Archive for April, 2009

Obama on Torture and State Secrets

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Refreshing to have a president who can respond at a press conference without needing to pause for tens of seconds while he listens to Karl Rove whisper instructions in his surgically implanted earpiece, isn’t it?

I’m kidding. Sort of.

Anyway, I thought Obama’s responses last night to Jake Tapper, Mark Knoller, and Michael Scherer’s questions about torture, torture, and state secrets (respectively) were pretty interesting. The full transcript of the press conference is here: News conference by the president, 4/29/09. Here are the interesting-to-me bits:

THE PRESIDENT: …Jake. Where’s Jake? There he is.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. You’ve said in the past that waterboarding, in your opinion, is torture. Torture is a violation of international law and the Geneva conventions. Do you believe that the previous administration sanctioned torture?

THE PRESIDENT: What I’ve said — and I will repeat — is that waterboarding violates our ideals and our values. I do believe that it is torture. I don’t think that’s just my opinion; that’s the opinion of many who’ve examined the topic. And that’s why I put an end to these practices. I am absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do — not because there might not have been information that was yielded by these various detainees who were subjected to this treatment, but because we could have gotten this information in other ways, in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are.

I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day, talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, we don’t torture — when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

And so I strongly believe that the steps that we’ve taken to prevent these kinds of enhanced interrogation techniques will make us stronger over the long term, and make us safer over the long term, because it will put us in a position where we can still get information — in some cases, it may be harder, but part of what makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world, is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.

At the same time, it takes away a critical recruitment tool that al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have used to try to demonize the United States and justify the killing of civilians. And it makes us — it puts us in a much stronger position to work with our allies in the kind of international coordinated intelligence activity that can shut down these networks.

So this is a decision that I am very comfortable with. And I think the American people over time will recognize that it is better for us to stick to who we are, even when we’re taking on a unscrupulous enemy.

Okay. I’m sorry.

Q — administration sanction torture?

THE PRESIDENT: I believe that waterboarding was torture. And I think that the — whatever legal rationales were used, it was a mistake.

Mark Knoller.

Q Thank you, sir. Let me follow up, if I may, on Jake’s question. Did you read the documents recently referred to by former Vice President Cheney and others, saying that the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques not only protected the nation, but saved lives? And if part of the United States were under imminent threat, could you envision yourself ever authorizing the use of those enhanced interrogation techniques?

THE PRESIDENT: I have read the documents. Now, they haven’t been officially declassified and released, and so I don’t want to go into the details of them. But here’s what I can tell you — that the public reports and the public justifications for these techniques — which is that we got information from these individuals that were subjected to these techniques — doesn’t answer the core question, which is: Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques? And it doesn’t answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?

So when I made the decision to release these memos and when I made the decision to bar these practices, this was based on consultation with my entire national security team, and based on my understanding that ultimately I will be judged as Commander-in-Chief on how safe I’m keeping the American people. That’s the responsibility I wake up with and it’s the responsibility I go to sleep with.

And so I will do whatever is required to keep the American people safe, but I am absolutely convinced that the best way I can do that is to make sure that we are not taking shortcuts that undermine who we are. And there have been no circumstances during the course of this first hundred days in which I have seen information that would make me second-guess the decision that I’ve made.


THE PRESIDENT: …Michael Scherer of TIME.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. During the campaign you criticized President Bush’s use of the state secrets privilege. But U.S. attorneys have continued to argue the Bush position in three cases in court. How exactly does your view of state secrets differ from President Bush’s? And do you believe Presidents should be able to derail entire lawsuits about warrantless wiretapping or rendition, if classified information is involved?

THE PRESIDENT: I actually think that the state secret doctrine should be modified. I think right how it’s over-broad. But keep in mind what happens is, we come into office, we’re in for a week — and suddenly we’ve got a court filing that’s coming up. And so we don’t have the time to effectively think through what, exactly, should a overarching reform of that doctrine take. We’ve got to respond to the immediate case in front of us.

I think it is appropriate to say that there are going to be cases in which national security interests are genuinely at stake, and that you can’t litigate without revealing covert activities or classified information that would genuinely compromise our safety. But searching for ways to redact, to carve out certain cases, to see what can be done so that a judge in chambers can review information without it being in open court — you know, there should be some additional tools so that it’s not such a blunt instrument. And we’re interested in pursuing that. I know that Eric Holder and Greg Craig, my White House Counsel, and others are working on that as we speak.

So, as I said, interesting stuff. For analysis, I suggest lefty attack-weasel Glenn Greenwald: Obama’s pretty words on secrecy and torture last night. From the other side of the question (if not the other side of the political spectrum), I also found the following pre-press conference pieces by Clive Crook to be worth chewing over: Obama’s needless fight over torture and More on torture prosecutions.

On the conservative side, I’m not aware of anyone grappling with the reality of what’s going on to a similar degree, but I also haven’t really been looking. Does anyone have any sources to suggest? I’m not interested in Fox News, or Rush, or Dick Cheney; I feel pretty confident that I already know their take on this, and have given them all the attention they deserve. But if there are principled conservatives engaging with the issue in an honest way, I’d be interested in reading what they have to say. Thanks.

Appeals Court Rules Against Administration in Jeppesen Case

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

This is awesome news: Suit by 5 ex-captives of CIA can proceed, appeals panel rules.

Drum on Kiriakou’s Claims about Torture’s Effectiveness

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Lately I’ve been noticing a couple of people (shcb in the comments here, and my boss’s boss at work, who is the nicest guy in the world, but who suffers from an incurable delusion that Fox News really is fair and balanced) going around saying that the Bush administration’s use of torture produced lots of actionable intelligence and saved lots of American lives.

How do they know that? I mean, other than by the Bush administration itself claiming it to be so? Apparently they know it in part because of a December 2007 ABC interview with former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Kiriakou got a lot of play in the right-wing media, and his claims about how fast Abu Zubaydah broke under waterboarding and how he immediately began providing information that “disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks” are an article of faith among the defenders of torture’s efficacy.

Kiriakou’s information always seemed suspicious, in that it was weakly sourced (Kiriakou apparently wasn’t present at the events he described, and didn’t offer any documentation or corroboration), while other CIA sources (like those Ron Suskind used for his book The One Percent Doctrine) offered contradictory accounts.

Now, with the release of the torture memos, we have a way to test some of Kiriakou’s claims. And guess what? They don’t hold up.

Kevin Drum has details: Torturing Abu Zubaydah.

Kiriakou’s testimony was immensely influential at the time, but it’s pretty clear now that he was wrong: unless the CIA continued waterboarding him just for sport, Zubaydah didn’t break after a single session. Or ten sessions. Or fifty. And if Kiriakou was wrong about that, what are the odds that he was also wrong about the “dozens of attacks”? Or about the fact that waterboarding was responsible for any actionable information at all?

Ron Suskind, on the other hand, hasn’t been contradicted at all. As near as I can tell, his reporting has stood up almost perfectly in the face of subsequent evidence. If you want to know what really happened to Zubaydah, his book remains the gold standard for now.

That’s the key phrase: “If you want to know what really happened.” As near as I can tell, the reason why shcb and my boss’s boss continue to get their information from demonstrated liars is that they don’t want to know what really happened. They already know what happened. All they want now is confirmation, and some authoritative-sounding evidence they can use to undercut their opponents. If that’s all you’re looking for, the right-wing media is a perfectly adequate source.

Greg Miller on the CIA’s Failure to Evaluate Torture

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Just when I’d pretty much decided that the LA Times was useless, they run a front-page article today by Greg Miller that hits the sweet spot of my current obsession with torture justification: CIA reportedly declined to closely evaluate harsh interrogations.

Hilzoy on Broder’s Views of Her Motives

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

While we’re on the subject, I liked this item by Hilzoy: My Allegedly Vengeful Heart.

Maddow Interviews Wilkerson on Cheney’s Claims That Torture Was Effective

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

There are a number of important questions about the Bush administration’s use of torture: Was it, in fact, torture? (Clearly yes. Anyone who maintains otherwise gets flagged by me as someone whose views can be safely ignored in the future.) Was it moral? Was it legal? Was it effective? Note that these last three questions are orthogonal. It’s possible to imagine something being any combination of moral, legal, and effective.

The effectiveness question seems to be the one the Bush supporters want to focus on at the moment. I don’t blame them; I think it’s probably the one question out of the three where the pro-torture position has any chance at all.

So let’s talk about the effectiveness of torture. Here’s Rachel Maddow interviewing Lawrence Wilkerson on the question of Dick Cheney’s recent claims that his use of torture produced actionable intelligence and, on balance, saved lives:

McClatchy: Torture Used to Find Iraq – al Qaeda Link

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

McClatchy’s Jonathan S. Landay reminds us of what it was like when we had real journalists. From Report: Abusive tactics used to seek Iraq-al Qaida link:

“There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used,” the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there.”

It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly – Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003 – according to a newly released Justice Department document.

I’m all for looking forward, and not spending political capital on partisan fighting. But looking forward, I don’t want to live in a country that lets torturers who committed Spanish Inquisition-style barbarity in pursuit of political cover for their lame policy choices get off scott-free.

Tomasky on Gingrich on David Hamilton on Jesus vs. Allah

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

With a title like this, how could I not read it? How they lie: a case study. Michael Tomasky, writing in the Guardian, goes on about something Newt Gingrich said in an interview in Christianity Today. Here’s the Gingrich quote:

You have Obama nominating Judge Hamilton, who said in her ruling that saying the words Jesus Christ in a prayer is a sign of inappropriate behavior, but saying Allah would be OK. You’ll find most Republican senators voting against a judge who is confused about whether you can say Jesus Christ in a prayer, particularly one who is pro-Muslim being able to say Allah.

And yeah, as far as it goes, it appears Gingrich is playing fast and loose with the facts. Judge Hamilton is a man, David Hamilton, so Gingrich referring to him as her is either a sloppy error or a cleverly chosen lie intended to push the buttons of the readers of Christianity Today. Given that there has been extensive press coverage of Hamilton’s nomination, Obama’s first to the federal judiciary, I think the “sloppy error” theory doesn’t really hold water.

Tomasky tells a sob story of having to google his way through “four or five pages” of returned results, and links to a story at (Judicial Nominee Says Prayers to Allah Okay, But Not to Jesus), saying, “This one apparently set things going.” That article is pretty bad, it’s true; it says this, for example:

Hamilton has ideal liberal credentials. He is a former ACLU lawyer and was a fundraiser for the corrupt group known as ACORN. This organization engages in fraudulent voter registration campaigns and is deeply involved in housing and poverty issues. Obama was an attorney for ACORN when he worked as a “community organizer” in Chicago. ACORN will be gathering data for the 2010 Census.

This lawyer is so radical that the liberal ABA rated him as “not qualified” when Bill Clinton nominated him for a district court post in 1994.

A few minutes’ googling on my part tells me that that characterization is pretty out there. There’s no mention of either the ACLU or ACORN in any of the three online bios of Hamilton that I’ve read. Hamilton is widely respected, has the support of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), and is generally being talked about has having been chosen by Obama as his first nominee precisely because he’s a respected centrist.

Tomasky doesn’t really get into that. What he does get into is the question of whether or not Hamilton explicitly said mentions of Allah were okay.

So here’s where the lie comes in. Hamilton did indeed rule that Jesus Christ must not be mentioned in legislative prayers. But what did he say about Allah? It practically goes without saying that the decision doesn’t so much as mention Allah. So this is what his wing-nut critics are doing: They’re using the fact that he proscribes mentions of Jesus but does not specifically proscribe mentions of Allah to assert that he thinks mentions of Allah would be perfectly, as it were, kosher.

Um, no, actuallly. It’s kind of funny, what with all the agonies he suffered paging through Google results, that Tomasky didn’t come across this Ed Whelan item from NRO (Seventh Circuit Nominee David Hamilton: “Allah” Yes, “Jesus” No). It’s dated March 26, the same day as the blog entry that Tomasky did link to. Whelan quotes from a post-judgment ruling in which Hamilton said that mentions of “Allah” would be okay, given the larger context that the Indiana House of Representatives does not seem to be engaged in advancing Islam at the expense of other religions in the same way that the found-to-be-unconstitutional behavior was advancing Christianity.

What do I take away from this? That short of doing some in-depth research myself (which is far easier today than it has ever been before, and probably isn’t worth whining about), I really can’t trust partisans of either the right or the left not to be dicks who mislead me intentionally in order to further their respective agendas.

More than ever, quality of sources matters. Just because it’s easy to find information that supports your pre-existing bias doesn’t mean it’s right to restrict yourself to such information. For one thing, it makes it really easy for unscrupulous people to manipulate your perceptions.

Do Re Mi in the Central Station of Antwerp

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Like an Improv Everywhere stunt, but with better production values:

This Has Been Another Episode

Friday, April 17th, 2009

of What Glenn Said.

Little steps, perhaps baby steps, but at least steps in the right direction.

In Which CW 11, YouTube, and Improv Everywhere Demonstrate What’s Wrong with Intellectual Property Law

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

From the droll subversives at Improv Everywhere: CW 11 Files Copyright Claim. Basically, they faked a scene-gone-bad on April 1, uploading a video to YouTube that showed them crashing a funeral. Which would have been in really poor taste, obviously, but it’s the sort of poor taste the group has shown in the past, so it was at least somewhat credible on the face of it. But it was April 1, and as everyone knows, everything on the Web should be assumed to be false on that day until proven otherwise. (Personally, I just ignore the Web completely on April 1, except to grumble about the unfunnyness of perpetrating pranks that require essentially zero effort. But I digress.)

I wouldn’t have bothered posting about this, except for what happened next: a local TV news crew at CW 11 was apparently taken in by the prank, and aired the group’s YouTube video while the bubblehead talked over it about how the group had perpetrated a hoax-gone-bad. So then Agent Todd posted the video of the “news” segment on YouTube. And then Tribune, the owner of the newscast, sent a copyright violation notice to YouTube and had the video pulled. Writes Agent Todd:

So it’s OK for them to air content that we shot and own, but it’s not OK for me to upload their footage of the content they took from me? It’s “fair use” for the news to take a video off of YouTube and broadcast it, but it’s not “fair use” for a citizen to expose their poor reporting on his own content?

Of course, it has occurred to me that the whole story about the CW 11 news team covering the video could itself be a prank. True, the April 1 window has closed, but that never stopped Improv Everywhere before. And shortly after the above thought occurred to me, it occurred to me that actually, I don’t really care. And shortly after that, I stopped writing this item.

Drum on the Timing of Coleman’s Appeal

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I’ve had a soft spot for Norm Coleman since 1998, when I accidentally crashed his election night party. I just happened to be in St. Paul with a coworker, and we were wandering down the street looking for a bar to hang out in, when we saw something better: a glitzy hotel ballroom packed with expectant campaign workers and volunteers and… free beer! So we stayed.

It was kind of fun trying to figure out whose party we’d crashed, because at first it wasn’t obvious. Eventually we figured out that it was Republican beer we were drinking, and not long after that Coleman himself arrived, and passed three feet from me as he moved through the crowd, surrounded by TV lights, on his way to the podium to thank the saddened throng and concede the governorship to Jesse Ventura.

Anyway, since then I’ve always paid a little more attention to Norm Coleman; I figure it’s the least I can do. So I liked this item from Kevin Drum, which points out the opportunity we have to conduct a scientific experiment on the question of which sort of organism Norm Coleman is: patriot seeking to serve the nation, or hack seeking to serve the party at the nation’s expense: Coleman’s appeal.

So here’s something to watch for: how long will it take Coleman to file his appeal? He’s known this decision was coming for a long time. His legal team almost certainly knew the grounds on which he was going to lose. They’ve had plenty of time to prepare their argument. They could probably file it tomorrow if they wanted to.

But do they want to? If they’re genuinely trying to win a Senate seat, they’ll file quickly. After all, the faster they file, the faster Coleman can win the case and return in triumph to Washington. But if they don’t think they can win — if they’re merely trying to stretch out a losing argument as long as possible in order to deny Franken his seat — then they’ll wait the ten full days. Which do you think it will be?

I know which way I’m betting.

Nate Silver on Obama’s Bipartisanship

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Nate Silver at talks about the flip side of my whining about Obama’s position on the state secrets privilege and torture: What Would a “Bipartisan” Obama Look Like? (Hint: A Lot Like the One We’re Seeing). From his conclusion:

What I don’t think Obama can be accused of, however, is breaking any promises. In fact, he basically telegraphed his strategy with the whole Rick Warren thing: make a show of appealing to conservatives here and there, and perhaps avoid issues that are symbolically important to the left but which drain one’s political capital, while all the while continuing to push forward the core elements of a conventionally Democratic (but hardly radical) agenda. Very little about the Administration’s strategy has been surprising.

On some level, I do wonder about that. By drawing a line in the sand with respect to state-sponsored torture, and demanding, in effect, that Obama sacrifice his effectiveness on other issues in order to take a largely symbolic stand against something abhorrent that he’s not actually engaging himself, am I being unrealistic? In the final analysis, will I be forced to acknowledge that Obama’s approach was right, and my demands, while ideologically more pure, were wrong?

I don’t actually know. But in the meantime, I’m clinging to my hatred of torture, and my whining about Obama’s protection of those in the Bush administration who perpetrated it. It’s comforting to feel some actual certainty about something, even when, as now, I’m not actually completely certain.

Obama Continues Pushing State Secrets

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Just in case I was thinking of backsliding on the “Obama is an evil bastard for protecting torturers while continuing the Bush policy of asserting limitless executive power via the state secrets privilege,” well, no such luck.

From Zachary Roth, writing at TPM Muckraker: Expert Consensus: Obama Mimics Bush On State Secrets. And from Dan Froomkin: Obama’s State Secrets Overreach.

This really is a big deal, at least to me. As far as the overweening unitary executive stuff goes, I’m with Rush: I hope Obama fails, and will do whatever is in my power to make him do so. Here’s the response I sent today when Obama for America emailed to ask me to send more money:

Subject: Re: Under attack
Date: April 9, 2009 12:40:06 PM PDT

> Will you make a donation of $25 or more before the Monday deadline?

No. I’m profoundly disappointed by the Obama administration’s use of the state secrets privilege to protect torturers in the Jeppesen case. I’m still happy he won the election, but I’m ashamed of his actions in this area, and I certainly will not be contributing any more money to his political operation.

Send me another email when his actions warrant my support. Until then, the answer is no. Shame on him — and shame on you, to the extent you would work for someone who lets a self-serving political calculation stand between him and doing what is right about torture.


Rush Loses the Torture Argument on His Own Show

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009


Please Enjoy the Illusion of Eyes

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

It’s been a while since I posted an optical illusion, so here you go:

Be sure to follow the cat’s instructions to pause the playback at the appropriate point. Nifty!

Texas Officially Makes The Universe Ageless

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

I’m reaching for the low hanging fruit here, mostly because we haven’t had a new headline here in a while, so here we go.

Texas Officially Makes The Universe Ageless

I don’t think anyone here is going to get too excited about this, but maybe we can twist it to talk about the US auto industry or something in a few replies.