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The Shock Doctrine

First, the disclosure: I'm about to praise a new book by a Nation columnist and a friend. This is irrelevant though because if Naomi Klein had never written for the magazine and I'd never met her, I'd still be among a large legion of her most fervent admirers.

I don't want this post to sound like dust-jacket copy but The Shock Doctrine does nothing less than outline an entirely new way of thinking about politics, economics and society. Based on breakthrough historical research and four years of on-the-ground reporting in disaster zones, The Shock Doctrine vividly shows how what Klein coins "disaster capitalism" -– the rapid-fire corporate re-engineering of societies reeling from shock -- traces its origins back fifty years, to the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman, which produced many of the leading neo-conservative and neo-liberal thinkers whose influence is still profound in Washington today.

The Shock Doctrine offers an alternative contemporary history, showing how well-known events of the recent past have become deliberate, active theatres for the shock doctrine, among them: Pinochet's coup in Chile in 1973, the Falklands War in 1982, the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

The book will be officially released in the US on September 17. Click here to pre-order copies. And watch the video below, a six-minute visual companion to the book created by the great Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, whose Children of Men, Klein has said "was very close to the present I was seeing in disaster zones."

Finally, see Klein talk about the book at a recent benefit event for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a social justice research institute based in Ottawa.

Top Iraqi Graft-buster: Maliki's Government Must Go

With Congress and the White House engaging in yet another round of debate on the Iraq War, a former Iraqi judge who was--and who still may be--the chief anti-corruption officer of the Iraqi government has a tough message for anyone concerned about Iraq: The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is so riddled with corruption it ought to be totally scrapped. Radhi al-Radhi, who since 2004 has headed the Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), an independent Iraqi institution that tries to investigate and prosecute corrupt Iraqi officials, offers this damning indictment of the Iraqi government at a time when Maliki and his allies are mounting a fierce attack against him and attempting to replace Radhi with a Maliki loyalist who himself has been arrested on corruption charges.

Last week I posted an article disclosing that a team of officials at the US embassy in Baghdad had drafted a secret report detailing rampant corruption and criminality throughout the Iraqi government. The embassy report notes that corruption is "the norm in many ministries" and that Maliki has consistently blocked the work of Radhi and the Commission on Public Integrity. Four days later, Maliki held a press conference in Baghdad and fiercely denounced Radhi. He accused Radhi of corruption--without offering any specifics. Maliki announced that Radhi would be prosecuted and that the Parliament was about to forcibly retire him. The prime minister also claimed that the CPI chief had fled the country. Three days after that, the Iraqi government named Moussa Faraj to replace Radhi.

While all this was happening, Radhi, who is depicted in the secret embassy report as a diligent and brave investigator, was in the United States, not fleeing but leading a delegation of CPI investigators attending a training session in Washington. I spoke with him yesterday about his own predicament and that of his nation. He laughs off Maliki's charges as a bogus and transparent attempt to end investigations probing Maliki's political allies, and he is quite blunt in his assessment of the Maliki government.

Radhi, a secular Shia, is a compact, 62-year-old man with a salt-and-pepper mustache and receding gray hair. It's easy to see the dent on his head where he was smashed by a rifle butt one of the two times he was imprisoned during the Saddam Hussein years. He rolls up a sleeve to show a long deep scar that he says he received during torture sessions and notes that his back is covered with similar marks.

The first point he wants to make--and he does so emphatically--is that he did not slip out of Iraq to escape prosecution, as Maliki has implied. Radhi explains that he came to the United States with ten CPI investigators who are being taught how to use a lie detector. (I've confirmed that such training is under way.) He takes out his passport. It contains an Iraqi stamp indicating he legally departed the country on August 22. "Maliki is making up stories to blame me for stuff," Radhi remarks. The prime minister's press conference, Radhi says, was a stunt designed to pressure Radhi not to return to Iraq: "They want to get rid of me because I have lots of important files that could be used to indict his ministers."

Radhi confirms that the secret embassy report's description of widespread corruption within the Maliki government is accurate: "This is what's going on. The government has failed in doing its job." He estimates that the various ministries, hampered by fraud and waste, are only meeting between 2 and 5 percent of their obligations. He says that $7 billion has been pocketed or wasted at the Ministry of Defense, that the same has happened to $4 billion at the Ministry of Electricity. "At other ministries," he adds, "it's half a billion dollars here, a quarter of a billion dollars there. You can imagine the whole number. It works like the Mafia."

Radhi's problem, he maintains, is that he wants to do something about all this--and that means trouble for the Shia-dominated government led by Maliki. "When I prosecuted Sunni ministers, they clapped for me," he remarks. "When I prosecuted Kurdish ministers, they clapped for me. But when I went after Shia ministers, they came after me and said I'm the corrupted one."

Maliki's campaign against Radhi is nothing new. Last year, Maliki sent Radhi a letter essentially accusing him of not accounting for hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the Commission on Public Integrity. According to the secret embassy report, an initial audit of the CPI uncovered management problems (not criminal conduct) and a subsequent audit was "glowing."

Sabah al-Saidi, a Shia leader who heads the Parliament's anticorruption committee and who has joined Maliki in the latest campaign against Radhi, has also been trying for a year to undermine the CPI by charging Radhi with graft. Radhi maintains that he earned Saidi's wrath because the CPI was investigating oil smuggling in Basra and its investigators believed this criminal activity was linked to Saidi's Fadillah party. Radhi's CPI pursued about 90 cases involving oil smuggling and corruption in Basra, and these cases were blocked from reaching court. The secret embassy report corroborates this point, noting that investigating corruption in Basra has been nearly impossible. The report describes an occasion when Radhi asked Maliki to support probes in Basra targeting the Fadillah party and Shia militias and Maliki "just went quiet." (According to a Radhi associate who asked not to be identified, oil smugglers in Basra routinely pay militias to safeguard oil pipelines and some of this protection money ends up with anti-American insurgents.)

Radhi says he has never had a case that directly involved Maliki. But he maintains that he has initiated several investigations of officials close to Maliki--including a minister of oil and a Maliki relative who used to head the Ministry of Transportation--and Maliki's office and other ministries shut down these cases, citing a law known as Article 136B. This provision in Iraq's criminal code--a provision that Maliki revived-- allows the prime minister or a minister to order a court to end a prosecution.

And earlier this year, Radhi notes, Maliki's office issued a secret order that forced the criminal courts to close all ongoing cases against past and present ministers and deputy ministers. (I have a copy of that memo.) About three dozen investigations were shuttered. With another secret memo, Radhi says, Maliki's office ended the prosecution of a key Maliki adviser on oil policy. And as we talk, Radhi pulls out yet one more secret memo, dated June 18, 2007, in which the prime minister instructed Radhi to dismiss one of the CPI's best investigators. Radhi refused. A month later, Maliki's office sent Radhi another memo reiterating this order. "I kept him," Radhi says.

Radhi notes that last year he had a "big case" involving one of Maliki's top national security aides. The official was given a large amount of money to fund a weapons buyback program in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood controlled by the militia of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. According to Radhi, the Maliki aide was suspected of having pocketed some of the money to buy a building for himself in London and of having passed weapons he had collected to militias. "When we looked into this," Radhi recalls, "the prime minister's office closed the case--using Rule 136. We had evidence in this case. And that's when they started to attack us."

Of Maliki, Radhi says, "he's not corrupt, but the group around him--all of them are corrupt. And he has to support them, because he's of their party."

Corruption within the Iraqi government, Radhi says, "is increasing day by day." The government's budget for 2007 (including funds left over from 2006) is $71 billion, he remarks, yet "you see no reconstruction, and we still don't have oil or electricity and no security from the Ministry of Defense or the Ministry of the Interior, and they're each spending billions of dollars." Five million Iraqis have left the country, he says, yet the Ministry of Trade is still spending the same amount of funds for ration cards--apparently for people who no longer live in Iraq: "Where is the money going? No one knows." The Ministry of Health, he complains, has imported billions of dollars in medicine and medical equipment, "but we don't see medicine and equipment in hospitals. It's going to political parties or militias."

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Please check out David Corn's personal blog at www.davidcorn.com for recent postings on Fred Thompson, Iraq, missing White House emails, Larry Craig, and other subjects.
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Radhi still considers himself chief of the Commission on Public Integrity. His forcible retirement, he says, is illegal--and so is the appointment of his successor. (In a letter sent to Maliki two days ago, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Sunni speaker of the Parliament, declared Radhi's removal "illegal and unconstitutional.") Regardless of the legality of Radhi's ouster, Moussa Faraj, who has been named Radhi's replacement, is an odd pick for the job. He was once a deputy at the CPI--having been installed at the commission by the ruling Shia Alliance Party. According to the secret U.S. embassy report on corruption, Faraj regularly prosecuted and delayed cases on "sectarian bases." Worse, the report notes that Faraj, a political ally of Sabah al-Saidi (the Parliament leader who has assailed Radhi), once "allowed a Shia Alliance member [charged in a multi-million-dollar corruption case] to escape custody." And after Faraj was dismissed from the CPI, the report says, he stole "literally a car load of case files." An arrest warrant was issued for him.

Several weeks ago, according to Radhi and his investigators, Faraj was arrested, placed in prison, and subsequently released on bail. "How can he be in jail and then be head of the integrity commission?" Radhi asks. Putting the CPI in Faraj's hands, Radhi says, will allow Maliki's office and Saidi to control its actions and prevent the commission from conducting investigations that inconvenience them and their political confederates. It will mean, he claims, the end of any meaningful anticorruption effort in Iraq.

Radhi says he hopes to return to Iraq and the CPI: "I want to go back and work because Iraq needs and deserves a clean government. You cannot rebuild Iraq without fighting corruption. We cannot stop the insurgency without blocking its source of funding, and corruption produces funds for the insurgents." But he has no clear strategy for undoing his forcible removal or for countering Maliki's moves against him. Radhi concedes he does not have a lot of options: "I don't have a political party or a gang supporting me."

This summer, there were two rocket attacks on his home. And the Iraqi government has informed him that his retirement benefits (80 percent of his salary) will be based on the pay of low-level government functionary (about $700 a month) not the income of a government minister (about $8000 a month), even though the CPI chief is considered the equivalent of a minister. For the time being, he may be stranded in the United States. And it's unclear how much the US government will help him, if at all.

"The people now running Iraq are corrupted themselves," Radhi says. "The only solution left is a new government, with a secular government of technocrats, not a religious government politicized by certain groups. Iraqi society is a civil society. The people deserve a civil government." He hopes the Bush Administration will pressure the Maliki government to follow the law "so no new dictatorship will be born." But is it realistic to expect any of this? A wholesale change in the Iraqi government? The Bush administration leaning on Maliki and forcing an end to systemic corruption? After all, the secret corruption report--which the Bush administration has not yet acknowledged--notes that the US Embassy in Baghdad has done little to bolster anticorruption programs and that Defense Department officials have blocked investigations of certain Iraqi officials. "I know it's difficult," Radhi says with a deep and sad sigh. "I'm not a political guy."

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OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Will Petraeus Betray the Truth--and the Troops?

How, after one of the most horrifically violent months in the history of Iraq, will Army Gen. David Petraeus make the political case -- and, make no mistake, the likelihood at this point is that the top U.S. commander in Iraq will appear before Congress next week to deliver a politic rather than a military message -- that the Bush administration's "surge" is working?

All indications are that he will count on the continued compliance of a Congress that has established a remarkably consistent track record of failing to challenge even this administration's most ambitious assaults on reality.

But, if advance reports regarding Petraeus' scheduled truth-bending session prove accurate, the general may be asking too much of even the most credulous congressmen.

Petraeus is expected to tell the Congress -- presumably with a straight face -- that Iraq has seen a 75 percent drop in sectarian violence. The general's aide's in Baghdad are peddling numbers that suggest attacks motivated by religious and ethnic antipathy fell to 960 a week in August -- down from 1,700 a week in June.

Petraeus is expected to claim, as well, that civilian casualties have dropped by 17 percent since before the surge.

That sounds like the right trend.

Unfortunately, it is based on the wrong numbers.

Petraeus and his aides have been caught cooking the books.

The Washington Post reports that serious analysts of the death and destruction data from Iraq "have looked at the full range of U.S. government statistics on violence (and) accuse the military of cherry-picking positive indicators and caution that the numbers -- most of which are classified -- are often confusing and contradictory. "

No less a watchdog than U.S. Comptroller General David Walker says, "Let's just say that there are several different sources within the administration on violence, and those sources do not agree."

Why don't they agree? Because Petraeus the figures that is expected to peddle have been developed with the intent of creating a false impression about actual levels of violence in Iraq.

What's the trick? Petraeus and his number crunchers are apparently determined to continue claiming that many of the most dramatic killings of recent months were not the result of "sectarian violence" but rather "criminal" murders. All indications are that these "criminal" incidents won't be counted in the total figures presented to Congress as part of Petraeus' assessment of the trends in Iraq.

Worse yet, Petraeus apparently intends to exclude information about the open warfare between rival Shiite militias in southern Iraq. Despite the fact that some of the worst fighting in Iraq is now between Shiite factions, the exclusion of such information creates a false impression. Yet, a spokesman for the Baghdad-based Multi-National Force-Iraq, has admitted that, "Given a lack of capability to accurately track Shiite-on-Shiite and Sunni-on-Sunni violence, except in certain instances, we do not track this data to any significant degree."

Also excluded by Petraeus will be information about attacks by Sunni groups that have, for the moment at least, allied with U.S. forces.

What this adds up to is the simple reality that, if Petraeus uses the statistics he and his aides have been citing in the build-up to his appearance, the general will go before Congress with the intent of deceiving the elected representatives of the American people.

It is true, though sadly unlikely, that Petraeus could break pattern and speak truth about the burgeoning crisis over which he presides in Iraq. Perhaps he will decide that he cannot betray the truth -- and with it the troops in his command, the people of Iraq and the promise of American military guided by principles rather than politics.

But if the general fails to speak that truth, then members of Congress have a responsibility to challenge the validity of the statements that are presented next week. It will fall to those members, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, to clarify for the American people that -- like George Bush and Dick Cheney -- Petraeus is speaking not as a credible military commander, but as an advocate for the current administration's political agenda of claiming that the "success" of the surge justifies an open-ended occupation of Iraq.

A failure on the part of all members of Congress to assure that the truth comes out -- a truth that is readily available and that has already been bluntly stated by government and private intelligence analysts -- would represent a collapse of the Constitutionally-defined separation of powers more serious even than the failures of the House and Senate to check and balance the Bush administration on the eve of this still-undeclared war.

Log Cabin Christians

I was a little surprised the other day to find a picture of Mother Teresa adorning The Nation's website, illustrating an interview in which Richard Rodriguez rehearses the very canards about the left and religion I discuss in my column this week. Christopher Hitchens may have gone overboard in his attack on Mother T (as Alexander Cockburn put it in the New Yorker's starstruck profile of Hitchens, "Between the two of them, my sympathies were with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Calcutta, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup?'"). But Rodriguez' view is simple hagiography: he doesn't even raise in a parenthesis Mother Teresa's deep political and theological conservatism, her hob-nobbing with dictators , her opposition not just to abortion rights but to birth control and to condoms for disease prevention, her lack of interest in getting rid of poverty or bringing modern medical care to the poor.

It's fascinating that, according to recently released letters , Mother Teresa almost never felt the presence of God and suffered terribly over this. In a way that made me like her more: this was one tough nun. But when Rodriguez says the revelation of her spiritual aridity will deepen "our sense of her mystery and possibly her sainthood" who is the "we" he has in mind? If you're not a Catholic, you probably don't believe in Catholic saints. He argues that public knowledge of her religious doubts may mitigate what he correctly identifies as a worldwide excess of murderous faith, but this seems most unlikely. Mother Teresa herself didn't let her lifelong dark night of the soul get in the way of her extreme religious orthodoxy. I think her example goes the other way: it says, if you have doubts, keep quiet, don't use them to question dogma, challenge authority, open yourself up to new ways of thinking. Just keep kissing the rod. If Mother Teresa wasn't such a big humanitarian icon, we might think there was something a bit masochistic in her devotion to a God who made her so miserable.

Rodriguez writes "The left, like spoiled children, having been accused of being sinful by the Church, they decide the Church is really sinful. That's not useful. More useful is to spend a life of service to a Church that is not easily yours." Tell it to Voltaire! Was he a spoiled child? Was his life not useful? Anyway, the people most ardently convinced of the "sinfulness" of the church these days aren't leftists but Catholics appalled by molesting priests and the failure of the hierarchy to deal with this scandal in an honest and open way-- Boston's Cardinal Law did more to hurt the church than all the atheists and anticlericals who ever set pen to paper. And why is it more "useful" for, say, a homosexual like Rodriguez to "serve" the Church than to leave it and join a denomination that respects his sexuality ? He could still believe in Jesus if he was an Episcopalian -- he could even be a priest.

So what is all this about serving and being useful? If gay men and women walked out of denominations that regard homosexuality as evil, sinful, "inherently disordered" (current official Catholic view) and the like, they would be making quite a powerful statement. So too if women , the backbone of most faiths, quit denominations that regard them as subordinate to men, bar them from ministry, and enforce medieval views of sexual and reproductive morality. If change is the aim, it is at least arguable that voting with your feet achieves more than staying and continuing to put your money in the collection plate every week.

I wish Rodriguez had discussed these issues in a more reflective way. I don't understand why a person remains loyal to a denomination that tells them they are inferior, ill, born wrong, when they could worship next door in a church that welcomes them as they are. As with Mother Teresa, masochism comes to mind: God is punishing you because he loves you, suffering is good, someday it will all make sense. Maybe, like Log Cabin Republicans, they think they can work from within;I suppose that is what Rodriguez is getting at. Maybe, though, perhaps also like Log Cabin Republicans, they've internalized the negative stereotype. Whatever, I don't think Rodriguez is in such a good position to deride more critical or impatient folk as "spoiled children." It's better to be a spoiled child than a child who thinks abuse is love.

NB: I realize that by the rules of engagement that govern debates between religious and secular, the religious are allowed to say whatever they like about the secular, but if the seculars respond equally frankly they're bigots. So before you write that e mail, just remember who started this.

Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion: My collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories" is just out from Random House. These are not Nation pieces, but memoiristic (is that a word?) essays about love, sex, betrayal, and, um, so on, only two of which have appeared in print (in The New Yorker). Don't like the Amazon clickthrough? Ask for it at your local independent bookstore.

The Patriot Act's--and the Senate's--Constitution Problem

It has been almost six years since Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold cast the lone vote in the Senate against the USA Patriot Act, warning at a time when few others had the courage to do so that the measure undermined the basic protections afforded Americans by a Constitution that has been severely battered by the Bush-Cheney administration.

Now, a federal court has confirmed Feingold's assessment--at least with regard to the atrocious National Security Letter (NSL) provision of the Patriot Act, which in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union "allowed the FBI to demand private information about people within the United States without court approval, and to gag those who receive NSLs from discussing them."

U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero, in a decision issued Thursday found that the gag power was unconstitutional because the statute prevented meaningful judicial review of gag orders by the courts. As such, Marrero determined, the Patriot Act violates the Constitution's First Amendment as well as its separation of powers provisions.

"In light of the seriousness of the potential intrusion into the individual's personal affairs and the significant possibility of a chilling effect on speech and association--particularly of expression that is critical of the government or its policies--a compelling need exists to ensure that the use of NSLs is subject to the safeguards of public accountability, checks and balances, and separation of powers that our Constitution prescribes," wrote Marrero.

"As the court recognized, there must be real, meaningful judicial checks on the exercise of executive power," explained Melissa Goodman, an ACLU staff attorney on this case. "Without oversight, there is nothing to stop the government from engaging in broad fishing expeditions, or targeting people for the wrong reasons, and then gagging Americans from ever speaking out against potential abuses of this intrusive surveillance power."

That is the point Feingold sought to make back in the fall of 2001, and again in 2005, when during reauthorization of the bill Feingold fought to address issues related to the NSLs and other unconstitutional components of the act. Nine senators joined Feingold in voting "no" to the final version of the renewed Patriot Act: Hawaii's Daniel Akaka, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, Iowa's Tom Harkin, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, Vermont's Patrick Leahy, Michigan's Carl Levin, Washington's Patty Murray and Oregon's Ron Wyden.

No senator of either party who is now seeking the presidency joined Feingold and the others in casting what Thursday's court decision confirms to have been the only Constitutionally-appropriate vote.

But, as Feingold notes, New York's Hillary Clinton, Illinois' Barack Obama, Connecticut's Chris Dodd, Delaware's Joe Biden and their presidentially-ambitious colleagues can still do the right thing.

"The federal court decision declaring the statute unconstitutional comes as no surprise. The Justice Department's Inspector General has already found that the NSL authorities have been seriously abused by the government, and now a federal court has found parts of those authorities unconstitutional," says Feingold. "Congress needs to fix the mess it created when it gave the government overly-broad powers to obtain sensitive information about Americans."

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

Disinformation Society, Bush-style

We live with an administration whose concept of domestic "freedom" went out with those "freedom fries," briefly sold at the cafeterias of the House of Representatives. The Bush team has quite literally been a force for darkness. For those who remember the "memory hole" down which the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Truth dumped all uncomfortable or inconvenient documents in Orwell's famed dystopian novel 1984, this administration has created its functional equivalent. Just since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the government has removed from open shelves and sequestered from public view more than one million pages of "historical government documents -- a stack taller than the U.S. Capitol." According to the Associated Press, "some of these documents are more than a century old." What we are seeing in many cases is "declassification in reverse." For example, the CIA and other federal agencies "have secretly reclassified over 55,000 pages of records taken from the open shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration." These have even included half-century-old documents already published in a State Department historical series. In many cases, there is simply no way of knowing what has been removed, because the removals have largely not been catalogued.

Even the Pentagon phone book, on sale at the Government Printing Office bookstore until 2001, is gone. There's little way for a citizen to know who occupy offices that may determine the course of his or her life. In a sense, there are no longer "public servants," only private ones, beholden to the President, not Americans. This is what "national security," Bush-style, really means. Similarly, as Robert Dreyfuss discovered when he tried to chart out who was working in Vice President Cheney's office while researching a piece, no information could be revealed to a curious reporter, not even the names and positions of those who worked for the Vice President, those who, theoretically, were working for us. Cheney's office would not even publicly acknowledge its own employees, no less let them be interviewed.

In this same period, as Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (who produces the invaluable Secrecy News each day), pointed out in Slate, "[T]he pace of classification activity has increased by 75 percent" in the Bush years. The Information Security Oversight Office, which supervises the government's classification system, recorded "a rise from 9 million classification actions in fiscal year 2001 to 16 million in fiscal year 2004."

The removal of documents en masse, the denial of access to the public, the classification of everything -- these are signs of a now seven-year-long shutting off of the flow of unsupervised information. But perhaps nothing has been as crucial as the shutting down of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that Ruth Rosen, former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, historian, and author of the groundbreaking book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America (recently updated), considers at Tomdispatch.com under the rubric: "soft crimes" of the Bush administration.

It's a classic story of how to put a national "sunshine law," meant to let the light in on our legislators and bureaucrats, in the shade.

As Rosen concludes: "Don't be lulled into thinking that the act of censoring information, of shielding the American people from knowledge of the most basic workings of their own government, is any less dangerous to democracy than war crimes or acts of torture. In fact, it was the soft crimes of secrecy and deception that enabled the Bush administration's successful campaign to lure our country into war in Iraq--and so to commit war crimes and acts of torture. You don't have to be a historian to know that 'soft' crimes are what make hard crimes possible. They can also lead to an executive dictatorship and the elimination of our most cherished civil rights and liberties."

Michael Vick Doesn't Need Your Help

Watching the Michael Vick saga unfold over the past month has been a typically frustrating experience, as a woman, a person of color, and dog owner (or rather "pet guardian," as they insist upon in my oh-so PC hometown, San Francisco).

The entire nasty affair points to the ways in which any national "debate" – usually conducted by talking heads, lawyers, and a couple of celebrities on TV -- on race or gender in popular culture ends up mired in arguments that can at best be described as absurd, and at worst, damaging.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we can't seem to bring ourselves to talk about, say an important issue like racism unless there is a low-life like O. J. Simpson or Michael Vick facing charges for some reprehensible crime. Is this really the ideal context for a conversation that requires open minds, compassion, awareness, and a strong desire to do right?

Then again, this is the kind of foolishness that pays for a cultural critic's supper. Here's my critique of the race-related interpretations made directly or indirectly in support of Michael Vick. One, his case is yet another example of a racist white media "lynching" a young black man for sins that would be more easily forgiven – or at least, less stridently covered and condemned -- in a white person. This version of the Vick defense was offered up by civil rights groups such as the NAACP.

Umm, I don't think so. I can't imagine PETA or any of the other animal rights groups being any less outraged if Tom Brady was involved. Whatever one's reservations about their politics, we can safely say these folks have shown little love for privileged white folks. And yes, Americans in general love their dogs, and they wouldn't be any less appalled at their torture just because the QB in question was white.

If there is anything racist about the response to Vick, it's the lack of surprise, as though we simply don't expect any better from a black man. If Tom Brady or Peyton Manning had been caught doing something similar, all of America would have been shocked, shocked, shocked. How could our golden white boy ever do something like this, and so on. It's the difference between our reaction to an inner-city school shooting and Columbine.

If that wasn't enough, this week brought us Whoopi Goldberg, who claimed on The View that this kind of depraved behavior is part of Vick's "cultural conditioning" is not doing any service to her community, or the rest of us. Sure, she meant the culture of the rural South, but that's not how it's going to be interpreted in a culture already weighed down with stereotypes about brutal, violent black men.

If a white commentator had made that comment, many of us would be rightly offended at its suggestion – intended or otherwise -- that electrocuting dogs is somehow "normal" for some black folks. According to this Kansas City columnist, a number of observers are already blaming Vick's crime on black ghetto/hip hop culture. I don't see anyone arguing that a white athlete is a "wonderful guy" who just didn't know using a "rape pole" to breed a dog was a bad thing. This again, should tell us something about cultural expectations.

Some of the best writing on the race angle in the Vick case comes from Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist, Cynthia Tucker. Here is her take on why it's a wrong-headed for black civil rights organizations to rally around the Michael Vick. And here is Tucker's far more nuanced argument about how media coverage of the Vick case does indeed point to a racial bias of a different kind.

Finally, there's the "unfair scrutiny" argument that deflects the issue from race to gender, as in: we get worked up about a little animal cruelty, but don't give a damn when the same men are accused of beating the crap out of their wives. The critique about NFL's wink-nudge attitude toward domestic violence is well-founded, but it is only undermined by any comparison to dog-fighting. I don't know of a single athlete accused of brutally torturing and killing a number of women for fun playing professional sports.

Certainly, colleagues of any player accused of beating up his wife would hardly be eager to get on TV and sing his praises – as so many of his team-mates did before Vick pleaded guilty. NFL"s locker-room culture is infamous for its misogyny and homophobia, but even athletes (or their PR reps) know where to draw the line in public. And would Whoopi declare Vick a "wonderful guy" or blaming it on his cultural upbringing if he'd been beating his wife? I doubt it.

Bottomline, Whoopi herself is evidence that we have no problems distinguishing between animals and human beings: it is okay to kill one for food (and in many cases, even sport) and not the other. Besides, no one wins in this bizarre game of one upmanship between two equally repulsive crimes. What's the logic: if we only would turn a blind eye to dog-fighting, we'd be cracking down harder on domestic violence? I don't think so. And that goes for racism too. No reasonable person can think that treating Vick with greater clemency would mark a victory for race relations in this country.

To rephrase Freud, sometimes a jerk is just a jerk.

No Plans To Leave Iraq

On his recent trip to Iraq, President Bush commented about the future of the US mission. "General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," he said near the end of his speech in Anbar province.

Speculation abounded back in Washington. Was Bush hinting that at least some US troops might be coming home soon? Was he heeding the calls of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, who advocate cutting the US presence in half over the next year? Could the war even end on Bush's watch?

Not likely. In an interview with USA Today published this morning, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten said that "I don't think that any realistic observer thinks that by the time the president leaves office in 2009 it'll be possible--- safely--to get all or even most of the American troop presence out."

Critics of the war have suspected all along that President Bush would try to run out the clock and pass the mess in Iraq off to his successor. "Josh Bolten basically says 'we're gonna be there with troops for a long time,'" responded John Podesta, Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff from 1998-2001. "'We're handing this baby off.'"

President Bush admitted as much in a rare moment of candor in March 2006. "Will there come a day," he was asked, "when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?"

"That, of course, is an objective," Bush answered. "And that will be decided by future Presidents and future governments of Iraq."

A year later, Bush said he envisioned a "Korea model" presence for US troops in Iraq. At least 37,000 troops have been stationed in the Korean peninsula for over 50 years.

As The Craig Turns

Where to begin with the latest developments in L'Affaire Craig?

How about with the delicious proposal by Larry Craig's fans at the American Land Rights Association? The group's so upset at the prospect of losing the Idaho Republican's anti-environmental influence on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that it is proposing a boycott of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport where the Senator got busted for cruising in a disorderly manner for anonymous sex.

Land Association leaders claim the airport and the local cops are guilty of "ambushing" their favorite senator -- using the old technique of placing attractive young cops in bathroom stalls frequented by senators who are "not gay (and) and never have been gay."

More power to the association. Senators who are as unreconstructed in their willingness to pave paradise as Larry Craig are not easy to come by, so special-interest groups can't have them getting ambushed by airport security schemes.

And who knows? Maybe the American Land Rights Association won't have to bid a fond farewell to the senator who never met a plot to despoil the countryside that he didn't adore.

Urged on by the delightfully off-message Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, Craig is now scrambling to withdraw his guilty plea in the Minnesota case, beat the rap and reverse his resignation announcement.

The word from Craig's camp is that he is reconsidering, which of course he has every right to do. Resignation from the Senate has nothing to do with what one says or does not say. A senator must notify the proper legislative authorities of an intention to forfeit his or her seat, and the man from Idaho has not done that -- and, perhaps, will not do that.

Republican leaders in the Senate are, predictably, apoplectic. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is still busy blathering about how Craig made the "right decision" to quit -- after the Idaho senator was thrown under the bus by McConnell and other Republican bosses who can tolerate Louisiana Senator David Vitter's penchant for prostitutes but who draw the line when it comes to bathroom sex. It's as if McConnell believes that if he just says it enough -- or maybe if he clicks his red ruby slippers together enough -- Larry Craig will just disappear.

But that's not going to happen for so long as Specter is publicly urging Craig to "seek to withdraw the guilty plea."

How can Specter seriously entertain the notion that Craig might be innocent? Need it be recalled that the distinguished senator from Pennsylvania was, in a previous incarnation, the junior counsel for the Warren Commission who came up with the "single-bullet theory" to explain President John Kennedy's assassination.

In Arlen Specter's view, anything is possible -- even the impossible.

And in the case of Larry Craig, the impossible dream of a disgraced senator that he might yet redeem himself and reclaim his seat is turning into a political nightmare of epic proportions for congressional Republicans who cannot seem to keep their stories straight or their resignations permanent.

The story that was supposed to go away before the Senate was gaveled back into session this week has turned into a saga with no end in sight. Oregon Senator Gordon Smith is exactly right when he says of his party's Craig conundrum: "If this story doesn't get smaller, it will get bigger." Indeed, considering the broadcast news media's continuing fascination with all things Craigy, the Bush White House had better start worrying. Senator Craig's headline-grabbing absolution, or his next visit to the restroom, could come just in time to grab the fickle media's attention away from the administration's latest faked up report on how great things are going in Iraq.

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