Bugs? The CIA tried to use bugs to get a suspected terrorist to spill secrets?

That's one piece of information contained in four once-secret memos written by Bush Justice Department officials to justify the use of coercive techniques--aka torture. The previously undisclosed memos, released on Thursday, were each produced by the Office of Legal Counsel in response to requests from the CIA for legal guidance. They outline specific procedures the CIA wanted to use on detainees--including waterboarding. Referring to these documents, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "The President has halted the use of the interrogation techniques described in these opinions, and this administration has made clear from day one that it will not condone torture. We are disclosing these memos consistent with our commitment to the rule of law."

In the first of the four memos--this one dated August 1, 2002--the OLC okays a CIA request to use 10 procedures during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a captured al Qaeda leader whom the agency believed was withholding information about plans for attacks within the United States. The tactics included "facial slap (insult slap)," sleep deprivation, confinement in a small space, and waterboarding. Also on the list: putting insects in the "confinement box" with Zubaydah.

The OLC approved all of this, noting that none of the procedures would cause "severe physical or mental pain or suffering." As for the insect treatment, the CIA had informed OLC that its interrogators intended to tell Zubaydah they were confining him in a small space with a stinging insect but would actually "place a harmless insect in the box," such as a caterpillar. The memo notes the CIA had informed OLC that Zubaydah "appears to have a fear of insects." Curiously, in the section of the memo describing these 10 techniques, only the part on the insect scheme contains a sentence (or two) redacted.

The OLC did have a warning for the bug-wielders of the CIA. If the CIA interrogators were to place "harmless" insects inside a confinement box containing Zubaydah and were to tell him about it, the OLC said, they would also have to inform Zubaydah that the bugs "will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain." And if they were not going to tell him about the bugs, the OLC said, then the CIA interrogators could not lead him to believe that there might be bugs present that could cause severe pain or death. Got it?

As for waterboarding, the OLC said, full-speed ahead, even though it noted that the procedure caused the perception of "suffocation and incipient panic." The memo--signed by Jay Bybee, then the assistant attorney general--pointed out that the OLC had previously concluded that "severe pain" is "pain that is difficult for the individual to endure and is of an intensity akin to pain accompanying serious physical injury." But the OLC maintained in this memo that the experience of being waterboarded was not covered by this definition. Waterboarding, the memo concluded, "inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever." The memo continued: "The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering."

The memo did note that "the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat of imminent death." But the OLC asserted that for this threat to be equated with "severe mental pain or suffering" it must be "prolonged"--meaning "lasting months or years." In other words, a physical act producing that was like suffocation that could be perceived as a "threat of imminent death" would not constitute "torture."

The OLC also informed the CIA that for any of its interrogators to be open to a torture charge, he or she would have to had "the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering." And, in OLC's view, the objective of the interrogators using waterboarding and these other techniques was not to cause pain; it was to obtain information. Thus, they were free to proceed. But the memo ends on a less-than-solid note. "We wish to emphasize," the memo said, "that this is our best reading of the law; however, you should be aware that there are no cases construing [the anti-torture] statue; just as there have been no prosecutions brought under it." That is, go ahead but don't blame us if someone later on raises a fuss--about waterboards or bugs.

UPDATE: A May 10, 2005, OLC memo noted in a footnote: "We understand that--for reasons unrelated to any concerns that it might violate the [anti-torture] statute--the CIA never used that [insects] technique and has removed it from the list of authorized interrogation techniques." The memo did not explain why the CIA dropped the bugs.

For a collection of Mother Jones articles on torture, click here.

George Will's Jihad on Jeans

George Will is officially trying to be America's crotchetiest pundit. Fresh from his lame attempt to deny climate change, he has stepped into his time machine, set the dial to 1957, and unleashed a diatribe about the social scourge that is...blue jeans. Seriously. Playing off another denim demonizer in the Wall Street Journal, in yesterday's column Will tapped into his inner Mr. Blackwell and dissed jeans as "an obnoxious misuse of freedom," "the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults...and cartoons for adults," "the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling—thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly," and "the calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances." Wow. I sure hope no one tells him about kids going steady. Or electric guitars.

It's hard to believe that it has just now occurred to Will that casual comfort is destroying our moral fabric. But a glance at his old columns finds that the preppy pundit has been portraying jeans as signifiers of social unraveling for more than 30 years. Examples after the jump.

The OLC Memos

It looks like the Obama administration will be releasing those Bush-era OLC torture memos after all.  Statement here.  Good for them.  Also this:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution. The men and women of our intelligence community serve courageously on the front lines of a dangerous world. Their accomplishments are unsung and their names unknown, but because of their sacrifices, every single American is safer. We must protect their identities as vigilantly as they protect our security, and we must provide them with the confidence that they can do their jobs.

Generally speaking, I think I agree with this — though there might be specific circumstances where prosecution is called for regardless of legal guidance.  I can't honestly say that I base this on any kind of coherent principle, though, and I'm not entirely happy I feel this way.  It just seems as if tackling the practical issues involved in figuring out who did what, and under what circumstances, is too vast an undertaking for too small a probable return.  So, reluctantly, I think Obama's decision is probably for the best.

But I'm going to think about this some more before I pretend my opinion is set in stone.  In the meantime, feel free to slag away in comments.

UPDATE: The ACLU has all four memos here.

Middle East Update

M.J. Rosenberg passes along a report from Yedioth Achronoth, Israel's largest circulation daily:

Rahm Emanuel told an (unnamed) Jewish leader; "In the next four years there is going to be a permanent status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn't matter to us at all who is prime minister."

He also said that the United States will exert pressure to see that deal is put into place. "Any treatment of the Iranian nuclear problem will be contingent upon progress in the negotiations and an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory," the paper reports Emanuel as saying.

....So far neither the White House or the Israeli government has commented on the report which, it should be noted, comes from Shimon Shiffer, one of Israel's most highly respected journalists.

Seriously?  Rahm Emanuel said that?  We're going to somehow put in place a two-state solution whether the Israeli government likes it or not?  And to make it happen, we're going to make negotiations on Iran's nukes contingent on Israel playing ball?

That would certainly be a change of policy from the United States, wouldn't it?  But I'll bet it turns out this isn't quite what Emanuel said.  Probably best to hold off on comment until we hear a little more about this.

The Nutcase Right

Responding to a David Frum column about the recent outbreak of freak-show hysteria among conservatives, Matt Yglesias says:

Now to be fair, during the Bush years more than one person passed me this “14 Characteristics of Fascism” document in order to prove that under George W. Bush the United States had become a fascist regime. Overreaction to policies you don’t like is a pretty understandable human impulse. The difference is that mainstream, prominent outlets usually try to restrain that kind of impulse. But this sort of over-the-top rhetoric isn’t burbling from the grassroots up, it’s being driven the very most prominent figures in conservative media and also by a large number of members of congress.

Never were truer words spoken.  I was never a fan of the whole "Bush is a fascist" line, and over six years of blogging I was able to ignore it almost completely because it never broke out of its niche among the activist left.  You may or may not approve of that, but the simple reality is that aside from occasionally covering lefty protests and marches, mainstream pundits and politicians never took up this theme.  On the contrary, most of them ridiculed it if they ever noticed it at all.

But today's wingers, after Obama has been in office a grand total of 12 weeks, have already decided that we aren't merely on the road to serfdom, we're on the road to confiscation, tyranny, domestic gulags, and jackbooted thugs coming to take their guns away.  This time, though, it's not just fringe nutbaggery.  There's a whole brigade of right-wing pundits and politicians who are not only taking up the theme, but leading the charge.  They've gone completely crackers.

I still can't decide whether this makes the right more dangerous or less.  After all, if they go too far overboard, their crackpotism becomes so apparent that the whole movement becomes a joke.  On the other hand, if they aren't a joke yet, what's it going to take?

Besides, maybe they have a point.  Don't let this get around, but did you know that Barack Obama's Secretary of Defense has taken to quoting Joseph Stalin approvingly?  True story!  Click the link if you don't believe me.  And don't say that Glenn Beck didn't warn us about this.

Is "ObamaRail" Coming to Your State?

President Obama and Vice President Biden unveiled their plans for nationwide high-speed rail today, explaining how they will spend the $13 billion earmarked in the stimulus and the President's budget for the construction of super sweet new trains. (Lots and lots of details for train geeks here.) Obama had this to say on the occasion:

What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America.  Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city.  No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes.  (Laughter.)  Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.  Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future.  It is now.  It is happening right now.  It's been happening for decades.  The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here. 

In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations.  In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined.  China, where service began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now.  And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next:  a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour.  So it's being done; it's just not being done here.

Consider me on board. Get it? Anyway, my favorite part of the whole rollout is this cool little map, which tells you exactly where these 100 mph trains are going to take you when they are completed in 2020 or whenever.

Hope you don't live in the Great Plains! No trains for you!

Tick Tick Tick

Obama sure is taking his sweet time deciding whether to release those Bush-era OLC memos authorizing various torture techniques, isn't he?  Is he planning to wait until 11:59 pm, or what?

In the meantime, what's your guess?  (a) No release, (b) limited release with lots of redactions, or (c) pretty close to full release with only a few redactions?  Vote in comments.

Cutting Back

Yesterday, as I was talking to an economist about something, he explained that some research he had done had demonstrated a particular small effect.  "It really only affected things at the margin," he said.

"OK," I asked, "But doesn't everything work at the margin?"  He sort of laughed.  "Are you an economist?  That's how economists talk."

Nope, not me.  I just quote 'em on my blog.  Still, that seems to be the best explanation for this story in the Washington Post today:

Denise Kimberlin and her husband, Craig, of Woodbridge are government contractors who make nice livings. They recently got raises. They don't fear losing their jobs.

Yet, something is driving them to change their spending habits. They have cut back by at least $250 a week on clothes, dinners out and other discretionary spending.

....Economists say many still-flush consumers are handcuffed by psychological traps that cause them to tighten their purse strings even though economic hardship is not their reality....Psychologists explain that people fall prey to what is known as social proof. The most famous study pointing at the effect was done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram. He had one or two people stand on a busy city block in New York and stare up at a sixth-floor building window. Most pedestrians ignored them. But when he had 15 people stand and stare at the window, nearly everyone walking down the street looked up at it, too.

I guess that might be the explanation.  But here's another one: when there's massive, objective evidence of a huge recession and rising unemployment, even people with good jobs act to cut their spending on the margin.  Why?  Because they also fear bad news on the margin.  The Kimberlins might not be afraid of losing their jobs, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're, maybe, 1% afraid of losing their jobs.  Or 5% afraid of getting a pay cut.  Or 10% afraid that their bank will raise the rate on their credit card debt.  Or 90% afraid that they can't use their home as an ATM machine anymore.  So they're cutting back spending a little bit, right in line with that limited amount of fear.  Social cues might have something to do with this, but surely a rational response to tangible, predictible outside events has even more to do with it?

No More King

California may be a big state, but we still only get two statues in the Capitol building's Statuary Hall.  And now one of them is being swapped out:

After 78 years of standing in the Capitol, Thomas Starr King is about to be ousted by a better known Californian — Ronald Reagan.

...."Those of who us who love Thomas Starr King and know about his life are really sorry to see him go," said the Rev. Roger Fritts, senior minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.

....Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) launched a campaign nearly five years ago, shortly after Reagan's death, to replace the statue of King, described as "the orator who saved the nation," with one of "The Great Communicator."

Well.  My mother attended Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles, so we take this personally around here.  I guess Unitarians just don't have the clout they used to.

Maybe the system worked.

On Thursday, The New York Times broke the news that the National Security Agency went too far in spying on the emails and phone calls of Americans in recent months. The piece did not make clear what this entailed, and it quoted one official claiming the "overcollection" was an accident. (Blame the computers!) But the piece contained an interesting nugget that caught the eye of Kevin Drum:

And in one previously undisclosed episode, the N.S.A. tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant, an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said.
The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact — as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 — with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations, the official said.
The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some intelligence officials about using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Kevin notes that this is a big deal and should have set off "alarm bells at every possible level at NSA." But perhaps there is another way of looking at the episode. It could well have been that some overeager NSA snoops were keen to eavesdrop on a member of Congress because they believed that could produce intelligence on an extremist target. They made the case for doing so without getting a warrant. They failed to win permission to do so. Superiors told them, no warrant, no wiretap--at least when it comes to a member of Congress. No harm, no foul?

Call me jaundiced, but this does not strike me as a cause for much worry. The intelligence agencies contain operatives who do at times do look to push the envelope, to skirt restrictions or, in some cases, dodge the law. In this instance, hot-to-eavesdrop NSA employees made a case for using a warrantless wiretap to listen in on a lawmaker. Maybe they had good reason to be interested in his/her conversations, maybe not. But they didn't go ahead and intercept on their own. They sought the authority to spy on the legislator and were ultimately turned down. Perhaps alarm bells did sound. But whether or not there was any ringing, the appropriate decision appears to have been made. This is a far cry from most intelligence scandals--when the abuse actually occurs. It could be seen as an indication that all the protests about the NSA's warantless wiretapping--the blogging, the op-eds, the lawsuits--has increased sensitivity within the intelligence community. Yes, it might be a sign of progress.