia, Wednesday, January 4, 2006 - Great joy turned suddenly to deep sorrow Wednesday morning when stunned family members were told that 12 of the 13 miners trapped 13,000 feet into a mountainside since early Monday were dead rather than alive, as they, and the world, had been told hours earlier."

Out here on the west coast those of us who crashed for some sleep just before midnight saw the late news - a miracle, all but one of the miners found alive - Anderson Cooper doing his earnest but sympathetic interviews on CNN, waiting for the miners to stumble or be carried out, thumbs up and all that, and on MSNBC the odd Rita Crosby with her even odder voice gushing about the wonder of it all. When dawn came out here, it just wasn't so. All but one of the miners was dead. The Los Angeles Times on the doorstep got the story right. The papers on the east coast, with earlier deadlines, got caught - the Boston Globe had to dump 30,000 copies and reprint with the real story.

What happened? Well, CNN got this explanation from Ben Hatfield (not McCoy), the head of the mining company -
"What happened is that through stray cell phone conversations it appears this miscommunication from the rescue team underground to the command center was picked up by various people," Hatfield said. "Simply overheard conversation was relayed through cell phone communications without our ever having made a release. International Coal Group never made a release about all 12 of the miners being alive and well."

And this was the press scandal of the week. There was a lot of scrambling to explain what when wrong, best summarized here by Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher -
In one of the most disturbing media performances of its kind in recent years, TV news and many newspapers carried the tragically wrong news late Tuesday and early Wednesday that 12 of 13 trapped coal miners in West Virginia had been found alive and safe. Hours later they had to reverse course.

For hours, starting just before midnight, newspaper reporters and anchors such as MSNBC's Rita Cosby interviewed euphoric loved ones and helped spread the news about the miracle rescue. Newspaper Web sites announced the happy news and many put it into print for Wednesday at deadline. "They're Alive!" screamed the banner headline in the Indianapolis Star. The Boston Globe at least added a qualifier in its banner hed: "12 Miners Reportedly Found Alive."
Yes, it was "Dewey Defeats Truman" all over again. Who to blame - officials, including the governor, for misleading reporters?

Mitchell notes an Associated Press dispatch first carried the news at 11:52 pm (EST): "Twelve miners caught in an explosion in a coal mine were found alive Tuesday night, more than 41 hours after the blast, family members said. Bells at a church where relatives had been gathering rang out as family members ran out screaming in jubilation."

But he notes many newspapers, and all of cable news, "reported the rescue as fact, not merely based on family claims."

The lesson here?

He quotes Sherry Chisenhall, editor of the Wichita Eagle - "If you saw today's printed edition of The Eagle, you saw a front page headline and story that are flat wrong. I'll explain why we (and newspapers across the country) went to press last night with the information we had at the time. But it won't excuse the blunt truth that we violated a basic tenet of journalism today in our printed edition: Report what you know and how you know it."

And there's Scott Libin of the Poynter Institute - "This case reminds us of a lesson we learned, at least in part, from Hurricane Katrina: Even when plausibly reliably sources such as officials pass along information, journalists should press for key details.... If we believe that when your mama says she loves you, you should check it out, surely what the mayor or police chief or governor says deserves at least some healthy skepticism and verification. I understand how emotion and adrenaline and deadlines affect performance. That does not excuse us from trying to do better."

Keith Olbermann on "Countdown" interviewed Mitchell late in the day - and Mitchell said much of this, and added every reporter should learn the value of the word "unconfirmed."

But everyone likes feel-good stories and this was a big one, and one where, on cable television, you could showcase your "emotionally warm" and devastatingly empathic new generation of anchors - Cooper on CNN, Crosby on MSNBC, and Bill Hemmer on Fox. So you go for the heart in the story. But here the facts mattered more.

It sort of makes you miss the days of Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, when the assumed persona was that of "reporter-journalist" - the person with the plain, basic facts, and little emotion. Yes, they were dry, or, sometimes, but rarely - at their very most emotive - a tad ironic. They wanted to work on your head, not your heart. Too, one thinks of the UK where they don't have "anchors" on the news shows, with these charming and engaging personalities - they have "news readers." That's the job.

But the product here and now is different. And it sells. We'll see more and more of it - and more and more of these problems with the basic facts. (A note to my friend at CNN, there since it started - get out now.)

As for tying this mine disaster to other current events, well, that may be a stretch, but maybe not. Officials with the company that had just bought this West Virginia mine - the International Coal Group - here said this was pretty much in the category of "an act of God," as the say in insurance policies when explaining what isn't covered. It was a "horrible freak accident."

One commentator, Julia of Sisyphus Shrugged (great name) here suggests some other things to consider. The new nominee to the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito, is on record holding that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act should protect miners less than it does. And not only did the Bush administration cut funds for mine safety in real dollars, they also, 1.) Fired a whistleblower, put a mining company executive in charge, 2.) Reduced staff by 170, 3.) Tried to slash funding even more, and 4.) Exempted the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act from the Freedom of Information Act. She provides links to each of these news items that may have seemed unimportant before. And she provides links to two other items discussing how the mine in question had (among other issues) a full 273 safety violations in the past two years.

Is this matter of neglect, something akin to the New Orleans levees that were too unimportant to consider before Hurricane Katrina? Maybe so.

William Bunch, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and its former political writer offers this - Mine Tragedy, Abramoff Scandal - Their Roots Connect Them.

The idea is this - "The roots of the horrific events underneath the earth in timeworn West Virginia, and the scandal on the tony sidewalks of Washington's K Street, are as deeply intertwined as those aspens out west, maybe more so. It's a connection that can be summed up in three simple words: Republicans gone wild."

Ah ha!

He's talking about this -
In the last four years, the Bush White House has named lobbyist-friendly former coal-industry officials to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, setting the stage for a transformation of a worker-safety agency into a tool of the industry.

During this time, MSHA has sought to weaken regulations regarding airborne coal dust - a possible cause of Monday's deadly explosion. Even with a reduced emphasis on inspections, federal agents found a growing pattern of serious safety violations at Sago over the last two years, yet imposed fines amounting to less than a slap on the wrist.

And the United Mine Workers, the most forceful advocate for worker safety, is gone - the result of a powerful new coal conglomerate granted power by a GOP-appointed bankruptcy judge to take over troubled mines like Sago and cancel labor agreements.
And he goes on to document that - naming names and citing facts. It's worth a read. It's pretty damning, and really depressing. The K Street lobbyists spent a lot of money. The industry was deregulated and closed to prying eyes. Quid Pro Quo.

The final paragraphs -
These struggling work-a-day people look and seem a million miles away from the white linen tablecloths of K Street restaurants and the plush corporate jets where lobbyists like Jack Abramoff and revolving-door bureaucrats and well-fed lawmakers are making the cold policy decisions that affect their lives.

But until people make that connection between the corruption on one end of the American political pipeline and the human misery on the other end, these problems will linger in the air like toxic coal dust.

A few seconds ago, we watched President Bush utter the usual banal condolences to the families of the dead. If he really wanted to honor the lost miners and their memory, he would promise a renewed focus on real worker safety measures.

But like the Sago family members whose hearts were ripped out early this morning by the vultures of big business, inept government officials and a confused and even more inept news media, we're losing our capacity to believe in miracles.
Yes, that seems over the top. But read the whole long item and you may agree.

Folks like Jack Abramoff, and those who took his money to do his bidding, are not doing anyone any good.

The media may have been foolish here. But they're not the problem.

As for the other matter everyone was still gnawing on in the middle of the week - even if Chris Matthews wonders why - Glenn Greenwald provided the clearest statement of what the problem seems to be with his seminal article, What Happened To Conservative Legal Theories?

There he discusses the extra-legal NSA data-mining (spying) issue, pointing out there really is no logical defense for it, and how "the defenses being dredged up to justify Bush's law-breaking certainly are notable for the liberties they take with 'conservative' principles of legal argument, as well as with how sharply they contradict the legal views which the Administration itself previously claimed it believed in."

Yeah well, so it seems.

Illegal? That's easy. He quotes the law, the FISA Act, specifically Section 1809 of FISA - "A person is guilty of an offense if he intentionally - (1) engages in electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute."

The administration admits it has broken this law - they did not seek warrants, they instructed the NSA to do this without those, and say they will continue. And, of course, that does present the administration with obvious difficulties in defending George Bush.

No kidding.

Glenn Greenwald puts it clearly -
Because there is no plausible argument to make that Bush's eavesdropping complied with the requirements of FISA, Alberto Gonzalez's Justice Department is insisting that Bush had the legal right to eavesdrop on Americans in violation of that law. The DoJ issued a detailed Memorandum (.pdf) advocating its two principal legal theories as to why George Bush was permitted to engage in conduct which FISA makes it a crime to engage in. Both theories are about as far away as possible from the conservative legal principles which Bush has always claimed to believe in and which he says he wants his judicial appointees to apply.

Thus, we have one argument which claims that the 2001 Congressional Resolution authorizing military force in Afghanistan and against Al Qaeda (the "AUMF") - a resolution which obviously never mentioned FISA, eavesdropping or surveillance, because it had nothing to do with any of those things - should nonetheless be "construed" and "interpreted" to have "impliedly" amended FISA by giving Bush an "exemption" entitling him to eavesdrop in violation of that law. And this argument is made even though the Congress which supposedly gave Bush that exemption says that it did no such thing, but to the contrary, expressly refused to provide that very authority.

And then we have the second Bush-defending argument: a dressed-up Constitutional theory which claims that George Bush has the "inherent" authority under Article II of the Constitution to violate Congressional law and eavesdrop on American citizens without the judicial oversight required by FISA - even though nothing in Article II mentions or even references the power to eavesdrop, the power to engage in surveillance, or the right to violate Congressional statutes. Indeed, the only express clause in Article II which seems to relate to this controversy is one that would rather strongly undercut the claim that the President has the right to violate Congressional law. That's the part mandating that the President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed..."
So the problem, as Greenwald sees it, is the "conservative principles of legal argument" - look as the plain language and original intent - is now so much silliness, and we're supposed to consider "implied, hidden amendments to laws which are silently buried in other laws which don't even reference the law which it supposedly amended." Add to that the claim that President Bush really does have certain Executive powers which the Constitution doesn't exactly mention, but seem to be "lurking quietly somewhere in Article II of the Constitution, maybe hiding behind some penumbras or sprouting from the evolving, breathing document."

Greenwald cites other case law where the administration argued in the old manner. Things have changed.

And the issue is not going away because, any way you cut it, the man has said he's above the law. And he's dared anyone to challenge that. And he's pretty much said anyone who challenges him on this undermines the war effort and hates America and is some sort of treasonous subversive. And we'll all be in great danger if he is not allowed to disregard any law or any limits the other branches of government have previously set. That's what he thinks the congress agreed to, and what he thinks the constitution says.

This is a big deal.

But then, maybe he's only doing this out of self-sacrificing generosity, to protect us all. His supporters say so. And he has several times said this is very limited, only tracking incoming telephone calls to this country from suspicious places (although his own staff had to issue a correction there, as sometimes Dick Cheney doesn't explain everything to the lad).

How limited is this? That brings us to the midweek mystery.

There's this from NBC News, Wednesday, January 4th -
New York Times reporter James Risen first broke the story two weeks ago that the National Security Agency began spying on domestic communications soon after 9/11. In a new book out Tuesday, "State of War," he says it was a lot bigger than that. Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell sat down with Risen to talk about the NSA, and the run-up to the war in Iraq...

Mitchell: Do you have any information about reporters being swept up in this net?

Risen: No, I don't. It's not clear to me. That's one of the questions we'll have to look into the future. Were there abuses of this program or not? I don't know the answer to that

Mitchell: You don't have any information, for instance, that a very prominent journalist, Christiane Amanpour, might have been eavesdropped upon?

Risen: No, no I hadn't heard that.
Andrea Mitchell's sources tell her the CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour has been monitored? You could go to the transcript, but NBC removed Mitchell's question later in the day.

What's up with that?

Here's some paranoid speculation -
... journalists have some of the best contacts out there and it's not unusual for journalists to talk to both sides of the story, or in this case, the good guys and the "evil doers." What a better, if not illegal, way to find the terrorists and their associates?

But before you say, "yeah, go for it," consider the implications of tapping Christiane Amanpour's phones:

1. Such a wiretap would likely include her home, office, and cell phones, and email correspondence, at the very least.

2. That means anyone Christiane has conversed with in the past four years, at least by phone or email, could have had their conversation taped by the US government.

3. That also means that anyone who uses any of Christiane's telephones or computers (work or home) could also have had their conversation bugged.

4. This includes Christiane's husband, former Clinton administration senior official Jamie Rubin, who was spokesman for the State Department.

5. Jamie Rubin was also chief foreign policy adviser to General Wesley Clark's presidential campaign, and then worked as a senior national security adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign.

6. Did Jamie Rubin ever use his home phone, his wife's work phone, his wife's cell phone, her home computer or her work computer to communicate with John Kerry or Wesley Clark? If so, those conversations would have been bugged if Bush was tapping Amanpour.

7. Did Jamie Rubin ever in the past four years communicate with any elected officials in Washington, DC - any Senators or members of the US House? Any senior members of the Democratic party?

8. Has Rubin spoken with Bill Clinton, his former boss, in the past 4 years?

Now you understand how potentially broad a violation of privacy the Bush doctrine on illegal domestic spying really is. Everyone who's anyone is a degree or two of separation away from a terrorist.
Ah, maybe Andrea Mitchell was having a bad day and was just pulling a specific name out of here hat, any old name. But why did she ask that so specifically, and why was it removed?

This is very curious, and NBC actually explains - "Unfortunately this transcript was released prematurely. It was a topic on which we had not completed our reporting, and it was not broadcast on 'NBC Nightly News' nor on any other NBC News program. We removed that section of the transcript so that we may further continue our inquiry."

What inquiry? NBC confirms it's investigating whether Bush spied on CNN's Christiane Amanpour?

Here's more paranoid speculation -
This is quite big. Note exactly what NBC said.

- NBC did not say it pulled the references to Bush spying on Amanpour because it was inappropriate conjecture about something which Andrea Mitchell had no evidence.

- No, NBC said it pulled the references because it was still investigating the accusation and didn't want to scoop itself before it was finished investigating. And make no mistake, NBC is "continuing their inquiry."

- UPDATE: One more point. NBC did NOT delete the part of the interview preceding the Amanpour question - where Mitchell asks if any reporters are being spied on. They only deleted the follow-up question about whether Amanpour was being spied on. Thus, their premature release of info regarding an "ongoing inquiry" wasn't about reporters generally - or they'd have deleted that part of the interview as well - they only deleted the Amanpour follow-up, suggesting that it's the question of whether Bush spied on Amanpour that they have been, and are still, investigating.

That's incredibly big news.

NBC has acknowledged that they have information to suggest that Bush may have spied (be spying) on CNN's Christiane Amanpour and that NBC is currently investigating that very possibility. This isn't just conjecture anymore, NBC has confirmed it.
Well, maybe.

One of our sometime contributors to these pages, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, knows Christiane Amanpour (see this from June 2004 - "Christiane Amanpour herself is one of these bullets-whizzing-by reporters, or at least was when she worked next to me over on the CNN foreign desk..."). Perhaps he should give her a call and ask what's up with all this.

As noted at the top, a lot of people are just trying to figure out what's going on.

Posted by Alan at 22:25 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006 06:52 PST home

Tuesday, 3 January 2006

Topic: Backgrounder

Washington 90210: Alumni Note, Beverly Hills High School - Class of 1977

Tuesday, January 3rd, the dam broke in Washington, and Jack agreed to spill the beans. As in this account from CNN -
Former high-powered lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges, agreeing to cooperate in a federal corruption probe in Washington.

Abramoff, 46, faces up to 11 years in federal prison and must pay $26.7 million in restitution, said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher.

She said Abramoff admitted to corrupting government officials and defrauding his own clients out of $25 million.

Abramoff admitted that he did not disclose receiving kickbacks on payments from Native American tribes to a partner's public relations firm.
And on it goes, so there's little need to add more here. This is bad news for one congressman from Ohio, and for Tom Delay, the former house leader already under felony indictment in Texas - years ago he called Abramoff one of his "closest and dearest friends." The current speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, the same day decided to return sixty-seven thousand of Jack's dollars - actually, he will choose some charity to get the bucks. Some say six Republican congressmen will be implicated in accepting bribes, some say twelve, and some say twenty. All that will take time to play out, and there will be much speculation ahead of whatever happens.

The only odd thing is that, in the even longer MSNBC account of all this, we learn this whole investigation is being overseen by one Noel Hillman, "a hard-charging career prosecutor who heads the Public Integrity Section and who has a long track record of nailing politicians of all stripes." But we're also told "politics almost certainly will creep into the equation."

It seems that Hillman's new boss will be Alice Fisher, "who is widely respected but also a loyal Republican socially close to DeLay's defense team." Cute.

Yeah, try this detail, something overlooked last September while New Orleans was submerged and congress was in recess - Alice Fisher was appointed to this post in a "recess appointment." Note too that Carl Levin, a senator from Michigan, and a Democrat of course, had been blocking the nomination. Some agent had named Alice Fisher in an email saying we really were torturing folks down in Guantánamo, and he wanted to look into that. Did she have something to do with saying that was fine and dandy? Levin didn't get to ask the question. Like John Bolton at the UN, Alice Fisher was appointed through the procedural back door, and no one can do anything about either one of these two until 2007. That is most curious.

So what will come out? This fellow is also under investigation by a grand jury in Guam over a separate matter (see this, but that's not in play here, nor are his links to a scandal involving a multibillion-dollar Homeland Security contract (see this on that Unisys contract). This doesn't have to do with his paying folks at the Cato Institute to write opinion pieces at his direction (see this - they resigned and the Copley papers and others will no longer carry their columns). This is something else, bribing congressmen.

But this fellow - Beverly Hill High School, Class of 1977 - has been busy.

It seems he stiffed Tyco for almost two million for work he never did (see this) and then there's this -
On August 11, 2005, Abramoff and his partner, Adam Kidan, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on fraud charges arising from a 2000 deal to buy SunCruz Casinos, a firm that ran "cruises to nowhere", where gambling was permissible. Kidan and a third associate, Ben Waldman, as yet unindicted, are accused of using a fake wire transfer to defraud Foothill Capital Corp. and Citadel Equity Fund Ltd that had agreed to lend $60 million to purchase the casinos on condition that Abramoff and his partners made a cash contribution of $23 million. The indictment alleges that the transfer was counterfeit. Kidan has since pleaded guilty in a deal which may require him to testify against Abramoff.

A warrant for Abramoff's arrest was issued by federal authorities on August 11, 2005; the next day he was released on bail of $2.25 million and ordered to return to Florida to face a preliminary hearing there on August 16, 2005. As part of his bail arrangements, Abramoff also was forced by a Los Angeles federal judge to surrender his passport, restrict his travel, and continue treatment for stress. FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael S. Clemens said Abramoff's high-level political contacts would not deter the FBI, stating that the Florida grand jury's decision to indict Abramoff "demonstrates that regardless of position, status, wealth, or associations, fraudulent activity will not be tolerated."
There's much more at the link. Last September there were those murder charges against three men for the murder of Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, the seller of the Sun Cruz Casino. Those three? That would be Anthony Moscatiello, a former bookkeeper for the Gambino crime family, and two guys named Anthony Ferrari and James Fiorillo. This Tony Moscatiello seems to have received 145,000 from Abramoff's patner Kidan, through SunCruz, for something or other. Jimmy Ferrari got 95,000 "as payment for security services" - and lots of free casino chips.

Well, the casinos were auctioned off to new management in a bankruptcy action brought by Foothill Capital. And Foothill settled with Abramoff - for an undisclosed sum - and press accounts have suggested that Abramoff used his political connections to gain support for the deal in Washington (see this). As for Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis, the murdered fellow who sold the Sun Cruz Casino to Jack and his partners, Tom DeLay, then the house minority whip, gave Boulis a flag that had flown over the capitol building. And Abramoff brought his lead financier in the deal to a fundraiser for DeLay in Abramoff's box at FedEx Field. And so on. Of course, our Republican congressman from out here in Orange County, Dana Rohrabacher, was listed as a financial reference for the Abramoff purchase of the Sun Cruz Casino. As he says - "I don't remember it, but I would certainly have been happy to give him a good recommendation. He's a very honest man."

Aren't they all? CNN reports here Abramoff's lawyer, Neal Sonnett, telling them that Abramoff will plead guilty in the original Florida case - falsifying a twenty-three million dollar wire transfer in order to obtain a sixty million loan to purchase the casino, and its fleet of offshore gambling boats. What the heck - his partner, Kidan, already did that.

And, just for giggles, here we see that just before those planes were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, and several of the others, seem to have made multiple visits to the SunCruz casino cruise ship off the Gulf coast in Florida. That led to this - was Mohamed Atta using the casino to launder money for al Qaeda and maybe Atta was involved in a scheme with Abramoff and the mob to smuggle heroin. No, just a coincidence.

But this is not a nice man. See this - in 1995 Abramoff worked for the Global Council of Islamic Banks, whose chairman, Saleh Abdullah Kamel, was under investigation for alleged funding of terrorism, including Osama Bin Laden. Abramoff is also founder and former chairman of the International Freedom Foundation (IFF) a group that was bankrolled way back when by the apartheid South African army. (See this and this.)

It all seems so odd. Abramoff was born in Atlantic City, the one in New Jersey, where his father worked as an executive for Diners Club. In 1968 the family moved to Beverly Hills. That's the problem. This place makes one crazy. And then his father got to be buddies with Ronald Reagan.

Yeah, Abramoff went on from here - he graduated from Brandeis in 1981 and earned his JD at the Georgetown in 1986 - but he's still a Hollywood, Beverly Hills guy.

Those college years? Abramoff was elected chairman of the College Republican National Committee - a campaign managed by Grover Norquist with help from Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition guy now running for Lieutenant Governor in Georgia. That committee, mad for Reagan, had Jack saying things like this - "It is not our job to seek peaceful coexistence with the Left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently." And Grover Norquist wants to drown government in the bathtub to rid us of all the "do good" stuff. Ah well. Does anyone recall the Republican National Committee tossing these college guys out as too over-the-top at the time?

After college? Well, in the second half of the nineties, Abramoff was employed by Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP, the lobbying arm of Preston Gates & Ellis LLP - based in Seattle, the lobbying firm run by the father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Cool. Then he joined the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, where they said his job was to be "directly involved in the Republican party and conservative movement leadership structures" as "one of the leading fund raisers for the party and its congressional candidates."

That's how we got here.

But what about the middle period, the eighties?

Ah, those were the Hollywood years!

As James Verini explained in mid-August, in The tale of Red Scorpion - The strange Hollywood interlude of the most scandal-ridden man in Washington -
It was 1987, he was in his late 20s, and the presidency of his political hero, Ronald Reagan, was winding to a tarnished close. The Iran-Contra hearings covered the front pages, and Oliver North, whom Abramoff knew and admired, was about to be indicted. The Republicans were disillusioned, and after years of service to the party - as chairman of the College Republicans from 1981 to '85, he'd mentored Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, had worked for one right-wing think tank, and founded another - Abramoff apparently was no longer sure he wanted to go into politics full time.

So he took a detour, doing what any other kid from Beverly Hills might when finding himself at a loss: He decided to try his hand at show business. Why not? Hollywood was no more than Washington for good-looking people, as the saying goes, and Abramoff, a student government officer and a football player at Beverly Hills High School, class of '77 (he graduated from Brandeis University in '81), was smart and charismatic and, if not actor handsome, at least physically imposing enough to be a producer. Through his father, a high-up executive at the Diners Club, he'd rubbed shoulders with some of L.A.'s elite.
So Abramoff moved here from Washington after finishing law school, and with his brother, Robert, formed a production company, Regency Entertainment. And they produced a movie - Red Scorpion, starring Dolph Lundgren, finally released in April 1989. The two brothers raised the sixteen million to get this made.

The basics from the Internet Movie Database here - "A Russian KGB agent is sent to Africa to kill an anti-Communist black revolutionary. However, he has a change of heart when he sees how the Russians and their Cuban allies are killing and repressing the locals, so he switches sides and helps the rebels."

Verini - "With its blatant propaganda, its collaboration with the apartheid South African government, and financial misdealing, it's notable, even for Hollywood, for being one of the seamiest productions in recent memory."

And Verini tells that tale -
The film was to be a manifesto for Abramoff; a Rambo-like morality tale and a grand indictment of communism - his Reagan Doctrine parable in action-packed Technicolor. And in the process of conceiving of and making it, Abramoff helped groom an African despot, rose to high levels in the K Street food chain, and got to play international spy.

"There was some indication even in those days that he was not the sort of person who would feel overly constrained by the rules," said Jeff Pandin, who worked closely with Abramoff in the 1980s.

The roots of "Red Scorpion" took hold in the early 1980s, when interventionist-minded folk in Washington had an array of global conflagrations to obsess over. The mujahedin were battling the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Contras were fighting the Sandanistas in Nicaragua. Some circles felt the United States was not doing enough to help them. The gripe heard in the office of CIA chief William Casey and among Oliver North's cabal in the National Security Council was that Reagan was not fully Reagan when it came to foreign policy. A cottage industry of think-tank intellectuals and private crusaders sprouted up to build support for one or another set of freedom fighters. Abramoff was among the most active.

In Angola, the rebel group du jour, the National Union of Total Independence for Angola, or UNITA, had been taking on the Soviet- and Cuban-backed government since the 1970s. UNITA's leader, a savvy warlord named Jonas Savimbi, had become a darling of the right. Savimbi received millions in aid and had even retained Washington lobbyists to press his case. Abramoff was interested in Angola, too. So was Lewis E. Lehrman, the millionaire behind the Rite Aid drugstore chain and the founder of the right-wing group Citizens for America, who made an unsuccessful run for governor of New York in 1982. Through Republican circles, Abramoff met Lehrman at some point in the early '80s, and in 1985 Lehrman hired him. Abramoff came to Lehrman with an idea: What about a convention of disparate anti-communist rebel leaders, put together and paid for by Americans? It screamed of Abramoff's cartoonishly outsized ambitions and worldview, and Lehrman liked it.
So the roots of the film are here. There really was a convention of anti-communist rebel leaders - in June 1985, in Jamba, Angola, at the UNITA headquarters - the mujahedin, Contras and Laotian folks, with the Angolans fighting the Cubans and Russians - set up by Jack Abramoff. Lehrman, the Rite-Aid guy, was there and read a letter of support from Reagan - and handed out framed copies of the Declaration of Independence. The called it the "Democratic International." The State Department was pissed.

Well, all that passed and the sponsors drifted apart. But Abramoff and his brother couldn't let it go -
He came up with the premise for "Red Scorpion" and hired Arne Olsen, a young screenwriter with no credits to his name, to write it. The Abramoffs told Olson they wanted to base the fictional African country in the film, Mombaka, directly on Angola, and the rebel leader on Savimbi. Olsen said he churned out a baldly propagandistic script.
And so he did. Don Steinberg, ambassador to Angola during the first Clinton administration, said this of Jonas Savimbi - "He was the most articulate, charismatic homicidal maniac I've ever met."

Ah but he was fighting the communists!

Anyway, it seems the movie was set to shoot in Swaziland, but at the last minute was moved to Namibia, then occupied by South Africa's apartheid government. Congress had passed (over Reagan's veto) the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 - you do recall Cheney voted against it - making pretty much illegal to do business with South Africa or its proxies. No matter, the Abramoff brothers used South African Defense Force vehicles and equipment on the set and soldiers as extras. He has connections. And South Africa at the time was Savimbi's main backer.

There's at lot more detail you can read at the link. Warner Brothers notes the law and refused to distribute the film. Schapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment did that. Who? And lots of folks who worked on the film - actors, technicians, investors - didn't get paid. It turned out to be a mess -
When, inevitably, "Red Scorpion" was released, it was no study in nuance. Directed by Joseph Zito, whose previous credits had included the Chuck Norris movies "Missing in Action" and "Invasion U.S.A," the dramatis personae consist of scheming, cackling communists on the one hand - the Russians not only tear apart the rebel village with attack helicopters, but also randomly gas a band of peaceful Bushmen and their animals - and noble guerrillas on the other, and the barely intelligible Lundgren in between. The action sequences have all the panache of a subpar "A-Team" episode.

There are some inspired moments, such as the climax, when Argenziano's character, Col. Zayas, is left groping for his own dismembered arm, which clutches a live grenade (he doesn't reach in time). There is also a rousing speech delivered by the token freewheeling American, a foul-mouthed, boozing journalist played by M. Emmet Walsh: "As a matter of fact, in America, an American can swear whenever, wherever and however much he or she fucking well pleases!" he yells at Lundgren. "A little something called freedom of speech, which I'm sure you Russians aren't real familiar with!" In another nice touch, the closing credits roll over Little Richard's "All Around the World," remixed to include machine-gun and exploding-bomb sound effects.
You can catch it on cable now and then. Don't bother.

Note there was a Red Scorpion 2, in 1994, without that Lundgren lunk, and that went straight to video - Abramoff listed as an executive producer, but he didn't have much to do with it. His brother Robert stayed in Los Angeles and continued to produce films. He is now a full-time lawyer. Verini say he reached him at the offices of Burgee & Abramoff out in Woodland Hills, but the guy refused to speak about his brother or the first film - "It's a family matter and I prefer not to comment on anything."

So he's not talking, and his brother, the football player from Beverly Hills High School, Class of 1977, has finally come undone, and will bring down the congress and make a mess for the Republicans.

This guy's first forty-seven years has been a long, strange road.

And it started at Beverly Hills High School, as we see in this, from the Los Angeles Times, Wednesday, January 04, 2006 -
At Beverly Hills High School, Jack Abramoff's weightlifting prowess was the stuff of legend.

As a senior, he became the first member of the school's 2700 Club, lifting a combined total of 2,700 pounds in the power squat, dead lift, bench press, and clean and jerk.

His former football coach, Bill Stansbury, recalled a game against Inglewood when Abramoff legally blocked an opposing player and knocked him out cold.

Abramoff also helped organize charitable events, Stansbury said, among them a Quarter-Pounder-eating contest at a McDonald's, with some proceeds going to the American Cancer Society, and a celebrity basketball game to benefit a youth foundation.

... At Beverly Hills High, he earned a reputation for ambition, hard work and commitment. He held the school record for the power squat, which he completed while holding 510 pounds on his back.

"Jack showed good leadership and was very dedicated, probably the strongest kid on the team," recalled Stansbury, who was the football team's offensive line coach when Abramoff played as the starting center. "For his size, he was extremely strong and very aggressive."

Abramoff was president of the high school Lettermen's Club, said Stansbury, who is now a teacher and coach at Paso Robles High School. "Jack always had a clear mission of where he wanted to be and how he was going to get there. I had a lot of respect for Jack's work ethic."

... He ran for student council president at the Hawthorne School, a Beverly Hills elementary and middle school, in 1972. Heading into a runoff election, Abramoff was disqualified for exceeding the spending limit. The principal, Herbert recalled, penalized Abramoff for holding a party, stating it amounted to a campaign expenditure that pushed him over the limit.
Beverly Hills High School today...

The disguised working oil well on campus -

Posted by Alan at 21:12 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006 15:35 PST home

Monday, 2 January 2006

Topic: Couldn't be so...

Context Is Everything

The Setup

In considering what follows, note that last week one item opened with this idea - often one writes just to get one's thoughts organized, not for an audience. The idea is not to plead some case or promulgate some particular point of view, but only to look at events and see if there's a way to make some sense of them. It's just, really, trying to figure out what's going on. If readers want to tag along for the ride, that's fine. But there are no promises.

And few readers do tag along. The weekly site here, Just Above Sunset, averages about three-hundred twenty-five unique logons a day, about a third of those from western Europe and well beyond, and this daily web log gets twenty or so hits a day. You can click on the number at the bottom of the gray block on the right side of this page and see information on the location of the readers and which page they access and all that sort of thing.

Of course on both sites there are those who only access the pages of photographs, in what you might call the "reverse Playboy" effect (the opposite of that "I only read it for the articles" line that "serious" guys once used). In any event, since May of 2003 there's been a lot of this "getting one's thoughts straight" - more than 1,700 pages in the weekly's archives, and now over a thousand web log entries, although they overlap quite a bit.

Of course this is small stuff - and not journalism. It is an attempt to put what journalists report, and what one finds doing a bit of digging in primary sources, into context. The New York Times ran a long, unfocused article on the difference between the two on Monday, January 2nd - Katharine Q. Seelye's Answering Back to the News Media, Using the Internet. There the idea is reporters (journalists) are the good guys - they do all the work, all the interviews and setting out the facts in a reasonable way - and those who write on the net are the bad guys - parasites second-guessing the folks who bring us the world and explain it to us. But maybe that wasn't exactly the point. It's kind of hard to tell. But the article's subhead - "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink" - seems to indicate the idea that those who write political and cultural commentary on the net are somehow unfairly attacking the hard-working real journalists. Yeah, we buy that electronic ink by the barrel and we use it. Heck, it's practically free these days.

Of course, sometimes there are internet attacks, as with the ganging up from the left on the Times's Judy Miller, and from the right all the gloating about how the right-side web logs brought down the mighty Dan Rather. But what happened with these two "journalists" probably wasn't caused by swarms of web logs only policy wonks and partisans read. That's wishful thinking - or delusional thinking, actually. Things would have played out the way they did, sooner or later, no matter what was on the blogs.

Electronic magazines and web logs, of the political and social sort, have a different purpose, as Jane of the blog Firedoglake explains here -
... bloggers serve the function of analysts. Or re-analyzers, more aptly, who attempt to contextualize as they sort through available data and look for patterns, inconsistencies and greater truths.

... From our standpoint we're trying to come up with new ideas and theories as we try to sort through the available information and expose the systemic bias from which it comes. We're not afraid to be wrong in our speculations, nor are we afraid to interact with people who like to think along side us.
That'll do.

The problem, to which web magazines and blogs off a solution, is that world is awash in information - the Times says this and the Post says that, about the same thing, and AFP sees it slightly differently than does the Washington Times, while Fox News tells it like it is in a "fair and balanced" way while the story seems quite different on CNN or MSNBC.

The problem is not at all that you feel like arguing with how the news is being reported. You look at all the news and want to know what's really going on. You even end up reading the electronic papers from the UK, where they openly practice "advocacy journalism" (you do know where The Guardian stands), and don't even pretend to have no point of view, as we do on this side of the pond. (Fox News pretends that a lot with their "no spin" chant.) And then there are all those papers in other countries, often available in translation, out there for consideration. Everyone is telling this story or that, slightly differently.

So, given what happened (the events), how do you figure out just what really happened, and how do you fit that, if you can figure it out, into a context of how the things in the world are going? You'd like to know that, but there's a torrent of reporting, and some days al Jazeera seems more accurate than what you find on the ABC Evening News. It seems a lot of Iraq civilians have died rather nastily in the last three years as the result of what we're up to over there, and the locals aren't too happy about it - they don't seem grateful at all. Is consistently reporting on those deaths (it has been consistent) and outrages (depending on you point of view) "news," or should the domestic audience's "sensibilities" over here be taken into account?

Maybe so, as "the news" is "the news business" - journalists get paid from advertising revenue, and advertisers don't want to offend anyone. Bloggers - web writers - don't generally get paid. And they offend a whole lot of people, not just professional journalists.

Welcome to the Information Age - and now try to figure out what's happening in the world.

The Context Puzzle

Okay, late in December the New York Times, after sitting on the story for more than a year, tells us the president had, in late 2001, authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to ignore the FISA Act of 1978 and listen in on the domestic calls of American citizens - and it seems this may also involve "data mining" - scanning two million calls an hour, and all email passing through all the major ISP hubs, and wholesale tracking who visits what websites (although that last may be both silly and impractical). The FISA Act of 1978 is law, passed by congress - you cannot "spy" on American citizens without a warrant and probable cause. The Fourth Amendment is clear. You certainly can do it - and should to protect the country - but you have to have that warrant. It's a bit of a safeguard against abuse. The FISA Act of 1978 created a special, secret court to issue such warrants. They approve almost all requests for warrants - the "probable cause" bar isn't high. And if it's an emergency, you can do the spying and inform the court of why you did that up to fifteen days after the fact. The president told the NSA to ignore the court and just do the spying. This seems to be a clear case of the president ordering the folks in a federal agency to break the law. No wonder some of them spilled the beans to the Times.

Newsweek then tells us the president had, in early December, called the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Times to the Oval Office and asked them not to run the story - but that didn't work. Three weeks later they ran it. Their only concession was to leave out technical details that would reveal too much about what we really can do. What did that matter? Their story was not about the technical details - it was about the executive order to ignore the law.

The story comes out. The president says he has the authority to do what he did, and he definitely will continue the program. The claim to authority is two-fold. His in-house law team, from John Yoo to Harriet Miers to the Attorney General, says the constitution gives him this power during wartime, as he is commander-in-chief of the armed services, and this is, really, part of that job. This may seem like he's breaking the law, but he really isn't, as his "war powers" renders that specific law moot. Secondly he claims the 2001 congressional authorization, to use "necessary and appropriate force" to deal with terrorists and those who support terrorism, implies that he was given the authority to ignore this specific and old law passed by congress. What else could they have meant by their vote? They said he could.

Then the Attorney General holds a news conference says they thought about going back to the congress and asking that the law be changed, but were told they'd lose that one, so they didn't.

This begs context of course, and the issue isn't really weather the president broke the law, and continues to do so. The question is whether he has the inherent authority to do so, or even if not, was he given, by congress, specific authority to do so. The answer is not in any news story. It is a question of how our government works - how it has worked in the past and how it should work in the future.

But putting the question in context causes no end of spin. There are constitutional scholars who think this view of the president's inherent power to put himself above any specific law is anywhere from "novel" to "bizarre." Such claims are rare, and they have been shot down again and again. Ask Harry Truman's ghost, or the ghost of Richard Nixon.

There are many in congress who now argue they did not in any way grant the president any such specific authority to ignore a law they passed. There are, though, those in congress who say it makes sense in this day and age - and you get folks on television saying following the letter of the law doesn't do much good when you're dead, and having Patrick Henry's words thrown back in their face - "Give me liberty or give me death!" And the commentary runs from people saying the president is only doing what needs to be done to keep us all safe - the "battered, misunderstood but noble hero" ploy - to others saying this a is a de facto coup and he's made himself a dictator, above all laws. Take your choice.

And what do most folks think? There was that Rasmussen poll that showed sixty-four percent support for this "secret eavesdropping" program. And then someone pointed out the question did not include "without a warrant" - nothing about eavesdropping with no probably cause and all that. So that poll is of limited use. Who doesn't think that if there's probably cause and a judge issues a warrant, the government really ought to find out just what's going on that could hurt us all badly? Who thinks probable cause doesn't matter? You cannot tell from this poll.

Here's an interesting comment, from the ULCA professor, Mark Kleiman -
... unlike some of my liberal friends, I don't think the answer would be much different if the phrase "without a warrant" had been included. The key missing word was "illegally."

The idea that we need to protect our privacy even in the face of the terrorist threat is almost certainly restricted to a minority, though a minority that includes almost everyone you know. So if the question is framed in terms of security versus privacy or liberty, it's a losing issue for the Democrats...

But the idea that the President should obey the law enjoys very widespread support. That's the frame Democrats, and friends of civil liberty, should try to put around this issue. Just keep repeating "a government of laws, not of men."

One blogger - I'd be grateful for a pointer to a link - made another point I'd like to hear more of. The ability to spy on domestic conversations is obviously abusable. And we already know that Tom DeLay tricked the Department of Homeland Security into tracking the whereabouts of Texas Democratic legislators who had fled to Oklahoma to try to block a quorum for DeLay's redistricting scheme. And we know that DeLay got away with it. So if the question on the table is "Will the Republicans abuse domestic-security powers for political purposes?" We know that the answer is "Yes."
Ah yes, context and framing, and thinking back on what happened before. As for "the idea that the President should obey the law enjoys very widespread support," well, that may now be a misreading. It's hard to tell. That, to keep us safe, he really doesn't have to, and shouldn't, is now on the table. Kleiman maybe misreading the current context - and this is then wishful thinking. We'll see.

Context? Here Andrew Sullivan works on it , saying this is the big question of the new year - "Do we have a president who refuses, in any matter tangentially related to the war on terror, to obey the law? We know he broke the FISA law and lied about it. We know he broke US law against torturing detainees, and lied about it."

The problem for Sullivan is a new detail, adding further context. The president just signed the McCain Amendment into law, but as we see here, issued a "signing statement" saying he doesn't see himself as bound by the amendment -
The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.
Sullivan's translation? "I will violate this law whenever I feel like it."

This is most curious. One really does want to know just what's going on.

More context from Steve Benen here, trying to make sense of how this "new theory" of presidential powers (or, from the other point of view, this "correct theory" of what the constitution really means) is playing out in terms of who is supporting the president on this.

He notes Senator Richard Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana (and Denison University '55), is an example of the president's own folks pushing back. Last month Lugar criticized the administration's practice of paying Iraqi news outlets to publish American propaganda, then said the president "should be more like Bill Clinton" when it comes to being exposed to a variety competing ideas, and now he's one of those calling for congressional hearings into this here warrantless-search program. (Benen has links to all those news stories, if you like to see that's just what Lugar did.) And that makes five Republican senators calling for hearings.

Here we see, from disparate news stories, a pattern. But Benen lists too the Republican senators arguing the other way, like Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) arguing on Fox News that the warrantless-search program was a legitimate use of presidential power because "the president believes very, very strongly that he has the constitutional authority."

Yeah, if you believe it then it must be so.

Anyway, this bit of context is odd - the big question may be which senate committee chairman will get to host the hearings - Arlen Specter (Judiciary) or Pat Roberts (Intelligence). Roberts has already announced he believes that the administration's actions in this are perfectly legal.

By the way, a review of all the conservative critics of the president on the NSA illegal spying scandal can be found here - Glenn Greenwald doing what bloggers do - filling in the detail.

One really does want to know just what's going on.

How do you fit this in the pattern - the Times again, reporting the former Attorney General and his second in command wouldn't sign off on this "bypass the law" executive order?

The Times reports this -
On one day in the spring of 2004, White House chief of staff Andy Card and the then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales made a bedside visit to John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, who was stricken with a rare and painful pancreatic disease, to try -without success - to get him to reverse his deputy, Acting Attorney General James Comey, who was balking at the warrantless eavesdropping.
Without success? Newsweek also reports John Ashcroft had qualms about the NSA secret domestic spying program here. And James Comey resigned in March 2005, of course.

How do your read those tealeaves? Maybe like this (Kevin Drum) -
... something is seriously wrong here. After all, we now know that the FISA court was unhappy about the NSA program; Congress was unwilling to pass a law authorizing it; and both John Ashcroft and his chief deputy - in an election year! - eventually came to feel that the program was being abused. That's the trifecta: senior officials in all three branches of government felt that the program went beyond the president's authority.

This whole thing is kind of depressing, isn't it? I don't mean in just the obvious sense, but also in the sense that this issue seems like such a clear loser for Democrats. Once again the president will be allowed to paint this as an issue of either wholeheartedly supporting the fight against terrorism or else being one of those whiny liberals who's allied with Osama in all but name. That the real issue is that Bush secretly broke the law instead of getting congressional authorization for it - which would have been a slam dunk for any remotely reasonable program - will end up lost in a whirlwind of the jingoistic bloviating we've come to expect from Fox News and Dick Cheney.

But who knows? Maybe this time the press will see through the prattle and write about this scandal without the usual insistence on accepting transparently childish talking points from the conservo-bots as actual reportable news. That would be a nice New Year's present.

Oh, and maybe then the tooth fairy will drop by with that quarter he forgot to give me 40 years ago. You never know.
Yeah, and fit this into the puzzle - Christopher Lee in the Washington Post: Alito Once Made Case For Presidential Power - "As a young Justice Department lawyer, Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. tried to help tip the balance of power between Congress and the White House a little more in favor of the executive branch. - In the 1980s, the Reagan administration ..."

Why was this guy nominated to the court?

Something is up.

And then there's this NSA gave other agencies surveillance data -
Information captured by the National Security Agency's secret eavesdropping on communications between the United States and overseas has been passed on to other government agencies, which cross-check the information with tips and information collected in other databases, current and former administration officials said.

The NSA has turned such information over to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and to other government entities, said three current and former senior administration officials, although it could not be determined which agencies received what types of information. Information from intercepts -- which typically includes records of telephone or e-mail communications -- would be made available by request to agencies that are allowed to have it, including the FBI, DIA, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, one former official said.
So the field office of the Pentagon that checks up on Quaker grandmothers and vegans and gay groups as subversives gets the data too. Oh great.

Here's a video clip of President Truman from April 24, 1950, saying this - "Now I am going to tell you how we are not going to fight communism. We are not going to transform our fine FBI into a Gestapo secret police. That is what some people would like to do. We are not going to try to control what our people read and say and think. We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat."

Ah, those were the days.

Is this (Atrios) how things are? -
... 2005 was the year that the president of the United States declared proudly that he had broken the law repeatedly and with full intention, that he had the power to do so whenever he wanted to, and that he would continue to do so whenever he determined it to be desirable. This declaration was met with basic approval from much of the beltway chattering classes, prominent libertarian bloggers, and just about every small government conservative.

The issue is simple: Bush has declared that one man has the right to make the law whenever, in his determination, national security warrants it. While even I can understand the necessity of broad executive powers in emergency situations, we aren't anywhere close to being in one of those. If Bush decides that personally shooting dissident bloggers or pesky journalists in the head is in fact necessary for national security, then no one can object. The fact that he has not, as far as we know, done any such thing does not matter in the slightest. By conferring dictatorial authority on himself Bush has declared that this is, in fact, a dictatorship even if he hasn't (yet) bothered using such authorities to the fullest of his claimed ability.

It's a mystery why Russert [see Meet the Press and MSNBC] and the gang can giggle over their little roundtables, essentially ignoring what amounts to a military coup by our own president. He's asserted the authority of commander in chief over the entire country, and not just the military to which the constitution grants him such authority. Yes, we hope and generally assume that this temper tantrum by our boy king will pass in three years, that his overreach will not have long lasting effects, that the crisis will pass.

2005 was the year the president declared he was the law, and few of our elite opinion makers and shapers bothered to notice, or care.
Well, maybe that's just what is up - what amounts to a military coup by our own president.

No, that couldn't be.

Newsweek has a long item on what's really going on, and as they explain - "The message to White House lawyers from their commander in chief, recalls one who was deeply involved at the time, was clear enough: find a way to exercise the full panoply of powers granted the president by Congress and the Constitution."

Bullshit. The "full panoply of powers granted the president by Congress and the Constitution" is under discussion. That's the issue.

Another blogger adding context? Digby, here -
First of all, I'm sick of this bullshit about the president being the commander in chief all the time. This isn't a military dictatorship. Citizens, and even lawyers in the Justice department, don't have a commander in chief. We have a president. I know that's not as glamorous or as, like, totally awesome, but that is what it is. A civilian, elected official who functions as the commander in chief of the armed forces.
And, like all bloggers, who love to look at source material, he links to Henry Hyde arguing for the impeachment of Bill Clinton here -
That none of us is above the law is a bedrock principle of democracy. To erode that bedrock is to risk even further injustice. To erode that bedrock is to subscribe, to a "divine right of kings" theory of governance, in which those who govern are absolved from adhering to the basic moral standards to which the governed are accountable.

We must never tolerate one law for the Ruler, and another for the Ruled. If we do, we break faith with our ancestors from Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord to Flanders Field, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Panmunjon, Saigon and Desert Storm.

Let us be clear: The vote that you are asked to cast is, in the final analysis, a vote about the rule of law.
There's context for you. We're there again.

But if this really is "a military coup by our own president," he really ought get the military in line. See this -
Support for President Bush and for the war in Iraq has slipped significantly in the last year among members of the military's professional core, according to the 2005 Military Times Poll.

Approval of the president's Iraq policy fell 9 percentage points from 2004; a bare majority, 54 percent, now say they view his performance on Iraq as favorable. Support for his overall performance fell 11 points, to 60 percent, among active-duty readers of the Military Times newspapers. Though support both for President Bush and for the war in Iraq remains significantly higher than in the public as a whole, the drop is likely to add further fuel to the heated debate over Iraq policy. In 2003 and 2004, supporters of the war in Iraq pointed to high approval ratings in the Military Times Poll as a signal that military members were behind President Bush's the president's policy.
Oh crap. You can't have "a military coup by our own president" if the military isn't on board.

The context question, with all this news - what this all means and how it fits together - is a puzzler. Let's go with the "coup" narrative here.

Posted by Alan at 22:24 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 3 January 2006 06:54 PST home

Sunday, 1 January 2006

Topic: Making Use of History

Nomenclature: We Ourselves Are Only Temporarily Modern

Eric Jager teaches medieval literature at UCLA - and is the author of The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France (Broadway Books, September 2004). There he takes us back to 1386, when two knights in full armor faced each other in a duel to the death at a monastery in Paris - the last time the French government authorized a duel to settle a legal dispute.

Ah, so long ago. Those were the days. But things have changed. Don't expect the short and feisty Nicolas Sarkozy and the tall, elegant and intellectual Dominique de Villepin to strap on the steel any time soon.

But have times changed? From the Michael Sandlin review of this book about "14th century France in all its disease-ridden, anarchic, litigious, bellicose glory," where land acquisition and foreign conquest drove the economy, Sandlin comments, "Much like the future of the United States under the rule of Neo-con warlords, one's vocational options in medieval France were few: you either inherited wealth and real estate, or joined the military to help your country acquire further real estate."

That seems to be about where we are now - you're born into the class of people who can, with some effort of course, make it in this world, or you join up, as Lyndie England did when there were no jobs at the local Wal-Mart, and help your country assert control over a key chunk of the Middle East. That's ridiculously oversimplified, of course, but in "cubicle world" - the corporations of America - you find those who can and will rise to some comfort, working for those who started out on third base, as they say. Then there is the underclass - they can join the military, or shuffle along however they can until it's over.

Jager seems to have decided to address that implication of his book, and a bit more, in this, a short column in the New Years Day edition of the Los Angeles Times.

There he argues we are not in the Information Age at all, or the Digital Age or the Connectivity Age, or whatever you choose. This is the New Middle Ages. And he thinks we ought to be honest about it - "With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?"

Well, that actually makes sense.

He does mention Barbara Tuchman's bestselling book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books, 1978), and wonders about that mirror thing in the title. This isn't the fourteenth century, but we do have our own "disastrous wars, popular revolts, religious strife and epidemic plague." Yep, we've have AIDS for years and the avian flu on the way - the modern plagues - and too, "the fall of communism unleashed civil war and genocide in the Balkans" and "religious extremists seized power in Iran and Islamic terrorists began attacking Western cities, giving dangerous new life to medieval words like 'crusade' and 'jihad.'"

This man may be onto something, and he notes one of his UCLA students recently wrote, "Medieval people were so ignorant, they had no idea they were living in the Middle Ages."

Just so. The same for us.

His main point -
We now use the word "modern" as a compliment, not just for ourselves but also for our latest inventions. But human know-how changes at the speed of light compared with human nature. Has our collective virtue really increased since, say, 1348? Or have we confused technical upgrades with signs of moral progress? Terrorists and identity thieves take to computers with the same enthusiasm as teenagers and bond traders. Tools are only as good - in every sense - as those who use them.

Like our gadgets, we ourselves are only temporarily modern, and that label will be taken from us very soon. What sort of mirror will later generations find in us? The people of the future, looking back on our violent and benighted era, may decide to call us "medieval," so I suggest we just go ahead and accept that the New Middle Ages have begun.
Yep, so it seems. Torture is now effectively legal, and we have our own Crusade - but this time not to take back Jerusalem, the birthplace of our Christ, from the infidels. This time we want these same infidels to stop this religious stuff entirely and form secular governments and play nice, economically. But there is a reason the president used the word "crusade" when all this started after the events of September 2001 - without meaning to he was channeling the "collective unconscious" of western history. He stopped using the word (he's not much of a scholar of history) when his people told him that word "caused issues" in the Middle East, but it was just natural.

As for, on the other side, "jihad" - this time around we want to keep the Muslim hoards out of Toledo, the one in Ohio, not the one in Spain.

And as for "rampant religious fanaticism" we now have dueling fatwa calls on each side - as our Osama, Pat Robertson, calls for the assassination of the elected leader of Venezuela and for God to abandon Dover, Pennsylvania. Sigh. The latter ties into our "fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science" - as the State of Kansas, unlike the ungodly in Dover, last year officially redefined science to include the supernatural, so what hasn't yet been figured out and tested by experiment can be taught in public schools as, logically, the obvious work of an "intelligent designer" (the Big Guy in the sky). So stop all that science stuff. Have faith.

A quick aside: Susan Jacoby, in this review of a new book on the Black Plague, mentions this incident -
The Muslims in Spain, whose knowledge of medicine was far more advanced than that of European Christians, could do little, because Islam had declared earlier theories of contagion heretical (since God alone supposedly had power over life and death). Ibn al-Khatib of Granada (1313-1374), one of the last great Muslim intellectuals of the Iberian convivencia, or coexistence, bravely declared that the role of contagion in spreading the plague was "firmly established by experience, research, mental perception, autopsy and authentic knowledge of fact." Not surprisingly, he was eventually imprisoned for heresy, then dragged from his cell and murdered by a devout Muslim mob.
Why does that sound familiar? Well, these days, doing that Darwin and science thing, relying on "experience, research, mental perception," can get you in trouble. You do recall the University of Kansas professor, Paul Mirecki, who planned a course on creationism and intelligent design, then canceled it when the Christian conservatives raised a fuss, and then got a good roadside beating by a few of the anonymous God guys. That was December 6, 2005 - not the Iberian convivencia of the fourteenth century.

This is the New Middle Ages. So don't be ignorant. Use the right term.

Eric Jager, by the way, isn't an angry fellow. He's quite mellow, as you can hear here, where he's interviewed on National Public Radio about the "trial by combat in Medieval France" book.

He's just a careful academic type. He wants people to use the right terms.

Posted by Alan at 18:19 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Announcements

Happy New Year - from Hollywood to the Catskills to London to Paris

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format parent to this daily web log, is now on line. This issue - Volume 4, Number 1 for the week of Sunday, January 1, 2006 - is the New Year Special.

In commentary on current events note that the last week was supposed to be a slow news week, but it wasn't. From the "outside the law" spying scandal (where specific laws bump up against raw politics and public opinion) to our new ambassador to Britain putting his foot in his mouth - he used to be a car dealer out here in Beverly Hills - to the lobbyist about to blow up congress (sort of) to matters in Uzbekistan, well, there's much here. And of course, along with our discussion, you get pointers to all sort of folks making other assessments of just what happened to us all in the last year. The devil is in the details.

Outside the realm of politics you'll find some year-end notes on some of the oddest assessments of 2005, and some of the extraordinary predictions for the New Year.

At the International Desk, Mike McCahill, "Our Man in London," posts his last column for these pages, as he starts full-time with The Scotsman this week. How will we ever keep up with the London scene? "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, with photos, reviews the unusual snow on the ground there, and shows us late minute shopping for the traditional feast at the New Year - that Soirée de la Saint-Sylvestre.

Bob Patterson is back with his journalist ruminations on the year past and what it portends for the future, and, as the Book Wrangler, puzzles out who might write what in the coming year.

Photography this week includes, from the opposite ends of the continent, snow in the Catskills and surfers on Christmas Day out here. The feature section is backstage shots of the floral floats being assembled for this year's Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

The quotes this week were easy - odd things about time and all that, for the New Year - but only the out of the ordinary ones.

And there is, too, a link to a new photo album of sixty-one shots of those Rose Parade floats being assembled, and the scene out there in Pasadena.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Untangling Events: The Week the Year Ends
Hollywood Amateurs: A matter of perspective...
Storm Warnings: Rough Weather Ahead
The Year in Review: Too Much Information
Coming Attractions: Getting Ahead on the News

The Unusual ______________________

Year End Notes: 2005 in Perspective, and 2006 Predictions

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in London: To 2006
Our Man in Paris: This is Snow?

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - "This is working out quite well for them."
Book Wrangler: What Effect Will 2005 Have on Literature?

Guest Photography ______________________

Snow: New Years Eve in the Catskills

Southern California Photography ______________________

Backstage: Building the Floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade
Surf: Christmas Day in Encinitas

Quotes for the week of January 1, 2006 - We Have a New Year

Links and Recommendations - New Photo Album

Do visit the site.

Note this, the Ivory Soap float being prepared for tomorrow's Tournament of Roses Parade - "Generations of Good Clean Fun"

Posted by Alan at 11:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 1 January 2006 11:57 PST home

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