Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Guy who Questioned Zubaydah

It’s fun watching the Democrats in Congress scrambling for cover against complicity in torture. They’re all claiming ignorance, but they knew what was going on. Round ’em all up. That includes you, Nancy.

Ali Soufan was an FBI official who interrogated Abu Zubaydah for three months, March-June 2002, as well as other captured terrorists. He wrote a fascinating op-ed piece for the New York Times, dated April 22, called “My Tortured Decision.” Some of his comments:

  • Zubaydah cooperated under traditional (and legal) FBI interrogation methods. He revealed that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed materminded 9/11, told about “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, and gave up much more actionable intelligence. Dick Cheney and others say this info came only from “enhanced” interrogation.
  • All information gained from Zubaydah using “enhanced interrogation techniques” had already been obtained, or could have been obtained, using traditional interrogation methods.
  • “Using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions.”
  • Info leading to the capture of Mohammed’s top aide Ramzi bin al-Shibh didn’t come from waterboarding Zubaydah, as is being claimed, but came from another terrorist interviewed using traditional methods.
  • Since the FBI refused to participate in torture, agents who knew the most about the terrorists (because the FBI specializes in counter-terrorism) had no part in the investigations once the CIA took over (which is what Dick Cheney wanted). Soufan himself was pulled out because, as his superiors told him, “We don’t do that.”
  • “It was the right decision to release these memos, as we need the truth to come out.”
  • He opposes prosecuting CIA officials. “Almost all the agency officials I worked with on these issues were good people who felt as I did about the use of enhanced techniques: it is un-American, ineffective and harmful to our national security.”
  • Reading between the lines of the memos, “it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.”
  • “We must ensure that the mistakes behind the use of these techniques are never repeated. We’re making a good start.”

Jane Mayer’s book, “The Dark Side,” gives a thorough account of Zubaydah’s capture (he was severely wounded) and subsequent interrogation–first by the FBI, then by the CIA. Keith Olberman seems to have discovered the book. He used lots of info from it tonite on his show (and weakly defended the claims of Democrats that they didn’t know anything).

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George Washington Set the Standard


George Washington, in 1775, complained to his British counterpart about the poor treatment of American POWs. He threatened to treat British soldiers the same way, but admitted he couldn’t. Instead, though the Colonials were on the run and fighting a desperate war against a world-class army, Washington insisted that British captives be treated humanely. 

In the Revolutionary War, George Washington took the high ground. Our Declaration of Independence, which he signed, said that ALL people–not just US citizens (who really didn’t even exist yet)–were endowed with inalienable rights. Whether American, British,  Hessian, or whatever, every human being deserved to be treated humanely.

He wrote to his troops in September 1775, “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”

Mistreating prisoners was, to Washington, a war crime. And he was okay with executing American soldiers who violated this standard, because in mistreating prisoners, you shame and disgrace your country.

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Book: The Dark Side

darkside.jpegTorture is back in the news, big-time, with the release of Bush Administration memos about torture. Obama says that all of this information has already been publicly available, and he’s right. I’ve been reading this stuff for years. Numerous books are available in bookstores (Bob Woodward wrote four books on the subject of “Bush at War”). In the material now being released, I’m seeing very little that is new to me. 

If you’d really like to understand what happened–how the United States backtracked on its ideals and embraced the torture of prisoners–I suggest that you read Jane Mayer’s book “The Dark Side,” an amazing piece of reporting. Mayer is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who, since 1995, has been a contributor to the New Yorker, which to me consistently turns out the best reporting you’ll find anywhere. And New Yorker articles are subjected to their legendary fact-checking department (the acclaimed John McPhee recently wrote about his battles with–and respect for–the unforgiving, relentless, resourceful fact-checkers to whom he regularly submitted all his notes). 

This subject will remain with us for a long time. So if you want to truly understand the subject–the context, details, timelines, etc.–you can’t rely on shallow five-minute segments of TV punditry.

Mayer’s book makes use of the numerous studies and investigations done by the military, congress, and other groups. Plus, plenty of original reporting.

There are many heroes in the book, people who opposed our use of torture and tried to stop it. The FBI emerges with its image clean. They had a great deal of success interviewing prisoners, and did it by the book with the goal of prosecuting. Abu Zubaydah was talking freely to them, and his information was proving accurate. But time after time, the CIA swooped in to take control of the person, sending him to Egypt to be tortured or to a secret facility–at which point the terrorist quit cooperating. Plus, the CIA had no interest in prosecuting–they only wanted information, so methods didn’t matter. And thus, we have the mess we have today. If we had left interrogation to the FBI, we would not only have gained information, but would have been able to prosecute these terrorists. Now, we have a bunch of prisoners, many of them very bad people, who can’t be prosecuted because we tortured them. Plus, damaging information about many of them was gained by torturing other people, so that info is inadmissible. This is the mess Obama inherited.

Mayer’s book goes back to the beginning, to 9/11, and reveals how the whole detention and torture program developed. We meet a variety of principled people within the FBI, the CIA, Congress, the Administration, the Justice Department, and the military. At one point, the JAGs (Judge Advocate Generals) of every armed service jointly opposed a torture initiative. Condi Rice and John Ashcroft have their shining moments (mixed in with some not-so-shining moments).

But in the end, in almost every case, they were unable to challenge the power of Dick Cheney and his merciless chief of staff, David Addington. Any opposition was snuffed out in the Vice President’s office. 

As the book shows, almost everything related to torture and detention went through Dick Cheney’s office. His people (or the people he controlled, like John Yoo) wrote the legal opinions, which he persuaded President Bush to sign. David Addington seems to appear on every other page, and was instrumental in writing some of the legal opinions upon which torture was authorized (opinions considered horribly shoddy by numerous people in the book). Addington, the hardest of hardball players, was the face of the VP’s office, and he ran roughshod over the president’s lawyer, Alberto Gonzales. 

President Bush is practically missing from the book. Yes, he signed executive orders. But invariably, those orders were written by Dick Cheney’s office. Cheney, the book shows, liked to manipulatively play off the President’s self-image as a decider. “This is a tough decision, and only you can make it, Mr. President.” 

“The Dark Side” is not a partisan book (like, for instance, one written by Dick Morris or Ann Coulter or any number of other professional pundits). Mayer is a top-notch reporter, and her book illuminates one of the saddest stories in our history–the betrayal of basic American ideals. It’s the best book I’ve read this year, and I can’t recommend it enough. It will deeply sadden and disturb you, but it will also give you hope, knowing that many good, principled people serve throughout our government and armed forces.

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The Sound of Music

Start your day on a happy note by watching this video. It was done in Central Station in Antwerp, Belgium. I previously saw another video along the same line. I really need to find the story behind this. But for now–enjoy.

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He’s a Pirate. Period.

All of the news reports are talking about the “alleged” Maersk Pirate. Is that really necessary?

The alleged pirate, who allegedly helped kidnap the alleged captain of the Maersk Alabama, allegedly an innocent merchant ship, allegedly arrived today in New York, which is allegedly in the state of New York, to allegedly face allegations of allegedly being the aforesaid alleged pirate, whose alleged good luck included not getting his alleged mediocre brains shot out by unallegedly expert Navy SEAL snipers.

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Nearly every week, blogger Tony Morgan publishes a post called “Perryisms.” These are lines from that Sunday’s sermon by Perry Noble, pastor of Newspring church in South Carolina. Perry has a great way of putting things, and I always look forward to the latest “Perryisms.” Here are a few from today’s post:

  • “When Jesus paid for our sins, he paid for every sin.”
  • “If you don’t let your past die, it won’t let you live.”
  • “In the Church, we suck at letting people get past their past.”
  • “We can’t meet Jesus and stay the same.”
  • “When our sin collides with His grace, He always wins.”
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iPods for National Defense

The military is using iPods in variety of ways. For instance, snipers in Iraq and Afghanistan use them to calculate ballistics. At less than $300, it’s a good deal. You just know that if the military designed something for the same purpose, it would cost $150,000 each.

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A Three-Movie Weekend

Thanks to tax season, Pam and I haven’t seen a movie all year. But now, since her emancipation on Wednesday, we’ve seen three movies.

  • Taken. This Liam Neeson film came out in January and is still hanging around. A really good thriller. Saw it Friday.
  • State of Play. This one came out on Friday, with Russell Crowe and Ben Afflect and one of those young actresses I can’t remember. Another really good thriller. It’s set in a journalism context (Crowe is a reporter). I like that stuff. Saw it Saturday.
  • Facing the Giants. Saw this tonight at Anchor’s movie night. I’d heard it was really good, and wasn’t disappointed. A football movie that makes you teary-eyed. It shouldn’t be.
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Jack Welch Grades Barack Obama

I’ve been reading BusinessWeek for about 25 years. It’s a nice supplement to Time and Newsweek (which strike the same chords). Since it targets the business crowd, it’s generally quite conservative.

The first thing I read is the last page, the weekly column by Jack and Suzy Welch. Jack Welch, of course, is the legendary former CEO of GE, sometimes considered the greatest CEO of the 20th Century. 

Their April 20 column was titled “Obama: A Leadership Report Card.” They started out with some disclaimers, saying they disagreed with Obama on many policy issues. 

  • They “passionately oppose” eliminating secret balloting in union elections. 
  • They’re “suspicious” of the cap-and-trade proposal (okay, I don’t know what that means). 
  • They find the new budget “alarming–with its optimistic forecasts and staggering short-term deficits.”
So they have major disagreements with Obama policies. But their column, they stressed, is not about policy, but about leadership. How is he operating as the country’s CEO? 
  • Vision. “Whether you like his politics or not, Obama’s obviously got it. From the economy to the environment, education to health care, the President has articulated his goals to the nation.”
  • Communication. You must state your vision “consistently, vividly, and so darn frequently that your throat gets sore….Every time he speaks, which is often, he’s thoughtful, expansive, and candid.” And they like that he’s getting out of Washington to impart his message, like on the Leno show.
  • Team-building. They were initially skeptical about how Larry Summers and Tim Geithner would work together, and how Hillary Clinton would mesh. But they see Summers and Geithner working together “seamlessly, egos in check.” And, “Hillary is refreshing in her new role, with the President clearly giving her the latitude to make a mark.”
  • Speed. At first, “We actually worried that he was moving too fast on too many fronts, diverting attention from the economic crisis.” But as the weeks progressed, they saw Obama tighten his focus and take some decisive actions (whether you agree with those actions is irrelevant to the column). 
  • Authenticity. This trait, they say, is “the hallmark of evey effective leader.” And for that, they say, “Thank goodness for Michelle.” Barack Obama is “somewhat cool in his effect. That’s fine. But people crave humnanity in their leaders. Luckily, his wife, with her warmth and broad appeal, is supplying it in buckets.”

In summation: “When it comes to the traits a successful leader absolutely has to have, the President is hitting on all cylinders.”

Having said all this, they stress that Obama hasn’t been tested in two key areas: resilience, and championing unpopular causes. Time will tell on those issues.

They conclude, “While we’d like to see his skills applied to different plicies, when it comes to leaership, Barack Obama has certainly earned an A.”

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Ain’t This the Truth!


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