Good men with honor

Just how far have we come? When you’re a child, twenty years is a theoretic span; as an adult, that period is a paradox. What seems so far away passed by so quickly. What seemed so familiar recedes into strangeness, transforms into myth.

I don’t remember what I said. I mean, it had something to do with the Reagan administration, and characterized someone, or some people, within that cadre as criminals. I despised Reagan; my political conscience came online about the same time he was elected. I cannot recall ever thinking nice, or merely positive things about the man.

I was seven when he was elected. The only thing I remember clearly from that election was that Reagan struck me as condescending and dishonest, exactly the kind of person my parents would repeatedly through my childhood tell me I didn’t need. And that stuck with me. By the time we got to Iran-Contra, the pretense (that later proved at least partway true) of Reagan’s senility was insufficient to excuse him in my eyes.

What? It was how I was raised; those conclusions reflected the principles impressed upon me especially by parents, but also teachers, my pastor, and any number of talking heads inside the idiot box.

But this isn’t about indicting Reagan. He’s dead. He’s gone. Whatever.

This is about a moment that stands out despite the dissolution of its details. My father, disgusted, glaring at me. “You can’t say that about people,” he stormed. “These are good men. They’re trying their best. You can’t say that about people.” It was not an explanation. It was not a retort. It was an order.

Whatever condemnation I had poured over the Reagan administration had upset him. And, yes, there is also a story to the difference between the man I remember and the one I know today. Maybe someday I’ll try to tell it.

Perhaps it had to do with an adolescent daring to condemn the president. Maybe he was so fiercely Republican during those years that he could not face the possibility that his president was a sack of shit. Maybe it had to do with respecting elders, and respecting authority. Maybe, maybe, maybe ….

• • •

So how far have we come in a bit over twenty years? What has changed? What great transformation explains the state of things today compared to the idyll of administrations past? Where are the good men? What is their best? Can we still say they are good people? That they are trying their best? Can we say it and expect to keep a straight face?

For all that seems to have changed, the question remains the same. If you are among the “good guys”, if you have the facts on your side, if your cause is true and just, why do you need to lie?

Attorney General Mukasey, in an emotional plea for broad surveillance authority in the war on terror, is warning that the price for failing to empower the government would be paid in American lives. Officials “shouldn’t need a warrant when somebody picks up the phone in Iraq and calls somebody in the United States because that’s the call that we may really want to know about. And before 9/11, that’s the call that we didn’t know about,” Mr. Mukasey said yesterday as he took questions from the audience following a speech to a public affairs forum, the Commonwealth Club. “We knew that there has been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn’t know precisely where it went.”

At that point in his answer, Mr. Mukasey grimaced, swallowed hard, and seemed to tear up as he reflected on the weaknesses in America’s anti-terrorism strategy prior to the 2001 attacks. “We got three thousand. … We’ve got three thousand people who went to work that day and didn’t come home to show for that,” he said, struggling to maintain his composure.

The Republican pursuit of larger, more intrusive government in the form of radically-expanded FISA powers seemed relentless until it finally—surprisingly, although not so mysteriously—broke earlier this month.

Josh Gerstein’s March 27 article for The New York Sun, excerpted above, quickly became the centerpiece of a growing scandal, and suggests the scale of dishonor about the current executive administration.

Attorney General Mukasey has become emblematic of a bitter disappointment steadily growing among Americans who, while traditionally cynical about politicians, have generally sought to maintain a pretense that those to whom we entrust our nation are, indeed, good and honorable people. The presidency of George W. Bush, however, has tested that notion, relying on the presumption of decency and honor, exploiting the pretense for all it is worth and more. In the wake of the spectacular lunacy about the downfall of the prior Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, many hoped that Mukasey would represent some sort of shift in administration policy, as if the President and his cohorts might at least make a passing gesture of decency and good faith. And while troubling indicators emerged even during the confirmation process, the Senate consented to President Bush’s nomination, and things seem to have only gotten worse ever since. His defense of torture, while to a certain degree expected, exceeds the boundaries he established during his confirmation hearing. Mukasey has, in recent weeks, been the target of much criticism, including his failure to investigate reports of torture by American interrogators to walking in lockstep with his disgraced predecessor.

And while much of what people find repugnant about Mukasey’s performance falls within the range of tactics and behaviors Americans cynically attribute to lawyers in general, the former federal judge swept rhetoric and loopholes aside last month in San Francisco when pandering on behalf of the Bush administration’s desire for expanded wiretapping authority. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann was, unfortunately, not joking on April 1 when he said the Attorney General’s story was “necessarily either false, or it convicts the Bush administration of complete negligence”.

From the April 1 edition of Countdown With Keith Olbermann:

    Keith Olbermann: Is there some option here that I’ve missed, that either the government is guilty of malfeasance, or Mr. Mukasey just made that up?

    Rachel Maddow: Well, do you remember when Alphonso Jackson—Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who just resigned—

    Olbermann: Right.

    Maddow: He told a crowd in Houston that he’d yanked a federal contract from a contractor who had been insufficiently enthusiastic about George Bush?

    Olbermann: Yes. Of course.

    Maddow: When confronted about that, because that’s illegal, his defense was, “Oh, don’t worry. I was lying.”

    Olbermann: (chuckles)

    Maddow: If this— That, essentially, is the place we are in with Mukasey, here. Oh please, just let him have just been lying, because if he was telling the truth here, if there really was a call from a known al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan to the United States before 9/11 which the Bush Administration did not tap and trace? That is huge news and we ought to get some answers about why we were left so unprotected and surprised on 9/11. Let’s hope that he was just making that up.

This is not the only questionable statement Mr. Mukasey made at the Commonwealth Club. Rather, it is the most dramatic part of a fraud the Attorney General is helping the administration promote. As Maddow and Olbermann discussed on Countdown, the implication of Mukasey’s emotional appeal is in itself a falsehood:

    Olbermann: And underlying it in either event, this transparent falsehood, since the government did have the tools then that it has now—fill in the rest of that blank.

    Maddow: The implication of Mukasey’s story here is that these pesky, restrictive FISA laws kept us from tapping that call from Afghanistan—kept us and blocked us from stopping 9/11—is complete bullpucky. The laws then, the laws now, the laws since the FISA court has been in existence. The laws have said that you can tap without a warrant that kind of communication from outside of the United States into the U.S., particularly if you knew it was an Al Qaeda safe house and it had a link to terrorism. What Mukasey said is either a terrible lie about the law, or it’s a terrible admission about the Bush administration leaving us unprotected on 9/11.

Now, in the first place, Mukasey is not only a lawyer, not only the Attorney General of the United States, but was also a federal judge. The proposition that he does not understand the law as it pertains to FISA is absurd. The notion that what he implied with his sad tale in San Francisco comes about because he somehow misunderstood thirty years of precedent, is beyond preposterous. But that certainly does not stop him.

Again, from Olbermann and Maddow:

    Olbermann: He also said that without telecom immunity, “we face the prospect of disclosure in open court the means and methods by which we collect foreign intelligence against foreign targets”. Is there even a shred of accuracy in that one?

    Maddow: No. That’s more bullpucky. Sadly. I mean, he’s a federal judge, so he knows. Federal courts deal with classified information all the time. They have a whole bunch of different ways of dealing with it. They have closed courtrooms, they have ex parte communications, they hear things in judges’ chambers; there’s all sorts of different ways that courts have dealt with this. This is another situation where something going on in the “War on Terror”, they’re telling us is completely unprecedented. It’s something like we’ve never had to deal with before as a nation. Whereas, actually, our courts have perfectly operable systems for dealing with classified information. There is obviously something that was wrong in our government at the time of 9/11 that left us unprepared for and surprised by 9/11. There is something that was deeply, deeply wrong. It was not the Constitution that was wrong.

So that in itself makes enough of a story. The Attorney General tells a story about a call from a known terrorist safe house into the United States that the government, for some reason, did not tap, trace, or otherwise pursue. It is apparently definitely connected to 9/11, since the failure to follow up on the call resulted in “three thousand people who went to work that day and didn’t come home”. The suggestion is staggering; after years of wondering if the government missed some piece of intelligence that could have stopped the terrorist strike against the United States, the Attorney General drops this story over six and a half years later, and then falsely blames the law for preventing the government from protecting the nation.

But there is a kicker. Over at, Glenn Greenwald has been covering the story in his blog, Unclaimed Territory. See if you can spot the twist in the headlines:

Anyone? Anyone?

Yes, you did just read that: “Why doesn’t the 9/11 Commission know about Mukasey’s 9/11 story?”

And, yes, you did just read that: “Lee Hamilton denies Michael Mukasey’s claim about 9/11”.

Let’s take a look at those:

Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 Commission Executive Director (and former Counselor to Condolleeza Rice), obviously has no idea what Mukasey is talking about, as he replies by email (ellipses in original):

Not sure of course what the AG had in mind, although the most important signals intelligence leads related to our report — that related to the Hazmi-Mihdhar issues of January 2000 or to al Qaeda activities or transits connected to Iran — was not of this character. If, as he says, the USG didn’t know where the call went in the US, neither did we. So unless we had some reason to link this information to the 9/11 story ….

In general, as with several covert action issues for instance, the Commission sought (and succeeded) in publishing details about sensitive intelligence matters where the details were material to the investigative mandate in our law.

That’s polite Beltway talk for saying that nothing like what Mukasey described actually happened. Does anyone on TV other than Keith Olbermann care that the Attorney General of the United States just invented a critical episode about 9/11 that never actually happened — tearing up as he did it — in order to scare Americans into supporting the administration’s desired elimination of spying restrictions and blame FISA supporters for the 9/11 attacks?

• • •

I just received the following statement from the Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Rep. Lee Hamilton, in response to my inquiries last week (and numerous follow-up inquiries from readers here) about Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s claims about the 9/11 attack and, specifically, about Mukasey’s story that there was a pre-9/11 telephone call from an “Afghan safe house” into the U.S. that the Bush administration failed to intercept or investigate:

I am unfamiliar with the telephone call that Attorney General Mukasey cited in his appearance in San Francisco on March 27. The 9/11 Commission did not receive any information pertaining to its occurrence.

That’s the statement in its entirety, and it’s hard to imagine how it could be any clearer. Hamilton’s statement is consistent with the statement of 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow, as well as the letter sent to Mukasey by House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and two Subcommittee Chairs, none of whom have any idea what Mukasey was talking about.

In light of Hamilton’s amazing comment, could journalists possibly now report on this story? One of two things is true about Mukasey’s extraordinary claim about how and why the 9/11 attacks occurred. Either:

(1) The Bush administration concealed this obviously vital episode from the 9/11 Commission and from everyone else, until Mukasey tearfully trotted it out last week; or,

(2) Mukasey, the nation’s highest law enforcement officer, made this story up in order to scare and manipulate Americans into believing that FISA and other surveillance safeguards caused the 9/11 attacks and therefore the Government should be given more unchecked spying powers.

It seems strange at least that such an important incident—a missed opportunity to thwart the mass murder of nearly three thousand Americans—should have escaped both Congress and the 9/11 Commission. One might be given to wonder here if this incident suggests the administration previously concealed evidence from official inquiries into the 2001 attack, or if the Attorney General is simply lying. More than likely, it is the latter. And there probably is a pony in there among all the horseshit, some frayed thread that has been spun, re-spun, and dyed a new color in order to weave it into a new tapestry.

Because it is worth noting that Mukasey has since retracted one part of his statement. Testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on April 10, the Attorney General said, “One thing I got wrong. It didn’t come from Afghanistan. I got the country wrong.”

Perhaps there is a reason for his mistake: Mukasey may have dressed up a vague story to give it some punch, since it didn’t seem to be impressing anyone when he floated it the first time. The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Bob Egelko reported last week,

After several requests, Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr issued a statement saying Mukasey “has referred to this before.” It came in a letter Mukasey and Michael McConnell, the director of national intelligence, sent to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in February urging passage of legislation to extend the surveillance program.

The letter said one of the hijackers, while living in the United States, had “communicated with a known overseas terrorist facility.” The letter didn’t describe the call any further but asserted it had been mentioned in an unclassified section of the 2003 congressional report – which, as others noted, contained no apparent reference to a call from Afghanistan.

In its earlier form, the incident seems to have lacked the poignant narrative relevance. And, what’s more, the prior telling …. Well, I keep thinking I have the wrong letter. I mean:

We have provided Congress with examples in which difficulties with collections under the Executive Order resulted in the Intelligence Community missing crucial information. For instance, one of the September 11th hijackers communicated with a known overseas terrorist facility while he was living in the United States. Because that collection was conducted under Executive Order 12333, the Intelligence Community could not identify the domestic end of the communication prior to September 11, 2001, when it could have stopped that attack. The failure to collect such communications was one of the central criticisms of the Congressional Joint Inquiry that looked into intelligence failures associated with the attacks of September 11 ….

Now, in the first place, it is hard to figure which direction the communication is flowing. One might wonder, considering that FISA allows direct and immediate surveillance of a foreign call coming into the United States, that the call in question was an outgoing transmission. Furthermore, it really saps the power of the appeal for dramatic revisions to FISA when the problem is described as being an Executive Order. What is unclear at this time is the relationship between FISA and EO 12333, and how that relationship prevented the surveillance of an inbound transmission from a known terrorist source as members of Congress and legal commentators seem to think the law allows.

A commenter at The BLT suggests the country Mukasey got wrong was Yemen, where there was apparently an “important communications hub” monitored by American intelligence organizations at least since 1998.

Afghanistan? Yemen? What’s in a name?

And we all know that it takes a man, a real man, a good and honorable man to admit when he is wrong. It is good to know our Attorney General can at least do that.

How far have we come? O, rather say ….

How far have we fallen?

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