Careful Wording Only Defers Trouble

The senior senator from Massachusetts long ago became a self-referential joke, but sometimes Ted Kennedy gets things right

The President has said that American lives will be sacrificed if Congress does not change FISA. But he has also said that he will veto any FISA bill that does not grant retroactive immunity. No immunity, no FISA bill. So if we take the President at his word, he’s willing to let Americans die to protect the phone companies.

Maybe you haven’t been following that business, but all the phone companies, except for Quest, have, since well before the attacks of September 2001, been assisting the administration in monitoring all US telephone and internet traffic. There were no warrants, there was no probable cause – the government didn’t even know what it was looking for. And it started before the 9/11 business – a complete scan of everything, just to see what could be seen, or heard. Most think it had to do with drug trafficking – and wanting a spectacular bust that would look good politically – but no one knows, or more precisely, no one is saying. Nevertheless, it was against the law, and specifically again the post-Nixon FISA law. But you can see how it came to be. The deal seems to have been a “yeah, it’s obviously illegal, but if you keep quiet about it we will too” deal. And protection from jail time for the executive who agreed was part of the deal.

Now the cat is out of the bag – and the president is demanding that the cooperating phone companies be granted full immunity for what they agreed to do. He’s rather angry. You can see why. He made a promise. The law wouldn’t matter. Now Congress can make him look like someone whose word is not to be trusted. He’s sensitive about such things, given the WMD he said were in Iraq and weren’t, and all the rest.

But Ted Kennedy is a level above all that, dealing with the meta-issue. Words do matter – and even a cursory examination of the president’s position on this reveals exactly what he means. He’d rather vast numbers of people die than the executives of those telephone companies be charged with crimes his people suckered them into committing. That is a choice, one over the other, and that is exactly what he said. There is no other interpretation, and there is a lesson in this all. You not only need to be careful what you do, you do need to be careful what you say – people will think you meant what you said.

Maybe Ted Kennedy is way off base here, but that UCLA guy, Mark Kleiman, the professor whose field is Public Policy, sees how that could happen


One of the worst things about the Bush Administration is that it has made tin-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists of us all; no matter how absurd the conspiracy theory – the White House staff deliberately burning a CIA officer engaged in preventing the acquisition of WMD by Iran, of all the ridiculous notions! – it has turned out to be true.

Yep, that is a problem. You never know what to think. The exception to that is if you’re a fan of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, of course – they’ll take care of that “thinking” business for you.

The problem of what is the truth is difficult even for the moderately skeptical. There are some of those folk still hanging around here and there. They are the kind of folk who back in the seventies read Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, the Sissela Bok book on whether lying is ever justified, and if so, under what circumstances. Using that as a text at the prep school in upstate New York back in the seventies was a giggle. Late adolescents love that sort of thing. Who knew such things would matter now?

But that is where we are now. It’s not that it’s Christmas – “Daddy, is there really a Santa Claus?”  Every father fudges that – for a time. It’s that five days before Christmas, Thursday, December 20, the president held his last press conference for the year. And, like the Daddy who has to deal with the Santa issue – time, distance, reindeer and the year-long naughty-nice warrantless eavesdropping – he had to deal with questions about White House complicity in the destruction of those CIA interrogation videotapes. He ended up refusing to flatly deny that he was personally involved. He wouldn’t say. He also declined to say whether he thought the destruction of the tapes was right or wrong. He couldn’t say. Many fathers, as the kids start to wise up, minimally, deal with the Santa issue in that way –

Q: Mr. President, there’s ambiguity in the statement that you have no recollection about the existence and destruction of the CIA interrogation tapes. Why can’t you say yes or no about the tapes and their destruction? And regardless, do you think the destruction of the tapes was a responsible thing to do?

THE PRESIDENT: It sounds pretty clear to me when I say I have – the first recollection is when Mike Hayden briefed me. That’s pretty clear. Secondly, I am confident that the preliminary inquiry conducted by the AG and the IG of the CIA, coupled with the oversight provided by the Congress, will end up enabling us all to find out what exactly happened. And therefore, over the course of these inquiries and oversight hearings, I’m going to reserve judgment until I find out the full facts.

A wag at Daily Kos comments – “It sounds like he’s waiting to find out if the full facts show his ‘first recollection’ is a load of crap.”

Yes, the question is about him having, “no recollection.”  And he was very careful not to say the “no” word.

Over at the Washington Post, Dan Froomkin helps out with a useful distinction – “No recollection” is different than a denial. You have to understand that.

The man did say this –

And therefore, over the course of these inquiries and oversight hearings, I’m going to reserve judgment until I find out the full facts. I know I’m going to be asked about this question a lot as time goes on. I’m just going to prepare you; until these inquiries are complete, until the oversight’s finished, then I will be rendering no opinion from the podium.

Froomkin –

That’s far from a full-throated denial of White House involvement. It doesn’t apply at all to the likelier suspects in the West Wing – starting with the vice president, of course. And it was carefully parsed. In scandalese, “I don’t remember” is a far cry from “No.”

It’s all highly reminiscent of Bush’s no-comment strategy during the investigation of the White House role in the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent. Then, as now, Bush could have demanded that his aides tell him what they had done. But he obviously didn’t want to hear it.

And now, as then, Bush can insist that he wants to wait for others to determine the facts, and then refuse to comment while an investigation is ongoing – until the press corps loses interest in the matter.

They do that. Other things come up. Froomkin reminds us of that –

Today, since former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby has dropped his appeal in the Plame case, the coast was clear for reporters to ask Bush any of the many important, unanswered questions about that case. But nobody did.

But, striking while the iron is hot, Andrew Sullivan looks at the current issue

There are, I think, two options. Either the president was utterly unaware of a torture session of a key al Qaeda suspect where the methods were, according to Kiriakou, meticulously recorded and approved all the way up the chain of command; or he knew all of it. Either he is a war criminal or an incompetent.

I don’t think he’s that incompetent. The more we find out, the clearer it is that the torture program was the primary pillar of this president’s war policy – before the Afghanistan war or the Iraq war. Every formulaic statement – “we do not torture;” “I have no recollection” – is related to that fact. And they destroyed the tapes not just to protect themselves, but to protect him.

Yes, this is like Watergate. But that was a petty break-in the president covered up. These are war crimes. Directed from the very top.

Is Sullivan getting hysterical again? The day before there was the New York Times story, disclosing far greater White House involvement in discussions about the CIA tapes than had previously been known. Froomkin suggests that sent the scandal “into new territory.”  The Associated Press picked that up, saying that the “very vision of White House officials sitting around a table” talking about whether to destroy interrogation videotapes of two terrorism suspects “evokes echoes of Nixon and Watergate.”  And the AP item quotes said Paul C. Light, professor of public policy at NYU – saying that destruction of the tapes was “totally improper behavior that smacks of efforts by past administrations to destroy evidence as quickly as possible.”  And he says more –

Even if it didn’t violate specific law, it violates the spirit of transparency. It brings up the schooling that the Nixon administration received regarding the destruction of the secret White House tapes.

Of course, in the matter of the incriminating audio tapes secretly made in the White House more than three decades ago, those tapes were ultimately saved for posterity and not destroyed or erased – other than perhaps for the famous 18 1/2-minute gap on one tape.

Ah, it’s bigger than Watergate, with no remaining evidence this time. And there is that testimony from the CIA Director. That was private, but leaked. Hayden said “that three White House lawyers were briefed in 2004 about the existence of videotapes showing the interrogation of two al-Qaeda figures, and they urged the agency to be ‘cautious’ about destroying the tapes, according to sources familiar with his classified testimony.”

The three would be (1) David Addington, who was then Vice President Cheney’s chief counsel and now his chief-of-staff (as that job opened up when the former, Libby, became a convicted felon), (2) Alberto Gonzales, White House counsel at the time and later Attorney General and then gone, and (3) John Bellinger, then the top lawyer at the National Security Council. The New York Times had added Harriet Miers, the president’s personal counsel, later named to the Supreme Court, then laughed out of town. That’s some crew – can’t wait for the movie. But there’s not much we do know –

The ambiguity in the phrasing of Hayden’s account left unresolved key questions about the White House’s role. While his account suggests an ambivalent White House view toward the tapes, other intelligence officials recalled White House officials being more emphatic at the first meeting that the videos should not be destroyed.

Also unexplained is why the issue was discussed at the White House without apparent resolution for more than a year.

All this may mean, if Andrew Cohen at CBS is right, that the stakes just got a lot higher –

For example, if the White House and Justice Department truly were aware of the plan to destroy the tapes, or if Miers and Gonzales actually approved their destruction, then Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey really should push to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the matter. How can the Justice Department investigate the conduct of a former Attorney General without the existence of a conflict? You tell me.

… The link from the CIA to Gonzales and Miers and Addington has enormous political ramifications as well as legal ones. Gonzales and Miers already are gone from the scene but will this latest episode finally turn some heat upon Addington, whom many regard as one of the most powerful (and heretofore least accountable) people within the entire executive branch? Will the Vice President himself have to answer questions about the judgments exercised upon his behalf? Sometimes, facts and logic arrive at the same place at the same time. They have here. The Tapegate scandal is going to get a lot nastier from here on in.

And there’s this – “A row over the destruction of videotapes showing CIA interrogations of terror suspects goes to court Friday when the US spy agency may have to show it did not break a judge’s order.”

Ah, but there is a bright side –

Asked more broadly though whether charges of mistreatment of prisoners hurt the US global image, Bush replied: “We get criticized a lot for a variety of reasons. We’re asking people to do hard things, for starters, which is intercept and find terrorists and to spread freedom. And there’s [sic] isolationist tendencies in this world.”

But he added “on the other hand, most people like to come to our country. And most people love what America stands for.”

They do? That may be changing. A young Icelandic woman recounts her experiences with coming here –

During the last twenty-four hours I have probably experienced the greatest humiliation to which I have ever been subjected. During these last twenty-four hours I have been handcuffed and chained, denied the chance to sleep, been without food and drink and been confined to a place without anyone knowing my whereabouts, imprisoned. Now I am beginning to try to understand all this, rest and review the events which began as innocently as possible.

Read the whole thing. It is depressing. And see Matthew Yglesias here

You see, in 1995 she overstayed a visa for three weeks. I remember standing in the Reykjavik airport on a security line with my shoes off, held in my left hand, ready to be placed on the conveyor belt for scanning once I got far enough in line for that to be possible. I stepped forward toward an Icelandic security guy who was checking passports and boarding passes who asked me: “Sir, why aren’t you wearing your shoes?” It was a stark reminder, to me, of how accustomed we’ve become to an ever-escalating series of irrational security measures. What this woman describes is, clearly, well-beyond asking people to take off their shoes, but it’s all on a continuum of panic and sheep-like submission to a culture of fear.

Or Digby

She should be grateful she wasn’t waterboarded to find out what she “knew.”

That’s America 2007. And there are many, many Americans who will say that that treatment is warranted because she had once been an “illegal” who overstayed her visa by three weeks back in 1995. This is a young, blond English speaking Icelandic woman. What do you suppose would have happened if she were Mexican?

We have work to do.

Indeed we do. There is no Santa Claus. Things are as they seem. Forget the careful wording.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Bush, CIA, Political Posturing, Reality and all that..., Torture. Bookmark the permalink.

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