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Sunday, December 14, 2008

sunday funnies (and not so funnies)


Frank Rich:

ROD BLAGOJEVICH is the perfect holiday treat for a country fighting off depression. He gift-wraps the ugliness of corruption in the mirthful garb of farce. From a safe distance outside Illinois, it's hard not to laugh at the "culture of Chicago," where even the president-elect's Senate seat is just another commodity to be bought and sold.

But the entertainment is escapist only up to a point. What went down in the Land of Lincoln is just the reductio ad absurdum of an American era where both entitlement and corruption have been the calling cards of power. Blagojevich's alleged crimes pale next to the larger scandals of Washington and Wall Street. Yet those who promoted and condoned the twin national catastrophes of reckless war in Iraq and reckless gambling in our markets have largely escaped the accountability that now seems to await the Chicago punk nabbed by the United States attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald.

The Republican partisans cheering Fitzgerald's prosecution of a Democrat have forgotten his other red-letter case in this decade, his conviction of Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Libby was far bigger prey. He was part of the White House Iraq Group, the task force of propagandists that sold an entire war to America on false pretenses. Because Libby was caught lying to a grand jury and federal prosecutors as well as to the public, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. But President Bush commuted the sentence before he served a day.

Fitzgerald was not pleased. "It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals," he said at the time.

Not in the Bush era, man. Though the president had earlier vowed to fire anyone involved in leaking the classified identity of a C.I.A. officer, Valerie Plame Wilson — the act Libby tried to cover up by committing perjury — both Libby and his collaborator in leaking, Karl Rove, remained in place.

Accountability wasn't remotely on Bush's mind. If anything, he was more likely to reward malfeasance and incompetence, as exemplified by his gifting of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, L. Paul Bremer and Gen. Tommy Franks, three of the most culpable stooges of the Iraq fiasco.

Bush had arrived in Washington vowing to inaugurate a new, post-Clinton era of "personal responsibility" in which "people are accountable for their actions." Eight years later he holds himself accountable for nothing. In his recent exit interview with Charles Gibson, he presented himself as a passive witness to disastrous events, the Forrest Gump of his own White House. He wishes "the intelligence had been different" about W.M.D. in Iraq — as if his administration hadn't hyped and manipulated that intelligence. As for the economic meltdown, he had this to say: "I'm sorry it's happening, of course."

As our outgoing president passes the buck for his failures — all that bad intelligence — so do leaders in the private and public sectors who enabled the economic debacle. Gramm has put the blame for the subprime fiasco on "predatory borrowers." Rubin has blamed a "perfect storm" of economic factors, as has Sam Zell, the magnate who bought and maimed the Tribune newspapers in a highly leveraged financial stunt that led to a bankruptcy filing last week. Donald Trump has invoked a standard "act of God" clause to avoid paying a $40 million construction loan on his huge new project in Chicago.

After a while they all start to sound like O. J. Simp
son, who when at last held accountable for some of his behavior told a Las Vegas judge this month, "In no way did I mean to hurt anybody." Or perhaps they are channeling Donald Rumsfeld, whose famous excuse for his failure to secure post-invasion Iraq, "Stuff happens," could be the epitaph of our age.

Our next president, like his predecessor, is promising "a new era of responsibility and accountability." We must hope he means it. Meanwhile, we have the governor he leaves behind in Illinois to serve as our national whipping boy, the one betrayer of the public trust who could actually end up paying for his behavior. The surveillance tapes of Blagojevich are so fabulous it seems a tragedy we don't have similar audio records of the bigger fish who have wrecked the country. But in these hard times we'll take what we can get.


The NYT has obtained an internal government report that surveys the history of reconstruction efforts in Iraq


He's got good reflexes:

Josh Marshall wonders why it so long for the Secret Service to react (and is also impressed by Bush's reflexes)


Bush ≠ Truman


Newsweek says they've confirmed that the dramatic meeting between Gonzales and Comey at Ashcroft's hospital bed was about data mining.


While Bush finally caved to the Justice Dept on that issue, warrantless wiretapping went forward. Michael Isikoff profiles the guy who blew the whistle on that program.


It's fascinating, and well worth reading in its entirety. For now, I want to focus on one comment by Frances Frago Townsend:

"You can't have runoffs deciding they're going to be the white knight and running to the press," says Frances Fragos Townsend, who once headed the unit where Tamm worked and later served as President Bush's chief counterterrorism adviser. Townsend made clear that she had no knowledge of Tamm's particular case, but added: "There are legal processes in place [for whistle-blowers' complaints]. This is one where I'm a hawk. It offends me, and I find it incredibly dangerous."

In general, I agree with Townsend. It is generally better for all concerned if whistle-blowers operate within the system, and it is dangerous when people freelance. But there's one big exception to this rule: when the system has itself been corrupted. When you're operating within a system in which whistle-blowers' concerns are not addressed -- where the likelihood that any complaint you make within the system will be addressed is near zero, while the likelihood that you will be targeted for reprisals is high -- then no sane person who is motivated by a desire to have his or her concern addressed will work within that system.

That means that if, like Townsend, you want whistleblowers to work within the system, you need to ensure that that system actually works. A good manager will do this: she will recognize that in any human endeavor, things go wrong, and that it's best for all concerned if people who spot things that have gone wrong can try to do something about it. She will also recognize that those employees who are genuinely worried by the prospect of illegal or immoral conduct are employees she should value. She will therefore bend over backwards to make sure that those employees have ways of making their concerns known that are likely to be effective, and that employees who use those channels are not penalized.

In so doing, she will not only make it more likely that her organization will spot and correct genuine problems; she will also make it more likely that employees who bring what they think are problems to others' attention will accept it if those others don't think that their concerns are warranted. If something worries you and you tell your superiors, but those superiors don't think there is a problem, you are much more likely to accept what they say if you know that they are open to the idea that there are problems, and to dealing with them, but don't think that your specific concern actually indicates anything wrong. If, on the other hand, you know that their response is always to circle the wagons and deny that anything is wrong, you're much more likely to assume that if they don't think that your concern is warranted, they're just being defensive.

If an organization has a functioning system for hearing and addressing employees' concerns about illegal or immoral conduct, then I think that employees should use that system except in truly extraordinary circumstances. But if it does not have such a system, or if that system is dysfunctional, then we should not expect employees to work within it.

It's odd that Townsend doesn't bother to consider whether the "processes in place" for whistleblowers actually worked in the Bush administration's Department of Justice. Given what we know about the degree to which that department was politicized under Bush, it seems likely that they did not.

And it's even odder given that Townsend herself is not an outside observer, but someone who has considerable responsibility within the Bush administration. Saying that whistleblowers ought to work within the system without adding "if the system is in fact functional" is odd in itself. But saying that when you are one of the people who could have helped to make it functional amounts to saying: well, I and my colleagues have failed to do our jobs, but never mind that: we should expect whistle-blowers to work within the system, even if our own failure means that they have no reason to believe that doing so will actually accomplish anything other than the destruction of their careers.

That's a lot to ask.


An editorial from the Detroit Free Press on the Senate's failure to provide an emergency loan to the car companies.



The Bush Library is being built in Dallas. The "W" Presidential Library will include:

The Hurricane Katrina Room, which is still under construction and will remain so for at least a decade.

The Alberto Gonzales Room, where you won't be able to remember anything.

The Texas Air National Guard Room, where you won't even have to show up.

The Walter Reed Hospital Room, where they won't let you in.

The Guantanamo Bay Room, where they won't let you out.

The Weapons of Mass Destruction Room, which no one has been able to find.

The National Debt room which is huge and has no ceiling.

The 'Tax Cut' Room with entry only to the wealthy.

The 'Economy Room' which is in the toilet.

The Iraq War Room. After you complete your first tour, they'll make you go back for a second, third, fourth, and sometimes a fifth time.

The Dick Cheney Room, in a famous undisclosed location, complete with shotgun gallery.

The Environmental Conservation Room, still empty.

The Supreme Court's Gift Shop, where you will be able to buy an election.

The Airport Men's Room, where you'll be able meet some of your favorite Republican Senators.

The 'Decider Room' complete with dart board, Magic 8-ball, Ouija board, dice, coins, and straws.

The museum will also have an electron microscope to help you locate the President's accomplishments.


A big day coming up:

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