Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Sunday, August 30, 2009

  Shining light on CIA torturers cum whiners

This report by Walter Pincus and Joby Warrick is already generating criticism as yet another installment in the Washington Post's repulsive effort to build public support for Dick Cheney's defense of abusive interrogations (regarding which see this satirical commentary on yesterday's installment). I think something more subtle is going on in today's piece. Pincus and Warrick are airing Cheney's argument that the investigation of CIA abuses damage morale at the Agency, only to cut it down by showing repeatedly that any complaints at the CIA are limited to those few officials who took part in the abuse and now stand to be held accountable for it.

Not only does the current article not align itself with Cheney's position, it provides ammunition against Cheney's argument that we should be concerned about the mental anguish of torturers who now have to suffer through an investigation of their conduct. In fact, some of that ammunition is new and will prove useful in rebutting Cheney's talking points.

For example, the article highlights the outrage that was felt by many CIA officials at the reports that were trickling back about the abuse of prisoners. Here it quotes CIA Inspector General John Helgerson saying that he was cheered on by the rank and file officer when he began his investigation into CIA wrongdoing:

Helgerson now says he received a steady flow of information, questions and encouragement during his inquiry. "Frankly, I could not walk through the cafeteria without people walking up to me, not to complain but to say, 'More power to you.' "

Former senior officials say that they were concerned with what was an unprecedented program and that as reports came in from secret sites alleging improper activities, they took action, including sending reports to Helgerson.

The article's central point is made right at the outset, in the last clause of the report's first sentence – which hangs there as a rather pointed rebuke of the torturers' self-serving whining:

Morale has sagged at the CIA following the release of additional portions of an inspector general's review of the agency's interrogation program and the announcement that the Justice Department would investigate possible abuses by interrogators, according to former intelligence officials, especially those associated with the program.

From there Pincus and Warrick go on to quote one of the lead advocates for abusive CIA programs, Alvin Krongard (who retired and went to work for Blackwater), to the effect that the release of Helgerson's report and hence the prospect of investigations means that morale at the CIA has dropped "down to minus 50". That's an assertion that the rest of the article proceeds to show is grossly inaccurate, so Krongard is exposed as an alarmist at best. In any case, Krongard's complaint is directly juxtaposed to a comment by Helgerson:

At the same time, former inspector general John L. Helgerson, whose review of the program was largely declassified Monday, said that the release, though painful, would ensure that the agency confronts difficult issues head on, instead of ignoring or trying to bury them.

As every complaint is aired, the reporters undercut it by showing that it isn't necessarily representative of the views held throughout the Agency. Indeed, they also point out that nobody can reasonably claim to know what all CIA officers think (a rhetorical trick that is essential to the arguments advanced by the Cheney/Krongard faction that claims to speak for the poor put-upon CIA officer):

It is impossible to extrapolate from the small sample contacted by Washington Post reporters about the effect the varied inquiries are having on the thousands of agency employees, more than one-third of whom are spread around the world. But among the dozens of officials who were part of the program and either remain active or have retired, feelings run high about how the White House and the Justice Department have handled the issue.

It's primarily those who are implicated in torture who are raising a fuss about investigations and the release of information about their activities.

The article also points out that CIA officers were wary of the abusive interrogation program from the start and had immediately anticipated that there would be legal problems in the future when the program was exposed...despite Bush administration lawyers' attempts to reassure the CIA that it had been indemnified and was free to torture away.

Read in this light, the Pincus/Warrick column does a public service by dismantling one of Cheney's most emotive talking points.

crossposted at

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

  How slaves became an asset

The Washington newspaper today provides a forum for anonymous senior officials in the former Confederate government to make the case that slavery served a crucial service to the country during the crisis that began in 1861. They clearly are seeking to bolster the defense of harsh slave-holding techniques offered repeatedly by President Jefferson Davis and especially Vice President Alexander Stephens since they left office.

The anonymous Confederate officials stress something that has been little reported in the press: Large numbers of slaves and ex-slaves supplied absolutely critical intelligence to the Union side during the war. One of the most important of these slaves, William Jackson, belonged to Jefferson Davis himself. Such formerly truculent, unreliable, and frankly quite scary foreign workers were transformed into productive and effective spies, a major asset to the Union in its war with the Confederacy. None of that would ever have happened, the former CSA officials point out, without the ground having first been prepared by the much-criticized coercive conditions of slavery.

"What do you think changed the servants' minds?" one former senior Confederate official said this week after being asked about the effect of involuntary servitude. "Of course it began with that."

The Washington paper describes how William Jackson became so cooperative that he would give long lectures to Union intelligence officers on a wide variety of subjects:

Jackson "seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of the Confederate cabinet and the CSA's plans, ideology and operatives," said one of two sources who described the sessions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because much information about army interrogations remains classified. "He'd even use a chalkboard at times."

These scenes provide previously unpublicized details about the transformation of the man known to Union officials as WJ from an avowed and truculent enemy of the United States into what the Union called its "preeminent source" on the CSA. This reversal occurred after Jackson was subjected by his master to years of beatings and prolonged shackling, among other harsh techniques of involuntary servitude.


One former U.S. official with detailed knowledge of how the sessions were carried out said Jackson, like several other servants, seemed to have decided that it was okay to start cooperating after he had endured a certain amount of abuse during his servitude.

The Washigton paper adds a small caveat before proceeding to advance further the case for slavery (though it prefers to use the term 'involuntary servitude').

The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting servants to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of involuntary servitude, the evidence is clear: The servants cooperated with the Union armies, and to an extraordinary extent, only when their spirits were broken during the painful months after their capture and sale in America. These methods often included the very things that have provoked the greatest outcry in the public – shackling for long periods in stress positions, prolonged isolation, extremes of cold and heat, undernourishment, and transport over the Atlantic in degrading conditions.

The Washington paper also notes that southern slaves flocked to the Union standard and fought in the Union army, sometimes quite courageously. This too is attributable to the harsh conditioning that the slaves underwent in the years before they became valuable assets to the United States.

The Washington paper also quotes an abolitionist to the effect that slavery is illegal now as well as economically unproductive. But it makes nothing further of that.

crossposted at

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Friday, August 28, 2009

  Cheney is afraid of the DoJ torture investigation

You might reasonably have surmised that Dick Cheney fears where an investigation into the torture and mistreatment of terrorist suspects could eventually lead. Until now Cheney has restricted himself to lying about the effectiveness of the CIA and DoD interrogation programs, claiming to know decisive information that remains classified, and denouncing those who seek to investigate the government officials who abused prisoners under the color of law. But now we have some direct evidence of how rattled Cheney has become by Attorney General Holder's decision to initiate what is after all an extremely limited investigation. Its scope currently is limited to the CIA interrogations that employed even more abuse than the torture memos had actually authorized.

In an interview that will be aired on Sunday, Cheney made a couple of really remarkable statements according to McClatchy's Warren Strobel. First, Cheney endorsed the behavior of CIA officers who blatantly ignored the restrictions placed upon interrogators by government lawyers. This only a few days after the release of a 2004 CIA Inspector General report that revealed lurid details of prisoner abuse! Cheney had to know that he would be derided and denounced for coming out in favor of such things as mock executions, promises to rape and murder the family members of suspects, and threats with a gun and electric drill.

And secondly, Cheney rather transparently tried to build distance for himself with regard to the use of waterboarding, for which he has been the most vocal public advocate since at least 2006 (his original endorsement of waterboarding was a story broken here at unbossed). Cheney wants us to believe that though he was aware of the existence of the practice in general, he wasn't informed about any particular applications of waterboarding to specific prisoners. This even though reams of evidence have accumulated that interrogators who employed waterboarding were in very regular contact with CIA headquarters, and that the White House was deeply interested in the progress of those particular interrogations to the point of asking for multiple updates for days on end!

Here is how Strobel describes the Cheney interview:

Cheney, who strongly opposes the Obama administration's new probe into alleged detainee abuse, was asked in the Fox News interview whether he was "OK" with interrogations that went beyond Justice's specific legal authorization.

"I am," the former vice president replied.

"My sort of overwhelming view is that the enhanced interrogation techniques were absolutely essential in saving thousands of American lives and preventing further attacks," he said. "It was good policy. It was properly carried out. It worked very, very well."


Cheney said in the interview with Fox's Chris Wallace, according to a transcript, that he was aware of the waterboarding, "not specifically in any one particular case, but as a general policy that we had approved."

What Cheney fears is pretty obvious. First, he believes that the investigation into a few CIA officers who scandalously flouted the torture memos' rules for coercive interrogations could provide the sharp edge that might pry open the whole sordid program of systematized abuse and expose it to judicial and public scrutiny. It was a program that Cheney apparently sponsored and helped to design.

Secondly, Cheney fears that he could then become a target of investigation. He is especially vulnerable to prosecution because of the close interest he took in the most abusive interrogations. One might be able to persuade a slightly gullible grand jury that the "conditioning" or "exploitation" of prisoners (hypothermia, for example) does not constitute torture. But waterboarding universally has been considered torture since at least the times of the Great Inquisition. Cheney seems to think now that he needs to build a case that he was no more aware of actual instances of waterboarding than anybody else who was briefed on the CIA program.

Cheney may also be aware that his likeness has now been put on one of the "Torture Team" playing cards that the Center for Constitutional Rights has created ("Collect and prosecute them all"). He's in the big leagues now.

crossposted at

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

  Purpose redacted

Among the documents that the ACLU forced the government to release is this CIA guide to its use of abusive rendition and interrogation techniques from late 2004 (PDF). It acknowledges that the goal of these processes is systematically to condition the prisoners into a state of "learned helplessness and dependence". And this in a document faxed to the Justice Department. By summarizing these abusive techniques in clinical fashion, the CIA has fashioned a deeply horrifying record of what it became under George W. Bush, one that in the past we might have associated with the Stasi's files.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this repulsive document is one of the many redactions. In the second (?) paragraph, the CIA describes the purposes of its interrogations of terrorist suspects at "Black Sites" (its term). At least one of those purposes is redacted. In other words, the purpose remains classified! This is one with the evolving series of justifications that the CIA has offered over the years for the interrogation program. It cannot decide quite what it wants the rest of us to believe was the ultimate rationale for treating prisoners in ways that plainly are unAmerican.

Here is what remains unredacted of the CIA's rationale for the abusive interrogation program:

The purpose of interrogation is to persuade High-Value Detainees (HVD) to provide threat information and terrorist intelligence in a timely manner, to allow the US Government to identify and disrupt terrorist plots [... redacted line]
[...] and to collect critical intelligence on al-Qa'ida [... 4 lines redacted]

[...] In support of information previously sent to the Department of Justice, this paper provides additional background on how interrogation techniques are used ...

Thus at least one of the stated purposes has been redacted here. That is a silent demonstration of what many have suspected all along, that under George Bush and Dick Cheney abusive interrogations were a policy in search of a rationale. Were they about obtaining intelligence from captives while it was still most current? Disrupting as many plots around the world as possible? Learning about Al Qaeda? Or some of the other reasons that have been proffered in the past? Identifying and arresting further terrorists? Building cases for prosecuting terrorist suspects? Fear of an imminent attack upon the US? Or just showing that the US was determined to 'take the gloves off', in Cheney's phrase? Even at this late date, the CIA can't bring itself to say.

As the ACLU's Alexander Abdo said to Greg Sargent, "This is the most detailed description provided by the CIA of its rendition program to date... It confirms accounts provided by victims of rendition.”

Those prisoner accounts of their experiences during extraordinary rendition flights and flights to Guantanamo prison, as I've remarked here repeatedly, go back to the beginning of 2002. Hence the earliest accounts predate by several months the attempts by the Bush administration lawyers to generate torture memos to justify retrospectively all manner of mistreatment of terrorist suspects, from "conditioning" to "coercion", that were already in common use around the globe. As the prisoner accounts show, the mistreatment had been systematized from the outset – very much in the manner described in this CIA memo (which has a section describing methods to be used in the capture and transfer of prisoners on rendition flights).

This fact leaves a great many Bush administration officials, including the authors of those egregious memos, exposed to prosecution for ordering or abetting torture and abuse of prisoners. They had relied upon legal memos to function as 'get out of jail free' cards, under the pretense that everybody from the White House down to the actual interrogator were just following the advice of the administration's lawyers. But much evidence has accumulated that that advice was cooked, with administration officials soliciting exactly the opinions they wanted and playing footsie with lawyers until the desired advice was forthcoming.

The Bush Administration claimed that Justice gave legal advice to the CIA and that the CIA followed and applied it. But the IG report reveals a strikingly different relationship. As the OLC memos were written, there was a sort of waltz between CIA and Justice lawyers in which different hypotheticals were offered up in solicitation of opinions—something on the order of “If we told you we did x, what would you say about it?” This suggests the OLC memos were effectively negotiated. It also appears that CIA requested a number of after-the-fact variations to protect practices that clearly exceeded guidance. Why does this matter? It undermines the ability of CIA employees and contractors to “rely in good faith” on the OLC memos, because it shows that OLC wasn’t really giving legal advice. Instead it was issuing “get out of jail free” cards. A good example comes with waterboarding: “With respect to two detainees at those sites, the use and frequency of one EIT, the waterboard, went beyond the projected use of the technique as originally described to DoJ. The Agency, on 29 July 2003, secured oral DoJ concurrence that certain deviations are not significant for the purposes of DoJ’s legal opinions.”

Now it is even clearer that the advice was several months too late to justify practices that had already been worked out, systematized, and put into practice. That reinforces the interpretation that the legal opinions were cooked, and thus that those implicated in the prisoner abuse cannot now claim that they were relying upon legal advice that they assumed in good faith to be reliable.

In fact, the 2004 CIA Inspector General's report on terrorist interrogations shows conclusively that many within the CIA did not believe that the official policies were legal. It reports that CIA officers feared and indeed assumed that they would be subject to investigation and prosecution for engaging in torture and abuse. Some CIA officials took a strong stance against the program on the grounds of its illegality.

The Inspector General’s review was launched by complaints coming from valued senior employees who felt that the Bush Program (as John Yoo has dubbed it) was wrong. One of them actually expresses his worry that those involved will be hauled before the World Court at some point because of [and that’s redacted!] This makes clear that good employees of the agency opposed the Bush Program, were vocal in their opposition, and focused concern on the program’s illegality. The OLC memos were intended to silence these complaints, but they only accentuated the agency’s morale problems by enmeshing it in obviously illegal and immoral conduct. By contrast, the number of CIA personnel involved in pushing it through and supporting it is tiny—probably not many more than two dozen—though their voices are heard very loudly.

crossposted at

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

  Another Bush administration legal fiction

The ACLU finally has managed to force the Obama administration to release a less severely redacted version of the May 2004 report on the CIA's abusive treatment of terrorist suspects (PDF). The report was done by the CIA's Inspector General, John Helgerson, and (to judge by what remains unredacted) seems to be fairly critical of those abuses and of their legal underpinnings. There's plenty to say about the contents of this report – for example, the bizarre tortures it catalogues (summarized here).

One thing stood out in the early pages of the document: Bush administration lawyers wrote an undated memo sometime before June 16, 2003 which among other things advanced a flagrantly false interpretation of the UN Convention against Torture.

That memo, "Legal Principles Applicable to CIA Detention and Interrogation of Captured Al Qa'ida Personnel", does not appear to be publicly available yet. It was drafted by lawyers at the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (almost certainly John Yoo) and then finalized by the CIA Office of General Counsel. Here is what the Helgerson report states the memo said about the UN Convention:

The analysis adds that "the [Torture] Convention permits the use of [cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment] in exigent circumstances, such as a national emergency or war."

The UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment says no such thing. The OLC/OGC lawyers evidently were insinuating that the Convention drew a very major distinction between the prohibitions against torture on the one hand, and against cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment on the other. Article 2 of the Convention states explicitly that there are no circumstances that may be used to justify torture:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

It is true that the Convention does not repeat the Article 2 statement when it later discusses "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment". However that discussion (in Article 16) is extremely brief and to the point: that governments should prevent 'cruel etc. treatment' as they do torture and should give its victims the same legal recourse as victims of torture. There is no implication whatsoever in the Convention that "exigent circumstances" permit the use of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

Indeed, the US wrote the following to the UN Committee against Torture ten years ago regarding its implementation of the Convention (Report of the United States to the UN Committee against Torture, October 15, 1999, UN Doc. CAT/C/28/Add.5, February 9, 2000, para. 6):

No exceptional circumstances may be invoked as a justification of torture. US law contains no provision permitting otherwise prohibited acts of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment to be employed on grounds of exigent circumstances (for example, during a "state of public emergency") or on orders from a superior officer or public authority, and the protective mechanisms of an independent judiciary are not subject to suspension.

So, when do the torture memos written by John Yoo and friends rise beyond the level of bad lawyering and into the much shadier territory of deliberate falsification for the purpose of facilitating, enabling, or encouraging torture? Because at that point I'd think even the timid Eric Holder's Justice Department would be forced to prosecute them.

crossposted at

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Monday, August 24, 2009

  Does anybody at the Washington Post read?

Anne Kornblut, one of the best WaPo reporters, makes a gross factual error her report on the circumstances under which terrorism suspects will be interrogated in the Obama administration. There's to be a new unit of specially trained interrogators. The unit's purpose allegedly will not be to obtain information to put the prisoners on trial, but "to glean intelligence, especially about potential terrorist attacks". That was also the thrust of George W. Bush's infamous interrogation programs. The new unit will be housed in the FBI but report directly to the National Security Council. It will operate under the rules set out in the newly (2006) revised Army Field Manual.

Kornblut parrots the line propagated initially by the Bush administration, and repeated by Democrats: that the AFM strictly adheres to the Geneva Conventions and prohibits all forms of torture, abuse, and degradation of prisoners. Quite the contrary is true. The new Army Field Manual rules (while a vast improvement over the outrageous practices used by the CIA and DoD and authorization from the Bush administration) do in fact specify ways that prisoners may be abused. The abuse is euphemistically termed 'separation' and codified in Appendix M of the Manual.

Here is Kornblut's assessment of the new interrogation policy:

Using the Army Field Manual means certain techniques in the gray zone between torture and legal questioning -- such as playing loud music or depriving prisoners of sleep -- will not be allowed. Which tactics are acceptable was an issue "looked at thoroughly," one senior official said. Obama had already banned certain severe measures that the Bush administration had permitted, such as waterboarding.

The phrase "gray zone" ought to be an immediate tip off that the author is spinning the truth. There is no legitimate doubt that the use of deafening noise and sleep deprivation to 'soften up' prisoners is torture and illegal in the US. It was the Bush administration that sought to convince Americans that long prohibited practices somehow fell into a middle ground between the legal and the illegal. They did succeed in convincing most major news outlets to refrain from calling torture 'torture', which is why reporters like Kornblut continue in this absurd pretense.

In any case, can Kornblut or her editors be bothered to read documents? The Army Field Manual (PDF) explicitly permits interrogators to use isolation and sleep deprivation on prisoners. References are to sections of Appendix M of the Manual. Prisoners may be confined in total isolation for up to 30 days, and even longer if approval is sought up the chain of command (M-29). Furthermore, the Manual states (on the very last page of its last appendix) that prisoners need not be permitted more than 4 hours of sleep per day (M-30). Anybody who goes for weeks on only four hours of sleep will quickly become subject to all the psychological disturbances that sleep deprivation is notorious for.

Parenthetically, I note a passage worthy of Franz Kafka in Appendix M of the Manual. It asserts blandly (M-4) that 'separation' "is consistent with the minimum humane standards of treatment required by US law, the law of war, and does not constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment as defined in the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and addressed in GPW Common Article III" (emphasis mine). The US is of course bound by more than the Detainee Treatment Act, but the Field Manual ignores that fact (making no mention, for example, of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment). Instead, the Appendix consistently pretends that its procedures are acceptable because they are not banned by the 2005 legislation.

Valtin has a lengthy discussion of how the Army Field Manual codifies some of the Bush administration's torture practices.

Meanwhile, no word yet about whether the new government's interrogation unit will continue (as the CIA did under Bush) to employ Blackwater to fly terrorist suspects from their confinement in Guantanamo prison to secret prisons around the world, including such hell holes as Uzbekistan. The purpose of these 'extraordinary renditions' was to subject the prisoners to "special treatment", according to an internal Blackwater memo obtained by Der Spiegel. As if the torture employed at Gitmo were not special enough.

Incidentally, the memo also reveals that the CIA's contract with Blackwater to establish roving assassination squads was overseen by none other than Alvin B. Krongard, the former Executive Director of the CIA (and upon his retirement, a director of Blackwater). He is the brother of Bush's corrupt and partisan Inspector General for the State Department, Howard Krongard, whose hacktacular career we described here two years ago.

crossposted from

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

  Plead guilty, it's easier, quicker, and cheaper for everyone

In 2004 the CIA Inspector General produced a damning report on the Agency's abusive interrogations of terrorist suspects under inhumane conditions of confinement abroad. Due of a FOIA request, that report will be made public on Monday. In advance of its release, Newsweek and the Washington Post report that CIA interrogators threatened at least one prisoner with a gun and with an electric drill. They also staged several mock executions to terrorize terrorist suspects. Under the UN Convention against torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment as well as under federal law, it is a crime to threaten a prisoner with injury or death.

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The CIA also reportedly charged prisoners a small fee to keep visits from friends and relatives down to a minimum.

Guard: Don't fight it, son... confess quickly... Before they get into the expensive procedures. If you hold out too long you could jeopardise your credit rating.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

  He can be rolled

A watershed occurred today in the history of the Obama administration. For the first time, a major voice in the corporate media has stated what many other political observers must have been thinking for months now: that the President has shown that he can be rolled. Whether or not one agrees with that assessment, it has now become a definite part of the political landscape in Washington by virtue of having been enunciated in the press. The debate is on, whether Obama "can be rolled".

Sooner or later the President will have to address the problem of that perception, whether he wants to or not. It will seep into every major political struggle for the foreseeable future. If Obama cannot demonstrate the opposite - that he's willing and able to push back against his political opponents - then it will become a dominant perception and a nearly intractable political force for the remainder of his presidency.

Here is Paul Krugman in the NY Times:

It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can’t be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled.

Krugman's other point, that once in office President Obama has refused to dance with them that brung him, is well taken but also widely acknowledged by now. What Krugman has introduced into the mainstream of national political debate is the perception that Obama has been demonstrating that he seeks to avoid confronting his political opponents and doesn't have the will to make them pay a price for toying with him.

So, this is the point where we will see whether Obama can finally shake himself free of the delusions that post-partisanship is possible or even desirable in today's Washington; that by virtue of good will he can he turn congressional Republicans from opponents into allies; that it's possible to enact legislation to meet the country's pressing needs with the help of a party that has long opposed precisely those reforms that are most critical now.

We'll also discover whether the President has figured out by now that Americans really are not very interested in political process but rather in seeing results. Even without any bipartisanship whatever, new legislation that addresses the current crises or that makes a positive difference for people will be welcomed by voters. On the other hand, if getting Republican votes makes a bill ineffective, nobody will think any better of the President because the lousy measure was achieved through bipartisanship. Instead, Americans will just think less of Obama and of Democrats if they cannot advance their own agenda while holding the White House, the Senate, and the House.

crossposted at

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Monday, August 10, 2009

  Can right-wingers read? Pt. 3

Debra Saunders complains that leftists have forgotten that dissent is patriotic now that a Democrat occupies the White House. A shame that Republicans on the whole didn't seem to think so during the last eight years.

But what's her evidence of vast left-wing hypocrisy? A gross – and apparently deliberate - misreading of a blog post at the White House website. Saunders goes so far as to rewrite the post to transform it into the very thing she wants to decry. Her best defense, in the circumstances, would be that she cannot actually read.

Here's her account of what she insinuates is a WH plan to track dissent against the President's healthcare policy:

Imagine it's four years ago and an aide to President George W. Bush posted a blog on the Web site that bemoaned Internet criticism of the Iraq war, then continued: "These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain e-mails or through casual conversations.

Since we can't keep track of all of them here at the White House, we're asking for your help. If you get an e-mail or see something on the Web about anti-war protests that seem fishy, send it to"

Substitute the words "health insurance reform" for "anti-war protests," and you get the exact wording of a blog posted by Macon Phillips, the White House director of new media, on Tuesday.

But the WH blog post doesn't concern dissent or opinions. Phillips is quite clear that WH wants to learn what kinds of false information about health care reform are being circulated beneath public scrutiny, so that it has a chance to rebut them publicly. Pretty simple and reasonable request, I'd say, asking people to tell them what dumb lies they've been hearing.

Saunders can't be bothered to address what Phillips actually writes. So instead she transforms his "disinformation about health insurance reform" into "criticism of the Iraq war", and "health insurance reform" into "anti-war protests". In other words, she equates questions of fact with political opinions in order to insinuate that the right to express dissenting political opinions is under threat.

It appears to be calculated deception by Saunders. A more charitable explanation of course would be that she's simply illiterate.

What follows is the full text of the WH blog post in question (minus a video link):

Opponents of health insurance reform may find the truth a little inconvenient, but as our second president famously said, "facts are stubborn things."

Scary chain emails and videos are starting to percolate on the internet, breathlessly claiming, for example, to "uncover" the truth about the President’s health insurance reform positions.

In this video, Linda Douglass, the communications director for the White House's Health Reform Office, addresses one example that makes it look like the President intends to "eliminate" private coverage, when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

[Video clip]

For the record, the President has consistently said that if you like your insurance plan, your doctor, or both, you will be able to keep them. He has even proposed eight consumer protections relating specifically to the health insurance industry.

There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to

Here are the complete videos that Linda refers to. First from the AARP:

[Video clip]

And then from the President's news conference:

[Video clip]

crossposted at

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

  Exiled by health insurance

I'd guess that many readers have heard of Americans who are tied to poorly paying or unsatisfactory jobs because they or a family member have health problems and simply cannot give up their employer's health insurance. With a pre-existing condition, they become immobilized almost as if they were indentured. Well, there are other ways that the arcane and illiberal health insurance industry in the US oppresses Americans as if it were a law unto itself. One phenomenon, little discussed, is the way that some of our fellow citizens are forced to live in exile abroad due to the exigencies of the for-profit American health insurance industry.

I've lived in several countries that, unlike the US, have rational and humane health care systems - especially in the UK with its National Health Service. The British NHS is one of the favorite whipping boys of American opponents of health care reform. I found that it worked well; it provided good basic care, quickly and inexpensively. I'd trade the mess of a health care "system" we now have in the US for an NHS in a heartbeat. I'd happily settle for a single-payer system such as Medicare for all.

However I won't support any of the health care reform bills currently being excreted by Congressional committees. Each of them bolsters the failed private insurance industry by mandating that we buy insurance, while tacking on a weak and highly exclusionary (i.e. small) public option in the pretense that it might somehow bring under control an already long out-of-control industry.

This history of the public option by Kip Sullivan explains in detail why the heavily watered-down public option proposals embodied in the various bills coming out of Congress are doomed to fail. It is essential reading.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

  How unrepresentative is Baucus' healthcare group?

Healthcare reform has been stalled in Congress all summer as Sen. Max Baucus (Montana) slowly hashes out a "compromise" bill in private with a small group of colleagues, originally seven in number. The majority were Republicans, though they're vastly outnumbered in the Senate. Now that Orin Hatch has dropped out of the group, Democrats have parity in the remaining gang of six.

Many bloggers – though few corporate journalists - have pointed out that Baucus' group is grossly unrepresentative of America. All six senators come from sparsely populated states, five of which lie between the Rockies and the Mississippi. Between them, there's not a single large city. They have less than 4% of the country's population.

Well, here's another way to measure the unrepresentativeness of Baucus' group, via this new survey from Gallup of political affiliations across America. Gallup finds that Democrats have an edge of 5% or more in party identification over Republicans in all but 13 states. But four of the senators in Baucus' original group of seven come from those 13 Republican bastions.

Perhaps more significant still is the almost total absence of Democratic senators from solidly Democratic states. These are the members of the Senate who are best positioned, politically, to make the case for reforms that Democratic voters want.

But in Baucus' group there's only a single Democratic senator from any of the 37 states where Democrats have a significant advantage in voters' party identification (Jeff Bingaman from NM). To take just the 29 states that Gallup rates as "solidly Democratic" (with an edge of 10% or more in party ID), together they have 48 senators who are Democrats (or caucus with Democrats). Those 48 senators are represented by only a single voice at Baucus' private sessions.

Little wonder then that Baucus immediately ruled out considering a variety of single-payer programs that many Democratic voters support, like Medicare for all Americans. Little wonder too that Baucus has cut out of his private negotiations both his fellow Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee and the entire Democratic caucus to an astounding degree:

"At some point, [Baucus is] going to have to worry about getting Democratic votes,” said one Democratic Senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If they think that we’ll take whatever it is that comes out because we want to get something passed, they’re wrong."


However, the level of consultation with Democrats stands in contrast with how Republican negotiators are briefing their Members. Senators said Enzi, who is the ranking member on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, briefs leaders every day on the talks. And all three of the GOP negotiators have agreed to brief the entire GOP Conference before they sign on to any deal with Baucus. But Democrats said Baucus is unlikely to run any deal by his caucus before he shakes hands on an agreement with Republicans.

Baucus must figure that when you're talking to barely any Democrats from the most Democratic states, why bother talking to fellow Democrats at all?

crossposted at

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

  CIA Director: Mistakes were made

The Sunday Washington Post publishes an extraordinarily disingenuous op-ed (I know!) in which Leon Panetta, taking his cue from a foreign spook, argues that Congress should not hold anyone in the CIA accountable for past wrongdoing because the country needs to be "totally focused" on the present.

Last month, at a meeting overseas of intelligence service chiefs, one of my counterparts from a major Western ally pulled me aside. Why, he asked, is Washington so consumed with what the CIA did in the past, when the most pressing national security concerns are in the present? It was a very good question.

Panetta evidently did not point out to this foreigner that the US is a nation of laws, or that other significant parts of the federal government (such as the Justice Department and FBI, SEC, FEC, Treasury Department, the EPA, and Interior Department) regularly manage to investigate wrongdoing in the past (where wrongdoing traditionally is to be found) while performing other duties as well. It would be interesting to know whether the IRS is finding that tax cheats have adopted the Obama administration's line, "No investigating the past!"

Panetta lards his preposterous argument with several bizarre assertions. For example:

The CIA no longer operates black sites and no longer employs "enhanced" interrogation techniques.

Tell that to the hundreds of prisoners who are still held and abused in total isolation at Bagram.

The most galling passage, however, is this one:

The time has come for both Democrats and Republicans to take a deep breath and recognize the reality of what happened after Sept. 11, 2001. The question is not the sincerity or the patriotism of those who were dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11. The country was frightened, and political leaders were trying to respond as best they could. Judgments were made. Some of them were wrong. But that should not taint those public servants who did their duty pursuant to the legal guidance provided. The last election made clear that the public wanted to move in a new direction.

In other words, sincerely frightened fools – as long as they're patriotic - may arrange to violate the law with impunity if they make sure legal memoranda get passed around. And when one party loses the White House in an election, all its crimes get forgiven.

crossposted at

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