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The New Madness of King George

By Robert Parry
December 19, 2005

On the Sunday before Christmas, a fidgety George W. Bush interrupted regular programming on U.S. networks to deliver an address to the nation that painted the Iraq War and the War on Terror in the same black-and-white colors he has always favored.

Despite the media's conventional wisdom about Bush’s new “realism” on Iraq, the old canards were still there – Saddam Hussein choosing war by rejecting United Nations weapons inspectors; blurred distinctions between Iraqi insurgents and non-Iraqi terrorists; intimations that Bush’s critics are “partisan” while he embodies the national interest.

Plus, there was the same old stark choice between success and failure. “There are only two options before our country – victory or defeat,” Bush declared, brushing aside the political and military ambiguities of the Iraq War and the War on Terror.

But Bush’s speech and his curious hand gestures as he sat behind a desk in the Oval Office suggested a twitchiness over his apparent realization that the nation increasingly doubts his leadership.

Indeed, it appears the American people finally have begun to understand the costs in blood, money and freedoms that have resulted from letting the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks become a justification for transforming the United States into a modern-day empire led by an autocrat who claims the untrammeled right to strike at his perceived enemies abroad and crack down on his opponents at home.

Wiretaps

A day earlier, an angrier-looking Bush used his weekly radio address to denounce as “irresponsible” senators who resorted to the filibuster to demand more civil-liberties protections in a revised version of the Patriot Act.

Bush also lashed out at press disclosures of his three-year-old decision to circumvent the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by personally approving warrantless electronic eavesdropping on international communications by people inside the United States.

“As a result (of the disclosure), our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk,” Bush said. “Revealing classified information is illegal.”

Bush’s outrage might seem strange to some observers since he has refused to punish his deputy chief of staff Karl Rove for leaking the classified identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, accused Bush of twisting intelligence to build his case for invading Iraq in 2003.

But Bush apparently has judged that he, as president, and his close advisers can decide which laws they wish to obey and when, while simultaneously condemning those outside their circle of power for violating the same laws.

This attitude follows Bush’s view that the “commander in chief” clause of the U.S. Constitution grants him virtually unlimited powers as a “war president” as long as the War on Terror lasts, a concept of executive authority that recalls the days of absolute authority claimed by Medieval kings and queens.

Already, Bush has asserted that his “commander in chief” powers allow him to arrest citizens and hold them indefinitely without charges; to authorize physical abuse of prisoners; to invade other countries without the necessity of congressional approval; and to ignore international law, including the U.N. Charter and other treaty obligations.

As the New York Times reported on Dec. 16 and Bush confirmed on Dec. 17, he also is claiming – as his constitutional right – the power to wiretap Americans without court review or the presentation of evidence to any impartial body.

When Bush is challenged on these authorities, he asserts that he is following the law, although it is never clear which law or whether anyone other than his appointed lawyers have advised him on the scope of his power.

(Conservative legal scholars may have to stretch their notion of the “original intent” of the Founders to explain how the writers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 decided to give a future president the authority to use spy satellites to intercept phone calls and other electronic communications.)

It’s also not clear what evidence exists to support Bush’s charge that disclosure of his wiretapping decision damages the national security and endangers U.S. citizens.

Under the FISA law dating back to the 1970s, electronic eavesdropping has been permitted inside the United States against foreign agents, including anyone collaborating with an international terrorist group. The law only requires a warrant from a secret court, which rarely rejects an administration request.

Presumably, al-Qaeda terrorists inside the United States were aware that their communications were vulnerable to intercepts, explaining why the Sept. 11 attackers were careful to avoid telephonic contacts abroad. But the terrorists would have no way to know whether electronic eavesdropping might be done with or without a warrant, under FISA or Bush’s order.

Yet, Bush’s complaint that disclosure of his personal wiretapping authority endangers national security presupposes the terrorists knew that their phone calls would somehow be immune from a FISA court warrant but susceptible to Bush’s wiretap order.

Since that assumption makes no sense, one can only conclude that Bush threw in the accusation about endangering national security to impugn the patriotism of his critics and rev up his base, much as he did during the run-up to invading Iraq when skeptics were shouted down as traitors and liars. [See, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Politics of Preemption.”]

Questionable Targets

Bush’s assertion of his unilateral authority to wiretap anyone he wishes also raises questions about whether some of his eavesdropping is aimed at political opponents or journalists, rather than terrorists.

While Bush claims his wiretaps were vital to the national security, they came at a time when the FISA court was approving record numbers of warrants for secret surveillance. According to FISA’s annual report for 2004, there were a record 1,758 applications for spying authorization that year and none was denied by the special court.

The administration’s explanation for why additional secret wiretaps were needed is that Bush’s order saves time when a quick wiretap is required, such as when a foreign terrorist is captured and his phone records are seized.

But the FISA court can clear warrants in a few hours – or Bush could exercise emergency powers under the law to conduct wiretaps for 72 hours before obtaining approval from the court. That emergency provision was inserted in the law to give presidents leeway when the threat was a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union with the potential of wiping out nearly the entire U.S. population.

Even during the Cold War, the FISA provisions were acceptable to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But now, with a much less severe threat from al-Qaeda terrorists, George W. Bush has decided that the law must be waived at his discretion, bypassing the court on hundreds and possibly thousands of surveillance orders.

That suggests other motives may exist for some of these wiretaps, such as the possibility that some intercepted conversations would be rejected by even the rubber-stamping FISA court, like requests to spy on activists, politicians or journalists.

The Bush administration, for instance, has accused the Arab news network al-Jazeera of collaborating with al-Qaeda and U.S. news executives are known to communicate with al-Jazeera over access to its exclusive video. Would these phone calls and e-mails be covered by Bush’s extraordinary wiretap authority?

Bush’s right-wing allies also have labeled some American journalists, such as Seymour Hersh, traitors for writing articles about the War on Terror that reveal secret operations that Bush has wanted to keep hidden. Plus, there may be U.S. politicians or activists communicating with Islamic leaders overseas.

While the full range of Bush’s intercepts is not known, the administration’s use of National Security Agency intercepts was an issue earlier this year, when it was disclosed that John Bolton, Bush’s nominee to be United Nations ambassador, had requested names of Americans that had been excised from NSA transcripts for privacy reasons.

Senate Democrats demanded that documents be turned over on 10 cases in which Bolton used his position as under secretary of state for arms control to obtain the names. The White House refused to provide the information and Bush evaded the need for Senate confirmation of Bolton’s ambassadorship by making him a “recess appointment.”

Hand Gestures

As for Sunday’s prime-time Iraq War speech, Bush broke with the reassuring tradition of a president sitting behind the Oval Office desk with hands folded. Instead, Bush took to waving his arms as he delivered the speech.

“Grim-faced, yet with a trace of anxiety in his eyes, Bush delivered the remarks seated rigidly at a desk, making a variety of hand gestures,” observed Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. [Washington Post, Dec. 19, 2005]

Some of Bush’s strange body language may be explained by the fact that even he must realize that his assertions include a number of falsehoods, such as his routine deception that Saddam Hussein defied U.N. demands on destroying his weapons of mass destruction and on letting in U.N. weapons inspectors.

“It is true that [Hussein] systematically concealed those [WMD] programs, and blocked the work of U.N. weapons inspectors,” Bush told the nation. “He was given an ultimatum – and he made his choice for war.”

But it is not true that Hussein blocked the work of U.N. weapons inspectors. In fact, he acquiesced to a U.N. ultimatum and let them back into Iraq in November 2002. Chief inspector Hans Blix said his team was finally given free rein to examine suspected WMD sites, but Bush forced the inspectors to leave so the invasion could proceed.

As it turned out, Hussein was telling the truth when he said there were no WMD caches left. After the invasion, Bush’s own team of inspectors concluded that Iraq’s WMD stockpiles had been destroyed by earlier U.N. inspections and by U.S. bombing during the Clinton administration.

Yet, beginning a few months after the U.S. invasion – as it became clear there was no WMD and as U.S. casualties mounted – Bush began rewriting history, claiming that Hussein had not let the U.N. inspectors in, thus forcing Bush to invade. This lie presumably made Bush appear more reasonable.

On July 14, 2003, Bush said about Hussein, “we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”

In the following months, Bush repeated this claim in slightly varied forms.

On Jan. 27, 2004, Bush said, “We went to the United Nations, of course, and got an overwhelming resolution – 1441 – unanimous resolution, that said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs, which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.”

Eventually, this false history became part of Bush’s regular litany about the war. Despite the fact that it was an obvious lie – the U.S. news media had witnessed the work of the U.N. inspectors inside Iraq – Bush was rarely challenged about his historical revisionism. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]

Terrorists or Insurgents

Similarly, Bush continues to blur the distinctions between the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency that has often used roadside bombs to attack American troops and the relatively small number of non-Iraqi terrorists who have exploded bombs aimed at civilian targets.

Bush has employed the rhetorical device of using insurgent and terrorist synonymously, much as he and Vice President Dick Cheney used juxtaposition to convince millions of Americans that the Iraqi government was somehow responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

In his Dec. 18 speech, for instance, Bush said, “the terrorists will continue to have the coward’s power to plant roadside bombs and recruit suicide bombers,” making no distinction between the tactics of the insurgents and the terrorists.

The danger from this sleight of hand is that it blocks consideration of possible resolution of the Iraq War. Many military analysts believe the only realistic route toward a reasonably successful policy in Iraq is to address the political and economic concerns of Iraq’s Sunni minority – who want a U.S. withdrawal, more political clout and a share of the nation’s oil revenues – while isolating the relatively small number of foreign jihadists.

Though Bush has made some concessions to this reality in recent speeches, he chose to return to his broad-brush rhetoric in the national address. Again, it was a case of good versus evil, victory or surrender, his way or the highway.

“Defeatism may have its partisan uses,” Bush said of his critics, “but it is not justified by the facts.”

Bush also resorted to a favorite tactic of ascribing ridiculous notions to his critics. “If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone,” Bush said.

The president then returned to his long-time claim that Islamic extremists are motivated by their hatred of America’s freedom.

“The terrorists do not merely object to American actions in Iraq and elsewhere, they object to our deepest values and our way of life,” Bush said. “And if we were not fighting them in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Southeast Asia, and in other places, the terrorists would not be peaceful citizens, they would be on the offense, and headed our way.”

Again, Bush was reprising rhetoric that exaggerates or misstates the enemy’s goals and capabilities as a way to box in the U.S. political debate and shut the door on reasonable alternative strategies.

Bush continues to discuss al-Qaeda as if it is a powerful international force on par with Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, when many analysts see it as a fringe organization that was driven out of most Islamic countries, almost to the ends of the earth – or in this case to the mountains of Afghanistan.

Without doubt, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists exploited a letdown in U.S. security in 2001 to conduct an extraordinary attack on New York and Washington, but a realistic assessment of its actual clout is important in calibrating a response.

If al-Qaeda is actually a marginal organization that can be isolated even more by the West adopting a respectful approach to the Muslim world, then Bush’s approach of invading Arab countries – and curtailing American liberties – makes no sense, unless Bush’s real motives are something else: say, controlling Middle East resources and transforming the United States into a modern one-party state with him or his allies in permanent control.

The analysis that follows from  Bush’s assertion of unlimited presidential powers and his deceptive explanations to the American people about Iraq suggests two alternative theories. Either Bush is increasingly unstable, incapable of discerning reality from his own propaganda, or he is concealing his real agenda with misleading arguments.

Put differently, either the United States is experiencing a kind of modern “madness of King George” – like what happened when King George III became unstable in the years after losing the Colonies – or the American people are living under a cunning Machiavelli with a calculated method to his apparent madness.

Either way, the prospects are troubling for American democracy – and it may not be clear which of the alternative scenarios is more worrisome.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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