Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Give Me Saddam!"

Some more observations on the Bush Torture Scandal™:

1) Of all the outrageous things the Bushies did to try to fabricate support for their disastrous invasion of Iraq, the substance of this well-sourced reporting from McClatchy Newspapers and others takes the cake:

"The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime...[F]or most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there. It was during this period that CIA interrogators waterboarded two alleged top al Qaida detainees repeatedly — Abu Zubaydah at least 83 times in August 2002 and Khalid Sheik Muhammed 183 times in March 2003..."

I mean – really. Not only were we committing international torture crimes in the context of a hysterical effort to pry information from detainees who (mostly) knew nothing about al Qaida or their plans; Junior Bush’s puppet masters Cheney and Rumsfeld used the vast resources of their illegal torture apparatus to try to get that last little bullet-point for their tissue of Hussein lies. This represents a new low for the unredeemable slugs who are singularly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, over 4,000 soldiers and our own national self-respect.

The surprising thing is that the sick, desperate effort did not provide results. There isn’t a respectable Islamic terrorist anywhere who would not have given up Hussein in a torture-enhanced heartbeat. I can see it now – "Give me Saddam!", screams the CIA contractor after the 100th hour of sleep deprivation with manacles attached to the ceiling and floor and the poor naked subject drenched with cold water. I’m guessing the reason they didn’t get the answer they wanted is because the detainees were too busy laughing their ass off (thus, no doubt, making the torture less effective). Hussein, the deliberately secular ruler who killed millions of our brothers in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war? Yeah, we’ll be calling him up real soon.

But, try they did, using torture not for "national security" but for their own domestic political cover. These are some sick bastards that just left the White House. They used their powers in reprehensible, irredeemable ways. Be that as it may...

2) ...there is no point in trying to prosecute them criminally. The legal memos that they directed provide the cover for all of them, which is why they were written. As I discussed previously, the legal parsing of the definition of torture is ludicrous on its face, but anyone who followed that legal advice is off the hook, intent-wise. That includes the higher-ups who ordered the lawyers to give them that advice in the first place. The lawyers certainly can’t be prosecuted for the advice or even for being the legal whores they are and continue to be.

It does make you wonder, though... If I get another lawyer to write a memo saying that murder isn’t really murder because the anticipated pain or danger from my acts is not "severe" enough, does that mean I get away with it? Does he?

I’ll tell you one thing – I don’t want to hear any so-called conservatives complain again about law-and-order or people getting off on "technicalities" or light sentences for small-fry sell-one-to-get-one drug dealers. Turn on the radio any time of the day and night and you can hear all manner of wing-nuts making excuses for the worst kind of law-breaking our nation has ever seen. But, it’s a free-for-all now. The ends justify the means, obviously. I expect quotes from the torture memos to pop up any day now in legal briefs all over the country. In fact, I have this issue I’m working on right now, and maybe I’ll squeeze it in to see if it works.

I’m watching Frost/Nixon, finally, tonight, and I know the impact when the criminal legal record is not made clear. Nixon committed crimes on the White House tapes and, because he was neither impeached or prosecuted for his crimes, the historical record has been and will always be vulnerable to Nixon loyalists who will claim that his resignation was the result of a political coup. But Nixon wasn’t smart enough to get a legal memo saying that he had the power to impede the Watergate investigation using the FBI or the CIA, much less bug the Democratic headquarters in the first place. Speaking of Nixon loyalists...

3) ...Dick Cheney is more than a little confused. With no more power in the government than you or I, he thinks he can order a declassification of some memo he probably ordered, reporting about how wonderful and productive the torture sessions were. If there is such a thing, the Obama administration will probably release it and when it does, you’ll see just another self-serving narrative, much like the legal torture memos, ignoring inconvenient facts (like the L.A. plot in 2002 that was supposedly foiled by the brilliant waterboarding of KSM – in March 2003).

The phantom memo, in other words, will mean nothing. But, for now, its supposed existence provides another cheap dodge for Cheney and others who want to avoid the real issue of who we were as a nation under the dirty Bushies and how we can get back to having the moral standing to tell anyone, anywhere in the world how they should behave.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Torture Logic

I can't imagine anyone will ever be nostalgic for the Bushies. Their exit from the corridors of power and the entrance of the talented, infinitely more moral Obama team has been the most dramatic power-change on this continent since King George was shown the door in 1776. But it’s not too late to be outraged by the damage they have caused to this nation of laws and its diminished status in the civilized world.

The formerly-secret legal memos that purport to provide legal cover for CIA interrogators who were torturing prisoners at Guantanamo provide an appalling look into the minds of the damaged men (and, as it turns out, at least one woman) who overreacted to the events of 9/11 by rending the very fabric of American morality. Reading all 100+ pages of these patheticly result-oriented memos can produce nightmares about what was done in our name. If you manage to work your way all the way through the documents, you will need nothing so much as a shower. Your government was filthy-dirty with the terrorized minds, if not the actual blood, of its prisoners.

The right-wing talking pointers have tried to change the facts and the subject from the naked proof of outrageous criminal behavior approved by Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld and so on to the release of the memos in first place and the darkly-laughable assertion that torture “worked”. All the Obama administration has done is release “legal” memos from pliant political appointees – one of whom, scandalously, now sits on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – who parse the word “severe” within an inch of its obvious meaning in order to justify torturous acts. The specific horrific acts of torture used were not news, having been in the public domain through some (but not enough) reporting earlier. But the details of the brutal interrogations – largely conducted, by the way, not by CIA staff, but by profit-centered, soul-selling contractors – still jump out from the pages that seek to justify them, a permanent stain on our national character.

What is most offensive to me, as a lawyer, is the twisted legal logic produced by these partisan hacks, who, in giving Cheney what he demanded, made a mockery of their obligation to their client, who was ultimately not the power-mad greedheads in the White House, but the American people. “In order for pain or suffering to rise to the level of torture, the statute requires that it be severe,” writes now-judge-for-life Jay Bybee way back in 2002. “[T]his reaches only extreme acts...courts tend to take a totality-of-the-circumstances approach and consider an entire course of conduct to determine whether torture has occurred.” Not surprisingly, the Federalist Society lackey finds torture not to be torture, the level of pain and suffering being not “severe” enough; the interrogators not having the requisite intent to impose said pain and suffering; and blah de blah whoosh whoosh. He never does apply the totality-of-the-circumstances analysis that would put the lie to the rest of his Cheney-serving “analysis”.

This is the kind of black-means-white legal logic that gives lawyers a bad name. The torture tactics used by interrogators at Gitmo and elsewhere were reportedly developed by the Chinese to be used against Koreans in the 1950s. They were meant to supercede the more messy leave-a-mark kind of torture used in the uncreative past (although waterboarding is a torture-tactic classic, dating back, at least, to the Inquisition). Bybee seems to say that, since thumb-screws and The Rack were not employed in our new and improved Torture 3.0, then it’s just peachy with him. As lawyers, we are trained to distinguish cases and circumstances to reached our clients’ preferred conclusions. But this is ridiculous.

We strung people up in a standing position for as long a 180 hours (that's more than 7 days) to employ sleep deprivation. We doused naked prisoners with cold water for hours. We banged them repeatedly up against a false wall. We terrorized them by pouring water up their nose -- sometimes six times a day -- to make them think they were drowning.

We did it. You did it. I did it. It was done in our name. We will be endangered and stained with the sins of the Bush Administration for the rest of history. If world opinion some day lets us off the hook for the one radical regime we allowed for eight years, we should consider ourselves lucky. In the meantime, all we can do is make amends. And, for a change, tell the truth.

Monday, April 20, 2009

From the Archives: TV Screams

Back in the summer of 1979, I wandered into the summer version of the Daily Cardinal and offered my services as a writer of...anything. I reviewed some records, some concerts and some movies for the summer. In the fall, I had the idea of writing a daily TV column, just looking at the TV Guide and writing whatever popped into my head about what was on the tube that night. My column ran down whatever empty gutters the editors needed to fill. It was a great opportunity to write daily, hang around the office and get to know some wonderful people putting together what was then an important daily college newspaper.
New stuff to follow....honest.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Abrahamson's Victory and Butler's Loss

Despite encouragement from well-meaning friends and family, I didn’t do any posts on the Supreme Court race just concluded. There simply was nothing I could have added to IT Tom Foley’s remarkable performance during the campaign. He had Randy Koschnick nailed from the beginning and continued the beat-down for months. If there was an award for advocacy blogging, Tom would win hands down. I am envious of his skill at developing a funny, informative and legally-sophisticated internet presence and can’t wait to see where he goes from here.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s long, historic career continues, which is a tribute to Wisconsin voters, who, left to their own devices for a change, provided a deserved thumping to the reprehensible Koschnick. Koschnick’s wing-nut-hugging, blatantly partisan campaign was a disgrace, especially for those in the community of former public defender staff attorneys. Apparently, he was in the bargaining unit when I helped organize my former colleagues into a union and bargained their first contract with the state in 1999. I can’t imagine anyone in the defense bar, inside or outside the agency, who did or would have supported his ridiculous campaign.

Koschnick may be wondering, though, what happened to the support I’m sure he expected by the out-of-state interests who bought the last two Supreme Court elections by funneling money through the WMC and other right-wing conduits. Building on and adding to the template dutifully followed by the ethically-challenged Michael Gableman, Koschnick said and did all the right(-wing) things, only to turn around in February and find no one behind him. Not even those who recruited him were willing to stick their necks out in the end, deciding to sit it out and let the Chief stay in place without much of a fight.

I think that decision is an interesting one, especially considering the opponents, the current make-up of the court and what happened to Louis Butler last year.

Last year’s race was ostensibly about which candidate was most friendly to heinous criminals and most hostile to the suffering rich business community. Cases were evaluated by legal-issue nincompoops like Jessica McBride (Hey, Jess! Where ya been? How’s that private blog working for you?) who determined that Justice Butler was "pro-criminal" and other such nonsense.

Looking at the cases to fight back what I knew was a smear campaign (again, IT doing it much better), I noticed that Shirley Abrahamson came off looking much "worse" in this kind of deceptively irrelevant score-keeping. She dissented – often alone – in many cases in which Butler affirmed convictions with the majority. It was fairly obvious that she was the most consistently rights-protecting, freedom-loving (read: "liberal") member of the court. I remember reading the cases back then and thinking, if they can mess up Louis on this kind of ignorant analysis, the Chief would be much more vulnerable.

Likewise the competition. Gableman was an extremely unaccomplished blank-slate coming into the campaign, which is just the way his handlers at the WMC wanted him. He had not distinguished himself in any way as a District Attorney or as judge. In comparison, Randy Koschnick was a legal dynamo, who at least, I assume, litigated effectively while in the PD’s office – including not shying away from tough cases like the Ted Oswald defense. Unlike Gableman – who said nothing of substance during the campaign and, in the one forum I saw, sat quietly like an embarrassed red-faced blow-up doll while important issues were discussed all around him – Koschnick was not afraid to spew his right-wing nonsense, even identifying himself as a Republican after the unfortunate Siefert decision allowed judges in Wisconsin to do so.

So, with a more vulnerable record, advancing age and a stronger opponent than Butler had, why did the bad guys with all the money who have succeeded in stacking the court 4-3 to their advantage not take out Abrahamson too? It’s not like their majority is all that secure – it’s obvious at this point Gableman committed such a severe violation of judicial ethics with his racist Willie-Horton ad against Butler he may well be removed (but probably not – I have an inadequate "60 day suspension" in the office pool) and their majority is otherwise one health issue from flipping the other way on a Doyle appointment.

I think the decision to stay out this year says more about what was going on last year than it does about the relative merits of Abrahamson or Koschnick. In the contest against Louis Butler, the WMC king-makers saw a particular vulnerability that didn’t exist this year with Abrahamson – and that is race. I think an appointed white justice with the kind of extraordinary talent Butler had (and has, as he’ll prove when he gets a well-deserved appointment to the federal bench later this year) would have drawn nothing but token opposition and they would have looked ahead to doing the "liberal" and "elderly" thing in earnest on Abrahamson this year.

Instead, they found a willing cipher in Gableman who was willing to allow them to work the racist angles to get their damn pro-business majority. Shirley Abrahamson, who made history decades ago as the first woman on our Supreme Court, is rightly still on the court. Louis Butler, who made history this decade as the first African-American on our Supreme Court, is not. The WMC and other right-wing power-grabbers were willing to exploit latent and blatent racism to accomplish their selfish goals of establishing predictable pro-business justices. They could not allow an impartial court, and took out the black guy to end it.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Obama's Poll Numbers

Charles Krauthammer and his ilk in the 24/7 anti-Obama echo-chamber industry have been hitting on all cylinders in recent weeks. Slavishly driving GOP talking points, the dedicated and always well-paid roster of gabbering columnists, bloggers, cable talkers and talk-radio squawkers have hammered away at dramatic Obama failures such as inadequate gifts to British luminaries, scandalous overuse of teleprompters...not to mention the installation of socialism, tyranny and the destruction of America As It Was Meant To Be. (My favorite, though, is still Obama the Satanist)

You would think, given apocalyptic tone and sheer volume of WingNut Nation noise that the new president would be suffering from crashing poll numbers, depressing news cycles and numerous failures of his initiatives. But you would be wrong.

To the contrary, public opinion polls in the past week show that President Obama is more popular now than he’s ever been, with fully two-thirds of those polled approving of his performance. According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, he is trusted to handle everything from the economy (60%) to foreign affairs (62%) to even the ballooning budget deficit (52%). Republicans are laughed out of town in the CBS/NY Times poll , with a 31% approval rating and a badly mistaken 20% wanting them to have anything to do with the economy. The brilliant strategy employed by the Party of No is indeed bearing the rotting fruit it deserves.

Most impressive are the numbers regarding the right/wrong direction of the country. The detailed version of the WaPo/ABC poll provides some interesting history. Although the right/wrong numbers are still understandably in the negative at 42/57, the 42% figure is the best since April of ‘04 (which makes one wonder who thought things were going so great in the middle of the Great Bush Slog). This is a major rebound in national perception that has as much to do with the fact that Obama has shown real leadership in the midst of economic disaster and on the international stage as it does with the fact that a certain incompetent pipsqueak is no longer the president and the nation is breathing a collective sigh of relief that we somehow made it though in one damaged piece.

Facts and poll numbers are stubborn things, but the wing-nut message-developers have found a way to spin even contrary poll numbers into more bullshit. Every national and local wing-nut with a microphone or a keyboard has been trumpeting a Pew Research Center poll, which found a "partisan gap" between the Democrats who approve of Obama (88%) and Republicans who do (27%). Pew headlines this meaningless "gap" of 61 points between the two figures as more than the past six presidents at a similar point in their first terms, concluding that Obama has achieved "the most polarized early job approval ratings" of any of them.

The last two presidents are the second and third "most polarized", with post-election-theft/pre-9/11Junior Bush coming in at a 51 point gap, only because all-too-forgiving Democrats gave him 36% approval: and Bill Clinton with a 45 point gap, only because only 71% of all-too-critical-of-our-own Dems approved – Republicans were just as opposed to him as they are to Obama.

Obama’s gap is a result of a combination of 1) justifiable post-Bush, pro-Obama euphoria from Democrats; and 2) the continued diminution of the GOP into an extremist south/prairie regional party of future-denying white males. The percentage of voters identifying themselves as Republicans are an increasingly smaller group – certainly smaller than when 84% of them thought Nixon was so wonderful in 1969; or the 56% who thought the post-Watergate Jimmy Carter wasn't so bad in 1977.

The fact that Republican dead-enders are not exactly on-board with Obama or anyone else with a D in front of their name is not a surprise – these people are not exactly open-minded. The poll numbers don't indicate more polarization as much as they do stronger party affiliation and discipline. Democrats have a leader they can be proud of; the Republicans continue to behave like lemmings, following their "leaders", such as they are, over a cliff.

The fact that, despite all this noise, 59% of independents are still hanging with Obama, is the more relevant finding in the Pew poll -- if they were split 50/50, that would be quite another thing. Independents and Democrats seem to be largely on the same page. The fact that Republicans are in the corner, screeching about socialism, doesn't mean we as a people are polarized -- it just means they are annoying everyone else.

Republicans and right-wingers have made a gamble – to Just Say No to all things Obama and hope they can bleed him by a thousand trivial cuts like they tried (and, except in 1994, failed) to do with Clinton. The wager will come due soon enough in 2010, when, because of the steady progress of the Obama agenda, the Democrats claim even more seats in the Senate and dozens more in the House. Democrats will be rewarded for trying to make the nation a better place. Republicans will be justifiably punished for trying to stand in the way.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Prince of Darkness II

Robert Novak was an ominous presence on CNN in the early days of the cable news revolution. Back before a fake-news propaganda vehicle like Fox Noise was just a glimmer in Rupert Murdoch and Karl Rove’s eye, Novak was the one of the first to present a daily conservative message on a mainstream media outlet as the "on the right" half of the seminal Crossfire argument show during its glory years (with Michael Kinsley on a usually weak "left").

Novak earned the moniker Prince of Darkness for his unflinching defense of all things Reagan and Gingrich and his smug dismissal of anyone who disagreed with him. His deep eyes, bushy eyebrows and permanent scowl fit the nickname perfectly. At least he came by his always-wrong opinions honestly. Although an unapologetic shill for any Republican willing to feed him the usual bullshit, he was known for hard source reporting and leg work – he was actually a reporter. In 2005, under pressure from his political Cheney-driven outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, Novak went nuts, ripped off his microphone and stormed off the CNN set during a live appearance. Battling cancer for the last year, he is now absent from the noisy cable news squawking he pioneered and most of his other opinion outlets. The Prince of Darkness has gone dark.

Enter Charles Krauthammer. Krauthammer – a columnist in the Washington Post and a panelist on, of course, Fox Noise – appears on TV to be an insufferable snob who can barely stand to be in the same room with lesser mortals. The psychiatrist-turned-neocon-mouthpiece (imagine being on the couch with this dude) was in particular high lather last week, looking into President Obama’s soul to find things that aren’t there and pissing all over the president’s efforts to find peace and security overseas. Remember when the right-wing echo chamber used to screech bloody murder every Junior Bush was criticized at home while he was embarrassing himself and us while visiting other parts of the world? Oh, that was then; this is now.

Krauthammer’s first shot against Obama last week was in his Post column on Friday, when he declared that he was a mind-reader and could now expose Obama’s true agenda. The difficult matters of preventing the collapse of the financial and auto industry were just "sideshows", he claimed. "Obama is a leveler. He has come to narrow the divide between rich and poor. For him the ultimate social value is fairness. Imposing it upon the American social order is his mission."

Well. Now he tells us. This is Krauthammer as Joe the Plumber – he’s trying to spread the wealth! – a typically deadpan effort on his part to alarm people into doing...what is not exactly clear, although signing on to Rep. Michele Bachmann's call for violent revolution is never out of the question for these people. . The "socialist" label the right has been trying to pin on the president since the campaign is becoming quite tiresome. Besides the fact that it takes attention away from their own vacuity of ideas about what to do about the crisis created by their hand-picked buffoon, the label means nothing to new generations that either never heard or forgot the right’s history of sky-is-falling hysterical smears of market-based solutions by Democrats and real socialist efforts in other parts of the world.

Besides – it’s not even a fair reading of Obama’s "true" intentions, which are out there for all to see in the most transparent administration in history. Socialists, for one group, will tell you that casting socialist aspersions onto Obama’s actions is laughable. "Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal," writes Billy Wharton in a column in the same Washington Post in which he also describes a hilarious visit to Fox Noise studios. "Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat -- one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies."

And so he is, but not in Krauthammer’s fevered brain. Like every good wing-nut talking-pointer, he doesn’t let facts get in the way. Exactly none of Obama’s stimulus and budget packages have anything to do with "narrow[ing] the nation’s income and anxiety gaps" imagined by Krauthammer and everything to do with pouring economic power into the private economy to get it – not the government – going again. Like all right-wingers, he unjustly smears Obama’s health care plans as "nationalization", when those plans are, in fact, deplorably rooted in the current pro-insurance industry system ("ObamaCare would give private health insurance companies license to systematically underinsure policyholders while cashing in on the moral currency of universal coverage," says Wharton).

The shrill socialist meme employed by the wing-nuts is doomed to failure. Although they are used to repeating a lie so much it becomes perceived as the truth, Obama will never be considered a socialist by the general public. Regardless of his claimed mind-reading prowess, Krauthammer – who was one of the conservative columnists who joined Obama at George Will’s house for dinner after the election – knows better.

Krauthammer is also not above criticizing the president in the most severe terms while he is traveling the world, representing his country. Also on Friday, Krauthammer took his occasional seat on Fox Noise to snootily look down his nose at Obama’s "disgraceful" performance during his European trip (you know, the trip being praised everywhere except on Fox). Apparently, his undies were in a bundle over Obama’s long-overdue expression of humility on behalf of America regarding its recent arrogance while in the hands of the radical Bushies. Again pretending to mind-read, Krauthammer complained that Obama was less than appreciative of the disastrous Bush foreign policy "in order to gain the adoration of the press".

The dig at Obama was delivered with the typical Krauthammer smarmy aplomb, complete with a dig at the whole of Europe for "sucking [our] tit" for the past 60 years. You can’t beat that kind of pithy imagery -- Dr. Krauthammer was obviously a strict Freudian.

Bob Novak is gone. Long live Charles Krauthammer – the new Prince of Darkness.