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Torture, By Any Other Name

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 5, 2006; 12:54 PM

President Bush repeatedly says he's against torture. The detainee legislation recently approved by Congress ostensibly bans torture.

But that's meaningless if the Bush administration won't say how it defines the word.

And the White House still refuses to answer even the simplest, most germane question: Is waterboarding torture?

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Key senators say Congress has outlawed one of the most notorious detainee interrogation techniques -- 'waterboarding,' in which a prisoner feels near drowning. But the White House will not go that far, saying it would be wrong to tell terrorists which practices they might face.

"Inside the CIA, waterboarding is cited as the technique that got Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the prime plotter of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to begin to talk and provide information -- though 'not all of it reliable,' a former senior intelligence official said."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) told his colleagues last Thursday during the debate on military commissions legislation: "We punished people with 15 years of hard labor when waterboarding was used against Americans in World War II."

Pincus explains that CIA interrogators sought authority to use more coercive methods for suspected high-level al-Qaeda operatives. "These were cleared not only at the White House but also by the Justice Department and briefed to senior congressional officials, according to a statement released last month by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Waterboarding was one of the approved techniques.

"When questions began to be raised last year about the handling of high-level detainees and Congress passed legislation barring torture, the handful of CIA interrogators and senior officials who authorized their actions became concerned that they might lose government support.

"Passage last month of military commissions legislation provided retroactive legal protection to those who carried out waterboarding and other coercive interrogation techniques."

Parsing Bush

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As he heads out on the campaign trail, haunted by an unpopular war, President Bush has begun reassuring audiences that this traumatic period in Iraq will be seen as 'just a comma' in the history books. By that, aides say, he means to reinforce his message of resolve in the long struggle for Iraqi democracy.

"But opponents of the war have seized on the formulation, seeing it as evidence that Bush is indifferent to suffering. To them, it sounds as if the president is dismissing more than 2,700 U.S. troop deaths as 'just a comma.' And a lively Internet debate has broken out about the origins of the phrase, with some speculating that Bush means it as a coded message to religious supporters, evoking the aphorism 'Never put a period where God has put a comma.'"

Baker also calls some deserved attention to Bush's predilection for straw-man argument. (See my Sept. 27 column, Bush's Imaginary Foes .)

Writes Baker: "Wednesday, for example, he attacked Democrats for voting last week against legislation authorizing warrantless telephone and e-mail surveillance.

"'One hundred and seventy-seven of the opposition party said, 'You know, we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists,' ' Bush said at a fundraiser for Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) before heading to Colorado for gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez.

"Asked about the president's statement, White House aides could not name any Democrat who has said that the government should not listen in on terrorists. Democrats who voted against the legislation had complained that it would hand too much power to the president and had said that they wanted more checks in the bill to protect civil liberties. . . .

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino defended Bush's remark as a reasonable extrapolation of the Democratic position. 'Of course, they aren't silly enough to say they don't want to listen in on terrorists, but actions speak louder than words, and people should know what the Democrats' voting record is,' she said."

Signing Statements as Power Grab

Is Charlie Savage the only newspaper reporter who cares about Bush's signing statements?

Savage has been a one-man band on the issue.

In this morning's Boston Globe , Savage writes: "President Bush's frequent use of signing statements to assert that he has the power to disobey newly enacted laws is 'an integral part' of his 'comprehensive strategy to strengthen and expand executive power' at the expense of the legislative branch, according to a report by the non partisan Congressional Research Service.

"In a 27-page report written for lawmakers, the research service said the Bush administration is using signing statements as a means to slowly condition Congress into accepting the White House's broad conception of presidential power, which includes a presidential right to ignore laws he believes are unconstitutional.

"The 'broad and persistent nature of the claims of executive authority forwarded by President Bush appear designed to inure Congress, as well as others, to the belief that the president in fact possesses expansive and exclusive powers upon which the other branches may not intrude,' the report said. . . .

"Despite such criticism, the administration has continued to issue signing statements for new laws. Last week, for example, Bush signed the 2007 military budget bill, but then issued a statement challenging 16 of its provisions.

"The bill bars the Pentagon from using any intelligence that was collected illegally, including information about Americans that was gathered in violation of the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable government surveillance.

"In Bush's signing statement, he suggested that he alone could decide whether the Pentagon could use such information. His signing statement instructed the military to view the law in light of 'the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief, including for the conduct of intelligence operations, and to supervise the unitary executive branch.'"

Here's the CRS report , Web-posted by the Federation of American Scientists.

Oversight (Non) Watch

The report concludes that for all their bluster, the signing statements actually are nothing a little Congressional oversight couldn't cure.

"While the broad assertions of executive authority contained in these statements carry significant implications, both practical and constitutional, for the traditional relationship between the Executive Branch and Congress, they do not have legal force or effect, and have not been utilized to effect the formal nullification of laws. . . .

"It can be argued that the appropriate focus of congressional concern should center not on the issuance of signing statements themselves, but on the broad assertions of presidential authority forwarded by Presidents and the substantive actions taken to establish that authority. Accordingly, a robust oversight regime focusing on substantive executive action, as opposed to the vague and generalized assertions of authority typical of signing statements, might allow Congress in turn to more effectively assert its constitutional prerogatives and ensure compliance with its enactments."

But as Robert Kuttner recently wrote in the American Prospect (subscription required), when it comes to oversight, "[t]he default of Republicans in Congress is staggering. No ongoing investigations on waste and incompetence at the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing on the vast self-serving mess that is the Medicare prescription-drug program. Nothing serious on the scandals by defense contractors in Iraq, or on Cheney's possible role in securing a $7 billion dollar no-bid contract for Halliburton, or on his secret energy task force. Nothing on the enforcement default by the Environmental Protection Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. No serious oversight of the FBI. Precious little on the ongoing failure to rebuild New Orleans, or on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, or the illegal domestic spying, or on the Justice Department's failure to enforce the right to vote. Nothing on the data-mining program that has revived the supposedly discarded John Poindexter plan by the back door."

And certainly no follow-up on signing statements.

Another One!

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Wednesday signed a homeland security bill that includes an overhaul of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $1.2 billion for fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal immigration.

"Standing before a mountainous backdrop in Arizona, a state that has been the center of much debate over secure borders, Bush signed into law a $35 billion homeland security spending bill that could bring hundreds of miles of fencing to the busiest illegal entry point on the U.S.-Mexican border."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks at the bill signing. "This is a good bill," he said, in his brief remarks.

But what neither Riechmann nor Bush bothered to mention was that, when the cameras were no longer running, Bush issued another signing statement , 1,078 words long and objecting to a slew of the bill's provisions.

As usual, it's not entirely clear what Bush's objections really mean, or what effect they'll have. And as usual, no one bothered to ask anyone at the White House why they couldn't have taken a more up-front approach, and either worked with Congress to resolve their differences or vetoed the bill.

So many of the questions I raised about signing statements on NiemanWatchdog.org in June are still unanswered.

And what precisely was Bush objecting to? A lot of it seems awfully petty.

Here's the text of the bill in question.

Says the signing statement: "To the extent that provisions of the Act, such as section 558, purport to direct or burden the conduct of negotiations by the executive branch with foreign governments or other entities abroad, the executive branch shall construe them as advisory. Such provisions, if construed as mandatory rather than advisory, would impermissibly interfere with the President's constitutional authorities to conduct the Nation's foreign affairs, participate in international negotiations, and supervise the unitary executive branch."

All section 558 requires is that the administration designate three foreign seaports to pilot a scanning system for containerized cargo that includes nonintrusive imaging equipment and radiation detection equipment.

Says the signing statement: "The executive branch shall construe provisions of the Act relating to race, ethnicity, and gender, such as sections 623 and 697 of the Act, in a manner consistent with the requirement of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution to afford equal protection of the laws."

But all section 623 does is establish a graduate-level Homeland Security Education Program for senior government officials, and ask the administrator of the program to "take reasonable steps to ensure that the student body represents racial, gender, and ethnic diversity."

Similarly, all section 697 requires is that the government create a registry of businesses willing to perform disaster or emergency relief activities -- and that the registry note, among other things, whether the business is a small business owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, women, or service-disabled veterans.

Drowned Out

As I wrote yesterday , Bush is having a hard time competing for attention with the Congressional page-sex scandal revolving around former representative Mark Foley and rapidly enveloping the GOP House leadership.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "During his three-day campaign swing out West this week, Mr. Bush's carefully honed attacks on Democrats as soft on terrorism have been drowned out by the Foley case and its political repercussions.

"In interviews this week, White House officials expressed a sense of resignation, saying they were left with few options to help their party emerge intact from a scandal that appears to further threaten the Republicans' hold on Congress.

"For now, they said, they have little choice but to sit on the sidelines, watch it play out and hope that the House Republican leadership, starting with Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, finds an adroit way to extricate itself from the matter."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "Faced with an ugly GOP sex scandal in Congress and signs his own political comeback is on the skids, Bush used some of his most strident language yet while campaigning for Republican candidates in next month's election. . . .

"Democrats contend Bush's outburst was the latest sign he's worried that he's going to lose control of Congress.

"'It's pathetic, and it's not working,' Senate Democratic spokesman Phil Singer said of Bush's harsh language."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune that White House officials are "privately voicing confidence that Hastert will weather the controversy."

Don't Ignore Me!

Holly Bailey blogs for Newsweek: "For a guy who's never had much use for reporters, President Bush sure seems to crave their attention. After he wrapped up a fund-raising event for GOP Rep. Dick Pombo in California, Bush bounded off stage and headed toward the audience to shake hands with supporters. But as he came down the stairs, he paused and shot a disappointed look toward the area where the White House press was corralled. Most of the scribes were buried nose deep in their laptops and didn't notice the president was on the move. 'Hello!' Bush called to them. No response. 'Hello, reporters!' he shouted again, leaning in and spreading his arms. Still, nothing. 'Hellllo!' Bush bellowed, waving his arms in the air and laughing."

The Bush/Hastert Love Affair

Bush on Tuesday had a few supportive words for Hastert.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "It wasn't a glowing endorsement. After all, Bush didn't explicitly say that Hastert shouldn't resign.

"But for a White House that has often been happy to let scandal-plagued lawmakers twist in the wind -- the lobbyist troubles and race comments that crippled Tom DeLay and Trent Lott respectively come to mind -- Bush's decision to speak out on Hastert was notable and speaks to how much the White House relies on him as their go-to man on Capitol Hill.

"Of all congressional Republicans, Hastert has been viewed by administration officials as perhaps the most important figure when it comes to Bush's prospects of pushing through any of his agenda during his final two years in office. Even as a growing number of GOP lawmakers have rebelled against the White House in this second term, Hastert has been the coach who kept lawmakers from venturing too far off the mark."

Says one House GOP lawmaker: "I think Denny might be his closest friend on the Hill."

Poll Watch

According to an NC State press release , the results of a new survey out of North Carolina State University suggest that Americans appear unwilling to pay the future human and material costs of the war. . . .

"When asked to provide 'an acceptable number of U.S. military deaths' in Iraq, 61 percent of respondents said zero. . . . When asked later in the survey how much more money the United States should 'spend in order to complete the mission in Iraq,' 55 percent of respondents said no additional dollars should be spent. These views are undoubtedly related to the fact that 57 percent of respondents felt that the United States 'should have stayed out' of Iraq and that respondents were split 50-50 on whether U.S. efforts in Iraq would succeed or fail."

William A. Boettcher III and Michael D. Cobb , the two professors who conducted the poll, wrote a Raleigh News and Observer op-ed in August on the importance to opponents of the war of reframing the debate.

"The public is ready to re-evaluate the U.S. involvement in Iraq, but it can't discern an exit strategy so long as Iraq is viewed through the lens of the war on terrorism. It is time for leading critics of the war to step up and show them the way out," they wrote.

The full survey can be accessed from Cobb's Web page .

Woodward Watch

John Dickerson proudly announces that "Slate's reading guide fast-forwards you straight to the juicy parts" of Bob Woodward's new book.

Jacob Weisberg , also in Slate, writes: "Woodward never acknowledges changing his mind because he regards himself as a straightforward reporting machine, with no opinions of his own and no axes to grind. He can't say he's revising his judgments because he claims never to have made any. But, of course, Woodward does have a consistent worldview -- the conventional wisdom of any given moment. When tout le Beltway viewed Rummy as a commanding hunk, Woodward embodied the adoration. Now that we all know Rummy is a vicious old bastard, Woodward channels the loathing just as fluidly. I'm not holding my breath, but if the war in Iraq takes a turn for the better, Stud Rummy could well return in Woodward's Buns of Brass: Bush at War IV.

"What's maddening is the way Woodward reverses his point of view without acknowledging he ever had one -- then or now. You could charge him with flattering politicians only when they're up, and piling on when they're down. But you might as well accuse a weathervane of changing its mind about which way the wind should blow."

The White House, for its part, continued its offensive on Woodward's book, with another on of its " Setting the Record Straight " memos.

'Mission Accomplished' Redux

Al Kamen wrote in The Washington Post on Sunday: "Remember that great 'Mission Accomplished' banner on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, when President Bush dramatically landed there to give his speech announcing the end of 'major combat operations' in Iraq?

"The White House said the banner was not its doing and must have been the Navy's idea.

"Now we find out, in Bob Woodward 's new book 'State of Denial,' that wasn't the case. None other than Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld , on the record, tells Woodward that 'I took 'Mission Accomplished' out' upon reading a draft of the speech. 'And I fixed it and sent it back. They fixed the speech,' he said, 'but not the sign.'"

That even blows the White House's cover story, when it came out that they had produced the banner themselves.

You may recall that at an October 28, 2003 press conference , Bush said his staff was not responsible for the banner on the ship. "The 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln, saying that their mission was accomplished," he said. "I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from my staff -- they weren't that ingenious, by the way."

But as Dana Milbank and Mike Allen wrote in the next day's Washington Post: "White House press secretary Scott McClellan later acknowledged that the sign was produced by the White House. He said the warship's crew, at sea for 10 months, had requested it. 'The original idea for the banner was suggested by those on the ship,' McClellan said. 'They asked if we would take care of the production of the banner. The banner was a way to commemorate the sailors and crew onboard the ship and the fact that they had accomplished their mission after a lengthy deployment."

Now, of course, there's reason to believe that wasn't true either.

Flash Back

That day on the Abraham Lincoln may truly have been the pinnacle of White House insincerity. This Dana Milbank story from The Washington Post on May 7, 2003 reminds me of yet another aspect of the grand charade: "President Bush chose to make a jet landing on an aircraft carrier last week even after he was told he could easily reach the ship by helicopter, the White House said yesterday, changing the explanation it gave for Bush's 'Top Gun' style event. . . .

"White House officials had said, both before and after Bush's landing in a Navy S-3B Viking jet, that he took the plane solely to avoid inconveniencing the sailors, who were returning home after a deployment of nearly 10 months. The officials said that Bush decided not to wait until the ship was in helicopter range to avoid delaying the troops' homecoming."

Gas Price Watch

Daniel Gross writes for Slate about "speculation about conspiracies led by the Bush administration, and those close to it, to engineer a sharp fall in the prices of oil and gas during campaign season."

Gross explores some plausible theories: "The administration has taken steps recently to remove a marginal, but important, buyer from the marketplace. After having delayed the summer's deposits to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve until the fall, the Wall Street Journal Monday reported that, 'The Energy Department will hold off purchases of oil for the government's emergency reserve through the upcoming winter.'

"And then there's the strange case of how Goldman Sachs, the investment firm formerly run by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, this summer shifted the weighting of gasoline in the Goldman Sachs Commodities Index in such a way that forced investors to dump speculative positions in gasoline, hence pushing down prices. It's a convoluted story, but this article from last Friday's New York Times lays it out pretty well."

But then Gross cavalierly dismisses those arguments and concludes that "the recent fall in energy prices is almost certainly not a Bush conspiracy, just a bit of electoral good luck."

Tough Crowds

Bush is only speaking at Republican fundraisers these days. Vice President Cheney leavens the mix with speeches at military bases. So leave it to Laura Bush to take the big risks -- like agreeing to an interview yesterday with AM 1700 TEEN RADIO:

Here's the transcript :

"Q This is AM 1700. I am Miss Diva, Amber Bellamy, here with the First Lady, the First Lady, Mrs. Laura Bush. Wow, it's a great experience.

"MRS. BUSH: Thanks, Amber.

"Q And I'm here with Mrs. Bush and Amber Bellamy. This is DJ Whiter. We're here with Mrs. Bush, like Amber, Miss Diva, said.

"Q Mrs. Bush, the First Lady, this is a great experience, wow.

"Q Yes, real great."

Through the Viewfinder

Time White House photographer Christopher Morris says in a video interview that the most challenging part of his job "is the creative end of it." After all, he's been shooting "the same guy in the same suit for five years."

So how does Morris stay sane? He enjoys photographing the "entourage" more than the president. "I like to photograph the guy who holds the nuclear suitcase, his personal valet."

And he shoots "portraits of this cult of personality, the idolatry of the way that people look at the president, and kind of just the stare that people get."

Morris says he thinks his photos, now in book form and on exhibit , will make for a great anthropological study some day.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush's best friend.

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