2009 - %3, April

Hunkering Down

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 9:40 AM PDT

Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, thinks we need a special prosecutor to investigate Bush-era torture policies.  My MoJo colleague David Corn, the guy who first broke the Valerie Plame story, isn't so sure:

There's one problem with a special prosecutor: it's not his job to expose wrongdoing. A special prosecutor does dig up facts — but only in order to prosecute a possible crime. His mission is not to shine light on misdeeds, unless it is part of a prosecution. In many cases, a prosecutor's investigation does not produce any prosecutions. Sometimes, it leads only to a limited prosecution.

That's what happened with Patrick Fitzgerald. He could not share with the public all that he had discovered about the involvement of Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, and other officials in the CIA leak case. Under the rules governing federal criminal investigations, he was permitted to disclose only information and evidence that was directly related and needed for the indictment and prosecution of Libby. Everything else he had unearthed via subpoenas and grand jury interviews had to remain secret. Repeatedly, Fitzgerald said that his hands were tied on this point. A special prosecutor, it turns out, is a rather imperfect vehicle for revealing the full truth.

David also says that lawyers he's talked to suggest that prosecutions would be difficult, which could leave us in the worst of all possible worlds: a long, drawn-out investigation that, in the end, produces not even a report or a set of indictment, let alone convictions.  No one would be satisfied.

David suggests an independent commission of some kind as the best way forward, and I'm tentatively inclined to agree.  Unfortunately, President Obama seems distinctly non-thrilled by the idea, and I doubt that Congress is especially eager to move forward either.  Porter Goss's op-ed last Friday in the Washington Post, where he insisted that both Democratic and Republican members of Congress knew what the CIA was doing and didn't object to it, may have been disingenuous in places, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's right about his essential point — or at least, close enough to right to make a genuinely independent commission as frightening a prospect for Dems as it is for the GOP.  It's probably the right thing to do, but if Obama's opposed and Republicans are opposed and Democrats are mostly running for cover, who's going to make it happen?

There's always the Senate Intelligence Committee, of course, but I wouldn't hold my breath that they're going to produce anything definitive.  Washington is hunkering down and hoping that this will all blow over as soon as the next crisis of the moment hits the front pages.  Unfortunately, they're probably right.

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Yes, We Did Execute Japanese Soldiers for Waterboarding American POWs

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 9:04 AM PDT

It stuns me that we are still having a debate, as a country, over whether or not what the Bush Administration did to detainees in the war on terror was actually torture. I would hope that this helps settle things. The fact-checking outfit called PolitiFact confirms that a McCain statement from 2007, dredged up recently by Paul Begala, is accurate:

"I forgot to mention last night that following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding," [McCain] told reporters at a campaign event.

"If the United States is in another conflict ... and we have allowed that kind of torture to be inflicted upon people we hold captive, then there is nothing to prevent that enemy from also torturing American prisoners."

McCain is referencing the Tokyo Trials, officially known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. After World War II, an international coalition convened to prosecute Japanese soldiers charged with torture. At the top of the list of techniques was water-based interrogation, known variously then as "water cure," "water torture" and "waterboarding," according to the charging documents. It simulates drowning.

R. John Pritchard, a historian and lawyer who is a top scholar on the trials, said the Japanese felt the ends justified the means. "The rapid and effective collection of intelligence then, as now, was seen as vital to a successful struggle, and in addition, those who were engaged in torture often felt that whatever pain and anguish was suffered by the victims of torture was nothing less than the just deserts of the victims or people close to them," he said.

In a recent journal essay, Judge Evan Wallach, a member of the U.S. Court of International Trade and an adjunct professor in the law of war, writes that the testimony from American soldiers about this form of torture was gruesome and convincing. A number of the Japanese soldiers convicted by American judges were hanged, while others received lengthy prison sentences or time in labor camps.

You can argue that the techniques used by Americans on detainees were necessary and, because of the OLC memos, legal. I would disagree with you, but you could plausibly make that argument. What you cannot do any longer is pretend that those techniques do not meet the definition of torture that America has used in the past.

Update: The state of American law on torture.

Employee-Driven Government Reform: A Good Idea?

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 8:50 AM PDT

Over the weekend, Barack Obama spoke about various ideas for government reform that his administration will be trying out. One in particular struck me as interesting. Here's Obama:

Third, we'll look for ideas from the bottom up. After all, Americans across the country know that the best ideas often come from workers – not just management. That's why we’ll establish a process through which every government worker can submit their ideas for how their agency can save money and perform better. We’ll put the suggestions that work into practice. And later this year, I will meet with those who come up with the best ideas to hear firsthand about how they would make your government more efficient and effective.

That's pretty neat, though without routing these ideas from deep within the bureaucracy directly to the Oval Office, this could very easily turn out to be an empty PR gambit. Presumably a political appointee at the top of a federal agency can squash the ideas he or she doesn't want to see implemented.

My favorite part of this, though, is the flood of suggestions about saving money that are likely going to be little more than, "You should fire Jim, the guy in the cubicle next to me who cuts his toenails in the office."

Withdrawing from Iraq

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 8:48 AM PDT

The New York Times reports that the June 30 deadline to remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities may get watered down a bit:

The United States and Iraq will begin negotiating possible exceptions to the June 30 deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraqi cities, focusing on the troubled northern city of Mosul, according to military officials. Some parts of Baghdad also will still have combat troops.

....The spokesman for the Iraqi military, Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Askari, who is also the secretary to the committee’s Iraqi contingent, said also that a decision on Mosul would be made at Monday’s meeting, which he called “critical.”

“I personally think even in Mosul there will be no American forces in the city, but that’s a decision for the Iraqi government and the Iraqi prime minister,” General Askari said.

General [David] Perkins also expressed specific concerns about Mosul, noting how important the city is to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.

“For Al Qaeda to win, they have to take Baghdad. To survive they have to hold on to Mosul,” he said. “Mosul is sort of their last area where they have some maybe at least passive support.”

I don't really feel like panicking at the moment about whether this is the camel's nose that keeps us in Iraq forever, but June 30 sure seems like the perfect opportunity to stop screwing around and make it clear that we're going to do what we said we were going to do.  At every step of this process, there are going to be enormous forces pushing in the direction of staying in Iraq for just a little bit longer, or in just a few more places, or with just a few more missions, and if we start giving in to them it's going to be hard to stop.  We've got a plan and a schedule.  Let's stick with it.

 

Swine Flu: Bringing Home the Bacon

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 7:08 AM PDT

As the world gears up once again for a flu pandemic that may or may not arrive (it actually seems possible this time), we might want to remember some of the lessons of the last flu scare. One of these is that there are winners as well as losers in every high-profile outbreak of infectious disease. First and foremost among them, of course, is Big Pharma, which can always be counted on to have its hand out wherever human misery presents an opportunity to rake in some cash.

In 2005, I reported on the bird flu scare for the Village Voice in a piece called “Capitalizing on the Flu.” We can realistically hope that our current federal government will improve upon the bungled effort made by the Bush Administration to prepare for the onslaught of avian flu—which fortunately didn’t materialize. But certain aspects of the crisis are likely to be repeated, and profiteers will surely waste no time in gathering at the trough.

Then, as now, one of the two effective antidotes was a drug called Tamiflu. But this silver bullet came with side effects, as well as a high price tag. As I reported in 2005:

Miscellaneous Thoughts

| Sun Apr. 26, 2009 10:02 PM PDT

I'm back!  The Georgia coast is beautiful.  Lotsa bugs, though.

The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is powered by Macintoshes.  If it weren't for us liberals, Apple probably would have been in Chapter 11 years ago.

I think the seat pitch in Delta's airplanes is about three inches.  Or so.

John Thain is pissed.  The Wall Street Journal has the story.  I'm looking forward to many more public feuds like this as Wall Street continues to melt down.

Normal blogging will resume Monday.

 

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Crybabies of Wall Street

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 12:55 PM PDT

The new issue of New York Magazine features a cover story called “The Wail of the 1%.” The piece describes what a bummer it is for rich Wall Street execs to have to put up with all the populist rage that’s being levied against them–just because they helped bring down the world economy, and got paid seven-figure salaries while doing so. It’s especially difficult for the poor bankers and brokers to endure all these bad vibes while they’re having to tighten their own hand-tooled Italian leather belts due to lost jobs and lost bonuses.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this sort of peevish lament from the rich–I’ve written about it before myself. But the article’s author, Gabriel Sherman, gets some truly shameless quotes out of these guys (most of whom refused to use their names). A few examples:

“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

“I’m not giving to charity this year!” one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama’s planned tax increases. “When people ask me for money, I tell them, ‘If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.’ I feel so much less generous right now. If I have to adopt twenty poor families, I want a thank-you note and an update on their lives. At least Sally Struthers gives you an update.”

Plan B vs. the Knuckle-Draggers

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 12:40 PM PDT

Plan B will soon be available OTC to girls as young as 17. Good. Sad. But good.

Needless to say, the knuckle-draggers are leaving skid marks all over the place. You gotta love this title on "The Other McCain" blog: "What next? Over-the-counter roofies?"

Plan B—the drug that allows guys to breathe a sigh of relief the morning after using some chick for selfish pleasure—will now be available to 17-year-olds without a prescription.
Who cares that she's not even old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes legally? Get her drunk on wine coolers, get what you want, then the next morning, take her to CVS to get Plan B and make sure there's no chance the slut will show up in a few months talking child support payments and DNA tests.
So guys, if you screw a 17-year-old and "forget" to use a condom, remember: Nothing says "thanks a lot, you cheap whore" like the gift of Plan B!

The only thing worse than the politburo seeking to make the rest of us do as we're told is when they pretend to give a damn about women. Luckily, they don't fake it well at all.

Mommies Praised, But Not Respected, For Staying Home With Their Kids

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 12:02 PM PDT

Ah, the family values crowd.

One proud stay-at-home mom of three had a rude awakening yesterday when she tried to keep her daughter home with her for Take Your Child To Work Day.

[Sandra] Thompson says she considers hers a professional job and when she planned for bring your child to work day, she thought that as a stay at home mom it would be good for her kids to see what she does all day.
"I approached the teacher and asked her if it would be ok for Adriane to spend a day and see what my job is all about. They came back and said that my job is not considered a professional job."
Sandra took her concerns to the Superintendent of Madison County Schools, Dr. Terry Davis. 
"He told me how much he admires my job, how important my job is, that his own wife stays home with their children."
But still he refused to allow it.

It would have counted as an unexcused absence.

Don't you just hate it when the truth slips out?

Looks like the Thompson kids could write their own book: Everything I Know About Misogyny I Learned On Take Your Child To Work Day. Maybe Mrs. Davis would like to contribute an essay.

The Week in Torture

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 11:58 AM PDT

No, Obama doesn't plan to prosecute the CIA agents who tortured prisoners during the Bush era. But will he taze the policymakers? Note to Obama: Here's a torture chain of command cheat sheet. Looks like you'll need it.

Meanwhile, the right continues to preach moral absolutism on everything except the "We're America, We Don't Fucking Torture" front; a Playboy writer gets waterboarded for kicks; and Dick Cheney still just loooooves the torture talk. Maybe Cheney tapes will make it onto the next torture playlist; in the meantime, does Jonathan Mann have to credit John Yoo after setting his torture memos to music?

Alas, we can't tell you which soldier gave us this secret footage inside the Abu Ghraib cellblocks. But you should watch it anyway for the sheer spooky matter-of-factness. Those cells are wicked small! And narrated!

Hey, did you know our special torture investigation is up for a National Magazine Award? See why: Listen to our exclusive torture playlist and re-read the secrets of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the war on terror.