Culture Clash The Political Animal

Zero Dark Thirty and Torture


I held my peace during the controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty because I was working on an extended consideration of the film and preferred to make my case fully in that venue. Suffice it to say as brief introduction that I think the criticisms of the film, those that accused it of justifying or endorsing torture, or even of misrepresenting the factual record regarding the role of torture in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, to have been grossly wrong. I did not think ZDT to have been the best of the high profile films of 2012 – I give that title to Michael Haneke’s Amour, a very great film – but Bigelow and Mark Boal produced an exceptional work of art. It was an honest and rigorous work chewed up by the political mill and abandoned by a weak-minded and cowardly Hollywood establishment.  Here is how I begin at The Fortnightly Review, in “Zero Dark Uncertainty.”

On December 21, 1817, John Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas that “at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The capacity to be in uncertainty, without any – how apt the adjective– irritable reaching after fact and reason: how best to describe that penumbral sphere of presence reaching toward meaning that is the realm of art. How not to describe the world of politics. How not to describe GOP members of Congress over many months insisting upon the certain nature of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. How not to describe the irritable John McCain, the irritable Lindsey Graham, irritable others insisting that there were facts that the Obama administration was obscuring, facts different from any facts to which the administration itself laid claim, even damning facts, such as that the President had watched the attack in real time from the White House situation room and done nothing. The point is made still clearer: the dominion of politics is a far land from the realm of art, one in which facts are irritably asserted and reasons reached at, even if they need to be manufactured. So, then, the response of some, the purely political response, to Zero Dark Thirty.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have produced a depiction of modern intelligence and war craft that is austere, tense, and riveting in its power and sense of reality. In its restraint neither a glorification nor a facile critique of the national security danger zone, its mission is to tell an essential story of perhaps history’s greatest manhunt and to depict the concentrated focus of those professionals who dedicate themselves to such tasks in their lives at a level approached by few. It does not champion or excoriate them, though it does at times honor their dedication and expose – for the viewer to judge – their excesses.

Politicians and ideologues cannot have this complexity.

Read the rest here.


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The Political Animal

National Security Leak


Something is leaking. I’m sorry, that’s someone. Or ones. About the U.S.’s continuing drone campaign against Al-Qeada and our ongoing cyber warfare against Iranian nuclear capabilities. A fascinating fissure in the negative reaction to the inside dope is its left-right nature. At the farther left reaches, President Obama is decried as no more than an extension of Bush-Cheney – only, in fact, better, more effective. From the right borderlands, little credit is given for aggressive and expertly pursued national security objectives; rather, as the Hannity jerks the GOP chain, comes a flooding outcry that the President has – through the leaks for which the right thinks him surely responsible – actually endangered national security, and even lost the trust of allies who will feel they cannot rely on our secrecy as clandestine conspirators.

Everybody plays their assigned roles. Does the public never tire of these morality plays? Or is it more likely powerless to prevent them? The actors will apply their makeup, don their costumes, and take the stage in the town square – ticked buyers be damned.

Righteous bags of windy high dudgeon are shocked, shocked that Obama is deciding who gets targeted by drone. Really. Who did they think was deciding – the national security advisor, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the remote pilot? Imagine the outcry had the case been revealed that lower level, unelected officials were making such life and death decisions. Of course, in war, very low-level unelected officials – privates – will in fact commonly make such decisions, and they do not ask for passports before pulling the trigger. We might turn the decision over to a judicial panel, as some, like The New York Times, have suggested. Wait, then, for the Times somewhat later, along with Karl Rove, to accuse the President of creating a Star Chamber.

We already knew, too, about the Stuxnet virus. Now there is the Flame virus, which according to Kapersky Labs, though more sophisticated than Stuxnet, may actually predate it and which appears to share some code with the earlier virus, indicating some level of cooperation or alliance among the designers. It is so sophisticated that upon revelation of its existence, it was apparently terminated by transmission of a suicide code that destroyed much of the evidence of its origins and nature. Now the handwringing is over what the U.S. might be unleashing by such cyber warfare. You can check on your own whether they are the same or different hands that have been tying themselves in knots for some years now over the threat of Chinese (and others’) cyber warfare against the U.S. Is the thought, seriously, that if the U.S. does not develop these capabilities others will not, and use them?

One wonders, too, if those worried about the consequences of cyber warfare are among those concerned also about a nuclear weapons program in the arsenal of a tyrannical, eschatological theocracy, but who warn of the dangerous consequences of any conventional attack on Iranian facilities. Are they parties who believe, Trita Parsi and Roger Cohen fashioned, that Iran would be likely to negotiate away its ambitions if only the U.S. was more open to its adversary’s other-minded, but still genuine good will? Are they people who are willing, really, to do anything at all?

The particular outcry against the leaking of this information is a correlative without an objective. We know, know that no administration before has ever revealed classified information through back or journalistic channels intended to serve either, or both, its national security and political objectives. Who would wish to live in such a world?

In reality (and welcome to it) if you are a left/libertarian political opponent of the government and of the required apparatus of secrecy in national security pursuits, then revelations of classified materials intended to embarrass the government, as those by Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, are an honorable calling and “whistle blower” prosecutions an oppression. If you are a Republican, then you become the touring theatrical company of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Graham said Obama and Biden’s altered positions constituted “the biggest double standard in recent times.”

The harsh criticism flared as McCain introduced a resolution calling for an independent investigation and the uncommon bipartisanship lawmakers had first displayed when the issue of the security leaks came to the fore openly disintegrated.

Replied Attorney General Holder,

“We have brought more leak cases . . . than any other administration,” Holder said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I was getting hammered by the left for that only two weeks ago, and now I’m getting hammered by the right for potentially not going after leaks. It makes for an interesting dynamic.”

A low lying truth beneath all the high drama is that these “revelations” revealed little.  The “baseball card” terminology for the information cards on which Obama receives his summation of each Al-Qaeda figure manages to reduce in its play lingo the moral seriousness of the enterprise, but the President was reported to be doing nothing other in a war than he should be doing – unless you are opposed to the activity to begin. David Sanger’s New York Times article on the administration’s commitment to a cyber campaign against the the Iranian nuclear program was published on June 1. It was on May 28 that Iran’s Maher center publically announced its own discovery of Flame. The Center had already been studying the virus and obviously had already known about it for some time by that date.

Certainly, it is worth noting how close together are the Iranian revelation, the Sanger article, and the suicide command. What is clear is that the leaks informed no party critical to this issue or the drones issue of anything it did not already know. What the leaks may have done is told other parties some things the administration wanted them to know. Critics from the left may not like any exercise of American power. Republicans may not like the added national security credibility these stories give Obama, stories that are, nonetheless, a pale political shadow of Nixon’s 1968 “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War or his 1972 October surprise, or Judith Miller serving as the Bush administration’s classified Scooter Libby pipeline to the public. But no one has identified, in the light of these realities, any actual detriment to American national security, and national security can leak in more than one way only.


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