By Dan Froomkin
12:08 PM ET, 04/16/2009
The Obama world re-engagement tour heads south of the border today. In four days of meetings, first in Mexico City and then in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama is picking up where he left off in Europe, reaching out to his fellow leaders and offering to work with them -- as equals.
"Times have changed," Obama told CNN en Español. Referring to his planned meeting with the Brazilian leader, for instance, he said: "My relationship with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is one of two leaders who both have big countries, that we are trying to solve problems and create opportunities for our people, and we should be partners. There's no senior partner or junior partner."
As by far the most commanding presence on the international stage, Obama can easily afford a little humility. This is especially the case in Latin America. No one will mistake the U.S. role there as anything less than dominant. Obama will be both star and alpha dog everywhere he goes.
Indeed, what the region's leaders most seem to crave is a little attention.
Plus, the whole "I'm not Bush" thing will work well in Latin America, where Obama's predecessor was widely despised for both his attitude and his policies. Not to mention the fact that Obama isn't exactly who Central Casting would send to play the part of "Yanqui Imperialist."
Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Obama is a popular figure in the region and can expect an enthusiastic welcome in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. But he also will confront deep resentments over U.S. policies that he is reluctant to change. Other leaders want the administration to normalize relations with Cuba and resurrect a ban on the kinds of assault weapons being smuggled into Mexico, commitments Obama is unwilling to make.
"Still, Obama is bound to get a better reception than George W. Bush, the least popular American president ever among Latin American countries, polls showed....
"'The new president is going to be the focus,' said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. 'Even for someone like [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez, who at the last summit made himself the focus, it will be virtually impossible to upstage Barack Obama. This is his coming out party, his cotillion in the Americas, and there's an excitement just to meet the guy, see him up close and get a feel for him.'"
Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Obama's priority list for the trip that begins Thursday is stacked with matters of concern across the Western Hemisphere — the crippling recession, the warming of the planet, the trafficking in drugs, the gloom of poverty. Crime, despair and political unrest south of the border can all undermine U.S. interests.
"But when Obama ventures south starting Thursday, improving relations with the rest of the Americas is his main mission, not just a means to achieve other goals. He is out to assuage peers from Central America, South America and the Caribbean who, rightly or not, felt ignored during the Iraq-dominated Bush years."
David Luhnow and Laura Meckler write in the Wall Street Journal: "Most analysts expect the trip to be more successful than the last regional summit four years ago in Argentina, where protests against then-President Bush, challenges by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and bickering over a U.S. drive to create a hemisphere wide free-trade zone ended in acrimony. Mr. Obama's popularity in Latin America compared to his predecessor has complicated matters for Mr. Chavez, who regularly made the former president his foil, but hasn't figured out what to do yet about Mr. Obama, analysts say."
Here's what Obama wrote in an op-ed today that appeared in several Florida and Latin American newspapers: "Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas. My administration is committed to renewing and sustaining a broader partnership between the United States and the hemisphere on behalf of our common prosperity and our common security."
CNN notes that Obama "refused to criticize the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, who have taken measures to change their constitutions to extend their holds on power.
"'I think it's important for the United States not to tell other countries how to structure their democratic practices and what should be contained in their constitutions,' he said. 'It's up to the people of those countries to make a decision about how they want to structure their affairs.'
"Asked how he plans to interact with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic who once described then-President George Bush as the 'devil,' Obama offered no criticism. 'Look, he's the leader of his country and he'll be one of many people that I will have an opportunity to meet,' the U.S. president said.
"Though he said he believes the United States has a leadership role to play in the region, Obama qualified that role this way: 'We also recognize that other countries have important contributions and insights,' he said."
The trip starts today in Mexico. Tracy Wilkinson writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Like much of the rest of Latin America, the Mexico that receives a visit from Obama today yearns for the kind of new partnership that the president espouses. U.S.-Latin American relations are at their lowest point in years and Obama's pledge to 're-order' the agenda is welcome.
"But beyond spoken commitments, Mexico is looking for concrete assistance in several areas. Powerful drug-trafficking organizations have unleashed a wave of violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in just over two years and could threaten the very ability of President Felipe Calderon to govern. Calderon has repeatedly called on Washington to do more to stop the flow of weapons and drug money from the U.S. and to curb the demand for the tons of cocaine and marijuana that Mexican traffickers send northward."
Meanwhile, Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama yesterday ratcheted up efforts to curb the flow of drugs and guns across the southern border, imposing financial sanctions against three of the most violent Mexican drug cartels and threatening to prosecute Americans who do business with them....
"By targeting the cartels -- Sinaloa, Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana -- the administration expanded its support for Calderón's crackdown on the narco-traffickers, an effort that has provoked a violent backlash and led to thousands of deaths in the past two years."
E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "the president is moving American foreign policy in a new direction, and conservatives dislike what is becoming the Obama Doctrine.
"Obama's doctrine departs from the previous administration's approach by embracing a longer tradition of American foreign policy. Obama insists that the United States can't achieve great objectives on its own, even though it is 'always harder to forge true partnerships and sturdy alliances than to act alone,'
as he put it this month in Strasbourg, France....
"The Obama Doctrine is a form of realism unafraid to deploy American power but mindful that its use must be tempered by practical limits and a dose of self-awareness. Those are the limits that defenders of the recent past have trouble accepting."Not to Be Trusted
By Dan Froomkin
11:57 AM ET, 04/16/2009
Today's revelation in the New York Times that the National Security Agency engaged in "significant and systemic" violations of the nation's already highly relaxed surveillance laws manages to be both shocking and unsurprising at the same time.
Shocking because of the vast amounts of information apparently involved -- as well as the specific targeting of American citizens, including even a member of Congress.
But unsurprising because critics predicted that the removal of direct judicial oversight from the surveillance process would result in just such abuses. You simply can't trust government officials working in complete secrecy to police themselves, no matter what the circumstances -- or who the president is.
Eric Lichtblau and James Risen write in the New York Times: "The National Security Agency intercepted private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans in recent months on a scale that went beyond the broad legal limits established by Congress last year, government officials said in recent interviews.
"Several intelligence officials, as well as lawyers briefed about the matter, said the N.S.A. had been engaged in 'overcollection' of domestic communications of Americans. They described the practice as significant and systemic, although one official said it was believed to have been unintentional."
But that's not all. As if recklessly and illegally sweeping up massive amounts of private communications wasn't enough, Lichtblau and Risen also describe what appears to be intentional and illegal NSA targeting of Americans -- including a member of Congress.
"[I]n one previously undisclosed episode, the N.S.A. tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant, an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said.
"The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact — as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 — with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations, the official said."
And that's not all. As part of a Justice Department investigation, "a senior F.B.I. agent recently came forward with what the inspector general's office described as accusations of 'significant misconduct' in the surveillance program, people with knowledge of the investigation said. Those accusations are said to involve whether the N.S.A. made Americans targets in eavesdropping operations based on insufficient evidence tying them to terrorism."
Several liberal bloggers warned of precisely this sort of abuse by government officials freed of the judicial oversight that the Constitution generally demands, first by fiat of the president, and then by an act of a supine Congress in June 2008.
Glenn Greenwald blogs today for Salon: "Everyone knew that the FISA bill which Congressional Democrats passed -- and which George Bush and Dick Cheney celebrated -- would enable these surveillance abuses. That was the purpose of the law: to gut the safeguards in place since the 1978 passage of FISA, destroy the crux of the oversight regime over executive surveillance of Americans, and enable and empower unchecked government spying activities. This was not an unintended and unforeseeable consequence of that bill. To the contrary, it was crystal clear that by gutting FISA's safeguards, the Democratic Congress was making these abuses inevitable."
And, he adds: "Note the wall of extreme secrecy behind which our Government operates. According to the article, various officials learned of the NSA abuses and then secretly told some members of Congress about them, and those individuals have been secretly discussing what should be done. The idea that the Government or Congress should inform the public about the massive surveillance abuses doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone other than the whistleblowers who leaked what they knew to The New York Times."
Amazingly enough, that's only one of several aspects of Bush counter-terrorism policy haunting the headlines today.
Evan Perez and Siobhan Gorman write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Obama administration is expected to release some operational details of a Central Intelligence Agency interrogation program and its legal rationale, while seeking to keep secret the names of detainees and the way techniques were applied to particular prisoners, two officials familiar with the matter said Wednesday.
"An announcement is expected Thursday on the release of memorandums in which Department of Justice lawyers gave legal guidance on CIA interrogations. During a fierce debate, CIA officials have argued for keeping sensitive information secret, while Attorney General Eric Holder and other Obama administration lawyers have favored a full release."
Eric Alterman writes for the Daily Beast: "Obama would be making a terrible mistake in continuing to cover up the various atrocities and crimes committed by members of the Bush administration....
"Nothing is needed so much for this administration both at home and abroad than the ability to demonstrate that it has made a clean break with the discredited policies of the past. That's why we elected him and that's why we approve him. (The rest of the world, too.)"
Josh Gerstein writes for Politico: "In a speech Wednesday extolling the rule of law, Attorney General Eric Holder rebuked members of the Bush administration for casually dispensing with longstanding American legal principles while pursuing the fight against terrorism.
"Holder declared that officials prosecuting the war on terror, whom he did not name, 'surrendered faithful obedience to the law to the circumstances of our time.'"
And Carol Rosenberg writes in the Miami Herald that Holder said "that his assignment to empty the prison camps at Guantanamo 'indisputably the most daunting challenge I face as attorney general.'...
"He said the challenge was to sort among the captives and divide them between three categories:
"• Those who 'we will likely conclude no longer pose a threat to the United States and can be released or transferred to the custody of other countries. ''
"• Those the U.S. will choose to prosecute in federal court.
"• The detainees who are ''too dangerous to release'' yet have ''insurmountable obstacles'' to prosecuting them in federal court.
"At issue may be detainees from whom confessions were gleaned through brutal interrogations."
Finally, Reuters reports: "Spain's attorney general said on Thursday he would not recommend a court investigation into six former Bush administration officials over torture at Guantanamo Bay, reducing the chances the probe will go ahead....
"'We cannot support that action,' Candido Conde-Pumpido told journalists, referring to the potential investigation to determine whether the officials provided legal arguments allowing torture to proceed.
"'If you investigate the crime of abuse of prisoners, the people probed have to be those who were materially responsible, Conde Pumpido said."
Al Goodman reports for CNN: "If alleged torture at Guantanamo is going to be investigated at all, that should be done first in the United States, so that the former American officials would have a chance to defend themselves there, Conde-Pumpido added, according to his press chief, Fernando Noya....
"The case might still go forward at the court, despite the prosecution opposition, said Gonzalo Boye, a lawyer who filed the complaint for the human rights group.
"Boye told CNN that prosecutors earlier opposed the court's human rights investigations of ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and, separately, the former military regime in Guatemala, but that those cases went ahead anyway."
Oh wait, there's one more. Benjamin Weiser writes in the New York Times: "An interpreter for the F.B.I. during an interrogation of a suspect in the terrorist bombing of the American Embassy in Kenya in 1998 now says that she heard sounds and pleading that led her to believe that the suspect was being beaten, and that she was so traumatized by the incident that she fled from the room, newly filed court documents show."
Ironically, as all this is going on, Obama yesterday told CNN: "I'm a strong believer that it is important to look forward and not backward and to remind ourselves that we do have very real security threats out there."Quick Takes
By Dan Froomkin
11:43 AM ET, 04/16/2009
Leonard Pitts Jr. writes in his Miami Herald column that one of his columns from earlier this month about torture drew suggestions "from a handful of Bush dead-enders" that he should "move on." But, Pitts writes, "there is much more to come. And much more at stake, frankly, than the feelings of an unpopular president or his partisans. By which I mean that need to get the lessons of history front and center -- in this case, to document the dangers of overreach, political expedience and ideological extremism. Bush has left us, unfortunately, many such lessons to learn. The best advice I can give his partisans, then, is to settle in for a very long ex-presidency. They think it's time we stopped talking about him? With apologies to The Carpenters, we've only just begun."
Jonathan Chait writes in the New Republic: "Bush veterans have systematically discovered that every flaw associated in the public mind with their hero turns out to be a defining trait of Obama. I am not a trained psychologist, but some form of projection seems to be at work."
Kathleen Gray writes in the Detroit Free Press: "Former President George W. Bush will give what could be his first post-presidency speech in the United States to members of the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan on May 28."Tax Day
By Dan Froomkin
11:37 AM ET, 04/16/2009
Nobody likes taxes, particularly on April 15. So President Obama used the occasion to issue a pledge to simplify the tax code. Obama haters used the day to express their opposition with tea bags. And the Obamas and Bidens released their tax returns.
Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "Barack Obama's successful quest for the White House powered the sales of his nonfiction books, making him millions even as he assumed the presidency, his tax returns show.
"As a candidate in 2008, Obama earned about $2.6 million from the sale of his books, 'The Audacity of Hope' and 'Dreams From My Father,' according to returns the White House released yesterday....
"Together, Obama and his wife, Michelle, paid about $855,000 in federal taxes. They would have received a $26,000 refund, but asked that the amount be applied to their 2009 income taxes instead.
"The returns, Obama's first released while president, show that he donated $172,050 to charities, including $25,000 to both CARE and the United Negro College Fund."
Ryan J. Donmoyer and Hans Nichols writes for Bloomberg that Obama's taxes would have been "higher by about $102,000 if his budget plan were in effect."
Here is the text of Obama's remarks on tax policy yesterday. "I decided not to bring Bo today -- because he stepped on my economic speech yesterday," the president said, before explaining that "we need to simplify a monstrous tax code that is far too complicated for most Americans to understand, but just complicated enough for the insiders who know how to game the system. So I've already started by asking Paul Volcker and my Economic Recovery Board to do a thorough review of how to simplify our tax code, and to report back to me by the end of this year. It's going to take time to undo the damage of years of carve-outs and loopholes. But I want every American to know that we will rewrite the tax code so that it puts your interests over any special interests. And we'll make it easier, quicker and less expensive for you to file a return, so that April 15th is not a date that is approached with dread every year."
Meanwhile, as Michael Finnegan and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times: "Republicans sought to ignite a popular revolt against President Obama on Wednesday by staging 'tea party' protests across the nation to demand lower taxes and less government spending -- but the tactic carried risk for the party.
"With half a million or more jobs vanishing each month, many Americans are less concerned about how much Washington deducts from their paychecks than whether they will have a paycheck at all...
"Gallup polls released this week found that 53% of Americans approve of the expansion of the U.S. government to help fix the economy, even if most of that group wants it scaled back once the crisis abates. And 48% think that the amount of federal income taxes they pay is 'about right,' a finding that shows anti-tax sentiment near a historic low for the last five decades."
And The Washington Post's Dana Milbank describes what he saw at the tea party across from the White House yesterday:
"'Hey Big Brother: Show us Your Real Birth Certificate,' said one sign in the rain-soaked crowd.
"'Blackbeard Obama, King of the Tax Pirates,' said another.
"A third showed the president dressed up as Steve Urkel, the nerdy black kid with big glasses and suspenders from 'Family Matters.' 'Did I do that?' the sign said, showing a graph of the economy plunging...
"Though ostensibly an anti-tax protest, it was more of an anti-Obama festival. Among the messages: 'The Audacity of the Dope,' 'O Crap' and Obama as an acronym for 'One Big Awful Mistake America.' Some messages were ugly ('Napolitano -- Obama's Gestapo Queen,' 'Hang 'Em High Traitors,' and a sign held by a young girl saying 'Victim of Child Tax Abuse'). Others were funny ('Don't Talk to Me! I Forgot My Teleprompter'). Certain ones had sinister overtones ('Tax Slavery Sucks,' and 'Obama bin Lyin'). Then there was the guy holding a Cabbage Patch doll by its hair with the message: 'My kid's growth stunted by your stimulus.'"Cartoon Watch
By Dan Froomkin
9:31 AM ET, 04/16/2009