Alfred Anderson died last month at the very ripe old age of 109.
But it was not the Scotsman's many years that made him remarkable at the end of his long life. It was that, to his last days, he well recalled participating in the Christmas Truce of 1914 -- that brief respite from the carnage of World War I that saw soldiers of both sides in the conflict lay down their arms, climb out of their trenches and celebrate together along the 500-mile Western Front.
Anderson was the last surviving old soldier known to have participated in what he would refer to in his later years as "a short peace in a terrible war."
That peace, which was initiated not by presidents or prime ministers, but by the soldiers themselves, serves to this day as a reminder that war is seldom so necessary -- nor so unstoppable -- as politicians would have us believe.
So it comes as no surprise that the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a bit of history that many in power have neglected over the past 90 years.
But Anderson's long survival, and his clear memory, made it impossible to write this chapter out of history.
On December 25, 1914, Anderson was an 18-year-old soldier serving with 5th Battalion, Black Watch, of the British Army, one of the first to engage in the bloody trench warfare that was the ugliest manifestation of a war that claimed 31 million lives. But on that day, there was no violence.
Rather, Anderson recalled in an interview on the 90th anniversary of the truce, "there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted 'Merry Christmas,' even though nobody felt merry."
The calls of "Merry Christmas" from the Brits were answered by Germans singing: "Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht."
The Brits responded by singing "Silent Night" in English. Then, from the trenches opposite them, climbed a German soldier who held a small tree lit with candles and shouted in broken English, "Merry Christmas. We not shoot. You not shoot."
Thus, began the Christmas Truce. Soldiers of both armies -- more than a million in all -- climbed from the trenches along the Western Front to exchange cigarettes and military badges. They even played soccer, using the helmets they had taken off as goalposts. And they did not rush to again take up arms. Along some stretches of the Front, the truce lasted into January of 1915.
Finally, distant commanders forced the fighting to begin anew.
Thus, it has ever been with war. As George McGovern, the decorated World War II veteran who would become one of America's greatest champions of peace, "old men (are always) thinking up wars for young men to die in."
But Alfred Anderson remembered, well beyond the century of two world wars and too many lesser conflicts, that the young men of opposing armies often have more in common with one another than they do with the old men who send them into battle.
Once, on a Christmas Day that ought not be forgotten, the young men decided to make a short peace in a terrible war.
The memory of the courage of those who chose, however briefly, to see the humanity in one another, and to lay down the arms of one of the most brutal wars this planet has ever seen, offers hope this weekend, as Christians mark the birth of the Nazarene who was called Prince of Peace. Perhaps, someday, we will make a Christmas truce that lasts not merely through the hours of good cheer on this Holiday but the whole year long.
U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who four years ago stood alone in the Senate to defend the Bill of Rights, finished this year by scoring a dramatic win in his fight to preserve civil liberties.
The Senate's decision to block a Bush administration push for long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act -- which would have enshrined in law for years, and in some cases permanently, assaults on basic rights contained in the measure -- came after Feingold threatened a filibuster and then organized a bipartisan coalition of senators to back him up.
The fight grew increasingly intense last week, after Senate Republican leaders fell seven votes short of the total they needed to thwart a filibuster.
As the December 31 deadline for reauthorization of the act approached. Feingold and his allies offered to accept a short-term extension, so that the Patriot Act could remain in force while senators of both parties address Constitutional concerns.
But President Bush was not in the mood to compromise.
To the very end, the president -- doing his best King George immitation -- attacked Democratic and Republican senators for seeking to reform the act, which was hastily approved after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Dismissing attempts to reconcile the need for security with the requirements of the Constitution, Bush attacked the Senate's refusal to reauthorize the act in the form he demanded as "inexcusable" and said that Feingold and his allies were endangering America.
"The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," grumbled Bush in one of a series of public rejections of any talk of a temporary renewal.
But, for all his bluster, Bush had to back down.
The Senate deal that ended the filibuster threat extends the act only for six months and provides critics with clear openings to debate contentious provisions, particularly those that permit the FBI to conduct "sneak-and-peak" searches of private homes and businesses, to wiretap telephones and examine of emails, and to obtain secret warrants for library, medical, business and personal records of Americans who are not suspected of committing crimes. (On Thursday, the House voted for an even shorter extension of one month, a move Feingold applauded. The two chambers must now reconcile their different measures before the end of the year.)
The opportunity that has now been created to debate components of the act -- rather than merely pass the law in its entirety -- is what Feingold has been demanding since 2001, when he cast the sole Senate vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. And so it came as no great surprise that the senator was celebrating a win Wednesday -- not just for his own political crusade of the past four years, but for the Constitution that he and his fellow senators have sworn to uphold.
"Today is a victory for the American people and the bipartisan group of Senators who have been fighting against efforts to extend the Patriot Act permanently without protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens," Feingold announced Wednesday evening, after the Senate Republican leadership abandoned Bush's line."I am pleased that the Republican leadership backed down from their irresponsible threat to let the Patriot Act expire and agreed to a six-month extension of the provisions that would have sunset at the end of this year," the senator said. "This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism. Those of us who stood up to demand modest and reasonable protections of our liberties never wanted to stop Patriot Act reauthorization. We just want to get it right this time around."
Feingold also took an appropriate swipe at Bush and his allies for creating a false crisis as the deadline for reauthorization approached.
"We could have avoided these last-minute negotiations if the House had just adopted the Senate version of the Patriot Act that passed unanimously earlier this year," explained the Democrat. "As we move forward, I hope that the Republican leadership in the Senate and the administration will continue down the path they started on tonight so that we don't find ourselves in this same situation six months from now. One thing is clear - what happened in the Senate over the past few weeks shows that (long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act in the version favored by Bush) is dead."
And the Bill of Rights is alive and kicking.
In the history of the ongoing battle between science and faith, Dover, Pennsylvania, has written the latest chapter. Last month, the residents, who usually vote Republican, ousted eight school board members who had backed intelligent design. This week, a federal judge in Harrisburg ruled that it was unconstitutional for the Dover school district to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.
In a sweeping decision, Judge Jones, a Republican appointed by President Bush, declared that intelligent design was not science but "creationism relabeled," because it seeks to change the very definition of science to include supernatural explanations. This is obviously a victory for science. What is less obvious is that it is also a victory for faith.
The most pernicious aspect of the ID movement is its commingling of science and faith, its attempt to use science and mathematics to prove the existence of an intelligent designer. Not only does this undermine science, it undermines faith, which by its very definition is "a belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." If ID scientists were to prove, for example, that the double helix is the stairway to heaven, then the existence of God would cease to be an article of faith and become instead a scientific fact.
By drawing a bright line between science and faith, Judge Jones has done as much to protect faith from science as he has done to protect science from faith.
As President Bush and his aides scramble to explain new revelations regarding Bush's authorization of spying on the international telephone calls and emails of Americans, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has begun a process that could lead to the censure, and perhaps the impeachment, of the president and vice president.
U.S. Representative John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who was a critical player in the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations into presidential wrongdoing, has introduced a package of resolutions that would censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney and create a select committee to investigate the Administration's possible crimes and make recommendations regarding grounds for impeachment.
The Conyers resolutions add a significant new twist to the debate about how to hold the administration to account. Members of Congress have become increasingly aggressive in the criticism of the White House, with U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, saying Monday, "Americans have been stunned at the recent news of the abuses of power by an overzealous President. It has become apparent that this Administration has engaged in a consistent and unrelenting pattern of abuse against our Country's law-abiding citizens, and against our Constitution." Even Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, are talking for the first time about mounting potentially serious investigations into abuses of power by the president.
But Conyers is seeking to do much more than schedule a committee hearing, or even launch a formal inquiry. He is proposing that the Congress use all of the powers that are available to it to hold the president and vice president to account – up to and including the power to impeach the holders of the nation's most powerful positions and to remove them from office.
The first of the three resolutions introduced by Conyers, H.Res.635, asks that the Congress establish a select committee to investigate whether members of the administration made moves to invade Iraq before receiving congressional authorization, manipulated pre-war intelligence, encouraged the use of torture in Iraq and elsewhere, and used their positions to retaliate against critics of the war.
The select committee would be asked to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment of Bush and Cheney.
The second resolution, H.Res.636, asks that the Congress to censure the president "for failing to respond to requests for information concerning allegations that he and others in his Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for the war, countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in Iraq, and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of his Administration, for failing to adequately account for specific misstatements he made regarding the war, and for failing to comply with Executive Order 12958." (Executive Order 12958, issued in 1995 by former President Bill Clinton, seeks to promote openness in government by prescribing a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information.)
A third resolution, H.Res.637, would censure Cheney for a similar set of complaints.
"The people of this country are waking up to the severity of the lies, crimes, and abuses of power committed by this president and his administration," says Jon Bonifaz, a co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, an alliance of more than100 grassroots groups that has detailed Bush administration wrongdoing and encouraged a Congressional response. Bonifaz, an attorney and the author of the book, Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George Bush (Nation Books), argues that, "Now is the time to return to the rule of law and to hold those who have defied the Constitution accountable for their actions."
Bonifaz is right. But it is unlikely that the effort to censure Bush and Cheney, let alone impeach them, will get far without significant organizing around the country. After all, the House is controlled by allies of the president who have displayed no inclination to hold him to account. Indeed, only a few Democrats, such as Conyers, have taken seriously the Constitutional issues raised by the administration's misdeeds.
Members of Congress in both parties will need to feel a lot of heat if these improtant measures are going to get much traction in this Congress.
The grassroots group Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), which has had a good deal of success organizing activists who want the Democrats to take a more aggressive stance in challenging the administration, will play a critical role in the effort to mobilize support for the Conyers resolutions, as part of a new Censure Bush Coalition campaign. (The campaign's website can be found at www.censurebush.org)
PDA director Tim Carpenter says his group plans to "mobilize and organize a broad base coalition that will demand action from Congress to investigate the lies of the Bush administration and their conduct related to the war in Iraq."
Getting this Congress to get serious about maintaining checks and balances on the Bush administration will be a daunting task. But the recent revelations regarding domestic spying will make it easier. There are a lot of Americans who share the view of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, that Bush and Cheney have exceeded their authority. As Feingold says of Bush, "He is the president, not a king."
It was the bitter experience of dealing with King George III led the founders of this country to write a Constitution that empowers Congress to hold presidents and vice accountable for their actions.
It is this power that John Conyers, the senior member of the House committee charged with maintaining the system of checks and balances established by those founders, is now asking the Congress to employ in the service of the nation that Constitution still governs.
An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols' biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president's use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher's Weekly describes the book as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."
Even as President Bush was trying, once more on Sunday, to spin the fantasy that the Iraq invasion and occupation are some kind of success, Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Iraq confirmed the truth of the mess that this military misadventure has created.
The vice president's "surprise" visit to Iraq -- which, coming shortly after voting in the latest of the country's quickie elections had finished, was about as surprising as Cheney's repetition of the administration's "stay-the-course" mantra -- was a public-relations disaster.
Because the vice president actually came into contact with the people his fantasies regarding Iraq -- remember Cheney's pre-war promise that U.S. troops would be "greeted as liberators" -- had put in harm's way.
Cheney's cheerleading during a whirlwind trip through the battlezone was challenged by men who are actually doing the fighting.
The first words Cheney heard during a roundtable discussion with several dozen troops were those of Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, who said, "From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains. We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains."
Cheney responded with warmed-over rhetoric about how the media is not showing the true picture of what is going on in Iraq. "I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq. We're getting the job done," claimed the vuice president, who was making his first visit to the warzone. "It's hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don't pay that much attention to the news."
The vice president did not seem to recognize the irony of complaining about media coverage presenting the war as something less than a success when he was responding to the concerns of a Marine -- who is actually serving on the ground in Iraq -- about the fact that he and his fellow troops "don't see much as far as gains."
Cheney's attempt to put a positive spin on the occupation does not appear to have found many takers among those who are dodging the bullets and bombs in a war that has killed more than 2,100 of their comrades and maimed tens of thousands more.
According to an Associated Press report, "When (Cheney) delivered the applause line, 'We're in this fight to win. These colors don't run,' the only sound was a lone whistle."
It is no wonder the troops were lacking in enthusiasm.
They know something that Cheney does not know, or at least does not admit.
They know that, at the close of this "watershed year," not nearly enough has changed for the better in Iraq.
They know, as well, that the administration's talk about how the U.S. will stand down as the Iraqis stand up remains an empty promise.
Consider a line buied deep in the AP report of the vice president's visit to Taji Air Base in Iraq: "U.S. forces guarded Cheney with weapons at the ready while Iraqi soldiers, who had no weapons, held their arms out as if they were carrying imaginary guns."
For all of Cheney's cheerleading about how well things are going, those carrying the real guns recognize that they will not soon be coming home from a country where their "replacements" are carrying imaginary guns.
The truth is that the president and vice president refuse to level not just with the troops and American people but with themselves. Wiser observers recognize that only when the U.S. leaves Iraq will the Iraqis begin to take responsibility for policing their own country. As U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, wrote last week in a letter to his House colleagues, "It is time that the over 200,000 Iraqis who have received military and police training over the past three years take over the hard job of providing domestic security themselves and stop using American forces as a crutch to lean on. It is time for U. S. forces to redeploy out of the country in an orderly but rapid way..."
Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has spent far more time than Cheney ever will speaking frankly with troops in Iraq and with honest military strategists, says, "I believe that the policy of the president -- total victory -- is not a policy. I believe that is a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion."It should come as no surprise that the troops Cheney encountered appeared to have been as frustrated with the illusion as Jack Murtha. After all, Murtha, the old soldier who earned a chest full of medals in Vietnam, is one of them. Cheney, the guy who got five deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam, is not.
An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols' biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president's use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher's Weekly describes the book as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."
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.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on the latest in the CIA leak scandal, the Iraqi elections, a positive split in the antiwar movement, and other in-the-news matters.
* "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?
"This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every American."
Senator Russell Feingold, December 17, 2005
As reported by the New York Times on Friday, "Months after the September 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying."
A senior intelligence officer says Bush personally and repeatedly gave the NSA permission for these taps--more than three dozen times since October 2001. Each time, the White House counsel and the Attorney General--whose job it is to guard and defend our civil liberties and freedoms--certified the lawfulness of the program. (It is useful here to note "The Yoo Factor": The domestic spying program was justified by a "classified legal opinion" written by former Justice Department official John Yoo, the same official who wrote a memo arguing that interrogation techniques only constitute torture if they are "equivalent in intensity to...organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.")
Illegally spying on Americans is chilling--even for this Administration. Moreover, as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the Times, "the secret order may amount to the president authorizing criminal activity." Some officials at the NSA agree. According to the Times, "Some agency officials wanted nothing to do with the program, apparently fearful of participating in an illegal operation." Others were "worried that the program might come under scrutiny by Congressional or criminal investigators if Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, was elected President."
It's always a fight to find out what the government doesn't want us to know, and this Administration and its footsoldiers have used every means available to undermine journalists' ability to exercise their First Amendment function of holding power accountable. But compounding the Administration's double-dealing, the media has been largely complicit in the face of White House mendacity. David Sirota puts it more bluntly in a recent entry from his blog: "We are watching the media being used as a tool of state power in overriding the very laws that are supposed to confine state power and protect American citizens."
Consider this: the New York Times says it "delayed publication" of the NSA spying story for a year. The paper says it acceded to White House arguments that publishing the article "could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be-terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."
Despite Administration demands though, it was reported in yesterday's Washington Post that the decision by Times editor Bill Keller to withhold the article caused friction within the Times' Washington bureau, according to people close to the paper. Some reporters and editors in New York and in the paper's DC bureau had apparently pushed for earlier publication. In an explanatory statement, Keller issued the excuse that, "Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions." This from a paper, which as First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus pointed out in a letter to editor "rejected similar arguments when it courageously pub;ished the Pentagon Papers over the government's false objections that it would endanger our foreign policy as well as the lives of individuals." The Times, Garbus went on to argue, "owes its readers more. The Bush Administration's record for truthfulness is not such that one should rely on its often meaningless and vague assertions."
Readers and citizens deserve to know why the New York Times capitulated to the White House's request? It is true that Friday's revelations of this previously unknown, illegal domestic spying program helped stop the Patriot Act reauthorization. But what if the Times had published its story before the election? And what other stories have been held up due to Adminsitration cajoling, pressure, threats and intimidation?
The question of how this Administration threatens the workings of a free press, a cornerstone of democracy, remains a central one. Every week brings new evidence of White House attempts to delegitimize the press's role as a watchdog of government abuse, an effective counter to virtually unchecked executive power.
Last month, for example, the Washington Post published Dana Priest's extraordinary report about the CIA's network of prisons in Eastern Europe for suspected terrorists. Priest's reporting helped push passage of a ban on the metastasizing use of torture. But, as with the New York Times, the Post acknowledged that it had acceded to government requests to withhold the names of the countries in which the black site prisons exist.
How many other cases are there of news outlets choosing to honor government requests for secrecy over the journalistic duty of informing the public about government abuse and wrongdoing?
Never has the need for an independent press been greater. Never has the need to know what is being done in our name been greater. As Bill Moyers said in an important speech delivered on the 20th anniversary of the National Security Archive, a dedicated band of truth-tellers, "...There has been nothing in our time like the Bush Administration's obsession with secrecy." Moyers added. "It's an old story: the greater the secrecy, the deeper the corruption."
Federation of American Scientists secrecy specialist Steven Aftergood bluntly says, "an even more aggressive form of government information control has gone unenumerated and often unrecognized in the Bush era, as government agencies have restricted access to unclassified information in libraries, archives, websites and official databases." This practice, Aftergood adds, "also accords neatly with the Bush Administration's preference for unchecked executive authority."
"Information is the oxygen of democracy," Aftergood rightly insists. This Administration is trying to cut off the supply. Journalists and media organizations must find a way to restore their role as effective watchdogs, as checks on an executive run amok.
Four years ago, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold distinguished himself as the Senate's premier defender of the Constitution, when he cast the chamber's sole vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. As a time when every other senator – even liberal Democrats with long records of championing the Bill of Rights -- joined the post-September 11 rush to curtail basic liberties, Feingold stood alone in defense of the principle that it was possible to combat terrorism and protect the rights of Americans.
But Feingold no longer stands alone. On Friday, he led a bipartisan group of senators that successfully blocked the administration's concerted effort to renew the Patriot Act in a form that maintains its most abusive components. A move by Republican leaders of the Senate to prevent Feingold from mounting a filibuster fell seven votes short of the number needed.A remarkable 47 senators – including Democrats and Republicans – backed the Wisconsin Democrat's stance. That's far more than the 40 needed to prevent a filibuster, and it means that Feingold now heads a coalition that should be able to force significant changes in the Patriot Act before the December 31 deadline for its renewal.
The Senate coalition that the maverick senator has assembled is made up of members from across the political spectrum – from Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, the dean of Senate liberals, to Idaho Republican Larry Craig, one of the chamber's most right-wing members – who have joined Feingold in calling for reform of the Patriot Act.
This coalition did not just form overnight.
It is the result of four years of hard work by Feingold and others who recognized that the fight to fix the Patriot Act would have to be a long-term struggle.
Some members of Congress were swayed by Feingold's constant pressure on Patriot Act issues, and by the fact that the senator was easily reelected in 2004 after a campaign in which he highlighted his opposition to the measure and his concern for the Constitution.
Others were influenced by the diligent efforts of U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and his allies in organizations of librarians and independent booksellers, who campaigned for three years to alert Americans to the fact that the Patriot Act allowed federal agents to collect information on the reading habits of law-abiding citizens.
Others, still, were convinced by the success that the Bill of Rights Defense Committee had in getting seven states and close to 400 communities across the country to go on record expressing concern about the damage done by the Patriot Act to Constitutional protections against illegal searches and other abuses.
"It's an example of public pressure reaching through to their elected representatives," Feingold said of the grassroots campaign to reform the Patriot Act. "It's a unique chapter in the history of civil liberties in this country."
So popular did the movement become that this week, with the December 31 deadline for reauthorizing the Patriot Act looming, the Bush administration and its Congressional allies were forced to use a backdoor maneuver to thwart reforms that had been unanimously agreed to by the Senate. A conference committee report that was supposed to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the reauthorization measure instead was turned into a vehicle to maintain the most controversial and unpopular components of the Act.
The White House and its Congressional allies thought they could secure reauthorization of the act in a form that allowed the Justice Department and other federal agencies to continue running roughshod over the Bill of Rights by bringing the measure up on the eve of the Holiday recess and then spinning up the usual hyperventilated talk about how it is necessary to crush the Constitution in order to keep the American people safe.
The maneuver worked in the House, where the report was approved Wednesday by a 251-174 vote. (The administration won that vote only because 44 Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel and Ben Cardin, a candidate for Maryland's open Senate seat in 2006 – voted with the vast majority of House Republicans for a measure that the American Civil Liberties Union condemned as lacking "needed safeguards to protect the privacy and constitutional freedoms of innocent Americans.")
But, even as the House fell in line with the administration's scheme, Feingold refused to back down. He met the White House onslaught with a promise to do everything in his power to block reauthorization of the act in a form that does not sufficiently address concerns about federal agencies entering the homes of citizens of innocent Americans, reviewing library and medical records as part of "fishing expeditions" and secretly subpoenaing information without following standard legal procedures.
Going into Friday's fight in the Senate, Feingold assembled an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans to press his case against reauthorization in the manner demanded by the administration. The coalition came together around the premise that freedom need not be sacrificed in order to maintain security.
While he had allies this time, it was still Feingold who took the lead – and who took the heat.
When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lobbied the Senate on behalf of the conference report, claiming that the version under consideration was respectful of civil liberties and pleading with senators to "trust" the administration to do the right thing, Feingold took to the floor of the Senate with a blistering response.
"Trust of government cannot be demanded, or asserted, or assumed, it must be earned," the senator said. "And this government has not earned our trust. It has fought reasonable safeguards for constitutional freedoms every step of the way. It has resisted congressional oversight and often misled the public about its use of the Patriot Act. And now the Attorney General is arguing that the conference report is adequate ‘protection for civil liberties for all Americans.' It isn't."
In the end, every Democratic senator except South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson (who voted with the Republicans), and Connecticut's Chris Dodd (who did not vote) sided with Feingold. So, too, did Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords and four conservative Republicans: Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Idaho's Craig, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and New Hampshire's John Sununu. (Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, an ally of the administration, also voted against cloture in order to maintain his ability to reopen the issue.)
The failure of the Senate to block Feingold's filibuster threat does not doom the Patriot Act. The likelihood is that it will be renewed in some form. But the version that is eventually approved should be significantly more respectful of the Bill of Rights than the version the administration wanted.
That's all that Russ Feingold has been asking for since he began his lonely challenge to the Patriot Act back in 2001. The only difference is that, now, Feingold's voice is part of a bipartisan chorus that is demanding that Constitutional rights be defended by the members of Congress who have sworn to uphold that document.
As Feingold said Friday, "Today's vote proves that this is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue and a constitutional issue. Now is the time to come together to give the government the tools it needs to fight terrorism and protect the rights and freedoms of innocent citizens."
George W. Bush has a new favorite senator: Joe Lieberman.
As part of his "I've-Got-a-Secret-Plan-That's-Just-As-Good-As-Nixon's" stump tour to shore up sagging support for his war in Iraq, the president has been talking up the Connecticut Democrat as just about the only official outside the administration who "gets it."
In his December 7 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Bush was quoting Lieberman -- a Vietnam war foe who eluded military service every bit as efficiently as did Vice President Dick Cheney -- as if the senator was a modern-day Carl von Clausewitz. Recalling Lieberman's most recent pro-war outburst -- "What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will, and, in a famous phrase, 'to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory'" -- the president declared: "Senator Lieberman is right."
Lieberman's over-the-top cheerleading for a war gone wrong has been just about the only good news that Bush has gotten on the domestic political front in recent weeks, and the president and his supporters are playing the senator's support for everything that it is worth. There is even speculation that Bush might pluck Lieberman from the Senate and award him a Cabinet post -- perhaps as Donald Rumsfeld's replacement at the Department of Defense.
Whatever Lieberman's poliutical trajectory may be, there is no question that it is being the cheered from the right.
Rare is the afternoon when Rush Limbaugh does not mention Lieberman's "courageous" support for the war on his radio show. Rarer still is the evening when the Democratic senator is not giggling along with Sean Hannity as Fox's propagandist-in-chief derides war critics as dupes, cowards and traitors. Hannity has gone so far as to announce that he will support Lieberman for reelection. And it is a reasonably safe bet that Lieberman will not face a serious challenge from the Republican right when he seeks reelection in 2006.
After all, this Democratic senator has a long track record of delivering for the conservative movement. Elected to the Senate in 1988 with the support of William F. Buckley and Buckley's National Review magazine, Lieberman has regularly sided with the Republican establishment on everything from trade policy to military misadventures. He has, as well, been Joey-on-the-spot when George W. Bush has needed an election ally.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Lieberman, who was then the party's vice presidential nominee, parted company with his running mate, Al Gore, to tell the Wall Street Journal that Gore's populist rhetoric wasn't serious. Don't take Gore seriously, Lieberman promised, Democrats could be counted on to deliver for corporate America.
During the Florida recount fight of that year, Lieberman told Democrats to back off their challenges to Republican efforts to count votes that were cast late or illegally.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, after Democrats had overwhelmingly rejected Lieberman's candidacy for their party's nomination, the senator traveled to the battleground state of Florida three weeks before the election and told a predominantly Jewish crowd in Delray Beach that criticism of Bush's Middle East policies were "unjustified." "We are dealing with a president who's had a record of strong, consistent support for Israel," Lieberman argued. "You can't say otherwise."
It's a safe bet that Bush will return the favor next year, making friendly statements about Lieberman at appropriate moments during the senator's reelection race.
Presumably, in a state that voted 54-44 for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, and where the president's approval rating has fallen to an abysmal 32 percent in recent polling, Bush's enthusiasm for Lieberman is something less than a plus for the Democrat.
But for Lieberman to be beat, he will have to have an opponent.
Despite a good deal of grumbling from Connecticut Democrats, as well as some national prodding from MoveOn,org, Democracy for America and other groups that want the Democrats to offer a choice rather than an echo, Lieberman does not face a serious Democratic primary challenge going into the 2006 election season. And, since Connecticut is not a state with a strong tradition of intraparty fights, Lieberman could well dodge the primary defeat he so richly deserves.
But that does not mean that the president's favorite senator will go without a serious anti-war challenge.
Former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, the Republican incumbent Lieberman narrowly beat in 1988, is talking seriously about taking the senator on next year. And Weicker would run as an anti-war candidate.
"I disagree 100 percent with the position (Lieberman''s) taken on this war. It mirrors that of the president, and obviously I disagree with the president," says Weicker, who adds, "I am interested in the war. I am interested in putting heat on people that continue to put us in the position that we're in in Iraq."
To be clear, Weicker, who is 74 and serves as president of the Trust for America's Health, would prefer to see someone else take on Lieberman. But, he says, he'll run if no one else does because he thinks it is so essential to challenge the senator's support of the war.
It would be wrong to see a Weicker campaign as a protest vehicle, however. Weicker remains a respected and potentially viable political player in Connecticut -- and nationally. After he was defeated in 1988, he turned around and won the governorship as the candidate of his independent "A Connecticut Party" in 1990. And, as recently as 2000, he was encouraged to run for the presidency on the Reform Party line.
What makes Weicker so appealing is that he is genuine maverick. As a Republican senator, he was a leading critic of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He supported civil rights and civil liberties, stood up for abortion rights and gay rights, backed campaign finance and ethics reforms, voted against right-wing judicial picks, condemned Nixon as the Watergate scandals were revealed and aggressively attacked Reagan and his aides for their Iran-Contra crimes.
When Weicker served in the Senate during the 1970s and 1980s, there were a good many moderate Republicans, and even some liberal members of the Grand Old Party. It is a measure of how far American politics has moved to the right that, without changing his politics at all, Weicker felt most comfortable in 2004 backing Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
But Weicker is no Democrat. Indeed, as Hartford Courant columnist Colin McEnroe explains, "I think it's almost impossible to overstate the degree to which, psychologically, Weicker has identified himself as a third party, independent guy. When you get him talking about that stuff, you realize it's really at the heart of how he sees himself these days."Weicker's independence -- and the fact that he has already won a statewide election without the benefit of major-party backing -- makes him all the more attractive as a challenger to Lieberman.
Make no mistake, it would still be an uphill challenge.
Lieberman retains an appeal to at least some Democrats -- he's got a strong record on the environment and a pretty good one on domestic labor issues -- and, of course, to Republicans who appreciate what he's done for Bush. But a genuine independent who challenges the incumbent on the most fundamental questions of war and peace will have appeal across the political spectrum.
Done right, a Weicker campaign could telescope the debate about Iraq and expose Lieberman for what his is: a politician whose moralizing has always been a mask for his overaching ambition.
A Lieberman-Weicker race could well give Connecticut the most interesting, issue-based Senate race in the country.
And it might just give George Bush the jolt he needs. After all, losing a favorite senator would be a blow to any president -- even a president as disengaged as this one.
So Weicker should run. Indeed, he must run.
Run, Lowell, run!
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.