The Note, 4/22/09: Commissions & Omissions: Shift leaves Obama on defense — and gives GOP an argument

By Theresa Cook

Apr 22, 2009 8:26am

By RICK KLEIN A tidy little dispute over legal obligations and prosecutorial responsibilities is now one big fight with political ramifications spilling over. A curious little dust-up between a former vice president and members of the new White House guard is now an intra-administration war. And now that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is making noise (he sat down with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday), toss another tough one onto the pile. At the center stands President Obama, tested already on a few national-security fronts, and now directly challenged over his leadership (and with a shift that his White House claims isn’t one giving new life — and new texture — to a dispute). President Obama’s statement Tuesday that charges against senior Bush administration officials are possible after all has enough implications standing on its own policy feet. But place it in the frame Republicans are starting to build around him, and the machinations of the past few days gain political peril. The GOP watchword is “weakness,” and North Korea + Cuba + Iran + smiles + Hugo Chavez + the possibility of US officials worried about prosecution = an argument. (Add some televised hearings, and this storyline has legs.) ABC’s Jake Tapper: “President Obama suggested today that it remained a possibility that the Justice Department might bring charges against officials of the Bush administration who devised harsh interrogation policies that some see as torture.  He also suggested that if there is any sort of investigation into these past policies and practices, he would be more inclined to support an independent commission outside the typical congressional hearing process.” “Both statements represented breaks from previous White House statements on the matter,” Tapper writes. This leaves the president defending several fronts: It’s not just the release of the memos, or the change in interrogation policies. Now it’s also about the potential prosecution of those who devised and executed the now-discarded policies. (Look for the GOP chorus to grow louder in the coming days — with current, once, and maybe future party leaders staking out some foreign-policy ground in contrast with Obama.) (Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is our guest Wednesday on’s “Top Line,” at noon ET.) “The comments [by the president] knocked the ordinarily smooth White House press operation back on its heels. Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, spent much of his daily briefing on Tuesday being peppered with questions about precisely what Mr. Obama had meant, declaring at one point, ‘To clear up any confusion on anything that might have been said, I would point you to what the president said,’ ” Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in The New York Times. Plus: “The debate promises only to escalate in the days ahead. The three Bush administration lawyers who signed the interrogation memos — John C. Yoo, Jay S. Bybee and Steven G. Bradbury — are the subject of a coming report by the Justice Department’s ethics office that officials say is very critical of their work.” Speaking of escalating debates: Ahmadinejad is still questioning the Holocaust, is staying out of the Roxana Saberi case — and says he’s still waiting for a response to his letter of congratulations to Obama, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reports. “It’s clear he’s feeling his way through to have a deal with this new administration is Washington right now,” Stephanopoulos said on “GMA,” after his interview with the Iranian president. “He echoed President Obama’s calls for new beginning with the United States and Iran, but he wouldn’t commit to sitting down right now and talking over the nuclear program.” The challenge — per The Washington Post editorial: “Mr. Obama has always said that talks with Iran must be conducted under the right circumstances and in a way that advances U.S. interests. The administration won’t meet that test if it allows negotiations to become a means of vindicating Mr. Ahmadinejad’s radical agenda. It should postpone any contact until after the Iranian election in June — and it should look for clear signs that Iran is acting in good faith before talks begin. The unconditional release of Ms. Saberi and [Robert] Levinson would be one.”    If the memos move is not a bow to the left, it sure looks like one: “Obama’s comments represented a shift from his administration’s position of trying to keep the focus on the future and avoid a partisan fight,” Peter Nicholas and Greg Miller write in the Los Angeles Times. “But pressure from human rights groups and many liberals — who consider the Bush administration tactics an illegal and immoral use of torture — made that position untenable.”  Lots of looking back: “The idea of a ’9/11-style’ commission appointed with the president’s imprimatur was broadly discussed in the weeks leading up to the release of the memos,” Michael A. Fletcher and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post. “But the idea was quashed by Obama, who said that such a panel would provide a forum for a renewed national argument over torture and the broader question about the fight against terrorism.” “What happened? Outside forces, some muddled communication within a tight-ship White House, and a president determined to try to get the debate back on his terms,” the AP’s Ben Feller writes. “The tricky part is still going on. He is out to find just the right balance — hold those accountable who may have broken the law but do nothing to encourage the kind of partisan, perfect-for-television investigatory hearings on Capitol Hill that could steal time and attention away from his agenda.” An indication of just how dangerous a game this is — on several levels: “President Obama’s national intelligence director told colleagues in a private memo last week that the harsh interrogation techniques banned by the White House did produce significant information that helped the nation in its struggle with terrorists,” Peter Baker reports in The New York Times. The memo from Admiral Dennis Blair: “High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa’ida organization that was attacking this country.” Baker continues: “Admiral Blair’s assessment that the interrogation methods did produce important information was deleted from a condensed version of his memo released to the media last Thursday. Also deleted was a line in which he empathized with his predecessors who originally approved some of the harsh tactics after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” The Blair statement released Tuesday night: “I recommended to the president that the administration release these memos, and I made clear that the CIA should not be punished for carrying out legal orders. “I also strongly supported the president when he declared that we would no longer use enhanced interrogation techniques. We do not need these techniques to keep America safe. “The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.” Keeping it in the news: “Intelligence and military officials under the Bush administration began preparing to conduct harsh interrogations long before they were granted legal approval to use such methods — and weeks before the CIA captured its first high-ranking terrorism suspect, Senate investigators have concluded,” The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick and Peter Finn report. “The findings are contained in a Senate Armed Services Committee report scheduled for release today that also documents multiple warnings — from legal and trained interrogation experts — that the techniques could backfire and might violate U.S. and international law.” “The methods, including waterboarding, sensory deprivation, slapping and exposure to extreme temperatures, were partly developed from ‘Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to elicit false confessions,’ the report says,” per The Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin.  And: “The Bush administration put 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, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist,” McClatchy’s Jonathan S. Landay reports. “Congress will mainly be a bystander on the issue of whether to prosecute former Bush administration officials, but its oversight powers could help develop evidence for such prosecutions, if they occur,” per CQ’s Keith Perine.  Democratic discontent, too: “This would be the first administration in American history to look backwards and prosecute, rather than let the judgment of history do its work, which is what ought to be the case here,” former Clinton administration special counsel Lanny Davis tells ABC’s Jake Tapper on “Good Morning America” Wednesday. Start that drumbeat: “The lesson for younger officers is obvious: Keep your head down. Duck the assignments that carry political risk. Stay away from a counterterrorism program that has become a career hazard,” David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post op-ed. “America will be better off, in the long run, for Obama’s decision to expose the past practice of torture and ban its future use. But meanwhile, the country is fighting a war, and it needs to take care that the sunlight of exposure doesn’t blind its shadow warriors.”  Fitting into the context: “He had gone to Europe not as the voice of his nation, but as a missionary with a message of atonement for its errors. Which were, as he perceived them — arrogance, dismissiveness, Guantanamo, deficiencies in its attitudes toward the Muslim world, and the presidency of Harry Truman and his decision to drop the atomic bomb, which ended World War II,” Dorothy Rabinowitz writes in a Wall Street Journal column. “No sitting American president had ever delivered indictments of this kind while abroad, or for that matter at home, or been so ostentatiously modest about the character and accomplishment of the nation he led. He was mediator, an agent of change, a judge, apportioning blame — and he was above the battle.”  ABC’s Teddy Davis notices a recurring theme in GOP responses: “Republicans with an eye on the White House in 2012 are stepping up efforts to portray President Obama as ‘weak’ on foreign policy.” Among the recent entries: “In a Tuesday op-ed for National Review Online, Romney calls Obama ‘a timid advocate of freedom,’ adding that he ‘failed his early foreign-policy tests.’ “  (The DNC has some fun with Cheney, Rove, Gingrich and co. in a new Web video. “Meet the New GOP. Same as the Old GOP.”) Will anything get to him? “The outrage is definitely there, in certain precincts of Republican politics. What’s notable, however, is that it mostly has stayed there — with little or no effect on Obama,” Politico’s Jonathan Martin reports. “He has been blithely crossing ideological red lines and dancing on cultural third rails — the kinds of gestures that would have scorched an earlier generation of Democrats — with seeming impunity. Obama’s foes, and even some of his allies, are a bit mystified.” Will there even be a social-issue backlash? Gay marriage is on the march, but there’s not much of a parade in the other direction. “Beyond the expected condemnation from conservative leaders, the stunning series of events is notable for how little it’s reverberated across the national political landscape,” per ABC News. “It’s almost like the silence is deafening,” said Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster.  Meanwhile, this from a friend: “Just back from a visit to Pakistan, Sen. John Kerry says the Obama administration’s plan for that volatile country, rolled out last month with great fanfare, ‘is not a real strategy,’ ” per Ken Dilanian of USA Today. “Pakistan is in a moment of peril,” Kerry, D-Mass, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told USA Today. “And I believe there is not in place yet an adequate policy or plan to deal with it.” (Kerry will hold a hearing on Afghanistan policy Thursday, featuring veterans of that war.)  From an occasional friend: “Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) on Tuesday barreled into the second day of her fledgling scandal — touched off by reports of a wiretapped conversation she had in 2005 with a suspected Israeli agent — by trying to turn the tables on government eavesdroppers,” Roll Call’s Tory Newmyer reports. “The veteran California lawmaker reportedly agreed on that phone call to seek leniency for two accused spies in return for help in lobbying Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the House Intelligence Committee gavel. But Harman fought back Tuesday with a media blitz, aggressively denying charges she did anything inappropriate and calling on the Justice Department to probe the wiretap and the leak behind the news accounts.”  From a non-friend: “Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro put a damper on rising hopes for improved US-Cuba relations by saying that apparently conciliatory words from his brother had been misinterpreted,” per Reuters’ Jeff Franks. “The 82-year-old Castro also signaled on Tuesday that Cuba may be unwilling to make concessions to end 50 years of hostilities with the US because the Cuban government believes it is not at fault for their troubled relations.” Obama’s Wednesday: He tries to break through where he once broke through big time. The president travels to Newton, Iowa, for an Earth Day tour of a former Maytag factory. A positive sign for Organizing for America: “In Iowa, there are signs everywhere of the organization he’s building for his re-election campaign in 2012,” the AP’s Mike Glover writes. “The massive field operation that lifted Obama to his surprise win in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses last year is revving up. Earlier this spring, the president activated his grass-roots campaign apparatus, Organizing for America. The group is holding town-hall meetings across Iowa beginning this week, including events in Cedar Rapids and college towns such as Grinnell and Cedar Falls, which voted heavily for Obama in the caucuses.”  “President Barack Obama is expected today to tout his administration’s effort to accelerate the creation of renewable-energy jobs in his first trip as president to Iowa, the nation’s No. 2 wind energy producer,” Thomas Beaumont writes in the Des Moines Register. “Obama, speaking at a wind turbine tower plant housed in the former Maytag appliance factory in Newton, will urge Congress to move forward on legislation to spur that initiative.” Earth Day movement: “House Democrats began three full days of hearings on a massive energy and climate-change bill, inviting testimony from three Cabinet secretaries and more than a dozen captains of industry, labor and the environmental movement,” Jim Tankersley writes in the Chicago Tribune. “Obama, meantime, prepared to visit a wind turbine manufacturer in Iowa this week to champion his push to cap greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.”  “And the political theatrics were only the most visible part of what shapes up to be a frenzied lobbying fight over an issue that pits some of the nation’s highest-powered interests against one another in a tangle of coalitions and alliances of convenience,” he writes. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lays down his markers: “At this time of economic hardship, it is beyond irresponsible to further raise costs of operation for our country’s businesses,” he said at an energy forum hosted by the Reform Institute in Washington, per Real Clear Politics. “I still believe that it is the time to address this critical domestic and international issue. But my vision for a cap and trade system is mechanism to lower greenhouse gases in our hemisphere, not as a revenue generator for the federal government.” Can Republicans find their marks? “Ask 15 Republicans about climate change, and you’ll get 20 different answers,” Politico’s Lisa Lerer reports. “The GOP’s scattershot messaging on climate change threatens to distract from the party’s primary attack on the Democrats’ global warming plan: that the cap-and-trade system will dramatically raise prices on business and consumers.”  Ellen Moran moves from White House communications director to chief of staff at Commerce. “That’s not a common trajectory — Communications Director can be a very, very powerful job, though it appears not to have been in this case,” per Politico’s Ben Smith. “But the move is a sign of how little Obama’s tight, loyal, and mostly male inner political circle has changed since the campaign. Moran was an outsider who never seemed quite to make it in.” Sorry, Blago: “I don’t think this defendant fully understands and I don’t think he could understand … the position he finds himself in,” U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel said in denying former governor Rod Blagojevich’s request to star in a reality show in the Costa Rican jungle while he awaits trial.  On the Wednesday’s schedule: “Obama @ 100,” an early evening forum in Washington. “The Nation Magazine is hosting a forum to assess the Administration’s progress and President Obama’s evolving relationship with progressives. Featuring some of The Nation’s top editors and writers, Obama @ 100 will grade the administration’s record so far on a range of core progressive issues, from foreclosures and job creation to the climate crisis, healthcare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and achieving transparency in government. Obama @ 100 will explore both the policy victories already achieved and the political challenges that lie ahead.”  The Kicker: “I think the president has pretty good shoveling skills.” — President Obama, complimenting former President Bill Clinton on his ability to shovel . . . of soil. “that in an f—— twitter nutshell is my life and what I have accomplished so far.” — Meghan McCain, Twittering her (actually quite impressive) resume. Don’t miss “Top Line,”’s daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. Wednesday’s guests: Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and Ana Marie Cox, of Air America and The Daily Beast. Follow The Note on Twitter: For up-to-the-minute political updates check out The Note’s blog . . . all day every day:

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