Tinfoil is the New Black

In many ways, this is a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true (as articulated by Paul Krugman):

Let’s say this slowly: the Bush administration wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. So it tortured people to make them confess to the nonexistent link.

Published in: on April 22, 2009 at 11:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Newly Released OLC Torture Memos: First Thoughts

I don’t have the time to read them completely, nor to respond in any kind of detail, but here is my first thought. Doesn’t this (h/t Glenn Greenwald):


Remind you of this?

‘The worst thing in the world,’ said O’Brien, ‘varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.’

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four metres away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

‘In your case,’ said O’Brien, ‘the worst thing in the world happens to be rats.’

A sort of premonitory tremor, a fear of he was not certain what, had passed through Winston as soon as he caught his first glimpse of the cage. But at this moment the meaning of the mask-like attachment in front of it suddenly sank into him. His bowels seemed to turn to water.


Here are the links to the memos themselves care of the ACLU (h/t emptywheel):

August 1, 2002 John Yoo memo

First May 10, 2005 Steven Bradbury memo

Second May 10, 2005 Steven Bradbury memo

May 30, 2005 Steven Bradbury memo

Finally, I agree entirely with emptywheel that the ACLU deserves more support. Like so many other organizations that rely on donations, they’ve been hard hit by the economic downturn, but they’re still fighting the good fight.

Update: Firedoglake has a petition asking Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor who will determine whether criminal prosecutions are warranted. Sign it here.

Published in: on April 16, 2009 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Not the Change We Need: Part V in a Continuing Series (Updated)

When President Obama ordered executive officials not to rely on Bush-era signing statements on Monday, I decided to take the optimistic view that this was a good sign. Emptywheel was not so optimistic.

Savage (who of course wrote the book on this stuff) goes on to explain the background of Bush’s abuse of signing statements, and to note that Obama says he will use signing statements, “with caution and restraint” (whatever that means).

Clearly, my optimism wasn’t warranted.

President Obama on Wednesday issued his first signing statement, reserving a right to bypass dozens of provisions in a $410 billion government spending bill even as he signed it into law.

In the statement — directions to executive-branch officials about how to carry out the legislation — Mr. Obama instructed them to view most of the disputed provisions as merely advisory and nonbinding, saying they were unconstitutional intrusions on his own powers.

However, there isn’t a consensus that the provisions really are unconstitutional limitations on his powers. For example, Jonathan Turley, a professor at GW Law School, has concerns regarding the provision relating to UN peacekeeping missions. He makes the point that the Constitution gave Congress the ability to restrict “foreign entanglements and adventures” through the power of appropriations. This is true whether or not we agree with Congress’s limitations.

More broadly, however, the use signing statements that alter the meaning of provisions would seem to undermine the constitutional balance of powers. When combined with the Obama Administration’s defense of the state secrets privilege, the delay in releasing the contents of additional Bush-era OLC memos, and the adoption of certain rhetoric about the war on terror, this paints the disturbing picture that the Obama Administration is not serious about rolling back the Bush Administration’s executive overreach. While they have taken some symbolic steps, there doesn’t seem to be a serious commitment to either revealing Bush-era abuses of executive power or halting all such future abuses. Rather, they appear inclined to reserve the ability to abuse power in more limited ways.

This is not the change we need.

Update: The Obama Administration has moved to dismiss another civil case involving torture, on the grounds that the right of prisoners at Guantanamo not to suffer abuses was not established at the time. Unacceptable.

Not the Change We Need: Part IV in a Continuing Series

(This is not about the President’s address tonight, which I liked a great deal. I do find his focus on deficit reduction to be a little puzzling given his commitment to Keynesian stimulus, but that is a topic for another time.)

Constitutional Law Professor Jonathan Turley was on the Rachel Maddow Show again on Monday, this time to discuss Karl Rove’s failure to appear to testify before Congress. In the second half of the interview, however, the issue turned to the Obama Administration’s recent decision to adopt the Bush Administration position on a lawsuit over the retention or recovery of White House emails.

The Obama Administration is carrying a lot of water for the Bush Administration. Each day they seem to be taking the position of the Bush White House…He is doing exactly what the Bush Administration tried to do and that is to extinguish this litigation.

Among the carried water, Turley cites: statements supporting the Bush administration on treatment of detainees, the endorsement and adoption of Bush administration rhetoric of the war on terror, and the refusal to investigate war crimes.

He concludes:

These weren’t good arguments before. To argue them in court makes you equally guilty of the types of excesses of your predecessor.

I, and many others, supported President Obama during the campaign precisely because he campaigned against these kinds of executive overreach. It increasingly appears that it was unrealistic to expect that any president would willingly participate in any significant rollback of executive power. This is nevertheless disappointing from a candidate that preached both change and hope. With each decision by this president to continue the failed policies of his failed predecessor, I find it increasingly hard to find the audacity to believe in either.

Glenn Greenwald also has a post discussing other instances policy and practice continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations, citing specifically the approach to press management. It also discusses the highly disturbing reports from The Guardian that Binyam Mohamed may have been tortured while in American custody within the past few weeks.

Mohamed will arrive back tomorrow in the UK, where he was a British resident between 1984 and 2002. During medical examinations last week, doctors discovered injuries and ailments resulting from apparently brutal treatment in detention.

Mohamed was found to be suffering from bruising, organ damage, stomach complaints, malnutrition, sores to feet and hands, severe damage to ligaments as well as profound emotional and psychological problems which have been exacerbated by the refusal of Guantánamo’s guards to give him counseling.

Mohamed’s British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said his client had been beaten “dozens” of times inside the notorious US camp in Cuba with the most recent abuse occurring during recent weeks. He said: “He has a list of physical ailments that cover two sheets of A4 paper. What Binyam has been through should have been left behind in the middle ages.”

Lieutenant colonel Yvonne Bradley, Mohamed’s US military attorney, added: “He has been severely beaten. Sometimes I don’t like to think about it because my country is behind all this.

The possibility that this abuse may have occurred after President Obama’s inauguration is very concerning, and should be addressed by the administration as soon as possible.

Not the Change We Need: Part III in a Continuing Series

From Jonathan Turley:

Graham then asked “If our intelligence agencies should capture someone in the Philippines that is suspected of financing Al Qaeda worldwide, would you consider that person part of the battlefield?” “Do you agree with that?”

Kagan replied, “I do” and the marriage with the Bush policies was complete. So much for change. Both Holder and Kagan have now taken such a vow with Senators in order to secure their confirmations. The message appears to be a uniquely English approach to government. We will continue policies and laws that can do great harm to civil liberties, but we will use them in a beneficent way. Your “change” is not that we will get rid of the policies. Your change is that you get us. This “trust us we’re the government” approach to civil liberties was precisely what Madison and other framers rejected. To have a well-respected academic voice such views is a terrible disappointment for civil libertarians, who are being offered a meaningful commission as a type of air kiss toward war crimes.

I do trust Barack Obama more than I trusted George Bush. This is not a particularly high standard. But I don’t want to have to trust my leaders not to infringe on the Constitution. Civil liberties are supposed to be a firewall against tyranny, regardless of leader. It saddens me that the President and his appointees apparently do not realize this, or more dangerously, do not care.

As an aside, I find it a historical irony that the United States appears to be conceptualizing something similar to the dar al-Harb, or house of war. The question, though, is if legal residents in the United States can be detained at will, as in the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, then where is the counterpart, the dar as-Salam?

Bush Administration Legal Memos

ProPublica has published an interactive list of Bush Administration ‘secret’ memos on torture, wiretapping, and the scope of executive authority. It is an important reference on the subject.

Ultimately, President Obama and the Attorney General will have to decide whether to release these memos to the public. Regardless of whether investigations or prosecutions of Bush officials occur, these memos should be released so the nation can appropriately discuss and repudiate the actions and legal positions of the last eight years.

Sheldon Whitehouse Argues for ‘Looking Back’

Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) makes an eloquent argument for why ‘looking back’ at the actions of the Bush administration is necessary for American democracy.

If we blind ourselves to this history, if we pull an invisibility cloak over it, we will deny ourselves its lessons. Those lessons came at too painful a cost to ignore. Those lessons merit discovery, disclosure and discussion. Indeed, disclosure and discussion is the difference between a valuable lesson for the bright upward forces of our democracy, and a blueprint for darker forces to return and do it all over again.

A little bright, healthy sunshine and fresh air, so that an educated population knows what was done and how, can show where the tunnels were bored, when the truth was subordinated; what institutions were subverted; how our democracy was compromised; so this grim history is not condemned to repeat itself; so a knowing public in the clarity of day can say, “Never, never, never, again;” so we can keep that light – that light that is at once America’s greatest gift and greatest strength – brightly shining. To do this, I submit, we must look back.

Unfortunately, Whitehouse agrees with a common argument against torture prosecutions.

Our new Attorney-General designate has said, we should not criminalize policy differences. I agree.

Some of what the Bush administration done can be considered a policy difference, their commitment to the rapine exploitation of the environment, for example. However, I don’t think that any illegal act can be considered ‘a policy difference’. Neither can acts that undermine the balance of powers and the constitution. More importantly, policy is enacted in full public view and in the legal manner. The Bush administration used secret and dubious arguments about the scope of executive authority to conduct many of their most problematic programs; programs that are so extreme that they cannot possibly be relegated to the scope of mere ‘policy differences’.

Yes, we do not prosecute policy differences. However, Attorney General-Designate Eric Holder, Senator Whitehouse, and President Obama should be more careful how they define the acceptable scope of a ‘policy debate’. Some things are beyond the pale.

Published in: on January 25, 2009 at 11:24 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Bush Legacy: Messianic Imperialism

In February 2000, historian Geoffrey Parker delivered two lectures entitled The World is Not Enough: The Imperial Vision of Philip II of Spain. The title came from a motto, Non Sufficit Orbis, that Philip had struck on a commemorative medallion. The motto later came to be incorporated into the Royal Arms and is indicative of Philip’s strategic vision.

Parker describes Philip’s vision as ‘messianic imperialism’:

Philip II believed absolutely that his interests coincided with those of God. “You are engaged in God’s service and in mine, which is the same thing.” (pp. 21-22).

He argues that this produced a “zero-defects mentality” in the king, which rendered him unable to consider the possibility of failure or to create fall-back strategies.

First, Philip believed that God had chosen him to rule expressly to achieve His purpose for the world. Second, he was equally convinced that God held him under his special protection, to enable him to achieve these goals (although the process might prove neither obvious nor easy.) Third, he felt certain that, if necessary, God would intervene directly in order to help him to succeed. (p. 30)

Above all, Philip II’s conviction that he was doing God’s work made him unrealistic in his strategic planning, and inflexible whenever his subordinates complained that his orders seemed impossible. (p. 35)

Parker’s lectures contain a litany of such occurrences, one of which is a striking and well-known example – the Spanish Armada.

I first read these lectures in the Fall of 2004, by which time it was clear to all observers that the Iraq war was not under control. We hadn’t been greeted as liberators and the grateful populace was taking an opportunity to express their ‘appreciation’. And yet, in the midst of this catastrophe, President Bush continued to speak of the war as divine providence. I was immediately struck by the similarities between this messianic vision and that of Philip II.

Consider this quote from the conclusion of the 2003 ‘mission accomplished’ speech:

All of you — all in this generation of our military — have taken up the highest calling of history. You are defending your country, and protecting the innocent from harm. And wherever you go, you carry a message of hope — a message that is ancient, and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: “To the captives, ‘Come out!’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!”‘

Likewise this 2005 column by Al Kamen in the Washington Post:

“But Bush has said similar things on other occasions,” Brubaker noted, citing Bob Woodward‘s “Plan of Attack,” where Bush says he’s “surely not going to justify the war based on God . . . Nevertheless . . . I pray I be as good a messenger of his will as possible.”

” ‘Messenger of his will [or] God speaks through me,’ ” Brubaker wrote. “The difference seems rather fine.”

In the end, of course, Philip II’s imperial vision failed. No amount of divine providence, which wasn’t particularly forthcoming, could prevent the unraveling of an empire based on far-flung and tenuously held possessions. And yet, at no time is a strategic withdrawal attempted. Parker identifies four reasons for the persistence of this failed vision: 1) Spaniards shared Philip’s view of Spain as an instrument of God’s will; 2) artists, writers, and clerics also endorsed Philip as a rex et sacerdos and shared his divine vision; 3) the King’s ministers also shared this outlook, linking service to the King as service to God; and 4) there was no other competing strategic vision.

At the end of a presidency, and this presidency in particular, if I may respectfully disagree with the President-Elect, it is a time for both looking forward and looking back. I don’t wish to over-stretch the comparison, but there are lessons to be learned from Philip II. The four elements identified above were also present in Bush’s America. There were those who linked the President’s mission with God’s mission. Even those that didn’t arrived at secular equivalents: the President was doing freedom’s will, or, even more dangerously, an unquestioning faith in the presidency itself. And, finally, strategic alternatives were all but ignored, unless they were being mocked, until well into the 2008 election.

After Philip II’s death, this same messianic vision, this belief in a divine course for Spain and her monarch, persisted until the collapse of the Hapsburg dynasty in 1700. We, ourselves, are standing on a precipice. Already we are turning away. Withdrawal from Iraq is inevitable, and discussions on whether to withdraw from Afghanistan have already begun. The callous self-confidence of the Bush administration should fade into a more deliberative decision making process in the new Obama presidency. Our foreign policy promises to be more rational and reality-based.

However, the seeds of a new messianic presidency have already been planted. A joke during the campaign, nevertheless a number of Obama supporters argue that we shouldn’t challenge him; that we should trust him to know best because he is Obama. We must not allow ourselves to replace one Priest-President with another. Questioning the President and keeping a skeptical eye on his vision are vital to rational policy making.

In the last few months, George Bush has attempted to secure his legacy. Consider his farewell address:

I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.

What we must remember from the Bush presidency is not his willingness to make tough decisions, but rather the reckless confidence with which they were made. If we treat Barack Obama as a messiah, then a messiah will be what we deserve – delusions and all.

Update: To clarify, I don’t think that Obama thinks of himself as a messiah, in any way. However, there does appear to be a cult of personality among some of his followers, and that is what I find disturbing. We must discontinue not only the past eight years’ strategic approach to the world, but also the approach to how we view the president.