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What the 'Military Solution' Looks Like

By Dan Froomkin
1:00 PM ET, 05/ 6/2009


An injured child from the Bala Baluk district of Afghanistan yesterday. (AP/Abdul Malek)

There's a tremendous sense of urgency surrounding President Obama's meetings today with the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And a sense of urgency often leads people to focus primarily on military solutions.

So it's worth stopping to consider what the "military solution" has been looking like recently in that region of the world.

Rahim Faiez writes for the Associated Press: "The international Red Cross confirmed Wednesday that civilians were found in graves and rubble where Afghan officials alleged U.S. bombs killed had dozens....

"Women and children were among dozens of bodies in two villages targeted by airstrikes, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported Wednesday, after sending a team to the district. The U.S. military sent a brigadier general to the region to investigate.

"A former Afghan government official said up to 120 people died in the bombing Monday evening...

"The first images from the bombings in Farah province emerged Wednesday. Photos from the site obtained by The Associated Press showed villagers burying the dead in about a dozen fresh graves, while others dug through the rubble of demolished mud-brick homes."

Matthew Lee writes for the Associated Press that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this morning said "the Obama administration 'deeply, deeply' regrets the loss of innocent life apparently as the result of a U.S. bombing in Afghanistan and will undertake a full review of the incident."

But the damage is done, both to the victims and to our goals. Consider what Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in February: "We have learned, after seven years of war, that trust is the coin of the realm -- that building it takes time, losing it takes mere seconds, and maintaining it may be our most important and most difficult objective.

"That's why images of prisoner maltreatment at Abu Ghraib still serve as recruiting tools for al-Qaeda. And it's why each civilian casualty for which we are even remotely responsible sets back our efforts to gain the confidence of the Afghan people months, if not years."

And now let's take a look at what's going on in Pakistan, where, as Warren P. Strobel and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers, "Obama and his team are urging [Pakistani President Asif Ali] Zardari to mount a sustained offensive against the Taliban and its allies, who're imposing a brutal form of Islamic rule across the country's northwest."

The problem: "Religious militants, who aspire to fundamentalist religious rule like the Taliban maintained in Afghanistan for five years until 2001, took advantage of a cease-fire with the government to win control over the scenic Swat valley and have since moved into neighboring districts, some of which are 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad."

But here is what Zardari's solution looks like. As Saeed Shah wrote for McClatchy Newspapers on Monday: "The Pakistani army's assault against Islamic militants in Buner, in northwest Pakistan, is flattening villages, killing civilians and sending thousands of farmers and villagers fleeing from their homes, residents escaping the fighting said Monday...

"[R]esidents' accounts of the fighting contradict those from the Pakistani military and suggest that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari is rapidly losing the support of those it had set out to protect."

Strobel and Talev write that the "heavy-handed military force...could further undermine support for the government.

"'All they're doing is displacing civilians and hurting people,' said a U.S. defense official who asked not to be further identified because he isn't authorized to speak to the media. 'It's not going to work.'"

So what will work? Who knows? As Paul Richter and Christi Parsons write in the Los Angeles Times, Obama seems to have no choice but to "overhaul a painstakingly developed security strategy that was unveiled only five weeks ago but already has become badly outdated."

And the greatest urgency, in fact, is now seen on the Pakistan side of the border. As Richter and Parsons write: "In what is emerging as Obama's first major foreign policy crisis, U.S. officials fear the militants could fracture Pakistan, the far more populous nation, further destabilizing the region and even posing a grave risk to the security of Islamabad's nuclear arsenal...

"Though the situation in Afghanistan may not have improved, it does suddenly seem more manageable. 'By comparison, it looks like Canada,' one U.S. official said in an interview."

Canada? With 60,000 American troops soon to be in harm's way? I don't think so. But you get the point.

Meanwhile, Obama is dealing with two reluctant allies.

As Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes in The Washington Post, "senior members of Obama's national security team say [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai has not done enough to address the grave challenges facing his nation. They deem him to be a mercurial and vacillating chieftain who has tolerated corruption and failed to project his authority beyond the gates of Kabul....

"Vexed by the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan with a partner they regard as less than reliable, Obama's advisers have crafted a two-pronged strategy that amounts to a fundamental break from the avuncular way President George W. Bush dealt with the Afghan leader.

"Obama intends to maintain an arm's-length relationship with Karzai in the hope that it will lead him to address issues of concern to the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials. The administration will also seek to bypass Karzai by working more closely with other members of his cabinet and by funneling more money to local governors."

And Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration 'unambiguously' supports Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, even as it puts 'the most heavy possible pressure' on his government to fight extremists in the country, Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Congress yesterday....

"When the three sit down today, Obama will tell Zardari and Karzai that they 'have to work together, despite their issues and their history. That's just what has to be done,' said one of two senior administration officials who briefed reporters at the White House about the visits on the condition of anonymity."

As the New York Times editorial board writes: "American officials don’t have much confidence in either leader — a fact they haven’t tried to conceal. Most Afghans and Pakistanis share their doubts. But if there is any hope of defeating the Taliban, Mr. Obama will have to find a way to work with both men — and find the right mixture of support and blunt pressure to get them to do what is necessary to save their countries."

What Were The Torture Lawyers Thinking?

By Dan Froomkin
12:15 PM ET, 05/ 6/2009

A long-awaited internal Justice Department report promises to shed some much-needed light on the relationship between the Justice Department lawyers who wrote the infamous "torture memos" and the White House. The central question, of course: Whether the lawyers were themselves just following orders.

The report has not yet been released -- or even finalized -- but a growing number of leaks make it clear that the internal inquiry concluded that the memos were legally indefensible.

The report also apparently includes e-mails between the lawyers and the White House. But what's not clear to me at this point is whether the report reaches a definitive conclusion about whether the wild legal arguments were the result of a profound lack of judgment by the lawyers or were consciously concocted to justify techniques the White House had already approved. (Or both.)

The inquiry has apparently concluded that two lawyers in particular committed serious enough lapses to merit disciplinary action by their state bars -- though not criminal prosecution. That suggests the investigators didn't find "smoking gun" evidence of a conspiracy to violate federal statutes. But there's sure to be a lot of fascinating material in their report nonetheless.

David Johnston and Scott Shane write in the New York Times: "An internal Justice Department inquiry has concluded that Bush administration lawyers committed serious lapses of judgment in writing secret memorandums authorizing brutal interrogations but that they should not be prosecuted, according to government officials briefed on its findings.

"The report by the Office of Professional Responsibility, an internal ethics unit within the Justice Department, is also likely to ask state bar associations to consider possible disciplinary action, which could include reprimands or even disbarment, for some of the lawyers involved in writing the legal opinions, the officials said....

"The draft report is described as very detailed, tracing e-mail messages between the Justice Department lawyers and officials at the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency. Among the questions it is expected to consider is whether the memos were an independent judgment of the limits of the federal anti-torture statute or were deliberately skewed to justify the use of techniques proposed by the C.I.A.....

"The main targets of criticism are John Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury, who, as senior officials of the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, were principal authors of the opinions."

Josh Meyer and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "The OPR investigation found that memos attempting to make organ failure the defining line between pain and torture was something any lawyer would find unreasonable. It also concluded that Bybee and Yoo had violated a lawyer's duty to provide 'reasonable legal advice,' according to one source familiar with the report."

The report is apparently frustrating people on both sides of the torture divide. Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post about this development: "Former Bush administration officials have launched a behind-the-scenes campaign to urge Justice Department leaders to soften an ethics report criticizing lawyers who blessed harsh detainee interrogation tactics, according to two sources familiar with the efforts.

"Representatives for John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee, subjects of the ethics probe, have encouraged former Justice Department and White House officials to contact new officials at the department to point out the troubling precedent of imposing sanctions on legal advisers, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process is not complete."

And Devlin Barrett writes for the Associated Press: "Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, called the decision not to seek criminal charges 'inconceivable, given all that we know about the twisted logic of these memos.'

"Warren argued the only reason for such a decision 'is to provide political cover for people inside the Obama White House so they don't have to pursue what needs to be done.'"

Andrew Sullivan blogs for the Atlantic: "Who in the White House ordered up these memos to provide phony legal cover for a plainly illegal torture policy already decided upon? That's what we need to find out."

Marc Ambinder blogs for the Atlantic that the draft report "suggests that, at the direction of the White House, the OLC worked to justify a policy that had already been determined and did not begin their inquiry from a neutral position."

Emily Pierce writes for Roll Call that the "explosive report...could set the stage for potential judicial impeachment hearings in the House and for a renewed partisan battle over how the previous administration approved the use of harsh interrogation methods against detainees."

Democratic Senators Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse released a statement yesterday expressing their disappointment that Bradbury was allowed "to participate in OLC’s 'review and response’ to the report - despite the fact that he played a leading role in drafting the memos under review." But, they wrote, "we look forward to the prompt completion of this report, and we are pleased by the strong implication in the letter that former OPR chief Marshall Jarrett’s pledge to release the report will be honored."

Ari Shapiro reports for NPR: "The Justice Department has been trying not to make the investigation seem like a witch hunt. Some congressional staffers complain that the effort has gone too far. They are especially critical of the decision to allow Bradbury to participate in the inquiry as acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel.

"'How they could have made the decision to let him be part of the official review, not as a target, but as acting head of OLC, boggles the mind,' one Judiciary Committee staffer said."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 05/ 6/2009

Bernie Becker blogs for the New York Times with more information about Obama's dinner with critics of his bank bailout plan. We already knew Nobel Prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman (who is also a New York Times opinion columnist) were there. Becker writes: "The White House has confirmed the following people also attended the April 27 dinner: Alan S. Blinder, a Princeton professor and former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve; Kenneth S. Rogoff, currently a Harvard professor and a former chief economist at the IMF; Jeffrey D. Sachs, the author of 'The End of Poverty' and a professor at Columbia University; and Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who now heads Mr. Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board." Krugman finally publicly acknowledged the dinner yesterday -- but only enough to say he wouldn't have anything more to say about it "because the conversation was off the record."

Philip Rucker writes in The Washington Post about Obama and Biden's surprise trip to an Arlington hamburger joint for lunch yesterday. The two "waited patiently in a single-file line as the lunch crowd gawked -- and as two customers in front of them at the counter pondered the menu leisurely, apparently oblivious to whom they were holding up." Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor reports that Obama bought burgers for five members of the press pool.

Scott Wilson and Robert Barnes write in The Washington Post: "President Obama's first selection of a Supreme Court justice is being managed by a small group of senior advisers, and the process will last at least into next week before producing a candidate who the administration hopes will inject real-world experience into the nation's highest court....Vice President Biden will be a key part of the process...Running the selection are White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, counsel Gregory B. Craig and deputy counsel Cassandra Q. Butts, a classmate of Obama's at Harvard Law."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Obama asked Congress on Tuesday to spend $63 billion over the next six years on a new, broader global health strategy that would reshape one of the signature foreign policy efforts of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Mr. Bush made combating global AIDS a centerpiece of his foreign agenda. The program he created — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or Pepfar — is regarded as one of his most significant achievements. But the plan Mr. Obama outlined Tuesday envisions a more far-reaching approach to global health that would focus not only on AIDS, but also on tropical diseases and other treatable and preventable illnesses that kill millions, many of them children, each year."

Jim Tankersley writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed renewable-fuel standards that could reduce the $3 billion a year in federal tax breaks given to producers of corn-based ethanol. The move sets the stage for a major battle between Midwest grain producers and environmentalists who say the gasoline additive actually worsens global warming."

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "Key lawmakers from both parties have held tentative talks about overhauling the Social Security system, and Congress could turn its attention to the federal retirement program as soon as this fall if a bipartisan consensus emerges, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said yesterday."

Jocelyn Noveck writes for the Associated Press: "After a visit to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and an appearance on 'Sesame Street,' Mrs. Obama capped her first visit to New York as first lady with an appearance before a glittery crowd at Time magazine's annual Time 100 gala, honoring its 100 'Most Influential People.' There, she mixed sparkle with substance, introducing the administration's proposal to give $50 million to innovative nonprofit groups."

Let's Talk White House

By Dan Froomkin
9:38 AM ET, 05/ 6/2009

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, responding to your questions and comments about all things White House. Come join the conversation.

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
9:35 AM ET, 05/ 6/2009

Stephen Colbert argues that Bush administration officials should publicly explain their torture rationales -- to children.

He proposes something like this: "Kids, Mr. Bunny was a bad, bad bunny. And he had information that President Raccoon needed. So the president got his lawyer squirrels to write a magic letter, which made everything he did perfectly legal. Then, Mr. Bunny was strapped to an inclined bench with a blankie over his nose and mouth, and Willy the Whale squirted water into his face so that Mr. Bunny thought he was drowning. But remember, President Raccoon had a magic letter, so it was not a violation of Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions."

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And Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "The White House announced today that Vice President Joe Biden has laryngitis. They...said that he has a rare strain they hope lasts until 2012."

Leno also said Obama has "promised to 'detect and pursue' American tax evaders, as opposed to his first 100 days, in which he detected and nominated American tax evaders."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:33 AM ET, 05/ 6/2009

Matt Wuerker on the torture bucket brigade, Dick Locher on Obama's Supreme Court pick, Eric Allie on Obama's formula for success, Tom Toles on the stress tests, and Nick Anderson, Tony Auth and Steve Kelley on tax dodgers.

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