Followup - Pelosi and Waterboarding

Earlier this morning Nancy Pelosi told reporters that the CIA had specifically denied waterboarding prisoners back when they briefed her in 2002.  Fine, I said, but "what about reports that one of your aides, Michael Sheehy, was briefed about waterboarding in early 2003 and passed the news along to you? Any comment on that?"

Robert Waldmann in turn has a pair of questions for me:

1) Did you listen to Pelosi's statement and/or read a transcript ?

2) Should you have checked what she said before accusing her of an omission ?

Um, no.  And yes.  Sorry.  I screwed up.  I didn't read Pelosi's whole statement, which did indeed address the issue of the 2003 briefing:

Five months later, in February 2003, a member of my staff informed me that the Republican chairman and new Democratic Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee had been briefed about the use of certain techniques which had been the subject of earlier legal opinions.

Following that briefing, a letter raising concerns was sent to CIA General Counsel Scott Muller by the new Democratic Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, the appropriate person to register a protest.

This is a reference to Jane Harman's letter, which raised some questions about whether the president had approved the various interrogation techniques then in use.  It was hardly a full-throated denunciation of torture, and it's never been clear whether Pelosi even knew about the letter at the time.  In other words, there are still plenty of questions here.

But I still should have looked up the whole statement first.  Sorry.

Why the GOP Blocked Obama's Interior Nominee

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar blocked the leasing of hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands back in February, he could hardly have known that the move would leave him without a deputy for months on end. But Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was upset about the cancelation of the leases, which would have brought hundreds of new gas wells to central Utah's beautiful Nine Mile Canyon. (The petroglyphs in the photo to the left adorn many of the cliff walls there.) In retaliation, Bennett put a senatorial hold on David Hayes, President Barack Obama's nominee to be Salazar's deputy. When Democrats tried to bypass the hold on Wednesday, Republicans stood with Bennett and filibustered Hayes' nomination.

On Monday, I wrote about the "suicide" of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi in a Libyan jail. Al-Libi was the man whose false confession, obtained under torture, of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda provided the Bush administration with its casus belli for war with Iraq. It didn't seem to matter that al-Libi's claim that Bin Laden had sent operatives to be trained in the use of weapons of mass destruction by Hussein's people didn't make any sense. "They were killing me," al-Libi later told the FBI about his torturers. "I had to tell them something." A bipartisan Senate Intelligence committee report would later conclude that al-Libi lied about the link "to avoid torture."

The al-Libi story has been moving forward at a breakneck pace since it first broke in the Arab press over the weekend. Human Rights Watch, whose staffers last spoke to al-Libi on April 27, called for an investigation into his death in a press release issued late Monday afternoon. (When HRW spoke to al-Libi on the 27th, he refused to be interviewed, instead asking, "Where were you when I was being tortured in American jails?") 

But the biggest news so far in the al-Libi case comes from former Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson. In a post on Steve Clemons' Washington Note, Wilkerson writes:

[W]hat I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002—well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion—its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

Wilkerson is saying that getting the false "information" from al-Libi about an Iraq-Al Qaeda link wasn't an unexpected "bonus" of the torture—it was the goal of the torture. Kevin Drum's caution is very important here: "One way or another, Wilkerson is going to have to tell us how he knows this.  It's not enough just to say that he 'learned' it." But if Wilkerson's information is reliable—and he's been reliable in the past—this changes everything about the torture debate. Josh Marshall explains:

The basis of most of the anti-torture push has been the assumption that torture was used for the purpose of eliciting information about future terrorist attacks. Whether it was illegal, wrong-headed, misguided, immoral—whatever—most have been willing to at least give the benefit of the doubt that that was the goal. If the driving force was to gin up new bogus intel about the fabled Iraq-al Qaida link, politically it will put the whole story in a very different light. And rightly so.

Andrew Sullivan Took the Words Out of My Mouth

I've been reading all the chest-beating about Obama's perfidy in not releasing the torture photos and wondering why I seemed so alone. Sullivan was one of his harshest critics.

At first blush, and certainly after Obama's stance on trying the Bush admin torturemeisters, it seemed insupportable that the photos not be released. But the more I read, the more I wondered: what good would it do? It's like showing a jury gory photos of a murder victim; it serves no purpose but to inflame and not very subtly signal to the jury to go crazy on the perp.

I'm with Obama in believing that releasing the photos would certainly heighten the danger for our troops. And, aside from re-proving that we had indeed become a nation of torturers, why should the world witness anymore of our brutality or more degradation of our victims? After the Abu Ghraib photos, what's to be learned? Yes, it would hold those responsible just that much more responsible, but if you don't believe the obvious by now, no more photos will help, while certainly making us just that much more hated around the world. Those of us who are not ashamed by now never will be and those of us who are don't need our prurient interests satiated. Admitting to ourselves and the world the heinous things we've done is all that decency requires. It would be irresponsible to publish the photos when nothing can be gained by doing so; humbly admitting their existence is enough, as long as they're retained for use by a Truth Commission. By no means should our torture policy's architects escape justice. There, Obama and I part company.

Sullivan, to his credit, has again admitted to a change of heart. Or, more precisely, that blogging often requires one to admit when they've been too hasty:

Profiles in Courage

Apparently Republican mau-mauing on Guantanamo is working:

A bill by Senate Democrats would fund the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but it would block the transfer of any of the detainees to the United States.

....Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) on Wednesday circulated an approximately $91.5-billion measure that includes $50 million to shutter the Guantanamo facility and move its prisoners — with the proviso that they can't be sent to the United States. The Senate bill appears to favor paying foreign governments to accept the prisoners.

Are Democrats really still so afraid of loony-bin GOP videos that they have to indulge in this nonsense?  Prisoners who need to be transferred can be kept perfectly safely in any ordinary civilian or military prison in the United States, and everyone knows it.  It's time for Dems to get out of their fetal crouch, call out the Republican leadership loudly and clearly for its transparent cynicism and fearmongering, make it clear that we trust the United States Army to run a stockade, and pass a bill letting the military house the prisoners wherever it chooses to.  Somewhere near Washington DC would be a good symbolic gesture.  It's time for some adult supervision here.

The Osama-Saddam Connection

Over at The Washington Note, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, claims that the main purpose of torture in the months immediately after 9/11 was to find a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein:

What I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 — well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion — its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

I wouldn't be surprised if this was the case.  But one way or another, Wilkerson is going to have to tell us how he knows this.  It's not enough just to say that he "learned" it.

Who Killed the Cap on Credit Card Interest Rates?

Public support for a crackdown on shady credit card lending practices is practically stratospheric right now, and yet Congress still couldn't bring itself to buck the industry and crack down on exorbitant interest rates. An amendment in the Senate that would have capped interest rates at 15 percent failed decisvely, winning just 33 votes. (The only Republican to back the measure was Charles Grassley; you can see the full list of senators who shot down the proposal here.)

James Ridgeway has the rundown on Congress' half-hearted feint at credit card reform here. And don't miss Kevin Drum's posts on the industry's lousy business practices and its trusty friends in Congress.     

Pelosi: CIA Lied about Waterboarding

Nancy Pelosi fights back against news reports that she was briefed on the torture of CIA prisoners in 2002:

In her first public comments on the matter since an intelligence report contradicted her recollections, Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters today that she was never told about the fact that waterboarding had been used on a terrorist suspect, even though terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded a month before she was briefed on the subject in Sept. 2002.

“The only mention of waterboarding at that briefing was that it was not being employed,” Pelosi said, reading from a prepared statement. “Those briefing me in Sept. 2002 gave me inaccurate and incomplete information.”

Game on!  Two questions, though.  First, why did it take you a week to remember this?  Second, what about reports that one of your aides, Michael Sheehy, was briefed about waterboarding in early 2003 and passed the news along to you?  Any comment on that?

UPDATE: Actually, it turns out that Pelosi did address the Sheehy issue.  Details here.

Leaked Text of Obama's Notre Dame Degree?

President Barack Obama's scheduled appearance at Notre Dame's commencement on Sunday has caused a fuss, with antiabortion activists and students promising they will protest. One of those leading this effort, Randall Terry, a longtime, controversial, and extreme anti-abortion crusader, claims he's obtained a leaked copy of the text of the honorary degree Obama will receive. In a press release he zapped out on Thursday morning, Terry said the text had been given to him by "someone connected with Notre Dame" whom he would not identify, and he published the purported text:

The University of Notre Dame Confers the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on the 44th president of the United States, whose historic election opened a new era of hope in a country long divided by its history of slavery and racism. A community organizer who honed his advocacy for the poor, the marginalized and the worker in the streets of Chicago, he now organizes a larger community, bringing to the world stage a renewed American dedication to diplomacy and dialogue with all nations and religions committed to human rights and the global common good. Through his willingness to engage with those who disagree with him and encourage people of faith to bring their beliefs to the public debate, he is inspiring this nation to heal its divisions of religion, culture, race and politics in the audacious hope for a brighter tomorrow.
On Barack H. Obama, Washington, District of Columbia"

The FBI's Racial Discrimination Problem...

Donald Rochon is back in the news. The former FBI agent settled an historic discrimination case against the bureau in 1990. Rochon, who is African-American, alleged repeated instances of harrassment by his white colleagues in the FBI's field offices in Omaha and Chicago. For example, there was the time his fellow agents taped a picture of a monkey over a framed family photo on Rochon's desk. And after Rochon learned to scuba dive, his fellow agents had great fun doctoring a photo depicting him swimming through a garbage dump. The discrimination was as clear-cut as it was offensive. Included in the out-of-court settlement was the promise that upon reaching retirement age, Rochon would receive his full FBI pension. This apparently did not happen, which is why Rochon is again locked in a legal battle with the bureau.

But as bad as things were for Rochon, FBI spokesman John Miller told reporters this week that the bureau has come a long way in twenty years. It now has systems in place through which aggrieved employees can file discrimination complaints to internal investigators. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean the problem is solved. Just ask Bassem Youssef. The bureau's highest-ranking Arabic-speaking agent, Youssef was a star undercover operator who penetrated Al Qaeda years before 9/11. But after the attacks on New York and Washington, he was sidelined to a desk job. Why? Youssef claims it's because of his Egyptian ethnicity. As far as the FBI may have come in the last few decades, it still has a long way to go. Youssef's struggles with the bureau are a sad reminder that the FBI's good-ole-boy culture is in need of a serious overhaul, just as it was twenty years ago.

For more, read my profile of Bassem Youssef, which was published in the May/June 2009 issue of Mother Jones.