Wednesday, February 27, 2008

This, that and the other thing


Barack Obama sure can talk. No, I'm not going to weigh in on the plagiarism charges now hurled at the orator/senator. Our first topic today is transparency in government. He's all for it. Indeed, he says he has the ability to work across party lines "on opening up and creating more transparency in government" so government spending is "posted on a searchable database" for all to see.

Sounds nifty. Even if you favor congressional earmarks (funding items not requested by the president but written into spending bills by lawmakers), it's hard to oppose letting the public know what earmarks they've sponsored. After all, it's the public's cash. Even unrepentant pork-barrelers can't be against full disclosure and transparency these days.

What caught my eye last week, however, was a Washington Post article noting that this champion of "more transparency in government" is not quite walking the talk. According to reporter Paul Kane, Obama has released the 2007 earmark-request letters he submitted, but not the ones for 2005 and 2006.

What gives? Does he preach "more transparency" but practice selective transparency? Is it full or not-so-full disclosure? His record is already thin. Is it helpful to declare some of it off limits? How will voters evaluate him—rely on speechifying alone?

It's a subtle difference, but no less important—practically or politically—for its subtlety.

Last week, the Senate passed an intelligence bill that included a provision requiring the Central Intelligence Agency to follow the Army Field Manual on interrogation techniques. The measure would bar the CIA from waterboarding and other coercive techniques when grilling terrorists. What was most telling—heartening, really—was John McCain's vote. The waterboarding foe voted against the measure.

No, he hasn't changed his mind on waterboarding. He opposed the bill because the provision is about more than waterboarding, which McCain thinks he already outlawed in a 2005 law he sponsored. "What we need is not to tie the CIA to the Army Field Manual," he said. "but rather to have a good-faith interpretation of the statutes that guide what is permissible in the CIA program."

Precisely. The Department of Defense and CIA are two different agencies working in different contexts. There's also the question of the status of captured al-Qaida terrorists. Will we keep treating them as "unlawful enemy combatants" who are not covered by the Geneva Conventions or will they receive the same status as regular soldiers captured on the battlefield? The tactics outlined in the Army manual are designed to keep our military operating within the conventions' requirements. McCain seems to understand that there are techniques beyond the Army manual that fall short of "torture," but would be banned under the Geneva Conventions. He won't surrender the key distinction between lawful and unlawful enemy combatants that the administration has insisted on since 9/11. Beyond this, he seems to understand that the Senate measure would give to terrorists a road map to their interrogation if they fall into CIA hands.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was doing her bit to keep our intelligence agencies from monitoring communications of terror suspects overseas. Bush and 19 Senate Democrats had reached a bipartisan compromise on the terrorist-surveillance program, which was set to expire at midnight, Feb. 16. A permanent extension had passed the Senate, 68-29. The president gave up something (some executive-power claims and an expansion of the court's role) and key Senate Democrats had given up something (immunity for telecom companies that cooperated with the government after 9/11).

For Pelosi, however, it was her way or the highway. The Senate compromise would have passed the House if she had let it come to the floor for a vote. About three dozen House Democrats were ready to vote for it. But Pelosi would have none of it. When 34 Democrats joined House Republicans in defeating another temporary extension, Pelosi closed up shop.

Never mind that on Feb. 16, U.S. agencies would no longer be able to monitor the communications of terrorists overseas without probable cause. Never mind that Congress passed a temporary extension earlier to close this intel gap. Pelosi's House went on a weeklong vacation. No word yet on whether terrorists also went on holiday in deference to Pelosi.

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