Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why the Brennan/Feinstein/Reid Cage Match Isn’t No-Holds-Barred

Following last week’s dramatic Senate speech by Intelligence Committee head Dianne Feinstein denouncing the CIA for essentially spying on her oversight committee, today Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released his own statements, one to John Brennan, Director of the CIA, the other to Eric Holder, the Attorney General, regarding the CIA’s misbehavior.  It’s quite a fracas:  the Director of the CIA and the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Majority Leader suddenly throwing punches at each other!  All the fascinated onlookers shouting, “Fight!  Fight!”  An elbow, a  knee, a bloody lip, a closed eye… is this thing going to get out of hand?

Probably not.

When you’re watching a fight, it’s as important to consider what’s not happening as what is.  Yes, the combatants are throwing wild punches, and cursing at each other, and rolling all over the floor scratching and biting… but is anyone trying to gouge out an eye?  Has anyone picked up a weapon?  Are the fighters trying to wound… or to kill?

In this regard, it’s worth asking why Senator Feinstein, whose oversight committee has reviewed a reported six million documents and produced a 6,300 page report, insists on referring merely to a CIA “interrogation” program rather than to a “torture” program.  Why she doesn’t declassify the report — as she claims she wants — simply by introducing it into Senate proceedings pursuant to the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause.  Why she would claim "the CIA’s search may also have violated the Fourth Amendment, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as Executive Order 12333, which prohibits the CIA from conducting domestic searches or surveillance [and] may well have violated the separation of powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution”… and then ask for nothing more than "an apology and a recognition that this CIA search of computers used by its oversight committee was inappropriate” (and note that an apology is all Feinstein ever seems to want:  "On May 17, 2010, the CIA’s then-director of congressional affairs apologized on behalf of the CIA for removing the documents.  And that, as far as I was concerned, put the incident aside”).

That last item is particularly telling.  All these grave charges, and all Feinstein is demanding is an apology?  Does this sound like mortal combat?  Or more like “Admit you crossed a line and back off, and we’ll be cool again”?

And have a look at those Harry Reid missives, as well.  His language couldn’t be more restrained.  Like Feinstein, he’s careful never to say a word as problematic as “torture.”  And nowhere does he demand a criminal investigation, instead merely asking for Holder’s “support” and noting “I trust you will carefully examine these concerns.”  The only investigation that seems to really interest him is the very limited one he’s called for and can manage himself — that the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms conduct a forensic examination of the Senate computers the CIA seems to have searched and stay the hell away from the Senate’s staff (by the way, is it maybe time to update the Senate?  Do they really still need a sergeant-at-arms?  Everyone else seems to get along okay without one).  Despite the presence of a bit of angry rhetoric (“Unprecedented!  Independence!  Separation of Powers!"), I think Reid’s letters can fairly be characterized as an attempt to contain the conflict rather than to escalate it.  He virtually acknowledges as much:  “The Senate has an interest in bringing final resolution to this dispute.”  I don’t read that as “Heads will roll!”  It feels more like, “We need to make this go away."

“All right, Barry, I get it,” you might say.  “They’re all fighting pursuant to some sort of agreed-upon rules.  But why are they fighting at all?  And since they are fighting, why aren’t they going all out?”

Two reasons:

1.  Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid, like almost anyone who has risen to the upper echelons of an oligarchy, are rapaciously power-hungry.  They’re constantly looking for ways to increase their own power at the expense of someone else’s (it’s also possible, and I would say likely, that they personally loathe each other, although this isn’t necessary for a fight — power hunger is sufficient), and this means that people like Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid are continually testing, trying, probing, and will get away with as much as they can until another player begins to push back.

2.  Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid are part of the same system, and that system has rules for fighting, along with potentially severe penalties for infractions.  Violate the rules, and the system upon which your power, perks, position, and profits fundamentally depends will turn against you.

The easiest way to understand the dynamic I’m talking about is to watch a few episodes of The Sopranos.  Yes, various members of the different mafia factions hate each other.  And yes, they’re constantly looking for ways of muscling in on the other factions’ operations, siphoning off the other factions’ profits, denying the other factions opportunities.  They might even try, as in the final season, to wipe out another faction entirely.  But there are still rules.  For example, no matter what the opportunity, no matter what the outrage, you can’t go after a person’s family.  If you do, you’ll lose allies who can’t countenance such a thing.  Those allies might even turn against you entirely.

Remember Tom Hagen explaining to Michael early on in The Godfather why they couldn’t kill McClusky, the police captain?  “Nobody has ever gunned down a New York police captain before.  It would be disastrous.  All the other five families would turn against you.  The Corleone Family would be outcast.  Even the old man's political protection would run for cover.”

To put it another way:  asocial violence occurs between individuals.  It rarely occurs within systems.  And Brennan, Feinstein, and Reid, whatever personal loathing they might feel for each other and whatever personal prerogatives they might feel are at stake in this fight, are acutely aware that their power is far more dependent on their continued good standing within the system than it is on the outcome of any given fight.  So yes, they’ll fight, but primarily to scare the other side into backing off, and always within implicitly understood rules.  And those rules, apparently, include not calling torture torture, not declassifying a torture report via the Speech or Debate clause, and, most of all, not calling for an actual investigation for acts of grave criminality, but calling for an apology and a final resolution, instead.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible the fight could spin out of control and turn into something more like combat.  After all, Michael Corleone did kill that police captain — but only because the survival of his own family was threatened and because he saw no other way.  But the Corleones did indeed pay a huge price, with the other four families turning against them and Michael’s own brother slain.  Violating the rules of the system that's the foundation of your own power is an extremely risky thing to do.

I don’t see any sign that Brennan, Feinstein, or Reid has lost perspective or control.  I don’t see any sign that this fight involves any of their fundamental positions within the oligarchy.  Absent either or both such developments, I’m confident the fight will be ended amicably, possibly with the assistance of some of the other oligarchs who also have a stake in the fight not getting out of hand (think of a Sopranos “sit-down”).

Let’s hope I’m wrong.  It would be deeply beneficial to the country and indeed the world if a few of America’s oligarchs became so enraged at each other that they lost their perspective and started tearing into each other in ways that would expose and undermine the insidious system that sustains them.  But more likely they’ll be reminded of how much they and their peers profit from the system, and back off before they do anything to damage it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Edward Snowden is No Emmanuel Goldstein

If you haven't seen this extraordinary Edward Snowden presentation at TED, find a half hour and do it.  It's going to be a challenge for the oligarchy to turn someone this smart, articulate, charismatic, and obviously driven by conscience and ideals into the next Emmanuel Goldstein (count on the powers that be to keep trying, though).

Which is of course why various people like to opine that Snowden should return to the US where he could expect -- at best -- to be immediately muzzled (and probably much worse).  It's a hell of a lot harder to demonize someone whose humanity is so self-evident. See for yourself.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Won’t Senator Feinstein Call Torture Torture?

There’s been a lot of great commentary already about the brouhaha between the Senate and the CIA regarding Senator Dianne Feinstein's allegations that the CIA has, in essence, spied on the activities of the Senate’s intelligence oversight committee.  I just want to add a few thoughts.

First, it’s fair to wonder why the Senate is calling its own inquiry a report on the CIA's “detention and interrogation program.”  Feinstein herself acknowledges her staff members have been "wading through the horrible details of a CIA program that never, never, never should have existed.”  A horrible program that should never have existed?  Does that sound like detention and interrogation… or like torture and imprisonment?

In fact, the word “torture” appears not once in Feinstein’s remarks.  Think of the linguistic dexterity required to deliver a 12-page-speech about a CIA torture program and a Senate investigation into that program without even once mentioning the word torture!  It would be like me writing this blog post without once mentioning the name “Feinstein.”  I wouldn’t know how to do it, and I’m almost in awe of the propagandists who do.

Second, it was a little weird to hear Feinstein describe the "need to preserve and protect the Internal Panetta Review,” if only because “preserve and protect” is the language the Constitution mandates for the President’s oath of office:  “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  It's almost as though some people think an obligation to protect secrecy is as important as an oath to defend the Constitution.

Third, so much security!  “[T]he committee staff securely transported a printed portion of the draft Internal Panetta Review from the committee’s secure room at the CIA-leased facility to the secure committee spaces in the Hart Senate Office Building.”  I couldn’t help remembering this:

Fourth, if Senator Feinstein really is as outraged as she says, and really wants the Senate’s report on the CIA’s imprisonment and torture program to be declassified, all she needs to do is introduce the report into Congressional proceedings.  She would have full immunity via the Constitution’s speech or debate clause, and there’s even precedent — Senator Mike Gravel did precisely this with the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Or Senator Lindsey Graham, who says Congress “should declare war on the CIA” if the spying allegations are true (wouldn’t an actual Congressional declaration of war be refreshing?), could do the same.  Maybe the Senators are slightly less outraged than they profess?

Fifth, and most insidiously, note that the overseers of this country are still peddling the notion that torture is merely a policy choice, and not a crime.  In this regard, Feinstein said, "if the Senate can declassify this report, we will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered or permitted.”

No.  If Feinstein or anyone else is serious about ensuring America never again engages in institutional torture, it is imperative that the Justice Department (it’s gotten so hard to not put scare quotes around that phrase) investigate who ordered what Feinstein calls "an un-American, brutal program… that never, never, never should have existed” (hint: this would not be hard); to prosecute those people; and to imprison them if they are found guilty of violating America’s laws against torture.  Anything else is implicit and unavoidable acknowledgment that torture is not a crime, merely a policy choice with which Dianne Feinstein happens to disagree.  And the notion that merely persuading people that torture is bad is the right way to prevent it from happening again is illogical, ahistorical, and, as Feinstein might put it if she were thinking a little more clearly or had slightly different priorities, unAmerican, too.

Friday, March 07, 2014

A Rich Legacy Publishing Tradition: The Purchase of NYT Bestseller Slots

Updated below

Remember the well-meaning folks at "No Sock Puppets Here Please," those doughty defenders who banded together to protect online commerce from "revelations" about sock puppetry? Will they raise their voices now in protest about people buying New York Times bestseller slots? Come on, NSPHP, the integrity of the legacy publishing industry, the public's trust in our great institutions... it's all on the verge of collapse! Something must be done!

If not... might there be some sort of weird double standard at work here? A handful of individual authors writing fake reviews represents a mortal threat to the entire publishing ecosystem and must be denounced, but publishers cooperating in the outright purchase of New York Times bestseller slots is just one of those rich publishing traditions and business as usual?

Okay, if not NSPHP, maybe the Authors Guild will do something. They're always the first to denounce the worst aspects of legacy publishing. Over to you, president Scott Turow...

Update:  Someone on the Passive Guy's blog commented that this must be what literary agent Donald Maass meant when he claimed legacy publishing is a "true meritocracy." Indeed.