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May 28, 2006 - The Whole Idea is to See the Pattern

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Sometimes in trying to get some perspective on events it helps to just build an array, or in the simple-minded metaphor used so often since the first days of all the questions after the two towers at the World Trade Center fell and that 757 slammed into the Pentagon, it helps to "connect the dots." Yes, dots. The FBI had its files on the bad guys, the CIA had its information, the president had his daily briefing document at the right time, "Osama bin Laden Plans to Attack the United States," and the "airplane attack" idea had been floating around for years. No one connected the dots, and the National Security Advisor at the time, Condoleezza Rice, famously testified to congress that "no one imagined" that terrorists would use airplanes as weapons, even though it was on record that various intelligence organizations of the government had, and put it on paper. Obviously dots can be tricky.
So things had to change. What to do? A commission suggested reorganizing things to create a dot-connecting organizational structure, and along with a new Department of Homeland Security, which the administration initially strongly opposed, we got a new office - we got a National Security Director, a position layered above all the intelligence gathering agencies in all the various parts of the government. What the CIA found out, or the NSA, or the FBI, or the State Department services, or the Pentagon (eighty percent of all funds for gathering intelligence goes to them) would go to the Director, the Lord of the Dots. The job went to John Negroponte, once our ambassador to Honduras and perhaps involved in supporting the secret death squads down that way when we seem to have funded the murder of certain left-leaning folks and some nuns here and priests there, our ambassador to the United Nations at the time most nations thought our preemptive war with Iraq was a rather dumb idea, and our first ambassador to the new Iraq, back in the days when we said the new Iraq had sovereignty even if they didn't have any sort of government. Is Negroponte the right man to be the top dot-connecter? Who knows? That's his job now. He's got his new man at the CIA, Michael Hayden, the man who ran the secret NSA program to scan all the phone records of all Americans without any warrants or any oversight, and the temp, Porter Goss is gone, having done his job of purging the CIA of those who were disloyal to the White House with all their pesky reports of facts that didn't support the policy agenda down on Pennsylvania Avenue. Negroponte also seems to get along fine with the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The FBI is getting in line. Condoleezza Rice is now at State, and not like her predecessor Colin Powell at all - she's removing or marginalizing anyone there who reports the wrong things up the chain.

Of course all this consolidation and obligatory policy discipline seems to indicate not so much an effort to "connect the dots" in a startling, new and effective way. It's more an effort to limit the number of dots you have to consider. Some dots you just don't want to see. And if something happens with one of the ignored dots - say someone sneaks a dirty bomb into Houston in a freight container and the city is rendered radioactive for a few decades - well, you can say it's not your fault - the agency in question failed and didn't tell you about that particular dot, or the Department of Homeland Security messed up, or something. Cool. You're covered.

So we have new national ability, a professional connect-the-dots-we-choose-to-acknowledge organization overseeing all. We all feel safer.

But anyone can connect dots. You don't have to be a professional.

Of course non-professional dot-connecters, the amateurs, are usually called tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists and considered quite deluded. They're just mad, and angry too. Such things are to be expected when you're not actually paid to look at dots in a mildly paranoid way and report on the connections and show the pattern that emerges. Who would do such things for free? Crackpots.

And high on the crackpot list of alarming connections is what seems like evidence of a slow-motion coup as the executive branch, and the focused and angry simple-minded president in particular, work on rendering his office all-powerful and making the constitution as we have known it for the last two-hundred nineteen years just an historical curiosity. The crackpot theorists toss around terms like "dictator" and "king" and "fascist" and all the rest. That's not terribly useful. In fact, it's counterproductive. Americans don't like those terms. That's not us. That's not how anyone, even the angry, dry-drunk, born-again, idea-hating, detail-scorning man now in the Oval Office, would operate. We're a nation of laws and all that - and he's our public servant reporting to us, not some tin-pot third-world tyrant drunk on his own power from a Woody Allen movie. This is not Bananas (the movie, that is). The crackpot theorists are bananas, of course.

But drop the name-calling. You can add a label later, if you'd like. Some find that necessary, of course, but it doesn't matter much. Just look at the pattern. Connect the dots. Then, if it makes you happy, call it what you will.

The diplomatic "term of art" here will be a slow-motion coup, but that's just a marker. The supporters of the president would call it "doing what's necessary in a time of national danger unlike anything we've ever faced before" - what must be done due to the unprecedented crisis we now face. This is not the Soviets with thousands of missiles aimed at us and tens of thousands of nuclear warheads this is a few thousand guys who blow up trains and have flow airlines into large buildings. The neoconservatives, political theorists and attorneys in the executive branch would argue it's something else entirely - the White House just correcting a long-standing misunderstanding about the constitution, as it clearly says in Article II that the president need not obey laws that he finds limit him in implementing whatever he decides must be done, and that the congress that passes laws about what can be done and how, and the courts that rule on such laws, are somewhere between totally irrelevant and, being nice about it, merely advisory.

Much has been said of the record-setting seven hundred fifty presidential signing statements and all the rest, and these pages this week are full of discussion of this "radical redistribution of power within Washington." Something is up. The week gave us the executive branch purposely intimating congress with criminal threats for the first time in our history - the FBI raiding the offices of a congressman and the Justice Department announcing the opening of a probe into who said what to the press about the NSA warrantless spying on citizens and other matters that somehow made it into the news - our secret chain of prisons in the former Soviet prisons in eastern Europe, how we kidnap some people off the street and make them disappear forever (extraordinary rendition), and so on. Like torturing prisoners, all this may have been illegal and immoral and generally crappy - but it was secret, after all. Congress is on notice. Get with the program. Know your place.

At the end of the week there were just a few more dots. The usual Friday afternoon dump of what you really don't want in the news cycle, what you hold until the reporters and commentators have gone off for the long weekend in this case, gave us this


The Bush administration asked federal judges in New York and Michigan to dismiss a pair of lawsuits filed over the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program, saying litigation would jeopardize state secrets.
In legal papers filed late Friday, Justice Department lawyers said it would be impossible to defend the legality of the spying program without disclosing classified information that could be of value to suspected terrorists.

National Intelligence Director John Negroponte invoked the state secrets privilege on behalf of the administration, writing that disclosure of such information would cause "exceptionally grave damage" to national security.

The administration laid out some of its supporting arguments in classified memoranda that were filed under seal.


Oh. That sort of fits with previous dots.

Dot: As mentioned previously, the Justice Department is charged with investigating the NSA "domestic eavesdropping program." The National Security Agency, with, it seems, the approval of the Attorney General, decides not to grant the Justice Department investigators security clearances. The Justice Department investigators cannot be trusted with the classified data. The investigation is cancelled. The news item is here.

Dot: As mentioned previously, the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, refuses to investigate whether the phone companies illegally turned over data to the NSA. We should know, but they just can't see that they have the authority to ask to see classified data The news item is here.

Dot: Little noticed, but by our high-powered Wall Street attorney friend, the president grants John Negroponte the authority to waive the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) accounting and reporting rules for any company involved in any of this, so they can hide whatever they wish on their financial statements - and this completely eliminates any possible "follow the money" trail for any investigators. The news item is here.

The late Friday item and the three dots. Call it what you will.

Want another dot? See the first amendment attorney, Glenn Greenwald, on Saturday, May 27, here


The United States Congress openly debated yesterday whether the federal government should begin imprisoning journalists who publish stories containing information which the Bush administration wants to conceal. At a House Intelligence Committee hearing, several Republicans expressly urged that our country start throwing reporters in jail:

The criticism focused on articles in The New York Times concerning a National Security Agency surveillance program and, to a lesser extent, on disclosures in The Washington Post about secret C.I.A. prisons overseas.

Some Republicans on the committee advocated the criminal prosecution of The Times. Their comments partly echoed and partly amplified recent statements by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Justice Department had the authority to prosecute reporters for publishing classified information...

"I believe the attorney general and the president should use all of the power of existing law to bring criminal charges," said Representative Rick Renzi, Republican of Arizona


He notes that some members of the committee pointed out that this is not a country which imprisons journalists for stories which they publish about controversial government actions, and our congresswoman from out here Jane Harman, said "If anyone here wants to imprison journalists, I invite them to spend some time in China, Cuba or North Korea and see whether they feel safer." Harman had said in February that the journalists should be jailed. She calmed down. She changed her mind.

Greenwald reviews all the argument, each way. It's depressing.

His conclusion? That's easy –


As one can say for so many core American political principles, the U.S. Government under forty-two different Presidents has thrived and defended the nation for two hundred twenty years without the need to imprison journalists for the stories they publish, but the Bush administration is the first to claim that it has to dismantle these liberties because it is too weak - and America is too weak - to maintain national security unless we radically change the kind of country we are.

... That's how this group of Bush followers thinks America is supposed to work. If you are a U.S. citizen, the President can unilaterally order you abducted and imprisoned; does not have to charge you with any crime; can block you from speaking with anyone, including a lawyer; can keep you incarcerated indefinitely (meaning forever); and can deny you the right to any judicial review of your imprisonment or any mechanism for challenging the accuracy of the accusations. And oh - while it would be nice if we could preserve all of that abstract lawyer nonsense about the right to a jury trial and all that, we're really scared that Al Qaeda is going to kill us, so we can't.

... What do you do with people who never learned that American citizens can't be imprisoned by executive decree and without a trial, or that American journalists aren't imprisoned for stories they write about the Government's conduct? People like this plainly do not embrace, or comprehend, even the most basic principles of what America is.


What do you do? Don't know. Connect the dots. See the slow-motion coup. Note it. Publish it. The people will decide.

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

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