I have to start by saying that in all honesty, President Obama and the Democrats didn't have a great week.
Obama started the week out by cracking a few jokes at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, which was actually pretty funny (as even just reading the transcript of his remarks shows). Then, early in the week, Obama held a photo op with the heads of the health care industry, where there were smiles all around as they announced the industry would be voluntarily cutting back their growth (not their absolute size, mind you, just their growth) over the next ten years by one-and-a-half percent. This would lead to a savings of a whopping two trillion dollars.
But by week's end, the industry was walking back this commitment -- which never had any hint of accountability or oversight in the first place. It took them four days to go back on their promise. This doesn't exactly bode well for sweeping health care reform being embraced by the industry.
Nancy Pelosi tried to help, by making a commitment to holding a House vote on health care before they all take off on their month-long summer vacation. But then Pelosi fell into two traps laid for her by the Republicans. The first was to get snarled into somehow becoming the poster girl for torture approval, which she should have avoided. And the second was to be forced into circling the wagons around Jack Murtha, who was a lefty favorite for speaking out against Bush's wars, but who is in reality the King of Pork among Democrats. Republican House member Jeff Flake forced a vote on an ethics complaint against Murtha, a political maneuver that largely went unnoticed, but will doubtlessly be recycled in a few ads next election season.
Amid the distractions over Nancy Pelosi, there was some interesting real news concerning torture this week. Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi just "committed suicide" in a Libyan prison. Libi was the main source of information on the non-existent "Saddam Hussein/Al Qaeda" link, which Bush and Cheney were positive existed. This story is finally getting a little bit of attention, after being exposed years and years ago. I wrote about it in November of 2007, for instance:
Before we invaded Iraq, we held such a terrorist. His name was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi. Now, if I was a conspiracy theorist, I would wonder about whether that was a real name or not (al-Libi? alibi?), but let's put that aside for the moment. We sent al-Libi to Egypt, one of our favorite countries for outsourcing torture. They tortured him, with the full knowledge of the CIA. He talked. His story was that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. Conveniently, this is exactly what the Bush White House wanted to hear in the run up to war with Iraq. So off we went on our grand adventure to root out Saddam and his WMDs before he could hand them over to Al Qaeda.
The only problem was, it was a lie. Not the WMD part, that was a separate lie. The "in bed with Al Qaeda" lie is what I refer to here. This was the most important intelligence source we had for this claim, but unfortunately the source (once we stopped torturing him) recanted his story and said that there was no connection. Which turned out to be true.
What this means is that one of the strongest reasons for starting this war turned out to be a lie. A lie which came about as a direct result of us torturing someone.
This is the danger of torture that Bush and Cheney and all their apologists refuse to face: torture doesn't work because the person being tortured will say absolutely anything to make it stop. In other words, the information or intelligence you gain through torturing someone is highly suspect, and should not be believed.
So, again, why isn't this being addressed in the debate on waterboarding? Why is nobody standing up and saying "We tried torture, and it got us into a disastrous war. Torture does not work, and does not help us gather intelligence."?
Joe Conason of Salon writes an update on this story this week which is worth reading.
In one report after another, from journalists, former administration officials and Senate investigators, the same theme continues to emerge: Whenever a prisoner believed to possess any knowledge of al-Qaida's operations or Iraqi intelligence came into American custody, CIA interrogators felt intense pressure from the Bush White House to produce evidence of an Iraq-Qaida relationship (which contradicted everything that U.S. intelligence and other experts knew about the enmity between Saddam's Baath Party and Osama bin Laden's jihadists). Indeed, the futile quest for proof of that connection is the common thread running through the gruesome stories of torture from the Guantanamo detainee camp to Egyptian prisons to the CIA's black sites in Thailand and elsewhere.
Perhaps the sharpest rebuke to Cheney's assertions has come from Lawrence Wilkerson, the retired Army colonel and former senior State Department aide to Colin Powell, who says bluntly that when the administration first authorized "harsh interrogation" during the spring of 2002, "its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaida."
In an essay that first appeared on the Washington Note blog, Wilkerson says that even when the interrogators of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the Libyan al-Qaida operative, reported that he had become "compliant" -- in other words, cooperative after sufficient abuse -- the vice-president's office ordered further torture of the Libyan by his hosts at an Egyptian prison because he had not yet implicated Saddam with al-Qaida. So his interrogators put al-Libi into a tiny coffin until he said what Cheney wanted to hear. Nobody in the U.S. intelligence community actually believed this nonsense. But now, al-Libi has reportedly and very conveniently "committed suicide" in a prison cell in Libya, where he was dispatched to the tender mercies of the Bush administration's newfound friends in the Qaddafi regime several years ago. So the deceased man won't be able to discuss what actually happened to him and why.
How convenient. Not that there were hordes of journalists following the story anyway, but still....
Anyway, like I said, it hasn't been the best of weeks for the president or his cohorts in Congress. Let's hand out a few awards, and then get on to a rather disjointed Friday Talking Points.
Senator Bernie Sanders is not technically a Democrat. But I'm not going to let that stop me from handing out an award to him. So, this week only, we strike a special "Most Impressive Senator Of The Week" award (in place of the usual MIDOTW statuette) in Sanders' honor.
Because Senator Sanders led the fight this week to really give credit card users a break -- a 15 percent rate cap on all credit cards. He did not mince words, either. Here he is on Vermont Public Radio:
"I think we need a national usury rate and what we are proposing is to do for the private financial institutions what has existed for credit unions for some 30 years, and that is 15 percent max, under certain circumstances it can go higher. And in fact credit unions have done pretty well living under those regulations."
Unfortunately for us all, he could only get 32 other Senators to vote with him, and the bill died 33-60. Here is Sanders, after the vote:
"When banks are charging 30 percent interest rates, they are not making credit available. They are engaged in loan-sharking."
For such plain language, and for his efforts for us all, Bernie Sanders wins a very special Most Impressive Senator Of The Week award.
[Congratulate Senator Bernie Sanders on his Senate contact page to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
While the Democratic Senators who voted with the Republicans against Sanders' bill each deserve their own Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, there are (sadly) too many of them to adequately and individually shame here.
Instead, President Barack Obama is awarded the MDDOTW award this week, for his continuing failure to live up to his own rhetoric on a few key issues. The torture photo reversal was bad enough, because it went completely against Obama's stated goal of transparency in government. His explanation for his reversal laid out a morally inconsistent rationale. And, to top it off, he announced he would be continuing the Bush policy of trying Guantanamo detainees via military commissions.
This had the combined effect of making Obama look like he was being pushed around by (take your pick) Dick Cheney or Secretary Gates. Obama could have avoided some of this bad press by talking to Gates before he made up his mind on the photos.
This disconnect between campaign promise and governing continues a worrisome trend. Obama's new "drug czar" announces the retirement of the phrase "the war on drugs," and Obama's Attorney General announces an end to raids on medical marijuana clinics in states that approve them -- but then very quietly another raid is conducted in California, and Obama just punts on his campaign promise to allow needle exchange programs in his budget (Arianna Huffington has a great wrapup of this whole issue).
The more times Obama does this sort of thing, without a clear explanation of why he is changing his mind, the more it will eat away at the confidence people had in him when they voted for him. This is not a good thing for Obama, and it's not a good thing for anyone who wants him to keep his promises in the future.
I understand that campaigning and governing are two different things. And I understand that presidents should be able to change their minds (instead of being pigheaded and refusing to face new realities). But I think Obama owes us all a better explanation when he has changed his mind. Changing the text on the White House web site (as happened with his Don't Ask/Don't Tell stance, and as happened with needle exchange), and hoping nobody notices does not inspire confidence. Saying "everyone has a seat at the table" on things like the health care debate, and then excluding anyone in favor of single-payer health care does not look like "change we can believe in."
All "outsider" politicians (from both parties) ride into Washington on their high horse, ready to "change Washington." Most of them wind up "being changed by Washington" instead. I can't help but wonder if this is the beginning of that process for Obama.
Which is why Obama gets the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. Not for any one action, but for the trend. Obama keeps talking about how "changing the course" of the ship of state (which he likens to an aircraft carrier at times) is tough and takes some time, because they can't "turn on a dime" like a speedboat. But in several respects, Obama seems not to be changing course of this ship of state, but rather throwing it in reverse. And "Full speed astern!" was not what we voted for.
[Contact President Barack Obama on the White House contact page to let him know what you think of his actions.]
Volume 77 (5/15/09)
There is no big theme to the talking points this week, just odds and ends. As always, these are optimistically provided for Democrats everywhere to use in media interviews (if you're a politician) or around the coffee shop and water cooler (for everyone else).
Pelosi perspective (part 1)
According to the right (and their media enablers), Nancy Pelosi is the person whom torturing prisoners should be blamed on. Now, I have always said that if torture is investigated, we need to let the chips fall where they may, even if that means taking to task the Democrats who were briefed about it. But Pelosi's role needs to be put in a little perspective, which has sadly been lacking in the media's breathless "reporting" on the issue.
"To the people asking 'What did Pelosi know and when did she know it?' my response is: 'We can answer your question, right after we answer the same question for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and anyone else in Bush's cabinet who was briefed about it.' What Pelosi knew was that the Bush administration had already abused prisoners, and when she knew it was long after it had started. But Bush and the rest of them simply cannot say this. So while Republican partisans want everyone to focus on Pelosi, because she's a Democrat, I am much more interested in finding out the answers to those questions from the people who were responsible for the policy in the first place. When we get those answers, I will personally ask Nancy Pelosi for her answers, how's that?"
Pelosi perspective (part 2)
Once again, to put things in perspective, Republican questions about Pelosi's role in torture need to be put firmly in perspective. Because even her critics haven't answered a very basic question.
"OK, let's assume you're right and Nancy Pelosi was briefed about everything when you say she was. What, exactly, was she supposed to do about it? At the time, she was Minority Leader in a Republican House. She was briefed in a secret briefing by the CIA. If she had gone public, not only would Republicans have called her 'treasonous' and a 'traitor' for doing so, but she could have been sent to jail as a result. It is illegal to disclose what is said in these briefings. Even if she didn't go to jail, she would most certainly have lost her clearance to hear such top secret briefings from that point on. I suppose she could have leaked it to the press, but that is also illegal. She could have written a letter to President Bush, but that would have done precisely nothing. So, if you are second-guessing Pelosi's actions now, exactly what would you suggest she should have done, at the time?"
Dick Cheney's 183rd appearance on television
Torture is not a funny subject. Neither is Dick Cheney, for that matter. But Tom Toles, prize-winning political cartoonist for the Washington Post, managed to put the two together in a hilarious commentary this week.
Check out the cartoon, and then write your own talking point, if you think you can top Toles.
Seat Franken now!
This one is waiting in the wings, but it needs saying now, so Democrats can get ready to speak with one voice on the issue.
The neverending saga of Al Franken and Norm Coleman is going to reach an important milestone in early June. The Minnesota Supreme Court is going to rule on the matter, and if (as expected) they rule that Franken won the Senate race, then Democrats need to start shouting about it immediately. So, to warm up, practice saying the following in front of a mirror, so you'll be ready when the news is announced. Because the Republican governor of the state has been hinting that -- even if the state high court orders him to -- he might not sign an election certificate until the case goes to the United States Supreme Court. And Harry Reid is also going to need some prodding to weigh in on the matter (see: Roland Burris, seating of).
"I call on Governor Pawlenty to do the right thing and sign Al Franken's election certificate immediately, as his own state's Supreme Court has ordered him to do. If he refuses, and leaves his state with half the Senate representation they are entitled to in the Constitution -- in defiance of the court -- then I demand Harry Reid immediately seat Franken in the Senate, as is provided for both by Senate rules and the Constitution itself. The election was seven months ago, and Al Franken won. Norm Coleman needs to get over it, and put the people of Minnesota ahead of his own sour grapes. I call upon Governor Pawlenty and Harry Reid to do what is necessary to allow Senator-elect Franken to take the seat he won."
The health care industry bigwigs had a great photo op early in the week with President Obama, where they all loudly proclaimed how the industry was going to stop the growth in health care costs by one-and-a-half percent over the next ten years -- a savings trumpeted at two trillion dollars. Four days later, the health care folks are already walking the language back. Their "We didn't really mean..." response should be Exhibit A for Democrats to use in the health care debate from now on.
"If anyone left had any doubts, this week we saw why the health care industry simply cannot be trusted. They stood next to the president and promised they were going to cut their growth rate one-and-a-half percent, and by week's end -- a mere four days later -- they were already admitting they weren't going to be bound by this promise. Why should anyone believe anything they say, when they are so obviously concerned with only one thing in this world: their bottom line? Keep this in mind when they try to scare you later on in this debate. They stood next to the president and made a promise, which they then said they were going to break four days later. This is why we need to reform the entire health care system."
Obama is Nixon? You've got to be kidding.
George Will wrote a kneeslapper of a column the other day, in which he warns of the dangerous lawlessness of Barack Obama's reign. Seriously. He even compared Obama to Nixon in it without a hint of historical context to the previous eight years. There truly can be only one response to this sort of thing: laughing loudly in his face.
"George Will wrote this week that the Obama administration is, quote, careless regarding constitutional values, unquote, and is 'lawless,' and he had the gall to compare Obama to Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace. Will has absolutely no credibility whatsoever, since he is conveniently forgetting the past eight years of a 'unitary executive' who held himself and his administration above all laws, stonewalled every attempt to investigate their lawbreaking, and now tells us that we can't hold anyone accountable to the 'rule of law' because that would be unseemly and political. To which I respond to Mr. Will: Give me a break. Puh-LEEZE."
How about "Rushpublicans"?
I know I've mentioned this before, but it still is over-the-top hilarious as far as I'm concerned. The Republican Party is having an emergency meeting next month to change not their own name, but their opposing party's name. The ridiculousness of this attempt, and the fact that they are going to look like buffoons, seems to have completely escaped them. So Democrats need to stand aside, throw a spotlight on them, and loudly invite everyone to watch.
"I hear that the Republicans are finally moving fast and having an emergency meeting of their party, in order to hold a crucial vote on whether to bell the cat or not. No, wait, that's mice I'm thinking of, sorry -- I don't know how I could have gotten the two confused. Seriously, nobody has apparently mentioned to the Republicans that they only get to name their own party. But they seem determined to throw this schoolyard tantrum -- no, even that is too dignified -- this sandbox tantrum, instead of attempting to repair the damage they have done to their own party among voters. If they need a suggestion for a better name for themselves, why not go with 'Rushpublicans,' since it seems these days they can't speak about anything without getting the approval of Limbaugh himself."
Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground
Cross-posted at: The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant