Imperial drag: a bipartisan love story

Imperial drag

by digby

This is somewhat ironic:

President Obama will issue an executive order Monday that will allow U.S. officials for the first time to impose sanctions against foreign nationals found to have used new technologies, from cellphone tracking to Internet monitoring, to help carry out grave human rights abuses.

I attended an event last night which featured a rousing speech by Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill. It was a very friendly venue with a group of stalwart liberals, some of whom are at the top of the entertainment food chain. He waded into this very Democratic group with a fiery condemnation of President Obama's civil liberties record, creating quite a bit of throat clearing and shifting in the seats. This is not something that's comfortable for many liberals to hear.

But I don't think it has as much to do with simple minded tribalism and careless hypocrisy as some people think. It has to do with the fact that this knowledge means our political system is ineffectual when it comes to national security and that makes even good civil libertarians feel impotent and adrift. The palpable feeling in that group was not hostility to what he was saying but rather creeping ennui. This was mostly a group of older liberals who'd come through the cold war and had heard all this stuff before --- when we were under threat of a different so-called existential threat that allegedly required the nation to abandon its constitution.

The fact is that the national security state has been with us since 1945 and ever single president since then has expanded it, regardless of party or ideology. The problem then isn't the individuals who have "betrayed" us or the two-party system or the fecklessness of our leadership it's that the United States is an empire. And even the lesser Caesars see it as their duty to protect it while the greater Caesars seek to expand it. It's the nature of the beast. Liberal aspirations are a puny adversary for such power.

It's not all hypocrisy then, or rank stupidity, that makes many liberals look away from the abuses by the Obama administration. It's that they don't know how to bring down the empire without bringing down the whole damned thing. After all, most Americans like being an empire. Or think they do, anyway.

And, it has been tried. Over the week-end I was tweeting with Glenn Greenwald about the Church Commission, the high water mark of national security and surveillance state reforms, and I dredged up this post from a few years back on the subject. It's instructive, I think:

McJoan over at DKos writes:

That should not preclude Congress from finally conducting its own investigation in the form of a reconstituted Church Commission and the Obama administration from cooperating fully with that investigation. There really isn't a way for Congress to recover everything it lost in its myriad capitulations to a lawless administration. But a bright light shined on the whole affair might just keep it from happening yet again.

Sadly, if history is any indication, that is highly unlikely to happen. Over the holidays, at the behest of Rick Perlstein, I read a book called Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI by Kathryn S. Olmsted. I had written something similar to what McJoan says above and he thought I should look more closely into the results of the Church (and Pike) investigations and what lessons the congress and the media have likely drawn from them.

It's always interesting to have one's own recollections challenged by historians. And this was, to say the least, mindblowing:

"When Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, the United States concluded one of the most traumatic chapters in its history. During the Watergate scandal, Americans had been shocked by the crimes of the Nixon presidency. Investigations by the press and Congress had exposed previously unimaginable levels of corruption and conspiracy in the executive branch. The public's faith in government had been shaken; indeed, the entire "system" had been tested. Now, with Nixon's resignation, two years of agonizing revelations finally seemed to be over. The system had worked.

Yet only four months later, New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh disclosed that the government's crimes went beyond Watergate. After months of persistent digging, Hersh had unearthed a new case of the imperial presidency's abuse of secrecy and power: a "massive" domestic spying program by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). According to Hersh, the CIA had violated its charter and broken the law by launching a spying program of Orwellian dimensions against American dissidents during the Vietnam War. The Times called it "son of Watergate."

These revelations produced a dramatic response from the newly energized post-Watergate Congress and press. Both houses of Congress mounted extensive, year-long investigations of the intelligence community. These highly publicized inquiries, headed by experienced investigators Senator Frank Church and Congressman Otis Pike, produced shocking accusations of murder plots and poison caches, of FBI corruption and CIA incompetence. In addition to the congressional inquiries, the press, seemingly at the height of its power after Watergate, launched investigations of its own. The New York Times continued to crusade against CIA abuses; the Washington Post exposed abuses and illegalities committed by the FBI; and CBS's Daniel Schorr shocked the nation by revealing that there might be "literal" skeletons in the CIA closet as a result of its assassination plots.

In this charged atmosphere, editorial writers, columnists, political scientists, historians, and even former officials of the CIA weighed in with various suggestions for reforming an agency that many agreed had become a ''monster.'' Several policymakers, including presidential candidates Fred Harris and Morris Udall, called for massive restructuring or abolition of the CIA. Media and political pundits suggested banning CIA covert operations; transferring most CIA functions to the Pentagon or the State Department; or, at the very least, devising a new, strict charter for all members of the intelligence community.

Few barriers seemed to stand in the way of such reforms. The liberal, post-Watergate Congress faced an appointed president who did not appear to have the strength to resist this "tidal shift in attitude," as Senator Church called it. Change seemed so likely in early 1975 that a writer for The Nation declared "the heyday of the National Security State', to be over, at least temporarily.

But a year and a half later, when the Pike and Church committees finally finished their work, the passion for reform had cooled. The House overwhelmingly rejected the work of the Pike committee and voted to suppress its final report. It even refused to set up a standing intelligence committee. The Senate dealt more favorably with the Church committee, but it too came close to rejecting all of the committee's recommendations. Only last-minute parliamentary maneuvering enabled Church to salvage one reform, the creation of a new standing committee on intelligence. The proposed charter for the intelligence community, though its various components continued to be hotly debated for several years, never came to pass.

The investigations failed to promote the careers of those who had inspired and led them. Daniel Schorr, the CBS reporter who had advanced the CIA story at several important points and eventually had become part of the story himself, was investigated by Congress, threatened with jail, and fired by CBS for his role in leaking the suppressed Pike report. Seymour Hersh's exposes were dismissed by his peers as "overwritten, over-played, under-researched and underproven." Otis Pike, despite the many accomplishments of his committee, found his name linked with congressional sensationalism, leaks, and poor administration. Frank Church's role in the investigation failed to boost his presidential campaign, forced him to delay his entry into the race, and, he thought, might have cost him the vice presidency.

The targets of the investigation had the last laugh on the investigators. 'When all is said and done, what did it achieve?' asked Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA who was at the heart of many of the scandals unearthed by Congress and the media. 'Where is the legislation, the great piece of legislation, that was going to come out of the Church committee hearings ? I haven't seen it.' Hersh, the reporter who prompted the inquiries, was also unimpressed by the investigators' accomplishments. 'They generated a lot of new information, but ultimately they didn't come up with much,' he said."

This was immediately post-Watergate, probably the most likely time in history to reform the way things were done. The new congress, the bumbling appointed president, the country's weariness with Vietnam and the shocking revelations of Nixonian overreach all argued in favor of the congress being able to step up and make serious changes. And I actually thought they did. But I misremembered. The sturm und drang of the period and my own youthful political leanings led me to believe that the Pike and Church Committees resulted in real reforms. And because it so damaged the careers of so many of those involved who tried, the political lesson is pretty stark. It shouldn't be surprising that people are reluctant to take it on.

None of this is to excuse any of it, of course. America's post-war imperialism is a complicated subject and one that is above my pay grade to sort out properly. I don't assume that the American empire is intrinsically evil. But this one was born of a Manichean struggle with the Soviets after World War II and it has always had a paranoid character. Coming about as it did in the atomic age, it's defined as an epic battle for survival and therefore must always do "whatever it takes" to ensure its security. I don't think you can "reform" that.

Maybe at some point a presidential hopeful other than property worshipper Ron Paul will make an explicit argument against the empire and be able to rally the people behind it. But I wonder if even that person would be able to single-handedly withdraw our global reach once presented with the immediate consequences. If I had to guess, I'd have to say that the empire is probably going to run its course, as unpalatable an outcome as that presents.

None of this is to say that President Obama hasn't been eager to advance the security state, particularly considering that his campaign in 2008 largely rested on his alleged anti-war bonafides. He is reported to particularly enjoy the secret authority of the commander in chief, so he is deserving of some special condemnation. But the truth is that he is the latest in the long line of post-war Imperial presidents who have done this to one degree or another. At some point, you have to look to the larger system, not the man or the party.

Just as it's naive to put your faith in the president to "do the right thing" I'm fairly certain it's equally naive to believe that voting against one presidential candidate or the other to protest the national security state will change anything. It goes way deeper than partisan politics. Indeed, it's immune to them. Which is why people who've been around a while shift in their seats and get uncomfortable when someone says they must stick to their principles and reject partisan loyalty. When it comes to the empire, it's hard to see exactly what good that will do.

Having said that, I do believe it's important to speak out regardless of who's in charge or what "emergency" is currently requiring that we all "watch what we say." I don't know how to break up the empire, but I do know that people of conscience still exist and could change the dynamic over time while others are subject to persuasion, at least around the edges. And someone's got to preserve the principles underlying the constitution aside from the 2nd and 10th amendments. We may need to use them again someday.

Update: Corey Robin has a great post up today called "Protocols of Machismo: On the Fetish of National Security, Part I"  (a chapter of his book The Reactionary Mind), which is very much worth reading and thinking about. The psychological implications of all this are worthy of a full study.