Monday, October 31, 2005

The House's Abuse of Patriotism

The New York Times
October 31, 2005

In the national anguish after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress rushed to enact a formidable antiterrorism law - the Patriot Act - that significantly crimped civil liberties by expanding law enforcement's power to use wiretaps, search warrants and other surveillance techniques, often under the cloak of secrecy. There was virtually no public debate before these major changes to the nation's legal system were put into effect.

Now, with some of the act's most sweeping powers set to expire at the end of the year, the two houses of Congress face crucial negotiations, which will also take place out of public view, on their differences over how to extend and amend the law. That's controversy enough. But the increasingly out-of-control House of Representatives has made the threat to our system of justice even greater by inserting a raft of provisions to enlarge the scope of the federal death penalty.

In a breathtaking afterthought at the close of debate, the House voted to triple the number of terrorism-related crimes carrying the death penalty. The House also voted to allow judges to reduce the size of juries that decide on executions, and even to permit prosecutors to try repeatedly for a death sentence when a hung jury fails to vote for death.

The radical amendment was slapped through by the Republican leadership without serious debate. The Justice Department has endorsed the House measure, and Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Judiciary Committee chairman, who is ever on the side of more government power over the individual, is promising to fight hard for the death penalty provisions.

There are now 20 terrorism-related crimes eligible for capital punishment, and the House measure would add 41 more. These would make it easier for prosecutors to win a death sentence in cases where a defendant had no intent to kill - for example, if a defendant gave financial support to an umbrella organization without realizing that some of its adherents might eventually commit violence.

Any move to weaken the American jury system in the name of fighting terrorism is particularly egregious. But the House voted to allow a federal trial to have fewer than 12 jurors if the judge finds "good cause" to do so, even if the defense objects. Under current law, a life sentence is automatically ordered when juries become hung on deciding the capital punishment question. But the House would have a prosecutor try again - a license for jury-shopping for death - even though federal juries already exclude opponents of capital punishment.

The House's simplistic vote for another "crackdown" gesture can only further sully the notion of patriotism in a renewed Patriot Act.

Vietnam Study, Casting Doubts, Remains Secret

The New York Times
October 31, 2005

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 - The National Security Agency has kept secret since 2001 a finding by an agency historian that during the Tonkin Gulf episode, which helped precipitate the Vietnam War, N.S.A. officers deliberately distorted critical intelligence to cover up their mistakes, two people familiar with the historian's work say.

The historian's conclusion is the first serious accusation that communications intercepted by the N.S.A., the secretive eavesdropping and code-breaking agency, were falsified so that they made it look as if North Vietnam had attacked American destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964, two days after a previous clash. President Lyndon B. Johnson cited the supposed attack to persuade Congress to authorize broad military action in Vietnam, but most historians have concluded in recent years that there was no second attack.

The N.S.A. historian, Robert J. Hanyok, found a pattern of translation mistakes that went uncorrected, altered intercept times and selective citation of intelligence that persuaded him that midlevel agency officers had deliberately skewed the evidence.

Mr. Hanyok concluded that they had done it not out of any political motive but to cover up earlier errors, and that top N.S.A. and defense officials and Johnson neither knew about nor condoned the deception.

Mr. Hanyok's findings were published nearly five years ago in a classified in-house journal, and starting in 2002 he and other government historians argued that it should be made public. But their effort was rebuffed by higher-level agency policymakers, who by the next year were fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq, according to an intelligence official familiar with some internal discussions of the matter.

To read the full text, see New York Times

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Put Iraq's Story on The Stand

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 23, 2005; B07

Blog editor's note: If a student of American foreign policy is to make sense of the second Iraq War, s/he must have an idea of its historical context, a point implict in this column by OpEd writer Jim Hoagland. What follows are excerpts and a link to the entire text.

Saddam Hussein's lawyers have announced their intention to make past U.S. complicity with the Iraqi dictator an essential part of the defense in his Baghdad trial. Let's hope they keep their poisonous word.

The pledge to revisit the past came as Hussein's trial opened, and it fed into a flurry of other helpful developments in Iraq last week after a draining summer and early autumn. The White House seems to have noticed that the war's critics are in the ascendancy...

Hussein's lawyers -- who asked for and received a postponement until Nov. 28 after a formal opening Wednesday -- expect to use the past to demoralize U.S. opinion further. They will play a variant of the "shame game" that is a common tactic in Arab politics and culture to get opponents to yield....

"Americans . . . want to blame Saddam for the mass graves and killing Kurds," Khalil Dulaimi, the dictator's lead lawyer, told the Wall Street Journal. "But they forget that they supported Saddam back then."

Counselor, make my case. The current debate here about Iraq pays almost no attention to the past -- especially to the unique moral responsibility to the Iraqi people that successive U.S. administrations have taken on and failed miserably to meet.

To read the complete column, see Washington Post. com

Former Powell Aide Says Bush Policy Is Run by 'Cabal'

The New York Times
October 21, 2005

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 - Secretary of State Colin Powell's former chief of staff has offered a remarkably blunt criticism of the administration he served, saying that foreign policy had been usurped by a "Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal," and that President Bush has made the country more vulnerable, not less, to future crises.

The comments came in a speech Wednesday by Lawrence Wilkerson, who worked for Mr. Powell at the State Department from 2001 to early 2005. Speaking to the New America Foundation, an independent public-policy institute in Washington, Mr. Wilkerson suggested that secrecy, arrogance and internal feuding had taken a heavy toll in the Bush administration, skewing its policies and undercutting its ability to handle crises.

"I would say that we have courted disaster, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Iran, generally with regard to domestic crises like Katrina, Rita - and I could go on back," he said. "We haven't done very well on anything like that in a long time."

Mr. Wilkerson suggested that the dysfunction within the administration was so grave that "if something comes along that is truly serious, truly serious, something like a nuclear weapon going off in a major American city, or something like a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence."

To read the full text, see The New York Times


Blog editor's note: I've been travelling abroad for the past five weeks and as a result, this blog has been "quiet." The noise shall resume as of today. A lot has happened during its silence, but perhaps the most important developments involve the rurther unravelling of the Bush Administration's middle east policy. (See following posts)