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Why Biden's Gaffe Matters

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 05/ 1/2009

I might have let Vice President Biden's latest gaffe go as just another example of his extraordinary capacity for verbal blundering -- until the White House started misrepresenting things.

By now, you've almost certainly heard what Vice President Biden said yesterday on NBC's Today Show.

During a discussion of the swine flu pandemic, Biden veered into tinfoil-hat territory. Asked what advice he'd give a family member considering a plane trip to Mexico, Biden replied: "I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places right now. It’s not that it’s going to Mexico. It’s 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.”

That's the kind of talk that can set off a panic. After all, when the vice president says something like this you have to wonder: Does he know something we don't?

So it was incumbent upon the White House to clear this up forthwith: to come clean by admitting that Biden had said something outrageous, and then explaining that a) he really felt this way, but was overreacting, and shouldn't have said so, or b) he simply misspoke.

Indeed, the White House quickly sent out a statement from Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander. But instead of explaining why Biden said what he did, it suggested that Biden hadn't actually said what we'd heard him say.

The statement: "On the Today Show this morning the Vice President was asked what he would tell a family member who was considering air travel to Mexico this week. The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the Administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the Vice President has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week."

Later in the day, at the daily press briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs took a similar approach, refusing to address what Biden actually said and confusing what Biden "meant to say" with what he should have said.

Jake Tapper of ABC News asked: "Representatives of the travel industry have accused the Vice President of coming close to fear-mongering because of his comments, and I'm wondering if you wanted to clarify or correct or apologize for the remarks that he made."

Gibbs replied: "Well, I think the -- what the Vice President meant to say was the same thing that, again, many members have said in the last few days, and that is, if you feel sick, if you are exhibiting symptoms, flu-like symptoms -- coughing, sneezing, runny nose -- that you should take precautions, that you should limit your travel. And I think he just -- what he said and what he meant to say."

Tapper: "With all due respect, and I sympathize with you trying to explain the Vice President's comments, but that's not even remotely close to what he said. He was asked about --"

Gibbs: "I understand --"

Tapper: " -- if a member of his family were going to --"

Gibbs: "Jake, I understand what he said and I'm telling you what he meant to say."

Gibbs issued a conditional apology: "Obviously if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that and I hope that my remarks and remarks of the people of the CDC and Secretary Napolitano have appropriately cleared up what he meant to say."

And later Gibbs repeated: "I think the Vice President misrepresented what the Vice President wanted to say, and what he meant to say was what others have said recently."

But if you actually listen to what Biden said, it's hard to conclude that he didn't mean every word of it. So the White House explanation was simply insufficient, if not outright deceptive.

The response to Biden's statement has been predictably negative. The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Mr. Biden's imprudent words could be taken as a green light for everyone to abandon the Metro, pull children out of school and avoid travel."

The New York Daily News editorial board writes: "You don't get dumber than Joe Biden was yesterday in urging, in effect, a shutdown of air travel and, worse, the abandonment of mass transit in New York in response to the swine flu outbreak."

But what matters the most to me is that the White House has refused to clarify whether Biden simply misspoke -- or whether said something he shouldn't have. And keep in mind: The latter is more typical of him.

As Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The slip and the rush to damage control were the latest in a long line of misstatements, mistakes and outright gaffes that have marked Biden's career.

"'He just naturally says what's on his mind. That is both a cause of concern to some and a charm to others,' said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University."

Torture Watch

By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 05/ 1/2009

It's become common for the investigation into torture and other abuses sought by Senator Patrick Leahy and others to be referred to as a "truth commission." But Leahy actually says what he wants is a "commission of inquiry."

As human right expert Eric Stover explains in an article on NiemanWatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor), there's an important distinction: "Truth commissions tend to be set up after a period of political upheaval or mass violence which affects an entire society," he says. Typically, everybody in the society played a role of one kind or another.

"It’s not necessary for the American public to go through some purgation here," he says. "But they do need to understand what was done in their name, and how we can correct it."

I'm not entirely sure, but Michael Kinsley, in a Washington Post opinion column today, seems to be arguing in favor of purgation or nothing.

"If you're going to punish people for condoning torture, you'd better include the American citizenry itself," he writes.

"Sixty-two million of us voted to reelect George W. Bush in 2004....If you're looking to punish the ultimate decision makers, you can't stop at the Justice Department or even the White House. You've got to go all the way to the top. You have to ask the famous Howard Baker question about the voters themselves: What did we know, and when did we know it?...

"Prosecuting a few former government officials for their role in putting our country into the torture business would not serve justice or historical memory. It would just let the real culprits off the hook."

But Gary Kamiya writes for Salon: "An investigation of the Bush years would not assign the ultimate blame to the citizenry: In a vast representative democracy like the U.S., the people cannot be held directly responsible for the illegal or immoral actions planned, authorized and carried out by government officials, even if they elected those officials. Those Americans who signed off on war and tacitly approved torture because they were afraid of terrorism must bear some responsibility for their hot-blooded reactions, but such reactions are to be expected. The reason we have laws and representatives and accountability is that they act as a check on mere impulse, on vigilante justice, the untrammeled thirst for vengeance. Because it would recognize this, the investigation would be psychologically tolerable to the American people. But at the same time, it would force citizens to examine their own conscience, their own attitudes, their own emotions and where those emotions led. And by calling for appropriate justice for those officials who, in cold blood, lied about war, created secret prisons, trashed the Constitution, and tortured, an investigation would make clear to every American that some lines can never be crossed."

And senator Robert Byrd writes on Huffingtonpost.com: "As the facts continue to come to light about exactly what happened at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and other U.S.-run secret prisons around the world, it is increasingly impossible to ignore that the U.S. government violated the basic human rights of prisoners. Not only did these insidious tactics sacrifice our national integrity, but they may also have compromised our security as well...

"The rule of law is not just a lofty concept to which we should aspire only when convenient. It is a fundamental principal upon which our Republic was founded, and it is the foundation of our free society. I understand the desire to look forward and to forge a new path on high ground instead of on the low road of the past eight years. But to use the need to move on as a reason not to investigate basic human rights violations is unacceptable. Excusing individuals at the highest levels of government from adhering to the rule of law, whether in wartime or not, is a dangerous precedent, for it undercuts the principle of accountability which permeates representative democracy....

"Whether it is through an independent investigation, a 'Truth Commission,' a Congressional investigation, or a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice, action must be taken. As long as those who condoned and approved these despicable acts are permitted to escape the consequences, we allow our moral standing in the world to be severely compromised."

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Joseph Margulies, a lawyer representing detainee Abu Zubaydah, reminds us "that there was a human being strapped to that board. His name is Zayn al Abidin Mohamed Hussein, known to the world as Abu Zubaydah....

"They tormented a clerk....[and] Abu Zubaydah paid with his mind....

"Today, he suffers blinding headaches and has permanent brain damage. He has an excruciating sensitivity to sounds, hearing what others do not. The slightest noise drives him nearly insane. In the last two years alone, he has experienced about 200 seizures.

"But physical pain is a passing thing. The enduring torment is the taunting reminder that darkness encroaches. Already, he cannot picture his mother's face or recall his father's name. Gradually, his past, like his future, eludes him."

Karen J. Greenberg writes for TomDispatch: "The policies of the Bush administration were not just horrific in themselves or to others, they may also have brought to an end the human rights movement as we know it....

"Through perverse language, a twisting of the law, and an immersion in the precise details of implementing torture techniques, the United States renounced its position as the leader of the global human rights movement. Abandoned by the country it long considered its greatest ally, that movement now teeters at the edge of its grave. That's what the torture memos and the present media uproar over torture really mean."

If you missed it, see my rebuttal to Charles Krauthammer's defense of torture from earlier today.

Meanwhile, in the news,
Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "When the photos of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq surfaced in 2004, U.S. officials portrayed Army Pvt. Charles A. Graner Jr. as the ringleader of a few low-ranking 'bad apples' who illegally put naked Iraqi detainees in painful positions, shackled them to cell doors with women's underwear on their heads and menaced them with military dogs.

"Now, the recent release of Justice Department memos authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques has given Graner and other soldiers new reason to argue that they were made scapegoats for policies approved at high levels. They also contend that the government's refusal to acknowledge those polices when Graner and others were tried undermined their legal defenses.

"Graner remains locked up at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., about halfway through a 10-year prison sentence for detainee abuse, assault and dereliction of duty. His lawyer said this week that he is drafting appeals arguments centered largely on the revelations in the memos and a newly released congressional investigation into the interrogation practices...

"Graner and other defendants -- including Lynndie R. England, who was photographed holding a naked detainee by a leash -- were blocked by military judges from calling senior U.S. officials to the stand at their trials in 2004 and 2005. The government would not acknowledge any policy or procedure that could have led to what the world saw in the photographs."

Annie Lowrey finds and transcribes video of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice seemingly restating President Nixon's view that if the president does it, it's not illegal.

Says Rice, being questioned by students at Stanford University : "The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against torture. So that's -- and by the way, I didn't authorize anything. I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the agency. That they had policy authorization subject to the Justice Department's clearance. That's what I did."

Q. "Okay. Is waterboarding torture?"

Rice: "I just said -- the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture."

Spencer Ackerman writes for the Washington Independent that Rice's comments are also notable for her portrayal of herself as merely a conduit for approving interrogation techniques. Ackerman notes: "There are only two more-senior officials than Rice in this context, and that’s Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney."

John Schwartz writes in the New York Times that Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who spent nearly six years in isolation in a Navy brig as the last enemy combatant held on United States soil, yesterday "reached a deal with the government to
plead guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda....

"In a statement issued after the plea, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, 'Without a doubt, this case is a grim reminder of the seriousness of the threat we as a nation still face.'

"Mr. Holder also took the opportunity, however, to distinguish the criminal proceeding from the indefinite detention under which Mr. Marri, 43, had been held without charges as an 'enemy combatant' during the Bush administration, when he was kept in solitary confinement in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., for nearly six years. That detention had been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The switch to criminal court and the agreement, Mr. Holder said, 'reflects what we can achieve when we have faith in our criminal justice system and are unwavering in our commitment to the values upon which the nation was founded and the rule of law.'"

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post that Marri "faces as many as 15 years in prison when he is sentenced this summer. But he could serve far less time if a judge gives him credit for time served" though "prosecutors will argue against Marri getting credit for his brig time at the sentencing hearing in July."

Elisabeth Bumiller and William Glaberson write in the New York Times: "As many as 100 detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, could end up held without trial on American soil, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested Thursday, a situation that he acknowledged would create widespread if not unanimous opposition in Congress...

"On Wednesday in Berlin, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the legal basis for holding any detainees was still under review.

"'We have to determine what would be our basis for holding that person that would to the world appear to be fair and that would in fact be fair,' he said. 'How could you ensure that due process was being served by the detention of such a person?'"

Brian Ross, Matthew Cole and Joseph Ree report for ABC News: "According to current and former government officials, the CIA's secret waterboarding program was designed and assured to be safe by two well-paid psychologists now working out of an unmarked office building in Spokane, Washington.

"Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell, former military officers, together founded Mitchell Jessen and Associates.

"Both men declined to speak to ABC News citing non-disclosure agreements with the CIA."

And CNN reports: "The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

"More than half of people who attend services at least once a week -- 54 percent -- said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is 'often' or 'sometimes' justified. Only 42 percent of people who 'seldom or never' go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:50 PM ET, 05/ 1/2009

Robert Barnes writes in The Washington Post: "Justice David H. Souter, the Republican-appointed New England jurist who has become a reliable member of the liberal bloc on the Supreme Court, has told friends that he plans to retire, according to a government official....A vacancy would give President Obama his first chance to begin reshaping the court but would not likely change the dynamic on a bench that is often evenly split between the liberal and conservative blocs, with moderate conservative Justice Anthony M. Kennedy often holding the pivotal role." Barnes has a list of possible replacements.

In the New York Times, Jackie Calmes tries her hand at the pox-on-both-your-houses school of political reporting, writing that Obama's budget thinking is "the Democratic version of Reaganomics, the supply-side theory that replaced Republicans’ longtime belief in balanced budgets. As popularized by President Ronald Reagan, the theory holds that cutting income taxes encourages people to work harder and to produce more goods, sparking economic growth and increased tax revenues." But there's a huge difference between saying that tax cuts pay for themselves -- which they objectively don't -- and saying that investments in infrastructure, education, health care and energy pay off in long term growth and a strong economy. Calmes does allow an administration official to make that point: "'I would be worried,' Mr. Obama’s budget director, Peter R. Orszag, said in an interview, 'if the gestalt out there was that we were saying that these investments will by themselves bring down the deficit, as opposed to they will help spur economic performance, partially offsetting the costs of the investments in the first place, which is a much different thing." Nevertheless, Calmes writes that "some economists" think "both parties want it all."

Deborah Solomon, Jonathan Weisman and Laura Meckler write in the Wall Street Journal: "On Jan. 20, Timothy Geithner took control of the Treasury Department, directing the government's response to the financial crisis. Within three weeks, the White House tightened its grip, alarmed by the poor reaction to Mr. Geithner's performance during the rollout of his rescue plan, government officials say. Since then, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been so involved in the workings of the Treasury that 'Rahm wants it' has become an unofficial mantra among some at the Treasury, according to government officials."

Peter Whoriskey, Brady Dennis and Kendra Marr write in The Washington Post: "Chrysler, the nation's third-largest automaker, filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, with President Obama promising that court relief would give the company a 'new lease on life.' The administration's efforts to avert a bankruptcy filing were frustrated by some hedge funds, which Obama referred to as 'a small group of speculators,' that rejected the government's final offer to settle their claims against Chrysler out of court."

William Wan, Ashley Halsey III and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "A federal agent who traveled to Mexico with President Obama this month probably contracted swine flu and infected several members of his family in Anne Arundel County, prompting assurances yesterday from the White House that the president was safe."

Scott Wilson and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration has relied on a Bush-era public health strategy aimed at coordinating its response across an array of government agencies in the week since the first reports of a swine flu outbreak emerged, officials say, as it attempts to balance safety concerns with a desire to prevent a panic."

Lydia Saad reports for Gallup: "Gallup Poll Daily tracking during President Obama's first 100 days in office finds broad support for him among Americans affiliated with most major U.S. religions. U.S. Muslims and Jews give Obama his highest job approval ratings, at 85% and 79%, respectively. He also receives solid majority support from Roman Catholics (67%) and Protestants (58%), and more approval than disapproval from Mormons."

Dick Polman, blogging for the Philadelphia Inquirer, has some good follow-up questions for Obama based on the comments he made about the state secrets privilege Wednesday night. (For background, see my post from yesterday, Obama Backs Down on State Secrets.) Polman asks: "Is it credible to believe that Obama's legal team signed on to the Bush blanket-privilege doctrine only because they were pressed for time? If that's true, then how come the Obama team has twice invoked the blanket doctrine in subsequent cases? Does he regret breaking an important campaign promise? And how hard will Obama really work to trim back the doctrine? In his response, he never mentioned the long-pending Senate bill that would allow judges to privately examine sensitive material without tossing out entire cases; would he support such a bill?"

Ross Douthat writes for the Atlantic: "In a variety of different ways, George W. Bush helped make Barack Obama's first hundred days a ringing success." For instance, "over the short term, at least, the burdens that Bush left his successor have proven to be tremendous political assets." Also: "The fact that the Bush Administration had acknowledged the use of waterboarding and allowed the Red Cross access to high-value detainees enabled Obama to plausibly claim that he wasn't revealing any information whose secrecy hadn't been essentially compromised already." And, Douthat writes, "had Afghanistan been relatively stable, and Iraq in its pre-surge state of chaos - Obama's initial foreign-policy choices would have been considerably more difficult."

Greg Mitchell notes for Editor and Publisher that today is the sixth anniversary of "Mission Accomplished."

Nancy A. Youssef writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Obama administration is determined to continue withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on schedule, despite a surge of violence in two Iraqi cities that shows no signs of abating and could increase in the weeks ahead, administration and military officials said this week."

Nancy Jo Sales writes for Vanity Fair: "George W. Bush shows no signs of concern, regret, or wear and tear. He’s relaxed and smiling, seemingly at peace with the world, which, some would argue, he left so much worse off." She describes his recent talk in Calgary, which was full of stand-up comedy.

Markos "Kos" Moulitsas blogs: "So Obama's budget passed yesterday with zero Republican votes. And you know what was the best part? The Administration didn't give a damn and the media didn't give a damn. All that Obama talk about 'bipartisanship' has ceased, and as a result, the media is no longer claiming Obama is a loser because he failed to garner Republican support."

Mark Knoller writes for CBS News: "As one among a throng of reporters last evening in the East Room, I was struck by the degree to which the White House Press Corps has been tamed, if not mollified, on one aspect of our conduct. Nowadays, it’s standard practice at these sessions to wait quietly for the President to call the name of the next reporter from whom he’ll take a question....It’s very different from when I first started covering presidential news conferences in 1976."

Video of Obama winning a basketball shoot-out with UConn's Lady Huskers has now become the fifth-most-watched White House video on Youtube, with over 320,000 views as of this morning.

Krauthammer's Asterisks

By Dan Froomkin
9:45 AM ET, 05/ 1/2009

Charles Krauthammer, in his Washington Post opinion column this morning, tries to find loopholes for impermissible evil.

"Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances," he writes.

"The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy."

Actually, no. The ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians. In real life, things are never that certain. And trained interrogators say that even in the most extreme circumstances, traditional methods are the most effective.

Krauthammer continues: "Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander."

Actually, no. They are normal people who share the post-World War II international consensus that "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Indeed, the idea of putting someone without a healthy respect for human rights at Centcom is abhorrent -- unless of course you believe that human rights don't matter.

Krauthamer: "The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great."

This of course is a blatant post-facto attempt at rationalizing the (inevitable) misdiagnosis of the ticking time bomb scenario. Now all of a sudden the standards are lower. Krauthammer is advocating fishing expeditions -- with a waterboard.

"Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do."

Krauthammer's core argument then is that the ends justify the means. He quotes two former CIA officials, both deeply invested in covering their asses, who unsurprisingly insist that torture worked. But none of the claims they or others in the complicit chain of command have made held up under even modest public scrutiny.

And he mocks the idea put forth by President Obama on Wednesday -- and supported by people who actually have experience in interrogation, rather than in watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer -- that traditional interrogation techniques are extremely effective.

For instance, he writes: "KSM, the mastermind of 9/11 who knew more about more plots than anyone else, did not seem very inclined to respond to polite inquiries about future plans. The man who boasted of personally beheading Daniel Pearl with a butcher knife answered questions about plots with 'soon you will know' -- meaning, when you count the bodies in the morgue and find horribly disfigured burn victims in hospitals, you will know then what we are planning now."

But as Scott Shane recently pointed out in the New York Times, with more than a little understatement: "Mr. Mohammed, captured on March 1, 2003, was waterboarded 183 times that month. That striking number, which would average out to six waterboardings a day, suggests that interrogators did not try a traditional, rapport-building approach for long before escalating to their most extreme tool."

And almost nobody who knows anything about the Pearl case (see, for instance, Lawrence Wright and Peter Bergen) actually thinks KSM -- who confessed to the killing after being tortured -- had anything to do with it. Torture after all is really only good at one thing: eliciting false confessions. That we got plenty of from KSM.

But his "soon you will know" boast was all bluster -- sort of like Saddam Hussein's claim to have nuclear capability. ("Responding to bluster with war crimes" -- there's a great motto for an administration.) Nothing KSM said came close to thwarting any imminent attack. One hundred and eighty three waterboarding sessions later, the "bodies in the morgue" and the "horribly disfigured burn victims" were still only a fantasy of the torturers -- and certain opinion columnists.

Krauthammer: "The other problem is one of timing. The good cop routine can take weeks or months or years. We didn't have that luxury in the aftermath of 9/11 when waterboarding, for example, was in use."

But his compacting of the timeline is shameless revisionism. Top officials of the Bush administration -- and yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Cheney -- panicked. And they continued to panic after any excuse for panic was long over. Waterboarding was conducted over a period of several months, long after 9/11 -- from August 2002 at least through March 2003. Other torture tactics were widely employed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo over a period of years. Legal memos defending various forms of torture were being commissioned by the White House until virtually the end of the Bush administration.

And in his final defense, Krauthammer argues that the lack of objections at the time from Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress who were briefed on interrogation policies is proof that "at the time the information was important enough, the danger great enough and our blindness about the enemy's plans severe enough to justify an exception to the moral injunction against torture."

Precisely what members of Congress were told and how they responded should absolutely be a part of any thorough official investigation into the abuses of the Bush years. The enablers must be exposed as surely as the complicit. And members of Congress who knew what was happening and remained silent must be held to public account for their moral cowardice.

But their failure to speak out does not change the fundamental moral equation.

If the United States is to live up to its core values, if it is to once again be a beacon of human rights to the world and a champion of human dignity, then when it comes to torture -- to impermissible evil, as Krauthammer himself puts it -- there can be no asterisks.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:16 AM ET, 05/ 1/2009

Dan Wasserman, Mike Luckovich, Walt Handelsman, Jim Morin, John Trever and Ann Telnaes on Biden's disease, Tom Toles and Glenn McCoy on deficits, David Horsey on the first 100 days, Steve Artley on the flyover, Adam Zyglis on Cheney's argument and Chip Bok on Obama's alternative.

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