'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 24, 2006

What, if Anything, Is the Purpose of Karen Hughes? 

As far as conservative TV pundits go, I rightly-or-wrongly throw Tucker Carlson into the not-as-bad-as-some-of-them bin because of several endearing statements he's made in the past. One is describing Grover Norquist as a "mean-spirited, humorless, dishonest little creep" who's like "the leering, drunken uncle everyone else wishes would stay home". Another is the following query to a Salon interviewer, "I don't know who would want to watch that shit. Do you?" – the shit in question being The O'Reilly Factor.

But amusing slams aside, Carlson's most interesting piece and major claim on not-completely-evil-ness is his Talk Magazine interview with then-Governor George W. Bush in which he (a) describes Bush mocking the final pleas of a woman he has condemned to death and (b) describes Bush swearing like a sailor. Not very surprisingly (b) caused more of a stir than (a) among Bush's evangelical base.

Carlson's commentary on the post-interview controversy engagingly captures the degree to which the total message-discipline of Bush-era partisan spokespeople borders on insanity: (from the same interview as the O'Rielley quote)

Then I heard that [on the campaign bus, Bush communications director] Karen Hughes accused me of lying. And so I called Karen and asked her why she was saying this, and she had this almost Orwellian rap that she laid on me about how things she'd heard -- that I watched her hear -- she in fact had never heard, and she'd never heard Bush use profanity ever. It was insane.

I've obviously been lied to a lot by campaign operatives, but the striking thing about the way she lied was she knew I knew she was lying, and she did it anyway. There is no word in English that captures that. It almost crosses over from bravado into mental illness.

They get carried away, consultants do, in the heat of the campaign, they're really invested in this. A lot of times they really like the candidate. That's all conventional. But on some level, you think, there's a hint of recognition that there is reality -- even if they don't recognize reality exists -- there is an objective truth. With Karen you didn't get that sense at all. A lot of people like her. A lot of people I know like her. I'm not one of them.

Karen Hughes demonstrates this kind of insanity all the time in her current role as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Take for example the following from an interview with Der Spiegel a couple of days ago:

SPIEGEL: Take a look at what is happening now: There is an uproar concerning new pictures showing atrocities in Abu Ghraib. And a United Nations report is demanding that Guantanamo be shut down.

Hughes: Those pictures are disgusting and, frankly, I'm embarrassed, as an American, to think that people around the world associate those pictures with our country. Those pictures are old and represent crimes for which many people have already been punished, including one who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in prison. We don't want to be defined by those pictures, any more than the people of Germany would want your country to be defined by pictures of crimes. They don't represent America. On the larger issue of Guantanamo, what to do with dangerous terrorists who wish to kill innocent Americans, Germans and others is a very difficult one, but we feel this report is fundamentally flawed. The authors of the report did not even accept the offer to visit Guantanamo. Our government has been wrestling with how to deal with terrorists who don't wear a uniform, who don't represent any state, who therefore don't fit neatly under any international treaty or convention. Nonetheless, we are treating the detainees humanely and consistent with our laws and treaty obligations.

SPIEGEL: You could at least give them a fair trial.

Hughes: We have given fair reviews to these individuals and have released those we believe no longer pose a threat to the US or our allies. The first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens, but we are very willing to listen to constructive suggestions of what we ought to do with the more than 400 terrorists who are a threat to us or who refuse to renounce their stated ambitions to kill Americans and others. I note that some of those who have been released have unfortunately returned to the fight.

At this point dealing with Guantanamo by characterizing those imprisoned there as "400 terrorists … who refuse to renounce their stated ambitions to kill Americans" is so wildly inaccurate that we must once again conclude that Hughes is lying to an interviewer who she knows knows that she is lying. Analogously to the situation Carlson described, Hughes' response is so out of touch with the reality of global perception of US policies in 2006 that it comes off as pathological.

Guantanamo is in the news right now on several fronts. Clearly one of the reasons the interviewer brings up subject at all is because of two new reports that conclude precisely the opposite of what Hughes asserts and thereby corroborate 2004's Red Cross report:

The first report was written by Corine Hegland and published two weeks ago in the National Journal. Hegland scrutinized the court documents of 132 prisoners—approximately one-quarter of the detainees—who have filed habeas corpus petitions, as well as the redacted transcripts of the hearings that 314 prisoners have received in appearing before military Combatant Status Review Tribunals—the preliminary screening process that is supposed to ascertain whether they are "enemy combatants," as the Bush administration claims. Hegland's exhaustive review concludes that most of the detainees are not Afghans and that most were not picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The vast majority were instead captured in Pakistan. Seventy-five of the 132 men are not accused of taking part in hostilities against the United States. The data suggests that maybe 80 percent of these detainees were never al-Qaida members, and many were never even Taliban foot soldiers.

Most detainees are being held for the crime of having "associated" with the Taliban or al-Qaida—often in the most attenuated way, including having known or lived with people assumed to be Taliban, or worked for charities with some ties to al-Qaida. Some had "combat" experience that seems to have consisted solely of being hit by U.S. bombs. Most were not picked up by U.S. forces but handed over to our military by Afghan warlords in exchange for enormous bounties and political payback. [ … ]

Mark Denbeaux, who teaches law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and attorney Joshua Denbeaux published a second report several days after Hegland. They represent two detainees. Their data on the evidence amassed against the entire detainee population jibes with Hegland's. They evaluated written determinations produced by the government for the Combatant Status Review Tribunals; in other words, the government's best case against the prisoners, in the government's own words.

The Seton Hall study found that 55 percent of the detainees are not suspected of having committed any hostile acts against the United States and that 40 percent of the detainees are not affiliated with al-Qaida. Eight percent are listed as having fought for a terrorist group, and 60 percent are merely accused of being "associated with" terrorists—the lowest categorization available. They confirm that 86 percent were captured either by the Northern Alliance or by Pakistan "at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies." They quote a flier, distributed in Afghanistan at the time of the sweeps that reads: "Get wealth and power beyond your dreams ... You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch Al Qaida and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your tribe, your village for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books."

This is the Bush administration we are talking about and I don't expect our minister of propaganda for the Arab world to address grievances in a truthful way, but it is kind of surprising to see her behaving like a crazy person; she basically begs the foreign press to present her as a laughingstock. If Karen Hughes wants to appear rational -- let alone appear to be competently engaged in public diplomacy – she needs to argue that the two new reports are false not pretend that they do not exist. Der Spiegel isn't some small town newspaper in Texas where Karen Hughes can assume a shared worldview with the interviewer and promote goodwill towards Bush with down-home hospitality and chitchat about the Rangers... All of which leads one to wonder: What, if anything, is the purpose of Karen Hughes?

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