Spyhopping the Right.
David Neiwert is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America, (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for MSNBC.com on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000. His freelance work can be found at Salon.com, the Washington Post, MSNBC and various other publications. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara Robinson has worked as an editor or columnist for several national magazines, on beats as varied as sports, travel, and the Olympics; and has contributed to over 80 computer games for EA, Lucasfilm, Disney, and many other companies. A native of California's High Sierra, she spent 20 years in Silicon Valley before moving to Vancouver, BC in 2004. Her lifelong interest in the social effects of authoritarianism have most recently led her to pursue the MS in Futures Studies at the University of Houston. She's also a student member of the Association of Professional Futurists, and member of the Accelerated Studies Foundation advisory board on social and cultural issues. For fun, she raises kids and travels. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Sara's recent series:
Cracks in the Wall: Parts I, II, and III.
Tunnels and Bridges: Parts I, II, III, and IV, plus a Short Detour.
Dave's recent series:
The March of the Minutemen
Intro: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.
Other books by Dave [limited availability]:
"The Rise of Pseudo Fascism": An essay
Available in Adobe PDF format here
Support independent journalism:
Suggested $5 donation
Original posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.
"The Political and the Personal"
"Bush, the Nazis and America":
Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Rush, Newspeak and Fascism: An Exegesis
[Suggested $5 donation]
[In HTML: Parts I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X,, XI, XII, XIII, XIV and XV. See explanatory note.]
[Also available in HTML, and with art, at Cursor.]
Orcinus Principium No. 1
Orcinus Principium No. 2
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
As predictable as ever, right-wingnuttia is all aflutter with charges that the New York Times damaged national security by revealing that the Bush administration, in defiance of federal statutes, has been spying on American citizens without warrants.
It always helps, of course, when President Bush himself makes that charge on national television:
- My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. You've got to understand -- and I hope the American people understand -- there is still an enemy that would like to strike the United States of America, and they're very dangerous. And the discussion about how we try to find them will enable them to adjust.
Acting on cue, the right-wing Wurlitzer is rumbling into action. Helping lead the charge, as always, is the Washington Times, which headlined its lead story today: "Bush calls leak 'shameful'".
Even before Bush spoke, right-wing blognuttia was pushing this line, including such luminaries as PowerLine and Michelle Malkin, plus the usual cast of thousands. Similarly, right-wing columnists like NRO's James S. Robbins weighed in along identical lines.
But then, remember the incident that Bush used to illustrate the problem in his press conference:
- Let me give you an example about my concerns about letting the enemy know what may or may not be happening. In the late 1990s, our government was following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone. And then the fact that we were following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as the result of a leak. And guess what happened? Saddam -- Osama bin Laden changed his behavior. He began to change how he communicated.
... And again, I want to repeat what I said about Osama bin Laden, the man who ordered the attack that killed 3,000 Americans. We were listening to him. He was using a type of cell phone, or a type of phone, and we put it in the newspaper -- somebody put it in the newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team, and he changed. I don't know how I can make the point more clear that any time we give up -- and this is before they attacked us, by the way -- revealing sources, methods, and what we use the information for simply says to the enemy: change.
What Bush conveniently neglected to mention to his audience was that it wasn't the New York Times, nor any other organ of the "mainstream media," that published this information.
It was the Washington Times.
As I have pointed out several times, this incident was described in some detail in Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon's The Age of Sacred Terror, both having worked on counterterrorism in the Clinton administration.
According to Benjamin and Simon, the turning point when al-Qaeda became America's greatest enemy was not on Sept. 11, 2001, but rather on Aug. 20, 1998 -- the day President Clinton launched missile strikes against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan and the Sudan, the latter being a pharmaceutical plant at al-Shifa that was being used to develop chemical weapons. From pp. 260-261:
- For a brief moment, the operation appeared to be a qualified success. Al-Shifa was destroyed. Six terrorist camps were hit and about sixty people were killed, many of them Pakistani militants training for action in Kashmir. The Tomahawks missed bin Laden and the other senior al-Qaeda leaders by a couple of hours. This in itself was not a great surprise: no one involved has any illusions about the chances of hitting the target at exactly the right time. The White House recognized that the strike would not stop any attacks that were in the pipeline, but it might forestall the initiation of new operations as the organization's leaders went to ground.
The months that followed, however, were a nightmare. The press picked apart the administration's case for striking al-Shifa, and controversy erupted over whether Clinton was trying to "wag the dog," that is, distract the public from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The Washington Times -- the capital's unabashed right-wing newspaper, which consistently has the best sources in the intelligence world and the least compunction about leaking -- ran a story mentioning that bin Laden "keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones." Bin Laden stopped using the satellite phone instantly. The al-Qaeda leader was not eager to court the fate of Djokar Dudayev, the Chechen insurgent leader who was killed by a Russian air defense suppression missile that homed in on its target using his satellite phone signal. When bin Laden stopped using the phone and let his aides do the calling, the United States lost its best chance to find him.
According to a later Washington Post report, the Washington Times piece was in fact later determined to be "a major intelligence setback."
But did any of you hear any of these right-wing pundits now braying "treason" at the New York Times complaining back in 1998, when the Washington Times in fact genuinely harmed our national security interests, in a way that later contributed to thousands of American deaths?
Er, no. They were all too busy playing the same damned "wag the dog" game.
Funny how things work over there in Conservative Land. If a conservative mouthpiece actually harms national security in the pursuit of attacking a liberal president or policy, well, then, that's just good old hardball politics. Just ask Valerie Plame.
And besides, you can always just give it a few years. Then, when everyone's forgotten who actually caused this security breach and why, a smart, Orwellian conservative figurehead can always use the incident later to bash the "mainstream media" for doing its job.
On the other hand, if the mainstream media catches a conservative president breaking the law by spying on American citizens, then suddenly the alarms are being sounded about the press harming national security (mostly under a bunch of scenarios stolen from bad TV scripts).
Killing the message
Monday, December 19, 2005
One of the real signs of Republicans' growing extremism is what Chris Mooney calls their "War on Science," because it reveals a mindset in which factual reality is discarded and replaced with one constructed out of whole cloth.
As always, this constructed reality comes into conflict with the real world, at which point its adherents typically try to assert themselves by outshouting the messengers or shutting them up.
In the case of the attacks on science, we know what happens next, inexorably: a slow-motion disaster for the public. In some cases, as with stem-cell research, real advances in medicine are forestalled. In others, as with the intended imposition of "intelligent design" curriculum in our schools, it means a serious degradation of the sciences in public education. In yet others, as with the management of endangered species like salmon, it results in massive degradation of our national resources and natural heritage.
Exhibit No. 25846 in this ongoing debacle is the recent decision by Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican, to cut funding for one of the major sources of data that is currently available on Columbia River salmon.
You've got to love Craig's explanation, which is a classic case of projection:
- "Data cloaked in advocacy create confusion," Craig said on the Senate floor this month, after successfully inserting language in an energy and water appropriations bill that bans all future funding for the Fish Passage Center. "False science leads people to false choices."
It sure does. And it's quite clear that Craig's definition of "false science" is "any science that runs counter the policies I wish to promote."
- "Idaho's water should not be flushed away on experimental policies based on cloudy, inexact assumption," Craig said in a news release.
Nor should taxpayers' dollars be flushed away on ridiculously expensive, and plainly ineffective, measures like the barging of salmon smolt currently favored by the Bush administration.
And, like all good Republicans these days, Craig distorted and falsified the record while justifying the line cut:
- On the Senate floor this month, he justified elimination of the Fish Passage Center on the grounds that "many questions have arisen regarding the reliability of the technical data" it publishes. Craig quoted from the report of an independent scientific advisory board that in 2003 reviewed work done by the Fish Passage Center.
But one of the report's authors, Charles C. Coutant, a fishery ecologist who retired this year from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said Craig neglected to mention that the board found the work of the center to be "of high technical quality."
"Craig was very selective in reflecting just the critical part of a quotation from the report," said Coutant, who has worked on Columbia River salmon issues for 16 years. "It did give a misleading impression about our board's view of the Fish Passage Center."
Craig also said on the Senate floor that "other institutions" in the Northwest now do "most" of the data collection work done by center. He said getting rid of the center would reduce redundancy and increase the efficiency of regional fish programs.
But according to another recent independent scientific assessment of the work of the center, there was little duplication of data collection between the center and other organizations; it recommended that the center continue to receive funding to meet a substantial need in the Northwest for information on salmon survival.
Fish and game agencies in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, Indian tribes with fishing rights on the river and the governors of Oregon and Washington have all said that eliminating the Fish Passage Center is a bad idea that would reduce the quality of information on endangered salmon.
As Chris Mooney points out:
- Craig's "scientific" rationales for killing this scientific agency don't add up. It's clear that this was about politics -- and about appeasing Craig's political allies in the hydropower industry.
Paul Vandevelder explained in the P-I the other day just how grotesque a piece of bad government this move by Craig really is. The significant point is that cutting out the center means silencing one of the real sources of actual data that proved, beyond any question, that the Bush salmon recovery efforts were failing. It's an effective way of silencing your critics:
- Scientific data gathered by an independent agency, the Fish Passage Center, showed that the BPA's strategy of trucking and barging fish around dams has been a $3 billion boondoggle. Under the care of BPA hydrologists, fish survival rates have plummeted. In June, the judge set aside the projected loss and ruled in favor of the fish. Within days, Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig (named "Legislator of the Year" by the National Hydropower Association) inserted language into a Senate energy bill that would "zero out" funding for the Fish Passage Center.
The FPC, as it is known, was established in 1984 after Congress passed the Northwest Power Act, a toothsome law that put salmon protection on an "equal footing" with power generators, barge operators, ratepayers and irrigators. For more than 20 years, the FPC has collected and distributed scientific data to state, tribal and federal fisheries biologists and the courts. The center's longtime manager, Michele DeHart, admits that data has put politicians between a rock and a wet place by proving, conclusively, that the hydro-power infrastructure kill fish.
Nevertheless, "I guess I am flabbergasted," says DeHart, whose agency is now scheduled to vanish in March. "We are biologists and computer scientists, and what we do is just math."
The rider that Craig attached to the Senate energy bill is a shot across Redden's bow. As the man responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act on the Columbia and Snake rivers, Redden relies on scientific data to make sound decisions. "I think it would be a drastic mistake for them (Congress) to yank the subsidy from the center (FPC) which has been giving out neutral information for many years," said Redden at a hearing on Sept. 30. "I hope that does not happen."
Craig attempted to explain his action in a speech to the Senate, in November, by claiming that data gathered by the FPC is "cloaked in advocacy" and that "false science leads people to false choices." Inexplicably, neither Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden or Washington Sens. Patty Murray nor Maria Cantwell, challenged Craig's nonsensical assertions.
Two decades of scientific data supports neither the BPA's recovery strategy nor the senator's make-believe world. When the spill concluded last September, the FPC announced that smolt survival rates in the lower Snake River were the "highest recorded in recent years," a year-over year jump from 30 percent to 74 percent. Craig finessed that embarrassing detail in his speech to the Senate. Nor did he mention that the BPA actually reduced its late summer wholesale rates by 1.6 percent thanks to surplus power sales that exceeded forecasts by $20 million.
No wonder they want to kill the messenger: they want to kill the message. That's how you maintain that constructed version of reality.
But the real version of reality, as always, has its own way of asserting itself. And it can be very, very painful when it does.
The action-hero presidency
Sunday, December 18, 2005
I used to wonder, back when George W. Bush was doing things like flying in a fighter jet onto aircraft carriers while wearing well-endowed jumpsuits, and then getting action figures made to commemorate the event, how many times he had been watching Air Force One. Because it was self-evident that Bush was going to model his presidency not after his famously wimpy father, but after Harrison Ford.
You've seen Air Force One, right? I thought the movie was a clever idea: the president as action hero. Personally, I most liked the climactic scene where a really pissed-off Ford finally shoves the evil terrorist Gary Oldman out the back end of a plane. Boy, talk about satisfying.
And then there was the speech he gave:
- Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right. Atrocity and terror are not political weapons. And to those who would use them, your day is over. We will never negotiate. We will no longer tolerate and we will no longer be afraid. It's your turn to be afraid.
Sounds like ... a George W. Bush speech.
Of course, like all action films, Air Force One is terribly cheesy in execution, and all slathered with the usual moral fable: the instinctive action of the hero is always superior to the overwrought intellectualism of his enemies, not to mention their morally feeble enablers.
It's the same in every action film: In addition to the actual enemy, the hero must also overcome the limp-wristed hang-wringers who think too much: they worry about things like constitutional rights and whether or not the enemy is being mistreated. Sometimes these people are politicians or law-enforcement officials; sometimes they're members of the media. But it's always the same: They're nearly as noxious as (and sometimes share the fate of) the enemy himself.
Clint Eastwood was especially good at films like this: Dirty Harry is a classic of the genre, replete with an interfering DA who handcuffs our hero at every turn. Bruce Willis also made a lot of flicks like this; the first two Die Hard films featured both FBI agents and local reporters who cause trouble for our hero.
Then there are more recent permutations, particularly on network TV (think action shows like 24) in which the hero is forced to push the boundaries of what's legal in order to achieve results -- especially when it comes to saving thousands of lives from a terrorist attack.
Now, to hear folks on the right talk, you'd think that George W. Bush was indeed cut in the mold of Harrison Ford and Kiefer Sutherland, with a dash of Bruce on the side. Don't these wimps complaining about his surveillance of American citizens without warrant or oversight know we're in a war on terror?
I mean, what good is the Constitution if all it does is enable evil terrorists to endanger the lives of us all? Right? We should be able to pick and choose whose rights we protect, because you never know when someone is gonna set off a nuke in your kids' playground.
It's too easy to say that George W. Bush and his cult of defenders on the right have watched too many of these action films. Rather, what is more noteworthy is that this public response taps directly into those well-established sentiments about heroic action. It's actually rather a brilliant stroke: Republicans are appealing to an American public already profoundly propagandized by a steady diet of Hollywood-produced action flicks and revenge melodramas. Movies in which such niceties as civil rights are readily discarded in the pursuit of justice.
Mind you, it matters little that the reality is that 24-type situations, in which life-and-death issues hang on questions of torture and surveillance, are so extremely rare that their likelihood is nearly nil. Moreover, the system of justice is designed so that considerations like preventing the deaths of innocents can be readily taken into account later.
These "annoying" laws exist for a reason fundamental to the very foundations of modern society: This is a nation of laws, not men. And while it's easy and convenient to discard those principles in the flimsy context of a movie, doing so in real life has profound and lasting complications.
I think what you can say is that the Bush team is cynically manipulating public sentiment for the sake of pushing the limits of presidential power. It's a brilliant move, really, tapping into an aspect of the psyche that has been preconditioned by a hoary myth that has been perpetuated over the years by Hollywood: the notion that the action-driven hero's instincts for "saving lives" are superior to careful reasoning and principled restraint.
But it sure is weird for a bunch of people who make a living out of deriding "Hollywood values."