Category Archives: Obama 44

What We Now Know About Torture

Over the weekend, I watched the extremely engaging Bill Moyers Show on “Reckoning with Torture“. While the issue of the use of “Torture” by the U.S. government post-9/11 has been controversial and one could accuse Bill Moyers and his two guests as having a “liberal” bias, the interview and what it exposes are nonetheless compelling. And while torture-deniers/apologists will argue that there is “nothing new” to learn about what the government did in fact do, I believe the video very much highlights the undeniable facts of what did occur, facts that are not fully understood by the general public at large and which, once omitted, watered-downed, or spun, aid in the public’s misconception that what was done was done as an absolutely necessary defensive action in the face an extreme and imminent threat:

  1. Worst of the worst: As early as by the end of 2002, the U.S. government was fully aware and apprised of the fact that the vast majority of the Guantanamo detainees (some 80%) were not — let me repeat that, were NOT — guilty of the alleged crimes for which they were being detained. The U.S. government continued (and in some cases continues) to hold these detainees in cages, with no rights or recourse of any kind, for over a half a decade even after knowing they were not guilty.
  2. A few bad apples: When we think of the most extreme cases of torture, we think of it as having been perpetrated by a few bad apples. Nevertheless, all of the documentation — both the internal memos down the “chain of command” and the evidence from interviews by the Red Cross with the detainees — reveal perfectly well that all actions taken towards the detainees were perfectly scripted and followed very clear guidelines. Torture was not a result of “bad apples” but of clear policy coming from the highest echelons of power. Continue reading

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The King, Consequences, Actions, and a Little Justice

Today, Glenn Greenwald describes how the recent criminal conviction in civilian court of accused terrorist Ghailani, despite cries to the contrary from the Right, has proven that our justice system works. Not only does this case prove that our civilian justice system is both the best forum for trying terrorists and fully capable of doing so, it also highlights the underlying cynicism behind Bush’s false bravado.

Let me begin with a few basic facts about the case that the press, out of its love for sensationalism, largely ignores:

  • Ghailani has been convicted of conspiracy and will spend a long, long time in jail. The idea that somehow our civilian courts have given him a free ride is blatantly false. Simply, he was found guilty of only one of the accounts against him. In other words, he has not been fully absolved of all wrong doing and will do serious time.
  • The military tribunals would not necessarily have favored his prosecution. The same evidence that was excluded from trial in the civilian court would most likely have been excluded in the military forum, as the “current rules governing those military tribunals bar the use of torture-obtained evidence to roughly the same extent as real courts do.”
  • Furthermore, civilian courts to date have a better track record at prosecuting accused terrorists than the military tribunals do, and
  • The whole problem of tainted evidence would never have become an issue if President Bush and his men had not approved torture in the first place. In other words, these impediments to trying terror suspects in both military and civilian courts are the direct result of the former president’s policies. So if the argument is that Ghailani was acquitted on the other counts because of evidentiary rules, then in legalese, “but for” the Bush White House, Ghailiani would have been convicted on all accounts. In other words, the Bush Cheney policies were the direct cause of Ghailani’s acquittal on more than 280 charges.

So take a look at that last point in view of Mr. Bush’s “I gave the order and would do it again” boasting. Mr. Bush and his Republicans have a fondness for “personal responsibility”, so shouldn’t Mr. Bush and company then recognize their responsibility in light of both the acquittal of Ghailani and the difficulties that the standing president now has in trying the remaining Guantanamo detainees? “But for” the torture and illegal detention – all proud Bush policies — these “evidentiary” and constitutional issues would certainly not be hindering due process, the rule of law, and bringing to justice those who have tried to reek havoc on our nation.

Finally, let’s revisit Mr. Bush’s courage under fire:

  • When American soldiers were accused of torture at Abu Ghraib, did Mr. Bush stand up for them, say he gave the order to protect American lives and would personally accept the consequences? No, he scapegoated the few “bad apples”.
  • When CIA operatives suddenly realized that they could all go to jail for torture, did Mr. Bush stand up and say, don’t burn the evidence? I gave the order, I will take the heat? No, he let it burn, like a criminal fleeing the scene of a crime (but with the presidential presumption of innocence).
  • And when the White House realized that it had to do damage control before people learned the truth about torture, did the White House courageously tell the truth about waterboarding? No, it leaked that waterboarding had been administered twice and in each case the “worst or the worst” spilled the beans in a matter of seconds. What a great, effective, efficient and necessary tool at its disposal, we all thought. Then, later we learned the whole truth that the two detainees had been waterboarded over one hundred times each. So much for the efficacy of waterboarding.

A tough guy who takes responsibility for his actions and accepts the consequences would certainly then accept either of the following sacrifices, lest he risk nothing at all:

  • Request a full and transparent investigation into the black sites, torture regime, and other extra-judicial practices, making the argument that he took a risk in favor of the country and is willing to accept the outcome of the investigation, even if that means criminal charges (and a sympathetic presidential pardon, a la Ford-Nixon); or
  • Accept that by torturing terror suspects to gain invaluable information in the short term he took a risk that the suspects would very well be later released due to a lack of admissible evidence.

But that’s not how it went down, was it? The tough guy who lied and leaked and scapegoated, now brags once the coast is clear that he did something brave and would do it again (like the rich kid who gets away with drinking and driving). And when the moment of truth finally comes – far off his watch and in the safety of his presidential library with the presidential “stay out of jail” card in hand – all of the ex-president’s men now tell us that somehow – regardless of the fact that the difficulty in convicting terror suspects in both military tribunals and civilians courts is the direct result of the Bush White House’s actions –Obama’s failure to convict on all charges is making the country less safe and as a result Guantanamo should definitely not be closed (ignoring the multiplier effect of hindering future prosecutions).

But then again, these are the same people who insist that we must return to the pre-crisis status quo and follow the same exact economic policies that got us into this situation in the first place. Feed the cancer with another cigarette.

UPDATE: Today’s (November 19, 2010) New York Times editorial reaches the same conclusion:

The problem was never the choice of a court. The 12 civilian jurors were not too weak-minded, as Mr. King seems to think. The judge was not coddling terrorists. He was respecting the Constitution and the law.

The problem with this case was President George W. Bush’s authorizing the illegal detention, abuse and torture of detainees. Susan Hirsch, whose husband was killed in the Tanzania attack, understood that. “I can’t help but feel that the evidence in the case would have been stronger had Ghailani been brought to trial when he was captured in 2004,” she said.

And in an op-ed by Morris Davis, former chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Davis describes why the assertions about the efficacy of military commissions being made by certain Republicans are baseless and erroneous. Specifically he notes the present track record of the military commissions:

In any case, Mr. Ghailani now faces a sentence of 20 years to life. Even if he gets the minimum, his sentence will be greater than those of four of the five detainees so far convicted in military commissions. Only one defendant, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, has been sentenced to life, and this was after he boycotted his tribunal and presented no defense.

Of the four detainees who participated in their military commissions, Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was 15 when arrested, is serving the longest sentence after pleading guilty to murder. Yet he will serve no more than eight years behind bars, less than half of Mr. Ghailani’s minimum incarceration. Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver, was sentenced to five and half years in 2008 but given credit for time served; five months later he was free. There is no reason to assume that a military commission sentence will be more severe than one from a federal court.

If Liz Cheney and the rest of her clan want to ignore the consequences that daddy’s policies have had and will continue to have on prosecuting detainees, then instead of pretending we are something we are not, she should just come out and say that the U.S. is entitled to be a rogue, human rights abusing nation whenever it feels like it. That way, we don’t even need to get into these discussions in the first place.

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Civil Liberties in the Age of Obama

Should you have the time, I recommend you watch Glenn Greenwald discussing the state of civil liberties in the Age of Obama and why the civil liberties indoctrinated in the Constitution  (and the American consciousness) were specifically crafted to be taken in the extreme, not with a grain of salt.

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Told You So

Don’t mean to say I told you so, but I predicted on the day before Obama won the election in November 2008 that Republicans would have a big victory in the November 2010 midterms. Regardless of the fact that the Obama administration has been a showcase for conventional, status quo continuity of presidents past or that the economic meltdown and government intervention happened on Republicans’ watch – as Frank Rich recently wrote,

when Mitch McConnell appeared on ABC’s “This Week” last month, he typically railed against the “extreme” government of “the last year and a half,” citing its takeover of banks as his first example. That this was utter fiction — the takeover took place two years ago, before Obama was president, with — went unchallenged by his questioner, Christiane Amanpour, and probably by many viewers inured to this big lie.

— reality aside, we are just so incredibly predictable as voters.

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Change You Used to Believe In

I suppose it was naïve to have believed in Change, to have let oneself get caught up on Hope. But it had been a tough eight years, and it wasn’t hard to think that our excitement about the cosmetic regime change would also include some real substantive policy changes to follow.

In his final post as a Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine, Ken Silverstein does a great job of summarizing the huge disappointment that many of us have felt about the Obama presidency:

. . . I moved to Washington in 1993, when a young, new Democratic president replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress and with public opinion squarely in his corner, he had the opportunity to shake things up and change American politics. Instead, he and his party squandered their chance through timidity, weak leadership, a lack of any original ideas and their refusal to confront special interest groups.

Here we are seventeen years later and there’s a young, new Democratic president who replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress….

Well, by now you can probably guess where this is heading.

I had low expectations for Obama as I always viewed him as a fairly conventional insider. But by any measure, his presidency has been a huge disappointment. It’s true that Obama inherited a terrible economy, but his policies were timid — which is no surprise given that his economic team was composed almost entirely of the same bankers and Wall Street insiders who paved the way for and profited from our bubble economy. There are now 43.6 million Americans living in poverty and more than 15 million out of work; that’s a scandal, and when there’s a Democrat in the White House and the party has ample majorities in Congress, it’s not credible to blame everything on obstructionism by the Republicans.

Then there was the health care reform bill, that took more than a year to pass and whose primary beneficiaries were the lobbyists who got paid billions to water it down. The bill does almost nothing to control costs and left the insurance industry in charge of the system. And for that very reason, the industry will be able to contrive loopholes that minimize the impact of the few good measures left in the bill.

Joe Biden and Robert Gibbs have recently been attacking the “left” and saying that it doesn’t appreciate all the great things the administration has done. For my part, I have lived in Washington long enough to have realistic hopes; for example, given political realities, passing a single payer bill was not going to happen. But I also don’t think it’s my job, as a journalist or a citizen, to blindly repeat the mantra of the administration (and its supporters in the blogosphere), that we should “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Fine, but let’s also not treat the administration’s health care plan as a grand achievement. The bill is widely unpopular, and not only because of the hyperbolic attacks on it by Republicans and Fox News. It’s unpopular because it’s a terrible piece of legislation.

The current GOP is truly a scary party, but if not for that it would be impossible to care about the midterm elections. When you’re reduced to rooting for soulless hacks like the current Senate majority leader—and he’s typical of today’s Democrats—you’ve lost something fundamental at the core of your humanity.

Now it appears that the President is fighting back, but instead of fighting for the Change he told us to believe in, he is whining about those who are calling him out for not keeping good on his rhetoric. According to the President, voters shouldn’t judge him by his record but by how bad the alternative would be; aka, vote for me because the other guy is scary.

Unfortunately, Obama, who may speak more coherently than Bush, simply isn’t in a position to make that case. As Glenn Greenwald explains,

President Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone and actually said this:

The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible. . . . .If we want the kind of country that respects civil rights and civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election.

This may be one of the most audaciously hilarious political statements I’ve read in quite some time . . . for Barack Obama to cite “civil liberties” as a reason why Democratic apathy is “just irresponsible,” and to claim with a straight face that this election will determine whether we’re “the kind of country that respects” them, is so detached from basic reality that I actually had to read this three or four times to make certain I hadn’t misunderstood it. To summarize Obama’s apparent claim:  the Republicans better not win in the midterm election, otherwise we’ll have due-process-free and even preventive detention, secret assassinations of U.S. citizens, vastly expanded government surveillance of the Internet, a continuation of Guantanamo, protection of Executive branch crimes through the use of radical secrecy doctrines, escalating punishment for whistleblowers, legal immunity for war crimes, and a massively escalated drone war in Pakistan.  That’s why, as the President inspirationally warns us:  “If we want the kind of country that respects civil liberties, we’d better fight in this election.”

. . . What is notable about it is what it reveals substantively.  The country is drowning in a severe and worsening unemployment crisis.  People are losing their homes by the millions.  Income inequality continues to explode while the last vestiges of middle class security continue to erode.  The Obama civil liberties record has been nothing short of a disgrace, usually equaling and sometimes surpassing the worst of the Bush/Cheney abuses.  We have to stand by and watch the Commander-in-Chief fire one gay service member after the next for their sexual orientation.  The major bills touted by Obama supporters were the by-product of the very corporatist/lobbyist dominance which Obama the candidate repeatedly railed against.  Rather than take responsibility for any of this, they instead dismiss criticisms and objections as petulant, childish, “irresponsible whining” — signaling rather clearly that they think they’re doing the right thing and that these criticisms are fundamentally unfair.

And in the meantime I am constantly getting emails from the Obama camp asking for something or another. I am still rooting for the guy, but he needs to start coming through on more than just the ability to speak in complete sentences.

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RIP to Politics

 

It’s like a drug. I keep promising to quit, and then I go ahead and write almost exclusively about politics. But if you have noticed, I have been fairly silent over the past few weeks, and one of the main reasons is that I am simply exhausted by the total lack of seriousness and intellectual rigor in our political dialogue.

From bogus and doctored outrage on things like racism, the environment, socialism, and the urgency of immigration reform (no one has yet to articulate that there actually is an immigration problem), I have grown less interested in weighing in. We elect a change president who turns around and does everything possible to maintain the corporate and political status quos: with each celebrated/hated (watered down) reform pushed by the White House, the regulated industry in question has seen its share prices skyrocket; and with each opportunity for transparency and the rule of law and with the Nobel Peace Prize in his belt, the President repeatedly argues in court for and puts into practice more expansive and less transparent executive powers and has bloated the military budget to historic records. Not to mention the ever increasing dependency on non-uniformed military contractors and the arguably illegal use of the CIA as a paramilitary force in Afghanistan and Pakistan (if not also elsewhere) to take care of business.

And then you turn on any serious news outlet and listen to the serious commentators (like the serious and moderate sounding David Brooks) with their delusional punditry and we are told that “the people are very suspicious of the increase in spending and the increase in the role of government”. Not because we have spent the last nine years building a radically clandestine, billion dollar/year shadow government, but because of Obama’s weak health care and tepid banking reforms? It is always the deficit that keeps us from spending on the people, but there is no shortage of resources to fight interminable and unwinnable wars. Next stop Iran. It all borders on the psychotic. I used to enjoy watching This Week and listening to Left, Right and Center, but now I dread the mere anticipation of how they are going to fabricate the irrelevant and skim past the real issues. For example, is it any shock none of them even alluded to last week’s story on “Top Secret America“? Of course not.

It is almost as if the more important the story, the less likely it will be discussed with any scrutiny. As NYU professor Jay Rosen writes in relation to the Post exposé and the Wikileaks Afghanistan leak,

I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget.

Last week, it was the Washington Post’s big series, Top Secret America, two years in the making. It reported on the massive security shadowland that has arisen since 09/11. The Post basically showed that there is no accountability, no knowledge at the center of what the system as a whole is doing, and too much “product” to make intelligent use of. We’re wasting billions upon billions of dollars on an intelligence system that does not work. It’s an explosive finding but the explosive reactions haven’t followed, not because the series didn’t do its job, but rather: the job of fixing what is broken would break the system responsible for such fixes.

The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works… and often fails to work?

So let’s leave politics there. At least for a while. Yes, I may still write about a few topics that may be arguably “political”, but I am going to give the pundits and presidents and war-mongers a rest. Let’s call it a summer vacation. On the wagon.

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Top Secret America

I have pretty much had it with out political discourse. After eight years of policies where we did just about everything wrong, leaving the country in ridiculous shambles, two futile wars, and bending over the corporate and military complex, it is embarrassing to witness how the 2008 movement for change has dissipated completely and been replaced by a compromising president who allows 2008’s losers set the tone. How can a Republican who supported the Bush tax cuts or the wars or deregulation be given airtime to preach about reducing the size of government? How can President Obama be criticized for being anti-business when each time he passes his faux regulations, the regulated industry in questions gets a huge bump in the stock market?

And in the midst of the panic that Obama is radically expanding the size of government, the Washington Post has just published an extensive investigative report on how over the last nine years, the U.S. has created an immense, secretive shadow government that lacks any transparency or accountability whatsoever, costs billions of dollars and employs some 800,000 people.

And guess what the role of this shadow government is? To spy at home and abroad. A couple of loonies in a cave, and we throw the house out the window.

As is always the case, the Republicans are only concerned about the government when it affects corporations and not unarmed citizens.

If this does not create bipartisan uproar, what ever will?

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Extrajudicial Targeting of U.S. Citizens for Assassination

Here is Glenn Greenwald on the Obama Administration’s extrajudicial targeting of U.S. citizens for assassination and the Democrats’ hypocritical support thereof.

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The Lamentable State of Mainstream Journalism

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'McChrystal’s Balls – Honorable Discharge
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

This is a nice job by Jon Stewart highlighting the lamentable state of mainstream political journalism in the U.S. Particularly revealing is the comment by Celeste Headlee where she says to the Rolling Stones journalist who revealed the McChrystal story, “you were obviously not worried about access in the future; I can’t imagine you are going to get it”. In other words, in the mainstream press, you don’t report on unfavorable news, lest you not be given access to the politicians in the future. Welcome to the White House. Easy questions, easy answers, easy access; become one with the propaganda machine.

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The Republican Mantra Part II: Rights for Corporations Only

It is hard to think of something more cynical than the Republican reaction to President Obama’s deal with BP. Then again, it should have come as no surprise that Republicans have reiterated their official decree on the supremacy of corporations over individuals. Without getting into the merits of Obama’s $20 billion shakedown of BP(to be honest, I haven’t been paying much attention), the Republicans’ outbursts against the Executive Branch strong-arming a corporation completely ignores the reality of the entire American prosecutorial system and how it treats individuals.

As Joe Barton first said (though he later apologized),

I’m ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday . . . I think it is a tragedy in the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown — in this case a $20 billion shakedown — with the attorney general of the United States, who is legitimately conducting a criminal investigation and has every right to do so to protect the American people, participating in what amounts to a $20 billion slush fund that’s unprecedented in our nation’s history, which has no legal standing, which I think sets a terrible precedent for our nation’s future.

Would Mr. Barton feel the same way about prosecutors who every day use the threat of the death penalty, lifetime sentences, three-strikes-you’re-out, and other means of arm-twisting at their disposal to persuade criminal suspects to reach a plea bargain? Prosecutors particularly love the death penalty because it is the most effective negotiating tool they’ve got. So where does Mr. Barton stand on terrible precedents: you plea or I’ll do everything in my power to send you to your death or “show me the money”?

This may sound exaggerated, but this is in fact what people – not corporations – are up against every time they right or wrongly face a prosecutor. Have Republicans ever seen an episode of Law & Order? Remember that prosecutors are agents of the Executive Branch, and as such their decision to prosecute a case is always a political decision; there really isn’t much of difference between Obama’s political tactic and that of your average district attorney. Apparently for Republicans, though, it is only scandalous when the poor, helpless corporation faces the prosecution.

Even though the Republicans feigned disgust at Mr. Barton’s original statement above, they quickly sent their pundits out to regurgitate their talking points about how Obama was ignoring the rule of law, denying BP due process, and of course, setting a dangerous precedent. Ignoring the obvious error in the due process claim (BP very much has the right to contest the “strong arming” in court), the Right’s sudden passion for due process is remarkably cynical.

Tony Blanky on Left, Right and Center was seriously concerned about “protecting the process of law” (even citing Thomas More), and out of the blue, David Brooks on the NewsHour felt that Obama “very brutally strong armed BP” and was worried about “the erosion of the rule of law”. He was so noble to claim that the law was there to protect “even people who do bad things.” Then George Will on This Week compared Obama to Hugo Chavez, calling his actions the “use of raw political power without recourse to courts that exist for this sort of thing without due process . . .”

Must I state the obvious? Misters Blanky, Brooks, and Will are arguing the exact opposite of what they have been fighting for for the past eight years: the president’s unfettered, unchecked power to indefinitely detain terror suspects without due process. If corporations, according to Citizens United, have the same First Amendment rights as individuals, shouldn’t individuals (even the ones “who do bad things”) have, at a minimum, the same basic rights corporations do when it comes to due process in a court that, as Mr. Will says, “exist[s] for this sort of thing”?

For example, would these gentlemen disagree with President Obama’s continued, indefinite detention in cages of Guantanamo detainees without any recourse whatsoever, even when they have been determined – as in the case of Mohamed Hassan Odaini — by the military and the courts to be completely innocent? Or would they continue to aspire to a world where corporations are free from government interference while individuals are subject to the full force of government’s brutal wrath?

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