Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama, Cheney & National Security Policy (Updated)

Both President Obama and VP Cheney spoke on national security policy yesterday. You can find the full transcripts here and here. Obama's goals in his speech were threefold. One, in response to Dick Cheney's criticism, Obama sought to take the moral high ground and reframe the national security issue into a moral argument. Two, Obama sought to reach out to his increasingly unhappy base. And lastly, Obama wanted to end the debate on Guantanamo and on enhanced interrogation.

Across town, Dick Cheney waited his turn. When it came, he lambasted Obama on the issue of enhanced interrogation, the faux moralism, and the effect of his policies on the CIA and others who have served us in the War on Terror.

Obama on the stump always claims the moral high ground with liquid grace. He is a master rhetorician. He frames his arguments with vague references to unspecified values, moral precepts and the Constitution. He invariably characterizes these generalized concepts as being responsible for all that is good in America and then places himself in the center of their inchoate frame. From there, he is the arbiter, labeling all who disagree with him as immoral, unethical or anti-American. It is both transparent and effective in equal measure. To those inclined to uncritically accept Obama's disingenuous rhetoric as intellectually honest, I am sure it had an effect.

As to Obama's second goal, to play to an increasingly restive base, they are restive largely because Obama has, but for Guantanamo and enhanced interrogation, adopted the Bush War on Terror wholesale (as I have documented in detail here.) Charles Krauthammer points out the cynical formula Obama used repetitively to justify this:

. . . the Obama three-step: (a) excoriate the Bush policy, (b) ostentatiously unveil cosmetic changes, (c) adopt the Bush policy.

Obama also relied on two other arguments in playing to his base. One was to claim that the Bush policies had been unwillingly foisted on him. Obama disclaimed responsibility for having to adopt these policies - its all the evil Bushies' fault - and tweak them. As the editor's at NRO sum up the theme: "George W. Bush left me a mess, and I’m doing the best I can to clean it up."

Lastly, to Obama's credit, he did make a third argument to those upset at his refusal to release the additional photos sought by the ACLU - get over it. He basically told them that he now had to govern and thus, had to give some weight to national security concerns.

So how did this play with the base? Using Andrew Sullivan and Glen Greenwald as the yardsticks, Sullivan waxes rapturously at the One's "perfect pitch" in balancing the issues while Greenwald remains unconvinced. So, Obama evidently made some headway with his base, at least with those among the base who relate to him more on an emotional than a cerebral level.

Obama's last two goals were to say the final words on whether Guantanamo should be closed and whether enhanced interrogation - i.e., waterboarding - should be a topic of debate. He likely failed on both counts.

Obama reiterated that he intends to see Guantanamo closed - indeed, he did so in a fit of pique. But he still did not offer anything approaching a plan to make it happen.

In truth, Guanatamo is now far more a symbolic issue than a substantive one. The reason for Guantanamo in the first place was, in large measure, to keep anyone from making the argument that detainees there were entitled to Constitutional rights. That argument has largely dissipated with the SCT in Boumediene extending habeas corpus rights to all detainees. Other than pragmatic concerns with security, the only reason to keep Guantanamo open at this point seems to be economic. Why spend over a hundred million dollars to transfer these detainees to new locales when they could be retained at Guantanamo at exponentially less cost. The reason is political. Guantanamo is now of central importance to Obama as a symbol of his break with the evil Bushies. So, I am not surprised that he vehemently attacked Congress on this issue in his speech. Leaving Guantanamo open would be a great loss of face.

Then we come to enhanced interrogation, the crux of Obama's difference with Dick Cheney as well as several current and former CIA and DNI chiefs. Obama has moralized this one to death - as well as made bald pronouncements about the law. Obama stated:

First, I banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques by the United States of America.

I know some have argued that brutal methods like water-boarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more. As Commander-in-Chief, I see the intelligence, I bear responsibility for keeping this country safe, and I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured. In short, they did not advance our war and counter-terrorism efforts - they undermined them, and that is why I ended them once and for all.

. . . those who argued for these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate, and the wrong side of history. We must leave these methods where they belong - in the past. They are not who we are. They are not America.

You can see all of Obama's rhetorical tools at work in that passage. One thing to highlight out of this is the baseless memes Obama uses to justify a ban on enhanced interrogation, with the most disingenuous being the claim that our use of these methods led to more recruits for al Qaeda. That is ridiculous. The three recruiting tools for al Qaeda have been the spread of Wahhabism, the success al Qaeda had in terrorist attacks against the Soviet Union in the 80's and then against the U.S. in the 90's and through 9-11, and the perception that al Qaeda was winning in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Indeed, I would imagine the various pronouncements of Obama in 2006 and 2007, fanning the perception of U.S. weakness in Iraq and a willingness to surrender rather than take any further casualties, to actually have recruited terrorists to the cause of al Qaeda. As to our use of waterboarding as a recruiting point, that is laughable.

At one other point in his speech, Obama compared all who believe waterboarding was legal with being the far right fringe, equally as unrealistic as the ACLU types. Said Obama:

On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: "anything goes." Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants - provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

This grossly distorts the argument on waterboarding and trivializes the very serious work of the OLC attorneys that Obama made public with release of the four memos. I defy anyone to actually read the OLC memos and then say that work is patently wrong, let alone unserious, or that it evinces an "anything goes" mentality. As to the latter, the opposite is true. The OLC authors laid down very specific parameters for what was acceptable and what was not in accordance with the applicable law. As to the former, I opined on the legal reasoning in the memos in the post, Words Have Meaning, Rick. But no need to take my word for it. I would suggest that you also read an article by former federal prosecutor Victoria Toensig in the WSJ:

What did the Justice Department attorneys at George W. Bush's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) -- John Yoo and Jay Bybee -- do to garner such scorn? They analyzed a 1994 criminal statute prohibiting torture when the CIA asked for legal guidance on interrogation techniques for a high-level al Qaeda detainee (Abu Zubaydah).

In the mid-1980s, when I supervised the legality of apprehending terrorists to stand trial, I relied on a decades-old Supreme Court standard: Our capture and treatment could not "shock the conscience" of the court. The OLC lawyers, however, were not asked what treatment was legal to preserve a prosecution. They were asked what treatment was legal for a detainee who they were told had knowledge of future attacks on Americans

Both memos noted that the legislative history of the 1994 torture statute was "scant." Neither house of Congress had hearings, debates or amendments, or provided clarification about terms such as "severe" or "prolonged mental harm." There is no record of Rep. Jerrold Nadler -- who now calls for impeachment and a criminal investigation of the lawyers -- trying to make any act (e.g., waterboarding) illegal, or attempting to lessen the specific intent standard.

The Gonzales memo analyzed "torture" under American and international law. It noted that our courts, under a civil statute, have interpreted "severe" physical or mental pain or suffering to require extreme acts: The person had to be shot, beaten or raped, threatened with death or removal of extremities, or denied medical care. One federal court distinguished between torture and acts that were "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." So have international courts. . . .

Do read the entire article. And see this from Univ. of Minn. Constitutional law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen, quoted at Powerline:

Constitutional law, in addition to legal ethics, is one of my areas of teaching and scholarship. In my opinion, the most basic problem with any suggestion of incompetence is that the memos' essential legal conclusions are correct. There is a fundamental distinction in the law between what constitutes actual, legal "torture" under applicable standards and what may be harsh, aggressive, unpleasant interrogation tactics but not, legally, "torture." Reasonable people will come to different conclusions as to where that line is, but the Bush administration's lawyers' conclusions are certainly defensible and, I think, ultimately correct.

The only thing distinctly unserious about the debate on waterboarding is Obama's treatment of the issue and his ad hominem attacks on those who hold well grounded disagreement - both legally and morally.

Compared to Obama's speech, Cheney's was a model of clarity, brevity and intellectual honesty. Rather than comment, here are some of the highlights.

Cheney's Speech:

. . . So we’re left to draw one of two conclusions – and here is the great dividing line in our current debate over national security. You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked, and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event – coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort. Whichever conclusion you arrive at, it will shape your entire view of the last seven years, and of the policies necessary to protect America for years to come.

. . . Our government prevented attacks and saved lives through the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which let us intercept calls and track contacts between al-Qaeda operatives and persons inside the United States. The program was top secret, and for good reason, until the editors of the New York Times got it and put it on the front page. After 9/11, the Times had spent months publishing the pictures and the stories of everyone killed by al-Qaeda on 9/11. Now here was that same newspaper publishing secrets in a way that could only help al-Qaeda. It impressed the Pulitzer committee, but it damn sure didn’t serve the interests of our country, or the safety of our people.

. . . In top secret meetings about enhanced interrogations, I made my own beliefs clear. I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do. The intelligence officers who questioned the terrorists can be proud of their work and proud of the results, because they prevented the violent death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people.

Our successors in office have their own views on all of these matters.
By presidential decision, last month we saw the selective release of documents relating to enhanced interrogations. This is held up as a bold exercise in open government, honoring the public’s right to know. We’re informed, as well, that there was much agonizing over this decision.

Yet somehow, when the soul-searching was done and the veil was lifted on the policies of the Bush administration, the public was given less than half the truth. The released memos were carefully redacted to leave out references to what our government learned through the methods in question. Other memos, laying out specific terrorist plots that were averted, apparently were not even considered for release. For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers.

Over on the left wing of the president’s party, there appears to be little curiosity in finding out what was learned from the terrorists. The kind of answers they’re after would be heard before a so-called “Truth Commission.” Some are even demanding that those who recommended and approved the interrogations be prosecuted, in effect treating political disagreements as a punishable offense, and political opponents as criminals. It’s hard to imagine a worse precedent, filled with more possibilities for trouble and abuse, than to have an incoming administration criminalize the policy decisions of its predecessors.

Apart from doing a serious injustice to intelligence operators and lawyers who deserve far better for their devoted service, the danger here is a loss of focus on national security, and what it requires. I would advise the administration to think very carefully about the course ahead.

. . . Maybe you’ve heard that when we captured KSM, he said he would talk as soon as he got to New York City and saw his lawyer. But like many critics of interrogations, he clearly misunderstood the business at hand. American personnel were not there to commence an elaborate legal proceeding, but to extract information from him before al-Qaeda could strike again and kill more of our people.

. . . Even before the interrogation program began, and throughout its operation, it was closely reviewed to ensure that every method used was in full compliance with the Constitution, statutes, and treaty obligations. On numerous occasions, leading members of Congress, including the current speaker of the House, were briefed on the program and on the methods.

Yet for all these exacting efforts to do a hard and necessary job and to do it right, we hear from some quarters nothing but feigned outrage based on a false narrative. In my long experience in Washington, few matters have inspired so much contrived indignation and phony moralizing as the interrogation methods applied to a few captured terrorists.

I might add that people who consistently distort the truth in this way are in no position to lecture anyone about “values.” . . .

Those are the basic facts on enhanced interrogations. And to call this a program of torture is to libel the dedicated professionals who have saved American lives, and to cast terrorists and murderers as innocent victims. What’s more, to completely rule out enhanced interrogation methods in the future is unwise in the extreme. It is recklessness cloaked in righteousness, and would make the American people less safe.

. . . [I]n the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States. . . .

. . . The administration has found that it’s easy to receive applause in Europe for closing Guantanamo. But it’s tricky to come up with an alternative that will serve the interests of justice and America’s national security.

. . . In the category of euphemism, the prizewinning entry would be a recent editorial in a familiar newspaper that referred to terrorists we’ve captured as, quote, “abducted.” Here we have ruthless enemies of this country, stopped in their tracks by brave operatives in the service of America, and a major editorial page makes them sound like they were kidnap victims, picked up at random on their way to the movies.

. . . Another term out there that slipped into the discussion is the notion that American interrogation practices were a “recruitment tool” for the enemy. On this theory, by the tough questioning of killers, we have supposedly fallen short of our own values. This recruitment-tool theory has become something of a mantra lately, including from the President himself. And after a familiar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for the evil that others do. It’s another version of that same old refrain from the Left, “We brought it on ourselves.”

. . . Critics of our policies are given to lecturing on the theme of being consistent with American values. But no moral value held dear by the American people obliges public servants ever to sacrifice innocent lives to spare a captured terrorist from unpleasant things. And when an entire population is targeted by a terror network, nothing is more consistent with American values than to stop them.

. . . Releasing the interrogation memos was flatly contrary to the national security interest of the United States. The harm done only begins with top secret information now in the hands of the terrorists, who have just received a lengthy insert for their training manual. Across the world, governments that have helped us capture terrorists will fear that sensitive joint operations will be compromised. And at the CIA, operatives are left to wonder if they can depend on the White House or Congress to back them up when the going gets tough. Why should any agency employee take on a difficult assignment when, even though they act lawfully and in good faith, years down the road the press and Congress will treat everything they do with suspicion, outright hostility, and second-guessing? . . .

As far as the interrogations are concerned, all that remains an official secret is the information we gained as a result. Some of his defenders say the unseen memos are inconclusive, which only raises the question why they won’t let the American people decide that for themselves. I saw that information as vice president, and I reviewed some of it again at the National Archives last month. I’ve formally asked that it be declassified so the American people can see the intelligence we obtained, the things we learned, and the consequences for national security. And as you may have heard, last week that request was formally rejected. It’s worth recalling that ultimate power of declassification belongs to the President himself. President Obama has used his declassification power to reveal what happened in the interrogation of terrorists. Now let him use that same power to show Americans what did not happen, thanks to the good work of our intelligence officials.

I believe this information will confirm the value of interrogations – and I am not alone. President Obama’s own Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Blair, has put it this way: “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al-Qaeda organization that was attacking this country.” End quote. Admiral Blair put that conclusion in writing, only to see it mysteriously deleted in a later version released by the administration – the missing 26 words that tell an inconvenient truth. But they couldn’t change the words of George Tenet, the CIA Director under Presidents Clinton and Bush, who bluntly said: “I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us.” End of quote. . . .

So where to from here? If Republican's are smart, they will start acting as Cheney's echo chamber and keep up the pressure on the Obama administration to release the two memos requested by Cheney. If Cheney is correct in what those memos say, then it will allow for an informed debate long overdue on this issue. Indeed, this is not an academic debate, for if Cheney, Tenet et al. are correct, then this is a debate on which thousands of innocent American lives once hung and may yet again hang in the future. Further, it will go a long way to exposing just how incredibly disingenuous is this Alinsky disciple now occupying the White House.


Bob in Los Angeles said...

GW excellent post. I wish I could write as well as you.

When you say ""the baseless memes Obama uses to justify a ban on enhanced interrogation, with the most disingenuous being the claim that our use of these methods led to more recruits for al Qaeda. That is ridiculous." I think it is worse that that. Obama is apologizing for a bad America. America Bad, We are Sorry. America was Wrong, we brought terrorism on us through our sins. Now Obama sets the stage to do anything that will place us on a path to goodness. Having set the stage that we caused the terrorism, he can then claim to do anything to right that wrong. As long as the so-called MSM (SCMSM) does not call him on the lie, did he tell one?

cdor said...

I have an idea. Instead of eliminating Guantanemo, why doesn't Obama simply do what he has done with all of the other Bush/Cheney anti- terror policies? In short, merely change the name while leaving the policies in place. This simple technique has successfully made the entire world once again love the USA and more importantly Barack Obama himself.

So here it is. A new name for the same place, doing the same things, to the same people. This name can contain none of the blatantly uncomfortible, in your face, harmfully hateful rhetoric of those obnoxious Bush/Hitler/Cheney/Haliburton yahoos. It must be senstive to our new world order. We could take suggestions. I'll start it out: World Institution for Eliminating Cancerous Antagonistic Nincumpoops.
WIECAN (pronounced, We Can).

There you have it, problem solved. No more GITMO. Now WIECAN!!

suek said...

Someone called into the Michael Medved show yesterday and made the following point:

Waterboarding...does not drown anyone, is not that actually, it is the threat and _fear_ of drowning that is effective. No one dies.

Obama (eventually) gave permission to shoot 4 pirates in the head to save one ship captain's life.

Conclusion: it's morally wrong to cause someone to fear imminent death in order to save possibly thousands of lives, but it's morally right to kill 4 men in order to save one man's life.

Maybe someone can explain to me how this has _any_ logic.

What is the moral? where is it written? what standards are we using?

cdor said...

Ok Suek, Let me explain morality to you. I'll make it simple, like you're a five year old. Are you paying close attention? Here it is:

Bush/Cheney = bad, bad, bad

Obama = gooood

See how easy that is?

GW said...

Bob, thanks for the kind words. And your point is well taken. If a tree falls in the woods, of course it still makes noise. But if the MSM allows lies and gross exagerations to go unreported, then they are, in all major part, not lies, assuming that the many of the people who watch and read the MSM accept it largely uncritically. The truth of that statement goes to the heart of politics - it is all perception.

CDOR - Ha . . . and we may in fact see that yet.

Suek - For Obama, moralism is a rhetorical sword, not a principle. Its just that he wields the rhetorical sword with incredible skill and effectiveness. He can get by on this until people start to recognize the rhetorical device he employs and see it for what it is.