June 28, 2008
After the World Trade Center collapsed in an cloud of human smoke, people trying to make sense of things looked around for good information. Fortunately, they were able to find a previously obscure book called Taliban by Ahmed Rashid, an Asian journalist who had been covering all the major players in Afghanistan and the Middle East for years.
Rashid’s new book, Descent Into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, is a scathing analysis of the bad faith, corruption, incompetence and unfathomable stupidity that have characterized virtually everything the Bush administration has done in the Middle East since the Boy Emperor used 9/11 as the pretext for invading Iraq. Rashid’s conclusions won’t be startling to any longtime critics of the war: he thinks the removal of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq was a mistake we’ll be paying for a long time after Bush scuttles out of the White House; he thinks Pakistan has played the U.S. like a violin; he thinks the invasion has fueled Islamic extremism, regardless of whatever short-term shifts take place in Iraq.
Rashid’s book is a dense read. He’s been reporting on this region for a long time, he is deeply versed in the issues at play, and he backs up his conclusions in nearly encyclopedic detail. Descent Into Chaos is not light reading, but reading it will shed necessary light.
* * * * *
As we mark the one-week anniversary of the Democratic Party getting rolled on FISA and warrantless wiretapping, Barry Siegel’s Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets, 1953 Supreme Court decision, United States vs. Reynolds, that became a cornerstone of legal doctrine on “states secret privilege” and the power of the executive branch to withhold information from individuals suing the government because it might endanger national security.
In this case, the lawsuit stemmed from the 1948 crash of an Air Force bomber over Georgia, which was secretly testing a long-range guided missile system. Nine of the 13 crewmen were killed, including three civilians. The widows of the dead civilians filed a negligence suit against the government and demanded to see witness statements and other government documents central to the case.
At first the government refused to turn over documents on the grounds that disclosure would hamper future investigations of aviation disasters. When that argument appeared doomed, the government shifted gears and claimed the documents contained national security secrets. This ploy received the Supreme Court’s approval, and the widows, unable to pursue their case, settled for peanuts.
As Siegel reveals — and this is no shock to the cynics among us — the privilege claim was based on a lie. The suppressed documents, which were declassified in 1996, did not reveal anything about the guided missile program or contain any other national security secrets. Rather, they added to the considerable public information showing the tendency of B-29 engines to catch fire and revealed that the Air Force had failed to install heat shields on the engines of the plane that went down, despite a maintenance order calling for this retrofit. The reports also suggested some potential missteps by the crew after an engine fire put the flight in jeopardy.
In short, the Department of Justice asked the courts and the nation to trust it precisely when it deserved no trust at all. And in a political context heavy with the fear of Soviet spy schemes and international threats, the Supreme Court acquiesced, setting aside the skepticism of the lower court judges closest to the facts of the case.
Claims of executive privilege are one of the Bush administration’s calling cards. With this case, the idea of executive privilege can be shown to trace an unbroken, nearly 50-year-long line of bad faith.
* * * * *
Gus Russo, your go-to guy for the latest dirt on organized crime in America, takes his tommy gun to The Road to Dallas, a book that purports to offer fresh insight into the assassination of John F. Kennedy but ends up being, to Russo’s disgust, a rehash of tired conspiracy theories, with a heavy overlay of Oliver Stone-style hocus pocus. “Political myths are potent things,” Russo writes, “and The Road to Dallas stands as a sobering reminder of how they can work to distort the course of open-minded research and good-faith debate.”
* * * * *
Douglas A. Blackmon digs deep into original documents and personal narratives in his new book Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. As with the recent books Redemption and The Bloody Shirt, Slavery by Another Name reminds us that the Civil War did not spell the end of slavery in America, and that the interruption of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the defeated Confederacy simply paved the way for what blackmon calls “neo-slavery,” a sinister web of restrictive laws and economic practices designed to keep blacks in servitude. Blackmon’s detailed Web site for the book is loaded with disturbing images and facts, and his blog tracks the book’s reception.
* * * * *
Eric Alterman says this new, much-hyped book about the Cuban missile crisis is loaded with bunk, and that goes double for the NYTBR review that has launched it to success. And here’s a new biography of the emperor who tried to stop Christianity.