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Plame and Wilson: still “Fair Game” for the Washington Post

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th December 2010

This weekend I saw the movie “Fair Game,” and I highly recommend it.  I also highly recommend you read the Washington Post editorial condemning the movie, which might be titled “Who ya gonna believe — us or your lying eyes?”  It should become Exhibit A for evidence of the true function of the Washington Post: not so much a newspaper as the lying mouthpiece of the permanent government of the United States.

The online version of the Post will tell you online that a Saturday, December 4 editorial in that paper was headlined “Hollywood myth-making on Valerie Plame controversy.” But that’s just the first lie you’ll encounter in this hit piece, which was actually titled “Dirty ‘Game’” in the print edition.  The piece begins, “WE’RE NOT in the habit of writing movie reviews. But the recently released film “Fair Game” – which covers a poisonous Washington controversy during the war in Iraq – deserves some editorial page comment, if only because of what its promoters are saying about it,” and continues:

…Fair Game,” based on books by Mr. Wilson and his wife, is full of distortions – not to mention outright inventions. To start with the most sensational: The movie portrays Ms. Plame as having cultivated a group of Iraqi scientists and arranged for them to leave the country, and it suggests that once her cover was blown, the operation was aborted and the scientists were abandoned. This is simply false. In reality, as The Post’s Walter Pincus and Richard Leiby reported, Ms. Plame did not work directly on the program, and it was not shut down because of her identification.

That’s interesting, because what Pincus and Leiby actually reported was this:

As reporters who covered the Plame CIA leak affair, as it came to be known, we compared the reality of what unfolded in Washington in that era against the events that the screenwriters and director of “Fair Game” boiled into their narrative. The movie holds up as a thoroughly researched and essentially accurate account — albeit with caveats.

Moreover, the “caveats” amount to quibbles — mainly about the centrality of Plame’s precise role in the Iraqi scientist program, and this: “[a]lthough the film suggests that the blowing of Valerie’s cover led directly to the shutdown of the Iraqi scientist exfiltration, an intelligence insider told us: “Something like this, if it was going on, wouldn’t have been canceled for this reason.” Well, say no more!  Any anonymous intelligence insider’s word should do for a Washington Post reader.

But even if you take the ‘agency officials’ and ‘insiders’ at their word and grant the accuracy of their estimates,

(1) whether or not the exfiltration was canceled because Plame’s cover was blown by Novak’s article doesn’t change that the blown cover put the Iraqis at greater risk, and
(2), Plame’s fundamental connection to the pre-war CIA Iraq WMD investigation — whether her spot in some CIA org chart was ‘central,’ ‘direct,’ ‘lateral,’ or ‘upside down’  — is actually substantiated by the Pincus/Leib report.

As the reporters write, “The movie effectively dispenses with the canard that Valerie Plame Wilson was not a covert operative” - rebutting a frequent suggestion at the time that no real crime had been committed in revealing her CIA connection.

The editorial also revives the myth that Bush’s famous sixteen words in his 2003 State of the Union speech — “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — were in fact “well founded,” citing the Butler Report and the Roberts Senate Foreign Affairs Committee report. Setting aside the metaphysics of whether believing something happened when it clearly didn’t could ever be ‘well founded’, Steve Benen points out that’s not so: the White House knew the claims were dubious at the time… as the Washington Post’s own Peter Eisner reported 3 years ago:

Dozens of interviews with current and former intelligence officials and policymakers in the United States, Britain, France and Italy show that the Bush administration disregarded key information available at the time showing that the Iraq-Niger claim was highly questionable.*

The editorial also more or less baldly recycles the innuendo that Joe Wilson was recruited by his wife, as some kind of gift to a failing career, to go to Niger and look in to claims of a huge yellowcake shipment to Iraq (“it was long ago established that Mr. Wilson himself was not telling the truth – not about his mission to Niger and not about his wife.”).  But the movie shows very successfully, how that was always an intentional distraction: as Wilson asks a student forum, “How many of you know the sixteen words Bush said about uranium in Africa? “  None raise their hands.  “How many of you know my wife’s name?”  Everyone raises their hands.

Meanwhile the Post hosts foaming-at-the-mouth neocons like Charles Krauthammer — delicately tiptoeing (as it were) to the brink of calling for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s assassination in a “might someone wield a poison umbrella and rid us of this meddlesome hacker” kind of way.  (This for publishing leaked material Assange first offered to the State Department for vetting for dangerous information.  Clearly, the Brezhnev-era KGB could have used Krauthammer, he’s their kind of guy.)  Earlier this year, after the similarly harmless Iraq leaks, Marc Thiessen called for development of a computer virus that would destroy computers accessing the Wikileaks site.    Don’t get me wrong: it’s Krauthammer’s and Thiessen’s perfect right to say whatever authoritarian, borderline insane notion crawls into their minds, and it’s the Post’s right and apparent duty to provide them with a lucrative platform to do so.  It’s also mine to despise them for wanting to actively and destructively reduce the information available to citizens of the United States.  (For its part, the Post editorial board has merely tut-tutted about lax security in the Pentagon that allowed the leaks.)

But back to “Fair Game” and Iraq.  Had the Washington Post not been an active party to the disastrous war fever that swept Washington and the country (and me along with it) back in 2002 and 2003, this might be merely pathetic, or perhaps darkly comical.  After all, we have here the Washington Post editorial board (presumably Fred Hiatt) twisting its own reporting and the facts in eerily precise analogy to the Bush White House twisting its intelligence findings or lack thereof.  There’s also evidence of learning from the Rovian master in how the Post piously decries the film as evidence of a “troubling trend of political debates in Washington in which established facts are willfully ignored” – a charge more sensibly leveled at Cheney, Bush, Rove …and the Washington Post, for that matter.   Good boy Freddy! — here’s a cocktail party invitation.

But the Post was a party to that war — as eager and willing to beat the drums then and now as Hearst’s yellow journalism was in other bad old days.  So it’s not pathetic and it’s not funny — it’s disgusting and it’s outrageous.  Almost worse — given its role as a newspaper of record in a republic allegedly professing democratic ideals and a distrust of power — it’s an active party to an ongoing propaganda campaign to twist and rewrite the history of that war.

The masthead of the Post’s editorial page reads “The Washington Post: An Independent Newspaper.”  Would that it were so.

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* Moreover, as ThinkProgress’s Matt Duss points out, what the Butler report actually says is that British intelligence on the Iraq-Niger connection was seriously flawed, ignoring important caveats and relying on third hand reports to arrive at its conclusion.

NOTE: Something I first learned from the movie — and not disputed by Pincus/Leib or the editorial –  was that Wilson ascertained that the “sixteen words” in fact referred to the Niger claim he had debunked, and not some other corner of Africa.  I mention this because my initial reaction to the Wilson article in July 2003 – during my regrettable support for the Iraq War — was a rather technical view that the “sixteen words” were, at least on their face, carefully and plainly chosen enough not to be a lie: someone else made the claim and I thought it might not have been about Niger. That becomes unsupportable with this added piece of information.

UPDATE, 12/7: Peter Eisner leaves a comment (see below), and David Corn — author of Hubris, and editor at Mother Jones — weighs in (“Washington Post: Still Spinning the CIA Leak Case): “…it’s the Post editorial board that is ignoring key facts and selectively citing evidence to manufacture a narrative of its own liking: Joe Wilson lied, and Bush & Cheney did not (with an assist from the Post editorial page) mislead the nation into war. The difference between the editorialists and the filmmakers, though, is that Hiatt and his colleagues, as journalists, cannot claim dramatic license.”

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Two little countries, one little prize

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th October 2009

I guess it’s good to see that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can really get busy when America’s values and interests are on the line.  Mark Landler and Sebnem Arsu of the New York Times report from Zurich (“Turkey and Armenia, After Hitch, Normalize Ties“):

Sitting in the back of a black BMW sedan at a hilltop hotel here, aides thrusting papers at her, Mrs. Clinton worked two cellphones at once as she tried to resolve differences between the Armenian foreign minister, Eduard Nalbandian, and his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu.

Too bad all that drama was on behalf of a deeply flawed pact between Turkey and Armenia.  While it’s hailed as a breakthrough, it seems to me the reality is that an exhausted Armenia surrendered too much in return for normalized relations between the two countries.  The difficulty, as ever, was in Turkey’s ongoing campaign to obfuscate and deny its responsibility for the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18.

It’s not a great sign that the difficulty Clinton solved rested on Armenian objections to Turkish post-signing statements, nor that the solution she brokered was for the Turkish delegation not to say anything.  The text of the protocols includes language bitterly denounced by many (but not all) Armenian diaspora organizations — specifically, text appearing to pledge Armenia to not taking an active role in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, and text calling for the two countries to

Implement a dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence between the two nations, including an impartial and scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations…

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has posted an annotated copy of the protocol, and comments that this

…secure[s] Armenia’s tacit support for [Turkey's] longstanding aim of downgrading the Armenian Genocide from a matter of settled history [...] At the same time that Turkey is seeking to gain credit internationally by appearing open to dialogue, its government is enforcing Article 301 and other laws criminalizing even the discussion of the genocide.

Turkey is reportedly open to ‘accepting the verdict’ of such a historical commission — but my guess is that commission will deadlock, with Armenian and many outside historians saying one thing, Turkish ones (though there are honorable exceptions) saying another, and Turkish politicians saying “see? No one can agree.”

The Washington Post reports that Secretary Clinton was in “frequent contact with the two sides in recent weeks“, and President Obama called Armenian president Sarkissian to salute him in advance for his “leadership” in accepting the deal.  While some news reports point to regional and U.S. interest in building an anti-Russian alliance in the Caucasus, others cite simpler, more profitable reasons.  The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall:

International pressure on Turkey and Armenia not to let the chance of a rapprochement slip is intense. Both are vital links in the chain of actual or planned western oil and gas pipelines stretching from central Asia to Europe.

Set that against a mere 1.5 million dead in the first modern genocide, and I suppose it was always clear what Clinton’s BMW drama and Obama’s Oval Office phone calls were going to be about — never mind Obama’s own campaign promise to have the U.S. call the Armenian Genocide by name.

Honduras
The Obama administration has been displaying no such sense of urgency in Latin America’s first coup in years — Roberto Micheletti and his clique’s ousting of rightful Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.  As is well known, Zelaya recently ‘infiltrated’ his own country after his forcible exile, seeking asylum and support in the Brazilian embassy.

Despite strong support from the OAS (Organization of American States) for Zelaya, and even official acknowledgment by the U.S. State Department  that a coup took place, the Obama administration has not taken further concrete steps to put pressure on the Micheletti coup regime — including, at minimum, Secretary of State Clinton’s active efforts to restore an elected leader of an OAS member country to power.

Meanwhile, in Honduras, the coup leaders continue to repress their opposition (often lethally),  have set and lifted curfews, and have claimed the right to curtail freedom of speech to secure their hold on power, and carried out or condoned attacks on independent radio stations.  Now, the standoff at the Brazilian embassy is getting more tense.  Adrienne Pine, who has been monitoring the Honduran media, reports:

Platforms with highly armed sharpshooters installed outside the embassy, using telescopic and infrared targeting systems, just meters away from the windows of the building where the president, his family, and many others are held hostage by the regime.

(Photos are at the link.)  You’d think that would be worth a flurry of cell phone calls.

A Nobel foreign policy?
After the same initial “for what?” reaction everyone else had, I figured that despite my many reservations about Obama, awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize was a decent strategic choice by the Nobel committee.  As the Nobel committee’s press release put it,

The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

I can agree about the nuclear weapons efforts, where Obama has restored nuclear nonproliferation and arms reduction to prominence in U.S. and world foreign policy. That’s important enough that giving him a prize in advance may actually make some sense — maybe this way he’ll stick with this issue the way he sometimes doesn’t with others.  (For more on this, see especially nonproliferation experts Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares, and William Hartung of the New America Foundation.)

Much of the rest of the statement rings hollow, though — especially that last sentence.  But I can fix it with just two words: “when convenient.”

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UPDATE, 10/10: ANCA is running a “Tell the President: Genocide Shouldn’t Pay” email protest campaign against US support for the Turkey-Armenia protocol.  From the message:

The United States should address genocide as a moral imperative, not as a geo-political commodity to be traded or sold to the highest bidder. Sadly, however, that is exactly what has happened. Turkey enlisted the powerful, sustained, and very likely decisive support of our government in its shameless but nonetheless successful effort to compel Armenia into acceptance of a set of humiliating and dangerous concessions.

UPDATE, 10/11: See also “Stop The Protocols” website, created by Armenian American student groups.
UPDATE, 10/14: Naturally, the Washington Post editorializes in favor of the protocols.  Nice line: “The genocide issue — and the refusal of some in the American Armenian community to compromise on it — still threatens to undo the deal.” How unreasonable of “some” in the American Armenian community! One hopes the Post would never urge Jewish groups to compromise on recognition of the Holocaust, even if some groups had the so-called “common sense” to acquiesce to a process even the Post acknowledged could “filibuster” the issue.

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Department of followups

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th July 2009

An occasional review of further developments in stuff I’ve written about before.

Practice to deceive, 04/22/08 — This was a post about how several key figures like John Yoo, Douglas Feith, David Addington, and William Haynes II used outright deceit to advance the torture policies they favored. I argued that

“In each case, the deception was needed in order to grease the skids for an immoral and criminal policy, by either sidestepping persons or offices with inconvenient integrity, or by pretending to agree with them even as the diametrically opposite decision was taken. In each case above the deception itself answers the question, “was the torture policy advocate acting in good faith?”

That, in turn, arguably speaks to a so-called “consciousness of guilt“, which can be proven by showing such deceptions and which is admissible circumstantial evidence in criminal trials.

Eric Holder: Yes We Can

The question may well be on Attorney General Eric Holder’s mind.  A number of reports over the weekend have suggested that Holder is seriously considering a special prosecutor, at least of those actors who overstepped even the loose legal limits imposed by the flawed Yoo/Bybee and Bradbury OLC memoranda.  The memo writers themselves shouldn’t rest easy quite yet, either.  At the “Daily Beast,” human rights legal expert Scott Horton writes,

As he read through the latter two documents, my sources said, Holder came to realize the focal and instrumental role that Department of Justice lawyers had played in constructing the torture regime and in pushing it through when career lawyers raised objection. He also took note of how the entire process was orchestrated from within the Bush White House—so that more-senior lawyers in Justice, sometimes even the attorney general, did not know what was being done. And he noted the fact that the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a party, requires that a criminal inquiry be undertaken whenever credible allegations of torture are presented.

(See also Marcy Wheeler’s comments here.)

It’s by no means clear (to put it mildly) that Holder will call for a special prosecutor; while he values the independence of the Justice Department, it can’t hurt to remind him you have his back if he bucks the likes of the West Wing Weasels (TM, but please use widely) David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel on this.  Please avail yourselves of the opportunity to do so using the ACLU button to the right or the Holder “Yes We Can” button on the left.  You can also visit the “AfterDowningStreet” site linked by the orange “Torture is a war crime! Prosecute” button at the upper right; David Swanson is currently asking people to call or write the Justice Department at 202-514-2001 or AskDOJ@usdoj.gov.

Weymouth: What did I know and when did I know it?, 07/09/09 — Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander had a lengthy post-mortem of the “pay to play” Post ‘salon’ proposal in the Sunday, July 12 edition. Calling it an “ethical lapse of monumental proportions,”, Alexander found that early scapegoat and Post business exec Charles Pelton had in fact tried to sound out “questions about ethics [...] with both [CEO K. Weymouth and executive editor Marcus Brauchli] months ago.” For their part, the two seem to have believed that their underlings’ silence at a June 24 meeting signalled consent, when of course it merely signaled wanting to stay employed:

Several [newsroom employees] now say they didn’t speak up because they assumed top managers would eventually ensure that traditional ethics boundaries would not be breached. [...] Neither Weymouth nor Brauchli can recall anyone raising concerns, although both say they wish someone had. [...] In an interview, Brauchli said it was his responsibility to vet the concept and that it is “understandable” that no news managers at the meeting raised a caution. “When the publisher and the editor both appear to have signed off on an idea, I think it is perhaps true that a certain complacency sets in,” he said. For that reason, lower-level managers might be less inclined “to stand up and say: ‘Whoa, this is a bad idea.’ ”

Ya think? Alexander draws on interviews with Weymouth and Brauchli for the piece. Meanwhile, in “Veteran editors offer advice to the Post,” Northwestern media ethics professor Loren Ghiglione displays a keen eye for the main chance: “The board has audit, compensation and finance committees. Why not one focused on the company’s values and ethics, headed by an ethics prof?” Oh hell, why not.

On the irrelevance of “Balkinization in particular and the legal profession in general, 05/25/09 — In an irritated post I decried the growing irrelevance of the legal blog ‘Balkinization’ to ongoing, urgent issues such as torture, the abrogation of habeas corpus at Guantanamo and elsewhere, and other abuses of executive power — all matters that the blog had once been at the forefront of covering.

Of late, though, there have been a number of posts on precisely these subjects, including ones by Jack Balkin, (“The Inspector General’s Report and The Horse that is Already Out of the Barn Door“, “We believe that anyone suspected of war crimes should be thoroughly investigated“)  Sandy Levinson (“A further disappointment from the Obama Administration“, and newcomer Deborah Pearlstein (“Post-Acquittal Detention“).

While I don’t agree with all of what they have to say, I agree with a lot of it.  Regardless, it’s all worth reading — and it’s rarely wise to generalize too much along the lines of “the dog that didn’t bark” with blogs or the busy people who are taking time out to write them.  I shall meditate on my impatience.

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NOTES: links to my posts are highlighted in gray and dated. Washington Post item via Yglesias.

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Weymouth: What did I know, and when did I know it?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th July 2009

Quick followup on the tragicomic “pay to play” scandal at the Post mentioned below, via Marcy Wheeler (“emptywheel”) — this Paul Farhi item (“Internal Review Launched on Post Salon Proposal“) in the newspaper on Tuesday:

Weymouth yesterday appointed the newspaper’s general counsel, Eric Lieberman, to review the discussions that led to the controversy. The review, along with a parallel inquiry by Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli and Senior Editor Milton Coleman, is aimed at avoiding another episode that could damage the paper’s reputation.

“We think we know what happened, but we want to know if there were any details we missed or if there was something we overlooked,” Weymouth said in an interview. “If any of our business practices aren’t clear, we’ll amend them.”

Weymouth was allegedly on vacation when the flyer was released, but I should think “buy the boss a Blackberry and CC her when inviting guests to her home” was already S.O.P. Also, it’s becoming clear this wasn’t just the new guy’s (Charles Pelton, a Post marketing executive) fault:

But while Post executives immediately disowned the flier’s characterization, senior managers had already approved major details of the first dinner. They had agreed, for example, that the dinner would include the participation of Brauchli and some Post reporters; that the event would be off the record; that it would feature a wide-ranging guest list of people involved in reforming health care; and that it would have sponsorship. [...]

The only unresolved question was whether the first event would have multiple sponsors or a single one. Brauchli and Weymouth have said they preferred multiple sponsors, to dilute the influence of any particular sponsor. Yet when Weymouth’s office sent out e-mail invitations to the event early last week, only one sponsor, Kaiser Permanente, was listed. (Kaiser officials have said they had not decided whether to participate.)

Seems to me like they should just leave Farhi on the case. But you’ve got to love the approach — pioneered, perhaps, by Rumsfeld after the Abu Ghraib story broke — of siccing multiple investigations on an issue, the better to pretend those in charge are as shocked, shocked! as the rest of us. As Wheeler observes,

This all feels so DC.

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Dear Katharine Weymouth: I accept your abject apology

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th July 2009

Washington Post health care \Kathy — can I call you Kathy? great! — I’ve been a little upset about the story in Politico last week about how you and the Washington Post were going to hold pay for play issue “salons”, where companies could pay anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 to have off the record discussions with top of the line, elite journalists and government policy makers.

Now obviously this was mishandled from the start; these “salons” — heck, let’s just call a spade a spade and call ‘em policy brothels — are a great idea, but the product rollout was terribleLike you told your loyal servant Howie Kurtz the day the story broke, “This should never have happened. The fliers got out and weren’t vetted. They didn’t represent at all what we were attempting to do.”

But I still accept your abject weekend apology in the Washington Post.  Like you wrote, this was a venture that just “went off track,” – kind of like a dog that slipped its leash; I mean, who’s really to blame for that?

After all, how could you be blamed for some business plan by some guy you employ to hold a policy brothel in your home? Sure, the Washington Post business vice president guy — Charles Pelton — said that “newsroom leaders, including Brauchli, had been involved in discussions about the salons and other events,” but seriously: who’s going to believe a guy who can screw up a nice racket like this one?

For my part, I can’t wait for whatever it was you were attempting to do.  Like the flyer said — “Spirited? Yes. Confrontational? No.” I’m sure I speak for most captains of industry when I say now that’s the way I like my journalists, all shy and respectful, in the “intimate and exclusive” privacy of your own home.  I don’t know which of the talent in your stable you were “inviting” to these “salons,” Kathy, but I tell you what: you take a fresh young fella like Ezra Klein, why, it’d be a crying shame not to try to make a little money off him.  You brought him in off the mean streets of the blogosphere, you gave him a nice home — you have an investment to recoup! I’m sure there’s many an “underwriter” who’d gladly pay for even just a kind word from him.

For his part, Ezra still seems to hope that “salons could be profitable after all”; as long as everything’s on the record the way you (now) agree it should be.  So he’s not against the “pay to play” part — tough as that might be on little papers that can’t attract the high rollers, or the little nonprofit citizens groups who either can’t afford to get past the doorman, or won’t suck up to the “underwriters.”  Not his problem — and not ours either, Kathy!

Kathy, like you, I think there’s got to be some “legitimate way to hold such events” — there’s too much money at stake for there not to be!  However the events eventually do work, you’re right to want to“review the guidelines for them with The Post’s top editors and make sure those guidelines are strictly followed.” As long as those “guidelines” have 3 or 4 zeroes at the end of ‘em, I’m sure old Fred Hiatt will play ball — heck, just a couple of zeroes would probably get you some of the, you know, less discriminating boys.  Am I right or am I right, Jackson?

I’ve been saying for a long time that the way the Post and the Times do journalism only makes sense if you figure they’re doing it for the influence, not for the readers.  Thanks for proving me right, Kathy — it might have been better if you’d piled up some board memberships instead, but now that it’s out in the open, go make it profitable!

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EDIT, 7/7: D’oh. Weymouth, not Graham.
UPDATE, 7/20: prompted by Nell, I lay a figurative flower wreath at the Internet Archive link to Media Whores Online, 2000-2004.
UPDATE, 7/26: In an e-mail, eRobin went “policy brothels” one better with “message parlors.”  Also, on his July 10 “Journal,” Bill Moyers delivered a homily for the ages on the subject. Among the many good parts:

Remember, the invitation promises this private, intimate, and off-the-record dinner is an extension “of THE WASHINGTON POST brand of journalistic inquiry into the issues, a unique opportunity for stakeholders to hear and be heard.” Let that sink in. The “stakeholders” in health care reform in this case do not include the rabble — the folks across the country who actually need quality health care but can’t afford it. If any of them showed up at the kitchen door on the night of this little soiree, a bouncer would drop kick them beyond the beltway.

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On Broder’s “Stop Scapegoating”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th April 2009

We have, in my view, a fairly simple set of connected propositions:

  1. Torture is illegal under United States law and international law.*
  2. The United States of America knows of Americans who have committed torture, as well as of Americans who have conspired to commit torture.**
  3. The United States of America is required by U.S. statute and international treaty to prosecute such crimes when it becomes aware of them.***

It’s really all over but the shouting and denials when you set these propositions next to each other.

Of course, shouting and denials there will be.  But while I’d expect it from borderline psychopaths like Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Cheney, it remains unsettling to see it from David Broder, who this weekend penned the most shameful editorial of a once illustrious career. Broder’s Sunday “Stop Scapegoating” piece is a kind of negative Gettysburg Address: a radical downward redefinition of the American creed.  His lazy, deeply dangerous argument against prosecution boils down to one irrelevant canard, one telling assertion, and one pitiful abdication of what it means to be an American citizen.

Accountability cloaks vengeance – so no accountability
Broder’s irrelevant canard comes early in the piece in guessing at the motives of those who want prosecution, and pretending that should matter:

Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps — or, at least, careers and reputations. Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability — and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

As hilzoy writes, “First, who died and made David Broder Sigmund Freud? How on earth does he presume to know what the actually motivates those of us who think that the people who authorized torture should be investigated?” But also: So what? Suppose our “plausible-sounding argument” is actually true: “without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability — and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations.” In that case, by not investigating torture now, we would be setting ourselves up for future government lawbreaking. Isn’t it obvious that preventing this matters more than anyone’s motives?”

Everything was done properly
But Broder’s most telling assertion — and, in the context of the rest of his opinion piece, the most deeply shameful one — comes next:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

Let’s assume Broder was right (although he isn’t****).  Would that be sufficient?
Read the rest of this entry »

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Yup, the Daily Me

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2009

Fellow Takoma Park blogger Keith Berner took the Washington Post to task (to wit, “WaPo is a rag“) for a couple of stories today — An Imperiled Agenda: Anger Over Firm Depletes Obama’s Political Capital and President’s Budget Strategy Under Fire: Tactic May Break Obama’s Pledge, GOP Says. Berner:

…the Post has taken it upon itself to declare on two successive days that AIG bonuses have caused the Obama Presidency to fail and that Obama is a dangerous heretic because the GOP says so.

In response, a reader on the listserv he shared this with (teaser:“The Washington Post declares the Obama administration dead.  And then declares war on it”)  replied that the Post’s articles were true and objective; the same reader subsequently recommended an opinion piece by Nick Kristof of the New York Times entitled “The Daily Me.”

So I had a look — and concluded that I agree a lot more with Keith than with Nick.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Late to the funeral

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th March 2009

I picked up a copy of The New Republic today because the cover looked promising — a watchdog flanked by the theme “The End of the Press: Democracy Loses Its Best Friend.”  While hopeful, I was prepared to be disappointed, and I was.


The New Republic, March 4, 2009:
The End of the Press

MSM, RIP , The Editors
Anchors Away, Michael Schaffer
Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers
(Hello to a New Era of Corruption)
, Paul Starr
The Media Misery Index
The Morgue: A reporter’s elegy for his
dying paper
, Joe Mathews
The Scoop Factory, Gabriel Sherman
D.C. Confidential, Michael Tomasky

It has become the latest, longest running whine of the print media to blame their decline on the Internet, and this issue proves no exception.  The New Republic editors sniff that “On The Huffington Post and its ilk, you would find rants about how “Beltway media really makes no effort to do anything other than parrot totally out-of-touch conventional wisdom.” — rather proving the point of the “ranters,” it would seem to me.  The digs continue even when they have no bearing on the article; in a piece ostensibly about local TV news, Michael Schaffer writes, “In a cheeseball 1970s way, winning market share by selling personality prefigured the formula that’s seen lone bloggers supplant venerable newspapers.”

There’s plenty to dislike about the new “model,” such as it is, of internet journalism.  Perhaps the main thing, though, has nothing to do with any of what TNR writers are talking about: it’s often sheer, rank exploitation.  I’ve been following the early stages in the career of a friend’s daughter as she tries to break in to writing and journalism.  One of her better offers recently was the chance to work 60 hour weeks for three months at Talking Points Memo — unpaid.

It’s probably no wonder.  In “The Scoop Factory,” about the rise of the “Politico” — a kind of slightly elevated Drudge Report in tabloid form — to inside-the-Beltway prominence, Gabriel Sherman could probably have saved several thousand words by simply cutting to this sentence: Politico also vastly undercuts the big dailies with lower ad rates (a full-page color ad costs $11,000, according to the rate card; a full-page ad in the Times runs more than $100, 000).” That and who’s bankrolling Politico — none other than Riggs Bank financier Allbritton family.  My guess is we’ll never hear about Politico’s red ink if (or rather: when) that ever happens — it’s too valuable a political base and weapon.

And that’s as good a transition as any to the notion that there was also plenty to dislike about the old model of American journalism, such as it was, in the late 20th and early 21st century.  Part of that is captured in the very metrics the New Republic uses to measure the tale of woe, in their Media Misery Index: “Percentage the Dow dropped in 2008: 34 percent”; Percentage the Gannett Company’s stock dropped in 2008: 79 percent. Etcetera.  Sounds like life is tough on investors trying to turn a buck on the newspaper business.

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How not to pay for a transportation system

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd February 2009

The Washington Post’s lead editorial today is “Mr. Lahood’s Good Idea” — a followup to last week’s news that Transportation Secretary Lahood discussed a “mileage tax” in an AP interview as a new means of paying for the country’s transportation system. The Obama administration rather firmly shot down the idea: “It is not and will not be the policy of the Obama administration,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked at his daily briefing about LaHood’s remarks, which were made in an interview with the Associated Press.

The Post’s editorial board is concerned that the Obama administration was too hasty:

As automobiles become more efficient and make use of new fuels, the gas tax — which, we note here for the umpteenth time, should be raised — will be less effective in capturing revenue. Mr. LaHood’s comments reflected what many transportation experts and economists are coming to believe: A tax on vehicle miles traveled, or VMTs, is the most promising, fairest, most environmentally responsible replacement for the gas tax.

It’s hard to figure how any replacement of a gasoline tax would be environmentally responsible, but a tax on VMT — the same whether you’re driving a Hummer or a smart car — would be among the least attractive options, it seems to me.  It’s also par for the Post in disingenuousness to “note for the umpteenth time” that gas taxes should be raised …when Lahood himself ruled that out in the very same interview.  You’d think that might have been their topic du jour if they actually gave a hoot.

But for me, the real kicker is how the tax could be levied:

Most proposals require a GPS-like “mileage-counter” to be installed in vehicles. When drivers stop to fill up, a tax based on the miles they’ve driven would be added to their bill in place of a gas tax. The tax rate could be adjusted based on whether someone was driving in rush hour or off-peak times, on clogged freeways or less busy roads.  [...]

Some opponents fear that the government could use the mileage counters to monitor drivers.

As Dr. Watson is rumored to have said from time to time: no sh*t, Sherlock. Lahood and the Post’s brain wave is based on a 2007 feasibility study done in Oregon at the behest of Democratic governor Ted Kulongoski.  The point of the GPS system (as opposed to just reading the car’s odometer in some fashion) is mainly to help tell vehicle miles traveled in Oregon from those traveled elsewhere, but determining the particular roads traveled (for rate adjustment purposes) could be determined with the same technology.

Now it appears to be true that the on-board device designed for the purpose really only stores the “Oregon miles traveled.”  But no self-respecting surveillance system would focus at that end of the transaction anyway.  As the Seattle Times’s Eric Pryne reported in 2004:

Such assurances don’t satisfy David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. Oregon’s prototype probably presents little threat to privacy, he says — but government officials almost certainly would want something more. The state would need a record of a car’s movements to document the mileage-tax assessment if someone contested it, Sobel says: “Just from a due-process perspective, there will be pressure to retain data.

And thanks to our ever expanding views of what the federal government is entitled to secretly acquire and peruse, those data might as well then be emailed directly to the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI, to be easily matched up with credit card, financial, DMV, and/or any other data these agencies get their hands on for whatever flimsy reason.

Is there a problem to be solved?  Sure; even if you’re a vigorous advocate of mass transit, you may well agree that we have to keep a lot of major, existing roads in good repair — and apparently the federal Highway Trust Fund piggy bank for that is running dry.  But if so, there are a number of non-surveillance based solutions: increase the tax base for the fund, stop building new roads and think hard about which existing ones to prioritize, access other taxes, or — I’ve got it! — set up something I’m going to call “toll booths”, an admittedly science-fictiony idea where people would stop and pay for the wear and tear they cause to the road they’re on.

The more I look around, the more keeping up with the million and three nitwit creeping surveillance ideas out there is looking like a full time job.   One advantage I’ll have, though, is that the Washington Post’s editorial board is sure to be touting the craziest ones in lead editorials.

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EDIT, 2/26: “you may well agree” for the presumptuous “if you’re honest with yourself you know”

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A teachable impeachment moment?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th January 2009

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been removed from office by the state legislature, the Chicago Tribune‘s Ray Long and Rick Pearson report:

The Illinois Senate voted to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office Thursday, marking the first time in the state’s long history of political corruption that a chief executive has been impeached and convicted.

The 59-0 vote followed several hours of public deliberation in which senator after senator stood up to blast Blagojevich, whose tenure lasted six years. And it came after a four-day impeachment trial on allegations that Blagojevich abused his power and sold his office for personal and political benefit.

The thing is, people were starting to notice that the sale hadn’t been completed.  Josh Marshall noted “he often strikes me as genuinely clinical. But it’s not clear to me how strong a case they’ve got against this guy.” A December National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers article asked, “In Blagojevich Case, Is It a Crime, or Just Talk?“, and note “Mr. Fitzgerald’s decision to bypass a grand jury initially could signal a belief on his part that he did not yet have a fully prosecutable case on his hand.” As the Washington Post’s Bob Herbert put it earlier this week:

Trying to leverage a political appointment into a political advantage is not unprecedented. Doing so while talking like a character from “The Sopranos” is an aesthetic offense, but I’m not sure it’s a criminal one.

Had Blagojevich consummated a deal for personal gain in exchange for the appointment, Fitzgerald may have an open-and-shut case. But the governor didn’t consummate anything. He just talked and talked and talked, mostly about how nobody wanted to play ball with him. I question whether anything on the tapes is enough to put him in jail.

That may well be so — and it certainly had the considerable value of triggering a spluttering hissy fit from David Broder in yesterday’s Washington Post.  Yet within his own rebuttal, Broder conceded Robinson’s key point (emphasis added):

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