No Comment — September 13, 2012, 2:24 pm

Boss Rove’s Justice

“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.” That quip was offered by Mark Hanna during the first modern professional presidential campaign, that of William McKinley in 1896. But it could just as easily have been voiced by Hanna’s modern understudy, Karl Rove, the man who emerged as the undeniable mastermind of the G.O.P. following their recent convention in Tampa. As Rove understands it, electoral politics has little to do with policy and everything to do with money—in particular with ensuring that his side has a massive advantage over its adversary.

From early in his career, Rove’s game plan was to tap the tills of corporate America by pushing “tort reform,” which is to say, stacking the deck against tort lawyers by electing Republican judges in state court elections. In Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and other states around the nation, this tactic served to fill the coffers of a flagging Republican Party and to bolster its electoral efforts across the board. Rove’s agenda focused on the rapid appointment of a particular species of judge and prosecutor characterized less by their experience in the courts than their history in Republican Party politics. The last decade witnessed the gradual emergence of a Rovian judiciary—overwhelmingly Republican, usually appointed by the Bush White House under Rove’s strategic guidance. For a Rovian judge, it’s an article of faith that corporations and the truly wealthy who control them have the right to contribute without limit to the Republican Party candidates of their choice. This, apparently, is the true meaning of the First Amendment. Citizens United marked the triumph of this program, and that ruling benefited no single individual more than Boss Rove. Indeed it has already transformed American politics from a bid for votes to a scramble for billionaires.

But Rove’s focus on money has been twofold: the object is not simply to raise it but also to thwart the fundraising capacity of the opponent. And that brings us to the plight of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who this week returned to the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, to serve a seven-year sentence. What precisely was Siegelman’s crime? A foundation associated with Siegelman that supported his effort to secure a state lottery for education in Alabama received a $500,000 donation from Richard Scrushy, the CEO of insurance giant HealthSouth. Siegelman reappointed Scrushy to the same non-compensated state board to which three prior governors had appointed him. Federal prosecutors argued, and ultimately convinced a jury, that Siegelman should go to prison for this donation, even though he received no personal benefit from it.

Though it may be distasteful, the appointment of campaign donors to high offices belongs to the rough-and-tumble of American electoral politics. Karl Rove is the undisputed master of this practice; under his Pioneer and Ranger programs, donors who could raise or bundle $100,000 or $200,000 for the campaign were entitled to special benefits. According to Texans for Public Justice, 146 of the 548 Bush Pioneers and Rangers received political appointments within the administration. The Democrats are also familiar with such arrangements; in fact, as I have noted, Barack Obama topped Bush in rewarding campaign contributions with ambassadorial appointments. Yet the Justice Department never lifted the covers to examine any of these appointments. There was a reason for that: the upper echelons of the Justice Department itself are populated with political players who raise campaign cash for the party of their choice. Incidentally, the same could be said of Mark E. Fuller, a former member of the Alabama G.O.P. Executive Committee who presided over Siegelman’s trial, ruling for prosecutors at every turn and pressing an ostensibly hung jury to deliver a verdict that would send Siegelman to jail. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Fuller made generous contributions to the G.O.P. and, in particular, to the campaign of Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican senator who pushed forward his nomination to the federal bench.

So what was different about Don Siegelman? The answer to that question is chilling. The prosecutor who brought the case to its conclusion, Leura Canary, is the wife of one of Karl Rove’s closest protégés, Bill Canary. As Leura investigated Siegelman, her husband played a prominent role in raising contributions for G.O.P. campaigns and advising the campaigns of Republicans, including Siegelman’s Republican adversary, Bob Riley. As Jack Abramoff recently disclosed, casino gambling interests opposed to Siegelman’s lottery initiative played a key role in funding the G.O.P. effort, and hindering Siegelman was a priority for them. The Republican campaign was bolstered by a steady leak of damaging materials from Siegelman’s investigation to two Alabama newspapers tightly linked to the state’s G.O.P. Of course, the substantial donations that Scrushy had made to Republican governors who appointed him to the same board were ignored, as was the appointment by Siegelman’s Republican successor of one of his key donors to the same board. The message that this prosecution sent was unequivocal: donations to the G.O.P. were fine, but write a fat check to the Democrats and you risked a criminal investigation. Moreover, this campaign was not limited to Alabama. Next door in Mississippi, one after the other, leading donors to the state’s Democratic Party found themselves the targets of federal criminal probes. The result was direct and swift: Democratic funds dried up as Republican coffers began to bulge. The Justice Department had been converted into a campaign fundraising tool.

In a rapid series of exposés that appeared on CBS News’s 60 Minutes, Time Magazine, the New York Times, and other publications, the prosecution of Siegelman was exposed as a sham. His conviction hinged on the testimony of a witness who gave false evidence, whom CBS learned had been badgered and cajoled in over seventy sessions by prosecutors who attempted to script his evidence. Even a member of the prosecution team stepped forward to denounce the gross misconduct she had witnessed. Media around the nation including even Rove’s employer Fox News and conservative columnist George Will decried the injustice and called for Siegelman’s freedom. More than a hundred former attorneys general from around the country, many of them Republicans, called for a reversal of the case. The House Judiciary Committee, though stonewalled by the Justice Department, issued a report finding strong evidence of wrongdoing. Yet in the end, Siegelman’s conviction was allowed to stand and he was sent back to prison. How is this possible?

This case bears grim witness to the American justice system’s tendency to close its eyes to the truth. In the end, the courts and the Justice Department, obsessed with their own prestige, were vehement in their refusal to recognize the facts about the political tampering behind the case that had been exposed by the media and Congress. As former New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams observed, they have left a “deep stain on the justice system.” This cannot be purged until Siegelman is set free.

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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