May 25, 2020 / by 


McConnell and Dick

There are two stories out today claiming Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, is really wearing the pants in the Executive Branch’s dealings with intelligence. The NYT has McConnell describing tremendous pressure from Congress, yet insisting he got no pressure from the White House.

In an interview in his office, Mr. McConnell insisted on Tuesday thathe never felt direct pressure from the White House to reject theDemocratic proposal, and that contrary to statements from seniorDemocrats he had never given a verbal commitment to their plan.


“My job is to speak truth to power,” he said.

And the LAT has McConnell’s spokesperson claiming the same:

A spokesman for McConnell rejected assertions that he had changed hisposition or been used for political purposes by the White House. "TheWhite House did not play any part in rejecting that bill," said RossFeinstein, a McConnell spokesman. McConnell "made his own decisions. Hewas clear all along on what he needed in the bill."

In handlingthose negotiations, McConnell was thrust into a delicate position. Bytradition, the nation’s top intelligence official is supposed to beinsulated from political pressure or from debates over policy. But atthe same time, the director is appointed by the president and serves ashis top intelligence aide.

"He is the president’s seniorintelligence advisor, not Congress’ senior intelligence advisor," saidMark Lowenthal, a former top CIA official and intelligence historian.But, he added, "I don’t think McConnell would ever allow himself to beput in the position of doing the bidding of the White House. It’s justnot who the guy is."

Both stories contradict the stories TPMM and others were getting from during the negotiations.

Given the contradiction, I couldn’t help but remember the reports from negotiations on Bush’s recent Executive Order on torture (including one from Mark Mazzetti, the author of today’s NYT piece).

A Tale of Two NIEs

One good thing about the spectacular abuse of intelligence to get us into the Iraq war: the intelligence community is acquiring a habit of releasing key judgments from its NIEs (I understand we’ll get an Iraq NIE in time for September’s moving of the goal posts). And when I read the claim yesterday that half the content of last week’s NIE on terrorism came from detainee interrogations …

According to one senior intelligence official, nearly half of thesource material used in the recent National Intelligence Estimate onthe terrorism threat to the United States came from C.I.A.interrogations of detainees.

… I decided it would be useful to compare this most recent NIE with the NIE on terror produced in April 2006 and released in late September 2006. After all, the NIEs have been produced in fairly quick succession. But the NIEs were produced under different Directors of National Intelligence (Death Squads Negroponte for the last one, and Mike McConnell for this one) and under different majority parties. The previous NIE, unlike this most recent one, may have relied on intelligence gathered using torture. And the previous one was only declassified after it was leaked that the NIE contradicted public statements from the Administration; whereas this one was developed with the understanding an unclassified version would be released

Bush’s Cheney’s Signing Statement on the Geneva Convention

It’s really tough sorting out the new Executive Order on torture. But after a whole day of pondering the details, I think I’m finally getting it. It’s yet another Bush signing statement, this time to record his own personal interpretation of the Geneva Convention. After all–that’s where this new EO came from: after SCOTUS, in Hamdan, told Bush that all detainees were covered by the Geneva Convention, after Congress, with the Military Commissions Act, told Bush he could shred concepts like habeas corpus but only if he had documentation for doing so, he was forced to write this new EO.

Charlie Savage provides a good overview:

Bush’s executive order laid out broad guidelines for how the CIAmust treat detainees in its secret overseas prisons, where theadministration has held some suspects without giving them access to theRed Cross. The document prohibits a range of abuses, including"intentionally causing serious bodily injury" and "forcing theindividual to perform sexual acts," as well as mistreating the Koran.

Theorder also said the CIA director must personally approve the use ofextraordinary interrogation practices against any specific detainee.Detainees must also receive "adequate food and water, shelter from theelements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat andcold, and essential medical care," it said.

But most of thepresident’s executive order is written in generalities, leavingunanswered whether the CIA will be free to subject prisoners to a rangeof specific techniques it has reportedly used in the past, includinglong-term sleep disruption, prolonged shackling in painful stresspositions, or "waterboarding," a technique that produces the sensationof drowning.

That is, some of the most obvious abuses–using sex and religion–are now forbidden. But the key information, what remains permitted, is in a separate, classified list that we don’t get to see. And three other key details: the Executive Order explicitly denies any legal responsibilities associated with the EO, so even if some overzealous torturer ignores it, he’s not going to jail. The Red Cross remains unable to monitor prisoners in this newfangled "enhanced interrogation" program. And Congress still doesn’t have a copy of the DOJ opinion on the program. For that matter, Karen DeYoung reports that the Administration hasn’t responded to Congress’ other questions, either.

They said the administration has not responded to the questions theyasked during a recent briefing on the new order and the detaineeprogram.

Mind you, this is the DOJ review that Congress mandated as part of the Military Commissions Act. But I guess that’s classified too.

Novak’s July 7 Meeting

Credit where it’s due. Tom Maguire hits all the right notes about this Novak book excerpt, save one. He notes that Novak’s story has a way of changing with the seasons.

Interesting.  This old post has the Novak version before he was willing to name Armitage; here is Novak (post-"Hubris") rebutting Armitage’s version.

There are subtle shifts in the story – now we are told that "Hementioned her first name, Valerie", a detail not presented earlier.

I love the way righties note how changeable Novak’s story is–yet they always seem to fall for his most ridiculous lines. Like about how, when he referred to Valerie Plame as a covert Agent, he really meant she was running a Congressional campaign in Wyoming (no really–he did say that once–you think he’s got former Congressmen from Wyoming on his mind)?

Oh wait. This is a credit where it’s due post. Sorry. Maguire also points out that Novak’s cover story about Fran Townsend is changing too.

OK, we have had that before – the prevailing version as told by Murray Waas has been that the Townsend column came out on July 10;Rove defended her to Novak at length on the 8th or 9th, and then Novakslipped in a question about Wilson’s wife and Karl responded with "Iheard that, too".

But now Novak tells us that the Townsend column was written on July7.  Hmm – in that case, what did he and Karl find to talk about on July8 or 9?  Or had Rove "heard that, too" in a chat with Novak on the 7theven before Novak met with Armitage?

Well done, Maguire. Posts like these are why you’re a respectable Plameologist.

But Maguire misses one point. A big one. An awfully big one. You see, Novak says he was reporting on Townsend on July 7, before (Maguire accepts Novak here) he called Rove. Maguire points out how that may or may not challenge Novak’s cover story about calling Rove to talk about Townsend. But he doesn’t do the obvious–like asking who, if not Rove, Novak was talking to about Townsend on July 7. I’ll remind you of this passage in Murray Waas’ story on this issue (which Maguire links but apparently doesn’t re-read that closely).

The senior staff in the Office of the Vice President adamantly opposedTownsend’s appointment. The staff included two of Cheney’s closestaides: Libby, then the chief of staff and national security adviser tothe vice president; and David Addington, who at the time was Cheney’scounsel but who has since succeeded Libby as chief of staff.

Among other things, Libby and Addington believed that Townsendwould bring a more traditional approach to combating terrorism, andfeared she would not sign on to, indeed might even oppose, the OVP’spolicy of advocating the use of aggressive and controversial toolsagainst terror suspects. One of those techniques is known as"extraordinary rendition," in which terror suspects are taken toforeign countries, where they can be interrogated without the samelegal and human-rights protections afforded to those in U.S. custody,including the protection from torture.

Libby’s opposition to Townsend was so intense that he asked atleast two other people in the White House to obtain her personnelrecords. [my emphasis]

Now who do you think Novak might have been talking to on July 7? Who do you think might have seeded the Townsend story that she was a Democrat and shouldn’t be hired? Golly. I can’t even begin to guess. And mind you, Novak would have to have been talking to someone intimately involved in the 16 words controversy, because that’s why he brings this up in the first place. And according to his (changing) testimony, the 16 words was precisely what he spoke to Libby about.

Good thing we know that Libby and Novak would have been forthcoming about it if they had had a meeting on July 7, huh?

Two more nitpicky points. First, I’ll reiterate my point that if Novak initiated his question to Armitage by saying, "Joe Wilson never worked at the CIA," it still raises the question of why he believed that, when Wilson’s resume (or Who’s Who entry, since Novak claims to be a fan) wouldn’t be enough to make that claim. He wouldn’t know that, definitively, unless someone with clearance had told him.

And lastly, this is, necessarily, unmitigated bullshit.

When I went to my office Monday, July 7, 2003, Joe Wilson was not in the forefront of my mind. Frances Fragos Townsend was.

The reason this is clearly bullshit is because Novak is simultaneously (at least as of February) arguing that the reason he called Wilson an "asshole" to Wilson’s friend on July 8 is because he was so pissed at how rude (ha! some fierce pot-calling here) Wilson was on Meet the Press, on July 6. Novak has basically argued (for the sake of pretending he didn’t speak to someone before he spoke to Armitage) that he was obsessed with what an asshole Wilson was from the time Novak ran into him in the Green Room to the time he ran into Wilson’s friend on the street. That is, he was fuming about that asshole Joe Wilson from July 6 to July 8.

Which is it, Novak? Were you fuming for two days straight? Or did you speak to someone on July 7–someone who wanted Townsend fired, like Scooter Libby–who told you Wilson was an asshole?

Sources: Or, Tedious Kremlinology

I’ve talked about Cheney’s and Addington’s Methods. Now I’d like to inventory the sources that Gellman and Becker used for their articles, as a way to understand where the shifting loyalties of the Administration lie. One thing that becomes clear by mapping this out is the centrality of Josh Bolten to many of the more damning accusations against Cheney. Thus, while these articles may reflect the fingerprints of Poppy (likely) or Scooter (implausible, IMO), I think it is primarily an attempt by the COS and possibly Condi to bring Cheney under control, aided by former Administration lawyers they know to have soured on Cheney’s ways.

The anonymous sources at the bottom serve as a way of filling out who the named sources are below. For a list of all the people mentioned in the articles, see this page.

John Ashcroft: John Ashcroft is a named source (albeit a vague one) for a key confrontation in Gonzales’ office and a likely unnamed source for some of the other disputes. It’ll be interesting to see if he increasingly makes such public comments, seeing as how his testimony before HPSCI the other day clearly backed up Comey’s.

James Baker: Is quoted in part two and shares his notes in part one (though the notes may come from someone’s library). Baker states clearly that Cheney has been about the accumulation of power.

Brad Berenson: Curiously, the designated GOP firewall defense lawyer is a boisterous source for these articles (though, from personal experience, I can attest he is approachable). He seems intent on minimizing his own role–and that of John Yoo (whom he calls a "supporting player").

Josh Bolten: Bolten seems to be an important source for these stories, which raises very interesting questions about Bush’s own view of the article. The quote that best sums up Bolten’s critical attitude towards Cheney’s power is this one: "The vice president didn’t particularly warm to that," Bolten recalled dryly. Bolten is, of course, describing how Cheney refused to play an ordinary VP role, with some apparent bemusement. There’s a later quote–The White House proposal, said Bolten, the chief of staff, "did not come out exactly as the vice president would have wanted."–that sounds like Bolten gloating.

David Bowker: Source for some of the issues affecting Powell.

Bryan Cunningham: Cunningham seems to be the source for the details about how Cheney and Addington bypassed Bellinger. He has left government to go into private consulting, so presumably his loyalties may be very anti-Cheney. Note that Bellinger himself is a Rice loyalist; if he is a source for this it would lend credence that she participated in this effort.

Gordon England: England describes his dismay about Addington’s maneuvers on torture.

Tim Flanigan: Flanigan offers nowhere near as many on the record comments as Berenson and Yoo. It may be he’s stuck in the position of defending the indefensible, and therefore remains more quiet. His most telling comment, however, is this one:

he still believes that Addington and Yoo were right in their"application of generally accepted constitutional principles." But heacknowledged that many battles ended badly. "The Supreme Court,"Flanigan said, "decided to change the rules."

That is, he’s just bummed (and talking) because Addington’s efforts backfired.

Mike Gerson: Mike Gerson is described as an opponent to black sites, yet describes Cheney’s motives favorably. There are a few more comments that similarly criticize Cheney while treating him as honorable which may come from him.

Bob Graham: There’s no surprise seeing Graham provide details about the domestic wiretap program. He is one source (potentially the only one) reporting on the first briefing on the program given by Cheney.

David Gribben: Curiously, the article describes David Gribben as a friend from grad school. It doesn’t mention he was also a Defense and Halliburton employee while Cheney was in charge, or that he was instrumental in the transition. Gribben’s named quote seems to defend Cheney’s method of sending "messages" while firing disloyal employees, which sure suggests Gribben remains loyal. As the one named OVP staffer in the article (Matalin aside) Gribben may be the source for some of the comments about Cheney’s intentions.

Mary Matalin: Matalin is one of the surrogates for Cheney and Addington (both of whom declined to be interviewed). She stresses how important Cheney is, without commenting on the legality or efficacy of what he has done.

Brian McCormack: McCormack is one of the many people that has moved from Cheney’s staff eventually onto Bush’s (which surely helps Cheney keep tabs). Curiously, McCormack moved through the corrupt world of Defense acquisitions before ending up in a public liaison function (which, according to Susan Ralston, works with outside constituencies, which means he may remain in the corrupt world of crony contracting. McCormack’s named quote is fairly vanilla, though he seems to be one of the few people who would talk about how Cheney set up his fiefdom even before Bush v. Gore was decided.

Alberto Mora: One of the military lawyers fighting back against Cheney, Mora is a likely source for some of the later meetings on torture.

Dan Quayle: Dan Quayle is a named source used to (humorously, IMO) depict how far out of the norm Cheney is. There are few interesting questions of loyalty in what he says.

William Taft: A Powell loyalist, Taft shows up admitting that he was an easy mark because he misunderstood the stakes of the fight.

John Yoo: Yoo is a named source for one incident where Cheney and Addington ignored his advice (not to spread the use of torture to the military). He may well be the source for some of the very detailed descriptions of the Addington/Yoo/Flanigan/Gonzales interactions.

Sidney’s Imperial Presidency

Sidney Blumenthal and I were apparently making the same point at about the same time. Not long after I argued, on a panel on the Imperial Presidency, that there are those within the Administration who believe in the rule of law and can therefore be mobilized against it, Sidney was finishing up his column making that point in much more comprehensive fashion.

In private, Bushadministration sub-Cabinet officials who have been instrumental informulating and sustaining the legal "war paradigm" acknowledge thattheir efforts to create a system for detainees separate from dueprocess, criminal justice and law enforcement have failed. One of thekey framers of the war paradigm(in which the president in his wartime capacity as commander in chiefmakes and enforces laws as he sees fit, overriding the constitutionalsystem of checks and balances), who a year ago was arguing vehementlyfor pushing its boundaries, confesses that he has abandoned his beliefin the whole doctrine, though he refuses to say so publicly. If he wereto speak up, given his seminal role in formulating the policy and hisstature among the Federalist Society cadres that run it, his rejectionwould have a shattering impact, far more than political philosopherFrancis Fukuyama’s denunciation of the neoconservatism he formerlyembraced. But this figure remains careful to disclose hisdisillusionment with his own handiwork only in off-the-recordconversations. Yet another Bush legal official, even now at thecommanding heights of power, admits that the administration’s policiesare largely discredited. In its defense, he says without a hint ofirony or sarcasm, "Not everything we’ve done has been illegal." Headds, "Not everything has been ultra vires" — a legal term referringto actions beyond the law.

The resistance within the administration to Bush’s torturepolicy, the ultimate expression of the war paradigm, has come to an endthrough attrition and exhaustion. More than two years ago, VicePresident Dick Cheney’s then chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libbyand then general counsel David Addington physically cornered one of thefew internal opponents, subjecting him to threats, intimidation andisolation.

The Banality of the Unitary Executive

It’s weird, blogging the Libby trial. I’m putting out details at such a tremendous rate all day that I have a real hard time getting the big picture–though I do get that by the time I talk it through with others here. But I do feel like I’m missing the middle ground.

Except relating to one thing. David Addington. By far the biggest surprise to me, in terms of personal impressions, is David Addington.

As I’ve been reminding at every opportunity, David Addington is Mr. Unitary Executive, the guy who has provided legal justification for many of Cheney’s biggest power grabs: torture, extraordinary rendition, domestic spying, and so on.

I truly expected his interviews to be terribly hostile. I truly expected to see Addington bristle at every question. But that didn’t happen.

Playing the Clock

I’ve been reviewing the events of Fall 2002 closely lately. And I gotta say, even four years later, I still get furious at the way the Bush Administration sprang the Iraq war "product" on Congress just before mid-term elections. Look at the way Wolf Blitzer responds, for example, when Condi tells him BushCo will push for an Iraq war vote before Congress goes home for the election.

BLITZER:  When will you ask Congress for a resolution endorsing potential use of military force?

RICE: We’ll want to have discussions with the congressional leadershipand with others about the timing of this. But I believe that thepresident thinks it’s best to do this sooner rather than later and inthis session of Congress. This is a problem…

BLITZER:  Excuse me for interrupting. 

RICE:  Yes?

BLITZER:  You mean before the congressional recess in advance of the elections, within the next month or so.

RICE: Yes, that’s right, before the congressional recess, before thecongressional recess. I think the president has made clear that hewould like to have a full debate and a resolution, but we’re going todiscuss this with the members of Congress.

BLITZER:  There’s a lot of explaining that members of Congress insist you still need to do.

If your cynicism is shocking Blitzer, you’re engaging in truly cynical behavior.

Which is why it gives me a sick pleasure to watch BushCo try to save their own arses from war crime prosecution push through their wiretapping and torture bills before the mid-terms.

How Was Rashid Rauf Arrested?

Atrios links to Andrew Sullivan being skeptical  who links to Craig Murray being even more skeptical. And Murray raised a point that I had raised earlier. Here’s Murray:

What is more, many of those arrested had been under surveillance forover a year – like thousands of other British Muslims. And not justMuslims. Like me. Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the needfor early arrests.

Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazingplot to blow up multiple planes – which, rather extraordinarily, hadnot turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogatorsof the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing likecanaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the mostextraordinary information this way. Trouble is it always tends to givethe interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effortto stop or avert torture. What it doesn’t give is the truth.

Now I’m frankly not as skeptical as Murray; Meteor Blades has made a pretty convincing case, after all, that we need to be skeptical in all directions (and I believe Meteor Blades unquestioningly). But I do want to raise a question I’ve already asked.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Napoleon, and V for Vendetta

I’m not a movie person. I used to be, when I lived in San Francisco and going to movies offered delightful experiences ranging from the mini-mall of the Kabuki Theater to the cozy popcorn of the Red Vic. Here in Michigan, though, the experience is not so magical. Nevertheless, because I once hung out with folks hipper than I am, I have a remarkable habit of going to the opening weekend showings of the Wachowski Brother films, including V for Vendetta.

I can’t vouch for V for Vendetta’s interpretation of the Alan Moore graphic novel (and I’m frankly glad that my graphic novelist friend probably won’t read this post). But I can vouch for V for Vendetta’s interpretation of Count of Monte Cristo. Whether intentionally or not, the movie succeeds in doing something the original serialized novel did (and few appropriations since have done well)–use a pop culture medium to meditate on the most just relationship between the state and individual. In this post, I’ll explain some of the political background of the Count of Monte Cristo as a way to explain how clever V for Vendetta’s appropriation of the Monte Cristo tale is. I’ve given a spoiler alert below, so if you want to read the bit on Monte Cristo, you’ll know where you need to stop before you get to the V for Vendetta stuff.

Napoleon as a Background to Monte Cristo

Most people don’t realize this about Count of Monte Cristo. But it was a remarkably politically charged book. Consider, first of all, the premise. Edmond Dantes is imprisoned, and through that process of imprisonment, becomes superhuman, the cipher that is the Count of Monte Cristo. But the reason for Dantes’ imprisonment–in a book appearing during the troubled period leading up to 1848 and soon thereafter Louis-Napoleon’s Second Empire–is an association with Napoleon. That is, a perceived connection with Napoleon Bonaparte set off a process that produced a figure every bit as superhuman as Bonaparte himself, one who managed to deliver justice in the corrupt world of July Monarchy Paris.

And that was not a mistake. The Count of Monte Cristo was first published from 1844 to 1845 in the era’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal–the banker’s paper, the paper most supportive of France’s Orleans government. Not long before the serialization of Monte Cristo, the newspaper published another serial novel, The Mysteries of Paris, that featured another such superhuman character and also drawing an explicit connection to Bonaparte. The novels were two of the most popular and best-compensated books of the pre-1848 period. Remarkably, both used this organ of the governing party to present a challenge to it.

But it was not just this newspaper; every major paper in Paris serialized some kind of Napoleon narrative in their feuilleton section: the memoirs of one of Napoleon’s relatives, the retelling of one incident from his life. Even minor, individual feuilleton essays used Napoleon’s name as a means to talk about desirable characteristics. My favorite is a feuilleton reporting the results of the weekly horse race at Bois de Boulogne; the feuilleton used the description of one horse to hail the qualities of Napoleon, leaving ambiguous, of course, whether it referred to the horse named Napoleon or the man of the same name. The invocation of Napoleon was almost omnipresent in the feuilleton sections where Monte Cristo first appeared. It was as if, today, every TV channel featured series about JFK at the same time, implying a Kennedy was the only solution to our woes.

The omnipresence of Napoleon did not happen by accident. The censorship laws of the day (enforced by Janet Jackson’s boob-type fines) forbade any mention of the word Bourbon or Republic, as well as any explicit criticism of the king or a member of his government. If you wanted to complain, the legally available way to do so was to invoke Napoleon.

What many of these narratives effectively explored was the means by which a superhuman Napoleonic character could bring justice to an increasingly industrialized bourgeois society. In the earlier serial novel, Mysteries of Paris, the Napoleonic main character Rodolphe was basically a pop socialist, coaching the poor to visualize their dreams, then delivering those dreams. Perhaps not incidentally, Louis-Napoleon had recently published a socialist tract, every bit as dreamy as Rodolphe’s promises. Alexandre Dumas went one step further, actually visiting Louis-Napoleon in jail (he had been jailed after a coup attempt) just before Dumas began writing Monte Cristo. And while Monte Cristo was not quite as popular, in its day, as Mysteries of Paris, the Napoleon figure depicted in it more closely resembles the benevolent dictator Louis-Napoleon would claim to be.

There’s a reason why these novels used Napoleonic figures, beyond the censorsip laws. The French were seeking a way to merge the individual created by the Rights of Man with the unity of Louis XIV, whose famous statement “L’Etat, C’est moi” effectively claimed the state and the sovereign to be one. The reign of Louis Phillipe, who legally ruled under the novel formulation “King of the French,” just wasn’t delivering (though the failure had as much to do with his embrace of bourgeois capitalism as it did with any legal basis for his power). Napoleon Bonaparte–at once a leader who embodied the nation as had Louis XIV, and the consummate individual who succeeded through merit–offered a way to achieve both unified nation and individual. The novelistic Napoleonic reincarnations were effectively meditations on how to accomplish that formula again.

V for Vendetta, the Individual, the State

That’s the aspect of the Count of Monte Cristo that V for Vendetta has managed to recreate so well. The fascist nation depicted in the movie thrives on dehumanization. V is at once the product of that dehumanization and the refutation of it. He is not only stronger than the state, he cherishes all the trappings of individuality with his taste in music, movies, art. And because of these characteristics (and because he exposes the lies of power, something else that Monte Cristo did), V succeeds in having the entire nation identify with him.

The revelation of identity is central to the Count of Monte Cristo. Indeed, it is the way he metes out judgment. He has to do no more than reveal his identity to his three enemies to defeat them utterly, as he does here with Comte de Morcerf, the man who stole his fiancee, when he begs Monte Cristo to reveal his true identity:

‘I admit that I am known to you, but I do not know you, you adventurer, smothered in gold and precious stones! In Paris you call yourself the Count of Monte Cristo. In Italy, Sinbad the Sailor. In Malta–who knows what? I have forgotten. What I ask from you is your real name. I want to know your true name, in the midst of these hundred false names, so that I can say it on the field of combat as I plunge my sword in your heart.’


‘Fernand!’ Monte Cristo cried. ‘Of my hundred names, I shall need to tell you only one to strike you down. But you can already guess that name, can’t you? Or, rather, you can recall it. For in spite of all my woes, in spite of all my tortures, I can now show you a face rejuvenated by the joy of revenge, a face that you must have seen often in your dreams since your marriage … your marriage to my fiancee, Mercedes!’

The general, his head thrown back, his hands held out, his eyes staring, watched this dreadful spectacle in silence. Then, reaching out for the wall and leaning on it, he slid slowly along it to the door, out of which he retreated backwards, giving this one, single, lugubrious, lamentable, heart-rending cry: ‘Edmond Dantes!’

Realizing Monte-Cristo’s identity–realizing that this super-human man worthy of respect is the same ordinary man that he cheated many years earlier–is enough to make Morcerf kill himself.

[spoiler alert]

There is this aspect of identity in V’s revenge. He always makes sure his victims recognize him (though he remains nameless) before he kills them, so their last moments are the horror of realizing the creation of their own crimes has been their undoing.

But there’s another aspect of identity, “showing a face,” as Monte Cristo says, that V for Vendetta displaces. For V’s mask sets a narrative expectation in the same way a gun does; we expect a gun shown early in a movie to be shot before that movie ends, we expect a mask to be raised and the face underneath revealed. Yet V for Vendetta frustrates this expectation. Several times, the movie presents us with a moment that, traditionally, would be the unmasking. Yet even when Evey asks V to remove his mask, he refuses to do so. V never does it, he never reveals his face.

Instead, the average people do. The average people, cast to look like you and I–or like you and I would look if we were Brits. Old people, girls in coke-bottle glasses, people who are not Hollywood beauty. The narrative expectation that V will find justice at the moment of his unmasking is resolved only when the crowd of nameless average people raise their mask and reveal themselves in all their individuality.

V for Vendetta offers neither a novel alternative to fascism nor a really well developed one, philosophically or politically. It is no more than a promise that individuals, acting in solidarity, can replace the oppressive state.

But it appropriates and overturns the tradition of the Count of Monte Cristo in a remarkable way. It removes the central Napoleon figure, making his identity secondary to the delivery of justice. It takes a narrative that has been used to lobby for the return of a dictator and flips that into an embrace of the common man.

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