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“A Future Cheney Could Do It All Again”: The U.S. Will Torture Again—And We’re All To Blame

Reliably enough, out came Dick Cheney to trash the Senate torture report and to say of the use of torture: “I’d do it again in a minute.” None of us doubt that he would. But the more interesting and challenging question is: Could he?

More precisely, could a future Cheney, after a future terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland, get away with it? Could a future administration set up the whole fraudulent and immoral apparatus—a Department of Justice defining torture so narrowly that it somehow magically doesn’t include sleep deprivation or rectal hydration or waterboarding, followed by a CIA and military saying “Hey, what’s the big deal? It’s all legal!”? (Even in his press conference Thursday, CIA chief John Brennan acknowledged that it all could happen again: “I defer to the policymakers,” he said, as to what might occur.)

People like me are supposed to say something like: No, we’re better than that. Alas, I say we are not better than that. It could happen again. Easily.

In fact, let’s go further. Cheney is a figure of horror and ridicule these days (although by no means to everyone—to the Fox News audience to which he spoke the above words Wednesday, he’s oracular). But can we honestly say that back in 2002, 2003, 2004, he wasn’t carrying out the people’s will? We get the government we deserve, de Tocqueville said. And in the Bush-Cheney regime, we got exactly that.

There exist four mechanisms in our democracy by which the state can be compelled to live up to what we call, rather farcically in a gruesome week like this one, “our ideals.” There is the will of the people; the resolve of the political class; the courage of the media; and the authority of the courts. With regard to our torture regime, all four failed, and failed completely.

The people were, in theory, against torture. I have on my screen here a study from Reed College (PDF)  that asserts that from 2001 to 2009, majorities of public opinion consistently opposed torture, by averages of about 55 to 40 percent. That may be, in the abstract. But were Americans ever so worked up about the practice that they demanded it not be undertaken in their name? Never.

In fact, for most of the Bush era, the opposite was the truth. I remember very clearly the public mood after the 9/11 attacks. There was appropriate anger and shock and sorrow. But it bled into other less honorable manifestations, a paradoxical combination of, on the one hand, a lust for revenge in any form among a certain segment of the populace, and on the other hand a tremulous fear among a different segment that sanctioned anything being done in its name. Too many people reverted to a childlike state, and they wanted a daddy-protector. And no, this wasn’t understandable under the circumstances.

As for the political class, I doubt I need to give you a very hard sell on its failure. It was thoroughgoing and bipartisan. The timorous Democrats, with a few noble exceptions like Robert Byrd, largely bought into the global war on terror. The Republicans, well, you know about them. The foreign-policy establishment of Washington and to some extent New York lined up behind the administration on nearly every important question. The urge among this class is always to swim with the tide: In 2003, when the Council on Foreign Relations was casting about for a new leader, it settled on Richard Haass, who had been in Bush’s State Department. He has said since that he was 60-40 against the war, but one would have been hard pressed to know that then, back when his boss, Colin Powell, was warning us about those weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. On the torture question, this class was outraged when it was easy to be outraged, like when the Abu Ghraib story broke, but the outrage was never sustained.

Among the media, there were to be sure many brave journalists—Jane Mayer, Robin Wright, many others—who broke story after story about torture. We’re in their debt. But their great work was more than balanced out by the equivocation caucus—well, we can’t really be sure it’s torture. And then there was the segment of the media that actively cheered it all on. More broadly, the media as a whole were afraid to break ranks. I have had a number of conversations with prominent media people—in TV and radio, names you’d know—who, by way of trying to defend their lack of zeal and confrontation in those post-9/11 days, tried to explain how many furious emails they got when a report diverged modestly from the accepted line.

And the legal system? Again, there were some courageous judges who tried. A Virginia federal judge named Gerald Bruce Lee ruled in 2009  that four Abu Ghraib detainees could sue CACI, the private military contractor in Iraq. But overall the legal system has done little to say “this was against the law.” Much of the fault for that, of course, lies with Barack Obama, who chose early on not to seek prosecutions of Bush administration officials. And even now, in the wake of this report, what is your level of confidence that anyone will be prosecuted as a result of the release of this report? I thought so.

Failures top to bottom. Now, one would like to say that we as a society have learned the lessons of these failures and would not permit this to happen again. Don’t count on it. If there is another terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland, the odds are strong that we will reenact this grim tragedy from start to finish, if a neoconservative regime happens to be ensconced in the White House. The people would respond with the same fear, which would give license to the same behavior, and the political class and the media and the courts would probably go along.

So yes, it’s a moral horror that Cheney says he’d do it all again. But it’s also all too likely that a future Cheney could do it all again. That’s the far greater moral horror, and the one we don’t want to face, because it implicates us.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, December 12, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, CIA, Torture | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Importance Of Self-Awareness In Presidential Politics”: The Quiet Republican Argument Over Their Vast Private-Equity Wealth

As a rule, I don’t have much use for the speculation as to who may or may not run in the 2016 presidential race. We’ll find out soon enough, and until then, everything else is speculative and based on rumor.

This especially true of Mitt Romney – remember him? – who seems to be rewarded every few weeks with a series of new “he might try again!” reports in major outlets.

But once in a while, it’s worth making an exception. This new Politico piece, for example, reports that Romney is unimpressed with those likely to run in the Republican primaries and is suddenly “open to the idea” to running a third time, following failed bids in 2008 and 2012.

The piece includes a lot of unsourced quotes from “people who’ve spoken to” Romney – which is to say, take all of this with a grain of salt – but this tidbit amazed me.

[Romney] has assessed various people’s strengths and weaknesses dispassionately, wearing what one ally called his “consultant cap” to measure the field. He has said, among other things, that Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, would run into problems because of his business dealings, his work with the investment banks Lehman Brothers and Barclays, and his private equity investments.

“You saw what they did to me with Bain [Capital],” he has said, referring to the devastating attacks that his Republican rivals and President Barack Obama’s team launched against him for his time in private equity, according to three sources familiar with the line. “What do you think they’ll do to [Bush] over Barclays?”

Hmm.

Romney believes his campaign struggled in part because of his controversial private-sector background. He also believes Jeb Bush would be susceptible to similar criticisms in 2016, which is true.

But it’s that next part that I can’t quite wrap my head around: if Bush would struggle because of his financial-sector work, why on earth would Romney run again and invite the identical attacks on himself? Because this worked out so well the last time around?

The article got a response from a Bush ally.

Another top Republican operative who is supportive of a Jeb Bush candidacy said that he did not believe Bush would have as much trouble with his financial dealings in a campaign as Romney did.

“Jeb’s wealth and investments are nothing on the scale of Romney’s. He is not building car elevators,” this person said, offering a hint of the bitterness that could ensue if both Romney and Bush run.

Oh good. Before the campaign gets underway in earnest, there’s already a quiet argument underway about which Republican’s vast private-equity wealth will be more politically damaging to their ambitions.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 12, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Bush’s Willful Ignorance”: Why He Wanted To Know As Little About Torture As Possible

It’s happening more than 10 years too late (and in a better world it wouldn’t need to happen at all), but now that the Senate Intelligence Committee has released its so-called torture report, the American people are finally having an informed debate over their government’s use of “enhanced interrogation” during the presidency of George W. Bush. The process is not always pretty — at times, in fact, it is downright chilling. But now that we know some of the harrowing details of what was done in our name, it’ll be easier for us Americans to step a bit closer to the mirror and see what we’ve become. As Glenn Greenwald put it earlier this week, “Everybody’s noses got rubbed in [the torture program] by this report.”

Still, the human brain has an awesome capacity to reject information it finds upsetting — like proof that one’s leaders embraced practices refined by the Bolsheviks and the Gestapo. At least that’s my explanation for why some people would rather talk about alleged partisanship than “rectal rehydration.” Or why there’s been increasing focus on the question of whether the CIA “misled”  President Bush about the effectiveness of the program, as well as its essential nature. The whining from conservatives over the Committee not interviewing CIA agents is a red herring, of course (as Chris Hayes has noted, arguments about process are almost uniformly disingenuous). But I think the chatter about Bush the Younger really being Bush the Clueless gets to something deeper.

Before we get into that, though, let’s lay out the basic thrust of the Bush-as-patsy narrative. The key data point for the argument, which the report’s authors say is based on the CIA’s own records, is the fact that Bush wasn’t officially briefed on the agency’s use of waterboarding until 2006. By that point, CIA agents had been subjecting “more than three dozen prisoners” to a series of “near drownings” for years. The report also found that when the president was told of some of the program’s details — specifically, the practice of chaining alleged “evildoers” to the ceiling and forcing them to soil themselves — he “expressed discomfort.” He was, after all, the ultimate compassionate conservative.

Admittedly, there’s much in this formulation that’s seductive, confirming as it does a few widely held beliefs about Bush and his administration. For one thing, it jibes perfectly with the trope that depicts Bush as little more than a figurehead, the emptiest of suits. For another, because the torture program has been so vociferously defended by the former vice president, the story also seems to confirm the related suspicion that, for most of the Bush era, Dick Cheney was the real president. Last but not least, the idea that Bush was kept in the dark (not literally; that was reserved for detainees) lines up with another popular Bush motif: that he was, at least for a commander-in-chief, a “regular guy,” just like us, and not a sadistic authoritarian.

To paraphrase CIA Director John Brennan’s remarks this week, what Bush knew and when he knew it is “unknowable” to the rest of us. And to some extent, depending on how much “discomfort” he feels over being a war criminal, it may not even be knowable to him. All the same, there are a few signs that the Bush-as-patsy explanation is a little too pat. And there are historical reasons to believe that he not only knew enough to be culpable, but that he purposefully avoided finding out more than the bare minimum of what he needed. As Andrew Sullivan put it recently, there was “a desire not to know, not to have direct and explicit knowledge of what was actually being done, because of the immense gravity of the crimes.”

The first, most obvious, reason to question whether Bush really knew so little is the fact that in “Decision Points,” his listicle-cum-memoir, he claims to have directly given the thumbs-up in 2002 when the CIA asked if Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking al-Qaeda detainee, could be waterboarded. “I thought about the 2,971 people stolen from their families by al Qaeda on 9/11,” Bush writes. “And I thought about my duty to protect my country from another act of terror.” After so judiciously weighing his duty to protect Americans from harm (which up to that point he hadn’t done so well) against his obligation not to be a war criminal, Bush came to his conclusion: “’Damn right,’ I said.”

Of course, just because Bush had his ghostwriter Christopher Michel include this anecdote in his book doesn’t make it true. As a New York Times article on Bush’s response to allegedly being misled suggests, it’s quite possible that Bush is lying about giving the go-ahead to torture Zubaydah in order to shield the CIA — as well as to mitigate his embarrassment. “I suspect,” Sullivan writes in the post I mentioned previously, “Bush decided that, in his book, he had a duty to provide cover for the people who worked for him.” But even if you reject that explanation, there’s still good reason to doubt Bush was on the periphery — or, to be more precise, he was more marginalized than he may have wanted.

That reason has a name: Richard Bruce Cheney, also known as the United States’ most powerful vice president. The theory here isn’t that Cheney was doing a whole lot of dirty work behind Bush’s back, but rather that he had taken the gloves off with the tacit encouragement and approval of the president. As Cheney-watchers — especially the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and former Cheney co-worker John Dean — have noted, Cheney’s experience in the Nixon administration during its final days did not lead him to the same conclusion as most of us, that an unchecked president is dangerous for American democracy, but instead to conclude that Watergate was proof that if you’re going to break the law, you’d better do it in a way that insulates the president. And as Greenwald noted in my interview with him this week, and historian Sean Wilentz wrote about in a 2007 New York Times op-ed, Cheney reached a similar conclusion after Iran-Contra (which, like Watergate, he believed to be a power grab by Democrats).

Plausible deniability, in other words, is the key phrase to understand what Bush “knew” about the global network of torture chambers and dungeons that will stand as one of the most enduring legacies of his tenure as president. And I suppose in a bitter, depressing way, that’s all too fitting. Because while Bush is the American who bears the most responsibility for the evil unleashed by the United States in the wake of 9/11, the truth is that all of American society let fear and panic overwhelm its values and senses; all of American society was desperately willing to believe that impossible promise: that it had nothing to fear. And when the true costs of its panic and its terror began to float to the surface, all of American society was content to ask no further questions, and to look the other way.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, December 13, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, George W Bush, Torture | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Wrong Line Of Work”: Justice Scalia’s Unfortunate Entry Into The Torture Debate

When it comes to the issue of torture, it’s been a discouraging week. Not only was the Senate Intelligence Committee report a heartbreaking indictment of an American scandal, but the argument surrounding the revelations started breaking far too much along partisan and ideological lines.

Antonin Scalia isn’t helping. The Associated Press reported today that the far-right Supreme Court justice joined the debate, such as it is, “by saying it is difficult to rule out the use of extreme measures to extract information if millions of lives were threatened.”

Scalia tells a Swiss radio network that American and European liberals who say such tactics may never be used are being self-righteous.

The 78-year-old justice says he doesn’t “think it’s so clear at all,” especially if interrogators were trying to find a ticking nuclear bomb.

Scalia says nothing in the Constitution appears to prohibit harsh treatment of suspected terrorists.

The interview took place at the court on Wednesday, the day after the release of the Senate report detailing the CIA’s harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists. Radio Television Suisse aired the interview on Friday.

I think some caution is probably in order. The AP ran a five-paragraph article, and it seems entirely plausible, but there’s exactly one, six-word quote in that piece. Everything else is a paraphrase, and to offer a detailed response to Scalia’s take, we’d need to know exactly what the justice argued.

That said, if the AP report is accurate, Scalia’s perspective is deeply ridiculous.

For one thing, opposition to torture need not be the result of self-righteousness. Brutally abusing prisoners is about humanity, basic decency, and the existence of a moral compass. For another, the “ticking bomb” argument is childish and unserious.

As for the Constitution, it’s true that the document is silent on the issue of treating suspected terrorists, but it’s not silent on “cruel and unusual punishment.” And according to the CIA’s records, rectal feeding and hydration were forced on detainees without medical need – and the leap from that point to “cruel and unusual” seems quite small.

I’d still like to see a more detailed transcript of Scalia’s comments, but let’s just make this plain as part of the larger conversation: torture is wrong, it’s immoral, it undermines our security interests, and it’s illegal.

If Scalia is prepared to publicly argue otherwise, he’s in the wrong line of work.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 12, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Antonin Scalia, CIA, Torture | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Risky Business”: Brinksmanship And The Return Of Financial Crisis

A government shutdown once again loomed, and familiar deadlines and ultimatums flew around Washington. And Congress just used the threat to loosen the rules created in the wake of the financial crisis, a victory for Wall Street banks in their constant and well-funded campaign against reform.

The rules they have targeted are designed to reduce the risk of another financial meltdown, like the one that drove us into the Great Recession and could have been much worse. Though the repeal has been styled by some as a technical amendment, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Think about the best way to decide legislative policy in the devilishly complex and risk-laden area of derivatives. These are the financial contracts that brought down AIG, the event that triggered the crisis. You might imagine careful deliberation and debate, leading to a thoughtful vote in Congress in which elected representatives must stand up and be counted so that they could be held responsible for a difficult decision.

Of course, that is not how the House of Representatives works, especially not the current lame duck version. A 1,600 page Omnibus Spending Bill appeared Tuesday night and passed the House late on Thursday night. We have become familiar with these spending bills that have replaced reasoned budgeting and serially risk shutdowns just so the administration can be bullied every few months.

This time around, House sponsors attached a provision amending the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. They did this in the dead of night and at the last minute. Lobbyists, who are paid to make certain that the banks can continue to do as much risky business as possible despite the new regulatory regime, pushed to have a provision repealing the “swaps push-out” section of Dodd-Frank slipped into the spending bill so that any resistance to the repeal would risk another shutdown. Citigroup lobbyists wrote 70 out of 85 lines of the original bill.

That’s Washington style representative democracy for you.

The swaps push-out provision requires banks to transact their swaps business in separate subsidiaries. The concept is that any bank swaps business should be done outside the bank itself, which is backed by FDIC deposit insurance and the many supports provided by the Federal Reserve.

Swaps are complex derivatives contracts requiring payments in the future that change as markets prices for stocks, bonds, oil and many other traded assets change. Thus, they create large and volatile financial obligations going back and forth between a bank and its contract “counterparty,” either a company (like AIG), a government or another bank.

Counterparties to the banks who rely on the banks’ performance of its obligations can rely on these federal supports and can assume that the government will step in if a problem occurs. This can embroil the government in any bank default making a bailout more likely, good news for bank creditors like the swap counterparties. To avoid this, the swaps push-out requires a separate corporation, not entitled to the federal supports, to create a firewall, insulating taxpayers from the riskiest trading.

Though swaps were regulated in Dodd-Frank, there were plenty of loopholes, so a great deal of that business will go forward just as before. The swaps push-out section now under threat was already watered down in the original Dodd-Frank deliberations. Nonetheless, it still provides important protection. With swaps push-out, there’s some possibility that the federal government wouldn’t be dragged into a bank default because of the bank safety net.

But members of Congress, urged on by big money from Wall Street, decided that this sensible buffer between casino-like derivatives trading and the American taxpayer was such a bad idea that it had to be discarded through surreptitious and disguised means.

The banks have been out to kill the swaps push-out from the beginning. That makes sense for them since the capital needed to back a subsidiary would cost them more than their basic capital. Banks can raise general capital cheaply since investors have learned that failure is not a concern for banks that are too-big-to-fail. Capital funding for a subsidiary that is separated from this safety net is more costly because a bail out is less likely.

The banks also got some of their customers who often enter into swaps with the banks to urge repeal. The customers complained that their swaps would cost more. Of course they would, since the bank subsidiary’s capital backing the swaps would cost more. But the customers, as contract counterparties, have been relying on the too-big-to-fail safety net. Like investors in the banks, these customers simply should not benefit from a pipeline to the American taxpayers. Any additional cost is an element of elimination of that benefit, nothing more.

In Washington, banks have been allowed to set the terms of the regulatory debate. The financial crisis provides many lessons, but one of its central was that allowing banks free reign leads to disastrous results for all Americans. Six years after the onset of the financial crisis, it’s too soon to forget that lesson and revive too-big-to-fail.

 

By: Wallace Turbeville, The American Prospect, December 12, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Big Banks, Congress, Omnibus Spending Bill | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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