Mojo - February 2008

Waterboarding: Not So Illegal After All?

| Fri Feb. 8, 2008 8:28 PM EST

Yesterday I wrote about the minor firestorm that reignited over waterboarding in recent days, thanks to CIA director Michael Hayden's Tuesday testimony that his agency waterboarded three al Qaeda members in 2002 and 2003. The White House authorized that particular disclosure; I wonder if they authorized this? Speaking to the House Intelligence Committee yesterday, Hayden said the people who performed the torture were not necessarily trained CIA operatives, but instead unspecified outside contractors:

REP. SCHAKOWSKY (D-IL): Are contractors involved in CIA detention interrogation programs?

GEN. HAYDEN: Absolutely.

REP. SCHAKOWSKY: Were contractors involved in the waterboarding of al Qaeda detainees?

GEN. HAYDEN: I'm not sure of the specifics. I'll give you a tentative answer: I believe so.

This new wrinkle might explain the apparent confusion among the relevant government agencies over whether or not waterboarding is legal. (By today's tally, White House says yes, Hayden says no, and Mukasey remains noncommittal.) After all, what's illegal for the government isn't necessarily illegal for contractors. We already contract out a good deal of the war, so why not add torture to the mix and save ourselves the legal headache? Maybe this was what White House spokesman Tony Fratto meant when he said that we might still use waterboarding "under certain circumstances." Then again, maybe it's simply anybody's guess.

—Casey Miner

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Why a Superdelegate Pledge May Not Be So Super

| Fri Feb. 8, 2008 8:03 PM EST

Let me humbly suggest that Nick's pledge idea has a flaw. Sure, you can try to compel Democratic superdelegates to vote for whichever candidate arrives at the convention with the most delegates. But few will sign such a pledge, whether or not the Obama and Clinton campaign ask them to do so. Why give up a privilege? Especially when--here's the real issue--outside events might change the landscape.

The last big-state primary (Pennsylvania) occurs on April 22 and the primaries altogether end on June 3. What if in between those dates and the Democratic convention, which opens on August 25, something happens? Maybe Barack Obama is in the lead, and a news report discloses he once sold dope to lobbyists for a health insurance industry. Maybe Hillary Clinton is ahead, and it turns out she did hide legal records during the Whitewater investigation and plotted with her husband to kill their political enemies. In such instances, superdelegates might want to mount a course correction.

Admittedly, these are extreme examples. But there could be other less extreme circumstances in which it would make sense for the superdelegates to reconsider the popular will. As I noted, my hunch is that superdelegates will not willy-nilly vote to hand the nomination to the second-place finisher just out of personal preference. They will be under much scrutiny. And blowing up the party to save a nominee will not be undertaken lightly.

Time for A Superdelegate Pledge

| Fri Feb. 8, 2008 12:46 PM EST

As David notes here, the Washington Post's Paul Kane did the math and figured out that it will be basically impossible for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to win enough pledged delegates to take the nomination outright. This is a big problem for the Democrats. Thankfully for them, I have a solution (after the jump).

Is it Time To Worry about Superdelegates in the Clinton-Obama Contest?

| Fri Feb. 8, 2008 12:25 PM EST

Omigod! Here come the superdelegates! The Washington Post's Paul Kane has done the math and reached the conclusion that the Democratic presidential race will be decided by superdelegates--those 800 or so party officials and officeholders who are automatically awarded delegate status and who can vote any which way they please at the convention. Kane explains:

There are 3,253 pledged delegates, those doled out based on actual voting in primaries and caucuses. And you need 2,025 to win the nomination.
To date, about 52 percent of those 3,253 delegates have been pledged in the voting process -- with Clinton and Obama roughly splitting them at 832 and 821 delegates a piece, according to the AP.
That means there are now only about 1,600 delegates left up for grabs in the remaining states and territories voting.
So, do the math. If they both have 820 plus pledged delegates so far, they'll need to win roughly 1,200 -- 75 percent -- of the remaining 1,600 delegates to win the nomination through actual voting.
In other words: Ain't gonna happen...And then the super delegates decide this thing.

Does this mean the contest will be settled in some smoke-free backroom by machine hacks who don't give a fig about the Democratic vox populi?

Romney Out; What Will Huckabee Do?

| Thu Feb. 7, 2008 1:32 PM EST

Mitt Romney has quit the race. It seems that his money was no good here.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney announced he was suspending his campaign. In a fiery speech, he took shots at France, Harvard, and liberal judges. Citing pornography and "government welfare," he thundered that the "threat to our culture" comes "from within." Hailing family values and decrying gay marriage, this past supporter of abortion rights and gay rights positioned himself as one of the GOP's leading culture warriors. He called for tax cuts, deregulation, and tort reform. He denounced Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's positions on Iraq as a "surrender to terror." And he called for beefing up the U.S. military to deal with "radical jihad" and the China challenge. In other words, he reminded the cheering crowd of conservative die-hards at CPAC that he's a full-throttle conservative on all fronts: culture, economics, and national security. He's now 60 years old. In four years, he will be seven years younger than John McCain is today. And remember this: Ronald Reagan failed to win the GOP nomination in 1976 before he nabbed it in 1980. And there's this: if John McCain does manage to win in November, could he run for a second term, given his age?

Romney's message to the conservatives today was this: I'm your Reagan. He and they may just have to wait a few more years before those pesky Republican primary voters get it.

One key question now is, what will Mike Huckabee do? Recently, he's become the anti-Romney spoiler--sweeping up non-McCain voters and preventing Romney from becoming a competitive alternative to McCain. It seemed that Huckabee and McCain had an implicit--if not explicit--nonaggression pact, and this has even fueled talk of a Mack-Huck ticket. So with no need any longer for him to block Romney to help McCain, what's Huckabee's role in the race? With his get-Romney mission accomplished, will he withdraw and wait for his reward?

CIA Director Says We Waterboarded Only Three People - Then Based One-Fourth of Our Intelligence on What They Said

| Thu Feb. 7, 2008 1:30 PM EST

hayden.jpg

The Senate Intelligence Committee picked a hell of a day to hold a hearing on national security. With every news source in the country vying for the most up-to-date primary information and the chattering classes glued to the exit polls, nobody really noticed when CIA director Michael Hayden admitted to Congress on Tuesday that the U.S. has, in fact, waterboarded three terrorism suspects: 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and al Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The waterboarding took place from late 2001 through early 2003, he said, and has since stopped.

Hayden's testimony confirmed what we already knew, though his statement marked the first time that a senior intelligence official has publicly acknowledged using the technique. And he didn't just acknowledge it; he quantified its importance. According to Hayden, the confessions of two of the suspects—Mohammed and Zubaydah—made up a full one-fourth of our human intelligence on Al Qaeda for the next five years.

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Does War Make Iraqi Teens More Self Confident?

| Thu Feb. 7, 2008 12:05 PM EST

iraq%20teens%20150.jpgIraqi teens have relatively high levels of self esteem, according to a University of Cincinnati study. Not only that, but "the higher the perceived threat of the war, the higher the teens reported their self-esteem."

The researchers say that though this finding may seem counterintuitive, it supports their theory that during a war, individuals' sense of self is tied to their sense of national identity:

"In the presence of conflict-related trauma one generally observes lower levels of psychological well-being (e.g., PTSD, grief reactions), and sometimes lower self-esteem," write the authors. "Our results, however, are consistent with a body of theory and research that predicts self-esteem striving and higher self-esteem among the individuals who face indirect threats to central components of their social identities (rather than directly facing traumatic war-related events). In other words, in a situation where we observe a broad social context involving the presence of foreign forces ( a clear violation of Muslim principles) combined with general violence throughout Baghdad and Iraq, we also observe a heightened sense of self, at least to the extent that one's self is tied to one's nation."

McCain vs. the Right: Give Peace No Chance

| Thu Feb. 7, 2008 10:43 AM EST

Yesterday, John McCain asked his foes on the right to "just calm down a little." He was talking about Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and other conservative big-mouths who in recent days have pumped up the volume of their anti-McCain crusade. Just the day before, James Dobson, a leading social conservative who heads Focus on the Family, declared, "I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of is way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are." (Last year, Dobson also accused Fred Thompson of not being a real Christian.)

As the Republican Establishment swings behind McCain--each day his campaign sends out several emails noting this or that endorsement from a GOP figure--the conservative ideologues are holding firm. This is setting up a dramatic split between the GOP elite and the conservative movement's leading influentials. The ideologues hate McCain for several reasons. He has pushed bipartisan, Democratic-backed legislation on campaign finance reform, global warming, and, worse, immigration reform. He never got on his knees before the conservatives--particularly the religious right. In 2000, he blasted Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson for exerting too much influence over his party. And--egads!--he has been a favorite of Washington journalists, that band of well-known, America-hating liberals. The fact that McCain has been a prominent champion of the Iraq war--the number one issue for most of his detractors--means nothing to these ingrates.

Today, McCain is appearing at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of hundreds, if not thousands, of rightwing activists. Imagine John Kerry speaking to a convention of Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth. (My colleague Jonathan Stein will have a report on McCain's appearance later.) But if McCain believes he can make nice with the rightwing talkers, he's kidding himself. This group--especially Limbaugh, Hannity, and Coulter--have no incentive to be pragmatic. They each earn much money by being provocative. Their first loyalty is to their audience, which expects hard-edged ideological warfare from them. They go soft--or reasonable--and they risk their reputations.

It's possible McCain could engage in an act of self-flagellation so extreme, his right-wing critics could claim victory and boast that he kissed their rings. But in the absence of such a move, they will keep pounding him. It makes good TV and radio. So if the Democrats are stuck with a months-long battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the GOP could have on its hand a never-ending cat-fight between its nominees and the spiritual leaders of the conservative movement. As of now, the conflict between Obama and Clinton has not gone so far that it cannot be resolved when that race is done. The McCain wars on the right could continue right up to Election Day.

Washington Encounters: Perils of ... the Elevator

| Wed Feb. 6, 2008 8:27 PM EST

It had been a long day, by the time I slipped out towards the end of a two hour late afternoon event on (what else?) Iran held at the Hudson Institute in downtown Washington's K-Street corridor, down the street from the White House. After nabbing a bottle of water for the road, I pressed the down elevator button in the foyer between the two Hudson Institute sixth floor offices, and then waited, and waited, and waited for one of the five elevators to arrive. Minutes went by. At some point, another guy came out of the Iran conference, to wait for the elevator down.

"Interesting event," I offered.

"We had a good Iran event at Middle East Institute last week," he replied.

"It was great. Lots of people from the region," I responded.

And we continued to wait for the elevator in the foyer.

Just then, a slender, wizened, besuited type carrying a brief case, came into the foyer to wait for the elevator with us. And I double-taked. It was none other than I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to vice president Cheney, the subject of the big trial you might have heard about, and for my purposes, a major player in the life of someone whose memoir afterword I wrote.

Naturally, I asked Libby, now a fellow at Hudson, and looking a lot thinner than at the trial last year, about what was up with the elevators.

How Clinton Won California

| Wed Feb. 6, 2008 4:30 PM EST

The big surprise is not that Clinton won among women (59 percent to 34 percent) and Latinos (2 to 1). Those votes more or less met expectations. What few people had anticipated was the massive turnout among Latinos, who comprised 29 percent of the California Democratic electorate yesterday--nearly double what pollsters predicted.

As Simon Rosenberg and Peter Leyden pointed out in their recent Mother Jones feature, Latino voters embody one of two major demographic waves that will change the nation's politics. That they turned out in such huge numbers to support Clinton might indicate they actually really like her, as opposed only to preferring her over an African American or recognizing her name. Or maybe Latinos were politicized even more than anyone had thought by the immigration debate.

Obama has been riding the second major demographic trend--the rise of the Millennial Generation, or Gen Y, a huge, liberal-leaning echo-boom. Nationally, he captures a larger overall chunk of this vote. But last night in California, age was trumped by race. White voters under 30 broke for Obama 2 to 1 but Hispanic voters under 30 broke for Clinton by an even larger margin. And each group voted in equal numbers. Needless to say, if that trend persists across the West and in places like Texas, Obama is in trouble.

Obama's challenge is embodied by people like Eric Hernandez, who I profiled last week and hung out with again last night. Hernandez is 18-years old, Latino, and a hard-working Obama partisan. On Saturday he spent the day block-walking with a group of 15 young people in the large Hispanic neighborhoods of Northern California's Santa Clara County. But only about half of those volunteers spoke Spanish. That kind of outreach in a county of 500,000 Latinos is a drop in the bucket. Santa Clara ultimately went for Clinton 55/40. In the coming races Obama will need need to enlist many more Spanish-speaking volunteers if he still expects the grassroots to animate his campaign.