In The Guardian Jill Filipovic examines the national shame that is our private prison-industrial complex. “Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re paying private contractors…who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare -– at the expense of the American taxpayer.” $50 billion a year — that funds a lot of stadium.
This article was found, by the way, in Slate‘s discussion of Sesame Street’s new incarceration kit, which helps explain to 3-8-year-olds that their parent has gone to jail. “That this even has to exist in the first place shows how much pointless damage our prison system does not just to people who are caught up in the overly punitive, often racially biased justice system, but also to their families.”
It’d be nice to say this fiasco is on the national agenda, but, Jim Webb’s efforts in 2009 and some green shoots earlier in the year notwithstanding, Congress and the Obama administration, for all their talk of belt-tightening, seem pretty content with this ridiculous status quo. (One key reason: felons can’t vote.) But, hey, you know who they still don’t put in jail these days? Wolves of Wall Street. So there’s that.
Breaking everywhere the past week: 29-year-old former CIA IT guy and defense contractor Edward Snowden reveals to Glenn Greenwald that the NSA has been indiscriminately collecting everyone’s phone records and gouging into the data networks of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other mainstays of today’s social media. “The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.”
Sadly, this isn’t all that surprising. There have been intimations that the NSA has been up to no good — even beyond the warrantless wiretap fiasco under Dubya — since that weird visit to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed. Nor, sadly, is it all that surprising that — despite saying exactly the opposite in 2007 — our current President is both fine with these surveillance practices and authorizing them. (And at least from my perspective, the idea that getting the rubber stamp approval of a secret FISA court that never says no makes it all ok does not hold water.)
This is exactly what I was talking about last update. Obama acts tortured about continuing all of Dubya’s most terrible civil liberties violations, but then goes ahead and does them anyway. For Crom’s sake, he’s even picked James Comey, the guy who approved warrantless wiretaps back in 2006, to be the new FBI chief. And because this president and this administration is so brazenly two-faced about their anti-terror policies, you end up with disturbing polls like this:
For example, in the Senate: On one hand, we have Ron Wyden, Mo Udall, and Jeff Merkley calling out Obama for continuing with this extra-legal, ginormous-net approach to surveillance. “‘As far as we can see, all of the useful information that it has provided appears to have also been available through other collection methods that do not violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans in the way that the Patriot Act collection does,’ Udall and Wyden said.”
On the other hand, here’s ostensibly Democrat Dianne Feinstein yesterday going full Body Snatcher about Snowden: “‘I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,’ Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calf.) said. ‘I think it’s an act of treason.‘” (FWIW, John Boehner and Lindsey Graham were right there with her.) Of course, it’s never “treason” when Feinstein continually does it, and, in any case, this wasn’t breaking news either: The senior Senator from California has long been a quintessential “symbol of the worthless Beltway Democrat.”
This revealing breeze stirred by the NSA revelations is coursing through media outlets too. On one hand, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan has — quite correctly — called for James Clapper’s resignation, given that he flat-out lied to Congress: “We as a nation are being asked to let the National Security Agency continue doing the intrusive things it’s been doing on the premise that congressional oversight will rein in abuses. But it’s hard to have meaningful oversight when an official in charge of the program lies so blatantly in one of the rare open hearings on the subject.” Spot on.
Meanwhile, TPM’s Josh Marshall, who likes to pretend his blog is a font of independent thinking, hems and haws about it all in classic pusillanimous Village-think fashion, all the while making sure never to say anything that might harm his establishment respectability. “I’ve made clear that I don’t see Manning as a hero or a whistleblower or really anything positive at all…Pretty early I realized that to his supporters Manning was a whistleblower who was being persecuted by the government, almost like a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.” No, Josh, it doesn’t “seem” that way “to his supporters” — That is in fact what is %#%@ happening.
In any case, so as not to fall into the same trap, I’ll just say it outright: First, if Snowden and Manning are traitors, then so is Daniel Ellsberg and so, for that matter, is Dianne Feinstein and any other politician or government official who leaks when it’s convenient. (Also, sorry, folks. there is no substantive difference between revealing secrets to the criminal Julian Assange or to the venerable Bob Woodward. But please do let me know when Richard Armitage is put in a sweatbox for 23 hours a day.)
Second, this vast surveillance apparatus NSA has been constructing is both obviously overkill and clearly legally and constitutionally repugnant, and if this president lived up to even half the rhetoric he continually espoused before he was elected, he would have ended it years ago. Quite frankly, the doubletalk from him, and from so many other Democrats about these revelations so far, is both inexcusable and out-and-out pathetic.
Didn’t get to this before heading out for a Memorial Day weekend camping trip: As y’all know by now, President Obama delivered a much-hailed State of the War on Terror address at the National Defense University, during which he called for the eventual repeal of AUMF, tighter oversight of drone strikes, and the closing of the Gitmo Gulag at last. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
Sounds great! When’s it happening? Er…well, that’s that trick, isn’t it? When it comes to the first promise — the repeal of AUMF — as Brooking’s Benjamin Witte noted: “Obama does not need Congress to narrow or repeal the AUMF or to get off of a war footing. He can do it himself, declaring hostilities over in whole or in part. And Obama, needless to say, did not do anything like that.”
Ok, what about drone strikes? As Fred Kaplan and others — including the heckler at the speech — have pointed out, President Obama did not promise to transfer drone strike authority from the CIA (where they remain covert) to the military (where there’s more possibility of oversight.) Nor did he pledge to end “signature strikes,” meaning the current practice of unleashing fiery death upon unknown parties because they seem to be acting shady. This “supposedly new, restrictive policy on drone strikes,” writes Kaplan, “was neither new nor restrictive…In short, the speech heralded nothing new when it comes to drone strikes.”
Instead, Obama defended his drone policy as legal and effective. At one point, he asserted “for the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process.” And then, in the very next paragraph, he asserts that particular executive prerogative in the matter of Anwar Awlaki — assassinated without due process. (FWIW, Obama is clearly using the Colbert reasoning here: “Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”)
As for Gitmo…well, we have been here before, so fool me once and all that. “‘The speech was deeply disappointing,’ says David Remes, a lawyer who has represented a number of Yemenis held at Guantanamo – adding that Obama only ‘created the illusion of forward momentum.’…The president has the power to issue national security waivers and direct the Secretary of Defense to certify detainee transfer if they are deemed not a national security threat – something human rights groups have been advocating. Didn’t hear much about that in the president’s address.
Yes, the paragraphs I quoted from the speech above at the onset are laudable, and yes, I suppose some people might find it vaguely comforting to know that the force of these issues weigh on the presidential mind in a way they didn’t between 2001 and 2008. But let’s be honest. It has been a troubling tendency of this administration — and by troubling tendency I mean signature pattern — to follow up lofty, progressive-minded rhetoric with absolutely no action of consequence. We need more than words from this president.
A “nonpartisan, independent review of interrogation and detention programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,” headed by two former Members of Congress (Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat James Jones) offers an in-depth investigative report on our national post-9/11 torture regime.
“The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been ‘the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.’”
Of course, we have known all this for awhile now. And yet, just as with the folks who brought us the financial crisis, there has been zero accountability coming from Obama’s Justice Department or anywhere else. Instead, our powers-that-be have been too busy trying to round up purported public enemies like Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.
And yet, as this report unequivocally lays out, the evidence of an American torture regime, planned and carried out after 9/11 at the highest levels of government, is indisputable. For the rule of law’s sake as much as for the values we purportedly stand for, we still need a reckoning.
Charlie Pierce reports in from the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, which to-date have killed three and injured over 140. “Horror has no shelf life anymore. Everybody knows already. Everybody’s a newsman. Everybody’s in showbiz.”
Obviously, yesterday was horrible. Let’s mourn our dead and help our wounded. Let’s honor our first responders and civilian heroes like Carlos Arredondo, the “man in the cowboy hat.” Let’s figure out exactly what happened here and bring the perpetrators to justice. And then, let’s hold our heads high and work to live our lives without fear.
In other words, Keep Calm and Bost On. As I said this past 9/11, we can’t afford to collectively lose our minds again after these sorts of attacks. That’s exactly what purveyors of terrorism want us to do — That’s the entire point. You can see it in Iraq, where 55 died yesterday from car bombs. You can see it in all the ways we fell astray from our fundamental American values after the last attack on our home soil (notwithstanding mass shootings like Tuscon, Aurora, and Newtown.)
More fruits from Californication: With public support for legalizing marijuana over 50% for the first time, and a new documentary, The House I Live In, once again calling attention to the many cruel absurdities of the Drug War — $1 trillion spent, 2.2 million in prison — signs suggest the ill-advised War on Drugs may finally be receding as a sacrosanct institution in Washington.
“For decades, the politics of the drug war were straightforward: Being tough could help at the polls and came with no political downside; being open to reform had few advantages, but would be used against a candidate on the campaign trail. That calculation is no longer so simple.”
Wrong answer. The policy FAIL here is obvious and egregious — Why would anyone of a lefty bent support giving a president unitary and unchecked authority to kill anyone he or she wants, without even a semblance of due process? Would they be this sanguine about it if Dick Cheney was holding the kill button? But even notwithstanding that, Democrats are making a terrible political mistake by letting Senator Paul, along with opportunistic slimebags like Mitch MConnell and far-right asshats like budding McCarthyite Ted Cruz, get to the left of them on this issue.
I get that some senators had procedural issues with the filibuster of a Cabinet nominee. But, at a certain point, this just looks like typical Dem spinelessness and situational ethics — Is preserving proper Senate procedure really more important than preserving constitutional due process? And if Rand Paul is the only person who’s going to stand up and call shenanigans on the administration for this chilling executive overreach, then thank you, Rand Paul.
While pleading guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against him, Bradley Manning makes a long and detailed statement about why he gave classified documents to Wikileaks. “The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that– that this type of information should become public. I once read a, and used, a quote on open diplomacy written after the First World War and how the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other.”
See also this on Gitmo: “[T]he more I became educated on the topic, it seemed that we found ourselves holding an increasing number of individuals indefinitely that we believed or knew to be innocent, low level foot soldiers that did not have useful intelligence and would be released if they were still held in theater.”
I’m with Glenn Greenwald on this – Bradley Manning should be considered a hero, the Daniel Ellsberg of our day, and the real crime here is how terribly he’s been treated by the powers-that-be for a justifiable act of whistle-blowing. “He knew exactly what he was risking, what he was likely subjecting himself to. But he made the choice to do it anyway because of the good he believed he could achieve, because of the evil that he believed needed urgently to be exposed and combated, and because of his conviction that only leaks enable the public to learn the truth about the bad acts their governments are doing in secret.”
And, for this stand on idealism, we’ve kept Pvt. Manning locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and are (still) threatening him with life in prison. Meanwhile, this town is overrun with glib, useless assholes who don’t care about anyone but themselves, and those guys keep failing up. We hound and imprison our Swartzes and Mannings, while coddling and venerating the Dimons and Blankfeins of this world. Some system.
Our culture veers even closer to self-parody upon the news that Florida Atlantic University will name its stadium after a private prison conglomerate. “GEO Group reported revenues in excess of $1.6 billion in 2011, income generated mostly from state and federal prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants.”
What the?! Honestly, how shameful is it that we ostensible lovers of freedom — mainly on account of our ridiculous incarceration rates (for anything other than white-collar crimes) — not only have a private, for-profit prison industry flourishing in our country — one that routinely maintains substandard prisons and undercuts workers’ wages by outsourcing their captive labor force — but that we’re sufficiently unembarrassed about it to start naming stadiums after them? Pathetic.
Update: FAU students make their displeasure known.
“Under the new rules issued in March, the National Counterterrorism Center, known as NCTC, can obtain almost any database the government collects that it says is ‘reasonably believed’ to contain ‘terrorism information.’ The list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.”
The WSJ tells of the (very limited) debate withing the administration that accompanied the NCTC’s new database on everybody. “It’s breathtaking’ in its scope, said a former senior administration official familiar with the White House debate.”
Upon the revelation that the Obama administration finally moved to codify a drone policy — but only in case they lost the election and Romney took up the Ring of Power instead — Glenn Greenwald calls out the many Democrats who have forsaken their prior civil liberties stances to prop up this sort of obviously unconstitutional behavior by “Our Team.”
See also Marcy Wheeler on this issue, who along with offering an informed and in-depth view of the big picture, has unleashed some devastating tweets of late. To wit: “Shorter Scott Shane: Drone Rule Book exists for NYT A1, but not for ACLU’s grubby little FOIAs.“
I’ve said this before, but there’s an easy available metaphor to explain why what the administration is doing here is so unhealthy and reprehensible. As with the Ring, so too with indefinite detention, state secrets, extrajudicial assassinations, unmitigated use of drones, and the rest of the dark tools comprising today’s GWOT arsenal. It does not matter who tries to wield them — they will corrupt regardless, not to mention leave a trail of undeserving dead in their wake.
I will say this: Since last week we watched Democrats — Democrats — chant USA, call out Mitt Romney for being insufficiently for the troops, and all but roll the severed head of Osama Bin Laden out on stage, perhaps it’s time to regain a little perspective.
9/11 was a horrible crime that demanded justice. It was also an event, it has now become clear, that could have and should have been prevented by the Dubya administration using traditional, pre-9/11 intelligence methods. Since that dark day, nine people have died in our indefinite detention prison camp at GitMo. The only person being prosecuted for the Dubya-era torture regime is the whistleblower. And we’re now set to unleash a wave of SKYNET-like drones over our own territory in the name of keeping us safe.
It’s long past time to stop compounding the tragedy of what happened in New York and Washington eleven years ago by shredding the constitution in response. It’s time to get back to being America again.
It doesn’t help that Eastwood has yet again opted for the tinkly piano and gray palette that seems to characterize all of his historical pictures. This worked wonders for Letters of Iwo Jima, not so much for Flags of our Fathers and this film. Here, Eastwood has set a story beginning in 1919 — perhaps the most lurid and tumultuous single year for America in the 20th century (I’m only ever-so-slightly biased on this) — and made it look like a drab, washed-out daguerrotype. In that fateful summer, after an anarchist’s bomb blows up the front porch of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house in the ritzy West End of Washington (his neighbors, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, had just parked down the street), Hoover is hand-picked to run the new “General Intelligence Division” of the Justice Department that will bring the perpetrators to justice.
With previous experience at the Library of Congress in organizing information, Hoover soon takes on two key assistants in Tolson (Armie Hammer, once again exuding Ivy League entitlement) and personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who gets the best of the age make-up), and quickly attempts to make a CSI of the GID. Cut to forty years later, and Hoover — now balding, paunchy, and covered in latex — is obsessively snooping on Martin Luther King and making veiled threats to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy about his brother’s sleeping habits. With our two historical poles established, the rest of J. Edgar flits back and forth in time, telling the story of its protagonist as both a young and old man – Other than these two moments, the film spends most of its time, strangely enough, dealing with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. (In 2004, when discussing The Alamo, I noted how fun it is to cast the story of American history with actors. Let me say that Josh Lucas totally works as Charles Lindbergh.)
For the most part, J. Edgar is an innocuous edutainment. But it also has some serious problems, and not just the standard-issue groanworthy biopic tropes like Freudian parent issues overdetermining the subject’s entire life story. (Here, Mom (Judi Dench) is a stern and overbearing sort who forces Hoover to bury his secrets within, even as he’s trying to pry up everyone else’s.) Y’see, it comes out rather late in the third act that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have attempted to add a Fight Club-ish “unreliable narrator” schtick to the film: The whole time, we’ve been watching Hoover’s sanitized retelling of his own history. But this should-be-huge reveal is underplayed, and thus becomes somewhat buried. And, as a result, people who don’t know anything about the times are going to leave a theater with a very wrongheaded sense of the story.
For example, it’s never mentioned or adequately explained that the 1919 anarchist bombings which open the film only killed two people — one of them the bomber on Palmer’s porch, who either tripped or mis-timed the blast — and that, not unlike recent times, pretty much everything Palmer and Hoover did subsequently in 1919 was a massive overreaction. (Hence, the “Red Scare.”) They show Hoover and a team of G-men knocking down an anarchist printing press in Paterson, New Jersey linked to the bombs, but, with the arguable exception of Emma Goldman’s deportation proceedings at Ellis Island, they don’t show any of the many, many raids that were just glorified fishing expeditions and/or excuses to remove foreign-born potential Communists from American shores.
Similarly, when the film briefly depicts the Centralia Massacre that same year, it shows events in a way that Hoover, and many other Americans, probably saw them — I.W.W. radicals killing patriotic veterans in a turkey shoot. But that depiction does violence to the much more complicated truth of the event, which involved American Legion members deciding first to go march on some radical Wobblies. And you’d never know that the culmination of that day was an I.W.W. member and veteran grabbed from jail by soldiers, beaten, castrated, hung, hung, hung, shot, and shot. Again, Eastwood and Black have written themselves a pass for this, because they hint Hoover is an unreliable narrator at the end of the film. But that lede is buried.
So the history has definite issues, and this same tendency towards whitewashing detracts from the whole film. Granted, given how little we know, the Tolson-Hoover relationship should perhaps be treated with this discretion — although my understanding is they were more conceived of as a couple than this film lets on. (FWIW, Hammer is quite good here despite some unfortunate age-makeup, and a Supporting Actor nod is likely.) But, that aside, and to be blunt about it, sometimes an asshole is just an asshole. One can argue that Hoover had all the reasons in the world to be the way he was — an overbearing mom, a traumatic secret, whathaveyou. But this film spends more time trying to make us feel charitable towards its protagonist than it does putting his behavior in any kind of appropriate context. (For example, why is Hoover obsessed with MLK? Should he be wiretapping him? It’s never really addressed.) Should we feel for J. Edgar, after hearing his story? Perhaps, yes. But we should also leave the theater with a clearer sense of how illegal and often reprehensible his rise to power really was.
And here, via Shani O’Hilton of City Paper, is how the WP covered the #OccupyOakland clash:
Honestly, what is this horseshit? In a disturbingly complete 180 from his comments the last time this came up back in 2006 — although, to be fair, he eventually folded like an accordion then too — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dusts off the Cheneyite talking points to call for an immediate, unamended extension of the PATRIOT Act. (It passed the Senate today, 72-23.)
Contrast this with Reid in 2005: “‘We killed the Patriot Act,’ boasted Minority Leader Harry Reid…to cheers from a crowd at a political rally after the vote.” Ladies and gentlemen, our Democratic Senate Majority Leader. And, yet, however hackadocious Reid is being in this instance, let’s remember — this is coming from the top, from the constitutional scholars at the White House. After all, as Mike Riggs notes in Reason: “If the PATRIOT Act lapses, and a sarlacc does not swallow LAX immediately after, it’ll be that much harder to convince Americans that those provisions are necessary.“
In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer delves deeply into the Obama administration’s continued war on whistleblowers, via the prosecution of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake. (See also Glenn Greenwald on this, as well as here and here.) “‘I actually had hopes for Obama…[b]ut power is incredibly destructive,’ Drake said. ‘It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coopted Obama, because he’s rather naive about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.’“
Showing a flash of his 2000 self in today’s WaPo op-ed page, John McCain argues anew that torture is un-American — and that Bush water-carriers like Michael Mukasey are lying about its efficacy in the Bin Laden hunt. He then followed up with a Senate speech to the same effect:
““In fact, not only did the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed; it actually produced false and misleading information…In short, it was not torture or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees that got us the major leads that ultimately enabled our intelligence community to find Osama bin Laden.”
So, yes, as you may have heard, we finally found Osama Bin Laden, fulfilling a key promise President Obama made during the 2008 campaign. While I would have preferred to see the perpetrator of 9/11 captured alive and brought to trial — cause that’s how we do justice here in the US of A — congrats to the president’s team, the analysts who did the hard work, and the men and women who executed the operation, on finally getting their man.
All that being said, the second half of the president’s statement above is troubling. The death of Bin Laden should mark the beginning of the end of the 9/11 decade. With the splinter finally removed, it is time to take a long hard look not just at our continuing war in Afghanistan — after all, Osama was eventually found in Pakistan, mainly through what the Bunk would call good po-lice work — but at all the questionable and/or extra-constitutional actions we have taken in the name of fighting the terr’ists since September 11th. (Newsflash: Torture had nothing to do with capturing OBL.) If the death of Bin Laden doesn’t move us to this reconsideration, what then ever will?
Unfortunately (and of course), that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. Instead, Congress is laying the foundation for a wider war: “Contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012 is a new authorization to use military force that would grant the executive branch the power to ‘address the continuing and evolving threat posed by these groups.’ In practice, that means the president could use military force against any suspected terrorist across the globe — indefinitely.“
Indefinite war? No thanks. There’s been an eerie touch of Emmanuel Goldstein in the way Bin Laden was used to justify all manner of extraconstitutional actions and civil liberties violations under Dubya — actions that have been ratified and continued under Obama. Now that the Bogeyman is dead, it’s time to stand down. It’s time to start acting like America again.
The good news is The Conspirator is nowhere near as preachy and inert as Redford’s last attempt at liberal muck-raking, Lions for Lambs. (I’ll confess I don’t have much patience for didactic message movies that bray at me to embrace opinions i already hold — See also Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone.) Nonetheless, this film still occasionally suffers from the same mix of well-meaning blandness and dramatic torpor that characterizes almost all of Amistad, Steven Spielberg’s similar 19th century courtroom exercise: The values being reified are all laudable, to be sure, but the story as told is strangely lifeless (and I say that as someone who probably enjoys the genre of movies-to-be-shown-in-high-school-history-when-the-teacher-is-out more than most.)
Fortunately, the movie grew on me after awhile. Its depiction of broader Washington DC often feels stagy, and some of the acting support here doesn’t help matters. (As Surratt’s daughter Anna, Evan Rachel Wood overdoes it in her every scene, and the very 21st-century Justin Long is just miscast here as a Union veteran.) But as the lens of the story narrows down to the nitty-gritty of the court case in its middle hour, The Conspirator finds a surer footing. At its best moments, Redford’s film feels like an episode of Law and Order: Civil War Unit, one whose resonances — military tribunals, indefinite detentions, victor’s justice, and whatnot — still feel “ripped from the headlines.”
After establishing that our protagonist here, Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy, with an impressive American accent — he should help out his countryman Ewan) is a Union war veteran wounded in his nation’s service, The Conspirator begins with the terrible crime that will concern us. On the night of April 14, 1865, only five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, several men attempt to kill President Lincoln, Vice-President Johnson, and Secretary of State Seward, with mixed results. Seward manages to survive some nasty stab wounds, Johnson’s killer loses his nerve…but, as we all know, the flamboyant actor-turned-assassin John Wilkes Booth manages to kill the 16th President of the United States in cold blood. It is a horrible act of treason, the first assassination America has ever seen, and, make no mistake, everyone involved will pay.
And so, under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline, only slightly less Cheneyesque than Richard Dreyfuss in W) the conspirators (minus Booth, who is shot during capture) are rounded up and put on, for all intent and purposes, show trial — one headed by military men and quite clearly designed to come back with guilty verdicts. (FWIW, this film mostly elides over the Manhunt part of the story.) Nonetheless, according to that quaint old Constitution, even such dastardly criminals as these deserve defense counsel, and ultimately the young Union lawyer we met at the outset is roped into defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) by his mentor, Maryland senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson).
Captain Aiken takes to his new position reluctantly, especially since he feels pretty certain that Surratt — the proprietress of the boarding house where the conspirators plotted — is guilty as all Hell. But as he learns more of Surratt and her pious Christian, Ur-mother ways, he starts to wonder if maybe she’s just taking the fall for her son John (Johnny Simmons of Jennifer’s Body), who is still on the lam. And, as he grows ever more sick of the obvious railroading happening at trial under the direction of Judge David Hunter (Colm Meaney) and prosecutor Joseph Holt (Danny Huston, doing his officiously sinister bureaucrat thing), Aiken becomes a convert to his duties, even as proper Washington society begins to shun him for seeming to take on the Confederate cause. Sometimes a man has to make a stand, etc. etc.
I don’t know much about the Mary Surratt trial other than what Wiki has to offer, so I can’t tell you if Redford and screenwriter James Solomon have done justice to the specifics of the story — It seems to have a versimilitude about it, at any rate. But one place where I thought The Conspirator faltered is in establishing the Big Picture. True, the film begins grimly with Lincoln’s assassination — hard to fault it there, I suppose. But particularly once the courtroom scenes take hold, it doesn’t do a very good job of putting everything in emotional context — that all of this is happening mere days and weeks right after the close of America’s bloodiest war. (Nor, for that matter, is slavery mentioned.) And so, while the Law and Order aspects of the story are often compelling in their own right, the trial also feels flat, and strangely disconnected from all the events that put it in motion.
Which is too bad, really. Since, if anything, that Civil War backdrop adds depth to the viewpoint Redford seemed to be trying to uphold. There we were after four years of bloody war, 600,000 dead and the president assassinated, and Aiken is still taking a stand for the constitutional rights of Mary Surratt — even though an innocent verdict might well put the sides at each other’s throats again. (Contrast this with the cowardly behavior our past two administrations have shown with regard to tribunals, detentions, Gitmo, etc, even though, neither on 9/11 or since, has Al Qaeda ever represented the kind of existential threat to our republic that we faced in 1865.)
Speaking of the Civil War angle: In a way, I admire the shrewdness of this film: It tries to pitch a civil liberties morality play in such a way that the people who will feel most aggrieved about the injustices being shown, civil libertarians notwithstanding, are the folks among us with residual sympathy for the Confederacy — not normally a left-leaning or libertarian bunch. But, let’s get real: They’re not going to see this film, or, if they do, see it as anything other than lefty propaganda. Like Inside Job or Casino Jack and the United States of Money, The Conspirator is for the most part just preaching to the choir. One of the best things you can say about it is that, for the middle hour at least, you may not mind humming along.
“‘There can be no conceivable justification for requiring a soldier to surrender all his clothing, remain naked in his cell for seven hours, and then stand at attention the subsequent morning,’ he wrote. ‘This treatment is even more degrading considering that Pfc. Manning is being monitored — both by direct observation and by video — at all times.‘”
Sometimes I don’t post here because I’m really busy. Sometimes I don’t post here because the news is too damned depressing: The United States takes another big step towards Miniluv by applying Dubya-era torture and intimidation techniques to an American citizen in custody for leaking, Bradley Manning. (Y’see, it’s a four lights = five lights kinda thing. Manning has to break — and then, like Zubadayah and KSM, voice untruths — for there to be any sort of possible criminal conspiracy case against Wikileaks.)
What is there to say, really? State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley already correctly stated that this abusive treatment of Manning was “ridiculous, counterproductive, and stupid,” and, within days, he was fired for stating the obvious.
The president, meanwhile, assures us everything is ok because the Pentagon said so: “I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assure me that they are.” This, as Glenn Greenwald (who’s been on top of this all the way) points out, is exactly the same rationale Dubya used to use: “‘When [Bush] asked ‘the most senior legal officers in the U.S. government’ to review interrogation methods, ‘they assured me they did not constitute torture.’” Well, ok then.
So let’s review. Dubya’s administration constructs an illegal and unconstitutional torture regime — Nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Look forward, not backward!) The Dubya administration lies to the American people in order to prosecute a war of choice in Iraq. Nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. Through greed and outright fraud, Wall Street traders implode the global economy to the tune of trillions of dollars, and, with the convenient exception of Bernie Madoff, nobody goes to jail, and nothing changes. (Synthetic junk, anyone?) Big banks continue their crime spree by engaging in a massive epidemic of foreclosure fraud, and nobody goes to jail (but we’ll make them promise not to do it again!)
Oh, and an Army private leaks “secret” documents (so secret they were available to millions of people) because “[h]e wanted people held accountable and wanted to see this didn’t happen again” — the very definition of whistleblowing — and now we’re treating him like Winston Smith. (Then again, our president does despise whistleblowers.)
Should Manning be in U.S. custody right now? Yes. He took an oath to the United States military and, knowing full well the consequences, broke it in an act of civil disobedience. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime — I get that. But should Manning be abused and tortured in U.S. custody? Of course not — Nobody should be. In fact, I thought we elected Barack Obama as president to make sure this never happened again.
Nope, sorry. Instead, President Obama fired Crowley and is owning what’s happening to Manning right now. He also just reinstated and normalized indefinite detentions at Gitmo. (Obama the constitutional scholar? Meet the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.) And when not perpetuating Dubya-era illegalities, he (and new lefty-bashing chief of staff) spend their days talking up the deficit, talking down regulation, and hoping the Chamber and the NRA take their meetings. Feel those winds of change, y’all. (Obama meme pic above via here.)
Update: “Based on 30 years of government experience, if you have to explain why a guy is standing naked in the middle of a jail cell, you have a policy in need of urgent review.” P.J. Crowley reflects on his recent firing. “I stand by what I said. The United States should set the global standard for treatment of its citizens – and then exceed it. It is what the world expects of us. It is what we should expect of ourselves.“
Strange powers have our enemies, and strange weaknesses! In Wired, Nate Anderson of Ars Technica fdelves into the story behind the highly troubling HBGary leaks. Among other things, these leaks have already revealed that:
In other words, they do not fear the law because it has forsaken these lands. And, hey, when you consider that nobody has yet gone to jail for lying the American people into a trillion-dollar war, setting up an illegal, unconstitutional, and inhumane torture regime, or fraudulently abetting or even precipitating a multi-trillion-dollar economic meltdown, their brazen calculation seems like a pretty safe bet.
“A military trial of civilians is an atrocity…” Now isn’t that quaint? Union war hero James McAvoy finds himself reluctantly defending Robin Wright (a.k.a. Mary Surratt), a possible accessory to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, in the trailer for Robert Redford’s The Conspirator, also with Kevin Kline, Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Evan Rachel Wood, Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, and Tom Wilkinson. Here’s hoping the historical setting here can ease the didacticism that marred Lions for Lambs.
After another embarrassing document dump by Wikileaks — this time diplomatic cables, next time Bank of America? — Attorney General Holder threatens the prosecution of Julian Assange, an Australian citizen — most likely under the Espionage Act, the same catch-all 1917 law used to lock up Eugene Debs back in the day.
First of all, Gawker‘s John Cook has already explained why this attempted line of prosecution doesn’t work. However docile the “nation’s watchdogs” remain on any other given day, the newspapers that published these leaks would have to be considered co-conspirators in any Espionage Act-related indictment. “We think its fairly obvious that the Department of Justice won’t go after the Times or any of the other papers involved in the story. But if it doesn’t, that’s just evidence that its attempt to use the Espionage Act to go after Assange isn’t about enforcing laws: It’s about retribution, harassment, and rattling sabers.“
Secondly, if Assange wants to avoid federal prosecution, perhaps he should just…I dunno…torture somebody? Or maybe rip off the American people for trillions of dollars? Or how ’bout just spying on Americans via warrantless wiretap? Apparently, disclosing those kinds of secrets is one of those look-forward-not-backward kinda things.
Let’s get real here. There’s no threat to our troops in these leaks — Even the Pentagon admits that. (A more overlooked problem, as a friend pointed out, is what this leak might mean for human rights workers.) Wikleaks’ methods are of the blunderbuss variety, yes. (That probably speaks in their favor: They don’t seem to tailor their leaks to suit a predetermined spin. They just dump data. And, hey, somebody should be doing the media’s job.) And, sure, Assange comes off as more than a bit pretentious, but what of it? If being a jackass were a crime, our prison system in this country would be completely broken…oh wait, it already is.
In the end, as Glenn Greenwald well put it, “our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat.” You’d think an administration that ran on unparalleled transparency in government might feel the same way. But, sadly, like its predecessor, the only crime this administration really seems to hate is whistleblowing.
A handful of notable losses notwithstanding — Tom Perriello, Alan Grayson, Phil Hare — a goodly number of the House Democrats who lost seats on Tuesday were of the Blue Dog or New Democrat variety, and the whirlwind they reaped was partly of their own making. Looks to me like Third Way-style corporate shilling just isn’t the answer.
Rather, the most painful loss of the night for progressives happened on the Senate side, when Russ Feingold fell to an idiotic Ayn Rand disciple, businessman Ron Johnson. (Wisconsin, the state of both Bob LaFollette and Joe McCarthy, is a strange place.) From fighting against the Patriot Act to calling for accountability on the illegal NSA wiretaps to, of course, battling for campaign finance reform, Feingold was often a lonely voice of conscience in the Senate, and his progressive leadership will be sorely missed there.
Of course, the fight goes on, so let’s hope Feingold will be back in public life someday soon. Big Russ has ruled out a 2012 primary shot, but if Wisconsin’s other Senator, Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl, should decide to retire in 2012 at the age of 77, Feingold would be a great candidate to go toe-to-toe against yet another “Galtian nincompoop” of the first order, current GOP golden boy Paul Ryan.
“They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.’ Of those who complain that Obama caved to centrists on issues such as healthcare reform, Gibbs said: ‘They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.’” In the virulently stupid department, insulting the base and further depressing midterm turnout = change we can believe in? Um, no, not really. Thankfully, I was away from civilization when press secretary Robert Gibbs threw his whiny temper tantrum about “the professional left,” so I missed out on the initial bout of aggravation about it.
Suffice to say, Robert Borosage, among others, was on the case: “The left is pushing the president from the left? The horror. The shame…The president is in trouble because his historic reforms were too timid, not too bold…We can argue about whether the president fought hard enough, or compromised too soon — but the reality is that the reforms, as bold as they were, are not sufficient to deal with the mess we are in.” And that doesn’t even get into the torture and civil liberties clusterfrak, where reform has been non-existent. Dennis Kucinich? I’d be happy with the Barack Obama I ostensibly voted for, thanks much.
Sigh. In the WP, Dana Priest and William Arkin attempt to survey the breadth and depth of our post-9/11 intelligence complex, and the results are troubling, to say, the least. Basically, nobody, not even the SecDef, has any clue how big some of these programs are, or what the armies of private contractors are up to half the time. “After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine…’Because it lacks a synchronizing process, it inevitably results in message dissonance, reduced effectiveness and waste,” Vines said. “We consequently can’t effectively assess whether it is making us more safe.’” If you have to ask…
For a good overview of the Post‘s laudable coverage, check out this worthwhile post from Wired‘s Danger Room and Glenn Greenwald’s pithy summation of the problem. “This world is so vast, secretive and well-funded that it’s very difficult to imagine how it could ever be brought under control…[Meanwhile] The Drudge and Politico sewers still rule our world — ‘fights over nothing’ — and happily distract us from Top Secret America, what it does and what it takes.” But, hey, what’s Sarah Palin been up to?
“From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008…The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63).“
By way of Greenwald and Sullivan, a Harvard study documents exactly how absurdly our national media carried water for the Dubya-era torture regime. “In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.“
This story, along with Politico’s gaffetastic reaction to Rolling Stone‘s Michael Hastings doing real journalism on the McChrystal story — (“Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks” — See also Lara Logan) and Joke Line deeming Glenn Greenwald a traitor because he dared to call unrepentant Iraq war evidence-falsifier Jeff Goldberg a horrible journalist (“Greenwald…so far as I can tell, only regards the United States as a force for evil in the world.“) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about our broken and corrupt Village media. And this is all just in the past week. Rinse and repeat, over and over and over again. (Pic via here.)
“No wonder President George W. Bush can now openly brag about the water-boarding policy he once denied even existed. The courts have become complicit in the great American cop-out on torture.” And let’s not forget the Obama administration in all this. Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick surveys the wreckage from the Supreme Court’s recent capitulation on the Maher Arar case, wherein we, the United States of America, abducted, deported, and were ultimately responsible for the torturing of an innocent man, and are now trying to sweep it under the rug like it never happened. Look forward, not backward! (unless you’re a whistleblower)
In very related news, borrowing the riff from this great cartoon, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart finally drops the hammer on the Bushification of Obama on the civil liberties front. Like many progressives, I’m discontented for a lot of reasons with this administration at this moment, but Obama’s egregious record on this front still stands above them all. An end to imperial powers and civil liberties violations of the Dubya era should have been an absolutely non-negotiable aspect of “change we can believe in” — particularly coming from Obama “the constitutional scholar.” And a White House that will capitulate on these basic human rights will capitulate on anything. Which, when you get right down to it, they pretty much have.
“‘The CIA appears to have broken all accepted legal and ethical standards put in place since the Second World War to protect prisoners from being the subjects of experimentation,’ said Frank Donaghue, the CEO of PHR, a nonprofit organization of health professionals.“
A new report by Physicians for Human Rights suggests the CIA conducted human experiments on detainees, including “monitoring the effects of sleep deprivation up to 180 hours” and testing out new forms of waterboarding on them. Once we’re all happy with the president’s visible anger levels toward BP, perhaps we can get some wrath-of-God fury — and criminal prosecutions — directed towards these atrocities committed in our name also? Thanks much. [Update: Here's the Mother Jones story.]
“‘A suspect who has received and understood the Miranda warnings, and has not invoked his Miranda rights, waives the right to remain silent by making an uncoerced statement to the police,’ Justice Kennedy wrote.‘” Breaking 5-4 along the usual lines — Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia, and Kennedy in the majority — the Supreme Court determines Miranda rights must now be specifically invoked. “Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her first major dissent, said the decision ‘turns Miranda upside down’ and ‘bodes poorly for the fundamental principles that Miranda protects.’“
One important note: “The majority ruling is in line with the position taken by the Obama administration and Supreme Court nominee U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan. In December, she filed a brief on the side of Michigan prosecutors and argued that ‘the government need not prove that a suspect expressly waived his rights.’” And, given that this administration is currently working to rewrite Miranda to stop the terr’ists, I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised.
“The bottom line is this: Current procedures under the CSRT are such that a perfectly innocent individual could be held and could not rebut the Government’s case and has no way of proving his innocence. I would like somebody in this Chamber, somebody in this Government, to tell me why this is necessary.” Me too, Senator Obama, me too.
In a decisive break with his campaign stances and the best indicator yet that this administration is now happily perpetuating deeply troubling Bush-era policies, the President wins the right to hold detainees indefinitely in Bagram — the difference from the Boumediene decision on Gitmo being that Bagram is a “war zone.” (And Ben Franklin’s admonition aside, that’s an excuse you hear quite a bit these days.)
FWIW, Politico’s Josh Gerstein — while bending over backwards, as per the Village norm, not to call torture “torture” — suggests civil liberties concerns are overblown here, but check out his reasoning: “The Obama administration…has, so far, resisted seeking a full-scale preventive detention law that would apply to future captives. Instead, it has pleaded with civil liberties and human rights groups not to oppose some legal mechanism to allow the continued detention of Al Qaeda captives, at least some of whom may be untriable because of aggressive interrogations many view as torture.“
Oh, please. We have to hold them forever because we tortured them? How utterly and completely effed up is that? As Stephen Colbert well put it: “It’s essentially the same stance taken by George Bush. With one important difference: Obama makes the kids like it.”
In Britain’s New Statesman, John Naish looks at the national security and job implications of our falling behind on green tech. “The more the military thinks about green technology, the more it sees how it goes hand in hand with improving operational effectiveness…Afghanistan is the principal driver for Nato nations. Resupply convoys can be eight miles long and they in effect say: ‘Please hit me with a roadside bomb.’ Up to 60 per cent of the convoys carry fuel and water. If you reduce that need for supply, you save lives.”
See also the “clean energy is a national security issue” argument made by Operation FREE (mainly in terms of Iran and its $100 million a day in oil profits): “‘There’s no greater threat to our national security than our dependence on oil.’ Marine veteran and Operation Free member Matt Victoriano told Kerry.‘” To be honest, I could really do without the implicit saber-rattling involved with some of this argument. But let’s face it, that’s how we got a space program.
I don’t mean to be too harsh — There’s nothing terribly wrong with this edutainment-y attempt to explain de-Baathification, highly dubious detainee procedures, and most notably the faked WMD casus belli to disinterested laypersons by way of action-thriller. And, in a way, I sorta admire the gutsiness of the the attempt. But, if you were already well aware of these grim developments, and I assume most GitM readers are, then it’s hard to escape the sensation that one is mainly just being talked down to for two hours. Wait, there were no WMD in Iraq? You’re kidding me, right? And, while I’m a great fan of Greengrass’ previous output — I said over and over again in this space that I wish he had stuck with Watchmen, and on the Top 100 films of last decade list, Bloody Sunday was #84, his two Bournes were at #49, and the exemplary United 93 was at #6 — The Green Zone feels quite a bit more leaden than usual.
As with the political edutainment project Greengrass aspired to here, I like the idea of fusing his highly visceral action work (the Bournes) with his fly-on-the-wall discursions into recent history (Sunday, ’93)…on paper. But The Green Zone gets lost somewhere in the interstice, and lacks the gripping power of either of these previous Greengrass grooves. Instead, Zone ends up mostly being two grainy hours of watching Matt Damon run around at night, as he tries to uncover an insidious government plot that our nation has been fully aware of for years…and has chosen to greet with a yawn.
More on that depressing problem in a bit, but, first, to bring y’all up to speed: Loosely based on Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a non-fiction examination of Dubyaite imbecility and excess in post-war Baghdad, Green Zone begins with a brief sequence set amid the original Shock-and-Awe period of the war, followed by, a few weeks later, a tense raid on a possible WMD storehouse by American soldiers. Led by Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon), this crack MW2-ish assault ends up finding, well, bupkis, just like the time before and the time before that.
To Chief Miller, the problem here is obvious — the intel must be rotten. But, when he brings this up at the next briefing for high-level military muckety-mucks, he is basically told to shut up and do his job. Nonetheless, events soon conspire to introduce Miller to the “Jack of Clubs” in the Dubya deck, a Baathist general (Yigal Naor) with a still-clearly extant power base in Baghdad. And, when our hero digs deeper to figure out how this Jack might know “Magellan,” the top-secret source of all this lousy intel, he soon finds himself trapped — along with a very Judith Miller-y reporter (Amy Ryan) — in a power play between a slimy executive branch bureaucrat (Greg Kinnear, stuck no more) and a grizzled CIA hand (Brendan Gleeson), one that might just end up getting Miller fragged by the creepy Special Forces guy (Jason Isaacs, with great accent) who keeps popping up…
Along the way, there’s a digression into a detainee facility with all the makings of an Abu Ghraib waiting to happen, the tearful homecoming of the administration’s hand-picked Iraqi stooge (re: Ahmed Chalabi), some rather pained attempts to make the decision to de-Baathify an action beat…In other words, Green Zone is basically an attempt to dramatize the Iraq war for people who, for whatever reason, weren’t paying much attention the first time ’round. And, to be fair, it’s done with solid acting all around (including several folks recognizable from United 93), quality production values, and a reasonable degree of versimilitude throughout. (Note also the brief Paul Rieckhoff cameo, which should nip any IAVA whining about dramatic license right in the bud.)
But, for all its edutainmenty truths to tell, Green Zone still ends up feeling rather fake and film-ish to me, perhaps in part because — unlike Greengrass’ other recent histories — it seems to subscribe to a very movie-like All the President’s Men view of things, where, once word of misdeed gets out, justice will be done tho’ the heavens fall. Not to get all Debbie Downer up in here, but that’s not really the way the world works anymore, is it? One of the saddest and scariest moments in the recent and very worthwhile Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America is when Ellsberg explains how he thought everything would change once the Pentagon Papers got out…and then he finds that, in the face of clear and irrefutable evidence of government wrongdoing, most people just shrugged.
This is the uncomfortable horror that Green Zone almost seems willfully designed not to recognize. The whole premise of the movie seems to be that, if We the People knew what really went down in Iraq (or could just be taught via action-movie), we would be totally livid about the corruption involved. But, is the problem really that the American people don’t know what happened in the build-up to Iraq? Or is it that we know pretty well what happened and don’t much seem to care?
Just as with our indefensible dabbling in torture and indefinite detention in recent years, we have known about the lies and incompetence that fueled the Iraq fiasco for awhile now. And, alas, nothing ever happened. Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and the whole awful, lying lot are still deemed Serious People with Serious Opinions by the nation’s domesticated media watchdogs, who, by the way, have also been studiously ignoring the Blair hearings overseas. Our current president, elected with the largest mandate for change in a generation, has deemed all of this just the sins of the past and refused to “look backward” (or worse, made himself complicit in these Dubya-era crimes.) And life continues, much as it has this past age, with no sense of reckoning whatsoever for the Big Lies that were told.
One of the main reasons Bloody Sunday and United 93 work so well is that they offer complex, nuanced portraits of complicated times. But, as Green Zone moves along, it just ended up feeling more and more like a cartoon to me, and one predicated mainly on wishful thinking. Like I said, I guess I admire what Paul Greengrass & co. were trying do here, but Green Zone as an action film feels flat and mostly uninvolving. And Green Zone as a political enterprise — Iraq War: The Movie!, basically — often seems at best condescending and at worst dangerously naive.
“Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to “dam the runoff” and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee’s mouth…[T]o keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus.“
But it’s not torture or anything: Recently-released CIA documents explain exactly how we went about waterboarding suspects during the Dubya era. “‘It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water,’ Nance wrote in the New York Daily News. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning.“
Update: Oh, by the way, Karl Rove is “proud” of these despicable acts.
On one hand, the film makes for an interesting moral counterpoint to The Fog of War: Ellsberg’s actions put the lie to a lot of McNamara’s convenient post-hoc rationalizing therein — clearly, SecDef could’ve done more at the time to end the war in Vietnam.) On the other, Ellsberg also works as a prequel of sorts to All the President’s Men — to say nothing of a generation of seventies paranoia epics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. But in the end, The Most Dangerous Man in America probably works best as an eloquent testament to the words of the late Howard Zinn (who appears here as an old friend of Ellsberg): “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.“
Like Man on Wire, Ellsberg starts here in media res, and at the scene of the history-making crime. Furtive eyes scan back and forth as an old-school Xerox copier whirrs in the dark, its green light illuminating maps of Southeast Asia and the ominous words “Top Secret” from below. With no zip drives or electronic files to speak of, analyst Daniel Ellsberg is forced to copy the 7000 pages of the Pentagon Papers page by painstaking page. It’ll take months (and eventually he enlists the aid of his kids.) As the Xerox churns, we get up-to-date on the ramifications of the document being processed — bombs fall from the sky over North Vietnam and Cambodia, weary troops patrol the hot, fetid jungle, and Nixon and Kissinger obsess over the leaks in their war machine (with Kissinger giving Ellsberg his moniker: “the most dangerous man in America.”)
Cut back to several years earlier, when the future leaker of the Pentagon Papers seemed quite a different man indeed. A fresh-faced young ex-Marine with a crisp, no-nonsense Kennedy era haircut, Ellsberg began his tenure in government as one of the Best and the Brightest, with an enthusiasm for his 80-hour workweek matched only by his hawkishness. As one of McNamara’s boys, Ellsberg concedes to helping massage the data to create a casus belli for the war. His first day on the job is the Gulf of Tonkin incident that wasn’t, and he spends subsequent weeks trying to dredge up some, any, horrible atrocities in the region that might involve Americans.
But, over time, the scales fall away from Ellsberg’s eyes. In part because he makes the acquaintance of a luminous lefty-leaning journalist named Patricia, who eventually becomes his fiancee…twice. (Ellsberg has a great line about a guy he meets at a peace rally who’s a Trotskyist. He asks this fellow how in Hell he ever became a Trotskyist. The answer: “The same way anybody becomes anything. I met a girl.”) And in part because, driven with an analyst’s overriding compulsion to find the right answer, he starts going to Vietnam himself to lead recon missions on the side and get a better sense of the situation on the ground. Simply put, the Ground Game is not going well.
The rest, as they say, is history. Moved to throw a shoe into the gears of the war machine he had helped nurture into existence, Ellsberg goes rogue and decides to publish the top-secret history of the war. But, even if you feel like you know the story of the Pentagon Papers pretty well, and I thought I did, there are some fresh and intriguing insights here. For example, I’m not really one for Freudianism or overthinking coincidences, but it turns out Ellsberg suffered a tragedy at the age of 15 that made him uniquely primed to play the role in history he ended up playing. (His father fell asleep at the wheel during a road trip, prompting a crash that sheared the car in two and killed Ellsberg’s mother and sister. In other words, watch the authority figures at the wheel verrry carefully.)
And then there’s the man himself, who’s an engaging presence throughout (if perhaps with a touch of monomania — I could see him being a hard guy to get along with.) If The Most Dangerous Man in America has a flaw, it’s that the movie is quite one-sided in the end — Ellsberg even narrates much of the story, and you get the sense at various points there may well be some whitewash being applied. (Ellsberg has an ex-wife, and kids, that aren’t even mentioned for the first 45 minutes or so.) Still, I’m inclined to give Ellsberg — and Ellsberg — the benefit of the doubt (and not just because the man loves his movies.) Ever since George and the cherry tree, we’ve been smoothing the edges of our patriotic tales. And, whatever his misdeeds as a man, Daniel Ellsberg, the film makes clear, is a patriot, through and through.
I use this Cornel West quote rather often, but that doesn’t make it any less true: “To understand your country, you must love it. To love it, you must, in a sense, accept it. To accept it as how it is, however is to betray it. To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that in it which shows what it might become. America – this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of the no into the yes, needs citizens who love it enough to reimagine and remake it.“
Daniel Ellsberg is one of those citizens. He saw an obvious crime being perpetrated by our government across multiple presidencies, and he did his part to help put a stop to it. In many ways, the story told in The Most Dangerous Man in America seems quaint: Johnson actually asked Congress for authority to bomb Vietnam? The press wasn’t rolling over like a lapdog in the wake of obvious propagandistic lies? (In fact, the media types who show up late in Ellsberg clearly possess some of the narcisstic sense of self-entitlement that has been our undoing of late. Ellsberg the civilian sweats blood and tears to get this 7,000-page document out in public, and the press poobahs act like they’re both the knowing gatekeepers and the heroes of the story.)
But just because Ellsberg’s brand of patriotism has fallen out of fashion in the era of Judith Miller and the chattering class doesn’t make this story any less relevant. It makes it more relevant. If we’re going to keep our young republic through its third century, we need more men and women of Ellsberg’s stripe. Men and women who will buck the trend, risk the ridicule and wrath of their well-connected peers, and stand up against injustice done under our collective name when they are party to it.
Presidents will get their due on this and every subsequent Presidents Day to come. But, now and again, it’s good to honor those patriots who, through non-violent principle and sheer, dogged determination, help to keep our leaders in check when the separation of powers fails — ordinary folks like you, me, and Daniel and Patricia Elllsberg.