The Note, 4/23/09: Tortured Messaging: Confusion, contradictions leave Obama fighting battles he wanted over

By Theresa Cook

Apr 23, 2009 8:25am

By RICK KLEIN Is there an enhanced communications technique out there? Some black site where the Obama White House can take the narrative to keep its messaging safe? Is it legal to waterboard a storyline?

This week that was supposed to be about budget-cutting, energy initiatives, and consumer protection is now entirely and exclusively about Bush-era policies on detainee treatment. (Change, anyone?)

As for what to do, the disagreements are Democrat vs. Republican, House vs. Senate, leadership vs. committee chairman, rank-and-file vs. leadership, Netroots vs. Washington, and Obama administration vs. Obama administration.

The next days — and maybe more than that — will be consumed by questions of legal culpability, morality, and efficacy of practices that are no longer even being employed by the United States.

Before we even get there, Congress gets to devour some energy over what it should be looking at it and how it should be doing it. (And for your fresh headlines, Attorney General Eric Holder is on the Hill Thursday.)

If something positive will come out of expending political resources on this sort of peering backward, what exactly might that be? Was this part of anybody’s plan?

Fair to say it wasn’t the president’s plan: “Obama had hoped to put the whole matter behind him, first by banning those interrogation methods early in his presidency and then by releasing the memos last week with the proviso that no CIA official who carried out interrogations should be prosecuted,” Dan Balz and Perry Bacon Jr. write in a political tick-tock, in The Washington Post. Obama quashed the commission idea internally, and the politics are spiraling: “The latest decision has stirred controversy on the right and the left. Obama has drawn sharp criticism from former vice president Richard B. Cheney, former CIA directors and Republican elected officials for releasing the memos. Those critics see softness in the commander in chief. He faces equally strong reaction from the left, where there is a desire to punish Bush administration officials for their actions and to conduct a more thorough investigation of what happened.” Key insight: “Hopes for an immediate change in tone have withered. Republican opposition to his economic policies remains nearly unanimous. With this latest controversy, he is learning that neither the opponents nor the defenders of Bush’s presidency are ready to move on,” Balz and Bacon write. This is precisely the kind of bind that Team Obama had been seeking to avoid. It places the president between the anti-Bush fervor that continues to grip a large segment of his party, and the vows of a new tone that he’s struggled to bring to fruition in Washington. Why this storyline has long legs: “Last week’s release of long-secret Justice Department interrogation memorandums has given rise to starkly opposing narratives about what, if anything, was gained by the C.I.A.’s use of waterboarding, wall-slamming and other physical pressure to shock and intimidate Qaeda operatives,” The New York Times’ Scott Shane writes. “For both sides, the political stakes are high, as proposals for a national commission to unravel the interrogation story appear to be gaining momentum. Mr. Obama and his allies need to discredit the techniques he has banned. Otherwise, in the event of a future terrorist attack, critics may blame his decision to rein in C.I.A. interrogators.” What about a commission on commissions? “Democrats moved toward separate hearings in the House and Senate and seemed to be jostling each other for leadership roles on the issue, all but ignoring Obama’s effort to head off an uncontrolled, partisan sprint toward a rash of probes that could impair the foreign policy he now steers,” Larry Margasak writes for the AP. What about that new era? “Prosecuting Republican appointees may destroy any semblance of national security bipartisanship, as well as further expose Obama to opposition-party accusations that he’s jeopardizing the nation’s safety in case of another terrorist attack,” Bloomberg’s Jeff Bliss and Justin Blum report. 

Clarity, anyone? “[The president's] response has been halting and hesitant. His message has been uncharacteristically muddied. And he is paying the price, at least in terms of message control,” Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek. “For an administration that has prided itself on clarity of expression, it is all getting very confusing very fast.”

Don’t forget the broader context (since Karl Rove doesn’t): “Mr. Obama acts as if no past president — except maybe Abraham Lincoln — possesses his wisdom,” Rove writes in his Wall Street Journal column. “A superstar, not a statesman, today leads our country. That may win short-term applause from foreign audiences, but do little for what should be the chief foreign policy preoccupation of any U.S. president: advancing America’s long-term interests.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., wants a “Truth Commission” that grants immunity; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., doesn’t want to grant immunity; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and friends don’t want prosecutions. (Who’s on whose side?) ABC’s Jonathan Karl: “Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made it clear today that the congressional showdown over the CIA’s interrogation policies is just beginning. The speaker told reporters there would be multiple congressional hearings on the issue and urged the creation of a ‘truth commission’ to investigate as well.  Investigations should go forward, Pelosi said, without granting immunity ‘in a blanket way’ to those who created and carried out the policies.”

Nancy Pelosi’s hometown paper: “Pelosi backs anti-terror truth commission.”

Harry Reid’s hometown paper: “Reid declines forming panel to probe Bush interrogation tactics.”

Even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton could be coaxed into playing politics on this one: “Well, it won’t surprise you, I don’t consider him a particularly reliable source of information,” Clinton said when asked by a GOP House member about former Vice President Dick Cheney’s request to declassify more memos.

Dangers of looking backward: “To go back and start penalizing or punishing a previous administration is what a banana republic does,” Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on ABCNews.com’s “Top Line.” “Our country has never done that, and I think this is a terrible step in the wrong direction.”

Why prosecute? “There’s work to do. Obama’s right: America should look ahead, not back,” Roger Cohen writes in his column. “A Truth Commission could address the broad collapse of accountability that opened the way for an imperial presidency and the use of cruel and inhuman treatment, while avoiding a facile search for scapegoats that would allow too many to disregard their own small measure of responsibility.”

Realistically, can this happen? “First, the lawyers would have to be shown to have deliberately misinterpreted the law against torture,” David G. Savage and Josh Meyer write in the Los Angeles Times. “The other problem looms even larger. How could the government prosecute the mid-level lawyers who wrote memos but not the top officials — including former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney — who ultimately authorized the waterboarding of suspected Al Qaeda operatives?”

“It could create a partisan firestorm that Mr. Obama, who has said he wants to concentrate on fixing the economy and on other parts of his agenda, would prefer to avoid for political reasons,” The New York Times’ Charlie Savage writes. “And, like the interrogators, the policy makers could argue that government lawyers assured them the program was legal.”

What a week to lose your communications director: “What is wrong with the Obama communications team? After months of top-notch messaging, this week has been an unmitigated disaster — and it’s only Wednesday,” Alex Conant blogs. “First was Obama’s ill-conceived and poorly executed announcement Monday that he was ordering his Cabinet to cut $100 million from the Federal government’s $3.6 trillion budget. Then came the bizarre statements from the Administration on torture yesterday, with the President unexpectedly flip-flopping on potential prosecutions of former government officials at the same time that the Director of National Intelligence penned a memo arguing that the practices produced ‘high-value information.’ “ 

Moving along, and ahead . . . From the White House, at 1 pm ET, “the President will meet with the representatives of the credit card industry about the impact of the current crisis on consumers in the Roosevelt Room. President Obama has been a strong proponent of cleaning up the practices of the credit card industry since he was a Senator and he called for measures to strengthen consumer protection in the credit card market during the campaign.”

The message from the president: “They need to clean up their acts,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “He’ll tell them that he supports greater protections for consumers.” And with legislation pending on Capitol Hill, the president will threaten that “this will be done with their cooperation, or without it,” Tapper reports.

The AP’s Ben Feller: “President Barack Obama, appealing to mainstream consumers, is pushing for more legal protection for the millions of Americans who use credit cards. Obama was meeting with leaders of the credit-card industry Thursday, and he’s already backing tougher legislation.”

The meeting is sort of stacked against the credit-card companies: “They aren’t likely to make much headway: Obama is pressing for consumer protections that go beyond proposals approved yesterday by a U.S. House committee and rules issued last year by the Federal Reserve,” Bloomberg’s Lorraine Woellert and Alexis Leondis report.

Also Thursday, Obama is on the Hill to make remarks at the Holocaust Days of Remembrance ceremony.

Plus, Hill leaders from both parties come to the White House for a 2:15 pm ET meeting with the president and Vice President Joe Biden.

Watch this gel: “The early-verdict stories are going to be written, creating both a challenge and opportunity for the new president. So senior White House aides are playing the game with relish, doling out made-to-order anecdotes and what-it-means analytical insights to help reporters write their 100 days pieces,” Politico’s John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write. “You can already see the results in a spate of stories that — thanks to competitive pressures — editors are deciding to publish before the actual 100th day.”

Also this: “What has happened so far is no more than the overture to the first act of this opera. The big stuff is still to come. The soprano has not opened her mouth for her signature aria. That will be health-care reform. The devilish baritone is still offstage. Wait for the first international crisis,” David Broder writes in his column.

“The most important thing we now know about Barack Obama, after nearly 100 days in office, is that he means to confront that way of life directly and profoundly, to exchange sand for rock if he can. Whether you agree with him or not — whether you think he is too ambitious or just plain wrong — his is as serious and challenging a presidency as we have had in quite some time,” Time’s Joe Klein writes.

The AP’s 100-day poll, per Ron Fournier’s write-up: “For the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is headed in the right direction, a sign that Barack Obama has used the first 100 days of his presidency to lift the public’s mood and inspire hopes for a brighter future. Intensely worried about their personal finances and medical expenses, Americans nonetheless appear realistic about the time Obama might need to turn things around, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. It shows most Americans consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.”

Also marking 100 days: The DNC is out with a new Web video Thursday. “Until the Republicans have something other than saying no to Obama’s agenda,” the ad says. “They’re the Party of Dr. No.” 

(One of the unwilling stars of the ad — Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, is the headliner on ABCNews.com’s “Top Line” Thursday.”)

More from the annals of the “Party of No.” AFSCME and Americans United for Change have a new ad going up Thursday that attacks Republicans for providing little or no support on some of the big ticket agenda items from Obama’s first 100 days. “There have always been those who said NO to progress. But in times of crisis, Americans have never taken NO for an answer,” says the narrator.

Pushing back — and triangulating anew: House Republicans are bringing a letter into their meeting with President Obama this afternoon at the White House — making Speaker Pelosi into the culprit.

“As you approach your first 100 days in office, House Republicans remain committed to working with you and your Administration to address the needs of hardworking American families and small businesses that continue to face unprecedented challenges,” reads the letter, signed by House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., and the rest of the leadership team. “Unfortunately, there has been a sad lack of bipartisanship. This lack of bipartisanship has been a major detriment to your stated desire to change the way that Washington works.”

“Democratic leaders in Congress have so far ignored your call for a new era of bipartisanship in Washington — however the next 100 days can be different,” the letter reads.

Also ginned up by the House GOP: “House Republicans are calling on Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to step down or be fired in the wake of a controversial department memo that has sparked indignant battle cries from conservatives and some veterans,” Politico’s Patrick O’Connor writes.

“Singling out political opponents for working against the ruling party is precisely the tactic of every tyrannical government from Red China to Venezuela,” said Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, per Roll Call’s Jackie Kucinich.

On energy (remember when that was going to be the focus of the week?) — the SEIU, League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn.org Political Action, VoteVets, Center for American Progress, the Blue Green Alliance, Environmental Defense Fund and others groups are taming up to press for the president’s energy economy plan. The new ad is up Thursday. Must-read: ABC’s George Stephanopoulos brings the back story of his trip to Tehran to interview Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — including details of Iranian conspiracy theories, and the latest on imprisoned American journalist Roxana Saberi.

Meet “Periodista Jake”: ABC’s Jake Tapper gets a shout-out in Fidel Castro’s newspaper column, where Castro says President Obama “misinterpreted” his brother’s comments.

Seriously? He needs . . . more time? “Norm Coleman asked the state Supreme Court on Wednesday to set a slower timetable than his rival seeks in the next phase of the protracted U.S. Senate race,” Kevin Duchschere and Bob Van Sternberg write in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Coleman, a Republican, proposed to the court that his appeal of Democrat Al Franken’s victory in the recent Senate election trial be argued no sooner than mid-May, two weeks later than Franken suggested on Tuesday.”

A Bill Ayers appearance: “Two months after Boston College canceled a scheduled appearance by Ayers, the onetime member of the 1960s militant antiwar organization the Weather Underground will be at Brandeis University next Thursday and will be welcomed by students and school administrators,” The Boston Globe’s Jenna Nierstedt reports. 

The Kicker:

“It might be further useful to have such a commission so that it removes all doubt that how we protect the American people is in a values-based way.” — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the possibility of a “Truth Commission.”

“I believe what we have to do is wait until the Intelligence Committee finishes its work.” — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on the possibility of a “Truth Commission.”

Don’t miss “Top Line,” ABCNews.com’s daily political Webcast, hosted by Rick Klein and David Chalian, at noon ET. Thursday’s guests: Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Politico’s Mike Allen.

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