Devil in the Details

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The release on March 31 of a report by the presidentially appointed Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction brought forth the non-news that America's intelligence community was mistaken in its assessment of Saddam Hussein's programs. Yet, the media missed perhaps the single most important sentence in the report, page 8's observation that “we were not authorized to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence assessments they received from the Intelligence Community.” The commission, in other words, accomplished precisely what the president, who handpicked its members and defined its scope, had wanted it to do: cast the blame for the debacle on intelligence professionals while exonerating by omission the administration's leading policy-makers.

Just what one would expect from executive-branch efforts to investigate itself. One expects better from the Congress.

Yet when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) released its own report on the issue last July, it, too, punted on the political use of intelligence. The study promised, though, that the topic would be discussed in a follow-up report. On March 10, however, Chairman Pat Roberts informed the world that he'd just been kidding about that second report. “It's basically on the back burner,” he told reporters, because “the bottom line” is that “the intelligence was wrong.”

Is that the whole story behind our botched intervention? As The New Republic's Spencer Ackerman pointed out, none other than former CIA Director George Tenet told a different story a year ago, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that “when I believed somebody was misconstruing intelligence, I said something about it.”

So who was misconstruing what? You don't need code-word clearance to find out. On October 7, 2002, George W. Bush told an audience in Cincinnati that “if the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.” Less than a year -- better invade fast! After all, “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

But this was hardly the position of the intelligence community, which the SSCI report described thusly: “Once reconstitution had begun, it would take five to seven years, with foreign assistance, for Iraq to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear weapon.” In other words, if Iraq reconstituted its program, and if it got foreign assistance, five to seven years later it would be less than a year away from having a nuclear weapon. Not exactly evidence of immediate peril -- and not something that Senate Republicans deem worthy of an investigation.

-- Matthew Yglesias

Judgment Days

Spring is in the air, and the right has caught judge-bashing fever like never before. The Terri Schiavo brouhaha featured death threats against the judges involved. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay swore that they would “answer for their behavior.” John Cornyn speculated on the Senate floor that maybe there was a reason for the recent spate of violence against judges.

These were mere prelude, however, to an April 7–8 conference at the Washington Marriott that unfolded as a kind of judicial bash-a-rama. “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” was organized by a consortium of Christian-right outfits gathered under the banner of the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration. Panelists included a who's who of evangelical and conservative movement bigwigs, including the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins, Phyllis Schlafly, Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute, Alabama's “Ten Commandments” Judge Roy Moore, Kay Daly of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, and, inevitably, professional lunatic Alan Keyes.

Events were kicked off by an opening invocation calling Schiavo's husband, Mike, a “philanderer-killer,” and the tone only got more pleasant from there. DeLay, en route to Pope John Paul II's funeral, sent a videotaped message to the conference that assailed a “judiciary run amok.” Don Feder, panelist and conference communications director, complained of rampant “humanism, secularism, hedonism, and sexual nihilism.”

At least half a dozen speakers called for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy for his decisions overturning state anti-sodomy laws and the execution of minors. Author Edwin Vieira explained that Kennedy's legal outlook “upholds Marxist-Leninist, satanic principles drawn from foreign law,” and invoked Joseph Stalin's appreciation of murder as a political solution -- “no man, no problem” -- to summarize his own approach to the judicial wars. “Mass impeachment” of judges was also mentioned repeatedly as a top agenda item.

Still, in the wake of several polls indicating widespread disapproval of the Republicans' overreach in the Schiavo affair, the conference may have been a bit too hot for some lawmakers to handle. Two senators who had been scheduled to attend were conspicuous no-shows. Sam Brownback of Kansas got “stuck in traffic,” conference organizer Rick Scarborough told the Prospect. Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, meanwhile, couldn't make it because he was “attending the pope's funeral,” according to Feder (Coburn, in fact, was doing no such thing). Happily, his chief of staff did show up, lamenting at one panel the Supreme Court's recent discovery of “the right to commit buggery.”

-- Sam Rosenfeld

When Democracies Kidnap

As the Bush administration tells it, America is shining freedom's light into the darkest corners of Middle Eastern autocracies. But if the conduct of public affairs here and there is beginning to converge, that's also because our government has become as indifferent to the rule of law as some of theirs.

Consider the disappearance of controversial Italian-based, Egyptian-born imam Hassan Osama Nasr. In April 2004, the Italian police's missing-persons investigation into Nasr's disappearance -- then approaching 15 months -- got an unexpected boost when Nasr telephoned his wife in Milan to tell her that he had just been released from an Egyptian jail. Italian authorities had tapped her phone, and in the conversation, Nasr seemed to confirm that he was the target of an American practice, known as rendition, in which U.S. agents abroad abduct terrorism suspects and transfer them to a third country for interrogation.

That Nasr phoned from Egypt is not surprising. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime perennially cracks down on Islamists, and the feared mukhabarat (secret police) is known to use methods of interrogation that would be illegal on Italian or American soil. The very practice of rendition began in the mid-'90s with an agreement between the CIA and the mukhabarat. Back then, renditions were rare. After September 11, though, the Bush administration massively expanded the targets and frequency of renditions.

Now, a growing body of evidence indicates that rendition has become a two-way street: Foreign authorities are kidnapping terrorism suspects abroad and spiriting them into U.S. custody. In March, Human Rights Watch reported the tale of Abd al-Salam Ali al-Hila, a Yemeni intelligence officer abducted by the Egyptian secret service while visiting Cairo in 2002. Shortly thereafter, al-Hila was rendered to the CIA's custody and held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for 16 months. In the summer of 2004, the CIA transferred al-Hila to the Pentagon's custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains indefinitely.

Of course, Egypt could legally extradite a suspect wanted by the United States. But that would entangle both governments in the messiness of due process, a formality without strong foundation in Egypt and other nations that are targets of Bush's freedom march. “Perhaps one of the greatest menaces facing any Arab citizen,” declared the 2004 United Nations' Arab Human Development Report released April 5, “is the frequent disappearance of suspects in detention.”

So the challenge before Bush administration global democrats is how to bring due process to nations such as Egypt without bringing so much due process that it undermines our own aversion to it in our Afghan, Iraqi, and Cuban prisons. Nobody said building democracy was easy.

-- Mark Leon Goldberg

A Wal-Mart Defense

You'd think that Wal-Mart, as the nation's largest employer, could afford to buy itself one week of decent publicity. But what a run of misfortune! Even after Wal-Mart placed an ad in The New York Review of Books vouching for its own character, the media have continued to dwell on such company lowlights as the fine it paid to the Labor Department for employing minors in jobs involving dangerous equipment, and the $11 million it had to fork over to the Justice Department for employing undocumented immigrants as janitors (and locking them in the stores at night to protect them, we presume, from sudden drafts).

The week of April 4 began more promisingly, with Wal-Mart inviting more than 100 journalists down to its Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters so they could see this New Jerusalem for themselves. By week's end, however, the company's moral shabbiness had popped up yet again. The Wall Street Journal reported that Thomas Coughlin, the company's second-highest executive, had resigned earlier this year after the company alleged that he had leaned on underlings to have Wal-Mart reimburse him for between $100,000 and $500,000 of personal expenses. As Wal-Mart told it, Coughlin had spent thousands of dollars on such items as alligator boots and a $2,590 backyard dog pen.

But it's Coughlin's cover story that's the real scandal. According to him, the activities for which he was reimbursed had no paper trail because he was engaged in a secret project to undermine any attempts by Wal-Mart workers to form a union. Coughlin says he was actually passing money to unnamed union staffers and onetime union members to rat out any Wal-Mart workers who harbored pro-union thoughts. Coughlin's actions, as he describes them, would constitute a criminal violation of the Taft-Hartley Act and a civil violation of the National Labor Relations Act -- which, in the eyes of this topmost Wal-Mart executive, constitutes his defense. The rule of thumb for a Wal-Mart exec, apparently, is that it's not OK to spend company money on caging up your dogs, but if it's for illegally bribing, spying on, and firing your employees, well, hell -- that's just the Wal-Mart way.

Time for another ad in The New York Review. Maybe a whole series.

-- Harold Meyerson


Kay Daly of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, addressing the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration's conference “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” in Washington on April 7:

“My job is to stand in the breach between the left and the president's judicial nominations. … You know who they are. You've seen them. The pro-abortion fanatics and the radical feminists; the atheists who file lawsuits attacking the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments; the environmentalist, tree-hugging, animal-rights extremists; the one-world globalists who worship at the altar of the United Nations and international law; the militant homosexuals and the anti-military hippie peaceniks; the racial agitators who believe we are all created equal (but some are a little more equal than others); the union bosses and the socialists posing as journalists and college professors; the government bureaucrats and the tax-and-spend junkies; the Hollywood elitists; the airheaded actors and singers who think that we actually care what they think; the pornographers who fund the leftists and who won't be happy until every Bible in every child's hands is replaced with the latest copy of Hustler magazine; and, of course, the gun-grabbing trial lawyers and their willing accomplices in the United States Senate who won't be happy until they disarm every last citizen down to the last BB and paintball gun.”