The Need to Know

By Dan Froomkin
12:40 PM ET, 03/ 4/2009

A detail from artist Fernando Botero's reflection on the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today is holding a hearing on Chairman Patrick Leahy's proposal to establish a bipartisan "truth commission" to examine former president George W. Bush's counterrorism strategies. The timing couldn't be better.

The nine previously undisclosed Justice Department memos released on Monday (see yesterday's post, Bush's Secret Dictatorship) are a vivid reminder that we need to more fully explore not just the Bush administration's conduct regarding detainee policies and wiretapping, but the covert attempts to rewrite the nation's laws that enabled both -- and who knows what else.

Much has been exposed already, here and there, by journalists (especially in a handful of books), in civil litigation, during the course of a few limited congressional investigations, and now through the limited release of documents by new management.

But much remains unknown. Who knew what, and when did they know it? How direct was the link between what happened in the offices of the president and vice president and in the holding pens of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? How willful was the administration's corruption of the law?

The people responsible have not been made to answer to the public. And the victims have not had a chance to tell their stories to the nation and the world.

Charlie Savage and Neil A. Lewis write in today's New York Times: "A day after releasing a set of Bush administration opinions that claimed sweeping presidential powers in fighting terrorism, the Obama administration faced new pressure on Tuesday to support a broad inquiry into interrogation, detention, surveillance and other practices under President George W. Bush.

"Justice Department officials said they might soon release additional opinions on those subjects....

"Among those that have not been disclosed but are believed to exist are a memorandum from the fall of 2001 justifying the National Security Agency’s program of domestic surveillance without warrants and one from the summer of 2002 that listed specific harsh interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that the C.I.A. was authorized to use."

Savage and Lewis also note: "The increased calls for a greater public accounting come as the Justice Department’s internal ethics office is preparing to release a report that is expected to criticize sharply members of the Bush legal team who wrote memorandums purporting to provide legal justification for the use of harsh interrogation methods on detainees despite anti-torture laws and treaties, according to department and Congressional officials.

"The Office of Professional Responsibility at the Justice Department is examining whether certain political appointees in the department knowingly signed off on an unreasonable interpretation of the law to provide legal cover for a program sought by Bush White House officials."

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Legal experts said Tuesday that they were taken aback by the claim in the latest batch of secret Bush-era memos that the president alone had the power to set the rules during the war on terrorism....

"'You can never get over how bad these opinions were,' said [Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger], who headed the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration. 'The assertion that Congress has no role to play with respect to the detention of prisoners was contrary to the Constitution's text, to judicial precedent and to historical practice."

Ari Shapiro reports for NPR: "About a month ago, the American Civil Liberties Union sent the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel a letter and a chart. The chart listed 55 classified Bush administration legal memos on national security issues. The letter basically said, 'release these memos.'

"Some of the memos that the Justice Department declassified Monday were not even on the ACLU's list.

"'So there are dozens of memos that are still secret,' said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's national security project. They include 'memos that provided the basis for the national security agency's warrantless wiretapping program and memos that provided the basis for the CIA's torture program.'...

"One reason there's a lot of interest in these documents is that they could contain some surprises. For example, one memo declassified Monday is dated Oct. 23, 2001. It asserts that the military can ignore Americans' Fourth Amendment privacy rights and conduct searches against suspected terrorists without a warrant. It's a controversial claim, but the public learned about the assertion years ago in a footnote to another Justice Department document. The public did not know about a line in the same memo that said: 'First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully.'"

In an interview published today with Orange County Register reporter Eugene W. Fields, John C. Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who authored several of the most controversial memos, expressed only one regret: That the memos "lack a certain polish."

"Q. Is there anything you would have done differently?

"A. These memos I wrote were not for public consumption. They lack a certain polish, I think – would have been better to explain government policy rather than try to give unvarnished, straight-talk legal advice. I certainly would have done that differently, but I don't think I would have made the basic decisions differently."

He whined about the pressure he was under.

"Q. Do you have a different perspective as a private citizen?

"A. The thing I am really struck with is that when you are in the government, you have very little time to make very important decisions. You don't have the luxury to research every single thing and that's accelerated in war time. You really have decisions to make, which you could spend years on. Sometimes what we forget as private citizens, or scholars, or students or journalists for sure (he laughs), is that in hindsight, it's easier to say, 'Here's what I would have done.' But when you're in the government, at the time you make the decision, you don't have that kind of luxury."

Asked about a recent opinion piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal criticizing Obama for ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, Yoo replied: "Now that I'm not in the government, part of my role, because I have a certain amount of expertise, is to try to keep the government honest."

As for his future, he had this to say: "If I never serve in government again, that would be fine with me."

Tim Rutten writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "Just how close to the brink of executive tyranny did the United States come in the panic that swept George W. Bush's administration after 9/11? The answer, it now seems clear, is that we came far closer than even staunch critics of the White House believed."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The released memos were written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is supposed to ensure policies comply with the Constitution and the law. They make it chillingly clear how quickly that office was rededicated to finding ways for Mr. Bush to evade, twist or ignore both."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that the memo make clear "how intellectually dishonest Bush-era lawyers were in coming to these preposterous conclusions."

Poll Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:27 PM ET, 03/ 4/2009

Laura Meckler writes for the Wall Street Journal: "President Barack Obama enjoys widespread backing from a frightened American public for his ambitious, front-loaded agenda, a new poll indicates.

"He is more popular than ever, Americans are hopeful about his leadership, and opposition Republicans are getting drubbed in public opinion, the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests.

"But there are also early warning signs showing risks if his plans don't show progress. The president's support, while still deep, looks increasingly partisan as Republicans move away from him. Americans have more confidence in the president himself than in some of his initiatives, such as the economic stimulus package, and have some hesitation about his plans to raise taxes to expand health coverage."

Most remarkably: "The poll found a sharp jump in the proportion of Americans who say the nation is 'generally headed in the right direction' since Mr. Obama's January inauguration, a period when economic indicators and financial markets have suggested the opposite. The survey shows that 41% of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction, up dramatically from 26% in mid-January, before Mr. Obama took office, and up from 12% before the election.

"The number who say the country is on the 'wrong track' is still higher at 44%, but given the economic conditions, pollsters expected it to be much higher."

Mark Murray reports for NBC News: "'What is amazing here is how much political capital Obama has spent in the first six weeks,' said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. 'And against that, he stands at the end of this six weeks with as much or more capital in the bank.'

"By comparison, the Republican Party — which resisted Obama's recently passed stimulus plan and has criticized the spending in his budget — finds its favorability at an all-time low. It also receives most of the blame for the current partisanship in Washington and trails the Democrats by nearly 30 percentage points on the question of which party could best lead the nation out of recession.....

"According to the poll, part of the reason why Obama's numbers remain high despite these economic concerns is that the public doesn't blame the president for the current state of the economy. Eighty-four percent say this is an economy Obama inherited, and two-thirds of those people think he has at least a year before he's responsible for it."

Or maybe two years? A new poll from Quinnipiac finds: "American voters don't believe either President Barack Obama or 'the federal government' will solve the nation's economic crisis in two years, but they still approve 59 - 25 percent of the job their new President is doing, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released today.

"While most voters support President Obama's $75 billion mortgage rescue plan, they say 64 - 29 percent that the plan is unfair to those who pay their mortgage on time. But they believe 55 - 37 percent that the plan will stabilize home prices as the White House contends."

Budget Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:21 PM ET, 03/ 4/2009

President Obama's budget proposal presents a challenge not only to Republicans, but to Democrats who are more comfortable with the status quo than he is. (See my post from Monday, Obama vs. the Washington Establishment.)

Watch the carping begin!

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post that "some Democrats are worried about the impact of a cap-and-trade system and are urging that the money raised through permit auctions be returned to consumers.

"Some Democrats also joined Republicans in complaining about another tax provision: a proposal to reduce the value of itemized deductions for charitable contributions and other items for high-earning families. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) called the proposal 'a nonstarter.'"

Manu Raju writes for Politico: "Moderate and conservative Democrats in the Senate are starting to choke over the massive spending and tax increases in President Barack Obama’s budget plans and have begun plotting to increase their influence over the agenda of a president who is turning out to be much more liberal than they are."

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik addresses the Republican cries of class warfare: "[T]he true class war of recent American history is the one that has pitted the upper 1% of income earners against almost everybody else. Over the last three decades, a period that spans Republican and Democratic administrations alike, average family income has scarcely budged an inch, while the wealthy have grown measurably wealthier....

"Obama's proposed budget, by reversing the transfer of wealth from lower- and middle-income Americans to the wealthy imposed by the Bush tax cuts and by the economic mantras of a generation, won't in itself restore a sustainable balance to the economy, but it will start the process.

"Better-paid workers will be better able to consume goods and services without going into debt, and the frenetic search for profits in financial engineering, rather than in productivity and innovation, will fade. And we'll know whether the talk of 'class warfare' echoing so widely today represents the roar of a permanent overclass, or the death rattle of the old guard."

Buy Low?

By Dan Froomkin
12:17 PM ET, 03/ 4/2009

Baked into the White House's long-term budget projections is the assumption that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the economy will come roaring back to life -- at least relatively speaking -- thanks in part to government spending.

But does that mean it's time to buy low? Obama yesterday took what The Washington Post's Neil Irwin calls an "an unusual foray into investment advice."

Here's what the president said: "What you're now seeing is profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you've got a long-term perspective on it."

As Irwin writes, this was part of a "concerted push" by the administration "to boost confidence in downward-spiraling financial markets, assuring Americans that officials are taking the steps necessary to contain the worsening economic damage and to restore the nation's long-term fiscal health."

Another Way to Take on Washington

By Dan Froomkin
11:59 AM ET, 03/ 4/2009

Yesterday, I listed seven ways President Obama could pressure the Washington establishment to support the course change he is calling for. Several readers posted their own ideas in comments, and I'd like to call attention to one suggestion I found particularly original and intriguing.

Reader scottm2 wrote: "The entrenched two-party dynamic in Congress is the biggest obstacle to change, so go around it. Instead of meeting with the House and Senate party leadership, meet with entire state delegations. Include governors if possible. Congressmen and Senators are more likely to get down to the actual needs of their states -- and less likely to wage culture wars or otherwise pursue a useless national party agenda -- if they are in mixed company and must focus on practical considerations.

"Follow-up on these meetings in DC with speeches at statehouses around the country. Tell state legislatures what the stimulus package and other new policies will mean for them. Show state residents that you have listened to and are working with their elected representatives. Demonstrate that you're on the job for their state whether it voted for you or not. Show the reddest states in America that you are not a bogeyman, and that your policies are rational and will help them.

"Start using the language of states rather than parties. 'The Oklahoma delegation had some good ideas about agriculture subsidies' ... 'The California delegation has issues on environmental policy that we should consider' ... 'The Utah delegation's suggestion may not work nationally, but could be great at the state level -- let's try it.'

"So yes, get out there and sell your policies. But by taking Congress out of its usual way of doing business, you can get these people actually doing their jobs -- representing their constituents -- rather than spending all of their time raising money and being party hacks. There are actually some very talented and experienced people in Congress; leveraging that talent to improve the country has rarely been as necessary as it is now."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
11:53 AM ET, 03/ 4/2009

Renae Merle writes for The Washington Post: "The Obama administration gave details of its massive foreclosure prevention program this morning, releasing guidelines for the program for the first time. The program has two major components: a refinancing program for homeowners with little equity in their homes and a loan modification effort for borrowers at risk of losing their homes. It is expected to help up to 9 million homeowners lower their mortgage payments."

Here's a statement about the new guidelines, and a fact sheet.

Robert O'Harrow Jr. blogs for The Post: "President Obama announced today procurement reforms designed to improve competition for federal contracts, while curbing fraud and waste. He said these reforms would save American taxpayers up to $40 billion a year and help usher in a new era of fiscal responsibility."

Michael Cooper writes in the New York Times: "There is nothing monumental in President Obama’s plan to revive the economy with a coast-to-coast building spree, no historic New Deal public works. The goal of the stimulus plan was to put people to work quickly, and so states across the country have begun to spend nearly $50 billion on thousands of smaller transportation projects that could employ up to 400,000 people, by the administration’s estimates... Beyond all the money for Medicaid and unemployment benefits in the huge bill passed last month, this will be the face of the country’s stimulus program: a bridge will be painted on a rural road, a new lane added on a suburban highway, a guardrail built on a median strip."

ABC News's Sunlen Miller reports: "President Obama announced today that his administration will begin stamping an emblem on projects funded by the economic stimulus package so that people can easily recognize the effects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Post: "The Obama administration is preparing a wide-ranging set of initiatives designed to put shaky relations between the United States and Russia on a more solid footing, including resumption of strategic arms control talks as early as this spring, reactivation of the moribund NATO-Russia Council and possible U.S. reconsideration of plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, senior administration officials said.... The administration hopes that the offer of a comprehensive new strategic relationship will encourage Russia to be more helpful in achieving U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Iran."

Michael D. Shear and Philip Rucker write in The Post: "An intensified vetting process has left dozens of President Obama's picks to run the government mired in a seemingly endless confirmation limbo, frustrated and cut off from the departments they are waiting to serve and unable to perform their new duties.... Across the government, important posts remain unfilled, leaving those who have already been confirmed to struggle as they attempt to meet the demands of a far-reaching presidential agenda without the staff the agencies normally have.... Still, Obama is far ahead of his predecessors."

Mark Landler writes in the New York Times: "Signaling a new direction in Middle East diplomacy, the Obama administration will send two senior officials to Syria this weekend to begin discussions with the government, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on a visit to Israel on Tuesday."

Kris Maher writes for the Wall Street Journal: "President Barack Obama told AFL-CIO union leaders Tuesday in a videotaped address that the controversial Employee Free Choice Act will pass, signaling his full backing for legislation that makes union organizing easier."

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico: "Top Democrats believe they have struck political gold by depicting Rush Limbaugh as the new face of the Republican Party, a full-scale effort first hatched by some of the most familiar names in politics and now being guided in part from inside the White House."

Dana Milbank writes in The Post about British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's "surprisingly cool reception" at the White House yesterday. Here's the transcript of Brown's photo op with Obama.

Claire Suddath writes for Time that "no member of the [administration's] Middle Class Task Force is actually middle class."

Michael Calderone writes for Politico about a "proliferation of profiles" in newspapers and magazines that "isn’t about the reader’s need to know, or at least not entirely. It’s... about reporters’ need to introduce themselves to and ingratiate themselves with the White House officials they’ll need as sources over the next four years."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
10:25 AM ET, 03/ 4/2009

Jon Stewart puts up clips of President Obama and former president George W. Bush talking about Iraq -- and finds surprisingly little difference.

And Jimmy Fallon, via U.S. News, says: "Here's some good news. Barack Obama announced he's bringing home troops from Iraq. That's right. Unfortunately, he couldn't get them direct flights home. They have a two-year layover in Afghanistan."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
10:20 AM ET, 03/ 4/2009

Don Wright on Obama's challenge to the status quo, Chip Bok and Michael Ramirez on the return of big government, Steve Kelley on Obama's bucket brigade, Steve Benson on the deficit, Jim Morin on the government and the banks, Robert Ariail on Obama and the markets, and Tony Auth, Nick Anderson, Dan Wasserman, RJ Matson, Rex Babin, Mike Luckovich and John Sherffius on Rush Limbaugh and the GOP.

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