Eyal Press is a Nation contributing editor and the author of Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times and Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict That Divided America. He is also a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.
The ability to deny reality is hardly unique to conservatives. There are some people on the left, for example, who believe Hugo Chavez is a model democrat, and others who remain convinced that George W. Bush didn't actually win more votes than John Kerry in the "stolen" 2004 Presidential election.
But the release of the CIA torture memos has caused an impressive uptick of reality-denial on the right, the most notable example being this surreal op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, by David Rivkin and Lee Casey, both of whom served in the Justice Department under George W. Bush. "The Memos Prove We Didn't Torture," reads the title of their piece. How do the memos prove this? By showing, for example, that "walling" – that is, smashing a detainee against a wall, which sure sounds like torture – was approved only if a flexible wall was used to reduce the probability of injury. "Their shoulder blades – not head – were the point of contact, and the ‘collar' was used not to give additional force to a blow, but further to protect the neck," write Rivkin and Casey in case you weren't convinced yet.
The authors don't say whether doing this twenty to thirty times, as was officially sanctioned, still fails to qualify as torture. According to them, waterboarding, too, was administered with specifications that prevented it from crossing the line, since the water "was not actually expected to enter the detainee's lungs." In the actual memo from which they draw this conclusion, then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee makes no effort to disguise the feeling this purportedly benign variant on a familiar torture technique was designed to induce: "This effort plus the cloth produces the perception of ‘suffocation and incipient panic,' i.e. the perception of drowning." Making someone feel like they're drowning doesn't quite do it, just as sleep deprivation, dousing victims with cold water and other practices the State Department has described as ‘methods of torture' in reports on other countries don't merit the label.
I had the privilege yesterday of attending an awards ceremony in Washington DC honoring Thomas Tamm, the recipient of this year's Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, which is given out annually by the Fertel Foundation and The Nation Institute. Were it not for Tamm, a former Justice Department lawyer, Americans might never have learned about the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, disclosed in a 2005 New York Times article by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, who first learned about the secret surveillance of US citizens from him. Risen and Lichtblau won a Pulitzer Prize for their piece. Tamm was rewarded for helping to disclose the unlawful program they wrote about by having his house raided by FBI officials, who seized his laptop, personal papers and family Christmas card list. He fell into a depression, resigned from the Justice Department, and may still be prosecuted and sent to jail for having leaked information vital to national security.
The irony is rich, not least since, as this front-page article in yesterday's Times revealed, the National Security Agency has continued to intercept private email messages and phone calls on a scale vastly exceeding the limits established by Congress. In one instance, the agency actually wiretapped a member of Congress without warrant. "It's stunning," Tamm told me after receiving his award. "If this doesn't prompt Congress to hold hearings, nothing will."
Senator Diane Feinstein has vowed that hearings will indeed take place. Tamm suggested another step that's long overdue – releasing the Bush-era legal memorandum that authorized the warrantless wiretapping program. The Obama administration did, of course, release the long-concealed (and predictably grotesque) memos authorizing torture yesterday, overriding the strenuous objection of some members of the national security establishment and upending the notion that citizens must be prevented from knowing about the nefarious things being done in their name, as was standard practice under Bush. But transforming the culture of secrecy that has reigned in Washington for the past eight years will take a lot more than this. Making sure Thomas Tamm isn't prosecuted – and that the people who crafted and authorized the illegal program he helped bring to light are – would mark real change.
Some weeks ago, Anthony Romero, the Executive Director of the ACLU, showed me his copy of the executive orders that Barack Obama signed in January shutting down Guantanamo and the CIA's network of secret prisons. Romero had underlined various passages containing ambiguous language that he feared would enable the Obama administration to continue violating the constitutional rights of detainees.
At the time, I thought Romero was being slightly paranoid. Unfortunately, he wasn't. Back in February, the Obama administration had a chance to reconsider the Bush administration's view that detainees held without charge in Afghanistan were not entitled to challenge the reasons for their detention, one of the basic rights denied to prisoners at Guantanamo. "Having considered the matter, the Government adheres to its previously articulated position," the Justice Department wrote in a rather unambiguous echo of the Bush administration's position.
Two weeks ago, US District Judge John D. Bates, a Bush appointee, nevertheless ruled that several detainees at the Bagram Air Base could not be detained indefinitely. Flown to Afghanistan from other countries, some of these detainees have been imprisoned for more than six years without trial. Offered the opportunity to reconsider the justness of this, the Obama Administration responded by announcing it would appeal this ruling.
Dick Cheney's insistence that President Obama has made America less safe by defining waterboarding as torture and making CIA interrogators abide by the US Army Field Manual has provoked much laughter and derision on the left. It shouldn't. Read Mark Danner's latest essay on torture in the New York Review of Books and you'll appreciate why the proper response to Cheney's predictably self-serving claims should be to engage his argument and educate Americans about why he's wrong.
Why is this necessary? It's necessary because, as Danner notes, "It is a regrettable but undeniable fact that torture's illegality, or the political harm it may do to the country's reputation, is not sufficient to discourage the willingness of many Americans to countenance it." It is not sufficient because torture in post-9/11 America is not only a set of coercive interrogation procedures applied to detainees in the 'war on terror.' It is also "a marker of political commitment," as Danner aptly puts it - a barometer of how far America's leaders are willing to go to protect citizens from attack. The fact that torture became officially sanctioned after 9/11 has been apparent for a while now (I suggested as much here, back in 2003, when fewer details were available but the general drift was clear). What hasn't been apparent is what torture has actually done to make America safer.
To many liberals and progressives (myself included), this is a secondary issue – morality alone should lead us to ban torture in all cases. But to many others, torture still conjures up images of Jack Bauer racing to stop "ticking bombs" from inflicting massive carnage in the heartland. The emotional pull of this potent image may seem silly to people who have read enough to know such scenarios are largely a myth. But many people haven't read enough. As Danner suggests, the best solution is to appoint a bipartisan commission to examine what torture actually yielded over the past eight years, and then to weigh these findings against the vast secondary costs (moral, political, strategic) that have been incurred.
I spent Saturday afternoon at Citi Field, the New York Mets' newly built, 45,000-seat stadium in Flushing, Queens, and can report that it is a lovely place to take in a baseball game. The seats are wide, the views of the grass field splendid, the brick, limestone and granite exterior façade, modeled after Ebbets field, every bit as attractive as advertised. Best of all is the Jackie Robinson rotunda, which pays homage to the legendary second baseman who broke baseball's color line. Like all new sporting facilities, there are an excess of amenities for the well-to-do (luxury boxes, cherry-paneled elevators, reported plans to open a lobster-roll stand), and a dearth of affordable cheap seats, leaving one to wonder how many working-class Mets fans will get to take their families to the ballpark this year.
But the real problem with the new stadium lies elsewhere, in its name. Last I checked, Citigroup did not put up the hundreds of millions of dollars in rent credits and capital funds for the stadium. New York's taxpayers did, the same taxpayers who have since forked over tens of billions in bailout funds to Citi and the rest of the financial industry. As reported here, two Congressmen, Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, and Dennis Kucinich, the leftist Ohio Democrat, have written a letter calling on Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to demand that Citigroup back out of the deal. Here's another idea: add a question to this year's all-star ballots asking fans whether stadiums built with taxpayer money should have any corporate sponsors. If owners reject the idea, fans could start a grassroots petition gathering signatures to have the stadiums they built renamed after more exemplary citizens. The Jackie Robinson rotunda is really nice; Jackie Robinson Park would be even better.
The must-read in this week's news magazines is Jonathan Chait's lacerating piece on Congressional Democrats in The New Republic, in particular the centrists and moderates who are doing their best to distance themselves from Barack Obama because he is too progressive. If you've watched any political talk shows lately, you've probably seen a pundit or two fawn over these moderates, who invariably present themselves as "pragmatists, not ideologues," as Evan Bayh of Indiana put it when announcing his new working group of centrist Democrats a few weeks ago.
Chait takes a close look at what this actually means, quoting Kent Conrad, who appeared on CNBC to complain that Obama's budget would (1) not reduce the budget deficit enough, (2) limit tax deductions on high-income earners, and (3) cap subsidies for farmers who make more than $500,000 a year. Did everyone get the pragmatism in that? A ‘deficit hawk' who just happens to be from a farm state opposes two sensible deficit-reducing measures that just happen to displease two of his deep-pocketed donors (wealthy farmers and high-income earners). As Chait notes, the performance should have turned Conrad into the punch line of a joke, but instead "launched him as a symbol of fiscal rectitude and encouraged fellow Democrats to follow in his hypocritical wake."
The centrists who practice this hypocrisy do not lack an ideology, which most dictionaries define as a doctrine that guides the beliefs of a group or individual. Their ideology is simply "we're between the parties" – regardless of what's good for the country, regardless of whether it will help solve the problems we face. The one extremely useful purpose this ideology serves is to protect them from future attacks for being too liberal.
As mentioned in an earlier post, we're hearing a lot these days about dangerous "pitchfork populists" storming the barricades, as though the public's anger at Wall Street's greed will throw an otherwise just and equitable system out of whack. The best succinct rejoinder I've seen to this misplaced anguish appears here, on the letters page of today's New York Times, from the sociologist Herbert Gans:
In the long run, the furor over A.I.G. bailouts may turn out to be the first public outcry over the country's humongous income and wealth inequality. Perhaps political support will now begin to build for developing the considerably more progressive income and wealth taxes needed to help pay the country's bills in future years.
Several weeks ago, I attended a conference in Washington D.C. whose organizing theme was "Ending the Dark Ages, Turning on the Lights." The conference was a gathering of whistleblowers, many of whom indeed saw the lights go out during the secretive, unaccountable reign of George W. Bush, when employees who tried to expose waste, fraud and abuse were routinely marginalized and silenced. Unfortunately, although Barack Obama campaigned as a champion of whistleblower rights, it's not clear the dark ages have ended quite yet.
Earlier this month, Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity that requires all federal agencies to provide whistleblower protections to scientists. It was a welcome step, hailed by Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, as a "major breakthrough." The days when researchers are threatened for speaking out about politically unpalatable subjects (such as, in the Bush era, global warming) do appear to be over. Yet a few days later, Obama issued a signing statement indicating that the Executive Branch would take steps to supervise and control federal employees who communicate with Congress "in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential." It's the sort of vague language (does ‘properly privileged' include anything the White House deems sensitive or merely things that are strictly classified?) that the Bush Administration would have appreciated.
The mixed signals are disquieting. Obama could clear up the confusion, and silence his doubters, with one simple step: voicing support for legislation sponsored by Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen that would strengthen protections for all federal employees who are penalized for exposing fraud, waste and abuse, not least by providing them with access to jury trials. As was widely reported, such protections were stripped out of the federal stimulus bill, a fact that should have alarmed the President who will surely foot the blame for any problems that ensue, as he surely knows will happen. "Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government," Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address. He still has time to make good on his rhetoric.
There is a whiff of populism in the air and so, not surprisingly, some liberals are scared. Over at The New Republic, Walter Shapiro has written a piece warning that the real threat to the Obama administration may come not from Republicans on the hard right but from "a corrosive anti-establishment rage" that's spinning out of control. Shapiro frets over a poll in late February that revealed (gasp!) that "only 30 percent" of Americans believe "most successful people on Wall Street deserve to make the kind of money they earn." If the anger doesn't die down, the article suggests, "pitchfork-wielding voters" will block future bank bailouts and bring the Obama administration to its knees.
This is, to put it plainly, nonsense. It's certainly true that populist rage against elites in America has sometimes taken ugly forms (see, for example, Father Coughlin, or the variety of examples Richard Hofstadter documents in The Age of Reform). But, as E.J. Dionne notes here, leaning on the fine historian Michael Kazin, disgust and anger at unrestrained greed has also been channeled into constructive movements that have exposed corruption and enhanced the "common welfare."
For all the "pitchfork-wielding voters" supposedly out there, Obama remains immensely popular. His bank bailout plan may not be, but that's not because voters have become too enraged to think - it's because they are justifiably worried money may be tossed at institutions that don't deserve it, with taxpayers left to pick up the tab. This purportedly irrational fear is shared by, among others, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who has described the administration's latest bank rescue plan as a "heads-you-win, tails-we-lose proposition" for investors - one that will not, in his view, solve the credit crisis. If Krugman is right, and the plan doesn't change, there will indeed be plenty of populist rage at the Obama administration, but the administration will have only itself to blame.