Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
AP reported on Monday that President-elect Barack Obama, after moving into the White House next week, will issue an executive order to begin the process that would lead to the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. With that in the news, I was asked to appear on Hardball to debate conservative talk-show host Michael Smerconish, who supports the use of waterboarding. Here's the clip:
At least Smerconish, a lawyer, agreed with one basic point: the US government, despite what the Bush-Cheney administration has contended, has no right to hold anyone--not even enemy combatants--indefinitely. Perhaps Obama is right: conservatives and liberals--that is, those of us who don't take our constitutional advice from Dick Cheney's office--can find some common ground.
George W. Bush the wise and somber presidential veteran.
Spare me. But as Bush prepares to leave office, he's trying to strike that sort of tone. I suppose it's easier to pontificate about the office of the presidency than to say, "Boy, did I screw up, I'm outta here." So at a press conference on Monday morning--probably his final as president--Bush discussed the burdens of presidential leadership and noted there will come a moment next Tuesday when Barack Obama, after taking the oath of office and watching the parade, settles into the Oval Office and says to himself, "Oh, my." (Maybe he will add, "Is this my beautiful house?")
But being president is really not that bad, Bush said. According to Fox News, he remarked: "Disappointments will be clearly a minority irritant." (Was that a Freudian slip? Or just another Bushism? According to the official transcript of the press conference, Bush actually said, "minor irritant.")
But the most surprising (I suppose) element of his non-mea-culpa is his insistence that he is unpopular because he did the right thing. For instance, he said that it would have been wrong for him to back the Kyoto global warming treaty just to be popular. Of course. But that doesn't mean trashing it was the correct thing to do. Bush seems to believe that popular disgust with some of his actions is a signal that he made the hard and right choice. See Iraq.
By tapping Leon Panetta to be CIA chief, President-elect Barack Obama sent a clear signal: no to torture. A year ago, Panetta wrote an article declaring, "We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances." And he included waterboarding--which the CIA has used---as torture. When Obama on Friday morning publicly announced his appointment of Panetta, he declared, "under my administration, the United States does not torture." He noted that he was handing this "clear charge" to Panetta and that this policy "will ultimately make us safer."
In fact, Obama's reported first choice for the CIA job, John Brennan, a career CIA official, had had his chances scuttled after bloggers and others griped that he had been soft, if not supportive, when it came to torture and CIA renditions. A New Yorkerpiece by Jane Mayer identified him as a "supporter" of so-called enhanced interrogation methods. And in a 2006 PBS interview, Brennan said, "we do have to take off the gloves in some areas" but without going so far as to "forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad." He added that the "dark side has its limits."
Well, Brennan didn't get the top post at Langley. But Obama has selected him to be his chief counterterrorism adviser in the White House. The job requires no Senate confirmation. So Brennan will not be inconvenienced by questions regarding any past involvement with CIA renditions and waterboarding. (Brennan has reportedly told Obama he had no direct role in CIA's abusive interrogation policies and even internally expressed reservations.) In announcing Brennan's appointment, Obama noted, "John has the experience, vision and integrity to advance America's security."
The front page of The Washington Postscreams, "Obama Is Under Fire Over Panetta Selection." The article notes that "current and former intelligence officials expressed sharp resentment over Obama's choice of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director." CQPolitics.com blogger and national security journalist Jeff Stein, quoting a former CIA operations veteran, reports that the rank-and-file reaction to Panetta at the CIA has been "overwhelmingly negative." Stein notes that many CIA field people aren't keen on bringing an intelligence establishment outsider into the CIA and would rather have someone who knows the nitty-gritty of spy work running the place--though Stein does report that "a number of former top CIA officials" have told him that Panetta could be a good choice, given that he can be expected to have the standing within the Obama administration to bring effective leadership to the agency.
I asked a former top CIA official who had served not too long ago to share his/her view of the Panetta pick. S/he would only do so if not identified. I know it's often unsatisfying to read a long quote from an unnamed source. But his/her perspective is interesting enough to merit presenting the full response. Let me add that this person is savvy in both the ways of Langley and Washington:
I was expecting to be surprised...and I was. It seems to me to be a reasonably good one pick given the cards they had dealt themselves. The Obama transition folks massively mishandled the [onetime contender for CIA chief] John Brennan situation. When they caved to a little outside pressure [which resulted from Brennan's previous association with the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation procedures] and forced him to remove himself from consideration -- they ended up ruling out a whole class of potential candidates. (i.e. anyone who had served in a position of any significance in intelligence in the past 8 years). So then what could they do?
It was Barack Obama's first official joke as president-elect. At his postelection press conference, Obama was asked if he had talked to "any living ex-presidents." He replied, "I've spoken to all of them that are living," and then quipped, "I didn't want to get into a Nancy Reagan thing about, you know, doing any séances." Actually, as first lady, Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer for guidance, not a medium for a connection to the other side. Afterward, Obama called her to apologize for what he called a flip comment. But if there were to be a séance at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Obama would do well to ask for Ronald Reagan.