Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
Not too long into Errol Morris' new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, the viewer learns almost all he or she needs to know about the former defense secretary who helped President George W. Bush lead the nation into war in Iraq. After a short recap of the initial US military action in Afghanistan following the horrific September 11 attacks, Morris notes that a "confusion" set in, with many Americans believing Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was involved in 9/11. Morris puts this to Rumsfeld during the Q&A that makes up the spine of the film. Rumsfeld, in his familiar know-it-all way, dismisses the premise: "I don't think the American people were confused about that." Morris, who is not on screen, counters by citing a 2003 poll showing that 69 percent of Americans said it was "likely" that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the assault. Rumsfeld responds, "I don't remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that."
Really? Rumsfeld is not acknowledging a known known. Within hours of the Al Qaeda attack, according to now-public memos, Rumsfeld was asking if Saddam Hussein could be hit in response, and for weeks afterward, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, repeatedly said during administration meetings that the Iraqi leader might have been behind the 9/11 plot. As Michael Isikoff and I noted in Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Wolfowitz sent memos to Rumsfeld asserting that Saddam may have played a critical role.
Morris doesn't cover any of this, but he exposes Rumsfeld in a different and effective way—with Rumsfeld's own words. Immediately after Rumsfeld tells Morris he has no clue how any American got the impression Saddam was tied to 9/11, Morris inserts video from a Rumsfeld press conference at the Pentagon in early February 2003. Saddam had recently declared that he possessed no weapons of mass destruction and had no relationship with Al Qaeda. A reporter asks Rumsfeld to respond. "Abraham Lincoln was short," Rumsfeld says curtly—and no more. The reporter, not satisfied with this all-too-cute answer, presses Rumsfeld for more, and the secretary obliges: "How does one respond to that? It's a continuous pattern. It's the local liar…He almost never, rarely tells the truth."
With this response, Rumsfeld was certainly bolstering the notion that Saddam was part of the 9/11 scheme. Yet now he plays dumb. And, thus, nothing else he says in the documentary can be taken at face value. This is a fellow who either is not as smart as he thinks or not perceptive enough to handle the hard truths.
Of course, after the invasion of Iraq—which Rumsfeld had sold on false pretenses—it was clear that Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush-Cheney crew had failed to prepare adequately for the occupation, in what was one of the dumbest moves in US military history. In this film, Rumsfeld hardly comes to terms with all that. (Ditto the 100,000-plus civilian Iraqi deaths caused by the war—though he does choke up while talking about one American soldier wounded in Iraq who pulled through.) That's no surprise. Neither is Rumsfeld's cocky attitude—which was often on full display during his matinee press conferences at the Pentagon. Yet throughout the engaging film, Rumsfeld, as he did during his decades in government, hides behind a creepy sort of profundity. At one point, Morris cites Rumsfeld's belief in the notion that "if you wish for peace, prepare for war" and notes that "you can use that to justify anything." Rumsfeld responds by citing one of his "Rumsfeld rules": "All generalizations are false—including this one." He then offers a thin smile, chuckles, and adds, "There it is."
Yes, the zen of Donald Rumsfeld, which is merely camouflage for stupid mistakes that caused mayhem and death. That much is certainly known.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012, was still defending his recent comments about inner-city culture this week, when he appeared on Fox News and told host Bill O'Reilly, "I don't have a racist bone in my body." Ryan was responding to criticism he drew after saying earlier this month, during an interview with conservative radio host Bill Bennett, "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." Some accused Ryan of using racist—or racially loaded—rhetoric. Ryan replied that he had been "inarticulate" but was not "implicating the culture of one community"—that is, African Americans. Yet his interview with Bennett was not the first time that Ryan, a potential 2016 presidential contender, had given the impression that inner-city poverty was linked to the supposed cultural deficiencies of minority Americans.
In 2005, Ryan spoke to the Atlas Society, a libertarian outfit devoted to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. "I grew up reading Ayn Rand," he noted, "and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff." And he observed that all political battles "usually" come down "to one conflict: individualism versus collectivism." Asked to describe the best Randian argument to advance libertarian notions on Capitol Hill and beat back the welfare state, Ryan replied,
I think the victimization argument. I think that the fact that collectivists speak down to people as victims is not only an arrogant thing to do, but it produces poor results. So backing up, this victimization class that collectivists try to produce, and showing the folks you're trying to convince that this is not only in their best interests—in their worst interests—that it's not dignifying, and it's arrogant. That seems to work. We're trying to recruit a lot of minority legislators to work with us on personal [savings and health] accounts because, of all things, it's in their best interest to fight party bosses from the Democrats, who are really insisting on everybody toeing the line… But I always try to show how victimhood has gotten them nothing.
You can listen to Ryan's full answer here:
In these remarks, Ryan appeared to be associating the "victimization class" with "minority legislators," and suggesting that this group of people have gained nothing by accepting "victimhood." It's a message close to Mitt Romney's 47 percent remarks and Ryan's own takers-versus-makers line. But there is a racial cast to the comment.
In a 2012 interview, Ryan contended that inner-city crime was a cultural matter. Speaking to a reporter with the ABC television affiliate in Flint, Michigan, Ryan remarked,
[T]he best thing to help prevent violent crime in the inner cities is to bring opportunity in the inner cities, is to help people get out of poverty in the inner cities, is to help teach people good discipline, good character. That is civil society. That's what charities, and civic groups, and churches do to help one another make sure that they can realize the value in one another.
A key problem, he appeared to be saying, was with the character of poor people within the inner cities. Given the high percentage of African Americans in such areas, this remark, too, could be seen as racially charged.
It's no shocker when Ryan—or other libertarians—denounce government assistance programs for breeding dependency and preventing recipients from developing a robust work ethic. But Ryan contends all this assistance leads to a cultural problem. In 2012, he told conservative host Star Parker that the best way to undo the harm caused by a "welfare state that lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency" is to bring "cultural antibodies back in." And by tying this depraved culture to inner-city Americans, Ryan presents an analysis that can be read to include a racial component. What he said on Bennett's radio show was not out of sync with his usual rhetoric. It was not inarticulate. It was a view he has expressed before and presumably believes fully.
In recent weeks, I've talked to several Washington politicos close to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and when I've asked if they will be joining Hillary's presidential machine, should she run, I've received a variant of this (understandably) not-for-citation reply: If Mark Penn is involved, no f-ing way.
Penn is famous—or infamous—for being the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign of inevitability that turned into a colossal failure. That effort was marked by hubris, lousy messaging, poor strategic planning, and legendary internal tensions—including back-biting, leaks, and fierce inside politics—that many within the politerati blamed, fairly or not, on Penn. In the book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin described the campaign as "a simmering cauldron of long-held animosities—most of them directed at Penn." It was personal: "[T]he rest of Hillaryland detested Penn personally. They thought him arrogant and amoral, a detrimental force whose perniciousness was amplified by his inexplicably tight bond with the Clintons."
Earlier this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) slammed President Barack Obama for not doing enough in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's incursion into Crimea. In a Time op-ed, Paul huffed:
It is our role as a global leader to be the strongest nation in opposing Russia's latest aggression.
Putin must be punished for violating the Budapest Memorandum, and Russia must learn that the U.S. will isolate it if it insists on acting like a rogue nation.
This does not and should not require military action. No one in the U.S. is calling for this. But it will require other actions and leadership, both of which President Obama unfortunately lacks.
Paul went on to outline a number of steps he would take, were he president, including imposing economic sanctions and visa bans (which Obama has already implemented), kicking Russia out of the G-8, and building the Keystone XL pipeline. (He did not explain how helping a Canadian firm export tar sands oil would intimidate Putin.) He added, "I would reinstitute the missile-defense shields President Obama abandoned in 2009 in Poland and the Czech Republic." He griped, "The real problem is that Russia's President is not currently fearful or threatened in any way by America's President, despite his country's blatant aggression."
With this article, Paul was eagerly joining the GOP chorus that in recent days has been blasting Obama for being weak and feckless regarding Putin and the Ukraine. That was not surprising. As a politician pondering a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Paul has had to contend with complaints from the GOP's overlapping neocon and establishment wings that he is an isolationist "wacko bird," as Sen. John McCain indelicately put it. Here was a chance to join his party's mainstream in denouncing Obama. Yet to become a member in good standing of the GOP's Get-Obama Brigade, Foreign Policy Division, Paul had to flip-flop.
In April 2009, Paul, on the cusp of launching his Senate campaign, gave a talk to the College Republicans group at Western Kentucky University. He was asked about the large number of US troops stationed overseas by an audience member who said it was "ridiculous" for the United States to maintain permanent military bases in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Paul responded sympathetically: "We're now 60 years in Germany, 60 years in Japan, 50 years in Korea." He defended his father, Ron Paul, for having noted during the 2008 presidential race that there were foreign policy causes for 9/11: "We have to understand there is blowback from our foreign policy."
Arguing for a restrained foreign policy (and smaller military establishment), Paul immediately turned to the subject of Russia's invasion of Georgia the previous year (which these days has often been cited as analogous to the Ukraine crisis).
For example, we have to ask ourselves, "Who needs to be part of NATO? What does NATO need to be at this point?" One of the big things [for] the neocons—the people in the Republican Party sort of on the other side from where I come from—is they want Georgia to be part of NATO. Well, Georgia sits right on the border of Russia. Do you think that might be provocative to put them in NATO? NATO's treaty actually says that if they're attacked, we will defend them. So, if the treaty means something, that means all of a sudden we're at war with Russia. If Georgia would had become, Bush wanted Georgia to become part of NATO, had they been part of NATO, we'd be at war with Russia right now. That's kinda a scary thing. We have to decide whether putting missiles in Poland is gonna provoke the Russians. Maybe not to war, but whether it's worth provoking them, or whether we have the money to do it.
Here's the video:
So when Russia sent troops into Georgia (on George W. Bush's watch), Paul didn't want to provoke Russia by placing missiles in Poland. Yet today, when Russia moves into Ukraine (on Obama's watch), he's all for dispatching missiles to Poland to send a message to Putin. Does Paul care more about Crimea than Georgia? Or does he care more about keeping a foot on the GOP's anti-Obama bandwagon? Paul's office did not respond to a request for comment.
It appears that Paul, an isolationist who doesn't want to be isolated within the GOP, spotted the opportunity to develop some Obama-bashing hawk cred as the presidential campaign nears. "I stand with the people of Ukraine," Paul declares now, though that was not what he said about Georgians. What's changed in the past six years: geopolitics or Paul's own political calculations?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, kicked off a Washington kerfuffle with significant constitutional implications when she took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to accuse the CIA of spying on her committee's investigation into its controversial interrogation and detention program. As pro-CIA partisans and the agency's overseers on Capitol Hill squared off for a DC turf battle—with finger-pointing in both directions—lost in the hubbub was a basic and troubling fact: Feinstein had contended that this all began because, years ago, the spies of Langley had severely misled the legislators responsible for overseeing the intelligence agencies.
At the start of her speech, Feinstein laid out the back story, and her account is a tale of a major CIA abuse. The CIA's detention and interrogation (a.k.a. torture) program began in 2002. For its first four years, the CIA only told the chairman and vice-chairman of the Senate intelligence committee about the program, keeping the rest of the panel in the dark. In September 2006, hours before President George W. Bush was to disclose the program to the public, then CIA Director Michael Hayden informed the rest of the committee. This piece of history shows the limits of congressional oversight. If only two members of the committee were informed, it meant that the panel could not provide full oversight of this program. But keeping secrets from legislators—even members of the intelligence committee—is not that unusual, and the story gets worse.
In December 2007, the New York Times reported that the CIA had destroyed two videotapes of the CIA's interrogation (or torture) sessions. After this disclosure, Hayden told the Senate intelligence committee that eradicating the videos was not as worrisome as it seemed. According to Feinstein, he noted that CIA cables had detailed the interrogations and detention conditions and were "a more than adequate representation" of what had happened. He offered Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who was then chairing the committee, the opportunity to review these thousands of cables. Rockefeller dispatched two staffers to peruse these records.
It took the pair about a year to sift through all the material and produce a report for the intelligence committee. That report, Feinstein noted, was "chilling." The review, she said, showed that the "interrogations and the conditions of confinement at the CIA detention sites were far different and far more harsh than the way the CIA had described them to us."
That is, the CIA had misled the Capitol Hill watchdogs.
After reading the staff report, Feinstein, now chairing the committee, and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), then the senior Republican on the committee, decided a far more expansive investigation was called for. On March 5, 2009, the committee voted 14 to 1 to initiate a full-fledged review of the CIA's detention and interrogation program.
It is that inquiry that has caused the recent fuss, with Feinstein claiming that the CIA (possibly illegally) penetrated computers used by committee investigators and removed documents indicating a CIA internal review of this program had concluded it was poorly managed, went too far, and did not produce decent intelligence. The committee's more comprehensive review eventually produced a 6,300-page report slamming CIA that has yet to be made public, despite Feinstein pushing the CIA to declassify it.
So while this week's focus is on whether the CIA improperly—or illegally—spied on the folks who have the constitutional obligation to monitor CIA actions in order to ensure the agency acts appropriately and within US law, Feinstein's big reveal also presented a highly troubling charge: The CIA lied to Congress about what might be its most controversial program in decades. This in and of itself should be big news.
At the conclusion of her speech, Feinstein, referring to the present controversy, said, "How this will be resolved will show whether the intelligence committee can be effective in monitoring and investigating our nation's intelligence activities or whether our work can be thwarted by those we oversee." That is true. And if there cannot be effective oversight of intelligence operations, then the foundation of the national security state is in question. Yet Feinstein's remarks provide evidence that oversight was not working prior to the current face-off. If the CIA did not tell the Senate intelligence committee the truth about its interrogation and detention program, much more needs to be resolved than whether the spies hacked the gumshoes of Capitol Hill.