This one is on us

As we all express our outrage over the Verizon snooping, as we should, let’s remember: President Obama did this legally, following a provision of the Patriot Act that, as a senator, he voted for, and that Hillary Clinton, among others, opposed.

For years, politicians who voted against such things were demagogued as soft on terror. When The New York Times exposed George W. Bush’s illegal secret wiretapping, Bush called the story “shameful,” and some (including then-attorney general John Ashcroft) called for the Times to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

So, yes, we should express our outrage. At ourselves.

Obama’s war on journalism and free expression

President Obama

This commentary also appears at the Huffington Post.

Kudos to David Carr of the New York Times for shining a light on an issue that doesn’t attract nearly the attention that it should: the Obama administration’s abuse of the Espionage Act, which in turn has led to a virtual war on journalism and free expression.

As Carr notes, the Espionage Act, approved in 1917 during the hysteria of World War I, was used three times before President Obama took office in 2009 — and six times during his presidency.

We live in a dangerous era, and there have been prosecutions with which it may be hard to disagree. Carr cites the case of Bradley Manning, who’s been charged with stealing national-security documents that are at the heart of the WikiLeaks disclosures.

But Carr also writes that leak prosecutions often seem to be aimed more at punishing people for embarrassing the government than for genuinely damaging national security. In a particularly ironic case, a former CIA officer named John Kiriakou has been charged with leaking the names of agents involved in interrogating terrorism suspects. Carr points out that “none of the individuals who engaged in or authorized the waterboarding of terror suspects have been prosecuted.”

(More about the Kiriakou case from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Kiriakou has denied the charges.)

Kudos, too, to Jake Tapper of ABC News, whose confrontation with White House press secretary Jay Carney is the hook Carr uses to delve into the issue. A fuller account of Tapper and Carney’s exchange can be found here. Here’s Tapper responding to Carney’s praise for the journalist Marie Colvin, killed in Syria last week:

How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court? You’re — currently I think that you’ve invoked it the sixth time, and before the Obama administration, it had only been used three times in history. You’re — this is the sixth time you’re suing a CIA officer for allegedly providing information in 2009 about CIA torture. Certainly that’s something that’s in the public interest of the United States. The administration is taking this person to court. There just seems to be disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States.

I suspect Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have gotten a pass from many liberals because they believe a Republican president would be even worse on such matters. The fact is, though, that no president has been more aggressive than Obama in prosecuting suspected leakers.

And given the way the media work, it’s no surprise that they’ve said little, since the heart of what they do is respond to accusations. The storyline being promoted by Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich is that Obama is weak on national security, so they’re certainly not going to criticize the president for being too tough on leakers. Thus, no story.

When the government wants to take suspected leakers to court, it inevitably demands that journalists reveal their confidential sources. There is no constitutionally recognized right for journalists to protect their sources, and no federal shield law, which means that such cases have a considerable chilling effect on tough reporting.

In 2006, “Frontline” interviewed Mark Corallo, who was director of public affairs for George W. Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft. In this transcript, you’ll see that Corallo, with the support of Ashcroft — not generally thought of as a friend of the First Amendment — approved only one subpoena for a journalist out of “dozens” that were requested. Corallo continued:

I can’t tell you about that case. It was a national-security case. I believed, after long reflection, that it did put innocent people’s lives in danger, our allies, people in other countries who would be subject to terrorist attacks. The case was so egregious; it was such a horrible instance of unethical behavior by a journalist to boot.

I hope Tapper’s tough questioning and Carr’s column are the beginning of a genuine attempt to hold the Obama White House to account for its repressive policies.

Grumpy conservatives survey post-Iowa scene

Mitt Romney campaigning in Iowa — in 2007

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

The conservative commentariat today is grumpy. And perhaps none is grumpier than Red State’s Erick Erickson, who’s unhappy not only with the Republicans’ eight-vote front-runner, Mitt Romney, but with his newly elevated conservative challenger, Rick Santorum.

Complaining that Santorum is a “big government conservative” in the tradition of George W. Bush, Erickson writes that the former Pennsylvania senator’s reputation as a retail politician is vastly overblown. “His campaign was not successful, it’s just all the others sucked so bad,” he says. Erickson’s improbable dream: a renewed effort by one-time Tea Party favorite Rick Perry, who’s gone home to Texas and who may be out of the race by the end of the day.

Aside from the impossibly thin margin separating Romney and Santorum, there was nothing about the Iowa caucuses that should have surprised anyone. For days it had been clear that Romney, Santorum and Ron Paul would be the three top finishers. And it remains Romney’s central dilemma that even though he seems the likely nominee, the conservatives who comprise the base of the Republican Party can’t stand him.

“He has all the king’s horses and all the king’s men supporting him, the print MSM and most segments on Fox News Channel in his favor, yet for the second time in four years, 75 percent of Iowa caucus-goers rejected him,” writes Kellyanne Conway at National Review. (Conway, a political consultant working for Newt Gingrich, nevertheless reserves her strongest praise for Santorum.)

Over at Slate, John Dickerson offers a startling statistic: According to entrance polls, Santorum beat Romney 36 percent to one percent among caucus-goers who wanted a true conservative. “Santorum is now the only Flavor of the Week candidate to actually win anything,” Dickerson says, “which makes him a genuine threat to Romney, at least for the moment.”

So what is a conservative to do? Daniel Larison’s response is to grouse. Writing at Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative, Larison mocks the notion that any of the Republicans who didn’t get into the race, like South Dakota senator John Thune or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, could have stopped the Romney machine. Larison continues:

“It remains true that Romney shouldn’t be the nominee, and Republicans will regret nominating him, but it seems extremely unlikely at this stage that anything is going to prevent it from happening.”

At National Review, Jim Geraghty fingers the Ames Straw Poll as a principal source of conservative angst, since it prematurely ended the campaign of someone who might actually have beaten Romney:

“The Hawkeye State killed off the chances of a perfectly good candidate, Tim Pawlenty, in favor of his Minnesota rival Michele Bachmann, only to drop her like seventh-period Spanish by the time the actual caucuses rolled around.”

Yet if Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor, really had that much potential, surely he should have been able to beat Bachmann, who is apparently headed for the exits as I write this. Maybe Pawlenty could have grown if he hadn’t been pushed out by a ridiculously early, meaningless test — or if, despite the Ames result, he’d kept working it, like Santorum, written off by everyone until just a few weeks ago. But in public, Pawlenty came off as being cut from the same cloth as Romney, a bit more conservative perhaps, but even less charismatic, if such a thing is possible.

At the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes predicts that conservatives will now coalesce around Santorum, creating a “one-on-one race” that “is exactly what Romney hoped to avoid at this stage.” And at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan bizarrely (not to be redundant) proclaims that Romney emerges from Iowa a stronger candidate because he succeeded in vanquishing Gingrich, “a foe big enough that when you beat him it means something.”

The Pollyanna award goes to Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who thinks caucus-goers did themselves proud last night. “Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation,” he writes, “they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory.”

Which sounds like another way of saying — to echo Pat Caddell and John LeBoutillier on FoxNews.com last night — that the big winner of the Iowa caucuses was Barack Obama.

Photo (cc) by IowaPolitics.com and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Obama’s secret war on civil liberties

Remember Section 215? It was a notorious provision of the USA Patriot Act, renewed on Thursday, that allowed the government to snoop on what library books you’d borrowed, what videos you’d rented, your medical records — anything, really, if investigators thought it might have something to do with terrorism, no matter how tangential.

I wrote about it for the Boston Phoenix in 2003 as an example of the then-budding excesses of the Bush-Cheney years.

Well, Section 215 is back — not that it ever went away. Charlie Savage reports in today’s New York Times that two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have accused the Obama administration of using Section 215 for purposes not intended by Congress. Then-senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, raised similar alarms in 2009.

The senators know what the White House is up to because they were privy to secret testimony. But, legally, under Senate rules, they can’t reveal what they learned. Thus they have demanded that the White House come clean with the public. “Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out,” Udall is quoted as saying.

Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute recently described Section 215 in an interview with Salon:

It allows investigators to get an order from the FISA court permitting them to compel the production of any tangible thing that is relevant to an investigation. It’s pretty unlimited in scope. Any record or other thing that pertains to a suspected agent of a foreign power or someone in contact with them is under the law considered to be “presumptively relevant.” That means the judge has no discretion to deny such requests. The records don’t have to belong to anyone who is thought to be guilty of anything.

“FISA,” you may recall, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. At the height of the Bush years, the White House didn’t even bother with the niceties of going to a FISA court before ordering wiretaps. But as Sanchez notes, the FISA provision isn’t much more than a fig leaf anyway.

Which reminds me: The Obama Justice Department recently issued a subpoena ordering James Risen, one of the New York Times reporters who broke the story about the Bush administration’s secret wiretaps, to reveal his confidential sources.

President Obama’s approach to civil liberties has been similar to that of his predecessors: for them when convenient, against them when upholding our rights would interfere with his exercise of untrammeled executive power. Last year, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero pronounced himself to be “disgusted” with Obama’s civil-rights record.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney remain outliers because of their embrace of torture, secret rendition and the like. But, otherwise, Obama fits into a long pattern of presidents whose actions on civil liberties are very different from their pious words.

I found the photo at a blog called the Bourgeois Librarian. I do not know its provenance.

Obama’s Nobel Prize

obama_20091009I should be reading the papers and getting ready for class, but I just want to get this out there first. No doubt the topic will inspire a long string of comments, and probably a few of you will have more coherent thoughts than I do.

President Obama is a leader of extraordinary promise. I think he’s already accomplished a lot. His policies helped steer the worst economic crisis since the 1930s into something like a normal recession. He’s come closer to enacting comprehensive health-care reform than any previous president.

And, yes, his approach to foreign policy has combined pragmatism, cooperation and an orientation toward negotiation and peace that stands in stark contrast with the belligerent Bush-Cheney team. I’m also glad he’s rethinking his original desire to escalate in Afghanistan.

That said, I’m puzzled, to say the least, by his winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think Obama might well have been Nobel-worthy in a couple of years, depending on what he’s able to accomplish with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Iran and its nuclear aspirations, with the Afghanistan-Pakistan mess and with North Korea. And that’s assuming he can find willing negotiating partners.

For the Nobel committee to award its most prestigious honor to Obama at this early stage of his presidency, the members must have been thinking one of two things:

  • He deserves it for all sorts of symbolic reasons: he’s the first African-American president, he represents a clean break with George W. Bush and he’s reached out to the international community in a variety of ways.
  • He doesn’t really deserve it, but he should get it in order to give him ammunition (oops; bad word) against his critics and to provide some momentum to his peace-making efforts.

I don’t think either of those reasons are good enough.

Conservatives, needless to say, are going to have a field day with this, comparing it to previous Nobels they think were undeserving, such as those given to Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. By contrast, I think Gore and especially Carter were very deserving recipients who received the honor on the basis of many years of hard work.

Many liberals are going to be thrilled that Obama won, although the early buzz on the left, based solely on my monitoring of Twitter, is that at least some liberals are as perplexed as I am.

Not that Obama is the worst selection ever. Certainly there have been much more undeserving recipients, such as Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger. (Despite what some conservatives are claiming on Twitter, Adolf Hitler did not win the Nobel. Try looking it up, folks.)

Anyway — there you have it. Discuss among yourselves.

What does Andy Card want?

Andy Card
Andy Card

The Massachusetts Republican Party may be at a disastrously low ebb. But, contrary to expectations, it looks as though it’s going to field the equivalent of its A-team in both the special election to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and in next year’s governor’s race.

Former state representative Andy Card, who was chief of staff to George W. Bush and a top aide in George H.W. Bush’s administration, has all but announced for the Senate seat, according to the Boston Herald.

Granted, Card was far better known several decades ago, when the Republicans regularly hoped he would toss his hat into the ring, and were invariably disappointed. Then, too, Card will have to answer for his tenure in the second Bush White House — especially his oft-cited 2002 pronouncement that the administration would not start pushing for war in Iraq until September because “from a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”

But the chances of a Republican succeeding Kennedy would appear to be non-existent in any case. Card’s presence on the ballot will help with party-building simply because he’s serious and credible.

Since Card knows he’s unlikely to win, the interesting question is: What does he want? And that’s where the Republicans’ other credible candidate, Charlie Baker, comes in. Baker, who was then-governor Bill Weld’s top aide in the early ’90s, is now running for governor himself.

Unlike the Senate, the governor’s office is a position that a Republican can reasonably hope to win, as Weld, Paul Cellucci and Mitt Romney proved. With Gov. Deval Patrick’s poll numbers down, Baker would appear to have a decent shot, assuming he can get by his primary opponent, Christy Mihos.

But is it possible that Card is looking past the Senate race in hopes of running for governor himself?

Spying on the antiwar movement

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a look at a disturbing, underreported revelation: that a public-records request in Washington State revealed an antiwar activist was, in fact, a military spy whose activities may have been a violation of federal law. And I argue that President Obama can no longer ignore calls to investigate the Bush-Cheney White House.

Obama and openness

Bill Dedman of MSNBC.com reports that the Obama administration is following George W. Bush’s policy of refusing to release the logs identifying visitors to the White House — despite two rulings that such records are public.

Good story, though Dedman doesn’t say whether Bush’s policy was a reversal or a continuation of what previous presidents had done. I hope he’ll clarify.

Update: Dedman writes that “the story makes clear that only in limited cases have these records been released. And that apparently only the Bush and Obama administrations have stood up in federal court to argue that White House visitor logs are not public record.”

David Brooks almost gets it right

David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times is smart and useful in its treatment of the similarities between the national-security policies of President Obama and those of George W. Bush after 2003 (though I think a more reasonable date to pick would be 2005), and of the differences between the Bush team and Dick Cheney during the waning years of the Bush White House.

But Brooks misses entirely why Obama has been more successful in selling those policies. It’s not just that Obama is more skillful at it, and understands public leadership better than Bush ever did. More than anything, it’s that when Bush finally moved away from the abject failures of the Bush-Cheney years, they were his failures.

Bush may have begun doing the right thing — or, at least, he may have begun doing the wrong thing less often — but he no longer had any credibility. Thus, by the time Condoleezza Rice had begun moving foreign policy in a less-insane direction, Bush had already irretrievably cast himself as a malleable tool.

Nor are the choices Obama is making today — on Guantánamo, on torture photos, on military tribunals — the sorts of things that will gain any real support on their own merits. Rather, most reasonable people see them as the least-bad decisions he could make given the “mess” that he inherited from Bush, as he put it yesterday.

Again, not an argument Bush could have made.

How to avoid prosecuting Bush and Cheney

Prosecuting George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others for torture-related war crimes would be madness, and President Obama clearly doesn’t want to do it. But torture is serious business. What should we do?

At ThePhoenix.com, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate shows us the way out.