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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The toxicity of Joe Lieberman's treason accusations

(updated below - updated again with possible correction - updated again)

Joe Lieberman has probably become the single most poisonous Beltway voice when it comes to the war in Iraq. The Bush administration's principal rhetorical tactic for the last five years, of course, has been to equate opposition to its policies and criticism of the Leader with love of the Terrorists. But when it comes to the debate over Iraq, Lieberman -- time and again -- has managed to descend even further into the rhetorical sewer than the administration itself.

Lieberman, of course, spent several years warning Americans not to criticize their Leader with regard to the War. Just two weeks ago, Lieberman went on Meet the Press and prompted an angry outburst from Chuck Hagel after Lieberman sat there smugly accusing Hagel and anyone else who opposes the Glorious Surge of wanting the U.S. to lose in Iraq. In the same appearance, Lieberman also looked straight into the camera and said that the U.S. was "attacked on 9/11 by the same enemy that we’re fighting in Iraq today" -- a claim so transparently false that even the President long ago abandoned it.

But yesterday, Lieberman reached what might be a new low. During the confirmation hearings of Gen. David Petraeus, Lieberman provoked this truly reprehensible exchange with Gen. Petraeus, as summarized by The Washington Post's Thomas Ricks:

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) asked Army Lt. Gen. David H . Petraeus during his confirmation hearing yesterday if Senate resolutions condemning White House Iraq policy "would give the enemy some comfort."

Petraeus agreed they would, saying, "That's correct, sir."

Using the terms to" give comfort" and the "enemy" in the same phrase has no conceivable objective other than to invoke accusations of treason. The Constitution's definition of "treason" is exactly that -- giving "Aid and Comfort" to the enemy. For Lieberman to purposely track the Constitution's treason language when describing opponents of the "surge" plan -- and to invite the new Iraq War Commander to agree with his accusation -- reveals so inescapably what Lieberman is. That's just the basest and most despicable smear one can imagine.

The Post also re-prints the response to this exchange from Sen. John Warner -- who, as a newly announced surge opponent and co-sponsor of one of the enemy-comforting resolutions in question, is now one of the many whom Lieberman is accusing of being "some" type of a traitor. Warner warned Petraeus of how ill-advised it is for Petraeus to associate himself with the toxic sentiments of Joe Lieberman:

I hope that this colloquy has not entrapped you into some responses that you might later regret. I wonder if you would just give me the assurance that you'll go back and examine the transcript as to what you replied with respect to certain of these questions and review it, because we want you to succeed.

Warner's response illustrates an interesting point. War opponents have been the target of smears of this type for years, beginning in 2002 when the country became intoxicated with Iraq war fever and every war opponent had their character attacked and motives called into question. Nobody seemed to mind too much back then.

But now the Washington Establishment has arrogated unto itself the right to oppose the war and criticize the President. As a result, many of the same groups and even same individuals who spent the last three years accusing war opponents of "undermining the Commander-in-Chief in a time of war" and thereby weakening America have themselves become vocal war opponents as the war lay in ruins (though it should be noted, from what I can tell, that Sen. Warner himself never engaged in that sort of smearing rhetoric and even expressly opposed it, one of the very few in his Party who did). What was subversive and unserious in 2002, 2003 and 2004 has now become perfectly acceptable, even noble, among the elite political and journalist classes.

The Washington Establishment has not only changed its view on the war, but has also -- not coincidentally -- dramatically changed its view on the propriety of opposing the President and his war, i.e. whether it's now allowed to do so. As the superb Jim Webb recently told Robert Gates at a recent Senate hearing:

There's really nothing that's occurred since the invasion and occupation that was not predictable and in fact, most of it was predicted. It was predicted in many cases by people with long backgrounds in national security...and in many cases there were people who saw their military careers destroyed and who were personally demeaned by people who opposed them on the issues, including members of this administration. And they are people in my judgment, who will be remembered in history as having had a moral conscience.

To Joe Lieberman, anyone who opposes whatever Iraq plan he happens to be currently favoring is a frivolous, defeat-hungry traitor -- giving "some comfort" to the "enemy." He's really the Senate's modern-day Joe McCarthy, smearing everyone's character and impugning everyone's motives who doesn't march faithfully along behind the President. What makes it all the more deceitful is that he never ceases to piously masquerade around as the Beacon of Civility and Honor, a disguise long propped up by an adoring Beltway media.

But now, Lieberman's behavior has become so toxic and ignoble that even decorous, restrained Senate Republicans -- no strangers to the art of the political smear -- have begun condemning him in unusually strong terms. What is more pernicious than for a politician, in a Senate hearing with the country's new top General in Iraq, to expressly equate disagreement with their war views with treason? Not much.

UPDATE: Relating to the last point about the shift in the rules imposed by the Washington Establishment, The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler this morning identifies numerous inconsistencies and incoherent claims in the President's speech last night. In particular, Kessler documents that "President Bush presented an arguably misleading and often flawed description of 'the enemy' that the United States faces overseas, lumping together disparate groups with opposing ideologies to suggest that they have a single-minded focus in attacking the United States."

Kessler's points are all correct and well-stated, but the article nonetheless provokes mixed feelings. None of the manipulative falsehoods which Kessler criticizes are new. These are the same tactics the administration has been using continuously for the last six years to bludgeon all of its opponents and to render all opposition subversive and pro-terrorist.

And while it is encouraging, I guess, that the media is beginning to point out these fundamental flaws more expressly, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this scrutiny is due more to the President's pervasive unpopularity than it is to any re-awakening by national journalists with regard to their responsibilities. Kicking a President with Nixon-level approval ratings is easy. Americans have already figured out that the President is a fraud. The real need for this scrutiny was back when 70% of Americans cheered on the invasion -- and the subsequent occupation -- because they had been led to believe that it was Saddam who helped fly those planes into the buildings along with his good friend, Osama bin Laden.

UPDATE II: Several people in comments have noted that other media outlets have quoted Lieberman's question to Petraeus differently than it was quoted by Thomas Ricks in The Post -- specifically, some media outlets quote Lieberman as asking whether the resolutions would "give the enemy some encouragement" (and not, as Ricks had it, "comfort" to the enemy). But Sarah Wheaton, on her New York Times blog The Caucus, also quotes Lieberman's question as asking whether the resolutions “would give the enemy some comfort” (though it's possible she was using Ricks' article as her source for that).

I haven't found anything definitive yet, but I did receive an e-mail from a very reliable source from a well-known political/media group (whom I'll identify once I get permission), and he advises me that he obtained and listened to the video of the hearings and Lieberman used the word "encouragement" and Ricks therefore misquoted Lieberman. If that is so, then Lieberman's smear here is just the standard, garden-variety one used by war advocates to equate war opposition with helping The Terrorists, and not the more extraordinary version that purposely tracks the treason language from the Constitution. Once I have something more definitive one way or the other, I will post it.

UPDATE III: Whether Lieberman accused "surge" opponents of giving "comfort" to the enemy or merely "encouraging" them (and it looks increasingly like it was "encouragmenet," though still nothing truly definitive), Chuck Hagel's impassioned response applies just as potently -- not only to Lieberman, but to all of those war supporters who think that what is one of our country's greatest strengths -- the fact that we debate important issues, rather than meekly submit to the Leader's will -- is something we should suppress because the Terrorists are emboldened by our disagreements.

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