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We Need a New Common American Story

Back during the 24 hours surrounding election day, we had as big a spat as we’ve had on these pages, ever.

The night before the election, Quinn wrote a piece envisioning What Comes After America (Quinn has both the gift and the curse of writing necessary things at uncomfortable times and this piece, on the eve of an election in which large swaths of America came out in droves to support Trump’s white supremacy, almost giving him an Electoral College win again, is no exception). Quinn’s piece spoke explicitly about the Constitution (though to my mind didn’t focus enough on the specific aspects of it that pose such problems).

The flaw is our Constitution. As there is no politically possible path to rewriting the it, the Constitution can only fall further into entropy and catastrophe.

The longer this goes on, the worse the end will be. This is why it’s the duty of people who are in and of, or love, America the culture, Americans the people, the land it spans and the diversity it holds, to imagine what comes next and the easiest way to get there. We’ve been running what was essentially the broken beta of the first representative democracy for almost 250 years, and it was built to not be upgradable. It doesn’t work right, it never did, and it is awful. It was a compromise of rich and frightened men whose imaginations (understandably) didn’t reach far beyond the 18th century.

Even while talking about the flaws of the Constitution, Quinn nevertheless endorsed the idea of America as a culture.

The successes of America, and there have been many, came not because of our form of governance but despite it. The culture – for good and ill – isn’t the constitution or the legal regime or the nation-state as recognized by other nation-states. It’s the people. It’s what we choose, believe, and imagine.

Rayne responded by insisting We’re So Not Through Here, paying tribute to the tireless fight of America’s people of color.

Take a hard look at what the Black Americans of this country have been doing since voting began last month as a commitment to form a more perfect Union. Ask them if the Union is done.

Take a hard look at what Native Americans have had to do — forced to change their lifestyle, assigning addresses to places which to them are simply Home — in order to vote, otherwise invalidated and erased if they don’t. Ask them, too, if the Union is done.

And take note of the naturalized immigrants who are worried they and their kin will be harassed by ICE and potentially incarcerated or deported while trying to vote simply because they aren’t white and have come to this country too recently. Ask them if the Union to which they emigrated, many as refugees, is done.

My Chinese family members weren’t permitted to emigrate here or own land until 1943, when it suddenly became convenient to have China side with the U.S. against Japan. I tell you this Union is not done, from the house I own under a hyphenated Chinese name.

Rayne ended by pointing to both activism and voting as a way to salvage our union.

[T]his union is by no means done and over. It’s there in the lines we have seen in the streets for weeks, snaking out the doors of polling places across this country. It’s in the cars lined up in a drive-through campaign rally, queued hopefully, trustingly in a drive-through foodbank.

It was there in the streets after George Floyd was murdered.

From goose quill pen’s first ink on parchment 244 years ago, this union has always been aspirational, a nation in a state of becoming, a people who must occasionally check themselves and listen to their better angels.

From the speech before a battlefield of nearly 50,000 American dead 157 years ago, we re-consecrated ourselves,

that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The union is not over. The dream still lives, its work goes on; we will not yield.

It’s simply time once again to rededicate ourselves to forming a more perfect union.

We can begin this day of all days by exercising and protecting our right to vote.

Since Rayne wrote that, of course, Biden accrued 6 million more votes than Trump, but with only the same Electoral College outcome that Trump got in losing the popular vote in 2016.

And Trump — abetted by a goodly chunk of his party — has implemented a slow-motion coup in an attempt to hold onto power by thwarting the will of the electorate. A key part of this effort, unsurprisingly, has been exploiting a growing Republican certainty that the votes of Californians like Quinn and Michigan voters of color like Rayne are not legitimate votes, and therefore can just be discounted with impunity. The effort will probably fail, this time. But not before Trump and Republicans do untold damage to America and Americans

Perhaps what I am about to say will be discounted as an effort to protect the site, but I think both Quinn and Rayne had important and not inconsistent things to say. Importantly, both focus on the idea of America, pointing to its culture and diversity as something that needs salvaging. Both point to things that need to happen — committed activism and legal changes — for this country to survive.

Which is why I want to talk about something that we can try to do, and very much need to do, for that to work.

We need a new story about America.

Back in 2016 and 2017, I repeatedly argued that the fracture of the myth of American Exceptionalism made Trump possible. For example, in May 2016, I argued that both Dick Cheney’s anti-racist imperialism and Pat Buchanan’s nativism bespoke a crisis in the myth of American Exceptionalism that made Trump possible.

Trump’s lies, Buchanan suggests, permit these white men to believe their myth again, the myth of white American exceptionalism.

Here’s the thing. A lot of people are linking Buchanan’s post are pointing just to those far right nutjobs whose enthusiasm has fueled Trump’s rise this year.

But — as the example of Dick Cheney perpetuating the very same myths, even while criticizing Trump’s overt racism — that underlying myth extends well beyond the far right nutjobs, well into mainstream Republican and even Democratic ideology.

America has a Donald Trump problem — one that its diversity will probably defeat, at least in the short term. But underlying that Donald Trump problem is a desperate insistence on clinging to the myth of American exceptionalism, with its more offensive parts even embraced in the mainstream. For the sake of the white men who’ve relied on those myths for their sense of dignity, but also to prevent future Trumps, it is time to start replacing that exceptionalist myth with something else.

Even in April 2016, I thought a malaise created by the failures of American Exceptionalism was the recipe for a Trump disaster.

My real point, however, is that the Trump effect is secondary. It is absolutely true that American workers and middle class, generally, have been losing ground. And it absolutely true that whites may perceive themselves to be losing more ground as people of color equalize outcomes, however little that is really going on. It is, further, absolutely true that large swaths of flyover country whites are killing themselves, often through addiction, at increasing rates, which seems to reflect a deep malaise.

But I also think the effect of the Trump side of the equation — the thing that’s driving rabid adherence to an orange boob promising a big wall and domestic investment as well as promising to treat other countries with utter disdain — is secondary malaise, the loss of the self-belief that America actually is exceptional.

(White) America needs to stop believing its superior[ity] stems from the ability to lord over much of the rest of the world and start investing in actually living with the rest of the world.

For years, American Exceptionalism got many but not all Americans to buy into a common story, and that common story served to keep the country running. That story has, for better and worse, largely failed, at least in its original incarnation.

We’ve been overdue for this reckoning for a very very long time.

Think of this blessing and curse: America was founded — with that very imperfect Constitution Quinn focused on — before the flourishing of nationalism, without a history of a sovereign out of whose dead body we could carve a founding story. All we had is that document and some fanciful notions about reason and Enlightenment.

Nevertheless, out of that document and a whole bunch of myth-making, we created a story that has worked to get Americans to believe in common cause for two and a half centuries. The process of that myth-making is critically important: It involved a belief in a virgin land that disappeared native people. It involved a belief in self-determination that disappeared the slaves. It came to include a notion of Manifest Destiny that excused our own imperialism.

Why that process worked is critically important too: All those disappeared people — Native Americans, Blacks and Latinos, immigrants, women — never held enough sway, collectively, to unpack the lies that our collective imagination relied on. That was why Barack Hussein Obama, seemingly the embodiment of American Exceptionalism, posed such a threat to it. And having failed to radically alter the means of power that exploited that founding myth, Obama left the ground ripe for a resurgence of white supremacy, the reality that long masqueraded as exceptionalism though its process of disappearance.

Today, in significant part as a result of four years of Trump, any premise of a common cause, of a shared American story, is utterly shattered.

Huge numbers of Republicans either believe or claim to believe that the only way to save the nation is to ensure, at all costs, that Democrats are not permitted to effectively govern. Those Republicans are willing to do real damage to this country — they’re willing to see a quarter of a million Americans die, many deaths of which were preventable, they’re willing to discount the votes of their neighbors and co-workers based on the most outrageous legal hoaxes — rather than joining together with their Democratic neighbors for a common good.

In days ahead, if we are to save the idea of America and prevent it from becoming an authoritarian behemoth, we need to find a new common story.

I’m not sure what that story is, but from one thing I take solace in the Trump presidency. He was competitive in 2020 in part because he integrated the lesson of 2018, that misinformation about immigrant caravans affirmatively turned off key voters. He still is an unashamed white supremacist; just the other day he appointed white supremacists to a Holocaust commission. But he didn’t run against immigrants in 2020, and it worked to attract surprising numbers of non-whites to embrace Trump’s story of victimization. Meanwhile, Trump’s relentless attacks on immigrants from the first days of his term actually reversed polling on views towards legal immigration in this country. Trump attacked one way that this country really is exceptional, the degree to which immigrants have thrived and often lead, and caused a fairly widespread backlash.

That’s certainly not enough to find common cause and common story again. But it is one yarn we can start knitting.

Trump has done one more thing to create this opportunity, if we take it. By embracing other pariahs on the world stage, Trump has irrevocably ended our claim to be exceptional. President Joe Biden, if and when he takes power, will be forced to adopt a humble new face for America. Remarkably, that may present a useful opportunity for us to rethink America’s role in the world, one where we’ll have to earn any claim to lead, much less to lead from some vision of exceptionalism.

Child Rapist George Nader Introduced Dick Cheney and Ahmad Chalabi

Last night, BuzzFeed released the second-to-last dump of 302s in their Mueller FOIA. There’s a ton that’s interesting in it (and I’m just skimming much of it). But — as I said to Jason Leopold — this George Nader interview, by itself, made the FOIA dump worth the price of admission.

There’s a ton of details about how he brokered meetings between Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev and lots of significantly redacted discussions of meetings with Don Jr. There’s great theater where, several times, Nader denied something, including meeting “any” Russian government officials at a trip to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2016, only to have Mueller’s team show him a picture (in the case of Putin) or a text (in the case of his denials that he had met Steve Bannon) that forced him to immediately backtrack off his claims. Nader describes how he — a convicted pedophile during this entire period — could get along with all sides: Clinton and Trump, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Everyone’s favorite child rapist.

But by far the craziest part of this amazing interview — the thing that has my brain reeling this afternoon — has nothing to do with Russia.

In describing his background, you see, Nader claimed that he’s the one who introduced Ahmad Chalabi to Dick Cheney.

For those who don’t remember, Chalabi had a significant role in drumming up the Iraq War (here’s what I wrote after he died in 2015, and here’s a piece I wrote about him 10 years earlier, in advance of my book on such things). So by introducing Chalabi to Cheney, Nader played some role — how big, it’s unclear — in perhaps the single greatest American foreign policy debacle of all time.

And now he’s rotting away in prison for trafficking a boy.

Dick Cheney’s Apprentice Strikes

John Bolton may lack the courage of Marie Yovanovitch, Jennifer Williams, Fiona Hill, or Alex Vindman. But he learned the art of bureaucratic murder from the master, Dick Cheney. And so it is that after the President’s lawyers have already laid out their defense, it magically happened that NYT learned the damning details about Ukraine in the draft of Bolton’s book that would make his testimony in the impeachment trial monumental.

Apparently, the book describes:

  • In an August meeting about releasing the aid, Trump said he didn’t want to release it until Ukraine sent all documents pertaining to Biden and Hillary
  • Mike Pompeo knew Rudy’s allegations about Marie Yovanovitch were false and believed Rudy may have been working for other clients when he floated them
  • Bolton told Bill Barr that he was mentioned in the call in July; Barr has claimed he only learned that in August
  • Contrary to Mick Mulvaney’s claims, the Chief of Staff was present on at least one call with Rudy
  • Bolton, Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper counseled Trump to releasee the aid almost a dozen times

The details I most relish — not least because Dick Cheney hurt the country using his bureaucratic skills but included none of them in his autobiographical novel — are there bureaucratic details.

Mr. Bolton’s explosive account of the matter at the center of Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, the third in American history, was included in drafts of a manuscript he has circulated in recent weeks to close associates.

[snip]

White House officials … said he took notes that he should have left behind when he departed the administration.

Bolton has notes. And “close associates” of his have drafts of the manuscript.

Bill Barr may be sending FBI agents out to pick up Bolton’s notes as they went to pick up Jim Comey’s memos detailing Trump’s damning behavior, but at this point, I think Bolton could instead send them to NARA to comply with the Presidential Records Act. And if Barr goes after Bolton, I assume his friends will release the drafts.

Plus, there are several other ways this can get out. Bolton has just won himself an invitation to testify to SDNY about Rudy (and Pompeo may have as well). The House could go after Bolton for investigations of everyone else he implicated — Pompeo, Barr, Mulvaney — all of whom deserve to be impeached themselves.

Already, a significant majority of voters want the Senate to call witnesses like Bolton. Now, if they don’t so they can acquit, it will make this a bigger story going forward.

The Irony of Glenn Greenwald Cuddling Up with Bill Barr, the Grandfather of Ed Snowden’s Phone Dragnet

Glenn Greenwald, who has written two books about the abuse of Presidential power, continues to dig in on his factually ignorant claims about the Mueller report. For days, he and the denialists said that if Mueller’s report was being misrepresented by Bill Barr, Mueller would speak up. Now that Mueller’s team has done so, Glenn complains that these are anonymous leaks and nevertheless only address obstruction, not a conspiracy with Russia on the election.

Glenn and his lackeys in the denialist crowd who continue to willfully misrepresent the public evidence have yet to deal with the fact that Mueller has already presented evidence that Paul Manafort conspired with Russian Konstantin Kilimnik on the election, but that they weren’t able to substantiate and charge it because Manafort lied. Mueller’s team say they believe Manafort did so in hopes and expectation that if he helped Trump and denialists like Glenn sustain a “no collusion” line, he might get a pardon. That is, we know that Trump’s offers of pardons — his obstruction — specifically prevented Mueller from pursuing a fairly smoking gun incident where Trump’s campaign manager coordinated with Russians on the hack-and-leak.

As Glenn once professed to know with respect to Scooter Libby’s obstruction, if someone successfully obstructs an investigation, that may mean the ultimate culprit in that investigation escapes criminal charge.

Glenn’s denialism is all the more remarkable, though, given that this same guy who wrote two books on abuse of presidential power is choosing to trust a memo from Bill Barr that was obviously playing legalistic games over what the public record says. As Glenn must know well, Barr has a history of engaging in precisely the kind of cover-up of presidential abuses Glenn once professed to oppose, fairly epically on Iran-Contra. The cover-up that Barr facilitated on that earlier scandal was the model that Dick Cheney used in getting away with leaking Valerie Plame’s identity and torture and illegal wiretapping, the kinds of presidential abuses that Glenn once professed to oppose.

I find Glenn’s trust of Bill Barr, one of the most authoritarian Attorneys General in the last half century, all the more ironic, coming as it does the same week that DOJ IG released this IG report on several DEA dragnets.

That’s because Glenn’s more recent opposition to abuse of power comes in the form of shepherding Edward Snowden’s leaks. Glenn’s recent fame stems in significant degree to the fact that on June 5, 2013, he published a document ordering Verizon to turn over all its phone records to the government.

The dragnet Snowden revealed with that document was actually just the second such dragnet. The first one targeted the phone calls from the US to a bunch of foreign countries claimed, with no court review, to have a drug nexus. Only, that term “drug nexus”  came to include countries with no significant drug ties but instead a claimed tie between drug money and financing terrorism, and which further came to be used in totally unrelated investigations. That earlier dragnet became the model for Stellar Wind, which became the model for the Section 215 dragnet that Glenn is now famous for having helped Edward Snowden expose.

Here’s what the IG Report released the same week that Glenn spent hours cuddling up to Bill Barr says about the original dragnet.

Bill Barr, the guy Glenn has spent 10 days nuzzling up to, is the grandfather of the dragnet system of surveillance.

The IG Report also shows that Bill Barr — the guy Glenn has spent 10 days trusting implicitly — didn’t brief Congress at all; the program wasn’t first briefed to Congress until years after Barr left office the first time.

This is the man that former critic of abusive presidential power Glenn Greenwald has chosen to trust over the public record.

This is, it seems, the strange plight of the denialist left, cozying up to the kind of authoritarians that their entire career, at least to this point, have vigorously opposed.

As I disclosed last July, I provided information to the FBI on issues related to the Mueller investigation, so I’m going to include disclosure statements on Mueller investigation posts from here on out. I will include the disclosure whether or not the stuff I shared with the FBI pertains to the subject of the post. 

Patrick Fitzgerald Rebuts Judy Miller in Statement on Libby Pardon

Update: I’ve got an op-ed in the NYT on the pardon this morning. It starts and ends this way:

“There is a cloud over the White House as to what happened. Don’t you think the F.B.I., the grand jury, the American people are entitled to a straight answer?”

With those words, uttered over a decade ago, Patrick Fitzgerald, a prosecutor appointed as special counsel to investigate whether the president and his closest aides had broken the rules of espionage for their own political gain, sealed the conviction of I. Lewis Libby Jr., known as Scooter, for obstructing his investigation into the White House.

[snip]

Mr. Trump’s pardon of Mr. Libby makes it crystal clear that he thinks even the crime of making the country less safe can be excused if done in the service of protecting the president. But it doesn’t mean the pardon will protect him.

In his statement on Scooter Libby’s pardon, Trump pointed to a purported retraction from Judy Miller to justify the pardon.

In 2015, one of the key witnesses against Mr. Libby recanted her testimony, stating publicly that she believes the prosecutor withheld relevant information from her during interviews that would have altered significantly what she said.  The next year, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals unanimously reinstated Mr. Libby to the bar, reauthorizing him to practice law.  The Court agreed with the District of Columbia Disciplinary Counsel, who stated that Mr. Libby had presented “credible evidence” in support of his innocence, including evidence that a key prosecution witness had “changed her recollection of the events in question.”

Fitz released his own statement on the pardon, which I’ve reproduced in full below. In it, he debunks both the substance of Judy’s claims about her retraction (basically, that Armitage leaked the information and no damage was done) and that her testimony was that central to the guilty verdict.

While the President has the constitutional power to pardon, the decision to do so in this case purports to be premised on the notion that Libby was an innocent man convicted on the basis of inaccurate testimony caused by the prosecution. That is false. There was no impropriety in the preparation of any witness, and we did not tell witnesses what to say or withhold any information that should have been disclosed. Mr. Libby’s conviction was based upon the testimony of multiple witnesses, including the grand jury testimony of Mr. Libby himself, as well as numerous documents.

Years ago I pointed out that Libby could have been convicted based solely on his own notes and David Addington’s testimony. What Judy’s testimony added was confirmation that Libby repeatedly provided details about Plame’s CIA status, which her retraction doesn’t affect.

And I’d add that Judy protected some of her other sources, and Cheney protected any journalists he spoke with. That’s the trick with obstruction — it prevents people from learning what really happened.


Fitzgerald statement

While the President has the constitutional power to pardon, the decision to do so in this case purports to be premised on the notion that Libby was an innocent man convicted on the basis of inaccurate testimony caused by the prosecution. That is false. There was no impropriety in the preparation of any witness, and we did not tell witnesses what to say or withhold any information that should have been disclosed. Mr. Libby’s conviction was based upon the testimony of multiple witnesses, including the grand jury testimony of Mr. Libby himself, as well as numerous documents.

I considered it an honor to work with the agents and prosecutors who conducted the investigation and trial with integrity and professionalism. Mr. Libby, represented by able counsel, received a fair trial before an exacting trial judge and a jury who found the facts clearly established that Libby committed the crimes he was charged with. That was true yesterday. It remains true today.

The issues at stake in this case were important. As was stated in a government sentencing memo more than a decade ago:

Mr. Libby, a high-ranking public official and experienced lawyer, lied repeatedly and blatantly about matters at the heart of a criminal investigation concerning the disclosure of a covert intelligence officer’s identity. He has shown no regret for his actions, which significantly impeded the investigation. Mr. Libby’s prosecution was based not upon politics but upon his own conduct, as well as upon a principle fundamental to preserving our judicial system’s independence from politics: that any witness, whatever his political affiliation, whatever his views on any policy or national issue, whether he works in the White House or drives a truck to earn a living, must tell the truth when he raises his hand and takes an oath in a judicial proceeding, or gives a statement to federal law enforcement officers. The judicial system has not corruptly mistreated Mr. Libby; Mr. Libby has been found by a jury of his peers to have corrupted the judicial system.

That statement rings true to this day. The President has the right to pardon Mr. Libby and Mr. Libby has been pardoned. But the facts have not changed.

I have made this statement in my personal capacity.

The Libby Pardon: Trump’s Object Lesson in Presidential Firewalls

There are two reports out tonight:

  • Rod Rosenstein will be fired in an attempt to quash any further investigation of Trump’s crimes.
  • Scooter Libby will be pardoned in an obvious attempt to present an object lesson in presidential firewalls.

This post will be an initial attempt to explain the Libby pardon.

Side note: For those who claim Richard Armitage outed Plame, let’s just agree that you have no familiarity with the actual record and leave it there for now. Trust me on this: Bush and Cheney were very concerned that the written record showed Cheney ordering Libby to out Plame (whom, some evidence not introduced at trial suggests, he knew was covert). We can fight about that later, but I’ve got a library of records on this and you don’t. 

First: Libby has already had his right to vote and his bar license restored. This pardon is purely symbolic. I’m sure Libby’s happy to have it, but the audience here is Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and a slew of other people who can incriminate Trump.

This appears to be a stunt inspired by Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing (whom I’ll call DiG & T henceforth), who are great table pounders but not great lawyers. Also, remember that VT is representing Mark Corallo, Erik Prince, and Sam Clovis, all in some legal jeopardy, so this ploy may help them too.

Libby was Bush’s firewall because he was ordered–by either PapaDick Cheney and/or Bush–to out Valerie Plame as an object lesson to CIA people pushing back on their shitty Iraq case. By refusing to flip, he prevented Patrick Fitzgerald from determining whether Bush had really ordered that outing or whether Cheney and Libby freelanced on it.

Libby risked prison, but didn’t flip on Cheney or Bush. He avoided prison time with a commutation, not a pardon. While PapaDick pushed hard for pardon, it didn’t happen, in large part because Bush had far better lawyers than Trump has.

Here’s some of the differences between Libby and Trump’s many firewalls:

  1. Manafort, Kushner, and Cohen are exposed to state charges, in addition to federal (even ignoring how the Russian mob may treat them).
  2. Libby was the bottleneck witness. You needed him to move further, or you got nowhere. Not so with Trump, because so many people know what a crook he is.
  3. Bush commuted but did not pardon Libby, then refused, against PapaDick’s plaints, because (smarter lawyer) his lawyer counseled that’d be obstruction [update, or counseled that Libby could still incriminate Bush]. Trump can’t fully pardon his firewall, for the same reason: bc these witnesses will lose Fifth Amendment privileges against self-incrimination (which, as it happens, Cohen is invoking as we speak in a civil suit, which also can’t be dismissed by pardon).
  4. Di Genova and Toensing (who are not good lawyers but pound tables well) haven’t figured out that this won’t be a one-off: This won’t be one (Manafort) or two (Cohen) people Trump has to pardon. And THEY DON’T KNOW the full scope of who Trump would have to pardon here. There are too many moving parts to pull this off.
  5. And finally, because Trump is in a race. As I noted before, Mueller has already signaled he will label dangling pardons — as Trump has already done — as obstruction of justice. That presents far more risk for Trump, even assuming Mike Pence wants to go do the route of half-term infamy that Gerald Ford did by pardoning his boss.

All that’s before the fact that the crimes that Trump and his are facing are far, far uglier even than deliberately exposing the identity of a CIA officer to warn others off of exposing your war lies.

Maybe this will work? But I doubt it. There are just too many moving parts. And there is too little understanding among Trump’s closest advisors what they’re really facing.

So, congratulations to Scooter Libby at being a free man again. Condolences to Rod Rosenstein at being a free man again, if the firing does happen as predicted tomorrow.

But this is just a gambit, and there’s no reason to believe it will work.

Does Vice President Pence Believe He Has Declassification Authority?

It is, as I understand it, fairly customary for each new presidential administration to rewrite the Executive Order on classification. George W Bush didn’t do so right away — he finalized his classification EO on March 23, 2003. Obama moved a bit more quickly, superseding the Bush EO with his own classification EO on December 29, 2009.

But even among the flood of Executive Orders that Trump has signed thus far in his term, I don’t believe he has modified the Obama one.

That means a change made in 2003, which was retained in the Obama EO, remains in place: the inclusion of the Vice President among those who is and can name Original Classification Authorities (here’s Bill Clinton’s EO for comparison). Here’s the language that gave Dick Cheney classification authorities:

Classification Authority. (a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:

    (1) the President and, in the performance of executive duties, the Vice President;

And here’s how Obama slightly tweaked that language to retain that authority for Joe Biden:

a) The authority to classify information originally may be exercised only by:

(1) the President and the Vice President;

Now, Cheney got this authority at an interesting time. That was a key time for Torture cover-up; in fact, sometime in that period, someone in the White House ordered George Tenet to make torture a Special Access Program. He was already pushing back against the CIA whistleblowers who knew the intelligence behind Iraq was crap, an effort that would lead to Scooter Libby sharing Valerie Plame’s identity with Judy Miller on Cheney’s orders (it remains unclear whether Cheney had Bush’s permission to leak this). Yet for some reason, the new classification rules appear most closely connected with Stellar Wind (I believe this had to do with a change in whom Stellar Wind could target).

In any case, from that moment forward, the Vice President has had the authority to classify things. As you can imagine, given Cheney’s role in the Plame outing, there was a heated and still publicly unresolved debate whether the Vice President also got declassification authorities, including of things that the President or Presidential authority had classified.

I raise this issue because more and more people have started raising questions about whether Mike Pence is sabotaging Donald Trump, especially as leaks like this come out of the White House.

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

The conversation, during a May 10 meeting — the day after he fired Mr. Comey — reinforces the notion that Mr. Trump dismissed him primarily because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russian operatives. Mr. Trump said as much in one televised interview, but the White House has offered changing justifications for the firing.

The White House document that contained Mr. Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion.

If Pence believes — perhaps based on knowledge personally imparted by Cheney allies — that he has the ability to declassify anything that the President can, then he can leak details of White House events with utter impunity. Having him insta-declassify things would be a fairly safe way to feed the never-ending stream of embarrassing information coming out of the White House.

Oh, sure. He’d have utterly venal motive to do so. By feeding the Trump Russian scandal, Pence would make it increasingly likely he’d become President without having to expose his regressive views to the review of voters. But there’s nothing Trump could do about it so long as an EO granting Pence the same authorities that Cheney abused to great effect remains on the book.

9/11: A Story of Attacks, Horror, Victims, Heroes and Jingoistic Shame

screen-shot-2016-09-11-at-2-54-38-amSeptember 11, 2001 is now 15 years in the mirror of life. Like the two Kennedy assassinations, the Moonshot and a few other events in life, it is one of those “yeah I remember where I was when…” moments. Personally, being on west coast time, I was just waking up thinking all I had was a normal morning court calendar. When my wife, who gets up far earlier than I, shouted at me to rub out the cobwebs and watch the TV because something was seriously wrong in New York City. She was right. It was a hell of a day, one of unspeakable tragedy and indescribable heroism. It was truly all there in one compact day, unlike any other, save maybe December 7, 1941.

2,996 people lost their lives, and their families and history were forever altered in the course of hours on an otherwise clear and beautiful day in Manhattan. Most were simply innocent victims, but many were the epitome of heroes who charged into a hellscape to try to salvage any life they could. There were other heroes that altered their lives in response, and either died or were forever changed as a result. One was a friend of mine from South Tempe, Pat Tillman.

No one can speak for Pat Tillman, and, save for his family, those who claim to only prove they never met the man. All I can say is, I wish he were here today. The one thing that is certain is he would not give the prepackaged trite partisan reaches you are likely to hear today. It would be unfiltered truth. Which the US did not get from its leaders after September 11, 2001, and is still missing today.

Instead of rallying and solidifying the oneness of the American citizenry that was extant immediately after September 11, 2001, the Bush/Cheney Administration and GOP told us to go shopping and that we needed to invade Iraq, who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. It was a fools, if not devil’s, errand and a move that threw away an opportunity for greatness from the country and exploited it in favor of war crimes and raw political power expansion and consolidation.

Instead of gelling the United States to make ourselves better as the “Greatest Generation” did sixty years before, America was wholesale sold a bill of goods by a determined group of unreformed and craven Neo-Con war criminals left over from the Vietnam era, and we were led down the path to a war of aggression that was an unmitigated disaster we have not only not recovered from today, but are still compounding.

The 2000’s will prove to be a decade of American shame when history is written decades from now. Not from the attacks, but from our craven response thereto. So, pardon me if I join Colin Kaepernick and choose not to join, every Sunday, just because the Madison Avenue revenue generating NFL of Roger Goodell cravenly exploits it, the jingoistic bullshit of rote dedication to a racist National Anthem. Also, too, shame on opportunistic and Constitutionally ignorant whiny police unions who scold free speech and threaten to abandon their jobs in the face of it.

powell_un_anthraxBut that is all over now surely. Taking the United States, nee the world, to a forever war on the wings of a craven lie is universally recognized, condemned and scorned, right?

No. The Neo-Cons are unrepentant and still trying to advance themselves on the lie that their once and forever war justifies more than their prosecution and conviction in The Hague. Here is a belligerent and unrepentant Dick Cheney passing the torch of evil to his spawn Liz Cheney in the august pages of the Wall Street Journal:

We are no longer interrogating terrorists in part because we are no longer capturing terrorists. Since taking office, the president has recklessly pursued his objective of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo by releasing current detainees—regardless of the likelihood they will return to the field of battle against us. Until recently, the head of recruitment for ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan was a former Guantanamo detainee, as is one of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders in the Arabian Peninsula.

As he released terrorists to return to the field of battle, Mr. Obama was simultaneously withdrawing American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. He calls this policy “ending wars.” Most reasonable people recognize this approach as losing wars.

Times may change, but the bottomless pit of Cheney lies and evil do not. As Charlie Savage pointed out on Twitter, the two terrorists the Cheneys refer to were actually released back to the “field of battle” by Bush and Cheney, not Obama. Was Obama involved in the story? Yes, he would be the one who actually tracked them down and killed them.

And then there is the failure to learn the lessons of the failed torture regime Bush and Cheney instituted as the hallmark of the “War on Terror”. Our friend, and former colleague, Spencer Ackerman has a must read three part series over the last three days in The Guardian (Part One, Part Two and Part Three) detailing how the CIA rolled the Obama Administration and prevented any of the necessary exposure, accountability and reform that was desperately needed in the aftermath of the torture regime and war of aggression in Iraq. It will take a while, but read all three parts. It is exasperating and maddening. It is also journalism at its finest.

And so, as we glide through the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, what are we left with from our response to the attacks? A destabilized world, an ingraining of hideous mistakes and a domestic scene more notable for jingoism and faux patriotism than dedication to the founding principles that America should stand for.

That is not what the real heroes, not only of 9/11 but the totality of American history, died to support and protect. In fact, it is an insult to their efforts and lives. If America wants to win the “War on Terror”, we need to get our heads out of our asses, quit listening to the neocons, war mongers, and military industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower warned us about, and act intelligently. This requires a cessation of adherence to jingoistic and inane propaganda and thought, and a focus on the principles we are supposed to stand for.

“Only Facts Matter:” Jim Comey Is Not the Master Bureaucrat of Integrity His PR Sells Him As

Since Jim Comey’s showy press conference yesterday, the press has rehashed Jim Comey’s carefully cultivated image as a Boy Scout, with outlet after outlet replaying the story of how he ran up some hospital steps once.

Sadly, even DOJ beat journalists seem unable to point out that that image has been carefully cultivated over years. Comey is a PR master.

But as I have written on several occasions, the story is more complicated. That’s true, first of all, because the 2004 hospital confrontation, in which Comey and a bunch of other DOJ officials threatened to quit and therefore allegedly shut down some illegal wiretap programs, did not end in March 2004. On the contrary, for the main unlawful program we know about — the Internet dragnet — that confrontation ended in July 2004 when, after some serious arm-twisting, DOJ got FISC presiding judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to authorize substantially the same Internet dragnet they refused to authorize themselves.  The arguments they used to pull that off are fairly breath-taking.

The hospital confrontation only served to hide illegal surveillance under a new rock

First, they told Kollar-Kotelly she had to reauthorize the dragnet because terrorists wanted to plan an election year plot; as I note below, that claim was largely based on a fabrication.

Then, they argued that the standard for approval of a bulk Pen Register/Trap and Trace order was the same (arguably lower) as any other PRTT order focused on an individual. Kollar-Kotelly, DOJ argued, had no discretion over whether or how to approve this.

DOJ told Kollar-Kotelly she had no authority to do anything but approve their expansive plan to collect Internet data from telecom switches. “[T]he Court ‘shall’ authorize a pen register … if an application brought before it complies with the requirements of the statute.” Even though, by collecting Internet metadata in bulk, the government would take away FISC’s authority to review whether the targets were agents of a foreign power, DOJ argued she had no authority to determine whether this bulk data — which she deemed an “enormous” amount — was “relevant” to the FBI’s investigations into terrorism.

And that meaning — which the government expanded even further in 2006 to claim the phone records of every single American were “relevant” to the FBI’s standing terrorism investigations — “requires no stretching of the ordinary meaning of the terms of the statute at all,” they claimed, in apparent seriousness.

DOJ further argued that’s the way the FISA court — which Congress created in 1978 to provide real judicial review while permitting the executive to keep its foreign spying secret — is supposed to work. Having FISC rubber-stamp the program they themselves had refused to authorize “promotes both of the twin goals of FISA,” DOJ argued, “facilitating the foreign-intelligence collection needed to protect American lives while at the same time providing judicial oversight to safeguard American freedoms.”

Their claim this involved oversight is especially rich given that DOJ and FISC argued then — and continued to argue at least through 2010 when John Bates would reauthorize and expand this dragnet — that the FISC had no authority to impose minimization procedures for bulk collected data, which has historically been the sole way FISC exercises any oversight. Then, during the period of the very first dragnet order, NSA “discovered” it was violating standards Kollar-Kotelly imposed on the collection (effectively, violating the minimization procedures). But in spite of the fact that she then imposed more requirements, including twice quarterly spot checks on the collection, those violations continued unabated until NSA’s Inspector General finally started, on Reggie Walton’s order, an (aborted) real review of the collection in 2009. At that point, OGC all of a sudden “discovered” that their twice-quarterly spot checks had failed to notice that every single record NSA had collected during that 5 year period had violated FISC standards.

In short, the program was never, ever, in legal compliance. That was the solution Comey achieved to the unlawful program he got shut down.

DOJ’s — Jim Comey’s — efforts to undercut FISC not only led to other really problematic FISC decisions based on this precedent (including, but not limited to, the phone dragnet in 2006 and upstream collection in 2007), but also gave illegal collection the patina of legality solely by making someone else authorize a program she couldn’t oversee.

DOJ deliberately bypassed Congress because they knew it wouldn’t approve the surveillance

Along with radically changing the nature of FISC in the wake of the hospital confrontation, DOJ — Jim Comey — affirmatively bypassed Congress because they didn’t want to tell America it was spying on them in bulk.

DOJ pointed to language showing Congress intended pen registers to apply to the Internet; they pointed to the absence of language prohibiting a pen register from being used to collect data from more than a single user, as if that’s the same as collecting from masses of people and as if that proved congressional intent to wiretap everyone.

And then they dismissed any potential constitutional conflict involved in such broad rereadings of statutes passed by Congress. “In almost all cases of potential constitutional conflict, if a statute is construed to restrict the executive, the executive has the option of seeking additional clarifying legislation from Congress,” the heroes of the hospital confrontation admitted. The White House had, in fact, consulted Majority Leader Tom DeLay about doing just that, but he warned it would be too difficult to get new legislation. So two months later, DOJ argued Congress’ prerogative as an independent branch of government would just have to give way to secrecy. “In this case, by contrast, the Government cannot pursue that route because seeking legislation would inevitably compromise the secrecy of the collection program the Government wishes to undertake.”

This was a pretty big assault on separation of powers, and not one justified by the efficacy of the program or the needs of the collection.

While I won’t go into it here, this is all about the best known part of the Stellar Wind program that was not so much “shut down” as “dumped into someone else’s legal lap.” There’s another aspect of Stellar Wind — one I don’t yet fully understand — that Comey reauthorized on his own, one that has gotten no reporting. I hope to return to this.

Comey’s DOJ lets itself be manhandled into reauthorizing torture and surveillance

There’s an intimately related effort Comey gets some credit for which in fact led to fairly horrible conclusions: torture. Jack Goldsmith, with Comey’s backing, also withdrew the shoddy John Yoo memo authorizing waterboarding and other torture (Goldsmith also prevented Yoo from retroactively authorizing more techniques).

But on July 2, 2004 — two weeks before Goldsmith left — the intelligence community found another detainee it just had to torture, Janat Gul, based on already questioned claims he wanted to plan an election year attack. They had a Principal’s Committee meeting to discuss what to do. After Jim Comey and John Bellinger left the meeting, the PC agreed to engage in torture again (though not waterboarding). Five days later Goldsmith wrote to ensure the IC knew this meant they had to follow the guidelines laid out under the original Yoo memo. By September, after Gul and some associates had been tortured extensively — each time with Dan Levin writing what I’m sure he imagined to be a soundly reviewed approval for the torture — Levin had approved waterboarding again, along with the techniques Goldsmith had prevented Yoo from retroactively and unilaterally authorizing. OLC repeatedly promised a more fulsome memo laying out the approval offered, ostensibly in reaction to an immediate need, in 2004. Jim Comey initiated that process in fall and December 2004. But in the end, the technique memos completed by Steven Bradbury in May 2005 authorized both waterboarding, as well as all the other conditions (primarily techniques use in combination) Comey seems to have tried to have set to make them impossible to use again. Comey resigned right before these memos were finalized, so it’s possible he made another — failed — attempt to prevent the illegal program by threatening to quit; he did, however, stick around for another three months before he moved onto his sinecures at Lockheed and Bridgewater.

Here’s the tragic thing about this unsuccessful effort to impose order on the torture program: it, like the Iraq War itself, was based on a fabricator.

CIA came to Comey and others, said, “this guy wants to attack the presidential elections so we need a dragnet and torture,” to which DOJ said okay.

The CIA in March 2004 received reporting from a source the torture report calls “Asset Y,” who said a known Al-Qaeda associate in Pakistan, Janat Gul — whom CIA at the time believed was a key facilitator — had set up a meeting between Asset Y and Al-Qaeda’s finance chief, and was helping plan attacks inside the United States timed to coincide with the November 2004 elections. According to the report, CIA officers immediately expressed doubts about the veracity of the information they’d been given by Asset Y. A senior CIA officer called the report “vague” and “worthless in terms of actionable intelligence.” He noted that Al Qaeda had already issued a statement “emphasizing a lack of desire to strike before the U.S. election” and suggested that since Al-Qaeda was aware that “threat reporting causes panic in Washington” and inevitably results in leaks, planting a false claim of an election season attack would be a good way for the network to test whether Asset Y was working for its enemies. Another officer, assigned to the group hunting Osama bin Laden, also expressed doubts.

[snip]

Nevertheless, the CIA took seriously Asset Y’s claim that Gul was involved in an election plot and moved quickly to gain custody of him after his arrest by Pakistan in June 2004. Even before CIA rendered Gul to its custody, Tenet started lobbying to get torture techniques reapproved for his interrogation.

On June 29, Tenet wrote National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice seeking approval to once again use some of the techniques whose use he suspended less than four weeks earlier, in the hope of gathering information on the election season plot. “Given the magnitude of the danger posed by the pre-election plot and Gul’s almost certain knowledge of any intelligence about that plot” Tenet wrote, relying on Asset Y’s claims, “I request the fastest possible resolution of the above issues.”

[snip]

Soon after the reauthorization of the torture and the Internet dragnet, the CIA realized ASSET Y’s story wasn’t true. By September, an officer involved in Janat Gul’s interrogation observed, “we lack credible information that ties him to pre-election threat information or direct operational planning against the United States, at home or abroad.” In October, CIA reassessed ASSET Y, and found him to be deceptive. When pressured, ASSET Y admitted had had made up the story of a meeting set up by Gul. ASSET Y blamed his CIA handler for pressuring him for intelligence, leading him to lie about the meeting.

By 2005, CIA had concluded that ASSET Y was a fabricator, and Janat Gul was a “rather poorly educated village man [who is] quite lazy [who] was looking to make some easy money for little work and he was easily persuaded to move people and run errands for folks on our target list” (though the Agency wasn’t always forthright about the judgment to DOJ).

During Comey’s entire effort — to put order to the dragnet, to put order to the torture — he was in fact being led by the nose by the CIA, once again using the report of a fabricator to authorize actions the US had no business engaging in.

If that were all, I’d consider this a tragic story: poor Jim Comey trying to ensure the US does good, only to be undermined by the dishonest folks at the CIA, using asymmetric information again to ensure their ass gets covered legally.

Jim Comey refuses to review what he did in 2004 and 2005

But here’s the part that, in my opinion, makes being snookered by the CIA unforgivable. Thus far, Comey has refused to read the full Torture Report to learn how badly he got snookered, even though he promised Dianne Feinstein to do so in his confirmation process.

I am specifically intrigued by Comey’s apparent lack of curiosity about the full report because of his actions in 2005.

As these posts lay out (one, two), Comey was involved in the drafting of 2 new OLC memos in May 2005 (though he may have been ignorant about the third). The lies CIA told OLC in 2004 and then told OLC again in 2005 covering the same torture were among the worst, according to Mark Udall. Comey even tried to hold up the memo long enough to do fact gathering that would allow them to tie the Combined memo more closely to the detainee whose treatment the memo was apparently supposed to retroactively reauthorize. But Alberto Gonzales’ Chief of Staff Ted Ullyot told him that would not be possible.

Pat [Philbin] explained to me (as he had to [Steven Bradbury and Ted Ullyot]) that we couldn’t make the change I thought necessary by Friday [April 29]. I told him to go back to them and reiterate that fact and the fact that I would oppose any opinion that was not significantly reshaped (which would involve fact gathering that we could not complete by Friday).

[snip]

[Ullyot] mentioned at one point that OLC didn’t feel like it would accede to my request to make the opinion focused on one person because they don’t give retrospective advice. I said I understood that, but that the treatment of that person had been the subject of oral advice, which OLC would simply be confirming in writing, something they do quite often.

At the end, he said that he just wanted me to know that it appeared the second opinion would go [Friday] and that he wanted to make sure I knew that and wanted to confirm that I felt I had been heard.

Presuming that memo really was meant to codify the oral authorization DOJ had given CIA (which might pertain to Hassan Ghul or another detainee tortured in 2004), then further details of the detainee’s torture would be available in the full report. Wouldn’t Comey be interested in those details now?

But then, so would details of Janat Gul’s torture, whose torture was retroactively authorized in an OLC memo Comey himself bought off on. Maybe Comey has good reason not to want to know what else is in the report.

Sure, he may be doing so to prevent Jason Leopold from liberating the report via FOIA. But in doing so, he is also refusing to examine his own actions, his own willingness to reauthorize the dragnet and torture he had just shut down in the service of a lie. He is refusing to consider whether the deals he made with the devil in 2004 were unsound.

Even here, I might just consider this a tragic story, of a morally just man bested by bureaucratic forces both more sinister and dishonest than Comey.

Except for Comey’s Manichean view of the world.

His world is separated into the Good Guys who should have access to encryption and the Bad Guys who should not, the loyal people like Hillary who can be “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information” with no legal consequences and the disloyal people like Thomas Drake who get prosecuted for doing the very same things.

That’s not the world where self-proclaimed Boy Scout Jim Comey assents to the reauthorization of torture and dragnets based on a fabrication with no repercussions or even soul-searching.

I mean, I get it. There is no place for Boy Scouts in the top ranks of our national security state. I get that you’re going to lose bureaucratic fights to really immoral causes and manipulative spooks. I get you’re sometimes going to get the so-called trade-off between liberty and security wrong, especially when you get lied to.

But given that reality, there is no place for pretend Boy Scouts. There is no place to pretend your world is as easy as running up some hospital steps, victory!, we’ve vanquished presidential abuses so let’s go dismantle separation of powers! That’s just naive, but in the service of the FBI Director, it legitimizes a really unjust — morally-rather-than-legally-based — method of policing.

Comey seems to believe his self-created myth at this point, and that’s a very dangerous spot for a guy deigning to be the investigator and prosecutor of who is loyal and who disloyal.

Update: Matthew Miller wrote up his criticism of Comey’s abuse of power here.

Update: Here’s an interview I did for Pacifica on the email question generally.

Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, and American Exceptionalism

Back when Dick Cheney was being hailed for calling out Donald Trump’s racism, I noted one aspect of that radio interview that largely escaped notice: his embrace of the myth that the American continent was empty when his Puritan ancestors got here.

Cheney didn’t stop there. He then emphasized that one of his ancestors arrived as a religious refugee, a Puritan. “A lot of people, my ancestors got here, because they were Puritans.” Cheney suggested, then, that the place was empty when William Cheney arrived in the 17th century. “There wasn’t anybody here, then, when they came.”

There has been little recognition that, in speaking out against the ban on all Muslims, Cheney either unintentionally or intentionally propagated another racist myth, that there “wasn’t anybody here” when the Puritans came.

It’s unclear whether Cheney meant there was no formal state to exclude the Puritan refugees, or whether he really meant — which is what it sounds like — that the continent was empty in the 17th century.

But it seems like a very subtle dog whistle, the kind Republicans used to limit themselves to, suggesting that it is OK for white men to colonize a previously occupied space, even while espousing a kind of tolerance for what we would recognize as religion. By claiming “there wasn’t anybody here” when colonists first came to America, Cheney normalizes conquest, the same kind of conquest he demanded in the Middle East a decade ago, which has so badly exacerbated extremism and continued to make us insecure.

The degree to which Cheney’s perpetuation of that “empty America” myth went largely unnoticed is worth remembering as you read this Pat Buchanan piece, which complains that middle aged whites are killing themselves because their children are learning that America wasn’t actually empty.

A lost generation is growing up all around us.

In the popular culture of the ’40s and ’50s, white men were role models. They were the detectives and cops who ran down gangsters and the heroes who won World War II on the battlefields of Europe and in the islands of the Pacific.

They were doctors, journalists, lawyers, architects and clergy. White males were our skilled workers and craftsmen — carpenters, painters, plumbers, bricklayers, machinists, mechanics.

They were the Founding Fathers, Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton, and the statesmen, Webster, Clay and Calhoun.

[snip]

The world has been turned upside-down for white children. In our schools the history books have been rewritten and old heroes blotted out, as their statues are taken down and their flags are put away.

Children are being taught that America was “discovered” by genocidal white racists, who murdered the native peoples of color, enslaved Africans to do the labor they refused to do, then went out and brutalized and colonized indigenous peoples all over the world.

In Hollywood films and TV shows, working-class white males are regularly portrayed as what was once disparaged as “white trash.”

Unlike Cheney’s embrace of the empty America myth, Buchanan’s is (rightly) getting a lot of attention. I obviously don’t endorse his views, but I do think they explain the strength of Trump. Buchanan not only talks about declining economic prospects of white working class men, the relatively improved fortunes of people of color, but especially about the plight of white men losing their myths of superiority, losing the myth that white men made this country and led the world without the often-coerced labor and deaths of lots of brown people.

Trump’s lies, Buchanan suggests, permit these white men to believe their myth again, the myth of white American exceptionalism.

Here’s the thing. A lot of people are linking Buchanan’s post are pointing just to those far right nutjobs whose enthusiasm has fueled Trump’s rise this year.

But — as the example of Dick Cheney perpetuating the very same myths, even while criticizing Trump’s overt racism — that underlying myth extends well beyond the far right nutjobs, well into mainstream Republican and even Democratic ideology.

America has a Donald Trump problem — one that its diversity will probably defeat, at least in the short term. But underlying that Donald Trump problem is a desperate insistence on clinging to the myth of American exceptionalism, with its more offensive parts even embraced in the mainstream. For the sake of the white men who’ve relied on those myths for their sense of dignity, but also to prevent future Trumps, it is time to start replacing that exceptionalist myth with something else.