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Obama's Iranian Dilemna

By Dan Froomkin
2:25 PM ET, 06/16/2009

President Obama's insistence on reaching out to Iranian leaders has always rubbed some people the wrong way. But mostly those people were neocons and others who believe -- despite the evidence to the contrary -- that the projection of raw power is the only way to get anywhere with belligerent despots.

Now, however, signs of what might or might not be an incipient revolution in Iran -- and its violent repression -- are making even some Obama supporters start to get a little uncomfortable about the president's outstretched hand. At least right this minute.

Should Obama's I'll-talk-to-anyone approach really apply when they're right in the middle of a brutal anti-democratic repression?

Obama yesterday said he was "deeply troubled" about the election-related violence in Iran. But he said nothing had changed his basic approach:

I've always believed that as odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy -- diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries -- is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests, specifically, making sure that we are not seeing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East triggered by Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon; making sure that Iran is not exporting terrorist activity.

Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius is pleased:

Obama would make a mistake if he seemed to meddle in Iranian politics. That would give the mullahs the foreign enemy they need to discredit the reformers.

But Fred Kaplan writes for Slate:

Whatever is going on inside Tehran's ruling circles, now is not the time for Obama to engage in outreach. Rather, it's time to up the ante, to make the mullahs—especially those who might be inclined to cast off Ahmadinejad—realize that if they're going to play democracy, they can't rig the deck and violate the will of their people, at least not so blatantly.

And George Packer blogs for the New Yorker:

With riot police and armed militiamen beating and, in a few reported cases, killing unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Iran's cities, for the Obama Administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless. Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality—that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see. A stronger American stand—taken, as much as possible, in concert with European countries and through multilateral organizations—would do more to improve America's negotiating position than weaken it. Acknowledging the compelling voices of the desperate young Iranians who, after all, only want their votes counted, would not deep-six the possibility of American-Iranian talks. Ahmadinejad and his partners in the clerical-military establishment will talk to us exactly when and if they think it's in their interest. Right now, they don't appear to. And the tens of millions of Iranians who voted for change and are the long-term future of that country will always remember what America said and did when they put their lives on the line for their values.

Meanwhile, Mark Landler writes in the New York Times:

With the White House assuming a more central role in dealing with Iran, the Obama administration plans to move its senior Iran policy maker, Dennis B. Ross, to the National Security Council from the State Department, two administration officials said Monday.

Health Care Watch

By Dan Froomkin
12:58 PM ET, 06/16/2009

In a nearly hour-long speech to the American Medical Association yesterday, President Obama tried to persuade doctors that elements of his plan that some doctors think of as bitter medicine will, indeed, be good for them.

Robert Pear and Jackie Calmes write in the New York Times:

Opening a week in which health care will dominate attention in Congress, the president's speech on Monday was the latest example of an oft-used ploy to press his case: appearing before skeptical audiences, confident of his powers of persuasion but willing as well to say what his listeners do not want to hear.

Mr. Obama spoke just days after the A.M.A. had signaled opposition to his proposal for a public health insurance plan to compete with private insurers as part of a menu of choices, much like the one for members of Congress.

"The public option is not your enemy," Mr. Obama said. "It is your friend, I believe." Saying it would "keep the insurance companies honest," the president dismissed as "illegitimate" the claims of critics that a public insurance option amounts to "a Trojan horse for a single-payer system" run by the government.

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post:

The president's good-news, bad-news message to the physicians marked what White House senior adviser David Axelrod described as a higher level of engagement by the president on his top domestic priority.

For months, Obama remained on the sidelines of the health-care debate because "he felt it was important to not be too proscriptive," Axelrod said in an interview. "Now we're into a different phase, where decisions are being made very quickly, so it's time to weigh in to a greater degree."

The Obama strategy... is to present each major stakeholder with an enticement in return for a bit of sacrifice.

Of course, it may not be all smooth sailing. Obama offered doctors support for efforts to reduce malpractice lawsuits -- but stopped short of endorsing a cap on awards. As Connolly writes:

James Rohack, the incoming AMA president, said physicians must receive some type of legal protection if they are going to be expected to reduce extraneous tests and treatments, as Obama urged.

"Unless we have protection in the courtroom for not ordering a test, we're going to order those additional tests," Rohack told reporters after the speech.

Quick Takes

By Dan Froomkin
12:54 PM ET, 06/16/2009

Laura Meckler writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A prominent gay-rights organization, long supportive of President Barack Obama, sent him a scathing letter Monday to protest the administration's recent legal backing of the Defense of Marriage Act. The frustration, expressed in an emotional letter by the president of the Human Rights Campaign, also stems from Mr. Obama's reluctance to move on other issues on its agenda, such as allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military."

David Cho, Brady Dennis and Karl Vick write in The Washington Post: "The Obama administration has turned back pleas for emergency aid from one of the biggest remaining threats to the economy -- the state of California.... After a series of meetings, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, top White House economists Lawrence Summers and Christina Romer, and other senior officials have decided that California could hold on a little longer and should get its budget in order rather than rely on a federal bailout.... [F]ederal officials are worried that a bailout of California would set off a cascade of demands from other states."

In the Los Angeles Times, Jim Puzzanghera has more details on Obama's imminent announcement of "the most significant new regulation of the financial industry since the Great Depression, including a new watchdog agency to look out for consumers' interests."

Suzanne Goldenberg writes in the Guardian: "The Obama administration is poised for its most forceful confrontation with the American public on the sweeping and life-altering consequences of a failure to act on global warming with the release today of a long-awaited scientific report on climate change. The report, produced by more than 30 scientists at 13 government agencies dealing with climate change, provides the most detailed picture to date of the worst case scenarios of rising sea levels and extreme weather events: floods in lower Manhattan; a quadrupling of heat waves deaths in Chicago; withering on the vineyards of California; the disappearance of wildflowers from the slopes of the Rockies; and the extinction of Alaska's wild polar bears in the next 75 years. Today's release is part of a carefully crafted strategy by the White House to help build public support for Obama's agenda and boost the prospects of a climate change bill now making its way through Congress."

Bill Dedman writes for msnbc.com: "The Obama administration is fighting to block access to names of visitors to the White House, taking up the Bush administration argument that a president doesn't have to reveal who comes calling to influence policy decisions. Despite President Barack Obama's pledge to introduce a new era of transparency to Washington, and despite two rulings by a federal judge that the records are public, the Secret Service has denied msnbc.com's request for the names of all White House visitors from Jan. 20 to the present. It also denied a narrower request by the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which sought logs of visits by executives of coal companies.... Groups that advocate open government have argued that it's vital to know the names of White House visitors, who may have an outsized influence on policy matters."

Steven Aftergood blogs for Secrecy News: "President Obama has still not appointed anyone to the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board... The PIAB has broad responsibility for conducting internal executive branch oversight of intelligence, and it is specifically charged with alerting the President to intelligence activities that may be unlawful or contrary to executive order or presidential directive."

Drudge Report has a fiery letter from Republican National Committee Chief of Staff Ken McKay to ABC News complaining that a prime-time special to be broadcast from the White House next week -- titled "Questions for the President: Prescription for America" -- will "exclude opposing voices" and "become a glorified infomercial to promote the Democrat [sic] agenda." But according to ABC's original press release, Obama "will answer questions from an audience made up of Americans selected by ABC News who have divergent opinions in this historic debate." ABCNews.com will also "invite viewers to join the discussion and share their questions about health care reform" and "will also be working with Digg.com to select popular questions voted on by online users."

The Foot-Dragging Continues

By Dan Froomkin
12:20 PM ET, 06/16/2009

In the latest example of the extraordinarily and indefensible foot-dragging of the Obama administration when it comes to releasing information about the Bush torture legacy, the CIA yesterday -- under court order -- released a few tiny, additional fragments from still extensively blacked-out documents in which detainees described their brutal treatment in CIA custody.

Even those fragments include some shocking new revelations. For instance, Abu Zubaida, the first CIA detainee extensively tortured by direct order of the White House, is quoted as saying that his jailers apologized to him after they determined he wasn't the senior al-Qaeda figure President Bush and others had repeatedly insisted to the world that he was. And 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who Bush defenders still insist provided critically important information after being subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques," said he repeatedly lied to make his torturers happy.

Meanwhile, nothing in the newly un-redacted portions supports the earlier, Bush-era decision to keep them secret. And there are still vast portions being kept from the public -- now by the Obama administration -- for what look like equally specious reasons.

As I wrote last week, President Obama appears to be blatantly violating his promise not to "protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or embarrassment to the government." And as I wrote yesterday, his position appears to be rooted not in legitimate national security concerns -- nor even in misplaced loyalty to holdovers in his administration -- but in the cold miscalculations of his political advisers.

What makes them miscalculations is the near-certainty that, bit by bit, most of this stuff will come out eventually. Whether that happens thanks to Obama or despite his willing and active participation in a cover-up is the only thing that's really in doubt.

Here are the newly-released versions of the transcripts. Here's the ACLU press release. You can compare the new version of the Zubaida transcript with the one released in 2007 to see the minor difference.

Peter Finn and Julie Tate write in The Washington Post:

An al-Qaeda associate captured by the CIA and subjected to harsh interrogation techniques said his jailers later told him they had mistakenly thought he was the No. 3 man in the organization's hierarchy and a partner of Osama bin Laden, according to newly released excerpts from a 2007 hearing.

"They told me, 'Sorry, we discover that you are not Number 3, not a partner, not even a fighter,' " said Abu Zubaida, speaking in broken English, according to the new transcript of a Combatant Status Review Tribunal held at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

President George W. Bush described Abu Zubaida in 2002 as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations." Intelligence, military and law enforcement sources told The Washington Post this year that officials later concluded he was a Pakistan-based "fixer" for radical Islamist ideologues, but not a formal member of al-Qaeda, much less one of its leaders.

Indeed, it's hard to overstate just how central Zubaida was and still is to the Bush defense of torture. For background, please read my extensive March 30 post, "Bush's Torture Rationale Debunked."

Much of the information that remains blacked-out appears to be detailed descriptions of how the detainees were treated. Finn and Tate write, for instance:

Although little new information was released in the hearing transcript for Majid Khan, an alleged associate of Mohammed and a former resident of Baltimore, the extent of the redactions is more apparent in the latest document. When referring to his treatment at CIA "black site" prisons, the Pakistani's transcript is blacked out for eight consecutive pages. In the version released earlier, this entire section was marked by a single word: "REDACTED."

The continued classification is particularly puzzling considering how many details of their treatment was disclosed in April, when Mark Danner of the New York Review of Books Web-published a confidential report from the International Committee of the Red Cross, in which Zubaida, Mohammed and others described their experiences being subjected to forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, forced standing, repeated beatings and countless applications of cold water including, of course, waterboarding.

Julian E. Barnes and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times:

Self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed told U.S. military officials that he had lied to the CIA after being abused, according to documents made public Monday. The claim is likely to intensify the debate over whether harsh interrogation techniques generated accurate information.

Mohammed made the assertion during hearings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he was transferred in 2006after being held at secret CIA sites since his capture in 2003.

"I make up stories," Mohammed said, describing in broken English an interrogation probably administered by the CIA concerning the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. "Where is he? I don't know. Then, he torture me," Mohammed said of his interrogator. "Then I said, 'Yes, he is in this area.' "

Mohammed also appeared to say that he had fingered people he did not know as being Al Qaeda members in order to avoid abusive treatment. Although there is no way to corroborate his statements, Mohammed is one of the militants whom the CIA repeatedly subjected to the simulated-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

Also just unredacted: Mohammed's statement that the CIA explicitly told him that he had no constitutional rights.

"This is what I understand he told me: You are not American and you are not on American soil," Mohammed said in the military hearing. "So you cannot ask about the Constitution."

Ben Wizner, the lead ACLU lawyer in the lawsuit seeking an unclassified version of the transcripts, said the fact that the CIA had previously sought to classify that statement was extraordinary.

"Why would the Bush administration suppress [Mohammed's] statement that he was told by the CIA that he was not protected by the Constitution?" Wizner said. "This was suppressed to avoid embarrassment."

I should point out, by the way, that this is not the first time it's been abundantly clear that detainees made up stories to please their torturers. Fully three years ago, in his explosive book The One Percent Doctrine, investigative reporter Ron Suskind described at length how Zubaida "confessed" to made-up plots, thereby sending "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target."

And the version of Zubaida's hearing transcript released in 2007 included the following exchange with the presiding officer:

Q. So I understand that during this treatment, you said things to make them stop and then those statements were actually untrue, is that correct?

A. Yes.

The CIA's decision to keep so much of these transcripts redacted is akin to CIA director Leon Panetta's move last week to block the release of documents that detail the videotaped interrogations of CIA detainees, including Zubaida.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board, commenting on that decision, wrote:

The director, in other words, confirms that with "enhanced interrogation techniques" we got a three-for-one deal: They did no good. We shamed ourselves. And in the process, we created a grave risk to national security.

How tragic that the evidence of mistreatment is so damning that the best way to protect our nation is to suppress it.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow had ACLU lawyer Wizner on her show last night. "This is information the release of which will increase calls for criminal accountability -- and that is something the Obama administration has been fighting to avoid," Wizner said. "I think the disturbing trend right here, and we saw it last week as well, is that the Obama administration is now stepping back from transparency, because they see that it's an inevitable ingredient to accountability."

Meanwhile, AFP reports:

Former vice president Dick Cheney said Monday he hoped CIA chief Leon Panetta was "misquoted" in comments that Cheney appeared to be "wishing" for another attack on the United States, reports said.

The Central Intelligence Agency also scrambled to clarify that Panetta "does not believe the former vice president wants an attack," after The New Yorker magazine's report released on Sunday.

Cartoon Watch

By Dan Froomkin
9:25 AM ET, 06/16/2009

Bruce Plante on Dr. Obama's examination and Jeff Danziger on the blockage; Mike Luckovich on the Obama factor in Iran and Eric Allies on Obama's reaction.

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