Sunday, February 09, 2014

Books on the Previous Presidency

In the last several months I listened to Ghost Wars and Private Empire by Steve Coll, The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, and The Dark Side by Jane Meyer. Private Empire doesn't really fit the pattern, but Ghost Wars had been on my list for a long time, and I heard Coll discuss Empire (which is about Exxon) on Fresh Air and was astonished by one (stylized) fact: Exxon cuts a check to Chad essentially 100 times as large as USAID's analogous check every year. Wow.

After finishing both of Coll's books, I'm underwhelmed with his writing, as I find it fairly dry. Yet the topics are so interesting that I managed to finish. It didn't hurt that my roadtrips were so long I caught up on all my podcasts and had nothing else to listen to. I'll say two things about Private Empire: (1) if you're going to do business in a country with a brutal dictatorship, it is impossible to keep your hands clean, and (2) oil companies are just like big banks--lemon socialism.

(1) PE talks in detail about Exxon's work in Indonesia, Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, and elsewhere, all of which had repressive governments. Sometimes Exxon was complicit, sometimes they tried for a while to be good. What I came away believing is that it's impossible to stay clean if you're working there. That left me with the great existential question of whether engagement is good or bad. Engagement is by definition messy. But is isolation and ignoring them better? Clearly isolating Cuba hasn't really accomplished anything. Engaging with Iran seems for the moment to have accomplished something. Isolating seems to work when you do it to your friend with whom who have close ties (South Africa, Israel) but not on crazy people willing to go it on their own (North Korea). So basically, I don't know. Sure, oil companies are evil, but I don't think the answer is for them to just not drill unless the government is wonderful. (This is politics and human rights only; I'm ignoring obvious climate concerns for the sake of a thought experiment.)

(2) Exxon doesn't want to be taxed and is perfectly happy to undermine US foreign policy when it is in their interest to do so, but they do want the safety provided by the U.S. Military, the safety that provides for its executives abroad, and all the benefits of our rule of law, which are legion.

OK, one final third point: The new CEO of Exxon actually believes in global warming and is OK with a carbon tax. So maybe there's hope.

On to what I actually want to write about: national security in the Bush presidency. I read the NYT and the New Yorker to stay current, but I'm years behind in my book reading--If I'm lucky I'll be reading books about the drone killings in 2020, and the NSA dragnet in 2025. (Maybe this is a good strategy to give the dust a while to settle?) Anyway, here's what I have to say:

The man I confessed my teenage "sins" to helped write the torture memos.

What? Where did that come from? Maybe I'm self-absorbed for reading a book about torture in the Bush presidency and thinking it's about me, but it just makes it hit home that I took a law class from John Yoo, chief architect of the torture memos, and that as a teenager I weepingly confessed my evil deeds (masturbation, duh) to a man (Timothy Flanigan) who absolved me for my sins and then proceeded to tell the President it's totally legal to torture anyone he wants.

AAARGH!

Even if you don't have the misfortunate of personally knowing architects of one of the worst things ever, Mayer's book is still great. Essentially, it tells the story of how a few people used 9/11 to turn the US into a country that tortures.  According to Mayer, these people are:

Dick Cheney
Richard Addington
Alberto Gonzales
Jim Haynes
John Yoo
Tim Flanigan

  • Cheney is the source of it all--he controlled who could talk to Bush.
  • Addington was Cheney's lawyer. He thinks the President has ultimate authority. Essentially, he's Richard Nixon: "If the President does it, then it's not illegal." Only possibly he's more evil.
  • Gonzales is not that smart.
  • John Yoo wrote the torture memo. He also thinks the executive has absolute power, and he was a yesman for president. As an Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) lawyer, he was supposed to give advice to the president on what is and is not legal for the executive branch to do. Instead, Cheney and Addington told him what they wanted, and Yoo parsed words and used poor legal reasoning to write legal opinions giving them whatever authority they wanted. These opinions were so controversial and so poor that they wouldn't show them to anyone. The CIA was told it could torture. CIA lawyers, doing their job, and looking out for CIA agents (and the rule of law) asked to see the legal reasoning that gave them this authority, but Addington wouldn't let them see it. The NSA was told it could do warantless wiretapping. NSA lawyers asked to see how. "Screw you, just do it." was essentially Addington's answer.
  • Flanigan ran OLC under Bush Sr., and under Bush Jr. helped Yoo turn it into the tool for approving anything Bush and Cheney wanted, and was right there with Yoo and Gonzales when they wrote the torture memos.

The good guys in this are Alberto Mora, Jack Goldsmith, and James Comey. Fellow Republicans, and strong lifelong conservatives, who instead of being solely dedicated to partisan victory or absolute executive authority, actually had principles.

The best story in the whole book is this. Cheney and Addington wanted the NSA wiretapping program to be reauthorized. But Yoo had left OLC, and the new OLC guy (Goldsmith) managed to convince Ashcroft that it wasn't legal, so Ashcroft wasn't going to sign off on it. Only Ashcroft got sick and was in intensive care in the hospital. He legally designated his authority to his deputy Comey. Comey told the White House that he wasn't going to reauthorize the program. So the White House sent Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card to pressure Ashcroft in the hospital. Only Comey got wind of it, called the FBI director Robert Mueller, and literally raced Card and Gonzales, sirens blaring, to Ashcroft's hospital room (again, in intensive care). Comey and got there first, Gonzales and Card indeed tried to get an ill man who no longer had legal authority to do so to re-up the program, but Ashcroft told them to buzz off, it wasn't legal. Card then called Comey to the Whitehouse to rake him over the coals, but Comey wouldn't meet with them without a witness, so he brought solicitor general Ted Olson in.

Wow.

Mayer's book and the Mormons involved in torture is all summarized here in a Salt Lake Tribune piece.

Lastly, Ghost Wars. This is a pretty dense book, covering everything in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion up until September 10, 2001. Obviously, the main interest for Americans is probably "why didn't we kill or capture Osama bin Laden before 9/11?" There are a ton of fascinating details, but my takeaway is this: people tried their best, so calling them out with the advantage of hindsight is fun, but mostly a waste of time. We tried cruise missiles, we drew up plans for big US military operations, we tried getting Ahmad Shah Massoud to do it, we tried to get the Pakistanis to do it, we tried to get the Uzbeks to do it, we tried to get other tribes to do it, but honestly, every time there was a chance, there was just as good a chance the cruise missile would miss UBL and hit the mosque next door and kill hundreds of civilians. So even though in hindsight we maybe should have leveled Tarnak Farms, or a hunting camp that UBL may have been at with UAE royalty, the only time I think anyone really laid down on the job is the CIA agent who knew that two Al Qaeda agents were in the United States, and he didn't tell the FBI. Instead, he apparently told his CIA supervisors that he had, and then nobody ever thought about it again.  Apparently this agent, "Mike," got a promotion.

Lawrence Wright recently rehashed this here in the New Yorker.

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