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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

There are embittered insiders, and then there is Henry Kissinger, who told the BBC today:

“If you mean, by ‘military victory,’ an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don’t believe that is possible.”


The emphasis is mine. I am not inclined to read this as Kissinger turning on the Administration, so much as it is him once again stating his view that the American people are insufficiently steady and resolved to see war through to victory. If the public would just buck up and if the Democrats had not prevailed in the midterm elections, Kissinger implies, then military victory in Iraq would still be possible.

It is a point, of course, that Kissinger has spent more than thirty years trying to make about Vietnam. What better way to drive that point home than by making Iraq a historical parallel.

An old man chasing ghosts.

Human Rights Watch: The trial of Saddam Hussein was so flawed that its verdict is unsound.

A number of readers have emailed with their outrage over the comments on torture by TPM Reader CH. So let me clarify a couple of things.

As I said, CH was just one of several readers who had emailed to suggest I was living in a bubble. Pointing to the School of the Americas and the dirty wars in Latin America, they noted that U.S.-sanctioned torture has been going on for far longer than I was willing to acknowledge. You might call those the "where have you been?" crowd.

Somewhat related is that most of those same readers stopped short of offering an explanation for how their view that torture has been an accepted part of U.S. policy for a long time affects the way in which we move forward in addressing the abuses committed in the war on terror. What intrigued me about CH's comments was his suggestion that we were in a bubble formed of our own naivete back then and are eager to return to that bubble now, but that it's the bubble itself that may contribute to these misguided policies on our behalf.

It was not my intent to set CH up as an easy strawman to be knocked about.

As for my own view on the difference between then and now, for the most part I subscribe to this take on it, from TPM Reader EK:

What we had before: An official policy against torture, and some shaky evidence that the policy was a lie.

What we have now: An official policy supporting torture, and plenty of evidence of wrongdoing.

Morally, both situations are reprehensible. But in politics, just like in law enforcement, you can't do much with vague rumors and unproven suspicions. So even though the United States has been doing shameful things for a long time, the new situation is materially different. We've gone from a nation which claimed to uphold the Geneva Conventions, and only violated them in secret, to a nation which has openly rejected the Geneva Conventions, and which has been caught on camera.


I'm sure we'll return to this topic as congressional oversight (I hope) begins to peel back the layers. But for now my thanks especially to the service women and men who emailed their experiences.

A recurring theme to the emails I have been receiving in response to today's posts on torture is that Americans, myself included, are naive to think that the U.S. has not engaged in torture, directly and indirectly, for decades prior to the Bush Administration.

This email from TPM Reader CH, a former interrogator himself, probably best captures that point of view:

We can talk all day about what training the military receives on Geneva Conventions, but at the heart of the matter is how people get around them. That is, in my experience, any set of rules that are established have loopholes and it ends up being the job of some to find those loopholes so that we can exploit them and still retain a level of plausible deniability as to whether or not certain actions are illegal. . . .

It's not as if the US has never had a major role in the darkest circles of military actions knowing full well that these violations would be viewed as a violation of something idealists hold up as an example of 'human dignity', like the Geneva Conventions. In fact, I would argue that we've played in these circles all along and anyone thinking otherwise is only fooling themselves. Abu Ghraib and other events were not anomalies as much as they were unintended glimpses (due to private contractor mistakes) into these darker circles that were then broadcast to the world giving Americans and others a look at what 'we' do.

Essentially, this is a microcosm for what has arguably been going on for decades and for what the Bush Administration has used more 'openly' than their predecessors...but only 'openly' because people are finally coming around to the realism that often governs our geopolitical actions and are being exposed one way or another to certain dark truths. We may not like these truths, and we can act to change them if we want. However, so long as people continue to cite things like the Geneva Conventions and argue in ways that pretend as if we live in an ideal world and that 'we' are virtuous actors in said world, well, we are only going to help in perpetuating the bubble that so many of 'us' have been living in for so long. . . .

Americans are not trained to operate within that world and while naive idealists who want to hold Geneva up as something that is not ambiguous or even out-dated are trying to do good by holding people accountable for their morally ambiguous and/or illegal actions...they are only reinforcing the bubble as we know it. The bubble, with Bush's Administration, has been burst. Why do we want to crawl back inside?

Yesterday I asked for suggestions from readers for which historical figure Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), global warming denier and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, most closely resembles.

I was looking for comparable historical figures who were not just oblivious in the face of facts but vigorously fought the facts and those who discovered the facts. But the way I phrased the question left some readers thinking I meant who does Inhofe most look like physically. I'll just say that those emails were especially unflattering to the Senator, and leave it at that.

Receiving the most nominations were those associated with the persecution of Galileo, in particular Pope Urban VIII and Caccini.

Tied for second were the Soviet genetics-rejectionist Trofim Lysenko and, my personal favorite, Baghdad Bob.

As your prize for playing, not only is Inhofe out as chairman come January, but word came today that he may not even survive as ranking member of the committee. Thank you for playing.

I've heard back from several readers intimately familiar with U.S. military protocols for training service members to survive capture by the enemy and who, therefore, are familiar with the techniques, like waterboarding, being used now by the U.S. on detainees in its custody. Their accounts and what the experience taught them is compelling.

TPM Reader MN was a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape instructor:

Since a “voluntary” confession is the standard of the totalitarian regime for conviction and nullification of Geneva Convention rights, we wanted our people inoculated from this danger … hence SERE was created. Survivors like John McCain, Nick Roe and Admiral John Stockdale created and refined the material through their debriefs and visits. Our schools were designed to show how a totalitarian enemy, with a complete disregard for human rights runs a death/prison camp. Your job was to survive and Return with Honor. Torture, we revealed, was a useless and single pointed device which was wholly unreliable – torture was for sadism and the pleasure of the torturer. It had no intelligence value and the information would always be suspect.

The horror of the recent revelations of the use of our school’s techniques in Iraq and Gitmo is disgusting. We are all horrified that we have destroyed the only tool we have to keep our soldiers safe … the disgust of world opinion. Waterboarding is a torture. Period. It is not a simulation, when applied you are, in fact, drowning at a controlled rate … we just determine how much and how long – you’ll break. Everyone breaks. I ran a waterboard team at SERE and administered dozens of students through the process as a tool to show what the worst looks like, short of death. This is why there is a doctor and a psychologist standing right next to the student … to do it safe and to help the student recover. Does it suck? Yes? Would I like to go through it again … never.

That America has gone to the depths of torture hurts my very soul. I know we have damaged our warrior spirit and placed a dark stain on the honor of our military. Not since Mai Lai have we been so dishonored as we have with Abu Ghraib. We have found, though September 11th, the blackest part of our American soul and have embraced in in a fit of false macho. John McCain should be ashamed of himself …


TPM Reader GS is a graduate of survival school:

I, like many of my fellow aviators, am a graduate of survival school, which is a mock-pow camp where we were subject to food, water and sleep deprivation, as well as mild beatings and waterboarding. Surprisingly, this was a very beneficial course, in that it taught us how to parse out information to minimize its relevancy, and recognize our own limitations and breaking points.

Waterboarding is just as your reader described; you are strapped to a board, a washcloth or other article covers your face, and water is continuously poured, depriving you of air, and suffocating you until it is removed, and/or inducing you to ingest water. We were carefully monitored (although how they determined these limits is beyond me), but it was a most unpleasant experience, and its threat alone was sufficient to induce compliance, unless one was so deprived of water that it would be an unintentional means to nourishment.

The problem for us as citizens is we don't know to what limit or frequency the administration's agents are using this technique. In my view, what we experienced as service personnel was an introduction to what interrogators could do to us, in order to at least prepare us for the initial shock of captivity. What is done by professional interrogators whose mission it is to extract information is undoubtedly more unrelenting and severe, and most likely exacerbated by any act of resistance.

Since we consider it immoral when captured US personnel are treated in any manner not humane, there is no moral ground for making waterboarding an instrument of our policy against others. Admittedly this is a tough position for some, but I believe how we live and how we fight shapes the perception of us as a nation, and while we may not discourage actual terrorists, we can influence those whose understanding and support are necessary in this struggle.

As long as we're talking about torture . . .

Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has asked the Justice Department to release two documents setting forth U.S. policy on how terrorism suspects are detained and interrogated. (h/t Laura Rozen)

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.

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