Thursday, June 28, 2007

What's The Angle? Is The WaPo Cheney Series Ace Journalism, Or Subtle Psy-op?

The Washington Post has been a bit more interesting than usual lately, with an epic four-part series by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker about Dick Cheney and how he has changed the role of "Vice" President.

I've been reading and reading and my eyes are going wonky and I'm still trying to decide what to make of it. Is it "Pulitzer-quality journalism", as Gandhi suggests? Is it really as "breathtaking" as Larisa Alexandrovna thinks?

Or is it just another dose of the usual Bush-administration bunk, spun through an exceptionally clever filter: yet another limited hangout, slightly damaging but not really all that bad, something the spin-meisters think they can contain with a barrage of falsehoods which in turn will serve as a platform for further lies? At this point the jury's still out, in my estimation. (Your mileage may vary and vive la difference!)

Some passages in the series just beg to be highlighted. This passage grabbed Gandhi by the throat:
In a bunker beneath the East Wing of the White House, Cheney locked his eyes on CNN, chin resting on interlaced fingers. He was about to watch, in real time, as thousands were killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

Previous accounts have described Cheney's adrenaline-charged evacuation to the Presidential Emergency Operations Center that morning, a Secret Service agent on each arm. They have not detailed his reaction, 22 minutes later, when the south tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.

"There was a groan in the room that I won't forget, ever,"
one witness said. "It seemed like one groan from everyone" -- among them Rice; her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley; economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey; counselor Matalin; Cheney's chief of staff, Libby; and the vice president's wife.

Cheney made no sound. "I remember turning my head and looking at the vice president, and his expression never changed,"
said the witness, reading from a notebook of observations written that day. Cheney closed his eyes against the image for one long, slow blink.

Three people who were present, not all of them admirers, said they saw no sign then or later of the profound psychological transformation that has often been imputed to Cheney. What they saw, they said, was extraordinary self-containment and a rapid shift of focus to the machinery of power.
Let that sink in for a moment, will you? Why not just hang around and let that gun smoke awhile?

Larisa quotes the same passage as well as the following:
While others assessed casualties and the work of "first responders," Cheney began planning for a conflict that would call upon lawyers as often as soldiers and spies."
I would suggest that the word "began" in the previous sentence is misleading. But whatever the case,
"In expanding presidential power, Cheney's foremost agent was David S. Addington, his formidable general counsel and legal adviser of many years. On the morning of Sept. 11, Addington was evacuated from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House and began to make his way toward his Virginia home on foot. As he neared the Arlington Memorial Bridge, someone in the White House reached him with a message: Turn around. The vice president needs you.

Down in the bunker, according to a colleague with firsthand knowledge, Cheney and Addington began contemplating the founding question of the legal revolution to come: What extraordinary powers will the president need for his response?

Before the day ended, Cheney's lawyer joined forces with Timothy E. Flanigan, the deputy White House counsel, linked by secure video from the Situation Room. Flanigan patched in John C. Yoo at the Justice Department's fourth-floor command center. White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales joined later.

Thus formed the core legal team that Cheney oversaw, directly and indirectly, after the terrorist attacks."
Larisa highlights it differently but she has this to say about it:
This is still September 11, 2001 remember and seemingly - although I may be reading this wrong - still during daylight hours, that is to say, in the process of the attacks. You will recall that building 7 did not collapse until around 5 PM EST. So we don't know who attacked us (we suspect), we don't know what the security breach was (how they boarded the planes, how many there were, etc.), in fact, at this point - and this I remember very well - there are still rumors that the Empire State building had a bomb in it, that the Holland tunnel had a bomb in it, and that there was still a 20th hijacker somewhere out there. I remember too a flight in Cleveland being suspected and grounded, and all major cities being evacuated. In fact, I remember that day from my vantage point almost play by play, where I was, how the day progressed, what the various threat alerts coming in were. It was chaos and confusion and no one knew if the country was secure, that is, if the attacks were over, for what appeared to be an eternity.

Yet as this is going on, Cheney's concern is not making sure the country was secure, or making sure that he knew - as best as could be known at the time - what the damage was, etc. His concern was a power grab? On 9/11, during the attacks, he calls in lawyers? This is horrifying to me because it shows a man so emotionally vacant that his reaction to horror is to figure out how it best benefits him?
I really don't see what the big surprise is here. Is it such a stretch -- especially given Norman Mineta's testimony -- to understand why Cheney didn't bother trying to find out whether the attacks were over? Or who was behind them?

Larisa finds it horrifying that a power grab was Cheney's immediate reaction.

But what if it wasn't a reaction at all? How horrifying is that?

To speak plainly: on this particular point I do not get Larisa. She's been dogging these guys for years; she knows how they operate; she has excellent sources; she's a fine investigator and a very capable tactician. And there was already plenty of evidence on the table suggesting that Cheney was not the slightest bit surprised -- or appalled -- by anything that happened on 9/11.

Obviously Larisa didn't know who attacked us, or what the security breach was, or the source or veracity of the rumors about the bombs in the Holland Tunnel and the Empire State Building, or anything about the other threat alerts that kept coming in all day long, or whether the country was secure, that is, whether the attacks were over.

Not that there's anything wrong with not knowing! There would in fact be something wrong with knowing!

None of us knew, except whoever planned the attacks. But if somebody did know, it would explain why he might not have been concerned with the answers to any of these questions, and it would also explain why he might show no sign of surprise or sadness -- not even a groan -- nothing but "extraordinary self-containment and a rapid shift of focus to the machinery of power".


Let us now turn to one of the results -- some would say the defining result -- of Cheney's rapid shift of focus to the machinery of power. Larisa said this made her skin crawl:
Cheney and his allies, according to more than two dozen current and former officials, pioneered a novel distinction between forbidden "torture" and permitted use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading" methods of questioning. They did not originate every idea to rewrite or reinterpret the law, but fresh accounts from participants show that they translated muscular theories, from Yoo and others, into the operational language of government.

No longer was the vice president focused on procedural rights, such as access to lawyers and courts. The subject now was more elemental: How much suffering could U.S. personnel inflict on an enemy to make him talk? Cheney's lawyer feared that future prosecutors, with motives "difficult to predict," might bring criminal charges against interrogators or Bush administration officials.

Geneva rules forbade not only torture but also, in equally categorical terms, the use of "violence," "cruel treatment" or "humiliating and degrading treatment" against a detainee "at any time and in any place whatsoever." The War Crimes Act of 1996 made any grave breach of those restrictions a U.S. felony. The best defense against such a charge, Addington wrote, would combine a broad presidential directive for humane treatment, in general, with an assertion of unrestricted authority to make exceptions.
I agree about the skin crawl but unfortunately I no longer see any of this as a reaction.

Unfortunately? Well, it's unfortunate for me, because it makes my internal organs crawl too.

As far as the series is concerned, I'm still reading, and thinking ... and trying to figure out what has happened here. If this is for real, it's a big step forward -- especially for the Washington Post. And that's why I don't trust it.

But if it's a psy-op then it's a subtle one. I know, I know, psy-ops can be exceptionally subtle, and I can be exceptionally dense. But in my opinion, if it's a psy-op then it would likely be one of two kinds.

There's the all-discrediting psy-op in which somebody spots a flaw (or an alleged flaw) in one paragraph of one article and uses it to allegedly discredit the entire series, as well as the real-life story on which it is based (thus Rather-gate; in this instance it would be used to "legitimize" Cheney's every illegal action). I don't see that happening in this case but it's still early and I wouldn't eliminate the possibility just yet.

Then there's the thin-edge-of-the-wedge, limited-hangout approach which we noted quite recently, where everything turns out to be worse than it was originally portrayed. If this is the case here, there are going to be a lot of spontaneous human cranium implosions, even among the most jaded analysts. On the other hand, this is one of the administration's favorite tactics, so I'll be having my skull reinforced, and as soon as possible.

There are other kinds of psy-ops as well, of course, so it could very well be something else ... if it's a plant.

If it's real, we get a whole 'nother set of questions, like: What does it all mean?

I think Larisa has it right when she says:
I am not a legal scholar, but it appears there has been a coup and no one told the President about it.
That's pretty clear, in my opinion. Or at least the first half of it is. Perhaps they told him but he didn't get it. Or maybe they told him but he doesn't care. Or maybe they told him but there's nothing he can do about it. I don't know. How can anyone really know things like this?

And what can we say about the Washington Post's role in support of real journalism (if that indeed is what this is)?

Would it signify a revival in American journalism? Or just a speed-bump on the road to hell?

And where did all this inside information come from? And why is it all coming out now?

On this question, Larisa has an idea I find quite intriguing:
I get the sense now that Bush's family is hitting back via the WaPo piece, likely bringing in all of their contacts and former officials from the Bush 41 administration to castrate Cheney as all other measures appear to have failed, including the Iraq Study Group, Gates at DOD, and Negroponte at State.
We'll see ...

On a possibly related note, why has the CIA released so much incriminating information all of a sudden?

TIME Magazine's Robert Baer says it's an attempt to send a message to the White House:
Hayden's plan is not only to draw a line under the past but make a point to this and future White Houses: Politicize intelligence and you'll find your name on the front page of the newspaper.
But when is intelligence not politicized? When is the President's name not on the front page of the newspaper?

So why else would could it be? It couldn't possibly be an attempt to draw attention away from the WaPo series on Dick Cheney, could it?

Nah! I didn't think so either.

So I'll leave you with one more good quote from Larisa:
I am starting now to believe that the President of the United States and the Vice President did likely have an agreement, described by Cheney as "an understanding," in part one of the WaPo series. Bush wanted the office and title, Cheney wanted the power. If this is in fact the agreement, then the public is owed an explanation and the Congress needs to take a look at the legality of such an agreement. Would a Cheney-Bush ticket have won do you think? Would anyone have elected Dick Cheney as President of the United States? Never.
We didn't elect George Bush, either. Never. But in a sense Larisa is still right: if the ticket had been Cheney/Bush, neither "election" -- 2000 or 2004 -- would have been close enough to steal.

Nonetheless I think Larisa is right when she says:
Cheney needed Bush to get elected it appears and to mislead the public as to who the actual President would be. That is my sense after reading the first two parts of this series.

Someone needs to ask the President (if we only had a press corps) if he agreed to abdicate his role as President to Dick Cheney before the election... not in title, but in authority. If not, then someone needs to ask the President if he minds that there has been a coup in his administration.
David Horsey has it right, too: