Thursday, March 29, 2007

I Was Framed

"Media framing" is a vague term which refers to the various methods corporate-owned news organs use to set the parameters of our political debate and define reality. Considering how thoroughly mass media saturate most Americans' daily lives, no topic is more critical to the functioning of current American politics and American democracy. The problem is that most Americans don't understand the term. Media framing reamains an ambiguous abstraction to the people most affected by it.

However, a perfect illustration of what media framing is and how it works is offered by the pulling down during the early days of the Iraq War of the huge statue of Saddam Hussein that used to stand in Baghdad's central square. American and British viewers watched with rapt attention as an ecstatic crowd of celebrating Iraqis mobbed the square and helped American troops pull the statue off its pedestal, then showered it with abuse before demolishing it with hammers. That's what we saw on CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, and all the major networks, with newspaper photos and stories echoing the TV event the next day.

The problem is, it didn't happen. Aerial photos of the event show a mostly empty square with a few dozen Iraqis clustered near the statue, which is being pulled off its pedestal by an American tank. Most of those present were American soldiers, and some of the Iraqis were later identified as paid shils in the employ of Ahmed Chalabi, an American-backed Iraqi politician and financier. The event was a military public relations exercise, and the corporate media allowed itself to be used as the primary vehicle of deception.

In this case, "media framing" refers to a literal picture frame -- by drawing the frame as closely as possible to the back of the "crowd," the corporate media conveyed the false impression that the huge square was thronged with Iraqis euphorically greeting their liberators. The truth could only be communicated by drawing the frame from farther away, something the embedded cameramen traveling with their U.S. Army tenders prudently avoided doing.

It's no exaggeration to say that if we don't understand media framing, we can't understand how or why the American political system is tilted toward the right. One of the most prolific and critical students of the American mass media, Norman Solomon, said in his 1994 book, False Hope, "Today's dominant news media are good at repeatedly covering the same ground, carefully avoiding much exploration beyond the sanctioned boundaries. A narrow band of terrain is trod as if it were the universe of ideas. We may get used to equating what is familiar with what is objective; what is usual with what is balanced; what is repeatedly asserted with what is true. All the while, enthroned pundits fill the airwaves with nonstop droning that offers little diversity. As with broadcasts, so with print: Newsstands display dozens of papers and magazines, endlessly repetitious and confined."

And exactly where is this "narrow band of terrain" Solomon refers to located? Who sets the "sanctioned boundaries" he claims monitor and limit our political discourse? If we answer that NBC is owned by General Electric, ABC by Disney, and CBS by the Westinghouse Corporation, does that help define the boundaries of the frame which circumscribes our political life?

One need look no further than the critical presidential election of 2000 to understand the disastrous effect right-wing media framing has had on American life and politics. During that campaign, the supposedly "objective" media continually portrayed Albert Gore as a bumbling and dishonest clown, while his opponent Bush was generally characterized as a regular guy and a "different kind of Republican."

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review during the fall 2000 campaign season, Jane Hall noted that "Gore's motives are frequently questioned, frequently framed in the most negative light -- even in the lead of straight-news stories from some of the most respected and influential news organizations. When Gore made an economic proposal for tax relief, The Washington Post said in the lead that Gore 'muscled in on the debate' as the Republican-controlled Senate approved its multibillion-dollar tax plan...In contrast, Bush's proposals are not only treated straight, as they should be, in straight-news stories: he's often been given the benefit of the doubt on subjects where he could be vulnerable."

Hall cited a Pew Research Center survey of that year's press coverage which concluded that "The press has been far more likely to convey that Bush is a different kind of Republican -- 'a compassionate conservative,' a reformer, bipartisan -- than to discuss Al Gore's themes of experience, knowledge, or readiness for the office."

The best post-mortem of the media lynching of Gore's campaign, by Eric Boehlert, ran in the December 6, 2001 Rolling Stone. Boehlert cites dozens of examples how of Republican talking points about Gore metamorphosed into essential elements of the mass media framing of the campaign. To cite one example:

"In 1999, candidate Gore was taping an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer in which he said, 'During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.' He was no doubt referring to his landmark 'information superhighway' speeches, as well as his well-known support of high-tech research that stretched back into the 1980s. (For the record, Vinton Cerf, often called 'the father of the Internet,' not to mention futurist Newt Gingrich, have both publicly vouched for Gore's role in helping to shepherd the Internet to life.)

"So who coined the phrase 'invented the Internet' and attached it to Gore? His Republican opponents, who faxed out a press release suggesting Gore had claimed to have done exactly that.

"It's no surprise that GOP operatives would willfully misinterpret a statement from a Democratic presidential candidate. What's amazing is that the press went along with it so uncritically. Was it accurate? The press didn't care, as virtually every major media outlet in the country followed the Republican lead and reported over and over again Gore's claim to have invented the Internet."

Despite the media framing his campaign in a manner which was nothing short of sabotage, Gore managed to eke out a razor-thin victory in the general election, but it was nullified by an unprecedented Supreme Court action which drew surprisingly little media coverage.

As we enter the 2008 campaign season, we need to bring this issue to the top of our agenda, not just because we may favor one candidate over another, but because the very nature of our lives is diminished by corporate control of public perception. Norman Solomon quotes Alduous Huxley's introduction to "Brave New World," which contains a description of the terrible vulnerability of American public life today: ""A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude."

Do we love our mass media? They do have the virtue of turning the world into a show which exists only to entertain us. The first Gulf War, after all, was the first to have its own television theme music. But the price is too high, and the time has come to recall the Who's lyric, "Just like yesterday, I'll get on my knees and pray we don't get fooled again."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Heart of Darkness

Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged against provisions against danger, real or pretended from abroad.

--James Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, May 13, 1798

A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
--Madison in a letter to W.T. Barry, August 4, 1822,

The fourth U.S. president and primary author of articles I through VII of the Constitution was an avid student of history, and fully familiar with tyrants' tendencies to use foreign threats as a pretext for the suppression of their own people and persecution of their political enemies. He also knew the dangers raised by government secrecy -- secret trials, secret imprisonments, secret police, secret policies, and secret expenditures.

To the extent that we've forgotten both Madison and his warnings, his worst fears have been realized, and his precious Constitution has been trashed and relegated to the museum of political artifacts, only to be replaced by the executive dictatorship Madison and the other founders feared and worked tirelessly to try to prevent.

Nowhere is the reach and scope of this dictatorship more evident than in the "black" budgets of agencies under the control of the executive branch -- the CIA, the FBI, the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), the NSA (National Security Agency), FEMA, and many programs undertaken by the Pentagon, over which the Department of Defense presides and the president is commander in chief.

For example, when Congress votes annually to approve the CIA budget, its members have no idea what they're approving, since the amount disbursed and the purposes to which it is put are both top secret, in spite of the Constitution's admonition that "a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time" (Article I, Section 9, paragraph 7)(emphasis mine). "Congressional oversight of the agency," declares author and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson, " at best a theatrical performance designed to distract and mislead the few Americans left who are concerned about constitutional government."

The total size of the black budgets of these various agencies is hard to estimate, since funds appropriated to departments other than Defense are sometimes funneled to secret programs. But Las Vegas Sun reporter Lisa Mascara, in a February, 2007 article maintained that "As military spending has come to dominate the Bush budget since the 9/11 attacks, the amount of money being funneled to the black budget has risen sharply. Experts believe that $45 billion will flow this year into the secret budget, to pay for, among other things, secret weapons systems and some of the U.S. intelligence community's 16 agencies."

An overview of the $45 billion flowing into black programs seems to indicate that most of these secret expenditures serve three possible purposes. First, the main activities of the intelligence agencies are spying (the NSA electronic eavesdropping program comes to mind) and covert activities such as assassination, sabotage, and support of client governments and their militaries overseas. Secondly, the purpose behind the secrecy of much of the Pentagon budget appears to be directed at hiding large-scale corruption. Finally, there is wide-ranging speculation, difficult to prove, that the growing black budget of FEMA is directed toward organizing the apparatus of a "shadow" government, one that could seamlessly transition to running the country and controlling the U.S. population in the event of an emergency such as, for example, declaration of martial law.

In its March 16 issue, the Los Angeles Free Press ran an article on U.S. detention camps, built for FEMA over the last few years by Halliburton, mostly in the western states, and currently standing empty. Whether the Bush administration has specific plans for these camps is unknown, but their existence has been confirmed by eyewitnesses, and as the paper reported, "FEMA's budget for dealing with (natural) disasters is in the millions, but its total annual budget is billions." The bulk of this budget is secret, and the article also notes that FEMA is beyond the reach of congressional supervision or oversight because the agency was created by a series of executive orders rather than the normal channel of legislation.

Probably the lion's share of the black budgets' money goes for secret weapons programs, many of which are associated with Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program, later redesignated as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and whose existence seems to serve no other purpose than simple theft of government funds. In his latest book, "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic," Chalmers Johnson asks, "Did the Bush administration and its Republican associates in Congress actually intend to build a missile defense system or were they only interested in a plausile public relations cover for using the defense budget to funnel huge amounts of money to military industrial aerospace corporations?" Calling secret weapons programs "a nearly perfect setting for official corruption," Johnson maintains that "the military-industrial complex (is) meshing with powerful congressional lobbies that want to bring space-oriented industries to their districts and perpetuate their own safe seats in Congress..."

The financing of secret intelligence programs is probably the aspect of black budget fundings the public is most familiar with, and since the current administration seized power with the connivance of the Supreme Court in 2001, the number and scope of these programs has increased significantly. One need only recall the public shock that greeted revelation of the NSA's new electronic eavesdropping programs, news of which dominated the media recently. Even though it has faded from the headlines, NSA's secret and illegal spying on Americans has not been curtailed, and we have now learned that a number of its efforts have been contracted out to private companies. A diarist at DailyKos notes that "One of the most important of these corporations is Vertint, an Israel-based electronic communications surveillance outfit, which in alliance with VeriSign, the operator of the .com, .net, and .edu registries, monitors most of the sites on the World Wide Web." In fact, says the diarist Leveymg, "If you're viewing this article on a, NETDISCOVERY -- the Internet surveillance system developed jointly by Verint and VeriSign -- is monitoring your on-line experience at this very moment."

I'd only add that if you're reading this in print form, your activity is probably not being monitored, but a copy of the newspaper has already been filed away in a "suspicious activities" folder somewhere in the bowels of the FBI, and its contents entered into a database of potentially subversive opinion. But where is the Constitutional authority authorizing the cataloging of suspicious activities and the multi-billion dollar black budgets? It doesn't exist, of course, and we can only sadly conclude that the Constitution is no longer "the law of the land," as it declares itself to be.

It's time to give the country a new name, for this is no longer the United States we read about in the history books. It's now nothing more than a military dictatorship, ruled by secrecy, shot through with corruption, and haunted by paranoid obsessions. I just can't think of what a good name would be.

Scooter and Albert

When we watch movies, we never have any doubts about who the stars are. And if we do, we can remove such doubts by watching the credits roll by. The stars' names fill the whole screen, while the subordinate actors are listed in small print, under the title "with," like so many small potatoes.

Considering all the ink spilled over the last few months on Scooter Libby and Alberto Gonzales, we might be forgiven for thinking they're big stars in the political smackdown movie we've been watching the past six years. But as Josh Marshall points out at TPM, and Atrios echoes, the real perps of the executive crime spree we're witnessing aren't the bit players and water boys, but the guys at the top.

Libby's function was to carry out a campaign of retribution and personal sabotage that grew out of Dick Cheney's obsession with Joe Wilson's revelation of the administration's lies about Iraqi WMD. Cheney, who kept a copy of Wilson's New York Times op-ed under the glass on his desk, was the pistol, and Libby was simply the bullet.

It's now become obvious that Al Gonzales was following Bush's direct orders when he ordered the firing of the eight U.S. Attorneys.

Getting rid of bit players like Scooter and Albert accomplishes nothing. When the corporate media run hundreds of column feet on guys like this, and expend days of air time analyzing the minutiae of the activities of spear carriers, they're playing their old game of distracting us from the root of the problem. They're giving us appetizers, not a meal.

To hell with canapes. I want a steak.

If Congress doesn't have enough ammo to impeach these guys, what will it take? Welcome to Deadwood, where government is just another criminal enterprise.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Political Movie

"No Such Thing as a Live Sardine" airs on HBO tonight at 8:00, and tells how Ned Sharputnik (Gilbert Smeavy), a well-intentioned but hapless Florida dolphin rancher, journeys to Vegas to attend YearlyKos. But when Ned and his new acquaintance, Brie Vetch (Samantha Popkin), a dyslexic baritone horn player in a Vegas pit orchestra, accidentally stumble across a gang of Russian seafood smugglers with ties to the Funetti crime family and try to plant satellite tracking devices on the bad guys themselves, mayhem ensues. Also stars Alan Emerick, Suzin J. Swerdlow, N'ding Mgobu as "Mr. Chodish," and Joel Putz.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Gas, Oil, and Conspiracy

We've commented here and at the Los Angeles Free Press (dot com) on the new Iraqi hydrocarbons law, which will award the lion's share of revenue from oil exploitation in Iraq to Exxon, B.P. and Royal Dutch Shell for the forseeable future. This is assuming, of course, that the corporate giants are actually able to extract and transport the stuff, considering that oil infrastructure is notoriously vulnerable to sabotage.

But Greg Palast's latest commentary on this topic raises the possibility that the oil giants are more interested in keeping Iraqi oil in the ground and off the market than they are in refining and selling it. In his May 20 post at Axis of Logic, Palast says:

"The war has kept Iraq’s oil production to 2.1 million barrels a day from pre-war, pre-embargo production of over 4 million barrels. In the oil game, that’s a lot to lose. In fact, the loss of Iraq’s 2 million barrels a day is equal to the entire planet’s reserve production capacity.

"In other words, the war has caused a hell of a supply squeeze — and Big Oil just loves it. Oil today is $57 a barrel versus the $18 a barrel price under Bill 'Love-Not-War' Clinton."


"And that was the plan: putting a new floor under the price of oil. I have that in writing. In 2005, after a two-year battle with the State and Defense Departments, they released to my team at BBC Newsnight the 'Options for a Sustainable Iraqi Oil Industry.' Now, you might think our government shouldn’t be writing a plan for another nation’s oil. Well, our government didn’t write it, despite the State Department seal on the cover. In fact, we discovered that the 323-page plan was drafted in Houston by oil industry executives and consultants.

"The suspicion is that Bush went to war to get Iraq’s oil. That’s not true. The document, and secret recordings of those in on the scheme, made it clear that the Administration wanted to make certain America did not get the oil. In other words, keep the lid on Iraq’s oil production — and thereby keep the price of oil high."

Historical evidence supports Palast's contention that big oil deliberately limits supplies in order to raise prices and profits. In September of 2005, World Net Daily reported that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, oil refinery production fell, but the price per gallon of gasoline spiked and the refineries made three times as much per gallon as they did before the hurricane. Their profits were higher, even though they were doing less work and producing less product.

So far from being a failure and a debacle, with big oil's pet hydrocarbons windfall law about to be passed by the Iraqi Parliament, the Iraq War is on the verge of coughing up the anticipated jackpot. Greg Palast concludes that "the war has gone exactly to plan — the Houston plan. So forget the naïve cloth-rending about a conflict gone haywire. Exxon-Mobil reported a record $10 billion profit last quarter, the largest of any corporation in history. Mission Accomplished."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Khalid Sheikh Yerbouti

In 1979 Frank Zappa dressed up like a member of the Saudi royal family to have his photo taken for his new album, "Sheikh Yerbouti." One of the songs it featured, "I'm So Cute," has now been sung by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, whose comprehensive confession to every terrorist act ever committed has made fools of the Bush regime (if that's possible) and cast in sharp relief the credulity and fanaticism of people stupid enough to be snookered by this Soviet-style farce.

Stalin's show trials of the 30's were the same kind of exercise. Paul Craig Roberts recalls a conversation he had years ago with Stalin survior Vladimir Bukovsky, "about the behavior of Soviet dissidents under torture. He (told Roberts) that people pressed for names under torture would try to remember the names of war dead and people who had passed away. Those who retained enough of their wits under torture would confess to an unbelievable array of crimes in an effort to alert the public to the falsity of the entire process."

Mohammed signaled that he's pulling our chain by confessing to participation in or planning 31 terror plots, including blowing up the Panama Canal, and assassinating Presidents Clinton and Carter as well as the Pope. Katherine Shrader of the Associated Press wrote that the torture masters who extracted Mohammed’s confession don't believe it.

"(W)hy is it today" asks Anthony D'Amato of Northwestern University Law School, "that no one draws the connection between the Soviet purge trials and the confession of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? Mohammed said that he had been tortured by his American captors. No one contradicted his assertion. Then he went on, with a straight and sincere face, to take responsibility for a long list of crimes..."


"This person really got around;" D'Amato continues, "you’ve got to give him credit for that. Maybe he had a job as a chef aboard Air Force One; he didn’t say. But he did manage to get all the way to Bali, Indonesia, where he supervised the infamous nightclub bombing that killed many British and Australian nationals."

We might be forgiven for asking, "What's the point?" Why is the regime going to the trouble of concocting a ridiculous and impossible narrative, shopped by the credulous and sold to the gullible? Why do they have to create this counterfeit Beelzebub?

D'Amato again: "The most important part of the Mohammed story is yet to make the headlines. Despite having held and tortured hundreds of detainees for years in Gitmo, and we don’t know how many more in secret prisons around the world, the US government has come up with only 14 'high value detainees.'

"In other words, the government has nothing on 99 percent of the detainees who allegedly are so dangerous and wicked that they must be kept in detention without charges, access to attorneys and contact with families."

What we're looking at here is really the essence of fascism. Caring nothing about objective truth, the fascist is by nature and inclination a blind follower, and wants to be told what to think. Having assumed a position of abject obedience to the Beloved Leader, such a person is willing to believe that the earth is flat, that water runs uphill, and that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did everything he confessed to.

This case, and the regime's need to focus publicity on what is obviously a crude farce, directs us to study the essence of fascism. It's only by understanding that essence that we can come to know how we got to be as dumb as we are now.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

"Bong Hits 4 Jesus" Case Going to Supreme Court (Updated)

The "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case is going to the Supreme Court.

Five years ago Joe Frederick, a high school senior in Juneau, Alaska, made a 14-foot paper banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" and displayed it with the help of some of his friends at a parade on the street in front of his school. He did it for attention, saying he wanted media coverage, and also wanted to piss off his principal. He achieved both objectives.

According to an ABC News story, "Principal Deborah Morse, who had previously disciplined Frederick for other acts of protest, confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick, sparking a feud that has gone all the way to the Supreme Court."

The ACLU and other free speech advocates fear that when the current version of the Supreme Court takes up this case on Monday, March 19, they might be inclined to revise the Tinker vs. Des Moines ruling of 1969, in which Mary Beth Tinker, a 13-year-old junior high school student, was exonerated after being suspended by school authorities for wearing a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War.

That case ended with a majority of the justices declaring that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Tinker, now 54, remains an involved advocate of students' rights and is in touch with Joseph Frederick. She says she will be in court this Monday as an "active observer." For his part, Frederick, now 23 and teaching English in China, says he first saw the offending phrase on a snowboard, and believes it is meaningless. He still feels his 15-day suspension from school for displaying the banner was unfair.

Nobody disputes that there was bad blood between the student and the principal. Previous to the banner incident, Morse had called police to remove Frederick from a school common area he refused to leave, and the following day he refused to stand in class for the pledge of allegience.

Morse still defends her suspension of Frederick, even though the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared it illegal and held her personally liable. Her brief to the Supreme Court says in part that the Ninth Circuit ruling undermines "the vital task of teachers, administrators and volunteer school board members in attending holistically to the needs...students their charge."

"Holistic" is a favored bit of contemporary academic jargon, sometimes used as a justification for repression, speech control, mind control, and thought policing.

The high-profile case has drawn in several significant legal players, and Morse's defense, besides being buttressed by lawyers from the National Association of School Boards, has received an offer of pro bono assistance from Kenneth Starr, America's favorite goody two-shoes.

Frederick is represented by lawyers from the ACLU, among others. The ABC story notes that "Steve R. Shapiro, legal director at the ACLU, argued Frederick's protest was not at school and is therefore not a case of student free speech.

"'They didn't like what he said, and the thought he wanted to convey, and it was censored,' said Shapiro. 'That would permit schools to censor student speech whenever they chose to and completely unravel the Court's understanding of the last 40 years.'"

However since the 1969 Tinker decision, the court has issued rulings which more strictly limit the protection of student speech. The most significant was the Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier case, in which a student newspaper article featuring interviews with students who had become pregnant was censored by the school's principal. Even though the paper's editors did not use the girls' real names, the principal argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that their identity was not sufficiently secured by the simple expedient of fictional names.

Previewing the Frederick case, Martha Minow, a Harvard Law School professor, says "The student has a better case than the school, but the trend of the Supreme Court has been toward curbing student speech and increasing deference to school administrators. If the school district wins here, it could have important ramifications."

UPDATE: The New York Times's Linda Greenhouse yesterday reported a bizarre twist in this case which has united the efforts of the ACLU with religious right groups such as Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice.

When the Supreme Court begins hearing evidence in the Frederick case today, it will encounter an "array of briefs from organizations that litigate and speak on behalf of the religious right that has lifted Morse v. Frederick out of the realm of the ordinary," Greenhouse says.

This is happening because the name of Jesus appeared on Frederick's banner, and because dedicated Christians often feel they are a repressed minority in public institutions, which a spokesman for Robertson's group says "face a constant temptation to impose a suffocating blanket of political correctness upon the educational atmosphere."

Greenhouse reports that "(The) Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit law firm 'dedicated to the preservation of First Amendment rights and religious freedom' and based in Plano, Texas told the justices in its brief that it was 'gravely concerned that the religious freedom of students in public schools will be damaged' if the court rules for the school board.

"Lawyers on Mr. Frederick’s side offer a straightforward explanation for the strange-bedfellows aspect of the case. 'The status of being a dissident unites dissidents on either side,' said Prof. Douglas Laycock of the University of Michigan Law School, an authority on constitutional issues involving religion who worked on Liberty Legal Institute’s brief."

Freedom of speech issues combine some very strange bedfellows, united in this case against the Bush administration, which has entered the case on the side of Principal Morse and the Juneau School Board. They will be represented in court, Greenhouse reports, by Kenneth Starr.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Class Act

Dennis Perrin's essay yesterday at Red State Son was an absolute masterpiece. It's short, but concentrated and flawlessly composed.

The topic is the social and class implications of Vogue model Naomi Campbell's upcoming community service/janitorial gig, which was the sentence the court imposed after she clobbered her maid with a blackberry.

Just think of the political ramifications of seeing Donald Trump down on his knees cleaning a toilet. Imagine Hillary Clinton washing your car, or Al Gore doing the mow and blow on your yard.

Perrin says, "Now if we can hand mops to all of those bored-looking, rich white assholes who appear in the front pages of Vanity Fair every month, we might get a decent trend going. Wouldn't you like to see the Trumps scrubbing dirty tile with toothbrushes? I'm sure Rosie O'Donnell would."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Under Scrutiny

On March 8 when the Justice Department's Inspector General, Glenn A. Fine, issued a damning 126-page report detailing massive wholesale recent violations in FBI surveillance on American citizens, Department higher-ups moved quickly to limit the damage.

Fine's audit showed that for the last three years, and using the USA Patriot Act as cover, the FBI has neglected to tell Congress or anyone else how often or to what extent it used so-called "national security letters" to demand that phone companies, banks, credit bureaus and internet providers surrender detailed customer data to the Bureau's scrutiny. These letters are administrative subpoenas that do not require a judge's approval.

The report also showed that in many cases, FBI agents requested data from companies without any authorization from their superiors whatsoever.

FBI Director Robert Mueller immediately apologized to Americans in general and Congress in particular, but at the same time tried to characterize the gross violations of citizens' privacy as systemic glitches. He said many of the "problems" were being "fixed," that the Bureau was building a better internal data collection system (i.e., blaming the computer programmer) and training employees on the limits of their authority. But he went on to say he was personally responsible for the "mistakes" in an attempt to defuse Congressional anger.

"(T)his was very upsetting to me," Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales assured incensed members of Congress, particularly those on the Senate Judiciary committee, adding, "And it's frustrating. We have some work to do to reassure members of Congress and the American people that we are serious about being responsible in the exercise of these (Patriot Act) authorities," Gonzales said, opting for profound understatement as the safest escape route.

However, the American Civil Liberties Union is letting neither Gonzales nor Mueller off the hook so easily. The day Fine's report was released, the ACLU responded on its website that "Claims that the FBI’s reported Patriot Act abuses were the 'unintentional' result of outmoded computer systems and human error are not credible," and cited evidence showing that agents contracted with phone companies to release customer records to the Bureau, then later tried to cover up those illegal requests.

"The report also shows that the FBI is issuing hundreds of thousands more National Security Letters than ever imagined," the ACLU response continues, "and that tracking of the NSLs is sloppy, resulting in thousands of innocent Americans being entered into databases" that are shared among numerous intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and even with some foreign governments.

"It seems that every time the American people entrust the Bush administration with some new power, it not only abuses that power but also seizes additional powers without our knowledge," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "It is long past time for Congress to take back the civil liberties of the American people and right these wrongs. The Attorney General and the FBI are part of the problem and cannot be trusted to be the only solution."

National Security Letters: How They Work

The Patriot Act includes a "National Security Letter" provision that authorizes the FBI to demand records from any business, credit bureau or agency such as a school without court approval. Anyone receiving one of these letters is at the same time forbidden to tell anyone about it, and required to turn over personal information in secret.

The Patriot Act, authorized in 2001, has relaxed formerly stringent restrictions on the FBI's use of this power, and the number of NSL's issued each year has increased astronomically. According to the ACLU, "While reports previously indicated a hundred-fold increase to 30,000 NSLs issued annually, the extraordinary March 2007 report from the Justice Department's own Inspector General puts the actual number at over 143,000 NSLs issued between 2003 and 2005. This was the same investigation which also found serious FBI abuses of regulations and numerous potential violations of the law."

The ACLU challenged the particular Patriot Act statute dealing with national security letters in court with two cases, one involving an internet service provider, and in another representing a group of concerned librarians. In both cases, the judges ruled that the gag rule preventing business and agencies from telling their clients they were the subjects of investigation were unconstitutional. But the abuses continue, and will continue unless the FBI and Gonzales's Justice Department are forced to back off. Repeal of the Patriot Act seems in order.

Even if the FBI scales back its use of these secret letters, they will, unless the law is abolished or amended, still be able to snoop into your most private affairs if you are a "person of interest" to them. They can monitor the numbers of every person you call or who calls you, find out who you owe money to and how much, compile a record of every internet site you visit as well as listing all your incoming and outgoing e-mails, scrutinize your checking account activity, and even determine if you've taken any "subversive" university courses or checked out a copy of of Osama bin Laden's 1996 "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places" from your local library.

"It's up to Congress to end these abuses as soon as possible," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the long-time Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The Patriot Act was never intended to allow the Bush administration to violate fundamental constitutional rights."

And Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican member on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Inspector General Fine's audit indicates "a major failure by Justice to uphold the law," adding, "If the Justice Department is going to enforce the law, it must follow it as well."

Hoekstra's words are a reminder of the pointed observation made by the long-time veteran of the Soviet Gulag concentration camps, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who once said that "Any country that doesn't follow it's own laws is doomed."

Friday, March 09, 2007

All Our Base Are Belong to Us

In February of 2005, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I can assure you that we have no intention at the present time of putting permanent bases in Iraq.” But Rumsfeld was contradicting un-named “senior Bush administration officials” who had told the New York Times two years earlier that the U.S. plans to establish “a long-term military relationship with the emerging government of Iraq, one that would grant the Pentagon access to military bases and project American influence into the heart of the region.”

And a full year before Rumsfeld’s testimony, the Chicago Tribune reported that the U.S. was planning to build 14 mortar-proof “enduring bases” in Iraq (“enduring” due to the desire to avoid use of the word “permanent”).

As with many developments in Iraq, the top levels of the Bush administration have one story for TV news consumers, while military and lower-level government officials give us the real one, which is then buried on page eight. The real story in this case is that we’re not planning to withdraw from Iraq any time in the foreseeable future, but to “consolidate” the American occupation in four or five permanent fortified bases from which our troops can guard the region, the Iraqi government, and the anticipated oil supply.

These permanent American bases will be the equivalent of a Mideastern regional Fort Apache, as well as replacements for the bases we were forced to give up in Saudi Arabia in 2003, after Osama bin Laden, on 9/11/01, made good on the promise he made in his 1996 “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”

In his book “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,” Chalmers Johnson quotes Newsweek reporter Joshua Hammer who has intensively studied the government-let contracts in Iraq, and found that in addition to the seven billions awarded to Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) in 2003, “it has received another $8.5 billion for work associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom…(and) the largest sum -- at least $4.5 billion -- has gone to construction and maintenance of U.S. bases.”

Any visitor to Iraq, Hammer continues, couldn’t miss being aware of “the omnipresence of the giant defense contractor KBR…the shipments of concrete and other construction materials, and the transformation of decrepit Iraqi military bases into fortified American enclaves.” The largest of these enclaves are indeed permanent installations, built along the lines of the “little America” that was once the Panama Canal Zone, and fitted with Subway shops, Burger Kings, and Pizza Huts, as well as huge dining facilities where gourmet American cuisine is served daily. There are gyms and MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) facilities where soldiers can watch movies or TV, exercise, and play games. The biggest base, Camp Anaconda north of Baghdad, even has its own metropolitan bus system, making it possible for military personnel to get around easily inside the leviathan camp.

Current U.S. Bases in Iraq: An Inventory

Three of the most important bases are in or near Baghdad, and the best-known of these is the Green Zone, a four-square-mile enclave on the banks of the Tigris River surrounded by fifteen-foot-high concrete walls. Its main structures are Saddam Hussein’s sprawling presidential palace, now converted to offices and living quarters, and the U.S. Embassy.

However, the new American Embassy, a separate Baghdad base occupying its own 104-acre compound, dwarfs the present one. In the words of Chalmers Johnson, “(I)t will be the biggest embassy in the world -- ten times the size of a typical American embassy, six times larger than the U.N., as big as Vatican City, and costing $592 million to build. It will be defended by blast walls and ground-to-air missiles.”

Just north of the metropolis are Camp Victory North, next to the international airport, and Camp al-Rashid, adjacent to Saddam’s old military airport. Victory North is particularly huge, with encampment facilities for as many as 14,000 troops. It also contains Qasr al-Faro, one of Saddam’s bizarre Islamic rococo palaces, which sits in the middle of an artificial lake and now houses senior U.S. military commanders. Altogether this base is twice as big as Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, built in 1999 and up until now the largest overseas military base built since the Vietnam War.

Seventeen miles north of Baghdad is Taji Air Base, a former Republican Guard installation. According to the website of the Global Security Organization (, the quality of life at Taji is very plush. Troops stationed there live in fully air conditioned and heated trailers with hot showers, and eat up to four meals a day at the base’s new dining hall. Thirteen miles north of Taji and 30 miles north of Baghdad is the sprawling Balad Air Base, at 15 square miles the largest U.S. military base in the country. Air traffic at Balad is second in volume only to London’s Heathrow Airport. There is also an army facility associated with Balad, Camp Anaconda, which despite its extensive security infrastructure including a high earthen berm perimeter, is the object of frequent mortar attacks, the most notable occurring on July 4, 2003, during a visit by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Other bases include, in the far north near Mosul, Camp Marez, and al-Asad Airbase in western Anbar Province, close to the Syrian border. The latter is the second-largest air base in Iraq, and currently undergoing a feverish building program under the auspices of KBR, as it appears to be one of the locations the Pentagon has chosen as an “enduring” site. A second Anbar Province base is at al Taqaddum near Ramadi, where Navy Seabees have been working to lengthen runways and provide American-style facilities.

Also in the north of the country is Camp Renegade, the former Iraqi fighter base located strategically adjacent to the city of Kirkuk, with its oil refinery and petrochemical plant. Far to the south, close by the ancient and now desecrated and graffitied Ziggurat of Ur is a huge complex with Tallil Airbase as its hub. Camp Qayyarah, or Q-West, is about 30 miles south of Mosul and occupied by part of the One-Hundred First Airborne Division. Then there is Al Sahra airfield just south of Tikrit, with an adjacent army base, Camp Speicher, which contains the largest single structure built by the U.S. military in Iraq so far, a $6.7 million divisional headquarters that will replace the Saddamist pink palace in Tikrit that is currently serving that purpose.

Considering how many bases there are, how many U.S. personnel are stationed there, semi-permanently it would seem, and the billions of dollars that have been spent building these colossal outposts of a far-flung and vastly-projected imperium, it is difficult to determine which four or five facilities have been earmarked as the permanent and “enduring” U.S. garrison in Iraq, that will serve not just to occupy that country but to anchor America’s Middle Eastern policy. Bradley Graham of the Washington Post has studied the base structure and determined that at a minimum there are four bases the U.S. will try to keep active in Iraq forever, no matter what. These are Tallil Airbase in the south, al-Asad Airbase in Anbar Province, the gigantic air base and associated army camp at Balad, and probably Camp Qayyarah in the Shi’ite south of the country.

For the time being, however, all the bases listed above are going concerns, and like U.S. military bases everywhere, considered by Washington as sovereign American territory despite their residing on the soil of another, sovereign country. It’s with a certain degree of chutzpah, then, that Bush administration officials accuse Iran of “meddling” in Iraqi affairs, and even do so with a straight faces. But they carry it off without fear of contradiction, since for the time being Iraq, or the heavily occupied portions of it, is ours, and all our base are belong to us.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Highway to Hell

Imagine a huge road built for semi-trucks, a quarter-mile wide, running from Mexico City through the U.S. to Winnipeg, Canada. Imagine further that the trucks running this road and hauling inanimate or perhaps living freight would not be required to stop for inspection or documentation anywhere along the route except Kansas City.

You may not have to imagine very long, because this so-called “Nafta Superhighway” may soon become a reality, and in fact plans for the Texan leg of this asphalt magic carpet, known as the Trans-Texas Corridor, are already well advanced according to a March 4 London Telegraph article by James Langton.

The potential of such a road for increasing both smuggling and U.S. companies’ exploitation of Mexican labor is obvious. But what many of the road’s opponents, both conservative and liberal, are most worried about is threats to U.S. sovereignty.

Republican Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, says the road is part of a secret Bush-Vicente Fox campaign for "an integrated North American Union" - complete with its own currency, an independent, cross-national bureaucracy, and unregulated travel across moribund international borders. "It would represent another step toward the abolition of national sovereignty," Paul Claims.

Bush administration officials deny that there is any transnational plan, and a Department of Transportation undersecretary told a congressional committee this month that the government’s only objective in considering the Nafta Superhighway was “to improve existing roads.”

But documents published by the website Judicial Watch, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, show that the U.S., Candadian, and Mexican governments’ plans for the North American Union, while not in the final stages, are way past the “what if” stage. These documents are the record of a September 2006 meeting in Banff, Canada of an entity called the North American Forum, which included high-level officials from the U.S., Mexico and Canada. U.S. attendees included then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, NORTHCOM* Commander Admiral Timothy Keating, NORTHCOM Political Advisor Deborah Bolton, and former Secretary of State (and Bechtel Corp. board member) George Shultz.

Judicial Watch reports that “The North American Forum presentations discussed immigration and border enforcement; full economic and energy integration including infrastructure and transportation; a North American investment fund; and common customs and duties.” Minutes from the meeting show that the group also discussed what it referred to as "evolution by stealth."

Writing at the conservative website Human Events, commentator Jerome R. Corsi recalls another meeting of a year ago “in Waco, Texas, at the end of March 2005” where “U.S. President George W. Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox, and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin committed their governments to a path of cooperation and joint action.”

“What is the plan?” Corsi asks. “Simple, erase the borders. The plan is contained in a ‘Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America’ little noticed when President Bush and President Fox created it in March 2005.”

Corsi goes on to quote from the report that issued from this meeting, “Building a North American Community,” which says in part, “the Task Force proposes the creation by 2010 of a North American community to enhance security, prosperity, and opportunity. We propose a community based on the principle affirmed in the March 2005 Joint Statement of the three leaders that ‘our security and prosperity are mutually dependent and complementary.’ Its boundaries will be defined by a common external tariff and an outer security perimeter within which the movement of people, products, and capital will be legal, orderly and safe. Its goal will be to guarantee a free, secure, just, and prosperous North America.”

“President Bush intends to abrogate U.S. sovereignty to the North American Union, a new economic and political entity which the President is quietly forming, much as the European Union has formed,” Corsi concludes.

The Nafta Superhighway would provide a giant first step in the implementation of this agenda. And like Jerome Corsi, many Texans working to stop the Trans-Texas Corridor are conservatives who would normally be supporters of President George W Bush, but are suspicious of his support for “free trade.”

For example, Hank Gilbert, a Texas rancher angrily reflects that "At the Battle of the Alamo people came from all over the US to fight for our sovereignty. Now we are giving it away to the very people we fought." Like many others he believes the Nafta Superhighway will make it easier for cheap goods to flood into the US. "Farmers fear that this kind of globalization will put them out of business," he says.

Gilbert neglects mentioning, although he knows, that cheap labor will flow into the U.S. along with the cheap goods the proposed highway could deliver. Both are key components of global capital’s imperialist agenda, in which the unimpeded flow of both labor and manufactures across unregulated borders would establish an economic regime of capital triumphant, in which the rewards, such as they are, invariably go to the lowest bidder. The exploitation of Mexican workers, both here and in Mexico, is a key component of this agenda, and the Nafta Superhighway the initial step in achieving it.

*NORTHCOM is a unified combat command of the U.S. military, created in 2002 in the wake of 9/11 and responsible for military operations in security in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the northern Caribbean. There are now six such unified commands located worldwide and serving as the primary administrative instrument of the American Imperium. For example, the command in charge of the Middle East and headquartered at MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida is called CENTCOM.

Monday, March 05, 2007

On Target

At its website currently devoted to preparations for the March 17 march on the Pentagon, the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) responds to Bush's "surge" speech by saying in part:

"For their part, the Democrats in Congress are involved in a...complicated dance. They want to posture as opponents of Bush's escalation and so-called surge without taking responsibility for bringing the war to a close. They could cut funding for the war which is their exclusive Constitutional prerogative. But they will absolutely refuse to take this responsibility. They are merely posturing for the 2008 elections hoping to take advantage of the well deserved public disgust for Bush and the Iraq war.

"The issue right now for the anti-war movement can not simply be opposition to a surge or an escalation: the issue is the war itself. The troops must be brought home now. As in Vietnam, that is the only solution. Those who initiated the war and who funded the war should be held accountable for one of the great crimes of the modern era."

How accurate is ANSWER's estimate of Democrats' cynicism and moral vacuity? The answer isn't hard to find, and as usual "It's in the P-I." From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, via Digby's Blog, Hullabaloo:

"Washington Democrats Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Jay Inslee requested last week that (state) legislators drop bills calling for impeachment investigations of Bush and against the troop surge in Iraq.

"They say such measures will increase political fighting at home while slowing the progress to get U.S. troops out of the fighting in Iraq.

"'Inslee and Murray are trying to tell state legislators that the efforts are a waste of time,' said Inslee's spokeswoman, Christine Hanson.

"'At the federal level, impeachment talks are more distracting than productive,' added Murray spokesman Alex Glass.

"State Sen. Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland, introduced the impeachment bill. Another bill that calls for the U.S. to refrain from increasing troop presence in Iraq is sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle."

Contrasting with this pathetic and hypocritical performance by congressional Democrats, Richard Mynick, posting at The Rag Blog comments:

"We have a Constitution which defines a separation of powers. It also defines procedures for impeaching officials who violate its bedrock principles -- in particular, its Bill of Rights, its separation of powers, and its foundational notion that power derives from the consent of the governed. We make elected officials swear an oath to "protect and defend" this Constitution. Why bother with all this, if, when the day of tyranny finally arrives, the Constitution's own provisions are not used to defend the document's principles against the would-be tyrants who have so egregiously violated them?

"In November, US voters told Washington that the public does not support the war; sees with increasing clarity that it is immoral and was launched on false pretexts; and wants it terminated. In response, Vice-Emperor Cheney snarled in a TV interview with an obsequious Bush toady that regardless of what the public or Congress might say about it, the White House intends not only to continue the war, but to escalate it."

And the reaction of Patty Murray and Jay Inslee to this is to say, "But we don't like it?" They seriously contend that they have better things to do?

It's been painfully obvious for over a month now that Democrats, not Republicans, are the real obstacle to ending the war. Republicans never pretended to want to end it, but Democrats, who reassumed power riding a tidal wave of antiwar sentiment, have now pulled the classic bait-and-switch. We demanded bread, and they gave us a stone.

It's time to take the struggle into the streets. Visit the ANSWER website to arrange transportation to Washington, D.C. for the march on the Pentagon on March 17. You also might want to think about getting involved in the wave of occupations of congressional offices now sweeping the country, and targeting mainly so-called antiwar Democrats. And if the Occupation Project, the group at the center of this seizure and occupation movement doesn't already have the office of the mealy-mouthed senator from Washington, Mrs. Murray on their list of targets, she should go to the very top.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Are You One of Them Left-Wing Extremists?

You know, the kind with really big hair and a pince-nez, always talking about the "workers and peasants" and the Kronstadt Rebellion and stuff like that? Now you can find out.

Time Magazine's Joe Klein has published a "partial list" of the traits that define a "left-wing extremist." It may be only partial, but it's worthy of being enshrined in a USA Today or Readers' Digest poll.

The genesis of this list begins with the celebrated Duncan Black's (Atrios/Eschaton) daily goading of Klein, fingering him as a fake liberal. When Klein responded yesterday that Atrios was a "left-wing extremist," he was asked by Black and others to define the term. To his credit, he did.

So good ahead. Take the test and find out if you're part of the vast Left Wing Conspiracy, actively working to destabilize legitimate governments and free enterprise, and learn the words to "The Internationale." I know I am.

A left-wing extremist:

1. Believes the United States is a fundamentally negative force in the world.

2. Believes that American imperialism is the primary cause of Islamic radicalism.

3. Believes that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not an individual case of monumental stupidity, but a consequence of America’s fundamental imperialistic nature.

4. Tends to blame America for the failures of others—i.e. the failure of our NATO allies to fulfill their responsibilities in Afghanistan.

5. Doesn’t believe that capitalism, carefully regulated and progressively taxed, is the best liberal idea in human history.

6. Believes American society is fundamentally unfair (as opposed to having unfair aspects that need improvement).

7. Believes that eternal problems like crime and poverty are the primarily the fault of society.

8. Believes that America isn’t really a democracy.

9. Believes that corporations are fundamentally evil.

10. Believes in a corporate conspiracy that controls the world.

11. Is intolerant of good ideas when they come from conservative sources. (Note: I wish Joe Klein had identified a couple examples of the kinds of "good ideas" he's talking about here.)

12. Dismissively mocks people of faith, especially those who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage.

13. Regularly uses harsh, vulgar, intolerant language to attack moderates or conservatives.

Boy, and that's only a partial list. Once Klein warms to the task, he might come up with 101 points. I don't know if I can find that many links.

But I've taken the test, and I'm glad to say I'm a moderate, not a lef-wing extremist. Yep, you bet.

Friday, March 02, 2007


The ever-incisive Glenn Greenwald has both the story of Cheney's most recent psychotic episode and its meaning. Greenwald says:

"The interview Cheney gave to pool reporters on his plane yesterday as it returned home from Afghanistan is striking in several respects. Initially, as Dan Froomkin notes, Cheney demanded that journalists not identify him by name when reporting on the interview (but instead refer to him only as a 'senior administration official'), even though Cheney himself makes unmistakably clear in the transcript that it is him."


"Cheney's petty demand that he not be identified -- like a petty tyrant's demand that his name never pass anyone's lips -- is just an assertion of secrecy and authoriatarian power for its own sake (even under the rule of Emperor Hirohito, 'commoners were no longer forbidden to speak his name or look at his face'). But unlike Hirohito, Cheney is an elected public servant of American citizens and this attempt to prohibit journalists from attributing his own words to him is just bizarrely megalomaniacal and contemptuous, particularly in light of how he virtually went out of his way in the very first sentence to make clear that it was him."

Mr. Cheney forgets himself, and why he hasn't already been impeached is a mystery to me.

In large measure this country has recovered from the intense bout of mental illness we suffered in the wake of 9/11. But a significant number have not recovered, and the highest members of the administration seem to be getting worse by the day. The president contemplates an unprovoked nuclear war against (another) oil-rich country. His second banana demands that journalists treat him as they would an ancient oriental despot.

This is all clearly Code Blue stuff, but the problem is the Congress we elected to take care of the situation, that we assumed would take care of it, spends its days debating non-binding resolutions and talks about revising the 2002 Authorization to use force. They appear helpless to do anything about the madness at the top.

We're still in very deep trouble, and it hasn't gotten any better since October.