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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 reading through the Post's front-pager on how the Bush Administration screened political appointees for jobs in post-invasion Iraq based on loyalty to Bush and the conservative agenda. It's another one of a string of reports in recent months that fall into a strange category of news-gathering: stories already known to be true but for which the specific facts weren't yet available.

I know that sounds flip, but there really is something going on here worth noting. For instance, any reasonable person's reaction to the Post story will be a variation on, "Duh!" Bush placed a premium on political fealty rather than competence and effectiveness? Who is surprised by that? No one. So you read the piece for the anecdotes, like the fact that the Pentagon official responsible for screening political appointees is Jim O'Beirne, husband of conservative commentator Kate O'Beirne.

Isn't it usually the other way around? Reporters, and their readers, look for the facts in order to construct a larger picture. Ideally the facts are pieced together into a mosaic in which discrete bits of information that may otherwise be meaningless standing alone now contribute to a greater level of understanding.

Not so with many Bush era stories. The President's modus operandi is so well established, but the cloak of secrecy so tightly closed, that the broad outlines of a story may be known months or years before the particular facts are uncovered to flesh out the details. The closest thing I can compare it to is reading the next day's sports story after watching the game. You read not to learn who won, but for colorful anecdotes, and at some level to confirm what you have already seen and know to be true.

Of course this Administration's record--or, more precisely, the recording of that record--is a far more serious undertaking than a ballgame. The effort is similar in some respects to what people grappled with in the 1990s in post-communist Eastern Europe and post-Apartheid South Africa. There is something fundamental about knowing the details. I'm not sure that journalism as we now know and practice it is particularly suited to filling in the details well after the fact, but I don't think we can afford to wait for the historians.

TPM Reader PL:

You wrote, "A special place is reserved for the lawyers who give legal cover for such orders."

What leaves me shaking my head, trying to understand, is not the lawyers, but the medical doctors who participate in torture and give guidance into how much more the person can take before they die. I just imagine the kind of person who decides to become a doctor -- that person must want to heal, want to fix people, want to alleviate their suffering or pain or at least want to be someone who has the power to do that.

So this person has years of training, has seen people suffer and die and seen pain first hand -- and yet, that same person is able to not only watch someone being tortured but take part in the process by saying the person could take 100 more volts or 4 more punches or 10 degrees cooler or stay in that position for another 24 hours before their legs break or whatever. I wonder at what point they lose that humanity. I wonder what they think of themselves when they look in the mirror or what goes through their mind when they turn off the light and pull the blanket up to their chin to go to sleep. When their family asks about their day, what do they tell their kids they do? I wonder what they tell themselves to make it be OK.

I simply cannot imagine the gentle hands of a doctor who in one case may be so delicately examining a wound to then be the one to say "Yeah, this guy can take more... he's still conscious so go at it."


Late update: Some readers have questioned whether there is any evidence of doctors having actually participated in the Administration-sanctioned torture. There is evidence, much of it circumstantial, that military health care providers, including physicians, have been complicit in torture. You can find more here and here.

Here it comes. The NRCC on Friday dropped almost $2 million on TV attack ads in congressional districts from Washington State to New York.

As a number of recent reports have made clear, the Republican's GOTV efforts are formidable. The Democrats, despite trying to keep apace, are not in the same league anymore. But you get the sense that many Democrats, accustomed to decades of dominance on the ground, don't yet fully appreciate the disparity.

I was talking to a union political operative last week who told me that it's real difficult to convince union members that campaigns nowadays start well before Labor Day. Meanwhile, Republican street money is already flowing.

Union turnout is going to be critical in several close Senate and House races, so this mindset is a problem.

Brian Williams opened his newscast last night with this: "Good evening from Havana, Cuba, the host city for what is called the Summit of Non-Aligned Nations--in short, all of the enemies of the United States, really, gathered in one room."

Well, then. There are 118 developing countries that are part of the nonaligned movement, including India, Pakistan, and Thailand. Sure hope we don't have to invade them all.

The torture debate in Congress--I never expected to write such words--is as surreal to me as watching the collapse of the Twin Towers. If the Democrats are able to take control of at least one chamber in November, then surely the President's pro-torture bill will be viewed in hindsight as the nadir of the Bush presidency. If not, how much lower can things go?

I am beyond being able to assess the political implications, one way or the other, of this spectacle. Regardless of which version of the bill finally passes, this debate is a black mark on the soul of the nation. Of course passage of a pro-torture bill will diminish U.S. standing internationally and jeopardize the safety and well-being of U.S. servicemen in future engagements. But merely having this debate has already accomplished that. Does anyone honestly believe that if Congress rebuffs the President in every respect that the rule of law and the inviolability of human rights will have been vindicated? Of course not.

The Republicans have defined deviancy down for the whole world, including every two-bit dictator and wild-eyed terrorist.

In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick writes of the pro-torture presidency:

[L]egal obfuscation is enormously attractive to President Bush. It means all but the most highly credentialed law professors and government lawyers are constantly confused; it means subsequent legal claims that interrogators "did not know that the practices were unlawful" have real credibility. And perhaps, most importantly to this White House, it obscures where things have gone awry up and down the chain of command. One possibility, then, is that all these eleventh-hour redefinitions of torture are presidential attempts to "afford brutality the cloak of law," in the words of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. But increasingly, it seems clear that its real purpose is simply to brutalize the law.


And to brutalize people.

Only the weak, scared, and evil torture. Those who order and sanction torture, but leave the dirty work to others, are an order of magnitude more culpable morally. (A special place is reserved for the lawyers who give legal cover for such orders.) In their fear and their weakness and their smallness, the President and those around him stepped over the line. To do so in the heated days after 9/11 is understandable to a point, though not justifiable. Yet they persisted, first in saying that they did not step over the line and now in seeking to redraw the line. So which is it?

They are descending from the morally reprehensible to the morally cowardly.

This is just unbelievable. The IRS is suddenly ramping up its investigation of whether All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena violated its tax-exempt status with an anti-war sermon just before the 2004 elections.

On Friday an IRS investigator served a summons on the current rector, Rev. Ed Bacon, ordering the church to turn over all documents and e-mails it produced during the 2004 election year that referred to political candidates:

After nearly a year without communication with the agency, Bacon said he was "quite surprised" Friday when an IRS agent handed him the summons at his church.

In addition to seeking electronic communications, the summons requests "a copy of all oral communications identifying candidates for public office delivered at All Saints Church or at events sponsored by All Saints Church between Jan. 1, 2004, and Nov. 2, 2004."

The summons also asks for various financial records.


The church has until September 29 to produce the documents, and Bacon has been summoned to testify on October 11. For frame of reference, Election Day is November 7.

So the IRS holds its fire in an investigation of allegedly improper political activites just before the 2004 elections until just before the 2006 elections. How about an investigation of that?

CNN anchor Tony Harris: "We have to take the president at his word when he says that the problem with Common Article 3, which prohibits outrages against personal dignity, is that it is unclear. And we can't have our interrogators trying to get information that we need to protect this country under a bit of language here that is this vague. We can do better than this."

Late update: TPM Reader JS says Harris was simply playing devil's advocate here, and that the video makes it clear, in a way the transcript does not, that "We have to take the president at his word" was not declarative.

A new report out this evening from McClatchy on the Bush Administration's Iran machinations:

Some officials at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department said they're concerned that the offices of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney may be receiving a stream of questionable information that originates with Iranian exiles, including a discredited arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who played a role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal.

Officials at all three agencies said they suspect that the dubious information may include claims that Iran directed Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, to kidnap two Israeli soldiers in July; that Iran's nuclear program is moving faster than generally believed; and that the Iranian people are eager to join foreign efforts to overthrow their theocratic rulers.

The officials said there is no reliable intelligence to support any of those assertions and some that contradicts all three.

The officials said they fear a replay of the administration's mishandling of what turned out to be bogus information from Iraqi exiles in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, documented earlier this month in a Senate intelligence committee report.


The article also reports that former defense officials have been told airstrike plans for Iran are being updated and that the leader of a Persian Gulf country failed to get the assurances he was seeking, during a recent visit to Washington, that the military option was off the table.

There was also this nugget:

Adding to the unease, Rumsfeld's office earlier this year set up a new Iranian directorate, reported to be under the leadership of neoconservatives who played a role in planning the Iraq war.

Current and former officials said the Pentagon's Iranian directorate has been headed by Abram Shulsky. Shulsky also was the head of the now-defunct Office of Special Plans, whose role in allegedly manipulating Iraq intelligence is under investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general.

Some officials say they fear the office, whose existence was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, is being used to funnel intelligence from Ghorbanifar, the arms dealer, and an Iranian exile group known as the Mujahedeen Khalq.


You may recall that after Republican gains in the 2002 mid-term elections, Vice President Cheney declared privately that more tax cuts were "our due." If the GOP retains control of Congress in November, will military action in Iran be their due?

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