Tortured Logic

Although we are squeamish about torture, to the point we can barely sit through a Quentin Tarantino movie without experiencing nausea, under certain specific circumstances we reluctantly countenance our government engaging in what is euphemistically called “enhanced interrogations.” Whenever American lives are imminently at risk, and there is a high degree of certainty that a captured unlawful enemy combatant has information that might help avert their deaths, we are inclined to allow the authorities wide latitude to interrogate away.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her fellow Democrats on the Senate’s intelligence committee take a harder line against torture, judging by the much ballyhooed report they issued about the matter. After six years and $40 million and no interviews of anybody they have accused, they have uncovered a few instances where agents of the United States government apparently interrogated suspects when there was no imminent risk and no certainty of useful information to be gained and the methods went even beyond the widest latitude we would allow, which is a service to the country, but we think they take an otherwise admirable aversion to torture too far. They are critical of techniques that have demonstrably proved helpful in the past, and are well within the bounds of the the public understands is going on, and would surely inhibit agents dealing with future imminent risks from subjecting potentially useful sources to anything harsher than a comfy chair and a cup of tea.
The report is clearly intended to remind America of the bad old days of George W. Bush, when Dick Cheney used to stick needles into the arms of innocent Afghan goat herders just for kicks, no matter how dissatisfied it might be with Obama and the out-going Democratic Senate majority. After so many years without a major terrorist act on American soil, unless you count the countless “lone wolf” attacks and plots that failed entirely to their own ineptitude or the sporadic incidents of “work place violence,” or the successful slaughter of Americans overseas, Feinstein and her fellow Democrats believe they can once again be indignant about the rough men who have been keeping them safe. The sense of moral superiority that comes with a willingness to sacrifice American lives rather than cause pain to an unlawful enemy combatant is irresistible to the likes of Feinstein and her fellow Democrats, especially when they sense a political advantage.
Recent polling suggests that much of the public shares the Republicans’ reluctant willingness to pay rough, though, and the argument quickly leads to the Obama administration’s alternative method of sending drones to vaporize the unlawful enemy combatants and whatever innocent Afghan goat herders happen to be standing nearby. This has the advantage of sparing the president the awkwardness of sending the unlawful enemy combatants to that nasty Guantanamo Bay detention camp that he’s been promising to close for the past seven years, and there won’t be any of that rough stuff that was done back in the bad old days, but it doesn’t provide any useful information from the sort of suspects that used to be nabbed by the special forces, and it tends to lose the hearts and minds of the relatives of those innocent Afghan goat herders who happened to be standing nearby, and we doubt that the unlawful enemy combatants find it preferable to a few rounds of water-boarding.
Current policies should offend the more refined sensibilities of the left, and alarm the more pragmatically ruthless right, so let that debate begin.

— Bud Norman

An Innocent Bystander

Two of the bigger fiascos currently swirling around Washington cannot be blamed on President Barack Obama, we are told, because the poor fellow didn’t even know about them.
By now everyone in America is aware that the $634 million computer program that was supposed to enroll a grateful nation in Obamacare simply does not work, but Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has assured the nation that her boss didn’t find out about it until the rest of us did. The revelation that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of various other allies has been more widely reported in the snooped-upon countries, where the formerly Obama-crazed citizenry are now marching in the streets with “Hope and Change” replaced by “Stasi 2.0” and other similarly snooty slogans beneath the president’s famously chin-upturned and stylized visage, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others are nonetheless anxious for the American public to know the president was as surprised by the news as anyone else.
This might even be true, but if so it is not so reassuring as the apologists probably intend. One likes to think that the president is a bit more au courant on the latest bureaucratic computer glitches and cloak-and-dagger international intrigues than the common folk, after all, and it’s downright to worrisome to contemplate that he is just as uninformed as the average voter. There used to be a notion that the chief executives of large organizations were ultimately responsible for anything that happened along their chain of command, pithily surmised by the “Buck Stops Here” that adorned the Oval Office desk of Harry Truman, and it also discomfiting to think this standard is no longer in effect at the White House. The president’s most loyal acolytes will likely be satisfied by the belief that their man had nothing to do with these messes, only the people he appointed to positions of responsibility, but those less enamored will be left to wonder why he hasn’t fired the incompetent idiots who didn’t at least give him a heads-up before their best efforts hit the fan.
It causes a certain queasy feeling, in fact, that the Obama apologists are so seemingly confident they can successfully plead ignorance to acquit their man of responsibility for what happens during his time in office. So far they have done well at convincing a significant portion of the country that Obama is an innocent and righteously indignant bystander to the bad things that are happening in the country, well enough that Obama himself can claim with a straight face to be as angry as anyone about the state of the government, so perhaps the confidence is realistic. Still, it is hard to see what good can come of having an innocent bystander as the president of the United States.

— Bud Norman

The Snowden Saga Continues

The strange case of Edward Snowden, that unshaven young fellow who created such a fuss by revealing information about the National Security Agency’s ambitious data-mining operations, becomes more compelling by the day. More sober-minded observers have cautioned that his story shouldn’t distract the public’s attention from the more important matter of what he has revealed, and we readily concede the point, but still, it is hard to look away from an improbable adventure with more plot twists and exotic locales than a big-budget James Bond movie.
All of the news media seem to agree that Snowden has somehow slipped away from his recent refuge in Hong Kong to an undisclosed location in Moscow, where his presence provides Vladimir Putin with yet another opportunity for the Russian president to demonstrate contempt for his American counterpart, but the next stop seems to be anybody’s guess. The New York Times’ and the Associated Press’ sources say Snowden will be heading to Ecuador, the Russian news agencies have Snowden en route to Venezuela via Cuba, and Reuters, in a story headlined “Snowden stays out of sight after leaving Hong Kong,” cautiously reports only that the peripatetic leaker “kept people guessing about his whereabouts and plans.” Wherever Snowden might pop up next, we can only assume that a gorgeous femme fatale and a martini that has been shaken and not stirred will await him.
Much of the world’s audience will likely be rooting for him, too, judging by the reaction of most mainstream press outlets around the world. Germany’s Der Spiegel, the definitive voice of conventional continental wisdom, headlined its story about the NSA program revealed by Snowden “Obama’s Soft Totalitarianism: Europe Must Protect Itself from America,” and the president reportedly was lectured about the data-mining by several heads of state during a recent economic summit. The countries that have aided and abetted Snowden’s flight have obviously made their opinions known, as well, and although most of them prefer a harder form of totalitarianism than even Obama aspires to they can’t resist the opportunity to annoy the American government.
Even here in the United States, where Snowden has been charged with espionage and is officially regarded as a fugitive from justice, he seems to have a following. An internet petition demanding a pardon for Snowden has more than 110,000 signatures, and supporters seem to be coming from all directions. The libertarian right has championed his cause, and even many on the right who were comfortable with similar data-mining operations under the previous administration aren’t as enthusiastic about the information being accumulated by a government that is using the Internal Revenue Service to harass conservative groups and the Department of Justice to pursue investigative reporters as criminal conspirators. Despite the left’s past passion for Obama, who once decried such security measures as an assault for civil liberties, many are now embracing Snowden as their new hero.
There’s a similarly strange mix of people defending the program and vilifying Snowden for revealing it, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has robustly defended the NSA’s efforts, embarrassing the president to the point that he’s gone on television to insist that “I’m not Dick Cheney,” while former critics of the Bush-era terrorism protocols such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are now striking a more hawkish tone. Poor Pelosi tried out her new arguments in front of the “Netroots Nation,” a convention of liberal activists and internet writers, and wound up being roundly booed and harshly heckled for her troubles. We take time out to boo Pelosi every day, and would gladly heckle her if she were within earshot, and although we have very different reasons for doing so we’re glad to see her get it from the same audience that once adored her.
More plot twists are almost certain to follow, and it’s possible that one or more of them will reveal some nefarious rather than patriotic motive for Snowden’s choices, so we’re withholding judgment of the leading character until the final reel. In the meantime we’ll be mulling over the advantages and dangers of the NSA’s various programs, and enjoy watching the president being upstaged by a new action adventure hero.

— Bud Norman