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Archive for the ‘Bush Administration’ Category

Making Headway Against AQ? A Suspiciously Timely Article From The Washington Post

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

An article about efforts against Al Qaeda in AfPak that makes my spider-sense tingle, from the WaPo:

U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization’s effectiveness.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
A convenient time for an article to come out extolling the success we are having against Al Qaeda, no? Here’s my problem with just these two paragraphs: First off,  this sounds exactly like what the Bush White House said for years about their campaign against AQ, right up until the point that it was revealed that bin Laden et al. had reconstituted their organization and were back on the grind and better than ever. The last sentence is literally word for word what the Bush administration used to say: UBL and his lieutenants are isolated and cannot coordinate attacks.

Second, the “enhanced assistance from cooperative governments” is rather obviously an allusion to Pakistan, and the reason it is phrased so obliquely is that if they came out and said Pakistan was doing a better job, they would be laughed at. The Pakistani government is coming apart at the seams. They are unable to affect anything in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions where AQ Central is hanging out; even when Musharraf, who at least made a half-assed effort to try to help, sent troops in to FATA and the North-West Frontier, they were beaten by the ragtag tribal militias. And on top of it all, the new head of the military (the real power in Pakistan) is an Islamist and former chief of the ISI-D who is explicitly pro-Taliban.

Third, the body count also harkens back to the days of yore, when Bush would give speeches talking about the number of high- and medium-value AQ targets that had been killed. He stopped giving those for a reason: Al Qaeda now has a pool of trained, combat-tested veterans to move up into managerial positions when one of the top dogs are killed. The phrase “and allied groups” gives me pause too, because this could mean that they’re killing Taliban chiefs, who are significantly easier to get because they actually come into Afghanistan to get killed, and not members of the Al Qaeda shura (ruling council).

A good analogy would be the prosecution of the American Mafia. After every high-profile case that ended in convictions (Lucky Luciano, Murder Incorporated, the Pizza Connection, the Five Families RICO case), US attorneys would crow about how they had killed the mob, or reduced them to unorganized street gangs. And of course, two years after one of these big convictions, the Five Families or the Chicago Outfit had quietly moved their veteran soldiers up into the executive positions and continued on as per usual. And this went on for seventy years, before any real headway was made against Cosa Nostra.

More from the article:

The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain’s overseas counterterrorism operations.

Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaeda.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization.”

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair referred obliquely in an interview with reporters earlier this month to the use of spies, saying that “the primary way” that U.S. intelligence determines which terrorist organizations pose direct threats is “to penetrate them and learn whether they’re talking about making attacks against the United States.”

Now this is the part where I fervently hope that this revelation is psychological warfare against the Taliban and AQ to paralyze them with paranoia over moles in their organizations. It is a very effective tactic, see: James  Jesus Angleton. Given the incredible difficulty of inserting an intelligence officer into AQ, or even getting one of their members to flip and become a double agent, revealing that information for political reasons would border on the criminal.

Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaeda have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.

Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective — destroying al-Qaeda — can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.

And in the first paragraph we have the reason that the White House leaked this story to WaPo. McChrystal’s public demand for tens of thousands of extra troops, which really are necessary if we are going to nation-build the way the Hillary-Holbrooke axis wants to, has put Obama in an awkward position, because the Congress doesn’t particularly want to do that.  The bright side is, they do seem to be rethinking their strategy of just throwing more soldiers into the meatgrinder. Cyncial as I am, I don’t want to think that this is just a stall to twist arms on Capitol Hill.

I don’t want to give the impression that I believe McChrystal (and Clinton and Holbrooke) are right.  Nation-building will never work in a place like A-stan; I wrote an article about it a few months ago. Joe Biden has the right strategy, though he has so far lost the internecine battles: A smaller number of American troops, mostly composed of Special Operations and Special Forces operators with close air support, in a strictly counterterrorism role. So, despite the fact that this article is disingenuous, if it helps stop a counterproductive and downright disastrous troop escalation, I’m willing to take that.

On Pelosi

Friday, May 15th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I really don’t know what Nancy Pelosi knew about the Bush torture regime, and to be honest, I’m not even entirely sure what it would mean if she were briefed about waterboarding in October of 2002. The meeting was reportedly so secretive that members of Congress weren’t even allowed to take notes, so I imagine it would have been a violation of the law for her to have said anything about what was discussed. On the other hand, it’s really rather ridiculous that anyone is getting worked up over someone having the gall to suggest the CIA might have lied to Congress. I mean, it’s not like the CIA doesn’t have a fairly distinguished history of…lying to Congress. But Republicans throw out some attacks on Pelosi, and all of a sudden journalists are more concerned about Pelosi “attacking” the CIA than whether or not…the CIA lied to Congress and broke the law by torturing detainees.

The press corps is going to be the death of us all.

Obama Backtracks on Photos, New Torture Information Released

Friday, May 15th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I’m late to this (damn finals), but obviously the big news of the past couple of days is that the Obama administration will not, in fact, be releasing photos of Bush administration approved torture they had previously indicated they were going to release. I had previously applauded the decision to make the photos public, so my initial reaction was to join the chorus condemning the administration for this reversal, but the more I think about it, the more I’m not so sure.

To with, the only particularly convincing rationale I’ve heard for the decision is that it wasn’t so much about quashing “anti-American sentiment,” so much as it was avoiding enflaming Iraqis. With the rather large caveat that I have no way of knowing whether or not this is true, I guess this makes some pretty good sense to me. With national elections scheduled before the last US troops are set to leave the country in 2011, I do think it would be wise to avoid anything that is going to cause a disproportionate backlash among the citizenry so long as American troops remain in the country, not necessarily because it puts the troops in any increased danger (I think these claims are rather dubious) but rather because it would likely make the political situation unteneable for some time in that country. Assuming this really is the rationale, I suppose I can live with it for the time being, provided that we get more answers in the interim, or that the pictures are released after the last of US troops leave Iraq.

In other news, Robert Windrem reports on what could be a devastating wrinkle in the torture regime in The Daily Beast:

*Two U.S. intelligence officers confirm that Vice President Cheney’s office suggested waterboarding an Iraqi prisoner, a former intelligence official for Saddam Hussein, who was suspected to have knowledge of a Saddam-al Qaeda connection.

*The former chief of the Iraq Survey Group, Charles Duelfer, in charge of interrogations, tells The Daily Beast that he considered the request reprehensible.

He also claims that much of the information in the 9/11 commission report was based on information gained from torture.

This is an important revelation for two reasons. First of all, the typical conservative rational for why the Geneva Conventions are inoperable to terrorists (they’re “illegal combatants”) presumably don’t apply here. An Iraqi intelligence official would presumably have been a uniformed member of a duly constructed state military body, and would almost certainly have been a POW recognized under Geneva anyway you slice it, making Cheney a war criminal any way you look at it. Secondly, this is after the invasion. There’s no “ticking time bomb” logic in play for looking for an al-Qaeda/Iraq link after we’d already invaded Iraq. Rather, this was Dick Cheney looking to extract information that would confirm the political reasons put forward for the war. He was looking for false confessions plain and simple.

Also, not for nothing, but where the hell is George W. Bush (you know, the commander in chief) in all of these decisions?





The Rule of Law is No Excuse

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Tyler Cowen ruminates on the potential downside of torture prosecutions:

At many blogs (Sullivan, Yglesias, DeLong, among others) you will find ongoing arguments for prosecuting the torturers who ran our government for a while.  I am in agreement with the moral stance of these critics but I don’t agree with their practical conclusions.  I believe that a full investigation would lead the U.S. public to, ultimately, side with torture, side with the torturers, and side against the prosecutors.  That’s why we can’t proceed and Obama probably understands that.  If another attack happened this would be all the more true.

I’m not really sure I agree with this or not, but on that note, I definitely don’t agree with the counterargument put forward (earlier) by Greenwald:

But leave aside the question of whether prosecutions would produce good or bad outcomes.  After all, the notion that the law can and should be ignored whenever we think doing so would produce good results or would constitute good policy was the engine that drove Bush lawlessness. 

This is just ridiculous. At best, it’s a dystopian outlook where outcomes are of no consequence, at worst, it’s the flip-side of the “I was just following orders” defense, wherein “I was just applying the letter of the law” becomes a way to shirk responsibilty for whatever outcomes your choices yield. You can imagine a police officer who decides to hold up someone rushing to the emergency room using it to defend himself when someone dies waiting for him to finish writing a speeding ticket on the side of the freeway. Obviously the torture question is a bit more serious, than that, but at the same time, assuming that Greenwald would agree that rushing to the hospital is a legitimate excuse for taking some leniency with traffic laws, and that police officers should be sensitive to such mitigating circumstances, then he would be admitting that discretion in applying the law is a fundamental part of a nation of laws. Or does Glenn think that local police actually should write citations to people mowing there lawns in shorts between the hours of 5 P.M. and 8 P.M. Monday to Friday?

The question then isn’t so much whether discretionary authority exists, but what circumstances make it proper to decline to prosecute. In particular it seems the question is whether the unlikelihood of earning a conviction, or the likelihood of producing a bad outcome in the larger society, is a legitimate reason to decline to prosecute someone. With regards to the former, I think the answer has to be yes. Especially considering double jeopardy protections, if a prosecutor thinks that someone has committed a crime, but feels that a conviction is unlikely, I would argue that he has a  duty not to bring charges, because doing so would prevent action if and when a conviction was more likey (assuming he’s right on both counts). The latter is a bit of a stickier question, but I would imagine there are some circumstances in which the potential cultural outcome is so dire as to compel the use of discretion, although such situations are certainly rare.

But what’s most troubling is Greenwald’s apparent lack of concern for the outcome of actions. Greenwald could certainly disagree with the premise that prosecutions are likely to produce bad outcomes, but I haven’t seen him make those arguments. Rather, I’ve seen him make arguments like the one above, that the question is completely irrelevant. Greenwald should respond to Cowen, and clearly articulate whether he agrees with Cowen’s conclusion or not. If he doesn’t, that’s certainly fair, and Greenwald can make that argument (and again, I’m not really sure if I agree with Cowen or not). But if he does, I don’t see how a logical person can rectify calling for an action you believe will produce bad outcomes. At best, it belies someone who is far too attached to rigidity, and unable to process exigent circumstances or concerns. At worst, David Broder is right, and Greenwald just wants vengeance against political opponents, consequences be damned. And I don’t want David Broder to be right.

They Like It, They Really Like It

Monday, April 27th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

E.D. Kain, on torture apologist conservatives:

Beyond that, it seems very foolish – very short-sighted – for torture apologists to continue this charade.  It may seem necessary now, to many of them, to rewrite history or clean the slate or whatever – but in the end can this really be anything more than political suicide?  Maybe for the architects – the Cheney’s and the Yoo’s – it makes sense.  They face a real (if unlikely) chance at prosecution.  When the media finally starts using the word “torture” instead of “harsh interrogation tactics” and all of this comes spilling out – the pictures, the video recordings, etc. – is this the side you want to be on?  Standing over there in the spotlight with Cheney and Bush and Bybee and Yoo?

History is merciless.

There’s certainly a seemingly obvious incentive here for the conservative movement, and the Republican Party, to use the opportunity presented by the release of the torture memos to put some distance between themselves and the Bush administration, and many commentors have noted this. On the other hand, I’m not sure people aren’t overestimating this factor. It’s not, after all, the case that we really are just now learning all of these things, and movement conservatives are still reflexively defending all things Bush. This discussion has been ongoing since roughly 2002, and most of the “apologists” have been vigorous defenders of these “enhanced interrogation techniques” since day one. In other words, they’re not just defending Bush & Cheney, they’re defending themselves, and their own positions.

On the other hand, I think it’s time to start admitting the obvious; a lot of these people are just sadists who think that torture is good for its own sake. This is the mentality that’s on display every time a torture defender forgets the “ticking time bomb scenario” or something else they saw on 24 and veers into the realm of “well these are bad people, so who cares if we smacked them around” territory. This is a branch who feel that the detainees deserve everything they get, or worse, and so for them, torture is an end in and of its own right, a sick sort of catharsis. Consider Andy McCarthy, a man the conservative movement regards as a serious legal mind:

“As far as mental suffering is concerned, that involves at least the creation of a fear of imminent death,” said McCarthy. “While it’s a favorite talking point that people were waterboarded 180 times … it undercuts the fear that there was going to be imminent death. After the first or second time you get the point that there’s no death to be feared here.”

I’m hardly the first to point out that this makes no sense. After all, if the detainee does come to learn that he’s in no danger whatsoever from waterboarding the more he endures it, and presuming McCarthy accepts the notion that waterboarding does not induce “severe pain and suffering,” wouldn’t waterboarding someone 183 times in a month (just over 6 times a day, or once every 4 hours) be about the most ineffective thing you could possibly do? Wouldn’t the “interrogation technique” become ineffective by about day 3?

There’s simply no logical conclusion to be drawn from this, other than that Andrew McCarthy and the rest of the right’s torture apologists do, in fact, approve of the use of torture in general. That they realize the nature of American politics won’t let them say that in so many words doesn’t make it any less true. The interesting question is not why the right continues to defend the torture regime they whole-heartedly approved of all along, but how the American right got to this point in the first place.

Torture Used to Find Al-Qaeda/Saddam Link

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

No one could have predicted:

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

“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.

“There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s people to push harder,” he continued.

Of course, pointing out that the most common use of torture over the years, from the Inquisition to Stalinist Russia, was to elicit false confessions. Because while torture isn’t necessarily any more effective than good interrogating for getting accurate information out of people, imposing increasing levels of extreme physical pain on people until they say what you want them to is a great way to get people to, well, say what you want them to. Whether it’s true or not. The question at this point is whether Cheney and Rumsfeld were simply looking for confirmation of the things they “knew,” or if they were actually looking to extract false information from detainees to justify an aggressive war in Iraq. The fact that the inability to garner this information, even by torture, doesn’t seem to have phased the pre-conceived belief tells you all you need to know about the run-up to war; the administration wanted a war with Saddam from day 1, and nothing was going to stop them. Also, given that Rumsfeld seems to have reconciled the discrepancy by concluding that the torture didn’t work, one is left to wonder why, exactly, the torture regime was furthered.

It’s worth pointing out that this has been a very bad week for the Bushies. Revelations that they went to extraordinary measures to quash any official dissent from the legal opinions espoused in the OLC significantly undercuts the notion that the OLC opinions were issued in good faith, and senior policy makers simply acting on the legal advice they were getting. As does the reminder that the FBI strenuously objected to the interrogation methods, to the point that FBI director Robet Mueller directed FBI personnel to have nothing to do with it. Even worse, the Senate Armed Services Committee report on the matter is a brutal demolition of the Bush administration’s various line, and paints a portrait of a group of sadists who were determined to torture from the very beginning, and who took a number of actions that seem to demonstrate they knew what they were doing were legally dubious.

If you’d asked me about the matter on Monday morning, I would have said that I thought the biggest hurdle to action was that getting convictions in the matter would be extremely difficult, if not downright unlikely. After reading the SASC report, and given the plethora of information that was brought back to the front of the story yesterday, however, today I’d have to say that, on the whole, it’s exceedingly obvious that senior administration officials were engaged in serial lawlessness, human rights abuses, war crimes, etc. Prosecute them. Now.

But hey, Dubs didn’t get any oral in the Oval Office. Which is good, because otherwise we might have had to impeach him or something.

Why Does The Washington Post Print Obvious Inaccurate Information?

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Putting aside the laughability factor of treating the writing of a former Bush chief speechwriter credulously, Marc Thiessen’s Op-Ed in yesterday’s Washington Post contained a number of blatantly inaccurate claims, the most blatant of which being the contention that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed provided the information that led to the foiling of a terrorist plot to attack the West Coast. But, as Sully catalogues, the plot was alleged to have been foiled in 2002, while KSM was not captured until 2003. In other words, it’s simply not possible for Thieseen’s claim to be true.

I think that getting worked up about Bush administration officials and staffers telling abject lies is rather pointless. On some level it would almost feel weird if they weren’t lying. But the real question here isn’t why Thiessen decided to write a column full of outright lies to defend his former boss, it’s why The Washington Post agreed to print something full of egregious factual inaccuracies. To be sure, these aren’t debateable points. It’s not Thiessen’s opinion that the torture of KSM yielded information that stopped a plot a year or so before KSM was captured. If Thiessen does, in fact, believe that statement is true, then Thiessen is ignorant of the facts in question, and the statement is still completely inaccurate. What’s not clear is why the Post editors, who are presumably paid to, you know, edit, apparently didn’t bother to do even a rudimentary fact check on Thiessan’s claims, or if they did, why they decided to print a piece they knew contained a number of flase contentions.

Obviously this isn’t anything new for the Post, but that pretty clearly doesn’t make it any better. The simple fact of the matter is that Fred Hiatt has turned the Post into the pre-eminent mainstream outlet of neoconservative propaganda in the country, and the people above Hiatt in the organization have allowed him to do it.

The Torture Memos

Friday, April 17th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Having read through the Office of Legal Counsel memos pertaining to torture under the Bush administration, I’m downright shocked by how banal it all is. The particulars didn’t really get me, indeed, it’s almost shocking how much of this we already knew. What is deeply disturbing, as several others have already pointed out, is how utterly dry the language and “reasoning” is. This is a cold, detached, nearly inhuman endeavor to justify inflicting torture on other people, and it almost reads like they’re arguing the statutory implications of some obscure corner of the tax code or something.

I’ll leave interpreting the memos themselves to someone else because, frankly, the content is rather dull to me (as I said, there’s really nothing in them we didn’t already know). Personally, I’m more interested in the question of prosecutions now. President Obama, as everyone has pointed out by now, reassured everyone yesterday that there would be no prosecutions of CIA operatives who were involved in carrying out the acts, and I think that’s the right call, on a number of levels. From a practical standpoint, I really don’t see how you’re going to win a conviction against a lower level operative. Their defense would almost certainly be centered around the OLC’s opinion, and the idea that these were guys who just wanted to defend their country, and wanted to stay within the law, but were lied to about the legality of various actions by a group of lawyers and politicians (incredibly unpopular politicians at that) is going to be a hard sentiment to overcome in a jury trial.

But from a moral/ethical standpoint as well, I don’t really think it’s right to prosecute the operatives. It’s easy to say they should have known better but, really, should they have? Yes torturing another human, even if it’s to “defend your country,” seems very bad, and seems like the sort of thing someone couldn’t possibly do without knowing it was wrong, but consider, for a second, that we train millions of young people to kill other human beings if necessary to defend the country, or even just to carry out a mission. And certainly, in that narrow context, very few people regard that as a bad thing. And yes, we expect that military personnel should refuse to carry out an obviously unlawful order from a superior, but the military operates in a world, and under a governing code, of much less ambiguity than the CIA. This is what, to me, makes the OLC’s actions especially pernicious; CIA operatives who are genuinely unsure of the legal boundaries at which they operate should be able to trust that the legal opinions they’re getting are good ones, designed to protect them as much as anything else. On some level, these people are victims of John Yoo as well, having been exposed legal liability, and having to live with their actions for the rest of their lives. There’s also a certain amount of discomfort, for me, in punishing non-legal experts for not knowing that the advice they were being given from lawyers who had reached a very high level of authority, and so presumably are very smart people with a very deep understanding of the law, was not, in fact, legitimate.

On the other hand, I very much hope that as many policy makers as possible are prosecuted and convicted for this sordid affair. That said, I think that’s a much more difficult task than many people are allowing. For one thing, prosecuting high level political officials is going to be difficult any time, as it’s going to be extremely hard to find a jury that’s largely unbiased by their own political opinions. Moreover, the policy makers can hide behind the OLC as well; after all, we established the OLC and the taxpayers provide a salary to its staff in order for them to give legal advice to the President and other policy makers, so if said policy makers can’t actually expect that they can rely on the OLC’s opinion regarding any given policy’s legality, what’s the point of even having the office, right? This is obviously bogus, but at the same time, it seems to me that overcoming it in a court of law would be exceedingly difficult.

Which brings us back to John Yoo, who seems, to me, to be the keystone to the whole enterprise. If it can be established that Yoo’s memos were written in bad faith, that is, that he knew the opinions were utter bullshit and was writing them, with the knowledge of senior policy makers, simply to facilitate policies he knew to be illegal and to cover for senior policy makers, then it becomes possible to snare everyone else as well. The question then, is how do you prove bad faith in the writing of a legal opinion? It seems like an incredibly hard thing to do to me, which is why I hope there are smarter people than I working on this sort of thing somewhere. But I think the last thing you want to do is rush into this sort of prosecution. The last thing you want is an acquital, which would be a tacit endorsement of the policies in question and, because of double jeopardy, would likely mean the guilty parties would get away with it forever.

Update: What A.L. said. More A.L. please, much less Glenn Greenwald.

Republicans Blackmailing Obama to Protect Torture Regime

Monday, April 6th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Scott Horton is reporting, at The Daily Beast, that 2 Obama nominees are being held ransom by Senate Republicans in an effort to prevent the Obama administration from releasing Bush administration Office of Legal Counsel memos concerning the legality of torture and other Bush administration policies:

Senate Republicans are now privately threatening to derail the confirmation of key Obama administration nominees for top legal positions by linking the votes to suppressing critical torture memos from the Bush era. A reliable Justice Department source advises me that Senate Republicans are planning to “go nuclear” over the nominations of Dawn Johnsen as chief of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice and Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh as State Department legal counsel if the torture documents are made public. The source says these threats are the principal reason for the Obama administration’s abrupt pullback last week from a commitment to release some of the documents. A Republican Senate source confirms the strategy. It now appears that Republicans are seeking an Obama commitment to safeguard the Bush administration’s darkest secrets in exchange for letting these nominations go forward.

This is, as far as I know, a fairly unprecedented move. Both Republicans and Democrats have filibustered nominees for the federal bench, and whether you agree with that in theory or not, there seems to at least be some solid rationale for it, in so much as the Judiciary is a seperate branch and appointees serve life terms. But broadly speaking, both parties have traditionally deferred to the right of the President to staff the executive branch with the people he prefers, short of criminality or gross lack of qualification anyway. Some nominees invariably get caught up in some scandal or another, as Congressional opposition seeks the customary scalp, but for the most part, and especially considering the highest profile positions, Congress is traditionally highly deferential regarding executive branch appointments.

There’s a couple of ways to go with this. The first is to note the bizarre logic for this, if Horton’s reporting is accurate. Are Senate Republicans really willing to make John Yoo the hill they die on? Even the Bush administration OLC repudiated Yoo’s memos before they left office. Wouldn’t a logical response for the post-Bush GOP be to try to put Bush behind them as forcefully as possible? And I’d also be remiss if I didn’t note the irony of the party who, for the last 7 years, heartily embraced a broad reading of the unitary executive theory now deigning to encroach on an area that is pretty explicitly the perogative of the President. If the executive branch wants to release executive branch documents, who exactly is Congress to stop them? I rather doubt that Republicans would approve of President Obama threatening to withhold funding for Congress unless Jon Cornyn released all of his emails with his staff, or something similar. And, personally, I don’t even see much of a reason not to publish OLC opinions as a rule, but that’s probably best left for another time.

On the other hand, it’s worth asking why these executive offices are even subject to Congressional confirmation in the first place. It’s one thing to require the Secretary of State to be confirmed by the Senate (although I don’t agree with it), but it just seems bizarre that the State Department’s legal adviser needs to be approved by Congress. Ditto for the President’s economic advisers. The Congress doesn’t really add much to the equation, in my opinion, and it doesn’t really strike me as “co-equal” that the President is required to get his subordinates, down to the advisory level, approved by Congress. So far as I know, Congressional advisers do not require Presidential approval, so maybe it’s time to balance out the equation.

The Five-State Solution: Idealism Trumps Reality Yet Again Concerning Israel

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

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by Tommy Brown

The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman,  he of the fabled Friedman Unit (“The next six months in Iraq. . . .”), has written yet another slightly creepy op-ed where he pretends to be a foreign leader writing to the American president. This time he’s pretending to be Saudi Arabia’s King ‘Abdullah:

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your inauguration and for quickly dispatching your new envoy, George Mitchell, a good man, to the Middle East. I wish Mitchell could resume where he left off eight years ago, but the death of Arafat, the decline of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war in Lebanon, the 2009 Hamas-Israel war in Gaza, the continued expansion of colonial Israeli settlements and the deepening involvement of Iran with Hamas and Hezbollah have all created a new reality.

Specifically, the Palestinian Authority is in no position today to assume control of the West Bank, Hamas is incapable of managing Gaza and the introduction of rockets provided by Iran to Hamas has created a situation whereby Israel won’t turn over the West Bank to any Palestinians now because it fears Hamas would use it to launch rockets on Israel’s international airport. But if we do nothing, Zionist settlers would devour the rest of the West Bank and holy Jerusalem. What can be done?

I am proposing what I would call a five-state solution:

I’d like to tackle each part of the solution he proposes separately. They are idealistic, noble and totally unconnected from reality.

1. Israel agrees in principle to withdraw from every inch of the West Bank and Arab districts of East Jerusalem, as it has from Gaza. Any territories Israel might retain in the West Bank for its settlers would have to be swapped — inch for inch — with land from Israel proper.

Total withdrawal for the West Bank, for one, is a total nonstarter. Israel relies on the headwaters of the Jordan River (inconveniently located within the Occupied Territories) for the majority of its water. This is naturally a major security interest for the Israelis; they fought a war with the Arab League over the attempted damming of the Jordan, water being a big deal in the desert, go figure.

The other two are just as fantastic. While there is the chance that Israel would recognize mostly-Arab East Jerusalem as the ceremonial capital of a Palestinian state, there is no way in hell they are going to give up control of probably the most holy city in the world, or let it be divided Berlin-style that way it was between Israel and Jordan before the Six Day War of 1967.

Regarding a land-swap, settler territory for actual Israeli land to become part of the Palestinian Authority: The fundamentalist right wing in Israel, the characters who are the force behind the attempt to settle the entire area that was once ancient Judea and Samarra, will never ever let an inch of Israeli territory be given to the Palestinians. They’re not even that hot on giving them land in the Occupied Territories. And they have never shied away from violence to prevent this; Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords and was assassinated shortly afterward by a “lone gunman” right-wing Zionist; Ariel Sharon withdrew the settlements from the Gaza Strip and shortly afterwards fell victim to a mysterious stroke (I’m no conspiracy theorist, but still).

2. The Palestinians — Hamas and Fatah — agree to form a national unity government. This government then agrees to accept a limited number of Egyptian troops and police to help Palestinians secure Gaza and monitor its borders, as well as Jordanian troops and police to do the same in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority would agree to five-year “security assistance programs” with Egypt in Gaza and with Jordan in the West Bank.

With Egypt and Jordan helping to maintain order, Palestinians could focus on building their own credible security and political institutions to support their full independence at the end of five years.

The ground truth is that Hamas and Fatah are locked in a civil war for control of the Occupied Territories (leaving America in the bizarre position of financially backing Fatah when we pushed for the elections that knocked them out of power and started the war in the first place). Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamist group, while Fatah, the former Palestinian Liberation Organization, is a secular nationalist organization composed of Muslims. Huge difference. There is pretty much zero chance of the two reaching any sort of power-sharing agreement, as Hamas considers Fatah to be apostate rulers.

The idea that the Israelis letting Jordanian security forces into the West Bank is similarly insane; the Israelis took the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the first place. It’s never ever ever going to happen. And despite the Camp David Accords with Egypt, letting them put guys with guns into the Territories is another fantasy. Despite their mutual diplomatic recognition and the return of the Sinai to Egypt, the received wisdom in Israel is that President Hosni Mubarak pays but lip service to the agreement, while turning a blind eye to the smugglers supplying Gaza despite the blockade.

3. Israel would engage in a phased withdrawal over these five years from all of its settlements in the West Bank and Arab Jerusalem — except those agreed to be granted to Israel as part of land swaps — at the same pace that the Palestinians meet the security and governance metrics agreed to in advance by all the parties. The U.S. would be the sole arbiter of whether the metrics have been met by both sides.

Removing the settlements is not a bad idea at all, but, as noted above, attempting to give the Palestinians their own land or withdraw the settlements seems to lead to the death or incapacitation of Israeli prime ministers. And if Bibi Netanyahu of the Likud Party becomes PM, this will become another fantasy.

The real issue with this one is that it somehow assumes that either the Palestinians or the Israelis will somehow view America as some kind of impartial judge after eight years of abandoning the role of mediator and siding with the Israelis entirely. Not to mention the aforementioned elections that made Hamas the legitimate government of the Territories. Less than a few weeks ago, during the Gaza War, Prime Minister Olmert actually demanded to speak with President Bush and convinced him not to sign onto to a UN-brokered ceasefire that Condi Rice, his Secretary of State, had drafted the majority of. Something tells me Israel is going to attempt to continue this kind of relationship, though with the new administration it’s totally up in the air. And both Fatah and Hamas view America as betrayers of their interests more than ever.

4. Saudi Arabia would pay all the costs of the Egyptian and Jordanian trustees, plus a $1 billion a year service fee to each country — as well as all the budgetary needs of the Palestinian Authority. The entire plan would be based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and blessed by the U.N. Security Council.

This one is my favorite suggestion of Friedman’s, for a couple reasons. One, Saudi Arabia is already the major funder of both Fatah and Hamas. They have financed the PLO and other resistance groups since the creation of Israel in 1948, financed the Arab League in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and their resident religious nuts (which is most of the country) strongly supported and backed Hamas during the still-smoldering Gaza War.

Despite King ‘Abdullah’s profession that he wants peace, and it is little known that in 2003 he offered diplomatic recognition of Israel in return for the US dropping its planned invasion of Iraq, his proposals always contain enough caveats that make them basically impossible to implement. This is remarkably similar to former President Bush’s “road map for peace,” in which Israel quietly logged seventeen “reservations” about the plan that effectively scuttled it.

And “basing the entire plan” on UN Resolutions 242 and 338 is the problem to begin with, because they call for Israel’s total withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, which would include returning the Golan Heights to Syria (not a huge deal) and returning the West Bank and East Jerusalem to the Jordanians. As discussed in detail above, the West Bank is too important to Israel’s strategic interests and they will never accept a divided Jerusalem again. It also means that the Jordanian security forces Friedman proposes would not just be there to help the Palestinians, but would be a precursor to Jordan’s eventual reintegration of the territory into their country.

And this is from supposedly one of the finest foreign policy minds in the country?

The Grim Market For Historical Revisionism: “Bush Won Iraq” Begins In Earnest

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

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by Tommy Brown

Your Humble Author’s jaw damn near hit the ground when I saw this article by the Wall Street Journal‘s William McGurn, titled, of all things, “Bush’s Real Sin Was Winning In Iraq.” From the article:

In a few hours, George W. Bush will walk out of the Oval Office for the last time as president. As he leaves, he carries with him the near-universal opprobrium of the permanent class that inhabits our nation’s capital. Yet perhaps the most important reason for this unpopularity is the one least commented on.

Here’s a hint: It’s not because of his failures. To the contrary, Mr. Bush’s disfavor in Washington owes more to his greatest success. Simply put, there are those who will never forgive Mr. Bush for not losing a war they had all declared unwinnable.

Here in the afterglow of the turnaround led by Gen. David Petraeus, it’s easy to forget what the smart set was saying two years ago — and how categorical they all were in their certainty. The president was a simpleton, it was agreed. Didn’t he know that Iraq was a civil war, and the only answer was to get out as fast as we could?

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the man who will be sworn in as vice president today — didn’t limit himself to his own opinion. Days before the president announced the surge, Joe Biden suggested to the Washington Post he knew the president’s people had also concluded the war was lost. They were, he said, just trying to “keep it from totally collapsing” until they could “hand it off to the next guy.”

This is the kind of crazy political revisionism one would expect from Bushie partisans desperate to salvge some kind of legacy for the former President, who-with the exception of tax cuts that look monumentally stupid in retrospect-doesn’t have much have much to hang his hat on. Most of the items snidely referred to as untruths by Mr. McGurn are in fact true. To wit:

George Bush is indeed despised by the Beltway chattering class, but also by the great majority of the American populace; the former because of Bush’s utter disdain for them, and the latter because his administration can be only charitably described as a resounding disappointment. Americans love the underdog, but in the end, they love winners more. And for all the talk of “how history will view him” aside, so far Bush equals massive fail, especially on Iraq.

As I commented on in my article A Tale of Three Cities, conservative partisans have decided that because after five-plus years we managed to get a handle on the very  basics of the security situation (as in, a significant reduction in jihadists driving suicide truck bombs into crowded markets), we have “won” Iraq. Now this is just a rhetorical trick based off of the “What does victory in Iraq mean?” talking point bandied about by the Left, but it seems to me that there was a pretty simple scenario for victory: We would overthrow Saddam Hussein, and Iraq would become a secular Western-style democracy, multiethnic and nonsectarian, that would serve as a beacon of hope for the rest of the autocratic Middle East.

We have not come close to accomplishing any of these objectives. And yet, because basic security has been partially restored (even though basic services like water and electricity haven’t) we’ve won in Iraq? What am I missing?

Also, one might wonder that if there was no civil war, what was up with all the Sunnis abducted by cops and soldiers and murdered? The people who had power drills stuck through their foreheads and then were dumped in the street with their ID card plainly visible to show their religious affiliation? The fact that in less than three years, Baghdad went from being fifty percent Sunni to seventy-five percent, or that mixed-sect neighborhoods no longer exist there?

And the fact is, Joe Biden was right. The point of the surge was to wrap Iraq in duct tape, with troop levels they knew couldn’t be maintained for more than a couple of years, until it could be passed onto the next administration. The political benchmarks laid out by the author of the surge plan, Frederick Kagan, never even came close to fruition. The Iraqi central government remains paralyzed even on important issues like oil-revenue sharing and the status of the city of Kirkuk (the Kurdish Jerusalem); the Iranian-allied theocratic Shi’ites that run the central government are fighting the nationalist theocratic Shi’ites that want to run the country; the Sunnis have formed their own militias, funded and supplied by us, and have no intention of playing nice with the Shi’a; and the Kurds are one vote they don’t like away from declaring independence.

If this is victory, I would hate to see what defeat would have looked like.

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