Ten days ago, I had a post laid out in my head on the mainstream press’s tendency toward false equivalence, but I didn’t get around to writing it. Now Tom Tomorrow’s latest cartoon makes it redundant. See especially the fourth panel. Plus, Jim Fallows has been on the beat with a steady stream of posts (latest here).
The reference to the Constitution in Tom’s fifth panel is a natural lead-in to a post by Gary Wills at the New York Review of Books today. An excerpt:
The people behind these efforts are imitating what the Confederate States did even before they formally seceded in 1861. Already they ran a parallel government, in which the laws of the national government were blatantly disregarded. They denied the right of abolitionists to voice their arguments, killing or riding out of town over three hundred of them in the years before the Civil War. They confiscated or destroyed abolitionist tracts sent to Southern states by United States mail. In the United States Congress, they instituted “gag rules” that automatically tabled (excluded from discussion) anti-slavery petitions, in flagrant abuse of the First Amendment’s right of petition.
The Southern states were able to live in such open disregard for national law because of two things. First, the states were disproportionately represented in Congress because they got three extra votes for seats in the House of Representatives for every five slaves owned in the state—giving them 98 seats instead of 73 in 1833, and similar margins up to the war. Second, the national Democratic-Republican Party needed the Southern part of its coalition so badly that it colluded with the Southern states’ violations of the Constitution. In 1835, for instance, President Andrew Jackson did not enforce the sacredness of the US mail, allowing states to refuse delivery of anti-slave mailings unless a recipient revealed his identity, requested delivery, and had his name published for vilification.
Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage. The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.
From the NYT Sunday Vows column—the column that keeps on giving—a passage today. The column features newly married Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of Jacques Cousteau, and Ashlan Gorse. We learn that Mr. Cousteau was
mesmerized by her spontaneity and boldness, particularly after she told him that she had once volunteered to swim with sharks wearing only a bikini and a mask. Not to mention that she has visited over 60 countries, thrown the first pitch at a Dodgers game, sky-dived with the Army, zip-lined through a Costa Rican rain forest and nearly sacked Joe Montana during a celebrity football game.
As a bonus, we’re treated to two brief but tantalizing descriptions of our wonder woman. At the civil ceremony at the city hall of Paris’s 8th arrondissement:
The bride, in gilded stilettos and a tight white dress with a low-cut back, clutched a red rose and her livret de famille, a family record book that is given to all the newlyweds in France.
At a second ceremony three days later, which took place in “a 16th-century castle near Versailles that has been turned into a flamboyant four-star hotel”:
Before the vows were pronounced, the long-legged bride, dressed up in a dashing white bustier dress from Lazaro, stood in front of the groom with a bouquet of lilies, as tears occasionally fell from her eyes.
To review, false equivalence is the lazy or knee-jerk or phony-balance tendency of journalists to say “both sides do it,” the two sides generally being the Republicans and the Democrats. Examples abound. Jim Fallows has spent a fair bit of time at his Atlantic blog site recording some. See, for instance, here or, just last week, here.
From today’s NYT, I offer a new entry, courtesy of business columnist Eduardo Porter.
If companies could purchase the Congress of their choice, it’s unlikely they would buy the gridlocked Congress we have. The seemingly inexorable rise of political partisans — mainly on the right, but on the left, too — suggests that corporate money may be playing a much smaller role in the political process than expected.
I actually enjoyed the article, and the passage I’m criticizing is a minor aside. Plus Porter emphasizes that the rise of political partisans is primarily on the right. Nonetheless, a rise of political partisans on the left? Who? I mean, can he name even one?
I can name plenty on the right, Ted Cruz being the example of most recent notoriety. But who is a left-wing equivalent? I’m at a loss. Is anyone so driven by similarly doctrinaire (and detached from reality) views of the country and the world?
Let’s see. Cory Booker, the newest star of the Democratic Party? He’s as much a tool of Wall Street as Chuck Schumer. Al Franken? He’s to the right of his predecessor of half a century ago, Hubert Humphrey.
Where are these partisans?
[Ted Rall, August 22]
The responses of government officials and prominent members of the press to this summer’s Edward Snowden revelations and the trial/sentencing of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning offer me once again the opportunity to discover how far removed my views are from the mainstream. Just two days ago, for instance, I was astonished when I read Providence Journal syndicated columnist Froma Harrop’s latest piece, which the Seattle Times carried. She sure has it in for Glenn Greenwald.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport for nine hours — no waterboarding or electric shocks, just pointed questions and confiscation of David Michael Miranda’s computer gear. That prompted Greenwald to threaten Britain with more of his writings.
“I think they’ll regret what they’ve done,” he said. Miranda, meanwhile, accused British authorities of “psychological violence.”
Greenwald has enthralled paranoids on the right and the left with torrid tales of government perfidy. He’s a skilled enough communicator to leave the impression of revealing, or being about to reveal, appalling truths without actually delivering the goods.
But at some point even his ardent fan base will have to step back, take a look at the sweaty denunciations, the self-dramatization and the “opera buffa” plot, and conclude that this story is ripe for rapid deflation. Some critics call the style “outrage porn.”
Huh? This is both inaccurate and lazy writing. But regardless, is Greenwald really the story? Why not what we have learned from his reporting, and that of the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, among others? For example, Gellman revealed ten days ago that the “National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008, according to an internal audit and other top-secret documents.” Isn’t that more important?
Which brings me to David Carr’s superb piece in the NYT yesterday.
It’s not surprising that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who brokered the publishing of Private Manning’s documents, and Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for The Guardian who has led the Snowden revelations, have also come under intense criticism.
What is odd is that many pointing the finger are journalists. When Mr. Greenwald was on “Meet the Press” after the first round of N.S.A. articles, the host, David Gregory, seemingly switched the show to “Meet the Prosecutor.” He asked, “To the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden, even in his current movements, why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?”
Jeffrey Toobin, who works for both CNN and The New Yorker, called Mr. Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who belongs in prison.” This week, he called David Miranda, Mr. Greenwald’s partner who was detained by British authorities for nine hours under antiterror laws, the equivalent of a “drug mule.”
What have Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald done to inspire such rancor from other journalists? Because of the leaks and the stories they generated, we have learned that in the name of tracking terrorists, the N.S.A. has been logging phone calls and e-mails for years, recorded the metadata of correspondence between Americans, and in some instances, dived right into the content of e-mails. The WikiLeaks documents revealed that the United States turned a blind eye on the use of torture by our Iraqi allies, and that an airstrike was ordered to cover up the execution of civilians. WikiLeaks also published a video showing a United States Army helicopter opening fire on a group of civilians, including two Reuters journalists.
In the instance of the stories based on the purloined confidential documents in the Manning and Snowden leaks, we learned what our country has been doing in our name, whether it is in war zones or in digital realms.
Blame the messenger.
If the revelations about the N.S.A. surveillance were broken by Time, CNN or The New York Times, executives there would already be building new shelves to hold all the Pulitzer Prizes and Peabodies they expected. Same with the 2010 WikiLeaks video of the Apache helicopter attack.
Instead, the journalists and organizations who did that work find themselves under attack, not just from a government bent on keeping its secrets, but from friendly fire by fellow journalists. What are we thinking?
[Tom Tomorrow at Daily Kos, August 26]
The Guardian has released an interview with Edward Snowden, the whistleblower behind the disclosures on NSA surveillance published by the Glenn Greenwald and the Guardian this past week. If you haven’t watched the interview or read portions of it, I recommend doing so. Links:
1. The Guardian article by Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill, and Laura Poitras on Snowden.
2. The Guardian interview. (See also the embedded youtube video above.)
Some attention will now be devoted to attacking the messenger, just as there have been efforts this past week to marginalize or discredit Greenwald. (See below.) I hope we don’t lose sight of the message.
I’m pleased to say that I was suggesting six weeks ago what some have said this past week in light of the NSA revelations—that the government can offer the ultimate cloud service. As I wrote then, “Isn’t it great to know they’re backing up all our email? … Why don’t they offer to charge us a fee for access to old data?”
As for Greenwald, it’s fascinating to observe how the mainstream press has turned on him. Thursday’s NYT had an extraordinary profile by Noam Cohen and Leslie Kaufman identifying Greenwald as a blogger, even though all his disclosures were published in The Guardian, a newspaper founded three decades before the NYT (1821 versus 1851). Not that there’s anything wrong with bloggers, but that’s another issue. The profile ends with the following gratuitous attacks.
His writing has made him a frequent target from ideological foes who accuse him of excusing terrorism or making false comparisons between, for example, Western governments’ drone strikes, and terrorist attacks like the one in Boston.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who is often on the opposite ends of issues from Mr. Greenwald, called him, “a highly professional apologist for any kind of anti-Americanism no matter how extreme.”
Mr. Sullivan wrote in an e-mail: “I think he has little grip on what it actually means to govern a country or run a war. He’s a purist in a way that, in my view, constrains the sophistication of his work.”
Ms. Bailey has a slightly different take. Because of his passions, she said, “he is just as willing to make enemies of anybody.”
The next day, Sullivan (the ultimate political blogger) released the exchange he had with the NYT’s Leslie Kaufman. Check it out here. She asks if they can chat, he says he has no time until Monday or Tuesday, though he can reply by email. She responds:
Needed in the next two hours, daily deadlines and whatnot.
So if you can:
1) He obviously had strong opinions, but how is he as a journalist? Reliable? Honest? Quotes you accurately? Accurately describes your positions? Or is more advocate than journalist?
2) He says you are a friend, is this so? I get the sense that he is something of a loner and has the kind of uncompromising opinions that makes it hard to keep friends, but could be wrong.
So that’s how journalism is done! Pretty revealing. Wait till we get the character assassinations of Snowden.
We sure love our war criminal presidents, don’t we? Or at least we love rehabilitating them after they spend a few years in purgatory.
Let’s talk a bit about Nixon. The 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi were criminal enough, but have a look at this article by Bob Parry last month (hat tip, Charles Pierce), in which we learn of Nixon’s successful efforts to derail Johnson’s negotiations with the North Vietnamese in 1968 that could have ended the war. Moreover, Parry suggests, Nixon’s desire to hide the evidence of this lay behind the Watergate break-in of 1972.
Shortly after Nixon took office in 1969, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover informed him of the existence of the file containing national security wiretaps documenting how Nixon’s emissaries had gone behind President Lyndon Johnson’s back to convince the South Vietnamese government to boycott the Paris Peace Talks, which were close to ending the Vietnam War in fall 1968.In the case of Watergate – the foiled Republican break-in at the Democratic National Committee in June 1972 and Richard Nixon’s botched cover-up leading to his resignation in August 1974 – the evidence is now clear that Nixon created the Watergate burglars out of his panic that the Democrats might possess a file on his sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968.
The disruption of Johnson’s peace talks then enabled Nixon to hang on for a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. However, as the new President was taking steps in 1969 to extend the war another four-plus years, he sensed the threat from the wiretap file and ordered two of his top aides, chief of staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, to locate it. But they couldn’t find the file.
We now know that was because President Johnson, who privately had called Nixon’s Vietnam actions “treason,” had ordered the file removed from the White House by his national security aide Walt Rostow.
Treason indeed. As Charles Pierce comments:
There were 22,000 more Americans who died in Vietnam after Nixon sabotaged the peace talks in order to win an election. That’s 44,000 more American parents. That’s thousands and thousands more American children. That’s god alone knows how many more men, women, and children in Southeast Asia, all of whom died, very likely unnecessarily, because of Richard Nixon’s treasonous ambitions.
By the time of Nixon’s death in 1994, the rehabilitation was complete. We learn in the NYT obit that at the opening of his presidential library in 1990, he was “hailed as a statesman and a peacemaker.”
And now it’s time for the opening of yet another presidential library, which served as the occasion of more rehabilitation. Last week, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (pictured above) opened in Dallas on the campus of SMU. Here’s a sight to stir your heart:
[From the presidential library website]
Bush did more than prolong a war. He lied us into one, helped along by a host of government officials and an accommodating press. No point reviewing the familiar details. Oh, and he introduced torture as government policy, this being confirmed (if it needed confirmation) by a report two weeks ago.
A nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that the nation’s highest officials bore ultimate responsibility for it.
The sweeping, 600-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”
The use of torture, the report concludes, has “no justification” and “damaged the standing of our nation, reduced our capacity to convey moral censure when necessary and potentially increased the danger to U.S. military personnel taken captive.” The task force found “no firm or persuasive evidence” that these interrogation methods produced valuable information that could not have been obtained by other means. While “a person subjected to torture might well divulge useful information,” much of the information obtained by force was not reliable, the report says.
Yet, the opening of the Bush library offered an occasion to reassess Bush and place him in a positive light, which his fellow presidents were only too happy to do.
On this day, they collectively wrapped their arms around a fellow member of the club.
“We know President Bush the man,” Mr. Obama said. “To know the man is to like the man. Because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”
Mr. Obama, whose first presidential campaign was built on opposition to the Iraq war, praised Mr. Bush for his bullhorn-in-the-rubble fortitude after Sept. 11 and said his predecessor fought for what he thought was best for his country. He linked his own effort to overhaul the immigration system to Mr. Bush’s.
“If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Clinton, who has become close to the Bush family, offered warm words and recounted how he and Mr. Bush used to talk politics while his successor was in office. Referring to the library behind him, he joked, “Dear God, I hope there’s no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, sitting onstage with the other presidents and first ladies, laughed robustly.
Mr. Carter, one of the fiercest critics of the Iraq war, talked about how Mr. Bush ended war in Sudan and helped Africa. “I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth,” he told Mr. Bush.
Really? Spare me. I know it’s a complicated world and not everything is black and white. But here’s some black and white: President Bush was a war criminal and a liar.
[Matthew Peyton/Getty Images]
I’ve wanted to write about Anthony Lewis since learning of his death three days ago. He was my favorite New York Times columnist for many years. More recently, I’ve enjoyed his pieces in the New York Review of Books. But I don’t have anything specific to say. Let me turn instead to a few of the (many) remembrances of him.
First, basic facts from Adam Liptak’s NYT obituary.
Anthony Lewis, a former New York Times reporter and columnist whose work won two Pulitzer Prizes and transformed American legal journalism, died on Monday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 85. …
Mr. Lewis brought passionate engagement to his two great themes: justice and the role of the press in a democracy. His column, called “At Home Abroad” or “Abroad at Home” depending on where he was writing from, appeared on the Op-Ed page of The Times for more than 30 years, until 2001. His voice was liberal, learned, conversational and direct.
As a reporter, Mr. Lewis brought an entirely new approach to coverage of the Supreme Court, for which he won his second Pulitzer, in 1963.
“He brought context to the law,” said Ronald K. L. Collins, a scholar at the University of Washington who compiled a bibliography of Mr. Lewis’s work. “He had an incredible talent in making the law not only intelligible but also in making it compelling.”
Before Mr. Lewis started covering the Supreme Court, press reports on its decisions were apt to be pedestrian recitations by journalists without legal training, rarely examining the court’s reasoning or grappling with the context and consequences of particular rulings. Mr. Lewis’s thorough knowledge of the court’s work changed that. His articles were virtual tutorials about currents in legal thinking, written with ease and sweep and an ability to render complex matters accessible.
Mr. Lewis’s coverage of the court impressed Justice Felix Frankfurter, who called Mr. Reston. “I can’t believe what this young man achieved,” Justice Frankfurter said, as Mr. Reston recalled in his memoir, “Deadline.” “There are not two justices of this court who have such a grasp of these cases.”
Lincoln Caplan, writing at The American Scholar:
“The Constitution remains our fundamental law,” Anthony Lewis wrote, “because great judges have read it in that spirit.” Covering the Supreme Court for The New York Times in the 1960s, he was on hand when justices on the Warren Court did just that. Simply and eloquently, he explained how they made the court a central arbiter in American life and shaped the country’s march toward equality.
Lewis, who died Monday at 85, played an extraordinary role in that shaping. The court’s landmark decisions about racial justice, one person-one vote, and other deeply destabilizing social issues took hold because of the trust of the American people. Lewis helped foster that trust, through the authority and humane intelligence of his reporting and writing.
He possessed a vivid, passionate intellect, and had the moral focus of a rabbi. He worked intensely in the texts, the talk, and the traditions of the Court, but that effort appeared to be an immersion more than work. The lesson I drew from his model was that, even for someone as gifted as he, hard work was essential to giving the Court its due—especially so for those of us following the Court who don’t have the exceptional gifts he had.
Because he had extraordinary access to justices and his writing helped elevate the stature of the Supreme Court, he was sometimes criticized as an insider and, in some sense, a captive of the institution. But when it let him down, as it did dramatically in Bush v. Gore, making a political ruling to throw the 2000 election to George W. Bush, he reminded readers of his uncompromising independence.
He loved the Supreme Court as an American institution, but loved the Constitution more. Another lesson I drew from his model was that, while the Court always deserves the respect of anyone covering it, that respect sometimes requires saying sharply why you think a ruling it makes is wrong. …
Anthony Lewis’s voice was from the Old Testament as well—awe-inspiring, judgmental, and righteous.
The best fun of being president of the US, I often thought, would be appointing Anthony Lewis to the Supreme Court. He was a non-lawyer with a persuasive understanding of the gift and genius of the Constitution. He had a historian’s grasp on how the law evolved. Justice Frankfurter said Tony knew the cases before the Court better than most of the sitting judges. And he could unfold the issues in lucid prose that grabbed me as a teen-age reader of the New York Times.
Tony leaves us, I’d say, a memorable model for the best and broadest idea of a liberal at work. It wasn’t about dogma, much less radicalism. It was temperament as much as politics. It was about a modest optimism, a belief that institutions, even societies, could work on their flaws and get better. He was the human embodiment of the Warren Court, in that sense. He made a pair with his friend Justice William Brennan, who stood also for civility, compromise, persistence on an upward course. They stood for that era of reform in civil rights, in one-man-one-vote political representation, in the protection of defendants’ rights and the expansion of free speech and expression. Tony goaded the country with columns and landmark books on those central subjects, and by gum, the country got better. It can sound almost quaint, but he knew for certain that there were remedies for real ills in patient, hard-working devotion to our ideals in the Constitution and the law. So he never let up, and he never despaired.
One more quote, from Lydon again:
My favorite Tony Lewis columns – oddly unmentioned in the Times obit – might have been his answer to the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972, the Nixon-Kissinger “terror bombing” of Hanoi – with no measurable purpose or benefit. Peace was at hand, they had said, the war all but over, but American B-52s poured it on: 2000 strikes over 11 days. “An episode that will live in infamy,” Tony Lewis wrote. And lest we forget he kept rewriting that column every Christmas for a decade. The lessons for Americans were still: “Beware obsession. Beware secrecy. Beware concentrated power. Beware men untouched by concern for the moral consequences of their acts.”
To read that Lewis column, from December 23, 1972, click here. And do read it. It’s as powerful today as it was forty-one years ago.
This post is a bit of a rerun, inasmuch as I already featured Tom Friedman’s famous justification for the Iraq War in a post last April. But I don’t know a better way to observe the tenth anniversary of that war’s start than to watch once again as Friedman responds to Charlie Rose’s question (astonishing in its own right), “Now that the war is over, and there’s some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing?”
Jump to 2:36 for the high point, albeit with some context missing.
Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society? … Well suck on this. That, Charlie, is what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia, … . We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That’s the real truth.
This is about as depraved a defense of the war as I can imagine. We need to set an example by beating the crap out of some Muslim country. Let’s not pick on our ostensible allies (though they may be the ones that actually lend support to Al-Qaeda). We’ll go after Iraq. Because we can.
A decade later, Friedman remains the dean of American political columnists and the darling of the business community, with his best-selling books and speaking fees that must be approaching $100,000.
Oh, I just did a search to see if I missed Friedman’s apology somewhere and instead found an article in the Christian Science Monitor two days ago in which Dan Murphy took a look back at Friedman’s response to Rose, complete with a transcript of the passage I’ve merely excerpted. And this too, from Atrios yesterday.
The NYT published an article yesterday about Holly, the 4-year-old tortie who made it home to West Palm Beach two months after being separated from the couple she lives with when they were together at an RV rally two hundred miles away. Scientists can’t explain how she did it.
“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.”
There is, in fact, little scientific dogma on cat navigation. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely, and use magnetic fields, olfactory cues, or orientation by the sun.
I mention this story not because of its intrinsic interest, but because of my surprise on seeing last night that it had made its way to the top of the NYT list of most e-mailed articles. Tonight, it remains #1, and #4 under “Most Viewed.” Much as I enjoyed the story, I didn’t expect this. Are there really so many cat lovers out there, eager to spread the word about the wonders of the species?
Speaking of wondrous cats, our resident 16-3/4-year-old tortie Emma has not been doing well. At her annual physical 3 1/2 weeks ago, we were stunned to learn that her weight had fallen to six pounds, and her blood test suggested weakening kidneys. We’ve been experimenting with a variety of new foods since then. Last week she became listless, spending Thursday and Friday on her new heating mat without getting up to eat or drink. We brought her to the vet Saturday morning and she was down to five-and-a-half pounds. The vet recommended keeping her for the day so she could be hydrated, tested, and observed.
Tests showed that Emma’s white blood cell count was high, indicating an infection, perhaps a kidney infection, so she is now on antibiotics. We didn’t see any signs of improvement when she got home Saturday, or most of yesterday, but since last night she’s been eating again, moving around, behaving a bit like her usual self.
It looks like Emma has made it through. We have to continue with the antibiotics for another two weeks. Her nightly torture. They’re in liquid form, mixed with tuna juice by the pharmacist to make them more palatable. That’s the theory anyway. I’m not sure Emma got the message. At least she doesn’t claw us. In her prime, she would have made us pay. Now she’s much more tolerant of our ways.
The writer Robert Wright (author most recently of the 2009 book The Evolution of God) was a regular contributor at The Atlantic for the past year. He has now moved on to other ventures, writing his valedictory post a week ago. I wish I read him more consistently.
Wright took advantage of his post to “articulate three beliefs of mine that I rarely articulated this year, but that informed much of what I wrote, especially in the realm of foreign policy.” All three are worthy of reflection. Here’s the third:
If the United States doesn’t use its inevitably fading dominance to build a world in which the rule of law is respected, and in which global norms are strong, the United States (and the world) will suffer for it. So when, for example, we do things to other nations that we ourselves have defined as acts of war (like cybersabotage), that is not, in the long run, making us or our allies safer. The same goes for when we invade countries, or bomb them, in clear violation of international law. And at some point we have to get serious about building a truly comprehensive nuclear nonproliferation regime–one that we expect our friends, not just our enemies, to be members-in-good-standing of.
We learned not to expect sensitivity to this issue during the reign of Bush-Cheney, as they willfully ignored the rule of law. But President Obama would be different, or so I thought on the eve of his inauguration four years ago. Alas, little has changed. Two examples:
1. Drones. I never got around to writing about this at the time, but as Scott Shane reported in the NYT back around Thanksgiving,
Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.
The administration’s legal reasoning has not persuaded many other countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still object to such measures.
But since the first targeted killing by the United States in 2002, two administrations have taken the position that the United States is at war with Al Qaeda and its allies and can legally defend itself by striking its enemies wherever they are found.
Commenting on this story a few days later, Georgetown law professor David Cole wrote:
The real problem is not that there are no guidelines written down—though the administration itself seems now to acknowledge that what it has is insufficient—but that we the people don’t know what they are. The idea that the president can authorize the killing of a human being far from any traditional battlefield without any publically accessible set of constraints, conditions, or requirements is unacceptable in a country committed to the rule of law. In his first and only speech on security and our national ideals, at the National Archives in May 2009, President Obama insisted that adherence to the rule of law is essential in the fight against terror, and to that end, promised to be transparent about his actions “so that [the people] can make informed judgments and hold us accountable.” Yet after four years and hundreds of killings authorized in secret, the most the president has been able to offer us about the scope of his most awesome power is a handful of vague paragraphs in a handful of administration officials’ speeches, which experts must then parse for clues as to what the rules might actually be. This is more akin to what law looked like in the Soviet Union than to what it should look like in the United States of America.
2. Fake vaccination program. Capturing (or killing) Osama Bin Laden was a high priority, but the end didn’t justify the means, or one of the means: fake vaccinations. As The Guardian first reported two Julys ago, “the CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader’s family.” Three days later, The Guardian followed up with objections raised by Doctors Without Borders:
Médecins Sans Frontières has lashed out at the CIA for using a fake vaccination programme as a cover to spy on Osama bin Ladenon Thursday, saying it threatened life-saving immunisation work around the world.
The international medical aid charity said the ploy used by US intelligence, revealed this week in the Guardian, was a “grave manipulation of the medical act”.
“The risk is that vulnerable communities – anywhere – needing access to essential health services will understandably question the true motivation of medical workers and humanitarian aid,” said Unni Karunakara, MSF’s international president. “The potential consequence is that even basic healthcare, including vaccination, does not reach those who need it most.”
Tom Scocca reviewed the details at the time, concluding that
Bin Laden had already been found. The vaccination campaign was a matter of bureaucratic self-protection—to get DNA samples from people inside the compound, to confirm that the target that the CIA had identified in Abbottabad was correct, so that the agency wouldn’t embarrass itself. The most that the vaccinations could have done, if the DNA tests had come back negative, would have been to allow the CIA to quietly add this particular house to the list of places in which, over the course of a decade, it had failed to find Bin Laden.
And that assumes the vaccination trick even worked. According to the Guardian, it was “not known whether the CIA managed to obtain any bin Laden DNA, although one source suggested the operation did not succeed.” Yet we got Bin Laden anyway. The necessity that [a "senior U.S. official"] was pleading was fake necessity.
Last month, eight vaccination workers were killed in Pakistan during a nationwide vaccination drive.
Obama’s inauguration is a week away. May he show greater respect for the rule of law in his second term.