Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

  More evidence on the timing of the Post's Cheney series

On Sunday I pointed to evidence suggesting that the Washington Post series on Dick Cheney was researched and perhaps more or less completed long before it ever saw print. In the comments section of that post, on Monday, I added some further evidence. In particular, one of the two authors of the series, Jo Becker, suddenly showed up writing for the NY Times that very day. Now I've discovered something equally mysterious about her disappearance from the Post.

It turns out that Jo Becker has published nothing under her own by-line in the Washington Post since May 15, 2006. Up until that point, she has regular articles (often paired with Charles Babcock or other well-known Post reporters). Then, suddenly in May 2006, nothing further aside from a single article from June 23, 2006, authored by others, where Becker is acknowledged as a "staff writer" who contributed to the report.

The next time her name appeared in print in the Washington Post, as far as I can tell, was on June 24, 2007 with the first part in the Cheney series. (I'm excluding this reference on line to a series she co-authored in 2005.)

Neither the Google nor the Washington Post search engines know of any WaPo articles by Jo Becker between May 15, 2006 and June 24, 2007. On June 25, 2007 her first article at the NY Times appeared.

It's possible that Becker went on a leave of absence last May. But given that she shows up as a "staff writer" in June 2006, I think it's more likely that she was working on a big project starting last spring.

Did it really take two reporters fully 13 months to produce this series on Cheney? I can't imagine that it did. I'm drawn back to my inference that this series may have been largely complete a half year (or more) ago.

On Monday, in an on-line chat at the WaPo website, Barton Gellman immediately chose to address the question of when the series was composed. He appeared to want to get the issue out of the way, and his response struck some as defensive if not evasive:

It took about a year for Jo Becker and me to report and write this. Obviously we accumulated a lot more information than fits into (only!) 14 open pages of the newspaper. There's so much to this package -- main stories, sidebars, graphics, interactives -- that it won't be finished until the final tweaks in day 4. There were mature drafts of the stories a few weeks ago, but producing all the add-ons and final refinements took some time. We didn't want to rush it unless we had to.

I don't see why Gellman felt the need to justify "a few weeks" of tweaking, if the five-part series really took "about a year" to write.

Then, a little later, there was this curious exchange:

Milpitas, Calif.: What got you started on this series now, rather than, say, five years ago?

Barton Gellman: Been busy with other things. ;-)

(See link to my home page above.)

I'd love to have tackled this in 03-04, when it was clear that Cheney loomed unusually large for a vice president, but (1) there was a war on, and we had our hands full with that and (2) the VP is a hard target. It's always easier to look back and reconstruct, because far more information becomes available over time, so Jo and I could not have learned half this much had we tried to do it when you suggest.

Gellman seems to be saying that the series turned out better than it would have been, had it been written in 2003, because more info become available over time. Doesn't that usually happen: there's more to report about a politician the longer he remains in office?

I think many of us would have very much liked to have had in 2003 whatever info that was current as of 2003, rather than in 2007.

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  FISA Judge blows the whistle on illegal wiretaps

Almost unnoticed (as Karen Tumulty also recognized), what with so many political stories breaking this week, the former head of the FISA court lambasted the Bush administration's warrantless wiretap program in a speech on Saturday. Judge Royce Lamberth views the program as deeply threatening: "We still have to preserve our civil liberties," he said.

More remarkably still, Lamberth points out that Bush has lied about his reasons for circumventing the FISA court. Bush has claimed that he needed a new way to respond more quickly to breaking leads in terrorist investigations. But Lamberth states that the FISA court under his leadership did adopt new methods on Sept. 11, 2001 that permitted the issue of warrants extremely rapidly. So what was the real reason for ignoring the law, Mr. Bush?

From the AP report by Michael Sniffen:

Lamberth took issue with Bush's approach [the warrantless NSA spying].

"I haven't seen a proposal for a better way than presenting an application to the FISA court and having an independent judge decide if it's really the kind of thing that we ought to be doing, recognizing that how we view civil liberties is different in time of war," he said.

"I have seen a proposal for a worse way and that's what the president did with the NSA program."

Lamberth said the FISA court met the challenge of acting quickly after Sept. 11. Lamberth was stuck in a car pool lane near the Pentagon when a hijacked jet slammed into it that day. With his car enveloped in smoke, he called marshals to help him get into the District of Columbia.

By the time officers reached him, "I had approved five FISA coverages (warrants) on my cell phone," Lamberth said. He also approved other warrants at his home at 3 a.m. and on Saturdays.

"In a time of national emergency like that, changes have to be made in procedures. We changed a number of FISA procedures," Lamberth said.

Normal FISA warrant applications run 40 to 50 pages, but he said he issued orders in the days after Sept. 11 "based on the oral briefing by the director of the FBI to the chief judge of the FISA court."

Lamberth adds that he was briefed by the NSA about the warrantless program, and he warned the Agency that it would need to keep excellent records if the government ever wanted to apply to FISA for permission to use any such evidence in court. But when he retired from the FISA court in 2002, there had been no such applications from the administration.

Lamberth also had strong words about how the FBI has abused its warrantless National Security Letters, but that is an issue for another day.

Walter Pincus today has his own report on Lamberth's speech, emphasizing some of the same matters as Sniffen.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the court shifted gears. "We changed procedures and put in all the orders from September 12 forward based on the oral briefing with the director of the FBI and the chief judge of the FISA court," Lamberth said. "The courts can respond in times of national crisis, and I think the courts have to, and we did."

One reason, he said, is that "if you move very quickly, that's when things are most productive, particularly in e-mails. As soon as an event happens, everybody is e-mailing everybody and you pick up the most productive tape."

Lamberth's defense of the court's speed and efficiency came after senior Bush administration officials said its procedures were too cumbersome to meet counterterrorism needs in the post-9/11 world, and created a system of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency that did not include judicial review.

Taking direct aim at the administration's assertion, Lamberth noted that members of the court had approved almost 99 percent of the FISA applications presented.

It's a direct refutation of the Bush administration's only explanation for violating the 1978 FISA law. The House and Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees ought to ask Lamberth to testify on this matter, and soon.

Pincus adds another poignant comment from Lamberth, which highlights the excuses and evasions that Bush & Co. have offered about their failure to aggressively investigate al Qaeda's plotting before September 11.

Lamberth also talked about the summer of 2001, when, he said, "we knew from the intelligence we were gathering that we were going to be hit; we just didn't know when." But officials knew, he said, when "the first plane hit it was probably bin Laden, and when the second plane hit that it had to be bin Laden."

Seems to confirm the testimony of Richard Clarke, George Tenet, and others that Bush, Cheney, and Rice brushed aside dire warnings during the summer of 2001.

crossposted from Unbossed

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  Welcome to America, Washington

On Sunday I argued that Cheney's Scarlet Pimpernel theory of the vice presidency had done more profound and lasting damage to his political standing in the salons of DC than perhaps any other scandal of his these last six years. The evidence just keeps rolling in that by making himself a laughingstock at the center of power, Cheney pulled back the curtain on his own childish delusions.

The American public has been deeply dissatisfied with Cheney since 2003. But somehow, the "wise men" of Washington have continued to pretend to themselves that deep down the man is a serious, if flawed, public servant. Until now that is. Cheney has shown himself to be such a horses' ass that almost nobody except William Kristol is springing to his defense.

Yesterday, the White House press corps grilled WH spokesperson Dana Perino about Cheney's ludicrous claim that the vice president's office is not "an entity within the Executive Branch". While they were at it, the journalists also became unusually and refreshingly confrontational about the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere, and much else. Perino became red in the face trying to make excuses and put off questions about Cheney's behavior:

Q Dana, for 200-plus years, everybody from civics class on up has had a certain understanding of the way our government works. And this EO [requiring agencies of the executive branch to submit their classified records to oversight of the National Archives] clarifies more than 200 years of constitutional scholarship about the way our system works?

MS. PERINO: Maybe it's me, but I think that everyone is making this a little bit more complicated than it needs to be. The President writes an executive order; he says --

Q I'm talking about the part where the Vice President says that there's a question about whether or not he's part of the executive branch.

MS. PERINO: And the point I was trying to make to you before is that I --

Q This really falls into "sky is blue" stuff.

MS. PERINO: For the past two centuries the Senate has provided payment to the Vice President for his duties as a member of the government. I understand that he has roles in both branches. I am -- I don't think that it's as clear-cut as you're trying to make it.

Q That the Vice President of the United States is --

MS. PERINO: I think there is no denying that he has functions in both the legislative and the executive branches. That is a fact.

Q But it seems like the Vice President is saying he's not responsible for the rules of either of those --

Q Yes.

MS. PERINO: No, I think that he was saying -- especially when it comes to the executive branch -- is that the duties that he is given are given to him solely by the President of the United States. And some Vice Presidents don't do as much as he does in the realm of national security or in policy development as this Vice President does. But this Vice President was given executive duties to handle –

Q But how is being a part of another branch -- I guess it's debatable -- but how is that an out?

MS. PERINO: It's not an -- that's irrelevant because the President never intended for the Vice President to be subject to the executive order.

Q No, he introduced the topic. The Office of the Vice President introduces that into the argument, into the debate; "well, we're not part of the executive branch."

MS. PERINO: I think that that is also a fact -- and as I said to Kelly, I'll see if I can get more from the Vice President's office to see if they -- how they connected the two, or if they did.

Q He can argue he's part of both, but he can't possibly argue that he's part of neither. And it seems like he's saying he's part of neither.

MS. PERINO: Okay, you have me thoroughly confused, as well.

You know that Cheney is twisting in the wind when even Dana Milbank piles on him.

Cheney has, in effect, declared himself to be neither fish nor fowl but an exotic, extraconstitutional beast who answers to no one.

This is the sort of thing that bloggers have been arguing for years now. Suddenly, it has become acceptable for Washington insiders to say the obvious about the man's self-delusions. As I remarked on Sunday, Cheney promulgated the Scarlet Pimpernel theory of the vice presidency in 2003; it has been widely discussed on line for a very long time, and even reported in 2006 by Mark Silva for the Chicago Tribune. So the fact that, after lying dormant for years, the Pimpernel scandal suddenly matters a lot to the DC establishment is itself a major part of the story.

Even Walter Mitty would now be embarrassed to defend Cheney.

The salons of DC have most definitely turned on the Vice President, at long last. Today in the Washington Post a consummate insider, Sally Quinn (wife of the Post's Vice President, Ben Bradlee), writes favorably of a "GOP plan to oust Cheney". In fact, she compares the alleged maneuvering with nostalgia to the (wrenching) decision by her family friend, Barry Goldwater, to tell Richard Nixon in 1974 that he needed to resign for the good of the country.

Whether such a "plan" to oust Cheney actually exists outside of some murmings in the DC salons is hard to gauge. It's even less likely to go anywhere for a variety of reasons, not least that Cheney has a death-grip on power. Many, many commentators have opined over the years that Cheney was on the verge of being pushed out. None have had credible sources for such extreme speculation.

The crucial thing, however, is that the Post is publishing such a commentary at all. It demonstrates that Cheney's veneer of respectability has fallen away completely. He's now and perhaps forever more a laughingstock in the nation's capital.

Welcome to America, Washington.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Monday, June 25, 2007

  John Edwards' bait-and-switch

I really would like to be able to like John Edwards. He more than any presidential candidate carries the banner of economic populism and speaks to the issues I care most about. But he also seems just a tad too slick about making excuses. That's been very much on display after a recent NY Times investigation of a DC-based non-profit he created in 2005. Rather than just explain the financial dealings that had been brought into question, Edwards rallied his supporters to denigrate the reporter's integrity. He has erected such ridiculous straw-men that you'd think you were listening to a Fox News commentator.

I haven't been buying Edwards' huffing and puffing. In fact, I had a strong hunch from the outset that Edwards tried and failed to play a cheesy game of bait-and-switch with the Times...and he was using that failed stunt to rally his supporters. This evening, I discovered that my original hunch was exactly right. It doesn't exactly redound to Edwards' credit.

This whole matter is becoming increasingly shabby. Left-wingers are so sick of seeing Democrats smeared by the big right-wing Noise Machine that many sprang instinctively to Edwards' defense, unwisely I believe. Certainly the epithets you see flying around the internets are unwarranted. The facts don't look very good for the candidate, and perhaps that is why he has concentrated instead on pounding the table.

In May, Eamon Javers of BusinessWeek reported on Edwards' "Convenient Nonprofit":

During periods when they're out of office, many politicians arrange jobs for loyal former aides. After his unsuccessful 2004 Vice-Presidential bid, John Edwards came up with a creative approach: He started a nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty. Rather than recruiting outside poverty experts, the Center for Promise & Opportunity became a perch for several once and future Edwards staff members.

The line between an ordinary nonprofit and a group formed to test the political waters can be blurry. But legally there's a big difference. Ordinary nonprofits aren't subject to rules on disclosing donors and limiting contributions; exploratory political groups are. No one has challenged the status of the Edwards center, and experts in the field say it may technically pass muster as an ordinary nonprofit. But at a minimum, it appears to have helped Edwards prepare for the 2008 Presidential race.

Javers then gives details of the finances of the DC-based Center for Promise & Opportunity (CPO) for 2005 (the only year so far for which it has filed the required documentation): CPO raised $1.3 million, and spent some on Edwards' speaking engagements and also on travel that clearly is related to the Center's stated goal of raising the public profile of poverty in America. However, the CPO also spent $259,000 (nearly 20% of its budget) on consultants, whom it refuses to disclose.

There is just enough in this report to suggest that there was a whiff of the nascent presidential campaign about this Center.

Javers adds this striking detail:

Edwards' team defends the center. "Obviously, some of the people who had worked for Senator Edwards in government and on his campaign continued to work with him in this effort," says spokesman Eric Schultz. "John Edwards and everyone involved is proud of the organization's work." That work included running a foundation that awarded $300,000 in college aid to 86 North Carolina students in 2006. The Edwards campaign put BusinessWeek in touch with recipient Tony Tyson, 18, who finished his freshman year at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. Tyson calls the scholarship "a golden opportunity." When he returns to campus this fall, he adds, he'll volunteer for Edwards' campaign.

It's very strange that the Edwards campaign foisted the testimony of a scholarship recipient upon Javers. The Foundation in North Carolina that awards those scholarships is a separate nonprofit from the DC Center. It bears nearly the same name (Center for Promise & Opportunity Foundation), so perhaps, just perhaps, the confusion between the two nonprofits is the fault of Javers alone.

More likely though, I think, the Edwards campaign took advantage of the similarity in names to suggest that the scholarships are evidence that the Center is not squandering "poverty" money by feeding Edwards' presidential campaign.

This needs to be stated firmly: The scholarships in North Carolina are evidence of nothing regarding the DC Center's finances. It was the latter issue that Javers was investigating, and thus it was misleading to put him in touch with that student.

The evidence produced by BW was fairly slight, however, and the article got relatively little attention (though blogger Newsie8200 was on top of it).

* *

Then on June 22 Leslie Wayne of the NY Times published a much more substantial investigation of the Center's finances. Immediately, left-wing bloggers such as Greg Sargent rushed to Edwards' defense, wielding more heat than light.

Sargent was taking his cue from Edwards and reproduced the candidate's main counter-charge:

But we've just learned something new and surprising about the story. The Edwards campaign has just told us on the record that The Times refused the chance to talk to any real, live beneficiaries of Edwards' programs.

A pretty weak attack on the Times. Anybody with the slightest familiarity with investigative journalism knows that the subjects of investigations will often try to pawn the testimony of all kinds of supporters onto reporters, and that often these people have no knowledge at all about the actual issue the reporter is looking into. Reporters learn not to let these "friendlies" distract from their job.

My reaction to the Times article was very different, then. I surmised that the "real, live beneficiaries of Edwards' programs", whom the Times had refused to give a hearing to, probably were the recipients of scholarships from the NC Foundation. If that surmise was right, I argued, then Edwards was trying to change the subject or confuse the issue.

Then, having discovered the older BusinessWeek article, I became more convinced that that was precisely Edwards' game. He wanted the Times to confuse the spending of the Center in DC with the scholarships from the Foundation in North Carolina. And when the Times refused to take the bait, Edwards waved that "evidence" of negligence to his partisans like a red flag.

I smelled a rat for the simple reason that Edwards was failing to explain how his Center had spent its money, the most obvious way to defuse any allegations of impropriety.

Yesterday, Sargent provided further evidence that the surmise was right. The Times sent him a response to his accusation that they failed to interview the people Edwards wanted them to talk with:

We gave the Edwards camp ample opportunity to respond, and we quoted their full response in the article.

The article focused on the activities of the Center for Promise and Opportunity, and how that benefited Mr. Edwards; it did not focus on the sister charity that provided the scholarship money. In fact, when it did mention that sister charity, it cast it in only a positive light, and noted how much it had given out in scholarships.

You don't have to read very far between the lines to see that the Times was indicating that Edwards had tried to get away with the bait-and-switch using North Carolina scholarship recipients. But, oddly, though Sargent now possessed pretty clear evidence that Edwards had played him for a sucker, none the less he let Edwards off the hook. Instead, Sargent barged ahead again and concentrated his anger on the Times for allegedly failing to find iron-clad proof that the Center's finances were funky.

And Sargent keeps returning to attack the Times, rather than asking some hard questions of Edwards. Today comes this obtuse post, which discusses a fundraising email just sent out by Edwards' campaign. The email includes this decisive passage:

Last week The New York Times ran a story suggesting that it was wrong for John to have spent the last three years raising awareness of poverty and advocating for solutions. As if there's any way to draw attention to poverty without publicity! And to make matters worse, the reporter just refused to even talk with any of the people who benefited—like any of the 200 young people who got scholarships through the College for Everyone program, or the 700 students who went to New Orleans with John to help rebuild. So we really need your help to get our message out; please, give what you can today.

Could you want clearer evidence that Edwards had tried to fob the Times off with irrelevant testimony from NC scholarship recipients? And as for Edwards' description of the allegations in the Times' article, it's a laughable straw-man. That is the extent to which Edwards has responded thus far to revelations about the finances of the Center. In other words, Edwards continues to avoid addressing the issues entirely.

Edwards' supporters appear to be content with his tactics of evasion and equivocation; straw-man bashing; bait-and-switch game playing; falsification; and ad hominem attacks on the candidate's critics. However, I'm drawing what I believe is the logical conclusion from all this:

Edwards doesn't think he can explain satisfactorily all the Center's spending.

* *

So what is at issue in the Times' story? Leslie Wayne found that a significant proportion of the moneys spent by the Center in DC during 2005 went toward things that don't really look like they have much to do with raising the profile of poverty in the national debate. Wayne's findings ought to be read in conjunction with the earlier article in BusinessWeek.

Wayne has nothing but praise for the NC Foundation, and does not dispute that Edwards has done useful work to promote issues of poverty through the DC Center.

The reporter concentrates, however, on the considerable part of the Center's finances that appear to be directed largely or primarily toward keeping Edwards' campaign team from 2004 intact and on salary, and toward preparing the ground for his 2008 presidential bid. Since this nonprofit is a so-called 501 (c) 4, it "can engage in advocacy but cannot make partisan political activities [its] primary purpose without risking loss of [its] tax-exempt status".

Here are some of the details that suggest that the Center was at least partly a vehicle for funding Edwards' prep work for a presidential campaign.

While Mr. Edwards said the organization’s purpose was “making the eradication of poverty the cause of this generation,” its federal filings say it financed “retreats and seminars” with foreign policy experts on Iraq and national security issues. Unlike the scholarship charity [in North Carolina], donations to it were not tax deductible, and, significantly, it did not have to disclose its donors — as political action committees and other political fund-raising vehicles do — and there were no limits on the size of individual donations. was his use of a tax-exempt organization to finance his travel and employ people connected to his past and current campaigns that went beyond what most other prospective candidates have done before pursuing national office. And according to experts on nonprofit foundations, Mr. Edwards pushed at the boundaries of how far such organizations can venture into the political realm.

...The money paid Mr. Edwards’s expenses while he walked picket lines and met with Wall Street executives. He gave speeches, hired consultants, attacked the Bush administration and developed an online following. He led minimum-wage initiatives in five states, went frequently to Iowa, and appeared on television programs. He traveled to China, India, Brussels, Uganda and Russia, and met with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and his likely successor, Gordon Brown, at 10 Downing Street.

...The $1.3 million the group raised and spent in 2005 paid for travel, including Mr. Edwards’s “Opportunity Rocks” tour of 10 college campuses, consultants and a Web operation. In addition, some $540,000 went for the “exploration of new ideas,” according to tax filings.

Nonprofit groups can engage in political activities and not endanger their tax-exempt status so long as those activities are not its primary purpose. But the line between a bona fide charity and a political campaign is often fuzzy, said Marcus S. Owens, a Washington lawyer who headed the Internal Revenue Service division that oversees nonprofit agencies.

“I can’t say that what Mr. Edwards did was wrong,” Mr. Owens said. “But he was working right up to the line. Who knows whether he stepped or stumbled over it. But he was close enough that if a wind was blowing hard, he’d fall over it.”

Many of Edwards' supporters argue that his use of the Center's funds is not demonstrably and overtly tied to a political campaign, and therefore the Times article cannot be anything other than a "smear". I disagree.

He staffed the Center with his political operatives rather than experts in poverty, and these then jumped directly into his presidential campaign. Their salaries were one of the largest items in the Center's budget.

He disbanded the Center as soon as he ramped up his presidential campaign. How now? If it was successful, why not find some other anti-poverty crusader to keep the Center going?

He spent $540,000 on "exploring new ideas", and $259,000 on un-named "consultants". He must have spent quite large sums on what appear to be events that would boost his foreign policy profile.

There could of course be perfectly legitimate explanations for most or even all such expenses. We would know that if Edwards were to come clean about the Center's expenses for 2005—and even more so, for 2006. The Center has continued to delay filing its 2006 report.

All in all, it looks pretty suspicious that Edwards has sidestepped the real issues, and instead denounced the Times for daring to question his purity. And as far as I'm concerned, it's even more suspicious that Edwards plays bait-and-switch games with scholarship recipients.

I don't want excuses from a candidate, and I certainly won't be patronized.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

  WaPo dishes on Cheney: Why now?

The Washington Post this week will have a series of reports on Dick Cheney's secretive role in shaping George Bush's policies and in reshaping the Executive Branch. The first installment today has some important revelations, which I'll comment on later. But the most basic question goes unasked: Why is the Post reporting about this only now?

The damage that Cheney has done to the rule of law, to the credibility of the Bush administration, to an extensive array of its policies, and to the nation's standing in the world, was accomplished and widely noted already by 2004 at the latest. This week's reporting, though useful, comes a tad late for the public to demand answers or set things right. It's a bit like getting a diagram in the mail of exits and escape routes for a barn that burned down fully three years ago.

The Post's reports are detailed and extensive; clearly they took a long time to prepare. I can't shake the feeling, however, that their publication this week owes a lot to the latest story of Cheney's excesses, which got so much traction last week.

I'm referring of course to Cheney's bizarre claim that the vice presidency is not an "entity of" the Executive least when it's a question of submitting his records to the scrutiny of the National Archives. Cheney claims that the Vice President is sometimes a member of the Executive Branch, and sometimes a member of the Legislative Branch. The choice, however improbable, seems to be determined by which form of stonewalling Cheney is engaged in at the moment.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI'll call this Cheney's Scarlet Pimpernel Theory (SPT) of the vice presidency.

How can Cheney have supposed that he might escape devastating ridicule for the Scarlet Pimpernel Theory? A partial answer, I think, lies in one of the other puzzling aspects of this scandal: Why did it take the national news media so long to latch onto this story of hubris? Cheney's ludicrous claims have been tracked for the last four years by Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News, and were even detailed in May 2006 by Mark Silva for the Chicago Tribune. That was followed in the national media, however, by near silence.

So Cheney has grown used to escaping scrutiny from the corporate media. He must have supposed that he could stiff-arm the National Archives by means of the SPT, and then retreat to his undisclosed and immaculate absurdities, as always.

But oddly enough, after years of lying dormant, the Scarlet Pimpernel scandal broke into the corporate media with a passion last week. You could tell almost from the start, with the mounting ridicule heaped on the Vice President, that this was a different kind of Cheney scandal altogether. This one could crack Cheney's facade of deep, purposeful seriousness forever, I thought; it won't any longer be just Rolling Stone, the New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker writing profiles of this lunatic and his merrie band of lawbreakers.

And right on cue, this Sunday the Washington Post begins to print a series that pulls back the curtain on Cheney (and his merrie band). Coincidence?

There's a curious quality to the first installment. I'm not sure that "timeless" is the right word to describe it. Maybe it's a whiff of staleness I sense. But it sure feels like it could have been written, say, months ago before the bottom fell out of this rotten administration.

Even the internal indications of time in this article seem a bit odd:

The vice president's reputation and, some say, his influence, have suffered in the past year and a half. Cheney lost his closest aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to a perjury conviction, and his onetime mentor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a Cabinet purge. A shooting accident in Texas, and increasing gaps between his rhetoric and events in Iraq, have exposed him to ridicule and approval ratings in the teens.

Only one of those things is even close to a year and a half old—unless we assume (what seemed the obvious inference when I read it) that the reference to Cheney's preposterous rhetoric on Iraq refers to his infamous "last throes" statement. But that dates to May 2005. Is it possible that this series was first drafted half a year ago, with some modest updates since then?

Once, in passing, the Post mentions an October 2006 interview with Josh Bolten, at which a former confrontation between Ashcroft and Cheney (not made public until now) came up for discussion:

According to Yoo and three other officials, Ashcroft did not persuade Cheney and got no audience with Bush. Bolten, in an October 2006 interview after becoming Bush's chief of staff, did not deny that account. He signaled an intention to operate differently in the second term.

That seems to suggest that interviews for this series were underway last October.

* *

After I'd finished this (which I'd meant originally as an introduction to a much longer post on the substance of today's Post report), I became aware of this intriguing commentary at War and Piece. Laura Rozen says that a veteran newspaper editor sent her the following comments about today's WaPo article on Cheney.

A careful reading of the story of Cheney's coup against a feeble executive reveals that paragraphs 7 through 10 were written and inserted in haste by a powerful editorial hand. The banging of colliding metaphors in an otherwise carefully written piece is evidence of last-minute interpolations by a bad editor whom no one has the power to rewrite.

("Waxing or waning, [moon metaphor], Cheney hold his purchase [grasping image, a monkey?] on an unrivaled portfolio [business metaphor]...." A monkey with a gibbous face clutching a briefcase stuffed with investments?)

(Worse is this garble: "Cheney, they said. inhabits an operational world [?] in which means are matched with ends [is there any other way?] and some of the most important choices are made." [Where's the rest of the sentence? What does this pseudo-sentence even mean?])

That in turn suggests that this piece has been ready to run for some time. Insertions like the one about the veep's office not being part of the executive branch and seriatim "softenings" show that jamming it into the paper at the end of June, when only cats and the homeless are around the read the paper, was made at the last minute.

Why? My guess is that this series ready to go during the debate over the supplemental funding of the Iraq war and that Downie or someone at the top held it back until Gellman and others started carrying snub-nose .38s to work under their seersuckers.

A key element of the coup is also ignored: the role of the press as revealed in the Libby scandal ... : Note in particular paragraph seven the phrase that Cheney's subversive roles "went undetected." The correct verb is "unreported."

This series is a landscape of an internal war. Parts of it are still smoking and some reputations are visibly dying--anonymously, for the moment. The journalistic graves registration people will go in later and tag the corpses.

There does appear to be something to that initial observation—that several paragraphs of purple prose don't seem to fit in with the otherwise fairly dry writing style. The purple patch occurs right after the article summarizes the content of each of the reports that will appear in the series. Thus it's the perfect spot for a grandiose insertion by an out-of-control editor. See what you think; these are the paragraphs in question.

In roles that have gone largely undetected, Cheney has served as gatekeeper for Supreme Court nominees, referee of Cabinet turf disputes, arbiter of budget appeals, editor of tax proposals and regulator in chief of water flows in his native West. On some subjects, officials said, he has displayed a strong pragmatic streak. On others he has served as enforcer of ideological principle, come what may.

Cheney is not, by nearly every inside account, the shadow president of popular lore. Bush has set his own course, not always in directions Cheney preferred. The president seized the helm when his No. 2 steered toward trouble, as Bush did, in time, on military commissions. Their one-on-one relationship is opaque, a vital unknown in assessing Cheney's impact on events. The two men speak of it seldom, if ever, with others. But officials who see them together often, not all of them admirers of the vice president, detect a strong sense of mutual confidence that Cheney is serving Bush's aims.

The vice president's reputation and, some say, his influence, have suffered in the past year and a half. Cheney lost his closest aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to a perjury conviction, and his onetime mentor, Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a Cabinet purge. A shooting accident in Texas, and increasing gaps between his rhetoric and events in Iraq, have exposed him to ridicule and approval ratings in the teens. Cheney expresses indifference, in public and private, to any verdict but history's, and those close to him say he means it.

Waxing or waning, Cheney holds his purchase on an unrivaled portfolio across the executive branch. Bush works most naturally, close observers said, at the level of broad objectives, broadly declared. Cheney, they said, inhabits an operational world in which means are matched with ends and some of the most important choices are made. When particulars rise to presidential notice, Cheney often steers the preparation of options and sits with Bush, in side-by-side wing chairs, as he is briefed.

The last paragraph in particular is atrocious. It's hard to believe an editor, much less a copy-editor, would have permitted it to see print in this form, if it were written by a reporter. So I'm attracted to the theory offered by the anonymous friend of Rozen, that this is a late insertion by a loopy editor at the Washington Post.

If that's right, that it betrays a large, slobbering last minute insertion by an editor, then there's a reasonably good case to be made that this series was ready, sitting on a shelf and waiting for the go-ahead.

That doesn't mean, however, that the anonymous friend's explanation for the release of the series now is necessarily right. I see little so far that would suggest it was designed to run during the debate over funding the Iraq war, except the fact that a large part of the series will be devoted to Cheney's role in the Iraq debacle. But how could it be otherwise?

It's perfectly possible that the series was not conceived as a backdrop to any particular political debate. Nevertheless, once the series had been written, it may have been deemed too confrontational to put into print given the enduring power that Cheney wields within this administration.

I think I'm going to stick with my hunch, that the secret behind its publication now is the absolute beating that Cheney administered to his own profile in Washington by insisting that he's some kind of centaur: both man and horse, and yet neither, but also both. A horse's ass is what Cheney is, and the Scarlet Pimpernel business must have been greeted with horse-laughs all around the salons of DC last week.

I'm open to other suggestions, however. Today's story does open by drawing attention emphatically to Cheney's disastrous role in creating the "military commissions" at Guantanamo. Bush & Co. have suffered a series of black-eyes in recent weeks concerning the kangaroo courts in Gitmo. Most recently, as I commented on Friday, a JAG officer who served on one of the tribunals filed an affidavit in federal court that publicly tore the facade of legality off from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals. The CSRTs form the basis for all other Gitmo proceedings, so that's pretty bad news on the whole. Meanwhile, there's a nasty fight within the White House over whether to shut down Guantanamo.

So it's also quite possible that the WaPo decided, because of the renewed scrutiny of Gitmo, that it was now worth the risk of publishing this report on Cheney.

One way or another, there can be little doubt that the Post and every other major newspaper in the US should have been producing reports such as these years ago.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Friday, June 22, 2007

  Guantanamo: A clue today for the clueless

As Republicans rushed forward to defend Guantanamo and decry those who would close it, a quieter but more authoritative voice also spoke up. For the first time, we heard directly from a military lawyer about the nature of the tribunals he witnessed at the gulag. He is Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham (Army Reserve). What he has to say about the integrity of the proceedings, in an affidavit filed in federal court today, is devastating.

Abraham describes exactly what many of us have surmised from such documents and statistics as are available for the Combat Status Review Tribunals, and from the testimony of prisoners and the statements of their lawyers. He describes a kangaroo court.

The system is so stacked against due process that Lt. Col. Abraham, a military lawyer, submitted an affidavit on behalf of one prisoner who has appealed the outcome of his CSRT to federal court. It's worth emphasizing that Abraham is the first eyewitness to speak publicly about the unfairness of the tribunals, in which 93% of prisoners were declared to be "enemy combatants".

From the Associated Press:

An Army officer with a key role in the U.S. military hearings at Guantanamo Bay says they relied on vague and incomplete intelligence and were pressured to declare detainees "enemy combatants," often without any specific evidence...

Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a 26-year veteran of military intelligence who is an Army reserve officer and a California lawyer, said military prosecutors were provided with only "generic" material that didn't hold up to the most basic legal challenges.

Despite repeated requests, intelligence agencies arbitrarily refused to provide specific information that could have helped either side in the tribunals, according to Abraham, who said he served as a main liaison between the Combat Status Review Tribunals and those intelligence agencies.

"What were purported to be specific statements of fact lacked even the most fundamental earmarks of objectively credible evidence," Abraham said in the affidavit, filed in a Washington appeals court on behalf of a Kuwaiti detainee, Fawzi al-Odah, who is challenging his classification as an "enemy combatant."

A report in the WaPo adds:

[He] said the military placed too much weight on unsubstantiated statements by intelligence agencies in deciding that the detainees were enemy combatants, according to his affidavit....

Abraham, who helped review government intelligence about detainees in 2004 and 2005 and served on a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, is the first person who played such a role to publicly challenge the fairness of the reviews. He said in an interview yesterday that he felt compelled to disclose his misgivings after reading public claims about the fairness of the process made by Rear Adm. James M. McGarrah, who oversaw it.

The Pentagon argues that Abraham has too little experience with CSRTs, and never filed any complaints while he was posted at Guantanamo. But Col. Abraham demurs.

Abraham said that, to the contrary, he repeatedly raised his concerns during his six-month stint in the office, including direct appeals to McGarrah. He said the evidence presented to the tribunals lacked specificity, and that exculpatory information about the detainees was unavailable and possibly withheld. He said that government agencies sometimes claimed that detainees were "enemy fighters" or "warriors" after saying that they were on a jihad or ascertaining their presence in a specific location.

Abraham also said in the interview that legal standards for the unusual tribunals were nearly nonexistent. He equated the government hearsay presented about detainees with "a game of telephone."

Abraham also states that it was "well known" that any judges who failed to find against a prisoner would have to justify themselves to McGarrah.

He said he and two fellow panel members were closely questioned by McGarrah and his deputy after they decided that there was not enough evidence to conclude that a prisoner was an enemy fighter, and were then ordered to hold an expanded hearing to reconsider their conclusion.

The AP also interviewed Abraham by phone for its report:

Abraham said he first raised his concerns when he was on active duty with the Defense Department agency in charge of the tribunal process from September 2004 to March 2005 and felt the issues were not adequately addressed. He said he decided his only recourse was to submit the affidavit.

"I pointed out nothing less than facts, facts that can and should be fixed," he told The Associated Press

The importance of this affidavit?

"It wouldn't be quite right to say this is the most important piece of evidence that has come out of the CSRT process, because this is the only piece of evidence ever to come out of the CSRT process," [al-Odah's lawyer Matthew] MacLean said. "It's our only view into the CSRT."

But why ruin his career in the military by breaking the wall of silence?

"I take very seriously my responsibility, my duties as a citizen," [Col. Abraham] said.

* *

Here is what a very different sort of man had to say today about Gitmo, one who has gone on record as favoring torture:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Friday it would be a mistake to close the detention center at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a move under consideration now by the Bush administration.

Romney said captives housed at the facility need to stay in Cuba -- far from the U.S. court system.

"I believe that Guantánamo plays an important role in protecting our nation from violent, heinous terrorists," he said. "Guantánamo is a symbol of our resolve."...

Romney said suspected terrorists need to be kept at Guantánamo so they do not get safe harbor in the U.S. legal system. Terrorists, he said, should not get such constitutional rights.

There's no danger of Gitmo prisoners being according due-process rights under a Republican president. Fortunately, there's little danger either that Mitt will be elected president.

* *

Not to be outdone, the White House continued its efforts to make the worst of rumors that it was seriously considering whether to shut down Gitmo (rumors which I commented on yesterday).

[WH spokesman Dana] Perino made clear that Bush is determined to see Guantanamo Bay shut down.

"America does not have any intention of being the world's jailer," she said, noting that the United States has announced plans to release about 80 of the some 375 detainees remaining in Guantanamo and hopes to transfer several dozen Afghans back to Afghanistan in the near future.

Washington is helping the Afghan government build a high-security wing at Pul-e-Charki prison complex just outside Kabul. The wing has 330 cells and can hold up to 660 people, including 65 Afghans held at Guantanamo Bay, according to Afghan officials.

But Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the chief spokesman for Afghanistan's Defense Ministry, said none of those held at Guantanamo had been transferred to Afghanistan so far despite statements by U.S. officials that they would be sent back by the end of April 2007.

The State Department was pitching in as well to draw further opprobrium upon the U.S.:

State Department legal adviser John Bellinger told members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission meeting on Capitol Hill that the government has been working with dozens of countries to try to find places to transfer some of the detainees. He said he's traveled around the globe, explaining and defending the detention facility to foreign governments critical of its existence.

"We fully and acutely realize Guantanamo has become a lightning rod for criticism around the world," Bellinger said, defending the camps as housing suspected terrorists ''who need to be detained somewhere.

Oh, it's not just Guantanamo that has become a lightning rod for criticism, not by a long shot.

When Bellinger declared universal agreement that Guantanamo captives need to be detained, some protesters hissed, "Lies."

crossposted from Unbossed

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

  Is Iraq better off now than it was four years ago?

By a round about path I discovered that today is the fourth anniversary since George Bush began dissimulating to us about the chaos and violence in Iraq. In fact, by comparing the news reports from the first months of the occupation against the statements coming from the White House, I found that Bush said not one word to the American public about the burgeoning disaster in Iraq until the fighting was thoroughly out of control. When he did finally find his voice, on June 21, 2003, Bush offered up palaver about "progress in Iraq"...the same as he's been peddling to the public ever since.

It's high time to pose again Reagan's famous question: Are we better off now than we were four years ago?

Few would answer 'yes'. American deaths have risen above 3500, with more than 25,000 troops suffering wounds (the mental trauma inflicted on veterans is incalculable). Iraqi civilian deaths are beyond counting, almost certainly more than 50,000. According to the U.N., there are 4.2 million Iraqi refugees; about one Iraqi in seven now struggles to survive as a refugee.

As documented in the quarterly reports produced by the Pentagon, and occasional reports by the special Inspector General for Iraq, the infrastructure of Iraq has not been much improved since the fall of 2003. The greatest effort and expense overall has been put into increasing oil and electricity production, with nothing to show for it; production remains mired well below pre-war standards.

Are we better off now than we were four years ago?

The Iraqi economy is in shambles. The middle class is fleeing the country in droves, after having been impoverished. Those left behind live in squalor and oppressive heat, every day is a struggle just to make do. It's getting harder by the day even to find bridges left standing.

Every part and aspect of Iraq has been carved up into warring fiefdoms, from government ministries to neighborhood blocks. Bloodshed, torture, kidnapping, rape, looting, mayhem, death in every form...have become the constant companions Iraqi civilians.

Are we better off now than we were four years ago?

Four years ago, there was no civil war. At that time, the presence of al Qaeda inside Iraq remained a pre-war fiction, only trotted out to silence critics of the invasion. This is what a bad day in Iraq looked like, four years ago:

Q Scott, earlier today, you said you saw steady progress in Iraq. It's been a very bad day. An American soldier killed, a pro-American mayor killed in Iraq, a little kid killed. Where's the progress?

If the war-torn country looked as peaceful as that today, it would be trumpeted as "progress in Iraq".

Are we better off now than we were four years ago?

Ronald Reagan called upon Americans to hold then President Carter accountable when, after four years of his administration, things appeared to be worse rather than better. Shouldn't Americans now demand the same of this President?

crossposted at Unbossed

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  Is the White House planning to close Guantanamo?

This evening the Associated Press produced a report suggesting that the White House was planning to hold a meeting soon, perhaps as soon as Friday, to discuss again whether to close the gulag at Guantanamo Bay. However the report is anonymously sourced and, once the news leaked, it evoked several incoherent denials from White House officials. These denials are reported more clearly in a longer version of the AP story, which can be found at CNN.

From the main AP story:

Senior administration officials said Thursday a consensus is building for a proposal to shut the center and transfer detainees to one or more Defense Department facilities, including the maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where they could face trial.

President Bush's national security and legal advisers had been scheduled to discuss the move at a meeting Friday, the officials said, but after news of it broke, the White House said the meeting would not take place that day and no decision on Guantanamo Bay's status is imminent.

"It's no longer on the schedule for tomorrow," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "Senior officials have met on the issue in the past, and I expect they will meet on the issue in the future."

Three senior administration officials spoke about the discussions on condition of anonymity because they were internal deliberations.

Most of the rest of that report focuses on previous attempts by Cheney, Gonzales and Rumsfeld to block the closure of Guantanamo, and their increasing isolation as criticism of Gitmo mounts from all sides.

The longer version at CNN adds the following.

It was not immediately clear if the meeting would result in a final recommendation to Bush.

Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said Thursday that there are no plans for such a meeting.

"The President has long expressed a desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and to do so in a responsible way. A number of steps need to take place before that can happen such as setting up military commissions and the repatriation to their home countries of detainees who have been cleared for released. These and other steps have not been completed. No decisions on the future of Guantanamo Bay are imminent and there will not be a White House meeting tomorrow."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman agreed.

"I am telling you there is nothing to this," he said

"There has been no change in our policy, and I am not ware of any plans to change at this point."

I don't know how to reconcile the statements of Gordon Johndroe, that the meeting is "no longer on the schedule for tomorrow", with the insinuations of Scott Stanzel and Bryan Whitman that the very idea of such a meeting is ridiculous. I think the latter two are lying.

Either the White House is trying to pretend that no such discussions are under way (because once it admits that the issue is reaching a crisis, then it will almost have to act to close Gitmo); or else Cheney is furious at the news leaking out and he needs to be appeased.

It could be that both things are true. At a minimum, the leak appears to be orchestrated in order to wrong-foot Cheney. The Vice President is notorious for his deviousness; he sways Bush in private to abandon decisions just taken in larger meetings of advisors. So there would be no real point in marshalling forces to convince Bush to close Gitmo in the meeting described by the AP, if Cheney was going once again to undercut any agreement reached, after the fact and in secret.

One mark that the news report is part of a heavy-handed attempt to lobby Bush publicly is this section from the main AP story:

Officials say that Bush, who also has said he wants to close the facility as soon as possible, is keenly aware of its shortcomings.

His wife, Laura, and mother, Barbara, along with Rice and longtime adviser Karen Hughes, head of the public diplomacy office at the State Department, have told him that Guantanamo is a blot on the U.S. record abroad, particularly in the Muslim world and among European allies.

That's quite a line up. The four most influential women in George Bush's life, all named as proponents of closing Guantanamo. To insiders, evidently, this would seem to be the pressure of ultimate resort.

Shame the President doesn't care quite so much about human rights and the rule of law, as he does about what his Mom says.

crossposted at Unbossed and Never in our Names

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

  Colleges revolt against U.S. News rankings

It's one of higher education's perennial scandals. The U.S. News and World Report annual rankings of colleges are the object of ridicule by nearly everybody inside academia. The various bases for the rankings include some silly and nearly meaningless "measures" of quality. But every year colleges hold their collective breath when the annual issue appears, eager to have climbed in rank. The rest of the year, college planning may well be measured by whether it helps or hinders that scramble up the U.S. News charts, even if it's counterproductive to sound educational or administrative policies.

In other words, colleges have allowed themselves to become enthralled to a cheesy sales gimmick. Now several dozen prominent colleges have declared their independence from U.S. News.

At a gathering in Annapolis (once the site of a famous Liberty Tree), the long-festering resentment against U.S. News' nefarious influence finally broke into open revolt.

A group of U.S. liberal arts colleges plans to stop participating in U.S. News and World Report's higher- education rankings, saying the magazine's yearly survey misleads students.

A majority of representatives at a meeting today agreed not to cooperate with the annual U.S. News assessment, said Christopher Nelson, chairman of the association, called the Annapolis Group because it was founded there in 1993. Members will work with other organizations to develop alternative ways to evaluate colleges.

The decision by the group, which includes colleges such as Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore, compounds the resistance to the system used by U.S. News, which compiled its first rankings in 1983 and began publishing them annually in 1987. The Washington- based magazine is facing criticism for using subjective criteria to evaluate a school's value, particularly a survey asking administrators to pass judgment on other schools' reputations.

"The idea that you could reduce a college to a number is antithetical to everything we know about ourselves, about our students and about what learning is all about," said Nelson, 59, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, where the group met. "It's possible that we've reached a tipping point where people realize the pernicious effects of these kinds of rankings."

The 115-member association didn't take a formal vote at its annual meeting, which drew 80 presidents. Each member school will make its own choice about whether, or to what extent, it will cooperate with the magazine, Nelson said.

Adds the NY Times:

Critics say the ranking system lacks rigor and has had a harmful effect on educational priorities, encouraging colleges to do things like soliciting more applicants and then rejecting them, to move up the list.

“We really want to reclaim the high ground on this discussion,” said Katherine Will, the president of Gettysburg College and the incoming president of the Annapolis Group. “We should be defining the conversation, not a magazine that uses us for its business plan.”

The revolt has been a long time coming. In May, several of these colleges joined a petition urging their counterparts to refuse any longer to fill out U.S. News' surveys and, more importantly I believe, to cease mentioning the U.S. News rankings in their promotional material. There's the rub. Colleges that are placed high in the rankings are sorely tempted to latch onto that "number" and flog it to prospective students.

Other college presidents who attended the meeting were more cautious. Anthony Marx, the president of Amherst, which is ranked second among liberal arts colleges, said he was not ready to stop cooperating with U.S. News and wanted to continue to discuss the issue.

Parents and students, you'd be wise to be extremely wary of any college or university that seeks to impress you with its ranking by U.S. News. It's not just that these rankings are nearly worthless for the purposes of comparing colleges. It's also that the administrators know they're worthless. In other words, they think you're suckers.

Such people tend to fold, bend, mutilate, or spindle their own educational institutions in the pursuit of higher rankings. It sounds implausible, perhaps, but I've seen it in action. The results typically are pretty disastrous, if the policy endures for long.

For example, I observed first hand as one undistinguished college set out very deliberately to remake itself into a perfect U.S. News New-Model College. The main "policies" seemed to boil down to two things, around which the entire educational life of the college came to revolve: (i) Increase the retention and graduation rates; (ii) Increase the ratio of applications to acceptances.

Number (i) quickly turned into a ball-and-chain in the classroom. Academic standards were going way down very fast even before I joined the college. It's not just that nearly all students were passed no matter how little they actually learned. Grade inflation was so rampant that the average grade across the board in many departments was an "A" or "A-". To fail a student was a blotch on a professor's record as far as the administrators were concerned. Some students were graduated whom everybody admitted were illiterate nincompoops. There were even a few who were kept on year after year, though they had so many low grades that it was nearly impossible any longer for them ever to raise their GPA up to a passing level (in order to graduate). Why go on? The academic life became hollowed out in pursuit of an inflated retention rate.

The application-ratio game (ii) had equally bizarre results. If I recall correctly, the admissions office sequestered the statistics for students admitted under "early admissions", and counted its ratio only by the numbers accepted and rejected under "regular admissions". That soon meant that nearly any applicant for early admission who had a pulse would be accepted. The number of slots left for the later round of admissions in the spring, thus, was quite small. Voila! Almost overnight the college shot up in its "selectivity" rating.

Then came the problem of trying to educate the good, the mediocre, and the terrible students in the same classroom—while passing them all (of course).

The screwed up priorities in spending on buildings and infrastructure is another, very large topic. Suffice it to say that in the crazy U.S. News world, a college is more likely to gain an advantage from building a shinier, bigger student center (ten years after the last) than by using the money to buy some books for its half-empty library.

This is just a snapshot of some of the damage that colleges can and have done to themselves in pursuit of a virtually meaningless ranking from U.S. News. The rebellion of the college presidents against the tyranny of these scam-artists is long overdue.

Furthermore, the ratings themselves don't make much sense. For one thing, the results achieved are sometimes way out of line with basic measures of educational quality. There are all sorts of grotesque anomalies. There is one college that U.S. News ranks among the top-ten liberal arts colleges, for example, that by my observation is really second rate. In fact the faculty there in my own field couldn't conceivably rank among the top fifty liberal arts departments in the country.

In any case, the fundamental point is that educational programs have so many aspects that are unquantifiable and incommensurable that it's really just a mark of foolishness to set out to draw up relative rankings of institutions of higher learning. The things that one student may find valuable at a college will hold no interest at all for another.

There are some pretty simple measures of the quality of an institution of higher learning, which students and parents can investigate for themselves without the intervention of commercial enterprises like U.S. News. For example, what is the library's annual budget for books? How many journals and periodicals does it subscribe to? How large is the reference collection? What sorts of things does the library devote space to on its main floor(s)? How many and what kinds of papers are students assigned? What do some course reading lists look like? What proportion of the faculty are full-time and tenured or tenure-track? How many faculty are in their offices when you walk down a hallway?

And don't forget: What does it all cost for four years?

crossposted from Unbossed

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

  "Progress in Iraq"

Almost exactly four years ago, in June 2003, the White House began to make excuses for the occupation of Iraq. On June 21st, 2003 we first heard Bush defensively use the rhetorical phrase "progress in Iraq" to deflect criticism of his failure to end the insurgency. These were the first echoes of the rhetoric of quagmire, which haunt us still.

I'm not speaking, incidentally, of Bush & Co.'s defensiveness regarding the grounds for invading Iraq. Embarrassment over that began growing even before Bush had declared victory in Iraq, as the administration pretended over and over again to have found WMD, only to backtrack. But that topic pretty well has disappeared from WH rhetoric, since it refuses to explain its pre-war lies.

No, I mean the false reassurances that Bush & Co. have been giving us about the internal situation in Iraq. Although the occupation was recognizably a debacle at least by the beginning of May 2003, never the less for several months after the invasion the administration concentrated on crowing about their "success" in overthrowing Hussein and spreading freedom. It is stunning now to re-read the news reports about Iraq from May and June 2003, and contrast them to the utter silence of the White House regarding the unfolding disaster.

In early June, 2003 in a speech to troops in Qatar came the first slight hints from George Bush that all was not skittles and beer:

Our forces are taking aggressive steps to increase order throughout the country. We are moving those Baathist officials that are trying to hang on to power. There are still pockets of criminality. Remember, the former leader of Iraq emptied the jail cells of common criminals right before the action took place. And they haven't changed their habits and their ways. They like to rob and like to loot. We'll find them. (Applause.)

"Right before the action..." refers obliquely to two massacres of demonstrators in Falluja in late April, which greatly inflamed the Iraqi resistance. Bush's accounts of the violence in Iraq have always been vague in the extreme, right from the very start. The other characteristic we see in that speech are the soaring predictions for a better, happier the end of the rainbow.

Criminal courts are now reopening. Day by day, the United States and our coalition partners are making the streets safer for the Iraqi citizens. We also understand that a more just political system will develop when people have food in their stomachs, and their lights work, and they can turn on a faucet and they can find some clean water -- things that Saddam did not do for them.

Sad to say, we're as far now from achieving those things as ever. Anyhow, this speech in Qatar was the barest acknowledgment that the burgeoning chaos in Iraq actually needed to be addressed.

It wasn't until June 21st that Bush finally saw fit to address the issue back home.

To get a sense of how late the (tacit) admission came that something had gone wrong, compare these articles that both were published the very same day. They describe the daily grind of the guerilla war in terms reminiscent of Vietnam. In late June we were also seeing news reports showing that the window of opportunity to shut down the Iraqi resistance was already closed, or nearly so.

In the midst of this, on June 21 Bush finally acknowledged in his weekly radio address that American troops were still fighting a dangerous enemy.

Making Iraq secure is vitally important for both Iraqi citizens and our own forces. The men and women of our military face a continuing risk of danger and sacrifice in Iraq. Dangerous pockets of the old regime remain loyal to it and they, along with their terrorist allies, are behind deadly attacks designed to kill and intimidate coalition forces and innocent Iraqis.

American troops had in fact been dying at a rate of more than one per day during May and June, unacknowledged by the President.

For the first time in over a decade, Iraq will soon be open to the world. And the influence of progress in Iraq will be felt throughout the Middle East. Over time, a free government in Iraq will demonstrate that liberty can flourish in that region.

American service-members continue to risk their lives to ensure the liberation of Iraq. I'm grateful for their service, and so are the Iraqi people. Many Iraqis are experiencing the jobs and responsibilities of freedom for the first time in their lives. And they are unafraid.

Progress in Iraq. Although almost unknown until that June day, the phrase has been used hundreds of times since then by the Bush administration. By mid July, 2003 it had already become the preferred catch-phrase for the administration's rosy scenarios:

Q Scott, earlier today, you said you saw steady progress in Iraq. It's been a very bad day. An American soldier killed, a pro-American mayor killed in Iraq, a little kid killed. Where's the progress?

MR. McCLELLAN: We are making some important progress in Iraq. There are obviously -- there are still some difficulties, there are some are there are loyalists to Saddam Hussein and his former regime, Baathists and others from outside the country that are trying to disrupt these successes. They oftentimes will target the success that we are making, so that's why you have seen some of these attacks.

And here we see the rhetorical twin to "progress in Iraq"—the notion that attacks by the Iraqi resistance prove that success is being achieved, rather than the opposite. The greater the violence, Bush & Co. began telling us that June, the surer the sign that the attackers are "desperate" to undermine the administration's successes.

Q Ari, why should Americans take at face value what Paul Bremer and others in the administration have said that the attacks against U.S. forces that we've seen seeing repeatedly over these past few weeks are basically the last desperate cries and acts of violence from a dying regime? Why shouldn't they believe that, in fact, it's evidence of a guerrilla insurgency movement that is really testing and challenging whether or not the United States was prepared enough for this phase of the conflict?

MR. FLEISCHER: Because I think that if you look at the Iraqi people, the Iraqi people are overwhelmingly pleased with the fact the United States has helped them to get rid of the Saddam Hussein regime. That was clear from their dancing in the streets, from the way they tore down the statues.

Desperation and progress; progress and desperation. They'd become rhetorical tropes by the time Cheney growled this to an AEI audience on July 24.

We still have many tasks to complete in Iraq, and many dangers remain. There are still some holdouts of the regime, joined by terrorists from outside the country, who are fighting desperately to prevent progress of any kind for the Iraqi people.

By late July, no discussion of Iraq was complete without the obligatory nod toward "progress".

The plan sets out ambitious timetables and clear benchmarks to measure progress and practical methods for achieving results. Rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment. America and our partners kept our promise to remove the dictator and the threat he posed, not only to the Iraqi people, but to the world...In the 83 days since I announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq, we have made progress, steady progress, in restoring hope in a nation beaten down by decades of tyranny.

Four years after "progress in Iraq" became a by-word, George Bush is still hearing reports about it. June 14, 2007:

General Dempsey has just come out of Iraq, where he is working with the Iraqi troops to prepare for -- to prepare them for the day when they will be responsible for the security of their country. He explained to me the progress that has been made over the years that he has been there.

Bush & Co. continues to feel reassured about the progress in Iraq. June 18, 2007:

President Bush had a nearly hour-long secure video teleconference with Iraqi leaders on Monday and came away impressed and reassured by the progress they're making on political, security and economic reforms, the White House said...

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, on Sunday called the situation in Iraq "a mixed picture, but certainly not a hopeless one." He noted frustrations among signs of progress, and cautioned against withdrawing troops too soon.

Too soon, evidently, would be any time before we stop seeing signs of "progress in Iraq". June 18, 2007:

Q But, Tony, can you give us some sense of why [the President] felt reassured, given that we've heard reassurances before?

MR. SNOW: Well, again, it is clear that you've got an environment now where the key leaders are working together on these issues. And, yes, we have heard a lot of these things before, but without -- and I'm not in a position to go into the details and what they were saying, but there are reasons we think they're very serious in moving forward on the key items.

Q But, Tony, we've heard that before, many times.

MR. SNOW: I understand. I understand.

Q I mean, why is there any more reason now to believe that they're serious about moving forward than there was the last time you said that? Or the time before?

MR. SNOW: I understand. But, again, I think -- let me put it this way, that you see that there are tangible efforts going on and I'm just not going to go into any greater detail...

Q Tony, do you agree with General Petraeus's assessment that it could take about a decade to stabilize Iraq, to fully stabilize --

MR. SNOW: Well, what General Petraeus was pointing out -- this is pretty much standard doctrine when it comes to counterinsurgency, is that counterinsurgency is something that does take a great amount of time. He says 10 years. That does not mean that you're going to have people on a forward combat operation posture for 10 years, but it does mean that -- he says that it's perfectly conceivable, and that tends to be kind of the textbook sense of how long such operations take place.

On the other hand, what he also said is, if you take a look at what's going on in the key areas of concern when we were talking about the Baghdad security plan -- what were they? They were Anbar and they were Baghdad -- you see signs of progress there.

Maybe you do, Mr. Snow. My eyes aren't that sharp.

crossposted from Unbossed

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Monday, June 18, 2007

  Tragedy as photo-op

Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion that television networks, pundits, politicians, and sundry public personalities tend to treat large-scale disasters as if they were abstractions, really little more than occasions for self-promotion, rather than the stuff of personal tragedy? The thought has occurred to me from time to time, I'll confess.

Take the Virginia Tech shootings in April. From the moment the news broke, there was a rancid taste of the Big Carnival about it.

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But the opportunism of the news media was quickly thrown in the shadow by the President's insertion of himself into the picture.

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His "concern" was genuine, no doubt, as were the feelings of all three Cabinet officials put in charge of studying the shootings. You can tell that from the spectacle they made last week of presenting Bush with their hastily produced report.

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Scarcely possible to believe that any adults would stand around grinning about a report on a bloody massacre. Even harder to believe that Margaret Spellings would show up for such a session wearing a pink-bow-second-runner-up kind of contraption around her waist. Mike Leavitt has embarrassed himself enough recently by ignoring the death of Senator Thomas of Wyoming. As for the desperate need of Gonzales and Bush to improve their own public standing, well... The kindest interpretation would be that these pictures were faked in order to embarrass the participants—except that they're official White House photos—or that Borat was involved somehow (but he's nowhere to be seen in the pictures).

A harsher judgment was offered by Whatever it is, I'm against it:

From the grins on these clowns’ faces – Jeebus, just look at Gonzales, he looks like a 5-year old just told he’s getting ice cream and pony rides – I can only assume that the information that 32 people were slaughtered at Virginia Tech less than two months ago was not shared.

It's all just a kiddy's game for these politicians, I'm afraid. Compare the above photos with this scene from a White House Easter Egg Hunt (with two of the same principals).

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Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe fact that Bush felt the need to have himself photographed appearing to read the report he'd just been handed shows what a Big Carnival the Virginia Tech shootings were for the White House. From Bush's canned statement, it also appears that he received only a summary of the report and, unsurprisingly, learned almost nothing new from it. Somebody seems to have used the phrase "information sharing" within his hearing, but other than that the report looks to be a total wash as far as Bush is concerned.

They learned a great deal and today presented me with their key findings. I look forward to reviewing their recommendations in more detail, but a few points are immediately clear: Information sharing among the healthcare, law enforcement, and education communities must improve; those groups must better understand the federal laws related to information sharing; and accurate, complete information sharing between states and the federal government is essential in helping to keep guns out of the wrong hands and to punish those who break the law.

The main point of the Oval Office ceremony, maybe the only point, was to be seen grinning. Every tragedy for this White House is a photo-op. Actually doing something to improve the lot of Americans, not so crucial.

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For the White House, it's a world inhabited by plastic turkeys.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

  Tony Blair knew full well that Bush was failing to plan for Iraq occupation

Next Saturday the respected British Channel 4 will air a television documentary on the pre-war planning for Iraq that will present a "devastating account of the chaotic preparations for the war", according to a preview in today's Observer. Blair told many colleagues (including, we now learn, the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock) that all was well with the planning before the invasion.

According to many officials interviewed for the documentary, however, Blair actually was extremely worried that the US was failing to prepare for the occupation. Blair also thought there was nothing he could do to make Bush & Co. take the problem seriously.

Few observers of the Iraq fiasco any longer dispute that the Bush administration had done little planning, much less done it well; in fact the only competent planning, by the State Department, was tossed aside by the Pentagon. The lack of preparation was apparent within months of the invasion. The record of the administration's failures in the first year of the occupation speaks volumes.

The newsworthy thing, for an American audience, is that the failures were stunningly obvious in advance to our closest ally.

Tony Blair has demonstrated over and over again his magnificent capacity for self-delusion, especially as regards to his relationship with George Bush. Blair has seemed to believe whatever it was necessary for him to believe in order to maintain his fawning relationship with Bush. Therefore, that even a man such as this was painfully aware of Bush's inadequate planning implies that nobody in the upper levels of the US government can have had any excuse for not recognizing the same.

From The Observer:

Tony Blair agreed to commit British troops to battle in Iraq in the full knowledge that Washington had failed to make adequate preparations for the postwar reconstruction of the country.

In a devastating account of the chaotic preparations for the war, which comes as Blair enters his final full week in Downing Street, key No 10 aides and friends of Blair have revealed the Prime Minister repeatedly and unsuccessfully raised his concerns with the White House...

In one of the most significant interviews in the programme, Peter Mandelson says that the Prime Minister knew the preparations were inadequate but said he was powerless to do more...'I remember him saying at the time: "Look, you know, I can't do everything. That's chiefly America's responsibility, not ours."

Another interviewee is Blair's senior foreign affairs advisor, David Manning. He essentially confirms what many of us have believed since the Downing Street Memo was published two years ago, but which Blair and his circle have always denied: That Tony Blair and his advisors were continuously worried during the year before the invasion that the Bush administration was bungling the post-war planning. Manning describes a Prime Minister so fearful in March of 2002 that Bush & Co. were not doing the necessary post-war planning that he sent Manning to DC specifically to assess that problem. On Manning's return he wrote a memo that later become famous when it was leaked to reporter Michael Smith.

Though Blair and his pals denied the clear significance of this memo when it was made public, there has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that it portrays both Manning and Blair as deeply concerned about the obvious gaps in planning. As Manning remarked in the memo, Condoleezza Rice gave him the impression that Bush still hadn't figured out "what happens on the morning after" the invasion is completed. He also wrote...

I think there is a real risk that the [Bush] Administration underestimates the difficulties. They may agree that failure isn’t an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it.

The very same fear was apparent in the war council minutes from July 23, 2002, the Downing Street Memo:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable...There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

The Briefing Paper for that meeting was still more explicit about the absence of even the most basic post-war planning:

A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. As already made clear, the US military plans are virtually silent on this point. Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden. Further work is required to define more precisely the means by which the desired endstate would be created, in particular what form of Government might replace Saddam Hussein's regime and the timescale within which it would be possible to identify a successor.

Thus the best evidence in the public domain has strongly suggested that any British and American officials who were paying attention were of course deeply concerned that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were giving precious little attention to the monumental task of preparing to occupy Iraq. The Channel 4 documentary will demonstrate that those inferences were exactly right all along.

And as many insiders expected, after the invasion things fell apart quickly along predictable lines. The Observer:

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's envoy to the postwar administration in Baghdad, confirms that Blair was in despair. 'There were moments of throwing his hands in the air: "What can we do?" He was tearing his hair over some of the deficiencies.' The failure to prepare meant that Iraq quickly fell apart. Greenstock adds: 'I just felt it was slipping away from us really, from the beginning. There was no security force controlling the streets. There was no police force to speak of.'

The documentary's presenter, Andrew Rawnsley, also has a commentary about what he learned from interviewing so many British and American officials:

As General Charles Guthrie, former head of the armed forces, puts it: 'Everybody knew that the coalition were going to win the initial battle. But then what?'

Blair himself had repeatedly asked that question during the build-up to the war and with mounting anxiety. A significant witness is Sir David Manning who was his most senior adviser on foreign affairs in No 10 and then became, as he still is, British ambassador in Washington. According to Manning, who speaks on camera for the first time for this series, Blair was extremely exercised that the Americans did not have a clue what they would do after the removal of Saddam. Twelve months before the invasion, he sent Manning to Washington to press his concerns on the White House. On Manning's important account: 'The difficulties the Prime Minister had in mind were, "How do you do it, what would be the reaction if you did it, what would happen on the morning after?"' Blair was deeply concerned that the American plans had not been 'thoroughly rehearsed and thoroughly thought through'.

This tells us that it was very early on that Blair was preparing to send British forces into Iraq. Whatever he was saying in public at this time, he was working on the basis that there would be a war a full year before the invasion. It also tells us that he was prescient enough to identify the danger that the Americans would make a catastrophic mess of the aftermath. And it highlights his own failure to translate that anxiety into effective action to ensure that there was a plan for post-Saddam Iraq.

Again, that's pretty much what we argued two years ago on the basis of the Downing Street Memo. But it's good to have people who were involved acknowledge the truth, finally.

This episode from before the invasion is revealing in a number of ways.

Having committed himself to war, Blair did not like to hear prophecies that echoed his own secret fears. Very shortly before the war, in early 2003, there was an Anglo-French summit. Over lunch, Jacques Chirac warned the Prime Minister that he knew what to expect because the French President had been a young soldier in Algeria. Sir Stephen Wall, a former ambassador and one of Blair's senior advisers, was privy to this conversation. He recalls Chirac telling Blair that there would be a civil war in Iraq. 'We came out and Tony Blair rolled his eyes and said, "Poor old Jacques, he doesn't get it, does he?"' Wall remarks: 'We now know Jacques "got it" rather better than we did.'

One of my first reactions to reading the just-published Downing Street Memo was that it clarified much about the European governments' attitudes toward the American/British warmongering in 2002-2003:

This leaked minute confirms that many world leaders knew well in advance what the Bush administration kept secret from the American public until spring of 2003, that the US intended to invade Iraq. This of course makes even more understandable the consistent opposition and mistrust the Bush administration encountered in the buildup to war, especially in Europe; many leaders in Europe were in a position to know that the war already had the green light, and therefore the posturing before the UN by the Bush administration must have been deeply galling for them.

Blair, the smart-aleck assistant to George Bush, never seems to have wised up to the fact that Bush & Co.'s "plans" for Iraq were all about posturing and nothing more. Rawnsley adds that Blair was stunned when the reality of the Iraq fiasco began to hit him in the face:

Blair's despair became so profound that, according to Mandelson, he was ready 'to walk away from it all'. In the spring of 2004, he came extremely close to resigning as Prime Minister.

Blair invested a huge amount of his faith in his capacity to influence the President. He discovered too late that Bush was only nominally the Commander-in-Chief of the Iraq enterprise. A stark picture emerges of Bush making promises and giving assurances to Blair which were not delivered because Iraq was being run by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, neither of whom was very interested in listening to their junior British ally.

But is there any conceivable alternate world in which things might have turned out for the better, if only Blair had gotten the influence he so craved? The foolishness of the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld triumvirate is so great that one is always in danger of underestimating Blair's nearly infinite capacity to learn nothing from experience. Here is Blair's perspective from only seven months ago:

Tony Blair conceded last night that western intervention in Iraq had been a disaster. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Arabic TV station, the prime minister agreed with the veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost when he suggested that intervention had "so far been pretty much of a disaster".

Mr Blair said: "It has, but you see, what I say to people is, 'why is it difficult in Iraq?' It's not difficult because of some accident in planning,
it's difficult because there's a deliberate strategy - al-Qaida with Sunni insurgents on one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militias on the other - to create a situation in which the will of the majority for peace is displaced by the will of the minority for war."

Shorter Blair:

The planning we did was perfectly fine, you see.

Sure it was. The real problem was the planning you didn't do.

crossposted from Unbossed

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