Friday, November 18, 2005

The CIA's Disappearing Acts

The mystery of Dana Priest’s brief disappearance from the pages of the Washington Post following her revelation of the CIA’s little gulag of “black sites” on Nov. 2 was resolved this morning with her latest revelation: Not that she’ll win a Pulitzer Prize for public service next year, which she will, or should, but that the CIA has been operating (and funding) “joint operation centers in more than two dozen countries where U.S. and foreign intelligence officers work side by side to track and capture suspected terrorists and to destroy or penetrate their networks.” The agency Graham Greene called “one of those services so ineptly called secret” and Daniel Patrick Moynihan smelled out for its habitual “malfeasance” has richly lived up to bleak expectations before and after September 11. But for once, one must admit in all fairness and clear-eyed realism that these joint operations centers are exactly what the CIA should be doing, even if the partnerships are not always savory. It’s the only way the so-called war on terror should have been fought from the start — out of sight, in the world’s back-alleys and ideological slums and fanaticism-breeding gutters, where terrorists feed, fatten up and split, like amoebas, into short-fused clones.

The war would not have been visible of course. It couldn’t have served as a running campaign ad of jingoism and God-Save-Republicanism and soapbox for liberal-bashing. It would have, from the Bush administration’s perspective, been useless. But had that sort of engagement been the exclusive focus of the anti-terror campaign it might have been quite effective, especially with the cooperation of other countries not keen on being publicly insulted and alienated by the Bush administration’s little warriors “who got five deferments and never been there” (to quote Rep. John Murtha). It would have made the Iraq invasion the obvious folly it’s been from the start. It would have made the USA Patriot Act the obvious domestic folly it continues to be. It might even have led to a few consequential captures. As it is, we’ll never know. The focus is so diffuse, the CIA’s joint operations centers are themselves a sideshow by necessity, and such a sideshow that they’re probably run as rogue operations in half of those two dozen places, with little Ollie Norths taking them south by way of black sites and tortuous little excursions on the Rendition Express.

Priest’s story puzzles me in one respect. Here’s what she reports in the fourth paragraph: “Virtually every capture or killing of a suspected terrorist outside Iraq since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- more than 3,000 in all -- was a result of foreign intelligence services' work alongside the agency, the CIA deputy director of operations told a congressional committee in a closed-door session earlier this year.”

President Bush, in his State of the Union address in 2003 said this, to the accompaniment of great applause: “All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way -- they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies.” They’ve been, so to speak, “disappeared,” as our mobster-in-chief so obviously loved to phrase it back when his popularity tickled Icarus’s feet. That, of course, was three years ago, which raises a question. Is the Post just three years late rehashing known facts and filling in a few procedural details? (The self-tortured Bob Woodward, remember, had told us in Bush at War that “the CIA was heavily subsidizing [Algeria’s] intelligence service, spending millions to get their assistance in the war against al Qaeda,” so CIA franchising of intelligence operations with foreign services isn’t exactly new). Or is the Post letting us coyly know that even that aspect of the war has, as it clearly has, produced not one arrest in three years?

Liberal Firings

A few days ago I wrote about the quasi-firing of the great (and late) John B. Oakes after he’d served 40 years on the editorial page of The New York Times, 15 of them as its editor. Punch Sulzberger got rid of him in 1977 when Punch felt Oakes was too liberal for the Times: In his tenure Oakes had taken a stand against escalating the Vietnam War, endorsed McGovern, advocated for “pollution controls and other regulations” (in the words of Susan Tifft and Alex Jones’s tendentious Trust) and other such fringe positions which, to the rising Punch—who was Gingrich before Gingrich was cool—were just too pinkish for a paper looking to make a buck: Times stock had plummeted from $60 in 1969 to $13 in September 1976, and Punch blamed the paper’s “stridently antibusiness tone” for the loss. The country was moving right. The Times, compulsively mainstream, had to move along, hug that middle advertising dollars love so much, and damn what even William F. Buckley, the pilot steering the country right, had said about the strategy (in his “Statement of Intentions” launching National Review in 1955): “Middle of the road qua middle of the road is politically, intellectually and morally repugnant.” National Review was interested in making change. The New York Times was interested in making money. It fired Oakes and replaced him with the pathologically placid Max Frankel.

The firing of Oakes came to mind when the other coast’s Times fired Robert Scheer last week, after Scheer’s 30 years there, 13 of those spent writing one of the more flabless liberal columns in the country. Andres Martinez wrote a note to readers explaining Scheer’s firing, but of course explained nothing other than frame the firing in journalism’s equivalent of a political resignation, like maybe Scheer was dying to (as I kept waiting for the quote to appear) “spend more time with family”: “It’s inaccurate,” Martinez actually wrote, “to ascribe ideological motives to our decision to stop running Scheer’s column.” Fine. But then, what were the motives? If the paper is publishing “more Op-Ed columnists … than ever before, including more liberal voices,” then why not make room for Scheer? Because the L.A. Times this fall is doing just what the New York Times did in 1977: The L.A. Times is hurting for money, advertisers, readers, identity. Tribune parent reported revenue decline of 3.5 percent in October, Times newsroom is firing 85 people, and Tribune's Trebuchet cannonade in Chicago doesn't give a (excuse my Arabic argot) Karbala's goat droppings about marketing ideas when marketing is as far as the cannonade is aiming for. The paper’s tone is an easy scapegoat. So it’s lopping off its “fringe,” “shrill” opinions to court advertisers’ tyrannical middle. Moderate and centrists along the lines of a journalistic Souter or a Ginsburg pass off as liberal writers all over the place only because the lopsidedly right-wing and Fox-trotting tone of the country’s discourse makes them seem liberal. But Meghan Daum, a liberal? In a culturally hip Alan-Colmes-standby sort of way, maybe. But don’t call her a fitting replacement for Scheer’s political breadth and élan. Jonathan Chait is no slouch; he can pull the occasional Krugman coup, he may even out-Scheer Scheer some day, but that only would have argued for strengthening the Times editorial page, not lobotomizing it.

Scheer isn’t the sort to go begging for a job long. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Huffington Post gobbled him up immediately. But that’s beside the point. The mainstream media, already more narrow-minded than an Allan Bloom rant from the grave, is closing ranks further, mainstreaming itself and boring us to death along the way and making that famed “marketplace of ideas” look even more like one of those non-descript strip malls along I-95. No wonder the political landscape is so damn numbing, so ideologically stale (and stale-mated), so unimaginative you’d think we were being ruled by a homeowner association’s Board of Babbitts. Most opinion pages, rare independent exceptions aside of course, certainly are. Dividends before ideas. And the newspaper industry wonders why it’s declining. At this rate it won’t have far to go before grating irrelevance. Those so-called alternative media are at the fringes. They won’t be there long. Not if migrants from the mainstream keep taking refuge in those (dare I borrow a word from the shareholders’ linguistic sex shop?) emerging markets.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Torturers' Theater, cont.

After breaking the story on Nov. 2 and following it up a couple of times with stories about Congress' threat to investigate the leakers, the Washington Post has gone oddly silent on the "Black Sites" scandal. A defensive retreat? Let's hope not. Whatever the case may be, the Post's silence has given the European press a chance to run with the story. Le Monde reports in this afternoon's edition that Norway, Sweden, Morocco and Spain are investigating the landings of CIA prison-planes ("avions-prisons") on their territories. Yesterday the Norwegian government demanded explanations from the State Department regarding the lay-over of a CIA plane in Oslo on July 20. The Swedish press agency TT claims two CIA planes landed on various occasions in 2002 and 2005 in Sweden, with Guantanamo a destination for at least one of them. Morocco's Journal Hebdomadaire meanwhile confirms that, according to Morocco's DST (Morocco's FBI equivalent), Morocco has taken part directly in the CIA's rendition program, with at least ten CIA landings in Morocco between 2002 and 2005. Morocco's involvement in renditions hasn't been a secret though; see these stories in The Guardian and the New Yorker, for example, and Morocco's history of anti-Islamist repression, documented by Reporters without Borders, makes the necessity of "black sites" there redundant. The advantage of North African and Mideastern member-countries of the CIA's catch-and-torture network is that secret prisons in those countries are as much part of the landscape as torture implements make up the prisons' furniture of choice. Spain's Daily El Pais reports that four CIA prison-planes have made at least ten lay-overs on the island of Majorca (Robert Graves's old haunt) between January 2004 and January 2005. The dates are notable because they post-date Spain's severance from top-tier membership in the coalition to defeat All Evil Ones, following the ouster of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and his replacement by the Bush-bashing JLR Zapatero more than a year ago. So has Zapatero been speaking out of both sides of his mouth? Or is Spain's equivalent of the FBI, its CNI, acting not only in concert with the CIA, but acording to rules promulgated by its law-aboving fliers? Le Monde runs an interesting pciture of one of the CIA planes in question, a handsome, all-white Boeing (if my meager eye for planes is correct). The plane is unmarked but for its international license plate, which is either N44769 or N44765. I rule out the first, because the FAA registry lists it as a single-engine plane registered to a fellow in Grass Valley, Calif. The second number is registered to a deregistered plane (and it appears to have been tracked around and connected to the landings in Majorca), which raises the question: Is the CIA inventing numbers for its fleet? Not much of a question, given the agency in question. There's a whiter bone to pick. The CIA prison-plane is discretely, if offensively, striped in blue and red. One should prefer that one's national colors not be the ribbons of prison-planes. Of course when it comes to the CIA and its terror-war patrons, individual preference is not of this, or their, world.

Torturers' Theater

The torturers are stumbling on each other, and all over themselves. The champion of torture is running around Congress trying to salvage an exceptional permission slip for his CIA henchmen. His boss the Commander-in-Zilch is tripping all over his sentences trying to say why torture isn’t torture as long as he misunderestimates torture’s definition. The CIA is tripping all over its own secrecy to keep its torture-ridden “black sites” hooded. The ghosts of Abu Ghraib have turned Iraq into minefield of djinns exploding on every forked tongue. And now the torturers are literally running into each other, uncovering each other’s dens and pulling one of the greatest Captain Renault impressions in the history of hypocrisy: They’re shocked, shocked to know that torture is going on here.

Are you listening, Samuel Beckett?

The theater of the absurd was a French-Irish invention patented after Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. It’s now an Iraqi-American specialty with literary roots of its own — in the Thousand and One Lies. Sheherazade has been replaced by a cabinet of concubines, the Cheneys and Rices and Rumsfelds and Cards taking turns weaving their imaginary tales for King George who, for lack of a nightly virgin to behead once he’s through with her (the tales of his current concubines being not nearly as convincing as Sheherazade’s to inspire indulgence), settles for the sacrifice of two or three nameless GIs under his command: Same principle, different harem.

The concubines take their show on the road, staging public versions of the King’s storytime most of the week on one friendly stage or another in preparation for the friendliest stage of all—the Sunday morning talk show circuit—where the concubines’ ghost-writers approvingly frame the official storyline in gentle qualifiers and “on the other hands” that should turn this Sunday’s matinees into a chiropractic clinic of back-bending: How will the concubines explain the Iraqi Interior Minister’s torture chambers only half-buried under their noses?

They don’t need to. They’re self-explanatory. Iraqi torturers were always ready for prime time. So far they’d only been overshadowed by their American patrons. The torture chambers uncovered this week are run by the Bard Organization, “a militia with close links to Iran,” as The New York Times, in its eternally deferential language of numbing and excusing qualifiers, put it today. The Badr organization in Iraq is run by Bayan Jabr. Jabr was chosen interior minister with American support. as I wrote in June, “Interior's Bayan Jabr is a Shiite activist who joined the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iran during the Saddam years, then headed the council's office in Syria. The council's military branch is the Badr militia, which, as Knight Ridder reported, ‘has gained enormous power since Iraq's January elections and now is accused of conducting a terror campaign against Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority that includes kidnappings, threats and murders.’ The Badr militia is devoted to the destruction of Sunnis with the same blind fanaticism that Hamas is devoted to the destruction of Israel. Badr is supplied and trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which also supplies and trains Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militia classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department.”

In other words, the “discovery” that Jabr’s bandits have been torturing Sunnis in Baghdad suburbs (in the “banlieu,” as the French put it, a geographic way of making a problem seem more peripheral than it is) is a surprise only to those who’ve either not been keeping track of the obvious, and, going by Knight-Ridder, the already reported; or to those still enthralled by official pronouncements from the White House’s corps of concubines ahead of the facts on the grounds. It is virtually impossible that in a place like Baghdad, where secrets are the sugar and spice of every coffee shop, the coalition forces didn’t know what was going on in the Interior Ministry’s basements, at the hands of militias the coalition itself has been very happy to use as a proxy force to do its work. The policy of “rendering,” after all—the presidentially approved habit of American intelligence handing over suspects to other countries’ jailers for work-ups officially disallowed in American prisons—is official American policy. Black sites are unofficial American policy. Anyone who thinks Iraq doesn’t have its own network of black sites, obscurely approved and encouraged by the American occupation, is still reading Sheherazade’s version of the Arabian Nights.

But who discovers what when is not as important as what keeps unraveling. When the “liberators” and the “liberated” are torturers, doing their work in the same places and (usually by proxy for the Americans) the same manners in which Saddam once did, there isn’t any skin left to peel off the face of the occupation’s purpose or credibility. There is no skeleton beneath. There is only the silent scream of condemnation no one wants to hear. In this theater of the absurd, even the tax-paying audience underwriting the show is deaf.

One last absurd irony: On December 15, we will have been in Iraq exactly one thousand days, crowning Christmas Day as more than a rhetorical Thousand and One Nights. What a present. The only number that matters on this side of the stage, of course, is that there are only 39 shopping days left till then.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

From Reagan to Sparta: 25 Years of Conservative Camouflage

The Wall Street Journal carried a story a few weeks ago about companies that specialize in a particular kind of personal training. They hire soldiers who’ve just finished their tour of duty in Iraq, then unleash their drill-sergeant routines — intimidation, screams, punishment, humiliation — against “recruits” in fitness programs. If a participant skips a session, the article noted, “active-duty or former Marines who run the sessions have been known to show up in full uniform at the bootcamper’s workplace, demanding an explanation.” Grown men and women, with free will, with jobs, with brains, are paying good money for that sort of sadomasochism. Companies are putting their employees through it. News media are in awe.

But there’s nothing surprising here. “The martial enthusiasm of the people” that Edward Gibbon detected as a telling ingredient of Rome’s decline, even as Rome looked invulnerable, is at it again in our own imperial splurge. As a cultural and political movement, the camouflaging of America has been the undercurrent since Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983. That was step one in the rehabilitation from Vietnam and the burial of 1960s idealism — what even George Wallace once called “the sissy attitude of Lyndon Johnson and all the intellectual morons and theoreticians he has around him.” So it is today. Athenian ideals are for sissies. America is the new Sparta: Harsh, Darwinian, unforgiving. That it is increasingly unforgiven abroad doesn’t register. The country is too busy indulging its autocratic self-esteem. That, in a nutshell, is the result of the conservative ascendancy of the last 25 years.

There should be no doubt that the United States is no longer merely a conservative nation. President Bush’s miserable year aside, it is a right-wing nation, and becoming more so. The country is so comfortable with its extremes that it is often willing to dance with fundamentalism, speak the language of reactionaries and — in the name of security, efficiency, law and order — tip the occasional hat to the methods of fascism. This is the case in virtually every sphere, public and private.

Conservatives or Republicans dominate all three branches of the federal government, the Federal Reserve, every federal regulatory agency, and every advisory board to such agencies as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Arts. Republican governors rule over a majority of states (28). The Republican Party controls both legislative chambers in 20 states, compared with 19 for Democrats (control is split in 10 states; Nebraska’s legislature is non-partisan). In some states, Florida among them, Democrats might as well not exist. And in some states, Kansas among them, medievalism is making a comeback as faith is confused with science and education replaced by doctrine.

Disaffection with the current regime isn’t disaffection with the right-wing nation. Scandals and suspects aside, the Republican Party has a long way to go before being “defeated by the rust of its absolute power” (to borrow Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s phrase). It can still depend on liberals to provide no convincing alternative, though heaven knows the country is ripe for alternatives on health care, Iraq, the tax heist of the last five years, deepening inequalities and diminishing opportunities. Admittedly, it’s hard to get a message out when the messengers are stacked against you.

No more liberal than their shareholders’ bottom line, Hollywood and the media are the Olsen twins of hacksaw capitalism with a human face. And the corporate workplace, on whom most of us depend and whose language many of us are forced to speak in and out of work, does daily calisthenics to the tune of Mussolini. As Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham just wrote, “the corporation reserves the right to open one’s email, test one’s blood, listen to the phone calls, examine one’s urine, hold the patent on the copyright to any idea generated on its premises. Why ever should it not? As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true American knows that it is his duty to protect the brand.”

And still, conservatives find room to rail that the victory is not total enough. Universities, the last major American institution still escaping the grasp of the closers of the American mind, are under attack for being too liberal. Ex-Marxist turned neo-whatever activist David Horowitz is peddling an academic “bill of rights” to ensure that conservative viewpoints are heard on campus. It’s the kind of affirmative action conservatives angrily deride when the tables are turned. Yet Congressmen and legislators in a dozen state are willing to abet the thought policing with (thankfully non binding) resolutions. What next — a drill sergeant showing up at your door and screaming that you’re not thinking conservatively enough? The way some homeowner association rules are written, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised.

[An slightly shorter version of this piece appears today in the News-Journal.]

Monday, November 14, 2005

Breyer v. Scalia

[A brief teaser from “The Language of Enlightenment,” a lecture I’ll be delivering at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., tomorrow evening as part of Stetson’s Values Council Lecture Series]

It’s a battle for the ages: The Enlightenment as we knew it hangs in the balance, and it doesn’t look good.

If you look at the United States Supreme Court, you can actually see the battle like a spectator at ringside. In one corner, you have Justice Antonin Scalia, believer in God, the death penalty and originalism, in that order. In another corner, you have Justice Stephen Breyer, advocate of what he calls “the Living Constitution,” or “Active Liberty,” which is actually the name of the book he’s just written to define what he means, and to answer A Matter of Interpretation, the book Scalia published a few years ago to mark his territory. Breyer believes that the Framers didn’t write the Constitution as a static document to reflect their time only. They wrote it generally enough to apply universally in the service of two pragmatic goals: To protect liberty and to expand democracy and the ability of people to participate in democracy. “They wrote a Constitution that begins with the words, ‘We the People.’ The words are not ‘we the people of 1787.’” Scalia would disagree totally about the idea that the Constitution was an engine of democratic nation-building. He believes in the fundamentalist principle that what words say is what they meant at the time when they were written. “The text is the law, and it is the text that must be observed.”

Breyer wants the Constitution to reflect the world of 2005. Scalia wants the Constitution to stick to the meanings of 1787. Scalia thinks Breyer’s approach is blasphemous. He calls it “dice-loading,” or smuggling new rights that aren’t in the original text. Breyer thinks Scalia’s approach is “wooden,” or that it operates “in a vacuum,” whereas “in the real world, institutions and methods of interpretation must be […] capable of translating the people’s will into sound policies.” So who’s right? What you have here is not a failure to communicate. What you have are two radically different views of the purpose of both democracy and the Constitution.

Breyer believes in the Enlightenment’s principle of progress. He thinks human beings are perfectible, and democracy, guided by the Constitution, is that road to progress. Do we want to be a progressive society or do we not? For Breyer, the language of the constitution answers the question in a big, enlightened Yes. Justice Breyer would agree with Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said in a 1958 opinion that the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishments “must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Breyer would interpret the entire Constitution according to those standards, and he’s not afraid to look abroad for ideas about who’s maturing more brightly. Scalia is radically opposed to that view. “I detest that phrase,” he said this year about the Earl Warren opinion. “I’m afraid that societies don’t always mature. Sometimes they rot.” So if the notion of progress is not written into the Constitution, he doesn’t want to hear about it. In Scalia’s view, the question of whether we want to be a progressive society is itself unconstitutional. If the death penalty was allowed in the eighteenth century, it should be allowed now. If it was allowed for juveniles and for mentally retarded people, and it was, it should be allowed now, because the framers couldn’t possibly have had capital punishment in mind when they proscribed “cruel and unusual” punishment. If you follow that sort of thinking, then if Florida wants to bring back branding and mutilation and banishment of criminals, it should be OK because it was common in the late 18th century.

But what am I saying? We essentially have branding and banishment in Florida now the way we treat sexual offenders, who are being literally banned from living in certain cities and are publicly branded on the Internet and on school walls. In 1779 Thomas Jefferson, proposed to eliminate the death penalty altogether except for treason and murder. It was being meted out for rape and sodomy at the time. For those, Jefferson proposed castration instead. And “for a woman who committed sodomy," Lawrence Friedman writes in Crime and Punishment in American History, "he suggested drilling a hole at least one half inch in diameter through the cartilage of her nose,” and for people who maimed or disfigured someone, he proposed maiming them and disfiguring them in kind. This is Thomas Jefferson, who was the Enlightenment in America. So if he didn’t think that sort of barbarism wasn’t cruel or unusual back then, does that mean it’s OK now? Scalia puts it this way: Maybe it’s not OK. But the Constitution does not ban it. Orthodoxy. Dogma. Constitution.

This is not theory we’re dealing with, but an interpretation of law that has direct bearing on our day to day lives. And it is an interpretation of law that the president loves, and that his new appointee and nominee to the court also love, potentially even more aridly than Scalia does. The president has three years to go, and very possibly one or two more appointments to the court, this time from the so-called liberal wing. John Paul Stevens is 85. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 72. Last year Adam Cohen, an editorial writer at The New York Times imagined America “if George Bush chose the Supreme Court.” Here’s the picture he came up with: “Abortion might be a crime in most states. Gay people could be thrown in prison for having sex in their homes. States might be free to become mini-theocracies, endorsing Christianity and using tax money to help spread the gospel. The Constitution might no longer protect inmates from being brutalized by prison guards. Family and medical leave and environmental protections could disappear.”

But it’s not all a matter of if. The groundwork for this rollback has already been laid. By appointing justices in his rather fundamentalist image, the president is only fulfilling scriptures as he understands them. That explains, I think, why we are becoming harsher, meaner, nastier society than we ought to be, and why we’re not exactly in a position to be preaching democracy and Enlightenment to the rest of the world right now.