Monday, August 30, 2004

What's at stake?

As we go into the Republican National Convention, and a quarter of a million people protest (peacefully!) in the streets, I would like to take a moment to contemplate exactly what's at stake in this election.

It can all be summarized in this jewel of a new story.

The Patriot Act creates the concept of a "National Security Letter," which is essentially a subpoena issued by the FBI without any judicial branch oversight whatsoever. An FBI agent can write a letter demanding private records, and state that the information is needed for a "national security" investigation, and that's all there is to it. The Patriot Act strictly forbids any person who receives such a letter from disclosing the fact that they received that letter. Not only does this create massive logistical problems in the real world, it also has the effect of seriously impeding, say, any legal challenge to those letters. If you want to challenge the "National Security Letter" as improper or invalid, you still cannot reveal the fact that you have received one.

The ACLU has filed court cases challenging the Patriot Act for being, inter alia, a tool of fascist oppression. (My words, not theirs.) They are specifically challenging the "National Security Letter" procedure. Because of the "gag order" inherent in the very statute they are trying to overturn, the Justice Department has been permitted to redact portions of the ACLU's briefs to protect "national security." For instance, the Justice Department had redacted any mention of what the ACLU's client did for a living -- "provides a number of internet related services for its clients" including web-accessible storage space, e-mail and access to the Net.

Got all that so far?

The ACLU wrote a letter to the district court challenging several of the Justice Department's redactions. They wanted the court to review the excessive and unjustifiable redactions. But -- you guessed it -- they had to specify what sections were unjustifiable.

So the Justice Department redacted the letter, too. And when it took out the black pen, it cut out the following:

"The danger to political dissent is acute where the Government attempts to act under so vague a concept as the power to protect 'domestic security.' Given the difficulty of defining the domestic security interest, the danger of abuse in acting to protect that interest becomes apparent."

Surely this is not "critical national security information," you say. Surely this is merely rhetoric. There couldn't be any justification for redacting rhetoric? Wouldn't that be the suppression of viewpoints that challenge the government?

It gets better.

That quote is a direct quote from a Supreme Court opinion. It was the parenthetical that followed "See also United States v. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Mich., 407 U.S. 297, 314 (1972)"

And that's what's at stake. The Bush Justice Department believes that it has the right to edit out portions of Supreme Court decisions that support the principles of liberty over those of oppression. It's so small, so blithe, that it makes a poetic representation of everything that the Patriot Act and the Bush Justice Department has become.

The district judge forced the Justice Department to "un-redact" several portions of the briefs and letter, but for a moment the mask slipped. Remember, the whole point of the Patriot Act is to allow the Justice Department to avoid the meddlesome interference of the judiciary -- the very judiciary that stopped the Justice Department this time. If the ACLU had failed in its judicial challenge, we would never know about the Justice Department's oppression because the Patriot Act would forbid them from telling anyone what had happened. How often has it happened in the past? How often will it happen in the future?

So, that's what's at stake.

If you pull the elephant lever in November, you are standing up and saying this behavior is acceptable.

If you pull the Nader lever, you are standing up and saying this behavior is acceptable.

If you don't vote, you are standing up and saying this behavior is acceptable.

"'There is more than one kind of freedom,' said Aunt Lydia. 'Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it.'" -- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

 9:24 AM

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Every once in a while you have to give props to the people that really do it right.

Go, right now, and read "Gus Openshaw's Whale Killing Journal." Gus wants revenge against the whale that killed his family, and he's blogging about it.

 2:29 PM

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Swift Implosion of Swift Boat Vets for "Truth"

Since my last blog on the subject of Kerry's military service, the Swift Boat vets have been in the process of a slow collapse. It's been quite a sight. Let's review the bidding:

1. John O'Neill, head of the Swifties, claims that it was absurd for Kerry to even claim that he went to Cambodia. He claimed that any Swift Boat skipper would have been court-martialed for doing it, and that gunboats would have turned away anyone that tried. He also claimed that he had never been to Cambodia himself.

But that's not what he said in 1971, when he talked to President Nixon:

O'NEILL: I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border on the water.

NIXON: In a swift boat?

O'NEILL: Yes, sir.

2. A persistent claim is that Kerry never came under fire when he pulled Jim Rassman out of the water, which was the "courage" justifying Kerry's Bronze Star. Of course, Rassman himself has always stood by Kerry, but Swiftie Larry Thurlow has repeatedly insisted there was no gunfire.

Except that (1) Thurlow got a Bronze Star for that same day, a fact that he has hid; (2) his own Bronze Star record shows enemy gunfire; and (3) the unit's Task Force Report shows that the boats were taking enemy gunfire.

Thurlow "stands by his story" even though the contemporaneous records undermine him.

3. It's starting to turn out that some of these Swifties have no first-hand knowledge of Kerry, but are merely repeating the claims of the others as hearsay. For instance, a prosecutor in Oregon was more than happy to have people believe that he was a witness -- "I know for a fact he is lying about his record" -- when in fact he was merely taking the other Swifties' word for it.

In another discovery, harsh Kerry critic Steven Gardner has received a lot of play because he served on Kerry's own boat (as opposed to the other Swifties, who were merely in the same region at or near the time). But he has recently been forced to admit that he saw none of the incidents being used to criticize Kerry, and that it was wrong for him to claim that the "boat never left dock when I wasn't on it" or words to that effect.

Yet those that actually saw the events are coming out and saying that it was exactly as Kerry said -- enemy gunfire flying at Kerry as he pulled Rassman to safety.

4. The Swifties are outrageously partisan, which is the answer to the question "Why would they be lying about all this?" Follow the connections here. The newest discovery is that the Bush campaign has been coordinating with them in some areas, and that the Swifties were advised by Bush's outside lawyer. (In contrast, the left-leaning 527s like MoveOn have not coordinated with the Democrats, they are not funded by Democratic operatives, and they have acted through PACs that are regulated by the campaign laws.)

5. If you are upset that Kerry received Purple Hearts for relatively minor injuries, Bob Dole did the same thing, according to his autobiography:

"As we approached the enemy, there was a brief exchange of gunfire. I took a grenade in hand, pulled the pin, and tossed it in the direction of the farmhouse. It wasn't a very good pitch (remember, I was used to catching passes, not throwing them). In the darkness, the grenade must have struck a tree and bounced off. It exploded nearby, sending a sliver of metal into my leg--the sort of injury the Army patched up with Mercurochrome and a Purple Heart."

The only objection is that it was somehow unseemly to accept such a medal, or to suggest one's entitlement to it. He definitely met the requirements of the Order of the Purple Heart -- as Dole's own statement attests.

6. Kerry chased down and shot a VC. That VC soldier had a rocket launcher loaded and ready to fire, and was running for cover from which to fire at the boat. Thus, if Kerry had not chased down the VC, his boat would have been fired upon with a rocket. The soldier was indeed a young man (of unknown age) in a loincloth, and was fleeing. Kerry denies shooting him in the back, but the Swifties disagree. The Silver Star citation supports Kerry's version of events, as does Kerry's crew.

7. The Swifties are the same folks that tarred McCain with the allegation that he was mentally unhinged from his time in the Hanoi Hilton. That isn't a metaphor: literally, the same people are behind both smears. And it is just as untrue this time as the last.

If you want to hate Kerry, here is a list of factual things that you can be mad about:

1. He has lied when he said he was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968. Kerry was near Cambodia, and was in Cambodia in January 1969. That was when Nixon's denial of our intervention in Cambodia was "seared" in his mind. His lie is more minor than it has been portrayed by the Swifties, though that does not excuse it.

2. He did not refuse the Purple Heart when he became eligible for it, and may have even make it known to his superiors that he would very much like to receive one. Others chose to refuse the Purple Heart for injuries that they believed were more superficial. But there is absolutely no doubt that Kerry was entitled to receive the Purple Heart each and every time he received it. Even if you choose to believe the Swifties' account of things, there is no "substantial injury" requirement, nor is there a requirement that the would be inflicted by enemy weapons.

3. He chose to take advantage of a Navy policy that let officers transfer out of harm's way after they received three Purple Hearts. Others chose to stay with their unit instead. Thus, he did indeed get out at the first possible opportunity. Yet Kerry had volunteered for duty in Vietnam, and he volunteered for Swift Boat duty after spending a year off the coast of Vietnam in safer circumstances, so the appellation "coward" certainly doesn't apply.

4. When he returned to the U.S., he became an anti-war activist and testified before Congress that: (a) he had heard others testify at the unofficial Winter Soldier hearings about specific war atrocities including decapitations, rape, maiming, and shooting of civilians; and (b) that he (Kerry) had personally committed "atrocities" in that he had participated in "free-fire" zones, and had killed civilians. His testimony was used as propaganda against our P.O.W.s in North Vietnam. But (a) his statements were absolutely true, and the factual underpinnings would have been used by North Vietnam even without Kerry's testimony; and (b) his statements regarding his own particular "atrocities" are a common testimony by Vietnam veterans. For those who doubt this last statement, I recommend Stanley Karnow's "Vietnam: A History" or the heartbreaking stories told during the "Vietnam: A Television History" PBS series. In a land where you don't speak the language, yet are fighting an insurgency, it is hard to know friend from foe.

5. Kerry probably did not go to Vietnam out of a sense of patriotic fervor. Kerry was a born politician, who probably went to Vietnam because he knew it would impact his later political career. Does this mean that his purposes were dishonorable? Compare to Bush, who pulled strings to leap ahead of others to get into the "Champagne Unit," and then deserted his post; or Clinton, who used an ROTC opportunity to shield him from the risks of standing for the draft.

6. Objectively speaking, Kerry looks a lot like Lurch.

So, decide for yourself.

 9:17 AM
The Ultimate In Wish Fulfillment

I finally saw "Kill Bill Vol. 2" this weekend, and came away with the impression that, as good as it was, it was the ultimate fanboy wish-fulfillment fantasy. Let's take the penultimate scene. I'm not letting any cats out of the bag here, because the movie begins with a short monologue in which The Bride explains that she has already killed everyone else and is on her way to kill Bill.

The penultimate scene features Bill talking to The Bride.

Well, it's a little more than that.

Let's phrase it this way: Bill, an internationally-renowed kung-fu assassin badass played by David Carradine, holds one of the world's most beautiful women at gunpoint for five, six minutes while he goes on and on about his love of comic books and his appreciation of the greater meaning of "Superman."

I for one find that perfectly plausible.

There's only one step further before the fanboys completely take over and demolish all sense of reality:

SUMMER GONZAGAS (gorgeous bikini model and rocket scientist): Wow, so this is your pad?

BRICK HUFFLEY (international man of mystery): Yep. It's my "lair." And Mom only comes down here when she needs to do a load of laundry.

SUMMER: Is that a complete set of "The Flash" comics? (swoons)

Having said all that, Uma Thurman deserves an Oscar nomination for her work in the film. But I doubt she'll get it. Very seldom does the Academy reward someone for an "action" film -- Sigourney Weaver being a conspicuous exception.

 9:02 AM

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Amazing New Breakthrough In Speech and Rhetoric

Last night Paul Hamm managed the most amazing comeback in Olympic gymnastic history. World Champion Hamm, who looks like Richie Cunningham's wet dream fantasy body, was ranked 12th after four rotations: a disastrous vault caused him to fall over, on his butt, onto the judge's table. Tres tacky, and great television. But Hamm buckled down and fought as hard as he could, hoping that a world-champion performance would get him the bronze and a measure of self-respect.

He was last to perform (among medal contenders) and everyone in striking distance had to sit there and watch him deliver as perfect a high bar performance as he has ever done. Hamm's coaches had done the math, but he hadn't, and when his score was posted it took him several shocked seconds to realize what they were saying: he managed to win the gold by twelve-thousandths of a point.

And Hamm gave only the second-most-astonishing performance of August 18th.

For those of us who argue for a living -- and really, isn't that all of us? -- there is no more impressive news than Scott McClellan's amazing triumph, his final achievement of the Holy Grail of oral argument. Scott McClellan managed to orally deliver a footnote.

Here's the nail-biting transcript of Scott McClellan's statements at the press "gaggle":

His [Kerry's] false attacks on our support for veterans have been discredited. Under the President, funding* for our veterans has more than doubled over the previous eight years. And this President has made sure we fulfilled our commitment to our nation's veterans, by increasing the health care funding for our veterans by more than 40 percent, and as I pointed out, by more than doubling the funding* of the previous eight years for our veterans. So it sounds like it's more of the same false attacks that have already been discredited.

[At end of transcript] * by nearly doubling the funding increase of the previous eight years

He sticks the landing! The lawyers in the audience go wild!

A lesser man would have to take a lump for looking the press corps right in the face and lying about the Bush administration's efforts on behalf of veterans. Hell, if I stood up and told a court that funding had "doubled," and it hadn't, I would get disbarred. But not my man Scott -- his amazing ability to orally deliver a footnote covered his butt. I'm a little startled that the reporters haven't been making a big deal out of this amazing achievement. It's the damn liberal media. They never give the Bush administration the credit it's due.

And I would like to take a moment to respond to all the low-minded bastards that have tried to tear down Scott's accomplishment. There are those that have called for Scott's world-record, Gold-medal-winning oration to be "disqualified" because it is, to paraphrase, "still a goddamned lie." They look at the Right's own numbers and point out that funding for the VA increased by 31.7% ($11 bn) under Clinton and 37.6% ($18 bn) under Bush, which means that even the footnote's claim that Bush "doubl[ed] the funding increase of the previous eight years" was a flagrant attempt to mislead the White House Press Corps. They might also say that, technically, 37.6 is less than 40%, not "more than" 40%. They might also say all of this in French.

Now I want to say this, and I want to say it clearly.

If you are so petty, so low, that you would discount the world's first oral footnote simply because that footnote corrected one lie with another lie, then you have my contempt, sir. You people with your science and your objectively provable facts lack all appreciation for art and the limitless possibility of the human race. And you hate America.

You probably wanted Paul Hamm to lose.

 8:52 AM

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Olympics and the American Character

No. 48 in a Series
Drawing Excessively Broad Conclusions From Current Events

"Can you see them? Can you see them? Little girls -- dancing for gold."
John Tesh, 1996 Summer Games

As I do every four years, I have dutifully been following the Olympics. I'm always vaguely aware that there is something strange about failing to give a flip about gymnastics for 3.999 years and then suddenly having an obsession with "our" inability to "stick the landing." It probably stems from the Cold War, in which the Olympics were a regularly-scheduled battlefield between the forces of Pure, Clean American Fun and the Tortured, Deprived Commies. (Not to be sarcastic -- the stories of Chinese athletes are staggering in their sadness.) Watching the Olympics was a patriotic duty during the Cold War. I vividly remember the 1980 goalie with the American flag wrapped around him (recently bastardized for a bad movie), I remember America's unironic pride at finally winning a passel of gymnastics medals when the Soviets didn't show up in 1984, I remember America's shock at the drop-off in the medal count at Seoul, when the big kids started competing again.

Now America has won the Cold War, and the Olympics resemble nothing so much as an average afternoon of "Wide World of Sports." It reminds us that there are an awful lot of talented people in the world, and an awful lot of countries.

Having watched the Olympic coverage this year, I am ready to make three broad, sweeping statements about America.

1. America has no problem pretending that the world revolves around us.

Once again, NBC has decided to go with its "plausibly live" coverage of the Olympics, which means that footage of competitions that finished hours ago are presented as if "live," with breathless commentary filled with questions like "can the Americans salvage a medal after that fall?" Of course they can, Elfi -- I heard it on the news on my way home from work, as did all the other people of the world.

The most egregious version of this was the opening ceremonies, which NBC broadcast with several segments missing because of commercial breaks. Think about that for a second. Normally, NBC can fudge the "plausibly live" coverage by putting the commericals in between rotations, and by omitting the competitors that are not in medal contention. You subconsciously assume that the time spent showing the swimming finals corresponds to the time that, say, France was coming in a distant eighth in the gymnastics finals. You are never forced to realize that the commercials never overlap the competitive action. If you don't think about it, it feels like NBC simply got a "TV time out" in the Olympics, like they get in football games.

But the opening ceremonies were unequivocally one uninterrupted performance. So to make the broadcast seem "live," they had to come back from commercial and briefly "recap" what had happened during the break. ("The two people dancing in the water represent the hope of the human race and the desire to push toward the future in Greece. This frolicking porpoise was brought to you by the Greater Greece Chamber of Commerce.") But they were merely broadcasting videotape, recorded hours earlier. They could have stopped the tape during the commercials, without having to stop and describe what had happened. But they would have had to honestly say something like "This was the scene several hours ago in Greece."

The fact is that the Olympics are not on a convenient American time schedule this year, because they are being held in another country. Other countries have different time zones. They have different views of the world. They do not stop and wait for America to catch up. And America is never, ever forced to confront that fact.

Compare and contrast to the Iraq war, which is covered live on Al-Jazeera yet never, ever shown in detail on American television. We've got the "plausibly live" coverage of our own war, with the media complicit in the decision to present a fake, America-centric view of the war that is more palatable for American consumption.

2. Americans Don't Get It Right

While I'm making overbroad generalizations, let me comment on the American national character as seen in the gymnastics competition.

Romanian theory of gymnastics: Make it look smooth and effortless, even elegant. There are to be no errors, bobbles, or mistakes, because those are point deductions. There is no point in doing the harder maneuvers if you can't do the easier maneuvers without bobbling. That is absurd -- playing above your game. The goal is perfection.

American theory of gymnastics: Make it look hard. Grunt and groan as you attempt a quadruple-reverse-upsidedown-flip that is just outside your capacity to do reliably, and bobble when you land, barely successful at your trick. But you didn't fall! Don't worry about perfection, because only assholes expect perfection. Max out your effort and don't worry if it was clean. Show your disappointment at winning a 9.5 for a routine in which you routinely lost your balance.

Americans can't stand the idea that the standard is getting it right, not getting it showy. Americans like to see the glass "half-full." They also like pundits yammering on about how it is anti-American to mention the empty part of the glass. That's why it was so interesting that every time the American fans express their strong disapproval of the scoring, Tim Daggett or Elfi Schlegel have to come on and explain that the Americans had received a fair score.

America invaded a foreign country, and justified this invasion with the only rhetoric that could justify such a flagrant violation of international law -- preemptive strike against an immediate threat. And we did a damn fine job of doing it with a high degree of difficulty. Minimal soldiers! Lightning strikes! Our president flew out to an aircraft carrier!

When it turned out that Hussein was merely a sonofabitch among other sonsabitches, and that it was going to be really hard to rebuild the country we had just invaded, we got a 9.5. Good for international competition, but not great. We should be happy with that 9.5. We can still recover. It's not a "quagmire," after all, because we didn't fall off the beam.

But some feverishly criticize those that would point out that a 9.5 isn't a 10. They insist that "international" standards are inherently unfair, or worse, are meaningless. America defines its actions as a 10, and everyone else is just a cheese-eating surrender monkey.

3. Some Olympic Sports Suck

Rhythmic gymnastics? Trampoline gymnastics? Speed walking?

I don't really have anything to say about America here. I just think that it's got to be an insult to the winners in the "real" sports. Imagine some guy in the Olympic village, after a hard-earned bronze for the 100 meter dash, catching attitude from some other dude sporting a silver in the trampoline.

Come to think about it, that' s pretty American too.

 9:32 AM

Monday, August 16, 2004

More on Christmas In Cambodia

My dedicated readers (Hi, Mom!) will remember that I outlined the various Kerry statements regarding his forays into Cambodia. These conflicting statements have been put to Kerry's biographer, Douglas Brinkley, who has carefully reviewed Kerry's wartime diaries.

"On Christmas Eve he was near Cambodia; he was around 50 miles from the Cambodian border. There's no indictment of Kerry to be made, but he was mistaken about Christmas in Cambodia," said Douglas Brinkley, who has unique access to the candidate's wartime journals.

....He said: "Kerry went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions. He had a run dropping off US Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA guys." The missions were not armed attacks on Cambodia, said Mr Brinkley, who did not include the clandestine missions in his wartime biography of Mr Kerry, Tour of Duty.

"He was a ferry master, a drop-off guy, but it was dangerous as hell. Kerry carries a hat he was given by one CIA operative. In a part of his journals which I didn't use he writes about discussions with CIA guys he was dropping off."

Another blogger has pointed out that the Swift Boat member who says Kerry "never" went into Cambodia left the boat at the end of December.

So, to review the bidding, it appears that Option #3 was the correct one -- Kerry lied when he said that his incursions into Cambodia had been on Christmas Eve, 1968. On Christmas Eve, 1968, he was far upriver toward the Cambodian border, and was involved in an "illegal" firefight in that the Christmas truce was under way, but he did not cross over. His memory of Nixon denying the Cambodian incursions was "seared" in his memory because of his trips in early 1969, which did occur despite the Swift Boat claims that it would have been impossible. And he did ferry CIA guys into Cambodia, one of whom gave him his "lucky hat."

Kerry certainly must take a hit for his false statements in the 1979 Boston Globe article (which turns out to have been a discussion of "Apocalypse Now," of all things), and in his 1986 Senate speech. I personally find this to be a legitimate cause for concern. But I also conclude that the entire matter has been blown out of proportion by the Swift Boat vets.

Two things to put this into proportion:

1. Paul Lucasiak has put together an extremely thorough argument for Bush's "desertion" from the National Guard, complete with reproduced citations to the relevant regulations and Bush service records. That is "desertion," not AWOL, as in "the National Guard reported him to his local draft board so that he would be inducted for failure to meet his ANG commitments."

2. A wonderful article by William Saletan in which he reviews all of the Kerry statements that have been edited together by the RNC into the famous "Flipper" video. Kerry has been rock-solid on a single, nuanced position: we need to give the President power to go to war to put "heat" on the Iraqis, but it was wrong for him to go into war immediately without exhausting the other options.

Kerry has disappointed me. But not nearly so much as has our current Commander in Chief.

 8:18 AM

Friday, August 13, 2004

Meditative Prayer, Of Sorts

I have recently been trying to spend part of each evening in silence and solitude, as part of a "discipline" to still my thoughts in prayer. The idea is to calm my mind and really listen for once -- to listen to see what God has to say. It's really, really, really hard.


I mean, you never really think about all the things that flit across your mind until you're trying to stop them. Songs, old skits from TV shows, jokes, things that happened at work, wondering if you locked the car. My head has so much running through it at times that I have a hard time focusing on any one task, which is not the most convenient problem to have while you're at work. Clearing my thoughts felt like mucking out a grease trap. Fortunately, I wasn't near the Internet, which is like crack to the scattered mind.

So I mucked out my mind and sat, quietly, with my eyes closed and my mind stilled, waiting to hear from God. And surely enough, I soon felt a presence near me in the silence, focusing on me intently.

I reached out my hand and touched the face of dog.

Bailiff the German Shepherd, two feet away, staring at me with a placid, expectant look. Suddenly I realized that she was much better than me at "sitting quietly and waiting." I couldn't help but imagine myself as Bailiff, sitting placidly and waiting for God to open his eyes and give me scratchies. And then I thought that maybe God was like Bailiff, always glad to hear from us, just patiently waiting for us to shut off all the extraneous chatter and give Him a call.

Anyway, no scratchies last night. But I'm still hoping.

 10:51 AM

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Curious Case of Kerry In Cambodia

A dispute is brewing over the upcoming book "Unfit for Command," in which the "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth" are contending that Kerry's story of his Vietnam service has holes, omissions, and outright lies. To date, most of the flames have been over whether Kerry deserved the medals that he received in combat, and my view has been that there is a difference of opinion between the other Swift Boat commanders (who were near Kerry, but not with him) and his own crewmen (who were with Kerry, but might be beholden to him).

But there is a more interesting, and more troublesome issue brewing, regarding Kerry, Christmas Eve, and Cambodia. It has already become ridiculously tangled and overblown among those who see it as proof positive that the Democratic candidate has lied about his war record, so it makes sense to first lay out exactly what was said and then talk about the accusations that have been leveled against Kerry.

In 1986, during a Senate debate over support for Nicaragua, Kerry made the following statement:

Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me, that says to me, before we send another generation into harm's way we have a responsibility in the U.S. Senate to go the last step, to make the best effort possible in order to avoid that kind of conflict.

The Congressional Record quote is here. Note something very important, and often misunderstood. What is "seared -- seared" in Kerry's mind is his recollection of Nixon saying there were no incursions into Cambodia, or his memory of being shot at and hearing that Nixon said we were not in Cambodia. The "seared" is not his recollection of Christmas Eve specifically.

In 1992, the AP ran a story on possible MIAs in Cambodia containing this passage:

But for Kerry, who spent six violent months commanding a patrol boat on the Mekong River, there's always been a ring of truth to allegations of abandoned Americans. By Christmas 1968, part of Kerry's patrol extended across the border of South Vietnam into Cambodia."We were told, `Just go up there and do your patrol. Everybody was over there (in Cambodia). Nobody thought twice about it," Kerry said. One of the missions, which Kerry, at the time, was ordered not to discuss, involved taking CIA operatives into Cambodia to search for enemy enclaves."I can remember wondering, `If you're going to go, what happens to you,"' Kerry said.

A similar story at the time reported:

Kerry, who served in Vietnam on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta from 1968 to 1969, said he was involved in a "black mission" near Cambodia. "On Christmas Eve of 1968, I was on a gunboat in a firefight that wasn't supposed to be taking place," Kerry recalled. "I thought, if I'm killed here, what will my family be told?"

In 1979, Kerry wrote a article in the Boston Globe that said:

"I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. The absurdity of almost killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real."

In 1994, The Providence Journal-Bulletin carried a story with this passage:

Some relief came from home. "I got a great package around Christmas," he says. "Filled with stale brownies. Broken, stale brownies. It was great - they were homemade. Came back in from a five-day patrol. Christmas Eve I was up getting shot at somewhere near Cambodia. Stupid Vietnamese were celebrating Christmas by shooting tracers, fifty-caliber, right up into the air, and the goddamned things were coming right over our head. That was a wild night. That was a night like right out of Apocalypse Now. It was just surreal. Mortars going off. Tracers piercing the sky. People crazy. Flares.

A fawning 2003 article in the Boston Globe contains this passage:

The Christmas Eve truce of 1968 was three minutes old when mortar fire exploded around John Forbes Kerry and his five-man crew on a 50-foot aluminum boat near Cambodia. ''Where is the enemy?'' a crewmate shouted. In the distance, an elderly man was tending his water buffalo -- and serving as human cover for a dozen Viet Cong manning a machine-gun nest. "Open fire; let's take 'em," Kerry ordered, according to his second-in-command, James Wasser of Illinois. Wasser blasted away with his M-60, hitting the old man, who slumped into the water, presumably dead. With a clear path to the enemy, the fusillade from Kerry's Navy boat, backed by a pair of other small vessels, silenced the machine-gun nest. When it was over, the Viet Cong were dead, wounded, or on the run. A civilian apparently was killed, and two South Vietnamese allies who had alerted Kerry's crew to the enemy were either wounded or killed.

On the same night, Kerry and his crew had come within a half-inch of being killed by "friendly fire," when some South Vietnamese allies launched several rounds into the river to celebrate the holiday. To top it off, Kerry said, he had gone several miles inside Cambodia, which theoretically was off limits, prompting Kerry to send a sarcastic message to his superiors that he was writing from the Navy's "most inland" unit.

Back at his base, a weary, disconsolate Kerry sat at his typewriter, as he often did, and poured out his grief. "You hope that they'll courtmartial you or something because that would make sense," Kerry typed that night. He would later recall using court-martial as "a joke," because nothing made sense to him -- the war policy, the deaths, and his presence in the middle of it all.

Kerry's own diary of the time has an entry for Christmas Eve, 1968, in which he states that he spent half a day at Sa Dec, 55 miles from Cambodia. He wrote:

Visions of sugarplums really do dance through your head and you think of stockings and snow and roast chestnuts and fires with birch logs and all that is good and warm and real. It's Christmas Eve.

The book "Tour of Duty," the biography of Kerry's service by Douglas Brinkley, contains this passage:

Christmas eve, 1968, turned out to be memorable....the crew headed their Swift...only miles from the Cambodian border. Because they were only an hour from that country, Kerry began reading up on Cambodian history.

A 2000 U.S. News and World Report article says:

Sen. John Kerry made his first forays into Cambodia during the Vietnam War as a Navy lieutenant on clandestine missions to deliver weapons to anticommunist forces.

A 2003 Washington Post article, carried on Kerry's own website, says:

A close associate hints: There's a secret compartment in Kerry's briefcase. He carries the black attaché everywhere. Asked about it on several occasions, Kerry brushed it aside. Finally, trapped in an interview, he exhaled and clicked open his case.

"Who told you?" he demanded as he reached inside. "My friends don't know about this."

The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.

"My good luck hat," Kerry said, happy to see it. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."

Kerry put on the hat, pulling the brim over his forehead. His blue button-down shirt and tie clashed with the camouflage. He pointed his finger and raised his thumb, creating an imaginary gun. He looked silly, yet suddenly his campaign message was clear: Citizen-soldier. Linking patriotism to public service. It wasn't complex after all; it was Kerry.

He smiled and aimed his finger: "Pow."

[Kerry has elsewhere referred to his "lucky hat" from Vietnam.]

There are several accusations that have been leveled at Kerry over these statements.

I. The Statements Are Inconsistent

The most common accusation -- though not the initial one -- is that these statements are inconsistent. I cannot agree. The statements can be pieced together into a complex timeline.

1. Kerry and his crew were at Sa Dec on Christmas Eve, 1968, which is an hour from the Cambodian border (55-60 miles). He ate brownies, wrote in his diary, and read up on Cambodian history.

2. Shortly after the 1968 truce took effect, and while in RVN waters, he engaged a Viet Cong group that took cover behind an old man and his water buffalo. Sadly, the old man was apparently killed in the engagement.

[Kerry does not claim, apparently, that he remained in Sa Dec for the whole time. The Swift Boat folks claim that his "sugarplums" quote proves that he was in peaceful territory, but I think otherwise. Nothing would make me think of "sugarplums" quite as much as being under fire on Christmas Eve.]

[This may be the "firefight that was not supposed to be taking place," because it was after the Christmas truce began.]

3. Later that same night, Kerry went upriver. His boat was nearly hit when South Vietnamese soldiers carried on a rowdy Christmas celebration. This engagement was "somewhere near Cambodia," though not necessarily in Cambodia itself.

[To detour for a moment. This may seem to contradict the 1979 Boston Globe article, which connects being across the Cambodian border with the South Vietnamese celebration incident. I think this is not necessarily incorrect, in that the RVN "attack" could have come during the trip into Cambodia. That is, the RVN soldiers were part of his trip upriver into Cambodia. Kerry has said that the "black mission" was "near Cambodia," and that he actually went into Cambodia that night.]

4. At some point during that night, Kerry crossed into Cambodia itself. He sent a sarcastic message back to base that he was now the Navy's "most inland" unit. There is no indication of why he was in Cambodia, except his statements that his "patrol" regularly extended that far.

5. Kerry may or may not have taken fire while there. He said he was shot at by "Khmer Rouge and Cambodians," which may or may not be on Christmas. The Senate speech was focused on Nixon's later declaration that there was no incursion into Cambodia, so his statement that he was attacked does not necessarily mean that he was attacked at Christmas. Rather, (1) "I was in Cambodia on Christmas Eve." (2) "I was shot at by RVN and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians." (3) "Thus, Nixon's lie was seared in my mind." This is a reasonable reading of the words of the speech, though not the most natural one. Perhaps the discrepancy comes because this was a transcription of an oral speech; Kerry could have used vocal emphasis to indicate a separation between the two.

Kerry also said that on Christmas Eve he was involved in a "firefight which was not supposed to be taking place." If this is a Cambodian firefight, it would indeed be "illegal." If not, the "illegal" firefight could be the attack on the VC earlier that evening, and the "Cambodians" reference could refer to later incursions into Cambodia with CIA agents.

[By the way, Kerry's comment about "Khmer Rouge and Cambodians" is highly unlikely; the Khmer Rouge were not a significant force in South Cambodia at that time. I think the explanation here is that because this came as part of a speech in the Senate, he used "Khmer Rouge" to refer to "hostile Cambodian forces" and then realized that "Cambodians" was more accurate. This is a misstatement, but I do not consider it worthy of vitriol.]

6. Nixon later claimed that there were no incursions into Cambodia. Kerry did not claim that he was thinking of Nixon while he was in Cambodia, only that he was shocked to hear Nixon make those claims later. This was "seared" into his mind.

7. At other points during the war -- possibly during Christmas 1968, but not necessarily -- he carried CIA agents into Cambodia. He also ferried weapons to anti-Communist forces. The two could be part of the same mission, or not.

So, I have come to the conclusion that all of this can be combined into one coherent narrative. The question that remains is whether it happened.

II. The Swift Boat Vets Claim It Never Happened

The same Swift Boat vets that claim Kerry didn't deserve his medals also claim that Kerry never went into Cambodia. They have an affidavit saying that boats were never sent into Cambodia, and that gunboats at the border would have turned any such craft around.

Of course, the problem with this statement is that it is based on supposition, instead of first-hand knowledge. If Kerry really were authorized to do a "black op" into Cambodia, then he would have had permission to go past the "blockade" to do it. The claim that Americans were not in Cambodia at the time is ludicrous, though that is only made by careless bloggers and commentators. The more thoughtful and informed criticism is that the Swift boats in particular were not in Cambodia at the time.

Another persuasive criticism comes from one of Kerry's crew, who said that it would have been physically impossible to get a Swift boat past the concrete pilings placed on the Cambodia/South Vietnam border. I suppose it is possible that Kerry was going through some other route (his crew has confirmed that the area was filled with twists and turns), but there is just no evidence that Kerry had some "back door" route into Cambodia other than the river itself.

Another strong attack is from the Washington Times, which quotes the chain of command as saying that Kerry was never ordered into Cambodia, and quotes three of his own sailors, who say they never went into Cambodia.

All the living commanders in Kerry's chain of command--Joe Streuhli (Commander of CosDiv 13), George Elliott (Commander of CosDiv 11), Adrian Lonsdale (Captain, USCG and Commander, Coastal Surveillance Center at An Thoi), Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann (Commander, Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam, CTF 115), and Rear Admiral Art Price (Commander of River Patrol Force, CTF 116)--deny that Kerry was ever ordered to Cambodia. They indicate that Kerry would have been seriously disciplined or court-martialed had he gone there. At least three of the five crewmen on Kerry's PCF 44 boat--Bill Zaldonis, Steven Hatch, and Steve Gardner--deny that they or their boat were ever in Cambodia. The remaining two crewmen declined to be interviewed for this book. Gardner, in particular, will never forget those days in late December when he was wounded on PCF 44, not in Cambodia, but many miles away in Vietnam.

The chain of command statements are troubling, but not definitive in my mind. If the action was a "black op," then there is every reason to suspect that they would not have "authorized" an incursion into Cambodia. As one blogger sarcastically put it, Kerry could have indeed been on a double-secret mission. This does not solve the problem of Kerry saying that "everyone" was over there, or that his "regular" patrol included five miles of Cambodian waterway.

The more devastating problem with the Kerry narrative is that his own crew does not confirm that they were in Cambodia that night, though one Kerry supporter confirmed that they were the farthest inland on Christmas Eve 1968. He just didn't know where they were.

The obvious rejoinder is that the Swift Boat Veterans are (1) partisan, and (2) have a long-standing grudge against Kerry. That is true. But the greater question is whether these men are actually lying in order to destroy Kerry. This is the same gang that tried to destroy McCain, so I hesitate to say that it is impossible. But no one from the crew has countered their statements.

Fox News asked the Kerry campaign to answer these criticisms. They first said that Kerry had only claimed to be "near" Cambodia, and then when confronted with the Congressional Record quote, the campaign failed to respond. No other crew member has come forward to confirm that he was in Cambodia that night. It may be that Kerry was with a different crew, though that seems like a real stretch, and contradicts the statements by one crew member who attested that he was with Kerry on Christmas Eve 1968, far upriver, just not in Cambodia itself.

One could always find it unlikely that John Kerry was one of those who were involved in the Tom Clancy side of the war, but that comes from your own view of Kerry as a man.

III. It Is The Plot of "Apocalypse Now," Which Came Out At About The Same Time

The final criticism is that Kerry has apparently co-opted the plot of "Apocalypse Now," which came out in 1979, the same year that Kerry first claimed to have actually entered Cambodia.

There is a chicken and egg problem here. Did "Apocalypse Now" reflect actual actions during Vietnam, or did it induce Kerry to fudge his own memory?

Mostly, it's just a funny coincidence that can be used by those who are inclined to see Kerry's statements as a lie.


There are three possibilities, as I see them:

1. Kerry actually went into Cambodia on Christmas Eve, with a different crew, and without the knowledge of his superiors.

No proof, absolutely contradicts the statement of the one Kerry-supporter crewman who was with him that night.

2. Kerry actually went into Cambodia on Christmas Eve, with his regular crew, and the Swift Boat Veterans are all lying.

No proof, doesn't match the statement of the Kerry crewman -- if one assumes that even if he did not know where they were, he would have taken note of their (politically significant) crossing into Cambodia.

3. Kerry was way upriver on Christmas Eve, illegally attacked by VC after the truce started, and got shot at by RVN soldiers. He didn't actually go into Cambodia that night, or engage Cambodian soldiers that night, though he did in early 1969. He knew that Americans were conducting incursions into Cambodia and was outraged when Nixon claimed otherwise.

Matches all known proofs, without putting stress on the crewman's memory. Flatly contradicts Kerry's Senate speech, in which he said he was in Cambodia. Kerry lied, though it may be worth noting that this proves that Kerry lied only once as opposed to the claims of the bloggers.

There are other issues that are not directly connected to Christmas Eve -- whether Kerry ever went into Cambodia (his superiors and crewmen say no), whether Kerry got his lucky hat from a CIA agent he was ferrying into Cambodia, whether he actually has a secret compartment in his suitcase for his "lucky hat," and so on.

All in all, the bloggers are bungling the story -- but John F. "Kurtz" still has some 'splaining to do.

 12:11 PM

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