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Talking Points for the Next War

At 10:16 PM on March 19, 2003, after copious military preparations in the Persian Gulf region and beyond, after months of diplomatic maneuvers at the United Nations, after a drumbeat of leaked intelligence warnings and hair-raising statements by top U.S. officials and the President about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and how close Saddam Hussein might be to developing a nuclear weapon, after declaring Saddam's regime a major threat to Americans, after countless insinuations that it was somehow connected to the 9/11 attacks on our country, after endless denials that war with Iraq was necessarily on the administration's agenda, President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. "My fellow citizens," he began, "at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger…"

Almost four years later, all the above elements are again in place, this time in relation to Iran -- with Iranian responsibility for the deaths of Americans in Iraq replacing Iraqi responsibility for the deaths of Americans in New York and Washington. On a careful reading of our President's latest speeches and statements, Michael Klare has noted that an actual list of three charges against Iran, a case for war, has already essentially been drawn up, making it easy enough to imagine that at 10:16 PM on some night not so very distant from this one, from that same desk in the Oval Office, the President of the United States might again begin, "My fellow citizens, at this hour…"

As Klare writes: "Sometime this spring or summer, barring an unexpected turnaround by Tehran, President Bush is likely to go on national television and announce that he has ordered American ships and aircraft to strike at military targets inside Iran. We must still sit through several months of soap opera at the United Nations in New York and assorted foreign capitals before this comes to pass, and it is always possible that a diplomatic breakthrough will occur -- let it be so! -- but I am convinced that Bush has already decided an attack is his only option and the rest is a charade he must go through to satisfy his European allies. The proof of this, I believe, lies half-hidden in recent public statements of his, which, if pieced together, provide a casus belli, or formal list of justifications, for going to war."

But check his piece out for yourself at Tomdispatch.com. It's a chilling glimpse into a possible future for us all.

Libby: No Mistrial, Yet

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton, on Monday morning, dismissed a juror in the trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby after determining that the juror had been exposed to media coverage of the trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.

After meeting with jurors and lawyers behind closed doors, the judge allowed jury deliberations -- now in their fourth day -- to continue with 11 jurors. He could have called on one of two alternate jurors.

The machinations surrounding the errant juror raised concerns about whether a mistrial might ultimately be declared. But that won't happen , at least for now.

From the start of the trial, the jury has been under strict orders to avoid watching, listening to or reading news coverage about the trial and issues related to it because of concerns that contact with the news could taint the process.

The judge halted deliberations after raising concerns about information the juror learned over the weekend.

The deeper worry, according to the judge, was that the juror who had been exposed to the news reports might have shared the news with other jurors. The extent to which this might have happened was the subject of the behind-closed-doors inquiries from Walton and attorneys in the trial.

The Monday morning dust-up raises the possibility -- though not the certainty -- that a mistrial could still be declared after the month-long courtroom drama involving the former White House aide for lying and obstructing an investigation into the 2003 leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. Cheney and his aides have been accused of going after Plame in order to punish her husband, former Ambassador Joe, for revealing the administration's manipulation of intelligence to make a "case" for war with Iraq.

By some calculations, a mistrial could serve the interests of Libby and the Bush administration by dragging the complex case out longer -- toward a point when the president might find it convenient to pardon the man who could point a finger of blame at Bush, Cheney and others in the administration. That presumes that Libby would be convicted.

In the event of a mistrial, Libby's lawyers would likely claim their client had been cheated of exoneration by the jury.

Whatever the spin, if a mistrial is called, it is important that the case be renewed -- just as it is vital that Congress begin to take up issues that were raised during the trial. In particular, there is a need to examine the revelations about Cheney's role in plotting the attacks on Plame and Wilson.

Open Congress

As a political reporter, you often have occassion to attempt to find specific language in a bill, or figure out who's co-sponsored a piece of legislation, or what the status of an amendement is. While all of this can be gleaned from Congress' Thomas web site, it ain't easy. In fact, it's a serious headache. There are other tools aside from Thomas, but while they are comprehensive in their data, none of them synthesizes and presents the information in a particularly useful way. They don't incorporate blogs, and user rating systems, or tell you what other users have been searching for. In short, they don't use all the features of web 2.0 usability that have made the web such a powerful aggregator and distiller of information in the last few years. But now all that is about to change. Today, the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation went live with the beta version of OpenCongress, an amazing new tool for activists and citizens.

OpenCongress gives you access to all the going-on of congress: what bills are in commitee, what amendments are up for floor votes, how individual legislators are voting, and it presents all this information is an easy-to-use, simple-as-pie manner. But you can also spend time on OpenCongress just browsing. The site displays what votes have just taken place and lists which bills and legislators are most viewed. It's got a blog that distills congressional news and even allows you to set up RSS feeds so you can track what's happening with a specific issue or bill. There's nothing else remotely as intuitive and easy. Next time you want to check up on what your elected representative is up to, head over to OpenCongress.

Announcing Al Gore

No, Al Gore did not make any major announcements Sunday night. But he certainly did not still speculation about the prospect that he might yet enter the 2008 presidential race.

The former vice president was never going to use the Academy Awards ceremony as a launching pad for a third presidential bid. In fact, no one familiar with the man could have imagined him even pondering such a stunt.

The senator's son who has always been a little too conscious of proper protocols would never play games with something so consequential as his last chance to be seriously considered for the Oval Office. He was at the ceremony to join the crew from "An Inconvenient Truth," as they collected the inevitable Oscar for best documentary.

And he was there to continue exploring popular reaction to the notion that he might again bid for the office that he won in the November, 2000, popular vote but lost in the December, 2000, Supreme Court vote. For Gore, it is a serious – and open – question.

But, because of the unique elder-statesman-slash-rock-star position in which he finds himself these days, Gore does not have to claw for approval – and money – in the way that New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and the rest of the formal contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination must. Gore knows he has time to make a decision; indeed, he knows that as long as he isn't running he will be just about everyone's favorite son.

For Al Gore, politics can finally be fun. And so it was Sunday night.

His Oscar night adventure offered the former vice president a perfect opportunity to show the side of the ponderous politician that is rarely evidenced in public. Despite his reviews, Gore is one of the wittier people in public life. And so it came as no surprise to anyone who has spent much off-camera time with the man that he played the Academy Awards like a Saturday Night Live appearance.

With attention constantly turning his way, Gore mocked and mugged with the best of the A-listers around him. The crowd was his from the start of the night, when host Ellen DeGeneres made reference to the fact that America voted for Gore, not George Bush, in the 2000 election – a line that drew loud and knowing applause.

Gore's main appearance of the night came when the former vice president joined actor Leonardo DiCaprio for one of those deliberately hokey Oscar night versions of a public service announcement.

Ostensibly, they were at the podium to tell the viewing audience that, in DiCaprio's words, "this show has officially gone green."

"Which means," Gore chimed in, "that environmentally intelligent practices have been integrated fully into every aspect of the planning and production of these academy awards. And you know what? It is not as hard as you might think. We have a long way to go, but all of us can do something in our own lives to make a difference."

After steering the curious to www.oscar.com for environmental tips from the Academy and the National Resources Defense Council, DiCaprio got down to the meat of the moment, declaring, "Now, although our time is almost up, I want to say I'm very proud to be standing next to such an inspirational leader in the fight against global warming. You are a true champion for the cause, Mr. Gore."

"Now," DiCaprio continued, "are you sure, are you positive that all this hard work hasn't inspired you to make any other kind of major, major announcement to the world here tonight?"

Smiling like the Cheshire Cat that he can be for at least a few more months, Gore said, "Well, I do appreciate that, Leo. And I'm kind of surprised at the feelings welling up here actually. You've been very convincing. Even though I honestly had not planned on doing this, I guess with a billion people watching, it's as good as time as any. So, my fellow Americans, I'm going to take this opportunity right here and now to formally announce my intention…"

The music that stirs up when a stunt-double-thanking winner goes on just a little too long roared up, silencing Gore, who exited the stage to laughter and more, much more, applause.

It is said that the best entertainers always leave the crowd yelling for more. The same goes for prospective presidential candidates.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Suppressing News: Déjà Vu

"The assault on a free press ...should be recognized for what it is," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich last July, "another desperate ploy by officials trying to hide their own lethal mistakes in the shadows."

While the Bush Administration's assault on free, independent and aggressive media has been unparalleled, US government attempts to suppress information are not new. I was reminded of that essential fact this weekend while reading an obituary of Ronald Hilton, an influential scholar on Latin America who played a central role in The Nation's expose of CIA preparations for the Bay of Pigs.

Obituaries have many purposes. They can celebrate a person's work, accomplishments and contributions. And this one did--noting that Hilton was a courageous man and scholar. But obituaries also serve to set the record straight--and in this case, to issue a mea culpa for Times editors ( living and dead) who regret the paper's decision to accede to Kennedy Administration requests to delay publication (on national security grounds) of its article about the impending, disastrous CIA attack. (There have been other mea culpas: Last year, in an editorial, the Times wrote that "it seems in hindsight that the editors were over-cautious" by not printing what they knew about the invasion.)

The memory of that journalistic failure continues to play a role at the Times. For example, when the Administration vituperatively attacked the paper last year--even threatening legal action--for publishing an important investigative article on banking records and terrorism, executive editor Bill Keller's open letter explaining the decision to publish made explicit reference to the Times's handling of the Bay of Pigs story. "Our biggest failures," Keller wrote, "have generally been when we failed to dig deep enough or to report fully enough. After the Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco."

What is little known is the role The Nation and Ronald Hilton--"a fiercely independent and intellectually tireless scholar," as the Times obituary rightly describes him --played in this story. In November 1960, The Nation published the first article on preparations being made for what would become the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to Carey McWilliams, The Nation's editor at the time, "Ronald Hilton, director of Stanford University's Institute of Hispanic-American Studies had just returned from Guatemala with reports that it was common knowledge --indeed, it had been reported in La Hora, a leading newspaper, on October 30--that the CIA was training a guerrilla force at a secret base for an early invasion of Cuba." McWilliams promptly got in touch with Hilton, who confirmed details, and agreed that he could be quoted. The magazine then published an article setting forth the facts Hilton had given it, including the location of the base near the mountain town of Retalhulea. If the reports were true, McWilliams wrote, "then public pressure should be brought to bear upon the administration to abandon this dangerous and hare-brained project." In the meantime, he added, the facts should be checked out immediately "by all US news media with correspondents in Guatemala." Although a special press release was prepared--to which copies of the article were attached--the wire services ignored the story and only one or two papers mentioned it.

However, The Nation's article was then called to the attention of a New York Times editor, who assigned Times reporter Paul Kennedy to do a story. Kennedy filed an article in January 1961 covering similar ground to The Nation's. But it was the Tad Szulc article in the Times--which ran only a week before the invasion in April 1961--that Kennedy called the Times's publisher about. The New York Times yielded to the President's demand that the story be reduced in prominence and detail.

According to McWilliams's memoirs (and the Columbia University forum on "The Press and the Bay of Pigs" of fall 1967), a week or so after the Bay of Pigs fiasco a group of press executives met with President Kennedy at the White House. "At this session," McWilliams recounts, "the President complained of premature disclosure of security information in the press and cited Paul Kennedy's story in the New York Times as a case in point. The New York Times' Turner Catledge then reminded Kennedy that reports about the base had previously appeared in the Guatemalan newspaper La Hora and The Nation."

The President reportedly turned to Catledge and said, "If you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake." More than a year later, Kennedy told the New York Times's Orvil Dryfoos, "I wish you had run everything on Cuba.... I am just sorry you didn't tell it at the time."

To his credit, top Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. also later said that he wished the Times had run its stories so that the whole catastrophe would have been avoided.

As McWilliams notes, "Kennedy was correct: timely disclosure of the facts might have prevented what was truly a 'colossal mistake'."

It is thanks to Ronald Hilton, an independent and fearless scholar, that The Nation first alerted a country to what was being done, illegally, in its name.

Never has the need for a free and independent press been greater. Never has the need for the media to act as a watchdog on government abuse and wrongdoing--and as an effective counter to still excessive executive power--been greater.

Cheney's New Front in War on Reality

When the Bush administration was asking in 2002 for Congressional approval of a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, Vice President Cheney told the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that Saddam Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons." He then claimed that, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."

As it turned out, Cheney was proven wrong.

Several months later, just prior to the launch of the war he had conjured, the vice president appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and said of Saddam Hussein, "We know he has reconstituted these (chemical weapons) programs. We know he's out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons, and we know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization."

As it turned out, Cheney was proven wrong.

During his "Meet the Press" appearance on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the vice president announced that, "We will be greeted as liberators."

As it turned out, Cheney was proven wrong.

Now, the vice president says of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's support for moves to extract U.S. troops from the quagmire that is Iraq: if we adopt the Pelosi policy, that then we will validate the strategy of al-Qaeda.``

It is only a matter of time until Cheney is proven wrong again.

Indeed, as former President Jimmy Carter said during the taping of an appearance on ABC's This Week program, which will air Sunday, "If you go back and see what Vice President Cheney has said for the last three or four years concerning Iraq, his batting average is abysmally low. He hasn't been right on hardly anything in his prediction of what was going to happen."

When Pelosi challenged the vice president's over-the-top rhetoric this week, Cheney shot back, "She accused me of questioning her patriotism. I didn't question her patriotism. I questioned her judgment."

Remarkable as it may be for Cheney, at this point in his tenure, to raise the issue of judgment, he has in so doing provided an appropriate opening for a discussion of his own tenuous ties to reality.

Were Cheney a run-of-the-mill vice president, his inability to identify the line between fact and fantasy – or is it: truth and fiction – would be the stuff of comedy sketches. But, of course, Cheney is no ordinary second in command. Indeed, when it comes to foreign policy, he has for six years now been the real "decider." Only the most delusional observer of Washington fails to recognize that the Bush White House does what it does "because," as former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill explained, "this is the way that Dick likes it."

So as the vice president, with his attacks on Pelosi, launches a new front in his war on reality, isn't it time to talk ask whether American can survive another two years of his misrule. Or, to be more precise: Hasn't he earned the sanction proposed by the bumper stickers that read: "Impeach Cheney First"?

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Time to Micromanage the War

Congressional Republicans are planting a trap for Democrats by accusing them of trying to micromanage the war in Iraq by deciding how additional billions of dollars be spent. It's an argument Democrats could easily rebut--if only moderates in the party would let them try.

Instead, conservative Democrats are playing right into the GOP's hands by criticizing efforts by Jack Murtha to force the military to meet normal readiness standards before escalating the war.

"Congress has no business micromanaging a war, cutting off funding or even conditioning those funds," said Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat who was instrumental in blocking Bill Clinton's healthcare plan, told the Washington Post today. "If you strictly limit a commander's ability to rotate troops in and out of Iraq, that kind of inflexibility could put some missions and some troops at risk," added Rep. Chet Edwards, another Zell Miller donkey.

It's amazing that some Democrats would quibble with the notion that troops be properly rested, equipped and trained before deploying for battle, as the Murtha plan mandates. Are critics of Murtha's plan intentionally trying to endanger the troops? George W. Bush had four years to run the war exactly as he liked, with no Congressional oversight and no restrictions on funding. Look where it's gotten us. Republicans broke the military and lost the war. The last thing Democrats need to do is to throw our hapless Commander-in-Chief a life raft.

Hillary's Stalking Horse Leaves the Field

Having served his none-too-subtle role in the grand scheme of the 2OO8 presidential competition -- keeping as many Iowa Democrats as possible "locked up" until New York Senator Hillary Clinton got her campaign up and running in the first caucus state -- former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack today announced his exit from the race for the Democratic nomination.

Vilsack launched his run early and made as much noise as could be expected from a nowhere-in-the-polls candidate with a vague message and even vaguer hopes of raising the funds needed to mount a truly national campaign. But his brief candidacy -- which was quietly advised and encouraged by Democratic strategists with long and close ties to the Clinton camp -- never really amounted to much more than a blocking move for the New York senator with whom he worked closely as a leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council centrist.

For his trouble, the Iowan will earn a little bit of speculation about his vice presidential prospects -- nil. And, if Clinton actually wins the presidency, about his Cabinet prospects -- pretty good, if he's willing to settle for Secretary of Agriculture; a bit slimmer if he wants something muscular like Energy.

From the start, Vilsack's job was to present himself as a respectable alternative to the other Democratic candidates who, while he would go nowhere in states other than Iowa, could remain in the running with his fellow Hawkeyes until it was time to get out of Clinton's way.

Even that modest task proven difficult.

Iowa Democrats never took Vilsack's candidacy all that seriously. The latest Strategic Vision survey of potential Democratic caucus goers had former North Carolina Senator John Edwards at 24 percent, Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama each at 18 percent, and Vilsack with 14 percent.

That's consistent with other polls. It is consistent, as well, with the reaction of key Democrats in Iowa, who dismissed Vilsack's candidacy as they rushed to jump aboard other bandwagons. After Obama officially announced his candidacy earlier this month, two of Iowa's most prominent Democratic officials, Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald, endorsed the Illinoisan.

And Edwards has a grassroots operation in the state that borrows far deeper into most Democratic precincts than that of Vilsack, who quickly came to understand that the definitional phrase in the term "former governor" is "former."

Had the 2OO8 race begun more slowly, Vilsack might have had a better run. The original plan was for Clinton launch her campaign at the relatively leisurely pace of a clear front runner. With that in mind, Clintonites quietly encouraged Vilsack to get in the race early and to run hard -- in order to prevent the Edwards campaign from gaining too much of a lead in the essential first-caucus state.

But Obama changed everything. After achieving superstar status on the fall 2OO6 campaign trail for Democrats around the country, the senator made it clear in early January that he intended to seek the party's presidential nod. That forced Clinton to move her schedule forward and to hightail it into Iowa in order to counter the Obama surge.

Clinton's moves were smart, and effective. She's holding her own in a state where it was thought she would have a hard time. But the former First Lady's fast start turned Vilsack's candidacy into little more than an annoyance. There was no longer a need to have a homeboy candidate keep Iowa's county chairs on the sidelines -- either backing their former governor or at least refusing to make endorsements that might embarrass him. In fact, Vilsack was in the way. Whatever money might have slid into his campaign accounts from DLC-tied donors dried up, and the Clintonistas who had been giving him encouragement were now encouraging him to quit the race and let Hillary grab up as many of his Iowa backers as possible.

Not without an ego, Vilsack tried to pump some energy into his flagging campaign by moving left. The man who chaired the DLC for most of the past two years suddenly abandoned the group's modestly pro-war approach to the Iraq imbroglio and started talking about the need to bring the troops home. But, as the Hotline political wire noted this week, "Even Vilsack's anti-Iraq war message fell on deaf blogger ears."

After this week's Nevada forum for the Democratic presidential candidates, the Daily Kos savaged the Iowan's response to the question: What have you done to end the war?

"What has Vilsack done to end this war?" asked Kos. "[Where] was he the last few years? Well, for one, he was chair of the Democratic Leadership Council between 2005-2007. ... Of course, the DLC has been a haven for pro-war Democratic warmongers, and has been used by the media to paint a picture of a divided party."

Ouch.

So Vilsack's out. As Des Moines Register political writer David Yepson correctly notes, "Vilsack's departure does little to change the nature of the national race -- he was getting less than 1 percent in the polls."

Even In Iowa, Vilsack's exit will mean only a little.

A few savvy staffers will be freed up for hire by the other campaigns, and grassroots Dems who remained with Vilsack will now be getting calls from Clinton, Obama, Edwards and others. And Vilsack? He'll talk about keeping his options open for awhile. But watch for him to eventually join the Clinton camp that he never really left.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

PJ O'Rourke Does Adam Smith

Yesterday I was invited to attend a fundraiser for the CATO Institute with special guest PJ O'Rourke who is on a book tour for his new book, which is a pretty ingenious idea. He basically slogged his way through the entirety of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (a book I've tried to read numerous times with no success) and then wrote a kind of digest/rumination.

Because I'm an idiot, I misread the invitation and came late, which meant I missed the free lunch (further proving Milton Friedman's famous dictum on the matter), but was able to catch O'Rourke's talk. It was pretty standard libertarian fare. But two things struck me. One, I may be totally biased here, but I think it's far more mainstream in conservative circles to compare Democrats to evil, odious figures than it is on the center-left.

At one point O'Rourke said, Smith's lesson was that either you have unfettered free trade of goods and services or you start meddling in trades and you have, and I quote, "North Korea and Nancy Pelosi." Big laugh. I'm trying to come up with an equivalent statement that would have been said at, say, a Center for American Progress fundraiser. "Either you regulate markets to enforce some moral order or you get Tom Delay and slave ships"? That's not quite right, but even so, I can't imagine it getting uttered at a CAP function.

Also, there's something just maddeningly condescending about the rhetoric of libertarianism and-free market orthodoxy. Time and time again O'Rourke made the point that politicians, specifically, Democrats, "don't understand" Smith in particular and markets in general. There was never any consideration that perhaps people understand Smith and markets, they just have different value judgments about relative trade-offs of equity and efficiency, or -- gasp! -- a more sophisticated understandings of the complexity of markets, market failure and political economy than some conservative humorist who sat down and read a really long book.