[Note to readers: TomDispatch returns in the New Year full of hope and with as complete an account as possible of the Political Folly Awards of 2005, sponsored, of course, by the full TomDispatch team. It was a resplendent event you had to be there to fully appreciate it (and to catch the parties afterwards) a genuine who isn’t who of the political, media, and comedy worlds. So here’s my award-by-award account, the very best I could scribble down, of the festivities that caught the spirit of our now dearly departed last year in the shade. Tom]
As with bestselling books by big authors from publishing conglomerates and Oscar-winning films from giant studios, so, when it comes to the Political Folly Awards, the famed PFs, ever fewer members of the Bush administration and associated bureaucrats, spooks, and Pentagon officials took ever more of them in 2005. Unfortunately, our secret panel of judges, all former members of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA) courts, saw no alternative but to distribute the PFs as they did. We want, however, to give you our ironclad guarantee of probity as we run through the winners for 2005: No unwarranted decisions were made this year.
The newly minted “Complete Victory” Award, known in previous years as the “Mission Accomplished” Award, goes to President George W. Bush. It was bestowed to honor his sudden declaration on Nov. 30, 2005, against a backdrop of “Plan for Victory” signs, that we would settle for nothing less than the whole shebang in Iraq, right down to the unconditional surrender of whomever it was we were fighting. The president drove home his point by using the word “victory” a record-breaking 15 times in that speech and once in its title (“President Outlines Strategy for Victory in Iraq”); meanwhile, the administration issued a 35-page “strategy document,” supposedly from the Pentagon, on how to successfully fight the insurgency. The document was, in fact, written by Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University specialist on wartime public opinion, and as Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post commented, was “principally designed to prove” that Bush had a strategy. All this left our heads spinning! The citation for this award that accompanied the traditional winged plastic turkey statuette was written for our judges by an Iraqi commentator, Ghassan Attiyah, who summed up their feelings in a single mission-accomplished sentence: “In two and a half years, Bush has succeeded in creating two new Talibans in Iraq.” And Ghassan, ever modest, didn’t mention the half of it. After all, in the same blindingly short period, our president managed to spread democracy to the Middle East by opening the way for a Shi’ite theocratic government in Baghdad guaranteed to be closely aligned with the theocratic government of Iran, whose shaky leader recently declared the Holocaust to be a figment of the modern Jewish and European imagination! Congratulations, George. And it all comes from skipping the frills and emphasizing the fundamental(ism)s!
The Most Imperial Vice President Award proved, for yet another year, to be a contest of one and the winner was [redacted]. Please note, if you read further, you will be investigated. If, however, some branch or agency of the U.S. government is already investigating you, as is likely if you are an American or have ever sent an e-message like, “Virginia, the Afghan rug is unraveling. I’d love another one for my birthday. Your loving niece [name withheld],” then read on the damage is already done.
The Mission Leap Award (until this year, the Mission Creep Award, also known as the Security Begins Under Your Bed Award) went to the Pentagon’s Counterintelligence Field Activity or CIFA. This new counterterrorism agency grew in three brief years from a small coordinating office located in a five-sided broom closet into “an analytic and operational organization with nine directorates and ever-widening authority” (as well as a sizable secret budget). Without oversight itself, it now oversees a data-mining operation including a database codenamed Talon that contained surveillance reports on peaceful American civilian protests and demonstrations. It was, one PF judge commented, the best mission-leap example of the militarization of civilian counterintelligence seen in years.
According to our panel of judges, this was the most hotly contested category in the competition. After all, as the year ended, we learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) was warrantlessly harvesting unknown but vast numbers of domestic conversations and e-mails via the American telecommunication system’s main arteries (and passing some of the information gleaned on to other government agencies); that FBI and Department of Energy teams were trolling Washington, D.C., Muslim communities and institutions (and entering private property without warrants) looking for nuclear bombs, while the FBI was obtaining controversial “national security letters” to gain secret access to the personal records of tens of thousands of Americans (and depositing anything learned, even from those not suspected of wrongdoing, in permanent government data banks); that the New York City Police Department was conducting illegal surveillance of “people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies, and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident”; and that, despite much negative publicity this year, the CIA program known as GST, which includes the Agency’s “extraordinary rendition” or kidnapping operations, its secret fleet of planes to transport kidnapped terror suspects around the globe, its network of secret prisons outside the U.S., and its enhanced ability to mine financial records and eavesdrop on suspects, has not even been slightly dented. For this, according to A. John Radsan, assistant general counsel at the CIA from 2002 to 2004, the CIA can thank the “personal commitment” of a president who “seems to relish the secret findings and the dirty details of operations.”
Note that the ceremony for the well-attended Intelligence Community (or IC) Tradecraft and Technical Awards was held several days earlier at an undisclosed location. The following awards were given out:
The Most Mistaken Kidnappings Directly Off Foreign Highways and Byways Award went to the CIA since, according to the agency’s own conservative count, there have been up to 10 mistaken-identity “extraordinary renditions” of perfectly innocent people out of the 100-150 snatch operations the Agency has reportedly undertaken.
The IC High-Living Award also was corralled by the CIA. Agency renditioners in Italy received this La Dolce Vita award according to the judges’ citation “for most macadamia nuts consumed at a single five-star hotel while on a kidnapping assignment.” The site was Milan where hordes of CIA operatives were sent to kidnap a single Muslim cleric named Abu Omar and, in the course of their operation, rang up $9,000 in room charges alone at the Principe di Savoia (where your run-of-the-mill club sandwich costs $28.75 and your basic single room, $588 a night). The CIA’s bill at the Principe for seven operatives only one of several five-star hotels cleverly absorbed into their spycraft for this single operation came to $39,995, not counting meals, parking, and other hotel services or nuts.
The Most Crimping Travel Restriction in the War on Terror Award went again to the same lucky winners! European Union arrest warrants for 22 of them (or their tradecraft alter egos and fake names) were recently issued by an Italian judge. Next year, the Principe di Savoia may, sadly, have fewer Agency guests and 22 more covert visits are likely to be paid to the Pyramids, the remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and other touristic hotspots of the world.
The Most Useful Intelligence Hobby of the Year Award was given by the judges to the community of civilian plane-spotters who managed to put the CIA’s secret airline (and the extraordinary renditions that went with it) on the map.
The other six Tradecraft Awards, including The George Tenet “Slam Dunk” Intelligence Assessment Award, can be viewed at www.extraordinaryrendition.com. (A security clearance is needed; otherwise you will simply see an error screen.)
The Bush administration language awards are always a highlight of the Political Folly ceremony. No administration has ever reached for its dictionaries more often to redefine more terms to suit its own desires. This year, the judges decided to eliminate the Donald (“stuff happens”) Rumsfeld or Rummy Award on the grounds, as one wrote, that “every news conference the secretary of defense holds is a linguistic Folly,” and so pared these awards down to four:
The Most Ubiquitous Uncivil Servant Award goes to John Yoo. The ubiquitous Yoo last won this award for redefining torture almost out of existence (“equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”) in one of a series of 2002 memos he wrote justifying the Bush administration’s urge to manhandle suspects in its “war on terror.” Then deputy director of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, he is now a law school professor at Berkeley, churning out books and articles on that foundational American dream of an unfettered presidency. A 2001 memo of his proved the key document justifying the president’s order to the National Security Agency to engage in its warrantless wiretapping scheme. It “said the White House was not bound by a federal law prohibiting warrantless eavesdropping on communications.” For that, our judges thought Yoo deserved this year’s award too. By the way, he’s already in the running for the 2007 Uncivil Servant Award. Known for four memos he authored providing “legal” support for almost unfettered presidential power, he was reportedly the author of at least another dozen such memos that “have not yet come to light. The overriding theme of them all is that the president can ignore congressional acts.”
The Thomas Friedman Mixed Metaphor Award went to the year’s grand winner, our Veep, Dick (“in the throes of”) Cheney. Back in June 2005, the vice president ventured onto the Larry King Show to summarize our increasing good fortune in Iraq by declaring, “I think they’re in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.” As the insurgents continued to writhe and then writhe some more in the throes of those “last throes,” Cheney redefined “throe” for CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as a nearly endless expanse of time: “If you look at what the dictionary says about throes, it can still be a violent period the throes of a revolution.” Recently, the vice president traveled to Iraq under the sort of cloak of secrecy that is now de rigueur for top Bush officials anywhere on earth. (The reporters accompanying him on Air Force Two had no idea where they were going; nor did the Iraqi prime minister know that Cheney was showing up when he appeared for a meeting with our ambassador.) In Iraq, the vice president answered the questions of American soldiers and found himself in the throes of the following exchange with Marine Corporal Bradley Warren:
“‘From our perspective, we don’t see much as far as gains. We’re looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains. I was wondering what it looks like from the big side of the mountain how Iraq’s looking.’
“Cheney replied that remarkable progress has been made in the last year and a half. ‘I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we’ll see that the year ’05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq. We’re getting the job done. It’s hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don’t pay that much attention to the news.'”
The judges awarded the vice president the Thomas Friedman Mixed Metaphor Award in honor of his urge to throe a little water(shed) on the conflagration in Iraq. A single judge demurred, refusing to cast a ballot but writing the following sardonic comment: “Out of the throes, over the waterfall, into the watershed we go, hi-ho!”
The Most Tortured Justification Award proved the second most competitive category of 2005. After all, Secretary of State Condoleezza (“not a lawyer”) Rice hit just about every country in Europe insisting we never torture anyone; the American ambassador to England Robert Tuttle insisted we hadn’t sent anyone to Syria for rendition. (“I don’t think there is any evidence that there have been any renditions carried out in the country of Syria. And I think we have to take what the secretary [Rice] says at face value.”); the president insisted many times over that we didn’t do torture even while his vice president, also insisting that we are no torturers (“I can say that we, in fact, are consistent with the commitments of the United States that we don’t engage in torture, and we don’t”), was lobbying for an exemption from John McCain’s anti-torture bill.
Our judges nonetheless were firm in their decision that no justification was more tortured than the eye-water[shed]ing, throes-inducing set of explanations offered by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for the way this administration evaded the FISA courts essentially secret American equivalents of star chambers which, in 2003, turned down no administration requests for warrants; in 2004, only four; and since 2001 have modified only 179 out of 5,645 warrant requests. He claimed that the president has the “inherent” power to order otherwise illegal surveillance and spy warrantlessly on citizens thanks to the congressional resolution (“Authorization for the Use of Military Force”) of Sept. 18, 2001. That, however, “made no reference to surveillance or to the president’s intelligence-gathering powers,” and the administration, evidently fearing a lack of inherency in the resolution, tried at the time to insert the words “in the United States,” which were rejected by the Senate. Gonzalez also insisted that the FISA law was simply “outdated” and what do we do, if laws are outdated in the United States? The president changes them for us in secret and then, if discovered, claims the right to do so based on the sagacity of, as the attorney general put it, “many lawyers within the administration who advised the president that he had an inherent authority as commander in chief under the Constitution to engage in this kind of signals intelligence.” (See John Yoo above.) I’m sure all of you remember this from that ninth-grade textbook you were supposed to study on the checks and balances of the American system or were you, like top officials of this administration, playing tic-tac-toe at the time?
The Most Timely Image Award went to the president. For the last several years, the administration has been justifying its torture policies, in part, based on the “ticking-bomb” argument. (What if a and he knew about a nuclear weapon ready to go off under your in X minutes and you could ) Okay, so there haven’t actually been any ticking-bomb suspects? Who cares? Let’s move on, as our judges did, because to explain the illegal spying the National Security Agency does not do the ticking-bomb has just been replaced by the “two-minute phone conversation.” (You can almost hear that cell phone ticking.) As the president put it: “We know that a two-minute phone conversation between somebody linked to al-Qaeda here and an operative overseas could lead directly to the loss of thousands of lives. To save American lives, we must be able to act fast and to detect these conversations so we can prevent new attacks.”
The Political Nostalgia Award went to the vice president, giving him his third Folly of the season for teaching us, in the manner of Martin Luther King, that we can have all have a dream in his case, of a time when men could be men, torturers torturers, and presidents felonious. Imagine a heaven of unwarranted wiretaps and spying; then think of Richard Nixon or, as the Veep put it to reporters in the cabin of Air Force Two somewhere over the Middle East, “Watergate and Vietnam served to erode the authority I think the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area.” Like Superman faced with kryptonite, somebody needed to get rid of the evil elements so that our president could regain the unwarranted lost powers of Richard Nixon. (Of course, one lovely dream invariably leads to another; and so, with the return of the power to do unwarranted surveillance on American citizens, the mind wanders to articles of impeachment.)
Every year the corps of Folly judges offer two awards aimed at the year to come (based, of course, on performance the previous year):
The Terminator Award was given not to the governor of California (who showed every sign of being terminated this year) but to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Our panel believed him the year’s most likely candidate to make a deal with federal prosecutors and terminate a significant part of the Republican Congress. Back before he took up his cowboy-and-Indian line of work (shuffling casino money largely into Republican coffers and taking members of Congress on golfing jaunts in Scotland), he actually produced two Hollywood movies: Red Scorpion (1989) and Red Scorpion II (1994) with the following, potentially prescient tagline: “He’s a human killing machine. Taught to stalk. Trained to kill. Programmed to destroy. He’s played by their rules Until now. They think they control him. Think again.”
The No-Matter-How-Bad-It-Is, It’s-Worse-Than-You-Think Award was bestowed collectively on the American Intelligence Community for its valiant efforts in over- (under, around, below, beyond, and second) sight. This year, when any aspect of illegal governmental surveillance was revealed, it always proved both worse than expected and, not long after, worse again. On that basis, the judges believe there is a 99.99999 percent certainly that, bad as it looks today, it’s far worse than we know. (Just keep in mind John Yoo’s 12 or more still-unrevealed memos.)
When an administration proves capable of turning a secret FISA court into a bulwark of our liberties, you know that they’re doing something right. So, congrats, Dick and George for another award-winning 12 months of Folly, and welcome to the New Year, where if peace isn’t war, privacy isn’t snooping, and the price of freedom isn’t freedom, then all’s not wrong with the world.
Thank you for attending this year’s Political Folly Awards. As you leave the ceremony and enter 2006, just smile, you’re on CIA/ CIFA/FBI/DIA/NSA camera!
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt