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Obama Lets Loose the Hounds

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 04/21/2009

In a move sure to accelerate the push for a wide-ranging investigation of Bush administration misdeeds, President Obama today said he is not opposed to some sort of "further accounting of what took place during this period," as long as it doesn't get "so politicized that we cannot function effectively and it hampers our ability to carry out critical national security operations."

He also said that, while he has ruled out prosecution of the people who followed the legal guidance provided by Department of Justice, he wasn't taking a position on what should happen to people higher up in the chain of command. "With respect to those who formulated those legal decisions, I would say that that is going to be more of a decision for the attorney general within the parameters of various laws, and -- and I don't want to prejudge that. I think that there are a host of very complicated issues involved there."

Obama's constant insistence that "we should be looking forward and not backwards" -- which he repeated today -- had led to a perception that he was dead-set against further investigation of any kind. In today's comments, he said that the only thing he's really opposed to is a traditional congressional investigation.

"[I]f and when there needs to be a further accounting of what took place during this period, I think for Congress to examine ways that it can be done in a bipartisan fashion, outside of the typical hearing process that can sometimes break down and break it entirely along party lines, to the extent that there are independent participants who are above reproach and have credibility, that would probably be a more sensible approach to take," he said.

"I'm not suggesting that, you know, that should be done, but I'm saying, if you've got a choice, I think it's very important for the American people to feel as if this is not being dealt with to provide one side or another political advantage, but rather is being done in order to learn some lessons so that we move forward in an effective way."

Senator Patrick Leahy and Rep. John Conyers, the chairmen of the two congressional judiciary committees, have both been advocating a bipartisan commission of respected figures, possibly along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to explore actions taken by the Bush administration as part of the "war on terror."

The American public overwhelmingly wants some sort of official inquiry. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll, nearly two thirds of Americans support an investigation into the treatment of terror suspects during the Bush administration – although they are split on whether it should be conducted by an independent panel or by federal prosecutors.

But Leahy and Conyers were finding only lackluster support among even their Democratic peers.

Last week's release of memos justifying torture, which, in Obama's words, reflected us "losing our moral bearings," renewed the debate.

As Peter Baker and Scott Shane wrote this morning in the New York Times: "Pressure mounted on President Obama on Monday for more thorough investigation into harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects under the Bush administration, even as he tried to reassure the Central Intelligence Agency that it would not be blamed for following legal advice."

Baker and Shane also gave a hint of what was to come: "On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program 'This Week' that 'those who devised policy' also 'should not be prosecuted.' But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale....

"The administration has also not ruled out prosecuting anyone who exceeded the legal guidelines, and officials have discussed appointing a special prosecutor. One option might be giving the job to John H. Durham, a federal prosecutor who has spent 15 months investigating the C.I.A.'s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations."

Here's the transcript of Obama's talk at the CIA yesterday. "What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy; even when we are afraid and under threat, not just when it's expedient to do so. That's what makes us different," Obama said.

"So, yes, you've got a harder job. And so do I. And that's okay, because that's why we can take such extraordinary pride in being Americans. And over the long term, that is why I believe we will defeat our enemies, because we're on the better side of history.

"So don't be discouraged by what's happened in the last few weeks. Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn. But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be President of the United States, and that's why you should be proud to be members of the CIA."

But how do you learn if you don't acknowledge and fully understand your mistakes? If you can only bring yourself to call them "potential" mistakes? You can't. And apparently Obama is realizing that now.

The ultimate pragamatist -- who wanted very much to avoid unnecessary bad feelings that would distract from his agenda -- now seems to recognize that the advocates of further investigation couldn't be put off forever.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board wrote this morning: "If it was Mr. Obama's hope to lay the torture issue to rest, he will be disappointed. Too many issues remain, most fundamentally, did the 'enhanced interrogation techniques' keep us safe — as Vice President Dick Cheney and others insist — or were they the product of simplistic minds that had seen too many episodes of '24'? Who was driving these decisions?

"Mr. Obama has resisted appointing an independent commission to explore these questions. He should reconsider. Only a full airing of the issue can tell us how we strayed so far from our fundamental values, and more important, how we can do it right the next time."

James Fallows blogged for the Atlantic: "Being true to the world's idea of America does not (in my opinion) crucially turn on prosecuting individual CIA or military interrogators. Instead it depends on full clarifying disclosure of the reasoning that led to these practices -- thus, maximum disclosure of the memos -- and full examination of the decisions that public officials made....

"[T]he historical record of what [Bush] approved, and what Dick Cheney recommended, what David Addington egged on, and what John Yoo and (sitting Federal Judge) Jay Bybee and others rationalized, should be established in unambiguous detail. For this, some American version of a 'Truth Commission' is probably the best solution. Many other countries would not bother. America -- to be true to itself -- must. This will matter in the world's eyes. More important, it will matters to us."

Call Cheney's Bluff

By Dan Froomkin
12:30 PM ET, 04/21/2009


Cheney on Fox News last night.

Former vice president Dick Cheney, widely suspected to have been the prime mover behind the Bush administration's adoption of torture as an interrogation technique, last night dared President Obama to release more memos, these ostensibly chronicling the "success of the effort."

Obama last week released four deeply disturbing documents, in which government lawyers attempted to justify, in chilling detail, flatly unconscionable and illegal acts such as waterboarding, slamming detainees against a wall, and stuffing a prisoner with a fear of insects into a small box with a bug.

"There are reports that show specifically what we gained as a result of this activity. They have not been declassified," Cheney shot back last night in an interview on Fox News with Sean Hannity. "I formally asked that they be declassified now....If we're going to have this debate, you know, let's have an honest debate."

Please, Mr. President, call Cheney's bluff. But don't stop there. Also urge people involved in or knowledgeable about the interrogations to speak publicly about what happened. And encourage the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold its planned hearings on the subject promptly and in public.

Because, while Cheney is not entirely bluffing -- the fact is that there are inevitably a host of cover-your-ass memos that went up and down the chain of command, attempting to justify the unjustifiable -- the Bush administration has already made its best argument that torture made America safer. They've already given it their best shot, declassifying plenty of information to do so. And their claims fall apart under even modest scrutiny.

For Cheney to portray himself as the victim of secrecy is more than laughable. His signature modus operandi was for Bush aides to selectively leak or declassify secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would discredit them.

So time and time again, when it was politically necessary, the Bush White House declassified material ostensibly related to terrorist plots thwarted by heroic means.

Back on October 6, 2005, for instance, to back up a speech he was making in an attempt to rally support for the war in Iraq, Bush declassified a "Fact Sheet" listing 10 terrorist plots he claimed had been disrupted by the United States.

But as Sara Kehaulani Goo wrote in The Washington Post at the time, the list was exaggerated at best: "The president made it 'sound like well-hatched plans,' said a former CIA official involved in counterterrorism during that period. 'I don't think they fall into that category.'"

In a February 2006 speech, responding to pressure to justify his warrantless domestic spying program, Bush suddenly went into more detail about one alleged plot, this one to crash a hijacked commercial airliner into the Library Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles.

At that point, Peter Baker and Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post that "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.'

And in September 2006, partly in response to The Washington Post's disclosure of a network of secret CIA prisons around the world, and partly as a political gambit during the mid-term election campaigns, Bush delivered another speech. In this one, he described what he called an "alternative set of procedures" used by the CIA on key detainees, and went into great length about the valuable information he said Abu Zubaida -- the first detainee to be tortured at the direct instruction of the White House -- had provided as a result.

That same day, the Director of National Intelligence obligingly declassified a Summary of the High Value Terrorist Detainee Program.

But as I've written at length before -- see my March 30 post, Bush's Torture Rationale Debunked -- many of Bush's assertions have been repeatedly contradicted by investigative reporting.

And as Jane Mayer wrote in her book The Dark Side, "whatever their motives, it appears the President and the Director of Central Intelligence gave the public misleadingly exaggerated accounts of the effectiveness of the abuse they authorized. Some might impute dishonest motives to them. But it seems more likely that they fooled not just the public, but also themselves."

Very much along the lines of Cheney's argument, former Bush speechwriter Marc A. Thiessen returns to the Washington Post op-ed page this morning with more circular arguments, citing unsupported justifications written by torturers and their enablers as irrefutable proof of the value of what they did.

Thiessen writes that one of the memos released last week notes that "the CIA believes 'the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.'...In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques."

But quoting the CIA's belief doesn't really settle anything. And much of what Thiessen writes today is basically a repeat of his January 22 Post op-ed (itself a repeat of Bush's September 2006 speech) which I debunked here.

For instance, Thiessen writes: "Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques 'led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the "Second Wave," "to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into" a building in Los Angeles.'...The memo explains that 'information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the "Second Wave."' In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York."

But remember, this is the same plot that some intelligence officials told The Post in 2006 may have never been more than just talk.

So, yes, by 2005, senior Justice Department and CIA officials were in full CYA mode -- trying to defend what they had done and tell the White House what it wanted to hear -- and they most assuredly generated a lot of paperwork to support their views. But that doesn't make what they said true.

And, indeed, when it comes to the detainee whose interrogation we know the most about -- Zubaida -- accounts from outside the complicit chain of command suggest the assertions that torture worked are nothing less than delusional. As I noted just yesterday, Scott Shane writes in Saturday's New York Times that Zubaida provided some valuable information -- but before the torture began. Shane quotes a former intelligence officer involved in the case as saying that after the torture began, Zubaida "pleaded for his life... But he gave up no new information. He had no more information to give."

There is something crazy about arguing over whether torture works or not. After all, it really doesn't matter, if you believe that torture is never justified. But since at least early last year, the main defense of the Bush apologists has been to argue that the ends justified the means. And you can't just leave their assertions unaddressed.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 04/21/2009

I've gotten out of the habit of reading Maureen Dowd's opinion column in the New York Times, but yesterday she wrote about how George Lucas, the creator of "Star Wars," doesn't see former vice president Dick Cheney as Darth Vader. "Lucas explained politely as I listened contritely. Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader. 'George Bush is Darth Vader,' he said. 'Cheney is the emperor.'... You know, Darth Vader is really a kid from the desert planet near Crawford, and the true evil of the universe is the emperor who pulls all the strings.'" Reminds me of all the talk in 2005 that "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," was an anti-Bush tract in disguise.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "On the theory that every little bit helps, Mr. Obama convened the first cabinet meeting of his presidency on Monday and said that in an effort to make the government 'as efficient as possible' and to ensure that 'every taxpayer dollar is being spent wisely,' he was challenging department heads and agency chiefs to come up with ways to save $100 million over the next 90 days."

Jim Kuhnhenn writes for the Associated Press: "Taxpayers are increasingly exposed to losses and the government is more vulnerable to fraud under Obama administration initiatives that have created a federal bank bailout program of 'unprecedented scope,' a government report finds."

William Foreman writes for the Associated Press: "Former President George W. Bush cracked jokes about how he scoops up after his dog on neighborhood walks and then turned to more serious subjects like terrorism and the financial crisis Saturday during his first overseas trip since leaving office. Bush — in China for the Boao Forum — ... said after he left the White House and moved into his new home in Dallas, Texas, he decided to take his Scottish terrier Barney for a walk. To be a good neighbor, he said he carried a plastic bag so he could clean up his dog's droppings. The task seemed ironic to him, he said. 'I was picking up what I had been dodging for eight years,' Bush said. The former president said after he left the presidency in January, he plopped down on the couch and said, 'Free at last.' But his wife, Laura, piped in: 'You're free to do the dishes,' he said."

Ben Evans writes for the Associated Press: "As a senator, Barack Obama led the charge last year to pass a bill allowing black farmers to seek new discrimination claims against the Agriculture Department. Now he is president, and his administration so far is acting like it wants the potentially budget-busting lawsuits to go away."

Brian Knowlton writes for the New York Times: "The administration has no present plans to reopen negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement to add labor and environmental protections, as President Obama vowed to do during his campaign, the top trade official said on Monday."

And congratulations to Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary yesterday "for his eloquent columns on the 2008 presidential campaign that focus on the election of the first African-American president, showcasing graceful writing and grasp of the larger historic picture." Robinson told the Post newsroom yesterday: "It is certainly a great honor and privilege to win this award -- to win it for coverage of the biggest political event in my lifetime and one that has such personal meaning for me."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:52 AM ET, 04/21/2009

Jon Stewart shows a clip of Karl Rove on Fox News, whining to Bill O'Reilly about the release of the latest torture memos: "All of these techniques have now been ruined."

Stewart's response: "Don't worry, honey, they're not ruined. Those techniques are still torture... What, these torture techniques, are they like magic tricks? Once you know how the tiger disappears, the show's ruined? Waterboarding still sucks, even if you know it's coming."

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
We Don't Torture
thedailyshow.com


Also, via U.S. News, Jay Leno: "President Obama met with his entire Cabinet today. Well, sure, now that April 15th has passed, they've all come out of hiding."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:42 AM ET, 04/21/2009

Pat Oliphant and Nick Anderson on torture, Stuart Carlson on impeachable lies, Rex Babin, Jeff Darcy, Jim Morin, Scott Stantis, Steve Breen and Randy Bish on Obama and Chavez, and Tom Toles on piles of sand.

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