Nominees for the 1st Annual Tomdispatch Political Comedy Awards

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Thursday the news came in. The position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), insisted upon by the 9/11 Commission, was finally filled. Shopped around for weeks unsuccessfully, it had already been rejected by former CIA Director Robert Gates, former Senator Sam Nunn, and former Attorney General William Barr because, though the DNI will officially preside over the American “Intelligence Community” and coordinate a $40 billion-plus budget, the position was considered a potential bureaucratic quagmire and almost totally lacking in real power.

The Bush administration was evidently desperate before it hit on what was clearly a brilliant scheme: Just look for someone who had a post already so nightmarish, hopeless, and targeted for failure that DNI would look like a dream. With that job description in hand, of course, who better fit the bill than the viceroy in… er, ambassador to Baghdad, John Negroponte. Though Negroponte declared DNI “the most challenging assignment I have undertaken in more than 40 years of government service,” it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a matter of anything-that-gets-me-home. (Undoubtedly a feeling a lot of National Guard and Reserve troops have right now.)

So, faster than you could snap your fingers, he was in Washington preparing to be intelligence “tsar” to our boy emperor. The former ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, a key post during our Contra wars in Central America, he had long been charged with presiding over major human-rights violations. As a Los Angeles Times piece put it — back in 2001 when Bush nominated him as UN ambassador where he would preside over the distribution of the famed set of intelligence lies and manipulations that got us into the Iraqi War — he may have been “overlooking — if not actually overseeing — a CIA-backed Honduran death squad during his tenure.” His response then: The Honduras accusations were “old hat.” (“I want to say to those people: Haven’t you moved on?”)

Of course, little of this was dwelled upon in the early media reports on his nomination for DNI. Instead, as Senate Democrats jumped on board, he was treated with the usual kid gloves. In some ways, Negroponte, a quiet man quite capable of carrying a big stick behind his sizeable back, is a surprising choice for the DNI job. After all, he’s a strong figure being slotted into a weak job. Nonetheless, he now becomes the fourth grim face in the national security line-up the second Bush administration is turning to face the world.

Remember when American administrations used to talk about “rogue states” — back in the good ol’ days before the Axis of Evil and Outposts of Tyranny took center stage. Well, it’s time to revive the term and personalize it. Maybe we should start talking about “rogue guys.” After all, the three top dogs fronting for our new Homeland Security State — Gonzales, Chertoff, and Rumsfeld (Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense) — were all intimately involved in creating and/or parsing pretzled definitions of torture meant to free our “commander-in-chief” to order more or less anything he wanted done to anyone he wanted it done to out there in the imperium.

Now, standing proudly at their side will be a man whose name is, however quietly these days, linked to a dark past and heinous acts, and who was quietly, without any Paul-Bremer-style showboating, overseeing god-knows-what from our embassy in Iraq. (It’s a miracle by the way that former viceroy Bremer, returning home in his signature desert boots and blazer, didn’t — in the style of basketball players giving the nod to sneakers or JLo to clothes lines — endorse an array of sandy-colored designer boots. Maybe that was because his team didn’t win the championship and the movie he was making — Occupation Iraq: Desert Triumph — hit more than a few bumps along the way and ended up being shelved.)

Oh, there’s a fifth face to consider — that of Porter Goss, CIA Director as well as former Agency spy, congressman, and Bush partisan, who, just before the election, was sent to Langley, VA, on a leash to put the Agency and its various angry whistleblowers in a cage. Just Thursday he appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for the first time since becoming the Agency’s Director and spoke with the kind of bravery you expect from the rogue members of an administration that means to make every schoolchild but not a single leader “accountable” for what they do.

Goss looked far into the future; assured the senators that “tough decisions” needed to be made “about which haystacks deserve to be scrutinized for the needles that can hurt us most”; added that, in his testimony, he would “not attempt to cover everything that could go wrong in the year ahead” (whew!); and then, summoning every ounce of wisdom he possessed, passed the buck and covered his butt. His predictions more or less took in anything he could imagine that might conceivably happen on his watch — including the possibility that “[i]t may be only a matter of time before al-Qa’ida or another group attempts to use chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.” (Note the wonderful “may” in that sentence. In other words, it may — or may not — be only a matter of time.)

Oh, he did at least manage to say that George Bush’s Iraq was now a terrorist-producing machine:

“The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists… These jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced in and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups, and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries.”

Our rogue guys, you gotta hand it to ‘em, don’t you? And they look so darn pleasant to most of us. I tell you, if there were political comedy awards, Jon Stewart would be swept by the second Bush administration hands down. (It’s everyone else who’d better put their hands up.) With that in mind, and because our devolving world is just too grim not to laugh at, I thought I might, as one of our local New York sportscasters likes to say, “span the world,” offering a glimpse of some early nominees being designated by an expert panel for the first annual Tomdispatch Political Comedy Awards:

Best chuckle among torturers, or the You-First-on-the-Waterboarding-Alphonse; no-you-Gaston Award of 2005

This week Douglas Jehl reported in a piece of pure black comedy on the inside pages of the New York Times (C.I.A. Is Seen as Seeking New Role on Detainees) that the Central Intelligence Agency is “seeking to scale back its role as interrogator and custodian of terrorist leaders who are being held without charges in secret sites around the world.” It seems torture is now turning into a Bush administration version of hot potato. Just before the Senate hearings on White House Legal Counsel Alberto Gonzales’s nomination to be Attorney General, the administration officially repudiated an August 2002 legal opinion sought by the CIA “to protect its employees from liability.” That memo (from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to Gonzales) essentially redefined acts of torture as not acts of torture. CIA officials now worry that the repudiation may undercut the Agency’s “authority to use coercive methods in interrogations.” It didn’t help that second-term nominees Gonzales and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff stepped up to the plate in their nomination hearings and firmly as well as forthrightly “sidestep[ped] responsibility for shaping interrogation policies… Both suggested… that others might have played a greater role in deciding how interrogations would be conducted.”

Now, the CIA has been left “holding the bag” and overseeing for an undefined eternity what Jehl politely says “amounts to a secret prison system overseas.” CIA officials are reportedly thinking about trying to “enlist” another agency, possibly the FBI, in the interrogation process now that, after so long in captivity, the prisoners no longer have information worth offering — and the FBI, for reasons hard to imagine, is evidently refusing. Who wouldn’t want to take over a secret prison system overseas filled with top al-Qaeda detainees who can never be charged or released, and live with the possibility that someday criminal charges may be filled against you? A second possibility the CIA is considering would involve handing the prisoners over to “third countries” (assumedly along with oodles of — make no mistake about it — unconnected aid).

This new tortured game of who-will-take-responsibility-for-this-mess is certainly an early favorite in the race for one of the top Political Comedy Awards in 2005. In the meantime, though the most recent book of collected insider documents on the subject of torture and the Bush Administration, Karen J. Greenberg’s and Joshua Dratel’s The Torture Papers, runs to a mere 1,249 pages, the Jehl article assures us that many key administration documents on the subject still remain out of sight (“most still highly classified”) — possibly banished to one of our outer prison colonies.

[A subsidiary Torture as Comedy Awardlet nomination for 2005 is likely to go to David Passaro, an interrogator under contract to the CIA, charged with assault for beating an Afghan prisoner (who subsequently died) with hands, feet and flashlight. This nomination, the first of what will undoubtedly be many to come this year, is for the creative use of new torture defenses — first pioneered by the Bush administration and now coming home to roost: Passaro, being tried in Raleigh, North Carolina, is threatening in his defense to "cite top officials' written legal justifications for harsh interrogation techniques and a Congressional resolution passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon calling on the president 'to use all necessary and appropriate force' to thwart further terrorism."]

Best humorous explanation of 2005 (in the Best Comic Use of Language category — domestic)

In response to a question from a woman in an audience in Tampa, Florida on February 4, our President offered the following explanation of his social security plan:

“Q: How is the new plan going to fix [the] problem? “THE PRESIDENT: Because the — all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There’s a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those — changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be — or closer delivered to what has been promised.

“Does that make any sense to you? It’s kind of muddled …. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those — if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.

“Okay, better? I’ll keep working on it. (Laughter.)”

We’re all laughing, these being comedy-award nominations. Perhaps the clarity of this explanation also explains the following polling results, as reported by Tim McCahill of the Associated Press: “A poll for the Concord Monitor published last weekend showed 55 percent support for allowing workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds, as Bush proposes. But support dropped to 19 percent when those in favor were asked if they would back the plan if it meant losing benefits when the stock market dropped.”

Best humorous flashcards of 2005 (in the Best Comic Use of Language category — foreign) [Nomination and text contributed by panelist and Tomdispatch regular Nick Turse]

If you can remember back to America’s last great occupation debacle — no, not Afghanistan, Haiti, or Somalia, I mean Vietnam — you might recall U.S. military commander William Westmoreland’s “9 rules” pocket card. It was basically a flash card reminding soldiers not to mistreat noncombatants. This time around, the U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Activity has gone one better, or more correctly 16 times better with a 16-panel folding card offering all sorts of helpful hints to the corpsman entering sunny Iraq about native clothes, customs, ethnic groups, and history.

Last November, the Marines issued a newly updated Iraq Culture Smart Card, but an earlier version, from February 2004 (pdf file), is more reliable for viewing purposes as well as indicative of the thrust of the American effort in that country. In addition to its simple cartoons of “insurgent tactics” (e.g. hiding a stick of dynamite under a dead goat), the Smart Card has a number of panels devoted to essential language skills. While its unclear exactly how the card is meant to be folded, it appears that the first language panel a Marine would read (devoted to “Command and Control”) contains not translations for “hello” or “thank you,” but far more useful greetings like “hands up,” “no talking,” “do not resist,” “lie on your stomach,” and “do not move.” Only many panels later do we get to “hello” along with other “Helpful Words/Phrases.” Actually, another word shares the same line with “hello” — “weapon,” of course. With sixteen full pages, the mix-and-match possibilities (“Lie on your stomach. Hello!”) are plentiful.

The cards have a cautionary aspect as well, painting the Iraqi people as uniformly dishonest. If you ask a direct question, an Iraqi’s first answer is likely to be “the answer they think you want to hear, rather than an honest response.” Of course, that’s what you’re likely to get once you ask anyone, no matter how nicely, to get down on their stomach and cut down on the idle chatter. But the panels do note that pointing with fingers and the thumbs-up sign are considered offensive in Iraq, where customs are surely strange indeed. Too bad the Army folks at Abu Ghraib never got these cards. Then again, the cards say nothing about torture being taboo. But then again, you can’t squeeze everything on a card, even though the Marines did manage to condense Iraq’s history, from the 18th century B.C. until today, into one lone panel.

It’s good to see that the weak planning that went into the occupation of Iraq hasn’t continued. This 16-panel folding card may be simple, but when you’re an American visitor invading another land, how much more than “Hands up!” and “Shut up!” do you need to know?

Funniest Election of 2005 (domestic)

A recent poll conducted by the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, highlighted at the History News Network website (which is always filled with provocative pieces as well as the latest news on history, recent and ancient), sent George Washington up against George W. Bush in a run for the presidency. While the first George W beat the present George W in the overall race (due to a Democratic anything-but-George-the-recent vote), he lost to our President among Republicans (those traditionalists!) by a staggering 2-to-1 margin.

Ya gotta love it! And it makes sense. After all, how many years (including that miserable, cold, ill-planned winter at Valley Forge) did it take the first George W to win his little revolution on the pathetic East Coast of our future nation, while the newest George W is taking (and making) jihadis on a planetary scale? Oh, and bad news for FF (Founding Father) George. He’s slipping as an American icon too. “Only 46 percent of the 800 adult Americans surveyed could identify him as the general who led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War.” Am I mistaken or wasn’t that the war that began when our British Allies in Basra charged up Baghdad Hill?

Funniest Figures (Federal Budget) for 2005, or the Smoke-and-Mirrors Award

This is a tough, competitive category — what with the new Bush social security proposals out there wandering the highways and byways of America — but our panel of pros has agreed that the conservative thing to do is nominate that old surefire, the military budget. The new Defense Department budget request comes in officially at a modest $419 billion; a mere 41% increase over the 2001 budget, if you take the word of the Pentagon, 47% if a person with a calculator actually does the figures, as conservative scholar Robert Higgs did (in a superb piece, Bush’s New Defense Budget, from the Independent Institute).

Of course, just as a starter, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being funded to the tune of $4-5 billion a month via “emergency” supplemental appropriations, of which the latest for $81.9 billion just arrived on the congressional doorstep. When this one passes, it will push total war costs past $300 billion (approximately half the cost of the Vietnam War in far less time) and just about none of it has touched the regular budget. While about $77 billion of the present request is for the two wars, the administration has also slipped in “aid” money for various allies in the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, not to speak of $658 million for our new embassy in Baghdad. (Well, let’s be honest, that’s just the bare minimum when you’re planning to house a skeleton staff estimated at 1,000 and sure to give you tons of diplomatic bang for the buck.) Then there’s that thoroughly modest $4.8 million slipped in there “to enhance U.S.-backed broadcasting to Arabs, including new television broadcasts aimed at Muslims living in Europe.” (This undoubtedly includes money to purchase episodes of Law and Order, Hope and Faith, and Six Feet Under, though not Cheers for obvious reasons.)

None of that, of course, is in the new DoD budget, but then again, as Higgs informs us, neither are:

“the costs of nuclear warheads, which the Department of Energy produces; the defense-related activities of the Department of State, including ‘foreign military financing’; the past military services being compensated currently by benefits provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs; the defense-related activities of the Homeland Security Department, such as the Coast Guard’s defense activities; various defense-related activities of several other federal departments; or the current interest costs of previous, debt-financed military activities. Applying my rule of thumb, I estimate that the government’s total military-related outlays in fiscal year 2006 will be in the neighborhood of $840 billion — or, approximately a third of the total budget, as opposed to the 16 percent that one calculates by comparing the Pentagon’s $419 billion request to the administration’s total request, $2.57 trillion.”

Note that the date for the First Annual Tomdispatch Political Comedy Awards has yet to be set, though the full extravaganza will come to you via a live webcast (to be followed by a gala party in a small apartment still to be chosen in a distant suburb of Washington). The problem the organizers of the event face is that possible 2005 nominees may build up too quickly, forcing us to move up the projected end-of-the-year date for the event. Stay tuned for updates on this. Tom.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.

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