Friday, June 26, 2009

NPR and the Pragmatic Police State

This morning NPR features "an exclusive first look at a legal proposal....a detailed plan for holding terrorism suspects without trial, and it comes from two experts outside of the government." Inspite of the two "experts" mentioned by David Greene, Ari Shapiro only interviews one of them, Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution.

According to Shapiro "Wittes occupies a relatively unique position in national security. He has studied and written books on pragmatic approaches to fighting terrorism." [Actually he has written only one book on terrorism - Law and the Long War.]

I don't have any problem with NPR interviewing Wittes. Unfortunately, he is an important fish in circles of state power in Washington, DC, though - not surprisingly - his ideas are not particularly fresh or inspiring, and he heartily supports for projections of US military and foreign policy hegemony. Consider the Publisher's Weekly and Booklist reviews of his book:
  • PW: "Both a defense and critique of the Bush administration, the book argues in favor of many of the measures taken by the executive branch while condemning its failure to secure congressional cooperation and the necessary legal architecture to back policies that were bound to be unpopular."
  • Booklist: "Wittes remains highly sympathetic to the administration’s aims, giving them the benefit of the doubt on matters that other critics of the administration have not. Ultimately, his hope is that innovative legal structures will be forthcoming and seen as legitimate in a way that current efforts are not."
As Wittes himself states in an article on the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, "we have no choice but to continue the war on terror in some form."

My problem with NPR's coverage of Wittes is that it is an endorsement of Wittes' viewpoint. In spite of his utter lack of credentials in the area of human rights, international, or Constitutional law and his rather conventional apologist approach to torture, he is a "expert" with "pragmatic approaches." As Glenn Greewald notes, Wittes can't even get the most basic Constitutional points correct when he argues for "legal" dictatorial powers for the President.

And what is the thinking behind Wittes' expert, pragmatic approaches? Consider this excerpt of the report:
(Shapiro) "So why push for indefinite detention at all? Well, Wittes says we already have it. People have been at Guantanamo for years. There are thousands more in Afghanistan...." (Wittes) "And so there's no question that we're detaining people outside of the criminal justice system. The question is what the rules are for those detentions and who makes those rules."
Look closely at the logic of this.
So why push to codify and legalize practice __________?
Because __________ is already being done!
All you have to do is put any debased government abuse of power in the blank - torture, rape, murder, rendition, illegal surveillance, etc. to see where this can lead. In Wittes' world (and NPR's by extension) the problem is not with the practice itself and a craven and complicit Congress that refuses its constitutional role of holding the executive office perpetrators accountable. Instead, the problem is that Congress has been slow to enact legislation to codify the practices. And according to Wittes, this reluctance to legislate away basic Constitutional values - and this is where he becomes a hero of the Weekly Standard security state devotees - opens up the possibilty of serious judicial oversight -OMG!

As Grumpy Demo points out on his blog - this is the kind of logic would please anyone who is hoping that our three branches of government would get "pragmatic" and realize that what we really need in the "war on terror" is a Unitary Benevolent Authoritarian Strong Man in the mold of Pinochet, Peron, or Castro.


Porter Melmoth said...

This analysis proves once again the degree of sophistication employed by NPR to craft a desired interpretation of current events in line with their corporate/neocon mandate.

In short: no Fox sledgehammer, but an attempt to out-think NPR's 'thinking' target audience. If it sounds sophisticated, it MUST BE true. Obfuscation achieved through 'credible-sounding' verbiage - lacking in substance.


Damn, now I've got to go back to my blog and correct the grammar and punctuation.

(Wonder while Greenwald's article on Wittes didn't show up in my Google search? It would've saved me some time.)

Thanks for the shout out!

I never have an original thought, just can't forget anything like this episode of Bill Moyer's Journal:

"BRUCE FEIN: He's (Bush) claimed authority to say he can kidnap people, throw them into dungeons abroad, dump them out into Siberia without any political or legal accountability. These are standards that are totally anathema to a democratic society devoted to the rule of law."

Fien, by the way is a Repub that worked for the DOJ under Saint Ronnie.

You can read the transcript or watch the show:

This is better than getting my tips post on It's Friday, I'm gonna open a second bottle of cheap Sauvignon Blanc.

gopol said...

The Washington Independent points out how the delay of the appointment of Dawn Johnsen to OLC is a big part of the problem here.

Anonymous said...

You know, there was a time in the not too distant past when rationales like that of Wittes for throwing out habeas corpus in the name of prgmatism would have been dismissed as a clear violation of the principles upon which this country was founded and an insult to anyone who believes in the American ideal (which it is)

But for some odd reason, the outlandish statements made by uninformed people like Wittes in the name of "pragmatism" seems to have become acceptable in this country.

It's just nutty. Wittes should not get the time of day from ANY legitimate news organization. Instead they represent him as an "expert".

It debases the term "expert" to the point where it no longer has ANY meaning.

Where are the people on NPR with common sense to call this stuff out for the bullshit that it is?

Are there NONE?

What an embarrassment it has become to work for NPR.

How anyone with any respect for the journalism profession (and any self-respect) can continue to work for an organization that could actually take people like Wittes and Alicia Shepard seriously is beyond me.

Bill said...

One of the cable movie channels has been showing the 1980s vintage French/Polish movie "Danton" which deals with the end days of France's First Republic and the struggle between Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. Much of the dialogue reflects the same sort of unprincipled "pragmatism" that we're seeing today. I guess NPR doesn't do history.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I just read this greenwald piece and apparently, Wittes actually believes that The president of the United States swears an oath to protect the country as opposed to the Constitution.

"This is the guy who has sworn an oath to protect the country," he said, "and if you look at the question of how many people can you try and how many people are you terrified to release, you have to have some kind of detention authority." -- Benjamin Wittes

and Benjamin "Nit" Wittes is the guy who has apparently never even READ the US Constitution, or if he has, is too stupid to understand what it actually says.

Some expert.

More like a quack.

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

gopol said...

Anon, remember when Michael Hayden, coming in as head of NSA flatly mistates the 4th amendment...? It's a long and proud tradition of in-your-face ignorance.

gopol said...

That's the Hayden link that didn't work...

Anonymous said...

Brookings Institution actually has more than its share of quacks (Gregg Easterbrook is another one (though I believe he just left)

In fact, it's a veritable "quackery." It's where many of the folks who are too stupid to make it in academics end up.

Think tanks like CEI, on the other hand, are where the people who were too stupid to make it on talk radio end up.

jlfittro said...

"Unitary Benevolent Authoritarian Strong Man in the mold of Pinochet, Peron, or Castro."

Castro? I don't understand why you would include him in the same class as Pinochet. Pinochet was responsible, with U.S. support and backing, for the death and dispearance of thousands, and the torture of tens of thousands. Castro has never been accused of such crimes; Cuba's government is humanitarian based, Cuba is not a client of the U.S., and Cuba has a National Assembly which is elected by the populace- a populace with a 90% plus voter turnout.

Kramer said...

You left out my favorite part of the story--I have my alarm clock radio set to NPR, and I literally woke up gasping for air when I heard the reporter say this: "Some liberals say holding people without trial is un-American." As best I can remember it, that is an exact quote.

Amazing, the way they frame a debate about the most basic Constitutional rights: as if only the far-out fringe types would dare argue in their favor.

Mytwords said...

re: jlfittro's comments-
I don't mean to imply that Castro is in anyway as bad as Pinochet - if I had to live under a dictator, I'd much rather live in Castro's Cuba than any number of murderous dictators the US has fostered - but IMHO he is a dictator and Cuba is a one party police state (though looser of late).

Anonymous said...

"Some liberals say holding people without trial is un-American."

Some liberals also say that pouring water down someone's nose and throat for 20 seconds is torture

Some liberals also say that blocking the release of photos showing US abuse of prisoners is a violation of the free speech protections of the First Amendment.

Some liberals also say that secretly funneling US tax money to Goldman Sachs through AIG is robbery of the US treasury.

Some liberals also say that passing a law to retro-actively immunize phone companies who spied on Americans domestically without a warrant in violation of FISA is subversion of the law.

Some liberals also say that the plan to depose Saddam Hussein was laid out (by PNAC) long before Bush came into office and that the whole WMD rationale/excuse for the war was cooked up by Dick Cheney, George Bush and neoconservative pals to get the American people "on [water] board".

Some liberals (and even counterterrorism experts like Kilcullen, if you can imagine that) also say that using drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan creates more terrorists than it "eliminates" (kills) and that missile attacks by the drones itself amounts to terrorism since it has sent over 1 million people fleeing their homes in terror.

Some liberals also say that NPR's ombudsman's "explanation" for why NPR does not use the word "torture" in its reports was the most tortured piece of Orwellian Newspeak that they have ever read.

Finally, some liberals say that NPR has become little more than an instrument of US government propaganda not unlike Voice of America.

But we all know there is no truth to any of these allegations, especially not the latter one.

El Cid said...

"Finally, some liberals say that NPR has become little more than an instrument of US government propaganda not unlike Voice of America."

This is an unfair comparison -- to the Voice of America, a broadcaster which deserves more respect than NPR.

Not least because the US government broadcaster is, unlike NPR, willing to use the word "torture" in broadcasts having to do with allegations that U.S. officials carried out or authorized torture.

So, in this case, the outright propaganda arm of the government comes out looking quite a bit better than the supposedly independent non-profit.

Maybe NPR should take lessons from the VOA on how to be independent journalists.