Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The release by the Obama Administration of the Bush era White House torture memos has sparked a spitting match between former Bush Adminstration officials, most notably Dick Cheney, and those who opposed torture as a technique as to whether it worked and resulted in information that in Cheney's words "saved lives".

Now Ali Soufan (pictured here in Afghanistan) a former FBI agent and who has been described as America's most successful Al-Qaeda interrogator, has come out and said the use of torture was unneccesary.

Time magazine has reported:

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Soufan says Abu Zubaydah gave up the information between March and June 2002, when he was being interrogated by Soufan, another FBI agent and some CIA officers. But that was not the result of harsh techniques, including waterboarding, which were not introduced until August. "We were getting a lot of useful material from [Abu Zubaydah], and we would have continued to get material from him. The rough tactics were not necessary."

There is little doubt that the torture techniques were not neccessary. Perhaps it was because Bush and Cheney ignored eight months worth of warnings leading up to the 911 attacks and were responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans because of their negligence that they went overboard in trying to prevent another attack.

Soufan stated unequivocally that torture doesn't work. He told Time magazine:

"When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them," he says. "That means the information you're getting is useless."

Defenders of waterboarding and the Bush decision to use it have tried to claim that waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammad in 2005 led to information that prevented an attack on the Library Buidling in Los Angeles. But other documents show that plot was discovered and broken up in 2002 using conventional interrogation techniques.

Soufan said his main objection to the techniques was moral. "To use violence against detainees," he says, "is [al-Qaeda's] way, not the American way."

Soufan said that when the harsh techniques were introduced he protested and his bosses at the FBI backed him up. He was removed from his assignment as an interrogator.

As of now it appears that against Obama's wishes, Senator Leahy is going to hold hearings into whether anyone in the Bush Administration violated any laws. Those hearings alone could do more good to re-establish the credibility of the United States than any speech made by Obama.

And the contention that somehow knowing the limits of US interrogators will make Al-Qaeda prisoners stronger and more apt to withold information doesn't hold, pardon the pun, any water.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Barack Obama has thrown his own Administration, half the Democratic party, and the entire Congress into chaos over the issue of torture memos and prosecutions.

As he has done most of his political life, Obama tried to play both sides of the fence when it came to the release of the torture memos trying to placate both sides by releasing the memos which documented Bush White House authorization for torture and at the same time placate the right by saying no one would be prosecuted.

But when stiff opposition arose within his own party to letting those in the Bush White House who approved and formulated the rationale for the illegal methods dodge any accountability, Obama reversed himself by saying that while no one in the CIA would be prosecuted, higher ups in the Bush Administration might. When that caused a firestorm among Republicans, Obama changed again, this time passing the buck to the Attorney General and putting the decision to prosecute in his hands.

Both Senators Feinstein and Feingold were just two of the Democrats who made it clear they opposed any decision by Obama to simply "go forward" without an investigation to see if prosecutions were warranted.

There are now new revelations that both Condoleeza Rice and Dick Cheney knew of and approved the illegal interrogation techniques while Rice had made public statements at the time to the contrary. Muddying the waters even more, the Washington Post has reported that Nancy Pelosi and Jay Rockefeller were both briefed on the torture methods in 2002 and neither voiced any objection. Pelosi has emphatically denied she was briefed that the torture methods were being used.

Another problem for Obama is the fact that a number of US soldiers from Abu Ghraib have been sent to prison for carrying out techniques memos show were encouraged and approved of by Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush.

How Obama can let those soldiers stay in prison and not prosecute those who formulated and gave the orders will be another difficult problem.

The revelations ratchets up the pressure on the Democrats to prosecute those in the Bush Administration who authorized and helped implement torture while the Republicans have launched an offensive against Obama for even releasing the memos.

Obama's political blundering and lack of a clear moral stand, reversing himself every time there has been an objection to something, has created a firestorm that threatens to overshadow anything else coming out of the White House at the moment.

Clearly releasing the memos was the right thing to do. And prosecuting those in the White House who broke the law is also the right thing to do. But it's possible some Democrats, if they had knowledge of the torture and didn't object, will have to go down as well and that could include Pelosi and possibly Jay Rockefeller though there is a distinction between knowing about it and being in a position to authorize it or stop it. But If prosecutions are not forthcoming in order to protect Democrats who might be embarrassed, Obama's credibility would be irreparably damaged even among those who supported him.

As to whether or not the techniques resulted in any valuable information, aside from Cheney's assertions which cannot be believed, we have Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent and the most successful US interrogator of Al-Qaeda operatives. Time magazine reports:

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Soufan says Abu Zubaydah gave up the information between March and June 2002, when he was being interrogated by Soufan, another FBI agent and some CIA officers. But that was not the result of harsh techniques, including waterboarding, which were not introduced until August. "We were getting a lot of useful material from [Abu Zubaydah], and we would have continued to get material from him," Soufan told TIME. "The rough tactics were not necessary."

There is little doubt that the torture techniques were not neccessary. Perhaps it was because Bush and Cheney ignored all the warnings leading up to the 911 attacks and were responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans because of their negligence that they went overboard in trying to prevent another attack.

But as for Obama, because he has tried to straddle both sides of the fence without taking any firm moral stand, as Ed Rollins, Republican strategist who supported the release of the memos said, he now has everyone mad at him. So Obama's own moral ambiguity, part of a pattern he has shown his entire political career is now coming back to haunt him. As Obama is finding out, you can't play politics with morality.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Former CIA chief Michael Hayden continued his attacks on the release of the torture memos on Fox News,saying, "What we have described for our enemies in the midst of a war are the outer limits that any American would ever go to in terms of interrogating an al Qaeda terrorist. That's very valuable information.

That actually doesn't sound like valuable information to me. In fact it is virtually worthless which more than the release of the memos, calls into question just how valuable Hayden was as CIA director during his 3 year term.
More than anything, the release of the memo embarrasses Hayden and other members of the Bush administration because it tends to prove the opposite of everything they had been saying.

Hayden said, "By taking techniques off the table, we have made it more difficult in a whole host of circumstances I can imagine, more difficult for CIA officers to defend the nation."

A close look at just one of the points in the memos shows that Hayden's ability to imagine was more potent than the torture techniques applied. We were told that valuable information was obtained through the use of water boarding and that it was an effective technique. Experts in the field of interrogation though have said those techniques are virtually worthless in obtaining valuable information.

According to one of the memos, the CIA used water boarding on two Al-Qaeda officials 266 times. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if the technique was that good, using it once might have been enough to get the information they wanted from a prisoner. The fact that they had to do it 266 times to two prisoners does more to prove the argument by many intelligence professionals that it's an ineffective technique and does not produce accurate actionable information than anything Hayden or Cheney could say to the contrary.

The next big question will be whether to hold members of the Bush Administration including the former President himself, accountable for what was clearly a violation of US law imposed on the CIA by White House directives.

UPDATE: After saying that there would be no prosecutions of Bush Administration officials, Obama has now reversed himself 24 hours later effectively throwing his White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and his Rahm Emmanual his Chief of Staff under the bus. Both made unequivocal statements at Obama's behest, that there would be no prosecutions of Bush officials and that he did not support them.

Now, after Senator Feinstein has distanced herself from Obama's position and said she may very well hold hearings to see if Bush officials broke any laws, and other Democrats have also taken issue with Obama's position, he has reversed himself while punting to the Department of Justice now saying he will leave the matter of prosecutions in their hands. It is, unfortunately, an instance of Obama, after having spoken out of both sides of his mouth, publicly passing the buck.
If laws were broken and they seem to have been, there will be no choice but to prosecute those in Bush's White House who broke those laws.


Robert Gibbs today has said there has been no reversal of Obama's policy, that nothing has changed, that Obama's statement yesterday leaving the door open to prosecutions is consistent with all his prior statements. The only part of that statement that has any truth to it is that nothing has changed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Following the rescue of Captain Richard Philips by Navy Seals, many in the media quickly went overboard showering a great deal of the credit on President Obama. In some cases they almost made him sound like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill.

CNN's Gloria Borgia as well as other politicos at CNN, and even Jeff Birnbaum, a Fox News contributor were quick to give Obama the lions share of the credit for the successful rescue of Captain Philips . It is almost baffling to understand why.

Kenneth T. Walsh in US News and World Report wrote, "Obama's decision to authorize the use of military force to free Phillips, captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, from a band of pirates demonstrated that the new commander in chief will apply American muscle in a crunch. It also showed that he trusts the military to get the job done and remains cool under pressure. These are significant developments for a man who has endured considerable criticism about being too young and inexperienced to serve as an effective commander in chief."

Gloria Borgia on CNN called the rescue a "win" for the Obama Administration. The Boston Globe called it Obama's first test as President and that he passed with flying colors.

The credit for the successful rescue of course goes to the Navy Seals, the Captain of the Bainbridge and some FBI negotiators who kept the situation fluid until a window of opportunity opened up for the Seals snipers to do what they were trained to do. And the plan to rescue Captain Philips was a Navy operation, not anything devised in the White House.

Unfortunately for Mr. Walsh and others, President Obama did nothing except give the go ahead for the Navy Seals to take the action they had been trained to take under these circumstances and Obama left the ultimate decision, the real decision, in the hands of the Captain of the Bainbridge who was given the authority to use his judgement and did, giving the go ahead to fire the shots that killed the pirates and freed Captain Philips.

This is not to say Obama did anything wrong. He did was he should have done by delegating authority to those who knew what they were doing and knew how to handle what was a very dangerous situation.

But the question no one seems to be asking is, what else could Obama have done? Refuse to let the Navy rescue Captain Philips? Refuse to let them take whatever action the commander on the scene deemed necessary? Refuse to allow the Seals snipers to do what they've been trained to do in situations like this? Not give them the authority to act on a window of opportunity if it presented itself? Had Obama refused and had Captain Philips remained a hostage or lost his life it would have for all intents and purposes been the end of the Obama Presidency.

It was the commander on the scene and the Seal sharpshooters who were cool under pressure not, as Walsh writes, President Obama who made the only decision it was possible to make -- give the authority to the commander on the scene to take whatever action was neccessary to save Captain Philips when the opportunity arose.

It is almost farcical to see that the media has gotten to the point where they are willing to heap praise on Obama for simply not being inept and are willing to set the bar so low that Obama can get over it simply by stepping on it. This is no fault of Obama's. But it simply erodes the mass media's credibility even more. And the way the media is going, and with the credibility they are losing, even Navy Seals won't be able to rescue them.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


The tax day tea party event was pushed as a non-partisan grass roots event but there was more whine than tea and whine with a distinctly conservative Republican flavor. The acidic after taste may have something to do with Newt Gingrich of all people as the key note speaker at the New York City tea party event.

Given the fact that if Gingrich ran for President he would not manage 20% of the New York City vote, it makes the assertion that this is a non-partisan event something of a joke and it's clear it was pushed by conservative Republican organizers and it was mostly conservative media types who showed up to cover it at the same time denying they had anything to do with it.

It's no secret no one likes paying taxes but no one wants to cut the services they pay for either. But it's usually conservatives popping the corks over taxes mostly for ideological reasons that have never proved to help the economy.

They seem to forget that Reagan lowered taxes and ran the country into the ground economically producing record deficits and record high interest rates. Bush 41 had to raise taxes to keep the country from falling into economic chaos thanks to the mess Reagan left behind. Clinton raised taxes, ( the 5c a gallon gas tax) which eliminated the deficit, and resulted in the greatest economic expansion in US history, the lowest unemployment in 40 years and left the country with a $5 1/2 trillion budget SURPLUS. A surplus the country could certainly have put to good use now.

When Bush came into office Karl Rove bragged to Time Magazine that the Bush Administration was going to be ABC -- Anything But Clinton and they went about undoing all of Clintons economic inititatives. As Issac Newton pointed out,with every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and reversing Clinton's policies also reversed all of Clinton's results leaving us with what we have now.

Its never taxes that's the issue in spite of conservative whining. Even the colonists and founders of the country knew that. Their cry wasn't "too much taxation" it was " no taxation without representation".Their problem with taxes (aside form the Stamp Act) wasn't that they had to pay them, it was that they werent getting anything for them in return and had no representative say in how their taxes would be spent.

Its not taxes that are the issue. It's what you get in return for them and what they accomplish. If anything. Clinton raising taxes accomplished record economic prosperity. Under Bush and the conservatives the tax cuts and Bush's tax policies produced record deficits and the worst economic crisis since the 1930's.

The fact is when it comes to taxes the United States is the third lowest taxed country in the world. A middle class married couple with two children pay a federal tax rate of 12%. A similar married couple with two children in France pays 42%.And in almost every country in the world that family of four would pay a tax rate in the 40% range while in the US, with deductions, the rate is about 12%.

The proof as always will be in the pudding not in the whine. And not in the tea. If the Obama Administration's approach works, taxes wont be an issue. Especially undoing the Bush tax cuts for the upper 2% of income earners that even his own first Secretary of the Treasury thought were so stupid he left.

If the Democrats spending approach doesn't work ( and I am not saying it will -- if someone wants to question the validity of the spending that's another matter) it wont be because of taxes.
With Newt Gingrich as the keynote speaker at the NYC tax day tea party it tends to re-enforce that this is about conservative ideology and nothing practical. And it's hardly a non-partisan movement. To complain about taxes now, given the economic mess, is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Which is exactly what got us into this mess that Bush and the Republican Conservatives created in the first place.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Universal health care is one of the most important changes the Obama Administration could possibly make. The US is the only western country that does not have universal government subsidized health care. But what kind of health care reform is Obama proposing? And why is it "reform" instead of a program of universal health care?

Obama has a history in 12 years of elective office of saying one thing but doing another and never fulfilling anything he promises and healthcare could be the latest example.

In what was yet another of his town hall meetings a question was asked about healthcare and what Obama is going to do about it. He said healthcare reform was one of his top priorities ( its been a Democratic party priority for at least 15 years) but that it will be difficult to do (anyone ever notice how he is always telling us how hard everything is to do?) and that there is a system already in place, a system that, in spite of its flaws he is going to keep.

This is what he said:

"It's not the best system, it's not the system we would create if we were starting from scratch, but its the one we are used to so we are going to keep it".

The one we are used to so we are going to keep it? This is the candidate who campaigned on change? On reforming Washington? On getting rid of the old way of doing things and ushering in something new and better?

This sounds a lot more like is the candidate who told the people of Ohio he would get rid of NAFTA if he were elected but privately told the Canadian government he didn't mean a word of it. Or promised to use public financing if he were the nominee and then reneged. Or promised to vote against the FISA bill if contained retroactive immunity and then voted for it.

Although many of his supporters (or people with their fingers crossed) say give Obama a chance, his 12 year history as an elected official is he is a talker not a doer and never does what he says he is going to do.

So far , for good or ill, everything Obama has done has been Democratic Party initiatives. It's the Democrats behind the scenes setting the agenda, not Obama.Which is actually a good thing since it will be Congressional Democrats that might force Obama to keep his word.

But his statement about keeping a flawed system because its one we are used to doesn't bode well. It smacks of an approach that may be splitting the baby. It shows an unwillingness to take on the biggest obstacles to universal health care and that's the insurance companies and the drug companies.

The single biggest flaw in our system is that health care operates within our capitalist system which is market driven. Health care should not be part of a market driven concept. Republicans have long supported that system and called government subsidized healthcare socialism. But that is what has to change. That is what no other country offering universal health care does. In fact it is insanity to have a health care system that provides services that mean life or death based on the same principles that govern the marketing of Dr. Pepper.When you have a system of health care that can't differentiate between a doctor of orthopedic surgery and Dr. Pepper you have a problem.

Obama, despite his rhetoric to the contrary, has never taken on the big interest groups. Instead he has welcomed their contributions and has gotten cozy with all kinds of lobbyists including the drug and insurance company lobbyists which are some of the most well financed. So getting real health care reform from Obama could be more snake oil than anything that is really good for what ails us.

More than $600 billion is being allocated to reforming health care when what's needed it not just reform but a new system.

But all is not lost. The key to getting universal health care is through Congress not Obama. If enough pressure is put on Congress to do something meaningful, if people reject anything less than the kind of universal health care that has worked for other countries and makes healthcare a right, not a function of market driven principles, then its possible that health care reform will be something truly beneficial and not a bottle of snake oil sold from the back of truck outside a town hall meeting.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


The shooting rampage at the American Civic Association in Binghamton New York where 13 people were killed by a former Vietnamese citizen was not only national news but worldwide news.

President Obama mentioned the killings during a prearranged speech on April 3. But in typical Obama fashion, in a time and place where the tragedy of those killings could have had special significance in the eyes of the world and actually accomplished some good, Obama completely missed the opportunity and had nothing to say but the usual empty overused cliches, calling it "an act of senseless violence".

We don't know how much thought went into Obama's statement or whether or not he thought maybe people wouldn't know it was an act of senseless violence unless he told us it was. Obama's pattern is always to tell us the obvious, things everyone already knows, as if it is the result of some special insight he has. He also said he was "shocked and saddened" by the killings and if those cliches weren't enough he added that he was "monitoring the situation."

What he missed was a golden opportunity to make a statement about America, a positive statement, to the rest of the world in the wake of that tragedy because what he didn't say was that the people who were killed were immigrants who had come to America from 8 different countries because of their belief that America would make their lives better. And America welcomed them. They were killed at the American Civic Association, in a small town in upstate New York, a place that offered them classes to help them pass the citizenship test and to learn to speak better English so they could get better jobs. And the irony was they were killed, not by an American but by a former Vietnamese who the Civic Association had helped.

This was an opportunity to point out what America really does stand for to ordinary people around the world. A place where people from all over the world want to come for a better life. And that America not only welcomed them but was helping them achieve their goals.

Given that he was in Europe, doing what many said was an attempt at repairing America's image abroad, an image beaten into the ground by George Bush and his band of incompetents, Obama, if he had anything near the eloquence he and many others like to pretend he has, or the gravitas people like to pretend he has, could have made what happened to those immigrants, as tragic as it was, at least count for something that could be shown as positive about America in the eyes of the rest of the world.

He could have pointed out that among the victims of the Vietnamese killer,was a 57 year old Iraqi woman who was at the Civic Association taking classes to learn better English so she could become a librarian in Binghamton where she lived with her son and husband.

He could have pointed out a lot of things from a podium in Europe that would have made an impression and a point to the rest of the world of what America really stands for.

That these immigrants should be killed in the act of taking classes at the Civic Association to become citizens or to learn better English made it in many ways an even deeper tragedy but it also showed the rest of the world how these people saw America and what America was to them.
All that was lost by Obama. Most probably because it was also lost on him. This tragedy was an opportunity to make a powerful statement of what America stands for and what America is to many people all over the world and to make it in a European country while he was trying to mend America's image an an arrogant country that looks down on the rest of the world.

Had Obama been able to understand the moment and seize the opportunity it offered, it would have done more to make a positive statement about America than all of his pre-scripted, fake, town hall meetings put together.

Instead all Obama had to say came from page 194 of The Politicians Guide to Cliche Public Responses by saying it was "an act of senseless violence". Which on Obama's part, was an act of senseless rhetoric.

Monday, April 6, 2009


In what was billed by some media outlets as Obama getting that 4 a.m. call, Obama, during a prearranged speech on nuclear disarmament in Prague, responded to the North Korean missile launch with a statement that sounded more like an attempt to buy time to figure out a response than a response itself.

Obama, as is his style, forcefully told everyone who had gathered in Prague what they already knew about North Korea as if it was news.

In a statement that sounded more like a note to Kim's mother from the school principal about Kim Jong-Il's bad behavior, Obama said,"With this provocative act, North Korea has ignored its international obligations, rejected unequivocal calls for restraint and further isolated itself from the community of nations."

To paraphrase a former campaign slogan, yes they did. And what else is new? Kim Jong-Il has been doing that for years, is already isolated, and if he cared at all would not have launched in the first place.

Obama went on to say,"North Korea must know that the path to security and respect will never come through threats and illegal weapons. All nations must come together to build a stronger global regime." Or Kim will be kept after school?

Aside from Obama's line regarding the building of a "global regime" which some might find unsettling, according to most analysts, Kim launched this missile for one reason: to say to his own people, "yes we can".

Many analysts agree it was a move more designed to strengthen his hand with his own people while at the same time doing what Kim likes to do from time to time -- rattle the international community. It was also a way for Kim to stick his thumb in Obama's eye, launching the missile when he knew Obama would be in Europe making a speech, but beyond that it doesn't seem to have the significance that some are attaching.

Some have suggested that it was a "trade show" launch designed to show other countries that North Korea can provide missile technology. The two countries mentioned most as possible buyers were Syria and Iran but both suggestions are preposterous. Syria has been having secret talks with Israel related to peace and security and buying missile technology from North Korea would be the last thing they would do now. And Iran doesn't need it.

Obama went on to say in a tone that continued to sound like a note from the school principal, that Kim had "broken the rules" and that, "we will immediately consult with our allies in the region, including Japan and [South Korea] and ... bring this matter before the [Security] Council. I urge North Korea to abide fully by the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and to refrain from further provocative actions."

Needless to say, Obama "urging" Kim to do anything is not likely to produce a similar "urge" in Kim. If Obama is waiting for Kim to say "my bad", he has a long wait. North Korea has been a thorny problem for years and its going to take more than anything Obama said in Prague to deal with it.

Obama, during the presidential campaign, alluded to the idea that he personally would sit down with Kim ( and other potential US enemies) to talk face to face, a foreign policy position that those who know about such things have said would be a disaster. But there was no indication in Obama's speech that he had any intention of doing that. Instead, Obama said he would bring the matter to the UN.

The matter was in fact brought before an emergency session of the UN on Sunday but ended with no further notes to Kim's mother. Only an "F" for Kim in Works and Plays Well With Others.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


The last time Obama went to Europe it was as a candidate for President during the Democratic primary(when was the last time a candidate for President of the United States campaigned in Germany?). At the time Axelrod assured big adoring crowds for Obama by giving away free food and a free rock concert by Germany's hottest rock act something that only the respected German magazine Der Spiegel reported while the majority of US media ignored it, content to stay in Obama's pocket, (presumably where the change was)

This time when Obama brings his act to the G20, the only free food will be for the those attending the summit, and as for a free concert, its not likely Obama will hear anything that might be called music to his ears since other European countries blame the US and the reckless behavior of its financial institutions for the current financial mess. And of course for the most part they are right, though it is also true that all this recklessness and its disastrous consequences took place thanks to George W. Bush and the Republicans.

Nevertheless Obama's constant refrain here in the US "It's not my fault" is not going to make anyone at the G20 summit swoon. The Democrats response to the crisis, with Obama as Salesman in Chief, has been met with criticism here as well as overseas. The respected (and liberal) economist Paul Krugman who writes a column for the New York Times has come right out and said in so many words that Obama's policies regarding the economy are going to fail. In fact he wrote that they had to fail based on history and basic economic metrics.

There are good reasons to doubt that the policies so far initiated will work though it's understood they have to do some good somewhere. You can't throw over a trillion dollars at a problem (don't even bother trying to understand how much that is) without it having some effect. The question is how much and at what cost. Watching Obama go to Ohio to give a speech claiming that a $767 billion rescue plan is working because it saved 25 jobs on the Columbus Ohio police force doesn't exactly inspire confidence. We have already seen the $27 billion given to auto makers go down the drain (see "Obama's Learner's Permit and the auto industry bailout") and that money has been wasted regardless of the auto makers futures.

We'll see what if anything the G20 summit accomplishes. For the United States and the problems here at home it really isn't going to mean much one way or the other.Its being billed here by the news media more as Obama's debut on the international stage since we keep hearing from the news media how wildly popular Obama is in Europe. We'll soon find out. Because this time, free food and a rock concert isn't going to work. This time the crowds are angry.The heads of state of the other European countries are angry. And Obama may find that he is no American Idol this time. And that there are a lot of out there Simon Cowells waiting for him.