Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday Reading

On Trial — Jane Mayer of The New Yorker profiles Attorney General Eric Holder and the trials of getting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tried.

On January 11th, a few weeks before his plans for a trial at Foley Square fell apart, Holder flew to Boston, to preside over the installation of a new U.S. Attorney. That evening, he returned to Washington in the Justice Department’s Gulfstream jet. Holder, who had jokingly lamented that such perks wouldn’t last forever—“I’m missing it already!”—sat down, put on headphones, and blasted one of his favorite songs, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Holder, who is fifty-nine, seemed determined not to let the tensions of Washington politics poison his mood. He was equally determined not to capitulate on the idea of holding a 9/11 trial. “I don’t apologize for what I’ve done,” he told me at one point. “History will show that the decisions we’ve made are the right ones.” Holder said that he regarded trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a courtroom as “the defining event of my time as Attorney General.” But, he added, “between now and then I suspect we’re in for some interesting times.”

Holder, despite the controversy he has inspired, has not actually pushed for radical change. Indeed, critics in left-leaning legal circles have complained that he has kept too many of George W. Bush’s counterterrorism policies in place. For example, Holder’s Justice Department has continued blocking lawsuits by people who were subjected to extraordinary rendition—the practice of sending suspected terrorists captured abroad to countries known for administering torture—on the ground that such litigation would expose state secrets. Even some former members of the Bush Administration see more continuity than change. Bradford Berenson, who served as a White House lawyer when the Bush Administration was forging its controversial legal approach to terrorism, told me that “from the perspective of a hawkish Bush national-security person the glass is eighty-five per cent full in terms of continuity.”

Holder told me that he was frustrated by much of the criticism over the handling of Abdulmutallab. “What we did is totally consistent with what has happened in every similar case” since 9/11, he said. “There’s a desire to ignore the facts to try to score political points. It’s a little shocking.” Without exception, he noted, every previous terrorist suspect apprehended inside the country had been handled as a civilian criminal. Even so, critics such as Krauthammer were denouncing Holder for failing to send Abdulmutallab directly to Guantánamo. As a senior national-security official in the White House put it, “It’s a fantasy! Under what alternative legal system can Special Operations Forces fly into Detroit, and take someone away without court oversight?”

More below the fold.

The Tea Party Racket — Joan Walsh at Salon reviews Sarah Palin’s appearance at the Tea Party convention.

Eric Hoffer didn’t live to see Tea Party Nation, but I always think of his most famous quote when I’m forced to deal with it: “”Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

I’m not sure the Tea Party cause is a great one, but it’s an influential one, and it degenerated into a racket lickety split, in less than a year. This weekend’s gathering in Nashville splintered both the Tennessee and the national Tea Party movement, as local go-getter Judson Phillips set up the once-anticipated “convention” as his own for-profit business. We’ll have a first-hand report from the racket that paid Sarah Palin more than $100,000 to speak Saturday night. But I can’t help weighing in.

Wow. This was the Palin we saw at the 2008 Republican convention, the snarling pitbull in shimmery lipstick. I know journalists aren’t supposed to use words like mean and dumb, but I can’t help it. Palin is one of the meanest people on the public stage today. She wallows in it. She loves it! Also? Possibly one of the dumbest. But mean works, and so does dumb. And so do lies, and there were many mean, dumb lies in her speech.

How rich that she read her talk in a sing-song voice as she ripped Barack Obama for using a Teleprompter. Once she left the speech for the Q&A, she really went off-message, as well as nearly off-English. (Even though it looked like, at one point, she was reading answers off of her hand.) “They’re not knowin what are we gonna do if we don’t have Tea Party support” was one of my favorite head-scratchers, a great echo of “when Putin rears his head.”

But it was also in her brief Q&A that she made one comment she might regret, if anyone in the Republican Party ever held her accountable. She told the crowd her husband Todd — according to recently released emails, the non-elected former governor of Alaska — is “much too independent” to be a Republican, because he’s even “more conservative” than she is. What a great way to revisit the controversy over Todd’s membership in the secessionist Alaska Independent Party! Remember how Palin dogged poor McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, trying to get him to denounce Salon’s reporting on the Palins and AIP? She tried to get Schmidt to lie and say her husband checked the AIP box on voter forms mistakenly, and he refused. Now she’s bragging her husband isn’t a Republican because he’s so “independent.”

Frank Rich on the outing of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

Polls consistently show that independents, however fiscally conservative, are closer to Democrats than Republicans on social issues. (In May’s Gallup survey, 67 percent of independents favored repealing “don’t ask.”) This is why Scott Brown, enjoying what may be a short-lived honeymoon in his own party, calls himself a “Scott Brown Republican.” A Scott Brown Republican isn’t a Boehner or Hatch Republican. In his interview with Barbara Walters last weekend, he distanced himself from Sarah Palin, said he was undecided on “don’t ask” and declared same-sex marriage a “settled” issue in his state, Massachusetts, where it is legal.

It’s in this political context that we can see that there may have been some method to Obama’s troublesome tardiness on gay issues after all. But as we learned about this White House and the Democratic Congress in the health care debacle, they are perfectly capable of dropping the ball at any moment. Let’s hope they don’t this time. Should they actually press forward on “don’t ask” in an election year with Mullen and Gates on board — and with even McCain’s buddy, Joe Lieberman, calling for action “as soon as possible” — they could further the goal and raise the political price for those who stand in the way. Recalcitrant Congressional Republicans will have to explain why their perennial knee-jerk deference to “whatever the commanders want” extends to Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal on troop surges but not to Mullen, who outranks them, on civil rights.

The more bigotry pushed out of the closet for all voters to see, the more likely it is that Americans will be moved to grant overdue full citizenship to gay Americans. It won’t happen overnight, any more than full civil rights for African-Americans immediately followed Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces. But there can be no doubt that Mike Mullen’s powerful act of conscience last week, just as we marked the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-in, pushed history forward. The revealing silence that followed from so many of the usual suspects was pretty golden too.

Doonesbury — At twits end.