Posts Tagged ‘Newsweek’

Must-Reads of the Week: A history lesson, Reconciling Chart, Theism, Starbucks, the New Global Middle Class, the Beijing Consensus, and the Traitorous Supreme Court

Friday, March 12th, 2010

A history lesson in ramming through one piece of legislation. Ezra Klein gives a short history lesson describing the tactics used by Republicans to “ram through” the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

Reconciling chart. The New York Times provides a chart of all the times reconciliation has been used.

Theism. Andrew Sullivan provides a beautiful quote from David Foster Wallace making what may be the best case for theism generally that I’ve seen.

Starbucks. Greg Beato for Reason has an interesting if annoying skewed take on Starbucks and its attempts to stay hip. His history and overall point is interesting, but the point of view he injects, his contempt for his less capitalist brethren, is irritating.

The New Global Middle Class. Rana Foroohar and Marc Margolis in Newsweek describe the new “global middle class” which “is more unstable and less liberal than we thought.” The examples they give are rather frustrating though. Brazil’s middle class is described as “more unstable and less liberal” because they applaud “more state control of the oil industry to keep out greedy foreign firms” and that “they don’t need outside advice on how to structure their societies, thank you.” The Russian middle class’s support for Putin and the Chinese support of the Beijing consensus are also cited and are much better examples proving their point. An interesting article, that touches on some gradually evolving issues in a way that most articles do not – but it seems to harness facts to reach their end rather than allow the facts to dictate the result.

The Beijing Consensus. Yang Yao in Foreign Affairs speculates that the Beijing Consensus – “a combination of mixed ownership, basic property rights, and heavy government intervention” - may be eroding. And as “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lacks legitimacy in the classic democratic sense,” and “has been forced to seek performance-based legitimacy instead, by continuously improving the living standards of Chinese citizens,” the end of this consensus would lead to “greater democratization.”

The Traitorous Supreme Court. Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy takes on the Andrew McCarthy/Liz Cheney line of attack calling those attorneys currently in the Justice Department who represented some of those branded terrorists by the Bush administration asking this question:

Does McCarthy think the Justices of the Supreme Court are guilty of aiding the enemy, and that (if we treat them like everybody else) they should be “indicted for coming to the enemy’s aid during wartime”?

[Image by me.]

Kashkari, 2009′s Ideas, Richard Milhouse Obama, Frum!, Chinese-American Trade Imbalance, Obama’s Nobel, and Charborg

Friday, December 11th, 2009

1. The Personal Toll TARP Exacted. Laura Blumenfeld profiled Neel Kashkari for the Washington Post – the Treasury employee and Hank Paulson confidante who presided over TARP and assisted with much of the government’s response to the bailout who is now “detoxing” from Washington by working with his hands in an isolated retreat. The piece focuses not on what happened and the enormous impact, but on the personal toll this crisis exacted on Kashkari and those around him: the heart attack by one of his top aides; the emotional breakdowns; the trouble in his marriage as he didn’t come home for days, sleeping on his office couch and showering in the Treasury’s locker room:

Thoughts tended toward the apocalyptic. During midnight negotiations with congressional leaders, Paulson doubled over with dry heaves. A government economist broke into Kashkari’s office sobbing, “Oh my God! The system’s collapsing!” Kashkari counseled her to focus on things they could control. (Minal: “So you offered her a bag of Doritos.”)

“We were terrified the banking system would fail, but the thing that scared us even more was, what would we do the day after? How would we take over 8,000 banks?”

The piece seems to ask us to feel pity for these men and women who toiled under difficult circumstances, but it seems inappropriate to feel pity for those who assume power because they also feel its heavy weight. But the piece acknowledges that Kashkari himself seeks to get back to Washington again, “Because there’s nowhere else you can have such a large impact — for better and for worse.” Lionize them for their heroic sacrifices if you will, but there is no place for pity. Those who choose to take on the burdens of power should not be pitied because it proves too weighty.

2. New Ideas. The New York Times briefly discusses the Year in Ideas. Some of the more interesting entries:

  • Guilty Robots which have been given “ethical architecture” for the American military that “choose weapons with less risk of collateral damage or may refuse to fight altogether” if the damage they have inflicted causes “noncombatant casualties or harm to civilian property.”
  • The Glow-in-the-Dark Dog (named Ruppy) that emits an eerie red glow under ultraviolet light because of deliberate genetic experiment.
  • Applying the Google Algorithm that generates the PageRank which first set Google apart from its competitors to nature, and specifically to predicting what species’ extinctions would cause the greatest chain reactions.
  • Zombie-Attack Science in which the principles of epidemiology are applied to zombies.

3. Obama’s Afghanistan Decision. Fareed Zakaria and Peter Beinart both tried to place Obama’s Afghanistan decision into perspective last week in important pieces. Both of them saw in Obama’s clear-eyed understanding of America’s power shades of the foreign policy brilliance that was Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Zakaria:

More than any president since Richard Nixon, he has focused on defining American interests carefully, providing the resources to achieve them, and keeping his eyes on the prize.

Beinart:

Nixon stopped treating all communists the same way. Just as Obama sees Iran as a potential partner because it shares a loathing of al-Qaeda, Nixon saw Communist China as a potential partner because it loathed the U.S.S.R. Nixon didn’t stop there. Even as he reached out to China, he also pursued détente with the Soviet Union. This double outreach — to both Moscow and Beijing — gave Nixon more leverage over each, since each communist superpower feared that the U.S. would favor the other, leaving it geopolitically isolated. On a smaller scale, that’s what Obama is trying to do with Iran and Syria today. By reaching out to both regimes simultaneously, he’s making each anxious that the U.S. will cut a deal with the other, leaving it out in the cold. It’s too soon to know whether Obama’s game of divide and conquer will work, but by narrowing the post-9/11 struggle, he’s gained the diplomatic flexibility to play the U.S.’s adversaries against each other rather than unifying them against us.

Perhaps this accounts for Henry Kissinger’s appreciation for Obama’s foreign policy even as neoconservative intellectuals such as Charles Krathammer deride Obama as “so naïve that I am not even sure he’s able to develop a [foreign policy] doctrine“:

“He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games,” Kissinger said. “But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.”

4. The Unheeded Wisdom of Frum. It seems that almost every week a blog post by David Frum makes this list. This week, he rages at how the Republican’s “No, no, no” policy is forcing the Democrats to adopt more liberal policies (which Frum believes are worse for the country, but in the case of health care, more popular among voters):

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?

5. Fiscal Imbalances. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times identifies the imbalance between America’s deficit spending and China’s surplus policy as the root of our financial imbalances in a piece this week:

What would happen if the deficit countries did slash spending relative to incomes while their trading partners were determined to sustain their own excess of output over incomes and export the difference? Answer: a depression. What would happen if deficit countries sustained domestic demand with massive and open-ended fiscal deficits? Answer: a wave of fiscal crises.

While he says both sides have an interest in an orderly unwinding of this arrangement, both also have the ability to resist:

Unfortunately, as we have also long known, two classes of countries are immune to external pressure to change policies that affect global “imbalances”: one is the issuer of the world’s key currency; and the other consists of the surplus countries. Thus, the present stalemate might continue for some time.

Niall Ferguson and Morris Schularack offered a few suggestions in a New York Times op-ed several weeks ago as to how best unwind this. I had written about it some months ago as well, albeit with a pithier take.

6. War & Peace. Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech was an audacious defense of American power and ideals. If you read nothing else on this list, read this.

7. Song of the week: Pinback’s “Charborg.”

The New Obama Paradox

Monday, October 26th, 2009

I’d like to endorse this Anna Quindlen column in Newsweek, subheaded:

Barack Obama campaigned as a populist firebrand but governs like a cerebral consensus builder. The founding fathers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Quindlen captures something one of the essential paradoxes of America with this well-constructed line:

This is a country that often has transformational ambitions but is saddled with an incremental system, a nation built on revolution, then engineered so the revolutionary can rarely take hold.

Aside from indulging in a bit of that rather annoying habit of re-writing of the “Yes, We Can” slogan that every pundit seems to try (“Yes, we can, but it will take a while.”), Quindlen does a good job of giving the larger historical perspective on Obama’s rather young presidency. She points out that even the grand gestures we remember today as changing history were in fact incremental and the result of compromises derided at the time – from Emancipation Proclamation which was designed to have no practical effect to the gradual accretion of rights by African Americans as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. She could have also mentioned that Social Security legislation when originally passed excluded half of the population, including all women and virtually all minority groups from its benefits.

Quindlen points to a single factor though unifying all these great presidents and their historic accomplishments:

[T]he presidents who have made real change have always done so in the same way: “Each of them had the country pushing the Congress to act, the people and the press both. The pressure has to come from outside.” So if the American people want the president to be more like the Barack Obama they elected, maybe they should start acting more like the voters who elected him, who forcibly and undeniably moved the political establishment to where it didn’t want to go.

I’ve believed that – and been writing that – since Obama took office, quoting FDR who told a number of audiences who came to ask him to pay attention to their issue (and here I paraphrase):

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

In the past year, I’ve been disappointed with the way in which the excitement of the campaign has fallen away, replaced most often by cynicism. The fact is, cynicism breeds results which create reason for more cynicism. The election of Barack Obama proved that hope that things could get better could motivate as many people as fear that they would be killed by terrorists or that we would look weak; and the cynicism and inertia that seemed a permanent part of America under Clinton and Bush could be overcome. It proved that a grassroots organization for a moderate, liberal agenda was possible and that it had the support of a majority of Americans. Now, Obama needs such an organization to push him, to push Congress, and to push the country. The question now is the same one that faced Obama back in the early days of the primary, the one which I called “the Obama paradox”  as he attempted to “conjure the movement, the politics, and the consensus we need to tackle the long-term problems and strategic challenges we face as a nation.” The paradox was that in order for people to buy into the movement, it needed to be successful; and that in order for it to be successful, people needed to buy into it. He faces a similar issue now, though different in a number of significant ways.

I don’t know what the next step is to getting this movement back – but without it, Obama cannot tackle many of the serious, long-term issues facing our nation: from the failure of the War on Drugs to creating a sustainable framework for addressing the threat of terrorism from our long-term fiscal outlook to the deterioration of liberties in America; from health care reform to climate change; from tax and entitlement reform to education reform; from financial regulation to job creation. Failing to address any of these issues undermines America’s position in the world; and in many cases, without American leadership on them (or federal leadership on domestic issues), they cannot be solved. Without a movement pushing Obama, pushing Congress, pushing the press, pushing every community, Obama simply does not have the political capital to take these issues on – which is why there needs to be a movement.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Remembering Ted Kennedy: “He lived his own large life and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance.”

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

The tributes have obviously been coming in. The conclusion seems to be the same one I would have come to before: that Ted Kennedy was a great, but flawed man – and like all men and women, he should be celebrated, without tears for the good he did in his life.

Here’s a few articles worth reading:

In Timothy Noah’s Slate piece he declares Ted Kennedy, “The Kennedy who most changed America.”

George F. Will argues much the same thing in a piece that reminds me of his greatness as a columnist, despite all of his bitter distortions on climate change:

Let us pay the Kennedys tributes unblurred by tears. Although a great American family, they are not even Massachusetts’ greatest family: The Adamses provided two presidents, John and John Quincy, and Charles Francis, who was ambassador to Britain during the Civil War, and the unclassifiable Henry. Never mind. It diminishes Ted to assess him as a fragment of a family. He lived his own large life and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance.

Joe Klein meanwhile explains “how Ted Kennedy found himself” in a personal remembrance of the man he knew for many years.

Michael Tomasky writes in the Guardian in his moving piece:

One would be hard pressed to argue that Ted Kennedy’s death was a more bitter pill for the country than the deaths of his brothers before him – John, the young president whose assassination gave Americans a hard warning about the violent age they were about to enter, or Robert, the presidential aspirant who was thought at the time to be the last leader in America who might have been able to help the nation transcend that violence.

Nevertheless, the heavens have somehow conspired to make this Kennedy death, however expected it might have been, nearly as heartbreaking as those of his vigorous younger brothers.

Charles P. Pierce writes in a long piece about Ted Kennedy’s life and career about how the events in Chappaquiddick shortly before the first man landed on the moon affected the rest of Senator Ted Kennedy’s career:

She’s always there. Even if she doesn’t fit in the narrative line, she is so much of the dark energy behind it. She denies to him forever the moral credibility that lay behind not merely all those rhetorical thunderclaps that came so easily in the New Frontier but also Robert Kennedy’s anguished appeals to the country’s better angels. He was forced from the rhetoric of moral outrage and into the incremental nitty-gritty of social justice. He learned to plod, because soaring made him look ridiculous…

And if his name were Edward Moore, he would have done time.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

In Case You Missed It: Best Reads of the Week on Whining Conservatives, Internet Battles, Peru, The Single Life, and the Unborn

Friday, July 31st, 2009

1. Whiny Conservatives. David Frum scolds conservatives for  quite whining and points out how silly they look doing so given how far the conservative movement has moved America since it gained power:

In 1975, the federal government set the price of every airline ticket, every ton of rail freight, every cubic foot of natural gas and every barrel of oil. It controlled the interest rates paid on checking accounts and the commission charged by stockbrokers. If you wanted to ship a crate of lettuce from one state to another, you first had to file a routemap with a federal agency. It was a crime for a private citizen to own a gold coin. The draft had ended only two years before, but not until 1975 itself did Congress formally end the state of emergency (and the special grant of presidential powers) declared at US entry into the First World War.

2. The Battle for the Internets. Fred Vogelstein writes in Wired about the brewing battle between Facebook and Google for the internet.

3. Peru’s Moment. Most of the world has lost ground in the financial crisis and recession. Daniel Gross in Newsweek tells the story of one country that has managed the financial crisis perfectly (Peru), and their secret ingredient: leadership in the years leading up to the crisis:

In the latter half of 2008, being a poor, export-dependent, commodity-producing country set you up for a vicious downturn. But Peru has weathered the storm, in large part because President Alan García, an old leftist turned center-leftist, and the Peruvian central bank have proved adept at a set of capabilities notably lacking in the United States in recent years: sound fiscal and financial management. Fearful of a return of hyperinflation amid rapid growth, Peru’s central bank raised interest rates throughout 2008. Instead of spending the foreign currency that piled up on its books ($32 billion at the end of 2008), the government saved it. In 2008, Peru ran a $3.3 billion budget surplus.
And so, when troubles came, it was able to respond in textbook fashion. In December 2008, García announced a stimulus program, promising to boost government spending by $3.2 billion, and to take up to $10 billion in further measures. The total of $13 billion in promised stimulus doesn’t sound like much, but that’s equal to about 10 percent of Peru’s GDP.

4. New York Wins Again. Forbes has released a list of the top cities for singles. New York is – as in everything else – number one.

5. This strong, invisible and unacknowledged force. David Brooks (in a piece that Yglesias ridiculed, justly on some grounds) – manages to write an interesting meditation on the importance of the unborn to our society:

People live in a compact between the dead, the living and the unborn, and the value of the thought experiment is that it reminds us of the power posterity holds over our lives.

Bonus: This song came out months ago, but I just starting enjoying it recently, so here’s to sharing:

[Image by me.]

Health Care Reform To Stimulate the Entrepreneurship

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal editorial page makes the same argument many Obama critics have been making – beginning with Rush Limbaugh who attempted to blame the financial collapse on the fear markets had at the prospect of an Obama victory in the 2008 election to the present, as Gigot attempts to blame any lingering effects of this financial collapse – and its economic aftereffects – on fear of “the Obama agenda.”

But neither Gigot nor Limbaugh nor any other right-wingers seem to give any consideration to those drags on risk-taking that our current status quo creates.

Gigot apparently thinks that raising taxes on a handful of powerful individuals has a greater effect on reducing risk-taking than the prospect of global warming, than the lack of a health care safety net has on potential entrepreneurs.

The difference between Gigot and myself is that Gigot is concerned that this handful of powerful people will be less likely to take risks with their vast sums of money – along with a dozen or so major corporations having less ability to generate major profits by externalizing costs for pollution and health care to the society at large. If a corporation has to pay for the damage it causes, then it is – by Gigot’s standards – less free. This is true only in the sense that a tyrant is less free than an ordinary citizen because he is no longer able to impose his way upon others.

If one wants to stimulate the economy by encouraging small businesses and entrepreneurship, there are few better ways to do it than to pass some sort of health care reform that makes it cheaper and more available outside of large employers. As Daniel Gross, financial columnist for Newsweek and Slate, explains:

An affordable national health care policy, which could allow people to quit their jobs and launch businesses without worrying about the crippling costs of premiums or medical costs, might be a better spur to risk-taking than targeted small-business loans.

I say this as a former small business owner and entrepreneur myself. One of my biggest concerns in working outside of an established business was that I was not able to get my health care through my job – which meant astronomical monthly premiums for a service I did not use – but which I could not be sure I would not badly need.

Gigot and other right-wingers are not focused on small business and entrepreneurs – although they does invoke them as a fig leaf for political reasons. If they were they could see the advantage of a public health care option. Instead of defending the free market, Gigot and other right-wingers seek to defend a corrupt status quo in which decisions are made by a princely few rather than being made in the competition and varied decision-making bodies of a free market. Health care reform – if done right, with a public option – will remove a major obstacle to individuals taking their own risks, starting their own businesses; it will be a small step to diversifying decision-making and creating a more free market.

Gigot – by taking the dogmatic position he does – proves he is not serious about protecting the free market; he is only interested in protecting the interests of his cronies among the monied elite.

Facebook Diplomacy (cont.)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

When I wrote about this idea a few weeks ago, I realized the term had been used before – by Evgeny Morozov in a Newsweek article. But interestingly, in his article, he never actually mentioned Facebook – focusing mainly on blogs – and the power of the internet in general to organize. What Morozov is writing about is not so much diplomacy – as propaganda – and so his thesis ends up being that the internet enables dictators to spread propaganda more effectively:

That so many governments manipulate the Internet to their advantage—all the while still practicing old-fashioned tactics like throwing bloggers in jail—suggests that those who hoped to use cyberspace to promote democracy and American ideals on the cheap may be in for a tough fight. If anything, the Internet may make their jobs harder.

Bruce Etling at Harvard’s Internet and Democracy blog echoes Morozov’s conclusion – with a slight twist:

This mobilization of ordinary citizens to push government propaganda may be the most successful tactic for governments on the Internet, instead of public relations campaigns like the Bush administration’s failed efforts to ‘rebrand’ the US in the Middle East, or the Kremin hiring of a web-savvy PR firm to promote its agenda.

These two pieces were seemingly written as a counterpoint to the earlier remarks by Undersecretary of State James Glassman about the power of Web 2.0 (including Facebook) to mobilize dissident groups.

What I propose is something a bit different than either Morozov’s or Glassman’s ideas – what I propose is something more akin to a revolution in foreign affairs – as many, many individuals interact with people in foreign countries – developing their own ideas, their own contacts – both being influenced and influencing. I think this is already happening – and will inevitably accelerate – but that the principles on which it happens can be affected – which is why I proposed certain guidelines, and to understand this as a duty of global citizenship.

Ali Soufan Goes to Washington

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

I’ve written about FBI interrogator and one-time undercover agent in Al Qaeda, Ali Soufan, several times on this blog (here and here) – including in my first post that got some traction comparing the interrogations of Ibn al-Libi and Abu Zandel. Since Obama took office – as memos have been declassified, Soufan has been finally able to speak out about his experiences interrogating Al Qaeda members – as in the past few weeks he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times and was interviewed by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. Today, he is testifying before the Senate on American torture. I haven’t seen his actual appearance, but his written statement is a powerful piece which describes both why torture should not be done – and tells the story of how America took the fateful step. 

As this is a public statement, I am reproducing it in full here:

Ali Soufan’s Written Statement to the Senate

Mr. Chairman, Committee members, thank you for inviting me to appear before you today. I know that each one of you cares deeply about our nation’s security. It was always a comfort to me during the most dangerous of situations that I faced, from going undercover as an al Qaeda operative, to unraveling terrorist cells, to tracking down the killers of the 17 U.S. sailors murdered in the USS Cole bombing, that those of us on the frontline had your support and the backing of the American people. So I thank you. 

The issue that I am here to discuss today – interrogation methods used to question terrorists – is not, and should not be, a partisan matter. We all share a commitment to using the best interrogation method possible that serves our national security interests and fits squarely within the framework of our nation’s principles. 

From my experience – and I speak as someone who has personally interrogated many terrorists and elicited important actionable intelligence– I strongly believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a position shared by many professional operatives, including the CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation. 

These techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda. (This is aside from the important additional considerations that they are un-American and harmful to our reputation and cause.) 
My interest in speaking about this issue is not to advocate the prosecution of anyone. People were given misinformation, half-truths, and false claims of successes; and reluctant intelligence officers were given instructions and assurances from higher authorities. Examining a past we cannot change is only worthwhile when it helps guide us towards claiming a better future that is yet within our reach. 

And my focus is on the future. I wish to do my part to ensure that we never again use these harmful, slow, ineffective, and unreliable techniques instead of the tried, tested, and successful ones – the ones that are also in sync with our values and moral character. Only by doing this will we defeat the terrorists as effectively and quickly as possible. 

Most of my professional career has been spent investigating, studying, and interrogating terrorists. I have had the privilege of working alongside, and learning from, some of the most dedicated and talented men and women our nation has– individuals from the FBI, and other law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies. 

In my capacity as a FBI Agent, I investigated and supervised highly sensitive and complex international terrorism cases, including the East Africa bombings, the USS Cole bombing, and the events surrounding the attacks of 9/11. I also coordinated both domestic and international counter-terrorism operations on the Joint Terrorist Task Force, FBI New York Office. 

I personally interrogated many terrorists we have in our custody and elsewhere, and gained confessions, identified terror operatives, their funding, details of potential plots, and information on how al Qaeda operates, along with other actionable intelligence. Because of these successes, I was the government’s main witness in both of the trials we have had so far in Guantanamo Bay – the trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a driver and bodyguard for Osama Bin Laden, and Ali Hamza Al Bahlul, Bin Laden’s propagandist. In addition I am currently helping the prosecution prepare for upcoming trials of other detainees held in Guantanamo Bay. 

There are many examples of successful interrogations of terrorists that have taken place before and after 9/11. Many of them are classified, but one that is already public and mirrors the other cases, is the interrogation of al Qaeda terrorist Nasser Ahmad Nasser al-Bahri, known as Abu Jandal. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, together with my partner Special Agent Robert McFadden, a first-class intelligence operative from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), (which, from my experience, is one of the classiest agencies I encountered in the intelligence community), I interrogated Abu Jandal. 
Through our interrogation, which was done completely by the book (including advising him of his rights), we obtained a treasure trove of highly significant actionable intelligence. For example, Abu Jandal gave us extensive information on Osama Bin Laden’s terror network, structure, leadership, membership, security details, facilities, family, communication methods, travels, training, ammunitions, and weaponry, including a breakdown of what machine guns, rifles, rocket launchers, and anti-tank missiles they used. He also provided explicit details of the 9/11plot operatives, and identified many terrorists who we later successfully apprehended. 

The information was important for the preparation of the war in Afghanistan in 2001. It also provided an important background to the 9/11 Commission report; it provided a foundation for the trials so far held in Guantanamo Bay; and it also has been invaluable in helping to capture and identify top al Qaeda operatives and thus disrupt plots. 

The approach used in these successful interrogations can be called the Informed Interrogation Approach. Until the introduction of the “enhanced” technique, it was the sole approach used by our military, intelligence, and law enforcement community. 

It is an approach rooted in experiences and lessons learned during World War II and from our Counter-insurgency experience in Vietnam – experiences and lessons that generated the Army Field Manual. This was then refined over the decades to include how to interrogate terrorism suspects specifically, as experience was gained from interrogations following the first World Trade Center bombing, the East Africa Embassy bombings, and the USS Cole bombing. To sum up, it is an approach derived from the cumulative experiences, wisdom, and successes of the most effective operational people our country has produced. 

Before I joined the Bureau, for example, traditional investigative strategies along with intelligence derived from human sources successfully thwarted the 1993 New York City Landmark Bomb Plot (TERRSTOP), a plot by the Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, to attack the UN Headquarters, the FBI’s New York office, and tunnels and bridges across New York City, — as a follow-up to the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. That remains to this day the largest thwarted attack on our homeland. I had the privilege of working with, and learning from, those who conducted this successful operation. 

The Informed Interrogation Approach is based on leveraging our knowledge of the detainee’s culture and mindset, together with using information we already know about him. 

The interrogator knows that there are three primary points of influence on the detainee: 

First, there is the fear that the detainee feels as a result of his capture and isolation from his support base. People crave human contact, and this is especially true in some cultures more than others. The interrogator turns this knowledge into an advantage by becoming the one person the detainee can talk to and who listens to what he has to say, and uses this to encourage the detainee to open up. 

In addition, acting in a non-threatening way isn’t how the detainee is trained to expect a U.S. interrogator to act. This adds to the detainee’s confusion and makes him more likely to cooperate. 

Second, and connected, there is the need the detainee feels to sustain a position of respect and value to interrogator. As the interrogator is the one person speaking to and listening to the detainee, a relationship is built – and the detainee doesn’t want to jeopardize it. The interrogator capitalizes on this and compels the detainee to give up more information. 

And third, there is the impression the detainee has of the evidence against him. The interrogator has to do his or her homework and become an expert in every detail known to the intelligence community about the detainee. The interrogator then uses that knowledge to impress upon the detainee that everything about him is known and that any lie will be easily caught. 

For example, in my first interrogation of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who had strong links to al Qaeda’s leaders and who knew the details of the 9/11 plot before it happened, I asked him his name. He replied with his alias. I then asked him, “how about if I call you Hani?” That was the name his mother nicknamed him as a child. He looked at me in shock, said “ok,” and we started talking. 

The Army Field Manual is not about being nice or soft. It is a knowledge-based approach. It is about outwitting the detainee by using a combination of interpersonal, cognitive, and emotional strategies to get the information needed. If done correctly it’s an approach that works quickly and effectively because it outwits the detainee using a method that he is not trained, or able, to resist. 

This Informed Interrogation Approach is in sharp contrast with the harsh interrogation approach introduced by outside contractors and forced upon CIA officials to use. 

The harsh technique method doesn’t use the knowledge we have of the detainee’s history, mindset, vulnerabilities, or culture, and instead tries to subjugate the detainee into submission through humiliation and cruelty. The approach applies a force continuum, each time using harsher and harsher techniques until the detainee submits. 

The idea behind the technique is to force the detainee to see the interrogator as the master who controls his pain. It is an exercise in trying to gain compliance rather than eliciting cooperation. A theoretical application of this technique is a situation where the detainee is stripped naked and told: “Tell us what you know.” 

If the detainee doesn’t immediately respond by giving information, for example he asks: “what do you want to know?” the interviewer will reply: “you know,” and walk out of the interrogation room. Then the next step on the force continuum is introduced, for example sleep deprivation, and the process will continue until the detainee’s will is broken and he automatically gives up all information he is presumed to know. 

There are many problems with this technique. 

A major problem is that it is ineffective. Al Qaeda terrorists are trained to resist torture. As shocking as these techniques are to us, the al Qaeda training prepares them for much worse – the torture they would expect to receive if caught by dictatorships for example. 

This is why, as we see from the recently released Department of Justice memos on interrogation, the contractors had to keep getting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods, until they reached waterboarding and then there was nothing they could do but use that technique again and again. Abu Zubaydah had to be waterboarded 83 times and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times. In a democracy there is a glass ceiling of harsh techniques the interrogator cannot breach, and a detainee can eventually call the interrogator’s bluff. 

In addition the harsh techniques only serves to reinforce what the detainee has been prepared to expect if captured. This gives him a greater sense of control and predictability about his experience, and strengthens his will to resist. 

A second major problem with this technique is that evidence gained from it is unreliable. There is no way to know whether the detainee is being truthful, or just speaking to either mitigate his discomfort or to deliberately provide false information. As the interrogator isn’t an expert on the detainee or the subject matter, nor has he spent time going over the details of the case, the interrogator cannot easily know if the detainee is telling the truth. This unfortunately has happened and we have had problems ranging from agents chasing false leads to the disastrous case of Ibn Sheikh al-Libby who gave false information on Iraq, al Qaeda, and WMD. 

A third major problem with this technique is that it is slow. It takes place over a long period of time, for example preventing the detainee from sleeping for 180 hours as the memos detail, or waterboarding 183 times in the case of KSM. When we have an alleged “ticking timebomb” scenario and need to get information quickly, we can’t afford to wait that long. 

A fourth problem with this technique is that ignores the end game. In our country we have due process, which requires evidence to be collected in a certain way. The CIA, because of the sensitivity of its operations, by necessity, operates secretly. These two factors mean that by putting the CIA in charge of interrogations, either secrecy is sacrificed for justice and the CIA’s operations are hampered, or justice is not served. Neither is a desirable outcome. 

Another disastrous consequence of the use of the harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the “Chinese Wall” between the CIA and FBI – similar to the wall that prevented us from working together to stop 9/11. In addition, the FBI and the CIA officers on the ground during the Abu Zubaydah interrogation were working together closely and effectively, until the contractors’ interferences. Because we in the FBI would not be a part of the harsh techniques, the agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An FBI colleague of mine, for example, who had tracked KSM and knew more about him than anyone in the government, was not allowed to speak to him. 

Furthermore, the CIA specializes in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting intelligence. The FBI, on the other hand, has a trained investigative branch. Until that point, we were complimenting each other’s expertise, until the imposition of the “enhanced methods.” As a result people ended doing what they were not trained to do. 

It is also important to realize that those behind this technique are outside contractors with no expertise in intelligence operations, investigations, terrorism, or al Qaeda. Nor did the contractors have any experience in the art of interview and interrogation. One of the contractors told me this at the time, and this lack of experience has also now been recently reported on by sources familiar with their backgrounds. 

The case of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah is a good example of where the success of the Informed Interrogation Approach can be contrasted with the failure of the harsh technique approach. I have to restrict my remarks to what has been unclassified. (I will note that there is documented evidence supporting everything I will tell you today.) 

Immediately after Abu Zubaydah was captured, a fellow FBI agent and I were flown to meet him at an undisclosed location. We were both very familiar with Abu Zubaydah and have successfully interrogated al-Qaeda terrorists. We started interrogating him, supported by CIA officials who were stationed at the location, and within the first hour of the interrogation, using the Informed Interrogation Approach, we gained important actionable intelligence. 

The information was so important that, as I later learned from open sources, it went to CIA Director George Tennet who was so impressed that he initially ordered us to be congratulated. That was apparently quickly withdrawn as soon as Mr. Tennet was told that it was FBI agents, who were responsible. He then immediately ordered a CIA CTC interrogation team to leave DC and head to the location to take over from us.

During his capture Abu Zubaydah had been injured. After seeing the extent of his injuries, the CIA medical team supporting us decided they were not equipped to treat him and we had to take him to a hospital or he would die. At the hospital, we continued our questioning as much as possible, while taking into account his medical condition and the need to know all information he might have on existing threats. 

We were once again very successful and elicited information regarding the role of KSM as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and lots of other information that remains classified. (It is important to remember that before this we had no idea of KSM’s role in 9/11 or his importance in the al Qaeda leadership structure.) All this happened before the CTC team arrived. 

A few days after we started questioning Abu Zubaydah, the CTC interrogation team finally arrived from DC with a contractor who was instructing them on how they should conduct the interrogations, and we were removed. Immediately, on the instructions of the contractor, harsh techniques were introduced, starting with nudity. (The harsher techniques mentioned in the memos were not introduced or even discussed at this point.) 

The new techniques did not produce results as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking. At that time nudity and low-level sleep deprivation (between 24 and 48 hours) was being used. After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from DC asking why all of sudden no information was being transmitted (when before there had been a steady stream), we again were given control of the interrogation. 

We then returned to using the Informed Interrogation Approach. Within a few hours, Abu Zubaydah again started talking and gave us important actionable intelligence. 

This included the details of Jose Padilla, the so-called “dirty bomber.” To remind you of how important this information was viewed at the time, the then-Attorney General, John Ashcroft, held a press conference from Moscow to discuss the news. Other important actionable intelligence was also gained that remains classified. 

After a few days, the contractor attempted to once again try his untested theory and he started to re-implementing the harsh techniques. He moved this time further along the force continuum, introducing loud noise and then temperature manipulation. 

Throughout this time, my fellow FBI agent and I, along with a top CIA interrogator who was working with us, protested, but we were overruled. I should also note that another colleague, an operational psychologist for the CIA, had left the location because he objected to what was being done. 

Again, however, the technique wasn’t working and Abu Zubaydah wasn’t revealing any information, so we were once again brought back in to interrogate him. We found it harder to reengage him this time, because of how the techniques had affected him, but eventually, we succeeded, and he re-engaged again. 

Once again the contractor insisted on stepping up the notches of his experiment, and this time he requested the authorization to place Abu Zubaydah in a confinement box, as the next stage in the force continuum. While everything I saw to this point were nowhere near the severity later listed in the memos, the evolution of the contractor’s theory, along with what I had seen till then, struck me as “borderline torture.” 

As the Department of Justice IG report released last year states, I protested to my superiors in the FBI and refused to be a part of what was happening. The Director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, a man I deeply respect, agreed passing the message that “we don’t do that,” and I was pulled out. 

As you can see from this timeline, many of the claims made in the memos about the success of the enhanced techniques are inaccurate. For example, it is untrue to claim Abu Zubaydah wasn’t cooperating before August 1, 2002. The truth is that we got actionable intelligence from him in the first hour of interrogating him. 

In addition, simply by putting together dates cited in the memos with claims made, falsehoods are obvious. For example, it has been claimed that waterboarding got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Jose Padilla. But that doesn’t add up: Waterboarding wasn’t approved until 1August 2002 (verbally it was authorized around mid July 2002), and Padilla was arrested in May 2002. 

The same goes for KSM’s involvement in 9/11: That was discovered in April 2002, while waterboarding was not introduced until almost three months later. It speaks volumes that the quoted instances of harsh interrogation methods being a success are false. 

Nor can it be said that the harsh techniques were effective, which is why we had to be called back in repeatedly. As we know from the memos, the techniques that were apparently introduced after I left did not appear to work either, which is why the memos granted authorization for harsher techniques. That continued for several months right till waterboarding was introduced, which had to be used 83 times – an indication that Abu Zubaydah had called the interrogator’s bluff knowing the glass ceiling that existed. 

Authoritative CIA, FBI, and military sources have also questioned the claims made by the advocates of the techniques. For example, in one of the recently released Justice Department memos, the author, Stephen Bradbury, acknowledged a (still classified) internal CIA Inspector General report that had found it “difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks.” 

In summary, the Informed Interrogation Approach outlined in the Army Field Manual is the most effective, reliable, and speedy approach we have for interrogating terrorists. It is legal and has worked time and again.

It was a mistake to abandon it in favor of harsh interrogation methods that are harmful, shameful, slower, unreliable, ineffective, and play directly into the enemy’s handbook. It was a mistake to abandon an approach that was working and naively replace it with an untested method. It was a mistake to abandon an approach that is based on the cumulative wisdom and successful tradition of our military, intelligence, and law enforcement community, in favor of techniques advocated by contractors with no relevant experience. 

The mistake was so costly precisely because the situation was, and remains, too risky to allow someone to experiment with amateurish, Hollywood style interrogation methods- that in reality- taints sources, risks outcomes, ignores the end game, and diminishes our moral high ground in a battle that is impossible to win without first capturing the hearts and minds around the world. It was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against al Qaeda. 

For the last seven years, it was not easy objecting to these methods when they had powerful backers. I stood up then for the same reason I’m willing to take on critics now, because I took an oath swearing to protect this great nation. I could not stand by quietly while our country’s safety was endangered and our moral standing damaged. 

I know you are motivated by the same considerations, and I hope you help ensure that these grave mistakes are never made again. 

Thank you.

(more…)

Palin the Performer

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

I was cleaning out my draft posts and came across this wonderful take on Sarah Palin by Sam Harris in Newsweek at the height of her appeal:

Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones “God and country.” If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could…

For all my concern about Bush’s religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to “talk the talk” between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to “walk the walk” until the Day of Judgment.

What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world’s only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

“Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child’s brain?”

“Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I’m an avid hunter.”

“But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind.”

“That’s just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink…”

Is This Downturn a Crisis of Confidence or a Fundamental Error?

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Prefacing my thoughts on economics, as always, with the warning that I am not an economist, but only an amateur…

My non-professional observation is that when a disproportionate amount of money is controlled by the financial sector, a crash soon follows. This observation isn’t original. As Paul Krugman observed a few days ago in the New York Times:

After 1980, of course, a very different financial system emerged. In the deregulation-minded Reagan era, old-fashioned banking was increasingly replaced by wheeling and dealing on a grand scale. The new system was much bigger than the old regime: On the eve of the current crisis, finance and insurance accounted for 8 percent of G.D.P., more than twice their share in the 1960s. By early last year, the Dow contained five financial companies — giants like A.I.G., Citigroup and Bank of America.

Krugman concludes that this structural issue is at the root of the problem – rather than a liquidity issue with the banks:

I don’t think this is just a financial panic; I believe that it represents the failure of a whole model of banking, of an overgrown financial sector that did more harm than good. I don’t think the Obama administration can bring securitization back to life, and I don’t believe it should try.

Simon Johnson, an economist formerly with the IMF, agrees with Krugman in a long piece in The Atlantic Monthly, and he echoes another point I’ve been making:

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail.

Reading both of these men, I find myself hoping they are wrong while sensing that they are at least partially right. Evan Thomas of Newsweek captured this balance nicely in his cover piece from the current issue:

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he’s wrong, and you sense he’s being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking.

At the same time as Establishment defenders such as Robert Samuelson are uneasy about the scope of what Obama is proposing, other members of the Establishment are uneasy that he may not be doing enough. We don’t know who is right.

To some extent we can discount Krugman’s opposition due to his personal fantasy of how his life might work out:

Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the “Foundation” series—”It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, ‘See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism’.”

His critique of Obama’s plans seems to follow this model – as his warnings take on more prophetic tones.

But there is real intellectual weight to this theory of the financial crisis as something more than a liquidity or confidence crisis. Krugman outright rejects this explanation:

[T]he banks [are] really, truly messed up: they bet heavily on unrealistic beliefs about housing and consumer debt, and lost those bets. Confidence is low because people have become realistic. [my emphasis]

In other venues, Krugman describes the problems as extending far further than this – as above when he discusses the trend towards increasing the influence of American finance and increasing income disparity. This stands on contrast to the approach of both Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner who believe that the crisis is primarily one of confidence. They are treating the crisis as a more technical and esoteric version of a bank panic solved by a show of strength, as for example, the Panic of 1907:

Shipments of gold were on the way from London to New York, and confidence had returned to the French Bourse, “owing,” reported one paper, “to the belief that the strong men in American finance would succeed in their efforts to check the spirit of the panic.” During a panic, confidence is almost as good as gold.

Today, the government has taken the role of “the strong men in American finance” who are seeking a show of strength to boost confidence.

On the one side, you have economists – from Simon Johnson to Paul Krugman to Nouriel Roubini – who have been predicting doom for some time claiming that there are fundamental problems with our finance industry – and as a result of the size and influence of our finance industry – our entire economy. On the other you have men and women with power – in both finance and government – who are acting as if the problem is mainly one of a lack of confidence and a broken mechanism. 

My bet – based in no small part on my innate optimism as well as a respect for people on both sides of this debate – is that in the short term, the Geithner plans will work to restart the “old” economy. In this moment before that happens though, pressure from Europe and internal critics as well as a desire to avoid a repeat of this fiasco will enable enough forward-looking, gradualist regulation and legislation to correct the long-term problems with high finance.  Already, there are some signs that this is what is happening.