David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

The Australian ran a piece yesterday using the Dusty Foggo-Brent Wilkes story as the peg for a look at the broader mess within the U.S. intelligence community:

Revelations via The New York Times and The Washington Post in the past 12 months have included reports that the CIA was operating secret prisons offshore to detain high-level terrorists and that Bush was authorising surveillance through wiretaps on US citizens without a court warrant, as laws demand. Bush has confirmed the existence of both programs.

The disclosures have helped frame the debate in the US on the war on terror this year and promoted an increasing disquiet among Americans about the direction of their country. The intelligence leaks play into the fears of many an American that there's a sneaky federal Government up to no good behind the scenes and always looking for a way to control their lives, a kind of conspiracy that appears embedded in the cultural DNA of the place.

And it means that rather than a unified front against terrorism, the US has become as polarised as ever about where it's headed.

It's a good read, and has an interesting perspective that perhaps comes with being more detached than domestic American media.

It became clear sometime in early 2006--I can't recall pinpointing exactly when--that President Bush's call to "stay the course" in Iraq meant he and the GOP would dance with who they brought through the 2006 elections. It is the only way they can retain Congress.

But it has also been increasingly clear that the decision has already been made--has been made for some time--to change course after the elections. James Baker's group is designed and intended to be the cover for declaring victory and getting out of Iraq. If for no other reason, the pressure from within the GOP to fix this mess before the 2008 election will be enormous. So my question is, how many American troops will have died between the time the decision was made to get out of Iraq and the time we actually do get out of Iraq? How many American lives will it cost to give the GOP a chance to retain control of Congress?

Straight from the horse's mouth:

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) noted that the unfavorable political landscape leaves GOP leaders little choice but to fight it out on defense and terrorism.

"People aren't paying attention to the economy. We've given up on immigration. We need to send people home with some significant accomplishments, and we have no other choice," LaHood said. "We have no other issue."

One aspect to the outsourcing of the nation's defense that has gone largely overlooked is the hidden costs associated with long-term mental and physical health care for the tens of thousands of contract workers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Incidentally, the outsourcing isn't limited to the Department of Defense. Today, the LA Times reports that the number of CIA contract workers has "nearly doubled" in the last five years and now exceeds the full-time permanent workforce of 17,500 employees.

Outsourcing has a number of advantages for the Administration. In addition to awarding donors and supporters with lucrative contracts, it allows the Administration to push costs that would otherwise be incurred by Veterans Affairs, for example, not just off the books but out of government altogether, at least for now. But while those costs may be hidden in the short-term and deferred in the middle-term, they will have to be borne eventually. But instead of being able to address the problems in a comprehensive, cost-effective way, it will be diffused and the burdens carried by individual families and communities. Think of the long-term social costs associated with the veterans returning from Vietnam, but without the government and social service available to veterans. Those services have rarely been as generous as veterans deserve, but at least we had a framework and means for providing such services.

Some will say that contract workers, motivated perhaps by profit, deserve less than our troops. But had it not been for the contract workers, we would have needed more troops. So we would have had to pay the price one way or the other. (Except that in the case of Iraq part of the reason for using contract workers was to avoid the political ramifications of calling up and paying for the number of troops that were actually needed. Had the Administration been straightforward, the political consequence would likely have been no invasion of Iraq to begin with.)

It is another instance where the Administration's budget gimmickry converges with its political corruption to produce a long-term public policy problem. And as in other similar instances, they simply count on being long gone by the time the reckoning is due.

I'm reading through the Post's front-pager on how the Bush Administration screened political appointees for jobs in post-invasion Iraq based on loyalty to Bush and the conservative agenda. It's another one of a string of reports in recent months that fall into a strange category of news-gathering: stories already known to be true but for which the specific facts weren't yet available.

I know that sounds flip, but there really is something going on here worth noting. For instance, any reasonable person's reaction to the Post story will be a variation on, "Duh!" Bush placed a premium on political fealty rather than competence and effectiveness? Who is surprised by that? No one. So you read the piece for the anecdotes, like the fact that the Pentagon official responsible for screening political appointees is Jim O'Beirne, husband of conservative commentator Kate O'Beirne.

Isn't it usually the other way around? Reporters, and their readers, look for the facts in order to construct a larger picture. Ideally the facts are pieced together into a mosaic in which discrete bits of information that may otherwise be meaningless standing alone now contribute to a greater level of understanding.

Not so with many Bush era stories. The President's modus operandi is so well established, but the cloak of secrecy so tightly closed, that the broad outlines of a story may be known months or years before the particular facts are uncovered to flesh out the details. The closest thing I can compare it to is reading the next day's sports story after watching the game. You read not to learn who won, but for colorful anecdotes, and at some level to confirm what you have already seen and know to be true.

Of course this Administration's record--or, more precisely, the recording of that record--is a far more serious undertaking than a ballgame. The effort is similar in some respects to what people grappled with in the 1990s in post-communist Eastern Europe and post-Apartheid South Africa. There is something fundamental about knowing the details. I'm not sure that journalism as we now know and practice it is particularly suited to filling in the details well after the fact, but I don't think we can afford to wait for the historians.

TPM Reader PL:

You wrote, "A special place is reserved for the lawyers who give legal cover for such orders."

What leaves me shaking my head, trying to understand, is not the lawyers, but the medical doctors who participate in torture and give guidance into how much more the person can take before they die. I just imagine the kind of person who decides to become a doctor -- that person must want to heal, want to fix people, want to alleviate their suffering or pain or at least want to be someone who has the power to do that.

So this person has years of training, has seen people suffer and die and seen pain first hand -- and yet, that same person is able to not only watch someone being tortured but take part in the process by saying the person could take 100 more volts or 4 more punches or 10 degrees cooler or stay in that position for another 24 hours before their legs break or whatever. I wonder at what point they lose that humanity. I wonder what they think of themselves when they look in the mirror or what goes through their mind when they turn off the light and pull the blanket up to their chin to go to sleep. When their family asks about their day, what do they tell their kids they do? I wonder what they tell themselves to make it be OK.

I simply cannot imagine the gentle hands of a doctor who in one case may be so delicately examining a wound to then be the one to say "Yeah, this guy can take more... he's still conscious so go at it."

Late update: Some readers have questioned whether there is any evidence of doctors having actually participated in the Administration-sanctioned torture. There is evidence, much of it circumstantial, that military health care providers, including physicians, have been complicit in torture. You can find more here and here.

Here it comes. The NRCC on Friday dropped almost $2 million on TV attack ads in congressional districts from Washington State to New York.

As a number of recent reports have made clear, the Republican's GOTV efforts are formidable. The Democrats, despite trying to keep apace, are not in the same league anymore. But you get the sense that many Democrats, accustomed to decades of dominance on the ground, don't yet fully appreciate the disparity.

I was talking to a union political operative last week who told me that it's real difficult to convince union members that campaigns nowadays start well before Labor Day. Meanwhile, Republican street money is already flowing.

Union turnout is going to be critical in several close Senate and House races, so this mindset is a problem.

Brian Williams opened his newscast last night with this: "Good evening from Havana, Cuba, the host city for what is called the Summit of Non-Aligned Nations--in short, all of the enemies of the United States, really, gathered in one room."

Well, then. There are 118 developing countries that are part of the nonaligned movement, including India, Pakistan, and Thailand. Sure hope we don't have to invade them all.

The torture debate in Congress--I never expected to write such words--is as surreal to me as watching the collapse of the Twin Towers. If the Democrats are able to take control of at least one chamber in November, then surely the President's pro-torture bill will be viewed in hindsight as the nadir of the Bush presidency. If not, how much lower can things go?

I am beyond being able to assess the political implications, one way or the other, of this spectacle. Regardless of which version of the bill finally passes, this debate is a black mark on the soul of the nation. Of course passage of a pro-torture bill will diminish U.S. standing internationally and jeopardize the safety and well-being of U.S. servicemen in future engagements. But merely having this debate has already accomplished that. Does anyone honestly believe that if Congress rebuffs the President in every respect that the rule of law and the inviolability of human rights will have been vindicated? Of course not.

The Republicans have defined deviancy down for the whole world, including every two-bit dictator and wild-eyed terrorist.

In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick writes of the pro-torture presidency:

[L]egal obfuscation is enormously attractive to President Bush. It means all but the most highly credentialed law professors and government lawyers are constantly confused; it means subsequent legal claims that interrogators "did not know that the practices were unlawful" have real credibility. And perhaps, most importantly to this White House, it obscures where things have gone awry up and down the chain of command. One possibility, then, is that all these eleventh-hour redefinitions of torture are presidential attempts to "afford brutality the cloak of law," in the words of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. But increasingly, it seems clear that its real purpose is simply to brutalize the law.

And to brutalize people.

Only the weak, scared, and evil torture. Those who order and sanction torture, but leave the dirty work to others, are an order of magnitude more culpable morally. (A special place is reserved for the lawyers who give legal cover for such orders.) In their fear and their weakness and their smallness, the President and those around him stepped over the line. To do so in the heated days after 9/11 is understandable to a point, though not justifiable. Yet they persisted, first in saying that they did not step over the line and now in seeking to redraw the line. So which is it?

They are descending from the morally reprehensible to the morally cowardly.