The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The ‘Songbird’ Attack Makes the Opposite Point McInerney Thinks It Does

McCain has long advocated a larger U.S. role in ending Syria’s civil war. He has called for establishing “safe zones” for rebel forces, providing them more weapons and assistance, and taking out the Assad regime’s air assets.

Every time you see a news anchor pose a question to a talking head on television, that person is, consciously or subconsciously, trying to achieve two nearly contrary goals:

Say something provocative, daring, memorable, attention-getting, debate-stirring, and if there’s time, insightful. (Or maybe inciteful.)

Don’t say anything too controversial, dumb, or offensive.

With surprising regularity, guests aim for one and completely forget about two.

Retired Air Force Lt. General Thomas McInerney was a guest on Charles Payne’s program on the Fox Business Network yesterday, discussing the confirmation hearing of CIA director nominee Gina Haspel. The topic turned to the no-longer-in-use enhanced-interrogation program, and McCain’s argument that because of Haspel’s role in destroying videotapes of waterboarding, she should not be confirmed.

You could go in a lot of directions in an attempt to defend Haspel. You could note, as many of her defenders have, that from 9/11 to spring 2004, the White House’s lawyers and the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote memos explicitly authorizing the enhanced-interrogation techniques. (If Jack Goldsmith had not stepped into the position heading the OLC that year and objected to his predecessor’s interpretation of the law, the authorization of those policies may have continued for many more years.) You could point out, as Phil Mudd did, that no one in Congress objected when briefed about the program at the time, including some of the same officials objecting now: “I was among the CIA officers 15 years ago who spoke with the Congress in detail about the techniques we used. I spoke about the techniques that were authorized by the Department of Justice. I spoke to Republicans and Democrats. They were either silent or supportive.”

You could argue the blatant unfairness of Americans demanding after the 9/11 attacks that the CIA stop the next attack by any means necessary, and then getting angry once the CIA used any means they deemed necessary.

You could point out, as many have, that Haspel’s role in the program was comparable to John Brennan’s — and that McCain voted for Brennan. You could speculate that because Brennan was seen as “Obama’s guy” and Haspel is Trump’s pick, that she’s being judged by a different standard. (The irony is that Haspel isn’t “Trump’s gal”; she’s career CIA and highly regarded by just about everyone associated with the agency who is allowed to express their views publicly.)

You could ask whether anyone in the U.S. Senate really wants to argue that Khalid Sheik Mohammad, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks with the blood of 2,977 innocent men, women, and children on his hands, is a victim of unjust American policies. (KSM is eager to share his perspective on Gaspel with the committee. I think the committee should indeed let him testify, in person and with the world watching on live television, preferably. Let’s see how senators vote when the worst still-breathing murderer on the planet gets up on a high horse and denounces Gaspel.)

Instead of any of those options, McInerney chose to attack McCain in just about the worst possible way: “Well, she can’t use it anymore because we’ve determined — the Congress — that it’s not legal. The fact is, is John McCain — it worked on John. That’s why they call him ‘Songbird John.’”

One of the ironies of McInerney’s comment is that his example makes the opposite argument he thinks it does; McCain gave his captors a lot of false information and nonsense. Asked the names of the men in his squadron, he listed the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line. When forced to sign a confession, McCain “deliberately used misspellings, grammatical errors, and Communist jargon to show he was writing under duress.”

Does torture work? You can find different experts making different arguments; James Mitchell describes how the process worked on KSM. I think everyone left, right, and center would agree we would prefer to use every method in the book other than torture first. But what do we do in circumstances where answers are needed immediately? I might follow the guidance of a wise American veteran, written in 2005:

What do we do if we capture a terrorist who we have sound reasons to believe possesses specific knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack?

In such an urgent and rare instance, an interrogator might well try extreme measures to extract information that could save lives. Should he do so, and thereby save an American city or prevent another 9/11, authorities and the public would surely take this into account when judging his actions and recognize the extremely dire situation which he confronted. But I don’t believe this scenario requires us to write into law an exception to our treaty and moral obligations that would permit cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.

The wise American veteran who wrote that was . . . John McCain.

For what it’s worth, McCain is trying to thread the needle as well, rejecting her but still trying to avoid looking like he’s dismissing her long career of intelligence work:

Like many Americans, I understand the urgency that drove the decision to resort to so-called enhanced interrogation methods after our country was attacked. I know that those who used enhanced interrogation methods and those who approved them wanted to protect Americans from harm. I appreciate their dilemma and the strain of their duty. But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.

I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.

Payne later issued a statement declaring “those reprehensible comments do not reflect how I or this network feel about Sen. McCain.”

A Pretty Succinct Description of the D.C. ‘Swamp’

A strange, and perhaps revealing, paragraph over in Politico’s political newsletter:

YES, guys like Michael Cohen routinely get paid amounts like $1.2 million to offer insights about their boss or former boss. Yeah, it’s crazy. But many readers of this newsletter would not have their McMansion in McLean, their BMW, their membership at Army Navy, second homes in Delaware, cigar lockers and endless glasses of Pinot Noir at BLT Steak and Tosca if that kind of stuff didn’t happen. Newsflash: $1.2 million is not even a rounding error for massive corporations. (The smart companies route these deals through law firms.)

They must run some really detailed reader surveys over there.

Even if $1.2 million is not even a rounding error at Novartis, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, the question remains: What if, instead of paying Michael Cohen for “basically nothing,” they put that money toward, I don’t know, hiring a couple more researchers to develop new cancer treatments?

The problem is, you can’t “drain the swamp” and have big government at the same time. A government that’s throwing around billions upon billions — with or without earmarks — and that can make or break industries with new regulations is always going to make hiring lobbyists and friends of lawmakers a necessary or worthwhile investment.

The “swamp” and the necessity of lobbyists and “political intelligence” are corporate expenditures that benefit a concentrated few. This isn’t a terribly efficient use of company resources, and much less of that spending would be as needed in a world with a smaller, less spendthrift, less regulation-minded federal government. We know Trump hates the swamp when other people are making money from the whole sleazy, influence-peddling process. Does he hate it when his friends are benefiting?

Florida Man Looking Stronger against Incumbent Senator

Meanwhile, down in Florida . . .

Among more than 200 experts and veterans of Florida politics surveyed in the latest Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll, nearly six in 10 this week said they expect Scott to unseat the three-term Democratic Senator.  Just over two months ago, more than 57 percent of the Florida Insiders surveyed expected Nelson to win.

“I’m very worried about Sen. Nelson,” said a Democrat. “I think the Democrats need to reevaluate our candidate and Gwen Graham should jump to the Senate Race immediately.”

“Rick Scott is focusing on Hispanics way before Nelson is. He did this in 2014. He is traveling to Puerto Rico, getting close to Venezuelans, Cubans and Colombians,” said a person registered to neither major party. “Nelson cannot ignore our Latino community and should have messages in English and Spanish. Commercials in both languages. He can not only depend on the Dixiecrats.”

Florida Insider polls are unscientific surveys that reflect perceptions among Florida’s chattering class, rather than actual voters who decide elections. We allow anonymous responses to encourage frank assessments by people closely involved in the political process.

There’s only been one poll since February, by Florida Atlantic University last week, that somehow didn’t generate a lot of national attention:

The potential US Senate Election in Florida found Governor Rick Scott with a slight lead over Senator Bill Nelson 44 percent to 40 percent, 16 percent were undecided. Among very likely voters, the ballot test is tied at 45 percent apiece.

Florida’s an expensive state. How much do Democrats want to spend to try to save Nelson?

ADDENDA: Ramesh on our irritating new world of hyper-partisan confirmation battles for just about every cabinet office:

Some of this polarization is understandable. The EPA director can make a big difference in policy. It’s reasonable for Democrats to want to withhold their imprimatur for a conservative approach to the environment, and for Republicans to want to make it harder to implement a liberal one. At the same time, these stances can lead to outcomes that both sides would see as subpar. For most Republicans and Democrats alike, an EPA director with the same views as Pruitt but better ethics would be a step up. But contemporary politics gets in the way of making that switch.


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