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Bush administration's supposed control over reality is starting to crumble

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Eric Mink

Something is happening here, Bob Dylan wrote 40 years ago in a somewhat different context, but hyperventilating liberals don't seem to know what it really is.

Starting about seven weeks ago, impassioned lefties latched onto some secret British government memos that they regard as smoking-gun evidence of Bush administration deceptions leading up to the war with Iraq. The leaked documents, dating from the spring and summer of 2002, describe discussions about Iraq between top British officials and high-ranking Bush policymakers.

The authenticity of their contents is unchallenged, but even so, the memos only record the Brits' memories and impressions. They are not word-for-word transcripts of their encounters with the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Bush power structure.

Nor are the memos revelations. For example, the idea that President George W. Bush continued spouting platitudes about diplomacy long after he had decided to go to war was reported well over two years ago:

A lengthy Time magazine story published in March 2003, barely a week after the war's start, opened with this salty Bush quote from one year earlier: "F--- Saddam. We're taking him out." The remark, made in a White House meeting, was the president's dismissive response to talk about coalition-building and possible U.N. actions.

The true significance of the so-called Downing Street memos is not so much what they say but, rather, what they represent. First, that they leaked at all indicates escalating opposition to Iraq policies from within government _ in this case, the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's most steadfast ally.

Second, their existence raises a tantalizing point: Surely Rice, Wolfowitz and the other U.S. participants wrote their own first-person memos describing the same meetings. What might they reveal?

There's more blowing in the wind:

Last week, Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had the nerve to hold hearings on the Bush administration's vague and chaotic policies for handling prisoners at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Despite having been slapped down by the U.S. Supreme Court, the president's legal minions persist in pursuing their discredited procedures.

Specter dared to suggest that Congress might have to step in and set time limits on how long U.S. authorities can imprison these people without bringing charges, without conducting trials, without allowing contact with other humans and without meaningful legal representation.

This may have seemed impudent to an administration accustomed to obedience from its Republican legislative troops. But Specter, a former prosecutor with a deep respect for the rule of law, cited a higher authority than George W. Bush: the U.S. Constitution, which authorizes Congress "to define and punish offenses against the laws of nations" and "to make rules concerning captures on land and water."

The star witness of last Wednesday's hearing was Lt. Cmdr. Charles D. Swift, a Navy veteran of 18 years, the last 11 with the service's Judge Advocate General's Corps of lawyers. In his little noticed testimony, Swift said the integrity of his assignment to defend a prisoner at Guantanamo was negated by prosecution rules that let him see his client only for purposes of extracting a guilty plea.

Swift's exposure of the legal farce of Guantanamo echoed the 2003 protests of other honorable senior JAG lawyers _ in vain, it turned out _ to the rejection of the Uniform Code of Military Justice as the standard for handling prisoners. Bush's civilian-lawyer appointees declared the UCMJ _ not to mention the Geneva Conventions _ inadequate to the task.

It also recalled the actions of yet another brave soldier in January 2004: then-Spc. (now-Sgt.) Joseph Darby. Revulsed by the abuse of prisoners he saw occurring at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Darby supplied the evidence to Army authorities that launched an investigation.

In recent weeks, the much respected John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, has publicly decried the extreme factions that have taken control of his beloved party, ignoring or marginalizing principled moderate conservatives in the process.

Earlier this week, another of those principled moderates, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, challenged the Bush administration's assurances about the increasingly violent state of Iraq. "Things aren't getting better; they're getting worse," Hagel told U.S. News & World Report. "The White House is completely disconnected from reality."

Actually, it just defines the term differently. In a story published last fall in The New York Times Magazine, a senior Bush adviser explained the administration's concept of reality to former Wall Street Journal correspondent Ron Suskind. "We're an empire now," the adviser declared. "When we act, we create our own reality."

In the world everyone else inhabits, however, reality has a way of coming back at you.

The new reality in the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk, for example, is that police and security forces have been snatching hundreds of political and ethnic rivals off the streets and shipping them north to prisons in the Kurdish region. No warrants, no charges, no trials.

A Washington Post story last week described the situation, referring to a confidential U.S. State Department cable to the White House and including interviews with the police chief of Kirkuk, the head of Iraq's Human Rights Ministry, U.S. military spokesmen and family members of abductees. The problem has intensified since the Iraqi elections last January, which makes you wonder if the White House also has its own definition of democracy.

In fabricating a house of cards, there inevitably comes a moment when weight trumps architecture, and the structure falls in on itself. The Bush house of cards is not collapsing, but it is increasingly precarious.

And the wind's picking up.



Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or e-mail him at


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