Political MoJo

A Timeline of Torture

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 6:59 PM EDT

In the September/October CJR, Eric Umansky has an excellent and lengthy account of the reporting done on torture in the War on Terror. He recaps the scoops and the way many reporters advanced the story (notably Carlotta Gall, Seymour Hersh, and Dana Priest), but what is most striking is the lack of attention paid to these revelations. Scoops were not followed up, stories were buried, official investigations were deliberately limited in scope, and, most shamefully, Congress was uninterested in using its power of subpoena to fully connect the dots of the reported incidents and the administration policies that enabled them. It was not until the stark evidence of the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced that everybody piled on the story and by then the damage had been done.

Of course, the abuse first uncovered by Carlotta Gall for the NYT was exported from Bagram to Abu Ghraib and it is sobering to consider, as Umansky gets ex-Times editors to do, what might have happened had they played Gall's scoop more prominently:

Her piece was "the real deal. It referred to a homicide. Detainees had been killed in custody. I mean, you can't get much clearer than that," remembers Roger Cohen, then the Times's foreign editor. "I pitched it, I don't know, four times at page-one meetings, with increasing urgency and frustration. I laid awake at night over this story. And I don't fully understand to this day what happened. It was a really scarring thing. My single greatest frustration as foreign editor was my inability to get that story on page one."
Doug Frantz, then the Times's investigative editor and now the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Howell Raines, then the Times's top editor, and his underlings "insisted that it was improbable; it was just hard to get their mind around. They told Roger to send Carlotta out for more reporting, which she did. Then Roger came back and pitched the story repeatedly. It's very unusual for an editor to continue to push a story after the powers that be make it clear they're not interested. Roger, to his credit, pushed." (Howell Raines declined requests for comment.)
"Compare Judy Miller's WMD stories to Carlotta's story," says Frantz. "On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta's story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations."
Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline "U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody." (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall's digging.)

One quibble with Umansky's piece is that he says it was the NYT story of May 20, 2005, that linked the Bagram abuse to Abu Ghraib by reporting that an officer from Bagram was transferred to help oversee interrogations at Abu Ghraib. For an earlier account of that, see Emily Bazelon's fine piece, From Bagram to Abu Ghraib, in the March 2005 Mother Jones.

(Full disclosure: Umansky, a former editor of motherjones.com, is a friend. Despite that and the fact that he is Lakers fan, the piece is worth reading in all of its 9,000 word plus glory.)

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CIA Secret Prisons and the Future of Guantanamo

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 6:30 PM EDT

Why is President Bush coming clean about the CIA secret prisons? Time offers one explanation.

By transferring name-brand al-Qaeda prisoners recognized as dangerous men — such as alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad — to Guantanamo from secret detention abroad is likely to strengthen the rationale for the off-shore facility, and for dispensing justice via military courts. It is also precisely because the Supreme Court has ruled that military tribunals do not offer detainees sufficient legal rights that the President has now urged Congress to pass legislation to address those concerns.

But the detainee transfers and the legislative intervention sought by President Bush is unlikely to end the legal and political controversy over Guantanamo. It may, however, strengthen the case for a policy of holding detainees off-shore and trying them in military courts. And by making the announcement in the form of a dramatic break into national television schedules before a handpicked audience that included some families of 9/11 victims, it also aimed to position the President and his Administration in the minds of swing voters as the guardians of the nation's security in the face of a clear and present danger.

Why Rumsfeld Should Be Sacked (A Very Long But Incomplete List of Reasons)

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 4:51 PM EDT

How many times have I heard some piece of breaking news, usually reporting a fresh outrage of the Bush administration's, and asked myself, "Wouldn't it be great to have handy an interactive timeline of the Bush years -- sortable by category -- so I could whip up a quick blog post furnishing helpful context?" I'll be honest: Not many. But it's good to be able to do just that, thanks to our (nonpartisan, fact-based) Lie by Lie timeline!

As Senate Democrats push (futilely) for a resolution to have the Defense Secretary canned, I can simply click the "Rumsfeld" link on the timeline, and here (below) is what comes up: a fairly extensive catalogue of lies, obfuscations, idiocies, and screw-ups; an impressive enough record, one would think, to have gotten him fired long ago. Bear in mind, the time period covered by Part I of Lie by Lie ends at the start of the Iraq war, in March, 2003 -- that is, before Abu Ghraib, the torture memos, "stuff happens," "Heck, I'm an old man," the utter disaster of the post-war period.... Stay tuned for further installments.

September 11, 2001
A note from an aide who was with the Secretary of Defense at the National Military Command Center shows that just five hours after the attacks Rumsfeld says, "Best info fast. Judge whether good enough to hit S.H. at same time. Not only UBL… Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not."

December 1, 2001
According to Bob Woodward, Rumsfeld orders Franks to begin work on an Iraq war plan. Bush will meet with military leaders regarding the plan on a regular basis starting late December, despite public assurances that the administration is seeking a diplomatic solution to its showdown with Saddam.

January 22, 2002
After a Defense Department photo is released showing detainees in goggles and masks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld defends the detentions of "committed terrorists," saying, "We are keeping them off the street and out of the airlines." Besides, he says, "To be in an eight-by-eight cell in beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not a — inhumane treatment. And it has a roof."

April 17, 2002
Reports emerge that American forces could have caught or killed bin Laden at Tora Bora. Reporters confront Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with the story. He says he does not "know today of any evidence" that bin Laden "was in Tora Bora at the time, or that he left Tora Bora at the time." Later reports will make clear that the military was asked by the CIA at the time to supply troops to help close off bin Laden's escape routes. The military declined.

Can Iran Be Negotiated With?

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 2:32 PM EDT

Great (long) post by Kevin Drum starting from observation that hawkish types, such as Andrew Sullivan, who supported the Iraq war but now question the wisdom of a military-first approach to foreign policy, are nevertheless sounding mighty belligerent on the topic of Iran.

And now it's Iran, yet another country that can't be negotiated with. Why? Religious fanaticism is the excuse this time. But while the Iranians may seem scarier simply because they're today's enemy, that doesn't mean they can't be dealt with just like any other nation state can be dealt with.

Not every problem can be solved by diplomacy. Sometimes, as in the currently fashionable right-wing obsession with 1938, negotiation really is useless. But far more often than not, our enemies can be negotiated with, despite all the convincing reasons the hawks adduce for confrontation and war as the only possible solution. So ask yourself: With a track record this bad, why should we pay attention to the same old hysterical siren song this time? Shouldn't we send the hawks packing and instead figure out more sensible ways to react to our global problems? Shouldn't we have learned our lesson by now?

Is Tony Blair On His Way Out?

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 1:59 PM EDT

Troubles for Tony Blair, hit today by a wave of resignations by junior members of his government. They're ticked off at his refusal, so far, to say when he'll step down. (The Sun newspaper has reported that he'll go on 31 May, something the PM's office won't confirm.)

Is this a plot by allies of Gordon Brown, Blair's antsy heir apparent? If so, says this BBC analysis, "they have to decide if they are going to follow it through. Will this become not just this group of relatively junior folk - but senior cabinet ministers, as they did with Thatcher in 1990, saying to the PM, 'you need to go and you need to go soon'?"

Problem is (for Brown), Blair's pals in the party can't stand him.

Can they bring themselves to work with Gordon Brown to make a reality of this awkward phrase "stable and orderly transition"? They haven't so far for one good reason - they don't want Gordon Brown to become PM. They wanted their man to stay in office so someone else could emerge. If they can bring themselves to work with Brown, perhaps he'll call the dogs off. Perhaps.

(Here's a BBC rundown of the other possible contenders for Blair's job, which includes this description of Brown: "Has been circling Tony Blair for years, like a dog watching the family cat squatting in its basket.")

If Brown doesn't call the dogs off (...the cats?), Blair could be gone in weeks. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, riding higher than they have in years, are pronouncing the government "in meltdown."

Accutane Users Pledge Abstinence, or Commit to Test After Test

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 1:36 PM EDT

Six months ago the FDA launched iPLEDGE, a mandatory registry for users of Isotretinoin (commonly prescribed as Accutane), designed to keep its users pregnancy free. Given that the powerful acne medication that's prescribed to 5 million Americans has been linked to serious birth defects and mental health problems, precautionary steps are understandable.

The FDA, caught in a tussle between patients wanting this extremely effective acne drug and those wanting it off the market, accepted iPLEDGE as a compromise to essentially improve behavior while taking a dangerous drug. But the requirements of the "computer-based risk management program" are so daunting it turns out people might be avoiding the drug altogether.

Women on the medication take mandatory pregnancy tests each month (two, one in a clinic), and have to take two forms of birth control at the same time. Or, they can pledge to "abstain from intercourse for one month prior to treatment, during treatment and for one month after treatment has ended." Every month patients must repledge the two forms of birth control they are using. Those who get pregnant anyway must "agree to be queried by an agent of iPLEDGE."

Male users have to sign on as well, and all users have to sign a document acknowledging that Accutane can increase risk for birth defects, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Doctors and patients alike are complaining about the complicated $80 million system that requires everyone, patients plus all the people involved in the distribution of the drug to register: doctors, pharmacists and drug wholesalers included.

Each month prescribers must enter a female patient's pregnancy test results into the system and the two forms of contraception she is using. The system then authorizes the doctor to prescribe, and the pharmacist to dispense, the drug. Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the 15,000-member American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) released a survey finding:

-90% of 378 physicians are having problems with the program.

-Nearly 52% said patients' treatments had been delayed because they were unable to pick up a prescription within seven days.
-39% said their patients encountered technical problems using the website.

The website itself is a curious sight. The tagline, "Committed to Pregnancy Prevention" has an icon that is a red stop sign with a big hand in the middle. The website features a big red arrow with the words "The Only Way" running across each page. Of the women on Accutane, 80% are under 30, "females of childbearing potential" and given the hoops women have to go through abstinence may be the best policy when taking the drug, or finding another drug. One outgrowth of the system is that, if it survives, it will creates a national database tracking birth control use and behavior, as well as pregnancies and abortions, of Isotretinoin users. Somewhat far afield of treating acne. We'll stay tuned to see how it plays out.

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Sunni-Shiite Bloodletting: What's in a Name?

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 1:23 PM EDT

From today's New York Times:

The country's Sunni-Shiite bloodletting is driving many Iraqis to bury the very essence of their identity: their names.

To have to hide one's name is considered deeply shameful. But with sectarian violence surging, Iraqis fear that the name on an identification card, passport or other document could become an instant death sentence if seen by the wrong people.

That is because some first names and tribal names indicate whether a person is Sunni or Shiite. A first name of Omar is popular among Sunnis, for example, as is Ali among Shiites.

We heard the same thing from some Iraqi bloggers we interviewed recently. And one, a 14-year-old girl from Mosul going by the nom de blog "Sunshine," added this:

Personally, I didn't know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis until three years ago. My best friend is Shiite; we have been friends since we were 6 years old. Neither of us supports what is happening now. My grandparent's neighbors are Shiite; the mother has been my grandma's friend for over 35 years. We like their family very much, and we both feel very angry about this ridiculous segregation. You see Shiites and Sunnis married and living in the same house—many relatives of mine are married to Shiite men or women, and they won't get divorced because of this silly segregation. They are Muslims before they are Shiites or Sunni, and in the end we are all Iraqis, no matter what our religion or denomination.

Read the full interview here.

Romney to ("Terrorist") Khatami: Drop Dead

| Wed Sep. 6, 2006 12:57 PM EDT

It's true that Mohammed Khatami, as President of Iran, failed to live up to his early promise as a reformer. (And let's face it, that was always going to be a tough gig.) But to call him a "terrorist," as Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney is noisily doing, seems a touch histrionic.

Governor Mitt Romney declared yesterday he would not allow any state resources to be used to protect a former Iranian president during his visit to the Boston area this weekend, and he sharply criticized Harvard University for inviting Mohammed Khatami to speak on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"There are people in this state who have suffered from terrorism, and taking even a dollar of their money to support a terrorist is unacceptable," Romney, a potential candidate for the Republican Party's 2008 presidential nomination, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Khatami will give a lecture titled "Ethics of Tolerance in the Age of Violence," which, yes, is ironic given his country's unimpressive record on the former and prolific contributions to the latter. But of course Romney wants to be president, so we should get used this kind of winking demagoguery, and not only from him. (Sigh.) Meanwhile, how the anti-terrorist cause will be served by Khatami's getting popped in Harvard Yard remains unclear.

Bush Says EPA Immune From Protections for Federal Whisteblowers

| Tue Sep. 5, 2006 10:17 PM EDT

Citing an unpublished opinion from the Attorney General's Office of Legal Counsel, the Bush administration has declared that federal employees may no longer pursue whistleblower claims and protections under the Clean Water Act. As of now, EPA employees will have almost no protection from retaliation if they come forward with information about water pollution enforcement breakdowns, cleanup failures, or the deceptive presentation of scientific findings. Approximately 170,000 employees are affected by this ruling.

The EPA is no help at all. The agency is taking the position that its employees have no protections of any kind regarding any environmental statute.

This turnabout occurred because an EPA employee reported problems with contracts for toxic cleanups. She was rewarded $225,000 in punitive damages after she filed a retaliation suit, but the Department of Labor overturned the court's decision.

The White House is claiming sovereign immunity for the EPA.

Katherine Harris's Campaign Makes FEMA Look Well Organized

| Tue Sep. 5, 2006 7:01 PM EDT

More hilarity from the the slo-mo tragicomedy that is Katherine Harris's Florida Senate bid. She's expected to win her primary today, visiting fresh torment on Republicans who'd rather she disappear like so many uncounted ballots. This from AP today.

"This campaign will go down in history as one of the most disastrous ever run in the United States," said Jim Dornan, who helped launch Harris' bid as her campaign manager. He left three months later.

"I don't think anybody can envision any campaign being conducted in as poor a fashion as this one's been conducted," said Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida political-science professor.

Her campaign shrugs off such criticism. "Our entire campaign team is looking forward, not backward," said spokeswoman Jennifer Marks. "We're energized and we're excited."...

"She doesn't interview, she flirts. And it's offensive to professional women and it's embarrassing," [Dornan] said. ...

She recently called separation of church and state "a lie" and angered Jews and others by saying, "If you're not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin."

Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush said Harris couldn't win. Ditto state Republican Party Chairman Carol Jean Jordan.

But spokeswoman Marks says Harris is being greeted by "a tremendous wave of support" as she travels the state, focusing on issues instead of the controversies.

Can you say karma? Justice comes slowly, granted, but it looks like there may be order in the heavens after all.