May 22 2009

Mike Lillis on climate bill, Joy-Ann Reid on Cheney & torture


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This week on CounterSpin: Climate change legislation is making its way through Congress, but weirdly, that might not be good news. Some environmentalists are saying that in this case, no law might be better than this bill–that started out as a call to reduce carbon emissions but seems to be turning into something else. We’ll talk with Mike Lillis, who covers Congress for the Washington Independent.

Also on the show: Did top Bush officials instruct interrogators to torture detainees, not for national security reasons, but to obtain statements to justify the Iraq War? The answer seems to be yes, according to emerging stories based on highly-placed, on-the-record sources. But good luck finding the story anywhere except on a few evening shows on MSNBC. We’ll talk to journalist Joy Ann Reid who has been covering the story, and its shunning by the press, on her website,


Coal, Electric Industries Big Winners in Climate Bill Deal, by Mike Lillis (Washington Independent, 5/15/09)


That’s coming up, but first as usual we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—The debate over Bush-era torture tactics like waterboarding has morphed into a full-blown Washington scandal. But the target isn’t the Bush administration officials who ordered the torture; instead, the corporate media’s focus is on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who claims that she was not fully briefed by the CIA on the use of waterboarding in late 2002.

Folks like Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity have declared that Pelosi is “undermining our national security. She’s emboldening our enemies.” But more centrist pundits have focused on Pelosi’s “handling” of the controversy; the Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote on May 15 that Pelosi “took the remarkable step of trying to shift the focus of blame to the CIA and the Bush administration, claiming that the CIA accounts represented a diversionary tactic in the real debate over the interrogation policies.” It’s unclear why it’s “remarkable” to suggest that the discussion should focus on the agency and on the White House that ran the secret torture program, rather than on someone who may or may not have been informed about it.

Weirdest about the media frenzy is that it seems to discount the idea that the CIA would ever mislead lawmakers about its actions. History, of course, is rife with examples— ranging from the CIA director in 1973 lying about agency involvement in that year’s coup in Chile, to a 2006 Washington Post report that the CIA’s former deputy inspector general believed the agency was lying about its interrogation practices when it briefed lawmakers. Moreover, the CIA itself has acknowledged that its lists of who was briefed on waterboarding on what dates were inaccurate—including people who weren’t actually present, like former Sen. Bob Graham and a staffer for Rep. David Obey.

In short, an agency has been accused of breaking the law and has admitted to destroying key evidence that could implicate its personnel in that lawbreaking. The same agency has a record of misleading members of Congress (among others) about its activities and has admitted errors in its records concerning who was informed in this specific case. How corporate media make that into a scandal about whether Nancy Pelosi is telling the truth is really hard to fathom.

—The independent website Raw Story recently summarized the human toll of the U.S. government’s torture program: approximately 100 prisoners have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to human rights investigators, with 34 of those deaths officially classified as homicides; at least eight individuals were tortured to death.

Yet somehow, when corporate media report on the torture program’s victims, their focus is the CIA, the agency that designed and helped implement the array of torture techniques known as “enhanced interrogation.” A May 19 article by Walter Pincus, intelligence correspondent for the Washington Post, provides an example.

Pincus described the CIA as “battered by recriminations over waterboarding and other harsh techniques,” and as “girding itself for more public scrutiny.” The article presented the agency’s view that “it is being forced to take the blame for actions approved by elected officials that have since fallen into disfavor.”

“Fallen into disfavor”—that’s one way to describe it. Another way would be to say that these actions were violations of U.S. and international law, not to mention the Constitution, all of which clearly prohibit torture.

Pincus cites a CIA officer’s anguished plea, “Will I be in trouble five years from now for what I agree to do today?” In Pincus’ world, evidently, the idea that a spy could commit a crime and not get away with it is a sign that something is wrong.

Usually when people are “forced to take the blame” for criminal actions, they get prosecuted. But Pincus notes that Obama has promised that CIA torturers will not face punishment if they followed the Bush administration’s torture guidelines.

But, writes Pincus, agency personnel still face subpoenas and testimony under oath before criminal, civil and congressional bodies. His example: A grand jury investigation into the CIA’s destruction of interrogation videotapes. So even though they’ve been effectively pardoned for the crime of torture, they still may have to answer for destroying the evidence. Life is so unfair.

—While Americans may have intended to vote in change in the past election, that’s not the way many journalists see it— at least those journalists who are cheering Barack Obama for sticking with Bush era “War on Terror” policies.

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald cites the New Republic’s Jack Goldsmith praising Obama for maintaining what Goldsmith called the “essential elements” of “the Bush approach to counterterrorism policy.”

Greenwald explains such media cheerleading:

That’s because—contrary to the ceremonial displays of regret and denouncements of Bush—the dominant media view is this: the Bush/Cheney approach to terrorism was right; those policies are “centrist”; Obama is acting commendably by embracing them; most of the country wants those policies; and only the far left opposes the Bush/Cheney approach.

Greenwald quotes from an Associated Press report by Liz Sidoti, which seems to suggest that most American are eager for Bush era policies to continue: “Increasingly, President Barack Obama and the Democrats who run Congress are being pulled between the competing interests of party liberals and the rest of the country on Bush-era wartime matters of torture, detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists.”

The notion that these Bush policies are actually centrist, and supported by everyone in the country except for liberal Democrats does help to explain some things we were confused about: Like the related story about the Philadelphia Inquirer hiring John Yoo, the Bush lawyer who justified torture and once suggested that under certain circumstances, crushing the testicles of a detainee’s child would be acceptable. We would have thought hiring such a person and publishing his opinions on a regular basis would be beyond the pale.

—CBS anchor Bob Schieffer is no pushover for the important officials he interviews. At least, according to Bob Schieffer. In a recent profile for the website MarketWatch, Schieffer was asked how he feels when subjects lie to him on the air or try to mislead the audience. His response: “I want to jump across the table and choke them.”

Gee. Seriously undermining Schieffer’s machismo, though, is the fact that the MarketWatch piece highlights his recent interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney, of all people, whose airway has remained intact despite his repeated public claims of evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, an active nuclear program, and ties to Al-Qaeda—all claims determined to be false. Of course, such assertions may not read as misleading to Schieffer, since he’s peddled them himself, as when on Face the Nation in 2002, he referred to Saddam Hussein’s “lying” about banned weaponry that “in fact we know that he has.”

Well, Schieffer for his part was especially proud of the Cheney interview, pointing to the part where he asked Cheney if he’d prefer Rush Limbaugh’s or Colin Powell’s vision for the GOP and Cheney utterly unsurprisingly picked Limbaugh. Says Schieffer: “I’ve never done anything that had as much resonance. It was all over cable television.” Well, good (and kind of sad) to know how he measures “resonance”… but Schieffer shouldn’t sell himself short: that covering up for lies about Iraq has been pretty resonant too.

—Finally, the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib explained on May 20 that if you want to know the troubles of reforming a large health care system, look at California’s struggles. As he put it, California is “a kind of trial run for the healthcare overhaul the president and Congress are about to attempt on the national level, offering useful lessons as well as warning signs about the potholes ahead.”

Seib talked up the importance of bipartisanship and cost control. But there’s another layer to this story that Seib mostly avoided—that’s the support for a single-payer system in the state. Seib wrote that “California’s effort was launched by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in early 2007.” But that would leave out nine years of single-payer legislative action prior to that year; in fact, in 2006 the single-payer bill SB 840 passed the state legislature, only to be vetoed by Schwarzenegger. It was reintroduced the following year, and thanks to a massive organizing effort (aided by Michael Moore’s film SiCKO) it once again passed the state legislature—and was once again vetoed by Schwarzenegger.

Different lessons can be drawn from this background, of course. But in Seib’s version of California history, we get only glancing mention of this: “Some liberals pushed a government-run health plan.” The corporate media (along with various politicians) are determined to keep single-payer “off the table” in the current national debate. Seib seems to want to erase it from the past, too.


CounterSpin: “Climate Change Legislation Moving Forward,” say the headlines. It sure sounds like good news for Congress to require the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions that we know are major contributors to global warming—especially after years of an administration that often argued that the “jury was still out” on whether warming was happening at all. But a bill and this bill are two different things; and even as many media outlets celebrate, as is their wont, the bipartisan support for the climate bill now wending its way through Congress, some others are saying cross-aisle support for a crummy law does not amount to good news. Here to help us sort through what’s going on is Mike Lillis. Mike follows Congress for the Washington Independent news site. He joins us now by phone from Washington D.C. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mike Lillis!

Mike Lillis: Thanks for having me, Janine.

CS: Apparently it was Otto von Bismarck who said “laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” That comes to mind watching the climate change bill in the House. I wonder if you’d explain some of what has already happened here; the initial goal of this legislation, obviously enough, was to mitigate the U.S.’s contribution to global warming, by reducing carbon emissions and other things. What happened along the way, and is the bill now altered beyond recognition?

ML: Well, the partisanship on Capitol Hill is infamous at this point but this is an especially interesting debate because half the lawmakers involved don’t believe in the problem that the legislation is trying to fix to begin with. So you said that the jury is still out—that was the stand of the prior administration. Well that’s still the stand of a lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the energy and commerce committee mark up this week we were hearing a lot of arguments from those folks. Going back even a week before, it was Democrats that the sponsors of this bill had to get on board, and that was an even more interesting debate because I guess that once the Democrats had the House, they got the Senate, and they had the White House that there was this preconceived notion that they would be able to push anything that they wanted—and then you see that concept run up into the idea of what we’re calling regional protectionism. And so you had a lot of the coal country Democrats pushing for the coal industry; you had a lot of the automaker protectors pushing for the auto industry; you had a lot of the gas refinery Democrats in Texas pushing for protections for the gas industry. And what you got was a pretty watered down version of the original draft that Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts had initially unveiled in April.

CS: Well, it’s interesting because as media consumers we’re used to this “industry vs. environment” angle on this story, but that’s kind of abstract—and as you just said, in making the law it’s really these regional vs. national conflicts that wind up having the most impact. Of course there’s also money, and one of the things that you’ve tracked is the lobbying and that’s looking very tilted as well.

ML: Well, sure, the lobbying is enormous and in the first three months of this year the energy industry, including all of those that I just mentioned, have certainly been active on Capitol Hill. They’re pumping many millions more than the environmentalists and the renewable energy folks.

CS: Well, tell us maybe one concrete example from this—I know there are many—but talk to us about these pollution permits that we’ve been hearing about. What’s that story?

ML: Sure, this was something that Senator Barack Obama had campaigned on during the course of the Presidential campaign and they called this cap-and-trade, and it just means that if you’re going to be pumping carbon into the environment then you’re going to, in theory, pay for every ton that you contribute. And the original plan under Obama’s strategy was that you were going to sell a hundred percent of those—it was going to be the cap-and-trade auction he called it. A hundred percent were going to be for sale and then these polluters could trade them or sell them as they saw fit, and Obama estimated that that was going to bring in about $650 billion over the next decade. The draft bill that Waxman and Markey introduced in April didn’t set an auction percentage on that. They just said we’re going to take a look at it and we want everybody’s input and we’ll see what comes out of it. Well, what came out if it was instead of 100 percent auctions, you have 15 percent auctions, meaning they’re giving away 85 percent of those polluter permits for free—and that number will go down as the years progress. But what it means is that the country’s largest polluters don’t have to pay for the pollution that they’re spitting out into the environment.

CS: So if you were to report that, you know, pollution permits are still a part of this legislation, you’d kind of be missing the trajectory of what’s happened. Well, we often note that for many corporate outlets, if Republicans and Democrats support something—even better if they compromise over it—well then, it’s pretty much gotta be good. And that can wind up being the perspective, so that people outside of that Washington consensus sound like wackos, or at best impractical. I wonder as a reporter how important do you feel it is to get non-politician voices, non-Congressmember voices into a story about congressional actions?

ML: I think it’s always a goal of reporters to get “objective” voices—of course none of these people are clearly objective. You know if for the story that we’re writing now you want somebody to criticize the bill, you call an environmentalist and if you want somebody to support it you would call the coal industry. I mean, it’s kind of a game and you can confirm your prior beliefs by making the right phone call.

CS: Well, in a way this story kind of points to a role for national journalists. I guess regional papers can be expected in a way to present things primarily from a local impact perspective (not that they can’t have a broader awareness, too; obviously they could). But I wonder if you see national outlets doing a good job, or what kind of job you think they’re doing tracking all the pieces of this issue? Are there angles that you think are to date underexplored?

ML: Well, you know, I think that because right now there is no system in place that fights emissions, that a lot of folks came from that angle. They said, listen we have nothing in place and so half the loaf is better than none, and that’s what you’re hearing even from some environmental groups, that “Hey why are we fretting over 17 percent emissions by 2020? Even if it’s a little bit less than what the target was a few months ago it’s better than nothing, and so we’ll take it and we’ll build from there.” And so I think a lot of the reporting again, it started just from the idea that we don’t have anything in place now, this bill is better than nothing. There is another approach and that is that if you believe that climate change is real, if you believe that man is contributing to it, and if you believe that there’s an urgency and a responsibility for Congress to take steps to fix it, there are targets the Obama plan and many scientists—he based his plan on some scientific reports that said that we’d better hit 83 percent reductions by 2050, and so the 17 percent by 2020 that’s in the Waxman/Markey bill now is a little bit lower, they still want 83 percent by 2050. But if you’re only hitting 17 percent by 2020 then the burden is on lawmakers in the future to really close a much larger gap. And so the question is “Are we on that trajectory?” And so in a sense they’ve just punted it down the road, and if you approach from that angle then there is more room to criticize the bill.

CS: And I suppose “it’s not neutral” is the perspective of some people: it’s not really neutral to pass something that’s inadequate because things as they are, that might mean they don’t go back to the issue for some time.

ML: Precisely. You know, there’re already a lot of reports that Wall Street is really salivating over the thought of this cap-and-trade system because they can trade, they can bundle it, and do everything that they do, and they’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars on Wall Street that’s going to be made over this system. And so once it’s in place, you know, they will not return to it for quite a number of years, which is why a lot of environmentalists are saying, “Listen let’s grab this bill, either improve it or scrap it because we need to put some stricter limitations on this stuff.”

CS: We’ve been speaking with Mike Lillis, he’s Congress reporter for the Washington Independent news site. You can find them online at Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

ML: Thanks, Janine. Appreciate it.


CounterSpin: There’s an emerging story that suggests top Bush administration officials instructed U.S. interrogators to use torture, not for the protection of national security, but to illicit statements to help rationalize and justify the Iraq War. But despite its solid sourcing and sensational details, the story hasn’t gotten much traction in the corporate media.

Joy-Ann Reid, a journalist with the South Florida Times, has been writing about all this on her website at She joins us now from South Florida,

Welcome to CounterSpin, Joy-Ann Reid!

Joy-Ann Reid: Thanks, thanks for having me on.

CS: Well, let’s start out with the story: What is being alleged, and by whom?

JR: Well, I first of all, will say that I think this is one of the bombshell revelations that we’ve gotten since the start of the Iraq war, really since the run up to the Iraq war, but it’s been incredibly undercovered. Lawrence Wilkerson, who’s a former aide to General Colin Powell, who at that time was Secretary of State in the former Bush administration, he alleged earlier in the week that during April and May of 2002—and this is before the Justice Department had written memos essentially trying to sanction the use of what they’re calling harsh interrogation techniques—that essentially the Vice President’s office was attempting to extract information from prisoners, including people captured in Iraq, to get people to admit to a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda to justify the war. And this is after the White House had put together the WHIG, the White House Iraq Group where they were trying to sort of pitch the war to the American people. Well, it’s not emerging, if you believe Wilkerson and some others who’ve done some reporting on this, that the Vice President’s office was attempting to use torture, not to find the smoking gun about a possible other attack but to find a smoking gun that would allow them to say that Iraq was involved in 9/11.

CS: Do we have any evidence that they knowingly were trying to elicit false links on this?

JR: Well, we do have a person named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, and this was a guy who was captured by U.S. forces, he was then rendered to Egypt, was waterboarded, was… things were done to him like he was locked in a coffin-like structure for 12 hours, essentially he was tortured, and then he suddenly changed what he had earlier been telling interrogators and revealed that yes, indeed, there were these contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda. That testimony turned up in Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations, much of which we now know was false. Al-Libi later recanted this supposed confession that yes, Iraq’s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been involved with al-Qaeda, and then more recently when people attempted to go and interview him—and I believe these are from the international committee of the Red Cross—well, he turned up dead of a supposed suicide.

CS: Well, I think what’s interesting here is that Dick Cheney alleges, based on, of course, secret intelligence—just like a lot of his claims about the Iraq war that turned out to be false—that intelligence has been gained that was accurate and that helped avert attacks against the U.S. But we have in this story, the sensational story of people like Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, on the record, saying that Cheney… I mean this story is so much better sourced than Cheney’s arguement.

JR: Yeah, absolutely, and Dick Cheney is relying on two memos that he is trying to get the CIA and/or members of the White House to declassify, which he claims will prove that when we waterboarded suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Abu Zubaydah that they revealed all of this important information that helped thwart terrorist attacks. And they tried to say that well, there was going to be an attack on Los Angeles. Well, we all know now that that attack, that supposed attack was in such early stages and really there was no evidence to support that there was an imminent attack that was going to be done against Los Angeles. He’s got no evidence for it, and furthermore, members of Congress who’ve seen the classified versions of these memos said there’s nothing in them, and President Obama has said that there’s nothing that they’ve seen in these memos that would justify what Dick Cheney is saying. But more importantly I think the part of the story that’s really sensational that we haven’t heard enough about: a guy called Robert Windrem who used to be an investigative producer with NBC news, he has sourced an incredible story that we’re not talking anymore about just waterboarding people who were picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but that actually we picked up a senior Iraqi intelligence official in Iraq and that he was held by U.S. interrogators and that the Vice President’s office, someone within the Vice President’s office, attempted to get the Iraq survey group—whose job it was to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction—to possibly use harsh interrogation techniques against this Iraqi to try to get him to reveal these same supposed links which we now know don’t exist. That’s incredible because you’re not anymore talking about any possiblity that he has any information about a terror attack. Iraq wasn’t involved in terrorism against the United States. This was strictly, according to Windem’s reporting, to get him to say that Saddam was involved with al-Qaeda.

CS: Joy-Ann Ried, why is using torture to get information making that Iraq-al-Qaeda worse than using it for national security reasons?

JR: Well, I actually think that it isn’t worse. I think the use of torture by the United States in any event is obviously a war crime and it’s immoral and it goes against every value that the United States has espoused for 200-plus years. But, however, polls have shown that a plurality of Americans can accept the idea of torture in the sort of 24 scenario: There’s going to be an attack imminently somewhere in the United States; this terror suspect knows where it’s going to happen and when; so the American people can kind of stomach the idea that well, maybe we waterboarded this person to find out when that attack is going to take place. But if, in fact, the fact is that the Administration was using torture not for that reason but the same way that the Maoist Chinese used it or the North Koreans or that was used against our forces in Vietnam—in order to extract false confessions—then basically we’re saying that the Administration not only fabricated a case for invading Iraq but that they used war crimes, they used torture, to try to get false confessions in order to lie to Congress and get Congress to authorize an unjustified invasion of Iraq. It compounds the criminality, or the potential criminality, of what was done and it takes away the one thin justification they’ve had—which is that it was to prevent an attack on Americans.

CS: Yes, not exactly a ticking time bomb. Joy-Ann Reid, you’ve found that despite it’s sensational details, this story just doesn’t seem particularly newsworthy to a lot of journalists.

JR: Yeah, I think the idea that the Bush administration was trying to push for a case for invading Iraq and may have used falsehoods and false confessions, that’s news in and of itself, but what’s really been stunning here is that the mainstream media, by and large we’re talking about the major newspapers here—the New York Times, the Washington Post—the major television outlets have had almost no interest in this story. The only place I’ve seen it has been on MSNBC during their evening coverage when you have people like Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow on—the programs that are seen as more ideological. In the straight news coverage of this story, all we’ve heard about for weeks has not been about whether torture is illegal, has not been about potential war crimes, hasn’t even been about this idea that maybe the administration was using torture to illicit false confessions the way the Spanish Inquisition used it, or the way the Chinese, or the North Koreans used it. All they seem interested in is this back-and-forth about one of the more irrelevant aspects of the story—Nancy Pelosi. The media is just fixated on whether or not the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was told about waterboarding; as if whether or not she might have been told about it in classified briefings is a bigger story than whether it happened. And it’s been consistent, you’ve seen the news media, which has lost interest long ago in why we went into the Iraq War and into the run-up to the war—they’ve lost interest in that story years ago. And they still don’t seem to want to go to that story, they just want to go to this back-and-forth between Pelosi and the Republicans.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Joy-Ann Reid. She’s a columnist for the South Florida Times, and has been covering this story on her website at

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Joy-Ann Reid!

JR: Thank you.