Mojo - May 2009

Corn on "Hardball": Cheney vs. Levin on Torture Docs

| Sat May 30, 2009 11:15 AM EDT

Ex-veep Dick Cheney has claimed that there are two classified documents showing that the enhanced interrogation techniques (a.k.a. torture) used on US-held detainees were effective and helped his administration prevent terrorist attacks. Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chair of the Senate armed services committee, this past week said these documents do not support Cheney's argument. On Hardball, conservative commentator Terry Jeffrey and I try to sort it out. Guess whose side Jeffrey was on. Guest host David Shuster was on fire, going after Jeffrey on the use of torture. But we did find consensus on a critical point: President Obama should declassify those two documents--and other material--so that the public can determine if Cheney is telling the truth or not. You can follow my postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

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Best in Blog: 29 May 2009

| Fri May 29, 2009 8:24 PM EDT

Little green monkey podcasts, National Fist Bump Day celebrations, and Liz Cheney's epic FAIL: Yep! Friday frolicking won the day here at MoJo. But of course it can't all be fun and gay marriage. This week's torture puzzler: If American brass soldiers* raped detainees, why aren't we prosecuting? Why does Grover Norquist like Judge Sotomayor so much, anyway? And when can we move into Tom Friedman's special world?

One question we can answer? Where your Snuggie will be in 10 years.

Plus: Mary Roach's TEDTalk on '10 Things You Didn't Know About Orgasms' is mad excellent, our DC crew explains how America's anti-piracy point man is battling Somali scallywags, and hey look! Border patrol's fun for kids, too!

*Corrected. Thanks, Shane.

Report Calls for Cybersecurity Czar, Privacy Protections

| Fri May 29, 2009 2:52 PM EDT

In its comprehensive review (PDF) of cybersecurity released Friday, the White House calls for the president to appoint of a cybersecurity czar whose main duty would be "to coordinate the Nation’s cybersecurity-related policies and activities." The report also calls for the appointment of a privacy and civil liberties official to act as a check on the bureaucracy's power to access sensitive online data.

That recommendation seems to indicate the White House is not interested in having the authority to access any relevant data without regard to privacy laws, or the power to shut down the internet in a cyber emergency—broad powers outlined in The Cybersecurity Act of 2009, released last month and sponsored by senators Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Some civil libertarians had expressed concern that the cybersecurity czar—a position also proposed in the Rockefeller-Snowe legislation—would report to the National Security Agency. But Friday's proposal from the White House calls for that official to work dually under the National Security Council and the National Economic Council, Executive Branch offices under whose umbrella transparency is much easier to achieve than at the NSA.

"It's clear that the White House review team was committed to building privacy into these cybersecurity policy recommendations from the beginning of the process," says Leslie Harris, head of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The Senate commerce committee, which has been holding the Rockefeller-Snowe bill in anticipation of Friday's White House report, seems to agree with the privacy guidelines. In a statement, Rockefeller and Snow said the president's cybersecurity advisor must be required "to put civil liberties protections front and center. Our aim is to improve the nation’s security—and by this we mean, the security of American lives, property, and civil liberties."

Obama's "New Capitalism"?

| Fri May 29, 2009 2:14 PM EDT

Once again, a major American car company is headed for bankruptcy, and once again, the Obama administration is stepping in with buckets of cash. Last time it was Chrysler. Now it's General Motors. But the debate's the same. The Obama team is forcing bondholders to accept a much worse deal than the United Auto Workers is getting, and the bondholders are (predictably) howling. Marc Ambinder says Obama is "rewriting the rules of capitalism." Really? When hedge fund manager Clifford Asness complained about the Chrysler deal, I argued that Chrysler investors should have known that any deal to save the company was likely to involve government money and all the strings that come with it. Those strings, as anyone who had been watching the bank bailouts would have known, mean that political considerations come into play.

Libel Law Expert: Liz Cheney is Still Wrong About Libel

| Fri May 29, 2009 1:20 PM EDT

Liz Cheney has already gotten some flak from this blog for claiming on live television that calling waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" torture is "frankly libelous." Now Mother Jones' own legal adviser, James Chadwick, has decided to drop some knowledge. Here's what he says:

Liz Cheney's been reading too much George Orwell and not enough first amendment. You can't libel the government, and statements of opinion can't be libelous. I think Liz Cheney would be particularly interested in defending the idea that what constitutes torture is a matter of opinion because if not, her father might be in a lot of trouble. She's not talking about specific allegations about specific people. She's talking about people saying what the US government did... was torture.

One of the reasons the founding fathers established the first amendment was to do away with the idea of seditious libel - libeling the king. You cannot be sued for saying bad things about the government, period.

If you do talk about specific individuals sanctioning torture, then all those individuals are unquestionably public figures, which requires the highest standard of proof that there is in civil law. "Clear and convincing evidence of actual knowledge of falsity, a reckless disregard of the truth." I don't think anyone can say it's actionable to call waterboarding torture.

Bottom line: Liz Cheney doesn't know what the heck she's talking about.

More Effective Than Waterboarding: Cookies?

| Fri May 29, 2009 12:55 PM EDT

In the week after 9/11, unleashed deep within a Yemeni prison was what might have been the most effective interrogation tool ever devised by the U.S. Government. It could be more powerful than waterboarding, sleep deprivation, naked photos, or barking dogs. It is a monster that resides within almost all of us, a shaggy, blue-haired beast with an uncontrollable urge to devour oven-baked sweets while growling, "Coooookie!"

From Time comes this account of FBI interrogator Ali Soufan's successful attempt to win over  Al-Qaeda operative Abu Jandal, who had been closer to Osama bin Laden than any other terrorist ever captured:

He had no intention of cooperating with the Americans; at their first meetings, he refused even to look at them and ranted about the evils of the West. Far from confirming al-Qaeda's involvement in 9/11, he insisted the attacks had been orchestrated by Israel's Mossad. While Abu Jandal was venting his spleen, Soufan noticed that he didn't touch any of the cookies that had been served with tea: "He was a diabetic and couldn't eat anything with sugar in it." At their next meeting, the Americans brought him some sugar-free cookies, a gesture that took the edge off Abu Jandal's angry demeanor. "We had showed him respect, and we had done this nice thing for him," Soufan recalls. "So he started talking to us instead of giving us lectures."

All hail the Cookie Monster!  Seriously, his brand of monstrousness might be the the only kind we need:

Soufan, now an international-security consultant, has emerged as a powerful critic of the George W. Bush — era interrogation techniques; he has testified against them in congressional hearings and is an expert witness in cases against detainees. He has described the techniques as "borderline torture" and "un-American." His larger argument is that methods like waterboarding are wholly unnecessary — traditional interrogation methods, a combination of guile and graft, are the best way to break down even the most stubborn subjects.

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Did Obama Need to Win Hispanics?

| Fri May 29, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

Elections (and baseball) stat guru Nate Silver kicked off a wide-ranging blogosphere discussion yesterday when he asked whether Republicans can sacrifice the Hispanic vote (presumably by stepping up anti-immigrant, anti-NAFTA rhetoric and bashing Sonia Sotomayor) and still win elections. He said "si pueden":

If you could gain ground in the Midwest or the South by pursing an anti-immigrant, anti-NAFTA, "America First" sort of platform, you really wouldn't be putting all that much at risk by losing further ground among Latinos. Yes, you could make life (much) harder for yourself if you screwed up Florida or put Arizona into play in the process, but it's not a bad strategy, all things considered.

About half the Hispanics in the United States reside in California or Texas, and another 20 percent are in New York, New Jersey or Illinois, none of which look to be competitive in 2012. (Yes, the Republicans could lose Texas, but probably only in a landslide). There just aren't that many Hispanic voters near the electoral tipping point.

On Friday, statistician Andrew Gelman advanced the discussion by analyzing the Latino vote's impact on President Barack Obama's election win. He says "the removal of the Hispanic vote wouldn't have changed the election outcome in any state." Check out the proof.

Liz Cheney Doesn't Understand the Definition of Libel

| Fri May 29, 2009 11:52 AM EDT

Elizabeth Cheney, who I guess gets to be on television because having actual experts on would be boring, clearly does not have a good grasp of the definition of libel. In this clip from MSNBC, she claims that referring to Dick Cheney and the people who waterboarded terrorist suspects as "torturers" is libelous: 

Lessig's Change Congress Accuses Democratic Senator of Corruption

| Fri May 29, 2009 10:34 AM EDT

Geek god Lawrence Lessig's new-ish organization, Change Congress, aims to expose and curtail the influence of money in politics. They're not being polite about it. On Thursday, Change Congress accused Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) of "Good souls corruption"—"legal, even ethical acts that reasonably lead the public to wonder whether it is the merits or the money that is driving this Senator's decision."

In this particular case, Change Congress makes the shocking observation that Nelson's receipt of millions of dollars from insurance and health care interests might call the sincerity of his (now-renounced) opposition to a public health insurance option into question.

Bush v. Gore Lawyers Team Up To Save Journalism

| Fri May 29, 2009 10:24 AM EDT

David Boies and Ted Olson are this week's odd couple after the pair teamed up to file a constitutional challenge to California's gay marriage ban Wednesday. The two lawyers made headlines in 2000 when they squared off before the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, with Olson representing Bush and Boies representing Gore. Despite the acrimonious election battle, Boies and Olson aren't mortal enemies. They're lawyers--people schooled in the notion that an adversary is not an enemy.

As such, Olson and Boies are so friendly that last summer they took a bike trip through Italy with Tom Brokaw and media mogul Steve Brill, who, incidentally, is now responsible for another one of their joint ventures: Journalism Online, Brill's new attempt to save journalism by making people pay for it online. Boies and Olson are on the company's board of advisors. But Brill didn't pick the pair for the novelty factor. His legal team suggests that he intends to start the war that newspapers so far have shied away from: forcing Google pay for the news content it now steals for free.