Nearly a dozen years after the passage of the PATRIOT Act — rushed through Congress in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation — informed debate over the balance between liberty and security is long overdue. That includes a public examination of how widely and deeply the National Security Agency (and other elements of the “intelligence community”) may monitor Americans’ telecommunications without violating the Bill of Rights.
But that needed discussion isn’t enhanced by hysteria or the partisan opportunism it encourages. As others have noted already, the supposed revelation that the NSA is collecting metadata on telephone use in this country isn’t exactly startling news. The fugitive ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked documents concerning that program to the London Guardian and the Washington Post, may yet unveil more startling revelations from his peculiar refuge in China. But anyone paying attention has known about this program since 2006, when USA Today first disclosed its existence.
The most important difference today is that Americans are no longer too frightened by the constant “terror alerts” of the Bush administration to consider the boundaries of surveillance and security. Rather than hyping the terrorist threat, like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, President Obama has repeatedly framed a calmer — if equally resolute — attitude toward Islamist extremism.
So while facile comparisons between the Obama and Bush administrations now appear every day in the media, they are quite misleading. Uttered by Republicans and their mouthpieces on Fox News, such arguments are hypocritical as well.
Consider the single most important surveillance controversy of the Bush era, namely the warrantless wiretapping undertaken on the president’s orders. In December 2005, the New York Times revealed that Bush had authorized the NSA to monitor phone calls and emails originating in U.S. territory, without obtaining warrants as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. (That’s why it was called “warrantless.”) For the first time since Watergate – and the intelligence reforms resulting from that true scandal — the U.S. government had eavesdropped on Americans’ conversations without seeking the permission of a judge.
Only months before, Bush had claimed publicly that he was a steward of civil liberties and that his agents always got a court order before implementing a wiretap. But his administration had been using warrantless wiretaps ever since the 9/11 attacks.
Those trespasses against liberty went considerably further than the collection of metadata by the NSA. No reports indicate that the Obama administration violated existing law to eavesdrop on any American — or listened to any calls without the sanction of the special FISA court.
Yet reaction to the recent stories about the NSA’s policies has been far more intense than eight years ago. Pundits and politicians have compared Obama unfavorably with Richard Nixon, berating him as a tyrannical betrayer of civil liberties. A few prominent Republicans even seem determined to ruin the NSA, solely because they wish to embarrass the president – a motive that other Republicans attribute to Snowden, whom they vilify as a traitor.
Not a peep was heard from Republicans on Capitol Hill when Bush, his vice president Dick Cheney, and their lawyers were practicing and promoting the theory of the “unitary executive,” under which any act ordered by the president in wartime, including warrantless wiretapping, is deemed inherently legal and exempt from judicial review. What exercised the Republicans in those days was the temerity of the Times in revealing what Bush had done.
As for Obama, the complicated truth is a mixed record on civil liberties. He tried and failed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and he supported the renewal of the PATRIOT Act without changes. But he also substantially reformed the use of military commissions and abolished the use of torture, renditions, and secret prisons. In ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has rejected the “permanent war” ideology, which the Bush regime deployed as a political weapon against dissent.
So far there is little evidence that Obama shares the dangerous theories of Bush and Cheney – but no president should enjoy the kind of exemption from congressional scrutiny that his predecessors exploited. Whatever Snowden’s intentions may be, he has inspired members of Congress to provide stricter oversight of the government’s gargantuan data-gathering efforts, which are inherently prone to overreach even under the most responsible supervision. At the very least, Congress and the public need to know how the government wields its powers under the PATRIOT Act – an interpretation that remains classified and thus precludes democratic oversight.
The president’s response to that question will test his commitment to the Constitution he swore to uphold.
By: Joe Conason, The National Memo, June 14, 2013
As you may have noticed, the biggest problem with the IRS scandal (from the perspective of Republicans) is that it remains stubbornly removed from the President himself. It’s all well and good to get a couple of scalps from mid-level managers, but for it to be a real presidential scandal you need to implicate the guy in the Oval Office in the wrongdoing. Confronted with Obama’s non-involvement, conservatives have turned to vague and airy accusations about the “culture” Obama has created. Mitch McConnell, for instance, is warning darkly that Obama may be not too far removed from Tony Soprano: “I think what we know for sure is that there is a culture of intimidation across this administration—the president demonizing his enemies, attempting to shut people up. There is certainly a culture of intimidation.”
The idea that Barack Obama—whom Republicans regularly accuse of being a foreign-born anti-American socialist communist marxist who is slowly carrying out a plan to destroy America—is the one “demonizing” his opponents is pretty laughable. But the nice thing about the “culture” argument is that to make it, you don’t have to point to any particular thing any particular person has done. It’s just a culture, out there in the ether.
Conservatives are also alleging that the IRS employees who gave extra scrutiny to 501(c)(4) applications of Tea Party groups were in fact acting on Obama’s instructions. It was just that the instructions came in the form of him going out on the campaign trail and lamenting the Citizens United decision and the way it opened the door for all kinds of “dark money” to be injected into campaigns. Once again, it’s a way of ascribing guilt without having any evidence of guilt, but the problem is, it fails from both ends. Lots of people, even many Republicans, joined Obama in lamenting the rise of the new super PACs and 501(c)(4)s. It was an issue when Republicans were using them against each other in the 2012 presidential primaries. And if the IRS employees were trying to help Obama, they were going about it all wrong. As Ed Kilgore says, “The ultimate howler here is that we are supposed to believe that IRS bureaucrats, in obedience to the “dog whistle” of the president’s demonization of conservative groups’ involvement in the 2012 presidential campaign, chose to ignore the groups that were involved in the campaign in a significant way, and instead go after small fry Tea Party organizations.”
But can a president create a “culture” within the government that has consequences for the behavior of bureaucrats down the line, even to the point of sanctioning wrongdoing? The easy answer is, well, sure. Every boss creates an atmosphere that can affect the behavior of the people who work for her. But when you get beyond the people who work in the president’s immediate orbit, what matters isn’t culture, it’s people and policies. For instance, the Bush administration didn’t torture prisoners because Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press and said that to fight terrorism we’d have to go to “the dark side, if you will,” and then folks just got the message and started waterboarding prisoners. It happened because the administration made torture its official policy, and had in place the personnel who were eager to do it.
The United States government is a gigantic entity; even excluding uniformed military, there are 2.7 million federal employees spread around the country. No one, not even the president, can with a few words on the campaign trail create a “culture” that allows misbehavior to happen. I realize that many conservatives believe that Obama and anyone who would ever consider working for him are so corrupt that their immorality must naturally spread through the government like the hantavirus. But that’s not how it works.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 22, 2013
“The Old Failed Gang Is Back Together”: After Spectacular Failures And Unprecedented Abuses, Pretending To Have Credibility
Several prominent officials from the Bush/Cheney era have been in the news lately, largely as a result of ongoing controversies, but many of them — Robert Gates, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, retired Gen. David Petraeus — are under fire from the right for not toeing the party’s anti-Obama line.
There are, however, plenty of loyal Bushies stepping up to launch rhetorical attacks. Indeed, they seem happy to pretend they still have credibility and are compelling messengers to express their party’s contempt for the president.
Former Attorney General Mike Mukasey was on Fox News this morning accusing Obama of abusing the power of the executive branch (no, seriously); former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is making the rounds on conservative talk radio; and former Vice President Dick Cheney is, well, doing what Dick Cheney does.
“They lied. They claimed it was because of a demonstration video, that they wouldn’t have to admit it was really all about their incompetence,” Cheney told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Monday. “They ignored repeated warnings from the CIA about the threat. They ignored messages from their own people on the ground that they needed more security.”
“I think it’s one of the worst incidences, frankly, that I can recall in my career … if they told the truth about Benghazi, that it was a terrorist attack by an Al Qaeda-led group, it would destroy the confidence that was the basis of his campaign for reelection,” Cheney added. “They tried to cover it up by constructing a false story.”
As a substantive matter, much of what Cheney said is ridiculous and wrong, as is often the case. If the failed former V.P. has proof of White House lies and a cover-up, he’s welcome to share it, but the fact that preliminary intelligence out of Benghazi was wrong isn’t evidence of either.
But more to the point, does Dick Cheney, of all people, really want to have a conversation about national security lies, ignored warnings about terrorist threats, and covering things up by constructing false stories? Because that’s largely a summary of his eight years of spectacular failures and unprecedented abuses in office. Indeed, I’m not sure whether to find it funny or sad that he, Rumsfeld, and Mukasey feel comfortable showing their faces in public again.
As for Cheney seeing Benghazi as “one of the worst incidences” that he “can recall,” I’m not going to play a game of ranking the seriousness of terrorist attacks, but I’m curious if Cheney recalls 9/11. If he doesn’t think that counts — and there’s some evidence to suggest he doesn’t — and he only wants to focus on attacks on American outposts abroad, I wonder if Cheney might also recall the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that left 241 American servicemen dead, right before Reagan cut and ran.
Any of this ring a bell, Dick?
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 14, 2013
“A Former Cheney Aide Married To A Romney Adviser”: Meet The Woman At The Center Of The Benghazi Controversy
After ABC News released emails detailing the evolution of the Obama administration’s talking points on the Benghazi terror attack, much of the right’s ire has focused on Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson who asked for the removal of references to al-Qaida and the CIA’s warnings about the dangers to U.S. diplomats in Libya.
With her name splashed all over the emails and her very public role in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, Nuland serves the useful dual role of scapegoat and proxy for the potential 2016 presidential candidate, who may be the real target of conservative uproar over Benghazi. Naturally, critics ascribe political motives to Nuland’s actions in the Benghazi aftermath. “It’s very clear today that lib Victoria Nuland was not honest with reporters,” conservative blogger Jim Hoft wrote.
But Nuland may prove to be a poor choice of left-wing villain for the right considering that her record suggests she’s anything but a Saul Alinskyite. In fact, she came under attack from the left when Clinton chose her as spokesperson because she had previously served as a senior adviser to Dick Cheney. Yes, that Dick Cheney, leading antiwar blogger Marcy Wheeler to call her a “former Cheney hack.”
Meanwhile, Nuland is married to Washington Post columnist and neoconservative historian Robert Kagan, who helped sell the case for the Iraq War, advised both Mitt Romney and John McCain’s presidential campaigns, and co-founded the Project for a New American Century think tank with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. Obama has spoken fondly of some of Kagan’s work as well, but his credentials in the conservative foreign policy establishment are unimpeachable.
This is not to say that Nuland is some kind of neoconservative plant as some liberals have claimed. Nuland has a distinguished career in the Foreign Service going back almost 30 years, holding senior positions under presidents of both parties. If she has any political views, she’s kept them to herself, refraining from making any donations to political campaigns or speaking publicly about domestic elections.
In an interview with the Brown Alumni Magazine, Nuland compared the Foreign Service to the military, suggesting she views the role apolitically. And while she praised Clinton, she said she expected to leave the job after John Kerry took over. “Like all good foreign service officers,” she said, “I go back in the pool, and see what they might want me to do.”
Nuland may, however, be a closet hipster, with an affinity for Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, May 13, 2013
Dick Cheney won’t let a little thing like the absence of credibility stand in the way of cheap shots, as he hopes to exploit the deaths of Americans abroad for partisan gain.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney criticized the Obama administration on Tuesday for its handling of the September 11, 2012 terror attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, calling it ‘a failure of leadership.’ Cheney said U.S. leaders should have been better prepared for violence on the anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.
‘They should have been ready before anything ever happened,’ Cheney told MailOnline exclusively during a party in Georgetown celebrating the launch of a new book by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. ‘I mean, it’s North Africa – Libya, where they’ve already had major problems,’ Cheney said.
Actually, “North Africa” is a pretty big place, as Cheney may recall. To say the Obama administration, the U.S. military, and all U.S. diplomatic outposts in the region “should have been ready” is easy for a failed former official to say from his Beltway home, but in practice, it’s a little more complex. Indeed, we’re talking about Benghazi, Libya, where support for the U.S. is strong and we were arguably less likely to face a violent attack.
But this was the part of Cheney’s harangue that struck me as especially noteworthy.
‘When we were there, on our watch, we were always ready on 9/11, on the anniversary,’ he recalled.
Yes, “on the anniversary” is an instant Cheney classic, because on their watch, they certainly weren’t ready “on 9/11″ itself.
George W. Bush received an intelligence briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, at which he was handed a memo with an important headline: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” Bush, however, was on a month-long vacation at the time. He heard the briefer out and replied, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” A month later, al Qaeda killed 3,000 people.
“On the anniversary,” however, Cheney wants us to know they were ready, presumably everywhere, for everything.
Honestly, isn’t it about time this guy enjoyed a little quiet time?
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 8, 2013