Various items

Journalists' use of anonymity, Cheney's use of the New York Times and the Beltway's use of war.

Published August 1, 2007 10:41AM (EDT)

(updated below)

I am traveling for the next couple of days and posting will therefore be erratic or non-existent. For now, several items of note:

(1) For several years, I favored the enactment of a federal shield law for journalists to bar the compelled disclosure of the identity of their anonymous sources. But I have become much more ambivalent on that issue and Fred Hiatt, in advocating for such a law this morning, highlights the reason why in the first paragraph of his Editorial:

MANY OF the stories that expose government malfeasance, sear the nation's conscience, highlight violations of public trust or expose gross abuses of power come to light because people come forward to point journalists in the right direction or offer direct testimony on the condition that their names not be revealed. Protecting the identity of a source is a bedrock of American journalism.

If it were true that journalists used anonymous sources for these purposes -- to "expose government malfeasance" and "gross abuses of power" -- then a federal shield law would be important. But these days, at least on the level of the national political press, anonymity is used for those purposes in a tiny minority of cases. In the vast majority of instances, anonymity has a far different and far less noble purpose -- to enable our most powerful political officials to disseminate pro-government claims, information and propaganda through the media without any accountability.

Anonymity is still critical for good investigative journalism. Without it, we would not know about NSA warrantless eavesdropping or CIA black sites or "rendition" programs and a whole slew of other illegal and destructive acts engaged in secretly by this administration. But generally speaking, Hiatt's noble depiction of anonymity is pure fiction. It is used far, far more often to enable government mischief and even criminality, not to expose it. And that changes the calculus for determining whether a law should be enacted shielding this practice from the reach of investigations.

(2) NYT, September 8, 2002, by Michael Gordon and Judy Miller: "More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today. . . . In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium."

Dick Cheney, the same morning, on Meet the Press: "VICE PRES. CHENEY: Specifically aluminum tubes. There's a story in The New York Times this morning -- this is -- I don't -- and I want to attribute The Times. I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it's now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire, and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel, the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge."

NYT, two days ago, by Ken Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon: "A War We Just Might Win. . . . VIEWED from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel . . . ."

Dick Cheney, yesterday, on CNN with Larry King: "THE VICE PRESIDENT: I believe so. I think we're seeing already -- from others; don't take it from me, look at the piece that appeared yesterday in The New York Times -- not exactly a friendly publication -- but a piece by Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Pollack on the situation in Iraq. They're just back from visiting over there. They both have been strong critics of the war, both worked in the prior administration; but now saying that they think there's a possibility, indeed, that we could be successful."

From the administration's mouths, to the pens of obedient journalists and pundits, back into the administration's mouths.

(3) The Democratic Leadership Council held its convention this week and virtually no media outlets gave it real coverage other than, fittingly enough, The Politico. Its article is filled with the usual quotes about how Americans hate excessively aggressive politics and partisan behavior and Democrats will therefore be in big, big trouble unless they make friends with Republicans (do they ever ask themselves how the not-exactly-congenial Republicans managed to win in 2000, 2002, and 2004)? In the middle of the article, one finds this:

Some politicians were blunt in acknowledging that they do not fully trust their own party's political instincts -- particularly when it comes to national security.

"Democrats are capable of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. We've done that a few times," said Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.).

"If we become the anti-war party, that's not beneficial to Democrats in 2008," Davis said. "Bill Clinton ordered our troops and worked with NATO in Bosnia," he continued. "That's the kind of pro-war Democrat that we ought to be: the war that we fight wisely, the ones that we engage in wisely."

This is the most extraordinary aspect of our political culture. Rep. Davis' assumption is that we are going to be fighting a series of "wars." That is just a given. And the only question is whether we will fight our wars "wisely" or unwisely. We are a nation more or less permanently at war, and we really do not debate whether that should be the case. Enforced Beltway orthodoxy requires that this is a given and anyone who challenges that premise will be deemed extremist and insane (see e.g., Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, "paleoconservatives," the "anti-war left", "isolationists," etc.).

The Grand Beltway Consensus, one that encompasses both parties, is that War is how we rule the world. The only debates allowed are how many we should fight, where we should fight them, and how "wisely" we prosecute them. And the principal reason that we don't really debate the fact that we are a Nation permanently at war is because such a tiny percentage of our population -- and an even tinier percentage of our Beltway opinion-making elite -- actually bears the burdens of those wars (at least directly).

(4) Also in The Politico, the intrepid Jim VandeHei digs up a shocking development. In VandeHei's mind, the "conventional wisdom" is that that "President Bush will be forced to shift plans and begin bringing U.S. troops home in early 2008 after a military progress report is delivered to Congress next month." But, he reports in an unexpected twist, this might not actually happen! "Yet there are very good reasons to believe the prevailing conventional wisdom on Iraq might turn out to be wrong once again."

How can that be? What earth-shattering event could possibly derail what all of Official Washington believes is the inevitability of a September GOP mutiny and a subsequent decision by Bush to withdraw our troops? This is the completely shocking revelation VandeHei reports:

Congress has essentially hit pause on the war debate until next month, when Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, delivers a detailed summary of progress -- or lack thereof. Almost all the Republican members have said they will withhold judgment until they review the Petraeus report. . . .

In other words, Bush will not adjust the strategy if Petraeus says it is working. And there are growing indications Petraeus will report significant military progress tempered by continued political problems in Iraq, according to Republicans in close contact with Bush.

VandeHei's secret sources reveal that Petraeus is planning on reporting that the strategy he designed, advocated and implemented is, in fact, working. Who would have guessed? And the fact that Petraeus' happy report will be "tempered by continued political problems in Iraq" is supposed to show that Petraeus' report is balanced and candid, even though the actual formula -- the real purpose -- for this "tempered" report is clear:

"Significant military progress" = "the Surge is working."

"Continued political problems in Iraq" = "job not yet done; must stay longer."

To our nation's premiere political reporters, it is "news" -- something which they have to hear from "Republicans in close contact with Bush" in order to know -- that Gen. Petraeus is going to come to Washington in September, announce that we are making great progress, warn that our job is not yet done, the Republican "mutiny" will disappear, and we will stay in Iraq through the end of the Bush presidency.

And just for good measure:

The clearest sign of Bush's September plan is that the White House has launched a new preemptive campaign to convince lawmakers the surge plan is working.

Significantly, GOP leaders are helping. This started with Bush pulling in GOP lawmakers and then leading conservative columnists last month to argue the war is going better than perceived -- and to spread the word he has no plans to retreat. . . .

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) showed Tuesday morning how Republicans are still rallying to Bush's side. "Analysts and commanders on the ground report surge successes," read an alert the Boehner operation sent to reporters.

Guess who they cited? U.S. commanders -- and what he called the "liberal" Brookings Institution (O'Hanlon and Pollack.

I actually didn't think that the White House would be able to get the media on board yet again with the "We-Are-Winning-in-Iraq-Again" game, but after witnessing the events of the last couple of weeks, I realize now how wrong and naive that was. It is working already, better than they probably imagined.

(5) The White House released a letter yesterday (.pdf) regarding Gonzales' FISA testimony, in which they implied that the "TSP" -- as such -- began only once the President confirmed the program in December 2005. But after Alberto Gonzales testified about the NSA program in February, 2006, he was forced to send a lengthy letter (.pdf) several weeks later "clarifying" (i.e., correcting) much of the testimony he gave on the key issues and, among other things, this is what he said about when the "TSP" began:

That is a rather direct admission that the "TSP" -- as such -- began in October, 2001.

And as for the administration's recently unveiled claims that FISA must be amended and liberalized ASAP otherwise we will be unsafe from the Terrorists, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have been asking the White House for almost two years what revisions to FISA are needed, and it was the White House that continuously insisted that no such changes were needed. From Gonzales' letter:

The only reason FISA has not been amended since December, 2005 -- when it was revealed that the President was violating it -- is because the White House has blocked all legislation designed to revise it.

(6) I will be at Yearly Kos from Thursday to Sunday and will post the panel information and other events I am doing tomorrow (Ari Melber of The Nation is moderating one of those panels and has written about it here).

Also, as a reminder for those in the Washington D.C. area, the Cato Institute -- this Tuesday, August 7 at 12 noon -- is hosting an event for A Tragic Legacy, where I will speak on the book, followed by critical commentary from pro-Bush lawyer Lee Casey, followed by audience questions/comments. Details on the event, including how to obtain tickets (which are free), are here.


(6) Apparently, both the administration and the Democratic leadership in the Senate are offering competing bills to revise FISA. I have not had time to review them yet, but the always excellent Ryan Singel of Wired has a lengthy analysis of the many flaws in the administration's proposal (along with the media's typical inability to understand even the basic issues at stake with the NSA scandal).

Meanwhile, Sen. Feingold, whose judgment on eavesdropping issues is more reliable than anyone else's in the Senate, dislikes both the White House proposal and the one from the Democratic leadership in the Senate:

Statement of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold [via e-mail]

On the Proposed FISA Legislation:

We need to wiretap terrorists, and we should address the problem that has been identified with FISA with respect to foreign-to-foreign communications. But the administration's overly broad proposal goes far beyond that and would leave critical decisions related to surveillance involving Americans entirely up to the Attorney General.

The proposal from the Democratic leadership is better and involves FISA court review from the start. But it does not have adequate safeguards to protect Americans' privacy. The bill should also include a 90-day sunset to ensure Congress has the chance to identify and fix any problems with this new proposal.

After the White House actively resisted any FISA revisions for several years, they suddenly decided that revising FISA is a matter of the greatest urgency, and the extent to which Congressional Democrats allow themselves to be manipulated by that tactic remains to be seen.

By Glenn Greenwald

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