Obama's Full Plate

By Dan Froomkin
12:15 PM ET, 04/30/2009

President Obama's got a lot on his plate. That was the major takeaway from last night's wide-ranging press conference. Heck, there was so much to talk about that no one even got around to asking about the economy or Afghanistan.

Obama declared that his administration is "off to a good start" and reviewed the achievements of his first 100 days, from passing the stimulus package to banning torture. He shared somewhat alarming statements about swine flu and Pakistan, endorsed immigration reform, praised newly-Democratic senator Arlen Specter, and launched into important disquisitions on torture, state secrets and bipartisanship.

Asked to describe the biggest surprise of his presidency, Obama said: "I am surprised compared to where I started, when we first announced for this race, by the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time.

"You know, when I first started this race, Iraq was a central issue, but the economy appeared on the surface to still be relatively strong. There were underlying problems that I was seeing with health care for families and our education system and college affordability and so forth, but obviously, I didn't anticipate the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

"And so, you know, the typical president, I think, has two or three big problems. We've got seven or eight big problems."

I think he grossly undercounted. (Make your own lists in comments.)

Asked how he plans to run the various corporations that have come under federal control, Obama had this to say: "You know, I don't want to run auto companies. I don't want to run banks. I've got two wars I've got to run already. I've got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we're going to be....

"I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector, if -- if you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.

"And -- and that's why I'm always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government. No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that's not the hand that's been dealt us."

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "The questions put to Barack Obama at his news conference last night covered nearly every topic but the Craigslist Killer, and if that had come up, Obama probably would have answered it in stride. You ask, he'll answer -- earnestly, disarmingly, enchantingly, even -- and most of the time convincingly, which is no small accomplishment for a politician."

U.S. News's political bulletin reports: "Post-news conference analysis on the cable news networks was basically positive, though on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly criticized the President for not calling on the network's Major Garrett, who 'was in the front row,' so 'all he got were liberal questions from the media.' But on CNN, David Gergen said, 'In terms of mastery of the issues, we have rarely had a president who is as well-briefed and speaks in as articulate a way as this president does.' John King said on CNN, 'As a performer, he is unrivalled right now in national politics. That is one of the reasons he's trying to do so much so soon. Because he knows he doesn't have a viable opposition at the moment. So while he has the strength, he's trying to use it as much as he can.' On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann said, 'If watching him tonight, you got the sense Mr. Obama has tried to accomplish 1,000 days of work of change in one-tenth the amount of the time, that is likely no accident.'"

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 04/30/2009

Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration's 'lawless response to terrorism' has not only undermined the United States' moral credibility and standing abroad and provided Al Qaeda with its best recruiting material, it also has weakened the U.S. coalitions with foreign governments that it needs most to fight the threat posed by Islamist extremism, a senior Obama Justice Department official said Tuesday. The remarks by Todd Hinnen, deputy assistant attorney general for law and policy in the department's National Security Division, went well beyond some of the earlier criticisms of the Bush administration by President Obama and his political appointees... [Hinnen] said that the new administration was struggling to deal with the fallout left by its predecessors, both in the U.S. and overseas on issues such as coercive interrogations, 'extraordinary renditions,' and the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at secret CIA 'black sites' around the world without due process.... His remarks were especially noteworthy because Hinnen, until 2007, was a top Bush administration counter-terrorism official at the National Security Council."

Daniel Woolls writes for the Associated Press: "A Spanish judge opened a probe into the Bush administration over alleged torture of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, pressing ahead Wednesday with a drive that Spain's own attorney general has said should be waged in the United States, if at all. Judge Baltasar Garzon, Spain's most prominent investigative magistrate, said he is acting under this country's observance of the principle of universal justice, which allows crimes allegedly committed in other countries to be prosecuted in Spain."

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) yesterday invited federal Judge Jay S. Bybee to testify about his role in preparing two Justice Department memos that allowed interrogators to engage in techniques such as simulating drowning and slamming prisoners against a wall."

David Leonhardt publishes the transcript of his April 14 interview with Obama in the New York Times Magazine. The subject: What American life is going to be like on the other side of the so-called Great Recession. Obama defends his economic adviser against the charge that they're too close to Wall Street. He also shares a personal story. As Peter Baker writes: "In the weeks before he was elected president, Barack Obama confronted a life crisis all too common in families across America. His grandmother, who already had a diagnosis of terminal cancer, fell and broke her hip, possibly because of a mild stroke. The question became whether to replace her hip even though she was dying." Obama discussed the episode "to point out one of the thorniest issues involved in overhauling health care: Much of the spending on medical care in the United States goes to people in their final months of life. If society is to rein in health costs, at what point are expensive operations like [his grandmother's] hip replacement surgery no longer affordable?"

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column about Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones: "Jones is an activist on the Palestinian issue, which he lists as a top priority for the new administration. He wants the United States to offer a guiding hand in peace negotiations -- submitting its own ideas to help break any logjams between the Israelis and Palestinians. 'The United States is at its best when it's directly involved,' Jones says. He cites U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Balkans. 'We didn't tell the parties to go off and work this out. If we want to get momentum, we have to be involved directly.' This stance may antagonize the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu."

Scott Wilson writes for The Washington Post: "Vice President Biden may not have received the 'caution but don't panic the public' memo. In a 'Today Show' interview this morning, host Matt Lauer asked Biden what advice he would give a family member who wanted to jump on a commercial airliner to Mexico, ground zero of the swine flu outbreak. 'I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now...You're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway."

What Bipartisanship Is -- and Isn't

By Dan Froomkin
10:58 AM ET, 04/30/2009

President Obama last night tried to correct a widely held misunderstanding of what bipartisanship means.

It doesn't, he said, mean that the majority party abandons its core philosophies and adopts those of the minority. It means the two parties try to find common ground around the edges.

Assessments of Obama's first 100 days have widely dinged him for failing to live up to his promises to reach out to Republicans. But Obama said last night that his efforts to reach out have been sincere. It's just that winning an election doesn't mean you then abandon the principles you campaigned on -- and evidently that has disappointed Republicans.

Obama also decried how much political posturing continues among elected officials even during a period of crisis.

From the transcript:

I do think that, to my Republican friends, I want them to realize that me reaching out to them has been genuine. I can't sort of define bipartisanship as simply being willing to accept certain theories of theirs that we tried for eight years and didn't work and the American people voted to change. But there are a whole host of areas where we can work together.

And I've said this to people like Mitch McConnell. I said, look, on health care reform, you may not agree with me that we should have a public plan -- that may be philosophically just too much for you to swallow. On the other hand, there are some areas, like reducing the cost of medical malpractice insurance where you do agree with me. If I'm taking some of your ideas -- and giving you credit for good ideas -- the fact that you didn't get a hundred percent can't be a reason every single time to oppose my position. And if that is how bipartisanship is defined -- a situation in which, basically, wherever there are philosophical differences I have to simply go along with ideas that have been rejected by the American people in a historic election, we're probably not going to make progress.

If, on the other hand, the definition is that we're open to each other's ideas, there are going to be some differences, the majority will be probably be determinative when it comes to resolving just hard-core differences that we can't resolve, but there's a whole host of other areas where we can work together, then I think we can make progress.

And later, when asked to talk about something that troubled him, he spoke of "the fact that change in Washington comes slowly; that there is still a certain quotient of political posturing and bickering that takes place even when we're in the middle of really big crises. I would like to think that everybody would say, you know what, let's take a timeout on some of the political games, focus our attention for at least this year and then we can start running for something next year. And that hasn't happened as much as I would have liked."

Obama Refuses to Judge Bush

By Dan Froomkin
10:31 AM ET, 04/30/2009

President Obama last night offered a powerful defense of his decision to ban torture as an interrogation practice, arguing that torture "corrodes the character of a country."

And, taking on the ends-justify-the-means argument put forth by former Vice President Dick Cheney, he argued that "we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are."

But he notably avoided -- yet again -- saying whether or not the Bush administration, in sanctioning waterboarding and other conduct almost universally viewed as torture, violated the law. He simply called it a "mistake."

Obama's release of formerly secret "torture memos" two weeks ago, along with other new revelations, have increased pressure on the White House to endorse some sort of official investigation into the conduct of the Bush administration. Obama has repeatedly resisted doing so, saying that "we should be looking forward and not backwards."

Cheney last week dared Obama to release memos chronicling the "success of the effort." Obama last night said he had read the memos Cheney wants declassified and that nothing in them had made him doubt his decisions.

Here is the full text of Obama's comments on torture, responding to questions from Jake Tapper of ABC News and then Mark Knoller of CBS Radio, who deserves great credit for using his question to try to get the president to answer Tapper's.

Tapper: "Thank you, Mr. President. You've said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?"

Obama: "What I've said -- and I will repeat -- is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don't think that's just my opinion; that's the opinion of many who've examined the topic. And that's why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do -- not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

"I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day, talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, we don't torture -- when the entire British -- all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what's best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

"And so I strongly believe that the steps that we've taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term, and make us safer over the long term, because it will put us in a position where we can still get information -- in some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world, is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it's hard, not just when it's easy.

"At the same time, it takes away a critical recruitment tool that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killing of civilians. And it makes us -- it puts us in a much stronger position to work with our allies in the kind of international coordinated intelligence activity that can shut down these networks.

"So this is a decision that I am very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we're taking on a unscrupulous enemy. Okay. I'm sorry."

Tapper: " -- administration sanction torture?"

Obama: "I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the -- whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake. Mark Knoller."

Knoller: "Thank you, sir. Let me follow up, if I may, on Jake's question. Did you read the documents recently referred to by former Vice President Cheney and others, saying that the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques not only protected the nation, but saved lives? And if part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?"

Obama: "I have read the documents. Now, they haven't been officially declassified and released, and so I don't want to go into the details of them. But here's what I can tell you -- that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques -- which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques -- doesn't answer the core question, which is: Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn't answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?

"So when I made the decision to release these memos and when I made the decision to bar these practices, this was based on consultation with my entire national security team, and based on my understanding that ultimately I will be judged as Commander-in-Chief on how safe I'm keeping the American people. That's the responsibility I wake up with and it's the responsibility I go to sleep with.

"And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe, but I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking shortcuts that undermine who we are. And there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I've made."

One concern I have about what Obama said last night is that he essentially conceded that torture produced valuable information. I think that despite the numerous CYA intelligence reports to that effect, the jury is still out.

And although the story he told about Britain was moving, Michael Tomasky, blogging for the Guardian, says Obama was wrong. Britain did torture. Tomasky links to a 2005 Guardian article all about that.

Obama Backs Down on State Secrets

By Dan Froomkin
9:35 AM ET, 04/30/2009

President Obama last night described a much more modest role for the state secrets privilege than his own administration has recently argued for in court, acknowledging that it is taking time to fully think through how to reverse some Bush administration policies.

Justice Department lawyers have made extraordinarily broad assertions of the state secrets privilege in three cases since Obama took office, continuing to make Bush-era arguments that the executive branch has the right to avoid even modest judicial scrutiny simply by citing national security concerns.

Previously, senior administration officials, including Obama's own White House counsel and his attorney general, had insisted that the administration's decision to maintain the Bush stand in these cases was proper and necessary to protect national security.

But at last night's press conference, when asked about what had widely been seen as abandonment of his devotion to civil liberties and government transparency, Obama suggested that inertia, rather than intent, was to blame. Here's the exchange between Obama and Time Magazine reporter Michael Scherer:

Q: "Thank you, Mr. President. During the campaign, you criticized President Bush's use of the state secrets privilege, but U.S. attorneys have continued to argue the Bush position in three cases in court. How exactly does your view of state secrets differ from President Bush's? And do you believe presidents should be able to derail entire lawsuits about warrantless wiretapping or rendition if classified information is involved?"

Obama: "I actually think that the state secret doctrine should be modified. I think right now it's over broad.

"But keep in mind what happens, is we come in to office. We're in for a week, and suddenly we've got a court filing that's coming up. And so we don't have the time to effectively think through, what exactly should an overarching reform of that doctrine take? We've got to respond to the immediate case in front of us.

"There -- I think it is appropriate to say that there are going to be cases in which national security interests are genuinely at stake and that you can't litigate without revealing covert activities or classified information that would genuinely compromise our safety.

"But searching for ways to redact, to carve out certain cases, to see what can be done so that a judge in chambers can review information without it being in open court, you know, there should be some additional tools so that it's not such a blunt instrument.

"And we're interested in pursuing that. I know that Eric Holder and Greg Craig, my White House counsel, and others are working on that as we speak."

There's no dispute that there must be some mechanism whereby the government can prevent breaches of national security in court cases. But the way the state secrets privilege has typically worked is that the government can refuse to publicly disclose a specific item of information -- if it can persuasively explain why to a judge. The idea is not that government officials get to tell a judge to dismiss an entire case because they don't want to answer any questions at all.

Just this Tuesday, a federal appeals court reinstated one of the cases the Justice Department had sought to dismiss.

During oral arguments on the case in February, several judges were plainly startled to hear that the Obama administration wasn't abandoning the Bush position. But Justice Department lawyer Douglas N. Letter, who had been assigned to the case under the Bush regime, said the Obama administration's position was "exactly" the same.

John Schwartz of the New York Times related the following exchange:

"Is there anything material that has happened' that might have caused the Justice Department to shift its views, asked Judge Mary M. Schroeder, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, coyly referring to the recent election.

"No, your honor, Mr. Letter replied.

Judge Schroeder asked, "The change in administration has no bearing?"

Once more, he said, "No, Your Honor." The position he was taking in court on behalf of the government had been "thoroughly vetted with the appropriate officials within the new administration," and "these are the authorized positions," he said.

Some Obama supporters had held out the hope that his Justice Department was still just getting up to speed, and would eventually pull back from the Bush-era position -- much as Obama is now indicating will happen. But Obama's two top legal officials had clearly indicated otherwise in previous interviews.

Attorney General Eric Holder, in an interview earlier this month with CBS News's Katie Couric, said he has ordered a review of the state secrets doctrine. But asked if he felt the doctrine was abused by the Bush administration, he replied: "On the basis of the two, three cases that we've had to review so far - I think that the invocation of the doctrine was correct."

And as Charlie Savage reported in the New York Times in February, after the Obama administration's first invocation of the privilege, White House Counsel Greg Craig said, "Holder and others reviewed the case and 'came to the conclusion that it was justified and necessary for national security' to maintain their predecessor's stance."

It seems clear that Obama last night was telegraphing a reversal in the three ongoing cases as well as in the general application of the privilege going forward.

But Kevin Poulsen writes on Wired's Web site that "Obama’s explanation has a nice ring to it, but ultimately falls flat" because the Justice Department didn't just make these arguments in the first few weeks of the administration, but has continued to do so "unrelentingly" since then.

So stay tuned.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:02 AM ET, 04/30/2009

Dan Wasserman and Bob Englhart on Cheney unchained, Adam Zyglis, Jimmy Margulies and Stuart Carlson on the Specter defection, RJ Matson, Bruce Plante, Ken Catalino and Chuck Asay on the first 100 days, and John Trever and Dave Granlund on the flyover.

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