Tag Archives: Osama bin Laden

How Kennedy and Obama are alike, for good and for ill

Kennedy with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961

I’m most of the way through Robert Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the latest in his series of Lyndon Johnson biographies. And I’ve been struck by his description of John F. Kennedy’s governing style, and of the similarities to President Obama.

What they share is a daunting intelligence; level-headedness in moments of confusion and  anxiety, which served them in good stead when high-stakes foreign-policy decisions had to be made quickly (the Cuban missile crisis, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound); and the ability to give a terrific speech, undermined to some degree by their aloof detachment.

The downside? Kennedy comes across as utterly clueless in working the levers of power with Congress, a failing he shares with Obama. Yes, it often appears that the Republicans are going to say no to Obama regardless of what he proposes. But Caro describes a coalition of Republicans and conservative southern Democrats in the early 1960s that was no less intractable than the Tea Party Republicans of today.

Kennedy, Caro writes, concluded that working with Congress was hopeless as he watched his tax-cut bill and civil-rights legislation go nowhere. But when Johnson became president, he engaged in a combination of cajoling, flattery and threats that he mastered in the 1950s as Senate majority leader. What Kennedy had seen as the pragmatic acceptance of reality turned out to be a rationalization of his own shortcomings.

Could Obama have gotten more than he has from Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Eric Cantor? It seems unlikely. But given Bob Woodward’s description of the president’s hapless dealings with the Republican leadership, perhaps a leader more willing to engage with the opposition could have had better results.

Not to get carried away. It’s hard to imagine a better schmoozer in the White House than Bill Clinton. Yet his tax plan was approved without a single Republican vote — and on health care, Obama succeeded where Clinton failed. (I enjoyed Clinton’s speech last week as much as anyone, but his invocation of the 1990s as a time of bipartisan cooperation was pure fiction. I assume the Big Dog hasn’t forgotten that he was impeached for his personal behavior.)

Still, it’s interesting to think about how the past four years might have been different if Obama was a little less JFK and a little more LBJ.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons, from the U.S. Department of State in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Hudak’s new venture hits an amusing snag

Blast from the past: the Hudakmobile, circa 2009

Far-right Republican politico William Hudak’s recent announcement that he was abandoning a congressional race in order to get involved in a multi-level marketing operation was amusing enough. But the comedy factor increased exponentially Tuesday when Julie Manganis reported in the Salem News that Hudak’s new business partner had pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution.

Albert Muir and his then-wife, Manganis writes, ran a “health spa” in Branford, Conn., called Marlow’s, which was shut down by authorities in late 2009. Muir, who is also described as a professional poker player, is serving a five-year suspended sentence. He told the News that he pleaded guilty because he was afraid his then-wife, who was seeking a divorce, would send him up the river.

Here is Marcia Chambers’ Branford Eagle account of the police raid of Dec. 2, 2009, which came about in part because Marlow’s openly advertised its services on Craigslist. Chambers reported that police considered the spa to be “a full-scale prostitution ring.” Muir’s then-wife, Jazmin Benavides, is named in the article, but Muir is not, although Mark Zaretsky of the New Haven Register identified Muir as the co-owner. Chambers told me by email yesterday that Muir was arrested and charged in March 2010 after police conducted a follow-up investigation.

Hudak says he didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. As Manganis notes, Hudak made much of the legal woes facing Democratic congressman John Tierney’s family when he ran against him two years ago. Tierney’s wife, Patrice Tierney, ended up doing time for her role in what federal authorities described as an offshore money-laundering operation run by her brother. But Hudak tells the News that “I think you’re really stretching” when he was asked whether he should have known about his new BFF’s legal woes.

When Hudak ran against Tierney in 2010, he achieved notoriety for putting up posters on his Boxford property comparing then-candidate Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden and for questioning whether Obama was born in the United States — although he denied that he actually believed Obama was not an American citizen.

Hudak also claimed the day after Scott Brown’s victory over Martha Coakley in the 2010 U.S. Senate special election that Brown had endorsed him in the Republican primary. Brown’s office denied it, but then endorsed Hudak over Tierney that fall.

Unfortunately for Tierney, he won’t get to run against Hudak again. This time, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination is former state senator Richard Tisei of Wakefield, who was Charlie Baker’s running mate in the gubernatorial election in 2010.

Tisei is a smart, personable moderate. Combined with Tierney’s family issues, the North Shore probably represents the Republicans’ best chance to pick up a congressional seat in Massachusetts this fall.

Kevin Convey on the art of tabloid-headline writing

There’s an interesting profile of former Boston Herald editor Kevin Convey, now editor of the New York Daily News, in the current issue of the Colby College alumni magazine. Written by old Northeastern friend David McKay Wilson, the profile begins with a good anecdote about the Daily News’ collector’s-item front page following the killing of Osama bin Laden: “Rot in Hell!”

Convey’s suggestions — “Dead,” a play on the famous Daily News front page on the execution of convicted killer Ruth Snyder, and “We Got Him” — were deemed not quite right before a copy editor came up with the winner.

“Tabloid headlines are a very demanding form,” Convey told Wilson. “You are putting big words on a page that 530,000 people will buy and 2 million will read. It’s like journalistic haiku.”

Jeff Jacoby tortures torture’s defenders

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes a fine comeuppance to those among his fellow conservatives who claim the killing of Osama bin Laden proves that torture works. Whether waterboarding helped produce the intelligence needed to track down bin Laden is irrelevant, Jacoby says, arguing:

Torture is unreliable, since people will often say anything — invent desperate fictions or diversions — to stop the pain or fear. That doesn’t mean waterboarding will never yield valuable information. Feeding a detainee into an industrial shredder, as Saddam Hussein’s torturers sometimes did, might yield valuable information too. But some techniques are forbidden not because they never work, not because they aren’t deserved, but because our very right to call ourselves decent human beings depends in part on our not doing them.

Jacoby also picks apart the disingenuous notion that waterboarding isn’t torture, citing — as have I and others — the execution of Japanese officers who waterboarded American prisoners of war.

Steve Kroft’s stunning omission

Anwar al-Awlaki

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tough questioning last night when I sat down to watch President Obama’s interview with “60 Minutes.” The idea was to revel in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Steve Kroft’s questions — all of which were a variation on “Mr. President, why are you so wonderful?” — were no surprise.

Even so, I was startled when, toward the end of the interview, Kroft asked Obama, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?” The president blandly answered that every time he orders a military action, he does so with the understand that someone will be killed.

But what was missing from Kroft’s question and Obama’s answer was the name of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American whom the president ordered killed last year. Al-Awlaki survived a U.S. drone attack on his headquarters in Yemen on Saturday, after the “60 Minutes” interview was recorded. But the targeting of al-Awlaki was hardly a secret — it was even the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by his father. If Kroft didn’t know that, then he had no business sitting down with the president. If he did, well, why didn’t he say something?

The targeting of al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Islamist, was an extraordinary measure. As Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU, which helped with the lawsuit, has observed:

[T]he United States is not at war in Yemen, and the government doesn’t have a blank check to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are in the world. Among the arguments we’ll be making is that, outside actual war zones, the authority to use lethal force is narrowly circumscribed, and preserving the rule of law depends on keeping this authority narrow.

Should the United States be trying to kill al-Awlaki? According to this extensively footnoted Wikipedia article, al-Awlaki’s fiery rhetoric was the inspiration for a number of terrorist attacks. In addition, some say he has been involved in planning acts of terrorism and had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He may, in fact, be a legitimate target.

What troubles me is that it is not widely known that our government has targeted an American-born citizen for death. It’s something that ought to be debated openly, not relegated to an occasional mention in the media. So it’s an opportunity lost when a journalist like Kroft asks a question that is either ignorant or disingenuous, and then allows the president to dissemble without so much as a follow-up.

Did Kroft genuinely not know better, or had he and the folks at CBS News already decided not to press Obama? Either way, it was shocking omission. We could have learned something if only Kroft had bothered to do his job.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word

The New York Times’ tortured relationship with the “T”-word takes an interesting turn today. The paper’s print and online editions diverge, and the Times manages to report on a debate over torture without quite acknowledging that the Bush administration, uh, tortured terrorism suspects.

The Times online

First, the headline. On the front page of the print edition you’ll find this: “Harsh Methods of Questioning Debated Again.” Online, though, is the considerably more frank “Bin Laden Raid Revives Debate on Value of Torture.” Below the headline is a story summary that says, “The raid that led to Bin Laden’s death has raised anew the issue of using torture to gain intelligence.”

On the face of it, that seems like a straightforward acknowledgement that some suspects were tortured, which would be something of a landmark for the Times. Two years ago, then-public editor Clark Hoyt wrote that Times editors had decided not to describe waterboarding and other brutal interrogation tactics as “torture,” although it would quote critics as saying so. Indeed, Hoyt added, the Times had come under some criticism even for adopting the word “brutal” to describe those methods.

The Times in print

When you read today’s story, by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage, you learn that the “T”-word rule is still in effect. Here’s how it begins:

Did brutal interrogations produce the crucial intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden?

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.

The “T”-word appears repeatedly in the story, but not as a description of what actually took place. Rather, it is in the context of “a national debate about torture,” Barack Obama’s past statements that waterboarding and other harsh methods were “torture,” efforts to avoid “a partisan battle over torture” and the like.

Among those quoted as claiming torture (OK, enhanced interrogation techniques) worked are Bush-era torture apologist John Yoo and U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., last seen subjecting Muslim-Americans to psychological torture at his Star Chamber hearings on Capitol Hill.

Now, let’s be clear. There is no evidence that waterboarding and other forms of torture had anything to do with producing the intelligence needed to track down Osama bin Laden. Indeed, it’s been reported that the worst of the Guantánamo terrorists, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, tried to divert interrogators away from bin Laden’s courier despite having been tortured repeatedly. In a withering takedown of the pro-torture argument, CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen writes at the Atlantic:

It is entirely possible that some valuable intelligence information about bin Laden’s couriers was gleaned from long-ago waterboarding. And it is possible that some of this information was part of what Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday called a “mosaic” of information that led to bin Laden’s demise. But it is beyond doubt that the United States was able to track and then kill its arch enemy in Abbottabad based upon regular old gumshoe detective work, both traditional and innovative, that occurred years and years after the detainees in question were reportedly tortured. How exactly does that suffice to restore credibility to the pro-torture argument?

And just in case you’re not convinced that waterboarding is torture, consider the historical evidence, which I laid out in a piece for the Guardian last year. The Times frankly referred to waterboarding as torture in 1945 in reporting on its use against American prisoners of war who were held by the Japanese. No less an authority than U.S. Sen. John McCain has noted that some Japanese officers were executed for waterboarding prisoners. And Harvard’s Shorenstein Center last year produced a study showing that waterboarding was routinely described as torture until the Bush White House started using it against terrorism suspects.

The Times, as our leading news organization, has harmed the public discourse by refusing to call torture by its proper name. Today’s story is just another example of how it has tied itself into knots in its ongoing attempt to avoid saying the obvious.

More: This commentary has now been posted at the Guardian.

Memories of Osama bin Laden

When we learned last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, my thoughts turned to April 2000 and a Cub Scout trip I helped lead at FBI headquarters in Boston. An account of that trip is still online. One memory that clearly stands out is explaining who bin Laden was to a group of 9-year-olds. We were still nearly a year and a half away from 9/11, but bin Laden was already number one on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.

Certain aspects of 9/11 remain vivid, too. I remember running into someone I hadn’t seen for many years outside the Boston Phoenix. She told me about the first tower having been hit. At that point, we were all assuming it was a horrible accident. Soon, though, we learned that the country was under attack. The Phoenix did not have a reliable television hook-up, so I raced home (I heard a live account of the second tower being hit on the car radio) and stayed up all night writing this.

When a historic news story such as the killing of bin Laden breaks, the instinct is to turn inward and reflect on personal matters. There’s no way I can add to the enormity of the moment. But we can all offer memories and perceptions, and thus add in some small way to the national conversation that began at about 10 p.m. on Sunday, when we learned that President Obama would address the nation at 10:30. (As we know, it turned out to be more than an hour after that.)

I didn’t have the TV on, but I was scanning Twitter. Within minutes, we were speculating as to what it could be about. Without any information whatsoever, a few people guessed it might have something to do with bin Laden. I saw several jokes about an asteroid headed toward earth. I wondered whether a major terrorist plot had been exposed, or if the Fukushima nuclear power plant might be in full meltdown. Even after I turned on the television, I was learning more, faster, from Twitter than I was from Wolf Blitzer and company.

Soon we knew the truth, emerging in bits and pieces. Bin Laden had been captured. He’d died. No, he’d been killed — not by a bomb, but by U.S. special forces who went in and shot him. How can you not love that? I only hope that in his final moments, bin Laden knew the Americans had come for him.

The president’s speech was short and eloquent. Given how easily the mission could have gone wrong, he made a gutsy call. For those of us over 50, it was hard not to remember the disaster in the Iranian desert under Jimmy Carter in 1980. Skill and courage are not enough — you’ve got to be lucky, too.

Coming at the end of the week in which extremist elements in the Republican Party had already been made to look especially small and mean, it was hard not to gloat. (And you’ve got to see this.) I saw more than few predictions that Obama had just ensured his re-election — an observation that I found inappropriate to the moment, not to mention premature. After all, George H.W. Bush looked unbeatable in the spring of 1991 following the Gulf War. He was done in by the economy, and it could happen to Obama, too.

Nevertheless, it stands as the signature moment of the Obama presidency, and something that I suspect will lift the national mood for some time to come.

Brown endorses Hudak, a man he once shunned

Scott Brown

Nine months after just-elected U.S. Sen. Scott Brown scrambled to disassociate himself from extremist Republican congressional candidate William Hudak, Brown has endorsed Hudak as part of a blanket endorsement of all nine Republicans running for the U.S. House from Massachusetts.

You may recall that, last January, Hudak put out a press release touting Brown’s endorsement — and that after Media Nation reminded folks of some of Hudak’s antics, including questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and putting a poster on his property comparing Obama to Osama bin Laden, the Brown camp quickly disavowed the endorsement. Hudak eventually apologized to Brown, but insisted, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that he has never held birther views.

Hudak, a Boxford lawyer, is challenging U.S. Rep. John Tierney, a Salem Democrat.

Brown, in today’s announcement, also says that he’s contributing $1,000 to each of the nine candidates. He says nothing specific about Hudak or anyone else. It’s really just a matter of a Republican senator routinely endorsing his party’s nominees. Still, it’s an amusing coda to a long-simmering controversy.

In other Hudak-related news, the National Republican Congressional Committee has announced that it now considers Hudak to be “On the Radar” — a sign that Republicans believe Tierney may be vulnerable now that his wife, Patrice Tierney, has pled guilty to federal tax-fraud charges. And perhaps he is.

Tierney and Hudak will meet tonight at 7:30 in a debate sponsored by the Salem News and the Jewish Journal. Should be a wild time.