Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

May 11, 2017

Politicizing the FBI

By  David K. Shipler

            The FBI has never been entirely insulated from politics, especially during the long tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, who in his 48 years as director (1924-72) compiled compromising dossiers on government officials and private Americans that gave him enormous leverage. His agency tried to provoke Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide by threatening to publicize the civil rights leader’s womanizing. It sent phony letters to wives of Black Panthers, purporting to be from their mistresses. It conducted surveillance of labor leaders, members of Congress, and at least one Supreme Court justice, funneling information to presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson. (During the 1964 presidential campaign, LBJ had the FBI report on the staff of his opponent, Barry Goldwater.)
            The road back to those days would be long and difficult, even with a President Trump who lacks ethical and constitutional brakes. But it’s possible, and Trump’s next moves will be telling. The first question is whom he’ll nominate to replace James Comey, fired just days after Comey requested more assets for the FBI’s investigation of Russian involvement in Trump’s campaign. The second question is whether enough Senate Republicans will demand that the new director be unassailably independent.
Because, make no mistake: Trump wants to swing his weight around as decisively as possible, and no more dramatically than in security and law enforcement. This is not only about covering up a Russia connection; it is to set the stage for draconian measures against Muslims after the next domestic terrorist attack, to emasculate investigations into police brutality, and to turn the power of the FBI against political dissent. Comey would probably have stood in the way. As bumbling as he was in his public disclosures about the Clinton emails, he was also known as a defender of the rule of law.
The FBI has a sordid history of hunting for phantom communists, keeping loyalty files on hundreds of thousands of Americans, wiretapping without warrants, and infiltrating and disrupting antiwar and civil rights groups—especially under what the bureau called COINTELPRO during the Cold War. Only in the 1970s, after the Church committee exposed the broad swath of wrongdoing, were protections imposed. These included restricting the FBI director to a 10-year term to preclude another Hoover phenomenon. But the position has no job security, obviously, since the president may fire at will.
With a Congress now led by collaborationist Republicans, and an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, ready to twist the law, the door is open for Trump to infuse the FBI with more political bias in investigations than has been seen since the administration of George W. Bush.
            In those years, following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, FBI agents were released from restrictions—imposed after the Church committee findings—barring them from conducting surveillance of political or religious organizations. They had been prevented from attending even public meetings without specific justification for a criminal investigation. After 9/11, they and local cops wove themselves into peace groups and mosques, sowing internal suspicions among political demonstrators and Muslim organizations.
            Those infiltrations produced mountains of sketchy files that smeared attendees with innuendo and sometimes led to disruptive home searches, sting operations, and prosecutions based on little more than the post-9/11 hysteria about terrorism. Some FBI operations came close to entrapment, but that’s a hard thing for defense attorneys to prove under the law. As a result, some jail cells are now populated with Americans who were incapable of conducting the terrorist attacks they were induced to plan by the FBI’s informants or undercover agents. This kind of criminal case, which resides in the blurry boundary between a security and a political prosecution, seemed to have been pursued less often under Comey.
            Pure speech by Muslim activists came under close FBI scrutiny in the Bush years. An egregious case of prosecution with political overtones was made against a self-styled Muslim lecturer in suburban Virginia, Ali al-Timimi, who was convicted and sentenced to life plus 70 years for an informal talk to a small group of men five days after 9/11. It was quite a prison term, given that no violence occurred—or was even planned.
            The government’s case was based on recollections by three men present, who were later jailed for receiving weapons training at camps in Pakistan, and then released early in exchange for their testimony against al-Timimi. As summarized in the trial, his words seemed a good distance from the imminence required by law to convict for incitement, for example. One man said, “He encouraged us to participate in the coming jihad . . . He said the battle in Afghanistan was imminent and that the Americans were going to attack.” Another quoted al-Timimi as calling the victims of 9/11 “combatants, not civilians,” since their taxes funded the war against Islam.
            Offensive, to be sure. But al-Timimi didn’t buy them plane tickets to Pakistan, arrange for their training, or urge them to return to the US and plot any attacks. His crime was remote from action: “inducing others to conspire” to support terrorism. This appalled his lawyer, Edward B. MacMahon, Jr. who decried the “two sets of rules” developing in American law. “There are terror defendants and regular defendants,” he said. “If it was a business case and I said Bernie Madoff is a Jew so he stole all the money, you’d laugh at me. But if you said Ali al-Timimi is a Muslim so he’s at war with the United States, that’s taken seriously.”
            Most FBI agents might be paragons of virtue who respect the limits imposed on them by the Constitution. But the bureau also has pockets of zealotry. At least two former agents have become activists in the movement of conspiracy theorists, endorsed by Trump’s adviser Stephen Bannon, who see Islam as a nefarious, subversive attempt to take over the United States. It’s not far-fetched to believe that some agents who still carry badges share those views, so when restraints from the top are loosened, the results can be ugly.
            In short, stay tuned: The dismissal of Comey could be a step toward the enhanced politicization of the FBI and a ruinous erosion of liberty.

April 30, 2017

Foreign Policy: The Magnetism of the Center

By David K. Shipler

            The forces of international affairs usually drive US presidents toward the political center. Wherever they may begin, on the left or the right, presidents tend to feel pulled toward a middle ground, a place of more moderation and hesitation than they might prefer. Confronted by the complexity of crisis and the pragmatic limitations of power, most—not all—end up pursuing centrist policies. These bear marked resemblance to those of their predecessors and successors.
            A question now is whether this happens to President Trump. He has staffed his key foreign affairs positions with relatively level heads whose pronouncements are more sober than his own. They often contradict Trump’s dogmatic, threatening tweets and the absolutist, sweeping pledges from his campaign. Trump himself careens from the absurd, scary, and impractical to a more reasonable zone of compromise. Where he will end up on a given issue is highly unpredictable and therefore unsettling across the globe. But his inconsistency also raises intermittent hopes that realities are penetrating policymaking.
            A president has more authority in foreign policy than in domestic affairs, since he commands both military force and diplomacy, and can move more quickly than Congress ever does in picking over budget provisions on the tax code, health care, environmental issues, the social safety net, and other government programs to benefit Americans. In that domestic arena, the center has no apparent magnetism for Trump. Despite the difficulties he faces with the Republican-controlled Congress on health care, for example, he is getting win after win for corporations over individuals, and might do so on his tax proposals. Whatever happens in Congress, his regulatory agencies are in the hands of extreme radicals of the right, whom he has installed to dismantle decades of progress.
 So if Trump begins to look moderate, and beguiles the American public to see him as such, it will be in the international arena, not the domestic.

April 20, 2017

An Encounter with Bill O’Reilly’s Method

By David K. Shipler

            In 2004, with the publication of my book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, I was contacted by producers for the O’Reilly Factor about coming on the show to discuss poverty. First, though, the producers wanted to track down a man who’d made only a cameo appearance in my book, Kevin Fields. He had been buffeted by both his own mistakes and a society that lined up against him as he made assiduous efforts to pull himself into full employment and self-sufficiency. O’Reilly’s producers wanted to get him on the show with me.
            To no good purpose, I was sure. O’Reilly didn’t admire the poor; he stereotyped them. He would make mincemeat of Kevin. So while I tried to locate him, I thought I’d probably warn him what might be coming and perhaps advise him against appearing. But I couldn’t find him. I’d met him through his girlfriend, who had moved and disappeared from public records. There was no listing for him.
This I reported to the producers, but O’Reilly wouldn’t let them give up. So they contacted the penitentiary where Fields had spent two years for assault (with a baseball bat, he had told me, against five guys threatening him and his girlfriend) and got an address. The producers cleverly refrained from telling me that they’d found him, that they’d then interviewed him by phone, and that—while he wouldn’t be on the show—O'Reilly would present distorted facts about him to fit Fields into the conservative image of the immoral, undeserving poor.
I’d mentioned in the book that Fields, trained in prison as a butcher, hadn’t been able to get a job as one and had done mostly landscaping. But O’Reilly was determined to portray him as a lazy, self-indulgent, sex-crazed slacker.

April 9, 2017

Putin's Wrong Bet

By David K. Shipler

            If Vladimir Putin actually preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he just drew his first bad hand. As (not so) humbly predicted in this journal during the campaign, Clinton would have been a methodical, predictable commander-in-chief who would have acted in Syria and elsewhere within a strong diplomatic and military context, not impulsively based on horrendous photographs of gassed children. That was good enough reason to stir Trump’s latent humanitarian impulses, but a single missile strike without solid preparation and well considered follow-up is unlikely to send what press secretary Sean Spicer called “a very strong signal.” Messages sent with missiles and bombs are rarely received as intended.
Clinton would surely have done what Trump didn’t bother to do: She would have been on the phone with Putin after Syria’s chemical weapons strike. She would have talked with Putin before retaliating. She would have surrounded herself with seasoned foreign-policy professionals who would have been working closely with Moscow, even in tough and hard-headed fashion, to fashion a joint approach to ending the Syrian carnage. She would not have led Putin to fantasize that he had a president in Washington that he could twist around his little finger.
This is a speculative scenario, to be sure. But as both Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Clinton displayed a clear-eyed realpolitik—willing to face down Putin but work with him on the countries’ overlapping interests, especially on counter-terrorism. While more hawkish than President Obama, she showed no inclination to go off on half-cocked military adventures isolated from any coherent strategy.

March 29, 2017

The Papier-Mache President

By David K. Shipler

            Now we know, if we had any doubts, what lies behind Donald Trump’s expansive promises and self-promotion as a tough dealmaker: nothing. The health-care debacle makes it clear that when it comes to driving a hard bargain, Trump is a chump, to use a word that has become fashionable in the mainstream press. He can’t even twist arms in his own party.
His assault on measures to stem climate change, and his withdrawal from the trans-Pacific trade agreement, benefit only China, which is moving to fill the vacuum left by the American departure. Thomas L. Friedman calls this policy, Make China Great Again. And Trump’s shameless use of coal miners as props this week for his empty promises to bring back jobs in a declining industry made him look either cynical or ignorant.
The miners were evidently advised to wear casual short-sleeved shirts, not the customary suits and ties, to the ceremony where Trump signed an executive order to begin a long, legally contentious process of replacing the Obama administration’s restrictions on coal-burning power plants. The class-conscious picture—men in suits vs. men carefully dressed down—said as much about the Trump White House as last week’s photo of all white men discussing their bill stripping women’s health services from insurance requirements.
 These images are icons of contempt. Moreover, they add up to a president who is just a life-size cardboard cutout that you can stand next to and have your picture taken. Behind the façade, there is no there there.

March 23, 2017

Judge Gorsuch's "Magical Notion"

By David K. Shipler

            Late in the third day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii summed up the judge’s picture of American jurisprudence with three words: “a magical notion.” She called his portrait of neutral, apolitical judges interpreting the law fairly and without personal bias a Norman Rockwell painting of the courts, as if he himself weren’t being promoted by the dark money of hidden billionaires, as emphasized by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse in a tough interrogation.
            Through incisive questioning by Democratic senators (Republicans lobbed only softballs), Gorsuch stuck resolutely to his line that there were no “Republican judges or Democrat judges.” In this phrasing he repeatedly allowed his mask to slip, since the use of the noun “Democrat” as an adjective instead of “Democratic” is embedded in the lexicon of the right, designed to deny that opposition party the mantle of representing masses of citizens. He also took several opportunities to mention that judges appointed by “Democrat” presidents had joined him in opinions. In other words, the courts transcend politics.
            It would be a grand gift to the republic if it were always so. It often is, especially on lower courts, such as the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals where Gorsuch has served for a decade, and which are bound by precedent. He and the two other judges on his panel relied on a particularly cruel precedent when they denied an autistic child payment for private residential educational services that the local school district could not provide. The earlier case in his circuit found that under the law, such schooling “must merely be ‘more than de minimus,’” Gorsuch wrote, adding the word “merely.”

March 17, 2017

The Gradual Death of Honest Curiosity

By David K. Shipler

            The United States these days seems overrun by the indignantly incurious. They already know everything. They take no pleasure in ambiguity. They bask in certitude, entertain no doubts, and miss the beauty of seeing their preconceptions contradicted by complexity. They populate the political left and the political right, the halls of government, the studios of propaganda outlets masquerading as “news,” and even college campuses. Most seriously, they refuse to listen to those who disagree and even try to silence them.
            Dogmatic absolutists have always found places in American society: Jim Crow segregationists, black-power separatists, white supremacists, true communists, red-baiting conservatives, and ideologues of all stripes who never let facts get in the way of a good screed.
But they have never gained as much national power as today. This feels like something different. Where is the ballast that has righted the country in the past? Has a tipping point been reached?
The problem is not just the “fake news” that permeates the internet. It is the people who believe it. The problem is not just the lying by Donald Trump and his minions--their fabrications about imaginary surveillance, voter fraud, terrorist attacks, and the like. It is the citizens who feed Trump’s frenzy by roaring approval without bothering to reach for truth by checking the facts, which they could do online from home by evaluating sources. It’s not such a daunting task.
Americans are split between those who do just that and those who don’t, between those who are open and those who are closed to the cross-currents of reality. This is a serious fault line running through the United States, this divide between curiosity and complacency, between those willing to accept challenges to their opinions and those who sift out whatever they don’t want to believe.

March 6, 2017

What Should Democrats Do?

By David K. Shipler

            The distraught Democratic Party is at odds with itself about how to counter the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump. On the revolutionary side are the Bernie Sanders supporters and others who want to trash the party’s own establishment, play Tea Party politics, and obstruct everything proposed by the White House and Congressional Republicans. On the pragmatic side are the political pros who want to get elected in states that went for Trump. Both sides recognize the need to win seats in local races and state legislatures, plus the all-important governorships ahead of the 2020 census that will determine redistricting.
            Among the key decisions that must be made is how—or even whether—to approach the white working-class citizenry that voted for Trump. Some argue that the nationwide demographic wave favors Democrats as minorities ride to majority status in the country at large. Identity politics will eventually work as the percentage of whites diminishes, so goes the reasoning, because Republicans have turned their backs on minority interests while Democrats have embraced them.
            But the assumption has flaws. First, minority voters come in many different political flavors and can’t be counted on to vote overwhelmingly for liberal Democratic ideas, even if they’re most helped by them. Socially conservative currents run through certain nonwhite subcultures: the anti-abortion views promoted by some black churches, for example, and an anti-regulatory position among small-business owners. It’s possible that an aversion to female leaders was partly responsible for Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in Florida’s largely Hispanic counties. Exit polls showed that Trump won 28 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, to Clinton’s 66 percent, compared with Obama’s 71 percent in 2012.

February 26, 2017

Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick

By David K. Shipler

            When will we stop listening to Donald Trump? Yes, he’s president with a lot of power to make people’s lives miserable, but his tweets? Please. His latest, at this writing, is an attack on an ad (“a bad one”) for the “failing @nytimes” scheduled to air during the Oscars ceremony. The Times ad declares: “The truth is hard. The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.” How fitting that Trump should make his debut in the art of reviewing TV commercials by panning one that extols the virtue of truth.
It might be imperative in a democracy to remain shocked, to sound the alarm again and again. But at what point does the public become numb to presidential absurdity? How literally do we take his historical allusion, for example, calling the “fake news” media the “enemy of the people.” Did Trump know that he was borrowing a line from Lenin and Stalin that was used as a condemnation deserving of death or imprisonment? The phrase is so heavily weighted that it was avoided in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.
            The Times ad selling truth follows the exclusion of the paper’s reporters, plus those from CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and several other news organizations, from an informal briefing by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, whose contempt for the press seems to have begun in college when the student newspaper called him Sean Sphincter. Editors then insisted it was just a mistake, a typo. Yeah, sure. Spicer doesn’t seem to have healed.

February 16, 2017

Lies Beget Lying

By David K. Shipler

            If you lie to your children, they will learn to lie to you. If you lie to your spouse, you will create a family culture of falsehood in which he or she will, unless strongly honest, lie to you as well. If you lie to your employees, don’t expect them to pass uncomfortable truths up the chain of command. And if, as president, you lie to the country and perhaps to your staff, many of them will breathe the miasma of fabrication that emanates from the top, and will surely assume that lying is an acceptable way of life in the White House.
            So President Trump’s dismissal of Michael Flynn for lying is like a projection of Trump’s own personality flaw onto his subordinate. It is worth noting that this happened only when the Flynn offense became public, courtesy of the “dishonest” Washington Post, which Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he hadn’t seen—a lie in itself, given that he’d been told two weeks earlier by the Justice Department about the contents of wiretapped conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador.
Does anyone think that the then president-elect did not authorize those conversations, that Flynn just flew solo without consulting with Trump? Is it possible that Trump ordered, or at least approved, Flynn’s discussing the post-Ukraine sanctions with the ambassador, perhaps obliquely suggesting that they could be eased by the incoming administration? Then, in the poisonous atmosphere of the West Wing after the inauguration, might Trump have wanted the substance of those discussions held closely, even from Vice President Mike Pence, who is no Russia fan? So, was Flynn just following his boss’s wishes in telling Pence that sanctions had not been discussed?
And by the way, shouldn’t the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency know that the Russian ambassador’s phone calls are monitored by the National Security Agency? Did Flynn figure on Trump’s having his back if transcripts were ever leaked? Note that the day after asking for Flynn’s resignation, Trump called him “a wonderful man” who was treated unfairly by the “fake media” and outed by leakers who committed a crime.
You see, Mr. President, this is what compulsive lying at the top leads to. Everything down below begins to look like a lie as well.