There's a provision in the defense authorization bill signed two weeks ago by President Bush that makes it easier for the White House to assume command of the National Guard during a major national emergency. This quiet yet significant expansion of executive power is causing all kinds of anxious buzz on lefty blogs. BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow fumes, "Between the right-to-torture bill and this one, it's clear that Bush intends to bring back the pork-politics glory of the Cold War by reinventing the Soviet Union on American soil." At towardfreedom.com, Frank Morales intones, "[I]t is particularly worrying that President Bush has seen fit, at this juncture to, in effect, declare himself dictator." The provison, which modifies the president's powers under the Insurrection Act and Posse Comitatus Act, allows him to mobilize the National Guard without governors' approval in order to respond to natural disasters, epidemics, terrorist attacks, and insurrections. This is feeding into conspiracy theories that, in the wake of a Democratic congressional victory (or mass protests against a rigged Republican victory) the administration will simply declare martial law. Why else, as Gore Vidal told the Huffington Post, would Bush seem so confident about the upcoming election results?
Let's catch our breath for a moment. For all the talk of this being a "stealth" provision, it's worth noting that the National Governors Association was against it, as were many members of Congress, including Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.). Does the law expand presidential powers unnecessarily? It certainly appears so. As Leahy explained publicly before the provision was made official:
[T[he Defense Authorization Bill will actually encourage the President to declare federal martial lawsomething has been done in only threethreeoccasions over the past several decades.... [W]e certainly do not need to make it easier for Presidents to declare martial law. Invoking the Insurrection Act and using the military for law enforcement activities goes against some of the central tenets of our democracy. It creates needless tension among the various levels of governmentone can easily envision governors and mayors in charge of an emergency having to constantly look over their shoulders while someone who has never visited their communities gives the orders.
Yep, it looks like Congress gave Bush and Co. another big fat constitutional freebie, buried inside a big bill that passed the Senate unanimously and the House 398 to 23. But does this mean that Karl Rove is smiling because he's going send tanks down Main Street November 8? For all its flaws, there's nothing in the new law that hints that such a move is suddenly legal. And the last time I checked, the National Guard kind of had its hands full dealing with a much bigger disaster than the prospect of Speaker Pelosi.
So now the White House is saying that Dick Cheney wasn't really talking about water boarding when he said that water boarding is "a no-brainer" Tuesday. As Tony Snow explained, "You know as a matter of common sense that the vice president of the United States is not going to be talking about water boarding. Never would, never does, never will. You think Dick Cheney's going to slip up on something like this? No, come on." Put aside the laughable notion that Cheney never slips up for a moment. What's Snow really saying? That we don't waterboard or we just don't talk about it? If it's the latter, does this mark the first time in six years that Cheney has leaked something the administration doesn't want the public to know about?
Meanwhile, if you're wondering what waterboarding really looks like, check out this video in which a gutsy young journalist endures 24 minutes of near-suffocation (and talking with Alan Dershowitz) to find out if it really is torture. Not easy to watch.
Reporters Sans Frontières recently released its annual ranking of press freedom around the world, and it's not good news for the United States. Our ranking's been steadily dropping since the survey started in 2002, when we were in the index's top 20. Now we're at a dismal 53rd place, down from an undistinguished 44th last year. That puts us in the same league as tiny democracies like Botswana, Croatia, and Tonga. To be sure, we're a long way from the atrocious rankings of Iran, China, Burma, Cuba, and North Korea. But it's nothing to write home about.
The United States' poor showing is largely to blame on the excesses of the war on terror. As RSF explains, "Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of 'national security' to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his 'war on terrorism.'" And then there's the journalists we've got locked up, such as a Sudanese Al-Jazeera cameraman being held in Guantanamo, and Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein, who's been in U.S. custody in Iraq for 6 months without charge. That's just the official hostility to the press. During the past year, right-wing commentators debated whether the editor of the New York Times should be sent to the gas chamber or the firing squad for revealing a program to track terrorist funds. It's not clear whether this episode figured into RSF's rankings, but it was another sign of why, when it comes to freedom of expression, we've got a long way to Number One.
[Ed. Note: This week's Sports Illustrated carries an excellent column on Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who used leaked grand jury testimony to blow the lid off the steroid scandal. They'll be heading to jail soon for failing to reveal their sources, and may still be in the big house when Barry Bonds, documented to have commited several crimes in Fainaru-Wada and Williams' reporting, breaks baseball's all-time home run record.
A detail from the column, which unfortunately is subscription-only: The Chronicle has received 80 subpoenas of reporters over the last 18 months, compared with five over the previous 18. That's the world's strongest democracy, leading by example.]
Over at Harper's, Ken Silverstein reports that the U.S. government is paying $17,500 a month to a rent one of its overseas embassies from a known torturer. The torturer in question is Manuel Nguema Mba, the security minister of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny, oil-rich West African nation that, as Peter Maass wrote in an investigative story in Mother Joneslast year, seems like a "parody of an oil kleptocracy," where "a dictator, awash in petrodollars, enriches himself and his family while starving his people."
In his article, Maass disclosed the rental deal with Mba (who's the uncle of the country's despot, Teodoro Obiang), but Silverstein adds some new wrinkles to the story. Despite reliable documentation from the U.N. and the State Department, our ambassador to E.G. has pled ignorance of Mba's human-rights record. The Clinton-era ambassador is calling for an investigation into the deal.
Sadly, it's not surprising that we're giving $210,000 a year to a man who has overseen the torture of dissidents. Pay-to-play is the name of the game in E.G.it's a game that several American oil companies have played in order to get access to the country's crude. (In one egregiousbut not atypicalinstance, Amerada Hess paid $445,800 in rent to a 14-year-old relative of Obiang.) And apparently it's a game that the Bush administration doesn't mind playing, either.