Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.
I just posted this at www.davidcorn.com....
Last week, I suggested that Scooter Libby might be trying to orchestrate a "graymail" defense--which is based on the implied threat of blowing national security secrets. That's being a patriot, right? It seems that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald believes this is what Libby is up to. In a filing Fitzgerald submitted to the court this week (which was released today), Fitzgerald opposed Libby's demand that Fitzgerald somehow force the CIA and White House to release classified information that is tangential to Libby's defense against the charge he lied too FBI agents and Fitzgerald's grand jury. Here's an excerpt from Fitzgerald's filing:
Libby requests copies of all Presidential Daily Briefs ("PDBs"), as well as all documents provided to Mr. Libby or the Vice President in connection with such briefings (or in response to any questions Mr Libby asked) for a period of nearly eleven months. The PDB is provided to the President and Vice President each day of the week other than Sunday. While employed at the White House, Libby was provided the PDB (in addition to supplemental materials provided to him and the Vice President) six days per week, sometimes in the presence of the Vice President.
The defendant's request to compel the production of approximately 277 PDBs from May 6, 2003 through March 24, 2004 to establish his "preoccupation defense" is nothing short of breathtaking. As the defendant well knows, the PDB is an extraordinarily sensitive document which implicates very serious concerns about both classified information and executive privilege. When President Bush declassified and made available a portion of the August 6, 2001, PDB discussing Usama Bin Laden in conjunction with the work of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more commonly known as the "9/11 Commission," it apparently marked the first time that a sitting President has made a PDB publicly available.
The defendant's effort to make history in this case by seeking 277 PDBs in discovery -- for the sole purpose of showing that he was "preoccupied" with other matters when he gave testimony to the grand jury -- is a transparent effort at "greymail." A similar effort was rejected in George where a former CIA Deputy Director of Operations tried to grant himself de facto immunity by demanding access to materials so sensitive as to preclude prosecution if disclosure were required.
Fitzgerald 32-page response whacks Libby's request in other ways. It's quite a smack-down. Fitzgerald continues to insist this is a simple case: did Libby lie to FBI agents and his grand jury. Libby is trying to drag other issues into the picture--what damage was done by the Plame leak, what top-secret stuff he was working on at the time of the leak, whether Dick Cheney authorized him to leak intelligence information, and so on. Any bets on how ugly this might get? Or is Libby's legal posse just blowing smoke at the outset?
THIS JUST IN: Harry Whittington suffered a minor heart attack on Tuesday morning due to bird shot from Cheney's gun that migrated into his heart. Click here.
I posted this first at www.davidcorn.com....
Kudos to my friend Ken Bazinet, a White House correspondent for the New York Daily News. Yesterday, I was wondering whether Cheney had obtained the proper hunting license before going off to hunt quail and shoot a buddy. It turns out he had not. And Bazinet seems to have confirmed this first. At least, he's the first reporter I've seen who has the story. Read about it here. He wrote:
Vice President Cheney had no license to kill--quail, that is.
After the White House reluctantly conceded yesterday that it sat on the blockbuster news that Cheney shot a hunting buddy Saturday, the veep's office revealed he didn't even have the proper $7 stamp on his hunting license to shoot quail in Texas.
"The staff asked for all permits needed, but was not informed of the $7 upland game-bird stamp requirement," Cheney's office said in a statement last night.
Although he was hunting illegally when he blasted Austin millionaire Harry Whittington, Cheney will get off with a warning from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, his office said.
Cheney and Bush sure know how to succeed despite breaking or bending the rules. Bush had one DWI; Cheney had two. Bush went MIA in the National Guard; Cheney took five military deferments. This is a rules-don't-matter duo, a shoot-and-don't-tell couple. Kids, pay attention, you can mess up and still become millionaire-leaders of the free world.
These past two days it sure has seemed that Scott McClellan has not enjoyed working for Bush and Cheney. He faced a fusillade of questions yesterday and refused to give a straightforward accounting of why it took so long to disclose the hunting accident. It didn't take much imagination to suspect that Cheney and/or the White House initially considered hiding the event from the press and the public. Today, McClellan relied on one of his favorite evasive maneuvers. When reporters asked him to address remaining questions, he said (repeatedly), "we went through that yesterday." Actually, he had not. That's why these queries were being hurled at him today. But he often resorts to this dodge. I'm guessing he thinks it might cause some of the viewing public to think that the reporters are piling on. ("Oh, that poor Scotty McClellan. Look at that; those nasty reporters are asking him question he's already answered.")
Before the reporters today could finish hurling questions that would not be answered by McClellan, he called a halt to the press briefing, noting, "it's time to focus on the priorities of the American people." Perhaps he had in mind the war that most Americans no longer believe was worth it.
McClellan is a puppet, a beard. He's fronting for others. Still, he keeps generating his own credibility problem. (Remember when he said that neither Karl Rove nor Scooter Libby were involved in the CIA leak?) It may seem that White House reporters give him a tough time on occasions such as these. But it's not nearly as tough as he deserves. The journos at 1600 Pennsylvania ought to consider guerilla action of some sort. For instance, if McClellan won't answer a question, then every reporter in the room ought to ask it--one after another. Politely. It would be an I-am-Spartacus moment. But given the needs and personalities of White House reporters, orchestrating something like that would be akin to getting a covey of quail to sit still for a vice president.
Meanwhile, why won't Cheney be a man and stop hiding behind McClellan? He should hold a press conference and announce he will answer every question about the hunting accident. Let's see if he has the chutzpah to blame Harry Whittington for having gotten in the way of his shot, as some Cheney comrades have already done. As the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department points out on its website, "The primary reason for Texas hunting accidents remains swinging on game outside a safe zone of fire. This happens when a person points a firearm at another hunter while following a moving target, such as a flying game bird." That sure seems a reasonable explanation for why Whittington ended up with a face full of pellets. Texas PWD spokesman Tom Harvey tells me that there is no state law that compels the investigation of hunting accidents that don't produce a dead body. Most accidents are reported voluntarily, says Harvey, who as of Tuesday had received about 200 calls from various media outfits. And there is no punitive action for accidents that involve no criminal wrongdoing. The errant hunter can get a license next time. (Quails of Texas, watch out for the return of Cheney.) But there is a health and safety law that requires doctors to report gunshot wounds.
So with no official investigation under way, there's no reason why Cheney cannot come before the press, sit in front of a blackboard, and explain all. I'm not sure if real men hunt. But real men do take responsibility for their actions.
Will Scooter Libby, a neocon who helped orchestrate the war in Iraq, end up graymailing the US government?
That seems to be one of the strategies being considered by the lawyers defending Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who was indicted by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the CIA leak case for lying to FBI investigators and grand jurors to cover up his (and possibly Cheney's) participation in the outing of CIA officer Valerie Wilson (née Plame).
Graymail is a defense gambit not available to most criminal suspects. But years ago defense attorneys representing clients connected to the national security establishment--say, a former CIA employee gone bad--figured out a way to squeeze the government in order to win the case: Claim you need access to loads of classified information in order to mount a defense--more than might truly be necessary. Of course, the government is going to put up a fight. It may release some information--but not everything a thorough defense attorney will say is needed. The goal is to get the government to say no to the informant. Then the defense attorney can attempt to convince the judge that without access to this material he or she cannot put up an adequate defense. If the lawyer succeeds, it's case dismissed. In such situations, the defendant is essentially saying, Prosecute me and I'll blow whatever government secrets I can. Isn't that the act of a patriot?
Judges tend to dislike graymailers and shoot them down whenever possible. Still, Libby seems close to making this sort of push. Last week, his attorneys asked for access to ten months' worth of the President's Daily Brief, the highly classified report the President receives each morning from the CIA. (The Bush White House is ferociously possessive about PDBs and has refused to hand them over to Congressional investigations.) Libby's lawyers say that Libby "was immersed throughout the relevant period in urgent and sensitive matters, some literally matters of life and death" and that because of his involvement in "the constant rush of more pressing matters, any errors he made in his FBI interviews or grand jury testimony" were unintentional slips. Libby, a lawyer himself, has to realize that (a) Fitzgerald does not have it within his power to provide the requested PDBs and (b) the overly secretive, presidential-prerogative-is-us White House in which Libby served will never cough up nearly a year of PDBs. But in a display of chutzpah, Libby's attorneys said that Fitzgerald should obtain copies of the PDB from the CIA and Cheney's office and then turn them over to Libby's lawyers.
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Libby's defense team also requested information proving that Valerie Wilson was a classified CIA employee (asserting that the classified nature of her employment at the CIA has not yet been established), and they demanded any CIA damage assessment of the Plame leak. A damage assessment is not the sort of material the agency would supply without a titanic fight. A damage assessment would presumably cover operations and activities the CIA does not want damaged any further by additional disclosure.
These requests seem part of a try-everything defense. How effective will it be for Libby to argue, I didn't tell the truth because I was really busy with affairs of state? (Perhaps Libby is trying to blaze a legal trail for others.) After all, according to Fitzgerald's indictment of Libby, he did not merely get the facts wrong once or twice. It happened in the course of several different interviews--during which Libby consistently told the same (cover?) story: He did not know that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA until reporters told him, and then he merely passed along this unconfirmed gossip to other reporters. Fitzgerald's indictment cites several instances in which Libby obtained or sought information on Valerie Wilson through official channels before he spoke to reporters about her. And the damage assessment issue is no slam-dunk for the defense. Can Libby's defense be that if there was not much damage, then it was okay for him to make false statements purposefully to the FBI and the grand jury?
But Libby may not stop at PDBs, the CIA damage assessment and information pertaining to Valerie Wilson. His lawyer said they might seek other classified records from the State Department, the National Security Council and the Office of the President. And last week, Ted Wells, one of Libby's attorneys, said that "thousands and thousands and thousands" of pages of evidence have been withheld by Fitzgerald. The special counsel disagreed. By the way, Fitzgerald recently sent a letter to Libby's defense team noting, "In an abundance of caution, we advise you that we have learned that not all e-mail of the Office of the Vice President and the Executive Office of the President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system." Hmmmm. The White House has lost chunks of e-mail from Cheney's and Bush's offices for 2003, the year Bush invaded Iraq, the year of the CIA leak. Must just be an accident, right?
Meanwhile, on other fronts, Libby and the White House received good news and bad news. Libby and GOPers had reason to be pleased when Judge Reggie Walton set a trial date for next January--which would push the trial of Cheney's former chief of staff beyond the Congressional elections. Walton had originally wanted the trial--which could include the spectacle of Dick Cheney taking the stand--in September, but Libby's team asked to push it back, claiming one of his attorneys had a scheduling conflict. (Other good news for Libby and his legal warriors: A Libby defense fund, chaired by Mel Sembler, a former finance chairman of the Republican Party, has raised $2 million for Libby's legal bills. Members of the fund's steering committee include former GOP Senators Fred Thompson and Alan Simpson, former CIA director R. James Woolsey and former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.)
The bad news for Libby and Republicans was the release of previously withheld court records that indicate the case against Libby may be stronger than Fitzgerald's indictment suggested. These records, referring to grand jury testimony, reveal more details of Libby's alleged lying to investigators and a grand jury. They also suggest that Cheney may play a significant role in the trial. In his grand jury testimony, Libby said that when news accounts of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger first emerged, it was Cheney who told Libby "in an off sort of curiosity sort of fashion" that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, which is part of the agency's clandestine service. Libby's use of this clumsy term--an off sort of curiosity sort of fashion--is intriguing. Is it credible that when Cheney was talking to his chief of staff about a fellow who was telling reporters he could prove the Bush Administration had misled the nation about the case for war in Iraq that Cheney would do so in an offhand manner?
These newly released records disclose that former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer told Fitzgerald's grand jury that he had a lunch with Libby during which Libby told him that Wilson's wife did counterproliferation work at the CIA and that this information was "hush-hush." Fleischer described the lunch as "kind of weird." Usually, Libby "operated in a very closed-lip fashion," Fleischer said. But in this instance, it seems, he was trying to spread information that could be used against a White House critic.
The court records also show that Fitzgerald--despite what Libby's attorneys have claimed--have already demonstrated to the courts overseeing the case that Valerie Wilson was an undercover CIA officer. In a filing to the court, Fitzgerald reported that Valerie Wilson is "a person whose identity the CIA was making specific efforts to conceal and who had carried out covert work overseas within the last 5 years."
Libby is certainly not doing all he can to help Fitzgerald get to the bottom of the leak case, as Bush once ordered all White House aides to do. In fact, Libby is fighting back, as is his right, as hard as he can, and his friends are supportive--and perhaps grateful. After all, Libby is not rolling over on Cheney, Rove or anyone else. No wonder he was a welcomed guest at Cheney's Christmas party in December.
For George W. Bush, at least. In this year's State of the Union address, Bush led with his weakness--the Iraq War--and stuck to the un-nuanced and bold (if misleading) assertions he has used to justify the war and to argue for staying the course, his course.
After speaking of the death of Coretta Scott King (in which he endorsed the notion of heaven by speaking of her "reunion" with her husband), calling for preserving a "civil tone" in the "tough debates" of Washington (this from the man who during the 2002 campaign claimed the Democrats "were not interested in the security of the American people") and referring to September 11 (suggesting that it was the lack of democracy in Afghanistan that brought "murder and destruction to our country"), Bush launched into his standard comic-book defense of the war on Iraq. To protect America, he explained, the United States must fight for freedom and democracy in Iraq and elsewhere. (WMDs in Iraq? Whoever said anything about WMDs in Iraq?) "We do not forget," Bush said, the people who live in undemocratic "Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Iran." He did not include China in this list. And in Iraq, he continued, "terrorists like bin Laden...aim to seize power" and use Iraq as a "safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world." He added, "A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison...[and] put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country."
This is--to be polite--an absurd analysis. The insurgency, as even Bush has noted in other speeches, is mainly made up of rejectionists and Baathist remnants. Islamic terrorists are a fraction. They are fighting the United States more than they are fighting to take over Iraq. Moreover, these foreign jihadists are hardly in a position to "seize power" in Iraq. The dominant (Iran-backed) Shiite theocrats now in control are unlikely to let that happen, and they have militias of their own. But Bush depicted the mess in Iraq as an us-against-Al Qaeda clash. That is disingenuous and ignores the harsh realities and policy dilemmas created by the rise in sectarian violence in Iraq.
After laying out a false white-hat/black-turban dichotomy, Bush turned into a cheerleader. "We love our freedom, and we will fight to keep it," he intoned. There can be no "retreating within our borders.... There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat.... The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil." Get the picture? And, interestingly, he equated disengagement in Iraq with "isolationism" several times in the speech. (Did a new memo come in from the pollsters?)
After rallying the public with his Americans-don't-retreat cry, he vowed he had a "clear plan for victory." He did not say when the clarity of that victory will become apparent. But he claimed, "We are winning." He did not--to borrow a term fancied by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--offer any "metrics" for supporting this claim. Then came the inevitable we-must-support-the-troops rationale for sticking with the war. And Bush pointed out the parents and widow of Marine Staff Sgt. Dan Clay, who was killed last month in Falluja. They were sitting behind Laura Bush in the balcony. A bipartisan, standing ovation ensued. Was this a moment of genuine respect for the family of a fallen soldier? Was it a moment of exploitation, in which Bush was using their tragic, heart-wrenching sacrifice to prop up his war (which will produce other grieving parents and spouses)? The line between the two was thin.
When it came time to address his authorization of warrantless wiretaps, Bush was unapologetic and in-your-face. Staring at the members of the House and Senate before him--his voice rising--Bush defiantly defended what he called his "terrorist surveillance program." He suggested that if such a program had existed before 9/11 (when his Administration was proceeding slowly in devising a plan for dealing with Al Qaeda), perhaps the attack could have been prevented. (Prior to 9/11, the CIA and the FBI did have a bead on two of the hijackers, without having resorted to the use of warrantless eavesdropping, and failed to act until it was too late.) Becoming louder, Bush proclaimed, "If there are people inside our country who are talking with Al Qaeda, we want to know about it--because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again." Republicans jumped to their feet. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton smiled, perhaps in amazement at or appreciation of Bush's brazenness. In a classic Rove-ian maneuver, Bush was daring Democrats to come after him on this point. The not-too-hidden message: Go ahead, make my day; I'll shove this down your throats in the coming elections. As GOPers shouted their approval, that long-ago-banished smirk seemed to flash on Bush's face for an instant.
Bush does this sort of speechifying well. The sentiments and arguments are stark--easy to convey. But his defense of Iraq was nothing new. It's hard to imagine this rhetoric having much, if any, impact on public attitudes here or abroad. After nearly three years of war in Iraq, Bush's words matter little. The mess there will remain once the speech is done.
In his 2002 and 2003 State of the Union speeches, Bush telegraphed the invasion of Iraq. This time, even as he promoted a global crusade for democracy, he was less bellicose. (There's nothing like having an overextended and stretched-to-its-max military to moderate tough talk.) On Iran, Bush and his speechwriters (who went through thirty drafts of this not-so-monumental speech) showed they can learn from past mistakes. Unlike the 2003 State of the Union address--in which Bush presented the unconfirmed charge that Iraq had been uranium-shopping in Africa--Bush this time was more circumspect in decrying a foe. He said that the "Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions"--"ambitions" being a somewhat vague term. And he stayed clear of any details. He also told Iranians, "We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom." Could that be read as a pledge that he will not use military force to export freedom to Iran? (I hope a reporter asks Scott McClellan about this.)
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The domestic stuff was mostly the same-old/same-old. Make the tax cuts permanent. (Don't worry about the massive and structural deficit that is growing.) Cut programs. (No need to note that federal spending has ballooned under the gaze of Bush and Congressional Republicans.) On healthcare, he pushed Health Savings Account, an initiative that insurance companies support and that mainly addresses the needs of people who already can afford to buy health insurance. He declared America "is addicted to oil," urged a boost in nuclear energy and proposed a series of fine-sounding initiatives regarding alternative energy. (Look for the inevitable statements from alternative energy experts that will show that Bush's proposals are on the slim side.) He called for training 70,000 new teachers for advanced-placement courses in math and science in high schools--but said nothing about college education. (He certainly did not boast about the recent cuts in college funding.) When Bush turned to Social Security--a focus of last year's address--he essentially hoisted a white flag. "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security," he said, and Democrats began applauding and hooting. This was the closest the US Congress gets to question time in the British Parliament. Bush trudged on and called for creating a bipartisan commission to deal with the long-term fiscal challenges posed by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. On the economy--no shocker--he said all was swell and pointed out that in the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs. (His speechwriters left out this factoid: To keep up with population growth, the US economy needed to add between 4.5 and 5 million jobs in this period.)
Bush twice referred to Jackgate--the Congressional corruption scandal tied to felonious GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. First, he equated public concern "about unethical conduct by public officials" with worries about "activist courts that try to redefine marriage." Seriously, he did, suggesting a moral equivalency between sleazy and criminal lawmakers and judges who decide that state Constitutions require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Moments later, Bush offered the most benign comments on Jackgate a speechwriter could concoct: "A hopeful society expects elected officials to uphold the public trust. Honorable people in both parties are working on reforms to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington--and I support your efforts."
Commentators often complain when a SOTU comes across as a laundry list of overly hyped proposals meant to cover every area of policy known to Washington wonks. Bush certainly did not go overboard in this manner. Here is a partial list of subjects he did not have anything to say about: global warming, wage levels, missile defense, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, genocide in Sudan, torture, the mission to Mars (he promoted in SOTU 2004), the campaign against steroids (he promoted in SOTU 2004), Michael Brown and FEMA, and corporate responsibility.
At the end, Bush attempted a soaring-rhetoric finale. He equated his mission to change the world with the work of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, stating,
We have entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite.... [E]very great movement of history comes to a point of choosing. Lincoln could have accepted peace at the cost of disunity and continued slavery. Martin Luther King could have stopped at Birmingham or at Selma, and achieved only half a victory over segregation. The United States could have accepted the permanent division of Europe, and been complicit in the oppression of others. Today, having come far in our own historical journey, we must decide: Will we turn back, or finish well?
Such rhetoric sounds good. But does it have any real meaning? There was no way for King to have achieved "half a victory over segregation." What would that have looked like? Integrated buses, but segregated lunch counters? And, as critics of Yalta grouse, the United States did accept the division of Europe, at least for decades. (The alternative was probably war, perhaps nuclear war.) And the United States has been complicit in the "oppression of others" by supporting repressive regimes and brutal armies in such nations as Chile, South America, El Salvador, the Philippines, Argentina, Iran and Iraq.
"Before history is written down in books, it is written in courage," Bush declared. "Like Americans before us, we will show that courage and we will finish well." Written in courage--it's a nice notion. But can Bush persuade Americans to stick with him in Iraq (and elsewhere) by tossing out well-crafted and dramatic lines that seem suitable for a Mel Gibson historical epic and that are designed to appeal to cliche-driven sentiments? It is a simple plan--and perhaps the best he's got.
Imagine this: a drone launched from a ship off the Eastern coast of the United States fires a missile that destroys a neighborhood of Stamford, Connecticut. Another direct attack on America from a foreign enemy! The newspapers would cover the story on the front-page for days to come. It would be all over the cable shows. US officials would be bombarded with demands for answers.
Now consider the CIA's recent attack on the Pakistani village of Damadola--an attempt to kill Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2 that seems instead to have ended up blowing apart a dozen or so civilians. [See the update below.] This tragic episode in the so-called war on terrorism was off the front pages by Monday and competing for time on national cable news broadcasts with runaway convicts and other local crime news. I'm not all that surprised. This was another example of how what we do there does not fully register here. There are tens of thousands of Pakistanis in the streets and outraged--as they should be--at the violation of their national sovereignty (by a supposed ally!) that led to the killing of their fellow citizens. If it turns out that General Pervez Musharraf knew about the attack in advance and okayed it (explicitly or implicitly), he may well have trouble staying in power. Meanwhile, this certainly makes one (or should make one) think of that old, cliched question: why do they hate us? Hey, I know; it's only a dozen or so lives. But here you have the big, bad U.S. of A. raining death down from the sky with impunity, treating faraway villagers as nobodies that no one in Washington needs to worry about. No one pays for this. No one is punished. Can you spell "resentment."
It was somewhat appropriate that the day the news of this errant assault broke, a source sent me a memo that Karen Hughes, Bush's communications guru who is now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, recently disseminated to chiefs of mission, deputy chiefs of mission and public affairs officers at US embassies around the world. The subject was speaking to reporters, and Hughes wanted to share what she called "Karen's Rules" on dealing with the media.
Her Rule No. 1: "Think advocacy. I want all of you to think of yourselves as advocates for America's story each day. I encourage you to have regular sessions with your senior team to think about the public diplomacy themes of each event or initiative." But, Hughes added, do not stray from the talking points: "Use what's out there. You are always on sure ground if you use what the President, Secretary Rice, Sean McCormack, or any USG spokesman has already said on a particular subject....My Echo Chamber messages are meant to provide you clear talking points in a conversational format on the 'hot' issues of the day." Hughes ended her cable with this: "Forceful advocacy of U.S. interests and positions is critical to our effort to marginalize the extremists and share a positive vision of hope for all countries and people. I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to speak out, and look forward to our aggressive promotion of U.S. policy."
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So how should COMs, DCMs, and PAOs in embassies around the world be talking about the US attack in Pakistan? "I know," Hughes wrote, "that it is important to get out in front of an issue or at best have a strong response to a negative story....I want you out frequently in front of the cameras, in the columns of your local and regional press and mobilizing your staff to wake up every morning with media in mind." But in this instance it might be best for Hughes' subordinates to stay away from the cameras and the reporters. It's tough to be an advocate for "America's story" on such occasions. The message delivered by the attack is all-too clear and has far more resonance than any public diplomacy spin that Hughes could cook up.
The full Hughes memo follows:
UNCLASSIFIED STATE 00006202 [122316Z JAN 06]FOR COMS, DCMS and PAOS from Karen Hughes
Subject: Speaking on the Record
1. During my recent trips and meetings with many of you, I have heard concerns about problems with getting clearance to speak on the record to reporters. I promised I would send out a message clarifying my policy on this issue, and providing what I hope is clear guidance for you all in dealing with the press. In this message, I want to share "Karen's Rules" in the hope that you all will have a better idea of what I expect, and how you can react.
2. Rule #1: Think advocacy. I want all of you to think of yourselves as advocates for America's story each day. I encourage you to have regular sessions with your senior team to think about the public diplomacy themes of each event or initiative. As a communicator, I know that it is important to get out in front of an issue or at best have a strong response to a negative story. One of my goals during my tenure at the State Department is to change our culture from one in which risk is avoided with respect to the press to one where speaking out and engaging with the media is encouraged and rewarded. I want you out frequently in front of the cameras, in the columns of your local and regional press and mobilizing your staff to wake up every morning with media in mind. As President Bush and Secretary Rice have stated, public diplomacy is the job of every ambassador and every Foreign Service officer.
3. Rule #2: Use what's out there. You are always on sure ground if you use what the President, Secretary Rice, Sean McCormack, or any USG spokesman has already said on a particular subject. I always read recent statements by key officials on important subjects before I do press events. My Echo Chamber messages are meant to provide you clear talking points in a conversational format on the 'hot' issues of the day. You never need clearance to background a journalist though you should certainly pay careful attention to how your comments may be used.
4. Rule #3: Think local. Because your key audience is your local--or regional--audience, you do not need clearance to speak to any local media, print, or television. And, you do not need clearance to speak to U.S. media in your country if you are quoting a senior official who has spoken on the record on a particular subject. When you are in the U.S., you do need PA clearance to speak to major U.S. media.
Rule #4: Use common sense to respond to natural disasters or tragedies. You do not need to get Department clearance to express condolences in the event of a loss, or express sympathy and support in response to a natural disaster. Obviously in the latter case do not commit USG resources for support or relief without approval from the Department; but do not wait for Department authorization to offer a statement of sympathy unless the individual or incident is controversial.
6. Rule #5: Don't make policy. This is a sensitive area about which you need to be careful. Do not get out in front of USG policymakers on an issue, even if you are speaking to local press. The rule of thumb to keep in mind is "don't make policy or usurp the prerogative of the Secretary or a senior Washington policy-maker to set policy direction." When in doubt on a policy shift, seek urgent guidance from PA or your regional public diplomacy office. Use your judgment and err on the side of caution.
7. Rule #6: No surprises. You should always give [the Office of Public Affairs] a heads-up in the event that you speak to U.S.-based media, particularly in the case of on the record television interviews. This ensures that those who should know are in the loop on what is happening.
8. Rule #7. Enlist the help of my office if you don't get a quick response for clearance or help. My staff and I are here to support you in your efforts to get the USG position on the record and out in the media. Both Sean McCormack and I are committed to making sure you have what you need to advocate a U.S. position on the key issues at your post.
9. I know this is a departure from how you all have operated over the years. But forceful advocacy of U.S. interests and positions is critical to our effort to marginalize the extremists and share a positive vision of hope for all countries and people. I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to speak out, and look forward to our aggressive promotion of U.S. policy.
Aggressive promotion of US policy--that's the problem at the moment.
UPDATE: On Tuesday morning, AP reported that a provincial government of Pakistan had released a statement that said four or so "foreign terrorists" (they were not identified beyond that) had been killed in the CIA missile attack. And Pakistani intelligence officials told AP that Zawahiri had been invited to a dinner in the village but did not show up. Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao would only say that there was a "possibility" that foreigners--presumably, militants--were killed in the strike
Is Jack Abramoff the gift that will keep on giving? And will he destroy the Republican Party?
It's not a coincidence that Tom DeLay resigned his leadership post--which he was forced to temporarily abdicate once he was indicted in Texas on charges of laundering campaign funds--days after Abramoff, the corrupt-Republican-lobbyist-turned-snitch, cut a deal with the feds that will require him to tell all. That certainly will entail sharing whatever he knows about his intimate relationship with DeLay and DeLay's closest political associates, as well as what he knows about other GOP lawmakers, staffers and high-powered Republican operatives (such as Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist). News reports have already said that up to twenty lawmakers and aides are already in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors thanks to Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, his former partner in sleaze, who also has been cooperating with the feds.
With nervous Republicans angling to toss DeLay overboard, the indicted ex-House majority leader had not much choice but to jump before being unceremoniously shoved aside. But GOPers still have reason for fear for at least two reasons:
1. The Abramoff inquiry is big.
2. As big as the Abramoff probe is, it could extend far beyond the corrupt dealings of Jack Abramoff and his pals on Capitol HIll and K Street.
My friend Karen Tumulty reports in this week's Time that Justice Department prosecutors are running a decent-sized investigation:
Another official involved with the probe told Time that investigators are viewing Abramoff as "the middle guy"--suggesting there are bigger targets in their sights. The FBI has 13 field offices across the country working on the case, with two dozen agents assigned to it full time and roughly the same number working part time. "We are going to chase down every lead," Chris Swecker, head of the FBI's criminal division, told Time.
Nearly 50 agents chasing down Abramoff leads across the country? Republicans far and wide better watch out. (Recall the recent GOP scandal in Ohio, in which the allegedly illegal doings of a top Republican fundraiser stretched to the office of the Republican governor.) On Sunday, The New York Times reported that some of these agents are looking at Alexander Strategy, a leading Republican lobbying firm closely linked to DeLay. Unless the Bush White House dares to muscle the prosecutors, the odds are high that they will nab a bunch of legislators, aides and lobbyists who did shady business with Abramoff, "the middle guy."
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Abramoff probably possesses the keys to many different floodgates, several involving DeLay. (How about that deal in which Russian energy interests donated $1 million--via a British law firm--to a political outfit set up by DeLay and did so at a time when there was legislation in Congress to back lMF loan guarantees that would benefit these interests?) But here's why the Abramoff scandal might grow larger than Abramoff's wide-ranging dealings: Once prosecutors start to look for crimes, they often find them. Moreover, once they penetrate a corrupt organization (say, the mob) and begin nailing people, they frequently find sources who squeal on others and disclose crimes unrelated to what brought the investigators knocking.
Look at Sunday's Los Angles Times. As DeLay is sinking, sources are coming forward to tell of misdeeds heretofore unknown to the citizenry. The paper reports:
In a case that echoes the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, two Northern California Republican congressmen used their official positions to try to stop a federal investigation of a wealthy Texas businessman who provided them with political contributions.
Reps. John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo joined forces with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to oppose an investigation by federal banking regulators into the affairs of Houston millionaire Charles Hurwitz, documents recently obtained by The Times show. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was seeking $300 million from Hurwitz for his role in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan that cost taxpayers $1.6 billion.
The investigation was ultimately dropped.
The effort to help Hurwitz began in 1999 when DeLay wrote a letter to the chairman of the FDIC denouncing the investigation of Hurwitz as a "form of harassment and deceit on the part of government employees." When the FDIC persisted, Doolittle and Pombo--both considered proteges of DeLay--used their power as members of the House Resources Committee to subpoena the agency's confidential records on the case, including details of the evidence FDIC investigators had compiled on Hurwitz.
Then, in 2001, the two congressmen inserted many of the sensitive documents into the Congressional Record, making them public and accessible to Hurwitz's lawyers, a move that FDIC officials said damaged the government's ability to pursue the banker.
The FDIC's chief spokesman characterized what Doolittle and Pombo did as "a seamy abuse of the legislative process." But soon afterward, in 2002, the FDIC dropped its case against Hurwitz, who had owned a controlling interest in the United Savings Assn. of Texas. United Savings' failure was one of the worst of the S&L debacles in the 1980s.
Doolittle and Pombo did not respond to requests for interviews last week.
This may have nothing to do with the Abramoff mess or DeLay's troubles in Texas, but this story is no doubt emerging at this moment--and may be on interest to prosecutors now--because of these other difficulties.
As FBI agents zero in on suspects--whether they be lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, consultants or fundraisers--the only way out for many of these well-connected and influential people will be tell the investigators something they do not know already. So if you're a chief of staff to a House member and you're faced with the prospect of doing several years at a different sort of federal institution than the one you're used to, what are you going to do? Say whatever it takes to cut a deal. And if you know about untoward and possibly criminal activity that is not connected to already-wide Abramoff scandal, that may well be your stay-out-of-jail card. Imagine if a dozen or more Washington insiders--and we are talking predominantly about Republicans--find themselves in this sort of situation. It could be Christmas every day for the anti-corruption squad at the Justice Department. That is, if the lawyers there are prepared to mount an investigation that pursues serious leads that take them beyond Abramoff terrain. (And don't forget the recent news that Representative Duke Cunningham, the Republican who recently resigned from the House after being caught accepting bribes from a military contractor, wore a wire for the feds before leaving the House. Whom did prosecutors ask him to talk to?)
I'm not predicting all this will occur. But any member of Congress, congressional aide or executive branch official who has engaged in criminal activity ought to be really enjoying their freedom and position at this time. Who knows who will be selling out whom? Yuppies in blazers and khakis usually don't practice omerta very well. If prosecutors play this right, they could end up with an ever-lengthening to-do--and to-get--list.
I thought that Bush administration officials believed in narrow and restrained interpretation of the law. At least, that's what they say when it comes to selecting judges. And some Bush allies in the judicial wars believe in literally interpreting the Constitution: if the words aren't there, the ideas are not. Anyone who attempts to read into the text--or who seek to apply the ideas behind the text to modern situations that could not have been foreseen by the guys who came up with the Constitution--is accused of committing the sin of "judicial activism." Of course, conservative judges often engage in such activism themselves when they impose their views (narrow or broad) upon the implementation of laws passed by legislative bodies. Still, it is the rightwing, with Bush shouting "Amen," that has made the end of liberal judicial activism a holy cause.
That's why I have been bemused in recent days by the Bush administration's attempt to justify Bush's order that instructed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans without seeking warrants--not even after-the-fact in emergency circumstances (as is permitted by existing law). In a letter sent to Congress, Bush's Justice Department acknowledged that Bush's snooping order did not comply with "the 'procedures' of" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which set up a secret intelligence court and made it a crime to conduct electronic surveillance without obtaining a warrant form that court, except in certain situations authorized by the law. But in that letter, Assistant Attorney General William Moschella claimed that Congress implicitly established an exception to FISA when it passed a resolution days after 9/11 that authorized Bush to use military force in response to the that attack. This law contained not a single reference to surveillance. Yet Moschella claimed that NSA snooping was covered by this authority.
How liberal of the Bush Justice Department. At that time, Bush was free to ask specifically for such authority. And if it had been shoved into the Patriot Act, it probably would have won congressional approval. Moreover, Tom Daschle, who was then Senate majority leader, notes that the Bush White House did indeed ask for war-making authority "in the United States" and that Congress rejected that formulation. If true, this undercuts Bush's case that Congress essentially granted his administration permission to snoop domestically without a warrant within the United States.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been pushing this implied-powers argument, too. He has pointed to a 2004 Supreme Court decision--a four-member plurality--that declared that the 2001 resolution did implicitly permit Bush to detain American citizens suspected of terrorism. But that ruling did note that such detainees must be given access to the courts--that is, that there had to be some degree of due process. The Court maintained that the president could not do whatever he wanted in this matter. Gonzales, who has previously pushed a president-is-king position--is practically saying that this Supreme Court decision allowed the president rewrite or ignore any law he wishes to if he can say he is doing so to prosecute the war on terrorism. Now that's legal activism. Gonzales' recent statements also echoes a Justice Department memo regarding torture that claimed Bush was not bound by existing law when he takes actions as commander-in-chief--a memo that Gonzales did disavow when the White House was under fire for seeming to justify the use of torture. Clearly, Gonzales still believes in the intellectual underpinnings of that memo.
The Bushies--with Dick Cheney beating the drum--are mounting the most extensive power-grab seen in decades. Yes, there is a war. Yes, Abraham Lincoln did suspend habeus corpus. Still, this band is fiercely challenging the general constitutional balance, and, worse, they are doing it in secrecy. Consequently, they are trying to prevent citizens from seeing and debating the arguably unconstitutional actions they are taking, supposedly in the name of protecting the citizenry. This is hardly traditionalism; this is radicalism.
Rhetoric only goes so far in trumping reality--especially when it comes to a messy war. George W. Bush has been on a roll the past two weeks, delivering one speech after another on Iraq, repeating incessantly he has a "plan" for "victory" and quasi-acknowledging that progress in Iraq (until now) has been a tad bit on the slow side. His poll numbers have improved slightly in this time period, causing some pundits to suggest that Bush's sales pitch has been working--even though the fall of gas prices might be more the cause for the slight reverse in Bush's freefall. Still, when you're in a groove, why not try to keep it going? So on Sunday night, Bush took the best lines of his recent speeches and put them into a brief primetime presidential address carried by all the networks. Which meant that once again Bush--despite the fact he was trying to put a new perspective on the war and his management of it--resorted to the old spin.
There's no need to obsess over every statement. Bush's PR--even if it's improved--is not going to have any impact on what happens in Iraq. His words cannot determine whether or not the new government there is run by theocratic, pro-Iranian Shiites looking to develop a Shiite super-state in the south. They cannot stop the rising sectarian violence under way in Iraq. Marginally better speeches might win Bush points at home. They will not matter in Iraq. Still, let's look at some of the notable comments in this address.
* "This election will not mean the end of violence. But it is the beginning of something new: constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East. And this vote --6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world--means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror." It might mean that. The election might also lead to a breakdown in Shiite-Sunni relations that ignites a civil war (or, as some would argue, fuels an already existing civil war). Hope, as I've previously written is no substitute for analysis.
* The war "has caused sorrow for our whole Nation--and it has led some to ask if we are creating more problems than we are solving. That is an important question, and the answer depends on your view of the war on terror. If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone." C'mon, who believes that al Qaeda would become peaceful if the United States did nothing? This is an utterly false argument. The issue is whether the war in Iraq (a) was a diversion from the fight against al Qaeda and other Islamic jihadists and (b) produced conditions favorable for the jihadists--such as recruiting and training opportunities and a decline in America's standing abroad. No sentient person has ever said if you leave the "terrorists" alone they will leave us alone. This is brazenly disingenuous spin.
* "If we were not fighting them in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Southeast Asia, and in other places, the terrorists would not be peaceful citizens--they would be on the offense, and headed our way." Tell that to the dead of London and Madrid. Bush infantilizes his critics by stating that they believe al Qaeda would be peaceful were it not for the invasion of Iraq. And it's rather doubtful that because Zarqawi has managed to attract several hundred jihadists to Iraq that the terrorist threat to mainland USA has diminished. Most of the folks doing the fighting in Iraq are indigenous.
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* "My conviction comes down to this: We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists. We invite terrorism by ignoring them. And we will defeat the terrorists by capturing and killing them abroad, removing their safe havens, and strengthening new allies like Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight we share." Safe haven? There is no evidence that Iraq was a safe haven for al Qaeda before the war. That's been established by the 9/11 commission. And--once more--no one claims that ignoring the terrorists will lead to less terrorism. But the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with fighting the terrorists who struck the United States.
* "America, our Coalition, and Iraqi leaders are working toward the same goal--a democratic Iraq that can defend itself--that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists--and that will serve as a model of freedom for the Middle East." Again with the safe haven? Is this new way Bush is trying to link--perhaps more subtly--Iraq to the 9/11 attack? Saddam Hussein did support anti-Israeli terrorists (as have other Arab states). He did not--according to the available evidence--provide a base to al Qaeda.
* "At this time last year, there were only a handful of Iraqi army and police battalions ready for combat. Now, there are more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions fighting the enemy--more than 50 are taking the lead--and we have transferred more than a dozen military bases to Iraqi control." At this time last year, the Pentagon and the administration was claiming that much progress had been made in the training area and that tens of thousands of Iraqis were ready for action. That was not true. Any reason to believe the current numbers? How about an independent assessment from a commission or bipartisan congressional panel?
* "We are helping the Iraqi government establish the institutions of a unified and lasting democracy, in which all of Iraq's peoples are included and represented." Any comment on the rise in sectarian violence--particularly that conducted by militias associated with the major political figures?
* "We will continue to listen to honest criticism, and make every change that will help us complete the mission. Yet there is a difference between honest critics who recognize what is wrong, and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right. Defeatism may have its partisan uses, but it is not justified by the facts." Continue to listen to honest criticism? Here Bush is saying, let's have a vigorous debate, but I reserve the right to label all you critics "defeatists."
* "It is also important for every American to understand the consequences of pulling out of Iraq before our work is done....We would hand Iraq over to enemies who have pledged to attack us....To retreat before victory would be an act of recklessness and dishonor--and I will not allow it." If the United States pulled out everything tomorrow, that would not "hand Iraq over" to al Qaeda and other jihadists (who may number only 1000 or so). The Iranian-backed Shiites (and their militias) would hardly roll over. And whatever accommodation reached between the Sunni insurgents and the foreign fighters would probably go poof. Whether withdrawal is the right policy or not, it is a scare tactic to depict disengagement as leading inexorably to an Iraq run by al Qaeda.
* "In the months ahead, all Americans will have a part in the success of this war. " But not taxpayers. Bush will submit a $100 billion bill to Congress soon, and he will not ask wealthy Americans to help pick up this tab. Instead, he will just use the national credit card and leave it to future administrations to cover the extra debt generated by this war.
* "I also want to speak to those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq: I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt. Yet now there are only two options before our country--victory or defeat. And the need for victory is larger than any president or political party, because the security of our people is in the balance." Is he saying that anyone who disagrees with his policy now is in favor of defeat and imperiling our nation's security? Yes.
* "We remember the words of the Christmas carol, written during the Civil War: 'God is not dead, nor (does) He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on Earth, goodwill to men.'" Justifiably or not, many folks around the world see the war in Iraq as a war on Islam. Given this sad reality, is it wise to be quoting a Christmas carol to defend and promote the war? Who says Bush has come out of the bubble?
Should Stephen Spielberg be preparing himself for crucifixion? Last night I attended a screening of his new film, Munich, which is soon to open. It's a taut and engaging psychological thriller. Psychological in the sense that it examines the mental and moral tribulations of a covert Israeli assassin. It also explores the psychology of revenge, retribution and survival in the post-9/11 age of terrorism. And because Spielberg not only second-guesses the Mossad and glancingly gives Palestinians a say in the film but also dares to question the effectiveness of an eye-for-an-eye response in the struggle against terrorists, conservatives will pounce on him. (Question: who will be the first ideological critic to tie Munich--which is "inspired," not "based on" real events--to Munich, as in Neville Chamberlain?)
Here's the plot: Black September, a Palestinian terrorist group, takes Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. There had been acts of terrorism before but this foul deed was the first episode, as I recall it, that gathered attention throughout the world, as people gazed at television sets or huddled around radios to see what would be the outcome. (I remember sobbing on my parent's bed when the news came.) The outcome was tragic. All the Israelis ended up dead, after a rescue operation at the airport went awry. Most of the Palestinian terrorists--or was it all of them?--were killed as well. This all happens in the first minutes of the film.
Spielberg is less intent on recreating that nightmare--though he does show scenes from it throughout the film--as is he is on reviewing what came next. An Israeli security agent is tasked to find 11 Palestinians who his superiors say were the intellectual authors of this attack and others. The agent, played soulfully by Eric Bana, and his team scour Europe looking for their targets and then eliminating them with bombs and bullets. Along the way, they debate and discuss the morality of their exercise--but not in any heavy-handed or didactic fashion. While the moral justification for their actions is a topic for their (and the viewer's) consideration, the more pointed conversation between them (and between Spielberg and the audience) regards a less lofty subject: is this working?
As the agent and his team--the muscle guy, the bombmaker, the forger, the cleanup man--pick off the Palestinian leaders, they see that these officials are replaced by others who advocate even more violent attacks on Israel and Jews and that Black September is stepping up its terror campaign. Are their assassinations prompting this awful response that is leading to the death of hundreds elsewhere? As one character notes, it is expensive to kill Palestinians--and not just because the team has to spend millions of dollars to locate and then kill their prey.
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By the end, the Israeli agent assassinates a majority of the Palestinians on the list--as well as one of the targets' replacement and a beautiful Dutch female assassin. (Hey, this is a Hollywood movie). But he also loses members of his team. And he is tormented throughout. Back home, he is regarded as a hero. But he wants none of that. In fact, he rejects Israel and moves to Brooklyn--a damn serious step in a film in which the motivation driving all (the Israelis and the Palestinians) is the desire for a homeland. There the agent even comes to believe--with cause or not--that Mossad might be pondering his untimely death. And when his case officer--played by Geoffrey Rush--comes calling, the agent demands to see actual evidence that his victims were involved in killing Israelis. He wants to know--to believe--that he is not a murderer. The case officer can only provide that's-what-the-intelligence-says assurances. The agent is not assured. Still, he asks the case officer to come to his new home for dinner, clumsily citing a Jewish tradition of offering food to travelers. The case officer turns him down and departs. The agent--who killed to protect his homeland--has abandoned that home and has been rejected by its representative.
This film is not only about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the screenplay, written by Tony Kushner (who penned Angels in America) and Eric Roth, deftly handles. The Palestinian thugs at Munich are never humanized, nor are their murderous actions and motivations explained. But later in the film another Palestinian speaks for the cause of a Palestinian homeland. Conservative pro-Israel hawks will be peeved by this. But what prowar hawks might find more offensive is the ambiguity that Spielberg assigns to the results of the Israelis' just-kill-them approach. The costs--including the alienation and disenchantment of the agent--are high, and it's clear that these actions, while perhaps morally justified, are not going to do anything to address the longterm and deeper challenges. Spielberg offers not much of an alternative. But at the minimum, he suggests this sort of work, even if necessary, is dirty and troubling business that cannot go unquestioned in both moral and pragmatic terms. It might even be too difficult for good people--or people who aspire to be good.
Such gray could well upset those who depict the war on terror in white-hats/black hats style. Spielberg's insistence on facing the difficult and hard-to-resolve ambiguities in the struggle against violent extremists will be read by some as a sign of weakness--or worse. New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser writes:
Spielberg proves two things in his film, due in theaters just in time for Hanukkah:
1. Steven Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival.
2. Spielberg is a decent enough filmmaker to persuade some people that Israel has outlived its usefulness and should--as enemies in Iran maintain--be wiped off the face of the earth.
The backlash has begun. The Jewish Action Alliance has already called for a boycott of "Munich."
Oh, it's going to be a pain to be Stephen Spielberg, in a way, for a little while. He's going to be accused of being a self-hating Jew and Israel-basher. The less hateful of his critics will see this movie and ask of the agent (and Spielberg), why all the handwringing? Why all the worry? It's us-versus-them. In a fight for survival, you do what you have to do. You kill them. You do what it takes. But Munich notes, it's just not that simple.
Washington is a city of secrets. Some old; some new. There are few institutions devoted to the mission of prying these secrets from the filing cabinets of assorted government agencies. Some media outfits periodically pick the locks and obtain scoops. Journalists occasionally receive well- or not-so-well-intentioned leaks about past or present official misdeeds. Once in a while--less so these days--a congressional investigation or a commission unearths long-buried truths about government-gone-bad. But when it comes to consistently forcing important secrets out of the US government no journalist or investigator rivals the National Security Archive, a nonprofit outfit based at George Washington University.
Why gush about it now? Today the Archive is celebrating its 20th anniversary. In 1985 journalists Scott Armstrong and Raymond Bonner. Representative Jim Moody, Ruth Chojnacki, a congressional aide, Morton Halperin, the head of the ACLU office in Washington, and Stephen Paschke, the chief financial officer of the Fund for Peace, founded the organization. At first it was, in a way, a dumping ground for journalists and scholars who had amassed large files on subjects related to national security and foreign policy. Unlike those reporters and scholars who are overly possessive of their records, these folks wanted to make their material available to others. (And who needs all those boxes in their basements?) But the National Security Archive grew into more than a depository. It became a force for openness--first in the United States, then throughout the world. Its researchers relentlessly filed Freedom of Information Act requests--and haggled with various government agencies--to obtain crucial records of historic and contemporary significance. In 1990, a lawsuit it filed jointly with Public Citizen won the release of Oliver North's Iran-contra notebooks. The Archive pressured the US government to release tens of thousands of pages on the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. It forced Henry Kissinger to relinquish control of 33,000 pages of public records he walked off with when he left the government. And as democracy spread to Eastern Europe and Russia (well, kind of) in the 1990s, the National Security Archive worked with the new governments in these countries to modernize their archives and to bring transparency to their history.
Before gushing further, let me issue this Interest Declared: When writing my book on the CIA, Blond Ghost, in the early 1990s, the Archive was quite helpful. It had collected reams of material on the CIA campaign against Cuba of the early 1960s that was rather important for my project. And I fondly (in a perverse way) recall spending weeks at the Archive poring over a massive computer printout of all the Freedom of Information Act requests the CIA had fulfilled in previous years. The Archive had pressured the CIA to release this information, and the CIA, in response, handed it a printout that listed the data in random order. Not by date. Not by subject. Not by name of requester. In other words, the CIA had organized the information in the least usable form. We figured that the CIA must have programmed a computer to achieve this, for, certainly, the CIA did not maintain its records in such a haphazard fashion. (At least, we hoped so.) The National Security Archive pressed the CIA to turn over the data in an electronic version that could be searchable. (Want to know what documents related to Vietnam the CIA had released? Type in "Vietnam" and hit "Enter.") But the CIA had said no. That meant I had to look at this printout, which covered thousands of requests, line by line. It was a worthwhile endeavor, but my eyes took a pounding. Subsequently--too late for me--the Archive succeeded in forcing the CIA to hand over this information on computer tapes.
Further Interest Declared: several longtime friends of mine work at the Archive, including Peter Kornbluh, Kate Doyle, and Tom Blanton, the director.
Anyone who gives a damn about honesty in history and openness in government ought to cheer the Archive. To celebrate its birthday, the organization has gathered statistics about its accomplishments. It has filed 32,000 FOIA and declassification requests with over 200 offices and agencies of the US government; it has obtained the release of 7 million pages of once-secret documents; its staff and fellows have written 46 books; it has participated in 39 major lawsuits, one of which resulted in the preservation of 40 million emails from the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations. And the Archive this week put out a greatest hits list of 20 big-secret government records it has obtained in the past two decades. It's an impressive list that includes
* Hundreds of photos of flag-draped coffins containing the remains of US troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which the Pentagon fought to keep secret.
* The January 25, 2001 memo that terrorism czar Richard Clarke sent to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, warning that top Bush administration officials needed to immediately come up with a plan for dealing with al Qaeda.
* The briefing notes for Donald Rumsfeld's 1984 meeting with Saddam Hussein, when Rumsfeld, acting as an envoy for the Reagan administration, was to tell Saddam that the Reagan administration's public criticism of Iraq for using chemical weapons would not interfere with Reagan's effort to forge a closer relationship with Saddam.
* An August 6, 1986 entry from Oliver North's notebook that indicated North had met with then-Vice President George Bush in the midst of the Iran-contra affair.
* The log book of a US Navy destroyer that revealed that on October 27, 1962--in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis--this ship dropped depth charges off the Cuban coast and almost hit the hull of a Soviet submarine carrying a nuclear warhead. The crew of the sub, believing war was at hand, considered firing the nuclear weapon but did not.
* Documents from CIA and FBI files that showed that Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban militant who has sought US asylum, was at two planning meetings for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people.
* Guatemalan army intelligence documents and US intelligence documents that indicated that the CIA was assisting the Guatemalan military in the 1980s as that military was killing thousands of civilians.
* Documents that revealed that Henry Kissinger, as secretary of state in 1976, supported the Argentine military dictatorship's crackdown of dissent that led to the deaths of tens of thousands.
* The CIA inspector general's scathing review of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, which was kept secret for nearly four decades and which blasted CIA secret operations as "ludicrous or tragic or both."
* A 1967 CIA memo that revealed that the CIA had tried to implant listening devices in cats and train them to approach targets. The memo noted that the "work done on this problem over the years reflects great credit on the personnel who guided it," but that "the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation forces us to conclude that for our...purposes, it would not be practical." The first wired and trained cat had been released near a park and ordered to eavesdrop on two men sitting on a bench. On its way to the target, the cat was run over by a taxi.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the latest in the CIA leak scandal, Condi and torture, the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death, and other in-the-news matters.
Without the National Security Archive much of the secret history of the United States--and other nations--would remain a secret. Is this a puff piece? Certainly. There is no better institution in Washington than the Archive. The work it does is actually something a government could and should do. It's not too hard to imagine a federal openness advocate who would muscle individual federal agencies to release information about past and present activities. But governments tend to be rather reluctant to reveal to the public--the people they ostensibly serve--inconvenient and troubling secrets on their own. Consequently, a bunch of smart people dedicated to the public interest have been gainfully employed for two decades. The public here and abroad knows more about key historical episodes than it would otherwise thanks to the their toils. It is a pity there is such a critical need for the National Security Archive; it is a blessing for journalists, historians and citizens that the Archive exists.