The battered French fry and other lies of our times

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Who could catalogue the lies of our times? In fact, the category “lies” hardly covers the matter. Take a simple example, just now on front pages everywhere: the President invites the press in for a post-cabinet-meeting moment. It’s the day after the 9/11 Commission staff has delivered a total no-brainer revelation: Months of research, the questioning of experts and intelligence insiders, not to speak of the reading of the interrogation transcripts of top al-Qaeda figures and Iraqi officials all reveal — gasp — that there was no “collaboration,” no significant connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, just as there were no weapons of mass destruction or mobile biological labs, just as there was no Niger yellowcake deal, just as, the Los Angeles Times reports, U.S. intelligence repeatedly “confused” Iraqi chicken coops with Scud missile sites, just as oh well.

The President promptly responded to the 9/11 Commission news thusly:

“The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.”

Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service comments:

“This is what logicians call a tautology, or a ‘useless repetition,’ as the dictionary defines it, but it is also an indication of how the Bush administration is defending itself against a growing number of scandals and deceptions in which it finds itself enmeshed. Repetition and blaming the media, an old standby, of which Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld are particularly fond dating back to their service under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford 30 years ago, are back in vogue.”

Now, admittedly, the President’s use of the word “relationship” calls to mind the “meaning of is” parsings of his predecessor (though on far lesser matters of state). Who knows, after all, what this President thinks a relationship is? Certainly, to take but one example, by such standards the pre-Afghan-war relationship between the Bush administration and the Taliban would have to qualify as a deep friendship. Or, as the editor of the War in Context website puts the matter, “George Bush and John Kerry have a relationship: They are both candidates in the coming presidential election. Assuming that they participate in a debate or two, this will require some level of cooperation. Does this mean that Bush supports the Kerry campaign?”

But what of the other part of the President’s statement? Did the “administration” ever say that the 9/11 attacks were “orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda?”

Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service comments:

“This is what logicians call a tautology, or a ‘useless repetition,’ as the dictionary defines it, but it is also an indication of how the Bush administration is defending itself against a growing number of scandals and deceptions in which it finds itself enmeshed. Repetition and blaming the media, an old standby, of which Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld are particularly fond dating back to their service under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford 30 years ago, are back in vogue.”

Now, admittedly, the President’s use of the word “relationship” calls to mind the “meaning of is” parsings of his predecessor (though on far lesser matters of state). Who knows, after all, what this President thinks a relationship is? Certainly, to take but one example, by such standards the pre-Afghan-war relationship between the Bush administration and the Taliban would have to qualify as a deep friendship. Or, as the editor of the War in Context website puts the matter, “George Bush and John Kerry have a relationship: They are both candidates in the coming presidential election. Assuming that they participate in a debate or two, this will require some level of cooperation. Does this mean that Bush supports the Kerry campaign?”

But what of the other part of the President’s statement? Did the “administration” ever say that the 9/11 attacks were “orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda?”

Well, just to quote a single Presidential “is” on the subject. Mimi Hall of USA Today notes: “In a letter to Congress on March 19, 2003 — the day the war in Iraq began — Bush said that the war was permitted under legislation authorizing force against those who ‘planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.'”

And, of course, even when he didn’t literally say so — and Fred Kaplan of Slate points out that the President was generally quite precise in the imprecision of his words — he constantly associated the two (as did the rest of his crew) even on the rare occasions when he seemed to admit that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. In last year’s State of the Union speech, for instance, with war looming he said: “Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans — this time armed by Saddam.”

His vice president is another matter, however. Unless, of course, you don’t consider Dick Cheney part of the “administration,” you might have to deal with quotes like this:

“In September, Cheney said on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’: ‘If we’re successful in Iraq . . . then we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.'”

By the way, it turns out the President didn’t offer his “spontaneous” responses at that post-cabinet-meeting press session in a completely “spontaneous” manner. He had a crib sheet, caught by happenstance in an AP photo, swiveled and blown up thanks to the wonders of modern technology and posted at a blog. According to Dan Froomkin’s invaluable White House Briefing column at the Washington Post, it said:

“Saddam Was A Threat —

“Sworn Enemy of US
“Destabilizing Force
“Volatile part of world
“Had Weapons of Mass D . . .

“Tied to terrorist orgs . . .”

Ho-hum. Same old, same old. Was was and is is. Oh, and just in case our President froze in that moment of spontaneous interchange while wondering exactly whom to call on to create that same same-old, same-old effect, he just happened to have a well-ordered list of reporters on that crib sheet, the first two of whom he called on before ending the session.
If you want to check out the al-Qaeda-ties case yet again, go to the Center for American Progress website. But, of course, on these ties, on WMD, on the effects of tax cuts, and on so many other subjects, you could go through this exercise of evidence and refutation until you were blue in the face and it might not matter at all. No matter what arguments are made, this administration just — to use Lobe’s word — brazenly reasserts what, in any other context, would seem to be obvious lies.

Each stunning refutation by someone who was there — David Kay on WMD; Terrorism Tsar Richard Clarke on the origins of the Iraq war, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill on the administration’s pre-9/11 lack of interest in al-Qaeda — and you think another lie has just crashed and burned. And yet, and yet

In my just-launched series of unnoticed-resemblances between the Bush and Reagan eras, let me note that our former President pioneered this method of asserting the reality he chose and then insistently reasserting it against all evidence. His Strategic Defense Initiative, a supposed missile defense system against massive nuclear attack, was perhaps the classic example of this. It was always a “high frontier” corporate boondoggle. But when its critics, who knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t fly, mockingly labeled it “Star Wars,” the President simply absorbed the term, adding charmingly, “The force is with us.” As the nation’s top weapons scientists and experts at MIT and elsewhere shot down one Star-Wars plan after another, the system simply morphed into new forms and the President reasserted his “vision.” And so it went. While Star Wars never made into the heavens, the moneys for versions of it flowed, and continue to flow, into corporate defense coffers. What Reagan showed was that this kind of a rope-a-dope response worked and it’s still in use.

In fact, in extremely aggressive form, it’s become the essence of this administration and has even recently gained pseudo-legal underpinnings. The legal memos on torture it sponsored essentially assert that reality is what the President, as commander-in-chief, insists it is, and neither Congress, nor the courts can interfere with his redefinition of reality as long as it happens in “wartime” — itself not even declared by Congress but defined as such by the President. As with the constant reassertions of al-Qaeda/Saddam ties, this administration simply insistes that reality be made to conform to its needs and that it will broach no interlopers in the process.

This obviously goes far beyond the matter of lies (where so many in opposition to this administration are stuck). It is an assertion about the nature of reality: The world is what we say it is and language is no object. As with all ruling groups, self-indoctrination undoubtedly plays a powerful role here. These inside-the-Beltway warriors have surely convinced themselves of the truths that lie at the heart of their self-proclaimed “war on terror.” It’s likely that few of them believe themselves to be lying on essential matters (though they may be perfectly aware that aspects of what they are saying represent “necessary” or tactical lies).

Add in another factor here, foregrounded once again by the 9/11 Commission’s recent staff report: As the World Trade Center was attacked, the President froze for seven excruciating on-camera minutes in a classroom at the Emma T. Booker elementary school in Florida. He continued to sit and listen to children read as events unfolded. (All seven minutes will be on view in Michael Moore’s new film, Fahrenheit 9/11, scheduled to open next week.) The President and his advisers then panicked amid the chaos and sent his plane on a wild series of hops west rather than north.

Now, the fact is you never know how you’ll react in a stressful situation. Anyone can freeze. But the President’s reaction had to be personally humiliating. I’ve always believed that it gave a special oomph to all the macho play-acting that followed (“Dead or alive,” “Mission accomplished,” “Bring ’em on!”). Much of it is, I suspect, compensatory. I’m willing to bet those seven minutes — which in the long run won’t be forgotten — continue to gnaw at George W. Bush and helped drive him personally into his war “mission” and then beyond all bounds.

The 9/11 Commission chairmen have now requested from the vice president in particular “any intelligence reports that would support the White House’s insistence that there was a close relationship between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda”; though Juan Cole comments, “Cheney as much as admitted that he gets his news on these things from the National Review, a rightwing magazine that is not known for having real experts on the Arab world, the sort who know Arabic and have lived there, on the staff.”

However the administration tries to duck this one, one thing is certain: All refutations of administration positions will be followed by administration reiterations of one sort or another. There is no question that the Bush administration has shown itself willing to go far indeed to make reality conform to its needs and has until recently been remarkably successful in doing so. Even now, with the media floodgates finally opening at least part way, much that is being reported doesn’t sink in. You would think, for instance, that a close relationship with the head of an organization which once set off car bombs in downtown Baghdad, a man whom we just elevated to prime minister of Iraq, might affect the reputation of a war-on-terror administration; but this revelation — on the front-page of the New York Times, no less — seems to have had no impact whatsoever.

Last week it was revealed that Donald Rumsfeld had ordered that an Iraqi prisoner held for months as a “ghost detainee,” and this caused a modest media rumpus. This detention, however, is but a snowflake on the tip of our detention iceberg. Instead of single ghost detainees — Human Rights Watch has identified at least 13 of these — we have whole ghost interrogation centers. As Reuters reported this week: “The United States is holding terrorism suspects in more than two dozen detention centers worldwide and about half of these operate in total secrecy, said a human rights report released on Thursday.” These detention centers range from Jordan to Pakistan, the island of Diego Garcia to aircraft carrier brigs. (The Human Rights First report, the most far-reaching account yet of our offshore mini-gulag, can be read by clicking here [warning: pdf file].)

So information is suddenly pouring out and the administration seems at the edge of imploding, but the question is: Will it make a difference or will the assertion of a different reality simply trump all else?

Let me end this disquisition with a fable from the fabulous pen of James Thurber. To my surprise, Thurber, though long dead, seems somehow to have channeled our moment. I’ve not seen this fable, which I recall from my childhood (and which appears in his 1940 book Fables of Our Time), quoted before in this context. It’s entitled “The Birds and the Foxes” and reads in full:

“Once upon a time there was a bird sanctuary in which hundreds of Baltimore orioles lived together happily. The refuge consisted of a forest entirely surrounded by a high wire fence. When it was put up, a pack of foxes who lived nearby protested that it was an arbitrary and unnatural boundary. However, they did nothing about it at the time because they were interested in civilizing the geese and ducks on the neighboring farms. When all the geese and ducks had been civilized, and there was nothing left to eat, the foxes once more turned their attention to the bird sanctuary. Their leader announced that there had once been foxes in the sanctuary but that they had been driven out. He proclaimed that Baltimore orioles belonged in Baltimore. He said, furthermore, that the orioles in the sanctuary were a continuous menace to the peace in the world. The other animals cautioned the foxes not to disturb the birds in their sanctuary.

“So the foxes attacked the sanctuary one night and tore down the fence that surrounded it. The orioles rushed out and were instantly killed and eaten by the foxes.

“The next day the leader of the foxes, a fox from whom God was receiving daily guidance, got upon the rostrum and addressed the other foxes. His message was simple and sublime. ‘You see before you,” he said, “another Lincoln. We have liberated all those birds!’

Moral: Government of the orioles, by the foxes, and for the foxes, must perish from the earth.

Now, let me turn from the world-devastating and significant to the waist-expanding and insignificant. and offer a tiny reminder that this administration and its various supporters are bending reality at every level to meet their needs.

The battered French fry

In the run up to war in Iraq, when the French opposed us, or rather when the Bush administration left the French no leeway whatsoever to clamber aboard their moving armada of tanks and missiles, the lowly but beloved French fry (known “over there” as a pomme frite) took a pounding as well. While our tabloid press declared the French to be “weasels,” or part of an “Axis of Weasels,” and the New York Post infamously superimposed weasel heads on a photo of French and German UN diplomats, our congressional representatives bravely went nuts, exhibiting what passes for “patriotism” by renaming French fries, “freedom fries,” in various of their cafeterias.
“This action today is a small, but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France,” Republican congressman Bob Ney of Ohio announced at the time. He was the chairman of the Committee on House Administration which held in trust the weighty burden of congressional fry oversight. (Never shirking the brave gesture, the White House gave the nod to the relabeling of French toast on the presidential plane, Air Force One. “Stuffed freedom toast” was, reported CNN, “a subtle slap at the French for helping to confound U.S. attempts to get the U.N. Security Council to authorize military force against Iraq White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, asked about the newly titled ‘Freedom toast,’ smiled and said, ‘We’re always proud of the men and women of our Air Force.'” In congressional cafeterias, the humble fry is to this day shorn of its proud Gallic heritage and continues to be served under its nom de guerre.

Lately, our President, watching his Iraq policy drop off a cliff, has moved to patch up relations with France, inviting Jacques Chirac to drop by the “ranch” in Crawford, Texas someday to see his toy cows and then bantering with him at Sea Island during the G-8 conference about cheeseburgers. It seems, however, that our own Agriculture Department foresaw this moment. In 2000, unbeknownst to anyone but the French-fry lobby (yes, Virginia, there is a French-fry lobby), it began upgrading one species of that humble edible, the much-battered, frozen fry. In that year, as Andrew Martin of the Chicago Tribune explains:

“The Frozen Potato Products Institute appealed to the USDA to change its definition of fresh produce under PACA to include batter-coated, frozen French fries, arguing that rolling potato slices in a starch coating, frying them and freezing them is the equivalent of waxing a cucumber or sweetening a strawberry. The USDA agreed and, on June 2, 2003, the agency amended its PACA rules to include what is described in court documents as the ‘Batter-Coating Rule.'”

PACA, by the way, was a law passed in the 1930s by Congress to protect fruit and vegetable farmers from being stiffed by deadbeat buyers. Recently, this hardly noticed Bush administration rule-change was challenged in a Texas court by a bankrupt frozen-fry company which didn’t want to pay creditors in full (as would have been necessary if the battered frozen fry were truly a fresh vegetable). U.S. Department of Agriculture lawyers fought back manfully. “While plaintiff argued that battered-coated French fries are processed products,” they claimed, “they have not been ‘processed’ to the point that they are no longer ‘fresh’It is still considered ‘fresh’ because it is not preserved. It retains its perishable quality.”

And, this being Texas, the judge agreed, ruling that the already battered and freezing fry should go to its death as a fresh vegetable. “U.S. District Judge Richard Schell said the term ‘fresh vegetables’ was ambiguous.” In this, though he probably didn’t know it, he was following an already well-beaten administration path. On rulings of far greater import, administration lawyers had privately advised the administration that words like “severe” or “profound” in definitions of torture were also ambiguous and so open to severe and profound redefinition in the service of the war-on-terrorism needs of top Bush officials.

As part of an attempted wholesale redefinition of reality, the modest redefinition of the frozen, battered fry isn’t even on a par with administration attempts to reclassify “fast food employment as a manufacturing job,” as first reported in the New York Times many months ago. (No offshore loss of manufacturing jobs under this administration, no sirree; just a lot of hardworking factory hands tossing previously frozen, heavily battered fresh vegetables for minimal wages at fast-food factories.)

As long as we’ve embarked on a path of redefining and renaming reality, and the courts are willing to back it up, I have a small suggestion for furthering the process and helping out an industry which certainly has at least as much to lose as the frozen-fry business and is far more deeply embedded in the Bush administration’s Agriculture Department. What about reclassifying beef? After all, most cows, raised in huge feedlots, no longer eat grass. They are now essentially vessels for American-grown corn (making this suggestion especially patriotic). So, if you first reimagine a cow as a corn vessel, then beef too could be relabeled as a “fresh vegetable” (though some might say, based on the level of drugs feedlot cattle are given, that it’s actually a “fresh chemical”). Imagine the advantages of this for the beef industry. The next time a case of mad-cow disease is discovered, it will have to be relabeled “mad vegetable disease,” taking enormous pressure off the business and off the need to do any further or more thorough testing of cattle.

All of this is obviously possible since, as Judge Schell ruled, the term “fresh vegetables” is an ambiguous one. Of course, for cows meant for the high-end market that are grass-fed and allowed to wander, it certainly wouldn’t be much of a stretch to create a new category (invented by a friend): free-range vegetables.

By the way, here’s another of those little similarities between the Bush and Reagan eras. In Reagan’s first term, that kindly man tried to reach out a helping redefinitional hand to schools that, as the Washington Post reported in September 1981, “provide free or reduced-price lunches to lower-income students as they try to deal with a $1 billion cut in federal support for the fiscal year.” The modest answer then was, in part, to create a cheaper lunch package under federal nutritional guidelines by reclassifying ketchup and relish as vegetables. As an aide to Agriculture Secretary John Block summarized it at the time, “‘There was a great misunderstanding in the land as to how these regulations are viewed. I think it would be a mistake to say that ketchup per se was classified as a vegetable . . . Ketchup in combination with other things was classified as a vegetable.’ What other things? he was asked. ‘French fries or hamburgers,’ he replied.”

Plus ça change. The only difference being that the Reagan administration, when faced with recalcitrant reality, as in the case of ketchup, sometimes backed down. The Bush administration just reasserts its reality and calls on the lawyers for confirmation.

From the mailbag

Last week I wrote a two-part dispatch on our global torture system — George Orwell meet Franz Kafka and Water-boarding at the White House — which generated a lot of strong reader response (though I wish there were a greater level of outrage in the land). I’m always appreciative of those who write in. I read everything and respond when I can (though, as I’m sure you’ll all understand, there are limits to my fast vanishing time). I thought for the rest of this dispatch I might dip into the e-mailbag and offer some examples of what’s recently come my way.

A military response

The following e-letter was from a retired Lieutenant Colonel who wrote me that he is considering rejoining the military and added, “Keep up the good work. You might save someone’s life by these efforts and that should count for something”:

“Read article [Waterboarding in the White House] with great interest. You are correct, more will come out.

“I am a retired Army officer and remember the issue of torture coming up in some class discussions. Gratefully, virtually all my peers felt torture to be dishonorable. I suspect that is still the case and many service members are hoping for the information to come out… lest they force the issue themselves. You would be surprised how disappointing this Administration is to the officer corps which is conservative to the bone.

“Your analogy to the Nazis is on point. This week’s suggestion that doctors withhold treatment to lawyers involved in malpractice fits the legal scenarios discussed. [To understand this reference click here.]

“In my Law of Land Warfare class, the legal officer opened by reminding us that everything Hitler and Stalin did was ‘legal.’ He pointed this out to make the participants understand that no legal opinion would get you out of a moral or legal problem that defies common sense and the judgment of humanity.

“While it is certain the Chickenhawks did not get this briefing, it appears not all senior officers got this far in their class work either.

“Too bad for all of us.”

His letter is a reminder that much is presently leaking out thanks to upset military and intelligence officials.

Under siege

Nick Turse, who writes on the military-industrial-entertainment complex for Tomdispatch and is an expert on the matter of war crimes, offered the following comment:

“One hundred and forty-one years ago, the United States was under siege. Not today’s alleged siege — isolated if horrendous attacks that took place years ago and a motley collection of supposed mall-bombers, dirty-bombers and “enemy combatants” (some of whom appear to have done nothing more than offend the sensibilities of John Ashcroft) — but a real siege from an army from a breakaway republic to the south marching northward for a showdown. We remember what the Bush administration did after 9/11 — rushed the Patriot Act through in the dead of night. What you might ask did the Lincoln administration do in the face of this threat?

“We all know Lincoln made liberal (if not wanton) use of his ‘war powers’ — did this also mean secret directives allowing for rebels to be subjected to all manner of imprisonment, degradation, or torture? No. What Lincoln did was commission legal scholar Francis Lieber to produce the first modern codified set of laws of war which were issued as U.S. Army general orders and became the foundation for modern international humanitarian law.

“In the face of the greatest internal security challenge the U.S. has ever faced, a comprehensive legal code was issued that plainly and unequivocally set forth the standards by which American troops were to act, including the following axioms: ‘Military necessity does not admit cruelty. nor torture to extort confessions’; ‘A prisoner of war is subject to no punishment for being a public enemy, nor is any revenge wreaked upon him by intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, mutilation, death or any barbarity’; and ‘Prisoners of war are subject to confinement and imprisonment, but they are to be subjected to no other intentional suffering or indignity. ..’ While these standards were not altruistic in origin, their pragmatism was still rooted in a powerful sense of morality and humanity and a realization that to protect the safety and dignity of one’s own personnel, one must extend the same basic human rights to one’s enemies.

“Of course, despite a long tradition of putting safeguards to paper, many, especially ethnic and racial Others, have long suffered as victims of real-world U.S. torturers. What was sinisterly called the “water cure” during the brutal U.S. suppression of Filipino independence at the turn of the twentieth century; and then the “water rag” treatment during the Vietnam War; has been rechristened “water boarding” today. Still, there is a fundamental difference between past and present. Once torture was a wink-and-nod affair with training often filed under the guise of learning about Soviet techniques and application promulgated and carried out in semi-secrecy by lower level military and intelligence officials. Today, torture has become the obsession of those at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”

Quotes from here and there

A reader sent in what he considers “the crucial quote” in the presidential green-lighting of all “necessary” acts in the “war on terror.” And indeed, though I missed this one, it is an exceedingly public wink-and-nod to assassination and other acts of every sort, coming as it did inthe President’s State of the Union address in late January 2003, on the very eve of war with Iraq:

“All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let’s put it this way — they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies. (Applause.)”

The reader adds:

“Everybody knew what he meant and the Congress of the United States applauded the president’s boast about murdering people in other countries without evidence, without trial, without even knowing if they were the right people being killed in a car by a remote-controlled drone. That’s when it really started, when permission for this came from the very top, ratified by a voice vote of the congress.”

He also points out that, at the time, most coverage ignored these lines with the honorable exception of columnist and JFK biographer Richard Reeves, who wrote A Foolish President Brags About Assassination on the subject.

Another reader sent in the following quote to give a little historical ballast to the discussion. This was evidently what passed for a joke in the eyes of former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who didn’t bother with legal briefs when he had crimes on the brain: “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” (the New York Times, Oct. 28, 1973)

On the Nazi analogy

Not surprisingly, my discussion of the rise of the “Nazi analogy” and comparisons of Neocon to Nazi lawyers brought in much comment. Bob Fertik of the website, a constantly changing treasure trove of articles, polls, and information, wrote the following:

“You’re right to compare the Neocon lawyers to the Nazi doctors. But you may be wrong here: ‘While this doesn’t reach the depths of those Nazi doctors.’

“Like the Nazi doctors, the Neocon lawyers were — knowingly or unknowingly — conducting an experiment of their own: What would happen if the laws against torture were all effectively repealed?

“So far, 37 deaths are under investigation; some can be linked to the Neocon legal experiment. Beyond that, we don’t know the full results yet because we haven’t tallied all the numbers or seen all the photos. We will also get more dry statistics from the various investigations that are underway. As for photos, [New Yorker reporter] Sy Hersh says he has seen some that the rest of us haven’t seen, and he’s pretty horrified.

“And speaking of photos… Remember when we learned there were ‘more photos’ but they were too shocking for ordinary Americans to see? We watched on TV as our elected representatives left the top-secret viewing room. They were visible shaken — but we never learned what they saw. Everyone assumed they would leak onto the internet, but they haven’t so far. When will the Washington press corps ask our representatives to describe what they saw?

“Back to the neocon lawyers… You missed the full scope of their strategy. Yes, they were defining torture to be mostly judgeable by the torturer. But what about those rare instances where the torture was “patent”? In those cases, the memos were effectively declaring that the Justice Dept would never prosecute — at least as long as Bush was president.

“But what about future presidents? The lawyers understood — and wrote — that the actions they were permitting might be considered crimes by a future administration. That meant the only way they could nullify future prosecutions was to control the courts. That’s probably why they appointed [Assistant Attorney General Jay S.] Bybee to the court of appeals and are trying to appoint [Pentagon general counsel, William J.] Haynes. Can Judge Bybee be impeached for his role in “legalizing” torture by US troops? This strikes me as a crucial question.

“Moreover, is there any way to punish the lawyers who wrote these memos? Is there a crime of conspiring to aid and abet war crimes, for which they can prosecuted? Can they be sued by the victims of the torture? Can they be disbarred?

“Finally, what if the key lawyers were members of the Federalist Society? If so, does that make the Federalist Society a criminal organization? It may be time for Americans to scrutinize the Federalist Society.

“In Nixon’s time, John Dean famously warned of “a cancer on the presidency.” There may now be a cancer on the rule of law — and Americans must seriously examine the question.”

Nazi lawyers

Charles Gittings wrote in, quoting this passage of mine from “Water-boarding in the White House”:

“And, I have to admit, just considering the Bush lawyers and their chilling documents, it’s hard not to think of those doctors who, as Robert Jay Lifton wrote so powerfully in The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, turned the pledge to heal into a commitment to murder in service to Hitler’s regime. The lawyerly equivalent would be, I suppose, the turning of a commitment to uphold justice into the protection from prosecution of those who administer pain for our regime.”
Gittings simply suggested that readers go to a website. It was his way of reminding us that there were Nazi lawyers and judges too and that they were tried at Nuremberg after the war: The Justice Trial, United States of America v. Alstötter et al. (“The Justice Case”) 3 T.W.C. 1 (1948), 6 L.R.T.W.C. 1 (1948), 14 Ann. Dig. 278 (1948)

He adds:

“There’s another case that comes into play here also — the Uchiyama case (warning: pdf file). For that, see Evan J. Wallach, Afghanistan, Quirin, and Uchiyama: Does the Sauce Suit the Gander?, Army Law., November 2003, at 18:

“Id at 45: In United States v. Uchiyama, a U.S. military commission tried those Japanese officials involved in the Japanese military commission, which tried two captured American who participated in the carpet bombing of Kobe and Osaka. In the bombing raid, the Americans inflicted heavy civilian casualties. The Japanese military commission tried the Americans, and convicted and then executed them. Those officials included the commanding general of the Japanese Fifteenth Area Army, his chief of staff, his judicial officer, the three members of the Japanese commission, the prosecutor, and the executioner. The prosecution’s opening statement before that U.S. commission is significant.

“‘We are now charging the accused with having failed to have applied to these prisoners of war the type of procedure that they were entitled to. In other words they applied to them a special type of summary procedure which failed to afford them the minimum safeguards for the guarantee of their fundamental rights which were given them both by the written and customary laws of war.'”

At heart it was hubris

Lynn Miles offers an interesting view of recent developments. He wonders where responsibility really lies:

“Re. Orwell Meet Kafka, you write, ‘And talk about paper trails! If you need any evidence of the combination of arrogance, incompetence, and plain stupidity of the Bush administration, it now sits unavoidably before our eyes. Didn’t they know anything about deniability? Didn’t they know that you can get so much done without committing anything to paper?’

“But I think you have put the answers before the questions. Of course they did not know, because they were blinded by hubris. They were duped by their own success — momentary, fleeting, of this world. They were so high on getting a free ride from the media, that ‘anything goes’ became the imperial mantra of the time.

“What has changed is not in whatever a Tom Engelhardt might write or an Amy Goodman might say, but in what now gets revealed as matter of course (which is to say, in their eyes “newsworthy”) in the NYT [New York Times], WP [Washington Post], and WSJ [Wall Street Journal]. Cracks are appearing all over the place, in what not too long ago must have appeared to the Bush League as a homogeneous and solid front.

“Therefore, the question is much broader than just that suggested by the paper trail showing top-to-bottom complicity in an Amnesty International advertising horror story going back well over a year. It goes much further than torture, abuse, ignoring the Geneva Conventions and so on. In all things, especially dating from September 11, 2001, the Bush League must have seen themselves as quite above the law.

“It is the Ozymandius complex writ global. It is empire, and the ideologues among them make no bones about it. Might makes right, and if it doesn’t then, So what? Flip the world the finger and see what they can do about it. ‘King of Kings, oh ye mighty, look on my money and despair!’

“Call it conspiracy or call it just nuts, but for this to happen required the collusion, abject and heartless support through just plain doing nothing or not speaking out, impotent surrender, and willful turning of a blind eye on the parts of millions of people. Had it been a handful only, all of this would not have happened.

“For me, then, the question comes down to whether Bush is more the cause or more the effect, more the victim or more the victimizer.”


Bob Donatelle reminds us that the al-Qaeda monolith is also a fantasy:

“Just a comment on ‘Al-Qaida.’ Al-Qaida is just a way of saying: Whoever all over the world hates the USA enough to commit attacks on the USA — we will call Al-Qaida

“And as far as Al-Qaida ‘taking responsibility’ for various attacks let us be aware that those who took responsibility could have been anyone with a fax machine. Calling these nebulous, amorphous groups “Al-Qaida” is very much as if all of the people who have urged
the USA to attack Iraq were given the name: “Al-Neocon-da”

Unthinkable acts

Julie Whitcomb writes:

“I have read your posts regularly for some while, but this is the first time I stopped halfway through to weep. I don’t want to believe it possible that even this administration, which I loath, could have sanctioned torturing children. And yet, it seems we must acknowledge that such unthinkable acts have been committed in all of our names.

“I am in agreement with those who believe invoking the Holocaust too readily trivializes the realities and the lessons of the Holocaust. I have strong feelings on this matter, in part because I worked at the Red Cross for a number of years with and for Holocaust survivors. I assure you that the Holocaust does not feel like history when you are sharing lunch with someone who still bears the Nazi brand on his skin from his days in Auschwitz. Neither does the Holocaust seem so very distant when one is responsible for uncovering, one by one, the fate of thousands who were tormented and killed by the Nazis.

“I never imagined, though, that I would have occasion to think of Nazis and my government in the same mental sentence. Now I do. Of course the scale of atrocities is different, but then again, the never-ending war on terror has just begun, and we are not yet as afraid as we will be if we are struck again on American soil. How telling that this administration so quickly reached such depths of depravity.

“What shames me as well, though is that my fellow Americans are not on the march by the millions right now to DC, to anywhere, to any street corner, to shout, ‘Not in my name, war criminals. I want my democracy back now before it is too late.’ To stay silent in face of such evil is to be complicit. What we are witnessing, largely without significant protest, is a catastrophe. How Holocaust survivors in particular must be despairing at this terrible moment.”