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David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

I'm not inclined to give a whole lot of credence to the rumors that Karl Rove will leave the White House soon. Does it make sense on some levels? Sure. But part of the rumor involves Harriet Miers plunging a shiv into Rove's back, and I find that so hard to believe, it makes me skeptical that any of the rumor is true.

I want to post the lengthy reader email below because I think lost in the debate on torture is how much torture runs counter to decades of U.S. military training.

After Korea and especially Vietnam, and the torture endured by American servicemen in those conflicts, considerable time and effort went into training our troops in how to survive torture, both physically and, perhaps more importantly, psychologically.

Back in the 1980s, I heard navy officers, for example, talk about how soldiers and airmen captured in Vietnam carried psychological scars from having divulged more than simply their "name, rank, and serial number" and how training changed as a result so that our servicemen understood what was acceptable to divulge and what was not (operational details).

Imbued within this training during the Cold War was the sense that part of what set us apart from our communist adversaries was our adherence to the Geneva Conventions, and that the inhumane tactics used by those adversaries was part and parcel of the totalitarianism that we were combating. There was also the sense--a point of pride really--that we could and would prevail despite holding ourselves to a higher standard. It was, in fact, the higher standard that we were fighting for.

Now I don't mean to sugarcoat things. One name stands out as an example of our own terrible flaws: My Lai. And our involvement in Vietnam remains a sobering testament to the misguided conflating of nationalism and communism. But for millions of U.S. veterans, the debate on torture stands in stark contrast to the training they received and our shared understanding of what we were fighting for and against during the Cold War.

With that long-winded introduction, here is TPM Reader BL, responding to Ed Meese's comments in GQ:

I served in the Air Force from 1982 to 1988. I was an airborne linguist and, as such, was required to go through survival school at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane. This was a school that officers and enlisted men alike were required to attend...anyone who might end up in a hostile situation or behind enemy lines--or a POW. That was in January of 1984. Part of survival school was training in interrogation resistance and how to handle oneself in the event of capture by enemy forces.

What does that have to do with Meese's remarks, you might ask? Simply this: Our trainers were careful to instruct us on the Geneva Conventions and which interrogation techniques were covered and which were illegal. I have a very clear memory of what they said about waterboarding. As I recall, water boarding was classified as torture and was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. They told us about the technique for the simple reason that the North Vietnamese used it on American Forces. They wanted us to know about that technique in case we were ever captured by "scumbags who didn't respect the Geneva Conventions." There were no demonstrations; it was considered too traumatic.

I'm not making this up. The military trainers at our Survival School had nothing but contempt for techniques like this, and we were taught that they were international criminal offenses. We were also warned that there were groups out there who did not respect international law and wouldn't hesitate to use techniques like these to get the information they wanted. (It also makes me wonder if some of the other torture techniques they told us about are being practiced by our oh-so-enlightened military today.)

My cousin, who was a diver for the Navy, also went through similar training at the same time I did, but in a difference school. We both wen't through survival training at the same time, and we met up on leave in Montana in February of 84 before I went off to my permanent duty station in Greece and he went to Hawaii. He told me they actually put them through the experience for a very short period of time (less than a minute each) so they could see how psychologically disturbing it was.

The procedure as he described it was as follows: You are strapped to a board or plank that is set at an incline angle so that your head is approximately a foot below the level of your feet. A wet cloth is placed over your face so that it covers your eyes, nose and mouth. Then water is dripped steadily onto the cloth over your nose and mouth.

It doesn't sound that bad in the abstract, does it? According to my cousin, it was a terrifying experience. And like me, he was taught that this practice was clearly torture and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Anyone who went through Survival School at the same time I did, in the mid-80's, would have been taught about water boarding and would also have been taught that it was a form of Torture. For the mouthpieces of the current administration to now pretend that waterboarding is somehow acceptable--or even somehow borderline--is a deliberate and methodical deception. I can't speak knowledgably about the interrogation resistance training of the US Military for the last 15 years, but if you were in the service in the 80's and you had any chance of being in a combat risk situation, you went through this training. And every last one of us who has completed this training knows that waterboarding is torture, pure and simple.

I'm a little baffled that I haven't seen any other ex-service people speaking up about it.


I would like to hear from more ex-service people about this. Shoot us an email.

In New Mexico's 1st Congressional District, Republican incumbent Heather Wilson eked out a victory over Democrat Patricia Madrid by a scant 879 votes, according to last night's final unofficial tally. Madrid has not conceded and is considering a recount.

NYT: James Baker has met several times with Syrian officials to discuss cooperation with the U.S.

I haven't had much to add to the mind-numbing story about the UCLA student who was tasered by university police while studying in the library Tuesday night. Frankly, until this morning I hadn't been able to force myself to watch past the first blood-curdling screams on the video.

Reading the LA Times today I see that the officers involved have not even been put on administrative leave pending completion of the internal and external reviews of the incident. Why not? It's not clear from the article.

But to hear UCLA's acting chancellor talk, it looks like the university is managing the perception of a problem rather than the problem itself: "Norman Abrams said he ordered the probe after the university received numerous calls and e-mails from parents and alumni raising concerns about the officers' actions during the videotaped Tuesday night arrest, which has been widely seen on TV news and the YouTube website."

The video itself apparently didn't prompt an outside review, but concerns from alum (i.e., donors) and parents did. Nice.

Former Attorney General Ed Meese is interviewed in the latest issue of GQ--and not for his sartorial splendor. This is as depressing a statement on American liberty and justice as anything I have read these last six years.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A:

Let's move to the Geneva Conventions. A lot of people are concerned that terrorism suspects don't have any kind of habeas corpus. In order to be covered by the Geneva Convention, you have to fulfill certain requirements. . . . So there are a number of criteria in the Geneva Convention that are not met by everyone on the battlefield. Then there's another category of people going back to the Revolutionary War—people who were in those days called spies. If they were not in uniform, they were subject to being summarily executed.

You mean they were executed without even a military tribunal? I think there were some. Also, a "tribunal" could be a military commander ordering the hanging. I think that's what happened to some of them.

You're advocating summary execution. Well, yeah, that happens in the military. Illegal combatants are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions.


Summary executions? But wait, there's more:

Jefferson wrote, "All men are created equal," not "all Americans." He said that men are "endowed by their Creator" with these rights, not endowed by "the Constitution." But that doesn't have to do with enemy soldiers.


No surprise then that Meese is hard to nail down on whether waterboarding is torture.

It seems like some of these techniques, like waterboarding, are a long way from humane. Well, again, I have a great deal of confidence that the administration would not engage in torture.

Would you call that torture? I don't know. I don't know about waterboarding.

It's putting a wet rag over someone's mouth and making them think that they're going to drown. Yeah, I don't know. As I said, I don't know enough about it to give a firm determination.

That doesn't necessarily sound like torture to you? I don't know whether they're doing that.

And if they are? I don't know, because I don't know enough about it.

I'm asking, if that is what they're doing, does that sound like torture? Well, I'd have to find out how long they do it and whether it does create the impression of drowning. I've never heard of this using a washcloth in their mouth before.


Meese is not a has-been from the Reagan years. He has been a key advisor to the current White House on the nominations and confirmations of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. This is a man who is widely considered to be at the pinnacle of the powerful conservative legal movement. This is what we have come to.

Update: Meese is also a member of the Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group, readers have reminded me.

In the wake of massive robocalling by the GOP and pro-GOP groups during the midterm elections, three more states have joined Missouri in considering legislation to ban robocalls to people on state Do Not Call lists.

I missed this yesterday, but it deserves mention. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security is dead. "Don't waste our time," Baucus said. "It's off the table."

Turns out Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) was tipped off to the "brainwashing" going at on the UN conference on global warming by his press flack, a former producer for Rush Limbaugh.

Lots of good nominees have come in for which historical figure most closely resembles the good Senator. More on that later.

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