Man Without Qualities

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Late Stage Paranoia At The New York Times

Buffalo Springfield sang with eerie, unknowing prescience about the future of the New York Times when they trilled: Paranoia strikes deep, Into your life it will creep, It starts when you're always afraid ... Many at the helm and keyboards of the New York Times have long teetered on the very edge of full blown paranoia, but yesterday's Times editorial "Mr. Cheney's Imperial Presidency", which says the vice president is literally attempting to make the United States into a dictatorship (among many other nefarious purposes) is a headlong plunge into the abyss:
George W. Bush has quipped several times during his political career that it would be so much easier to govern in a dictatorship. Apparently he never told his vice president that this was a joke.

Virtually from the time he chose himself to be Mr. Bush's running mate in 2000, Dick Cheney has spearheaded an extraordinary expansion of the powers of the presidency - from writing energy policy behind closed doors with oil executives to abrogating longstanding treaties and using the 9/11 attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq, scrap the Geneva Conventions and spy on American citizens.

It was a chance Mr. Cheney seems to have been dreaming about for decades. ... The president "needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy," Mr. Cheney said ... Before 9/11, Mr. Cheney was trying to undermine the institutional and legal structure of multilateral foreign policy: he championed the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow in order to build an antimissile shield that doesn't work but makes military contractors rich. ... Mr. Cheney ... gathered his energy industry cronies at secret meetings in Washington to rewrite energy policy to their specifications. Mr. Cheney offered the usual excuses about the need to get candid advice on important matters, and the courts, sadly, bought it. ... Mr. Cheney gathered people who agreed with him, and allowed them to write national policy for an industry in which he had recently amassed a fortune.

The effort to expand presidential power accelerated after 9/11, taking advantage of a national consensus that the president should have additional powers to use judiciously against terrorists.

Mr. Cheney started agitating for an attack on Iraq immediately, pushing the intelligence community to come up with evidence about a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda that never existed. His team was central to writing the legal briefs justifying the abuse and torture of prisoners, the idea that the president can designate people to be "unlawful enemy combatants" and detain them indefinitely, and a secret program allowing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on American citizens without warrants. And when Senator John McCain introduced a measure to reinstate the rule of law at American military prisons, Mr. Cheney not only led the effort to stop the amendment, but also tried to revise it to actually legalize torture at C.I.A. prisons.
Gone from the Times ranting is any hint of respect for Mr. Cheney or his office, or any concession that Mr. Cheney may have acted with good intentions or subjective good faith, even if he has acted (by the Times' lights) in error. But the Times does make the completely unsupported insinuation that the vice president acted out of intent to enrich his "cronies" - and makes very clear that federal court holdings contrary to the Times' thinking mean nothing except that the court was easily deluded. The Times generally absurdly presents Mr. Cheney as having powers that dwarf those of most presidents. The Richard Cheney described by the Times has much more power than was wielded by, say, Jimmy Carter.

On the whole, the tenor of the editorial might make one wonder why the Times doesn't just come right out and assert that Mr. Cheney is the Great Satan, roaming the world, seeking the ruin of souls. The image presented by the Times of Mr. Cheney's power is as distorted and false as the image it presents of Mr. Cheney's character and probable motivations. The vice presidency is an office that carries almost no active executive power. Mr. Cheney acts only at the behest of the president. But the Times cannot admit that relationship because the paper is wed to the preposterous, condescending image shared by many liberals of Mr. Bush as a dimwit princeling controlled by evil geniuses, including Mr. Cheney. The Times even goes so far as to accuse Mr. Cheney of appointing himself as the president's running mate - an assertion completely and disgracefully contemptuous of the president.

According to the Times, the vice president has committed a great sin by thinking outside of (but "taking advantage of") a "national consensus" that formed after 9/11 and whose precise parameters are authoritatively known to the paper. Whatever scope the Times might ascribe to that post-9/11 "consensus," this much is clear: The actual post 9/11 consensus includes by most people's calculation (even the Times) the conclusion that the very Watergate-era reforms that the Times lauds as sacred included some unwise restraint on executive power. It has been the Times - not Mr. Cheney - that has been outside the actual post-9/11 consensus. For example, in the middle of 2002 the Times furiously editorialized:
Congress passed the U.S.A. Patriot Act, rolling back civil liberties in key areas, and the Bush administration has held hundreds in secret detention. The court, meanwhile, said nothing. Yesterday the justices made themselves heard for the first time, blocking a federal judge's order to open to the public immigration hearings for terrorism suspects. It is a troubling move ...
So the post-9/11 "consensus" posited by the Times apparently did not include Congress, the administration or the Supreme Court. Who could have participated? Perhaps it was a "consensus" reached among those in the Times newsroom? Did they remember to send Mr. Cheney the memo laying out the "consensus?"

Although the Times savages him for his belief that the Presidency must be preserved from encroachment, Mr. Cheney is scarcely alone in thinking that many post-Watergate "reforms" have disastrously weakened the executive - and some such "reforms" have already been repudiated even by the left. For example, together with much of the liberal establishment, the Times fulsomely endorsed the Independent Prosecutor Law, as long as it hamstrung Republican presidents, as in this 1987 editorial:
[T]he Reagan Administration shamelessly pressed a legal attack on the Independent Counsel Act and lobbied Congress against its renewal ...
That supremely unwise law has now expired without any significant interest in Washington in again renewing it. Why? Simply because the near-paralysis of the Clinton administration brought on by that Act caused the scales to fall even from most Democratic eyes, resulting in a clear national consensus that the Independent Counsel Act was poor legislation. But the New York Times continued to defy that consensus: The Independent Counsel Act will expire ... and unfortunately most members of Congress would just as soon see the law fade into history. One might also note that the Supreme Court's post-Watergate era decisions have often reflected a serious concern over the erosion of the executive at the hands of Congress, as with the Court's spectacular overturning of the "legislative veto" as an unconstitutional usurpation of presidential power by Congress.

Any fact that might obstruct the demonization of Mr. Cheney is simply ignored by the Times. For example, the vice president is insinuated as having distorted intelligence analysis to bring about the Iraq war, despite the express repudiation of this suspicion by the 9/11 Commission report. And among many other supposedly evil acts, the Times assigns to the vice president (!) responsibility for the NSA warrantless but apparently legal surveillance program that the paper has recently been disparaging. But the editorial utterly ignores (to the point of making one wonder if the writer is even aware) that this "dictatorial" program has been strongly supported (in the form of a Chicago Tribune op-ed “President Had Legal Authority to OK Taps”) by former Clinton associate attorney general John Schmidt:

President Bush’s post- Sept. 11, 2001, authorization to the National Security Agency to carry out electronic surveillance into private phone calls and e-mails is consistent with court decisions and with the positions of the Justice Department under prior presidents.
The Times editorial also ignores the strong judicial precedent cited by Schmidt, including both the Supreme Court’s 1972 Keith decision (explicitly pointing out that the Court was not questioning the president’s authority to order warrantless wiretaps in response to threats from abroad) and direct holdings by four federal courts of appeal - and much more. Nor does the Times editorial give even a nod to other views and facts that contradict the ridiculous impression of Mr. Cheney that the paper is trying to create, including Carter and Clinton orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, including Executive Orders 12139 (Carter) or 12949 (Clinton), which are both squarely inconsistent with the Times' posture. And no mention is made of California Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman's (not unalloyed) support for the NSA program:
A recently disclosed government surveillance program "is essential to U.S. security," but it may go "far beyond" the effort to target al-Qaida terrorists described in secret congressional briefings, Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday. In her most extensive comments on the matter since the National Security Agency program was revealed last week by The New York Times, Harman, D-El Segundo, said "its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities."
The Times is certainly entitled to its own take on matters of public interest, such as the vice president's conduct of his office. But screaming that he is corrupt, uberpotent, evil-willed, bent on acquisition of dictatorial powers and opposed to a fictitious "consensus" is mostly going to convince reasonable Times readers that the paper of record has more than a few screws loose.

MORE: Good comments from Hoystory.

STILL MORE: From Maguire and Miller.

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