It's good for a Big Apple-based journalist to get out -- even to go south to the Federal District.
The Beltway may not be the best place to be reminded of opinion across the nation as a whole, but I find it a tad better listening post than New York.
It can surprise someone habituated by our media capital's predominant attitudes to breathe the very different air of the nation's real capital -- and register Washingtonians' more broadly vibrating antennae. They are simply that bit more attuned, and accustomed, to conservative thinking than New Yorkers are probably congenitally capable of being.
On this current trip of mine -- which has had me relating to the Pentagon primarily among other government agencies -- I got assailed by a piece of someone else's powerful (and avowedly conservative) journalism... and one occasioned by vital military matters, at that.
The insistent drive of the article that engaged me is as attention-getting and as pricking to the liberal conscience as anything in, say, Mother Jones, San Francisco's iconic journal of progressivism. The writer, DC-based Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, paints a Kafka-esque or even Orwellian picture of a law office:
The phones are tapped by the government, but you aren't allowed to use cell-phones. The government is potentially monitoring everything you do on the office computers, but you can't to use your personal laptop for official work. As for sending letters and court documents to your client in jail -- the government gets first crack and a "cursory review" of each item before it reaches the cell.
Vlahos observes that this could well sound like the old Soviet Union. It sure does -- or like many another tyranny with a semblance of due legal process. But of course she's talking about the U.S. of A.
Her scathing deconstruction of the Military Tribunals currently deciding the fates of Guantanamo prisoners is indeed not published by Mother Jones or any other "pinko propaganda sheet" (as I've heard MJ described) but by The American Conservative -- founding editors: former New York Post right-wing opinionator Scott McConnell and one-time Presidential hopeful Pat Buchanan.
Vlahos is eager, and perhaps more importantly her American Conservative publishers are eager, to publicize a severe assault on traditional American protections of an individual's rights. That assault is endemic to the way the Administration supposedly delivers 'justice' to its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.
Vlahos quotes Lt Col Donna Lorraine Barlett, a military defense counsel assigned to a Saudi prisoner who was captured in 2003, but had charges against him dropped in 2008 and yet is still detained. "How are these commissions going to have any credibility in the world if it is not a real legal process?" asks Lt Col Barlett, saying that the system in which she and her colleagues are discontentedly participating "is supposed to be a trial, not an inquisition."
For Barlett and all the critics within the system and outside it whom Vlahos has consulted for her story, it is the privacy of attorney-client communication that is a prime cause for outrage.
On that point of principle, the defense attorneys as a group -- about 40 or more both military and civilian lawyers all based in a Rosslyn building just across the Potomac River -- are refusing, and have refused for a year now, to sign an agreement with the Department of Defense. This agreement would mean they'd be consenting to "the routine monitoring, interception and search" of "all communications using or data stored on" the computer network they all have to use -- owned and maintained by the Pentagon itself.
The lawyers point out that, by agreeing to have communications with their clients open to the government's surveillance, they would be violating their own professional codes of ethics, and indeed placing their membership to the bar at risk, as well of course as putting their cases and their clients in jeopardy.
Cases previously handled by these military tribunals -- there have been just six convictions gained among 800 Gitmo prisoners in 10 years -- have created legal infamy. Both defenders and prosecutors have quit in disgust, some military lawyers leaving the Armed Forces completely, over an invented set of procedures that they see as a deliberately subverting the rule of law and the American Constitution. "The military commission system is broken beyond repair," is the view (quoted by Vlahos) of Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a former Judge Advocate General reservist.
In this election year when the very definition of conservatism seems up for fresh grabs once again, but those media set-pieces, the Republican debates, merely encourage knee-jerk right-wing soundbites from the candidates, and equally simple-minded commentary afterward, it's refreshing to read such clear-eyed campaigning journalism from a conservative magazine. The one candidate who veers from both traditional mainstream Republicanism, and from the still voluble posturing of the neo-cons, in favor instead of libertarianism (and even of some anti-militarism) is Ron Paul, as we all know. And it is he, naturally enough, whom TAC magazine is supporting.
But the "Gitmo's Prying Eyes" story is not an electioneering piece. In exposing the professional and moral dilemmas among hamstrung legal defenders of alleged terrorists, of all unpopular causes, the magazine is running so far with its libertarian ideals that it has ended up making common cause with the radical left.
So don't expect this crucial American and international issue to feature in the presidential campaign, neither in any debates that might still reappear among GOP contenders, nor in the later duel between Barack Obama and the eventual Republican choice (that is, Mitt Romney... as I still obdurately maintain it will be). But the whole disturbing story is definitively out now.
And regardless of what part of the political spectrum it may come from, it's encouraging to see good investigative story-telling being practiced and with real feeling.
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