If you want accountability, you can't have transparency.

That's essentially what government lawyers told the American Civil Liberties Union in a letter [PDF] filed with Judge Alvin Hellerstein in federal district court in New York on Monday. The letter is the latest development in an ACLU lawsuit that aims to force the Department of Defense and other government entities to disclose documents relating to the treatment, death, and extraordinary rendition of detainees.

On September 2, Judge Hellerstein ordered the CIA to search records within its inspector general's office for documents relating to the destruction of videotapes of illegal interrogations and the "persons and reasons behind their destruction." The government's latest letter informs the court that the CIA found some information that should rightfully be disclosed under to the Freedom of Information Act—but it still couldn't release any of it. The special prosecutor appointed by the Bush administration to investigate the destruction of the videotapes has asserted that the documents are exempt from disclosure, because their release could impair his ability to conduct his investigation.

The move by the special prosecutor, John Durham, in support of withholding the documents "could delay transparency," says Alex Abdo, one of the ACLU lawyers working on the case. Prosecutors often use this particular FOIA exemption, Abdo says—sometimes with good cause and sometimes to justify neverending internal inquiries that prevent any outside groups from obtaining evidence of government wrongdoing. If there's eventually accountability for the people responsible for torture and the destruction of the tapes, that might be an acceptable trade-off, Abdo says.

But without more information, it's hard for the ACLU to tell whether Durham is justified in claiming that more transparency could harm his investigation. The government is due to file a more detailed explanation of what it's withholding and why next Tuesday. We'll know more then.

It Gets Worse for Hank Paulson

Just how extensive were the ties that bound Hank Paulson, Bush's Treasury secretary, to his former employer, Goldman Sachs?

On Tuesday, two watchdog groups told Mother Jones that Paulson could have broken ethics laws by meeting secretly with Goldman's board of directors in Moscow months before he obtained an ethics waiver allowing him to work on issues affecting the investment bank. That incident was reported by Andrew Ross Sorkin in his new book on the financial meltdown; today Felix Salmon points out another very questionable episode:

If all that weren’t enough to deal with, [Lehman president Bart] McDade had just had a baffling conversation with [CEO Dick] Fuld, who informed him that Paulson had called him directly to suggest that the firm open up its books to Goldman Sachs. The way Fuld described it, Goldman was effectively advising Treasury. Paulson was also demanding a thorough review of Lehman’s confidential numbers, courtesy of Goldman Sachs.

McDade, though never much of a Goldman conspiracy theorist, found Fuld’s report discomfiting, but moments later was on the phone with Harvey Schwartz, Goldman’s head of capital markets. "I’m following up at Hank’s request," he began.

After another perplexing conversation, McDade walked down the hall and told Alex Kirk to immediately call Schwartz at Goldman, instructing him to set up a meeting and getting them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

"This is coming directly from Paulson," he explained.

As Felix explains, this latest Sorkin anecdote looks even worse for Paulson than the clandestine meeting in Moscow: Paulson is basically "forcing Lehman to open its books fully to a direct competitor, for no obvious reason." There's no evidence that Treasury's lawyers signed off on the move, either. Felix says that there's more than material out there to prompt a congressional investigation of Paulson. I'm asking around to see if there are any members of Congress who agree.

A Deal With Iran

The talks with Iran about a deal to ship its low-enriched uranium out of the country to be turned into fuel for its medical research reactor went into overtime, but today a tentative agreement was announced:

The head of the world's atomic energy watchdog said Iran and world powers have until Friday to approve a proposed deal to transfer most of Iran's nuclear material abroad to be reformatted for medical purposes.

...."We have had very constructive discussions, intensive discussions," Iran's envoy to the atomic energy agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said after the meeting, according to news agencies....Under the terms of the deal sketched out before this week's meeting, Iran would send up to 80% of its supply of low-enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be further refined, and France, where it would be turned into plates for use in a medical research reactor.

It's a positive step.  On the other hand, Iran's ability to enrich LEU into weapons grade uranium is a little fuzzy right now, so it's possible that this costs them nothing at all.  It will take them upwards of a year to replace the stockpile of LEU they send out of the country, but if they're a year away from mastering the full enrichment cycle then this deal doesn't actually slow them down any.

Still, this is good news.  It's not great news, and I wouldn't take it as a sign of a new era in Iranian relations or anything.  But it's better than nothing.

Outfoxed

Shorter Mickey Kaus: every news organization has its own temperament, but only Fox News has Roger Ailes.

Note to the press etc.: When even Mickey agrees that Fox's brand of mendacity is in a class by itself, maybe it's time to start admitting the obvious.

The Death Penalty's Big Tab

A new study from the Death Penalty Information Center, "Smart on Crime," reports that halting executions could save millions of dollars. This is no small consideration for cash-strapped state governments—especially if the large sums they spend aren't delivering greater public safety. The study reports that a national poll of police chiefs rate the death penalty at the bottom of their list of crime-fighting priorities: "The officers do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder, and they rate it as one of most inefficient uses of taxpayer dollars in fighting crime. Criminologists concur that the death penalty does not effectively reduce the number of murders."

Nationwide, death sentences have declined by 60 percent since 2000 and executions by nearly as much. Keeping 3,300 inmates on death row is very expensive, as are prosecutions seeking the death penalty because the legal process is so long and complex. In many instances, people sentenced to death end up sitting in prison for many years before ever getting close to facing execution—and some never reach that point at all. From the report:
 

Obama: Crazy Like a Fox?

In a column for PoliticsDaily.com, David Corn ponders the White House-Fox feud and observes that the Obama crew might be wasting too much firepower on the conservative network. After noting that it's ridiculous for Fox to deny it's a rightwing media outfit, he points out:

Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes have the right to make Fox as right-wingish as they desire. Their network can provide a platform for a host who calls the president a "racist." It can broadcast interviews in which a conservative host asks a conservative guest softball questions. (See Hannity.) It can elect to focus on (real or imagined) foibles of Democrats more than those of Republicans. It can beat the drums for war or recruit foot soldiers for anti-Obama rallies. And it can repeatedly—and laughably—assert that it's "fair and balanced." But polite society doesn't have to accept any or all of this.

Neither does the White House. But that doesn't mean the Obama administration has to make a federal case over Fox.

In recent days, the White House has let loose its big guns. On Sunday shows these past two weekends—as Fox has duly noted—top Obama officials blasted the network. First, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn slammed Fox as "opinion journalism masquerading as news." Then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that the other cable news networks shouldn't be "following Fox." Senior White House aide David Axelrod declared that Fox is "not a news organization." On Monday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs accused Fox of skewing its coverage to the right for the sake of profits. And the White House has stopped providing guests to "Fox News Sunday." Dunn told The New York Times, "We're going to treat them like we treat an opponent." Now Washington is abuzz over which side will blink first.

Corn writes that it's unclear if the Obama White House has attacked Fox as part of some master political strategy craftily designed to whip up its own base and isolate conservative opposition in a Fox corner.

It looks to me that the Obama-ites are in a zone somewhere between following a grand strategy and winging it. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that Axelrod was meeting with Ailes. And during the campaign, Obama had a secret confab with Ailes and pounded him for running a network that was practically equating him with terrorists. So there has been a shift from trying to deal with Fox to treating it as a major adversary. (MoveOn.org, the liberal advocacy group, has entered the fray, urging its millions of members to pressure Congressional Democrats to stay off Fox.)

Yet whatever Obama and his aides are attempting, they're doing it with a heavy hand. That's probably a mistake. Fox is a distraction, an irritant. It's true that Beck has been scoring boffo ratings—topping 3 million watchers on special nights—which is good for cable but still not a gigantic audience in a country this size. Tom DeLay had seven times or so that amount of viewers when he did his "Wild Thing" on "Dancing With the Stars." (There's no solid figure for Rush Limbaugh's audience, but a decent estimate is that he draws about 14 million listeners a week.)

Rather than react in a huffy manner to Fox—which provides an alternative reality to outraged conservatives who feel lost in Obama's America—the White House ought to opt for what I'd call strategic derision. Good-natured belittling—but belittling, all the same—would go further than indignation, even if the indignation can be justified. That is, don't demolish Fox, demean it. Gibbs should chuckle when a Fox correspondent asks a Foxian question. After all, if Fox is not to be taken seriously, don't take it seriously. And by all means, don't send Obama officials on Fox shows. But if a White House official is asked about this, he or she should reply with dismissive humor, not anger. ("We'd rather be reading the Senate Finance Committee's health care reform bill.") Obama is well-skilled when it comes to deploying a light-but-cutting touch. That ought to be terms of engagement for his aides involved in the Fox skirmish. Fox is not important enough to be treated as Public Enemy No. 1.

Bashing the conservative network could rally Obama's base. But Obama, for good or bad, did promise to rise above partisan sentiment and the game playing of the Washington political-media circus. With a clever use of strategic derision, Obama and his aides could do this and still stick it to the network. Fox is just not worth a game of chicken.

Media watchers will be staying tuned to this channel to see if the White House, with its attack on Ailes & Co., turns out to be crazy like a fox.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

 

MoveOn Targets Toyota's Chamber Membership

The liberal activist group MoveOn is pressuring Toyota—maker of the eco-status-symbol Prius— to leave the embattled US Chamber of Commerce.

With the Chamber under fire for its opposition to climate change legislation, advocates for action are pushing for more environmentally conscious businesses to quit the group, or at least publicly distance themselves from the Chamber's rhetoric. (Another business, Mohawk Fine Paper, left the group yesterday.)

MoveOn is asking members who own Priuses (Prii?) to send in photos asking Toyota to resign its membership. So far, they've gathered more than 770 images, which they plan to deliver to the company's New York headquarters and dealerships around the country.

"There are a lot of people out there who really did buy a Toyota saying, 'I feel better doing business with this company because of their green image,'" Steven Biel, MoveOn's clean energy campaign director, told Mother Jones. "Our members who own Priuses or other fuel efficient Toyotoa automobiles find this really outrageous, it just doesn't make sense to them."

More photos of pissed-off drivers can be found here.

Dazed and Confused by Solar Power?

Solar power lovers of the world, unite!

That could be the motto for the solar power collective, 1BOG—if co-founder Dave Llorens cared about things like mottos. 1BOG is an acronym for "One Block Off the Grid," a concept Llorens explained over lunch recently in Phoenix where he was finalizing a decision on which of the many solar installation companies in the Valley of the Sun would be 1BOG's "preferred installer."

(They announced their decision yesterday: REC Solar, Inc.)

 

Retired Staff Sgt. Luke Wilson jokes that audience members can play with his prosthetic leg if they want to during a "town hall meeting" with Soldiers of 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, during a visit by wounded warriors participating in Operation Proper Exit, Oct. 15, at Camp Ramadi, Iraq. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

Need To Read: October 21, 2009

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)