Where It Started

FBI agent Ali Soufan writes in the New York Times about the torture memos:

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working....It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

....There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

As it happens, I've never made arguments against torture based on whether it works or not.  I'm more in the Shep Smith camp: "We are America.  We. Do. Not. Fucking. Torture."  Still it's worth reminding everyone of exactly what happened with Abu Zubaydah, whose case helped touch off the institutionalization of torture under the Bush administration.  Ron Suskind told the story in The One Percent Doctrine, and Barton Gellman summarizes here:

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be....Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics....And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States."

....Which brings us back to the unbalanced Abu Zubaydah. "I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each...target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

And so it began.

A War Against Harman?

When the Jane Harman story first broke, I thought the most interesting question might very well be, Who leaked it?  The more I read about it, the more I'm beginning to think I was right.  Here's the latest from CQ:

Intelligence officials, angry that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had blocked an FBI investigation into Democratic Rep. Jane Harman's interactions with a suspected Israeli agent, tipped off Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, that Harman had been picked up on a court-ordered National Security Agency wiretap targeting the agent.

In doing so, the officials flouted an order by Gonzales not to inform Pelosi, three former national security officials said.

....A well-placed source said an official from the CIA had gone around Gonzales to inform Pelosi about Harman being picked up on the wiretap...."She knew. We made sure she knew," said one of the former officials, chuckling.

It's not at all clear that Harman did anything wrong here.  (Though it's not clear that she didn't either.)  What is clear is that the CIA is engaged in some pretty serious message sending against people they don't like.  My guess: I don't know how Harman is going to weather all this, but I don't think it's going to turn out well for the CIA.  They may have gone a couple of steps too far this time.

Down the Rabbit Hole

From Matt Yglesias:

Dave Weigel notes that Senator Jon Cornyn (R-TX), in charge of helping GOP Senate candidates, is being surprisingly friendly with former Rep. Pat Toomey who’s mounting a challenge-from-the-right to Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA). Dave notes that “it becomes much, much harder to hold the seat if Specter loses.”

Matt goes on to say that this is pretty similar to what happened in the Virginia senate race last year and wonders why the GOP is essentially committing suicide.  It's a good question, and despite the general wankery involved it makes it almost irresistable to try to psychoanalyze the current Republican soul.  It's all just too weird otherwise.  Having gone crackers during the Bush years, and getting convincingly drubbed at the polls for it in 2006 and 2008, the almost unanimous reaction among conservatives has been to double down: focus even more on tax cuts to the exclusion of everything else; focus more on pure obstructionism; focus more on defending torture and insisting that it works great; focus more on gun nuttery even though Obama plainly has no intention of doing anything dramatic about guns; focus more on the absolute craziest pundits.  It's as if they're convinced, so deep in their souls, that America couldn't have really turned against them, that they can't even conceive of any strategy other than amping up the lunacy even further.

I dunno.  It's all crazy.  I can't even begin to understand it.

Dick Cheney's Big Mouth

Lately I've been trying to figure out why Dick Cheney can't keep his mouth shut about President Obama's torture-related moves since his inauguration. And then Greg Sargent nudged me toward a conclusion:

Cheney and company are working to shift the debate onto the narrow question of whether torture “works,” and as Ben Smith notes, this is probably not an argument Obama wants to have right now.

Nonetheless, Cheney’s high-profile entry into the debate is a net win for Obama and Dems. It makes this whole fight is about Bush’s — or, worse, Cheney’s — legacy, at a time when Republicans want it to be about the current Commander in Chief and whether he has what it takes to keep us safe.

So Cheney wants to talk about whether torture worked. This makes sense for him because it lets him talk about how be believes torture did work, and it doesn't matter if it did or didn't.

Why? Because it lets him act as though he was just looking out for the best interest of the country. This sounds much better than Cheney telling Hannity, "Well, Sean, I had no problem with the CIA torturing prisoners because I'm a vindictive asshole with little regard for the rule of law."

But Cheney must know he can't just say, "We were trying to keep America safe." He can't win that argument, because we have little evidence that waterboarding Abu Zubaida 83 times in a month, for example, protected us from further attack. He has to take the sophism a step further, calling for Obama to release more memos that allegedly prove torture did work.

This brings me back to Sargent's post. Cheney saying something like this is, indeed, a net loss for the Republicans. (How many Republican talking heads are more odious right now than Dick Cheney?) But for Cheney it's a net win. Why? Because it gives his original justification for torture two shoddy legs on which to stand. It doesn't matter if these new memos actually exist. Assuming they're just a conjured slice of Cheney's imagination, Cheney can just keep claiming Obama and Hillary Clinton are keeping them secret because they can't admit he's right.

Obviously, it's a completely cynical way of thinking. It's also a bit fantastical; Cheney might as well have demanded Obama release evidence proving Saddam Hussein was in Al-Qaeda. But why stop there? Cheney's selling himself short. Remember, wishes are free. In his whimsical world, he can wish for anything he wants. And as long as Cheney's wishing for a new reality, he might as well wish that he was right about everything and throw in a wish for a pony, too. That's what I'm wishing he'd do publicly. Then, at least, he'd be providing a sideshow rather than a talking point.

After 100 Days of Obama, Optimism Returning

A new AP poll shows that more Americans believe the country is moving in the right direction (48 percent) than those who think it is moving in the wrong direction (44 percent). According to the AP, this marks the first time since Saddam Hussein's capture in January 2004 that "right direction" has out-polled "wrong direction." NB: The "right direction" number was just 17 percent in the fall of 2008.

The AP makes it clear that Americans are still deeply worried about the economy and unemployment; for the first time in a long time, though, many of them have faith in our leaders' ability to fix the country's most pressing problems. One might even say it is morning in America.

Negotiating With Pirates

Treasury's last offer to Chrysler's bondholders was 15% of the total value of their debt.  The bondholders sneered.  They wanted 65%.  Today, Treasury upped their offer:

The Treasury now proposes that the banks and other lenders accept as payment 22% of the $6.9 billion they are owed plus a 5% equity stake in Chrysler, said several people familiar with the matter.

....The new government offer leaves the U.S. and Chrysler lenders at least $3 billion apart with one week left before an April 30 Treasury deadline to determine the auto maker's fate. The two sides are also far apart in how big an ownership stake the lenders would get in a restructured Chrysler.

Who will blink?  I'll predict that they end up at, oh, 30% and a 20% equity stake.  Put your guess in comments.  Whoever comes closest get an autographed 8x10 of Lee Iacocca.

Depeche Mode is not New Order, although you could be forgiven for mixing them up, I suppose, if you're not paying attention, or just looking at their keyboards, or maybe their career arcs. Actually, Depeche Mode's unlikely, meteoric rise to super-fame and subsequent plateau most resembles The Cure's: minimalist, early '80s experiments give way to mid-'80s "alt-culture" idolatry, then early 90's chart-topping mega-success, and finally a semi-retirement based on recycling (with varying degrees of success) the motifs of their earlier output. But there's a reason New Order gets their own section on my record shelves, while D-Mode languishes on the '80s shelf: they've always been a little, well, obvious for my taste, I guess, with their Peoples are Peoples and Personal Jesuses and I Expect to Find God Laffff-ing. Plus, what may be their artistic peak, 1990's "Enjoy the Silence," was basically a New Order homage, at best. But, weirdly enough, Sounds of the Universe, their 12th and latest album, achieves an intriguing complexity by looking to the lessons of early New Order, i.e., being a little obscure might not be such a bad thing.

With the subsidies to Medicare Advantage plans--private insurance provided at public expense--under attack by the Obama administration, the insurance industry is rolling out the astroturf. Their  PR campaign posits a phony "grassroots movement" by seniors who want to protect their beloved Advantage plans from a greedy federal government, which has had the gall to ask insurance companies to provide decent coverage at a reasonable cost.  

I recently wrote about the fake "community forums" for oldsters, complete with free food and door prizes, that are actually cheerleading and sales sessions for Advantage plans. The latest scam is even creepier--and it's being run by a former operative in John Kerry's presidential campaign.  

A Massachusetts newspaper, the Eagle-Tribune, recently discovered  that it was receiving phony letters to the editor supporting Medicare Advantage, using the names of real elderly people as signatories. "Some of those seniors are unaware that they have sent any such letters to newspapers. Some of them hadn’t even heard of Medicare Advantage,” writes Ken Anderson, a reporter for the paper.

Awl Aboard

Here's one reason I'm digging the newly launched Awl, started by former Gawkerites Choire Sicha and Alex Balk:

Remember how when blogging started to get attention the whole gang of print journalists would snort derisively about how it wasn’t “really writing”? And then, a couple of years later, when their papers were dying off and ownership was so desperate for anything to staunch the flow of red ink that it forced them all to start blogging, and they were like, “Holy shit, blogging is hard!” Well, there was a certain protected class of columnists and reporters who, because they were so established, were not made to sully themselves by coding HTML and searching for pooping dog videos. You don’t make a Maureen Dowd blog, particularly when Jennifer 8. Lee will do it five hundred times a day and happily twitpimp the results.
So don’t worry if Maureen Dowd doesn’t like Twitter; it’s not for her. There are plenty of other journalists who desperately need it (and some who definitely need to be weaned from it—David Carr, you are FILLING UP MY DASHBOARD, YOU HAVE TO CHILL). Let the Dowds bury their Dowds; the rest of us are stuck slapping up the minutiae out of fear that we will otherwise become invisible. Which is, of course, the worst thing of all.

Can't really beat a line like "let the Dowds bury their Dowds." Go Alex Balk. When did Gawker start to feel like established biggish media, anyone know?

Happy Earth Day