Political Advisers Sank Truth Commission

By Dan Froomkin
1:55 PM ET, 06/15/2009

There's a lot of headline-worthy news in Jane Mayer's fascinating New Yorker profile of CIA director Leon Panetta. But what surprised me the most was that Panetta initially supported the establishment of a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the abuses of the Bush administration -- and was talked out of it by the White House.

A familiar right-wing argument against the establishment of such a commission has been that too much second-guessing would paralyze and demoralize the CIA. But it appears that Obama's opposition wasn't based on national security concerns -- it was a crassly political call.

Mayer writes:

"I'm not big on commissions," Panetta told me. "On the other hand, I could see that it might make some sense, frankly, to appoint a high-level commission, with somebody like Sandra Day O'Connor, Lee Hamilton—people like that." The appeal was that Obama could delegate to others the legal problems stemming from Bush Administration actions, allowing him to focus on his ambitious political agenda. "In the discussion phase"—early in the spring, before Obama decided the issue—"I was for it," Panetta said. "Because every time a question came up, you could basically say, 'The commission, hopefully, is looking at this.' " But by late April Obama had vetoed the idea, fearing that it would look vindictive and, possibly, inflame his predecessor. "It was the President who basically said, 'If I do this, it will look like I'm trying to go after Cheney and Bush,' " Panetta said. "He just didn't think it made sense. And then everybody kind of backed away from it."

In an interview with Scott Horton for the Daily Beast, Mayer further explains:

Any serious look back at how American came to embrace torture would inevitably lead to Cheney. It would also likely end up having to reexamine the false confessions from coerced detainees that helped get us into the war in Iraq. They just see too much partisan political peril in it.

Horton: What was the breakdown on this issue in the Obama White House—who else spoke against the commission concept, and what were their arguments?

Mayer: The opposition really came from Obama's political advisers. David Axelrod, I know, thinks a commission would be a mistake. Basically, they regard their ability to hold the support of independent and conservative Democratic voters as essential politically for their very ambitious agenda. They dread any issue that could launch a divisive culture war. An exploration of Bush's use of torture, seen from this perspective, is a potentially dangerous political distraction.

But as Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon:

Ultimately, there is a real irony to the Obama administration's active, concerted efforts to prevent accountability for past crimes: namely, the greater the suppression efforts, the greater the focus on past Bush abuses will be, since evidence of Bush crimes will seep out slowly and in increments, and there will be constant controversies concerning the Obama administration's suppression efforts themselves.

Panetta also tells Mayer something most others in the Obama administration -- or the media -- dare not say: That former vice president Dick Cheney has gone way beyond the pale. Mayer writes:

Panetta...responded to Cheney's [May 22] speech with surprising candor. "I think he smells some blood in the water on the national-security issue," he told me. "It's almost, a little bit, gallows politics. When you read behind it, it's almost as if he's wishing that this country would be attacked again, in order to make his point. I think that's dangerous politics."

Mayer describes how Panetta -- and Obama -- are surrounded by CIA holdovers who were complicit with, if not culpable in, the Bush torture legacy. "America's intelligence community is an incestuous one, making it difficult for a President to break with old ways of thinking," she writes.

Walter Pincus gleans yet more news from Mayer's article:

Weeks after President Obama took office, the CIA extended its contract with a firm run by two psychologists who helped introduce waterboarding and other harsh methods to the agency's interrogation techniques, according to a news report.

Two months later, CIA Director Leon Panetta fired Mitchell, Jessen & Associates and all other contractors that aided the CIA in its interrogations of alleged terrorists, the New Yorker reported this weekend.

And, Pincus writes:

Panetta said John Helgerson, the recently retired CIA inspector general who investigated the interrogation program in 2004, told him that no officer still working at the agency went beyond the legal boundaries set by the Bush Justice Department. But the magazine reported that Helgerson, who is not a lawyer, said he told Panetta only that he knew of no prosecutable cases but that "continuing work was being done."

Helgerson also said he had sent several cases involving CIA interrogations to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. In one from November 2003, termed a homicide, an Iraqi detainee at the Abu Ghraib prison died from asphyxiation after being hooded and hung by his arms while suffering from broken ribs.

At Justice, according to the magazine, the cases have languished.

For those of us hankering for more disclosure, Mayer has some vaguely encouraging words:

Few activists expect lawsuits against the C.I.A. or its contractors to succeed. But John Sifton, an attorney who specializes in human-rights law, and who is part of [Abu] Zubaydah's legal team, notes that there are other ways for the detainees' grievances to become public. "The act of prosecuting the high-value detainees will be the accountability process," Sifton said. "It's impossible to try these detainees without allowing them to air all the information about their torture."

Other legal actions threaten to expose yet more secrets of the C.I.A.'s torture program. A prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department, John Durham, has convened a grand jury in Washington to weigh potential criminal charges against C.I.A. officers who were involved in the destruction of ninety-two videotapes documenting the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah and other detainees. Mickum told me that he has met several times with Durham, and believes that the scope of his inquiry may have expanded to include a review of whether the C.I.A. began using brutal methods on Zubaydah before it received written authorization from the Justice Department. (This would provide an extra motive for destroying the videotapes.) Mickum said, "I got the sense he was very serious." (Durham declined to comment.)

The Deficit-Attention Disorder

By Dan Froomkin
1:09 PM ET, 06/15/2009

Given all the other crises President Obama is juggling right now, the federal deficit is -- as it should be -- among the least of his worries.

What the economy needs at this point is more government spending, not less.To the extent that there are some things that can be done now to reduce the deficit in the long run -- most notably, taming health care costs -- Obama is very much on the case.

Yet as Manu Raju noted for Politico last week, Republicans think Obama's biggest political vulnerability is on the issue of government spending -- and they intend to make Obama "own" the deficit by the time the 2010 elections come around.

New York Times business columnist David Leonhardt put all this in its proper context last week, explaining that most of the blame for the projected deficits in the next 10 years belongs to George W. Bush, and that only 10 percent can be traced to Obama -- mostly from the stimulus package required to revive the moribund economy he inherited.

But in Saturday's Washington Post, Scott Wilson wrote:

the White House has become increasingly concerned that President Obama's spending plans, which would require $9 trillion in government borrowing over the next decade, could become a political liability that defines the 2010 midterm elections.

The concern was reflected in the aggressive response from administration officials to criticism that money from Obama's stimulus plan is arriving too slowly to help the languishing economy, as well as in the president's public endorsement of "pay as you go" legislation, which would require Congress to make room for new non-discretionary spending with equivalent cuts to other parts of the budget. Yesterday, Obama also outlined billions of dollars in savings that would be used to pay for his health-care reform proposal.

But there is evidence of growing public concern over his fiscal policies. As he traveled Thursday in Green Bay, Wis., Obama was greeted by demonstrators holding signs that said, "No socialism" and "Taxed Enough Yet?"

And, Wilson, writes:

even some leaders in his own party are calling on the president to soon begin making those difficult choices, despite a fragile economy that remains in recession.

But I don't think any of this is really new. Obama has been defending the stimulus ever since he proposed it. He always intended to propose cuts to pay for his health-care overhaul. A couple protest signs don't signify much to me. And there have been Democratic deficit hawks around for a long time.

Wilson noted that:

During a town hall forum in New Mexico last month, Obama acknowledged that the "long-term deficit and debt that we have accumulated is unsustainable."

But that was hardly the first time Obama or his team had expressed that concern -- in those words. Fully three months ago, Obama budget chief Peter Orszag talked about how the nation was "on an unsustainable fiscal course," and in April, Obama declared: "Without significant change to steer away from ever-expanding deficits and debt, we are on an unsustainable course."

For good measure, New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman warns that this is no time to reconsider government spending. While acknowledging that "unconventional measures make the conventionally minded uncomfortable," he writes:

A few months ago the U.S. economy was in danger of falling into depression. Aggressive monetary policy and deficit spending have, for the time being, averted that danger. And suddenly critics are demanding that we call the whole thing off, and revert to business as usual.

Those demands should be ignored. It's much too soon to give up on policies that have, at most, pulled us a few inches back from the edge of the abyss.

Meanwhile, in other economic news, Damian Paletta writes in the Wall Street Journal:

President Barack Obama is expected Wednesday to propose the most sweeping reorganization of financial-market supervision since the 1930s, a revamp that would touch almost every corner of banking from how mortgages are underwritten to the way exotic financial instruments are traded.

At the center of the plan, which administration officials are referring to as a "white paper," is a move to remake powers of the Federal Reserve to oversee the biggest financial players, give the government the power to unwind and break up systemically important companies -- much like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. does with failed banks -- and create a new regulator for consumer-oriented financial products, according to people involved in the process.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser, outline their plan in a Washington Post op-ed:

The goal is to create a more stable regulatory regime that is flexible and effective; that is able to secure the benefits of financial innovation while guarding the system against its own excess.

They conclude:

Some people will say that this is not the time to debate the future of financial regulation, that this debate should wait until the crisis is fully behind us. Such critics misunderstand the nature of the challenges we face. Like all financial crises, the current crisis is a crisis of confidence and trust. Reassuring the American people that our financial system will be better controlled is critical to our economic recovery.

The Health-Care Bargaining Chips

By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 06/15/2009

As the White House and Congress get to the horse-trading part of putting together a viable health-care plan, there will inevitably be some winners and some losers.

For instance, when it comes to raising the money to pay for expanding insurance coverage, Senate Democrats apparently think that President Obama's proposal to cap tax deductions for the wealthy is too daring. So they're pushing him to tax employer-supplied health benefits instead. But unions are opposed, some middle class families would see their taxes go up, and the move could come at a political cost to Obama, who campaigned against such a move.

Obama today is speaking to the American Medical Association convention in Chicago. Liberals are adamant that without a public insurance option, costs won't go down sufficiently. But many doctors fear that a government-run insurance plan would limit their payments. Doctors do like the idea of reducing malpractice lawsuits, however -- which is in turn opposed by consumer advocates and trial lawyers.

You get the picture. At some point, the health care debate isn't a zero-sum game anymore.

Lori Montgomery and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post:

The White House is caught in a battle within its own party over how to finance a comprehensive overhaul of America's health-care system, as key Democrats advocate a tax plan that could require President Obama to break his campaign pledge not to raise taxes on the middle class.....

In recent days, Obama has revived a tax plan he first offered in February: limiting itemized deductions for the nation's 3 million highest earners. Polls show that the idea is popular -- it was Obama's biggest applause line last week at an event in Wisconsin -- and it would enable him to abide by a campaign pledge to pay for coverage for the uninsured with new taxes on the rich.

"He believes this is the most equitable way to do this," said senior White House strategist David Axelrod. "It places the burden on people who can most afford it."

But many Democrats, particularly in the Senate, have balked at the idea, saying they prefer a tax that has some hope of winning Republican support. In legislation that could be unveiled as early as this week, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is expected to propose a new tax on the health benefits that millions of Americans currently receive tax-free through employers.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Robert Pear write in the New York Times:

In closed-door talks, Mr. Obama has been making the case that reducing malpractice lawsuits — a goal of many doctors and Republicans — can help drive down health care costs, and should be considered as part of any health care overhaul, according to lawmakers of both parties, as well as A.M.A. officials.

It is a position that could hurt Mr. Obama with the left wing of his party and with trial lawyers who are major donors to Democratic campaigns. But one Democrat close to the president said Mr. Obama, who wants health legislation to have broad support, views addressing medical liability issues as a "credibility builder" — in effect, a bargaining chip that might keep doctors and, more important, Republicans, at the negotiating table.

Former president George W. Bush was fixated on capping malpractice jury awards. Stolberg and Pear say that's not what Obama is talking about.

Dr. J. James Rohack, the incoming president of the medical association, said Mr. Obama told him at a meeting last month that he was open to offering some liability protection to doctors who follow standard guidelines for medical practice.

And Obama is apparently looking for payback:

[O]ne Republican who met with Mr. Obama in April recalled that the president said he was willing to go against his party to get medical malpractice reforms into a health bill — but that he would expect Republican support for the legislation if he did so.

Meanwhile, Lori Montgomery and Scott Wilson write in The Washington Post that in his weekly address on Saturday, Obama

outlined measures to trim spending on federal health programs for the elderly and the poor by an additional $313 billion over the next decade...

Obama proposed limiting the growth of Medicare fee-for-service payments, taking hospitals and other health-care providers at their word that they will reduce costs. He also proposed cutting subsidies to hospitals that treat uninsured patients on the theory that such payments will decline as more people are covered through his plan.

The president also called for reducing payments to drug companies that serve Medicare recipients. Advisers declined to release details, saying the idea is still under discussion.

Mark your calendar, because ABC News has announced that Obama will participate in a nationally-televised, prime-time event called "Questions for the President: Prescription for America" next Wednesday.

And Washington Post opinion columnist Robert J. Samuelson further ratchets up his Obama critique, writing that the president's health-care plan is "naive, hypocritical or simply dishonest" or "all three." Samuelson even goes so far as to argue against providing insurance to the 46 million uncovered Americans because it would "actually worsen the spending problem."

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:08 PM ET, 06/15/2009

Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe: "The Obama administration will continue to seek talks with Iran's leaders despite an 'awful lot of questions' about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim of reelection, Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday. The effort to tread a fine diplomatic line came as violent protests continued to flare in the Islamic Republic, and the opposition candidate called for a new election.... 'Talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior,' Biden said. Rather, he said, they are a reflection of the United States' best interest: 'We want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession, and secondly to stop supporting terror.'"

Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post: "The confused aftermath of Iran's presidential election is complicating the Obama administration's planned outreach to the Islamic republic." Wilson writes that Obama is seeking a "balance... between condemning what increasingly appears to be a fraudulent election and the likelihood that it will be dealing with Ahmadinejad after the dust settles."

Bill Keller and Michael Slackman write in the New York Times that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his protégé "appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said."

Isabel Kershner writes in the New York Times: "In a much-anticipated speech meant in part as an answer to President Obama's address in Cairo on June 4, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu reversed his longstanding opposition to Palestinian statehood, a move seen as a concession to American pressure. But he firmly rejected American demands for a complete freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the subject of a rare public dispute between Israel and its most important ally on an issue seen as critical to peace negotiations. And even his assent on Palestinian statehood, given the caveats, was immediately rejected as a nonstarter by Palestinians."

Howard Schneider writes in The Washington Post: "President Obama welcomed Netanyahu's speech as an 'important step forward' and in a statement endorsed both key Israeli and Palestinian concerns. 'The President is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples,' the statement said. 'He believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel's security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu's endorsement of that goal.'"

John Schwartz writes in the New York Times: "A federal judge has ruled that John Yoo, a former Bush administration lawyer who wrote crucial memorandums justifying harsh interrogation techniques, will have to answer in court to accusations that his work led to a prisoner's being tortured and deprived of his constitutional rights. The government had asked Judge Jeffrey S. White of Federal District Court in San Francisco to dismiss the case filed by Jose Padilla, an American citizen who spent more than three years in a military brig as an enemy combatant. Judge White denied most elements of Mr. Yoo's motion and quoted a passage from the Federalist Papers that in times of war, nations, to be more safe, 'at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.'"

Andrew Cohen blogs for CBS News: "Judge White says the federal courts are required to weaken protections for people like Yoo and strengthen rights for people like Padilla when the other two branches of government won't remedy clear constitutional violations."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "With less than a month before congressional hearings begin on [Judge Sonia] Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, the White House is trying to quietly guide what staffers describe as an unusually broad network of law enforcement organizations, liberal allies, legal officials, Latino groups and women's organizations that want to see her confirmed."

Michael A. Fletcher writes for the Washington Post: "Does President Obama still smoke? White House press secretary Robert Gibbs would not say [Friday], but he acknowledged that the president continues to struggle to control his habit. 'I would simply tell you I think struggling with a nicotine addiction is something that happens every day,' Gibbs told reporters. The question arose after Obama praised Congress ... for passing legislation that would allow the federal government to regulate tobacco more closely. In his remarks in the Rose Garden, Obama decried the 'harmful, addictive and often deadly effects of tobacco products.'"

Here's a shocker. Michael Calderone writes for Politico that the Obama White House is more aware of and responsive to the New York Times than the Bush White House.

Ashley Parker writes in the New York Times: "Like many fresh administrations, the Obama White House is full of closely watched relationships....But none is more amusing than the unlikely duo of [David] Axelrod, the president's 54-year-old chief adviser, and his 24-year-old assistant, [Eric] Lesser. Indeed, just the mention of 'Ax and Lesser' elicits laughter at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue... Mr. Lesser calls his boss 'a little bit of a Nutty Professor,' and the professor calls Mr. Lesser a cross between Nurse Ratched in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and M*A*S*H's Radar O'Reilly. The young assistant is cheerfully neurotic, fastidious and something of an organized sprite, while his disorganized boss is what aides describe as 'a nonlinear thinker.'"

Abdon M. Pallasch writes in the Chicago Sun-Times that Axelrod spoke of his start in journalism in a commencement address yesterday at DePaul University: "'In those days, superb reporting played a historic role in uncovering the truth, shining a bright light on events like Vietnam and Watergate,' Axelrod said. 'Journalists heped save the republic, and I wanted to be a part of that. But, over time, things changed. By the mid-1980s, journalism was becoming more business than calling. The front office began to take over the newsroom. The emphasis went from veracity to velocity, from reporting to receipts.' He said that's when he went into politics."

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:30 AM ET, 06/15/2009

John Cole, Dan Wasserman, Jeff Danziger and Dwane Powell on the health care debate, Kevin Siers and Bruce Plante on executive pay, Rob Rogers on Obama's latest socialist plot, Steve Kelley on detainees, Walt Handelsman on the omnipresent Cheney, and Ted Rall on the asterisk president.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company