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January 2, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Covering the Social Security Debate

In ordinary times, the story might have been found in some other part of the newspaper: on page one, perhaps; or in a review of a novel by John Le Carré.

Journalists visiting the US Naval Base at Guantánamo, Cuba, in which several hundred prisoners are incarcerated, most of them from Afghanistan and Iraq, were permitted to observe, through one-way glass, the interrogation of a prisoner. The interrogator and his captive chatted away at a table, sharing fries and a shake from a McDonald’s on the base.

The same scene was presented not just once, but three times, to three different sets of journalists.

It turns out, however, that the military officials operating the prison regularly relied on a battery of highly coercive techniques, well beyond the 24 officially-sanctioned new methods.  Prisoners were chained to low chairs, left for long periods of time in their own excrement, subjected to bright flashing lights, to loud audio tapes (Eminem, L’l Kim and crying babies mixed with meowing cats). Their medical records were routinely made available to their interrogators, discouraging complaints.  Some were forcibly given enemas.

Meanwhile, base commanders repeatedly misled reporters about the level of abuse, apparently understanding themselves to be under orders from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller said last spring:  “We are detaining the enemy combatants in a humane manner. Should our men or women be held in similar circumstances, I would hope they would be treated in this manner.”

Brig. Gen. Jay Hood said in November: “[I am] satisfied that the detainees here have not been abused, they’ve not been mistreated, they’ve not been tortured in any way.”

Thanks to leaked FBI memorandums describing sharp exchanges between Bureau agents and the top commanders at the base, it seems clear that military officials believed they were operating under instructions from “SecDef,” as Rumsfeld’s office is known in military parlance.

But these are not ordinary times, and The New York Times, to its credit, played the story of the patient and extensive investigation by its reporter Neil Lewis, from which these details are drawn, on Page A11 in its New Year’s Day edition.

The lawyer who wrote the original memo sanctioning the use of harsh methods at Guantánamo (though not as harsh as those reported here), former White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez, has been nominated to the post of Attorney General. (Force is prohibited only if it produces pain as severe as organ failure or death, opined Gonzales.)

And another story by reporter Lewis appeared on Page A1, this one describing a new and considerably broader prohibition of torture quietly posted on the Justice Department’s website last week, in preparation for what promises to be Gonzales’ lengthy testimony before Congress, which begins next week.

Also next week, the Bush administration is preparing to begin an attempt to extensively reformulate the 70-year-old Social Security system.

The president’s allies are preparing to launch the most expensive campaign since the 1993 fight over the Clinton administration’s failed health insurance plan, according to Jim VanderHei of The Washington Post.

Financial services and securities firms, Fortune 500 companies and trade associations led by the National Association of Manufacturers are being solicited by White House political adviser Karl Rove to pay for a massive campaign, VanderHei wrote, designed “to convince Americans — and skeptical lawmakers — that Social Security is in crisis and that private accounts are the only cure.”

As been pointed out many times, the story of George W. Bush’s presidency is the story of a gambler, a habitual plunger with roughly as many successes to his name as there have been failures.

The story of the occupation of Iraq, by fits and starts, has come to be fairly fully understood.

How a swift victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan led to a follow-on campaign against Saddam Hussein — a tide “taken at the flood.” How Baghdad was quickly taken, while the some of the stronger elements of the Iraqi Army went underground. How faulty intelligence soon undermined in world opinion the case that had been made for the invasion.

How few plans were made for the US occupation except to assume a stable peace and begin to build extensive military bases and the biggest single US embassy in the world. How the decision to disband the Iraqi army aided and abetted fierce resistance by elements loyal to Saddam Hussein.

How a year of rising violence culminated in the preposterously premature award last month of the nation’s top civilian honors — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — to three men who were central to the war in Iraq: CIA director George Tenet, commander Gen. Tommy Franks and administrator L. Paul Bremer.

The campaign in Iraq was undertaken in good faith. The hope, that the cause of openness in the Arab and Muslim world would be served, has not yet been disproved, though the period of time over which it must be reckoned certainly has lengthened considerably.  The Army apparently has performed extremely well. And no amount of second-guessing can offset the fact that foreign policy in general and war in particular are highly-uncertain businesses.

No corresponding understanding of Bush administration’s economic policy has yet emerged.

The key thing, it seems to me, is keeping skepticism about the president’s motives under control. The president and his advisers have legitimate reasons for advocating the policies that they do. Their vision of an “ownership society” is real enough.  But like their plans for the war in Iraq, it has not been very carefully thought through.

The Neil Lewis article on the duplicity at Guantánamo builds its case carefully. The Defense Department gets its say. So do the assortment of international relief workers, dissident intelligence officials and other whistleblowers. It is a reasonable inference that the torture there produced very little valuable intelligence.  The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have reported the story aggressively as well, and have reached similar conclusions.

What’s wanted now is to illuminate the debate over Bush’s domestic program with just as much care.

That, and to fire Rumsfeld.

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