Adam Ash

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

US Diary: King George and his screwed-up court

1. A deluded king and his court lickspittles.
Cut off from reality and surrounded by flatterers like Rice and Cheney, Bush clings to grandiose illusions of heroism.
By Sidney Blumenthal

Republicans representative of their permanent establishment have recently and quietly sent emissaries to President Bush, like diplomats to a foreign ruler isolated in his forbidden city, to probe whether he could be persuaded to become politically flexible. These ambassadors were not connected to the elder Bush or his closest associate, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who was purged last year from the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and scorned by the current president. Scowcroft privately tells friends who ask whether he could somehow help that Bush would never turn to him for advice. So, in one case, a Republican wise man, a prominent lawyer in Washington who had served in the Reagan White House, sought no appointments or favors and was thought to be unthreatening to Bush, gained an audience with him. In a gentle tone, he explained that many presidents had difficult second terms, but that by adapting their approaches they ended successfully, as President Reagan had. Bush instantly replied with a vehement blast. He would not change. He would stay the course. He would not follow the polls. The Republican wise man tried again. Oh, no, he didn't mean anything about polls. But Bush fortified his wall of self-defensiveness and let fly with another heated riposte that he would not change.

He has been true to his word. On the sale of U.S. ports to a corporate entity owned by the United Arab Emirates, for example, he has been adamant. Congressional Republicans, observing Bush's spiraling decline in the polls, down this week to 34 percent in the New York Times/CBS News survey, and facing midterm elections in which they but not the president are on the ballot, are seized with sheer panic. In the House of Representatives, they already forced their majority leader, Tom DeLay, under indictment for illegal campaign funding, to quit his post. Then they bolted from supporting the lobbyist-larded Roy Blunt, his obvious successor, and selected John Boehner, less conspicuously tainted, to replace DeLay. At the first news of the port deal, both the House and Senate leaders hastily threw President Bush overboard. Now he has to apply presidential pressure on his own party's leaders to reel them back. While the Democrats act as a hectoring chorus, the real tension and play are between Bush and the terrified Republican Congress.

Bush's immovability was previously perceived as the determination of a man of simple but clear convictions. But as his policies have unfolded as disastrous, his image has been turned inside out. Instead of being perceived as secure, he is seen as out of touch; instead of being acknowledged as a colossus striding events, he is viewed as driftwood carried away by the flood.

Within the sanctum of the White House, his aides often handle him with flattery. They tell him that he is among the greatest presidents, that his difficulties are testimony to his greatness, that his refusal to change is also a sign of his greatness. The more is he flattered, the more he approves of the flatterer. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has risen along with her current of flattery. She is expert at the handwritten little note extolling his historical radiance. Karen Hughes, now undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, was a pioneer of the flatterer's method. White House legal counsel Harriet Miers is also adept.

But it is Vice President Dick Cheney who has sought and gained the most through flattery. While Bush is constantly and lavishly complimented as supreme leader, Cheney runs the show. Through his chief of staff, David Addington, he controls most of the flow of information, especially on national security, that reaches the incurious president. Bush seeks no contrary information or independent sources. He does not delve into the recesses of government himself, as Presidents Kennedy and Clinton did. He never demands worst-case scenarios. Cheney and his team oversee the writing of key decision memos before Bush finally gets to check the box indicating approval.

Addington also dominates much of the bureaucracy through a network of conservative lawyers placed in key departments and agencies. The Justice Department regularly produces memos to justify the latest wrinkle in the doctrine of the "unitary executive," whether on domestic surveillance or torture. At the Defense Department, the counsel's office takes direction from Addington and acts at his behest to suppress dissent from the senior military on matters such as detainees or the "global war on terror."

Tightly regulated by Cheney and Bush's own aides (who live in fear of Cheney), the president hears what he wishes to hear. They also know what particular flattery he wants to receive, and they ensure that he receives it.

In "The Prince," Machiavelli highlighted the danger in his chapter titled "How Flatterers Must Be Shunned." He observed that "courts are full" of "this plague," and that it can be isolated only with difficulty. His solution was that the "prudent prince" must insist that his closest advisors never withhold the unvarnished facts from him. "Because," wrote Machiavelli, "there is no other way of guarding one's self against flattery than by letting men understand that they will not offend you by speaking the truth."

But when disturbing information manages to penetrate the carefully constructed net surrounding Bush, he instinctively rejects and condemns it. In July 2004, upon being briefed on the grim analysis of the growing Iraqi insurgency written by the CIA Baghdad station chief, Bush said, according to U.S. News & World Report, "What is he, some kind of defeatist?" Bush prefers to soak up the flattery. He responds only to praise of himself as the warrior-president at the battlements, fighting the enemies at the gates and the defeatists within.

In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, Bush was flattered by the analogy that he was like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, winning a world war and present at the creation of a new international order. However, since the election of 2004, a period during which the violence in Iraq has not diminished, Bush has been told he more closely resembles the beleaguered Abraham Lincoln. He is the Great Emancipator who has freed 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq but has not yet won the war. "It is courage that liberated more than 50 million people from tyranny," Bush declared on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2005. Enduring setbacks and suffering slings and arrows, he imagines himself enduring before inevitable and ultimate victory.

On May 11, 2005, Rice appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" to say, "I've often wondered, in the darkest hours of the Civil War, what people were saying to Abraham Lincoln about whether this was going to turn out all right."

Just a month earlier, on April 20, Bush had dedicated the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library in Springfield, Ill. Segueing seamlessly from the Civil War to the war on terror, from Gettysburg to Iraq, he conflated Lincoln's struggle and his own: "Our deepest values are also served when we take our part in freedom's advance -- when the chains of millions are broken and the captives are set free, because we are honored to serve the cause that gave us birth ... So we will stick to it; we will stand firmly by it."

This year, on Jan. 23, at Kansas State University, in one of a series of speeches he gave to explain once again his Iraq strategy, Bush digressed into a reverie about Lincoln's troubles. "I believe in what I'm doing," he said. "And I understand politics, and it can get rough. I read a lot of history, by the way, and Abraham Lincoln had it rough. I'm not comparing myself to Abraham Lincoln, nor should you think [so] just because I mentioned his name in the context of my presidency -- I would never do that. He was a great president. But, boy, they mistreated him. He did what he thought was right."

The greater Bush's difficulties, the more precipitously he falls in the polls, the more he is beseeched by anxious Republicans, and the harsher the realities, the tighter he clings to his self-image. Cheney and the others encourage his illusions, at least partly because the more intensely Bush embraces the heroic conception of himself, the more he resists change and the firmer their grip.

"It is an infallible rule," Machiavelli wrote in his chapter on flatterers, "that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised, unless by chance he leaves himself entirely in the hands of one man who rules him in everything, and happens to be a very prudent man. In this case he may doubtless be well governed, but it would not last long, for that governor would in a short time deprive him of the state."

2. Reality Time.
Three more years of this? Honest conservative intellectuals: your country needs you.
By Michael Tomasky

There will be those who will ape the line put out yesterday by White House spokesman Trent Duffy with regard to the pre-Katrina videotape obtained by the Associated Press. They will say that the tape shows merely that George W. Bush was “engaged,” taking charge, discussing the matter days before Katrina made landfall.

They’ll say it; they’ll know that they’re lying. What the tape and transcripts show is obvious. Bush didn’t act on these desperate warnings, and then, by Thursday, September 1, lied about them when he said no one “anticipated the breach of the levees.”

I was at a dinner last night when I first heard about this. Someone had a copy of the AP story in his jacket pocket. As I was discussing it with another journalist, his sole response was to shake his head and say, “Three more years.”

Good God, I thought; he’s right. We still need to endure three more years (okay, minus seven weeks) of this.

I’m really not sure at this point that the country and the world will survive three more years of this bumbling, deceitful, artificial, and thoroughly mediocre man, and his bumbling, deceitful, artificial, and thoroughly mediocre courtiers. (Liberals, let’s just start saying it insistently and unapologetically: We were not being “elitists”; we were right in the first place -- he is just not smart enough to be the president of the United States.)

I suppose the world has survived far worse; it did survive Hitler (and no, this is not a “Hitler comparison”; I said Hitler was far worse, so leave that frail and exaggerated arrow in your quiver). So, yes, I suppose we’ll “survive” in the sense that the United States of America and the world will still be here.

But what kind of country and world? I say this not as an ideologue, but as a citizen: The prospect of relying on these incompetents to protect us and manage the world for three more years is genuinely alarming.

I live in the metropolitan area and work in the heart of the city that is target number two (maybe three; maybe one) for a nuclear dirty bomb. What evidence am I supposed to rely on to think that this might not happen next year, next week, tomorrow?

The administration’s defenders will say that there hasn’t been an attack since 9-11. The rest of us, in the real world, know the truth: They could have done a lot more, perhaps even prevented 9-11 in the first place; and while no administration can prevent everything, this one’s policies and actions have increased hatred of America and made the possibility of such attacks far more likely. We know that the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has nearly quadrupled since 9-11, in part because of this administration’s actions.

Virtually everything is inside-out; virtually every reality, the opposite of what they say. Saddam has the weapons to harm us; Saddam had no such weapons. The terrorists are on the run; the terrorists are increasing in number and violence. The insurgency is in its death throes; the insurgency was just kicking into gear when Dick Cheney said that. We will prevail in Iraq; the soldiers themselves say that isn’t possible. Clear skies; relaxed pollution standards. Intelligent design, something that deserves equal footing to science; a massive case of intellectual fraud, payola to a constituency, completely invented out of whole cloth. We won’t negotiate with rogue states; we will instead isolate and vanquish North Korea; North Korea now has nuclear weapons it never had before. Dubai is our ally; Dubai boycotts Israel. This list could go on for about 5,000 words.

We’re at a danger point. When we learn that the president of the United States was told in certain terms that one of the great cities in his country (and, if you want to put it this way, in a state he carried twice) was in grave danger, and his response was not to act but to engage in the simulacrum of action, to behave as if he were playing himself in TV drama where the writers would make sure that it all worked out well in the end -- when we learn something like that, we should be appalled and alarmed. Anyone who doesn’t say so either knows he or she is lying or is some sort of sociopath.

Honest conservative intellectuals: your nation needs you. Say, “Enough.” By tradition, you believe in honorable principles. Today, you are flacking for an administration that has betrayed many of those principles. The principles to which it has maintained fealty, like low taxes, it has pursued at a high price to other principles you cherish, like fiscal prudence.

The principles it has created after 9-11, like the Bush Doctrine, might have worked in theory but have been so wantonly executed that the irresponsibility borders on the criminal, which should offend you far more than it offends me. And finally, I know that you have to have your limits with respect to lies and dishonesty and Kool-Aid drinking. You’re not elected officials who need dams built in your states; Karl Rove can’t do anything to you.

I’ll make the following promises: If a future Democratic administration takes us into a war of volition, and we later learn that its case was bogus, I will denounce it for lying us into war and urge every liberal writer I know to do so. If a future Democratic administration betrays core liberal principles -- by, say, offering a large tax cut without at least working toward universal health care -- I will deplore it and encourage other liberals to do so. If a future Democratic administration circumvents process and leases our port operations to a nation that boycotts Israel, I will not make hypocritical noises about racism but will instead encourage all liberals to agree it’s a really bad idea. And, if a future Democratic administration lets a major American city die out of malign neglect, I shall calumniate it to the heavens -- and insist that every other liberal writer I know to do the same.

Please, folks. Join the world of facts and evidence. You have real conservatism to save, and you have 1,051 days in which to do it.

(Michael Tomasky is the Prospect’s editor.)

3. Colonel of truth.
Former Bush insider Lawrence Wilkerson blasts Dick Cheney's "paranoia" -- and says Cheney and Rumsfeld are to blame for Abu Ghraib.
By Mark Follman

There's been no shortage of former high-level insiders going public with fierce criticisms of the Bush administration. But since first speaking out last fall, Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who served as former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, has proved the fiercest. In a watershed speech at the New America Foundation in October, Wilkerson delivered a blistering indictment, charging that on vital national-security matters, the White House was run by an anti-democratic "cabal" led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Wilkerson has also suggested that he and his boss at the State Department were duped by the case for war forged inside the Pentagon and CIA under the close watch of Cheney and his top aides. He and Powell were kept in the dark about doubts over Iraq's WMD capabilities, even as they worked to vet the intelligence before Powell's landmark pro-war presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003. It turned out to be built on a stockpile of fictions.

But Wilkerson said bogus intelligence isn't his principal reason for coming forward -- it's the use of American forces to torture prisoners in the war that it launched. In mid-February, against a backdrop of new revelations about torture at Abu Ghraib and a call by U.N. investigators to shut down the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Wilkerson sat down for an interview with Salon, following a panel on national security at the University of Maryland. Last fall, he had spoken of a "visible audit trail" on torture leading from the soldiers in the field all the way up to Rumsfeld and Cheney.

Wilkerson said that by the time of the Abu Ghraib revelations in spring 2004, he began to realize how "deeply contaminated" the military had become due to post-9/11 interrogation policies. A military man of 31 years, he knew that the widespread abuses could have taken place only if sanctioned from high up in the civilian and military leadership.

Powell, who had served as the nation's top general under the first President Bush, apparently knew so, too. "When the word was out that the Abu Ghraib photographs were about to break, the secretary of state walked through my door and said, 'Larry, I need you to get together with Will Taft [Powell's lawyer] and build me an audit trail. I need all the paperwork -- I need a description of how we got to where we are.'"

Over the next several months, Wilkerson developed a dossier of both internal and public materials that pointed to the vice president's office. "I saw a chain of information and orders going out to the field that were codified in memoranda," Wilkerson said. "Reading between the lines -- and sometimes even reading the lines -- they essentially said, 'This is a new war. These people are different. Geneva doesn't apply, and we need intelligence. So smack these guys, stack 'em up. Use whatever means you need.'" The materials he gathered and the many communications he had with people in the field formed a clear picture. "What got implemented in the field," he said, "was the position Cheney and Rumsfeld argued for all along: gloves off."

In response to the initial wave of Abu Ghraib revelations, Rumsfeld said in a congressional hearing on May 7, 2004: "Mr. Chairman, I know you join me today in saying to the world: Judge us by our actions. Watch how Americans, watch how a democracy deals with wrongdoing and scandal and the pain of acknowledging and correcting our own mistakes and weaknesses."

While a handful of enlisted soldiers have since been convicted of crimes, no high-level U.S. officials have been brought to justice for wrongdoing. International law as well as the U.S. military's doctrine of command responsibility holds that officials -- military or civilian -- who condone or allow subordinates to commit torture can also be held criminally liable. But the military has thwarted investigation "every step of the way," Wilkerson said. "I got little help from the services," he said of his work on the torture dossier. "Vice Admiral [Albert] Church [who led one of the military's own investigations into torture] more or less stonewalled me. Others stonewalled me. There's been an awful lot of coverup."

According to Wilkerson, one of several memos signed by Rumsfeld approved dozens of interrogation techniques, which were posted in Abu Ghraib. One item on the list sanctioned the use of military dogs. "When you tell an E-4 [an Army corporal] or E-6 [staff sergeant] they can use a dog as long as it's muzzled -- and you also put heavy pressure on them to get intelligence -- it's clear what happens next. Once that muzzled dog fails in that interrogation session, the next thing they're going to do is take the muzzle off."

More abominable, Wilkerson said, is that these conditions weren't set just for suspected al-Qaida or Taliban members, but for any of the tens of thousands of prisoners taken in Iraq whom Bush had declared entitled to Geneva protections. The military has acknowledged that the vast majority of prisoners in Iraq -- as well as the majority of those in Guantánamo -- have been of little or no intelligence value.

Wilkerson, 60, exited the Bush government along with his former boss in January 2005; he now teaches at George Washington University and the College of William and Mary. He speaks in direct and sometimes folksy language, his accent evocative of small-town South Carolina, where he grew up. The son of a World War II veteran, Wilkerson decided in 1966 to drop his English lit studies at Bucknell University and to serve in Vietnam. The Army career to which he dedicated half his life began with service as a helicopter pilot scouting for the infantry, which took him repeatedly into heavy combat.

After the war, Wilkerson attended the elite Airborne and Ranger schools, completed his B.A. and earned advanced degrees in international relations and national-security studies. He attended and taught at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and went on to serve as acting director of the Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Va. Wilkerson met Powell in 1989, beginning his 16 years on Powell's staff as an aide and speechwriter, rising to become Powell's top deputy during George W. Bush's first term.

Naturally, Wilkerson has drawn fierce counterattacks for his criticisms, notably from the president's loyal lieutenants. As Powell's point man for preparing the case for a war on Iraq, he received top-level intelligence briefings. Nevertheless, in November, Rumsfeld called Wilkerson's charges "ridiculous," telling CNN, "In terms of having firsthand information, I just can't imagine that he does." Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that he had no recollection of Wilkerson's attending meetings with military commanders, the National Security Council or the president. "I have never seen that colonel," Pace said.

Wilkerson responded to a recounting of those comments by noting that Pace had been his immediate supervisor back at the Marine Corps War College. "We sat in the chapel together when a dear friend of ours was buried," he said. "He came into my seminars. Pete Pace not knowing me? Come on. That was an embarrassing moment."

Wilkerson has the ability to listen keenly and hold his opinions in reserve. During the panel discussion at the University of Maryland, he sat back as fellow speaker Frank Gaffney, the tenaciously right-wing founder of the Center for Security Policy in Washington, responded to most audience questions by preaching about the apocalyptic horrors likely to be unleashed on America and the rest of the civilized world by "Islamofacism." Still, by the time Gaffney declared, "Like it or not, we're in a war that will last the rest of our lives, and likely our children's and grandchildren's lives," Wilkerson rolled his eyes, and along with a slight, incredulous smile, glanced at his watch.

Wilkerson's voice rose in anger when he discussed what he saw as the "hijacking" of policy inside the administration. "Those people are not conservatives," the lifelong Republican said of Cheney and his inner circle. "I'm a conservative. Those people are radicals."

Accounts of the manipulation of intelligence by administration hard-liners in the march to war have continued to emerge in recent months. In 2003, when Powell presented his case to the United Nations on Saddam Hussein's biological weapons, he relied heavily on intelligence gleaned from an Iraqi defector code-named "Curveball." But according to an in-depth report published in the Los Angeles Times in November, top CIA operations officials, including then chief of clandestine services James Pavitt, had grave doubts about Curveball long before Powell's U.N. speech. They'd determined Curveball was unstable, an opportunist and a fabricator, and had sounded the alarm about him repeatedly. "My people were saying, 'We think he's a stinker,'" Pavitt, who retired from the agency in August 2004, told the Times. But former CIA director George Tenet, who had told the president there was a "slam dunk" case for war, maintained that deep skepticism about Curveball never reached him.

"Preposterous," Wilkerson said. "It's extremely difficult for me to believe that James Pavitt's doubts didn't get through to Tenet. Pavitt was one of Tenet's principal operators in the CIA."

Today, Wilkerson continues to see an administration that punishes dissent, pushes a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution, and exploits executive power. "Brent Scowcroft said he didn't recognize Dick Cheney anymore," he said. "I don't know Dick Cheney as intimately as Scowcroft does, but I did see him as secretary of defense and now as vice president. I can tell you that 9/11 made him a paranoid, to the extent where I'm not sure his exercise of power carries with it reason."

"I've been told by several Republicans that Cheney was the first vice president ever to come sit down in the middle of a [Senate] caucus and chide the members on their votes," Wilkerson added. "This is not going to the CIA, where he also exercised undue influence -- this is going to the Congress and using the office of the vice president essentially to intimidate lawmakers in their discussions."

Wilkerson expressed genuine concerns about terrorism. But he said the administration has played the fear card with lawmakers by suggesting that if the United States gets hit again, it will be their fault unless they back such policies as warrantless spying on Americans and the brutal interrogation of prisoners.

Such interrogation led Wilkerson to cite Aharon Barak, the chief of the Israeli Supreme Court, which ruled against the torture of prisoners in 1999. "This is the destiny of a democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it," Barak wrote in the decision. "Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand."

Losing that upper hand, Wilkerson said, "is a very dangerous thing."


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