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Cheney's Motives

By Dan Froomkin
1:50 PM ET, 05/14/2009

I'm taking Friday off. Blogging will resume Monday morning.

I've been amazed at how little media pickup there's been of the
revalation by the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that the White House started pushing the use of torture not when faced with a "ticking time bomb" scenario from terrorists, but when officials in 2002 were desperately casting about for ways to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks.

Now comes Lawrence Wilkerson, the firebrand former chief of staff to Colin Powell, who writes on the Washington Note blog with more on that story.

And he traces it right back to former vice president Dick Cheney.

"[W]hat I have learned," Wilkerson writes, "is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002--well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion--its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

"So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee 'was compliant' (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, 'revealed' such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

"There in fact were no such contacts. (Incidentally, al-Libi just 'committed suicide' in Libya. Interestingly, several U.S. lawyers working with tortured detainees were attempting to get the Libyan government to allow them to interview al-Libi....)"

Wilkerson first came to my attention in October 2005, when he went public with his conclusion that a secret cabal led by the vice president has hijacked U.S. foreign policy, inveigled the president, condoned torture and crippled the ability of the government to respond to emergencies.

Was he wrong? Hardly. And Wilkerson, a Republican, has been a persistent and prescient critic of the Bush/Cheney regime -- and its effect on his party -- ever since.

As for Cheney, his sudden visibility is stirring up a lot of strong feelings -- and dark humor. For the last three days, my "Cartoon Watch" has been dominated by Cheney cartoons.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Cheney is the most visible -- and controversial -- critic of President Obama's national security policies and, to the alarm of many people in the Republican Party, the most forceful and uncompromising defender of the Bush administration's record. His running argument with the new administration has spawned a noisy side debate all its own: By leading the criticism, is Cheney doing more harm than good to the causes he has taken up and to the political well-being of his party?

"His defenders believe he has sparked a discussion of vital importance to the safety of the country, and they hold up Obama's reversal of a decision to release photos of detainee abuse as a sign that Cheney is having an effect. But there is a potential political price that his party may pay in having one of the highest officials in an administration repudiated in the last election continue to argue his case long after the voters have rendered their decision."

Despite the public's decisive rejection of the man, "Cheney remains powerful enough that most of his GOP critics are not willing to take him on in public. 'The fact that most people want to talk [without attribution] shows what a problem it continues to be,' said one Republican strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid."

Maureen Dowd wrote in her New York Times opinion column yesterday: "Cheney has replaced Sarah Palin as Rogue Diva. Just as Jeb Bush and other Republicans are trying to get kinder and gentler, Cheney has popped out of his dungeon, scary organ music blaring, to carry on his nasty campaign of fear and loathing.

"The man who never talked is now the man who won't shut up."

Dan Eggen wrote yesterday in The Washington Post: "For the Cheneys, attacks on the Obama administration have become a family affair.

"Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president and a former State Department official, made a round of cable television appearances yesterday to defend her father's stinging assessments of President Obama, and to toss out a few barbed observations of her own."

He also notes: "The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that enjoyed a prominent role during the Bush years, announced yesterday that Cheney will deliver a May 21 speech on 'keeping America safe.'"

Time's Michael Duffy explores various possible reasons Cheney has gotten so chatty. Among them: "Cheney, who championed the idea of pre-emptive attack doctrine as vice president, knows that in politics as well the best defense is often a good offense....'He's trying to rewrite history,' says a Republican consultant who has experience in intelligence matters. 'He knows that as time goes by, he will look worse. And so he's trying to put his stroke on it.'"

Duffy notes: "Cheney's reappearance delights Democrats — 'Bring it on!' quipped a White House official Tuesday afternoon when asked about Cheney's re-emergence — and dismayed Republicans. Said one: 'We're trying to turn the page and he's climbing out of the grave to haunt us.'"

Cheney's most recent interview was with reliable sidekick Neil Cavuto of Fox News.

"I think the proposition that a new administration can come in and -- and, in effect, launch an attack on their predecessor because they disagreed with the legal advice that was given by the Justice Department or because they find that they don't like the policies that were pursued by the prior administration -- it's one thing to come in and change the policy. It's an entirely different proposition to come in and say that you're somehow going to go after the lawyers in the Justice Department or the agents who carried out that policy. I just -- I -- I think that's outrageous."

As for why he's speaking out, Cheney said "the notion that I should remain silent, while they go public, that I shouldn't say anything, while they threaten to disbar the lawyers who gave us the advice that was crucial in terms of this program, that I shouldn't say anything when they go out and release information that they believe is critical of the program and critical of our policies, but refuse to put out information that shows the results that we were able to achieve -- the bottom line is, we successfully defended the nation for seven-and-a-half years against a follow-on attack to 9/11....

"I don't think we should just roll over when the new administration says -- accuses of us committing torture, which we did not, or somehow violating the law, which we did not. I think you need to stand up and respond to that, and that's what I have done."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 05/14/2009

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama told senators at a White House meeting yesterday that he would review names of potential Supreme Court nominees over the weekend, leading participants to believe an announcement could come within days, according to senior Senate aides who were briefed on the gathering."

CBS News reports: "As President Obama prepares to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, most Americans are confident the president will pick a good nominee, a new CBS News poll shows."

Reuters reports: "Obama and Democratic leaders on Wednesday said they would like to steer a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system through the House of Representatives by the end of July."

Michael Scherer writes for Time: "Obama's real challenge comes from within his own party. With increasing frequency, Democrats have been scratching away at the promises Obama made during his campaign, watering down reforms, removing possible revenue sources and protecting key constituencies."

Stephen Labaton and Jackie Calmes write in the New York Times: "In its first detailed effort to overhaul financial regulations, the Obama administration on Wednesday sought new authority over the complex financial instruments, known as derivatives, that were a major cause of the financial crisis and have gone largely unregulated for decades."

The Washington Post's Ceci Connolly profiles White House health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle on whose "petite shoulders rests the administration's top domestic policy goal: to cover millions of uninsured Americans, improve care nationwide and control skyrocketing medical bills that are devouring personal, corporate and government budgets."

There was a lot of important White House news yesterday. But Bernie Becker chronicles the highlight of yesterday's press briefing for the New York Times: "Two members of the White House press corps forgot to switch their cellphones to 'vibrate' during the Wednesday afternoon press briefing, driving press secretary Robert Gibbs back and forth between amusement and annoyance."

Obama's Great 'Honor'

By Dan Froomkin
11:00 AM ET, 05/14/2009

In his commencement address at Arizona State University, President Obama last night made repeated cracks about the university's controversial decision not to grant him an honorary degree.

A university spokesman at one point had said that Obama had not established the appropriate "body of work."

Here's the transcript of his speech, which includes even more good-natured ribbing than the prepared text.

"I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. (Laughter.) First of all, Michelle concurs with that assessment. (Laughter.) She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home. But more than that, I come to embrace the notion that I haven't done enough in my life; I heartily concur; I come to affirm that one's title, even a title like President of the United States, says very little about how well one's life has been led -- that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve. (Applause.)"

In a speech that, as Michael D. Shear writes for The Washington Post, called for the graduates to reject the old formulas for success and shape a new future for their generation, Obama said that "the elevation of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, short-term gain over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end....

"[F]ind somebody to be successful for. Raise their hopes. Rise to their needs," Obama said. "[T]hat's what building a body of work is all about -- it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy." (My italics.)

"It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star -- because the one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished. It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, each day that you give back and contribute to the life of your community and your nation.

Obama encouraged the young people to maintain an approach to life that includes: "a willingness to follow your passions, regardless of whether they lead to fortune and fame; a willingness to question conventional wisdom and rethink old dogmas; a lack of regard for all the traditional markers of status and prestige -- and a commitment instead to doing what's meaningful to you, what helps others, what makes a difference in this world....

"That's the great American story: young people just like you, following their passions, determined to meet the times on their own terms. They weren't doing it for the money. Their titles weren't fancy -- ex-slave, minister, student, citizen. A whole bunch of them didn't get honorary degrees. (Laughter and applause.) But they changed the course of history."

Deconstructing Obama's Excuses

By Dan Froomkin
10:45 AM ET, 05/14/2009

In trying to explain his startling decision to oppose the public release of more photos depicting detainee abuse, President Obama and his aides yesterday put forth six excuses for his about-face, one more flawed than the next.

First, there was the nothing-to-see-here excuse. In his remarks yesterday afternoon, Obama said the "photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib."

But as the Washington Post reports: "[O]ne congressional staff member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the photos, said the pictures are more graphic than those that have been made public from Abu Ghraib. 'When they are released, there will be a major outcry for an investigation by a commission or some other vehicle,' the staff member said."

The New York Times reports: "Many of the photos may recall those taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which showed prisoners naked or in degrading positions, sometimes with Americans posing smugly nearby, and caused an uproar in the Arab world and elsewhere when they came to light in 2004."

And if they really aren't that sensational, then what's the big deal?

Then there was the the-bad-apples-have-been-dealt-with excuse. This one, to me, is the most troubling.

Obama said the incidents pictured in the photographs "were investigated -- and, I might add, investigated long before I took office -- and, where appropriate, sanctions have been applied....[T]his is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or sought to justify inappropriate action. Rather, it has gone through the appropriate and regular processes. And the individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken."

But this suggests that Obama has bought into the false Bush-administration narrative that the abuses of detainees were isolated acts, rather than part of an endemic system of abuse implicitly sanctioned at the highest levels of government. The Bushian view has been widely discredited -- and for Obama to endorse it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the past.

The notion that responsibility for the sorts of actions depicted in those photos lies at the highest -- not lowest -- levels of government is not exactly a radical view. No less an authority than the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded in a bipartisan report: "The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of 'a few bad apples' acting on their own....The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees."

But as The Washington Post notes: "[N]o commanding officers or Defense Department officials were jailed or fired in connection with the abuse, which the Bush administration dismissed as the misbehavior of low-ranking soldiers." And the "appropriate actions," as Obama put it, have certainly not yet been taken. The architects of the system in which the abuse took place have yet to be held to account.

Then there was the no-good-would-come-of-this excuse.

Obama said it was his "belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals."

But the photos would add a lot. It was, after all, the photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq that forced the nation to acknowledge what had happened there. There is something visceral and undeniable about photographic evidence which makes it almost uniquely capable of cutting through the disinformation and denial that surrounds the issue of detainee abuse.

These photos are said to show that the kind of treatment chronicled in Abu Ghraib was in fact not limited to that one prison or one country. They would, as I wrote yesterday, serve as a powerful refutation to former vice president Cheney's so far mostly successful attempt to cast the public debate about government-sanctioned torture as a narrow one limited to the CIA's secret prisons.

Then there was the "protect-the-troops" excuse.

Said Obama: "In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

But the concern about the consequences of the release, while laudable on one level, is no excuse for a cover-up.

Glenn Greewald blogs for Salon: "Think about what Obama's rationale would justify. Obama's claim...means we should conceal or even outright lie about all the bad things we do that might reflect poorly on us. For instance, if an Obama bombing raid slaughters civilians in Afghanistan..., then, by this reasoning, we ought to lie about what happened and conceal the evidence depicting what was done -- as the Bush administration did -- because release of such evidence would 'would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.' Indeed, evidence of our killing civilians in Afghanistan inflames anti-American sentiment far more than these photographs would. Isn't it better to hide the evidence showing the bad things we do?...

"How can anyone who supports what Obama is doing here complain about the CIA's destruction of their torture videos? The torture videos, like the torture photos, would, if released, generate anti-American sentiment and make us look bad. By Obama's reasoning, didn't the CIA do exactly the right thing by destroying them?"

Then there was the chilling-effect excuse.

Said Obama: "Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse."

But how so? Under questioning, press secretary Robert Gibbs failed miserably to explain that particular rationale at yesterday's press briefing.

"[I]f in each of these instances somebody looking into detainee abuse takes evidentiary photos in a case that's eventually concluded, this could provide a tremendous disincentive to take those photos and investigate that abuse," Gibbs said.

Q. "Wait, try that once again. I don't follow you. Where's the disincentive?"

Gibbs: "The disincentive is in the notion that every time one of these photos is taken, that it's going to be released. Nothing is added by the release of the photo, right? The existence of the investigation is not increased because of the release of the photo; it's just to provide, in some ways, a sensationalistic portion of that investigation.

"These are all investigations that were undertaken by the Pentagon and have been concluded. I think if every time somebody took a picture of detainee abuse, if every time that -- if any time any of those pictures were mandatorily going to be necessarily released, despite the fact that they were being investigated, I think that would provide a disincentive to take those pictures and investigate."

Get that? Yeah, me neither.

And finally, there was the new-argument excuse.

Gibbs said "the President isn't going back to remake the argument that has been made. The President is going -- has asked his legal team to go back and make a new argument based on national security."

But as the Los Angeles Times reports, the argument that releasing the photographs could create a backlash "was raised and rejected by a federal district court judge and the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which called the warnings of a backlash 'clearly speculative' and insufficient to warrant blocking disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

"'There's no legal basis for withholding the photographs,' said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, 'so this must be a political decision.'"

Margaret Talev and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The request for what's effectively a legal do-over is an unlikely step for a president who is trained as a constitutional lawyer, advocated greater government transparency and ran for election as a critic of his predecessor's secretive approach toward the handling of terrorism detainees.

"Eric Glitzenstein, a lawyer with expertise in Freedom of Information Act requests, said he thought that Obama faced an uphill legal battle. 'They should not be able to go back time and again and concoct new rationales' for withholding what have been deemed public records, he said.

"The timing of the president's decision suggests that a key factor behind his switch of position could have been a desire to prevent the release of the photos before a speech that he's to give June 4 in Egypt aimed at convincing the world's Muslims that the United States isn't at war with them. The pictures' release shortly before the speech could have negated its goal and proved highly embarrassing. Even if courts ultimately reject Obama's new position, the time needed for their consideration could delay the photos' release until long after the speech."

Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Obama's decision Wednesday to try to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers sets him on a confrontational course with his liberal base. But it is a showdown he is willing to risk -- and may even view as politically necessary...

"Obama now can tell critics on the right that he did his best to protect the nation's troops, even if the courts eventually force the disclosure.

"Obama has been facing intense criticism from former Vice President Dick Cheney and other conservatives, who have argued that the new administration's efforts to roll back Bush-era interrogation policies have made the country less safe.

"The praise for Obama that came Wednesday from Republicans such as House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina can only help undercut those arguments."

But, Wallsten and Hook write: "Obama's dilemma is that he risks undermining one of the core principles he claimed for his presidency: transparency."

The Washington political-media establishment seems to approve of Obama's decision.

Rick Klein writes in ABC News's The Note: "In the broader context, it's cast as a sign of political maturation, maybe even classic Obama pragmatism. This is what it's like to be commander-in-chief -- one of those tough choices where there's no easy answer, and no shame in reversing yourself."

Ben Smith and Josh Gerstein write in Politico that Obama's reversal "marks the next phase in the education of the new president on the complicated, combustible issue of torture."

Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius blogs: "Is this a 'Sister Soulja' moment on national security, like Bill Clinton's famous criticism of a controversial rap singer during the 1992 presidential campaign -- which upset some liberal supporters but polished his credentials as a centrist?"

But anti-torture bloggers reject the comparison.

Andrew Sullivan blogs: "The MSM cannot see the question of torture and violation of the Geneva Conventions as a matter of right and wrong, of law and lawlessness. They see it as a matter of right and left. And so an attempt to hold Bush administration officials accountable for the war crimes they proudly admit to committing is 'left-wing.' And those of us who actually want to uphold the rule of law ... are now the equivalent of rappers urging the murder of white people."

In a separate post, Sullivan writes: "Slowly but surely, Obama is owning the cover-up of his predcessors' war crimes. But covering up war crimes, refusing to proscute them, promoting those associated with them, and suppressing evidence of them are themselves violations of Geneva and the UN Convention. So Cheney begins to successfully coopt his successor."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:22 AM ET, 05/14/2009

Editorial cartoonists celebrate the return of their greatest muse: Tony Auth on Comrade Cheney, Steve Sack on Cheney's progenitors, Pat Bagley on Cheney's credibility, Jim Morin, Rob Rogers and RJ Matson on Cheney torture, Mike Luckovich on Cheney's camera, Stuart Carlson on Cheney's choices, and Mike Keefe on Cheney's party.

Also: John Sherffius on Obama's cover-up, Tom Toles on Obama's health care costs cuts, Jeff Darcy on the correspondents' dinner, and Walt Handelsman on the GOP's Obama blues.

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