Friday, April 25, 2008

Why Can’t He Close the Deal?

            Right after Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary, the pundits were busy dissecting the supposed “failure” of Senator Obama. The main question: “Why Can’t Obama Close the Deal?” Which means, given his big lead and his momentum coming out of the February and March primaries, why can’t he finish off Hillary?
The metaphor, of course, suggests that a presidential nomination is some sort of gunfight at the DC corral. But the metaphor notwithstanding, the reason Obama can’t eliminate his rival is simple: it’s called Racism. This nation always has, and arguably always will be the most racist nation on the planet. And by racism, I am talking specifically about racism against African Americans. The other forms of racism—against Asians and Hispanics and Pacific Islanders and East Indians and American Indians—can, and eventually will recede if not disappear. But the fundamental racism against those who were brought here from Africa as slaves, all the Emanicipation Proclamations and voters’ rights acts and affirmative action programs notwithstanding, persists to this day. It persists in patterns of living, it persists in patterns of education, it persists in the degree of punishment for crime, it persists in longstanding, deep-seated attitudes that are as American as apple pie.
            Barack Obama thought he could transcend all this. He thought that his half-white background, his distinguished record at America’s most prestigious university, his stunning ability to speak the language of white folks better than they can themselves speak it, would neutralize all this. He thought that by not exploiting his blackness to garner votes, he could rise above petty racial politics and disarm the racists he must have known still existed in droves. And in a certain sense, and with a younger, more educated electorate, he has succeeded in this. At least partly.
            Sadly, he ran into middle America. And middle America, not to mention southern and western America, have by no means risen above their instinctive  racism. Which is to say, their resentment that some uppity Harvard-educated black man—and the one percent doctrine still holds for most Americans, i.e. if you’ve got even one percent African in your genes, you’re black—could actually lay claim to the American throne heretofore reserved for not just whites, but whites of a certain northern European background and skin tone.  Preferably with names of only one syllable: Bush, Gore; or maybe two: Clinton, Johnson, Carter, Nixon. But Obama. Lord almighty, how could the Whitest of Houses contain a trisyllabic, fear-evoking name like that?
            The proof of this, if proof is needed, is in the numbers. Hillary Clinton has won every large state with a strong rural or powerful working-class population: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and California (large parts of which derive, ultimately, from southern states.) They are also states that harbor immigrants and their children—those who have always been able to derive some comfort from the fact that, though they may be low on the class totem pole, at least they can always look down upon that population which remains permanently below them. To have a representative of that population now lay claim to the highest office in the land is simply too much to bear. He must be brought down. And if Hillary fails to knock him off his horse, we can bet that the Republicans—whose entire winning strategy, from at least the time of Nixon, has been predicated on winning these very same rural and working-class southern and Midwestern voters—will prove only too eager to play their favorite election game, race baiting. Think George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads. Think Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens.”
            All this gives the lie to the constant protestations by American conservatives of their patriotic veneration for our founding documents: the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Declaration’s ringing phrase that “all men are created equal.” For when it comes to the privacy of the presidential voting booth, the phrase that really counts is the add-on by Orwell in Animal Farm:
            “…but some are more equal than others.”
            Anything that challenges, in a fundamental way, that “more equal” status will be met with savagery. And, as we have seen with the Jeremiah Wright ads, it already has.
            To be sure, hope springs eternal. America could still right itself, redeem itself.  But at this point, it seems to me, ‘closing the deal’ is going to take a miracle.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Concentration of Evil

The more I read about torture by United States agents—CIA operatives,
military special forces, hired mercenaries, and military police—the
more unsettling the whole sordid situation becomes. The information
now at hand is simply unassailable: the United States government
consciously set out, after the attacks of 9/11, to “take off the
gloves” when dealing with prisoners who might possibly have
information about al Quaeda or the Taliban or anyone else in the Arab/
Muslim world. Using techniques that had been around for years, some
for centuries, some updated specifically for those likely to be
captured in the current “war” on terror, intelligence agents
determined that they could employ just about any method to extract
information. They were aided and abetted and indeed prodded to do so
by the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and through him, by
their commanders. The Secretary of Defense was in turn given the
protection of the best legal “minds” in the White House and the
Department of Justice, who issued a series of now-famous memos
justifying virtually all means of gathering intelligence from
captives, most of whom were placed in a category that voided the
protections normally due them as prisoners.

All this took place in an atmosphere in which the United
States President, George W. Bush, had promised, right after 9/11, to
rid the world of evil—by which he meant the evil promulgated by those
terrorists who had attacked the World Trade Center.

Instead, what took place was the greatest concentration
of evil in the history of the American presidency. Consider who was
in that White House. George W. Bush, from the moment he took office,
indeed, before he even took office, demonstrated that morals simply
did not apply to him. He could piously proclaim the virtues of
military service, and remain AWOL from even the minimal duty he was
obligated to perform in the Air National Guard. He could inveigh
against the so-called Axis of Evil, and at the same time authorize to
his staff virtually any measures in pursuing revenge: “any barriers
in your way, they are gone.” He could preach about the bestial
nature of the terrorists who had attacked our “civilized” values, and
at the same time rebuff anyone—this time the Secretary of Defense, no
nervous Nellie himself—who protested that retaliatory action could
encounter certain legal obstacles:

“I don’t care what the international lawyers say,”
brayed the President. “We are going to kick some ass.”

It was this climate, created by the President, that led directly to
the horrors at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and
Guantanamo in Cuba.

But the president was not alone. Smirking quietly but
malevolently behind him and beside him always was his president of
vice, Richard Cheney. Cheney is that lovely man who once gave the
finger in the Senate to a democrat who thwarted him, Senator Patrick
Leahy, mouthing presidentially: “Go fuck yourself.” He’s that
sporting duck hunter who famously shot his best friend in the face.
He’s that zealot who pushed the concept of the unitary presidency—the
notion that no law can constrain a president in time of war—to the
point that, with the war on terror scheduled to last indefinitely,
absolute presidential power becomes indefinite as well. Cheney is
also the man in whose office the lawyer David Addington reigns—the
one browbeating other white house lawyers to immunize the president
and all his men from their crimes.

Then, of course, there were the other ethically-
challenged legal eagles: Alberto Gonzalez, who had to resign from his
Attorney General post in shame; John Yoo, who coined the term
“quaint” to describe the Geneva Conventions, thus making their
protections moot; and a host of others dedicated to removing all
constraints on the torture of captives so long as the Decider in
Chief gave torture his imprimatur. And he did. And they did. And the
evil festered and suppurated and spread around the globe. And the
White House, and all it touched, became a black house of horrors.

How to explain this? How to explain such a concentration
of evil in one place at one time? No one really knows. Perhaps one
can only look at it poetically: those who preach the gospel of
absolute good and absolute evil, as George Bush has since taking
office, as the conservatives have since forever—it is their prime
article of faith—must ultimately practice what they preach. They
must finally be caught up in the dualism to which they subscribe. For
it is in the nature of dualism to be convertible: white easily shades
into black, hot inevitably becomes cold, good cannot help but be
infected by, and in the end defined by evil.

So it is in the Bush White House. Paint it and sanitize
it and bleach it as they will, they can never hide what they have
become and what it has become: a black house inhabited by demons.

Lawrence DiStasi


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Here's to You, John Yoo

First, let’s get some facts straight. Attorney John Yoo was an
assistant to Attorney General John Ashcroft, working in the Office
of Legal Counsel under his boss, Jay Bybee, during George Bush's
first term. This office is supposed to advise all the departments of
government on the legality or illegality of their actions. The
attorneys work, in the final analysis, not for the President or any
of his subordinates, but for the American people. They are obliged to
render opinions that are, to put it mildly, legal, according to U.S.
and international law.

Second, let’s look at what John Yoo did and why he did it.

To begin with, he essentially argued, in a series of memos, that the
Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution has no bearing on
the President of the United States during wartime. Neither the 5th
Amendment’s due process clauses nor the 8th Amendment’s protections
against cruel and unusual punishment apply to aliens in foreign
countries, and even if they did, Yoo maintained, the President is not
bound by them. Essentially, this means that the President’s power
trumps both the Constitution and the federal statutes that constitute
U.S. Law—specifically, any that would constrain his power to find and/
or torture those he deems ‘enemies.’ This means that the President
can also thumb his nose at foreign laws and treaties, for if he
cannot be constrained by U.S. Law, he certainly cannot be constrained
by treaties with other nations, such as the Geneva Conventions, even
though normally and legally they have the force of the Constitution
itself. No matter; the President, wrote Yoo, is “free to override all
such laws and treaties at his discretion.” In sum: John Yoo argued
that the President has unlimited authority to order war crimes
against enemy combatants captured on foreign soil, so long as he
decides that such orders are necessary to the nation’s “defense.”

All this is breathtaking enough. What’s worse is that in defending
these memos, John Yoo has actually said that they confer on the
President the power, if he chooses to use it, to torture children. In
a January 2006 interview with Notre Dame professor and international
human rights scholar Doug Cassel, Yoo argued that there is no law
that could prevent the President from ordering the torture of even
the child of a suspect. Here is the conversation:

Cassel: If the President deems that he’s got to torture somebody,
including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is
no law that can stop him?
Yoo: No treaty.
Cassel: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the
August 2002 memo.
Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do
(see article by Philip Watts,

Of course, we can surmise, the President would always have a
“good” reason for crushing a child’s testicles.

So let’s get specific. Let’s take a look at one of the allegedly
toothless treaties that John Yoo was referring to—the 1984 Convention
Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment—which
the United States signed. Here is what it says:

“The term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering,
whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person
for such purposes as obtaining information or a confession…No
exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a
threat of war, internal political stability or any other public
emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” (cited by
Anthony Piel, “A Primer on the Law of Torture,”, 11/5/07)

Anyone convicted of such crimes can be punished by life imprisonment
or the death penalty. Piel goes on to say that not only is the United
States bound by this law, the President cannot grant immunity from
its provisions: “The US government crafted, promoted, adopted, signed
and ratified the 1984 Convention Against Torture, which therefore
automatically becomes the “supreme law of the land,” pursuant to the
US Constitution. No enabling legislation is required to give effect
to these basic principles of law.”

For a lawyer in the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice
Department to argue otherwise is to essentially argue that the
President and all those under him can break the law with impunity.
But Yoo not only did this—in direct violation of his legal ethics. He
also argued for the immunity of those who followed his memos and
broke any such laws. Here is what Yoo writes in another Memo, (as
noted by Glenn Greenwald in “John Yoo’s War Crimes,” Salon, April 2,

"If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an
interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal
prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks
on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case,
we believe that he could argue that the executive branch's
constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified
his actions."

So there it is. Not only 'could we argue' that the President is
above all law prohibiting torture, both domestic and international,
so are those Americans (CIA agents, military police and/or
interrogators, civilian contractors) who follow his orders and
torture or abuse their captives. So are those who command them—the
generals, the admirals, the secretaries of defense and war and so on
up the chain.

This last part is really the point. We have been given the
impression, not least by Yoo himself, that he was trying to formulate
difficult policy in the critical and dangerous new conditions created
by 9/11, and that government officials were pressing him and his
office for guidance on how they should conduct interrogations, how
they should treat the dangerous “terrorists” they were capturing.
This turns out to be a smokescreen. In fact, as Scott Horton has
recently noted in “Yoo Two,” (Harper’s Magazine, April 3, 2008),
there were two series of memos, one in August 2002, and one in March
2003. The memos are similar in that they “were issued as part of an
actual plan to induce individuals to commit criminal acts by ensuring
that their crimes would never be investigated or prosecuted.” Horton
calls this effort a “criminal enterprise,” because “Under the
standards of U.S. v Altstoetter, it was reasonably foreseeable that
the issuance of these memoranda would result in serious harm,
including assault, torture, and death, to protected persons in the
custody of the United States. Accordingly, each of the actors,
including the memoranda writers, is criminally liable.”

This was the “need” to which John Yoo was responding. As a
lawyer and professor of United States law, he knew full well that
what he was advocating would make those who followed its dictates
liable to prosecution for war crimes. So did others in government,
and that was the real “crisis” at hand. Naval officers had seen what
was happening to “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo under the authority
of Yoo’s earlier memo, and had relayed it to Alberto Mora, the
general counsel for the Navy in the Pentagon. These practices, along
with other questionable techniques authorized by Donald Rumsfeld,
including waterboarding, led decent military lawyers to vehemently
protest what was going on. These were military lawyers who knew about
torture and knew about the consequences for U.S. military personnel
if it became known worldwide that the United States was engaging in
such practices. When the legal counsel at the Pentagon, William
Haynes, began wilting under enormous pressure from such lawyers, he
recommended to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that the torture procedures
should stop. (see Horton, cited above, and Jane Mayer, “The Memo,”
New Yorker Magazine, 2/27/2006.)

Unfortunately for the military, the chicken hawks were in
charge. Rumsfeld took his case to the Office of Legal Counsel in the
Justice Department, among others. He needed legal justification for
torture, and military lawyers knew too much to give it to him. The
political hacks in the Office of Legal Counsel, John Yoo and his boss
Jay Bybee chief among them, had no such qualms. Yoo knew nothing
about the military, but he had “read lots of books.” And so he
crafted his torture-justifying memos. And those memos were relayed to
zealots like Secretary Rumsfeld and his commander at Guantanamo,
General Geoffrey Miller. Miller implemented the 'more creative'
techniques at Gitmo, was subsequently sent to Abu Ghraib to
“gitmoize” that sadly tragic place, and the rest is history
(including the death of the so-called “Ice Man” and god knows how
many more).

As Scott Horton puts it, Yoo created these memos “as a
roadmap to committing crimes and getting away with it.” The roadmap
worked. The only sad sacks punished for the scandals at Abu Ghraib
have been, as always, the underlings, the so-called “bad apples” in
an otherwise pristine barrel, Pvt. Lynndie England, Sgt. Chip
Frederick, Cpl. Charles Graner. The war criminals really responsible
for those crimes—Yoo and his boss Bybee, Donald Rumseld, Richard
Cheney and his lawyer, David Addington, Alberto Gonzalez, General
Geoffrey Miller, George Tenet and President George W. Bush, among
others—have so far gotten off scott-free.

Perhaps they are all laughing privately amongst themselves.
Then again, perhaps not. Though they may, like John Yoo (now safely,
and to my mind scandalously, welcomed back to his academic post at
Boalt School of Law, UC Berkeley) continue to defend their actions as
necessary in a time of war, perhaps they should also remember that
the conventions against torture specifically state that “no
exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification for
torture.” Perhaps they should also remember what Anthony Piel, cited
above, reminds us:

“…there is no statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against

So here’s to you, John Yoo. You’ve served your masters well,
and duly collected your due. Although, it may be, you’ll yet see
another turn of the screw.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, April 11, 2008

Fragile and Reversible

Life is certainly hectic
When it comes to the war metric
What you measure and when
Over and over again
Tells us all so much
About philosophy and such
Recall the count of bodies
Was called so very shoddy
But now there is no hope
Without a microscope

I would not want to defend the Bush Administration’s position on staying the course. For this, General Petraeus deserves credit. He is loyal and articulate. Unfortunately, the performance measurements are essentially microscopic and movement toward success is surely not available to the naked eye. Hence, with some sensitivity, he called the gains “fragile and reversible.” While that description is not a common yardstick of progress, it does provide cover in the event of a tragic collapse. Each year now since the invasion in March 2003, we have been entertained by an Administration dog and pony show citing progress. In between, we have been provided a variety pack of “significant measures” that were “turning points.” We captured Baghdad. We toppled a statue. We de-Baathified. We disbanded the Iraqi Army. We killed Saddam’s two sons, Uday and Qusay. We established a provisional government. We tried Saddam. We executed Saddam. We killed the second or third most important insurgent (several times). We had a new president. We had a charter. We had a constitution. We had purple fingers. We had a power-sharing plan. We stood up the Iraqi Army (so we could stand down). We re-Baathified (at the cost of $10 per Sunni per day). We pacified Basra and secured Umm Qasr and the Brits went home. We got an agreement for a truce with Muqtada al Sadr. We fought Muqtada al Sadr in the streets of Basra and al Amarah and secured Umm Qasr. All this seems to verify that if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there…wherever “there” is.

Having quickly reviewed the Administration practice of using selected dramatic events as proof of progress, we are struck with the contrast of looking at other areas and practices of measurement. No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has been the centerpiece of domestic policy. The policy is dependent upon the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is a survey of student achievement that uses assessments in a variety of subject areas including reading, math, science, writing, history, geography and the arts. Without getting into the quagmire of unfunded federal mandates, the entire program is dependent upon measurement, measurement and more measurement. In fact, the major criticism has been that since Bush tied test scores to school performance, that teachers are teaching to tests and not teaching for learning. More important, schools have long been the nearly exclusive territory of local government and this top down measuring frenzy has reversed a couple hundred years of tradition. If you receive Title I funds, you must submit a plan to the US Department of Education that demonstrates that you have sufficient academic content and state wide standards that support the plan. Although the system is administered by a federal contractor, the numbers are salient yardsticks, even if compromised by fear of losing funds and teachers teaching to the test. Now, many of you may argue that NCLB has been a dismal failure perhaps because it focused too much on measurement of easily manipulated testing and I won’t defend the practice, but clearly, it provides a contrast to the evaluation of the war in Iraq. Or does it?

Do the real purposes of NCLB and the war in Iraq coincide? The answer that I submit to you is that both are intended to claim that Bush is a winner. He is a “winner” who took Baghdad, unlike his more tentative father and a “winner” who has upgraded American education with little or no money and with numbers to prove it. This evaluation of winners and losers is human nature and also a matter of perception. Bush is also sensitive to propaganda and has twice approved multi million dollar contracts for the Lincoln Group to promote the best side of the Iraqi war to Iraqis in Iraq. The whole purpose of the FOX-Bush connection appears to be promotion of Bush in exchange for Administration promotion of the network. Have you been to any military base and seen any public television set NOT tuned to FOX? Think of it as putting your best foot forward, not as either truth or prevarication.

As a military retiree who devoted over 30 years to supporting the government and the supremacy of the civilian to the military in policy decisions, I am troubled by current events where Petraeus has essentially provided a policy endorsed by the President instead of the other way around. The Secretary of Defense and Admiral Fallon (the nominal boss for Petraeus) have both been circumvented to promote the illusion that we are winning in Iraq. There is no metric that I know of that will prove him wrong, but we have heard that mantra of victory before and it has become hollow. Merely pretending that we could somehow “win” a civil war as an occupying force is bizarre, but pretending that there is no civil war is just as strange. Without metrics we can agree upon, we are left with the prospect of winning Iraq for the next hundred years, but remember that is fragile and reversible.

George Giacoppe
11 April 2008