I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Investigations are so very rude and distasteful

(updated below)

There seems to be an emerging consensus among the coddled, effete Beltway media stars that it would be highly improper and uncouth for the Democrats -- should they take over one or both houses of Congress in November -- to launch investigations into the various, thus-far-uninvestigated lawbreaking and corruption scandals surrounding the Bush administration. Regardless of political differences -- which the Beltway media will allow -- the media stars are proclaiming that Democrats should pledge in advance not to engage in any of that nasty investigative business.

After all, subpoenas are mean-spirited, disruptive and genuinely harmful -- they are just very uncivil - and they are not what upstanding Washington needs or deserves. They bring a real ugliness and meanness to the Capital. Say what you will about the Bush administration's competence or ideological views, but we should all agree that they are good guys, well-intentioned with good hearts, and are driven by a core of good faith. They may be wrong sometimes -- sure, that's all well and good to point out -- but they are not corrupt or lawbreakers or anything like that. Only the further fringes would think something so acidic and absurd -- something so extreme. And so it's just wrong, mean and unwarranted to subject administration officials to the unpleasantness of being investigated.

Here is the bloated Guardian of Beltway Civility himself, Tim Russert, expressing his disdain this weekend for investigations and demanding that Nancy Pelosi pledge that Democrats will not puruse them too aggressively if they take over the House (h/t C&L):

MR. RUSSERT: So there would be investigations.

REP. PELOSI: Well, what I told them is we will have an investigation of energy prices. We will have an investigation. Then how that was done...

MR. RUSSERT: How about of the war?

REP. PELOSI: That would be if—I said we’d have hearings on the war. We’d have hearings on the war. But I don’t see us going to a place of an impeachment or all of that.

MR. RUSSERT: Is impeachment off the table?

REP. PELOSI: Well, you never know where the facts take you, but the—for any president. But, but that isn’t what we’re about. What we’re about is going there and, and having high ethical standards, fiscal soundness and a level of civility that brushes away all this fierce partisanship.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, should John Conyers take his Web site down, talking about impeachment?

REP. PELOSI: John Conyers does what he does on his Web site. John Conyers is an enthusiastic advocate. I am the leader. Our caucus will decide where we go. But it’s not—you don’t decide to impeach. You—the facts support something like this, and that’s not where we’re going.

MR. RUSSERT: But the impression, Congresswoman, is that the Democrats take control of Congress it’s payback. They’re going to have the subpoena power...

Whenever journalists like Russert attribute some belief to the passive voice -- the subject-less formulation of "the impression is out there that . . ." -- they are just voicing their own views, and here, Russert's views couldn't be clearer. There is no reason whatsoever to exploit control over the House to conduct investigations into various corruption and lawbreaking scandals. The only possible reason Democrats would do that is a petty, vindictive desire for -- to use Russert's word -- "payback."

It can't possibly be the case that there are real scandals and acts of wrongdoing concealed by the impenetrable wall of secrecy the administration has built and which its zombified allies in Congress and the media have protected. Clearly, the administration has done absolutely nothing which needs to be investigated. That's obvious. The only thing that could motivate anyone to want to investigate the Bush administration is a lowly and uncouth desire for vengeance.

Chris Wallace peddled the same theme last month when questioning Sen. Dick Durbin. After demanding that Durbin pledge in advance not to even entertain the idea of impeaching Bush and Durbin refused, Wallace expressed his outrage: “Are you saying Senator, that you would consider the impeachment of a Commander-in-Chief in time of war." The national media has plainly embraced the idea that Congressional investigations of The President -- based on some sort of raucous and crazed notion that he did something wrong or that he's not a real good guy -- is just out-of-bounds, something that could be designed only to feed the rabid Leftist hatemongers and/or to seek vengeance, and is clearly not something that serious, mainstream, responsible national political figures could endorse.

The ironies here -- not to mention the hypocrisies -- abound. One of the principal reasons why investigations are so desperately needed into the various lawbreaking and corruption scandals is precisely because the media, with rare exception, have profoundly failed in its central function -- to serve as an aggressive adversarial check against the Government.

For the media to take this sort of etiquette-based stance against investigations -- to actually see investigations as some sort of uncouth breach of etiquette, an upsetting disruption (exactly how they saw Stephen Colbert's criticisms of the President) -- is just staggering. The media doesn't exist to do anything other than investigate and exert skepticism over the Government's statements and actions. They barely do that anymore, which is why we know so little about what this administration has done. The media is supposed to be inherently pro-investigation. It's intended to be an investigative body, to subject government conduct to aggressive scrutiny and be devoted to the exposure of information which the Government is attempting to conceal from its citizens. To listen to these media stars effetely condemn investigations as though they're something which only hateful, rabble-rousing radicals would want to pursue tells you all you need to know about how fundamentally broken the national media is.

The reality is that people like Tim Russert and Chris Wallace are so entrenched in the national political Beltway system that it becomes the first source for how they perceive themselves. They are not journalists first. They are national Beltway stars first. As a result, they don't see high government officials as their adversaries because those high government officials are part of the same Beltway elite institutions and are their friends, partners and allies before they are anything else.

Journalists like Russert identify with the political figures they are supposed to be investigating and fighting against more than they identify with anyone else. They see them as their partners, as one of them -- all members of the same Beltway elite institution which is the source of their wealth, their fame, their prestige, their self-esteem. They derive everything that matters to them from that institution, and so that institution is the one that demands their principal allegiance and becomes the principal source of their identities. And while those who are assigned the journalist part in the Beltway Play will go through the motions of playing their roles -- pretending to question political figures aggressively, to disclose secret facts about them, etc. -- they really feel affinity and friendship and affection more than they feel anything else towards them.

That is why they find the idea of mean-spirited investigations so distasteful and wrong. It's one thing to play the role of having political disagreements with someone. Like WWF wrestling, the rules of the game are well-known to everyone and as long as everyone abides by those groundrules, it's all in good fun. They entertain the crowd with their faux conflict and nobody gets hurt. But investigations hurt people. Sometimes, people get accused of criminal behavior! They have to pay for lawyers which can be really expensive. It impacts their lives and can really harm a person's career, so it's out-of-bounds.

Accusing someone of being inept or wrong -- sure, that's all good, clean fun. But prosecutors and subpoenas and accusations of criminal wrongdoing -- that's just nasty. It disrupts the fun and it's unnecessarily mean. Besides, they personally know all the gentlemen and ladies in the Bush administration - they've met their spouses and kids, laughed together at the same jokes, helped their friends and associates get jobs. These are good people, even if they are politically wrong. They are not corrupt and they are not criminals, and it is wrong to treat them as such.

This same dynamic is what explains why Dianne Feinstein would just so suddenly and abruptly -- and pointlessly -- jump into the controversy over the President's appointment of Gen. Hayden to be CIA Director and help the President by declaring her support for Hayden. After I posted about this yesterday, I thought about what would really motivate Feinstein to do that. She's a life-long Democrat; she presumably wants Democrats to take over the Senate in November, if for no other reason than to increase her own influence; and she can't possibly want to help the President out of political difficulties, even though that is clearly the effect of her conduct. So why would she do that?

I think Feinstein gave the real reason why she did it -- she likes Gen. Hayden, and therefore wants to support him. Both of them have been around DC forever. He's a career military bureaucrat who meets all the time with Senators and she's on the Intelligence Committee and is always working on military and foreign affairs matters. To her, he isn't a pro-Cheney military ally or one of the primary culprits in the illegal eavesdropping on Americans (which she claims to find so very "troubling"). No - to Feinstein, Hayden is the nice, upstanding military officer who is part of the same Beltway elite circle as she and her husband are, and she can't fathom that there would be any good reason to do something as mean and aggressive as oppose his new promotion.

Virtually none of these people who play the roles of Democrats or Republicans, or journalists or politicians, are really any of those things. They all have far more in common with one another than they have differences.

I don't think this is unique to those circles -- when I was practicing law, I noticed that even the most passion-driven lawyers eventually come to look at adversarial lawyers and judges (whom they begin by fighting) as their real comrades and allies. They befriend them, end up in the same associations and clubs and parties, and come to view the legal profession as their real home and all those who are a part of it as their real allies.

Advocating on behalf of the client and warring against other lawyers and even the judge is the assigned role, but it's not the real passion. Many of them go through the motions and play the roles of pretending to have principal allegiance to their clients, but the reality is that the clients are viewed as outsiders, props really, and the real allegiance and affection is to the system itself, since it is that system which provides the material wealth, the security, the prestige, etc. It becomes very clubby and the desire to do anything other than be a part of and to protect it disappears for most of them over time. That is what I think happens to most of those national Beltway figures.

This country desperately needs investigations into what the Bush administration has done for the past five years. They have had a frighteningly passive media and a creepily compliant Congress, both of which have almost completely relinquished their oversight and investigative responsibilities. Those failures, combined with the fact that the administration has embraced government secrecy as one of its most passionately held "principles," means that Americans know remarkably little about what our government has done with regard to the most significant matters of the day.

Investigations into the conduct of our political leaders are not gratuitous or mean or lowly. Being informed about what our government has done -- particularly where there are clouds of suspicion and even illegality surrounding that behavior -- is of the highest importance. All investigations do is reveal the truth. Subpoenas are intended to do nothing other than compel the disclosure of information which has been concealed. Democracies need that, particularly after five long years of suffocating secrecy and a lack of any real checks on the presidency.

Democrats should not run away from their intention to investigate but should clearly and unapologetically explain to Americans why investigations and uncovering the truth are so critically important, particularly when it comes to a secrecy-obsessed administration which Americans do not trust or like, even though the Beltway media stars so plainly do.

UPDATE: Swopa at Needlenose has an interesting post, based on the last few columns of the odious Richard Cohen, that expresses a variant of the theme in this post: namely, that those who are admitted members of the "royal court" of D.C. are entitled to great deference and are to be shielded from the angry attacks of the masses -- hence, no angry e-mails to Richard Cohen, no mean jokes to or about The President, no intrusive leak investigations of Karl Rove. But anything done to those not admitted to the the Court is fair game:

If you're King Dubya, or Prince Karl, or even a hanger-on like Sir Richard, anything that discomfits you is worthy of condemnation. But if you're outside that charmed circle -- or, even worse, suffer a "ricochet" because of the actions of someone within it -- then Cohen's message is, "Suck it up, bitch, this is a tough town."Like Colbert and those nasty emailers, Plame and her husband are peasants who are expected to know their place and stay away from the mansion.

The permanent Beltway class unquestionably has come to believe that they are all part of the same elevated, elite enclave. All of their prestige, influence and esteem derive from their position in it, and they protect it, and each other, at all costs. Like all clubs, this one has its set of spoken and unspoken rules. And Membership has its privileges.

Members can take liberties with one another that non-members can never take when addressing Members -- hence the hostility towards non-Member bloggers who don't know their place when addressing Members, outsider comedians who make rude jokes to the President about off-limit topics (such as the President's sad approval ratings), and investigations designed to expose the ruling Members as deceitful and corrupt. Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, journaist or politician -- all of it gets subsumed by their principal allegiance to their Beltway club.

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