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Post Politics: Obama and the CIA, Dick Cheney Speaks Out, More

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Ben Pershing
washingtonpost.com Political Blogger
Tuesday, April 21, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration and the world of politics with Ben Pershing, who writes the daily Rundown for The Post's Political Browser. Pershing was online April 21 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions.

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Ben Pershing: Good morning to all. President Obama is busy today talking about the economy and national service. Congress is back in town and holding hearings on climate change and the TARP program. We've also got Dick Cheney, CIA memos and lots more to talk about. So let's get started.


Palm Beach, Fla.: Now that Obama has undermined our national security by releasing top-secret CIA documents, when will he release the "rest of the story" documents that provide strong evidence what was prevented by our CIA interrogations? When will this administration do that?!

Ben Pershing: Is that you, Dick Cheney? You sound an awful lot like the former vice president did speaking on Sean Hannity's show yesterday. Cheney has asked the CIA to declassify some additional documents that he says will show those interrogation policies were effective and thus justified. A lot of critics have written that no such evidence actually exists -- that those harsh interrogations did not in fact result in the foiling of terrorist plots. It's also impossible to prove a negative. If these same detainees had been subjected to different, less harsh tactics, would they have given up less information? More? It's impossible to know.


Warrenville, Ill.: Mr. Cheney seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. (To the Democrats, that it. And to Mr. Obama in particular.)

Mr. Cheney keeps reminding people why they voted Democratic last November. His call for the release of more CIA memos might backfire. Mr. Obama might decide to do so, justifying his actions as merely responding to Mr. Cheney's request.

My understanding is that such memos will show how very little torture achieved. In fact, that the tortured to escape pain made up accusations that sucked resources that in the long run showed the accusations to be false. Thus making us no safer.

Surely, Mr. Cheney is a true believer, at minimum in himself. But presenting himself as the Republican spokesman keeps fighting a battle that he's already lost.


Ben Pershing: Chris Cillizza touched on this subject on The Fix this morning. Putting aside whether you agree or disagree with the substance of what Cheney has said on waterboarding or other topics, is it helpful for the GOP to have him on TV all the time? Probably not. There is a Republican core that still really likes and respects Cheney but otherwise he is broadly unpopular, and I would bet that many Republican leaders in DC privately wish he would just go to some undisclosed location and stay there.


washingtonpost.com: From The Fix this morning: White House Cheat Sheet: Cheney Keeps on Swinging


Langley, VA: I'm surprised at all of the discussion about prosecuting CIA agents for what they have done in the past....

If the courts reversed Roe v. Wade and decided that aborting an unborn baby was murder, should all of the doctors who performed the abortions be charged with murder? What is different here?

Ben Pershing: Interesting analogy, but it doesn't quite work. Abortion is currently legal, so even if it were subsequently made illegal, past actions would not be subject to prosecution. The tricky part with these interrogation policies is that it's not really clear whether they ever were legal. Yes, the Justice Department produced legal memos arguing that these methods were acceptable. But the Justice Department doesn't make the laws, it just interprets them.

That said, I don't know how easy it would be to prosecute those past interrogators if Obama chose to do so, given that they could make the classic argument that they were following orders and were told their actions were permissible. It might be a tough case for the prosecution to make.


St. Paul, Minn.: Thanks, Ben, for taking our questions.

Our senate race will be over in a month, have no fear, but when will the NY 20th district race be done?

Ben Pershing: Good question. The counting of ballots in that race has been going on for three weeks and will continue for at least another week. Right now the Democrat, Scott Murphy, leads the Republican, Jim Tedisco, by 273 votes. They're now arguing in court over the ballots that remain to be counted, and both sides have challenged some ballots as invalid. They're due back in court next Monday, so next week would be the earliest the race might be considered over. More likely the fight will drag on beyond that, particularly if Tedisco decides to keep battling in court the way Norm Coleman has in Minnesota.


Fairfax, Va.: Any word if John Hoeven will run for the North Dakota Senate seat in 2010?

Ben Pershing: Hoeven, the governor, hasn't given any indication yet whether he will challenge Byron Dorgan. His entry into the race is the only way it would actually be competitive. For what it's worth, the last poll I saw, back in February, had Dorgan beating Hoeven by more than 20 points in a hypothetical matchup.


Washington, DC: It appears that Rep. Jane Harman is in very deep trouble, which is about to get worse. The details can be found from a number of sources, but what do you know of her reputation on Capitol Hill and her relationship with both the previous and current administrations? She strikes me as a pretty tough customer.

Ben Pershing: Jane Harman has been much in the news the last couple of days. The details are complicated -- she reportedly was captured in a recorded phone conversation with "an Israeli agent" a few years ago allegedly offering to try to stop a prosecution of two AIPAC officials, in exchange for the Israeli lobbying or pressuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi into giving Harman the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee in 2006. Harman has denied any wrongdoing.

It's true that Harman is, as you say, a "tough customer." She has had a very rocky relationship with Pelosi, which is why she never did get that Intel chairmanship and could be why the Obama administration never offered her an executive branch post, either. As for this current controversy, the Justice Department never did pursue an investigation of Harman and there's no evidence that it will now, so I'm not sure that she's actually in "very deep trouble," beyond the fact that this looks bad.


Confused?: There seems to be a press meme that President Obama needs to narrow his focus, usually spending more time on the economy instead of devoting time to the myriad of foreign policy problems, health care, climate change, and immigration. I don't understand, though. The President has all these staffers for a reason, no? Economic advisers can focus on the economy. Foreign policy advisers can focus on the foreign affairs. How is Obama being stretched thin?

Ben Pershing: The president does have all these staffers, and he also has a very talented Cabinet, so maybe he should rely on them more. That's one argument: Obama himself doesn't need to speak publicly every day on a different subject. He could delegate more -- to Hillary Clinton on foreign policy, for example -- and focus himself on a smaller number of topics. The economy chief among them.


Sterling VA: Hi Ben Any news on the Coleman/Frankin senate seat? Will the Gov. of Minnesota let this nonsense go to the US Supreme court? Or will he wise up?

Ben Pershing: It's not actually up to Gov. Pawlenty whether the case does or does go to the Supreme Court. Coleman can file his appeals and the court can decide whether to take the case, regardless of what the governor does. It's true that Pawlenty is under some pressure to certify Franken's victory so he can be seated in the Senate, but that wouldn't stop Colemand from being able to appeal.


Arlington, Va.: Will there be an investigation now into Rep. Jane Harman's alleged crimes caught on wiretap that were suppressed by Alberto Gonzales?

Ben Pershing: Just to play Devil's Advocate here, what crimes? Harman's behavior, if true, might warrant an investigation and an admonishment from the House ethics committee. But I'm just not sure if there's a criminal case to be made against her. It's very, very hard to prove bribery charges. And there is no evidence that she actually called anyone at Justice to pressure them on the AIPAC investigation. I'm not saying that the allegations don't look bad, but again, I'm just not sure about the criminal part.


Atlanta: One thing I didn't understand about some of the tea party signs I saw last week...how can Obama be both a socialist and a fascist? Sounds like some of these partiers could have better used their protesting time reading a good history textbook.

Ben Pershing: I believe I learned in political science classes in college that the further out you go to the left or the right on the ideological spectrum, the closer the two ends actually come together. Or something like that. College was a bit of a blur. As a general rule, I try not to put too much stock in the logic behind most signs you see at protests.


Coleman: Had 10 days to file an appeal. Said he woudl do it on the first day. We are now at day seven and he hasn't appealed. Is it now just a shameless postponement of Franken's eventual seating, or is he seriously realizing he doesn't have a chance?

Ben Pershing: Coleman filed his appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court late Monday.


NY, NY: Almost more interesting re: the Jane Harman case is the fact that she called the NY Times to persuade them not to run a story on wiretapping right before the 2004 election. Obviously there were many factors that contributed to Bush defeating Kerry in 2004 and it's impossible to determine the effect a story on this could have had, but still. I'm surprised Dems aren't starting to tar and feather her already; and no wonder she's not popular with Pelosi. Obama seems to have dodged a bullet in not nominating her to any post in his administration.

Ben Pershing: That tidbit about her calling the NYT was pretty interesting, though the editor of the newspaper said in their story today that Harman's call didn't really have an impact on their decision not to run the story. For what it's worth, other Congressional Democrats -- including Pelosi -- knew about the wiretapping program before it became public and didn't do a whole lot to stop it.


DC: I am outraged that Obama will not be prosecuting torture and so are many others on the left.

As an attorney, I feel let down, again, that justice and the rule of law mean so little to our President.

What's a progressive to do other than wear Pink and chant slogans as I walk by the WH?

Ben Pershing: Start a third party? Support a Democratic primary challenge to Obama in 2012? Call or write to your member of Congress? There is lots you can do, all of it probably more effective than wearing pink.


Berks County, Pa.: Is Obama well liked by the higher order in the military and how are they ( privately ) rating the President's first 100 days ?

Ben Pershing: I don't have firsthand knowledge of how military leaders are privately rating Obama. But there was an interesting story on this topic in this morning's issue of CongressDaily. It's subscriber-only, but I'll just summarize: The article theorizes that the Obama administration is doing fairly well with the military because it is learning from the mistakes of the Clinton administration, which often clashed with the military in its early days. Obama also retained some of the service secretaries who served under Bush, as well as Robert Gates, and has appointed military brass to high-ranking administration posts -- including James Jones, Dennis Blair and Eric Shinseki. All of those gestures are probably helping Obama so far.

Obama did stumble when he proposed a change to veterans' health care that angered a lot of vets' groups, but he quickly withdrew the proposal and apologized.


Vienna, Va.: Isn't the Rep. Harman issue the question of why she was wiretapped?

Ben Pershing: Yes, that is a very interesting unanswered question in all of this. Was the NSA listening in on this "Israeli agent," who happened to talk to Harman? Or were they actually listening to Harman? If the NSA made a practice of listening to the conversations of senior members of Congress, particularly ones on the House Intelligence Committee, that would be a very, very big deal.


Washington, DC: I am no Chenney fan...but he has a point. Why didnt Obama release the memos that highlight what potential attacks these methods prevented? It would seem to help the Obama admin if they would be able to say ....they did this, and it didn't stop anything.

Or, are they trying to hide something?

Ben Pershing: It's not clear yet whether there's anything to hide. Maybe there are memos that specifically say, "Because of these interrogation methods, the following terrorist plots were stopped." Or maybe there aren't. I just don't know.


Woodbridge, Va.: The fact that the CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed 183 times and Abu Zubaida 83 times proves that waterboarding is worthless as a method to extract information. You can really only waterboard someone effectively once. The suspect turns over information because he is afraid you will kill him. Once he realizes it's a bluff and you aren't going to kill him it becomes pointless. It's like pointing a gun at someone who knows it's not loaded.

Ben Pershing: There are interrogation experts who have made that point, arguing either that "torture" really doesn't work, or that it doesn't work if it's clear that it's a bluff. The idea that one detainee would be waterboarded 183 times does seem like a lot. But maybe he really was talking, and the interrogators really did think they were getting fresh information each time.


Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Will you watch the Blago reality show from Costa Rica? Thanks.

Ben Pershing: It would be hard not to watch, wouldn't it? It's like trying to drive be a car accident without looking.


Change to Vets' Healthcare...: Why did the vets get angry, would the proposed change have made things worse? Considering the stellar record our VA has these days, is that even possible?

Ben Pershing: They got angry because Obama proposed to save money by charging veterans' private insurance plans for treatment of service-connected injuries. Obviously this only would have applied to vets who already had their own insurance coverage, but many veterans saw it as an abdication of the government's responsibility to care for wounded veterans. Obama dropped the plan after some very loud, public complaining.


Prescott, Ariz.: Do you think that Republicans will ever figure out that trotting out multiply divorced, serial adulterers like Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani as point-men to argue that gay marriage somehow harms the whole idea of marriage is counter-productive?

Ben Pershing: That's a fair point. You could argue that neither man is a poster child for marital virtue.


Cocoa Beach, Fla.: When Obama went to the CIA headquarters he was cheered by the workers. Is this anecdotal evidence that they understand the need for getting the info out?

Ben Pershing: I think it's common for the president to get applause most places he goes, particularly a new president who has a lot of star power. So I wouldn't necessarily read much into that applause either way.


Ben Pershing: Thanks for all the fine questions, everyone. See you back here next time.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

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