Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Thomas Powers on
Spying, Lying, and Saying No

From: TomDispatch

On the day that
Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in his nine thousandth video from -- assumedly -- the remarkably technologized wilds of the Afghan-Pakistan border region, mocking President Bush for a botched Predator-drone missile attempt on his life, another article caught my eye.

In a piece in the Los Angeles Times, headlined CIA Expands Use of Drones in Terror War, Josh Meyer reported:

"Despite protests from other countries, the United States is expanding a top-secret effort to kill suspected terrorists with drone-fired missiles as it pursues an increasingly decentralized Al Qaeda, U.S. officials say."

These high-tech, long-distance "targeted killings" from the air -- they used to be called assassinations and Chris Dickey of Newsweek files them away under the rubric of "boys with toys" -- turn out, like acts of torture, to be staggeringly counterproductive. This one, which reportedly killed a number of women and children, shook the regime of Pakistani military strong man and U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf.

Like National Security Agency warrantless spying on U.S. citizens, the waterboarding of captives, and so many other actions of this administration, such assassination attempts rely on the shakiest and most dubious of legal findings produced more or less out of thin air.

In fact, thanks to a recent Newsweek investigative piece,
Palace Revolt by Daniel Klaidman, Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas, we know a good deal more about just how thin that air was.

As they report, with the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA director George Tenet convinced that the 9/11 attacks "and the threat of more and worse to come -- were perfect justification for unleashing the CIA and other long-blunted weapons in the national security arsenal," all that was needed was "legal cover, so [the CIA] wouldn't be left holding the bag if things went wrong."

Here's where what we now know as the
"unitary executive theory," the idea of an unfettered presidency in which George Bush would be commander-in-chief not just of the military but of all us, came into play. As the three reporters describe the process, David Addington, then the Vice President's legal counsel (now his chief of staff), fearing opposition within the bureaucracy, "came up with a perfect solution: cut virtually everyone else out." Thus, a legal cabal supported the Rumsfeld/Cheney "cabal" former Colin Powell Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson has written about so vehemently.

In this way, a wide-ranging legal justification for the President's right to do whatever he cared to do as long as we were
"at war" burst from the fevered brows of a few top officials and a small group of administration lawyers.

From the point of view of my own fevered brow, a single institutional law seems to apply to the administration's subsequent efforts: Always expand. All programs involving the secret powers of the president -- to torture, imprison, create global prison networks, assassinate, spy on citizens and others, or generally involve the military in civilian life -- started from modest seeds and simply grew and grew without bounds or even any particular relationship to their efficacy.

Take the Pentagon's three year old Counterintelligence Field Activity or CIFA. Initially a small office charged with "protecting military facilities and personnel," it now has nine directorates, a staff of 1,000, a large secret budget, and its own full-scale secret spying program, code-named Talon, that reported as a "national security threat" ten peace activists "who handed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches outside Halliburton's headquarters in Houston in June 2004."

The same could be said of CIA secret prisons, NSA domestic spying operations, or the new U.S. Northern Command that the administration set up in 2002.

Thomas Powers, author of
Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to al-Qaeda, explores the meaning of the recent NSA spying scandal below in fascinating detail and the abject failure of Congress (or the American public) to rein in this administration.

As he writes trenchantly, "In public life as in kindergarten, the all-important word is no."

It's clear that the expansion of secret (and not so secret) "war-time" powers proved a heady, addictive experience for top officials of this administration. (Where's Nancy Reagan and her "just say no" program when we need them most?) Powers' superb essay will be running in the February 23 issue of the New York Review of Books just now heading toward the newsstands. It appears here as an on-line exclusive thanks to the kindness of that magazine's editors.


The Biggest Secret

By Thomas Powers

A Review of
State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration by James Risen.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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