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The Nation

Big Brother's Little Brother

Six months ago, The Nation published The Dictionary of Republicanisms, a guide to the Orwellian phrases the Republicans have introduced into American politics. And it seems like every week since then they keep adding new ones. This week's winner is The Terrorist Surveillance Act. Last week's was trolling.

Yes, last Thursday the country experienced an uncomfortable moment when the President of the United States reassured us that the government was not "trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." Apparently W's speech writing staff doesn't know that trolling is slang for an older gay man cruising for anonymous sex with younger men.

The White House defense for the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Act, its defense for coercing the phone companies into giving up millions of Americans phone records is that they are trolling the "logs," not listening to the content. If you believe that I suggest you pepper your telephone conversations with the Arabic phrase for "Allah is great" and see how you're treated at airport security.

The Senate has the opportunity to rebuke the president for this warrantless wiretapping by rejecting the man who oversaw the program, General Michael Hayden. If they do not, they will see how much luck they have trolling for votes next November.

To read excerpts from The Dictionary of Republicanisms click here, here, and here.

Cheney's Oily Interests

Wondering why Vice-President Dick Cheney recently played footsie with Kazakhstan's autocratic leader--an oil-rich president with an awful human rights record whose recent re-election was fraudulent? (Hey, sounds sort of familiar.) No, it wasn't because Cheney wanted to mimic his boss, who recently received another oil-rich autocrat--the president of Azerbaijan--in the White House. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Cheney used to occupy a cushy seat on Kazakh's Oil Advisory Board? (Did anyone see this in coverage of the Vice-President's trip?) As reported by Mark Ames in the June 2003 issue of The Exile, Cheney was a member of that board in 2001 and advised Bush to "deepen [our] commercial dialogue with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Caspian states." On this trip, he pronounced himself to be "delighted" to be a guest of the Kazakh president, adding that the United States "is proud to be your strategic partner" and looks forward "to continued friendship between us."

Speak for yourself and your oily interests, Mr Cheney, not for the millions of Americans who still seek a moral compass in our politics.

FBI Said to Seek Phone Records of Reporters

On an evening when every politician in the Washington was trooping in front of the television cameras to add their commentary to the slurry of blather that is the immigration "debate," and most Washington reporters were trying to figure out whether White House political czar Karl Rove will be indicted this week, little attention went to what could turn out to be the most significant story of the day.

But as journalists wake up to the fact that they have apparently become the latest targets of the Bush-Cheney administration's abusive eavesdropping, that should change.

According to ABC News, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been quietly going after the phone records of news reporters as part of its investigations of leaks of information of government employees.

An entry posted Monday evening on The Blotter, an ABC News blog, by investigative reporters Brian Ross and Richard Esposito, reports that, "The FBI acknowledged late Monday that it is increasingly seeking reporters' phone records in leak investigations. 'It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration,' said a senior federal official."

The report by Ross and Esposito, respected journalists with solid sources in the law enforcement community, continued:

FBI officials did not deny that phone records of ABC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post had been sought as part of a investigation of leaks at the CIA.

In a statement, the FBI press office said its leak investigations begin with the examination of government phone records.

"The FBI will take logical investigative steps to determine if a criminal act was committed by a government employee by the unauthorized release of classified information," the statement said.

Officials say that means that phone records of reporters will be sought if government records are not sufficient.

Officials say the FBI makes extensive use of a new provision of the Patriot Act which allows agents to seek information with what are called National Security Letters (NSL).

The NSLs are a version of an administrative subpoena and are not signed by a judge. Under the law, a phone company receiving a NSL for phone records must provide them and may not divulge to the customer that the records have been given to the government.

Monday evening's report from Ross and Esposito followed their revelation earlier in the day that they had been told by "a senior federal law enforcement official" that the government is monitoring phone calls they and other journalists are making in order to identify confidential sources.

Ross and Esposito wrote in their mid-day Monday entry on the ABC News blog that:

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

If these reports are accurate -- and Ross and Esposito have a solid record of getting things right -- it does not require much of an imagination to determine what has transpired.

Any serious discussion will turn, for reasons hardly unreasonable considering recent revelations regarding this White House's disregard for the rule of law, to the question of whether a frustrated Bush-Cheney administration is seeking the phone records of journalists not merely to identify leakers but to thwart the sort of whistle blowing that has embarrassed the president and vice president by linking them to warrantless wiretapping, rendition of prisoners, the defense of torture, the distribution of classified information in order to punish political critics and other abuses of power.

If the administration has begun reviewing the telephone calls of reporters not to catch lawbreakers but to prevent revelations of its own lawlessness, then this White House has strayed onto dangerous political turf.

To be sure, the Bush-Cheney administration would not be the first to go after journalists in order to protect itself from challenges to its authority. President John Adams actually jailed editorial critics in the early days of the Republic, provoking the crisis that would make him the first president to be defeated for reelection. President Richard Nixon produced an "enemies list" that included the names of prominent journalists such as Daniel Schorr.

This could mark a turning point for the usually pliant Washington press corps, however.

White House reporters are by any measure a docile lot, and there is no question that the Bush-Cheney administration has benefited tremendously from the frequently stenographic reporting of even its most outlandish spin by unquestioning national correspondents -- two words: "Judith Miller." But it is difficult to imagine, especially with the approval ratings for the president and vice president dipping to depths previously explored only by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in their darkest days of their diminishing power, that Washington reporters will take kindly to being spied on by an administration bent to shutting up confidential sources.

It is, of course, true that members of the White House press corps should not need a threat to their own privacy -- not to mention their most vital sources of honest information -- to be inspired to practice their craft as the founders intended. But the track record of the past several years indicates that a jolt of some kind was needed. Let's just hope that the reporters who cover Bush and Cheney will prove to be self-serving enough to now begin taking on an administration that appears to be bent on silencing the whistleblowers who are so necessary to the telling of the full story of what this White House is doing in our name but without our informed consent.

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John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy (The New Press).

Heckuva Job, Dubya

Let's get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office.His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.

The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the President's right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the President were being honest, the newly mobilized troops would be taken off the Federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.

They certainly aren't going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans, and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job. (Click here to read the entire after-the-speech reaction on MarcCooper.com).

Here's what I wrote earlier today in the run-up to the speech:

While simultaneously trying to appease his own right and pushing a comprehensive reform program right over their heads, in his speech to the nation on immigration tonight Bush can be expected to tear immigration baby right into two.

While the details of Bush's speech cannot all be anticipated, what we know in advance is that he's going to satisfy nobody.

It now seems certain he's going to talk tough and announce he's sending "troops to the border"--National Guard troops. This part of the speech aims at staunching the political erosion on his right, the ongoing slippage of his own conservative base increasingly convinced that Old George has capitulated to blue-helmeted globalists and is conspiring with Vicente Fox to give the southwest back to Mexico.

But Bush will really be engaging in some sleight-of-hand. Anyone who thinks that as a result of the President's order there are soon going to be US troops with weapons in their hands standing steely guard on la linea is going to be very, very disappointed. The new infusion of Guardsmen, if it happens at all, will mostly mean the "troops" taking over some desk jobs and some technical chores, thereby freeing up more Border Patrol agents to run up and down the ravines of Arizona chasing our future cooks and bottle-washers. Some of the guard but might have an expanded role in surveillance as well; but make no mistake, there will be no phalanx of troops on the border. There's also the question of what sort of deployment takes place if the governors of New Mexico and California--as they have indicated--might oppose the measure.

So when it comes to the restrictionist right-wing and the hard-liners in the House that the President is now trying to appease, all Bush is going to do is tease them and eventually further tick them off.

The second part of his speech, we think, will be some sort of an endorsement of comprehensive immigration reform (a guest worker program and perhaps some sort of path to legalization for the undocumented already here). This is aimed at appeasing more liberalish reformers and at supporting--at least vaguely--the bill now expected to emerge from the Senate. Well, Bush might say enough to give cover to the more recalcitrant GOPers in the upper house who are only reluctantly going along with a reform bill, but you can also be sure that he's going to further cloud up the sensitive issue of legalization and of expanded legal immigration. At best it's going to be a back-handed endorsement from the president.

You can also expect that a large part of the reform coalition--the liberals, the Democrats, and the unions--are going to take the Prez at his word and be mighty worked up over the thought of unleashing the military on the border (even if that is not exactly what's going to happen). I can't imagine any lovefest from the left around Bush because of the coming speech.

When the dust clears, we might be closer to a Senate bill but I hardly see any resolution of the immigration or border issue coming out of this.

Lucky for the President, in many ways, that immigration has been such a back-burner issue until just a handful of weeks ago--a complex matter to which most people have paid scant attention (at least to the details). Bush's leadership on this has really been grossly incompetent and irresponsible.

The irony is that it is he, the President, who pushed this matter to national attention to begin with. Coming into office in 2001, he implied that making a deal with Mexico was his top foreign policy priority. After 9/11 blew that away, Bush came back to the issue a second time, citing a guest worker program as one of his priorities in his 2004 state of the union address.

And then, after once igniting the debate--one that turned quite conflictive this Spring--Bush ducked and covered, basically going MIA. Now that the debate is simmering, with mass mobilizations of immigrants, a Senate racing to catch up, a House mired in bumper-sticker solutions, Minutemen stealing headlines, and his own Republican Party split right up the middle on the matter, the President--very belatedly--plans to make this a dramatic, prime-time issue. The sure bet is that 24 hours from now, after his speech, the issue will be only more confused. I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think so.

Asking Rove One Question

I knew what not to ask Karl Rove: Are you about to be indicted in the CIA leak case?

His answer would be predictable: My lawyer has asked me not to discuss the investigation while it is still ongoing.

But he had just finished a speech on economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute--the hotbed of prowar neoconservatism--and during the Q&A period none of the reporters were addressing the big elephant in the room: the recent chatter in Washington--fueled in part by Rove's recent return to the grand jury room (for his fifth appearance)--that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was getting closer to indicting George W. Bush's master strategist.

I've been trying not to be drawn into the rumor vortex. (A friend emailed to say that a lawyer involved in the leak case speculated that Rove would be indicted this coming Friday.) But a pending indictment--or non-indictment--has been the talk of the town. Still, there was Rove mouthing White House talking points on how swell the economy is, and a roomful of reporters (and lobbyists and policy wonks) were not addressing what was on the mind of many. After all, who yearns to hear Rove explain why the Bush administration is the model of fiscal responsibility?

So I raised my hand.

To his credit, Christopher DeMuth, the president of AEI, called on me. (Introducing Rove, DeMuth had hailed his "strength of character," his "disciplined serenity," and his refusal to complain about the "flagrant unfairness" of the attacks levied upon him.) But as DeMuth was surveying the crowd at the AEI's conference room, Rove jokingly asked him not to call on John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and then, as DeMuth pointed at yours truly, Rove said, "Don't call on him either."

The microphone was handed to me. "Too late," I said to Rove, and I put a simple query to the man:

On a different subject, Scott McClellan told the White House press corps--many are here today--that he had spoken to you and you were not involved in the CIA leak. Can you explain why the American public...two and a half years later hasn't been given an explanation? Don't you think it deserves one, for it does seem that you were to some degree--though it may be disputed--involved in that leak?

Rove replied:

My attorney, Mr. [Robert] Luskin, made a statement on April 26. I refer you to that statement. I have nothing new to add to it.

Then, with a half-smile on his face, he added,

Nice try, though.

That was it. (You can watch the exchange here.) I hardly expected him to provide a responsive answer. But didn't somebody have to take a swing?

Of course, the statement Luskin released had nothing to do with this question. Luskin had declared that Rove "is not a target of the investigation. Mr. Fitzgerald has affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges."

I wasn't asking if Rove was a target or on the edge of being indicted. I was wondering if he had told the truth to McClellan and why the Bush White House has been unwilling to explain why it falsely denied Rove and Scooter Libby's participation in the leak. Lying to the public is generally not a crime. And Fitzgerald's probe--which is geared solely toward investigating possible crimes and determining if a criminal case can be made--is not designed to examine non-criminal falsehoods. It is not Fitzgerald's task to lay out for the American public the truth about the leak and to reveal what happened within the White House. That is--or ought to be--Bush's responsibility. But neither he nor Rove--nor anyone else connected to the administration--seems interested in meeting that obligation.

After Rove's non-response to my question, no other reporter asked about the leak case. They focused on economics, immigration, and the president's low numbers. (Rove noted that the main problem is that the public likes Bush the man but it just doesn't fancy his war in Iraq. How inconvenient.) But after the event was done, there was much dissecting of Rove's state of mind. Did he seem nervous? Anxious? Was this speech--a policy speech--a sign that he was still handling policy in the White House even though the policy brief was officially ripped from him in the recent White House staff shuffle? (The speech introduced no new policy notions; it was almost entirely a defense of Bush's tax cuts, his trade policies, and his stewardship of the federal budget.) That is, no one cared that much what Rove really had to say--other than, perhaps, what he said during the Q&A about politics. (The GOPers will do fine in November, polls are just polls, the Dems have nothing to run on, etc.) They were mostly there to watch and read between the rhetoric.

Rove was on display--which was the point, given Fitzgerald's never-ending probe and the changes at the White House. Perhaps it was indeed merely a "nice try" to address the real issue at hand. But if any indictment does come--and I'm not saying that it will--Rove's you-can't-touch-me dodge-with-a-grin will sure make good footage for the news shows.

Crybaby Conservatives

As George W. Bush's poll numbers plummet, influential conservatives have diagnosed the cause of his misery: he's not conservative enough.

Bush is just a softy moderate masquerading as a right-wing Christian. He won't push hard for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He won't send illegal immigrants back across the border. He's never met a spending bill he didn't like.

"I can't tell you how much anger there is at the Republican leadership," direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie told The New York Times today. "I have never seen anything like it."

This not-conservative-enough claim is revisionist history at its most absurd. Yes, Bush has spent recklessly, compromised on immigration and flip-flopped on nation-building. But he is where he is today precisely because he listened to the conservative movement too often. He let neocons hijack our country's foreign policy. He let oil execs determine our energy policy. He appointed two Supreme Court justices beloved by the religious right. He gave Grover Norquist virtually every tax cut he wanted. He used a so-called "base strategy" to win re-election.

Bush is the farthest right president in recent memory--and possibly ever. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush raised taxes. Richard Nixon created the EPA. Dwight Eisenhower took on the military-industrial complex.

So forgive me, James Dobson, but I don't feel your pain. According to his spokesman, Dobson is "on a fact-finding trip to see where Republicans are regarding the issues that concern values voters most."

Maybe he can search for those missing WMDs in Iraq.

Kaiser Kidney Fiasco Part II

Last week I wrote about the Los Angeles Times smart piece of investigative journalism on Kaiser Permanente's troubled kidney transplant program in California.

As a result of the work done by reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, the California Department of Managed Health Care has intervened to demand that Kaiser pay for transplants at established hospitals if its patients elect to transfer to other programs. "Let me put it this way, [Kaiser] will do what the patients want them to do," Cindy Ehnes, director of the department told the LA Times.

Yesterday, Kaiser made a public apology and confirmed that it has agreed to the terms described by Ehnes.

Kaiser is not out of the woods yet. Two patients and the widow of a third have filed suit against the HMO as a result of botched paperwork and unnecessary delays that harmed treatment. In all, the treatment of up to 1,500 patients suffered due to Kaiser's forcing them out of established hospitals, denying kidney transplants that were available at other institutions, or botching paperwork so patients were stuck in limbo between programs.

The LA Times points out in an editorial that more oversight is still needed, and that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could go a long way towards getting that done.

In the mean time, however, here's to the great work done by two sharp reporters and a regulatory agency with teeth.

Foucault on The West Wing

Illegal wire-tapping, millions of civilian telephone records turned over to the NSA, National Guard troops "temporarily" deployed on the Mexican border, "extraordinary rendition" of nameless suspects, "detainees" imprisoned in Guantanamo without due process, a limitless war on terror, an "axis of evil" -- sounds like the President has been reading Michel Foucault's Society Must Be Defended, a series of lectures given at the College de France that reverses Clausewitz's famous aphorism and explores how "politics is war continued by other means."

That President, however, is not George W. Bush. He's Democrat Josiah Barlet, who departed The West Wing after two terms, seven seasons and a raft of Emmy nominations. Yes, in last night's series finale, observant viewers spotted Foucault's book among President Barlet's private possessions.

I'll leave it to TV critics to debate what this might signify. But note to the real Prez in case he decides to take the lead of his fictional counterpart and, uh, read: Though Society Must Be Defended "deals with the emergence...of a new understanding of war as the permanent basis of all institutions of power," it is not a how-to manual.

Prime Time Bush Bull

What will Bush really mean by sending "troops to the border" as anticipated in his Monday night speech on immigration. Probably a lot less than what it is implied as I explain here.

But it's going to be a bloody mess anyway. As Bush tries to appease his right flank while simultaneously pandering to the more moderate reformers in his own party, he's likely to tear that immigration baby right in half.

Those pushing for reform are likely to be dissatisfied with what will probably be at most a back-handed endorsement from the President. The Minuteman Right, meanwhile, is going to be even more irked when it learns that all those troops heading to la linea are most likely to wind up as glorified desk jockeys.