Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse brought up the issue of the White House Office of General Counsel, particularly as regards torture. This office brought in law on Medicare reimbursement, but somehow missed that we had prosecuted Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American prisoners.
Whitehouse says the problem of the unitary executive is the corrosive effect on the idea of public service: Various bureacrats have referred to their loyalty to the President, not the Constitution, or the law. The politicization of the Department of Justice is another example, as is that of the Intelligence community, and of scientific inquiries with regard to global warming.
To Whitehouse, there's some good news: The courts have largely retained their independence; and the press, led by McClatchy, seems to have retained/regained its bite. [At least sometimes — CB] And the legacy of the Bush administration makes it highly unlikely that anyone will follow this road again.
Norman Ornstein: The US Attorneys scandal is not over; there are still some attorneys serving who brought/did not bring certain charges for political reasons.
Regarding checks and balances vis-a-vis the press: Investigative journalism is declining. McClatchy is losing reporters; so is the Washington Post. [Our own Charlie Savage has moved on to the NYT, as part of the forced emaciation of the Globe. — CB]
A robust system of checks and balances is necessary, and we've gone without that. We need three robust branches going at each other — and yet with trust between them. In the 2000's, Congress saw itself as footsoldiers for the President, not as independent legislators. Oversight was thrown overboard. Abu Ghraib merited 12 hours of oversight; the Clinton administration's use of Christmas card privileges in the 90's took up 12 times that.
Iraq: The failure to provide adequate body armor and armored vehicles for four years would never have happened with adequate oversight. Sense of service in the legislative branch needs to be regrown.
We also had a President who has taken everything to the limit, which changes the dynamic of the negotiation.
McCain has been constructive: Has foresworn signing statements, which shows a sensitivity to the overreach of executive power.
Fritz A. O. Schwarz, Jr.: All Presidents have stretched their powers; but Bush/Cheney have asserted right to break it in wiretapping and torture. Cheney's been working on this theory for 20 years, possibly dating back to his work for Pres. Ford: President should be able to assume monarchical powers in crises.
We've now become hypocritical in our view on torture. We sent our prisoners to Egypt, and got someone to say under torture that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were in league, which was unreliable, and we knew it.
We have accepted the idea that we ought to adopt the tactics of the enemy. We've made ourselves less free, and less safe. Our allies are not as close as they were. Italy, Germany, Sweden, and the UK have taken steps away from us, particuarly with intelligence. And we've given the Bin Ladens of the world a great recruiting device.
Contrast is not people vs. procedure; it's an understanding of human nature. The founders were right about the basics: Men are not angels; and because of that we've set up a structure to check abuses of power in a dialogue and contest of powers.
Q&A session highlights …
Whitehouse says that classification/secrecy is an enormous advantage for the executive branch; John Yoo can say how many times waterboarding was used, but Sen. Whitehouse would be breaching national security. NSA lawyers were kept out of the discussions for programs the NSA was running. What possible security purpose can that serve?
Ornstein talks about the poisonously partisan environment, mentioning Bush's remarks to the Knesset, Boehner's and Cantor's distortions of Obama's remarks about Israel, and some Democrats' not-very-veiled disappointment that the surge might have been working. [For how long? and to what purpose?]
Bacevich: This administration has a number of achievements:
- Defined age of terror
- defined war on terror
- introduced idea of preventive war
- defining defense spending as not on the budget
- greater Middle East nexus of power [didn't really catch this — typing]
- shielded institutions of national security state from any critical scrutiny. We've re-arranged deck chairs on national security — made apparatus bigger than ever before. Joint Chief of Staff has done abysmal job.
- quashed debate on major concepts: “World's only superpower”, “global leadership” — are these meaningful concepts?
Detlev Vagts: McCain has defined himself as a 3rd Bush term; Obama has defined himself apart; Sen. Clinton in the middle. None can write on a clean slate.
Why is there this fear of speaking to our enemies? Nixon spoke aggressively with Khrushchev; we always had an ambassador in USSR.
We exercised international leadership in arranging Gulf War I; also in reassuring allies with reunification of Germany. Rebuild coalitions. Our “coalition of the willing” has fallen apart.
Russia will be great test of American statesmanship. Chinese have prevented UN security council from coming down on Sudan.
No one knows what will come up. No one thought about a 9/11-type attack. There will be other concerns, perhaps from Ahmedinejad. Khaddafi has abandoned his attempt to be proliferator, but Pakistan has made great progress to that, and Iran has moved towards nukes.
The world is looking to us to see whether there will be a real change in direction, and change in style.