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When Larry Hogan was elected governor of Maryland last fall, it easily ranked as the biggest surprise of the midterm elections. Even in a bad year for Democrats, a Republican who never previously held elected office was not supposed to triumph over a promising young Democrat in a state Obama won twice by twenty-six points.
The son of a former Congressman and owner of a large real-estate business, Hogan projected himself as fiscal conservative during his race against Lt. Governor Anthony Brown—but also a moderate. His preamble to running for governor was forming Change Maryland, a proudly “non-partisan grassroots organization.”
Hogan has a friendly everyman persona that has earned him some pretty favorable coverage in local papers. (Some recent headlines from the neighboring Washington Post: “Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s appeal to ‘middle ground’ could revive state GOP” and “Md. Gov. Larry Hogan, the happiest, sweatiest guy at the inaugural ball.”)
But Hogan’s first days in office are proving to be anything but moderate. Rather, a familiar storyline is playing out: the friendly Republican gubernatorial candidate suddenly becomes a hardline conservative governor.
After being introduced by New Jersey Chris Christie at his inauguration Wednesday as someone “who knows how to bring people together,” and after the VIP guests dined on shrimp scampi, crab cakes and grilled chicken, Hogan got to work: he immediately rescinded blockbuster environmental regulations on state coal plants and pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. He also called back regulations designed to protect LGBT Marylanders from healthcare and employment discrimination.
Hogan signaled more regulatory rollbacks are to come, and starting floating budget cuts that have troubled education and healthcare advocates along with state employees. The full budget isn’t out yet, but a Republican ally of Hogan in the state legislature told the Baltimore Sun, “Everyone is going to feel some pain, that’s my sneak preview.”
Hogan “delaying” the Chesapeake Bay protections was the most predictable move, though perhaps not with the speed and totality with which he did it. “We were quite disappointed, because it happened four hours after he was inaugurated,” Dawn Stoltzfus, coordinator of the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition, told The Nation. “It was shocking in that regard.”
The regulations restricted phosphorus pollution from the many farms adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay, a major source of pride—and economic output—in Maryland. The farms are rich in phosphorus from fertilizers and chicken feed that farmers spread on their land, and the runoff from these farms causes algae blooms in the bay and harms underwater plant and aquatic life, including the famous Maryland blue crabs, oysters and fish. It can create entire “dead zones” in the water, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation conducted a study that found the state would lose $20 billion in economic growth by 2025 if it didn’t curtail the pollution.
Former Governor Martin O’Malley enacted the regulations to reduce the excessive agricultural use of phosphorus (after a few delays of his own, it should be noted), and considered the rules a major part of his environmental agenda.
Advocates weren’t quite sure how Hogan would try to blunt the rules, though they were sure he would try—he spoke out against the regulations during his campaign, and after he was elected Hogan hinted his incoming administration had “a few tricks up our sleeve” on phosphorus rules.
The trick ended up being a simple one: Hogan just canceled the regulations, in a fashion unprecedented in Maryland history. The rules had already undergone the required public comment period, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture signed a “Notice of Final Action” on January 16. The rules were supposed to be printed in the state register on Friday—but Hogan halted the publication. He essentially just stopped the presses on the rule. It is ostensibly “under review.”
A representative of the Maryland State Attorney General’s office wrote in a letter that Hogan’s move appeared to be legal, but that she could not predict how a court would see it. “I could find no Maryland case law or previous opinion of the Attorney General addressing the ability of an agency or the Governor to withdraw a notice of adoption after its submission to the [Division of State Documents] but before publication of the notice,” she wrote.
Hogan similarly rescinded a rule governing air pollution at the state’s coal-fired power plants. The rule was under construction for fifteen months, and even had the support of Raven Power, which operates coal plants in the state. It would have forced coal-fired plants to reduce emissions of nitrous oxides, which contribute to smog and poor air quality, by about half over the next four years.
Environment and public health advocates saw it as a crucial regulation; 5 million Marlyanders (86 percent of the population) live in areas classified by the EPA as unsafe to breathe because of smog. Baltimore has among the worst air quality of cities on the East Coast, and 28 percent of Baltimore school children report having asthma.
Hogan’s move caught the advocates off-guard. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind the past few days,” said David Smedick, the Beyond Coal Campaign and Policy Representative of the Maryland Sierra Club. “When you do have that broad support for it, including the people who are operating these coal units, you are surprised by it.”
Smedick added that, to his knowledge, Hogan never talked about the coal-plant regulations during his campaign. The Nation wasn’t able to find any examples where he did.
These were just two of five regulations Hogan held up this week. Another delay outraged the state’s gay and lesbian community—particularly after Hogan preached an environment of “tolerance and respect” in his inaugural address. Hours later, he rescinded a regulation banning Medicaid providers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
State analysts concluded that the regulation wouldn’t impact the state budget—so Hogan’s objection appears to be entirely ideological.
“To withdraw a regulation that prohibits discrimination in the provision of essential medical services, which also has no fiscal impact, seems contrary to the spirit of inclusiveness touted in his inauguration speech yesterday,” said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, in a statement. “We know that trans people in Maryland face discrimination when accessing health care and we should be working to ensure this doesn’t happen instead of overtly condoning it.”
Hogan’s very first executive order as governor also appears designed to exclude transgendered state employees from employment discrimination protections. His order stated that “Employees shall adhere to all applicable laws and regulations that provide equal opportunity for all Marylanders regardless of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability or sexual orientation.”
Sounds good—but notably absent from that list is gender identity. The state legislature passed a landmark bill last year forbidding discrimination on the basis of gender identity, and by leaving out any mention of it, Hogan’s order seems to be conveying a message to state employees: never mind about that. (Hogan’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment, though it should be noted the governor’s staff said the press office phones were not set up yet.)
It’s not just these regulations that are endangered; Hogan’s office told DelmarvaNow, “The governor has directed all agencies to begin a comprehensive review of all pending regulations.”
Finally, Hogan is sending some mixed, but still troubling, messages on the budget. Maryland’s budget is somewhat unique in that most of it is dictated by complicated formulas, and less than 20 percent is purely discretionary spending. The state also has a $700 million budget gap which needs to be closed.
Hogan said he will maintain a 2 percent cut to every state agency, initiated by O’Malley, and some Democratic lawmakers gave Hogan credit for not cutting deeper, and for largely leaving education funding intact.
But Medicaid advocates are already upset that Hogan plans to hold Medicaid provider rates despite an increase in costs and population, which amounts to a cut. Hogan is also treating a $156 million cost-of-living increase for state employees last year as a bonus—meaning, it won’t be back this year.
Hogan has not yet presented his full budget, but the Baltimore Sun editorialized Thursday that “it was impossible to avoid the sense that more shoes are left to drop.”
There’s a lot of time left in Hogan’s term—but if the next four years look like the first twenty-four hours, Maryland will be a very different state come 2019.
Read Next: George Zornick on the weakest element of Obama’s State of the Union address
President Obama makes a declaration. Democrats burst into applause as Republicans sit dourly, as if someone just made a bad joke at a funeral. This was the formula for almost all of Obama’s State of the Union speech—except when the president called for the authority to rush the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress.
“As we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and our businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen?” Obama said. “We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but are also fair. It’s the right thing to do.”
At that moment, a small handful of Democrats rose up and clapped—perhaps ten. Across the aisle, a majority (though certainly not all) of the Republican members of Congress stood and applauded. It can be bothersome to hyper-analyze who sits and stands during these addresses, but the picture was clear: Democrats do not care for the president’s trade push whatsoever.
After the speech, some members made their displeasure clear. Representative Alan Grayson told The Nation the line was “the single weakest element of a very generally brilliant progressive speech.”
“To say that China is going to write the rules if we don’t is nonsensical,” Grayson continued. “It’s words that are strung together in some pattern that suggests they have some meaning, when they really have none at all.”
The Congressional Progressive Caucus made sure to note in an otherwise laudatory statement about the speech that the trade talk was not welcome. “[P]utting working families first also means we cannot enter into trade deals that allow corporations to ship jobs overseas,” said the statement by Representatives Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva. “The Congressional Progressive Caucus will not support a trade deal that increases trade deficits and undermines the security of the middle class.”
Wednesday morning, a collection of House and Senate Democrats—Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Rosa DeLauro, Barbara Lee, Louise Slaughter and others—held a press conference to declare the TPP a “race to the bottom.” The day after the State of the Union is generally used for members of the president’s party to come out and amplify the previous night’s message, but Wednesday the members were trying to blunt it.
“Last night the president gave what I thought was a very good State of the Union speech,” said Sanders. “But he was wrong on one major issue, and that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I do not believe that continuing a set of bad policies, policies that have failed, makes any sense at all.”
The assembled Democrats warned that Obama was undercutting the main theme of his speech with the trade talk. “It was an extraordinary speech, and particularly we liked the fact that it bore in on the factor of inequality in this country. But what bothers me about it, and has for some time, is we never looked at the reasons for that inequality,” said Slaughter, who went on to say it is “inescapable” that free-trade deals led to massive job losses in her upstate New York district.
Beyond the policy specifics, there was unanimous anger that fast-track would severely limit Congress’s role in molding a potential trade pact. “We know the reality. Fast-track is a plan to push the TPP through Congress with almost no proper scrutiny,” said DeLauro. “It’s bad enough that the administration has chosen to negotiate much of the TPP behind closed doors, with Walmart, Verizon, Halliburton, Dow, General Electric, Caterpillar, Hershey, Boeing, DuPont, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Advamed, PhRMA, Bio and many others. But not with us.”
This story has been updated as events proceeded.
Read Next: John Nichols on Obama’s progressive State of the Union address
Over at U.S. News & World Report, Pat Garofalo has a very interesting piece up that asks “Are Democrats Trolling the Left?” This question deserves some serious consideration, because the answer could tell us a huge amount about American politics over the next several years.
In recent weeks, had Washington had re-formed with a Republican Congress, Democrats made a sudden left turn on economic policy. House Democrats, led by Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, proposed a middle-class tax cut that would be financed by higher taxes on wealthy CEOs along with a small tax on financial transactions. Meanwhile, President Obama is preparing to ask Congress for a bill that would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days per year.
There’s an optimistic way to look at this: Democrats learned a lesson during the 2014 midterms about failing to offer a bold economic agenda, and have finally seen the light on some good policies that tackle income inequality and an ever-growing financial sector directly.
For years, progressives inside and outside of Congress have pushed these very ideas. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has made a financial transactions tax part of its budget proposal since 2011, and Senate liberals have introduced it many times as well. Similarly, paid sick leave has been a major project of activists and legislators at the municipal and state level since at least 2007, when San Francisco began mandating it for all employers in the city.
But given that the Democratic Party has less political power now than at any point since 2008, isn’t it a little too late to embrace these ideas? Garofalo wonders if that might actually be the point:
A less charitable reading…is that the Democrats are seizing on the opportunity to be progressive at a moment when it’s cheap and easy; being out of power (or in Obama’s case, term-limited) they won’t have to pay the price in campaign dollars or blowback that would come from pursuing these policies in an environment in which they could actually become law. After all, when Democrats controlled all of Congress and the presidency, it’s not like they made a move on paid sick leave or a financial transactions tax or any of a host of other ideas that would have helped out the middle class. (Which isn’t to diminish the very real accomplishments of that Congress.) Now they can stoke the fire and garner the goodwill of the left, without having to deal with the downside.
Garofalo, who has written about these policies for years, concludes by saying, “I feel like I’m getting trolled by the Democrats at the moment, seeing them come out forcefully in favor of these ideas when they won’t actually become law.” (As someone who has also extensively covered these proposals, I feel his pain.)
The true measure of Democrats’ sincerity will determine how hard they push for these policies in the near term, and also to what extent these ideas will become part of the Democratic agenda in 2016. Should the party retain the White House and maybe even win back Congress in two years, this might decide whether Washington can actually act to slow down dangerous Wall Street trading and exorbitant CEO pay while funneling the benefits back to the middle class.
Really, it goes beyond those particular policies—are Democrats ready to take on the wealthy and corporate classes at full steam, Citizen’s United be damned?
It’s a question where progressives should resist easy answers. Loyal partisans will dutifully tell you Democrats mean business. Cynical progressives trained to thoroughly distrust the motives of any elected Democrat will tell you otherwise.
For my part, I remain firmly unsure. The best answer I have for now is a partial evasion—that it might not matter much. Regardless of whether the initial launch is crass exploitation or earnest desire, these policies can now easily become a baseline for the 2016 candidates. And if they produce success at the polls, Democrats will be motivated to keep pushing. But this effort could also go off the rails in a thousand different ways—maybe a million different ways, if Democrats aren’t truly invested in the outcome.
Read Next: George Zornick on Elizabeth Warren’s speech to the AFL-CIO conference
If you want to understand the coming intra-party battles on economic issues between progressive Democrats and their moderate colleagues—which will no doubt bleed into the 2016 Democratic presidential primary—Senator Elizabeth Warren’s keynote speech to an AFL-CIO conference on Wednesday might be your best blueprint.
First, let’s note the political moment: President Obama is visiting an auto manufacturing plant in Detroit this week, where he will be “highlighting the workers in the resurgent American automotive and manufacturing sector,” as the White House press office billed it. Then he travels to Phoenix to give a speech “on how the recovering housing sector has helped restore wealth and economic security to millions of middle-class families.”
Obama’s economic message, in short: everything’s going great. It is this argument that Warren took singular aim at Wednesday.
She didn’t call out Obama directly, but based her speech around a December Politico magazine article titled “Everything is Awesome!” (When a politician spends thirty minutes publicly fisking a Politico article, that’s a pretty big clue he or she is trying to rattle the Beltway narrative.)
The author, Michael Grunwald, points to a lot of positive economic indicators like GDP growth, the falling unemployment rate, cheap gas prices, low inflation and reduced deficits. He acknowledges that “many Americans are still hurting” and mentions “stark inequality” in passing, but the article is basically a big hand-wave to those issues. As he dings “chronic complainers” on the left and right, Grunwald concludes that, at the end of the day, “things in the U.S. do look rather awesome.”
Warren politely agreed with the broad points, and gave the Obama administration “credit for the steps they’ve taken to get us here.” Then she went on to dismantle the article’s entire premise. “Despite these cheery numbers, America’s middle class is in deep trouble,” she said.
Her argument was that while individual indicators are looking up, there is a structural problem in the American economy that’s only getting worse. “When I look at the data here—and this includes years of research I conducted myself—I see evidence everywhere about the pounding that working people are taking. Instead of building an economy for all Americans, for the past generation this country has grown an economy that works for some Americans.”
She cited familiar stats about how wages flattened out in the early 1980s while profits grew, and that expenses grew as well: she noted Americans are paying far more for mortgages, health insurance and tuition than they did thirty years ago. Warren described how quite literally 100 percent of the income gains in the past thirty-two years went to the top 10 percent of earners.
“These families are working harder than ever, but they can’t get ahead. Opportunity is slipping away. Many feel like the game is rigged against them—and they are right,” Warren said. “The game is rigged against them…. The world has changed beneath the feet of America’s working families.”
No doubt Obama agrees with much of that analysis—and has voiced it himself at various times.
But he either doesn’t agree with, or expends no energy undertaking, some of Warren’s solutions to structural problems: like, say, breaking up the big banks, which Warren expressly advocated in her speech Wednesday. Warren also has spent a lot of time raising concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in recent months, and referred Wednesday to “trade pacts and tax deals that let subsidized manufacturers around the globe sell here in America while good American jobs get shipped overseas.” Obama, of course, is pushing hard for TPP to be fast-tracked.
These specific policy disagreements between Warren and Obama—and between many progressive and moderate Democrats more broadly—are best explained by the philosophical difference Warren tried to outline in Wednesday’s speech. If you believe the economy is basically doing fine, you’re less likely to want to rock the boat policy-wise. You’ll push for some nice things like increasing the minimum wage, but nothing enormous. Things are good!
But if you believe, as Warren and many of her progressive allies in Congress do, that the game is fundamentally rigged, the rhetorical and substantive response to economic problems is much different.
We’ve seen this difference play out in small skirmishes already. Warren led an unsuccessful charge against relaxing a substantial Dodd-Frank rule during the year-end appropriations process—a measure backed by Democratic leadership in the Senate and not deemed veto-worthy by Obama. Right now, a House bill to delay the Volcker Rule is being backed by House minority whip Steny Hoyer. These are fundamentally fights about how much power Wall Street should be allowed to have, and the government’s role in checking it.
As Greg Sargent writes today, Democrats are also gearing up for a big fight over executive action on overtime rules that could benefit millions of salaried American workers. Progressives are pushing for an income threshold of $51,000 (or higher) under which one qualifies for time-and-a-half past forty hours, but there is increasing concern Obama wants to set it much lower. Once again, your opinion on the threshold might center, at least in part, over how bad you think the economic picture is for middle-class Americans, and how much political capital ought to be extended to change it.
Beyond these fights, the 2016 Democratic presidential primary will no doubt serve as an arena to litigate this fundamental difference among Democrats. If you want to see Warren’s speech as a step towards that arena, you are free to do so—The Wall Street Journal noted four different times in her remarks that Warren was indirectly criticizing the Clintons and even Hillary herself. But even if she doesn’t run, Warren is making the battle lines clear.
House Speaker John Boehner faces a minor rebellion Tuesday from restive conservatives who feel Boehner is (somehow) too moderate and too willing to compromise with President Obama. Representatives Louie Gohmert and Ted Yoho have emerged as the preferred House Speakers for the far-right members of the GOP caucus.
Gohmert is a well-known commodity at this point; his wacky antics and extreme positions are well-chronicled and have kept liberal bloggers busy for years. But three years ago, Yoho was still a veterinarian in north Florida. So who is this man, who on Tuesday has a (very small) chance to become third in line for the presidency?
Let us guide you through some of his more notable moments, many of which have endeared him to parts of the conservative base:
Only Landowners Should Vote. When politicians are speaking contemporaneously and say, “This is probably not a good time to tell you” about an idea, they generally should heed their own advice.
Alas, when Yoho was running for Congress in 2012, he told voters at Berean Baptist Church in Ocala, Florida, that “I’ve had some radical ideas about voting and it’s probably not a good time to tell them, but you used to have to be a property owner to vote.” Right Wing Watch captured the throwback to the nineteenth century:
Yoho went on to note during that appearance that it’s possible nobody will be able to vote soon, thanks to a conspiracy by the Bilderberger Group.
One Way to Stop Obama Is Prove He’s Not American. During his first year in Congress, Yoho pledged to support a bill to “investigate” the matter of President Obama’s birth certificate. He described the advantages thusly: “They said if it is true, it’s illegal, he shouldn’t be there and we can get rid of everything he’s done, and I said I agree with that.” To his credit, Yoho went on to say it would be a “distraction” for the House GOP to pursue that course of action. Right Wing Watch once again captured the moment:
Food Stamps For Me, But Not For Thee. Yoho was among the House conservatives who opposed the farm bill in 2013 because a $2 billion reduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was not deep enough. That’s not particularly unusual, but Yoho raised eyebrows on the House floor when he noted that he was on food stamps not long after he and his wife got married at 19. “We had to get on food stamps for a short period of time, so I understand the need for those,” he said.
Civil Rights Act—Maybe Not Constitutional. During a Town Hall in Gainesville, Yoho was asked by a black constituent if he thought the 1965 Civil Rights Act is constitutional. Scott Keyes of ThinkProgress captured Yoho’s response:
YOHO: This country grew through a lot of growing pain. We’re going through it again. As we grow as a country and prosper, we’re going to go through it again in the future. That’s why I’m so thankful for the Constitution because it allows us to do that. Is it constitutional, the Civil Rights Act? I wish I could answer that 100 percent. I know a lot of things that were passed are not constitutional, but I know it’s the law of the land.
Government Programs Are Bad, Unless… Yoho’s demonstrated enmity towards big-government handouts does have some exceptions. Not for food stamps, but for giant sugar producers in Florida and beyond: “I ran on limited government, fiscal responsibility and free enterprise, but when you’ve got programs that have been in place and it’s the accepted norm, to just go in there and stop it would be detrimental to our sugar growers,” Yoho said.
During his opening remarks at Friday’s year-ending press conference at the White House, President Obama declared that “in less than two weeks, after more than thirteen years, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over.”
No reporter followed up with Obama on that statement—nor with any questions about Afghanistan—but they really should have. One month ago, the New York Times reported this:
President Obama decided in recent weeks to authorize a more expansive mission for the military in Afghanistan in 2015 than originally planned, a move that ensures American troops will have a direct role in fighting in the war-ravaged country for at least another year.
Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision.
This is the current two-step of US policy in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the U.S./NATO combat mission there has ostensibly ended, or “ceremonially” ended, as the Associated Press described it when the flag was lowered at NATO’s joint command earlier this month.
But at the same time, the mission is unmistakably ramping up. Just days before that flag-lowering ceremony, outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 1,000 more US troops would stay in Afghanistan next year than was originally planned. And the deeply-sourced New York Times report indicates US forces will indeed be engaging in direct combat.
This divergence between public statements and actual policy changes for America’s longest war really ought to be explored by the media, though the scant questions Friday indicate that may not be forthcoming. Similarly, even Congressional doves who have pushed hard against Obama’s Afghanistan policy have been silent. Following the Times report last month I pushed people like Senator Jeff Merkley and the Congressional Progressive Caucus for a response—given both had demanded Congress vote before Obama extended the war past 2014—but neither office ever responded.
UPDATE: In comments to The Nation, a senior administration official reiterated the White House stance that "the United States' combat mission in Afghanistan will conclude at the end of this year," and added that "the United States will continue to maintain a counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan to continue to target the remnants of al-Qa'ida and prevent an al-Qa'ida resurgence or external plotting against U.S. targets or the homeland." This is the policy Obama announced in May, though contradicts what the Times reported last month.
President Barack Obama announced a new era in US relations with Cuba Wednesday morning in which diplomatic ties will be reopened, along with a US embassy in Havana, while business and travel restrictions are eased.
These changes can be accomplished by executive order—but the next president could reverse them, and only Congress can lift the embargo. The permanence and depth of Obama’s policy shift thus remains in doubt.
Even if Congress doesn’t lift the embargo, the degree of opposition on Capitol Hill will significantly affect Obama’s attempted policy shift. Senator Marco Rubio openly threatened during a press conference Wednesday that the Senate would not confirm an ambassador to Cuba, and he also promised to work against any funding for a new US embassy. Senator Lindsey Graham joined in that threat.
Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage, jumped to the front of the Republican response to the new policies and seems to be leading the charge.
His first line of attack dovetailed with traditional GOP criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy: in a statement not long after the news broke Wednesday, Rubio called the shift “just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.” Rubio also blasted the White House for turning its back on Cubans who face repression from the Castro regime. “The president and this administration have let the people of Cuba down,” he told reporters later.
Rubio also attempted to frame it as a populist issue, with a twist of animus towards liberal elites: “While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear,” his statement said.
No doubt some on the left will share Rubio’s ostensible concerns about free-market exploitation of Cuba, if not for entirely different reasons. (White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest further invited this line of attack when he literally read from a Chamber of Commerce press release from the briefing room podium Wednesday afternoon.)
Rubio was joined in his vehement criticism by House Speaker John Boehner, the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee Edward Royce and the chairman-for-now of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez.
Menendez is a Democrat. However, the incoming Republican chairman of Senate Foreign Relations, Bob Corker, issued an entirely neutral statement on the policy shift towards Cuba.
So will Congress lift the embargo? Will it go so far as to block an ambassador? On the one hand, the opposition of the House Speaker and the (soon-to-be) ranking Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations is a bad sign. Rubio also chairs a key Foreign Relations Committee on the Western Hemisphere. And “no, Congress won’t do anything” is a safe bet, generally speaking. But members of both parties also support normalized relations—Republican Speaker Jeff Flake flew to Cuba to see imprisoned American Alan Gross home on Wednesday—and Americans favor lifting the embargo.
Unfortunately, presidential politics may trump a rational discussion in Congress.
Elections have a way of freezing domestic politics: just since November 4, Obama has signed sweeping immigration orders, released the CIA torture report and normalized relations with Cuba, while Congress finally passed an appropriations bill for the 2015 fiscal year. None of this was feasible in the heat of midterm election campaigning, and the 2016 presidential election may soon act as a vise once again.
Thanks to the traditional (though rapidly shifting) conservative politics of Cuban Americans, along with some pure happenstance, the likely GOP presidential field is top-heavy with Republicans who oppose normalized relations with Cuba.
Along with Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz is also a Cuban-American who opposes lifting sanctions against Cuba. Cruz also criticized Obama’s shift in a statement. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who announced just this week he is “actively exploring” a presidential run, has long-standing political ties with conservative Cuban-Americans in his state and already announced he, too, opposes Obama’s actions.
The primary debates next year will likely give a huge, and arguably disproportionate, voice to the exact Republicans who most oppose normalized relations with Cuba. Maybe one of them will win the White House and wipe out Obama’s executive orders—but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to see how the election might pressure Republicans in Congress to fall in line and drag their feet on legislative action.
The debate in Washington over Bush-era torture at the Central Intelligence Agency took a large leap forward Wednesday morning when Senator Mark Udall took the Senate floor and disclosed portions of an internal CIA review, while renewing his demand for a change in the intelligence agency’s leadership and criticizing the Obama administration for not doing enough to ensure torture doesn’t happen again.
The so-called “Panetta Review” has dominated much of the drama leading up to the torture report’s release. The document is an internal CIA examination that reportedly validated many of the worst claims about the torture program, including much of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings. (The CIA was after this document when it breached Senate computers in January.)
On Wednesday, Udall described the Panetta Review as a “smoking gun”—proof from the CIA itself that there were serious problems with the torture program. It undercuts almost every contemporary statement made by CIA Director John Brennan and other top intelligence officials, he said, who have vocally been defending what occurred.
Since the CIA refuses to make the Panetta Review public, Udall declared Wednesday, “I am here today to disclose some of its key findings and conclusions on the Senate floor for the public record, which fly directly in the face of claims made by senior CIA officials past and present.”
He then proceeded to describe, for the first time, some of what the Panetta Review found, contrasting it directly to Brennan’s public statements. His remarks on that score, in full:
The Panetta Review found that the CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Congress, the president, and the public on the efficacy of its coercive techniques. The Brennan Response, in contrast, continues to insist that the CIA’s interrogations produced unique intelligence that saved lives. Yet the Panetta Review identifies dozens of documents that include inaccurate information used to justify the use of torture—and indicates that the inaccuracies it identifies do not represent an exhaustive list.
The Panetta Review further describes how detainees provided intelligence prior to the use of torture against them. It describes how the CIA—contrary to its own representations—often tortured detainees before trying any other approach. It describes how the CIA tortured detainees even when less coercive methods were yielding intelligence. The Panetta Review further identifies cases in which the CIA used coercive techniques when it had no basis for determining whether a detainee had critical intelligence at all. In other words, CIA personnel tortured detainees to confirm they didn’t have intelligence—not because they thought they did.
This is a critical disclosure that intelligence officials should be confronted with the next time they appear on television. (Given their pervasive presence on the airwaves over the past day, it won’t be long.) It’s not just that Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee reached a damning conclusion about CIA torture—the CIA itself reached the same conclusion but won’t admit it.
As Udall put it in his remarks: “Director Brennan and the CIA today are continuing to willfully provide inaccurate information and misrepresent the efficacy of torture. In other words, the CIA is lying.”
Yet, Brennan remains in his job. And Udall did not spare President Obama for this fact:
To date, there has been no accountability for the CIA’s actions or for Director Brennan’s failure of leadership. Despite the facts presented, the president has expressed his “full confidence” in Director Brennan, and demonstrated that trust by making no effort at all to rein him in. The president stated that it wasn’t “appropriate” for him to wade into the issues between the Committee and the CIA.[…]
The White House has not led on this issue in the manner we expected when we heard the president’s campaign speeches in 2008 and read the executive order he issued in January 2009. To CIA employees in April 2009, President Obama said, “What makes the United States special, and what makes you special, is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and ideals even when it’s hard—not just when it’s easy; even when we are afraid and under threat—not just when it’s expedient to do so. That’s what makes us different.”
This tough, principled talk set an important tone for the beginning of his presidency. However, fast forward to this year, after so much has come to light about the CIA’s barbaric programs, and President Obama’s response was that we “crossed a line” as a nation, and that, quote, “hopefully, we don’t do it again in the future.”
That’s not good enough. We need to be better than that. There can be no cover-up. There can be no excuses. If there is no moral leadership from the White House helping the public understand that the CIA’s torture program wasn’t necessary and didn’t save lives or disrupt terrorist plots, then what’s to stop the next White House and CIA Director from supporting torture?
Udall renewed his call for Brennan to resign and demanded that Obama support legislation that would enshrine his executive order banning torture. He also asked Obama to fully declassify the Panetta Review and the entire Senate Intelligence Committee Report (only the executive summary and key findings were released on Tuesday), along with the CIA Inspector General report on the breach of Senate computers.
Finally, Udall drew attention to the fact that not only have people who participated in the torture program not been prosecuted—but they still have jobs. “The president needs to purge his administration of high-level officials who were instrumental to the development and running of this program,” Udall said. “He needs to force a cultural change at the CIA.”
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence finally released its extensive report on torture methods employed by the Central Intelligence Agency following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The full report paints a damning picture of an out-of-control program that was much less effective and far more brutal than previously known.
There are many important corollary issues to deal with involving this report and the CIA’s torture program more broadly: why no prosecutions will be forthcoming, and why the report didn’t focus on policy decisions by the Bush administration.
But for today, the report offers a monumental accounting of just how bad things got at the CIA. The unassailable conclusion one reaches after 500 pages: the United States brutally tortured detainees in the years after September 11. The intelligence community didn’t get any actionable information from it, and they lied to nearly everyone about what was going on.
Here are the essential findings.
CIA torture was extremely brutal. We knew that CIA interrogators used waterboarding, sleep deprivation and some physical abuse against detainees, but the SSCI report details horrific methods that go far beyond that—describing techniques that at times troubled even the people charged with carrying out interrogations.
CIA personnel would routinely keep detainees awake for inhuman amounts of time—“up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads,” the report said.
The sleep deprivation and forced standing was the worst at a CIA site codenamed COBALT in the report, which analysts agree is the infamous “Salt Pit” prison in Afghanistan. At one point, the CIA’s chief of interrogations there described it as a literal dungeon:
One detainee died at COBALT while shackled to a wall, a previously reported death the report sheds more light on:
Other abuses detailed by the report:
Placing detainees in ice-water baths.
Telling detainees they would never be allowed to leave secret prisons, and at times dragging coffins into the interrogation room to underline the threat.
Threatening the detainees’ families with harm, including “threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to ‘cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.’”
“Rough takedowns” in which a detainee would be dragged from his cell by screaming CIA officers who would then cut off the detainee’s clothes and bind him with tape. The detainee “would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.”
Forced rectal hydration—that is, the insertion of liquids and nutrients into a detainee’s rectum against his will. This can at times be used to treat malnourished patients who are unable or unwilling to eat, but the report makes clear the CIA ordered rectal procedures when it wasn’t medically necessary as well:
The report tells the story of Abu Zubaydah at length. He is a Saudi arrested in Pakistan in 2002 who is still being held at Guantánamo Bay.
Once he was transferred to CIA custody, Zubaydah was placed in an extremely disorienting all-white room with four bright halogen lights pointed at him twenty-four hours a day. He was shackled while loud music played non-stop. CIA officers “wore all black uniforms, including boots, gloves, balaclavas, and goggles to keep Abu Zubaydah from identifying the officers, as well as to prevent Abu Zubaydah ‘from seeing the security guards as individuals who he may attempt to establish a relationship or dialogue with,’” the report says. Things got worse from there.
He first spent forty-seven days in isolation without being questioned, during which time the CIA was telling other members of George W. Bush’s national-security apparatus that Zubaydah had stopped cooperating—a claim they would later repeat publicly. (More on this brand of deception later.) Though that wasn’t true, the CIA claimed it had to come up with some “enhanced interrogation” to get him to cooperate.
Over the course of twenty days, ending on August 20, 2002, the enhanced interrogation began. What is described in the report is otherwise known as torture. Zubaydah was waterboarded two to four times per day, according to the report, “with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application.”
When he was alone during these twenty days, he was often left strapped into the waterboard with a cloth over his face, unaware of when the next round would begin. At other times, he was locked in one of two coffins that CIA staff placed in the room; one was a standard-sized coffin while the other was only 2.5 feet high and deep, and less than two feet wide. Over that time, Zubaydah “spent a total of 266 hours (11 days, 2 hours) in the large (coffin size) confinement box and 29 hours in a small confinement box.”
According to the cables reviewed by the Senate investigators, Zubaydah frequently “cried,” “begged,” “pleaded” and “whimpered.” At times, Zubaydah was described as “hysterical” and “distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate.”
The report also confirms a previously reported fact: that Zubaydah nearly died during one waterboarding session, and that the CIA later destroyed videotapes of the incident.
The torture took a toll on CIA staff present, according to the report:
The torture wasn’t effective. If there’s one sentence to take away from the report, it’s this: “the use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.” The report found literally not one instance where torture led to a useful piece of information that couldn’t have been otherwise obtained by routine interrogation. This undercuts virtually every defense made by Bush officials of the CIA program.
The committee examined cases where the CIA claimed torture worked, but none of it flew with investigators. “The Committee reviewed twenty of the most frequent and prominent examples of purported counterterrorism successes that the CIA has attributed to the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques, and found them to be wrong in fundamental respects,” the report said.
Not only did torture not reveal useful information, it sometimes sent the CIA on wild goose chases, the report found: “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence. Detainees provided fabricated information on critical intelligence issues, including the terrorist threats which the CIA identified as its highest priorities.”
Turning back to Abu Zubaydah is once again instructive. He never turned out to have any unique information on pending terror plots in the United States.
That’s not to say he didn’t have information about other people involved in plots against the United States, and things that happened in the past—but materials obtained by the Senate investigators reveal how Zubaydah was willingly giving FBI agents this information under no duress while he was in the hospital recovering from gunshot wounds that occurred during his capture.
The FBI agent working with Zubaydah wrote in an e-mail how surprised he was that the CIA later took over the interrogation entirely, with no discussion:
Not long after that e-mail was written, the CIA had total control over Zubaydah, and the torture began and resulted in no further useful information.
The CIA was lying—to everybody. The report describes at length how many different people and entities the CIA misled about what kind of torture it was practicing and how effective it was. (Or wasn’t.)
The CIA lied to other agencies within the Bush administration. The report said that, “[i]n providing the ‘effectiveness’ examples to policymakers, the Department of Justice, and others, the CIA consistently omitted the significant amount of relevant intelligence obtained from sources other than CIA detainees who had been subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques—leaving the false impression the CIA was acquiring unique information from the use of the techniques.”
The report also says that, at the direction of the White House, the secretaries of state and defense “were not briefed on program specifics.” An internal CIA e-mail from July 2003 included in the report noted that “the WH [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.”
The report even says that Bush and Vice President Cheney were not briefed on the location of certain methods or black sites. While (perhaps) this is narrowly true, it may elide larger questions of how much the high-up principals really knew (or wanted to know).
The CIA also lied to Congress; the report discloses e-mails between CIA staffers who planned to stonewall requests from then–Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham until he was out of office, for example. When the CIA torture program went public in 2006 thanks to a New York Times report, the CIA briefed Congress—and lied then too: “Briefings to the full Committee beginning on September 6, 2006, also contained numerous inaccuracies, including inaccurate descriptions of how interrogation techniques were applied and what information was obtained from CIA detainees.”
The media was also the target of explicit CIA deception, with selected leaks to high-profile reporters aimed at pre-shaping the narrative on torture. One internal CIA e-mail noted that “when the [Washington Post]/[New York T]imes quotes ‘senior intelligence official,’ it’s us.” The report found that “[m]uch of the information the CIA provided to the media on the operation of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program and the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques was inaccurate and was similar to the inaccurate information provided by the CIA to the Congress, the Department of Justice, and the White House.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s surprise resignation—reportedly at the strong urging of the White House—will dominate Beltway news in the coming days. But perhaps the much more significant foreign-policy news came early Saturday morning.
The New York Times reported that the United States will expand its mission in Afghanistan in 2015, with US troops participating in direct combat with the Taliban while American airpower backs Afghan forces from above. The shift, leaked anonymously to reporters ahead of a holiday week, is a big “oh, nevermind” to Obama’s very public announcement six months ago in the Rose Garden that US troops in Afghanistan would be shifting into a training and advisory role next year.
The president didn’t even make a glancing reference to the Afghanistan reversal in his remarks announcing Hagel’s departure. The administration would clearly prefer a limited public debate, and based on the media coverage so far, it is getting its wish.
But it is against this new hawkish posture that Hagel’s departure should be understood and discussed. It is possible that it was the subtext to his resignation: Hagel came aboard to help manage a withdrawal from Afghanistan and shrink the Pentagon budget, and an anonymous US official told the Times Monday that “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus.”
The retrenchment in Afghanistan reportedly came after a “a lengthy and heated debate” inside the White House that pitted military generals against some administration officials:
Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban—and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda.
But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan urged Mr. Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow American troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country.
Was the historically dovish Hagel one of these officials? It is certainly curious that his departure directly coincides with the new aggressive plan for Afghanistan.
No reporting yet indicates that for certain, and Hagel is notoriously guarded—one reason cited for his resignation was reportedly that he remained quiet in meetings, supposedly to avoid leaks of his position. It is certainly possible that ISIS’s rapid emergence and other foreign-policy crises contributed to Hagel’s poor standing inside the White House, along with his reported leadership problems.
Ultimately, that’s an academic question for the administration’s biographers. What matters now is that the United States is changing course toward a more aggressive foreign policy: it is recommitting to the war in Afghanistan, which is by far the country’s longest and now promises to span two two-term presidencies. The number of troops in Iraq has doubled, and the administration will soon seek an authorization from a Congress that is extremely unlikely to include a provision that outlaws direct combat by US troops. Even supposed doves like Rand Paul are switching their position on fighting ISIS, and the incoming class of senators has distinct interventionist positions.
Hagel’s departure—and the confirmation of his successor—will hopefully allow for some serious public debate about this new turn, even if the administration prefers otherwise. The real story here is about the policy, not the personnel.