White House Watch: Torture Investigation, Obama's Populism, More

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Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, May 6, 2009; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch for washingtonpost.com.

He was online Wednesday, May 6 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions about his blog and the latest White House news.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat. Lots to talk about: Torture, Afghanistan and Pakistan (coming soon), Obama's sporadic populism, you name it. So let me know what's on your mind.

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Washington, DC: Question about the torture memos. If all this stuff was supposedly legal, why didn't the previous administration come to the defense of those soldiers (Lyndie England and the others) convicted of torturing prisoners? It surely would have helped their defense efforts. And how is it even remotely justifiable that they are the only people who have been tried for torturing prisoners?

Dan Froomkin: The Bush nightmare is for the public to make the (totally reasonable, just not yet fully documented) connection between its legal memos and what happened at Abu Ghraib.

No one (not even them) could possibly defend as legal the things that were done at Abu Ghraib. The Bushies instead have concocted a very narrow legal defense of the CIA-based interrogations. Even that doesn't hold up. But that's their big line of defense right now.

Also see Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker about who, exactly, has been held accountable thus far.

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NW DC: Just to vent a little.

I realize 44 and Biden want to go out to eat like the common guys but lunch time in DC and Arlington is not the best time to go, unless you go without a motorcades and half of the police in DC and northern Virginia.

Sure, motorcades come a go but just to get a burger -- medium well at that (for Tom's discussion)! Let's think of the "common" folks who were inconvenienced.

BTW, did Joe follow Swine Flu guidelines for being in public. Were there separate limousines so Biden's wouldn't be in a confined space?

Dan Froomkin: Ooh. So bitter.

You really begrudge them their HellBurgers?

Me, what I found unforgiveable was that they both ordered theirs medium-well.

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Rockville, Md.: Dan, did you spend so much time ragging President Bush that you turned into sort of a nag? Or am I misreading your comments on President Obama? Lighten up.

He really is doing a good job.

Dan Froomkin: I believe part of my job description is "nag."

And to the extent that Obama behaves in ways that are hypocritical, inconsistent, or nontransparent, I don't intend to hold back -- or "lighten up" as you would put it.

But I don't think I'm being overly negative. And in fact I get comments all the time from folks who think I'm being a pushover.

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Boston: Not sure if you've covered this already but what has surprised you the most after covering the Obama White House for the first 100 days?

Dan Froomkin: I was surprised -- and disappointed -- by the lack of transparency. Not compared to Bush, but compared to what Obama promised on Day Two.

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Washington, D.C.: Any idea when the White House will get around to getting rid of the U.S. attorneys?

Dan Froomkin: Boy, that is a good question. Kind of amazing so many of the Bush-appointed ones are still around, isn't it? And it seems to me the longer Holder waits to replace them, the more likely it is to look funny when he does. Is anyone keeping track of this?

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U.S. Attorneys: Why do they have to be replaced? That's old Washington thinking. Just because their appointment was politically-based, doesn't mean that they can't do their jobs properly.

Dan Froomkin: They don't have to be replaced. And I'm sure some will be kept on. But by and large, the Bush USAs were highly and overtly political -- and I certainly wouldn't blame Holder for replacing most of them.

Ideally, these jobs wouldn't be so political and we could reasonably expect continuity from one administration to another, but we're hardly there now.

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Park Ridge, Ill.: Dan, what has enchanted you most about Obama's first 100 days?

Dan Froomkin: Ha! What a great question.

And like Obama, I'll duck it.

I will say that I still can't get over how much he has on his plate.

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Chicago: What's with the "medium well" snobbery? You and Gene Weingarten both. Gene says it's the preference of children and Philistines. Can we maybe get over ourselves? You'd think Obama had just ordered a hotdog with ketchup in Chicago (a big no-no).

Dan Froomkin: I rarely (pardon the pun) go off topic like this, but please. You might as well be eating cardboard.

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Sullivan, Ill.: Dan, I'm sure you have noticed that your columns on torture seem to get more comments and running conversations in response. Some of these comments are logical and reasoned some are irrational. What do you think is the reason for these pieces attracting so much more attention than other topics?

I have a theory...I think it is because both sides of the issue, those defending the practice and those condemning see it as the most vulnerable place for Bush administration officials in terms of legal liability.

Dan Froomkin: That sounds about right to me. The stakes are huge -- politically and legally, like you point out, and morally as well.

Sadly, another factor is that there are some commenters simply looking for a fight, and they know there's one to be found there.

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Los Angeles: During last week's Press Conference, President Obama referenced Winston Churchill for historical perspective in commenting on torturing prisoners. Recalling President Roosevelt's famous quote "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from his first Inaugural Address, how much did fear (i.e., Yellowcake, Saddam's WMDs, Mushroom cloud, Iraq-al Qaeda connection, etc.) play in Bush Administration decisions to invade Iraq, wage war there and torture prisoners?

Published statements by Former Secretary of State Rice this weekend support the notion that fear was a non-trivial factor for Bush Administration post 9-11 actions (borrowing $billions invading Iraq, destroying property and killing, injuring and displacing thousands of Iraqis). If we include that 4,300+ US soldiers died and 28,000+ soldiers have been injured, it's hard not to conclude that the Iraq invasion and war is one of if not the worst U.S. foreign policy decision.

Dan Froomkin: Gotta unpack this a bit. First of all, sadly, the British did torture certain prisoners during WWII. Secondly, the "fear itself" quote, while one of my favorites, was in the context of the the Depression, not the war.

But that said, I do believe that understanding why and how Bush decided to embrace fear rather than reject it is absolutely central to any understanding of his presidency.

And remember that the goal of terrorists is... to spread terror.

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Starbucks on Wisconsin Ave.: I can't remember where I heard this, but I heard Hillary Clinton was on the short list for SCOTUS. Is this even a remote possibility?

Dan Froomkin: Hey neighbor. It is, indeed, a remote possibility.

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Warrenville, IL: Dan: This weekend over lunch several friends mentioned that Obama (in whom they'd never believed) has made it clear that he's already thrown gays under the bus. Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell?" Well, now the idea is so complex that Gates and company don't know when they can think about it. If ever. Repealing the "Defense of Marriage Act?" Well, the country has more important things to do. Saying a word of support about marriage equality? Wouldn't want to offend the Saddlebackers, would we. (More important: Be inclusive. Invite the Saddlebackers in.)

Yes, working for full equality for gay Americans would be politically risky. (Look at what happened to Clinton the one time that he tried it. Sure taught him never to try that again.) Except for appointing one openly gay high-level administration official, Obama seems to have decided that working for gay equality is just too complex for this administration. Even saying a word in support is just too exhausting.

Do you have any sense that this reading is too hard on Obama? Or in any way contravenes the truth?

Dan Froomkin: I have no insight into whether Obama's decision to postpone/duck these various independent issues reflects a concerted strategy, or just a bunch of individual prioritizations. But I can certainly see how this would be a source of intense frustration to those who expected him to support gay rights. And I was struck just before this chat by the news that Maine has now become the fifth state to approve gay marriage -- and how here is a genuinely huge social phenomenon, indeed a major civil rights movement, proceeding along apace without Obama at the helm (or anywhere near).

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Dale City, VA: Dan, a bit of a personal question here. If there's one thing that keeps you awake at night, what is it? The thought that Bush admin officials might go unprosecuted for torture? The idea of unsecured nukes in Pakistan? Healthcare reform not getting passed? Obama continuing Bush's detainee policies? Warrantless wiretapping?

Dan Froomkin: There's a lot to despair over these days. One thing you didn't mention was the incredible toll that the recession and foreclosure crisis is taking on people throughout the country.

Certainly, the idea that this nation could remain associated with torture -- something that I think is inevitable without some sort of official moment of reckoning and accountability -- is horrifying to me.

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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Good afternoon from where it's the middle of the night on Thursday. You write a lot about how the media failed to cover Bush properly. Are you encouraged by how your compatriots are doing with Obama? Or are they being as slapdash as usual, with the real tough examinations coming from the likes of Glenn Greenwald? (He seems to like you, BTW.)

I wish Obama would do half of what he promised to do, because then I could move back to the U.S. from my political exile. But the way things are going, I'm not shopping for shipping containers yet.

Dan Froomkin: We have yet to see a media failure quite as spectacular as several individual and ongoing ones we saw during the Bush years. But no, I'm not remotely satisfied. There's lots to dislike, including way too much superficiality and snarkiness, and way too little accountability on such issues as the bank bailout, transparency, and Afghanistan. You can read more of my press criticism here and here and read my unrealized hopes for Obama coverage here

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Obama and Gays: My sense is that he specifically does NOT want to be at the front of this movement, for fear of giving the far right something to galvanize themselves, hurting his whole agenda.

Let the states (and District) expand rights one by one, hopefully get inclusive language in the Health Care bill, and probably in 2011 we can sweep away DOMA.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, but doesn't it seem odd that our first African-American president would opt out of the major civil-rights movement of his term?

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Orlando, Fla.: Hi Dan,

If the torture issue does not reach the Supreme Court how will future presidents know what is legal or not?

Dan Froomkin: Well, Congress might have something to say about that.

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Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. Inherent in the executive branch is an incentive for secrecy and enhanced power. Obama campaigned on reversing many Bush policies on those two fronts. To what extent do you think Obama is being graded objectively, vs. being graded on a curve?

Dan Froomkin: Of course he's being graded on a curve -- or rather he's being judged by the standards he set for himself.

But yes, I share your conclusion, that the office is having an effect on him. Once you're in the White House, there's an obvious upside to intense message control. And thus far, there's been little downside -- i.e. there's been no significant pushback from the media.

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RE: Your Response to Los Angeles: Wasn't fear also the reason why the U.S. forcibly interned and confiscated property of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry after Pearl Harbor was bombed 7 December 1941? In 1998, over 50 years later, President Ronald Reagan officially apologized for the internment by signing reparation legislation. I wonder what if any future US President will apologize to Iraq, and if so how long will it take and what will be the final price in lives, property and money not to mention the diplomacy hit to the US.

Dan Froomkin: Fear is almost never a good guiding principle. I think history is full of examples of that.

Using fear for political purposes is even worse, mind you.

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Chicago: Dan -

Can you extend your chats beyond 1 hour? Hax dispenses advice for 2-1/2 to 3 hours regularly every Friday. What say you?

washingtonpost.com: I'm all for this, if your readers will have lunch delivered.

Dan Froomkin: Does HellBurger deliver? If so, let's buy chat producer Paul the foie-gras and truffle oil one -- bloody.

I can go a bit over today.

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You can read more of my press criticism here and here and read my unrealized hopes for Obama coverage here: Yeah, you are a real tough guy. Your criticisms would be more credible if you just focus on Obama instead of always adding a continuation of your hatred of all things GWB.

Dan Froomkin: I just can't quit him.

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Washington, D.C.: Dan: One of the complications of the torture issue is that is involves both political and legal issues. Obama wants to escape the political ramifications, which he clearly sees as a losing hand.

But legally the situation is much more complex. As I understand the problem, the US has treaty obligations to prosecute anyone who tortures--or who enables torture. Obama has tried to reassure the lower-level folks that he is not going to prosecute them. (Even if--supposedly--the US legally rejects the just-following-orders defense.)But the high-level officials (by which we mean Gonzales, Cheney and Bush himself) may be prosecutable and liable under international law to which the US is a signatory.

Thus as much as Obama wants us all to look ahead, he leagally may have obligations as our chief executive. And I think that here we're reached the nub of his problem: how can he skirt the political shoals while fulfilling his leagal obligations?

Dan Froomkin: Good analysis.

He can be dragged, kicking and screaming. And I sometimes wonder if that hasn't been his plan all along.

If Holder, after a while, decides independently to, say, appoint a special prosecutor, then Obama has plausible deniability. If Congress had the guts to set up a select committee, he couldn't do anything about it. If Congress sent him a bill calling for an independent commission, he's have a hard time vetoing it.

I think he has made the political judgment that he just can't afford to be seen taking the lead on this.

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Obama and gays II: While I have to agree with this poster, if I'm not mistaken, Obama campaigned on a promise to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell," just as he promised to try to fix the economy, end the war in Iraq, etc. etc. He made it part of his agenda. While I support him overall, as a gay American I find his pick and choose mentality for political expediency very offensive.

Dan Froomkin: He did indeed promise that, repeatedly. And see Americablog for more on what initially appeared to be an actual backtrack (rather than just a stall) when the White House Web site changed its commitment to "repeal" don't-ask-don't-tell to a promise to only "change" the policy in a "sensible way."

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Sullivan, IL: Dan, I think the criticism of you focusing on Bush is unwarranted. The column is called White House Watch. You both praise and criticize Obama, but not enough on the criticism for some. However Bush and Obama are intertwined especially when a Bush era policy is being examined within the context of Obama's presidency. Seems a little sad and it speaks volumes towards the level political discourse has slipped to that people cannot figure this out. Bush did not end on January 20 at noon just as Clinton before him did not end when Bush was sworn in. It is impossible to completely separate two administrations, especially so early in the term.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And undoing (or not undoing) Bush will be a central theme of this presidency and how it is judged in the future, I assure you.

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Bush: Since so much of what Obama has to do is clean up the mess left behind by the previous administration, isn't it fair game to continue to be critical of him, just as conservatives were continually critical of Clinton?

Dan Froomkin: What did Clinton leave behind that was half as toxic as any number of messes Bush left behind? (And no dress jokes, please.)

But yes, cleaning up the mess is going to be a big part of Obama's job.

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Chicago: Dan, are there any tea leaves to indicate whether President Obama's guidance to Attorney General Holder is to start a serious investigation into the Bush Administration's authorization of torture or to stall any such investigation? How long can Obama and Holder do nothing before they pay a political price with their Democratic base for giving up the principle of the rule of law?

Dan Froomkin: There are unconfirmed rumors that people close to Holder are in fact spending some time mulling these issues. But that's the most I've heard.

If they find a "smoking gun" then it's a no brainer, right? And maybe there is one.

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New York, New York: Dear Dan, I wonder if you saw the letter in today's NYT from a colleague of Jay Bybee? It's priceless. "It (the writing of the torture memos) seemed so out of character" laments the writer. It reminded me of post war Germans who were shocked, shocked, that their good friend Claus could have supported the Nazi regime's racial policies. "It seemed so out of character." Surely there is SOME legal way to prosecute the Bybees of this world?

washingtonpost.com: The Judge and the Memos

Dan Froomkin: Seriously. Other than Cheney, I don't think any of these people actually eat babies.

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Stamford CT: I don't get the "political problems" of torture prosecutions. Whoever broke the law, and I don't give a rat's backside about the party they belong to, should be prosecuted.

As Arianna Huffington put it, this is not a right v. left issue. It is right v. wrong.

Dan Froomkin: And you think doing what's "right" is always rewarded politically? Oh, I'd like to live in that universe.

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Madison, Wisc.: Do you have any indication of what has been the impact of the "poison pellets" that Cheney left Obama by installing his neocon loyalists in key positions? Have they been able to block policies? Do they leak inside information to their allies? Do you have a listing of these people? Finally, are there any options to effectively remove them?

Dan Froomkin: I'm very curious about whether any of them can actually be documented. Indeed, I would like to find out a lot more about how things are working in the more politically sensitive areas of the federal bureaucracy. How much inertia is there from the last regime? Is it stoked by "burrowed" political appointees, or is it just hard for career people to do a 180?

The Obama Justice Department's continued assertion of a hugely broad state secrets privilege despite Obama's ostensible devotion to a narrow interpretation would be a great test case.

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"He did indeed promise that, repeatedly": I know, everyone wants the Obama campaign promise that spoke to them personally to be fulfilled in his first 100 days and is disillusioned that he hasn't. Folks, at the rate of what the new administration has accomplished to this point, his first term will seem much longer that most 1st termers. There's still plenty of time. Maybe he's doing a policy version of Ali's "Rope-a-Dope", and come out smokin' on issues put to the side burners for now.

Dan Froomkin: A charitable interpretation.

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Richmond, VA: The more I think about it, the more I can't help but think that the Bush administration just plain panicked after 9/11. If they had cared to talk with anyone in the know they would have realized that using torture will hurt you more than help you in terms of reliable intelligence. The example I'm reading these days is Camp 020 run by the Brits during the Blitz in WWII. They didn't torture captured Nazis' .. ever. It was forbidden since they wanted only absolutely accurate information. Bad intelligence was worse than none at all. And they were under way more pressure than the Bush admin ever was.

Dan Froomkin: I think that's part of it, certainly. But why were they still defending torture on their way out the door? And to this day? See Jonathan Chait in the New Republic: "The best defense against holding Bush officials accountable for torture is that September 11 freaked out the entire country and that we can't judge their actions by the standards of how they look 'on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009,' as Obama's intelligence director puts it. This argument would carry more weight if Republicans had changed their thinking on torture and could be expected to follow the law the next time they won the presidency. Alas, they show little sign of intellectual progress.

"Even after the release of the torture memos, Republicans persist in denying that techniques like waterboarding or chaining a prisoner in a standing position for hours constitute torture."

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Dan Froomkin: Paul actually does need to eat. And I need to run. Thanks everyone!

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