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Obama "Slams Tight" Door on Bush-Era Detention, Interrogation Practices

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:21 PM EST

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In the Oval Office, surrounded by military officers and with Vice President Biden at his side, President Obama this morning signed several executive orders effectively reversing some of the most controversial Bush administration policies propagated during its "war on terrorism." (Even that well-worn phrase was absent from the executive orders and, in a welcome change, has yet to be uttered by the new president...though White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs today denied to Mother Jones' Washington Bureau Chief David Corn that the omission reflects an official change in rhetoric.)

Obama signed three executive orders, (1) mandating that Guantanamo be closed within one year; (2) ordering that all interrogations be conducted in accordance with the Army Field Manual, even those conducted by the CIA, which had previously enjoyed greater latitude to pursue "harsh interrogation tactics" during the Bush years; and (3) establishing a special inter-agency task force to "provide me with information in terms of how we are able to deal with the disposition of some of the detainees that may be currently at Guantanamo that we cannot transfer to other countries," Obama said at the signing ceremony. The new president also signed a memorandum asking that the Supreme Court delay proceedings related to detainee Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a legal US resident, until the administration has time to review his case.

Before entering the Oval Office for the signing ceremony, Obama and Biden met in the Roosevelt Room with several retired military leaders, who had advised the administration on how to deal with the contentious issues covered in today's executive orders. Former Army Major General Paul Eaton and retired Navy admirals John Hutson and Lee Gunn spoke in a conference call this afternoon about their encounter with the new president and shared their thoughts on the impact of today's event. They were joined by Elisa Massimino, executive director of Human Rights First, which organized the call.

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Has Obama Ended the "War on Terror"?

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:50 PM EST

Has President Barack Obama ended the "war on terror"?

On his second day in office, he signed an executive order that would prevent any officer of the US government from engaging in torture. As he placed his name on the order--keeping a prominent campaign promise--he declared that this move "effectively ensures that anyone detained by the United States for now" will be interrogated in a fashion consistent with the Army field manual, which notes that the use of force, threats, or inhumane treatment is prohibited by law. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture," Obama maintained. In other words, good-bye to waterboarding.

Obama signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by a group of retired generals and flag officers who had advocated a torture ban. It was yet another historic moment in a series of such moments this week. Obama reiterated what he said during his inaugural address: that the United States need not be forced into the false choice between protecting its values and honoring its ideals.

What was intriguing was how Obama characterized the fight against terrorism. He said, "The message we are sending around the world is the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism" vigilantly, effectively, and "in a manner consistent with our values and ideals." Notably, he did not use the term "war on terror." And moments later, he proclaimed, "We intend to win this fight and we're going to win it on our terms." Again, no "war."

Is this a purposeful shift in rhetoric? Has Obama decided to drop the war on terrorism metaphor that the Bush-Cheney administration used extensively?

At Robert Gibbs' first briefing as White House press secretary on Thursday afternoon, I asked if the president had booted the war metaphor. Gibbs replied that Obama had used language that was consistent with his inaugural address. In that speech, Obama had indeed said that "our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred." But he did not use the standard "war on terror" phrase. Instead he threw the word "war" against a specific target.

At the press conference, I followed up and inquired if Obama had decided not to deploy that phrase as president. "Not that I'm aware of," Gibbs answered.

De-emphasizing the war metaphor would be a significant change. But if it is a deliberate change, the White House does not want to acknowledge it.

UPDATE: Speaking at the State Department later in the day, Obama characterized the battle against terrorists as a "twilight struggle." But when listing the national security challenges the nation faces, he quickly ran through the line-up: "the war on terror, sectarian division, and the spread of deadly technology." He's obviously not allergic to the term. But it's not the description he reaches for first when he publicly discusses the matter. Not so far in his presidency.

Frozen River

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:48 PM EST

FROZEN RIVER....Atrios links to a Country Fair post today that takes Courtney Hazlett to task for whining about Frozen River receiving a couple of Oscar nominations. Here's Hazlett:

In the state that Hollywood is in, I would hope that the Academy says, maybe for once we should just kind of look at what the buzz is here and what people really like, and honor filmmaking that doesn't just attract the affections of a small, elite, effete audience, and really look at what do people like to go and see.

Eh. Hazlett is an idiot. It's not as if Hollywood routinely ignores popular taste, after all, and Frozen River was only nominated in two categories (Best Original Screenplay and Best Actess).

Plus there's this: as you all know, my taste in movies is pretty thoroughly middlebrow. But Frozen River's screenplay was excellent and Melissa Leo's performance was outstanding — one of the best I've seen recently. I haven't seen all the nominated actresses, but at a minimum, Leo was better than Meryl Streep (in Doubt) and Angelina Jolie (in Changeling). She was really, really good. So go rent Frozen River when it comes out on DVD in a couple of weeks. You'll enjoy it, and you'll annoy Courtney Hazlett at the same time. It's a twofer!

Carona Walks (Sort Of)

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:15 PM EST

CARONA WALKS (SORT OF)...."America's Sheriff" Michael Carona says it's "an absolute miracle" that he was acquitted of five out of six corruption charges on Friday. But it turns out that the criminal code has more to do with it than the redemptive power of God:

In interviews after the trial, jurors said that they believed Carona had illegally accepted cash and gifts but that they were stymied by a statute of limitations that allowed them to consider only acts committed after late October 2002. The government had failed to prove that the conspiracy it alleged among Carona and his associates had involved any overt act after that, the jurors said.

"His hand was in the cookie jar. He was just quick enough to wipe the crumbs off his hands," said juror Jerome Bell, 42, a truck driver from Anaheim.

Sometimes good timing is better than good luck. Anyway, here in The OC we prefer to look forward, not back.

Benjamin Button, Slumdog Lead Oscar Nods

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:06 PM EST

Before we do anything here, I'd just like to post this video from Funny or Die comparing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to another fine Oscar favorite:

Somebody should sue. Anyway, Forrest Gump 2: Old Dude Gets Young grabbed 11 whoops, 13 nominations for this year's Oscars, beating out Slumdog Millionaire which garnered 10. Other best picture competitors include Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader. The acting nominations were a little surprising: Kate Winslet, who won Golden Globes for Revolutionary Road and The Reader, was nominated only for the latter, and in the best actress category rather than supporting; Clint Eastwood was snubbed in acting categories, as was Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins. Perhaps the most heartwarming aspect of the nominations was the poor performance of The Dark Knight, skulking away into its batcave with 8 nominations, all technical except for Heath Ledger's posthumous supporting actor nod.

After the jump: Best Animated Short Films!

Civil Liberties Watch

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 2:02 PM EST

CIVIL LIBERTIES WATCH....Glenn Greenwald summarizes the initial 48 hours of the new administration:Barack Obama will have spent his first several days in office issuing a series of executive orders which, some quibbling and important caveats aside, meet or actually exceed even the most optimistic expectations of civil libertarians — everything from ordering the closing of Guantanamo to suspending military commissions to compelling CIA interrogators to adhere to the Army Field Manual to banning CIA "black sites" and, perhaps most encouragingly (in my view): severely restricting his own power and the power of former Presidents to withhold documents on the basis of secrecy, which has been the prime corrosive agent of the Bush era. As a result, establishment and right-wing figures who have been assuring everyone that Obama would scorn "the Left" (meaning: those who believe in Constitutional safeguards) and would continue most of Bush's "counter-Terrorism" policies are growing increasingly nervous about this flurry of unexpected activity.Well, look: if Glenn is happy, then I'm happy. He's a tough customer on this stuff. I hope Obama's followup is as good as his initial flurry of executive orders.

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Obama White House "Explains" Exception to New Revolving Door Regulations

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 1:41 PM EST

CNN's Ed Henry just asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs about DOD appointee William Lynn and his apparent violation of the newly unveiled revolving door regulations. Gibbs clearly didn't want to spend a lot of time at his very first press conference on the subject. He had this to say:

The ethics and lobbying regulations "exceed what any administration has done in the history of this country."
Together, they represent "the greatest ethical standard ever."
They are "the strongest ethical and transparency guidelines that any administration has ever lived under in the history of this country."

That's all excellent, and likely true. But it doesn't explain why it took only 24 hours for an exception to the guidelines to emerge. Pressed for an answer on why Lynn was getting a pass, Gibbs said, "any standard is not perfect" and that "a waiver process that allows people to serve their country is necessary." He called Lynn "uniquely qualified" and added that President Obama believes a "limited number of waivers" should be allowed.

It is unclear what the criteria are for receiving a waiver like Lynn's, and how frequently they will be granted. If they are granted too frequently, they will render the much-heralded regulations meaningless.

Update: Democratic Senator Carl Levin is starting to ask questions about Lynn. I wonder if he is going to make it through the confirmation process. That would be a real doozy. A bunch of senators would effectively derail a appointee because he fails to meet executive branch ethical standards they would never consider applying to the legislative.

Spending During a Recession

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 1:04 PM EST

SPENDING DURING A RECESSION....Does government spending during a recession produce more than one dollar of growth for every dollar spent? Conventional Keynesian economics says yes: in a virtuous circle, that dollar will flow through to workers, who will spend it on other things, which will in turn stimulate further growth and further spending. Most of the liberal economists who write about Barack Obama's stimulus plan think that the spending portion will have a short-term multiplier of about 1.4 or so.

But apparently Robert Barro disagrees:

I have estimated that World War II raised U.S. defense expenditures by $540 billion (1996 dollars) per year at the peak in 1943-44, amounting to 44% of real GDP. I also estimated that the war raised real GDP by $430 billion per year in 1943-44. Thus, the multiplier was 0.8....Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier.

I'm no economist, but this sounds mighty suspicious. The whole point of stimulus spending is to temporarily raise employment during a recession. But once unemployment has been reduced below 5% or thereabouts — I think it eventually got to around 2% during World War II — then that's all she wrote. All additional government spending can do is suck resources away from private consumption, which might very well produce a net multiplier less than one. The same is true, though in less extreme form, for other wartime spending that happens when unemployment is already low.

But during a recession, when monetary policy is wrung out and there are millions of workers who aren't being utilized in the private sector? That's a different story, no? And it's pretty fundamental to the whole theory. The fact that Barro doesn't even mention this, let alone address it, gives me little confidence in the rest of his op-ed.

Via Tyler Cowen.

If This Guy Is a Racist, He Isn't a Very Good One

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:29 PM EST

I'm ashamed of myself.

Much as I've critiqued it, I fell into the easy trap of wailing about anti-black racism while ignoring racism from blacks.

I must have been taking a mental break when Rev. Joseph Lowery made his oh-so famous rhyme during his inaugural benediction; I didn't 'hear' it when he said it. But I've definitely read it repeatedly in the days since Obama's inauguration and, while, I did pause over "and when white will embrace right" (that schtick is one of our oldest) I wasn't bothered for more than a few seconds, certainly not enough to blog about it. That was wrong, especially on such a day. I didn't bother to reflect on the mean-spirited divisiveness of that line until one of the best undiscovered writers I know (his emails are better than most fancy pants columnists in the MSM) sent out a heartbroken email. Maybe Lowery just wanted to get a laugh. I do a lot of public speaking. I get that. But, had I used the joke, I'd have added (after my laughs, of course) something like, "now, we can drop that last line"—in the spirit of reconciliation and healing, if nothing else.

John Schwade is a prison psychologist (meaning he daily administers to the largely black huddled masses warehoused in our beastly prisons) as well as spouse to a black woman and father to a lovely and brilliant biracial daughter. As he sat weeping Tuesday, watching the beautiful reality unfold before his eyes on TV and contemplating what it meant for his daughter, Lowery came on and—how else to say it—pissed in his face, just because he's white.

I should have called Lowery out, but I couldn't be bothered standing up for justice, however miniscule the scale. Though it wasn't really miniscule, was it, on such a day?

So, I asked John to let me run his email to remind myself that Dr. King was talking to everyone, not just white folks.

Here's his plea for justice:

A Poverty Program That Works

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 12:22 PM EST

A POVERTY PROGRAM THAT WORKS....Have you heard of the Harlem Children's Zone? I first read about it only a year or two ago, and it's a pretty fascinating anti-poverty project headed by a guy named Geoffrey Canada — one that might well be the template for Barack Obama's approach to inner-city poverty. In the current issue of MoJo, Paul Tough describes how it works:

Canada believes that many poor parents aren't doing enough to prepare their kids for school — not because they don't care, but because they simply don't know the importance of early childhood stimulation. So the Zone starts with Baby College, nine weeks of parenting classes that focus on discipline and brain development. It continues with language-intensive prekindergarten, which feeds into a rigorous K-12 charter school with an extended day and an extended year. That academic "conveyor belt," as Canada calls it, is supplemented by social programs: family counseling, a free health clinic, after-school tutoring, and a drop-in arts center for teenagers.

Canada's early childhood programs are in many ways a response to research showing that the vocabularies of poor children usually lag significantly behind those of middle-class children. At the Harlem Gems prekindergarten, I watched as the four-year-olds were bombarded with books, stories, and flash cards—including some in French. The parents were enlisted, too; one morning, I went with a few families on a field trip to a local supermarket organized by the Harlem Children's Zone. The point wasn't to learn about nutrition, but rather about language—how to fill an everyday shopping trip with the kind of nonstop chatter that has become second nature to most upper-middle-class parents, full of questions about numbers and colors and letters and names. That chatter, social scientists have shown, has a huge effect on vocabulary and reading ability. And as we walked through the aisles, those conversations were going on everywhere: Is the carrot bumpy or smooth? What color is that apple? How many should we buy?

So far, Canada's vision has yielded impressive results. Last year, the first conveyor-belt students reached the third grade and took their first statewide standardized tests. In reading, they scored above the New York City average, and in math they scored well above the state average.

Canada has gotten plenty of press already from the likes of Oprah and 60 Minutes, but our new president might be the biggest name convert of them all: Obama has proposed replicating the Harlem Children's Zone in 20 cities across the country, an investment that he thinks will cost a "few billion" dollars. For comparison, this is less than 1% of what it will take to bail out the gazillionaires of Wall Street. Read the whole piece for more.