[[P O L I T I C S]] * At least unofficially, I am taking a vacation from blogging this week, in order to complete some unrelated and time-consuming assignments. However, I just couldn’t resist commenting on George W. Bush’s “major speech” today, in which he “provided fresh details of a foiled plot in 2002 by Al Qaeda to hijack an airplane and fly it into the Library Tower in Los Angeles,” according to the Los Angeles Times. These “revelations” are highly suspicious, not only because they come out so conveniently at a time when the Republican White House is under attack for Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program and could use some favorable publicity, but because L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was not given the same details of this alleged plot in advance of their public disclosure.
“I’m amazed that the president would make this [announcement] on national TV and not inform us of these details through the appropriate channels,” Villaraigosa told the Associated Press on Thursday. “I don’t expect a call from the president--but somebody.” Of course, to have revealed such information to Hizzoner would have been out of character for a White House in which political opportunism trumps common sense every time. Besides, Villaraigosa is a Democrat. Heaven forfend that he should take credit for alerting residents of his own city about a purported terrorist assault--especially when Republicans have decided that trying once more to mischaracterize Democrats as weak on national defense could be their only hope of maintaining their stranglehold on power in Washington, D.C., come this fall’s midterm elections.
During his speech today before members of the National Guard Association in D.C., Bush claimed that, in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the mastermind behind those horrendous tragedies, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, planned to hijack another airplane--this time using “shoe bombs” to crack open the cockpit door--and pilot it into Los Angeles’ U.S. Bank Tower (aka Library Tower), which at 1,018 feet tall is the tallest building west of Chicago. Bush added that this scheme was to have been executed by Southeast Asian men, because they might not attract so much suspicion as Middle Easterners. “Their plot was derailed in early 2002, when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key Al Qaeda operative,” the prez said. “Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target and how Al Qaeda hoped to execute it.”
While all of this sounds pretty darn dramatic, there’s less news in Bush’s address than headlines would have us believe. Back in October 2005, the prez contended that his administration had, according to The Washington Post, “thwarted at least 10 serious Al Qaeda terrorist plots” since 9/11, “including never-before-disclosed plans to use hijacked commercial airliners to attack the East and West coasts in 2002 and 2003.” (At least some of those plots were later discounted by intelligence officials, who said they were “far from ready to be executed.”) Among the terrorist targets, Bush noted, was the U.S. Bank Tower in L.A. So, observes The Carpetbagger Report, “the president essentially made major headlines today for repeating a four-month-old claim.”
Washington Post White House blogger Dan Froomkin smells a pretty big rat here. He suggests that Bush used the simple subterfuge of significant disclosures about a previously known terrorist plot only in order to distract news reporters from “the central issue preoccupying official Washington, namely whether Bush’s secret surveillance plan is illegal.”
If that’s the case, this scheme doesn’t seem to be working so well. Yesterday, Representative Heather A. Wilson (R-New Mexico), chairwoman of the U.S. House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, “broke ranks with the White House ... and called for a full Congressional inquiry into the Bush administration’s domestic eavesdropping program,” The New York Times reports. Wilson, “a former Air Force officer who is the only female veteran currently in Congress,” and was once a National Security Council aide to President George H.W. Bush, “is the first Republican on either the House’s Intelligence Committee or the Senate’s to call for a full Congressional investigation into the program ...” She said in an interview that she has “‘serious concerns’ about the surveillance program, and that by withholding information about its operations from many lawmakers, ... the administration has deepened her apprehension about whom the agency is monitoring and why.”
Although U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spent part of this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, struggling--if not under oath--to defend the Bush administration from charges that, in the words of Salon’s Walter Shapiro, it’s trying “to rewrite the Constitution without a license” in order to justify its domestic spying operations; and despite what the conservative online magazine Insight calls the “hardball” efforts of White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove to twist arms “to ensure that no Republican member votes against President Bush in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation of the administration’s unauthorized wiretapping,” a growing number of GOP lawmakers have recently called on Bush to seek authority from Congress if he hopes to continue his domestic surveillance campaign. And even then, he would only be permitted to do so under court supervision. “It strikes me that we’re going to be in this war on terrorism possibly for decades,” Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said to Gonzales on Monday, “[and] to have another set of eyes also looking at this surveillance technique is an important thing in maintaining the public’s support for this [spying program].” Responding to Bush’s repeated claim that he has “inherent power” as chief executive to order warrantless wiretaps, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) voiced apprehension about how such presumed powers would rebalance the historically accepted framework of authority within the U.S. government. “Its application, to me, seems to have no boundaries when it comes to executive decisions in a time of war,” Graham said. “It deals the Congress out. It deals the courts out.”
Hoping to silence complaints from Capitol Hill habitués that they were being denied sufficient information about Bush’s once-secret eavesdropping program, the administration on Wednesday “began to describe the operations of the controversial surveillance to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees,” as the Los Angeles Times reported today. But whether this hint of a thaw between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on the subject of domestic spying will cool demands for a formal investigation (perhaps by another independent prosecutor), and whether the White House can reassure the public that it hasn’t overstepped its constitutional authority by wiretapping international communications just cannot be prognosticated at this early stage. It may be that Bush’s surveillance scandal, coupled with the Jack Abramoff influence-buying scandal, the knotty legal controversies surrounding both Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tennessee) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and the still-smoldering CIA leak scandal--aka Plamegate--will combine to topple the already shaky GOP majority in Congress, come this November. In which event, a Bush with fewer party defenders in D.C. will need much better stories than four-month-old “news” about an allegedly planned attack on the city of Los Angeles if he’s to talk his way out of a full-scale inquiry--one that, in the worst case, could lead to his censure or impeachment.
THE DICTATOR DEFENSE: Georgetown University law professor David Cole, analyzing Alberto Gonzales’ performance this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, writes in Salon that “The reason Gonzales spent so much time dodging and weaving is not that he was unable to answer, but that he knows that a candid answer would have been politically unacceptable to the senators and to the American people. His honest answer to all of the foregoing questions would have been the same: Yes, the president could order warrantless searches of Americans’ homes, the opening of mail, domestic wiretaps and torture--because there are no limits on the president’s powers as commander in chief to engage the enemy. That answer is not hypothetical--it is found buried in the footnotes of a detailed 42-page single-spaced legal memorandum provided to Congress in January. In that memo, which sought to defend the legality of the [National Security Agency] surveillance program, the Justice Department argues that Congress may not in any way impede the president’s executive authority to choose the ‘means and methods of engaging the enemy.’” Read on.
READ MORE: “Right-Wingers Turn Against Bush,” by Michael Scherer (Salon); “Growing Questions About Whether Bush Lied Today About the Supposed Threat to L.A. That He Supposedly Foiled,” by John Aravosis (AMERICAblog); “Bucking Bush on Spying,” by David S. Broder (The Washington Post); “Bush’s Propaganda Alert: Code Red,” by Georgia10 (Daily Kos); “Limiting NSA Spying Is Inconsistent with Rationale, Critics Say,” by Dan Eggen (The Washington Post); “Like It or Not, Secret Surveillance Is Here to Stay,” by Jeffrey Shaffer (The Christian Science Monitor); “Senator Russ Feingold on the President’s Warrantless Wiretapping Program”; “Bush Used Emergency FISA Wiretaps More Times Than Any Other President,” by Georgia10 (Daily Kos); “Top 12 Media Myths and Falsehoods on the Bush Administration’s Spying Scandal” (Media Matters); “Words by Gonzales, Logic by Kafka,” by Sidney Blumenthal (Salon); “You Want to Discuss Impeachment? Called Me on Nov. 8th,” by Arianna Huffington (The Huffington Post).
(Photograph of downtown L.A. by Angus McIntyre)