Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
3:10 PM ET, 05/18/2009

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "No matter how hard President Obama tries to turn the page on the previous administration, he can't. Until there is true transparency and true accountability, revelations of that unresolved eight-year nightmare will keep raining down drip by drip, disrupting the new administration's high ambitions."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Republicans are exulting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's increasingly defensive explanations about when she knew about torture by CIA interrogators. But you don't have to be a partisan to recognize that the possible acquiescence of Democrats in waterboarding and other cruelties is worthy of further investigation."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "A series of cover sheets for intelligence reports written for Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials during the early days of the war in Iraq in 2003 were adorned with biblical quotations, and appeared Sunday, six years later, on the Web site of GQ magazine."

The rest of Robert Draper's GQ article basically consists of other former Bush officials throwing Rumsfeld under the train -- as if he could be blamed for everything that went wrong. "My conversations with more than a dozen Bush loyalists," Draper writes, revealed that a key element of their legacy-building is their "ill will toward Donald Rumsfeld. Though few of these individuals would speak for the record (knowing that their former boss, George W. Bush, would not approve of it), they believe that Rumsfeld's actions epitomized the very traits — arrogance, stubbornness, obliviousness, ineptitude — that critics say drove the Bush presidency off the rails."

Looking for Bush's biggest legacy? Jeffrey Toobin writes in the New Yorker that after four years on the court, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts's record is "that of a doctrinaire conservative...[Roberts] reflects a view that the Court should almost always defer to the existing power relationships in society. In every major case since he became the nation's seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff....At this low moment in the historical reputation of George W. Bush, his nominee for Chief Justice stands in signal contrast to what appears today to be a failed and fading tenure as President. Roberts's service on the Court, which is, of course, likely to continue for decades, offers an enduring and faithful reflection of the Bush Presidency."

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A federal prosecutor questioned former top presidential aide Karl Rove for several hours on Friday, trying to determine his precise role in the Bush administration's politically tinged firings of U.S. attorneys....Rove and the prosecutor who interviewed him, acting U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy, declined to comment as they left the offices of Rove's lawyer separately."

Peter Baker writes in the New York Times: "Ready for a new New Deal? How about the New Foundation? As Mr. Obama labors to pull the country out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression and simultaneously overhaul energy, education and health care, he has coined an expression to encapsulate his ambitious program in the same way Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the 1930s."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama reached across the aisle [Saturday] to tap a leading Republican governor as his ambassador to China, indicating his continuing desire for bipartisanship in his administration while signaling to Beijing his intent to build 'a new understanding' with the United States' largest economic competitor." Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. had been seen as a potential political challenger for Obama in 2012.

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "Hospitals and insurance companies said Thursday that President Obama had substantially overstated their promise earlier this week to reduce the growth of health spending. Mr. Obama invited health industry leaders to the White House on Monday to trumpet their cost-control commitments. But three days later, confusion swirled in Washington as the companies' trade associations raced to tamp down angst among members around the country."

Sally Quinn writes in a Washington Post op-ed that National Security Adviser Jim Jones is the subject of "sniping...reportedly coming mostly from State Department officials and some staffers at the White House."

Robert J. Samuelson grumbles in his Washington Post opinion column about "Obama's Zen-like capacity to discourage serious criticism." Samuelson calls Obama's budget "a case study in political expediency and economic gambling."

Jeff Zeleny profiles Rotus -- Darienne M. Page, Obama's receptionist -- in the New York Times.

Obama's Subversive Critique of Certainty

By Dan Froomkin
2:30 PM ET, 05/18/2009

Obama at Notre Dame. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

President Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame yesterday is appropriately being recognized as a powerful attempt to de-escalate the nation's culture wars. Obama took advantage of an opportunity that abortion opponents had hoped to stoke into a conflagration to instead coolly call on Americans to open their hearts and minds to people who disagree with them and find common ground.

But at the same time, Obama cast that common ground in explicitly progressive terms -- and he put forth a powerful and subversive argument against the religiously-derived certainty that has played such a major role in right-wing politics in general, and the presidency of his predecessor in particular.

He embraced the controversy over abortion as the jumping-off point for a discussion of how "we must find a way to live together as one human family."

So what's the obstacle to reaching humanity's common ground? "[P]art of the problem, of course, lies in the imperfections of man -- our selfishness, our pride, our stubbornness, our acquisitiveness, our insecurities, our egos; all the cruelties large and small that those of us in the Christian tradition understand to be rooted in original sin. We too often seek advantage over others. We cling to outworn prejudice and fear those who are unfamiliar. Too many of us view life only through the lens of immediate self-interest and crass materialism; in which the world is necessarily a zero-sum game. The strong too often dominate the weak, and too many of those with wealth and with power find all manner of justification for their own privilege in the face of poverty and injustice. And so, for all our technology and scientific advances, we see here in this country and around the globe violence and want and strife that would seem sadly familiar to those in ancient times."

Former president Bush often attributed his certainty to his religious convictions, and consistently injected religiosity into the White House.

But Obama had this to say yesterday: "Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It's the belief in things not seen. It's beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

"And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "The vast majority of the 12,000 in attendance at the Joyce Center basketball arena gave the president several loud, sustained ovations, and the crowd rallied to his defense when people attempted to interrupt him at the start....

"Obama did not engage in the debate over when life begins, nor did he attempt to justify his beliefs about abortion or embryonic stem cell research, positions that some said should have disqualified him from Notre Dame's honorary degree. Instead, the president took aim at the loud and angry rhetoric that he said too often dominates the discussion.

"The failure of both sides to use 'fair-minded words,' he said, overly inflames an important debate. As an example, he described his own 2004 campaign Web site, which at one point referred to 'right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose.'

"It was not until a doctor e-mailed him about the phrase that Obama ordered it taken down, he said.

"'I didn't change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site,' he told the crowd. 'And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that . . . that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.'"

E.J. Dionne writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Obama's opponents seek to reignite the culture wars. He doesn't. They would reduce religious faith to a narrow set of issues. He refused to join them. They often see theological arguments as leading to certainty. He opted for humility....

"[I]n raising the stakes entailed in Obama's visit, the critics did the president a great service.

"By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama's opponents on the Catholic right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost."

James Fallows blogs for the Atlantic about Obama's extraordinary ability to address complex issues -- in this case, "the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides."

And blogger Ezra Klein, debuting on washingtonpost.com, calls attention to Obama's language shift on climate change: "'Your generation must decide how to save God's creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it,' Obama thundered."

Obama's Sin of Commission?

By Dan Froomkin
1:25 PM ET, 05/18/2009

I've been quick to point out when I thought President Obama was violating his own stated principles, whether it was by joining in the torture cover-up, invoking spurious executive powers, blinking on the banking crisis, overreaching in Aghanistan, or being insufficiently sensitive to civilian casualties.

But I'm not convinced, at least not yet, that Obama's announcement Friday that he intends to use a reformed military commission process for a small number of detainees actually constitutes a reversal -- or a betrayal.

While Obama strongly condemned military commissions as constituted by the Bush administration -- and spoke of the need to try terror suspects in regular courts -- he didn't actually rule them out in theory.

And it seems to me that before we get into too much discussion over the political ramifications of his decision, we should explore its rationale.

Basic justice requires that terror suspects be given a fair hearing where they can confront the charges against them; that they not be held without some sort of publicly defensible legal determination; that evidence obtained through torture has no place in a civilized judicial process; and so on. By these standards, among many others, Bush's military commissions were nothing less than kangaroo courts and an international embarrassment. Experts say the majority of people being detained at Guantanamo even now have absolutely no business being there.

But -- especially after the monumental mess the Bushies made of things -- it's not hard to imagine a situation in which a federal court's procedural rules could well render prosecutors incapable of presenting what would otherwise be a compelling argument that someone presents a sufficient danger to the country that they should be kept detained until the threat is past.

I don't have a problem letting some criminals go free if that's the price we pay for a domestic justice system that is fair and prevents prosecutorial abuse. But to be honest, I'm a little more worried about letting some terrorists go free. The downside seems much higher. So must terror suspects be granted every single protection to which American citizens are legitimately entitled?

Michael D. Shear and Peter Finn write in The Washington Post: "Inside the administration, the debate over the military commissions was rigorous, with Obama eventually siding with the generals and other military officials who feared that bringing some detainees before regular courts would present enormous legal hurdles and could risk acquittals.

"That argument, presented to Obama by his top national security aides, prevailed over Justice Department prosecutors' assertions that federal courts or long-established military courts-martial could ensure the swift and successful prosecution of captured terrorism suspects, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

But Shear and Finn note: "FBI teams that reinterviewed Mohammed and 13 other high-value detainees transferred to Guantanamo to obtain fresh testimony, free from the taint of earlier coercive interrogation, did not provide Miranda warnings to those detainees. Some in the administration argued that the failure to do so was a major barrier to shifting some cases to federal court."

Nothing the administration said, however, could soothe the anger of civil libertarian and human rights organizations. "White House counsel Gregory B. Craig led a conference call [Friday] afternoon with human rights groups to explain Obama's reasoning. But most participants said they left the conversation unconvinced," Shear and Finn write.

"'I did not hear him make the case why commissions are necessary,' said Elisa Massimino, the executive director of Human Rights First. 'They seemed fixated on making the case that this is not inconsistent for Obama. But I heard nothing on why this is part of a smart counterterrorism strategy.'"

Obama's decision earlier last week to block the release of pictures showing abuse of detainees -- which I consider inexcusable and inexplicable -- is quickly being lumped together with the latest decision -- a potentially tempered response to reality -- as proof positive that Obama is tacking to the center and abandoning his liberal friends and their approach to terror.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that the two decisions "are the most graphic examples yet of how he has backtracked, in substantial if often nuanced ways, from the approach to national security that he preached as a candidate, and even from his first days in the Oval Office...

"Faced with the choice of signaling an unambiguous break with the policies of the Bush era, or maintaining some continuity with its practices, the president has begun to come down on the side of taking fewer risks with security, even though he is clearly angering the liberal elements of his political base."

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "The decision benefits the administration politically because it burnishes Mr. Obama's credentials as a leader who takes a hard line toward terrorism suspects."

Christi Parsons and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times: "Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, who styled himself as 'the Decider' and took pride in sticking with decisions come what might, Obama is emerging as a leader so committed to pragmatism that he will move to a new position with barely a shrug.

"Whether it's a long-standing campaign promise or a recent Oval Office decision, Obama has shown a willingness to reverse himself and even anger his most liberal supporters if he can advance a higher-priority goal or avoid what he sees as a distracting controversy."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "The decisions underscored an important facet of Obama's decision making, which is his capacity to rethink positions and to change his mind as he learns more or conditions change. And he tends whenever possible to seek consensus. Those on the left and right often overlook this aspect of his governing style, though it was one of the factors that drew many people during the campaign.

"The other reality that last week's decisions highlighted is Obama's willingness to disappoint his allies, which suggests that he feels he owes no group or groups unduly for his victory. He has sent the same message to organized labor by refusing to push hard for its top priority, the employee free choice act."

Jonathan Weisman writes in the Wall Street Journal: "On everything from national security to climate change to immigration, liberal groups are saying the president's recent actions contradict his soothing ability to convince them that he will move dramatically on their issues. It follows a first 100 days in which Mr. Obama largely avoided any compromises on pressing his economic agenda."

But, as Weisman writes: "White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said over the weekend that liberal critics were overplaying the extent to which Mr. Obama had changed his views on handling suspected terrorists. He said any compromises on other policies serve the broader purpose of keeping the big priorities moving forward.

"And supporters of the president's more compromising stance say his positions will help liberal causes in the long run."

Late Night Humor

By Dan Froomkin
1:20 PM ET, 05/18/2009

Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond reprised their impressions of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for Saturday Night Live's season finale.

Commenting on Cheney's sudden media visibility, Bush says: "I mean, I spent eight years with my face out there, saying things I barely understood. While you were nowhere to be found."

"I was busy," Cheney says.

Torture Is Not for the Fallible

By Dan Froomkin
10:10 AM ET, 05/18/2009

In his Washington Post opinion column on Friday, Charles Krauthammer continues his defense of torture, calling my critique of his May 1 column "stupid".

I had taken issue with, among other things, Krauthammer's assertion that a "ticking time bomb" scenario could exist in real life. Krauthammer responds with what he considers an example: The tragic case of Israeli soldier Nachshon Waxman, who was kidnapped 15 years ago by Palestinian terrorists. Israeli authorities apparently used torture to find out where he was being held. Then Waxman (along with four others) were killed during the rescue attempt.

In other words, in the one instance in all modern history that Krauthammer can find of a "ticking time bomb", there was none -- i.e. there was no imminent apocalyptic danger -- and torture actually hastened, rather than avoided, the worst-case scenario. Steve Benen blogs for Washington Monthly: "What Krauthammer has offered is a story in which bad guys kidnapped a good guy. If that's grounds for torture, practically every kidnapping would compel U.S. officials -- not just the CIA and the military, but state and local law enforcement, too -- to torture suspected accomplices with some regularity."

That said, I understand why Krauthammer and other torture apologists continue to hold the ticking time bomb scenario as their first principle.

If we knew with God-like certainty that someone we had in custody had information that could prevent an imminent attack on a large number of people -- and we knew that in this particular case torture was absolutely the only way to pry it out of him -- then, yes, I suspect many of us would use torture.

But we are not gods. We are humans. Such certainty doesn't exist for us (except, of course, on TV).

And because we are humans, not gods, we have chosen to be ruled by laws -- laws that draw clear lines between what actions are appropriate for humans, and what are not.

Indeed, ever since World War II, those laws have been codified to represent what civilized nations agree are -- or at least should be -- universal values. Chief among those is a respect for human dignity. The United States in particular has cast itself as the world's champion of human dignity. And nothing is more antithetical to human dignity than torture.

Furthermore, if we go the God-like path, where does it stop? Krauthammer's columns are a perfect example. His first exception for what he himself called "impermissible evil" is the ticking time bomb scenario. By the second, he is advocating torture for fishing expeditions, or as he puts it: "[T]he extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives."

The slippery slope Krauthammer so enthusiastically plunges down is, unfortunately, anything but theoretical. It has become increasingly clear that in a series of decisions -- documented in the February 2002 memo in which former president George W. Bush exempted war-on-terror detainees from the Geneva Conventions, the August 2002 Justice Department memos (one and two) explicitly sanctioning measures that by any reasonable definition constitute torture, and the December 2002 memo from then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorizing the use of stress positions, hooding and dogs -- the Bush administration opened the door wide to abusive and degrading practices. Far from being limited to ostensibly "high value" detainees, state-sanctioned cruelty was applied willy-nilly to many of those unfortunate enough to get swept up into the system, in such a way that history will judge us poorly and that the American public -- when it finally gets its head around what happened -- will undoubtedly reject it.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:44 AM ET, 05/18/2009

David Horsey on the argument for torture, John Cole and Tom Toles on the return of Bushism, MStreeter and Rex Babin on the torture photos, Stuart Carlson on the Pelosi diversion, Jeff Danziger's definition of hell, John Sherffius on GOP rebranding, Nate Beller on Cheney's return, Jeff Darcy on Obama at Notre Dame and Jim Morin on Obama's health care plan.

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