The more Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell talks, the worse it gets.
Consider: McConnell, whose nomination early last year was applauded by lawmakers from both parties, has twice provided false information to Congress -- and in both cases, they were statements that served to distort the surveillance debate. In the heat of the surveillance bill debate, McConnell claimed that three German terrorism suspects had been arrested due to intercepts made possible by the administration's Protect America Act; it turned out the intercepts were obtained under the old FISA bill. Only a couple weeks later, McConnell told Congress that rulings by the FISA Court had prevented the NSA from surveilling Iraqi insurgents who had kidnapped U.S. soldiers for 12 hours. That turned out to be, at best, a misleading explanation for the delay.
He's also said, over and over, that the public debate over surveillance law is endangering American lives.
But this one, to my mind, takes the cake. This week's New Yorker features an extended piece on McConnell by Lawrence Wright, based on a number of interviews over several months (not available online). It's a piece that I think even McConnell would agree is a fair portrayal. He comes across as a patriot obsessed with the security of the country. And yet, he also comes across as incredibly unreflective about the issue of torture.
According to McConnell, the issue isn't complicated. "We don't torture," he says, but then goes on to explain that tactics critics call torture have been enormously successful. It's gotten us "tons" of meaningful information and saved "tons" of lives. He confidently offers the example of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (Wright duly notes that the reliability of Mohammed's confessions have been "widely questioned"). And then there's this:
McConnell asserted that it was not difficult to evaluate the truthfulness of a confession, even a coerced one. "And as soon as they start to talk we can tell in minutes if they are lying," he said. "One, you know a lot. And you know when someone is giving you information that is not connecting up to what you know. You also know when to use a polygraph."
Never mind the debate over Abu Zubaydah. Apparently you can torture without any concern about false information.
But that's just a warm up for McConnell's take on waterboarding, which really has to be quoted in full to capture the full force of its thoughtlessness. For those who'd like a contrast with McConnell's views, see the descriptions of waterboarding here and here. From Wright's piece:
"You know what waterboarding is?" [McConnell] asked. "You lay somebody on this table, or put them in an inclined position, and put a washcloth over their face, and you just drip water right here" -- he pointed to his nostrils. "Try it! What happens is, water will go up your nose. And so you will get the sensation of potentially drowning. That's all waterboarding is."
I asked if he considered that torture.
McConnell refused to answer directly, but he said, "My own definition of torture is something that would cause excruciating pain."
Did waterboarding fit that description?
Referring to his teen-age days as a lifeguard, he said, "I know one thing. I'm a water-safety instructor, but I cannot swim without covering my nose. I don't know if it's some deviated septum or mucus membrane, but water just rushes in." For him, he said, "waterboarding would be excruciating. If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can't imagine how painful! Whether it's torture by anybody else's definition, for me it would be torture."
I queried McConnell again, later, about his views on waterboarding, since this exchange seemed to suggest that he personally condemned it. He rejected that interpretation. "You can do waterboarding lots of different ways," he said. "I assume you can get to the point that a person is actually drowning." That would certainly be torture, he said. The definition didn't seem very different from John Yoo's. The reason that he couldn't be more specific, McConnell said, is that "if it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it."
The AP's headline gives the impression that McConnell condemned waterboarding. He didn't. He's saying that if you have a deviated septum, then waterboarding is torture -- because it just feels like you're drowning. If not (and the interrogator doesn't go overboard), then apparently it's a-ok. It seems to be an easy distinction for him. The subtlety might be lost on others.
One might say that Scott Eckersley did his job too well.
As deputy counsel to Governor Matt Blunt (R) of Missouri, Eckersley gave the governor and his staff impeccable legal advice. According to the lawsuit Eckersley filed against Blunt and other administration members, he told them they were violating Blunt's own written instructions, document retention policy and Missouri's Sunshine Law by deleting all their emails.
Since the governor and his pals were deleting emails to preclude the scandal that would likely hit them if they became public, Eckersley's advice was unwelcome, and since he was in charge of complying with the state's freedom of information law, he became inconvenient, to say the least. Ed Martin, Blunt's chief of staff, fired Scott Eckersley on September 28.
Things went downhill from there, according to Eckersley's suit. Shortly afterwards, aware of the threat posed by a resentful employee who felt he had been wrongfully dismissed, Blunt and his aides took the offensive by sending to newspapers packets insinuating that (among other things) Eckersley was interested in kinky sex and drugs. Eckersley asserted that the governor's staff had gone into his personal email account and sent unopened spam to bolster their defamatory claims.
In late October, Eckersley announced that he'd been fired in retaliation for objecting to the illegal activities of the governor and his aides. Blunt (son of House Republican Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO)) denied the charge and told reporters that Eckersley was fired because he was habitually late and did private work on government time. Eckersley countered that he had been repeatedly praised for his work.
Kindling this mucky firestorm is the gubernatorial election this fall. Republican Gov. Blunt expects to face Democratic Jay Nixon, the attorney general of Missouri.
The threatening radio transmission heard at the end of a video showing harassing maneuvers by Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz may have come from a locally famous heckler known among ship drivers as the âFilipino Monkey.â...
In recent years, American ships operating in the Middle East have had to contend with a mysterious but profane voice known by the ethnically insulting handle of âFilipino Monkey,â likely more than one person, who listens in on ship-to-ship radio traffic and then jumps on the net shouting insults and jabbering vile epithets....
Rick Hoffman, a retired captain who commanded the cruiser Hue City and spent many of his 17 years at sea in the Gulf was subject to the renegade radio talker repeatedly, often without pause during the so-called âTanker Warsâ of the late 1980s.
âFor 25 years thereâs been this mythical guy out there who, hour after hour, shouts obscenities and threats,â he said. âHe could be tied up pierside somewhere or he could be on the bridge of a merchant ship.â
And the Monkey has stamina.
âHe used to go all night long. The guy is crazy,â he said. âBut who knows how many Filipino Monkeys there are? Could it have been a spurious transmission? Absolutely.â
Here again is the audio (mp3) of that radio transmission.
On a more serious note, the BBC reports that "Iranian speedboats approached US warships in two previously undisclosed incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in December."
The changes keep on coming in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Less than a month ago, former voting section chief John "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do: They die first" Tanner got canned. And today, his replacement, Christopher Coates, a veteran of the section, demoted Tanner's controversial deputy chiefs, Susana Lorenzo-Giguere and Yvette Rivera. The changes were announced in an email to voting section staff.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating whether Lorenzo-Giguere had filed certain lawsuits in order to get paid while living at her Cape Cod beach house. Tanner was under investigating for approving the arrangement. Both were accused by former section lawyers in complaints to OPR and the inspector general of seeking reimbursement for official travel.
Rivera has been accused of discriminating against African-American employees. She oversaw the important Section Five unit, which has the responsibility of reviewing election laws in parts of the country with a history of discrimination. Encouragingly, her replacement is Tim Mellett, one of the staff attorneys who in 2003, found that Tom DeLay's Texas redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act, a finding that was overruled by political appointees.
So it seems that the voting section is truly entering a new era. Whether the voting section will reassume its traditional responsibility of protecting African-American voters from discrimination is another question. Only time will tell.
The day is drawing nigh when the limits of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson's chutzpah will be tested.
Late last year, Johnson, over the unanimous objection of his staff, arbitrarily denied California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks. He was even told that the EPA would lose the case if California sued -- which they did, as expected, along with fifteen other states.
But even before that fore-ordained court fight takes place, Johnson will have to face Congress. First up is the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, of which Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) the chair. A hearing is set for January 24th, when Johnson will get to explain his rationale in person. Here's his two page denial letter as a preview -- which Cali Attorney General Jerry Brown called "shocking in its incoherence and utter failure to provide legal justification for the administrator's unprecedented action."
In a committee hearing in California yesterday, Brown urged Boxer to not be subpoena-shy, since Johnson has still not provided the requisite supporting legal and technical documents for the decision (after reviewing California's petition for more than two years, Johnson only issued that two page denial). From The Los Angeles Times:
"Subpoena these guys," he urged Boxer. "Send the marshals out. Get them to tell us under oath. They are not going to get away with this. Sooner or later, we are going to uncover real corruption . . . that is dangerous to California and to the whole world."
Brown said that the Bush administration may be able to delay court action a year, until the president's term is over, but that Congress may be able to speed the process. "What you have is a bunch of scofflaws in the White House," he said. "This fellow Johnson is becoming a stooge in a really pathetic drama that hopefully will not play out much longer."
Yesterday we gave you the rundown on Common Sense Issues, a nonprofit group that's been phoning millions of voters in key primary states on behalf of Mike Huckabee. The automated calls ask voters about their views on certain hot-button conservative issues and then provide a barrage of facts demonstrating that Huckabee is stronger.
I spoke with the group's executive director Patrick Davis this morning and asked him to lay it all out for me. Where was the group active? How many calls had they made? And were the calls illegal?
In addition to the approximately 850,000 calls in Iowa and 1 million in South Carolina, the group made 800,000 in New Hampshire, and already hundreds of thousands in Florida (he said it wasn't up to a million "yet"). They're on the phones currently in Michigan, he said, and have reached on the order of two million homes. All the calls are generally identical, he said, with some exceptions.
For instance, the group is calling independent and Democratic homes in Michigan, encouraging them to cross over and vote for Huckabee in the Republican primary because "they don't have much of a choice on their ballot," Davis explained. A commenter to yesterday's post, ROSS in Detroit, said he'd received one of these calls, writing:
"I'm in MI near Detroit. My ZIP Code is heavily Dem. I just got one of the push poll robocalls described. It urged me as a Democrat to cross over and vote in the GOP primary for Huckabee! It was immediately clear at the beginning of the 2 min 45 sec call that this was in favor of Huckabee. . . . ."
See below for another description of the calls by another TPM reader.
Davis defended the calls, saying that the group's activities were "well within federal law." And he repeated the group's explanation as for why these weren't push polls (imitations of polls meant to disperse negative information). Every call is unique, he said, because of the group's "personal identification artificial intelligence" technology. And "every bit of it is factual."
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Joshua Henderson, the Marine who unleashed a 200 round barrage of bullets from his M240 that killed as many as 19 Afghans last March, asserts that he will testify only if he is granted immunity. Other Marines have testified that Henderson fired as many as 10 times and that they did not see any evidence of hostile gunmen or incoming rounds. (LA Times)
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees want more information about former Attorney General John Ashcroftâs no-bid contract to monitor out-of-court settlements of criminal allegations. The contract is worth between $28 million and $52 million. (New York Times)
John McCain's presidential campaign might have broken its own rules by including its fundraising list as collateral for a bank loan. The campaign had promised its donors that it would not sell their information. (Politico)
As far as international incidents go, this one's a little baffling.
On Tuesday, we gave you the rundown of Sunday's incident in the Strait of Hormuz, when three hulking American naval ships were greeted by five Iranian speedboats. U.S. officials said that the boats maneuvered aggressively, dropped two white boxes in the water, and issued threats over the radio. Just when the boats were getting too close for comfort, they said, and the Americans were preparing for a warning shot, the boats sped away.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon released an edited video of the incident, which you can see here:
On the audio (mp3) of the radio communication, a voice slowly pronounces the words "I am coming to you," and then as the American tries to communicate, says, "You will explode after a few minutes."
But since then, the American version of the incident has undergone a revision. The radio threat, the Navy now admits, may not have come from the Iranian boats after all. The voice, a number of observers have pointed out, seems to come out of nowhere and doesn't have the expected engine noise in the background, and in fact, The Washington Postreports, the accent doesn't even sound Iranian.
The Iranians, meanwhile, have steadfastly insisted that nothing of this sort ever happened. To that effect, they released a video yesterday of a completely ordinary greeting between Iranian and naval vessels. But it's impossible to tell whether it's even the same incident. U.S. officials say that it's not.
So.... It remains unclear what happened really happened there and why. William Arkin of the Post's Early Warning blog suggests that Iran "wanted to send a not-so-subtle message to their Persian Gulf neighbors that they could disrupt the flow of oil and that any U.S.-Iranian confrontation would hurt the pocketbooks of the ruling sheiks."
The Bush administration took the ball and ran with it, playing up the "confrontation," though President Bush seemed to indicate an initial dearth of talking points. He regained his footing later, warning of "serious consequences" if it happened again. And if it does happen again, maybe it will all seem less strange.
It's not much of a mystery which candidate the nonprofit group Common Sense Issues supports. After all, they run a website called Trust Huckabee. And they've made millions of calls in key primary states on Mike Huckabee's behalf.
From the various reports, the automated calls are transparent examples of push polls -- i.e. calls posing as polls, but really intended to give negative information about a particular candidate.
Common Sense has some considerable experience with this. In the 2006 elections, the group paid for calls attacking Democrats in at least five states. The robo calls followed their favored formula -- extremely leading questions followed by a barrage of "facts." In Maryland, voters were asked whether they supported medical research experiments on unborn babies. In Tennessee, voters were asked "Would you prefer to have your taxes not raised, and if possible, cut?" and then "Do you believe that foreign terrorists should have the same legal rights and privileges as American citizens?" You can listen to one of the Tennessee calls here. Always, the "facts" based on the voter's response.
When I talked to one of the leaders of the group, he told me that the questions used "accurate characterizations," and added: "There are a fair number of things that are unpleasant to talk about, but that doesn't make [our questions] any less accurate."
The group doesn't mind pushing the envelope. Since December, they've paid for calls supporting Huckabee in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina; because they are robo calls, they've been able to reach hundreds of thousands of households (1 million in South Carolina and Michigan each, and approximately 850,000 in Iowa). Florida is apparently next. The group also ran a TV ad in Iowa which you can see on their website called "Who Can You Trust?" Just in case voters didn't get the message, they were directed to CannotTrustMittRomney.com, which includes a series of old TV clips of Romney proclaiming his pro-choice stance.*