Eventual Equilibrium

At the moment there’s a storm rolling into Southern California – heavy rain in the forecast, and high winds and possible small tornadoes – a rare event. But the word is that this massive storm will arrive at midnight and be gone by dawn. The normal sunshine will be back soon enough, and the most severe drought in California history will continue. Twenty or thirty of these storms might end this drought, but that’s not going to happen. This is desert out here. All that is green everywhere here is green because of water that Los Angeles stole from the Owens Valley and Mono Lake and the Colorado River. That was a temporary fix. Drought is the natural state of things here. All the water-wars with the folks up north and elsewhere disturbed the natural equilibrium. That never works out well. Equilibrium will be restored, and it’s the same with the current storm. All the unbalanced atmospheric forces will reach a calm equilibrium in the morning, and the sun will shine again. Things will be as they should be, and always were.

It’s the same with politics. There was a destabilizing disruption in the order of things, in how Americans thought of themselves, with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the Bush-Cheney Torture Program the CIA was running, which those in government call a program where we used Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, not torture. Using that word – torture – has legal implications. There was Ronald Reagan’s signing statement on our ratification of the UN Convention on Tortureback in 1988 we said we would lead the world in never doing that sort of thing, ever. There are the Geneva Conventions too – no torture, ever – and when we signed onto those we made torture a crime under our law. Treaties are funny that way.

We don’t torture people, but of course we have tortured people – there’s no other way to read the Senate Intelligence Committee Report – and that disturbed our equilibrium. That created an ongoing storm where some call torture something else, or say what we did, whatever one calls it, wasn’t all that nasty, or if it was, it was necessary, or patriotic, or they say that America isn’t like other nations and the rules for others don’t really apply to us, because we’re special, and awesome. The report, however, shows that what we were doing was pretty awful, and whatever you call it, it didn’t work, and it also inflamed those who already think America is awful, making them much more likely to blow up one or more of our cities, or at least a mall or two, and certainly making it easier for the bad guys to recruit those willing to blow up whatever we’ve got. Yes, we should not have done what we did, and it’s time to admit that, and renounce all of it, and then be the good guys again. That’s the only way to win this war on terrorism – offer an alternative to being as nasty as possible, for political ends.

These two ways of looking at things cannot be resolved easily, if at all, and thus we have a political storm. The atmospheric forces here, political forces in this case, are not in equilibrium, and many wonder if they ever can be. There’s something that cannot be resolved in all this, and Noah Millman thinks it might be this:

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence.

That means that all of this was about something else entirely, and Daniel Larison extends that idea:

That makes a great deal of sense, and it is related to the broader problem in foreign policy and national security debates of frequently treating the most hardline and indefensible positions as the most “serious” ones. That is, one isn’t perceived as taking a threat “seriously” unless one is prepared to support any and all measures to counter it. We see this in the debate over Iran and the nuclear issue, where support for prevention and “keeping all options on the table” is mandatory for anyone that doesn’t want to be labeled as “weak.” We saw it during the Iraq war debate, where indulging the most paranoid fantasies about future Iraqi attacks on the U.S. was considered the “serious” and “responsible” position and doubting them was viewed as naiveté. According to this warped definition of being “serious,” it is necessary to countenance vicious behavior to prove the extent of one’s dedication to a particular policy goal.

There are, however, other ways to define seriousness:

Because of the bias in our debates in favor of hardline policies, preventive war and torture not only become acceptable “options” worth considering, but they have often been treated as possessing the quality – seriousness – that they most lack. The belief that a government is entitled to invade a foreign country and destroy its government on the off chance that the latter might one day pose a threat is an outstanding example of something that is morally unserious. That is, it reveals the absence or the rejection of careful moral reasoning. Likewise, believing that a government should ever be allowed to torture people is the opposite of what comes from serious moral reflection.

Maybe we’ve been talking about the wrong thing all along. Perhaps we can reach some sort of equilibrium, the calm after the storm, if we stop talking about torture, which may or may not be torture if you call it something else, and talk about who is serious and who is just bullshitting us, striking noble and heroic poses, because it feels so damned good. There are problems to solve out there – lots of bad guys we have to deal with. I’m serious, you’re not? Anyone who says that has to sit down and shut up. There’s work to do.

There’s always work to do. The government has to keep running. Even the Republicans know that now. They shut it down last year to force Obama to end Obamacare – because they were the serious folks, fighting creeping socialism, defending free-market capitalism when no one else would – and they didn’t end Obamacare. They looked like fools, because we do need the government to keep running. Even they knew that. They caved. Their attempt at showing that they were “the serious ones” – where Ted Cruz seemed to be claiming he alone was the only one in Washington who was serious about saving America from the commies – showed the opposite. Serious people don’t shut down the government.

This time they only came close:

The House narrowly passed a $1.1 trillion spending package on Thursday that would fund most government operations for the fiscal year after a rancorous debate that reflected the new power held by Republicans and the disarray among Democrats in the aftermath of the midterm elections.

The accord was reached just hours before the midnight deadline, in a 219-206 vote, amid the last-minute brinkmanship and bickering that has come to mark one of Congress’s most polarized – and least productive – eras. The legislation now heads to the Senate, which is expected to pass it in the coming days.

The storm passed. Equilibrium was restored, but it was a new equilibrium:

The split in the Democratic Party dramatically burst into view when Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader and one of President Obama’s most loyal supporters, broke with the administration over a provision in the bill that would roll back regulation of the Dodd-Frank Act, which Ms. Pelosi said was a giveaway to big banks whose practices helped fuel the Great Recession. She spoke on the House floor in the early afternoon, expressing her strong opposition to the bill.

Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. were pressed to make a furious round of phone calls to try to persuade wavering Democrats, while House Speaker John A. Boehner worked to get more Republican votes.

The public support of the sweeping spending bill by the White House – which came just as Ms. Pelosi was making her speech on the House floor opposing it – was a rare public break with the minority leader and infuriated many of her loyalists.

The Democrats may have reached a new sort of equilibrium. Nancy Pelosi abandoned President Obama and sided with the populist Elizabeth Warren, because the party is changing:

In a more than three-hour, closed-door meeting of House Democrats on Thursday night, many of the party’s more liberal members tried to rally support against the bill. The moment, they said, was one of conscience, and a chance for Democrats to demonstrate their allegiance with the middle class.

“We’ve got to stand up for principle at some point, or they’re going to kick us even more next year when they have a bigger majority,” said Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon. “They know we will stand our ground on principle in the future and not roll us so easily again.”

In an emergency gathering, Democrats also expressed anger at Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff, at what they saw as the president’s undercutting of Ms. Pelosi and other progressives by coming out in support of the deal so early in the day. But Ms. Pelosi ultimately gave her members the freedom to vote how they wanted. “I’m giving you the leverage to do what you have to do,” she said. “We have enough votes to show them never to do this again.”

In other words, this thing is going to pass, but go out there and vote for the middle class, not Wall Street. You won’t win this one, but people will see our party won’t stand for the Republicans sneaking in things like this, a hidden rider that commits the government to bailing out the high-risk derivative trades and credit default swaps that go bad, making sure no bank ever loses money on those things. Bail them out when their normal banking operations go sour, but not when they bet on trades in imaginary assets some guy thought up. Maybe the public won’t get it, but maybe they will. Stand for something.

Obama was not happy with that, and Hillary Clinton, the woman all of Wall Street wants to be the next president, because they know she’ll let them do anything they want, should be a bit worried.

She should worry. No one knows where she stands on anything – she’s careful. They only know that everyone thinks she should be president, and she thinks she should be president too. That’s nice, but there’s a new equilibrium here.

Still, this time, the larger storm passed:

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said the administration agreed with congressional Democrats who were angry about several provisions that affect financial regulations and others that would allow larger political contributions to parties during federal campaigns. But he called the funding bill “a compromise” and said passage of the legislation would be good for the economy and would bolster some of the president’s priorities, including consumer protection, early childhood education and the fight against climate change.

Everyone compromised:

Some House Republicans thought that Mr. Boehner did not go far enough in fighting Mr. Obama over his executive action last month to defer the deportation of as many as five million unauthorized immigrants. The spending deal funds the Department of Homeland Security – the agency primarily assigned to carry out the president’s immigration policy – only through February, at which point Republicans will control both chambers of Congress and have the leverage to try to curtail Mr. Obama’s action.

But some conservatives wanted to immediately defund the Homeland Security agency, despite the risk of a partial government shutdown.

They didn’t get what they wanted, but neither did the Democrats, and Kevin Drum is fine with that:

This is one of those things that demonstrate the chasm between political activists and analysts on the one side, and working politicians on the other. If you take a look at the bill, it does indeed have a bunch of objectionable features. People like me, with nothing really at stake, can bitch and moan about them endlessly. But you know what? For all the interminable whining we do about the death of bipartisanship in Washington, this is what bipartisanship looks like. It always has. It’s messy, it’s ugly, and it’s petty. Little favors get inserted into bills to win votes. Other favors get inserted as payback for the initial favors. Special interests get stroked. Party whips get a workout.

That’s politics. The fact that it’s happening right now is, in a weird sense, actually good news. It means that, for a few days at least, politics is working normally again.

The storm is over, equilibrium is restored, and we’re back to normal:

Even at its best, politics is lubricated by venality, ego, and mutual backscratching. And you know what? By the normal standards of this kind of stuff, the obnoxious riders in the current spending bill are pretty mild – really. The only one that rises above the level of a political misdemeanor is the provision that allows banks to get back into the custom swaps business, and even that’s hardly the end of the world. Swaps may have provided a tailwind to the 2008 financial collapse, but they were far from its core cause.

So should working politicians avert their gaze from the muck and vote to keep the government functioning? Of course they should. Government shutdowns are immensely costly in their own right, after all. This kind of crass calculus sucks, but that’s human nature for you. All things considered, I’d say we all got off fairly easy this time around.

Only Ted Cruz is unhappy, as Dana Milbank explains:

Grenade-launching Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas took a familiar position of obstruction last week: He called on conservatives to fight any bill that funds President Obama’s immigration actions – even if this provokes a standoff that leads to a government shutdown.

“Just about every Republican candidate in the country campaigned saying, ‘If you elect us, we will stop President Obama’s amnesty,'” he said at a rally at the Capitol with tea party activists last week. “What I’m here urging my fellow Republicans to do is very, very simple: Do what you said you would do.”

Cruz, who also met with House conservatives to stoke opposition, opposed the “meaningless show vote” lawmakers were considering as an alternative to a confrontation. He declared “a full-fledged constitutional crisis.”

But something extraordinary happened in response to Cruz’s hyperventilation: absolutely nothing.

Disrupting the equilibrium just doesn’t play well now:

When Cruz launched a similar effort last year to fight the funding of Obamacare, he got broad support among House conservatives, forcing leadership to dig in, earning the moniker “Speaker Cruz” and setting up the shutdown. But Cruz appears to have jumped the shark. His backers in the House have thinned, and leadership is paying them little mind. Even if Cruz raises procedural objections to the spending bill in the Senate, the most he can do is slow passage by a day or two because he lacks sufficient support from fellow Republicans.

Senate Republicans have also been cool to Cruz’s demands that they block confirmation of most nominations in order to force Obama to retract his immigration changes. Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has been noncommittal, and John Barrasso (Wyo.), head of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, told the Wall Street Journal’s Janet Hook that he would “make sure the government is open and functioning.”

Cruz has been conspicuously quiet this week in the run-up to Thursday’s vote. He didn’t mention the matter in a 75-minute foreign-policy speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday afternoon. I asked him after the event whether he was concerned that conservatives aren’t listening to him and whether he planned to use parliamentary tactics to slow the spending bill. He merely said that all Republicans should “honor our word” and “stop President Obama’s amnesty.”

This certainly doesn’t mean Cruz has abandoned his efforts to trip up the federal government. But I’ve long argued that Cruz is more of an opportunist than an ideologue, and now he gets to have it both ways: His defiant statements boost his 2016 presidential prospects with conservative activists while he quietly goes along with his colleagues.

That’s pretty clever, but not that clever:

In a Sept. 10 letter, Cruz and a fellow conservative, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), pledged to use procedural tactics to block any “substantial” legislation during this lame-duck session. But, as the Hill’s Alexander Bolton noted, Cruz so far hasn’t shown much interest in blocking pending votes on the $1 trillion spending bill, Pentagon funding legislation or an extension of tax breaks. Even if he does, the protest would likely have little effect but antagonizing his colleagues.

The 2015 spending bill that Cruz opposes is a nasty piece of work for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration. Among other things, it dramatically increases the amount the wealthy can contribute to political parties, and it guts key regulations that limit the power of Wall Street banks.

It’s an ugly compromise for both sides – but it beats a government shutdown. Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican who has allied himself with Cruz on immigration, told Bloomberg News’s Dave Weigel outside a meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday that “House leadership has surrendered to President Obama on the illegal-alien issue.”

So would Brooks risk a shutdown, as Cruz would? “I’m not saying to the point of a shutdown, no,” the legislator replied.

If Cruz has lost Mo Brooks, he has lost his mojo.

Storms end when unbalanced atmospheric forces finally settle back into a kind of ordinary equilibrium, and that just happened here. Cruz claims to be the only serious conservative in Washington, but even his allies know he’s just striking noble and heroic poses, because it feels so damned good, and that might win him the Republican presidential nomination. They’ve dismissed him. Now, if we could only do that with Dick Cheney…

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The Inevitable Complications of Exceptionalism

Perhaps the exception proves the rule – by proving that the rule exists – but that never did make much sense, except for parking signs. If the sign says “No Parking on Sundays” that does “prove” that parking is allowed, as a rule, every other day of the week. But it’s not that simple. In other matters, exception after exception seems to prove the “rule” is kind of a joke. Grand juries in Ferguson and then Staten Island refused to indict white cops who killed unarmed black men, which hardly proves that there’s a rule that they shouldn’t really do that. There might as well not be any such rule at all, as this seems to happen again and again. That’s why, a week after the Staten Island decision to not charge the cop who put that fellow in an illegal chokehold and then sat on his chest until he died, is still generating massive protests across the nation – riots in Berkeley, on the other side of the continent, and now medical students all across America staging a die-in – all to say that making an exception for these two cops doesn’t prove any rule about not doing this sort of thing. It proves there’s not a rule about that at all. Exceptions sooner or later become the rule.

That’s a dangerous business, and we know it. No man is above the law. Richard Nixon found that out in that Watergate mess. He once said that if the president does it, it’s not illegal – but he resigned and flew home to California, because what he had been doing was illegal. Gerald Ford, and everyone else, said see, the system worked – and it did – and then Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for whatever he might have done or had been planning to do. Ford made an exception, because, he said, we needed to move on. Ford, in a way, was maintaining that this exception still proved the rule, the rule of law. Nixon was never charged with violating any law, but we are a nation of laws, not men, as everyone was saying at the time, and Nixon was, after all, gone for good. That would do. This particular exception really did prove the rule. The nation shrugged. It was over.

That’s putting it too neatly. We had a constitutional crisis on our hands at the time, and no one knew how this would turn out. We might have ended up a banana republic, run by an odd vengeful man who drank too much and ranted about Jews and niggers, privately, of course. We decided he was the exception. We weren’t like him. We were infinitely fair-minded good people, and we play by the rules. There are no exceptions, except for white cops now, and Wall Street bankers, and professional football players who beat their wives, and for Bill Cosby. But those exceptions, except for Wall Street bankers, aren’t exceptions any longer, are they? They’re outrages. We know that exceptions sooner or later become the rule. One must be careful about these things.

Now we have a new issue. We don’t torture people, but of course we have tortured people. We had a national policy of torture, even if we called it something else, and the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee on what the CIA was doing in the Bush-Cheney years proved that – and now we have to decide if our use of torture was a necessary exception that proved the rule, that we don’t torture people, even if we did. Maybe it wasn’t really torture – an untenable position under international law, and our own law. Maybe it was necessary this one time, because the threat was so dire and torture produced intelligence we could get no other way – but the exhaustive report shows that torture got us next to no useful information, and the dire treats detainees finally screamed out about were nonsense they made up to stop the pain. Maybe this was, after all, no more than sadism run amok, but then it is possible to make an exception for that – those were dark days and everyone was panicked, so such things can be excused, just this once, given the circumstances. Or maybe these were patriots doing the right thing, to keep the country safe, and it’s unfair to turn on them now – that’s the patriot exception. Or maybe they were just following orders. That’s the Adolf Eichmann exception. The Israelis didn’t buy it. They executed Eichmann anyway, but we might want to cut these CIA guys some slack. More than twenty of the detainees in question were entirely innocent of anything, and a few detainees died as we were doing our thing, but none of them were Jews after all. The Eichmann exception might apply here.

On the other hand, we might want to do the Gerald Ford thing and just let it go. An item in the Los Angeles Times notes that we’re going down that road:

A Senate committee report describing the CIA’s torture of detainees and accusing the agency of lying to top White House officials about its secret program may be the most detailed excavation of government officials’ misconduct in years. Still, the prospect that Washington will respond with major reforms, legislation, firings or criminal prosecutions was slim.

The day after the release of the report’s executive summary, the White House dodged questions on whether President Obama agreed with its core findings and suggested he already has done all he believes to be necessary to prevent a repeat of the brutal interrogations that he said “constituted torture in my mind.”

That was Gerald Ford noting that Nixon was now gone, but it’s not that simple:

Amid a fresh call for a major shake-up at the highest levels of the CIA, the White House expressed support for agency Director John Brennan, who was the deputy executive director in 2002 when the interrogation program was designed and implemented. The Justice Department defended its decision not to prosecute those involved, saying the report would not trigger reconsideration.

Hey, John Brennan was there, in the middle of this, and someone noticed that:

“No one has been held to account. Torture didn’t just happen…. Real actual people used torture,” Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said Wednesday on the Senate floor as he called for Brennan’s resignation and a purge of top CIA officials. “What’s to stop the next White House and CIA director from supporting torture?”

What’s to stop the exception from becoming the rule? Well, there’s this:

The White House emphasized that Obama signed an executive order banning torture as one of his first acts as president. He also ordered the Justice Department to review the treatment of detainees and formed a task force to review practices of transferring prisoners to other countries. A CIA inspector general also has reviewed the program.

“The commander in chief concluded that the use of the techniques that are described in this report significantly undermined the moral authority of the United States,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Similarly, the Justice Department has cast the matter as a closed case.

A department official said Wednesday that federal prosecutors will not reopen their investigation of whether criminal laws were broken by CIA guards and interrogators for mistreating detainees.

They said they looked into this, and it’s all better now, or there’s not much they can do now:

That review began in 2009 when Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. directed an investigation to determine whether the CIA mistreated detainees at secret “black sites” who were tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The review generated two criminal investigations, but Department officials “ultimately declined those cases for prosecution” because of insufficient evidence, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Prosecutors have read the Senate committee’s full report and “did not find any new information” that would warrant reopening the case, the official said.

Human rights advocates have contended that the investigation was too narrow. At the start, Holder made it clear that his department “would not prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of the legal guidance” given by the George W. Bush administration that approved some of the interrogation techniques.

They were just following orders, and there’s this:

Even one of the few Republicans to support the Feinstein-led review, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), suggested Wednesday that legislation in the new year to address findings of the report was unlikely.

“All of this stuff happened before we passed the Detainee Treatment Act,” he said of the 2005 law that prohibits “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” of detainees. “We cured it…. Now it’s against the law.”

Without a legislative response, the Senate inquiry would stand apart from its two comparable investigations of the past, said Loch K. Johnson, an expert on the CIA relationship with Congress. The Church Committee inquiry of CIA abuses in the mid-1970s and the Iran-Contra hearings of a decade later resulted in legislative reforms, said Johnson, who was a top aide on the Church Committee.

Neither of those investigations led to prosecutions, he noted.

“The attitude has been that the shame of it is a powerful thing,” he said.

It worked with Richard Nixon, after all, but this business about patriots just following orders is curious, because those orders have to come from someone, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan explores that:

Of all the shocks and revelations in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, one seems very strange and unlikely: that the agency misinformed the White House and didn’t even brief President George W. Bush about its controversial program until April 2006.

The question of the claim’s truth or implausibility is not trivial or academic; it goes well beyond score-settling, Bush-bashing, or scapegoating. Rather, it speaks to an issue that’s central in the report in the long history of CIA scandals, and in debates over whether and how policy should be changed: Did the torture begin, and did it get out of hand, because the CIA’s detention and interrogation program devolved into a rogue operation? Or were the program’s managers actually doing the president’s dirty business?

For whom do we make an exception? The low-level guys may be off the hook:

Were the CIA’s directorate of operations and its counterterrorism center freelancing after the Sept. 11 attacks, or were they exchanging winks and nods with the commander-in-chief?

The annals of history suggest the latter, and in a few passages, so does the report. A big lesson of the Church Committee – Sen. Frank Church’s mid-1970s probe into black-bag jobs, assassination plots, coup attempts, and other acts of CIA malfeasance since the agency’s origins – is that, in nearly every instance, there was no “rogue elephant” at Langley. Rather, the presidents in office at the time knew what was going on, at least in broad, strategic terms – and their CIA henchmen knew to give the leader of the free world a wide berth of “plausible deniability” in case they got caught. …

President Dwight Eisenhower knew about and approved the CIA’s plot to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. President John F. Kennedy knew about, and approved, the plots to murder Cuba’s Fidel Castro; in fact, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, formed a top-secret “special group” in the White House to oversee the operation. President Lyndon B. Johnson (who, after he left office, told a reporter that Kennedy had been running “a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean”) carried on the enterprise elsewhere in Latin America.

It seems odd, then, that the officials running the CIA interrogation program, kept things secret from the highest elected officials and thus, as the report puts it, “impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making.” First, the history of these sorts of programs suggests they were carrying out White House decisions. Second, President Bush and especially Vice President Dick Cheney supported the program, and they still emphatically defend it. Bush wrote in his memoirs that he approved it.

Something odd is going on here:

The committee’s own account contains anomalies on this question. For instance, the report cites an internal CIA email noting that “the [White House] is extremely concerned [that Secretary of State Colin] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.” That was written in July 2003, nearly three years before Bush was supposedly first briefed on the program, yet someone in the White House not only knew about it, but knew enough to know that certain Cabinet secretaries – in this case, a former Army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff well-versed in the Geneva Conventions and official manuals on interrogation – might object.

The report also cites a briefing by a CIA station chief to a government official in a foreign country where the agency had set up a secret detention center. “The presentation,” the report says of the briefing, “also noted that the president of the United States had directed that he not be informed of the location of the CIA detention facilities to ensure he would not accidentally disclose the information.”

No date is provided for when this briefing took place (or perhaps it’s been redacted in the footnote), but the context suggests 2003 or 2004. Again, this is two or three years before Bush was supposedly first briefed on the program – yet, he already knew that the CIA did have secret foreign detention centers for interrogating suspected terrorists in ways that might be illegal if done stateside.

A key point here is that Bush “had directed” the CIA not to tell him the locations of these centers. This fits the classic pattern of “plausible deniability”: The president is told about the drift and outlines of the black program (be it an assassination, a coup, bribery, torture, or whatever), but he doesn’t want to be told too much. He doesn’t want his fingerprints on any directive, so that, in case things go awry, he can blame Langley – and part of Langley’s job is to take the blame.

It’s a dance of sorts, and Kaplan goes on and on with this sort of thing, showing the CIA was just doing what Bush and Cheney obviously wanted them to do, and didn’t really want to know about, but both were knee-deep in this:

None of this should imply that the CIA was blameless, or merely a White House tool, in its torture of detainees. The report lays out compelling evidence that the agency’s directorate of operations and its counterterrorism center lied to its own lawyers and inspector general; that they kept congressional intelligence committees in the dark; and that they contracted out many interrogations (at enormous expense) to inexperienced psychologists of a sadistic bent, ignoring dissent not only from FBI agents (who often eked out more useful information with gentler techniques) but also from the CIA’s own chief of interrogations, who wrote a memo, back on Jan. 21, 2003, expressing “serious reservations” about their techniques, adding, “This is a train wreck waiting to happen, and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.”

Maybe he did. The train wreck certainly happened, with consequences:

CIA officials linked to brutal interrogation tactics in a U.S. Senate report on torture may be prosecuted or sued overseas for their conduct, a threat that may keep them confined to the U.S. for the rest of their lives.

“The reality is that none of the individuals involved, particularly those whose names are known, should ever travel outside the United States again,” said Beth Van Schaack, who teaches international criminal justice and human rights at Stanford University. She noted the potential for suits in foreign courts under “expansive principles of jurisdiction.”

One cautionary tale: An Italian court in November 2009 convicted 23 Americans, mostly suspected Central Intelligence Agency officials, in absentia for abducting radical Islamic cleric Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr on a Milan street in February 2003. Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, said he was kidnapped by CIA agents and turned over to Egyptian security officials and tortured.

None of the accused CIA officials appeared for the trial. The CIA station chief in Italy lost his retirement home when the absentia case concluded and the house was forcibly sold to help pay a damages award of 1 million euros ($1.5 million) to Nasr and 500,000 euros to the cleric’s wife.

CIA officials linked to the torture details released Dec. 9 in the Senate report may fare worse if countries exposed in the agency’s extraordinary rendition program are pressured to bring criminal cases. About 21 European countries cooperated in the U.S. practice of transferring terror suspects to a foreign country for detention and questioning without legal proceedings in American courts.

“As a result of the additional disclosures that are now public, there is going to be more pressure for prosecutions and accountability abroad in part because U.S. courts have failed to provide any accountability at home,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project. “Pandora’s box was opened when the CIA made the decision to torture. The movement and need for accountability is ongoing.”

President Obama may have made an exception for John Brennan, and others would make exceptions for his cohorts, because exceptions prove the rule, of law, but others might not do that. American exceptionalism doesn’t play well abroad, and if Kaplan is right, Bush and Cheney should stay home too.

This is a problem, but Former CIA director Michael Hayden argues that the Department of Justice not bringing charges against any CIA interrogators as evidence of the CIA’s innocence:

John Durham, a special independent prosecutor, over a three-year period investigated every known CIA interaction with every CIA detainee. At the end of that the Obama administration declined any prosecution. [In 2012, the Justice Department announced that its investigation into two interrogation deaths, that Durham concluded were suspicious, out of the 101 he examined – those of Afghan detainee Gul Rahman and Iraqi detainee Manadel al-Jamadi – would be closed with no charges.] So if A is true how does B get to be true? If the CIA routinely did things they weren’t authorized to do, then why is there no follow-up? I have copies of the DOJ reports they’re using today. The question is, is the DOJ going to open any investigation and the DOJ answer is no. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have all this supposed documentary evidence saying the agency mistreated these prisoners and then Barack Obama’s and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice saying no, you’ve got bupkis here.

This sets off Andrew Sullivan:

This is evidence that Obama’s weakness and vacillation on the question of torture has done great damage. Hayden is using the Obama DOJ’s own white-washing report to minimize the war crimes in the Senate report. One of the ironies in this, of course, is that Hayden has been criticizing the Senate Report’s failure to interview the CIA torturers themselves, even though the Durham investigation legally precluded that for three years. But the Senate Report had an obvious alternative to such interviews: it had the CIA’s own internal documents – its own internal conversations – in which it is perfectly clear that as they were practicing torture, they knew what they were doing could not be described by anyone as “humane”. These documents alone are more than sufficient proof of the claims made in the report. They are definitive. More to the point, no documents were included from any other source – either to buttress or to contradict the findings. But in the Durham “investigation”, the torturers were interviewed but not the victims – a clearly rigged process designed to exculpate the war criminals.

The exceptions shouldn’t be the rule:

There should, in my mind, be no debate about prosecutions for war crimes. Seriously, can you imagine the US opposing such prosecutions if they were in a foreign country? Besides, the US’ clear international and domestic legal obligations admit of no exception for the prosecution of those credibly accused of torture – let alone of those, like Cheney, who have openly bragged about it. It specifically bars any exception in the case of national emergency. Not to prosecute because of such an emergency is therefore to end the Geneva Conventions – which is what Obama has effectively done. He must not be let off the hook for that fateful step – and what it does to the core meaning of the United States.

From now on, the US is a human rights violator of the first order under international law, a rogue state that has explicitly tortured innocent people and never held anyone legally responsible. I know that sounds terribly harsh. But how is it untrue? And to refuse to prosecute war crimes is to condone war crimes. Not burglary or robbery – but the gravest crimes against humanity that we can imagine. The perpetrators walk among us, many still in the CIA, and some holding presidential Medals of Freedom. Whatever absurd self-congratulations about this report, we should be in no doubt that this makes us no better in this respect than some South American junta before the transition to democracy.

But wait, there’s more:

The fact that we are the most powerful country on earth makes this about much more than just us. It casts a dark and long shadow over humanity. It makes torture everywhere more likely, and more pervasive. It legitimizes evil. It removes from us any moral standing when it comes to Americans being tortured by these very same techniques – as they already have been in Syria, and as they will be in the future. When an American prisoner is tortured by an enemy power in the future, we will have no grounds to complain. Can we just face up to that instead of engaging in so much avoidance and denial? We didn’t just break Iraq; we broke the very structure of basic human rights that this country fought two world wars to establish.

That sums up the problem, although Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker puts it this way:

The excuses are many and are sure to proliferate, as will the defensive tone and the apologetics – and, not without some reason, some call for understanding. The defenses are of two kinds, both as false as they are deeply felt. First, there is the truth that the CIA interrogators were, for the most part, following orders and doing what they had been told they were authorized to do; to make them the prime villains is to clear the democratically elected politicians who allowed this to happen – and, more important, to clear the democracy that elected those politicians. We are all implicated, not just those who drowned and froze and tormented prisoners. If blame is to be had, it must not move only upward, to the bosses; it must move outward, to those who chose the top men and to the many who explicitly endorsed their reading of the “war on terror” and the threat of terrorism. (That prospect, one would guess, was at the heart of President Obama’s reluctance to release the report in the first place; to blame no one might be unacceptable, but to blame anyone in particular was to blame everyone.)

Second, and running directly from the general responsibility, there is the claim that if we hadn’t tortured people – hanging them upside down, raping them rectally, and all the horrible rest – some terrorist would have been able to kill more Americans, possibly with a radioactive bomb, or worse. This is an empirical claim, but without much of an empirical foundation: the report insists, for instance, that the famous “courier,” a key in the search for Osama bin Laden, was discovered (and certainly discoverable) not through torture at all but through normal investigative means. But it is also a moral claim of exceptionalism: after all, every nation can argue that it needs to torture prisoners in order to protect its people. The North Vietnamese were under far more direct threat from American bombers than Americans have ever been from mostly remote Arab terrorists, yet no one would ever suggest that the Vietnamese were justified in torturing American pilots, even if they could have found out about, say, the targeting and timing of bombing raids, which might conceivably have saved Vietnamese lives. That was, we said, and would say again, no excuse. We have none, either.

The problem may be us:

Searching for ultimate responsibility, we look at individuals: at Dick Cheney, clearly engaged and still unrepentant, and at former President George W. Bush, whom the report reveals to have given formal permission for the torture but to have been unaware of its extent until 2005 – a portrait of a disengaged and incompetent chief executive that will shock even his not easily shocked detractors. But we need to look also at ourselves. We need to look at the climate of fear that all but a few created and participated in after 9/11. That climate of fear made the imminent threat of more and worse terror attacks seem plausible, even highly likely. It was, in part, the natural and inevitable consequence of an atrocity that took so many lives so quickly and so unexpectedly. If that could happen, what couldn’t? But it was also engineered, crafted, and engaged in by many who knew better, or should have.

We did know better, but we made an exception instead, and Sullivan suggests the critical question. Can we just face up to all the exceptions we keep making, about torture and cops and all the rest, instead of engaging in so much avoidance and denial? That’s all that American exceptionalism is after all, avoidance and denial. The exception never does prove the rule.

Posted in Accountability for Torture, Torture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

So Now We Know

The Bush administration, a dozen or so years ago, was masterful in its use of dire warnings. Yes, there was no “smoking gun” that proved that Saddam Hussein actually had any weapons of mass destruction, but we couldn’t wait for a smoking gun, because the smoking gun might come in the form of a mushroom cloud. They said that often enough. Those words seemed to get locked in an endless loop on Fox News, and we were off to war – eight full years of it – and the dire warning turned out to be nonsense. That called for a change in direction, and the dire warnings disappeared. The whole idea had been something else all along – setting up a modern secular democracy in Iraq, which would show all the nations in the region that it was far more sensible for them to run their countries the way we run our country. Spreading democracy was what we were doing, because democratic nations don’t go to war with each other, or with themselves, internally. That may or may not be true, but the Bush administration told us about spreading democracy later, when the dire warning became, well, inoperative. That was a little awkward, but they said they hadn’t lied about anything, really. The whole weapons-of-mass-destruction thing was, you see, a minor matter. There were bigger issues to consider. There was no reason for anyone to get all hung up on the previous dire warnings being nonsense. That was being petty and small-minded. That was a minor matter. Look at the big picture.

People did look at the big picture, and they saw that spreading democracy was hard and really didn’t do much good over there. Iraq, once a repressive Sunni dictatorship, ended up a repressive Shiite dictatorship. The Palestinians in Gaza, in a free and open election, elected Hamas to run things there. The Israelis warned us not to call for that election, but we had our theory. Condoleezza Rice spent a lot of time over there eating crow, presumably kosher crow. The Israelis are still paying for that one. Perhaps we should have stuck to dire warnings about mushroom clouds. Dire warnings make things simpler.

Dire warnings, however, are almost always nonsense. The same crowd – and John Kerry this time too – told us that if the Senate Intelligence Committee released that report on the CIA and torture, dire things would happen – our embassies would be attacked, our troops everywhere in the world would be attacked, the terrorists would blow up Boston or Butte, or both. This would enrage the Muslim world – and then the Senate Intelligence Committee released that report and nothing at all happened. Everyone already knew what we had been doing since 2002 at Guantanamo and those black sites. Now we were talking to ourselves, about ourselves, about what we had done long ago, and about what we should do about it, if anything. The enraged Muslim world was no more or no less enraged with us than before we finally started to talk with each other about torture as national policy, before the release of this report. They probably found that amusing. Let the Americans scold each other, with all their talk about patriotism and what kind of country they think they really are. That’s an internal matter. No one else cares.

This was another instance of using a dire warning for other purposes. No Republican wanted this report to be released. Bush was their guy and Dick Cheney is still their hero, and this happened on their watch. These dire warnings were used to paint the Democrats as irresponsible and unpatriotic, the party that hates America. They were a tool. The issue was something else. When the whole world wasn’t outraged, by something they already knew, the Republicans dropped the whole thing. There was damage-control to do.

The New York Times explains why:

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday issued a sweeping indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, drawing on millions of internal CIA documents to illuminate practices that it said were more brutal – and far less effective – than the agency acknowledged either to Bush administration officials or to the public.

The long-delayed report delivers a withering judgment on one of the most controversial tactics of a twilight war waged over a dozen years. The Senate committee’s investigation, born of what its chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, said was a need to reckon with the excesses of this war, found that CIA officials routinely misled the White House and Congress about the information it obtained, and failed to provide basic oversight of the secret prisons it established around the world.

The CIA in the Bush years was obviously a moral and legal mess, and that will take some explaining, but Obama has a problem too:

The release of the report was severely criticized by current and former CIA officials, leaving the White House trying to chart a middle course between denouncing a program that President Obama ended during his first week in office, and defending a spy agency he has championed.

Mr. Obama welcomed the release of the report, but in a written statement made sure to praise the CIA employees as “patriots” to whom “we owe a profound debt of gratitude” for trying to protect the country. But in a later television interview, he reiterated that the techniques “constituted torture in my mind” and were a betrayal of American values.

“What’s clear is that the CIA set up something very fast without a lot of forethought to what the ramifications might be,” he told Telemundo, adding: “Some of these techniques that were described were not only wrong, but also counterproductive because we know that oftentimes when somebody is being subjected to these kinds of techniques, that they’re willing to say anything in order to alleviate the pain.”

Obama has to walk a fine line here, but something went terribly wrong:

The report also said that the CIA’s leadership for years gave false information about the total number of prisoners held by the CIA, saying there had been 98 prisoners when CIA records showed that 119 men had been held. In late 2008, according to one internal email, a CIA official giving a briefing expressed concern about the discrepancy and was told by Mr. Hayden, then the agency’s director, “to keep the number at 98″ and not to count any additional detainees.

The committee’s report concluded that of the 119 detainees, “at least 26 were wrongfully held.”

It said, “These included an ‘intellectually challenged’ man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to Al Qaeda based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The program became self-referential and self-generating, and the CIA had no idea who was who after a time. The Washington Post has an interactive feature of the main findings here – and it comes down to this. What the CIA was doing was (1) “not an effective means of acquiring intelligence” and (2) the whole thing “rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness” and was (3) “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented” and (4) “conditions of confinement for CIA detainees were harsher” and (5) what they did “repeatedly provided inaccurate information” and (6) they “actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight” and (7) “impeded effective White House oversight” and (8) the whole thing “complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions” and (9) the CIA “impeded oversight by the CIA’s Office of Inspector General” and (10) “coordinated the release of classified information to the media” and was (11) “unprepared as it began operating” and (11) the whole thing was “deeply flawed throughout the program’s duration” and (13) the CIA “overwhelmingly outsourced operations” and (14) used “coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved” by anyone, and (15) “did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of individuals it detained” and (16) “failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness” of anything they were doing and (17) “rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable” and (18) “ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections” and (19) the effort was “inherently unsustainable” and (20) “damaged the United States’ standing in the world.”

At the Washington Post site you can click on anything in quotes and the relevant text from the report pops up, if you want the details, but the whole thing is stunning, unless it’s not. Kevin Drum is not stunned:

The torture was far more brutal than we thought, and the CIA lied about that. It didn’t work, and they lied about that too. It produced so much bad intelligence that it most likely impaired our national security, and of course they lied about that as well. They lied to Congress, they lied to the president, and they lied to the media. Despite this, they are still defending their actions.

The rest of the report is just 600 pages of supporting evidence. But the core narrative that describes a barbarous, calculated, and sustained corruption of both our national values and our most fundamental moral principles is simple. We tortured prisoners, and then we lied about it. That’s it.

That supporting evidence, however, is damning when put in narrative form as Michael Isikoff does here:

After days of brutal interrogations, in which he was slammed against walls, slapped in the gut, and repeatedly waterboarded – “near drownings” that caused him to vomit – 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told his CIA interrogators he was “ready to talk.”

The story he told in March 2003: He had sent an al-Qaida operative to Montana to recruit African-Americans for terrorist attacks inside the U.S. The alarming new claim sent FBI agents scrambling to find evidence of the plot, but they came up with nothing.

And for good reason: KSM later admitted he had fabricated the story – that because he was being subjected to such rough measures, he “simply told his interrogators what he thought they wanted to hear,” according to an internal agency cable quoted in the mammoth Senate Intelligence Committee report released on Tuesday by the panel’s chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

There was a lot of that:

“The methods in question… regularly resulted in fabricated information,” the report states in its key findings. And the CIA itself at times was hoodwinked: “During the brutal interrogations, the CIA was often unaware the information was fabricated, leading CIA officers or contractors to falsely conclude that they were acquiring unique or actionable intelligence when they were not.”

And the mess got worse:

U.S. ambassadors in some of the countries where CIA black sites were built were never told about what was taking place on their own turf. Then FBI Director Robert Mueller was denied access when he tried to get his own agents to question KSM.

Among those also initially kept out of the loop: Secretary of State Colin Powell. “The WH (White House) is extremely concerned that (Secretary) Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on,” a CIA lawyer wrote in July 2003.

Cheney was hiding things from Powell, and it’s unclear what Bush knew at all, and none of it was pretty:

The first “high-value detainee” taken to a black-site prison was waterboarded so many times that he lost consciousness at one point and “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

At least five detainees in CIA custody experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation – which in some cases went on for up to 180 hours. A CIA prison in Afghanistan (known as the Salt Pit but referred to as COBALT in the report) was described in CIA cables as a “dungeon” where hooded prisoners were kept in complete darkness and shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music – and only a bucket to use for human waste. One of the detainees died from hypothermia after being left naked from the waist down.

There was a lot of that going on:

The committee report examined 20 “case studies” in which agency officials had claimed they had thwarted plots or rounded up suspects based on aggressive interrogations. These assertions, the panel found, were “inaccurate and contradicted by the CIA’s own records.” For instance, the trail that led to the capture of KSM in Pakistan began not with the harsh tactics of the CIA but rather with FBI agents who used traditional “rapport building” techniques to get information from Abu Zubaida before the rough stuff began. So too did the information that led to the arrest of Jose Padilla on charges that he had been dispatched to set off a nuclear “dirty bomb” inside the U.S. – another frightening claim the CIA made to justify its program and which some of the agency’s own officials soon concluded were wildly inflated, if not false.

And there’s more:

According to the report, “Numerous CIA interrogators and other CIA personnel associated with the program had either suspected or documented personal and professional problems that raised questions about their judgment and CIA employment. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.”

We hired unhinged sadists to do the work, and this is what we got:

Several detainees, including Marwan al-Jabbur, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Abu Zubaida, underwent “rectal rehydration” or “rectal fluid resuscitation,” and detainee Majid Klian’s “lunch tray,” consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was “pureed” and rectally infused.

According to CIA medical officers, “while IV infusion is safe and effective, we were impressed with the ancillary effectiveness of rectal infusion on ending water refusal.”

Those who admit to sexual assault do that sort of thing. The list goes on and on:

Detainee Abu Zubaydah spent 266 hours in a “large confinement box” that looked like a “coffin.” He spent an additional 29 hours in an even smaller box, which was 21 inches wide, 2.5 feet deep and 2.5 feet tall.

Zubaydah was placed “in complete isolation for 47 days,” then subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques on a near 24-hour-per-day basis.” During waterboarding sessions, he “cried, begged, pleaded, and whimpered” but denied having any information. At one point, he “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” …

Even after the interrogation team told CIA headquarters that it was “highly unlikely” he had the information they were looking for, interrogators continued to waterboard Abu Zubaydah, who “coughed, vomited, and had involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities'” during the procedure.

During one waterboarding session, Zubaydah began convulsing. According to CIA records, “it seems the collective opinion that we should not go much further.” Several on the team were “profoundly affected,” “some to the point of tears and choking up.”

An interrogator intimidates a detainee with power drill, and another detainee is told his wife and kids will be killed right in front of him if he doesn’t talk, and on and on and on, and John McCain gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor:

Mr. President, I rise in support of the release – the long-delayed release – of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s summarized, unclassified review of the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ that were employed by the previous administration to extract information from captured terrorists. It is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose – to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies – but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.

I believe the American people have a right – indeed, a responsibility – to know what was done in their name; how these practices did or did not serve our interests; and how they comported with our most important values. …

The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.

They must know when the values that define our nation are intentionally disregarded by our security policies, even those policies that are conducted in secret. They must be able to make informed judgments about whether those policies and the personnel who supported them were justified in compromising our values; whether they served a greater good; or whether, as I believe, they stained our national honor, did much harm and little practical good.

What were the policies? What was their purpose? Did they achieve it? Did they make us safer? Less safe? Or did they make no difference? What did they gain us? What did they cost us? The American people need the answers to these questions. Yes, some things must be kept from public disclosure to protect clandestine operations, sources and methods, but not the answers to these questions.

By providing them, the Committee has empowered the American people to come to their own decisions about whether we should have employed such practices in the past and whether we should consider permitting them in the future.

This is about us, not about them:

I think it is an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading prisoners to assert we can’t win this war without such methods. Yes, we can and we will.

But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

Our enemies act without conscience. We must not. …

Now, let us reassert the contrary proposition: that is it essential to our success in this war that we ask those who fight it for us to remember at all times that they are defending a sacred ideal of how nations should be governed and conduct their relations with others – even our enemies.

Those of us who give them this duty are obliged by history, by our nation’s highest ideals and the many terrible sacrifices made to protect them, by our respect for human dignity to make clear we need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war. We need only remember in the worst of times, through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.

Digby (Heather Parton) notes this:

I don’t know if he knows it, but according to his cohorts on the right this makes him a traitor who doesn’t know how to keep America safe.

Yes, and this was inevitable:

That the CIA used interrogation methods on detainees that bordered on torture isn’t a particularly new story, but the report released today by the Senate Intelligence Committee was the first one to describe it in brutally graphic detail. But Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros challenged that narrative, asking on “Outnumbered” why is it that the Democrats want to portray America as not awesome?

“Dianne Feinstein wants to get this off her desk,” she argued, pointing out that the Californian Senator would no longer be Chairwoman of the Committee in January, and that the Democrats were likely using the torture report for political reasons.

“The United States of America is awesome,” she continued. “We are awesome. But we’ve had this discussion. We’ve closed the book on it. The reason they want the discussion is not to show how awesome we are. It’s to show us how we’re not awesome. They apologized for something.”

“They don’t like this country,” Tantaros added, firmly establishing herself as pro-awesome. “They want us to look bad and all this does is have our enemies laughing at us.”

The National Review is more formal about this:

Defined by selective accounts and distorted by a partisan agenda, this Senate Intelligence Committee report is intelligence birtherism. Conspiring against truth, it sacrifices American patriots and America’s security in an “Oldspeak” – style of purging the record of any truth. Unconcerned by the propaganda victory they’ve given to U.S. enemies (contemplate how ISIS will manipulate this report), or the cost for liaison-intelligence relationships (foreign services will worry that future cooperation will be misrepresented), the Senate Intelligence Committee has shamed itself and the citizens it claims to serve.

Maybe so, but the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights, Ben Emerson, says this:

It is now time to take action. The individuals responsible for the criminal conspiracy revealed in today’s report must be brought to justice, and must face criminal penalties commensurate with the gravity of their crimes. The fact that the policies revealed in this report were authorized at a high level within the US Government provides no excuse whatsoever. Indeed, it reinforces the need for criminal accountability.

International law prohibits the granting of immunities to public officials who have engaged in acts of torture. This applies not only to the actual perpetrators but also to those senior officials within the US Government who devised, planned and authorized these crimes.

As a matter of international law, the US is legally obliged to bring those responsible to justice. The UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances require States to prosecute acts of torture and enforced disappearance where there is sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction. States are not free to maintain or permit impunity for these grave crimes.

And Andrew Sullivan cites Ronald Reagan’s signing statement on the ratification of the UN Convention on Torture:

The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of [this] Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called ‘universal jurisdiction.’ Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.

Sullivan also says this:

If the Obama administration refuses to bring these war criminals to justice, it will effectively render moot any international efforts to curtail torture anywhere in the world. It will be arguing that crimes as grave as these need have no legal consequences. That, simply speaking, ends the United States’ participation in the civilized world, and removes any standing for us to criticize any foul despot anywhere who uses torture techniques as hideous as the ones we are now reading about.

Is that the legacy Obama wants? That he made the world safe for torturers? At some point, even he will have to acknowledge the gravity of these facts beyond his callow, off-hand admission that “we tortured some folks” but that the torturers were patriots and we shouldn’t get too “self-righteous” about them. Does the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize really want to go down in history as the president who made sure that war criminals are only punished if they are not American?

And notice too that the US is legally obliged to prosecute Bush and Cheney as well. Or become a rogue state at the UN and in the Geneva community of democracies. Both Bush and Cheney have celebrated their deployment of torture and taken full responsibility for it in public. It is simply impermissible to allow these men to escape justice. The only alternative is to pardon them.

Anthony D. Romero, the head of the ACLU, has suggested just that:

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s Box of torture once and for all.

What, the only way we can even acknowledge that a crime was committed is to pardon the people who committed it?

This is only the beginning. But at least we now know what happened. No one knows what’s next.

Posted in Senate Intelligence Committee Report, Torture, Torture Doesn't Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Last Refuge of Scoundrels

What was once considered important and immensely interesting, something everyone knew about and discussed, sooner or later becomes obscure and arcane. Folks were hot and bothered about James Joyce’s Ulysses at one time – the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1921 had the magazine serializing it declared obscene, and thus Joyce’s odd novel was effectively banned in the United States. In the twenties the United States Post Office regularly burned copies of the thing – and then, suddenly, no one cared. Few had actually read the thing. It was hard going. Joyce’s Ulysses became something only academics cared about. No one else ever heard of it.

This happens to books all the time, and at one time, and for decades, James Boswell’s 1791 Life of Johnson was all the rage. It was the first modern biography – intimate and chatty and full of odd anecdotes. It showed us the real Samuel Johnson, the ultimate man of letters, warts and all, as they say now. Everyone read it back then. It was a revelation. This is what a genius is really like – smart as a whip, and quick with a quip, and a real pain in the ass. People still read it for that reason, and to get a sense of the mindset of the British in those years as the American colonies were arguing and then fighting for their independence. Johnson was not amused, but we learn from Boswell that Johnson loved his cat, Hodge – Johnson fed him oysters – and on the evening of April 7, 1775, Johnson muttered to Boswell that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” – somewhat out of the blue. Boswell provides no context. Johnson would often blurt out things like that. Geniuses are like that.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson is now obscure and arcane of course – now no one’s heard of it either – but Johnson, unlike Joyce, could turn a phase. That was one of them. He was quotable, and he was often right, and there was a context for this comment. In THE PATRIOT: ADDRESSED TO THE ELECTORS OF GREAT BRITAIN – in 1774 – he wrote this:

A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation. This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace, with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend public happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errors and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.

Johnson wouldn’t have liked Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, or our new Tea Party. Opinions not propagated by reason but caught by contagion didn’t impress him, and he didn’t like the original tea party either, the one in Boston Harbor. He thought we had no right to form our own country over here. We were the rabble, being led around by scoundrels talking about patriotism, scoundrels who were just troublemakers, or worse. Such scoundrels could do systematic evil.

Johnson may have been wrong about that, but there always is a problem with opinions not propagated by reason but caught by contagion. Those cause no end of trouble, and those who call themselves patriots often do propagate and disseminate reports of secret influence and of dangerous counsels that scare the crap out of people, who without reasoning things out, buy it all, and the contagion spreads. That’s how we got into Iraq – Saddam Hussein in a secret alliance with al-Qaeda, even though al-Qaeda had been calling him an apostate and a fool for years – all those weapons of mass destruction that would one day be turned on us, even if the scant evidence that Saddam Hussein had those was questionable at best. None of that mattered. Patriotism was the issue. Fighting him there was fighting for America here, defending our country. We were fighting the bad guys there so we didn’t have to fight them here, which made little sense. We were pissing off everyone in the Middle East by fighting them there, which made it more likely, not less, that they’d drop their regional religious conflicts and head for Cleveland or Houston and blow stuff up, and then get back to their own concerns. But true patriots supported the Iraq war, all eight years of it. Patriotism excuses everything.

Does it excuse torture? We had a national policy of torture, even if we called it something else, and now the question is whether we should excuse it, in the name of patriotism – being proud of it – or just not mention it at all and hope everyone forgets what we did and moves on – or should we admit we did something quite awful and say it’ll never happen again, so half the world won’t be quite as murderously mad at us, wanting us all dead and gone? Those seem to be the options, and none of them is good:

On the eve of a long-awaited Senate report on the use of torture by the United States government – a detailed account that will shed an unsparing light on the Central Intelligence Agency’s darkest practices after the September 2001 terrorist attacks – the Obama administration and its Republican critics clashed on Monday over the wisdom of making it public, and the risk that it will set off a backlash overseas.

While the United States has put diplomatic facilities and military bases on alert for heightened security risks, administration officials said they do not expect the report – or rather the declassified executive summary of it that will be released Tuesday – to ignite the kind of violence that killed four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Such violent reprisals, they said, tend to be fueled more by perceived attacks against Islam as a religion than by violence against individual Muslims.

But some leading Republican lawmakers have warned against releasing the report, saying that domestic and foreign intelligence reports indicate that a detailed account of the brutal interrogation methods used by the CIA during the George W. Bush administration could incite unrest and violence, even resulting in the deaths of Americans.

Those are the practical concerns, which only mask the deeper concerns:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney added his voice to those of other Bush administration officials defending the CIA, declaring in an interview Monday that its harsh interrogations a decade ago were “absolutely, totally justified,” and dismissing allegations that the agency withheld information from the White House or inflated the value of its methods.

Of course he’d say that. He’s the patriot, no one else is, or he’s the leading patriot of this crew:

A long-awaited Senate report condemning torture by the Central Intelligence Agency has not even been made public yet, but former President George W. Bush’s team has decided to link arms with former intelligence officials and challenge its conclusions.

The report is said to assert that the CIA misled Mr. Bush and his White House about the nature, extent and results of brutal techniques like waterboarding, and some of his former administration officials privately suggested seizing on that to distance themselves from the controversial program, according to people involved in the discussion. But Mr. Bush and his closest advisers decided that “we’re going to want to stand behind these guys,” as one former official put it.

Mr. Bush made that clear in an interview broadcast on Sunday. “We’re fortunate to have men and women who work hard at the CIA serving on our behalf,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “These are patriots and whatever the report says, if it diminishes their contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

Whatever the report says, they’re still patriots, but the patriots are circling the wagons:

Former intelligence officials, seeking allies against the potentially damaging report, have privately reassured the Bush team in recent days that they did not deceive them and have lobbied the former president’s advisers to speak out publicly on their behalf. The defense of the program has been organized by former CIA leaders like George J. Tenet and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, two former directors, and John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA. director who also served as acting director.

In short, we have to stick together on this, and Andrew Sullivan finds this appalling:

The US did torture many, many people with techniques devised by Nazis and Communists, sometimes in former KGB facilities. The CIA itself admits in its internal documents that none of it worked or gave us any actionable intelligence that wasn’t discovered through legal means. The torture techniques were not implemented by highly-trained professionals, but by goonish amateurs who concealed what they were doing and lied about it to superiors. All the techniques were and are clearly illegal under US and international law.

And we’re told there is some exculpatory evidence in the report, suggesting that Bush and Cheney and even Addington were misled as well – giving the former president some leeway to explain how he came to create a torture program that will forever taint this country and has already done so much to damage its soft power. Maybe he could tell the truth and say that the extent and nature of the torture was kept from him and that he can now see what went so horribly wrong.

That’s not going to happen:

Some former administration officials privately encouraged the president and his top advisers to use the report to disclaim responsibility for the interrogation program on the grounds that they were not kept fully informed. But Mr. Bush and his inner circle rejected that suggestion. “Even if some officials privately believe they were not given all the facts, they feel it would be immoral and disloyal to throw the CIA to the wolves at this point,” said one former official, who like others did not want to be identified speaking about the report before its release.


In his own book, Bush owned the torture and took full responsibility for it. Now, he has decided he will not allow a sliver of daylight to come between him and war crimes. You can chalk this up to admirable loyalty, even to those who lied to him. Or you can simply reflect on a president who cannot admit to being the first in that office to authorize such an assault on core American values and decency – which means to say he does not have the fortitude or character to deal with reality.

And now, we’re seeing a full-court press for those Bush loyalists who want to permanently suppress the evidence of war crimes under the program. If you want to get a clue about how devastating the forthcoming report might be, just observe the pre-emptive strikes.

Those would be these:

The defense of the program has been organized by former CIA leaders like George J. Tenet and Gen. Michael V. Hayden, two former directors, and John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA director who also served as acting director … General Hayden added that the former CIA team objected to the Senate’s characterization of their efforts. “We’re not here to defend torture,” he said by email on Sunday. “We’re here to defend history.” General Hayden appeared earlier on Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS News to say that any assertion that the CIA “lied to everyone about a program that wasn’t doing any good, that beggars the imagination.”

Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., who ran the CIA interrogation program, said Sunday that critics now assailing the agency were pressing it after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to do whatever it took to prevent a recurrence. “We did what we were asked to do, we did what we were assured was legal, and we know our actions were effective,” Mr. Rodriguez wrote in The Washington Post.


Rodriguez was so sure that he did nothing wrong that he destroyed the tapes recording the torture sessions! Nothing to see here… so move along…

And as for Bush saying that these guys are patriots, whatever the report says:

Denial doesn’t get much clearer than that – and it is of a piece with the reckless disengagement, sickening indifference and grotesque negligence that marked his catastrophic time in the Oval Office. In the wake of the shock of Abu Ghraib, Bush disavowed the atrocities, insisting that they did not represent America, that they were counter to American values, and that he was shocked and disgusted by them. And yet, when a report is imminent outlining acts of torture and abuse far worse than Abu Ghraib, and directly under his own authority, he insists that whatever is detailed in the report, the culprits are heroes and patriots, and “we’re lucky as a nation to have them.”

How does one begin to square that cognitive dissonance? How to explain how a believing Christian can describe brutal torture sessions as things to defend and be proud of? And how can the torture of human beings – and the cover-up of the same – be part of American “patriotism”?

This is a man not just without a conscience, but a man proud of it. He had a chance to reflect on what his fateful decision to waive the Geneva Conventions after 9/11 produced; and he has decided to own all of it. And we shall soon see what exactly that is.

Samuel Johnson was British. Andrew Sullivan is British. They both see patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels, and as for former CIA director Michael Hayden claiming that the torture report “will be used by our enemies to motivate people to attack Americans and American facilities overseas,” Daniel Drezner just doesn’t buy it:

There is no shortage of US foreign policy actions and inactions in the region to inflame enemies. The Senate report is small potatoes compared to that.

Daniel Larison puts it this way:

It is extremely convenient for these people to discover the possibility that a report about past U.S. abuses might inspire outrage and even violence in response. There was no such concern among hawks about the foreign policy implications of torturing people when it was being done, and they expressed no similar worries that other U.S. actions would provoke violent responses. If one raises the possibility that aggressive U.S. actions in other parts of the world could have dangerous consequences for Americans later on… that is normally denounced as “blaming” America. Strangely enough, that doesn’t seem to apply when there is a chance of exposing our government’s egregious abuses to public scrutiny and some small measure of accountability for those abuses.

And they want to keep Guantanamo open too. Go figure.

Paul Waldman has more:

So what we’ll see in the next few days is a parade of intelligence officials, former Bush aides, congressional Republicans, and conservative pundits rushing to the media to decry the release of this report. They have old, familiar arguments about the torture program – it wasn’t really torture, it was all constitutional, we only tortured because that’s what everyone wanted – and one new one specifically tied to the Intelligence Committee’s report. They’re now arguing that the public can’t be shown the truth because doing so will spur a backlash that could include violent protests or the deaths of American hostages. …

The problem is that that fear will never disappear. Just as thirteen years ago they used the public’s fear to justify the use of torture in the first place, today they try to create fear as a justification for keeping the truth secret. But whether we learn the full extent of the torture program this week, this year, or this decade, there will probably be a price to pay. Those who argue for delay ought to have the courage to admit that by their logic, the report should be quashed forever.

That means we must weigh things out:

Might there be some violence in response to the information contained in the report? Yes, there might. When the truth is ugly, revealing it has a cost.

If and when that violence occurs, the torture advocates will blame it on those who sought the information’s release, not on the underlying fact of the torture program. But there is no doubt where the responsibility will lie. In an atmosphere of panic and fear, our government appears to have done some abominable things. Nearly as horrifying is the fact that even now, so many people who either used to be in positions of power or are still in those positions will defend the program, so thoroughly were they infected by the moral rot that spread through the Bush administration.

It’s time to deal with that:

The darkest chapters in our history and the most outrageous government decisions and programs eventually move from a place of contestation to a place of consensus in public debate. Outside of a few fringe extremists, no one today holds the position that slavery, the Trail of Tears, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Jim Crow, or the witch hunts of McCarthyism were the right and proper thing for America to do. The Bush torture program may not be even remotely close in scale to those atrocities. But just as there is now consensus that all of those things are moral blots on the country’s history, if the full truth about torture comes out, a consensus could eventually emerge that this, too, is an unambiguous stain.

Waldman seems to see this sort of assessment as patriotic:

The cynicism necessary to attempt to blame the blowback from their torture program on those who want it exposed is truly a wonder. On one hand, they insist that they did nothing wrong and the program was humane, professional, and legal. On the other they implicitly accept that the truth is so ghastly that if it is released there will be an explosive backlash against America. Then the same officials who said “Freedom isn’t free!” as they sent other people’s children to fight in needless wars claim that the risk of violence against American embassies is too high a price to pay, so the details of what they did must be kept hidden.

Again, go figure, or consider this:

But either we’re a free society, or we aren’t. Either Americans have a right to know the full extent of what their government did in those dark days, or they don’t. We have to choose.

Which is the patriotic choice? There seem to be two sets of opinions here, and Kevin Drum argues an odd but rather obvious thing, that the release of the torture report will actually save lives:

Our conduct during the early years of the war on terror almost certainly inflamed our enemies, bolstered their recruitment, and prolonged the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. This cost thousands of American lives.

President Obama may have banned torture during his administration, but is there any reason to think we’ve now given up torture for good? Not that I can tell, and it will cost many more thousands of American lives if it happens again. So for our own safety, even if for no other reason, we need to do everything we can to reduce the odds of America going on another torture spree.

Forget patriotism. Think safety. Be practical. And save American lives, which is the patriotic thing to do. Only scoundrels think otherwise. To instigate the populace, with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend public happiness, if not to destroy it, after all – and we did that already. On the evening of April 7, 1775, Johnson muttered to Boswell that “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” – and no one remembers either of them. Oh well.

Posted in Release of the Torture Report, Torture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Deciding Which Game to Win

Many see politics as a grand game – a sport of sorts. Reporters handicap candidates – the word they actually use – and talk about who will win the Horse Race. And in campaigns, and particularity in debates, it’s all about who “scores points” – whether or not what they said the nation should do next makes any sense at all. Politics is about winning, not governing.

That seemed to be how Karl Rove thought. Here’s Matt Taibbi explaining that – and Rove did give us George W. Bush, whose governance was disastrous – but this has always been the essential difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans prefer as little government as possible, so governance itself is hardly an issue – no one should be doing much of that anyway. Democrats prefer government intervention to make life better for everyone. They don’t argue for big government, in and of itself, but they do argue for effective government, fixing this and that, because things won’t fix themselves. Republicans say yes, they will – the free-market will solve all problems. Democrats say no, it won’t – that’s why we’re in the mess we are in now.

They’ll never agree on this, and thus, if politics is a game, they’ll never agree on what winning that game might look like. One side wins if they stop things, even useful things, if they win the right elections. The other side wins if useful things get done, even if they lose this election or that. One side cares about politics, winning, and shrugs at the idea of actual governance – no one really cares about that stuff and it does little good anyway. The other side cares about policy and holds their noses at the nasty business of politics, all the pandering and nonsense – but you do have to win the right elections to have any chance of implementing changes in policy which will do good things for people, which people care about. Maybe they do, but for one side governance is a necessary evil – if you win you have to do at least some of that stuff. For the other side politics is the necessary evil, something rather unpleasant that you must engage in to get to the governance part, the whole point of it all.

Republicans and Democrats are playing two different games here, and that confuses things, and to move from the general to the specific, that has led to what Politico reports here:

The House and Senate need to pass a government-funding bill and renew a terrorism insurance program this week, the final gasp of legislating before Republicans take full control of Capitol Hill in the next Congress.

Both bills are expected to pass before the government shutdown deadline of Thursday, but not without several hectic days of whipping, arm-twisting and legislative bargaining between Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and the White House.

The last-minute drama is a fitting way to end the 113th Congress, an intensely partisan two-year span that included a 16-day government shutdown, a near-default on the nation’s debt, the politically disastrous rollout of Obamacare, a wave of voter discontent that booted the No. 2 House Republican from Washington, a resurgent GOP and a wave of foreign policy crises that knocked official Washington off balance.

Yes, it’s that time again, time for this do-nothing Congress to decide whether to shut down the government again, because even if they’ve done nothing much at all, they’re angry at Obama for what he has done, and they sense voters are too, and that’s golden for them, although they might not shut down things this time, because that wasn’t golden for them last time. So they have a plan:

The final chapter this will kick off Monday, when House GOP leaders are expected to unveil their government-funding bill, unofficially dubbed the “cromnibus.” The legislation will keep most of the government open through September 2015 but extend Department of Homeland Security funding only until February. Republicans want to use the shorter DHS funding deadline to pressure President Barack Obama over his recent executive action ending the deportation threat for several million undocumented immigrants.

They are pissed off at that, but they need to be careful:

All eyes will be on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) as they try to corral enough GOP support to get the bill over the finish line. Dozens of House Republicans have expressed various levels of unease with the legislation because it does not specifically bar Obama from freezing deportations. Democrats are expected to come to Boehner’s rescue again, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California has signaled so far that she won’t whip her members against the bill. There is one wild card, though. If Republicans drag the bill further to the right in a bid to pick up conservative support – for instance, by trying to load it up with controversial riders on environmental or labor policy – Democrats will vote against it and the White House will quickly issue a veto threat.

They want to stick it to Obama but Pelosi and the Democrats care about actual policy and may scuttle their clever shut-it-all-down-later plan, and time is running out:

If the legislation is unveiled on time Monday, it could hit the House floor by Wednesday, which would give the Senate one day to pass it to avoid a government shutdown. The House has canceled its votes Monday evening for the White House Christmas party, so the GOP leadership has just two days to get its troops in line.

No one knows what will happen, but Andrew Sullivan reminds everyone about how the stick-it-to-Obama game has played out in the last year:

Cast your mind back, if you can bear it, to the frenetic last days of the campaign in the mid-terms. The world, the GOP kept insisting, was coming undone – and everything was Obama’s fault. Somehow, Obama had fumbled the response to Ebola, letting infected people into the country, and risking a huge and fatal pandemic. At the same time, ISIS represented a grave threat to American security, was expanding with no limits in sight, proving that Obama had lost Iraq or thrown “victory” away in an act of reckless disengagement. And for good measure, Russia’s Putin was running rings around the president, creating a new world order in the Caucasus, while Obama fecklessly wrung his hands.

That is how they won the midterms, and Sullivan is amused:

As a piece of political performance art, you have to hand it to the Republicans. They rolled up so many base-tingling themes into one hellish, end-times scenario: Obama as Carter, unable to stand up to the (Soviets) Russians; Obama as secret Muslim terrorist, standing by as Islamists terrorized Iraq and Syria; Obama as a dangerous import from Africa, which is why, we were told, the “O” in Ebola stood for Obama.

Funny isn’t it that almost all these themes evaporated after the election? And we now, moreover, have more time and evidence to judge how the president has responded to these different, emergent challenges. There have been no new Ebola cases in the US since the election; and the demon doctor who went bowling is now cured.

Yeah, but they won, didn’t they? But there is the campaign against ISIS. Obama blew it, but Sullivan isn’t sure how:

I’m still opposed to what the administration has done. But it behooves me to note today’s key measure of real progress, the new Iraqi prime minister’s deal with the Kurds on oil revenues… This is the easy part, compared with an attempt to include the currently revolting Sunnis into a genuinely multi-sectarian government, and to roll back the territorial gains of the Islamic State. But it’s a start. My own skepticism about whether Abadi was truly a unifying figure deserves provisional retirement. And the IS has been rolled back in several key areas. And Kobani has not fallen. If you take Obama’s posture at face value – that he was trying to prevent much worse happening in Iraq and laying out a years-long strategy to nudge Iraq’s democracy along – I can’t see clear evidence that he has failed. Within the very limited goals he set, he has so far succeeded.

Yeah, but the Republicans won, didn’t they? And then there’s Putin, and here Sullivan cites Kevin Drum:

Ukraine is more firmly allied to the West than ever. Finland is wondering if it might not be such a bad idea to join NATO after all. The Baltic States, along with just about every other Russian neighbor, are desperate to reinforce their borders – and their NATO commitments. Russia has been dumped from the G7 and Putin himself was brutally snubbed by practically every other world leader at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Economic sanctions are wreaking havoc with the Russian economy. China took advantage of all this to drive a harder bargain in negotiations over the long-planned Siberian gas pipeline. Even Angela Merkel has finally turned on Putin.


Russia, meanwhile, is headed for an outright recession next year, hobbled by sanctions and the collapsing oil price (caused in part by America’s shale oil revolution in the Obama years). Now, as with Ebola and ISIS, there are obvious caveats. Obama’s successful cornering of Putin could mean the dictator could get even more reckless; Ukraine remains torn apart in the East. But from the perspective of now, does Putin seem the stronger strategist or does Obama?

Scoring politic points against Obama isn’t everything:

I point this out because the conservative media-industrial complex is really about delivering news that can work as political messaging. When the news doesn’t fit that template, they move swiftly on to something else that does. But reality tells us something different: that you should judge a presidency not by short-term panics, but by long term progress in the face of contingent events. Six years after the worst recession since the 1930s, we have accelerating growth, a collapsing deficit, falling healthcare costs and universal health insurance; a decade after the Federal Marriage Amendment, we have over 30 states with marriage equality; six years since Obama took office, we have the toughest new carbon regulations yet on the books and an agreement with China.

Other than that, Obama has screwed things up, which handed Republicans full control of Congress. They won the game, other than on immigration, and in the New York Times, Michael Shear and Julia Preston explain how that had been politics versus policy all along:

Months before President Obama took executive action last week to reshape the nation’s immigration system, Jeh C. Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, quietly convened a small group of advisers to explore the legal limits of the president’s powers.

Working in secrecy, Mr. Johnson’s team huddled for hours daily under orders to use “our legal authorities to the fullest extent” on a new deportations policy, a senior administration official said. In five White House meetings over the summer, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Obama, both lawyers, pored over proposed changes, eventually concluding that the president had the authority to enact changes that could affect millions of people and significantly alter the way immigration laws are enforced.

“I don’t think he wanted to be in the position of taking executive action,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group, said of Mr. Obama. “It was not the way he wanted to fix the system.” Nonetheless, “at the end of the day, he felt this was the only option he had.”

The fix was more important than the politics, and that played out this way:

As 2014 began, the president and his aides were hopeful that Republicans in the House might pass an immigration bill that Mr. Obama could support. The president was in regular touch with Mr. Boehner and his top lieutenants, who told him they recognized the need to increase border security, improve the legal immigration system and find a way to deal with the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States.

Each time Mr. Boehner arrived at the White House for an event, the president would pull him aside and ask about immigration, according to White House and Republican aides. Mr. Boehner urged patience, saying there was a “narrow path” to get something done, despite opposition in his party from what Republican aides call the “boxcars crowd,” a reference to conservative members who favor deportation for most of the 11 million.

Boehner knew he had a problem. The idea of putting eleven million people-not-like-us in boxcars and shipping them off may play well with the base – a real winner – but it does have a whiff of the Final Solution about it. Boehner had a problem with his base, and Obama offered to help:

The Senate had already passed a comprehensive bill that Republicans did not believe would pass in the House. Several House Republicans were quietly drafting separate legislation to boost border security and make changes to the legal immigration process. The speaker held out hope that a piecemeal approach might eventually pass.

Mr. Obama told Mr. Boehner that he would not attack Republicans on immigration, even though he would have to press for legislation “every now and then,” a senior White House official said. The president understood, the official said, that “what they were trying to do was hard.”

It was too hard:

The president announced that he would delay the results of the review until the end of the summer, hoping to give Mr. Boehner a last chance for action.

But in early June, Representative Eric Cantor, then the majority leader in the House, lost his Republican primary in Virginia after being accused of being soft on immigration. Soon a surge of unaccompanied children across the border with Mexico created a sense of crisis about the need for more security and weeks of Republican outrage. At a White House event for the Professional Golfers Association, Mr. Obama pulled Mr. Boehner aside.

Mr. Boehner told the president that the path for action in the House “had narrowed almost to the vanishing point,” according to aides for both men. White House officials said the president was frustrated with the Republicans. But he was also coming to the realization that he could not rely on Congress to act.

Imagine that conversation. John, you have a problem with the politics of this. I have a problem with the policy here, doing the right thing. You lose.

And now we are where we are, as Slate’s Betsy Woodruff explains here:

Republicans had a rare, fleeting moment of consensus on immigration when the president announced last month that he would take executive action to defer deportation and give work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Republicans of all stripes – from the big-business-friendly speaker of the House to the Gadsden flag-toting Tea Party darlings in the rank-and-file – all agreed that his move was an unconstitutional overreach and an assault on our constitutional system of checks and balances. In that moment, Republicans called an intra-caucus cease-fire.

That cease-fire is toast. Ten Republicans broke ranks on Thursday to vote against or simply vote “present” on a largely symbolic bill introduced by Rep. Ted Yoho intended to block the president’s executive action on immigration. One Republican member, Arizona’s Rep. Matt Salmon, mocked the bill a few hours before the vote, telling a group of reporters that the House could save time and money by just sending the president a Hallmark card.

Boehner’s problems got worse:

The central question is this: Should Republicans try to use the appropriation process to defund the president’s immigration move? Supporters of that strategy – including Sens. Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz, as well as Salmon and others – argue it’s the only way to keep the president’s action from going forward. Opponents of that strategy tremble at the prospect of replaying last year’s government shutdown.

But the strategy’s supporters have been vocal and unequivocal about their positions. And now they’re going on the offense. Sessions released a statement suggesting that a plan some Republicans had been coalescing around – to pass Rep. Yoho’s “hallmark card” bill and then fund the government without any exception for the president’s immigration move – would break the party’s campaign promises.

In fact, a few days before the midterm elections, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus told reporters on a conference call that the GOP would spare no effort to block the president’s move.

“We will do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen: Defunding, going to court, injunction,” he said, per Breitbart. “You name it. It’s wrong. It’s illegal.”

So the chairman of the party promised that defunding would be on the table if necessary, and the House Leadership doesn’t want to go there, and the one question is unresolved:

So would Republicans be breaking their campaign promises if they voted to fund the government without any provision blocking funds for the president’s immigration action?

It depends on who you ask. At a press conference yesterday, Iowa’s Rep. Steve King said that members of Congress who vote to fund the president’s move would be voting to violate the Constitution and, thus, would violate their oaths of office. Cruz warned that members should do “what you promised.”

“And doing what you promised doesn’t mean, as it so often does in Washington, sending a really stern letter and having a meaningless show vote,” he added.

Later I asked Salmon if he thought members who voted for a funding bill that included funding for the president’s move would be breaking their campaign promises. He echoed Cruz’s message that it would be a violation of their oath of office.

“I think that it’s an abdication of your duty to vote for funding for something that you believe is unconstitutional,” he said. “Absolutely. Even for a day.”

But then there’s Bill Cassidy, who just won the Louisiana senate seat and will be moving to that chamber:

“I’m not sure I accept Sen. Sessions’ assessment,” he said. Eisenhower was successful in the Battle of the Bulge, Cassidy continued, because he waited to counterattack.

“So there’s a certain strategy that must come in to play,” he concluded. “And so I think that this is a little bit of a chess match, and you have to do your actions with an eye towards completing them in success.”

It’s all a game, but the Associated Press reports that Obama won’t play games:

Until now, controversial Republican-backed legislation rarely reached the president’s desk because Senate Democrats blocked it. Starting in January, however, Republicans will control both the House and Senate, and Obama may have to decide more often whether to sign or veto GOP-crafted bills.

Obama gave lawmakers an early taste of veto politics recently when he forced congressional leaders to drop a proposed package of tax breaks that were popular with many Republican constituents. Some Democrats did support the plan, but liberals and the White House said it tilted too heavily toward corporations, not lower-income workers.

The White House also has promised to veto any bills restricting the president’s major changes to immigration policies, setting up likely showdowns early next year.

This is about good policy, not who won what election:

Obama’s threats present the type of bind that Republicans may face repeatedly in the next two years. They can agree to many or all of the changes he demands in legislation, or they can let him use his veto and hope Americans will blame him more than them. …

Assuming Obama keeps his veto promise, Republican lawmakers would have to decide whether to drop their demands or let parts of the federal government close for lack of money. GOP leaders say there will be no shutdowns, but they have yet to explain how they can force Obama to back off on immigration.

And they have to explain WHY he should back off on immigration. They haven’t been talking about policy. They’ve been talking about Obama’s authority to implement in a way they might not – but they have no immigration policy, so what else can they talk about? They’re playing one game. Obama is playing another.

John Harwood in the New York Times sees it this way:

To the surprise of both allies and adversaries, President Obama has declined to humble himself following another midterm election bludgeoning.

To the contrary, his recent immigration action made clear his determination to focus tenaciously on his governing objectives, without hiding his derision for Congress. His abandon might even have affronted the Barack Obama of 2008, who ran for president against a political system “that’s divided us for too long.”

Mr. Obama has long since concluded that pursuing dreams of reconciliation in his final two years in office is a fool’s chase. So he is offering an alternative model for 21st-century presidential success.

His game is not theirs:

It does not hinge on job approval ratings. As Mr. Obama’s weak poll numbers make clear, he has failed to unite the country.

His current approach does not depend on bipartisan deal making or good cheer. The president has failed to win over congressional Republicans.

It does not even turn on protecting the political interests of his party. Fellow Democrats were hammered on Election Day last month, as in 2010, which explains Senator Charles E. Schumer’s recent complaint that the party blew it by following Mr. Obama’s lead on health care.

It turns, instead, on advancing the major policy goals that Mr. Obama embraced as a candidate.

Obama won that game:

When Democrats controlled Congress in 2009-10, Mr. Obama won passage of a major economic stimulus package and Wall Street regulation legislation. Those measures have been followed by a stronger recovery from the financial crisis than other advanced economies have enjoyed.

The Affordable Care Act fulfilled a goal that had eluded Democratic presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton.

Mr. Obama kept his promises to wind down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. After Republican election victories blocked his agenda in Congress, Mr. Obama shifted to executive action for his domestic goals. His Environmental Protection Agency is devising rules to curb carbon emissions. He invoked prosecutorial discretion to shield some five million illegal immigrants from deportation.

Neither executive move accomplished as much as Mr. Obama could have through legislation, but may have been the only realistic routes forward that a polarized political system allowed him.

Given the times, Obama gave up on the game the Republicans wanted him to play. He decided to win the game he thought should be played, the one he finally decided mattered more – or maybe he knew that all along. The Republicans just won the other game, for what that’s worth. It may not be worth much.

Posted in Politics as a Game, Politics as Sport | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Better Not to Know

Alexander Pope was a strange little man – a four-foot six hunchback – but he could turn a phrase. A little learning really is a dangerous thing. That was a common sentiment in the early eighteenth century. There were far too many poseurs pretending they knew what was going on, causing no end of trouble, but there was a more basic idea floating around. Thomas Gray’s 1742 poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College offered this – “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

Those words – ignorance is bliss – live on. Now they’re used to shut down people who ask too many questions. They’re condescending and never do shut anyone up – those three words just generate resentment and anger – but early in the century that gave us our country, and our Constitution, the conventional wisdom was that wisdom wasn’t all that wonderful. There was much to be said for ignorance. It was connected to bliss, and that had political implications. A nation whose citizens had no idea what was going on would be a happy and well-ordered nation. Later in the century that all got turned around and we got the American and French Revolutions – citizens, who knew what was going on, were perfectly capable of ordering their own affairs, and should – but that turned out to be a bit idealistic. All governments rely on the ignorance of their citizens to keep functioning. If all citizens knew what was really going on, behind the scenes, they’d be appalled, and want it stopped, and things would fall apart. That’s why Edward Snowden was such a problem. He let everyone know what the NSA and CIA were doing to keep us safe, and none of it was very nice, or very legal. It was, however, probably quite useful. The government’s argument seemed to be that while ignorance was probably not bliss, ignorance was, in this case, safety from terrible things. Sometimes it is better, for everyone concerned, not to know what’s really going on. An informed citizenry, that Jeffersonian ideal, could end up a dead citizenry.

That played out more than a generation earlier with the Pentagon Papers that no one was supposed to see. Robert McNamara created the Vietnam Study Task Force on June 17, 1967, to create an “encyclopedic history of the Vietnam War” from 1947 onward – he later explained that he just wanted to leave a written record for historians, to head off policy errors in the future. If you want to learn from your mistakes you do have to know what happened, when, and why. It was an academic exercise, and thus McNamara didn’t tell Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk about this massive study – they were kind of busy at the time – and those papers eventually ended up at the Rand Corporation out here in Santa Monica.

That’s where they should have been in the first place, with the experts in the analysis of effective and non-effective decision-making processes, and the Rand folks continued and deepened the original analysis of how we got into that Vietnam mess. It wasn’t pretty, and it had to remain secret. If the public ever found out about how decisions on Vietnam had been reached, or avoided, they’d be outraged. We had secretly enlarged the war early on with secret bombing in Cambodia and Laos, with coastal raids on North Vietnam, and with Marine Corps attacks all over the place, and none of this had been reported in the media. Congress hadn’t known. President after president had been flailing about and none of it had worked, and they knew it hadn’t worked, but no one else knew that. They’d better not find out. The Pentagon Papers remained under lock and key in a dark room across the street from the Santa Monica Pier.

That should have worked fine. Everyone at Rand has a top secret or better clearance, except that didn’t account for the guy who thought the American public should know what was really going on. On a fine warm evening in 1971, Daniel Ellsberg left his Rand Corporation office and walked across the street to the Santa Monica Pier, where he met New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan and handed him the Pentagon Papers, the whole big pile of them, which Ellsberg had grabbed and photocopied. The rest is history. The New York Times started publishing those Pentagon Papers, and then was stopped by an injunction the Nixon administration had won, so the Washington Post published them and forced the matter up to the Supreme Court, and won, getting the injunction lifted. Daniel Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy and espionage and theft of government property, and those charges were dismissed when everyone found out that the Nixon “plumbers” had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, hoping to find something to make Ellsberg look like a pervert or a madman. The government wasn’t playing fair, so Ellsberg was free to go, and the public was outraged at what was in all those pages from the pier. Our leaders don’t know what they’re doing, and they know that they don’t know what they’re doing, and all of them, one after another, have being lying to us all. Everything is going fine? No one would ever believe that again. Bliss was no longer an option.

At least we don’t torture people, but of course we have tortured people. We had a national policy of torture, even if we called it something else, and earlier this year, in March, there was this:

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years – concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques.

The report, built around detailed chronologies of dozens of CIA detainees, documents a long-standing pattern of unsubstantiated claims as agency officials sought permission to use – and later tried to defend – excruciating interrogation methods that yielded little, if any, significant intelligence, according to U.S. officials who have reviewed the document.

“The CIA described [its program] repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives,” said one U.S. official briefed on the report. “Was that actually true? The answer is no.”

All this produced very little in the way of actionable intelligence and the CIA lied about all this in order to preserve its ability to torture prisoners, for no real reason:

Classified files reviewed by committee investigators reveal internal divisions over the interrogation program, officials said, including one case in which CIA employees left the agency’s secret prison in Thailand after becoming disturbed by the brutal measures being employed there. The report also cites cases in which officials at CIA headquarters demanded the continued use of harsh interrogation techniques even after analysts were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give.

We did it for the fun of it, or because it felt good, and right, at the time, even if it was pointless? Maybe the point wasn’t to get the bad guys to cooperate, because all this did little good. This report, which was a preliminary report with few real details, was a bit distressing, and at the time Andrew Sullivan added this:

So we are approaching the moment when we will have some measure of understanding of the scale and breadth and severity of the war crimes authorized by the last administration. We don’t – infuriatingly – have the full Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Bush-Cheney torture program, but we are beginning to get clues and assessments from people who have actually read the report. That means we should be careful in jumping to conclusions. But, so far, we’re seeing why the CIA has done all it possibly can to keep their war crimes hidden from public accountability. That avoidance of accountability was not just to the American people, but also to their representatives.

Ignorance is bliss, Andrew – remember that. Let’s just not think about it, shall we? That’s fine with the CIA guys – it really is so tiresome to have to keep saying, over and over, that all this worked just fine, as the evidence piles up, higher and higher, that none of it worked at all. There are some things, in that upcoming full Senate Intelligence Committee report, you really don’t want to know, and now, as reported Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View, you won’t know those details any time soon:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Friday morning to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials.

Kerry was not going rogue – his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning, could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad. Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

This then is a foreign policy issue that has nothing to do with who did what way back when, or maybe who did what way back when, if revealed, would make it even harder to conduct our foreign policy. Kerry was asking for a favor – don’t make his job any harder than it already is – hold off the full report until there is peace in the Middle East, and the lion lies down with the lamb, and there’s peace on earth and goodwill toward men. This isn’t a good time.

It’s not a good time in other ways:

Kerry’s 11th-hour effort to secure a delay in the report’s release places Feinstein in a difficult position: She must decide whether to set aside the administration’s concerns and accept the risk, or scuttle the rollout of the investigation she fought for years to preserve.

Hill staffers and human rights advocates saw the Kerry call as a stunning reversal by an administration that has publicly supported the report’s release for months. For Senate Republicans – who have warned about the potential fallout for more than a year – the administration is belatedly coming around to agree with their position.

“There’s always a lot going on in the world and the timing of the release of a report like this never convenient,” one senior GOP senate staffer said. “They should have thought about that a long time ago and advocated against the release.”

The timing of the release of a report like this is never convenient, and maybe it should never be released. Ignorance is bliss, after all, but all sorts of things are at play here:

Any delay would be a huge problem for Feinstein for several reasons. First of all, her staff just completed a grueling months-long negotiation with the CIA over what details would make it into the final release. Those negotiations were personally mediated by President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who flew to San Francisco several times to negotiate directly with Feinstein.

Second, if the release is pushed off past next week, Feinstein will no longer head the committee, and the incoming chairman, Republican Richard Burr, could very well prevent the report from being released at all.

All governments rely on the ignorance of their citizens to keep functioning, after all, and Feinstein should have seen this coming, as there were mixed signals out there:

The State Department’s top intelligence officer, Phillip Goldberg, wrote to Congress last year to warn that such information could harm U.S. relationships and place American personnel and facilities abroad at risk, but at the time, top officials told me that his warning was never cleared at the secretary of state level. This time, the very top echelon of the Obama administration’s national security team is echoing those concerns.

They are also said to be backed up by a new memo sent to Congress from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, detailing the potential risks of releasing the report at this time. That office did not respond to a request for comment.

The State Department prepared talking points in advance of the report’s release that made the case for releasing it, despite the risks.

“America can champion democracy and human rights around the world not because we are perfect, but because we can say that our democratic system enables us to confront and resolve our problems through open and honest debate,” the State Department memo said. “Our Congress issued this report, and the Obama administration strongly supported its declassification, in that spirit.”

The State Department memo said that, but others said otherwise, and now the Secretary of State says otherwise, and Dan Froomkin suggests this:

Continued White House foot-dragging on the declassification of a much-anticipated Senate torture report is raising concerns that the administration is holding out until Republicans take over the chamber and kill the report themselves. …

Critics of the Bush administration’s torture regime are hoping the report’s release will lead to a long-sought moment of accountability. That, of course, is exactly what Republicans and people who were part of the regime – many of who are still in top positions in the intelligence community, and close to Obama – don’t want.

The plan, then, may be to delay the full report until the Republicans kill it, so Kerry and Obama don’t have to do that – and they can rag on the Republicans for the keeping the truth from the American people. Kerry and Obama wouldn’t have done that. They’d never do such a thing. That’s pretty clever, and as a bonus, no one will ever know what happened way back when. Everyone will be blissful and safe. And the Republicans will look like jerks.

It’s a plan, but Andrew Sullivan is not happy:

Of course this complicates relationships with foreign countries; of course it guts any remaining credibility on human rights the US has; of course the staggering brutality endorsed by the highest echelons in American government will inflame American enemies and provoke disbelief across the civilized world. But that’s not the fault of the report; it’s the fault of the torture regime and its architects, many of whom have continued to operate with total impunity under president Obama.

He’s not fooled:

Make no mistake about it: if this report is buried, it will be this president who made that call, and this president who has allowed this vital and minimal piece of accountability to be slow-walked to death and burial, and backed the CIA every inch of the way. But notice also the way in which Kerry’s phone-call effectively cuts the report off at its knees. If it is released, Obama will be able to say he tried to stop it, and to prevent the purported damage to US interests and personnel abroad. He will have found a way to distance himself from the core task of releasing this essential accounting. And he will have ensured that the debate over it will be about whether the report is endangering Americans, just as the Republican talking points have spelled out, rather than a first step to come to terms with the appalling, devastating truth of what the American government has done.

He’s also disappointed:

I’m genuinely shocked by this last-minute attempt to bury the truth. Does anyone doubt that one agency in that interagency review is the CIA itself? And can anyone seriously believe that if this moment passes, we will ever know what happened? I have confidence in Senator Feinstein’s backbone on this. I wish I had confidence in the president’s.

Digby (Heather Parton) agrees:

Yeah, well the timing is never going to be good for pretending that we are morally above reproach in this area or that our allies who eagerly helped us do it are either. So what? It happened…

I’m disgusted. Kerry is the guy who once had the guts to go before the congress and expose the atrocities US troops were committing in Vietnam.

Yes, on April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war – he spoke for nearly two hours to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presenting the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation – all about how a good number of our guys had been doing some very bad things over there – and Digby notes what he said then:

I am not here as John Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of 1,000 which is a small representation of a very much larger group of veterans in this country, and were it possible for all of them to sit at this table they would be here and have the same kind of testimony….

I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command….

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.

We call this investigation the “Winter Soldier Investigation.” The term “Winter Soldier” is a play on words of Thomas Paine in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough.

We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.

He’s not that idealistic young man any longer. He’s the damned secretary of state now, and the adjective – damned – is appropriate. He’s covering up torture, for the greater good, whatever that is.

Thomas Gray’s words echo down the years – “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” We have our bliss. And perhaps the American people really don’t want to know what was done a decade ago, and might even be being done now. An informed citizenry is an unhappy citizenry. Is that what Jefferson and those other guys really wanted? It doesn’t matter. Ignorance is useful to everyone.

Posted in Torture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

You Say You Want a Revolution

Everyone was young once, and some of us were young in the sixties, and we were going to change the world – but it refused to change. Many took to the streets in Chicago in 1968, or wish they had, to change things by disrupting the Democratic National Convention so much that those folks would become the antiwar party, not the sort-of antiwar party. Everyone knew the Vietnam War was worse than pointless by then, it had become shameful. Lyndon Johnson knew. He refused to run for another term. Things would change, but Gene McCarthy, whose strong showing in the early primaries had let Johnson know he’d lost his mojo, had given up early on, and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated that summer, a few months after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy’s last words, just after he won the California primary, were “Now, on to Chicago!” He never made it. All the Democrats had left seemed to be hapless Hubert Humphrey. The Republicans had Richard Nixon, big on law and order, and respect for things as they had always been – all that antirevolutionary stuff. Maybe it was counterrevolution stuff. He stopped the antiwar left, with some sort of revolution on its mind, dead in its tracks.

Nixon won easily, and he had let the nation know that the war would not end unless we had “peace with honor” – but there really was no honorable way out. That was the bitter joke. The war would go on and on and on. Gerald Ford finally pulled the plug, long after Nixon had resigned in disgrace. Hey, he was a crook after all!

Things finally worked out, but none of this had anything to do with taking to the streets in 1968, or at any other time and place. The voice of the new generation was heard. It was loud and clear, but those who run the world carried on as usual. America is immune to revolution. The times weren’t a-changing. This wasn’t the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The new generation should have realized that in 1969 when that song became a smash hit for The Fifth Dimension – one of the slickest pop groups around, a group your mother could love. They made a ton of money. Harmony and understanding, and sympathy and trust abounding, and the mind’s true liberation, were another matter. They didn’t show up.

There’s always hope. Back then, everyone knew someone who was carrying around a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, not that anyone ever read it, or it was a copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, not that any of us were going to join the Black Panther Party. We seemed to be white. There was the girl who claimed she was a syndicalist anarchist, but no one knew what the hell she was talking about. She was a Russian History major, and then the Beatles tore it all open:

You say you want a revolution…

You say you’ll change the constitution / Well, you know / We all want to change your head / You tell me it’s the institution / Well, you know / You’d better free your mind instead…

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow…

That song was released in August 1968, a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Whose side were these guys on?

They were on the side of reality. Revolution is a tricky business. We pulled one off in the late eighteenth century, and the French did the same, but that was long ago. Things settled down in both countries, and they settled in place. It took a civil war here to end slavery, and it took Lincoln’s life. It took the heroics of Martin Luther King to end our American version of apartheid, but that only changed to law, not men’s minds, and that took King’s life. We don’t do revolutions here, and the “tea party” revolution four years ago certainly didn’t overthrow anything, not even Obamacare. Those angry folks didn’t “get their country back” – because it wasn’t their country. This seems to be everyone’s country. It doesn’t belong, exclusively, to angry old white folks and Rick Santelli.

That presents a challenge. It’s hard to start a revolution, a popular uprising to change everything, when the majority of the people have very few problems with what you hate and insist must be gone. The healthcare system was broken. Obamacare isn’t much of a fix, but it’s a start. The EPA does work to keep the air breathable, not a bad idea. Spending money on roads and bridges and schools, and even on unemployment payouts and food stamps, does do good, good for everyone. Infrastructure and economic stability are nice, and taxing those who can pay more a bit more, so they pay taxes at the rate everyone else does, probably won’t ruin the economy. Closing the border might, and gay people really aren’t hurting anyone, and Obama keeps governing as a sort of Eisenhower Republican. None of this seems to call for a revolution.

It really is hard to start a revolution, a popular uprising to change everything, when the majority of the people are okay with what’s in place, but then there are times when what’s in place suddenly seems pretty damned awful, and maybe that just happened. Things didn’t calm down. The New York Times reports on how they escalated:

Thousands of demonstrators poured out in cities across the country on Thursday night in a show of outrage over a grand jury’s decision the previous day not to indict a white New York City police officer whose chokehold caused an unarmed black man’s death.

The protests drew crowds in New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington. Many chanted the last words of the man, Eric Garner, 43, of Staten Island: “I can’t breathe.” In some places, they grew disruptive, snarled traffic on major arteries and lay down in the streets.

For the second night in a row, several groups of protesters roamed through Manhattan. They caused lanes to be closed on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the West Side Highway and at the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. The protesters also targeted the Staten Island ferry terminal. Dozens of demonstrators were arrested, but officials did not provide further details.

About 300 people moving north on Broadway toward Times Square laid down at 34th Street for 11 minutes of silence to commemorate the number of times Mr. Garner was heard in a video of his fatal encounter saying he could not breathe. The protesters then moved north and onto Seventh Avenue, where they were involved in a skirmish with police officers blocking the intersection of 42nd Street.

This is not slowing down:

In nearly every city where there were protests, demonstrators shouted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”

The Los Angeles Times reported this:

The chants are angry, but simple: “I can’t breathe!” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “Black lives matter!” They have echoed from the American heartland to the coasts in the wake of two recent grand jury decisions that cleared white policemen in the deaths of unarmed black men.

Now, activists are counting on the rage behind those words to spur a movement that would force the country to confront the interlocked issues of race and policing and press the government to automatically take control of cases of alleged police abuse.

“They’re asking for something simple. They want to be treated the same,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said of protesters Thursday as he sought to calm a city where many were seething over a grand jury’s decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white officer, in the death of Eric Garner.

No one is talking revolution, but they are talking about a movement:

More large demonstrations erupted Thursday night in New York and throughout the nation, including in Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago. As night fell in New York, helicopters thundered over lower Manhattan while protesters gathered in Foley Square, near the courthouse and police headquarters.

“It was a murder on video and there was no justice,” said Mickey Thomas, a 21-year-old Hunter College student. “I definitely think we’ve had enough. I feel like there is a new civil rights movement.”

Ida DuPont, a Pace University sociology professor specializing in criminology, said she too thought the Garner incident was an “open and shut case” with the video.

“It was so ridiculous to me that I had to be here today to show my outrage,” DuPont said.

“I’ve been talking to my students about it,” she said. “All the young people know something is seriously wrong.”

That might be enough:

At a Thursday news conference, black leaders, including Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, sought to draw protesters from around the country to Washington for a Dec. 13 event aimed at pressing for federal intervention in excessive-force cases.

“Marches and boycotts led to the ’64 Civil Rights Act,” Sharpton noted. He said that just as federal legislation led to change 50 years ago, similar action is needed now to ensure that prosecutors no longer handle cases involving their own police. “That’s what [Dec.] 13th is all about,” Sharpton said.

Marches in Washington in recent years have done little more than draw a few thousand people voicing concern over issues including fracking and veterans care.

This time, however, those pushing for change have the attention of some of the nation’s top leaders, who view their demands through personal eyes – from President Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to De Blasio, whose wife is black.

This may be a tipping point. Unlike the Tea Party Revolution, funded and supplied by the Koch brothers and corporations that wanted lower corporate taxes and the end to as much regulation as possible, what has happened here seems to have sprung up spontaneously. Everyone knows something is seriously wrong here, but administrative changes in who prosecutes what isn’t exactly a revolution. Others suggest a revolution might be necessary. Brian Beutler is one of those:

Even if the Ferguson outcome didn’t strike you as evidence of systemic problems, then Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Garner, getting the same treatment as Wilson should leave you shaken. These are daunting problems. And because they’re daunting, they generate outpourings of unfocused indignation, aimed generally at racial inequities in the criminal justice system and at the culture of impunity in which so many police officers seem to operate. This is natural and important and healthy.

A white man in Garner’s shoes probably would’ve walked away from that confrontation, and the video footage of the incident, taken in plain view of the officers, suggests that even if Pantaleo had been wearing a camera, it wouldn’t have pierced that culture of impunity.

This points to something alarming – that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic keeps stressing and stressing, the problems themselves in some ways just reflect public will – “And this isn’t the fault of police. Police act at the society’s behest. Police don’t need retraining. America needs retraining.”

If that weren’t true, then police wouldn’t be so much more likely to escape indictment than civilians. The disparity would narrow.

There’s a first step:

If Coates is right, then at least some of the effort expended on making police officers wear cameras has been misdirected. It should be redirected toward the source of the impunity, which isn’t the quantity or quality evidence, but the officials that so freely disregard it.

If prosecutors and police departments are too tightly linked for due process to mean anything, then puncturing the impunity requires breaking the link. One way to do this would be for citizens at the state and local level, through ballot initiatives, to take the authority for presenting evidence of police misconduct to grand juries out of the hands of local prosecutors. That authority could be handed to publicly accountable review boards staffed with civilian lawyers from within the jurisdiction, or to special prosecutors’ offices.

It’s not much, but it’s something:

Instituting systems like this in cities across the country wouldn’t amount to a frontal assault on the vast racial disparities in communities like Ferguson. But it’s a concrete goal – one that would give at least some vulnerable communities greater confidence that police wrongdoing will be investigated in an unbiased way. And it would put police on notice that their conduct will be subject to legal review by representatives of their communities who don’t work hand in glove with them.

Fine, but Albert Burneko argues it’s not enough, because it’s our justice system that’s broken:

In July, New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo choked unarmed black man Eric Garner to death, in broad daylight, while a bystander caught it on video. That is what American police do. Yesterday, despite the video, despite an NYPD prohibition of exactly the sort of chokehold Pantaleo used, and despite the New York City medical examiner ruling the death a homicide, a Staten Island grand jury declined even to indict Pantaleo. That is what American grand juries do.

In August, Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown to death in broad daylight. That is what American police do. Ten days ago, despite multiple eyewitness accounts and his own face contradicting Wilson’s narrative of events, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson. That is what American grand juries do.

In November 2006, a group of five New York police officers shot unarmed black man Sean Bell to death in the early morning hours of his wedding day. That is what American police do. In April 2008, despite multiple eyewitness accounts contradicting the officers’ accounts of the incident, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman acquitted the officers of all charges, including reckless endangerment. That is what American judges do.

In February of 1999, four plainclothes New York police officers shot unarmed black man Amadou Diallo to death outside of his home. That is what American police do. A year later, an Albany jury acquitted the officers of all charges, including reckless endangerment. That is what American juries do.

In November of 1951, Willis McCall, the sheriff of Lake County, Fla., shot and killed Sam Shepherd – an unarmed and handcuffed black man in his custody. That is what American police do. Despite both a living witness and forensic evidence which contradicted his version of events, a coroner’s inquest ruled that McCall had acted within the line of duty, and Judge Thomas Futch declined to convene a grand jury at all.

The American justice system is not broken. This is what the American justice system does. This is what America does.

We need to deal with that:

The murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Sam Shepherd, and countless thousands of others at the hands of American law enforcement are not aberrations, or betrayals, or departures. The acquittals of their killers are not mistakes. There is no virtuous innermost America, sullied or besmirched or shaded by these murders. This is America. It is not broken. It is doing what it does.

America is a serial brutalizer of black and brown people. Brutalizing them is what it does. It does other things, too, yes, but brutalizing black and brown people is what it has done the most, and with the most zeal, and for the longest. The best argument you can make on behalf of the various systems and infrastructures the country uses against its black and brown citizens – the physical design of its cities, the methods it uses to allocate placement in elite institutions, the way it trains its police to treat citizens like enemy soldiers – might actually just be that they’re more restrained than those used against black and brown people abroad. America employs the enforcers of its power to beat, kill, and terrorize, deploys its judiciary to say that that’s okay, and has done this more times than anyone can hope to count. This is not a flaw in the design; this is the design.

There’s more:

Policing in America is not broken. The judicial system is not broken. American society is not broken. All are functioning perfectly, doing exactly what they have done since before some of this nation’s most prosperous slave-murdering robber-barons came together to consecrate into statehood the mechanisms of their barbarism. Democracy functions. Politicians, deriving their legitimacy from the public, have discerned the will of the people and used it to design and enact policies that carry it out, among them those that govern the allowable levels of violence which state can visit upon citizen. Taken together with the myriad other indignities, thefts, and cruelties it visits upon black and brown people, and the work common white Americans do on its behalf by telling themselves bald fictions of some deep and true America of apple pies, Jesus, and people being neighborly to each other and betrayed by those few and non-representative bad apples with their isolated acts of meanness, the public will demands and enables a whirring and efficient machine that does what it does for the benefit of those who own it. It processes black and brown bodies into white power.

That is what America does. It is not broken. That is exactly what is wrong with it.

Now THAT’S a call for revolution, or it’s a cry of despair, because all we’ll get is a Department of Justice investigation of the Staten Island incident. Still, at the libertarian Reason site, Damon Root is all for that:

Holder’s decision to launch a federal inquiry is fully consistent with the original purposes of federal civil rights legislation, which dates back to the Civil Rights Act of 1866. That law was passed by the Republican-led 39th Congress in the wake of the Civil War in response to the former Confederate states’ attempts to harass and oppress the recently freed slaves by stripping them of their newfound liberty and property, denying them the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, and failing – or refusing – to provide them equal treatment under the law.

In other words, the whole point of federal civil rights law is to provide a legal check against state-sanctioned injustice, such as the egregious police misconduct that killed Eric Garner. Attorney General Holder should be commended for putting federal law to its intended purpose in this case.

In the Washington Post, Paul Cassell hopes Holder moves quickly:

With regard to substance, the facts are disturbing – and seemingly, in large part, recorded on video. And with regard to procedure, unlike the Michael Brown grand jury, we don’t have transcripts of testimony to peruse to make an informed assessment about the fairness of the process. Questions abound.

Here’s where the Justice Department could perform a valuable service – by actually completing this civil rights investigation expeditiously. To be sure, the proof required for a federal rights charge is demanding. But if the Eric Garner facts are as clear cut as the video makes them out to be, there is no reason why the Justice Department can’t rapidly investigate the case and quickly announce what it finds. The Justice Department should live up to the attorney’s general’s promise yesterday to “expeditiously” announce its decision on whether charges are appropriate in the Eric Garner death … and in the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin deaths.

Okay, don’t tear up the whole system. Let it work as it should, but at Vox, Amanda Taub isn’t expecting much:

Demanding a federal investigation is a good way for politicians like de Blasio, Schumer and Gillibrand to show their concern about police violence. Unfortunately it’s not likely to bring justice for Garner.

Simple murder and manslaughter aren’t federal crimes. But killing someone can be one in special circumstances, including when it’s an intentional violation of civil rights. What the DOJ can do is bring charges under the federal civil rights statute in order to prosecute Pantaleo for Garner’s death. And that legal standard is difficult to meet: prosecutors would have to prove that Pantaleo willfully deprived Garner of his civil rights. A police officer intentionally killing someone outside of the set of circumstances in which deadly force is permitted would qualify. But a civil rights charge requires proof of intent, whereas a state manslaughter case could be made by demonstrating negligence.

Okay, tear up the whole system. You say you want a revolution? It might be time for one. People, without the support of the Koch brothers, have taken to the streets, and there’s even this:

After rolling footage of Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, Bill O’Reilly responded Wednesday night with a deep, uncharacteristic sigh.

Though O’Reilly made sure to point out that he did not have all the facts in the case, following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo, and mass protests in New York City, the Fox News host was at least firm in his belief that Garner did not deserve the fate that befell him.

“Garner should not have resisted, but all Americans, every one of us, should pity Mr. Garner and his family,” O’Reilly said, adding that he was “extremely troubled” by the video and would have loosened his grip after hearing Garner say he couldn’t breathe. “He did not deserve what happened to him. And I think Officer Pantaleo and every other American police officer – every one – would agree with me. He didn’t deserve that.”

You say you want a revolution? Even Fox News is on board, sort of. It’ll be just like the sixties, when people took to the streets, and we got Richard Nixon. But maybe this time it will be different.

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