The Weakest Pillar

By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 05/ 7/2009

President Obama this morning served up the details of his extraordinarily ambitious budget, bringing it in at $3.4 trillion and 1374 pages.

It may be, as Obama said in his remarks, that "[t]he question the American people are asking is whether Washington is prepared to act with the same sense of responsibility."

But if so, the president is probably better off making his argument by focusing on the enormous investments in the big-money "pillars" of his "new foundation" -- education, health care and energy -- than he is calling too much attention to that other pillar, fiscal responsibility.

Because try as they might, White House officials just aren't going to get too many people to see a $3.4 trillion budget as lean.

Chief White House budgeteer Peter Orszag insists in a blog post today: "We in the Administration have spoken often about the President’s Budget heralding a new era of responsibility — an era in which we not only do what we must to lift our economy out of recession, but in which we also lay a new foundation for long-term growth and prosperity. This means making long overdue investments and reforms in health care, education, and energy. It also means restoring fiscal discipline. We cannot put our nation on a course for long-term growth with uncontrollable deficits and debt, and we no longer can afford to tolerate investments in programs that are outdated, duplicative, ineffective, or wasteful."

But the list of Terminations, Reductions and Savings that the White House is so proud of just doesn't look like very much when stacked up against everything else. It calls for the elimination of 121 federal programs at a savings of $17 billion.

As Lori Montgomery and Amy Goldstein wrote in The Washington Post this morning, that's a tiny fraction -- half a percent -- of next year's budget.

"The plan is less ambitious than the hit list former president George W. Bush produced last year, targeting 151 programs for $34 billion in savings," Montgomery and Goldstein write. "And like most of the cuts Bush sought, congressional sources and independent budget analysts yesterday predicted that Obama's, too, would be a tough sell.

"'Even if you got all of those things, it would be saving pennies, not dollars. And you're not going to begin to get all of them,' said Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institution economist who waged her own battles with Congress as a senior official in the Clinton White House budget office. 'This is a good government exercise without much prospect of putting a significant dent in spending.'"

Comparing the Obama and Bush proposed cuts is a bit unfair, mind you. No one thought for a moment that Bush was serious about pushing for his proposed cuts, most of which were congressional darlings that he had lamely nominated for the chopping block year after year.

What's unclear is how hard Obama will pursue his cuts -- and how successful he will be. Obama acknowledged in his remarks that cutting is harder than spending for Congress: "None of this will be easy. For every dollar we seek to save there will be those who have an interest in seeing it spent. That's how unnecessary programs survive year after year. That's how budgets swell. That's how the people's interest is slowly overtaken by the special interests. But at this moment -- at this difficult time for our nation -- we cannot accept business as usual. We cannot accept anything less than a government ready to meet the challenges of our time."

Here's one good sign: the administration's proposed defense cuts aren't already history. Christopher Drew writes in the New York Times: "In the past, military contractors have routinely beaten back attempts to cancel weapons programs by lobbying Congress. But Mr. Obama's popularity and the financial crisis are changing this well-choreographed dance. The White House is trying to demonstrate that when the president says no, he means it."

Overall, the budget -- the broad outlines of which have already won congressional approval -- includes substantial increases in domestic spending, particularly in the areas Obama champions in his budget message as the "pillars of the stable and broad economic growth we seek." Those are: "making long overdue investments and reforms in education so that every child can compete in the global economy, undertaking health care reform so that we can control costs while boosting coverage and quality, and investing in renewable sources of energy so that we can reduce our dependence on foreign oil and become the world leader in the new clean energy economy."

The Fire in Cheney's Belly

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 05/ 7/2009

Former vice president Cheney says he's not going to shut up, no matter what some of his fellow Republicans -- and even his former boss -- think about it.

Cheney hagiographer Stephen F. Hayes once again interviewed the former veep, although he doesn't say when. He writes in the Weekly Standard: "I asked Cheney about George W. Bush's statement that he would not criticize his successor. In a comment that many took to be a shot at his former vice president, Bush said of Obama, 'He deserves my silence.'"

Said Cheney: "I worked in the trenches, and I was a loyal and supportive vice president. And when the president made decisions that I didn't agree with, I still supported him and didn't go out and undercut him. Now we're talking about after we've left office. I have strong feelings about what happened and what we did or didn't do and what's happening now. And I don't have any reason not to forthrightly express those views. I feel it's important to do so especially when President Obama is wrong on important issues facing the nation."

Worked in the trenches? Yes, he worked on the darkside, but he was hardly a worker bee. In fact, when it comes to the darkside, there's growing evidence that he was the undisputed master.

And here's more from Cheney: "I went through the Iran-contra hearings and watched the way administration officials ran for cover and left the little guys out to dry. And I was bound and determined that wasn't going to happen this time. I think to George Tenet's credit–I don't agree with George on a lot of stuff–but I think he was of the same view and that's why we had all of these requests coming through for policy guidance and for legal opinions. And this time around I'll do my damndest to defend anybody out there–be they in the agency carrying out the orders or the lawyers who wrote the opinions. I don't know whether anybody else will, but I sure as hell will."

But, as Satyam Khanna notes on Thinkprogress.org: "Cheney's defense of the 'little guy,' especially with regard to torture, is unusual. First, the Bush officials implicated in approving torture were hardly 'little' — they were the senior-most Bush administration officials, such as David Addington, Jay Bybee, and Alberto Gonzales.

"Second, after Abu Ghraib broke in 2004, Cheney and the Bush administration systematically laid the blame for the abuses on low-level interrogators and attempted to exonerate senior officials. Cheney, for example, blamed 'folks doing something improper, inappropriate, illegal.' Paul Wolfowitz famously called it the work of 'a few bad apples.' Former press secretary Tony Snow called the abuses 'a criminal infraction for which people were charged.'

"Yet as a recent Senate Armed Services Committee report observed, 'The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own.' Indeed, the tactics were directly approved by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002."

And here's yet more from Cheney via Hayes: "This is the first time that I can recall that we've had an administration come in, take power, and then suggest using the power of the government against their predecessors, from a legal standpoint. Criminal prosecution of lawyers in the Justice Department whose opinions they disagreed with on an important issue. Criminal prosecutions. When was the last time that happened?"

Ah, but when was the last time anyone broke the law this spectacularly?

Celestine Bohlen writes in her Bloomberg opinion column about how Cheney is "shamelessly undercutting the incumbent president on sensitive issues of national security."

But, she writes: "Maybe we should be grateful. How else would we be reminded of the specious logic and mental contortions that prevailed during the Bush administration?"

What is Cheney's real motivation for being so outspoken? Harry Shearer writes for Huffingtonpost.com: "Three words: 'don't prosecute me.'

"Cheney's goal is now revealed: to stir up enough passion on the Republican side to make a decision to prosecute the Bush administration's torture syndicate a political hot potato.

"Without the former Vice President's publicity tour ginning up a 'torture debate,' public revulsion at the revelations in the declassified torture memos, and at the photographs the Pentagon is preparing to release, might have made prosecution not only politically desirable, but, to use a Tenetism, a slam dunk."

Jonathan Chait writes in the New Republic: "The best defense against holding Bush officials accountable for torture is that September 11 freaked out the entire country and that we can't judge their actions by the standards of how they look 'on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009,' as Obama's intelligence director puts it. This argument would carry more weight if Republicans had changed their thinking on torture and could be expected to follow the law the next time they won the presidency. Alas, they show little sign of intellectual progress.

"Even after the release of the torture memos, Republicans persist in denying that techniques like waterboarding or chaining a prisoner in a standing position for hours constitute torture."

And, via Huffingtonpost.com, David Letterman reminds us of how seriously we should take Cheney's pronouncements.

But as Robert A. Rankin writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "American public opinion is split almost evenly over whether a bipartisan blue-chip commission should be created to investigate how the U.S. government interrogated detainees captured during the Bush administration's war on terror.

"A new McClatchy-Ipsos poll found that 46 percent of Americans oppose creation of such a commission, while 41 percent favor it. Some 13 percent were unsure.

"The public is similarly split on whether to prosecute the government officials who authorized interrogation techniques that are found to be torture, with 48 percent saying they should not be prosecuted and 43 percent saying they should be, with 9 percent uncertain."

And CNN reports similar findings.

To me, these poll results demonstrate the genius of the Cheney strategy, which is to keep the argument limited to what happened at the black sites, which have an aura of "24" to them. The torture there was still inexcusable, but I guess forgiveable to many.

I doubt they would feel the same way if they were shown proof of a direct relationship between Bush policy and not just the torture of "high value" detainees, but also the vile abuse of garden-variety suspects at Guantanamo and Bagram, and of mostly innocent Iraqis at Abu Ghraib.

Meanwhile, Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Efforts to impose professional sanctions on Bush administration lawyers who drafted memos supporting harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects face steep hurdles, experts on legal ethics said yesterday.

"Law professors and legal practitioners who have handled such cases said the difficulty of gathering witnesses and evidence could present 'nearly insurmountable challenges' for state investigators who may wish to pursue a case against the lawyers, John C. Yoo and Jay S. Bybee.

"Government sources indicated this week that a forthcoming Justice Department investigative report would refer both men to state bar associations for possible disciplinary action as early as this summer. The report, which summarizes the findings of a nearly five-year review, cites sloppy legal analysis, misjudgments and possible political interference in the process, the sources said."

And Murray Waas, writing for Huffingtonpost.com, has more on that report, which I wrote about yesterday.

Waas writes: "In attempting to discern the attorneys' motives, investigators have reviewed emails traded between the three men as they drafted the legal controversial legal opinions, as well as emails between the three OLC attorneys and other Bush administration attorneys, according to sources close to the case.

"Additionally, the investigators closely tracked drafts of the four legal opinions until they reached final form.

"In some instances, the drafts changed progressively over time to afford those who wanted to engage in aggressive interrogation techniques additional legal cover, according to people who have read the draft OPR report.

"One source indicated that at least two of the earlier drafts were 'equivocal' and 'nuanced' -- but noted over time they became 'more advocative' of the views of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration that aggressive interrogation techniques were necessary to prevent new terror attacks."

UPDATE: Bob Schieffer tweets that Cheney will be on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Where's the President?

By Dan Froomkin
12:14 PM ET, 05/ 7/2009

My Live Online discussion yesterday started just moments after the news broke that Maine had become the fifth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

It made me realize how odd it was for a major civil-rights movement to be making huge strides -- with no leadership at all from the president of the United States. Especially given his devotion to civil rights generally.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in today's New York Times about how Obama "is under pressure to engage on a variety of gay issues that are coming to the fore amid a dizzying pace of social, political, legal and legislative change.

"Two of Mr. Obama's potential Supreme Court nominees are openly gay... Same-sex marriage is advancing in states — the latest to allow it is Maine — and a new flare-up in the District of Columbia could ultimately put the controversy in the lap of the president.

"Mr. Obama's new global health initiative has infuriated activists who say he is not financing AIDS programs generously enough. And while the president has urged Congress to pass a hate crimes bill, a high priority for gay groups, he has delayed action on one of his key campaign promises, repealing the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' rule.

"Social issues like same-sex marriage bring together deeply held principles and flashpoint politics, and many gay activists, aware that Mr. Obama is also dealing with enormous challenges at home and overseas, have counseled patience.

"But some are unsettled by what they see as the president's cautious approach."

Karen DeYoung, in a Washington Post profile of national security adviser James L. Jones today, offers some insight into one of Obama's decisions to stall: "When Obama was under pressure to review the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gay service members, Jones said he went 'to see him personally on it' and advised him not to add another controversy to his already-full plate," DeYoung writes. "The president, Jones said, took his advice."

Press secretary Robert Gibbs couldn't have been more noncommittal at yesterday's press briefing:

Q. "Does the President or the White House have a reaction to the Governor of Maine signing a same-sex marriage bill?"

Gibbs: "No, I think the President's position on same-sex marriages has been talked about and discussed."

Q. "He opposes same-sex marriage."

Gibbs: "He supports civil unions."

Q. "Does that mean that he's going to say or do anything against what the citizens of Maine -- "

Gibbs: "Not that I'm aware of. I think the President believes this is an issue that's best addressed by the states."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:10 PM ET, 05/ 7/2009

Karen DeYoung profiles Obama's national security adviser, James L. Jones, for The Washington Post: "In recent weeks, Jones has been portrayed in foreign policy articles and blogs as too measured and low-key to keep pace with the hard chargers working late hours in the West Wing. Some senior White House officials questioned early on whether Jones, 65, a retired four-star Marine general who barely knew Obama before the election, would succeed among younger staffers whose relationships with the president were forged during the long and arduous campaign....White House officials who cited early misgivings, more stylistic than substantive, insisted they have now disappeared. But Jones acknowledges that the road has not always been smooth, and he appears more comfortable than some of his administration colleagues in saying they still have some distance to travel."

Helene Cooper of the New York Times also profiles Jones: "On a foreign policy team of supersize egos, Gen. James L. Jones, President Obama's national security adviser, is flying below the radar....Inside the administration, the fact that the 6-foot-5 former Marine Corps commandant has left only the faintest of footprints has prompted some early sniping, including the argument that he is not using his position to wield influence or to bring policy debates to resolution....In an interview on Monday, General Jones responded that low profile did not necessarily mean low impact."

The Associated Press reports: "Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken met privately with Vice President Joe Biden late Wednesday afternoon to update him on the still-contested Minnesota Senate race...Biden said he and President Obama are looking forward to working with Franken after the Minnesota Supreme Court issues a final ruling."

OMBWatch reports: "The Obama administration continues to reverse policies left by the Bush administration, including many controversial regulations finalized near the end of President Bush's term. Administration officials are employing different strategies with the goal of overturning or significantly altering some of the Bush administration's so-called midnight regulations."

Via FishbowlDC, here is Erin McPike profiling 11 White House correspondents under 40.

Any Remorse, Mr. President?

By Dan Froomkin
11:35 AM ET, 05/ 7/2009

The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed yesterday that "dozens of people, including women and children," were killed in U.S. air strikes on villages in Western Afghanistan Monday night.

You might think something like this would weigh heavily on President Obama's heart.

Yes, it's a war he inherited from George W. Bush, but it's one he has ardently advanced as his own. Air strikes in Afghanistan -- along with missiles fired from drones in Pakistan -- have continued to be a staple of the American approach to the region. And now, under his command, the U.S. military appears to have made a tragic mistake.

So far, however, Obama's public response has been muted. This could be because the military is refusing to confirm the reports from the ground.

But it makes me wonder: Have we all, including Obama, gotten so desensitized to the violent death of civilians at our hands, ostensibly in the name of fighting terror? Is this another tragic Bush legacy?

Where is Obama's anger, his sadness, his regret, his vow to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again?

Here's what the president had to say in public yesterday, flanked by the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan after their three-way meeting: "I...made it clear that the United States will work with our Afghan and international partners to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties as we help the Afghan government combat our common enemy."

That's it?

National security adviser Jim Jones told reporters later that in private, Obama had been more expansive: "The President started out his meeting with [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai by commenting with great sympathy on the tragedies that have happened out in western Afghanistan, and indicating that we regret the loss of life, particularly of innocent people, and that the investigations underway will be pursued aggressively with full intent to discover what, in fact, did happen, how it happened, and how we can make sure that things like that do not happen again," Jones said. "And it was clear that President Karzai was moved by that -- by the President's statement, and he thanked the President for starting off the meeting with that expression of condolence."

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton included an apology in her remarks at a public session earlier the in day, saying: "I wish to express my personal regret and certainly the sympathy of our Administration on the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan. We deeply regret it. We don’t know all of the circumstances or causes, and there will be a joint investigation by your government and ours. But any loss of life, any loss of innocent life, is particularly painful. And I want to convey to the people of both Afghanistan and Pakistan that we will work very hard with your governments and with your leaders to avoid the loss of innocent civilian life. And we deeply, deeply regret that loss."

But were these simply diplomatic niceties, intended to not let the attacks derail negotiations? Is there genuine angst under the surface? And what about a sincere commitment to stop the horror?

If nothing else, there should be a sense of urgency. There is widespread agreement, not just among human rights advocates but among government and even military officials that civilian casualties profoundly damage U.S. efforts in the region. In yesterday's post, I noted that no less than Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in February that "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."

Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah write for the New York Times: "The depth of Afghan opposition to the strikes seemed evident on Thursday when police fired on rock-throwing demonstrators protesting the deaths they said had been caused by American bombing runs."

And they note that if, as Afghan officials and villagers maintain, more than 100 people were killed, "the bombardment, which took place late Monday, will almost certainly be the worst in terms of civilian deaths since the American intervention began in 2001."

What has the military's response been thus far? "The American military confirmed that it had conducted airstrikes aimed at the Taliban, but not the number of deaths or their cause," Gall and Shah write.

"'We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of the civilian casualties,' said the senior American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan. He would not elaborate but said American and Afghan investigators were already on the ground trying to sort out what had happened....

"Defense Department officials said late Wednesday that investigators were looking into witnesses’ reports that the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban militants, and that the militants then drove the bodies around the village claiming the dead were victims of an American airstrike.

"The initial examination of the site and of some of the bodies suggested the use of armaments more like grenades than the much larger bombs used by attack planes, said the military official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was continuing."

But there is a history of this sort of airstrike taking place -- and of the U.S. military trying to cover up the civilian casualties. After an attack this past September in Azizabad, also in western Afghanistan, the military initially rejected claims that dozens of civilians had died, saying that only five were killed. Faced with consistent reports of greater casualties from the Afghan government, the United Nations and the New York Times, the military reinvestigated. Central Command eventually announced that 33 civilians had died, including 12 children, yet still concluded "that U.S. forces acted in legitimate self-defense."

A few months later, the same Gen. McKiernan quoted above issued a directive saying that "all responses must be proportionate."

Diplomatic negotiations continue in Washington today, but there wasn't much to announce yesterday. Margaret Talev and Warren P. Strobel write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Barack Obama Wednesday pledged a 'lasting commitment' by the U.S. to the democratic governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan after an unusual three-way meeting that ended with promises but no concrete agreements.

"Flanked by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama told reporters that both men 'fully appreciate the seriousness of the threat we face' from Islamic extremists. He didn't invite either visitor to speak, however, and both appeared ill at ease."

The biggest problem is with the Pakistanis: "U.S. officials and South Asian analysts said it isn't clear that Pakistan is willing to wage a long-term battle against Islamist militants, some of whom belong to groups that the country's intelligence services have funded in a long-running battle with India over the disputed area of Kashmir.

"'We've heard all this before,' a U.S. defense official said of Zardari's pledge to step up cooperation with the U.S. and Afghanistan."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times about all the things left unmentioned, including an apparently significant disconnect about the danger posed by the insurgency in the western part of Pakistan: "While Americans see this as an existential threat to the Pakistani government, Pakistanis look at things differently.

"'This situation has been going on for decades,' one Pakistani official explained on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. 'These people have always tried to impose Shariah law in the tribal areas.'

"Pakistan is more concerned, he said, with getting the American government to stop the unmanned Predator strikes in the western part of the country, which he characterized as far more damaging to the survivability of the Pakistani government than Islamist insurgents in the Swat valley....

"His comments came just after a senior Obama administration official said that the administration believes the Pakistani government is finally starting to come around to the American way of thinking about the nature of the Islamist threat to the Pakistani government, further underscoring the disconnect between the two governments."

Meanwhile, Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan write in The Washington Post about Pakistan's "Swat Valley, where thousands of people are fleeing from the ravages of the Taliban and the imminent prospect of war with government forces."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:45 AM ET, 05/ 7/2009

Bob Gorrell and Peter Brookes on Obama's bloody choices, Pat Oliphant on the torture lawyers, Jim Morin on the stress tests, Tim Eagan on Obama's code, Stuart Carlson on Obama's big burger, and Eric Allie on Obama's press corps.

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