Scrutinizing Obama's Afghan Plan

By Dan Froomkin
11:58 AM ET, 04/ 2/2009

President Obama's hawkish and open-ended plan for Afghanistan came under a little scrutiny yesterday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

But even as Obama commits to sending 21,000 additional troops to the region -- with another 10,000 possibly to follow -- his administration has left some key questions unanswered.

Here's what Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) asked Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, yesterday: "How will you know whether or not this new strategy is working? It seems to me that you need a set of clear benchmarks, clear metrics, going in and that we should not be committing additional troops until we have a means of measuring whether or not the strategy is successful."

Fluornoy said the Pentagon was working on it. She said the decision to deploy additional forces was driven by "a sense of urgency by our commanders on the ground that with the fighting season coming, the need to reverse momentum, the need to get in there and begin protecting the population, secure things for the election, and not lose ground, ... that we needed to go forward even as we were refining our metrics and so forth.

"But I can promise you we will, in a very short amount of time, be able to come back and talk to you in detail about metrics."

The decision to send American troops to war -- even if it's to continue a previous administration's war -- is about the most important a president can make. So Obama's new Afghanistan plan should be held to the utmost scrutiny.

Has it? I think not. I intend to revisit this issue in the coming days, with a focus on the emerging -- and largely unanswered -- critiques. In the meantime, I'd like to hear what you think. Do you think Obama has made his case? Leave your thoughts in comments below.

Yochi J. Dreazan writes in the Wall Street Journal with more news from the hearing: "President Barack Obama is weighing whether to deploy 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are questioning an increased commitment and seeking specific measures of progress against the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"When President Obama took office, the U.S. had about 38,000 troops in Afghanistan. The White House has announced plans to send 21,000 reinforcements in coming months, increasing the tally to almost 60,000.

"Mr. Obama will decide this fall whether to order 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan next year, senior Pentagon officials told a Senate panel Wednesday, bringing the total to almost 70,000."

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times that Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee's chairman, "expressed concerns Wednesday about the Obama administration's plan to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, saying he wasn't sure that would push Islamabad to take more aggressive action against extremists."

The next stop for Obama -- and a lot of his fellow leaders -- is the NATO summit where, as Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "A stalemated Afghan war and the appearance of a new, untested American president will dominate a crowded agenda....

"The summit will be Obama's first chance to appeal directly to alliance heads of government for more help in the deadlocked U.S. campaign to defeat the Taliban. The Afghan campaign is the only ground war that NATO has fought since it was founded in April 1949."

But the "depth of disagreement" over Afghanistan and other issues among the allies "is unlikely to be exposed at the NATO summit, where the public focus will be on celebrating 60 years of unity," Burns writes.

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
11:30 AM ET, 04/ 2/2009

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Ali Frick writes for Thinkprogress about how former secretary of state Colin Powell ducked MSNBC host Rachel Maddow's questions yesterday about his role in approving the torture of detainees.

Maddow: "On the issue of intelligence, tainted evidence, and those things, were you ever present at meetings at which the interrogation of prisoners, like Abu Zubaida, other prisoners in those early days, where the interrogation was directed, where specific interrogations were approved? It has been reported on a couple of different sources that there were principals meetings to which you would have typically been there, where interrogations were almost play by play discussed."

Powell: "They were not play-by-play discussed, but there were conversations at senior level as to what could be done with respect to interrogation. I cannot go further because I don’t have knowledge of all the meetings that took place or what was discussed at each of those meetings and I think it’s going to have to be the written record of those meetings that will determine whether anything improper took place...."

Maddow: "Water boarding, were those officials committing crimes when they were getting their authorization?"

Powell: "You ask me a legal question...I mean I don't know items would be considered criminal and I will wait for whatever investigation that the government or the Congress intends to pursue with this."

One reason for optimism: Powell's repeated insistence that the "complete record I think in due course will come out."

Obama's Tax on the (Smoking) Non-Rich

By Dan Froomkin
11:27 AM ET, 04/ 2/2009

Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press: "One of President Barack Obama's campaign pledges on taxes went up in puffs of smoke Wednesday.

"The largest increase in tobacco taxes took effect despite Obama's promise not to raise taxes of any kind on families earning under $250,000 or individuals under $200,000.

"This is one tax that disproportionately affects the poor, who are more likely to smoke than the rich."

Obama's no-taxes pledge was most often made in the context of income taxes. But consider this: "'I can make a firm pledge,' he said in Dover, N.H., on Sept. 12. 'Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.'...

"The White House contends Obama's campaign pledge left room for measures such as [this] one financing children's health insurance."

The Las Vegas Review Journal editorial board is smoking mad: "These pronouncements were what in polite company might generously be called...flat-out lies....

"[A] White House mouthpiece claimed this week, the 'no tax hike' pledge applied only to payroll and income taxes.

"Wrong. Read the quotes.

"Barack Obama may indeed be a new kind of politician. Just not when his lips move."

But the Anniston (Ala.) Star editorial board snuffs out such talk: "Apart from the momentary pleasure of lighting up, dipping or chewing, what good does tobacco do?

"With the new federal tax on tobacco that went into effect Wednesday, tobacco will now help fund a $32.8 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides insurance for lower-income children....

"Applause is due to Congress for passing this law and President Barack Obama for signing it."

Brian Tumulty writes for Gannett: "The higher prices should have the positive effect of reducing teenage smoking, according to Dr. Jonathan Klein, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester.

"'There's very good evidence that adolescents are the most price-sensitive,' Klein said."

And much of the price increase facing smokers is coming from Big Tobacco itself. Tumulty writes: "Earlier this month the manufacturer of Marlboro, Parliament and Virginia Slims, Philip Morris USA, increased prices by 71 cents a pack, 9 cents more than the federal tax increase. The maker of Camel, Kool and Salem cigarettes, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, bumped wholesale prices up by 44 cents a pack and reduced discounting."

Robert Behre, writing in the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., found some anger and some resignation among local smokers.

"'I hate it,' said Carmen Burnet of West Ashley. 'It's hurtful. They need to do it (raise taxes) with alcohol more than cigarettes.'

"Sandra Castellano said she had been working toward quitting in any case, and the tax increase was simply the final straw. 'I'm not giving Obama no more of my damn money,' she said. 'They're just hoggish.'"

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
10:50 AM ET, 04/ 2/2009

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "A withering internal report made public on Wednesday criticized the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for bureaucratic bloat, financial mismanagement and a failure to end the turf battles among America’s spy agencies that led to disastrous intelligence failures in recent years. The report, by the inspector general, was the most detailed account to date of problems that bedevil America’s intelligence agencies more than four years after Congress and President George W. Bush created the director’s office to overcome weaknesses exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks."

Nick Schwellenbach reports for the Center for Public Integrity: "The number of defense contracting fraud and corruption cases sent by government investigators to prosecutors dropped precipitously under the Bush administration, even as contracting by the Defense Department almost doubled...'No one is minding the store,' said William G. Dupree, a former director of the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), which investigates contracting fraud. 'Someone needs to address that.'"

Jeff Barnard writes for the Associated Press: "The Department of the Interior has told a federal court that it will not defend the Bush administration's decision to cut back protections for the northern spotted owl....Interior Department lawyers said in the motion that the decision was based on an inspector general's report finding there was political interference in owl protections by a former deputy assistant Interior secretary."

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "With momentum building in Congress for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, Sen. Richard G. Lugar called on President Obama to appoint a special envoy to initiate direct talks with the island's communist government and to end U.S. opposition to Cuba's membership in the Organization of American States."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that Richard L. Scott's "emergence this spring as the most visible conservative opponent to Mr. Obama’s not-fully-defined health care effort has former friends and foes alike doing double takes, given Mr. Scott’s history. Once lauded for building Columbia/HCA into the largest health care company in the world, Mr. Scott was ousted by his own board of directors in 1997 amid the nation’s biggest health care fraud scandal."

Mark Silva blogs for Tribune on the White House's response to the latest budget proposal advanced by House Republicans: "'If you expected a GOP alternative to the failed policies of the past that got our country into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, then I have two words for you: April Fools,' said Kenneth Baer, communications director for the Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget."

USA Today reports that "a Car and Driver April Fools'
hoax on the Web reporting President Obama had ordered Chevrolet and Dodge out of NASCAR after the 2009 season turned into a sizzling Internet topic Wednesday....The magazine later pulled the fake story (which estimated savings of $250 million) and apologized for 'going too far.'"

Orszag on the Daily Show

By Dan Froomkin
9:46 AM ET, 04/ 2/2009

Peter Orszag, director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, took his budget message to Jon Stewart's Daily Show last night.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Peter Orszag Pt. 1

"The banking crisis is crucial to what's happening this year," Orszag said. "But as you go out over time, over five, ten, fifteen years, the thing that's driving our fiscal future is the rate at which health care costs grow."

Here's part two.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:33 AM ET, 04/ 2/2009

Jeff Darcy on Obama in Europe, Peter Brookes on Obama at 10 Downing Street, Dave Granlund on the G-20, Mark Streeter on Obama's secret weapon, Tom Toles, Daryl Cagle and Matt Wuerker on the dissimilar treatment of the banking and the auto industries, John Deering on Obama's nose under the tent, David Horsey and Bruce Plante on Obama in the car business, Lee Judge on a touch of White House hypocrisy and Jeff Danziger on Cheney's need for attention.

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