Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Has Bush butt-fucked the Republican Party to death - or are they doing it to themselves?

1. The Republican Mystery
By Harold Meyerson/Washington Post

The truly astonishing thing about the latest scandals besetting the Bush administration is that they stem from actions the administration took after the November elections, when Democratic control of Congress was a fait accompli.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' hour-long meeting on sacking federal prosecutors took place after the election. The subsequent sacking took place after the election. The videoconference between leaders of the General Services Administration and Karl Rove's deputy about how to help Republican candidates in 2008, according to people who attended the meeting, took place Jan. 26 this year.

During last year's congressional campaigns, Republicans spent a good deal of time and money predicting that if the Democrats won, Congress would become one big partisan fishing expedition led by zealots such as Henry Waxman. The Republicans' message didn't really impress the public, and apparently it didn't reach the president and his underlings, either. Since the election, they have continued merrily along with their mission to politicize every governmental function and agency as if their allies still controlled Congress, as if the election hadn't happened.

Clearly, they had grown accustomed to the Congress of the past six years, whose oversight policy towards the administration was "Anything Goes." But their total and apparently ongoing inability to shift gears once the Democrats had taken control -- with an oversight policy that could be summarized as "You Did WHAT?" -- is mind-boggling.

Democrats such as Waxman clearly had planned to hold hearings on the administration's hitherto-unexamined follies of the past six years. Instead, the most high-profile investigations they're conducting concern administration follies of the past five months, since they won the election.

And it's not just on the politicization of prosecutorial and administrative functions that the White House has been unable to change course.

The president's mega-failure, of course, has been his decision to plow ahead in Iraq, the verdict of the American electorate in November notwithstanding. More mysterious still has been the inability of congressional Republicans to change course on the war. Last week, just two Republican congressmen voted for the Democrats' bill to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq by the end of August 2008. Yesterday, just two Republican senators voted for Democratic senators' bill setting a March 2008 deadline.

It's not as if congressional Republicans are particularly pleased with the conduct of the war. It's not as if the House Democrats' bill is unpopular. Polling released yesterday from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed 59 percent support for the bill compelling U.S. forces to leave Iraq by a year from August, with 61 percent support from independents, 34 percent support from Republicans, and 44 percent support from moderate Republicans. The roughly 1 percent support for the measure from House Republicans, then, massively underrepresents their constituents' -- even their Republican constituents' -- support for the bill.

More fundamentally, congressional Republicans were knocked into the minority last November because voters had sickened of their lockstep support for Bush's war. Clearly, they will be knocked a good deal further into the minority if that support continues.

So what are they doing to respond to this dire state of affairs? They're continuing their support. And they're continuing, in the Senate, to obstruct popular and overdue domestic measures such as a raise in the minimum wage, though polling confirms not just overwhelming support for that particular measure but also growing concern over the rise of economic inequality and a growing repudiation of the Republican positions on both domestic and foreign policy issues.

What gives with the Republicans? How have they -- not just in the White House but in Congress, too -- become so detached from reality?

There are, I think, four possible, partial explanations. The first is Rudy-ex-machina -- the hope that the party will nominate somebody who is not perceived to be part of their current mess and who will sweep them back into power no matter how big a hole they may now be digging for him. The second is a strategy to make it impossible for the Democrats to pass any legislation, and then run against the do-nothing Democrats.

The third is that the alternative reality conveyed by the Republican media -- Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and their ilk -- has created a Republican activist base that is genuinely not reality-based, and from which the current generation of Republican pols is disproportionately drawn. And the fourth, pertaining specifically to the inability of the administration to stop politicizing government, is that good government is just not in their DNA. Bush and Rove are no more inclined to create a government based on such impartial values as law and science than they are to set up collective farms.

Meanwhile, if you hear something go bump in the night, it's the Republicans, sleepwalking.


2. When Liberals Rule The World
Stats Say The GOP is Dying. But Red-Staters Are Breeding Like Drunken Ferrets. Who Wins?
by Mark Morford /SF Chronicle

Here’s the good news: The Republican party is dying. Slow, painful, twitching, secreting war and intolerance and desperation like a fetid gas, snarling and gagging like Jabba the Hutt being choked by the hard chain of progress and hope and relaxed social mores and an upcoming Generation Next that seems to sense that screaming about gays and women’s rights and Muslims and drugs actually doesn’t do much to move the human experiment forward in the slightest.

Is this not delicious? Is this not cause for rejoicing? According to Pew Research, the percentage of young ‘uns age 18 to 25 (a.k.a. Generation Next ) who identify with Republicans has been in steady decline since the early ’90s, and now hovers around a meager 35 percent, down from a high of 55 percent in the Reagan-toxic early-90s, and is still dropping, whereas fully 48 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds now lean Democratic … and rising.

Seems Generation Next tend to be more socially liberal and much less worried about the trembling “sanctity” of the failed nuclear family, and are overall less inclined to align with a particular religion. Indeed, it almost makes you want to weep and sigh and go buy a large grass-fed free-range organic hybrid vibrator.

Ah, but there is a flip side. A counterargument. A dark cloud of righteous bleakness and it looms like a giant synthetic cheesecake-scented Glade PlugIn of potential misery.

It is this: According to another set of data, for the past 30 years or so, conservatives — particularly those of the right-wing red-state Christian strain — have been out-breeding liberals by a margin of at least 20 percent, if not far more.

It’s true. The reason? Why, God loves babies, of course. White American babies, most especially. Also: issues of space, religion, sexual orientation and, of course, conscience. Or, you know, lack thereof.

One theory goes like this: Libs are generally more socially conscious and hence tend to actually give a modicum of thought to what it means to pop out a brood of children in this modern overstuffed age. Also, many other liberal bohos are (admittedly) happy selfish suckwads who want all the modern booty for themselves and won’t want to give up the Ducati and the plasma and the biannual trip to Cinque Terre for the sake of a pod of rug rats and 15 grand a year (each) for private kindergarten. Translation: Libs just aren’t procreating like they could/should be .

Conservative Christians, of course, have no such conscience. Among the right-wing God-lovin’ set, there is often little real awareness of planetary health or resource abuse or the notion that birth control is actually a very, very good idea indeed, and therefore it’s completely natural to worship at the altar of minivans and SUVs and megachurches and massive all-American entitlement and have little qualm about popping out six, seven, 19 gloopy tots to populate the world with frat boys and Ford F-150 buyers and food court managers.

I always assumed it might actually be a good thing that conservatives breed so mindlessly, because all those unhappy neocon kids, all those repressed misled tots grow up and eventually begin to (well, sometimes) think for themselves and ultimately do what any good kid does: rebel against their parents’ silly dogma and become a bit more open-minded and hopeful, right?

Not exactly. Apparently, according to the research, four out of five kids actually stick with the political affiliation of their parents, generation after generation, with religious conservatives far more unlikely than their liberal brethren to allow their kids to develop the capacity for independent thought (given how it’s so, you know, dangerous to America). Also, one word: homeschooling. I’m just sayin’.

So then, the big question: How can these two major demographics exist at the same time? How can we be enjoying the slow death of the GOP along with an impressive surge in young Democrats, and yet simultaneously be undergoing this quiet toxic swelling in ranks of the army of conservative autobots? The logic breaks down all over.

It seems impossible. Either we are we headed toward a new dawn full of smart social liberalism, perhaps leading to concomitant ideas of peace and tolerance and a newly evolved American identity, or there is another massive group lurking in the shadows, entirely overlooked by Pew Research, a seething army of religious conservatives who are working like a spiritual STD to force us backward once again, much the way the Bush regime brutally reversed decades of social, environmental, fiscal and international progress and made war and isolationism and megachurch evangelicals the lords of the playground for a shocklingly painful blip of time.

Hell, maybe it’s both. Maybe what we’re getting with these two sets of data is simply a glimpse of the next two major phases of the culture, the next two major swings of the sociopolitical pendulum, in sequence.

In other words, maybe we are indeed headed into a delightful progressive liberal phase, one with the potential to radically, even permanently change the way we view gender and identity and family and even America’s role in the world.

But then the sad recoil. The clench, the terror, the loud screeching from all those red-state kids who are being taught right now to despise change and fear alternative views and see anything that’s not wrapped in the flag or the Bible or a McDonald’s wrapper as evil and dangerous and worthy of derision/elimination.

Or maybe there’s another possibility. Perhaps it’s something even more wild and delicious and improbable, and we are all, liberal and conservative alike, evolving more toward social progressiveness merely by default, not through social engineering or political maneuvering or reactionary Christian dread but merely as a nearly unconscious by-product of the times. In other words, maybe everyone is trending more progressive and open merely by existing on this planet today, almost despite ourselves.

I know. Completely idiotic. I must be totally drunk.

Option 3 is, of course, the most likely: Both sets of data are full of flaw and misinterpretation and wishful thinking. Neither is completely correct and by the way statistics are for dreamers and acidheads and pollsters and should be thrown over the shoulder, like salt, right before you go back for another Xanax and a beer.

And hence we are, as ever, simply a mad intoxicated mishmash of reactions and beliefs and ideologies, a God-obsessed sex-crazed drug-lovin’ sociopolitical train wreck of a country that doesn’t really know its ass from a hole in the ground or its God from a burp in the sky.

Personally, I’m going with the new liberal dawn thing. Hell, it doesn’t hurt to dream, right?

(Mark Morford’s Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle)

3. Leaving Normal
By the Editors/The New Republic

In the historical race to the bottom that is Nixon v. Bush, the late trickster would seem to have the edge: He was an unimpeachable lawbreaker--actually, an impeachable one--a claim that doesn't quite stick to Bush. But, in the last month, Bush has been closing fast. While he may not have any second-rate burglaries under his belt, his record now includes his very own version of the Saturday Night Massacre, thanks to the purging of eight U.S. attorneys. It's true that his behavior in this episode may not run up the score in compulsory categories like obstruction of justice or lying under oath. But the fact that he has inflicted massive damage on the American system without apparently breaking many laws should earn Bush major style points.

The Bush administration has exacted such damage because it has poisoned a fragile ecosystem. It turns out that, for generations, presidential power has been checked by an unwritten set of customs and norms as much as by laws and rules. Take the Justice Department. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. But, until now, presidents almost never fired prosecutors they appointed in the middle of their terms--perhaps only two of the 486 appointed in the last 25 years have been canned in this fashion. This is in part because presidents from both parties have implicitly conceded that these attorneys have a higher loyalty to the law than to political patrons--an understanding never enshrined in the U.S. Code but deeply ingrained in the culture of Washington.

Then along came Karl Rove, Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Miers, and the reductio ad absurdum of unthinking Bush loyalism, Kyle Sampson. In their memos, they conflate the competence of prosecutors with fealty to the Republican Party. Thus, they judge David Iglesias to be underperforming for his failure to prosecute New Mexico Democrats on tenuous charges on the eve of the 2006 election, and they concoct post-hoc rationales for displeasure with Carol Lam, who indicted the corrupt GOP representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham and began scouring the dealings of his seemingly venal colleagues and their co-conspirators in the Defense Department. And, in a flash, by purging these attorneys, the Bushies have subverted a set of norms that had long ensured federal prosecutors would deploy the law without partisan favor.

It's not the only norm that this administration has shredded. There's arguably nothing in the law to suggest that presidential aides like Rove should be compelled to testify under oath in public about their roles in bureaucratic hijinks--although the Supreme Court could change that. Yet generations of presidents have largely deferred to Congress and subjected their underlings to the humiliating spectacle of raising their hands and then answering (or not) showboating congressmen. Nor is there any specific statute mandating that presidents pay heed to government scientists, intelligence analysts, and other in-house wonks. But, before the Bush administration, presidents generally yielded to disinterested expertise. That's to say nothing of Bush's unprecedented mania for secrecy and rampant classification of documents or his exploitation of government agencies to disseminate pro-administration agitprop.

Congress has been the stage for the brashest stunts. Bush's allies have rewritten legislation from whole cloth in closed-door conference committees, reversing decades of democratic procedure and rendering vast swaths of the legislative process a charade. They have held votes open for hours, bucking time-honored codes of conduct in order to aggressively lobby (or, in one case, allegedly bribe) Republicans who intended to vote against the president. With the notable exception of the alleged bribe, the Republicans weren't breaking any laws. They were simply ignoring a long-standing bipartisan consensus that had developed over time to ensure transparency and fairness.

There are, on the margins, correctives for the Bush-era abuses. Congress could repeal the provisions in the Patriot Act that permit the president to fill vacant U.S. attorney slots without Senate approval. And it could rewrite its own rules to limit the power of conference committees to remake legislation in the middle of the night.

But one can't help feeling a sense of helplessness in the face of this partisan subversion of process. If a president breaks the law, then he stands to incur the retributive justice laid out in the Constitution--Sam Ervin's gavel landing hard. Breaking a norm, on the other hand, isn't a punishable offense--except with shame and name-calling. And denouncing a president as a "norm-breaker" is, let's face it, not the most devastating retort.

Worst of all, once a president destroys an old norm, it isn't very easy to restore it. The next presidents, even high-minded ones, will have difficulty denying themselves the political advantages accrued by Bush. The history of reform, not to mention the annals of cultural anthropology, is filled with cautionary tales about the near-impossibility of restoring old standards. For example, every time a candidate or political party discovers a new loophole in the campaign finance laws--soft money, 527s--every other candidate quickly embraces the very same reform-skirting device.

If they set aside partisan interests, Bush's supporters would understand the toll of his presidency. Conservatives, at least those in the Burkean tradition, have eloquently extolled the wisdom embedded in norms and the futility of restoring them after they fall. Nixon's ghost is surely hearing Bush's footsteps.

4. Impeachment, Like Spring, is in the Air -- by Dave Lindorff

It’s time for impeachment to come out of the deep freeze.

For a year now, Democratic leaders like Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), Rep. Nancy Pelosi D-CA), Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and DNC head Howard Dean have been working to tamp down the pressures to hold the president accountable for his crimes and abuses of power by way of impeachment.

House Speaker Pelosi for her part made it clear after the Democrats won the House that she would tolerate no talk of impeachment, even reportedly threatening one-time impeachment advocate Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) with the denial of his cherished position as chair of the House Judiciary Committee if he pushed ahead with or accepted bills of impeachment from other House members.

House leaders and Democratic Party leaders also worked behind the scenes to kill off grassroots attempts to follow Thomas Jefferson’s alternative route to impeachment by getting state legislatures to pass bicameral impeachment resolutions. They strong-armed legislative leaders in the senates of both Washington State and New Mexico to block efforts to put such resolutions to a floor debate and vote in those two states, and have been working mightily to block a similar grassroots campaign in Vermont.

But the Democratic Party’s efforts to tamp down impeachment efforts are coming unraveled, courtesy of the ongoing criminality of the Bush administration, which seems hell-bent on aggrandizing as much executive power as it possibly can before the clock runs out on Bush_s second term of office.

Democratic state committees, the top party organizations at the state level, in both Oregon and Vermont, have overwhelmingly passed resolutions calling on the House of Representatives to initiate impeachment proceedings. In Vermont, 38 towns–roughly a third of those holding annual town meetings this past month–voted impeachment resolutions (only six were rejected), and an effort continues to move forward in both houses of that state’s legislature to introduce and pass a Jeffersonian impeachment resolution to send to the House in Washington. Other efforts are underway in New Jersey and Maine.

Republican Senator and presidential dark horse Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has publicly stated that impeachment is a possibility, given the president’s arrogant rejection of public or congressional accountability with regard to the war in Iraq and other issues.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has openly talked of submitting a bill of impeachment.

What’s missing in all this has been media attention. In fact, until lately, the media have pretty much only reported about impeachment in the negative, running stories when an impeachment resolution gets blocked by a state legislature, but not when it gets backed by a legislative committee, or by a Democratic state party organization.

There has not been a scientific poll asking about impeachment sentiment since last October, when Newsweek Magazine published a poll showing that an astonishing 51 percent of Americans favored impeachment–half of those people even saying it should be a priority for Congress. Now things may be starting to change. Sen. Hagel’s comments on the possibility of impeachment, first made in a Vanity Fair magazine profile, were reported on ABC, and impeachment advocate John Nichols was interviewed about impeachment and Hagel’s comment on MSNBC. CNN also ran a story.

That’s not much, but it’s an indication that the ground is shifting.

With the White House pushing forward with a new war-marketing campaign–this time against Iran–and given mounting evidence of new White House crimes, from the political firing of federal prosecutors and the abusive use of national security letters by the FBI to spy on tens of thousands of Americans, to the disaster of the show trials in Guantanamo, to the lying by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, to evidence of both President Bush’s and Vice President Cheney’s involvement in the outing of and obstruction of justice into the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, to the escalation of the war in Iraq and to the lying about and enforced manipulation of government evidence on global warming, the American people are getting completely fed up with the Bush administration.

A recent poll found that as lame as it has been in challenging the Bush agenda over the last six years, the Democratic Party has now become the favored choice of 50 percent of Americans, while support for the Republican Party has fallen to only 35 percent‹barely higher than the paltry 30 percent who still cling to their support of the president himself.

It would seem to be only a matter of time before Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic Party leadership will be forced to open the floodgates and permit the filing of impeachment bills.

The arguments made against impeachment–that it would be ‘divisive,’ that it would interfere with more ‘pressing matters’ in Congress, that it would mean making the almost universally loathed Cheney president, and that it would ‘hurt Democrats’ in 2008–are all looking increasingly shop-warn and contrived.

In fact, as the Bush crimes against the public, the Republic, the law and Constitution mount, the Democratic defenders of the president against impeachment are increasingly looking simply cynical and ridiculous.

There is a kind of seesaw effect at work here, where the weight of presidential power and prestige, combined with Democratic cowardice, has kept one side firmly planted on the ground, while critics of Bush crimes and constitutional abuses have remained stranded up in the air. But as the weight of the evidence of Bush administration criminality, arrogance and unconstitutional actions have mounted, and as more and more citizens have lost faith in the government, the beam has been tilting. It won’t be long before it is the administration and the Democratic Party leadership who find themselves dangling and without support.

At that point, Pelosi and the DNC will have to surrender to the will of the grassroots, and step aside for the ensuing stampede of impeachment bills.

Impeachment, like spring, is in the air.

(DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based investigative journalist and columnist. His work is available at and His most recent book, co-authored with Barbara Olshansky, is “The Case for Impeachment: The Legal Argument for Removing President George W. Bush from Office”)

5. The Case Against George W. Bush
By Elizabeth Holtzman

With prominent Republican Senators speaking out against a scandal-plagued White House, talk of impeachment has moved from the margins to the mainstream. That may seem politically far-fetched, but in fact, there is a strong case to be made.

The latest Bush administration scandal—the firing of eight U.S. attorneys under highly questionable circumstances—has Washington abuzz with talk of a new Watergate. The question on everyone’s mind is: Could this be the president’s Saturday night massacre—the obstruction of justice that triggers impeachment?

Unless there is a sea change in Congress, talk of impeachment is largely a hypothetical exercise. That does not mean there’s no legal case against the president. If a California prosecutor were fired to end an investigation of a Republican congressman, that might be a crime. If the others were fired for failing to prosecute Democrats without evidence, that would be a gross abuse of power. If President George W. Bush played any role, impeachment is a legal possibility.

We need not wait for the outcome of investigations of this scandal, however, to conclude that President Bush has so abused the powers of his office that he could be impeached and removed from office. There are already other substantial grounds.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution knew that despite powerful checks, presidents might still abuse their powers and damage the country’s democracy, so they created impeachment as the ultimate safeguard. Constitutional grounds for impeachment are “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” During Nixon’s impeachment, the House Judiciary Committee determined that abuses did not have to violate the criminal code to meet this test. They simply needed to be, as the framers said in constitutional debates, “great and dangerous offenses that subvert the Constitution.” Several of the president’s actions already qualify.

The strongest legal argument for impeachment—because it is based on the Watergate precedent—arises out of the fact that President Bush refused for years to seek court approval required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for a special wiretapping program in the United States. After revelations that President Nixon illegally wiretapped journalists and White House staffers, Congress enacted FISA to prevent future such abuses, making them a federal crime. Illegal wiretapping was one of the grounds for articles of impeachment against Nixon.

But 30 years later, President Bush asserted that FISA hampered intelligence gathering in the war on terror, so as commander in chief he could ignore it. Actually, the FISA court overwhelmingly grants presidential requests (19,000 approvals since 1978 versus 5 rejections) and can grant approvals after wiretaps commence. But if President Bush still thought FISA too burdensome, he should have asked Congress to amend it. Since he didn’t, he must obey it. After the 2006 elections, he reversed himself, announcing he would comply with FISA, but what about all the years he flouted it?

The Constitution plainly states the president shall “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The president must obey and uphold the law, not take it into his own hands. Case law on this is clear. When during the Korean War President Truman wanted to seize U.S. steel mills to keep them running despite a strike, the Supreme Court said no, noting in its decision that the president was commander in chief of the Army and Navy, not the country.

But the truth is, impeaching a president is not just about checking off legal boxes. There must be solid evidence of wrongdoing, but impeachment is an inherently political act. The legal case must resonate with the public, not just lawyers.

That’s why the strongest political ground for impeachment isn’t Bush’s illegal wiretapping program, but the fact that the country was driven into war in Iraq—which most Americans now view as a disastrous mistake—under false pretenses. The framers deliberately gave Congress war-making powers because the momentous decision to go to war should be reached only after the fullest consideration. They believed Congress would curb the historical tendency of executives to make war needlessly. If a president lies or deceives Congress about going to war, he negates its critical constitutional role.

President Bush and his team falsely implied that Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda were in cahoots, reiterating this suggestion so often that by the time of the invasion, most Americans thought Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and U.S. soldiers saw their deployment in Baghdad as “payback.” Yet shortly after 9/11 occurred, former White House counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke told the president that Saddam had nothing to do with it. President Bush undoubtedly also knew that U.S. intelligence agencies gave little credence to the possibility that Saddam Hussein would provide weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda.

Moreover, the president either lied or was aware that something was seriously wrong when he told Congress in his 2003 State of the Union address that the British government discovered that Saddam tried to buy uranium in Africa, supposedly proof that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons capacity. But U.S. intelligence knew that claim was bogus at the time, and months after the invasion, the president acknowledged this.

If the president had been briefed on U.S. intelligence before his address, then he deliberately deceived Congress and the United States about the war, “a great and dangerous offense that subverts the Constitution.” In the unlikely event he was not briefed, he still took us to war based on British intelligence, without consulting U.S. intelligence, violating his responsibility to “take care that the laws are faithfully executed.” A full investigation would determine to what extent he and Vice President Dick Cheney deliberately deceived Congress and Americans about the war.

Facilitating mistreatment of detainees in violation of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. statutes (including the War Crimes Act of 1996) is another ground for impeachment. President Bush’s directive effectively removed these protections from al Qaeda and Taliban detainees. After abuses at Abu Ghraib became public, President Bush failed to conduct thorough investigations or to ensure those responsible, including higher-ups, were brought to justice, further violating the Geneva Conventions and his constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the law.

Other potential grounds for impeachment exist, but in my judgment the pattern of this president’s failure to uphold the law and his subversion of the Constitution is sufficiently clear. The question now is, what to do about it?

(Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment hearings, is coauthor with Cynthia L. Cooper of The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens. She currently practices law in New York City.)

6. Mixed Message
by Eve Fairbanks/The New Republic

It's 40 minutes into yesterday morning's Senate Judiciary hearing on the recent FBI privacy-abuse scandal, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is grousing about Iraq. What with all the Justice-related flaps breaking of late, Leahy has become a temporary King of the Hill, and today he has summoned FBI Director Robert Mueller to kiss his ring and explain why the Justice Department's inspector general found two weeks ago that the FBI had been committing gross violations of its prerogative to use "national security letters" to collect phone and e-mail records without a judge's permission. But, like the imperious king he is, the white-haired and gravelly voiced Leahy has taken to subjecting his long-suffering vassals to rambling digressions about the other problems afflicting his dominion, and today his frame of mind is stuck in the Middle East. After Mueller complains that Congress didn't apportion the FBI adequate funds for a compliance program, Leahy grumbles about how the Bush administration cut "cop money because we need well-maintained police in Iraq." He threatens the hearing's assembled audience that he might go on a rant about "how the administration spends funds in Iraq and ought to be spending them at home." And, after pointing out the FBI's failures to communicate with another agency, he barks at Mueller, "It's almost like one of you are the Sunnis and one are the Shiites! Somebody ought to tell you we're all Americans!"

So the messed-up FBI is like the messed-up situation in Iraq. Or maybe it's more like that messed-up thing with the U.S. attorneys. Whatever. In the last couple of weeks, even in the minds of the lawmakers tasked with oversight, the administration's scandals and screw-ups have started to blur together into one Meta Screw-Up--a situation in which every procedural safeguard, institutional norm, and carefully designed plan seems to have "just melted into oblivion with this sloppy administration," as Senator Dianne Feinstein put it at the Mueller hearing. The impression that we are, by now, witnessing the unfolding of one giant, undifferentiated scandal is compounded by the sense that this is some kind of watershed moment: The U.S. attorneys affair unleashed last Thursday's complaint that Bush partisans meddled with a Justice Department tobacco prosecution, which unleashed Monday's accusation that the General Services Administration was misused for political ends, and on and on.

It may be useful to understand all these flare-ups as part of the same institutional problem, as the Editors do in this week's issue . But that interpretation happens to derail badly Leahy's Mueller hearing. The FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act doesn't really have anything to do with these other little fires. In fact, the withering report that implicates various FBI field offices in years-long abuses of power--failing to save copies of national security letters, omitting 20 percent of the letters in their reports to headquarters, making up emergencies to bypass court approval for warrants, and saving inappropriately gathered private information that should have been purged--suggests the FBI affair is, arguably, just as serious as the U.S. attorneys scandal and the others. At the very least, it's worth a lengthy, focused, and hard-hitting inquisition of the agency's chief.

But, instead, Mueller's hearing wandered aimlessly through other provinces of the Meta Screw-Up. Here's what ranking Republican Arlen Specter wanted to ask the FBI chief first: "Director Mueller, is it true that [fired U.S. attorney] Carol Lam's continued employment as a U.S. attorney was crucial to ongoing investigations?" He was referring to a January story in the San Diego Union-Tribune that quoted San Diego Field Chief Dan Dzwilewski as saying that she shouldn't have been fired--and that she was crucial to the progress of ongoing investigations. Mueller, with an edge in his voice now, disagreed with Dzwilewski's opinion and even suggested that the quote did not, in fact, represent what Dzwilewski himself thinks: "Our chief out there believes he was misquoted," said Mueller, wearily. "Now on to Iglesias!" said Specter, apparently planning to use his time to question Mueller attorney-by-attorney.

Speaking next, Feinstein, in a soft and deadly voice, brought up the same Union-Tribune story and revealed she'd had her chief counsel actually call the San Diego field office, whose agents had apparently been "warned to say no more." Exasperated and shifting in his seat, Mueller shot back with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's standard talking points: "I don't believe it's appropriate to comment on personnel decisions made by the Department of Justice."

The die-hard conservatives on the committee did little to help Mueller out. Arizona Republican Jon Kyl offered some backhanded words of defense: "I think it's important not to compound one set of mistakes with another," he said, by way of telling Congress to ease up. But, not to be deterred by his own advice, Kyl then complained to Mueller about the treatment of sacked Arizona attorney Paul Charlton. Über-conservative Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, looking frail and baby-pink under his tufts of white hair, drawled hesitantly, "I think it was good what we did" with the Patriot Act--but then proclaimed that the FBI had been "seriously embarrassed" by the recent allegations. And Specter! Even for a maverick, he was in his finest petulant form. After Mueller argued that information had been mishandled because certain "affidavits are exceptionally long; there are thousands of facts, and mistakes can be made," Specter retorted in an ominously dry and bitter tone: "Director Mueller, I am not impressed by your assertion that there are 'thousands of facts'! That's your job!"

But we were not to learn any more about the thousands of facts, or where they had gone, or why Mueller's FBI agents could not handle them. A couple of sentences later, Specter wrapped up his inquiry and disappeared. Sneaking out to use the bathroom, I found him parked in the fluorescent-lit Dirksen hallway outside the hearing room, where he had been accosted by TV cameras and boom mikes. Reporters with pads thronged around him; a frantic-looking pregnant woman strained to keep a tape recorder thrust up to his side. But they weren't asking him about the FBI scandal, or the brief but successful flaying Specter had just given Mueller on his lame excuses for the agency's carelessness. Instead, they demanded to know why Gonzales aide Monica Goodling was refusing to testify before the Judiciary Committee in the U.S. attorneys kerfuffle: We're only interested in the next hottest break in the Meta Screw-Up! A tolerant expression on his face, Specter happily complied.

(Eve Fairbanks is an assistant editor at The New Republic.)

7. Bush's Royal Trouble
Why Is King Abdullah Saying No to Dinner?
By Jim Hoagland/Washington Post

President Bush enjoys hosting formal state dinners about as much as having a root canal. Or proposing tax increases. So his decision to schedule a mid-April White House gala for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah signified the president's high regard for an Arab monarch who is also a Bush family friend.

Now the White House ponders what Abdullah's sudden and sparsely explained cancellation of the dinner signifies. Nothing good -- especially for Condoleezza Rice's most important Middle East initiatives -- is the clearest available answer.

Abdullah's bowing out of the April 17 event is, in fact, one more warning sign that the Bush administration's downward spiral at home is undermining its ability to achieve its policy objectives abroad. Friends as well as foes see the need, or the chance, to distance themselves from the politically besieged Bush.

Official versions discount that possibility, of course. Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, flew to Washington last week to explain to Bush that April 17 posed a scheduling problem. " 'It is not convenient' was the way it was put," says one official.

But administration sources report that Bush and his senior advisers were not convinced by Bandar's vagueness -- especially since it followed Saudi decisions to seek common ground with Iran and the radicals of Hezbollah and Hamas instead of confronting them as part of Rice's proposed "realignment" of the Middle East into moderates and extremists.

Abdullah's reluctance to be seen socializing at the White House this spring reflects two related dynamics: a scampering back by the Saudis to their traditional caution in trying to balance regional forces, and their displeasure with negative U.S. reaction to their decision to return to co-opting or placating foes.

Abdullah gave a warm welcome to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Riyadh in early March, not long after the Saudis pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into accepting a political accord that entrenches Hamas in an unwieldy coalition government with Abbas's Fatah movement.

"The Saudis surprised us by going that far," explained one White House official in a comment that reached -- and irritated -- Saudi officials. So don't count on Abdullah to put new force behind his long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative at the Arab summit scheduled this week in Riyadh.

Rice had hoped the summit would provide a boost in her current proximity talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, but she appears to have struck a dry well. "She is conducting crisis management, not grand diplomacy," a European official who talked to her recently said disappointedly.

Adds an admirer who tracks Rice's intentions and assessments in the Middle East: "Condi is doing everything she can. But she is dancing with a corpse that just keeps flopping over in another direction every time she tries to move it."

A few months ago, Bandar was championing the confrontational "realignment" approach in Saudi family councils: Iran's power would be broken, the Syrians would have to give up hegemonic designs on Lebanon, etc., etc. Now the Saudi prince visits Tehran and Moscow regularly. He helped set the stage for the Palestinians' Mecca accord, which has caused Israel to reduce what little cooperation it felt it could extend to Abbas.

And he delivered the king's regrets about dinner. (The White House declined all comment about the April 17 dinner and Bandar's visit.) This is less a clear strategic reversal than a tactical adjustment for the Saudis: They remain frightened of the expanding ambitions of Iran. And the personal bond between the Saudi royals -- especially Bandar -- and Bush and his father remains strong.

But the Saudis, too, know how to read election returns. They see Bush swimming against a tide of scandal and stench that engulfs his most trusted aides. In the traditional Saudi worldview, this is a moment to hedge, not to indulge in the kind of leadership needed to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock or the deadly morass of Iraq.

It could be less calculated than that. Part of the royal family was unhappy with Bandar's earlier break-their-bones realignment rhetoric. Abdullah would not want to come to Washington to front for a divided family. He may need more time to patch things.

But Rice will get no relief when she returns to Washington. She will have to deal with more depressing society news: Jordan's King Abdullah, who has spent more time in George W. Bush's Washington than any other foreign leader, has let the White House know that he can't make that state visit discussed for September. Can you do 2008? the king asks instead.



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