THE NSA NONHEARINGS

Bruce Shapiro writes: Washington has never seen a noninvestigation quite like the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing into the NSA surveillance scandal: On the one hand, Attorney General Gonzales’s cheerful defiance of any probing question; on the other hand, the Republican committee leadership falling over one another to avoid calling Gonzales to account. Senator Arlen Specter, once a proudly independent civil libertarian (and who has made dissenting noises over the NSA program), gave the Attorney General a free pass by refusing Senator Russ Feingold’s request to take his testimony under oath. Then Specter punted Congressional responsibility for the whole matter by proposing that the secret FISA court rule on the entire program, radically expanding its purview from individual warrants to national security policy. It was not the toothless Judiciary Committee but Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee who finally managed to alarm the White House enough to get a full committee briefing on the surveillance operation. The new White House strategy relies on letting Republicans and Democrats alike vent about being excluded from briefings, as a distraction from the core issue: the surveillance program. Democrats, with a few notable exceptions like Feingold, are slouching to the occasion, complaining about the President’s abuse of authority but not challenging domestic spying itself.

WEAPONS OF MISDIRECTION

Shapiro also writes: Last November 13, two close friends went hunting in northern Vermont late on a Sunday afternoon. Jason Bean, 22 years old, heard a sound he thought was a deer; he fired his rifle. The bullet struck his 23-year-old buddy Chad Lumbra in the hip. In short, it was a hunting accident–similar in many respects to the accidental shooting of lawyer Harry Whittington by Vice President Cheney on February 11. Here’s the difference. Unlike Harry Whittington, who suffered a minor heart attack, Chad Lumbra died of blood loss. And unlike Vice President Cheney, Jason Bean has been charged with manslaughter. Hunting accidents happen–but when they do, police investigations are often rigorous, because in certain circumstances an accidental shooting suggests reckless endangerment. Twenty-four hours of White House silence after the Vice President shot a man in the face raise real questions: Was Cheney in any way compromised in his judgment? The accident happened in late afternoon: What about his admitted lunchtime drinking? Do any of his health problems or the medications he takes affect his reflexes? Did the twelve hours before Cheney was interviewed by a local sheriff’s deputy, and the nearly full day before a calculated Corpus Christi press leak, buy time to line up participants’ stories? All of this would amount to speculation relevant only to the idle paranoid–except that for Cheney the political and the personal really are indistinguishable. A war in Iraq, a hunting accident in Texas; evading accountability and suppressing the news are this Vice President’s signature.

MOVE OVER, BROWNIE

Two months after Jeremy Scahill’s exposé of Stewart Simonson, George W. Bush’s official in charge of preparing the nation for bioterror attacks, avian flu and other public health emergencies (“Germ Boys and Yes Men,” Nov. 28, 2005), requests are mounting for the removal of the man who’s on track to be the next Michael Brown. “This is a serious job at this point, and I think we need to have professionals filling it, not political appointees,” Republican Tom Davis, who chairs the committee overseeing Simonson’s Project Bioshield, told CBS’s 60 Minutes, which aired a lengthy report on Simonson last month. “To date he’s been singularly unimpressive.”

THIS WEEK ON THE WEB

NASA climatologist James Hansen, whom Bush apparatchiks tried to muzzle, tells Bryan Farrell how we can still mitigate global warming. And Nicholas von Hoffman explores a trend among the super-rich to freeze themselves and their bank accounts in hopes of rising again.