November 30, 2006

Masturbatory Exercises in Substanceless Self-Promotion

The Associated Press reported Monday that, after a delay of more than a year, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) - which had been appointed ostensibly "to guard Americans' privacy and civil liberties during the war on terror" - has been made privy to the inner workings of the government's warrantless electronic eavesdropping program. The reactions of the board members were almost universally positive:

Board members told The Associated Press they were impressed by the safeguards the government has built into the NSA's monitoring of phone calls and computer transmissions and wished the administration could tell the public more about them to ease distrust.

"If the American public, especially civil libertarians like myself, could be more informed about how careful the government is to protect our privacy while still protecting us from attacks, we'd be more reassured," said Lanny Davis, a former Clinton White House lawyer who is the board's lone liberal Democrat.

Davis said he believes the administration could tell the public more about the program's protections without compromising national security.

Close on the heels of this article was another in the The San Jose Mercury News reporting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is launching an inquiry to determine whether the same Bush Administration warrantless surveillance program complies with government procedures. Prior to the mid-term elections, Congressional Democrats had been stonewalled in this inquiry by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department Inspector General who is now leading the investigation, and further obstructed when Fine passed the inquiry request to the Office of Professional Responsibility, whose investigators were then personally denied necessary security clearances by President Bush himself.

The implication of these stories is that a new spirit of openness has bloomed in the Bush White House, and that checks and balances are slowly being restored in the wake of the GOP's loss of both House and Senate majorities. Most tellingly, it is noted, even the "liberal Democrat" and "civil libertarian" on the PCLOB has expressed his wholehearted support for the protections that are built into the warrantless surveillance program. Clearly, there is a realization among Republican leadership that they have gone too far in their pursuit of the "War on Terror," and that fundamental constitutional rights must be preserved!

Or not.

Upon closer examination, it is revealed that the new investigation will not deal with the legality of the warrantless surveillance program, which was ruled both unconstitutional and illegal in August . (That ruling is being appealed by the government.) As Mr. Fine put it, the review will focus not on the NSA, but on the Justice Department, and will "examine the department's controls and use of information related to the program and the department's compliance with legal requirements governing the program." In other words, the Inspector General will check to make certain that the DOJ is complying with rules governing a program that violates both the law and the Constitution.

Further, the opinions of members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board - despite having been latched onto with fervor by Republican supporters - are wholly irrelevant. Individuals on the board may take whatever comfort they choose in what they have been shown by the Bush Administration, but it is difficult to understand why anyone should believe or accept that a sunny review from Lanny Davis* somehow trumps the rule of law. In short, the NSA warantless surveillance program remains illegal and unconstitutional, and the opinions of the Board are every bit as meaningless as its supposed powers of oversight.

The investigation by the Justice Department and the quotes from the PCLOB are not chance events, however, despite their lack of substance. Rather, they are elements of Bush Administration efforts to retrench its image and present a less imperial face to the public, while continuing to operate with the same utter disregard for the Constitution they have shown since claiming the White House. Senator Arlen Specter was quoted today expressing doubts that the incoming 110th Congress will be given details about the NSA program, and even the much-heralded Iraq Study Group's upcoming recommendations on the Iraq morass already appear to be nothing more than toothless re-spinning of the current stay-the-course "strategy".

The Democrats' retaking of Congress was an important milestone, but one need only observe that so-called advances and reassurances offered by the GOP continue to be nothing more than masturbatory exercises in substanceless self-promotion to determine that there has been very little actual change emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Recent actions are empty gestures and sound bites that will not restore the civil liberties that have been lost, address the laws that have been violated, or significantly change course in Iraq. The spots on the Republican leopard may no longer be as bold, but they have not changed.

* Even if the PCLOB's position could be considered a relevant counterweight to the most recent ruling on the program's illegality and unconstitutionality, it would still be the kind of conflict of interest that should be embarrassing to those who participate in it. The Board is staffed with people hand-picked by President Bush to monitor a program he himself champions, and to whom they report. Additionally, Lanny Davis' supposedly "liberal" credentials are wholly spurious. He has made statements backing GOP actions on Terri Schiavo, criticizing left-of-center blogs for positions taken within their comment sections by people other than the authors of those blogs, and even fretted that Democrats would somehow "politicize" the Jack Abramoff scandal that was so emblematic of the corruption in the Republican-controlled 109th Congress.

November 27, 2006

Force Degradation and the Need for a New Draft

On November 19th, Congressman Charles Rangel announced that he planned to once again introduce legislation to reinstate the draft, something he has done with previous bills in 2003, 2005 and earlier this year, without success. The proposed legislation would cover all men and women between the ages of 18 and 26, making military service compulsory for a subset of those individuals to be determined by the President based on need, with alternative national civilian service mandatory for the remainder. Active duty would last for 15 months, and there would be no deferments for education beyond the completion of high school (up to age 20), and for reasons of health or conscience.

Judging from statements by Mr. Rangel, there are three main justifications for this legislation:
  1. Insufficient numbers of American troops were deployed for the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Troops can only be kept in the field by extending deployments, calling back veterans who have previously served in combat, and placing additional burdens on reserve forces. These tactics are unsustainable, and are degrading our force structure.
  2. As the Iraq War drags on, an all-volunteer military is becoming increasingly unattractive to potential recruits with other career options. Accordingly, the most disadvantaged young people from areas of high unemployment will be increasingly likely to carry a greater share of the military burden.
  3. With the strain of deployment in Iraq, the United States does not have enough manpower to address other threats.
Of these supporting arguments, it is unquestionably the second which has received the most media exposure. With public opposition to reinstatement of the draft significantly higher than support for such a measure, Mr. Rangel's pledge has been almost universally tagged as a political maneuver, with the Congressman himself stating:
The President said in his State of the Union address that war was an option that remained on the table in dealing with these countries [Iran, Syria and North Korea]. In my view, the war option would not be on the table if the people being placed in harm's way were children of White House officials, members of Congress or CEOs in the boardrooms. As other people's children endure a grinding war, they have been given huge tax cuts, while our veterans have gotten cuts in health benefits.
Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has stated that she will not support restoration of the draft, but while this might defuse any political fallout from such legislation, it does nothing to address the very real issues of force degradation and the dearth of capacity to deal with additional threats. Further, criticisms of past draft-related legislation from Congressman Rangel - which any new bill will use as a template - that point to the hundreds of billions of dollars in additional costs that would be associated with a compulsory national service program, are justified.

If Mr. Rangel - or anyone else for that matter - is truly serious about addressing the fact that the Army has virtually no non-deployed, combat-ready brigades, the focus of legislation to address that problem must be tightly focused and as free of baggage as possible. National service is a laudable concept - issues of funding aside - but it is not a priority when the very ability of the United States to defend itself and its interests abroad has been hamstrung by the Bush Administration's irresponsible method for fighting the Iraq War.

Ike Skelton, the new Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has pledged to exercise oversight and to end the corruption and misplaced priorities that have so adversely affected those who currently serve in the armed forces. That is unquestionably the right thing to do, but it is not sufficient when the very soundness of the national defense is in question. The military has already lowered its personnel standards, increased financial incentives and raised the maximum age for enlistment in order to reach its recruitment goals and have a credible chance of doing so in the future. While there is probably some room to continue down the path of looser requirements and better pay, we are clearly running out of options that will allow the United States to field forces sufficient to meet current obligations - let alone potential future needs - without critically undermining the soundness of our force structure.

Undoubtedly, there are those who would see reinstatement of the draft as carte blanche for President Bush to pursue further adventurism, most particularly in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Mr. Bush cannot pursue military engagement with those (or other) countries unless the ranks of the armed forces grow, but reinstating the draft nonetheless remains the responsible thing to do. The American military cannot continue to operate under current conditions, and conscription would simultaneously help reduce public apathy about our luxury war in Iraq, while placing political constraints on pursuing additional armed conflict.

While it may be ironic that George W. Bush campaigned on the notion that the Clinton Administration had somehow over-used and underfunded our armed forces, and it is tempting and wholly justified to mock those who backed the Iraq War but refuse to serve in it, the reality is that the country is facing imminent crisis in both the near and long terms. The time to address the looming problem of force readiness is now, not when nascent threats have grown into full-blown peril.

The mechanism for addressing this crisis however, should not be Congressman Rangel's bloated national service legislation. Instead, it should be a tightly targeted reinvigoration of the current Selective Service mechanism with minimal deferrments. While there is little political will to pursue a new draft and it is unlikely to be reinstated anytime soon, without some form of conscription, war will remain a convenience that leaves most of the populace unaffected and which can be pursued with little resistance from voters - but only until the readiness of our armed forces is degraded to the point of failure.

November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

While the mid-term elections provided much for which to be thankful, there also remains a great deal for which we have every right to be ungrateful. It will certainly be increasingly difficult for President Bush to continue ramming his radical agenda down America's collective throat in the wake of the mid-term elections, but Thanksgiving day in particular can only be heart-rending for the families of those serving extended tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As you sit down to dinner with what will hopefully be a warm gathering of those closest to you, please be sure to remember those who are less fortunate, whether because of economic disadvantage, accident or birth, or simply because they risk their lives at the whim of incompetents. (And please be nice to one another, no matter how much you sometimes drive each other crazy!)

Happy Thanksgiving to all, wherever you may be!

(Sensen No Sen will return to it's semi-regular schedule next week.)

November 16, 2006

Martial Law Made Easy

While the full frontal assault on the Constitution that is the Military Commissions Act (MCA) has garnered some well-deserved attention and criticism, another wretched piece of legislation - with equally ominous implications for American democracy - was signed into law by President Bush on the very same day, but with much less fanfare. That law is H.R. 5122, the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 (JWNDAA). While the MCA has been cast by its supporters as a tool against foreign terrorists, what is most striking and frightening about the Warner Defense Authorization Act is that it explicitly targets citizens of the United States.

Two federal laws, the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, govern the president's ability to deploy troops on domestic soil for the purposes of, respectively, putting down "lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion," and broader law enforcement. Together, they are highly restrictive of presidential power, and they are the primary bastion against the use of America's military against its own citizens. H.R. 5122 removes this safeguard by modifying the Insurrection Act and effectively gutting Posse Comitatus provisions.

Section 1076 of the Warner Defense Authorization Act states:
The President may employ the armed forces, including the National Guard in Federal service, to... restore public order and enforce the laws of the United States...
In short, it allows the President to declare a "public emergency" and station troops anywhere in the United States, commandeering state-based National Guard units without the consent of governors or local authorities. It is an unprecedented level of power in the hands of the executive branch, and it threateningly echoes the MCA by allowing the President alone to determine the circumstances under which he exercises it.

Under this law, President Bush can take control of National Guardsmen from any state - again, over the the objections of that state's authorities - deploy them across the country on law enforcement assignments, and use them to suppress any portion of the citizenry he deems disorderly. Those citizens might be protesters or, given previous statements from Mr. Bush, people who object to forced quarantines in the event of a Bird Flu outbreak. It might be possible to regard H.R. 5122 as merely distasteful or poorly-considered legislation if it had been passed on its own, but the timing of its signing into law clearly marks it as complementary to the Military Commissions Act .

Those with any doubt need only consider that the JWNDAA permits mass round-ups and imprisonment in new large-scale facilities, the construction of which have already been contracted to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR). The New York Times reported earlier this year that KBR executives have stated that these facilities would be built to handle an "unexpected influx of immigrants [or] to house people in the event of a natural disaster" but, more chillingly, that they might also be used for "new programs that require additional detention space."

Clearly, the Military Commissions Act, the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act and the KBR contracts are elements of a coordinated assault on fundamental freedoms, from both foreign and domestic perspectives. Anyone who thinks either of these laws was passed for show need look no further than the cases of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Ali Partovi or Jose Padilla - all of whom have been held without charge for years - for confirmation that the Bush White House has few qualms about violating human rights or trashing long-standing Constitutional and legal protections, even when it comes to American citizens.

Taken together, the MCA and the JWNDAA represent the product of the fear which so thoroughly informs the national security policy decisions of the Bush Administration. They are emblematic of Mr. Bush's weakness, which chases easy solutions - no matter the consequences to democracy - rather than pursuing more difficult avenues that preserve civil liberties. To be sure, the job of the President of the United States of America is not an easy one, but it isn't supposed to be; and it is inarguable that a chief executive who fails to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution" - as demanded by his oath of office - has failed in his duties.

The results of the 2006 mid-term elections indicate that the public is awakening to the political, ethical and functional bankruptcy of the modern GOP. Democrats who will be in the majority in both the Senate in the House next January are in position to roll back some of the most egregious elements of the MCA and the JWNDAA, with Christopher Dodd planning to do just that on the former (hat tip to Crooks and Liars), and Patrick Leahy likely to take point on the latter. While these are not issues that will get the coverage or the attention of something like an increase to the federal minimum wage, they are crucial to the continued existence of our nation.

Overturning the Republican Congressional majority was only step one; keeping pressure on our elected officials to turn back government threats to our civil liberties must follow.

November 12, 2006

The Pitfall of Diminished Expectations

Immediately after the Republican Party lost control of Congress, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tendered his long-overdue resignation from President George W. Bush's cabinet. Although Rumsfeld was an architect of what may well be the worst foreign policy disaster for the United States in the last 100 years, and despite repeated calls for his dismissal, Mr. Bush had declared less than two weeks before the 2006 mid-terms that he intended to keep the beleaguered head of the Pentagon on the job through the end of his presidency. Just one day after the elections however, the President essentially admitted he had lied to reporters about his intention to keep Rumsfeld, and announced that he was being replaced with Robert M. Gates.

Mr. Gates, who has been serving as President of Texas A&M University, is by nearly all accounts professionally qualified to run the Department of Defense, but there remain serious concerns about whether or not he told the truth regarding what he knew about the Iran-Contra Scandal (from the Wayne Madsen Report; scroll to November 9):

Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates (is) in position to know about the Iran-Contra scandal. The Final Report of Judge Lawrence Walsh, the Independent Counsel for Iran-Contra Matters, issued on Aug. 4, 1993, concluded, "Robert M. Gates was the Central Intelligence Agency's deputy director for intelligence (DDI) from 1982 to 1986. He was confirmed as the CIA's deputy director of central intelligence (DDCI) in April of 1986 and became acting director of central intelligence in December of that same year. Owing to his senior status in the CIA, Gates was close to many figures who played significant roles in the Iran/contra affair and was in a position to have known of their activities."

The report continued, "Gates was an early subject of Independent Counsel's investigation, but the investigation of Gates intensified in the spring of 1991 as part of a larger inquiry into the Iran/contra activities of CIA officials. This investigation received an additional impetus in May 1991, when President Bush nominated Gates to be director of central intelligence (DCI)."

Walsh re-focused on Gates after Clair E. George, the CIA's Deputy Director for Operations stonewalled the prosecutor on the role of Gates in Iran-Contra crimes. Walsh reserved the right to re-open the investigation of Gates but was stymied by the non-cooperation of George and Gates. Walsh said new information "could have warranted reopening his inquiry [of Gates], including testimony by Clair E. George, the CIA's former deputy director for operations. At the time Independent Counsel reached this decision [not to prosecute Gates], the possibility remained that George could have provided information warranting reconsideration of Gates's status in the investigation. George refused to cooperate with Independent Counsel and was indicted on September 19, 1991. George subpoenaed Gates to testify as a defense witness at George's first trial in the summer of 1992, but Gates was never called."

It is clear from the Walsh Report that Gates was an integral part of the illegal network that sold TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon and that proceeds from the arms sales were illegally diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras. That put Gates inside a web of conspirators in the illegal arms sales and money transfers who included Oliver North, National Security Adviser John Poindexter, former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, intermediaries Manucher Ghorbanifar, Albert Hakim, Mohsen Kangarlu, and Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, Hashem Rafsanjani (the nephew of Iranian leader Ali Akbar Rafsanjani), and other senior CIA officials...

... Gates obfuscation on Iran-Contra continues to this day. As President of Texas A&M University, Gates has been the host for the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library. In the bowels of the library are presidential papers that could shine a bright light on the Iran-Contra scandal. However, in November 2001, George W. Bush signed an executive order that upended the 1978 Presidential Records Act and permits the Bush Iran-Contra papers to be kept secret in perpetuity. The executive order also affects 60,000 pages of papers from the Reagan Presidential Library that include details of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush's role in Iran-Contra.

Of even greater worry than his role in Iran-Contra, however, are the repeated allegations that Gates politicized intelligence when he was at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Considering that just such politicization was a key factor in the Bush Administration's selling of the Iraq invasion to the American people, this simply cannot be ignored. Although he is considered to have done a largely creditable job at the CIA, it is important to remember that a number of his contemporaries recall his editing of intelligence to fit policy rather than to shape it. As MSNBC reported:
When he heard today about Gates's nomination, “I nearly choked on my sandwich,” said Mel Goodman, a former Soviet analyst at the CIA who testified against Gates’s nomination to be CIA director in 1991. “This is not a guy who’s ever been accused of speaking truth to power. If you’re looking for somebody who’s going to change Iraq policy, he’s hardly the guy to do it. The only policy he’s going to consider is what is acceptable to the White House.”

During his 1991 testimony, Goodman testified that Gates, as deputy CIA director, consistently politicized intelligence-community reports about Iran, Nicaragua and Afghanistan in order to cater to the hard-line anti-Soviet policies of the Reagan White House. Gates’s role as deputy CIA director “was to corrupt the process and the ethics of intelligence on all of these issues.” When Goodman protested his actions, Gates “went off like a Roman candle,” Goodman said today. “It was the same kind of manufacturing of intelligence” in the run-up to the Iraq war, Goodman said.
Considering all this, it would not be unreasonable to expect Mr. Gates to be rejected by the new Democratic majority out of hand, but that doesn't appear to be the case. The truth of the matter is that Mr. Rumsfeld did such a horrible job and had such an awful relationship with Congress, that almost any successor will be deemed an improvement. Gates is palatable because he has close ties to the presidency of George H.W. Bush - considered to be representative of "realistic conservativism" as opposed to his son's ideological neoconservatism - and is a member of the Iraq Study Group (ISG), commissioned to reassess the situation in the Persian Gulf and recommend new courses of action in the Iraq War. In many ways, however, these may number among the already-formidable list of reasons he should be rejected as Secretary of Defense.

Of significant concern to the current President Bush, his father and the men of Mr. Bush the elder's administration, is the legacy of this presidency. While Mr. Gates can almost certainly be counted on in a general sense to have the interests of the United States at heart, it is also likely that his actions will be leavened with a strong desire to advance the interests of the Bush family, who are largely responsible for the rehabilitation of his career after Iran-Contra. (See Ron Suskind's excellent The One Percent Doctrine for an account of this type of dynamic in the relationship between President Bush and former CIA Director George Tenet.)

We must not fall into the trap of diminished expectations. A clean break is needed from the recent past, as well as the more distant, and as with the 2006 elections, fresh blood is required to begin righting the ship of state. George W. Bush has done nothing to demonstrate that he values clarity and independence over loyalty, nor, as his repeated attempts to circumvent the Senate with John Bolton's nomination demonstrate, does he appear to be operating in good faith bipartisanship, despite recent claims to such.

While Robert Gates is almost certainly not the worst of all possible choices to be the new Secretary of Defense, he is clearly nowhere near the best. Given the consistent incompetence and negligence that have been the hallmarks of this administration, and the increasingly dire situation in Iraq, it is crucial that we aspire to more than mediocrity. The Senate should reject his nomination.

November 8, 2006

The Real Work Begins

With the final capitulation of George Allen in the race to represent Virginia in the Senate on Thursday, the GOP majority in the upper house of Congress became extinct, completing the mid-term election sweep that began with governorships and the House of Representatives. Clearly unhappy with the direction of the country under the leadership of George W. Bush and the Republican legislature, Americans proved that - despite obstacles like robocalls, voter intimidation, and voting machine breakdowns - democracy in the United States is still functional despite the wounds it has suffered under the current president.

As General Wesley Clark noted:

... Americans took a stand against the politics of personal destruction -- rebuffing the onslaught of negative advertising and dirty tricks. Voters let themselves be heard and ordered a change in government, giving Democrats the opportunity to serve the nation and to provide the leadership that's been missing these past six years in Washington. With this opportunity comes great responsibility, and we must take the challenges ahead seriously, soberly and with clarity of purpose -- on issues like health care, the economy, education, and most of all, Iraq and national security.

Indeed, now is no time for Democrats to rest on their laurels, and no time for once-long shot campaigners to be startled by their own success. Fortunately, despite all manner of aspersions cast on her leadership, incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has an agenda for the first 100 hours and beyond that includes:

  • Breaking ties between lobbyists and legislators
  • Fully enacting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission
  • Increasing the minimum wage
  • Reducing the interest rate on federal student loans
  • Allowing the government to negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies for lower Medicare drug prices
  • Broadening the types of stem cell research supported with federal funds

These goals are not grandiose, but they are crucial steps that will both produce tangible public benefit and stand in stark contrast to the scandal and cronyism that have been endemic to Capitol Hill in recent years. Further, we can expect the new Democratic majority to pursue deficit reduction through roll-backs of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, as well as to restore congressional oversight of the president, and to pressure the White House to stabilize and withdraw (or at least "withdraw honorably") from Iraq. These latter two are almost certain to engender a showdown with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, who - apparently having slept through civics class as freshmen in high school - make no secret of their contempt for restraints on executive power.

While there have been complaints that the Democrats haven't expressed a coherent vision, all of this will be more than enough to occupy national attention, shape an identity for the party as the 2008 election approaches, and most significantly, begin to undo some of the havoc wrought on the country by the GOP.

Despite her frequent demonization by rightwing pundits, Ms. Pelosi has a well-deserved reputation as a tough and disciplined politician, and justifiable criticisms of her party aside, she has played a significant role in leading Democrats back to power after 12 years in the wilderness of opposition. She is not going to be the first female Speaker of the House by accident.

Nonetheless, she and her Senate counterpart, Harry Reid, will have their hands full if they are to successfully balance the needs and desires of the party faithful with those of the country as a whole, all while exercising oversight, checking presidential power, and avoiding temptations to reach beyond their grasp.

Importantly, it must also be remembered that the role of the public is not complete with the close of the polls. For although Ms. Pelosi has pledged that "Democrats will create the most open and honest government in history," we must hold her to her word. While it is to be hoped that the new Speaker will be reminded of the consequences of over-reaching whenever she looks across the aisle, the real work begins now, and there is no substitute for an informed - and involved - public.

November 6, 2006

There Are No Lines They Will Not Cross

Tomorrow is zero hour for the 2006 mid-term elections, and while all major polls have Democrats ahead, there are a few signs - at least from some of the more conservative surveys - that the race has tightened. As was the case in the 2004 presidential contest, it appears that voter turn-out will play a key role in determining which party claims victories in the House and in the Senate, and in another similarity to 2004, the Republican Party has pulled out all the stops and is flexing its arsenal of voter suppression tactics and sleazy advertising.

As the final round of dirty tricks from the GOP runs its course, there is still reason to expect that sentiment against the current majority party will carry the day in at least one house of Congress, but we must remain alert to potential complacency and committed to action. There are valid concerns over both the accuracy of counts and the legal challenges that will almost certainly follow in the wake of close contests, and it is vital that each ballot produce as clear a winner as possible.

Simply put, ethics and oversight must be restored in Congress. Our lazy, incompetent and corrupt federal legislature has been nothing short of an abject failure, rolling over for President Bush at every turn, and freely allowing him to gut the bill of rights, legalize torture and imprisonment without charge, and waste trillions of dollars on a war of choice that is spiraling out of control and which was doomed to failure before a shot was fired. Corruption and criminal activity have rid us of some of the worst of the worst, but for every Tom Delay, Duke Cunningham and Bob Ney, there remain ample targets for dismissal from public service.

As we near the finish line, incumbent Republicans have distanced themselves from the president and from their own actions, and pundits - eager to restore our faith in their sagacity - are lying about their own positions and past support for failed policies as they try to push at least a few undecided voters back toward the GOP. Be warned and be vigilant; this is a White House that has lied and obfuscated repeatedly to get what it wants. It is supported by legislators that lie and obfuscate just as much, and propped up further by an infrastructure of loyal talking heads and biased reportage that lies and obfuscates even harder. As Keith Olbermann notes in his November 2nd special commentary (below, in two parts), there are no lines the Bush Administration and its supporters will not cross:

This election is the first step in repairing the awful damage inflicted on the United States by George W. Bush, the Republican Congress and all of their supporters. It is the first step in restoring our republic.


November 1, 2006

Deeds That Matter and Words That Don't

On Monday, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, caused a firestorm of finger-pointing and posturing from the Bush White House and Congressional Republicans when he inadvertently omitted some key words from a scripted one-liner at a rally for college-aged Democrats in California. Having intended to poke at the president with the following:

Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.

Kerry instead flubbed:

You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.

Apparently willing to turn a blind eye to the irony of George W. "The Decider" Bush and his supporters criticizing anyone for poor public speaking skills or mangled syntax, the GOP jumped on Mr. Kerry's gaffe with enthusiasm, whipping themselves into a froth of outrage and demanding that the Bay State's junior senator "apologize to the troops" for implying that members of the armed forces are uneducated. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow claimed it was an "absolute insult," and House Majority Leader John Boehner and Senator John McCain piled on. Keith Olbermann's report on the manufactured crisis is below:

Leaving aside for a moment the somewhat ridiculous contention that a former military man would essentially be insulting himself if Republican assertions were accurate, as can be seen in the video, Senator Kerry is clearly talking about President Bush, and not military personnel. Nonetheless, after initially striking back hard at his critics from across the aisle, Mr. Kerry swallowed his pride and apologized directly to the troops for any insult he may have caused, loathe to be the source of traction for Republicans so close to the mid-term elections.

As usual, what was lost in the scramble for political points was what actually mattered: Even if Senator Kerry had really intended to insult our men and women in uniform, it changes nothing; Mr. Kerry is not on the ballot, and the policies of the Bush Administration in Iraq continue to be an unqualified disaster, with soldiers on the ground now stating that they believe it may be decades before the country is stable. As General Wesley Clark and a number of Iraq War vets remind us in a new ad, it is all about Iraq, not about poorly-delivered jokes from John Kerry:

While Mr. Kerry's comments weren't, in fact, about the troops, it is fair to say that anything about Iraq and, for that matter, Afghanistan, really is also about the people who risk their lives for this country - just not in the way that the current iteration of the Republican Party would have us believe. While America's armed forces have been a handy prop for scoring meaningless points against political opponents and as a backdrop for presidential photo ops, the reality of this administration's treatment our men- and women-at-arms is truly appalling.

The cutting of veterans' benefits has been an ongoing effort by the Bush Administration for most of its tenure at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with no single incident better representing that fact than the statement by the Pentagon's Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, David Chu, that:
The amounts [paid in veterans' benefits] have gotten to the point where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation's ability to defend itself.
So, while Air Force leadership can, with a straight face, request $50 billion in "emergency funds" - an amount equal to roughly half it's annual budget next year - genuine emergencies that affect service members on an individual basis aren't addressed with additional money, but by plundering accounts that pay for their healthcare and other benefits.

And make no mistake: veterans need those benefits. It has gotten so bad, in fact, that the number of military households relying on charitable donations of food is growing alarmingly each month. Some families are now so deeply in debt that the affected servicemen and -women themselves are deemed security risks, and barred from overseas service.

Perhaps even worse than the way in which living members of the armed forces are treated however, is the crass manner in which those killed in action are dehumanized to bolster the posturing machismo of our Commander-in-Chief and his followers. The war dead are hidden away - the president having expressly forbidden photographing flag-draped coffins returning to U.S. soil - never to be discussed as other than faceless statistics, and with any attempt to memorialize the fallen as more than mere grist for the Bush foreign policy war machine derided as unpatriotic.

To fully grasp the utter contempt this administration has for our troops, one need only revisit the story of Pat Tillman, the safety for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals who spurned a lucrative contract to volunteer for the Rangers and serve in Afghanistan after 9/11. By most accounts, Tillman was no right-wing zealot, but he came from a family of soldiers, and had a need to experience things firsthand. A natural leader who won the respect of those around him, he acquitted himself well in the Army, and his story was one to which the backers of the War in Iraq pointed as an example of the type of selfless patriotism they hoped to see from the rest of us.

When Pat Tillman was killed in 2004, the nation bowed its head when we were told he had died bravely in battle, and the former defensive back was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Later, however - after a memorial service that was milked for all the flag-waving propaganda it could generate - we learned that he had actually died in a friendly fire incident, killed by American troops.

The Army had known that fact almost immediately, but suppressed it until after the service, so when its subsequent investigation determined that Tillman's death was accidental and unavoidable, Pat's mother, Mary, smelled a rat and began digging on her own. She has been digging ever since, and it is to her credit - and the eternal disgrace of military leadership - that, last March, the Inspector General's office pressed the Army into opening a fifth investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of her son. Her words put it best:
They tried to attach themselves to his virtue; then they wiped their feet with him.
Next week brings us both the mid-term elections on November 7th, and Pat Tillman's birthday on the sixth. With those thoughts weighing on his mind, Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother and fellow professional athlete-turned-Ranger, wrote a searing and passionate letter that reminds us what has really taken place behind all of the rhetoric and posing for the cameras:

Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.

Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow torture is tolerated.

Somehow lying is tolerated.

Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.

Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.

Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.

Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.

Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.

Somehow this is tolerated.

Somehow nobody is accountable for this.

In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people. So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity. Most likely, they will come to know that “somehow” was nurtured by fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchallenged parasites.

Luckily this country is still a democracy. People still have a voice. People still can take action. It can start after Pat’s birthday.

As we near election day, please take time to think about the families of servicemen dependent on donated food and crushed by debt. Think about the deaths of human beings that have been manipulated for political gain, and then thrown aside when they are no longer useful. Think about men who have served their country and men who have not. Think about deeds that matter and words that don't, and think about who should be apologizing to whom.

Hold onto Kevin Tillman's words when the people who have twisted and damaged our nation would have you look not at their ineptitude, but at the meaningless, the trivial and the unimportant. Hold onto his words when those who seek to avoid accountability pretend to righteousness in the face of shifting poll numbers and the stench of hubris and stupidity revealed. Above all, hold onto these words when you cast your vote next week, and hold onto them as we work to repair the damage inflicted by men and women who have done nothing to justify their occupation of the offices they currently hold or the influence they wield.

And when you are done voting, hold onto these words still; for Pat Tillman, for Kevin Tillman, for Mary Tillman, and for all the other families like them. Hold onto them so that we can help ensure that "somehow" doesn't happen again.