In the annals of public service, it was not a high point. Last Halloween, at a fundraising event for charitable organizations held at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Headquarters Building, they held a costume contest. And the winner was a white lawyer dressed in dreadlocks and prison stripes.
When it came time to present himself to the judges, amng them Julie Myers, the chief of ICE, he said "Iâm a Jamaican detainee from Krome â obviously, Iâve escaped.â Krome is an ICE Detention facility in Miami that is mostly filled with Jamaican, Haitian and Latin American detainees. The judges, Myers among them, laughed, according to a report (pdf) issued yesterday by the House Committee on Homeland Security. Later, Myers posed with the winner:
At some point later that day, Myers apparently realized that others might not appreciate the fun of the costume and ordered that the pictures be destroyed. In a letter to Congress in November of 2007 (after news of the costume broke), Myers explained that she "was not aware at the time of the contest that the employee disguised his skin color," but that she believed "that it was inappropriate for me to recognize any individual wearing an escaped prisoner costume.â
So on that same day, she ordered the pictures deleted, according to yesterday's report, as part of ""a coordinated effort to conceal the circumstances surrounding the party." Myers' nomination was still pending before the Senate at that time. The committee report is titled "The ICE Halloween Party: Trick, Treat, or Cover-up?" The committee appears to come down on the cover-up side of the question.
As for Myers, her spokesperson tellsThe New York Times that trying to curb the damage wasn't the same thing as a cover-up:
Kelly A. Nantel, an agency spokeswoman, confirmed Tuesday that Ms. Myers had ordered that the photographs be deleted, but said she had done so because she belatedly realized that the costume was inappropriate and that it would be offensive if the photos were included in any agency publications.
But Ms. Nantel said that Ms. Myers never tried to cover up that the event had occurred. In fact, Ms. Myers sent a message to all agency employees two days after the party acknowledging that âa few of the costumes were inappropriate.â
âTo suggest she somehow coordinated a cover-up is absolutely false,â Ms. Nantel said.
Rather unfortunately for Myers, the pictures were not completely deleted and were restored. They were released to CNN in February as a result of a FOIA request.
In any case, the committee has used the occurrence to point out the lack of diversity at ICE and DHS more broadly, noting that ICE has zero African-American senior executives and 28 whites. It's a point that lawmakers were able to demonstrate when Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff last visited the committee:
Anger among some African American lawmakers about diversity in the Homeland Security Department led to a testy exchange with Chertoff during a March hearing. Lawmakers asked Chertoff's staff to stand. About 10 people stood.
Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) pointed out that all the staff members were white men. "Please reassure me that your staff is more diverse than that," he asked Chertoff, who seemed taken aback.
"That is definitely the case," Chertoff said, as other lawmakers looked visibly skeptical.
Hearings on diversity in the department are planned for next month.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) finally got his turn during today's Senate foreign relations committtee hearing and used it to question Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus on what "success" would be in Iraq, focusing on the strength of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian influence as key benchmarks.
After questions about the status quo in Iraq of these two areas, Obama proceeded to ask Crocker and Petraeus whether that status quo could be called success if maintained without such a high level of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Here's video of Obama's questions:
His point, he said, was that the "definition of success is so high," such as wiping out AQI and eliminating any undue Iranian influence, then success would be unattainable. But that if the criteria for success was a "messy, sloppy status quo," not dissimilar to the current state of affairs, though without U.S. troops holding the country together, then that was attainable.
Such a state of affairs, Obama said, could be achieved with "measured, but increased pressure" on the Iraqis via troop withdrawals (he was keen to point out that "nobody is asking for a precipitous withdrawal") and a "diplomatic surge" in the region.
Here's video of Obama's conclusion:
"Our resources are finite," he said, and "when you have finite resources, you have to define goals tightly and modestly."
Crocker generally agreed with Obama's definition of success in Iraq ("this is hard and this is complicated"), though he did not stipulate to Obama's somewhat more modest characterization of what success would look like.
House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D-MI) wants to former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo to discuss his now-infamous March 14, 2003 memo that broadly authorized the use of torture by military interrogators of unlawful combatants.
Conyers has gone ahead and scheduled a hearing for May 6th on the memo and invited Yoo in a letter today. But it's apparent from the letter that Yoo is not too enthusiastic about the prospect of testifying to Congress. He's apparently raised concerns to committee staff that the topics covered might "implicate executive confidentiality interests" and generally indicated that he'd rather not appear.
But given that Yoo has spoken with a variety of news outlets about the memo and other matters, Conyers points out, there's no reason why he couldn't talk to Congress. And while Conyers has invited Yoo to appear voluntarily, he makes it clear that he will issue a subpoena if Yoo declines.
Hopefully lawmakers will use the opportunity to ask Yoo why it was that he signed the memo himself, bypassing even the attorney general.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, immediately cast a different tone on the Republican side than the one that prevailed throughout the earlier hearing, led by the ranking member on that committee, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
Earlier, McCain started from the assumption of what success means and seemed to take for granted the means of achieving it. Lugar's take was much different.
In his opening statement, Lugar offered a sweeping analysis of the situation in Iraq and concluded that today's hearing was actually much different than the one held last September:
At that time, the President was appealing to Congress to allow the surge to continue to create breathing space for a political accommodation. Today the questions are whether and how improvements in security can be converted into political gains that can stabilize Iraq despite the impending drawdown of U.S. troops. Simply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient. The debate over how much progress we have made and whether we can make more is less illuminating than determining whether the Administration has a definable political strategy that recognizes the time limitations we face and seeks a realistic outcome designed to protect American vital interests.
At the moment, according to Lugar, the administration clearly has no "definable political strategy." He looks forward, he said, to discussing with Petraeus and Crocker "how the United States can define success and then achieve our vital objectives in Iraq."
Towards the end of this morning's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) elicited the plainest assessment yet of the day from Gen. Petraeus.
Given the complexity of the situation in Iraq, Bayh wanted to know, "isn't it true that a fair amount of humility is in order in rendering judgments about the way forward in Iraq, that no one can speak with great confidence about what is likely to occur?"
Petraeus seemed to grow a bit irritated at the insinuation that he'd been painting an overly rosy picture. "It's why I've repeatedly noted that we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible," he replied.
Later, Petraeus again refused to venture any guess about when there might be further drawdowns of troops from Iraq after July.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) took her time today to begin with a statement emphasizing the toll the war is taking on the U.S. armed forces, a cost, she said, that ought to be weighed against the cost of staying in Iraq indefinitely. "It's time to begin the orderly process of removing our troops."
Here's video of that:
Clinton began by focusing her questioning on the coming long-term security agreement between Iraq and the U.S. Earlier in the hearing, Ambassador Ryan Crocker had been at pains to stress that "the agreement will not establish permanent bases in Iraq" and might actually prohibit them (whatever that is worth), and that the "agreement will not specify troop levels" or "tie the hands of the next administration." But the agreement would not go to Congress, he said.
Clinton, who's been pushing legislation that would force the administration to submit the agreement to the Senate, as is required of formal treaties, said that "seems odd to Americans," for the administration to cut such a deal without Congressional consent -- at the same time that the Iraqis might submit the agreement to its parliament.
Clinton also wanted to know what conditions might possibly have existed that would have caused Petraeus to not extend the current strategy. Petraeus answered by ticking off the factors involved in deciding, but added that "it's not a mathematical exercise."
Here are Clinton's questions:
Update: Transcript of Sen. Clinton's exchange with Petraeus and Crocker:
Even more than Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) found it impossible to suppress his admiration for Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Petraeus deserves that fifth star, Graham said, and Crocker (who has devoted his career to public service in the Middle East) should go someplace not horrible (presumably far away from the Middle East):
Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have given an overall positive review of U.S. progress in Iraq today, but both have laden those statements with clear caveats. When asked about political reconciliation in Iraq, Crocker has tended to prefer characterizing it as "moving in the right direction."
But Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) thinks that all too much emphasis has been put on the caveats. Clearly criticizing the questioning by Democrats today, Lieberman said that "there's a kind of hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq, and most of all, speak of no progress in Iraq."
Lieberman, at least, sees no harm in overstating the progress in Iraq: "The Iraqi political leadership has achieved a lot more political reconciliation and progress since September than the American political leadership has."
Finally, he seemed to indicate that if only Democrats would accept the clear success of the surge, we "can move to more success so we can bring more of our troops home."
Thereafter, Lieberman went into a kind of reprise of his questioning last September, wanting to know about Iran's activity in Iraq.
Last time Gen. David Petraeus went up to Capitol Hill to give his big update, he wasn't 100% ready for prime time. That was most evident when Sen. John Warner (R-VA) asked if success in the Iraq war will make America safer. His response was a blunt "I don't know."
Today, Warner gave Petraeus the opportunity for a second bite of the apple. "Is all this sacrifice bringing about a more secure America?" Warner asked. And this time, Petraeus was ready -- with a mind-numbing battery of talking points, from which he was apparently reading:
Finally, Warner had to interrupt Petraeus, saying "my time on the clock is moving pretty quickly. It was a fairly simple question: Does that translate into a greater security for those of us at home?" He wanted an answer "just in simple language."
Finally, Petraeus came back with an assurance that "I do believe it is worth it."