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If it's seemed to you that the administration has blundered its way into its recent pro-waterboarding PR offensive, you're right.

It all started, Newsweek reports, when John Negroponte blurted out in an interview that "waterboarding hasn't been used in years":

Negroponte's comments, which were seen as confirmation that waterboarding had in fact been used before that, were not cleared beforehand and caught White House officials off guard, according to [a] senior administration official. "It was an accidental disclosure," said the official. It also forced a reassessment of whether the administration should at least publicly confirm Negroponte's remarks, if only to reap whatever public-relations benefit could be derived from the slip.

That's right: the "public-relations benefit." You might think that admitting to a technique internationally condemned as torture would have no PR pluses. But not from the administration's point of view. Negroponte's comments came right before Attorney General Michael Mukasey's scheduled appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the thinking, apparently, was that now Mukasey could state publicly that waterboarding is not a currently authorized technique (although it might be deemed necessary and legal in certain "circumstances," but let's not focus on that). That should help satisfy all those petulant Democrats and human rights activists, right?

For some reason, it seems to be having the opposite effect. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has called for a criminal investigation based on the disclosure that waterboarding occurred. And human rights activists have finally gotten the break they've been waiting for. From The Washington Post:

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said the Bush administration's admissions about waterboarding mark an important milestone. "It's not an abstract debate anymore," Malinowski said. "They've acknowledged that they've waterboarded people, and virtually every legal authority in the United States believes that waterboarding is torture and a crime."

Note: Newsweek also sheds light on those supposedly unique circumstances that led to the waterboarding of the three detainees in 2002 and 2003:

A former senior intelligence official who was working for the government at the time said intelligence officials were petrified that terrorists had smuggled a nuclear weapon into the United States and were planning to blow up New York City. The scenario was like a real-life episode of "24," the official said. Ultimately, the nuclear threat proved bogus.

It's starting to seem all of a piece.

Yesterday, administration officials publicly acknowledged that CIA agents, with Justice Department authorization, had waterboarded three detainees. And the administration is eager to prevent that authorization from being threatened. According to Senate Dems, the White House has refused to strike a deal on pending nominees until the Senate deals with the Justice Department official who's authorized the use of enhanced interrogation techniques including waterboarding.

For more than three years, Steven Bradbury has been the acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, the crucial Justice Department office that has the power to issue "advance pardons," as former OLC head Jack Goldsmith put it. But Senate Democrats, because of Bradbury's role in approving the warrantless wiretapping program and enhanced interrogation techniques that include waterboarding, have opposed White House efforts to have him confirmed and remove his acting status.

That hasn't kept him from the job, however. It is, after all, a position that is supposed to require Senate confirmation. While Democrats, especially Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) have held firm, Bradbury has simply acted as the head of OLC. The Dems say that the administration has broken the law to keep him in the spot.

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And they've finally started voting! First up is an amendment sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) that would decrease the bill's sunset from six years to four. Sixty votes are need for the measure to pass. It's unclear when exactly the other measures, including the Dodd/Feingold anti-retroactive immunity provision, will get votes.

We'll let you know what the results are as things develop.

Update: The amendment fails 49-46.

It worked in August. It didn't work last week. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says the White House and GOP seem set to give it a third try. From CQ:

Legislation to overhaul the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act remained stalled in the Senate Tuesday, held hostage by a partisan clash over procedures for consideration of an unrelated economic stimulus package.

A frustrated Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., complained that Republicans were blocking his efforts to schedule votes on proposed amendments to the bill (S 2248). He questioned Minority Leader Mitch McConnell ’s commitment to the legislation, saying Republicans have declined to allow FISA to move forward.

“The Orwellian Bush administration has now slopped over into the Senate, and now the Republican leader is now becoming Orwellian himself,” Reid said. “They want to stall the FISA legislation as long as they can, and they’ve done a pretty good job, because they want this legislation to be completed at the last minute, to give the House and the Senate conferees little time to work on this.”

It was one of the most familiar refrains from the White House's mouthpieces over the past several years: we don't discuss interrogation techniques. Take, for instance, this characteristic exchange between White House spokeswoman Dana Perino and a reporter at a briefing in December, after Perino explained that "al Qaeda listens closely to everything that we do and say"...

Q But when you have a former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, now saying that waterboarding was used -- since you're saying the interrogations were legal; he's saying on the record now, waterboarding was used in at least one case. You're saying waterboarding is legal?

MS. PERINO: Ed, I'm saying I'm not commenting on any specific technique. I'm not commenting on that gentleman's characteristics of any possible technique. I've given you a very general statement about interrogations being legal, limited and --

Q You just said it was legal.

MS. PERINO: I'm sorry?

Q You said it was within the legal framework.


Q Everything that was done.


Q So waterboarding is legal.

MS. PERINO: I'm not commenting on any specific techniques. And you can ask me all sorts of different ways, and we can go back and forth, but I'm not going to do it, Ed.

Only a few weeks ago, the line was still in vogue. But no more.

What's changed? Congress is pushing legislation that would limit the use of waterboarding, in addition to other enhanced interrogation techniques. So "the consensus" in the administration was to reverse course.

It's reminiscent of the White House's recent reversal with regard to documents concerning the administration's warrantless wiretapping program. For nearly a year, they ignored the House intelligence committee's request. But now that retroactive immunity is being fiercely contended in the new surveillance bill, the White House had a change of heart.

Note: TPM Reader BM writes in to ask that we remind readers on what this medieval torture technique entails. Not a bad idea. See here for a detailed description by former Navy instructor Malcolm Nance and here for a history lesson.

The administration's pro-waterboarding PR offensive continues!

Today, White House spokesman Tony Fratto made clear that this was a clear, conscious decision to make the push, and that it's an interrogation tool they definitely want to have as an option going forward:

"And so the consensus was that on this one particular technique that these officials would have the opportunity to address them — in not just a public setting, but in a setting in front of members of Congress, and to be very clear about how those techniques were used and what the benefits were of them."

Fratto said CIA interrogators could use waterboarding again, but would need the president's approval to do so. That approval would "depend on the circumstances," with one important factor being "belief that an attack might be imminent," Fratto said.

Fratto also apparently used the administration's it's not torture because "we do not torture" line. And "torture is illegal" and this was deemed legal therefore it's not torture. You can choose your favorite tautology.

I think for the first time, Fratto also flatly said that the attorney general (John Ashcroft) approved the use of waterboarding. We'll have the transcript of Fratto's remarks as soon as they're available.

Ever since Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, disclosed that "we learned earlier this week of irregularities in our financial audit process," people have been scrambling to find out what's up. Cole pointed to a single former employee as the culprit, and said that the irregularities might "include fraud."

Today, the Politico reports that, the employee, Chris Ward, was a longtime employee of the NRCC, and the committee, already hurting in comparison with its well-funded House Democratic counterpart, may be in for even more hurt as Ward's "irregularities" are sorted out:

“There is a sense that this could be very damaging to the committee,” said a Republican insider close to the GOP leadership.

The precise details of the suspected accounting irregularities and their possible fallout are not entirely clear. NRCC officials and top GOP leaders are being tight-lipped in large part because the FBI is investigating the matter. An outside lawyer advising members and staff has warned everyone at the committee to keep quiet....

As treasurer, Ward was in charge of NRCC bookkeeping, tracking tens of millions of dollars in political contributions and expenditures. He has been at the center of NRCC bookkeeping for more than a decade.....

Several sources familiar with the investigation suspect the reporting irregularities could go back many years.

Real Clear Politics noted earlier this week that Ward served as treasurer "for campaign committees and leadership PACs including those of Reps. Jim Walsh, Jim Saxton, Peter Roskam, Lamar Smith and Denny Rehberg as well as Senator John Ensign's leadership PAC." It's unclear if they may all be in for a hurting.

Update: Raw Story also notes that Ward was a partner at the firm that handled $230,000 worth of business for the Swift Boat Vets in 2004. So he got around.

Regulations prohibit presidential candidates from using their PACs to directly influence the election, but before it stopped making donations last October, Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) Hopefund PAC donated (sub. req.) over $300,000 to House and Senate Democrats. "Of that amount, $117,500 went to Members who are now supporting his presidential bid, though at the time of his contributions many of them had not yet announced their endorsements." (Roll Call)

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will testify today about the “significantly stressed” condition of the nation’s military forces. Mullen believes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have “prevented our forces from fully training for the full spectrum of operations and impacts our ability to be ready to counter future threats.” (AP)

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will tell Congress today that he can’t offer a realistic estimate of the cost of the war in Iraq for the coming year. This marks a retreat from promises the Pentagon made last year about detailing the costs. Gates instead will offer a “place-holder” for war expenses (about $70 billion now, and $100 billion in additional requests if current rates of war spending continue). (LA Times, AP)

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What a long way we've come.

Remember when Vice President Dick Cheney off-handedly admitted to an interviewer that "a dunk in the water" is a "no-brainer" if it can save lives? The White House did its utmost to deny the obvious.

But the strategy has changed. Now administration officials are proclaiming in the open that yes, the U.S. waterboarded three detainees, yes, it was legal, and yes, there's a possibility we'd do so again. The stress, of course, is on the fact that waterboarding is not in the current authorized battery of interrogation techniques. But nevertheless, there it is. The administration has apparently decided that this is a debate they can win out in the open. From The Wall Street Journal (sub. req.):

Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official who previously worked on Capitol Hill, said the debate over the aggressive antiterrorism tactics had become clouded by emotion and the administration brought forth the new details in an attempt to make its case more directly. "They feel like this debate has become...somewhat difficult, and they want to get it back on track," said Mr. Lowenthal.

As we reported late yesterday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has already called for a criminal investigation. Anyone who watched Michael Mukasey's performance one week ago knows what the answer will be.

The major threat, as the administration sees it, is pending bipartisan legislation that would restrict the CIA to using the Army Field Manual as its guide to interrogating detainees. Yesterday, Hayden made a twofold response to that.

The first, as noted above, was to stress that the "circumstances" are very different from what they were five or six years ago -- and it's unlikely that waterboarding will be used again.

The second was to argue that the "enhanced interrogation" techniques were only employed by a small group of professionals (both CIA employees and contractors) who really know what they're doing. They've only been used on approximately thirty out of 100 detainees, he said. The Army Field Manual governs a much larger population of detainees and interrogators do not receive the same "exhaustive" training as those working for the CIA. It makes no sense, or as he put it: "it would make no more sense to apply the Army Field Manual to CIA -- the Army Field Manual on interrogations -- than it would be to take the Army Field Manual on grooming and apply it to my agency" (see below for Hayden's full argument on this).

It will be interesting to see how successful this more straightforward strategy will have. A number of key Republican swing votes -- including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) -- would make the difference.

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