July 1, 2005 | 10:01 AM ET

Lawyers for Time Magazine and the New York Times have pretty much lost their case to keep reporters Matt Cooper and Judith Miller from having to answer subpoenas in the Plame case.  Time, in fact, has basically surrendered to the feds, in no small part because parent corporation Time Warner has so many interests involving the federal government.  (This is, perhaps, an argument against huge media-owning conglomerates).

The Plame story is a strange one.  Somebody may or may not have revealed that Valerie Plame, wife of flamboyant Bush critic Joseph Wilson, may or may not have held a covert position with the CIA, which may or may not be a crime.  (For lots more background, see this timeline by Tom Maguire.)  I don't pretend to understand the story, but I notice that the Times and Time, which were all for a criminal investigation when the affair first started, are now arguing that no crime was ever committed.  Since they presumably know the leaker, and the leak, that may well be true.

But the bigger story is the debate over whether reporters should have some sort of constitutional privilege against revealing a source.  That's a pretty iffy assertion, and the courts have never recognized such a privilege as being created by the First Amendment, though many states have created such a privilege by statute.  But such privileges raise questions of their own:  These days, when anyone can be a reporter or a publisher via the Internet, what does it mean to have a "reporter's privilege?"  And this is no hypothetical:  The Department of Justice jailed freelance writer Vanessa Leggett in a somewhat shady episode, and opined that it was entitled to do so because she wasn't a "real" journalist.

My own sense (I had a column to this effect in USA Today Wednesday) is that journalists should get the same privileges the rest of us get:  No more, no less.  If there's to be such a privilege at all, it should be for anyone who is doing journalism, regardless of whether they get a paycheck from MSNBC or the New York Times.  "Freedom of the press" in the First Amendment refers to, in James Madison's words, "freedom in the use of the press" -- that is, freedom to publish -- not freedom for some institution called "the press."  (Indeed that usage of "the press" to refer to newspapermen didn't become common until well after the Constitution was ratified.)  Let the press be free for all of us and let us all enjoy freedom of the press.  Otherwise it's just a special privilege for a privileged guild.

June 29, 2005 | 4:24 PM ET

Parts of the same war

Columnist and novelist Austin Bay served in Iraq last year.  He just went back to Iraq, and visited Afghanistan and Djibouti, to see how things are going.  Here's his latest column, in which he compares the eradication of the terrorists in Iraq with efforts to get rid of the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th Century.  (Perhaps we'll manage to turn some of those terrorists into honored Senators, as we did with the Klansmen.)

Bay writes:

For a century, the Ku Klux Klan used terror tactics to murder innocents.  The KKK's fire bombings and lynching-assassinations pre-figure the tactics employed by Saddam's holdout henchmen in Iraq.

For three decades, Sherman's hell ruled Afghanistan.  Communist invasion, Taliban tyranny and Al Qaeda-backed terror -- the people of Afghanistan knew only oppression and destruction.  Last week, I talked with Afghan farmers in a village near Bagram. They spoke of water and wheat.  New elections loom.  The economic and political battles -- however difficult -- point the way to peace.

One difference is that America's media and political leaders mostly supported the battle against the Klan.  There's much less support, especially among the media, for this war.  As I've said before, American strategy in Iraq involves addressing the very "root causes" of terrorism that so many pointed to after 9/11.

It's important to note, of course, that Iraq is only part of the war, just as Afghanistan was (and, for that matter, just as the attacks of 9/11 were).  But addressing the problems in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria -- all of which must be dealt with sooner or later -- will be much easier when Iraq is stable and free, and would have been nearly impossible with Saddam Hussein in power.  As Tom Maguire notes, Bush's speech jolted the editors of the New York Times into brief contact with reality.  Let's hope that for others, the effect will be longer-lasting.

Video: What needs to be said about Iraq

June 29, 2005 | 1:32 AM ET

Sharks, missing teens and ... oh yeah, Iraq

President Bush delivered a speech on Iraq today.  I thought he did okay -- Bush is no great shakes as a speaker, and this was a fairly average performance on his part -- but he hit the key points, generally obscured in day to day coverage, of why we're there and why it's a good idea to stay until, you know, we're done.  Bush seemed, at times, as if he couldn't believe he had to explain this stuff again, but that's part of being a wartime leader:  He may have his eye on the ball, but the news media are mostly reporting shark attacks, missing teens, and celebrity trials, pausing only occasionally to deliver a context-free report of a car-bombing.

There is actually good reporting coming from Iraq -- check out Michael Yon's blog, for example.  And it's possible to get a clearer picture of the strategic picture than most big media accounts provide.  See also this strategic overview from Steven Den Beste, and this one from the military site StrategyPage.  Not much of that good reporting gets big play in the American mass media.  However, despite the deluge of bad news that some regard as biased and politically motivated, the polls are surprisingly supportive of Bush:

As President Bush prepares to address the nation about Iraq tonight, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that most Americans do not believe the administration's claims that impressive gains are being made against the insurgency, but a clear majority is willing to keep U.S. forces there for an extended time to stabilize the country.

The survey found that only one in eight Americans currently favors an immediate pullout of U.S. forces, while a solid majority continues to agree with Bush that the United States must remain in Iraq until civil order is restored -- a goal that most of those surveyed acknowledge is, at best, several years away.

Americans, unlike too many politicians and reporters, are apparently capable of looking past the next election.  I can't help but feel, in fact, that much of the "deadline" talk we've been hearing from politicians is all about political, not military, deadlines.

Meanwhile, Mickey Kaus notes that the Democrats, who have been suffering from deadline fever lately, haven't always been singing that tune.  The Belgravia Dispatch, meanwhile, explains why John Kerry's calls for a deadline in Iraq are the sort of dreadful idea we've come to expect from Kerry.

It's a war.  The way to win it is, well, to win it.  Deadlines are for people who care more about other things than they do about winning.

June 23, 2005 | 4:12 PM ET

A man's home is... somebody else's piggy-bank

If you doubted that we're seen mostly as sources of revenue to be milked for the benefit of Big Government and its constituency groups, today's Supreme Court decision in the Kelo case, essentially holding that state and local governments can condemn your property and turn it over to private businesses for private purposes so long as they expect the turnover to produce higher property tax revenues, should settle things.

It used to be that tax revenues were to be spent promoting the public good.  Now, apparently, they're a public good in and of themselves.

To be fair, today's decision isn't a huge departure from previous law, which has been creeping in this direction for nearly a century.  But it seems quite troubling to me.  Here's what Justice Joseph Story, a leading light of the Supreme Court and perhaps the most eminent constitutional scholar of the first half of the nineteenth century, wrote:

It seems to be the general opinion, fortified by a strong current of judicial opinion, that since the American revolution no state government can be presumed to possess the transcendental sovereignty to take away vested rights of property; to take the property of A. and transfer it to B. by a mere legislative act. A government can scarcely be deemed to be free, where the rights of property are left solely dependent upon a legislative body, without any restraint. The fundamental maxims of a free government seem to require, that the rights of personal liberty, and private property should be held sacred. At least, no court of justice, in this country, would be warranted in assuming, that any state legislature possessed a power to violate and disregard them; or that such a power, so repugnant to the common principles of justice and civil liberty, lurked under any general grant of legislative authority, or ought to be implied from any general expression of the will of the people, in the usual forms of the constitutional delegation of power. The people ought not to be presumed to part with rights, so vital to their security and well-being, without very strong, and positive declarations to that effect.

"A government can scarcely be deemed to be free, where the rights of property are left solely dependent upon a legislative body."

But isn't that where we are now?

I predict that this will be a big political issue, on both the left and the right.  For Bush and the Republicans it's a big vulnerability -- if they don't do anything about it, many conservatives will stay home in disgust at the next election.  On the other hand, if they do something -- like, say, backing Congressional action to limit takings for private use -- they'll offend wealthy real estate developers, merchants, and influential local populations.  They'll be squeezed, and I don't think that "help us confirm our judges to reverse this" will be a sufficient answer, though they'll try to make it one.

On the left, it's seen (rightly) as a victory for the hated Wal-Mart, and as a rule whose burden is sure to fall mostly on the poor.  (When did a city ever level a rich neighborhood for this sort of thing?)  On the other hand, the left isn't big on limits to government power, especially in the economic sphere.

It's certainly a hot issue on talk radio and in the blogosphere already.  I suspect it'll stay that way through the 2006 elections.

June 21, 2005 | 8:24 PM ET

Bush is doing it

I confess that I don't blame people for being tired of the war.  I was tired of the war before we invaded Iraq.  (In fact, one of my early posts here at MSNBC -- now lost to this site's former archiving system, alas -- was entitled "Confessions of a Weary War-Blogger").  But people are usually tired of wars long before they're over.  The phrase is "war is Hell," not "war is amusing."

But it's not just a question of tiredness.  As Brendan Miniter notes in the Wall Street Journal, the latest calls for "timetables" have more to do with politics than with strategy:

The last thing we need in Iraq is a timeline for withdrawal. Victory sets its own schedule, and it's not contingent on the U.S. election calendar. Arbitrarily forcing a timetable on the battlefield will only aid the enemy. Yet a growing number of politicians are now calling for just that--or, at least, a better (read more negative) official accounting of what's happening in Iraq. With polls showing less support for the war and pols parroting that public opinion, we're in danger of losing sight of how to defeat the enemy.

Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, joined the parade over the weekend while also bluntly saying he's looking at a presidential bid in 2008--although he was careful to add that he thinks the next presidential election will turn on national security.  Rep. Harold Ford Jr., normally a somewhat sensible Tennessee Democrat, has also joined the procession and hopes his call for a timeline will help win him the Senate seat Bill Frist is vacating. And it's not just Democrats.

Like too many people, these folks see the war as less important than their own immediate political objectives.  Better to be President after losing a war than to suffer as a Senator in a nation that's winning, apparently.

Well, that's politics.  We had the same thing from the Copperheads in the Civil War.  If we had less of it in World War II it was because the threat to the Soviet Union turned the hard left into pro-war propagandists instead of the critics they are today.  Writing from Baghdad, Austin Bay blames the Bush Administration for not impressing firmly enough upon the country that there's a war on:

Given the vicious enemy we face, five years, perhaps 15 years from now, occasional bullets and bombs will disrupt the political and economic building. This is the Bush administration's biggest strategic mistake -- a failure to tap the reservoir of American willingness 9-11 produced.

One afternoon in December 2001, my mother told me she remembered being a teenager in 1942 and tossing a tin can on a wagon that rolled past the train station in her hometown. Mom said she knew that the can she tossed didn't add much to the war effort, but she felt that in some small, token perhaps, but very real way, she was contributing to the battle.

"The Bush administration is going to make a terrible mistake if it does not let the American people get involved in this war.  Austin, we need a war bond drive. This matters, because this is what it will take."

She was right then, and she's right now.

(Check out Bay's blog for further reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan).  Military blogger Chester agrees, and has some thoughts on what Bush should be doing -- and saying.  But it's not all gloomy.  Why even Kofi Annan says there's progress in Iraq:

Elections were held in January, on schedule. Three months later the Transitional National Assembly endorsed the transitional government.

The dominant parties have begun inclusive negotiations, in which outreach to Sunni Arabs is a major theme. A large number of Sunni groups and parties are now working to make sure that their voices are fully heard in the process of drafting a new constitution, and that they participate fully in the referendum to approve it and the elections slated for December.

Indeed, just last week an agreement was achieved to expand the committee drafting the constitution to ensure full participation by the Sunni Arab community. This agreement, which the United Nations helped to facilitate, should encourage all Iraqis to press ahead with the drafting of the constitution by the Aug. 15 deadline.

As the process moves forward, there will no doubt be frustrating delays and difficult setbacks. But let us not lose sight of the fact that all over Iraq today, Iraqis are debating nearly every aspect of their political future.

And it's not just Iraqis.  Inspired by the Iraqi elections -- though some reports seem to neglect that aspect -- the Lebanese, after expelling Syrian troops, crossed religious and ethnic lines to overwhelmingly elect an anti-Syrian, pro-democracy government.  Even the New York Times had to note that "It was a startling change in the way politics have usually been carried out here - along strict clan and religious lines and long under the control of Syria - and perhaps an example of a greater yearning for democracy in the Arab world."

Notably missing from the story, however, were the words "Bush" and "Iraq."

You'd think that the strategy of overthrowing dictators and encouraging democracy as a way of defeating terrorism would draw support from the left, since it's consistent with the "root causes" talk we heard right after 9/11.  But you'd be wrong, and for one simple reason:  Bush is doing it.

June 21, 2005 | 12:39 AM ET

Revisionism on Iraq

Once again, the same people who opposed the invasion of Iraq are now arguing for a pullout.  Never mind that it would leave Iraq -- now progressing -- in chaos.  Never mind that it would destroy U.S. credibility for a generation.  Never mind that it would be Vietnam all over again.

To these people, those aren't bugs.  They're features.  The anti-war folks have been trying to turn Iraq into Vietnam since the beginning.  (And before that, they were trying to turn Afghanistan into Vietnam.)

I don't want to go all jingoistic about " fifth columns of the decadent left," but the fact is that the anti-war movement -- and, increasingly, the leadership of the Democratic Party in this Howard Dean era -- can only win if the United States is seen to lose.  As the non-jingoistic Tom Friedman wrote last week:  "Liberals don't want to talk about Iraq because, with a few exceptions, they thought the war was wrong and deep down don't want the Bush team to succeed."

In this world, Robert Kagan offers a bracing note of perspective:

To assess whether the Iraq war was worth it requires seriously posing the question:  What would have happened if the Bush administration had not gone to war in March 2003? That is a missing but essential piece of the current very legitimate debate. We all know what has gone wrong since the Iraq war began, but it is not as if, in the absence of a war, everything would have gone right. Those who want to have this debate cannot simply point to the terrible toll in casualties. They have to address the question of what the alternative to war really would have meant.

There is not much dispute about what kind of leader Saddam Hussein was. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once compared him to Hitler, and the comparison was apt in a couple of ways. Hussein, as we will soon relearn in excruciating detail, had contempt for human life and no qualms about killing thousands of his own citizens and many thousands more of his neighbors' citizens, about torturing women and children and about using any type of weapon he could buy or manufacture to burn, poison, infect and incinerate political opponents and even entire populations, so long as they were too weak to fight back. This alone placed him in a special class of historical figures, a not irrelevant factor in determining whether his removal, even at the present cost, was worth it. Was it not worth at least some sacrifice to remove such a man from power?

That is a question to which we will never have a definitive answer, and yet it is critical to any judgment about the merits of the war.

The most sensible argument for the invasion was not that Hussein was about to strike the United States or anyone else with a nuclear bomb.

It was that containment could not be preserved indefinitely, that Hussein was repeatedly defying the international community and that his defiance appeared to both the Clinton and Bush administrations to be gradually succeeding. He was driving a wedge between the United States and Britain, on one side, which wanted to maintain sanctions and containment, and France, Russia, and China, on the other, which wanted to drop sanctions and normalize relations with him. The main concern of senior officials in both administrations was that, in the words of then-national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger, containment was not "sustainable over the long run." The pattern of the 1990s, "Iraqi defiance, followed by force mobilization on our part, followed by Iraqi capitulation," had left "the international community vulnerable to manipulation by Saddam." The longer the standoff continued, Berger warned in 1998, "the harder it will be to maintain" international support for containing Hussein. Nor did Clinton officials doubt what Hussein would do if and when containment collapsed. As Berger put it, "Saddam's history of aggression, and his recent record of deception and defiance, leave no doubt that he would resume his drive for regional domination if he had the chance." Nor should we assume that, even if the United States and others had remained vigilant, Hussein could have been deterred from doing something to provoke a conflict. Tragic miscalculation was Hussein's specialty, after all, as his invasions of Iran and Kuwait proved.

It is entirely possible, in short, that if the Bush administration had not gone to war in 2003, the United States might have faced a more dangerous and daring Saddam Hussein later on and felt compelled to act. So, in addition to whatever price might have been paid, certainly by the Iraqi people and possibly by Iraq's neighbors, for leaving Saddam in power, we might have wound up going to war anyway. There is the further question of what the entire Middle East would have looked like with a defiant, increasingly liberated Hussein still in power. To quote Berger again, so long as Hussein remained "in power and in confrontation with the world," Iraq would remain "a source of potential conflict in the region," and, perhaps more important, "a source of inspiration for those who equate violence with power and compromise with surrender." Whether historians judge the war favorably will depend heavily on whether post-Hussein Iraq does indeed provide a different sort of inspiration, but, again, the effort to change the direction of the region was surely worth paying some price.

Read the whole thing, and note that -- after going on four years since 9/11 -- hasn't been another al Qaeda attack on American soil.  That's more than we could have expected (it's more than we did expect) back then.  And to critics of the war, it's worth responding with a quote from John Lennon:  "We'd all love to see the plan."  The war critics are long on carping but short on positive suggestions.  It's hard to win elections when people regard you as unserious about protecting the country.  And the war critics are unserious.

June 17, 2005 | 10:05 AM ET

Guest blogging this week for Glenn is Ann Althouse, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where she teaches constitutional law and the jurisdiction of courts.  Her regular blog can be found at Althouse.blogspot.com.

Do movies show Americans in decline?

The writer Neal Stephenson has an Op-Ed about “Star Wars” in today’s NYT:

[V]ery little of the new film makes sense, taken as a freestanding narrative.  What's interesting about this is how little it matters.  Millions of people are happily spending their money to watch a movie they don't understand.  What gives?

Stephenson’s explanation demands that we know the difference between “geeking out” and “vegging out.”

To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal - and to have a good time doing it.  To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means.

The original “Star Wars” movie provided a blend of “geek out” and “veg out” material, according to Stephenson, and the “geek out” material let us understand what we were seeing in the luscious action sequences.  The newer films skip the “geek out” parts, so that now it’s all “veg out” material, and, when the “sounds and images to wash over you,” you can’t understand what you’re looking at.  The passivity you experience is total.

In Episode I, Stephenson notes, the Jedi advice is “Feel, don't think. Trust your instincts."  Geeky science knowledge is treated as irrelevant, even as Anakin saves his life “in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine.”

The “Star Wars” movies of today reflect modern America, Stephenson concludes:  We want all the good things science and technology make for us, but we don’t want to understand the science anymore.  We let the rest of the world do the science, and we enjoy ourselves obliviously as we sink into a state of decline, like the old Republic in the "Star Wars" movies.

But at least some of us have the energy left to get up from the armchair to go out to the movies.  Three quarters of Americans would rather stay home and watch movies on TV, according to a new AP/AOL poll.  One reason people stay home is that that they think movies are getting worse.  Half the persons polled said that.

Maybe we actually don’t enjoy the passive, veggy experience as much as Hollywood producers think.  They are so desperate for our money and frantic about the current slump in movie attendance that they try harder and harder to deliver pure pleasure.  They concoct the incomprehensible wash of sound and image just to make us happy, and then wonder why it was the challenging movie “The Passion of the Christ” that brought people to the theater.

Maybe if it’s all about mindless pleasure, there’s not enough reason to disengage our potato-y bodies from the comfy sofa.  If I’m going to have a purely passive experience, why shouldn’t I have maximum comfort, lounging at home?

So ask something of us, movie-makers.  You don’t need to demand as much as religion does, but at least challenge us to understand a little science along with the action.  Neal Stephenson thinks that Americans are in decline because we’ve lost our interest in science and that movies simply reflect our decline.  But maybe movies are in decline because they’ve underestimated us.

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