Michael Mukasey finally got into the nitty gritty of how he thinks about torture, and he seemed to finally show his hand.
Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) said that he'd been getting the impression that Mukasey really thought about torture in relative terms, and wanted to know if that was so. Is it OK to waterboard someone if a nuclear weapon was hidden -- the Jack Bauer scenario -- but not OK to waterboard someone for more pedestrian information?
Mukasey responded that it was "not simply a relative issue," but there "is a statute where it is a relative issue," he added, citing the Detainee Treatment Act. That law engages the "shocks the conscience" standard, he explained, and you have to "balance the value of doing something against the cost of doing it."
What does "cost" mean, Biden wanted to know.
Mukasey said that was the wrong word. "I mean the heinousness of doing it, the cruelty of doing it, balanced against the value.... balanced against the information you might get." Information "that couldn't be used to save lives," he explained, would be of less value.
Marty Lederman blogs: "What this reveals is that DOJ and Mukasey have concluded that waterboarding is categorically not torture, and is not 'cruel treatment' under Common Article 3 (even though it is, by Mukasey's own lights, "cruel" -- go figure)."
Biden responded, "You're the first I've ever heard to say what you just said.... It shocks my conscience a little bit."
Here's the most fruitful of the responses about waterboarding that the senators were able to elicit from Mukasey so far.
Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) had a long wind up before delivering his punch. After detailing how objectionable waterboarding was, how it was clearly torture, as clearly as robbing a bank is stealing, he came out with: "Would waterboarding be torture if done to you?"
"I would feel that it was," Mukasey replied. But then he devolved into his practiced take which he detailed in his letter last night. He can't just come out and say that waterboarding is clearly torture when done to anyone, he says, "because of the office that I have." It was a brief moment of clarity.
Update: Actually, Mukasey's responses to two other questions, detailed above, proved even more clear.
Michael Mukasey is not a man to live in the past. It's a much more difficult place.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) started his questions by asking about the President's Article II powers under the Constitution. Do you think that the President can break any law he pleases because he's the President -- including, say, statutes banning torture?
"I can't contemplate any situation in which this president would assert Article II authority to do something that the law forbids," Mukasey shot back.
"Well, he did just that when he violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act" Specter responded. "Didn't he?"
Well, "both of those issues have been brought within statutes," Mukasey responded, apparently hoping that he wouldn't have to discuss the stickier past.
"That's not the point," Specter pressed. "The point is that he acted in violation of statutes, didn't he?"
"I don't know," Mukasey conceded. Awkward.
"There's no dispute about that," isn't there? The law says you have to go to court to get a warrant for wiretapping and the administration didn't do that.
Mukasey then wound into a description of the alleged problems with FISA regarding foreign to foreign communications.
"But I'm talking about wiretapping U.S. citizens in the United States" Specter protested, before giving up, saying "Well, not getting very far there, let me move on...."
So what's going on this morning with the surveillance legislation?
Here's a statement we've just gotten from Reid's office: "Currently discussions are ongoing in an effort to determine how to move forward on FISA. Senator Reid is closely working with all Democrats including Senators Feingold and Dodd on this issue."
That's another way of saying that he's not selling out on retroactive immunity, it seems. And no deal has been struck yet. We'll keep you updated as things develop.
In his first round of questioning this morning, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked a question that's been on everyone's mind: will the criminal investigation that's been launched into the destruction of the CIA's torture tapes also cover the techniques that were documented on those tapes?
Mukasey said, essentially, that it hasn't been ruled out. John Durham, the prosecutor who's been tapped to lead the investigation, he said, will proceed as in any other matter, "step by step." If "it leads to showing motive... then I'm sure it will be explored." He stressed again that Durham, an experienced prosecutor, was in charge (even if he's not completely independent) and that he's joined by an experienced FBI agent.
Last night, the Senate also quickly passed that 15-day extension to the Protect America Act. So it seems like the President will likely sign that into law.
So what's next? In comments on the Senate floor this morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that after holding a meeting in his office at 6 PM last night, he called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). He indicated that they may have struck a deal on how to proceed, but it wasn't clear if all the details had been hashed out, and he didn't indicate what the details of that deal might be. We'll keep you updated as we learn more.
In a signing statement appended to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008, President Bush asserted that he is not obliged to obey four key sections of the bill because they trample on his executive authority. One provision that Bush's statement targets precludes the the use of taxpayer money "to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq" or "to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq." (Boston Globe)
Barack Obama's (D-IL) presidential campaign announced last night that it will give to charity over $70,000 in contributions linked to Antoin Rezko, the Chicago developer due to begin trial next month for corruption. The campaign said it discovered the money after it undertook a more extensive review of Rezko-related contributions. (AP)
Civil Rights groups have called upon Attorney General Michael Mukasey to rescind a Department of Justice opinion that authorized an administration scheme by which registered Republicans switch their affiliation to "independent" so that President Bush can stack the bi-partisan, eight person Civil Rights Commission with political allies. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) are leading the effort to have a Bush memo, which laid the foundation for the end run around the Civil Rights Act of 1957, rescinded. (CREW)
Last time around, Attorney General Michael Mukasey had more than a little trouble telling the Senate Judiciary Committee whether waterboarding is torture. "If it amounts to torture, then it is not Constitutional" just wasn't cutting it.
But this time, he's coming ready. He laid it all out in a letter to the panel last night. When he sits down for his hearing this morning, he'll say... I can't tell you if it's torture, because we're not doing it now anyway and there's no use talking about it if we're not even doing it -- which doesn't mean that we won't do it, but we really probably won't.
"[I] have concluded that the interrogation techniques currently authorized in the CIA program comply with the law.... I have been authorized to disclose publicly that waterboarding is not among those methods. Accordingly, waterboarding is not, and may not be, used in the current program.... It is precisely because the issue is so important, and the questions so difficult, that I, as Attorney General, should not provide answers absent a set of circumstances that call for those answers. Those circumstances do not present themselves today, and may never present themselves in the future."
The clear intended message here for the Democrats on the panel is that Mukasey would never approve waterboarding, but they're not going to get him to say why. Somehow I don't think they'll be completely satisfied. Especially if he repeats this line from his letter:
"There are some circumstances where current law would appear clearly to prohibit the use of waterboarding. Other circumstances would present a far closer question."
So -- what's up? Marty Lederman, a former lawyer in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, speculates that what's really driving Mukasey's refusal to address the question is that "such a repudiation would undermine the legal basis for other of the 'enhanced' CIA interrogation techniques" -- techniques such as stress positions, inducing hypothermia, sleep deprivation and the like.
Remember also that Mukasey has expressed confidence in Steven Bradbury, the current head of the Office of Legal Counsel, who has reportedly approved all these techniques (and waterboarding). And in his statement today, Mukasey seems to be saying above that he's approved them too (minus waterboarding). He supports the current system and doesn't want to rock the boat. With the most controversial technique eliminated, all this unwanted scrutiny will hopefully recede.
We'll be providing live updates of Mukasey's hearing, which starts at 10 this morning.
The Orlando Sentinelreports on how things are going down in Florida, our nation's capital for electoral mayhem (and that's a pic of the patron saint of Florida elections, former Secretary of State Katherine Harris, to the left there):
Sheneka McDonald spent 10 minutes trying to convince poll workers ... that she should have a Democratic ballot. She questioned poll workers when she was handed a Republican ballot but was told, "this is the only ballot we have."
"I said, 'How can this be the only ballot,'" McDonald recalled. "That's when the guy chimed in from the back and said the Democratic primary was in March."
The poll captain eventually apologized to McDonald and told her they had forgotten to unpack all the ballots. "It was a little unnerving this morning," she said. "I don't see how you forget to unpack ballots. This is what gives Florida its reputation."
Note to Florida election workers: Although Florida has been stripped of its delegates, there is most certainly a Democratic primary today.
And TPM Reader KH writes in to tell the story of one man's triumph against incredible odds:
I voted in Lee County, Florida this morning - being in Southwest Florida, its a Republican stronghold in the state.
The poll worker who opened the door for me advised "Just show your driver's license to the desk and you can vote." Only problem is that this is patently untrue, Florida providing for casting of provisional ballots and all. When I told the nice lady at the registration desk that I had lost my wallet and was going to cast a provisional ballot, she gave me the perplexed look of the uninformed. Fortunately, there was a gentleman at the "special services" desk who knew what to do and he got me on my way to voting. Then he told me that I had to "contact the supervisor of elections and provide proof of my right to vote or they will not count my ballot." Sigh. This also is not true in Florida - no proof is required if the only basis for casting the provisional was the lack of proper identification. The supervisor is suppose to run the driver's license number provided (which I gave them) against the state database and when they match the vote is counted.