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
Saturday, January 03, 2004
You know, I don't put my daughter in day care either.
But this remark from Dr. Laura is just beyond the pale:
- On her Jan. 2, 2004 show, Dr. Schlessinger read a letter from a listener who criticized the lack of one-on-one attention given to children in some day care centers, especially those calling themselves "Child Development Centers." Dr. Schlessinger commented that "it sounds like something out of Nazi Germany."
Just for the record, Frau Doktor:
This and this comprised the Nazis' idea of child care.
Dean and conspiracy theories
I'm a big fan of Spinsanity, even when I disagree with their conclusions, because I think that they do a pretty good job of sorting out the bullshit. But they recently trod over some of my turf in attacking Howard Dean -- and in doing so revealed a serious flaw in their argument.
The piece in question is by Brendan Nyhan:
- Dean's not-so-straight talk on Bush and the war
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, has stated that he is "running as the candidate who is not afraid to tell the truth" and proclaimed that he is "going to be the John McCain of this race," referring to the Arizona senator who is famous for so-called "straight talk."
However, in the last few weeks, Dean has not lived up to his claims of honesty and candor, which are frequently cited as motivating factors by supporters. Most recently, as Slate's Timothy Noah has shown, he irresponsibly suggested President Bush had advance warning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, failed to take responsibility for his remarks when asked about them and then dissembled about having done so.
[Note: I also like Tim Noah, but he is wildly inconsistent, as this case demonstrates.]
Spinsanity goes on to detail this aspect of its case:
- Dean's statement suggesting Bush had advance warning of the Sept. 11 attacks came during a Dec. 1 appearance on National Public Radio's "The Diane Rehm Show." During the interview, Dean discussed Bush's interactions with an independent commission headed by former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean that is investigating the attacks [Real Player audio - 42:50 in clip]:
- DEAN: There is a report, which the president is suppressing evidence for, which is a thorough investigation of 9/11.
REHM: Why do you think he's suppressing that report?
DEAN: I don't know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I've heard so far, which is nothing more than a theory, I can't -- think it can't be proved, is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now, who knows what the real situation is, but the trouble is by suppressing that kind of information, you lead to those kinds of theories, whether they have any truth to them or not, and then eventually they get repeated as fact. So I think the president is taking a great risk by suppressing the clear -- the key information that needs to go to the Kean commission.
In this statement, Dean tried to have it both ways, promulgating an unknown and unproven theory while not taking responsibility for it. Indeed, he blamed Bush for the emergence of such theories even as he repeats one himself.
Nyhan's argument here is nonsense.
I have spent many years combing through conspiracy theories and assessing their factual basis (most of these came from the right-wing Patriot movement, but there is no paucity of conspiracism on the left either). In doing so, I also came to a pretty clear understanding of how they come to be in the first place. And one of their most prolific breeding grounds lies just outside the locked doors of governmental secrecy.
The Bush administration's striking fetish with secrecy is itself one of Washington's open secrets -- even that far-left organ, U.S. News and World Report, recently reported on this propensity and its far-reaching effects:
- "What has stunned us so much," says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a public interest group in Washington that monitors government activities, "is how rapidly we've moved from a principle of 'right to know' to one edging up to 'need to know.' "
Of course, keeping information locked behind closed doors poses all kinds of problems for a functioning democracy. But one of its less noticed side effects is that it invites wild speculation that almost inevitably leads to conspiracy theories, which in turn are significant vehicles for irrationalism, scapegoating and radicalism.
[For more on the destruction wreaked by conspiracism, see this outline with links by Chip Berlet, especially this summary:
- -- All conspiracist theories start with a grain of truth, which is then transmogrified with hyperbole and filtered through pre-existing myth and prejudice,
-- People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, which has concrete consequences in the real world,
-- Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating are symptoms, not causes, of underlying societal frictions, and as such are perilous to ignore,
-- Scapegoating and conspiracist allegations are tools that can be used by cynical leaders to mobilize a mass following,
-- Supremacist and fascist organizers use conspiracist theories as a relatively less-threatening entry point in making contact with potential recruits,
-- Even when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews, people of color, or other scapegoated groups, they create an environment where racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice and oppression can flourish.]
This was the problem that Dean was trying to get at -- a point that not only went over the interviewer's head, but evidently Nyhan's as well.
It's also important to note that it is simply impossible to discuss the growth of conspiracy theories without identifying them and discussing their components. Doing so does not constitute "repeating an unproven rumor." There was nothing irresponsible about Dean's discussion of this particular theory because he made it clear at the time he neither bought it nor endorsed it, but saw its spread as symptomatic of the Bush administration's secrecy.
This isn't blaming the administration for the emergence of the theories, as Nyhan suggests, but rather for creating the conditions in which they metastacize. The slowness of the Clinton administration and the FBI to conduct an open and public investigation of the Waco disaster, it must be observed, was similarly blameworthy (the Danforth investigation did not begin until 1999 -- six years later).
Dean probably could have been clearer in disavowing the theory, but there's nothing in his remarks to suggest he was "promulgating" it -- rather the opposite. Clearly examining a theory whose existence he clearly sees as a problem is simply not the same thing as promoting it. Nyhan should ask himself this: Should we charge the critics who questioned the government's secrecy in the Waco matter on the grounds that it was helping spread conspiracy theories with conspiracism themselves?
Of course, Dean was much more explicit later, as Nyhan continues:
- On December 7, "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace asked Dean about this "theory":
- WALLACE: The most interesting theory is that the president was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Why would you say that, Governor?
DEAN: Because there are people who believe that. We don't know what happened in 9/11. Tom Kean is trying to get some information from the president...
WALLACE: Do you believe that?
DEAN: ... which doesn't -- no, I don't believe that. I can't imagine the president of the United States doing that. But we don't know, and it'd be a nice thing to know.
WALLACE: I'm just curious why you would call that the most interesting theory.
DEAN: Because it's a pretty odd theory. What we do believe is that there was a lot of chatter that somehow was missed by the CIA and the FBI about this, and that for some reason we were unable to decide and get clear indications of what the attacks what were going to be. Because the president won't give the information to the Kean commission we really don't know what the explanation is.
Again, Dean claimed that Bush's failure to fully cooperate with the commission justifies his repetition of an unproven rumor, which he elevated to the status of something "we don't know" that would be "a nice thing to know."
Then, during the Democratic debate in Durham, NH on December 9, Dean was again asked about the remark, and blatantly dissembled about what he had said:
- SCOTT SPRADLING, WMUR-TV: Governor Dean, you had once stated that you thought it was possible that the president of the United States had been forewarned about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. You later said that you didn't really know.
A statement like that, don't you see the possibility of some Democrats being nervous about statements like that leading them to the conclusion that you are not right for being the next commander in chief?
DEAN: Well, in all due respect, I did not exactly state that. I was asked on Fox fair and balanced news that... (laughter) I was asked why I thought the president was withholding information, I think it was, or 9/11 or something like that. And I said, well, the most interesting theory that I heard, which I did not believe, was that the Saudis had tipped him off.
We don't know why the president is not giving information to the Kean commission. I think that is supposed to be investigated by Congress. I think it's a serious matter. I agree with Wes Clark, the president is not fighting terrorism. And we need to know what went wrong before 9/11.
I did not believe, and I made it clear on the Fox News show that I didn't believe that theory, but I had heard that. And there are going to be a lot of crazy theories that come out if the information is not given to the Kean commission as it should be.
Spradling was obviously asking Dean about his comments on "The Diane Rehm Show," not Fox News, yet Dean referred to his comments on Fox (again disavowing the rumor while repeating it and blaming Bush for its existence). Most importantly, as Noah points out, this mischaracterization allowed Dean to say "I made it clear on the Fox News show that I didn't believe that theory." However, he did not include such an explicit caveat during his original appearance on Rehm's show.
This is simply nitpicking. For starters, everything Dean said was perfectly accurate and can only be construed as dissembling under the most tendentious reading possible. Dean was fairly clear, if not as explicit as Nyhan might have liked, on Rehm's show that he did not subscribe to the theory . And Dean had a reason for referencing the Fox broadcast -- because not only was the question prominently reiterated, that was where the "Howard Dean loves conspiracy theories" meme was itself first promulgated.
Indeed, one wonders why Nyhan isn't outraged in the least by Fox's outrageous mischaracterization of Dean's remarks. Perhaps because it rubs up against his thesis, which he seems bound and determined to find evidence for. Problem is, it isn't there.
- Finally, in a story in the Washington Times today, Dean spokesperson Jay Carson continued to disingenuously spin the issue:
- "Governor Dean has been very clear that he doesn't believe in or subscribe to that theory," said Dean spokesman Jay Carson. "He simply pointed out the need for the Bush administration to be more cooperative with the 9/11 commission so that theories like that could be put to rest.
"The irony here is that the Republicans are trafficking this supposed claim all over the place, thereby pushing it in a way that it never would have been possible," he said. "Governor Dean was clear that he didn't actually believe it."
Notably, when Vice President Dick Cheney employed a similar tactic in September, suggesting that Iraq may have been connected to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks without presenting any evidence of such a connection, Dean slammed Cheney and one of his foreign policy advisors told the Boston Globe that it is "totally inappropriate for the vice president to continue making these allegations without bringing forward" proof.
This really displays the poverty of Nyhan's argument. Cheney's contentions that Iraq was connected to Sept. 11 are in fact the stuff of conspiracy theories. Moreover, Cheney clearly endorsed those theories. (Nor did Cheney suggest there was a problem with the existence of such theories.)
Dean, conversely, clearly did not endorse any kind of conspiracy theory. Devoutly as Nyhan might wish otherwise.
[Thanks to The Ox for the USN&W tip.]
Jim McDermott is my congressman. I've always viewed him as problematic: He definitely votes the way I'd want him to. And he sometimes demonstrates great courage. But he also has a propensity to shoot from the hip -- and then fails to back up the things he says. Even when he's right. All of which serves to undermine his credibility on what often are important issues.
Of course, McDermott made the national GOP Talking Points in late 2002 when he visited pre-invasion Baghdad, saying beforehand, "The President of the United States will lie to the American people in order to get us into this war." While there, he held a press conference suggesting the same thing. And he continued to say it later, including during an appearance on ABC's This Week:
- "I think the president would mislead the American people."
As Ed Bishop reported in the St. Louis Journalism Review:
- Right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh went ballistic. Cal Thomas called the Congressmen "the Bozos of Baghdad." Bill O'Reilly said they were giving aid and comfort to the enemy. It was the kind of reaction you'd expect from these folks.
What was interesting was the reaction from the supposed "bastions of liberal media" like The New York Times. They too condemned the Congressmen. National Public Radio political correspondent Mara Liasson, interviewed on the Fox News Channel, even called for McDermott's resignation.
Even our local "liberal" press was all over him -- most notably P-I columnist Joel Connelly, whose antipathy to McDermott has been long noted. Connelly fiercely denounced McDermott as wrong, wrong, wrong: "McDermott has managed to play into the hands of both Saddam Hussein and Karl Rove."
The problem was that McDermott turned out to be right, right, right -- as even Connelly's P-I colleague Robert Jamieson later observed. Ed Bishop's analysis was even more exacting:
- Today, it can still be debated whether President Bush deliberately misled the American people about the reasons for invading Iraq. But no reasonable person denies that the Bush administration was wrong about Saddam Hussein's nuclear capability, WMDs, the cost of the war and the number of troops it would take to occupy Iraq. In fact, to characterize the public speeches and Congressional testimony of administration officials as misleading seems more than reasonable.
But, to my knowledge, no one in the press has apologized to McDermott.
It's not easy for journalists to admit they were wrong. But, when the evidence is overwhelming, usually they're willing to do so. I think something else is going on here: To admit they were wrong would lead to admitting why they were wrong -- and there's the rub.
The problem is mainstream journalists are echoing the far right out of fear.
Now, of course, the right is all over McDermott again, this time for suggesting on a Seattle radio station that the story of Saddam's capture may have been given the Jessica Lynch Treatment: distorted, misreported and overblown for propaganda purposes:
- "I'm sure they could have found him a long time ago if they wanted to."
... "I've been surprised they waited, but then I thought, well, politically, it probably doesn't make much sense to find him just yet."
Predictably, McDermott was again assailed by the Mighty Wurlitzer for promoting "conspiracy theories" (which were then lumped in with Howard Dean's remarks about Bush's foreknowledge of Sept. 11). And once again, the local media -- not only Connelly but this time Jamieson too -- jumped all over him for the remarks.
Problem is, once again, McDermott may prove right -- or at least half-right.
Information is beginning to emerge from Islamic journalists that Kurds, not American forces, actually cornered Saddam:
- Washington's claims that brilliant US intelligence work led to the capture of Saddam Hussein are being challenged by reports sourced in Iraq's Kurdish media claiming that its militia set the circumstances in which the US merely had to go to a farm identified by the Kurds to bag the fugitive former president.
The first media account of the December 13 arrest was aired by a Tehran-based news agency.
American forces took Saddam into custody around 8.30pm local time, but sat on the news until 3pm the next day.
However, in the early hours of Sunday, a Kurdish language wire service reported explicitly: "Saddam Hussein was captured by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. A special intelligence unit led by Qusrat Rasul Ali, a high-ranking member of the PUK, found Saddam Hussein in the city of Tikrit, his birthplace.
"Qusrat's team was accompanied by a group of US soldiers. Further details of the capture will emerge during the day; but the global Kurdish party is about to begin!"
As Josh Marshall has observed, this information may not be entirely reliable. But it also may turn out quite accurate. It's certain, however, that no one in the U.S. media is bothering to examine the facts of the matter, for much the same reasons that Bishop elucidated previously.
The problem, of course, is that McDermott shoots from the hip. He has pretty good instincts in terms of getting to the bottom of political machinations and chicanery. He also has a pretty good bead on the Bush administration.
But in both these cases, he made the assertions without the evidence in hand to back them up. And in both cases, what should have been important information presented responsibly to the public was shot down by a madly piping Wurlitzer.
So my problems with McDermott come down to competence, really. He should have followed through on his instincts, investigated the matters carefully, avoided brash public proclamations before obtaining the evidence, and then acted accordingly when the time was ripe. Instead, he shot from the hip, and then looked foolish because he couldn't back it up at the time.
But I have an even bigger problem with journalists and yammering right-wing pundits who leap to conclusions that later prove wrong -- and then lack the decency or backbone to admit it.
Friday, January 02, 2004
I've finally added comments. I still am hoping to completely revamp the site this spring, but real life keeps interfering with blog life.
In the meantime, please fire away. I may announce a comments policy soon, but for now, I prefer the wide open.
Deja vu stupidity
Thursday, January 01, 2004
As Atrios notes, the White House is already trotting out its "idiot defense" in the Plame leak case:
- The Justice Department investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity could conclude that administration officials disclosed the woman's name and occupation to the media but still committed no crime because they did not know she was an undercover operative, a legal expert said this week.
"It could be embarrassing but not illegal," said Victoria Toensing, who was chief counsel of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence when Congress passed the law protecting the identities of undercover agents.
This defense has a decidedly familiar ring. From the same source: Victoria Toensing, aka the "better half" of the Republican tag team of [Joseph] diGenova and Toensing.
For those keeping score, diGenova was the "independent counsel" appointed to investigate former President George H.W. Bush and Co. for their illegal handling of Bill Clinton's passport files. For some reason, diGenova was conveniently appointed to the investigation just a couple of years before the U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled that the counsels' most important attribute was independence from the administration under investigation.
Here's how diGenova's absurdly partisan dismissal of the charges was reasoned in 1995:
- As independent counsel, I have just wrapped up a three-year inquiry into the State Department's search of Bill Clinton's passport file when he was a Presidential candidate. The investigation found no criminality, just political stupidity, in the Bush Administration.
Hey, it worked the first time, didn't it?
Incidentally, as Robert Parry has reported at The Consortium, diGenova's whitewash covered up more than just the passport files affair -- it also papered over the possible enlistment of the Czechoslovakian secret police to dig up dirt on Clinton. Nonetheless:
- Despite the phone records and the public declarations by Czech intelligence veterans, diGenova said he "found no evidence linking the publication of the  Czech press stories to either Czechoslovak intelligence or the Bush-Quayle campaign." Similarly, diGenova announced that he found nothing wrong with the Bush administration's search of Clinton's personal passport files or its leaking of the confidential criminal referral about those files a month before the 1992 election.
The report aimed its harshest criticism at State Department Inspector General Sherman Funk for suspecting that a crime had been committed in the first place. DiGenova's report mocked the IG for "a woefully inadequate understanding of the facts."
Stung by the criticism, John Duncan, a senior lawyer in the IG's office, expressed disbelief at diGenova's findings. Duncan protested in writing that he could not understand how diGenova "reached the conclusion that none of the parties involved in the Clinton passport search violated any federal criminal statute. Astoundingly, [diGenova] has also concluded that no senior-level party to the search did anything improper whatever. This conclusion is so ludicrous that simply stating it demonstrates its frailty."
Duncan saw, too, a dangerous precedent that diGenova's see-no-evil report was accepting. "The Independent Counsel has provided his personal absolution to individuals who we found had attempted to use their U.S. Government positions to manipulate the election of a President of the United States," Duncan wrote.
Here's another, more detailed, account of the matter by Parry.
And just for posterity's sake ... Here are some previous posts on this point:
Missing in action
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
From William Safire's most recent recent column, in which we are asked to predict the future:
- 9. Best-Picture Oscar: (a) Anthony Minghella's "Cold Mountain"; (b) Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai"; (c) Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River"; (d) Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation"; (e) Gary Ross's "Seabiscuit." (This is the category I'm good at.)
If this is the category he's good at, just how did he manage to omit the likely winner?
I can never figure out why these right-wing pundits have such a fetish for these prediction games, when they are provably really bad at it. Though I actually agree with him on No. 13.
I managed to get quoted in today's USA Today piece on political blogs by Kathy Kiely. Welcome to all the visitors coming here from there.
One of the things we discussed (but which didn't make it in) was the way blogs have opened up the work of publishing to journalists like myself -- largely because I no longer have to pitch a storyline to an editor. I'm my own editor. Mickey Kaus talks about the freedom this offers, particularly from deadlines, which is great -- though there are always days when blogging is a much more onerous task than others, so it doesn't necessarily feel a lot different.
For me, the big thing is the freedom to publish material that would never make print otherwise. That's not to say I couldn't use an editor -- every blogger could, and me especially. Nor does it mean I feel free to publish irresponsible material (though many bloggers do). It does mean I can write an extended essay on fascism and not worry about who I can sell it to -- because frankly, I don't think I could even sell it now. It's too thick, too unconventional, and it is all about the f-word, from which editors run shrieking, just like the other f-word.
But I'm very glad I wrote it, and a lot of other people seem to be as well.
The freedom to be completely unconventional -- and to follow your own journalistic instincts unfettered, which in today's corporate-journalism environment is a rarity -- is what makes blogging so great. I am also beginning to believe that blogs in fact could become a significant way of obtaining information that, on the Web at least, eclipses conventional journalism. The possibilities are there, at least.
There really isn't much to say about my brief appearance on Fox's "The Big Story" yesterday, discussing the Texas case. It only lasted a couple of minutes, and all we talked about was the fact that domestic terrorists have committed many more crimes on American soil in the past decade than international terrorists; and the potential lethality of Krar's armament. We didn't really have a chance to get into the whys of the story not receiving any notice.
Here's a transcript.
The folks at the Fox office were pleasant and helpful, and one of them managed to keep my daughter entertained while I went on the air. I couldn't see any of the show, so if someone happened to catch it, please feel free to write in and tell me how it came off. I'm sure I have a face made for blogging, but other than that ...
[Incidentally, in case anyone's interested ... they did mispronounce my name. I'm used to it, so it doesn't bother me much. But it's NYE-wert.]
More on Tyler
Monday, December 29, 2003
The Christian Science Monitor picks up the Texas cyanide bomb case:
- The terror threat at home, often overlooked:
As the media focus on international terror, a Texan pleads guilty to possessing a weapon of mass destruction.
... "Without question, it ranks at the very top of all domestic terrorist arrests in the past 20 years in terms of the lethality of the arsenal," says Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right."
But outside Tyler, Texas, the case is almost unknown. In the past nine months, there have been two government press releases and a handful of local stories, but no press conference and no coverage in the national newspapers.
Experts say the case highlights the increased cooperation and quicker response by US agencies since Sept. 11. But others say it points up just how political the terror war is. "There is no value for the Bush administration to highlighting domestic terrorism right now," says Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "But there are significant political benefits to highlighting foreign terrorists, especially when trying to whip up support for war."
Mr. Levitas goes even further: "The government has a severe case of tunnel vision when it comes to domestic terrorism. I have no doubt whatsoever that had Krar and his compatriots been Arab-Americans or linked to some violent Islamic fundamentalist group, we would have heard from John Ashcroft himself."
... Experts say the case is important not only because of what it says about increased government cooperation, but also because it shows how serious a threat the country faces from within. "The lesson in the Krar case is that we have to always be concerned about domestic terrorism. It would be a terrible mistake to believe that terrorism always comes from outside," says Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
The fact is, the number of domestic terrorist acts in the past five years far outweighs the number of international acts, says Mark Pitcavage of the fact-finding department at the Anti-Defamation League. "We do have home-grown hate in the United States, people who are just as ill-disposed to the American government as any international terrorist group," he says.
Of course, you can always say you read it here first.
Orcinus does Fox (!)
Imagine my surprise.
Apparently, I'll be appearing on Fox News's "The Big Story" at about 2:30 p.m. PST (that'd be 5:30 EST), talking about the Texas cyanide bomb case.
I'll report back.
Don'tcha just love Republican advice?
Sunday, December 28, 2003
Nice projection, Mona Charen:
- What seemed so clear to outsiders -- that the Democrats' best bet was a war-supporting liberal like Gephardt or Lieberman -- did not seem to sway the nominating wing of the Democratic party. They are thirsting for a Bush-bashing, small America liberal -- someone who will genuflect before the United Nations. But Dean is more than a liberal, he is a liar and a narcissist. So if he is nominated, it's going to be long, long year.
Because, you know, if there's anything Republicans dislike, it's competition in the narcissism and lying departments.
[Link via Atrios.]
If anyone wanted evidence that the "war on terror" is primarily a political marketing campaign -- in which war itself is mostly a device for garnering support -- they need look no farther than the startling non-response to domestic terrorism by the Bush administration.
This failure is particularly embodied by the Texas cyanide bomb plot -- largely because the refusal by John Ashcroft's Justice Department to give the story significant media play is problematic at best. Considering that Ashcroft leaps to the podium at nearly every turn in announcing the arrests of potential Al Qaeda-oriented terror suspects -- not to mention the readiness of the Department of Homeland Security to raise the "threat" level to Code Orange -- the silence in the Texas case is disturbing.
At the very least, the DoJ owes the public -- for ethical reasons alone -- an open assessment of the threat posed by the potential presence of cyanide bombs in the hands of domestic terrorists on American soil. If William Krar indeed manufactured and distributed more of these bombs, then shouldn't the public be both thoroughly alerted, informed and watchful? There are sound investigatory reasons not to reveal too much in the way of details, but utter public ignorance and indifference can be harmful as well, since it can in many regards make the terrorists' ability to act that much simpler. Isn't countering that, after all, the purpose of all these Code Orange alerts?
As I've argued consistently, domestic terrorists (especially the "lone wolf" type) pose at least as great a real threat to public safety as their international brethren -- if, for no other reason, than that they fully intend to "piggyback" on attacks like those of Sept. 11. (This is not to mention the facts that they can operate with great impunity, since they are likelier to go undetected, and they are equally motivated and inclined to act violently.) The anthrax terrorist, it should go without saying, was a clear-cut case of this. More to the point, white supremacists' core agenda has revolved directly around terrorism for more than a generation now, precisely because they believe the public must be convinced that democracy is a failure and will not keep them safe. The more chaos, the more terror, the more they believe they can shake up the system enough to seize power. That was, after all, the purpose of the Oklahoma City bombing.
It must be noted that the failure is not particularly one of law enforcement -- though even there, problems exist. But the FBI notably has not backed down, philosophically speaking, in its pursuit of domestic terrorists since Sept. 11, as the Tyler case demonstrated. Once Krar's materiel cache was uncovered, the agency committed the full phalanx of investigators and other resources to the case. And the reality is that, as the Washington Post reported earlier this year, agents themselves thoroughly understand that domestic terrorism needs to be a top priority in any "war on terrorism," and generally have acted accordingly.
What's becoming clearer is that this priority is not shared by top officials in the administration. Since Sept. 11, the FBI and other security agencies have massively shifted their terrorism focus to those components related to Al Qaeda and similar international terror groups. The Tyler case (like others) only was broken because of an accidental stroke of good fortune (namely, a traffic stop). Any philosophical priority given to domestic terrorism has been overwhelmed by the reality of funding and manpower devoted elsewhere.
Indeed, Frederick Clarkson reported in Salon last month that the DoJ took unusual steps to keep the trial of domestic terrorist Clayton Waagner -- who'd tried to "piggyback" himself on the anthrax terrorist by mailing death-threat letters stuffed with white powder to abortion clinics -- a low-profile case. Likewise, there have been multiple other cases of domestic terrorism in the past year that have failed to receive significant attention.
The fact that a pathology in the press is a primary factor here should not be understated. I've struggled hard and long against the problem of the mainstream media's blinders when it comes to the significance of the extremist right and its activities [and the fact that I now work independently suggests my solution to date]. As Chip Berlet points out in the Clarkson piece:
- "Once somebody claims a religious motivation for an act of terrorism," he said, "most people, including reporters and editors, become unglued." If Waagner had been a self-identified Muslim terrorist instead of a Christian terrorist, Berlet observed, "he'd have been lynched by now." Indeed, while news reports invariably note that he is a self-described terrorist, and dutifully quote him as saying so, they also studiously avoid use of the word "Christian."
"The notion of Christian terrorists is a place people don't want to go," Glazier agreed. "And the notion of there being more than one Christian terrorist is a place where people also don't want to go."
Reporters and editors often "fear to offend," added Berlet. "But if it's fair to say if we can see the religious motivations in the Taliban, we ought to be able to see them in Waagner or Eric Rudolph." He notes that although Waagner and his associates in the Army of God "represent a tiny fraction of the wider Christian right, people don't know how to make sense of it." And reporters, he says, "walk away from it."
Though Waagner's crimes fiercely exploited the fears created by 9/11, Berlet says the press has tended to diminish the crimes. For example, he says, most of the stories use the term "anthrax hoax" to describe Waagner's crimes. But "just because a terrorist threat turns out to be a hoax does not mean that it has no effect."
Chip is exactly right, incidentally, about the "fear to offend." In fact, I couldn't begin to count the editors and reporters I've known who fear even running stories about white supremacists because they might offend various people and stir up "bad feelings" in the communities. "Let sleeping dogs lie" is a line I've heard all too often. The sad reality is that the disinclination to report on domestic terrorism has a long history that deepened in the 1990s.
Moreover, the post-2000 press corps has become slavishly corporate, and the post-9/11 ethos mandates a close adherence to the White House line. If the administration doesn't push the story, it's not worth reporting.
That in turn, however, points to the most significant aspect of the problem: The role of top government officials in downplaying the threat of domestic terrorism.
As Danny Levitas observes:
- Had several Arab Americans with definitive links to known terrorist organizations been found in the President's home state with a sodium cyanide bomb, how long do you think it would have taken Attorney General John Ashcroft to call a national news conference and announce it? I'm not saying that I think anything was done to bury or lower the profile of this story intentionally. But I think it is quite reasonable to assume that had Arab American terrorists been involved (as opposed to white supremacists and militia activists) we would not have heard the end of this, and that would have been way back in April when the WMD and other massive explosives were first discovered.
Also, it is worth considering the nature of the materiel uncovered. Land mine components, suitcase bombs, binary explosives, more than 60 fully functional pipe bombs, and more. This is the biggest stockpile of the most dangerous stuff that I can EVER recall being found in connection with the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi movement. [Ed. note: more on that point here.]
A number of observers writing about the Tyler case -- notably The Black Commentator and The Intelligence Squad -- have essentially concluded that "John Ashcroft isn't going to make a big deal out of nailing these guys" for one primary reason: "they are essentially a more extreme version of Ashcroft himself." That is: "The Bush men conceal the existence [of] terrorists, as if embarrassed by their own kind."
I can't argue entirely against this conclusion, except to note that the evidence in its favor is not wholly conclusive, and there is evidence contrary to it. If this were the case, would Ashcroft have prominently invoked the federal hate-crimes law in pursuing the notorious case of Darrell David Rice? Wouldn't he have pulled the plug on the FBI's reasonably sound pursuit of domestic terrorism, as described in that Post story?
More to the point, however, is that it is in essence an ad hominem argument that elides the core policy questions about this failure, and in a way lets Aschcroft and Co. off the hook: It explains away the failure to adequately confront domestic terrorism by arguing that Ashcroft and Bush are bad men of poor character. It may be emotionally satisfying to reach that conclusion, but it is not an argument.
It's more important, perhaps, to keep in mind the political dimensions that come into play here. There are, in fact, some fairly obvious political reasons why the Bush administration might not want to confront domestic terrorism as a significant component of the "war on terror".
A few weeks ago, Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! radio program tackled the Tyler case. She had on an impressive collection of guests, including Robert Riggs, the chief on-air reporter for the Dallas TV station, CBS-11, that originally broke the significant dimensions of the Tyler case; Brit Featherston [his name is misspelled on the transcript], Assistant U.S. Attorney in Texas; and Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Jensen had the most telling comment on the case:
- I think the reason for that, if I were to speculate -- not being in the brain of John Ashcroft -- is that cases like this -- of domestic terrorism, especially when they involve white supremacist and conservative Christian groups, don't have any political value for an administration, especially this particular administration. Therefore, why -- if one were going to be crass and cynical, why Would they highlight this?
On the other hand, foreign terrorism and things connected to Arab, South Asian and Muslim groups, well those have value because they can be used to whip up support for military interventions, which this administration is very keen on.
Think, if you will, about the different kinds of terror at work here. The war against international terror plays out on a global stage, and as it's been waged so far by this administration, in remote and exotic locales. When Bush invokes the "war on terror," it revolves around images of Arab fanatics and desert combat. It's far removed from our daily realities -- except, of course, for the coffins coming home on military transports, images of which are forbidden to the press.
This is a peculiar, amorphous terror to which we as individuals feel only remotely or vaguely connected. The attacks of Sept. 11 are raised to remind us it can strike here, but the source of the terror is something that seems distant and disattached to us. The less concrete it is, the more vague the potential response. Thus Saddam Hussein can be conflated with Osama bin Laden as a threat to America and an entire war campaign constructed around his role in "the war on terror," though it is becoming increasingly clear he had little if any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
This is a highly marketable kind of terrorism, in the sense that its potential threat can be invoked at any time to justify an entire panoply of political moves, as well as to impugn the patriotism of your opponents. This sort of "war on terror" doesn't require any real sacrifices on the part of the public -- unless, of course, you happen to draw the unlucky Gold Star -- but being on the Right Side is easy, since the Enemy is The Other. He isn't The Guy Next Door.
Domestic terrorism, however, has none of these advantages. It plays out in our back yards, in our heartland, and many of its actors either dwell in or hail from rural America; they could be the rancher or the Gulf War vet next door. We all have known or encountered intense ideological believers, kooks if you will, who seem just half-steps removed from William Krar or Tim McVeigh. They are familiar. Mostly we like to ignore them as simple aberrations, unlikely to cause much harm.
Cases like Krar's are stark reminders that this is a dangerous presumption. Domestic terrorists may not have mounted a body count to match Al Qaeda's, but since 1995, the drumbeat of right-wing extremist violence has been regular and substantial -- much more so than anything committed by overseas terrorists. Oklahoma City alone should stand as a stark reminder of both the damage only a few of these terrorists can cause.
Situations like the current Code Orange, in fact, create a fresh environment for these kinds of terrorists to act -- because it provides them a cover in which the perpetrators will be presumed to be nonwhite Muslims. As we saw in the anthrax case, such a blind alley can lead to a stunted investigation in a hurry.
Making the public aware of the threat from domestic terrorists, especially as part of a real war on terrorism, would require getting the public to confront the reality that the "axis of evil" comprises not merely brown-skinned people with turbans and fanatical gleams but also that surly white guy next door with the pipe-bomb arsenal in his basement.
As Robert Wright has astutely observed:
- For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people.
The number of intensely aggrieved groups will almost certainly grow in the coming decades of rapid technological, and hence social, change.
The problem with confronting this reality is that it throws into stark relief the ineffectiveness of the Bush Doctrine -- particularly as it has played out in the invasion of Iraq. It makes all too clear that the current conflict is not only a grotesquely ineffective response to the challenge posed by terrorism, it is likely to worsen the problem exponentially.
Moreover, no one is going to be mistaking most domestic terrorists (except, of course, the ELF/ALF contingent) with liberals. If anyone's patriotism is likely to be impugned by association with the right-wing extremists who have consistently been involved in the considerable bulk of domestic American terrorism in the past decade, it would be Republicans.
A public campaign against domestic terrorism is problematic for political reasons: It runs directly counter to the kind of "war on terror" that has been marketed to Americans, and which is in fact the centerpiece of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.
As Robert Jensen observed in the Goodman interview:
- So I think the politics are very clear here. Prosecutors' offices are always political. I mean, I have covered even small town prosecutors' offices and there's always a political element to them. But some are more political than others.
I think what we have to acknowledge here is that probably since the Nixon administration, we have never seen a Justice Department so completely and thoroughly politicized as this one.
This may seem to be a mostly political problem -- and certainly, it is one that the Democratic candidates would be smart to make hay with. Since Republicans have been eager to paint them as weak on national security, Democrats have solid reasons to question the administration's priorities here.
Most of all, this is a real issue of public safety that should transcend politics. After all, this particular Bush-administration/media failure may also have a real-world impact -- especially if one of those cyanide bombs goes off.