Tag Archives: Obama

Sy Hersh’s latest expose: Did Obama mislead about bin Laden’s killing?

By Christopher B. Daly

Before deciding that veteran investigative reporter Sy Hersh has become the crazy uncle of American journalism, it might be worth considering whether he might be right about the bin Laden killing.

Earlier this week, Hersh unloaded a 10,000-word alternative history of the 2011 raid on that compound in

White House photo, by Pete Souza.

White House photo, by Pete Souza.

Abbottabad, Pakistan. In the official version, a U.S. Navy Seal team risked their lives in a dangerous raid into hostile territory to swoop in, find bin Laden, and (when he made a false move) execute him. It was a major gung-ho moment for the Obama national security team. Even conservatives briefly had to salute the president for having the nerve to order the raid.

Now comes Hersh, the fabled investigator who first came to prominence in 1969 when he broke the My Lai massacre scandal, who says he was dubious from the outset about the Obama team’s story. Hersh argues that his reporting points in another direction. He asserts that bin Laden was effectively in the custody of Pakistan’s intelligence service and that the Pakistani military agreed to stand aside while the Seals pulled off the fatal raid.

The Obama administration quickly pushed back. So did some American journalists, such as Peter Bergen of CNN.

Then came a second wave of articles covering the controversy, raising such questions as: if Hersh’s story is so great, why wasn’t it published in The New Yorker (which is Hersh’s institutional home base)? Here’s a version by the always interesting Gabriel Sherman in New York mag. The most disappointing point raised in Sherman’s fine piece was the no-comment by David Remnick, the top editor of The New Yorker. (Come on, David.)

Before coming to any conclusions, everyone should settle in and prepare to do a lot of reading. I would also recommend paying particular attention to someone who really knows what she’s talking about: Carlotta Gall, who was the New York Times‘ bureau chief in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013. During those dozen years, she too was on the trail of bin Laden, and she followed leads into the lawless “tribal areas” between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Fearless, tough-minded, and thoroughly empirical, Gall is skeptical about the Hersh’s story but points out that it tracks some of the rumors, leads, and facts that she heard while in the region. In a piece for the Times magazine posted yesterday, Gall wrote that she “would not dismiss the claims immediately.”

Here she is talking to John Hockenberry today on his NPR show “The Takeaway.”

And an update: TNR offers an explanation for why Hersh is so isolated in this instance.

To step back a bit, here’s my view about Sy Hersh: he is a national treasure. Even when he gets things wrong (as he sometimes has over the decades), Hersh performs two important public services:

1. Never trust the official version.

2. When in doubt, dig in and do your own reporting.

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Journalist Ben Franklin inspires India’s PM

By Christopher B. Daly

imagesBy one account, India’s Prime Minister, Narendi Modi, has drawn inspiration from the life story of Ben Franklin — colonial-era printer, proto-American journalist, and publishing success.

In a recent radio address in conjunction with President Obama’s visit to India, Modi hailed Franklin.

. . .your question is, who has inspired me. I liked reading as a child. And I got an opportunity to read the biography of Benjamin Franklin

“And I tell everyone, we should read Benjamin Franklin’s biography. Even today, it inspires me. And Benjamin Franklin had a multi-dimensional personality. He was a politician, he was a political scientist, he was a social worker, he was a diplomat. And he came from an ordinary family. He could not even complete his education. But till today, his thoughts have an impact on American life,” he added.

It is unclear (to me, at least) whether Modi is referring to Franklin’s famous “Autobiography” or to one of the many fine biographies of BF (although most of the best ones were written long after Modi’s childhood; my favorites are by Isaacson and Brands.) If it’s the “Autobiography,” then Modi is probably referring to young Ben’s ferocious program of self-improvement and his determination to rise from beyond-humble beginnings to make something of himself. Indeed, 44-benjamin-franklin-1706-1790-grangerthe circumstances of Ben’s early life in Boston, as the 15th child in his father’s large family, were those of deep poverty in a distant fragment of the British Empire. Yet, by the end of his long and remarkable life, Franklin was one of the most accomplished and celebrated figures on the planet.

Need inspiration?

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Govt. releases memo giving legal reasons for killing Americans overseas

By Christopher B. Daly 

Finally, under court order, the Obama administration has divulged its legal rationale for killing Americans abroad without trials, charges, or even arrests. That reasoning appears in a contested legal memo written four

Al-Alawki in 2010.  Getty.

Al-Awlaki in 2010.
Getty.

years ago in the Office of Legal Counsel offering arguments that would justify using a drone to take out Anwar al-Awlaki — who was an American citizen living (hiding?) in Yemen and fomenting attacks against you and me and our country.

Leaving aside (for the moment) whether al-Awlaki deserved to die in a drone strike, it was an offensive outrage that the Obama administration not only had a secret plan for killing Americans abroad but they also had a secret rationale for doing it, and they said no mere citizen could even read those arguments. Now, we mere citizens can read them for ourselves.

You can find the court ruling ordering the memo’s release and the arguments themselves here, thanks to the Times. That is, we can sort of read the memo. The ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the government some wiggle room so that officials could redact (i.e., “censor”) some parts that pertained to secret stuff the government knew about al-Awlaki through the fruits of spying on him. That makes a certain amount of sense, I guess, but any time that the government is allowed to redact its own documents, you have to wonder what’s missing.

In any case, the president should long ago have made this argument himself, in public. If he believes in it, then he owns it. It is his duty to protect and defend the Constitution and, therefore, to show why his actions are in conformance with his understand of the Constitution. If he makes the case and the people accept it, fine. If he makes his case and the people reject it, then he’s got a problem. But there is no reading of the Constitution that authorizes the president to carry out a secret assassination program and not tell anyone about it.

For now, I will pass on the question of whether al-Awlaki had it coming and whether Obama has a legal leg to stand on. I want to read the document and think it over. The policy might be acceptable, but what was not acceptable was the secrecy.

Meanwhile, kudos to the Times‘ Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, who are named among the plaintiffs who pried this decision out of the courts, along with the Times itself and the ACLU. No matter what we each think about the president and his policies, these plaintiffs have done the whole country a service. Thank you.

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Surveillance State (cont): Snowden: Why build a big haystack?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who divulged the secret surveillance that the agency conducts on innocent American civilians, made a good point in his recent “public appearance.” Still stuck in Russia, Snowden imgres3spoke to the SxSW conference, via teleconference, thanks to multiple encrypted relays to disguise his actual location.

The Times chose to put its story in the Business section (which was unfortunate, I think) on the apparent grounds that Snowden’s big pitch was aimed at U.S. tech and social-media companies, telling them that they need to step up their privacy. They already knew that, so I am not sure what the news value was there.

Of greater interest was the theme developed by the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima. She emphasized Snowden’s view that the NSA is so swamped with big data from its indiscriminate surveillance that it is not doing a very good job of tracking individual bad guys (which is, after all, what we want them to do).

‘‘We’ve actually had a tremendous intelligence failure because . . . we’re monitoring everybody’s communications instead of suspects’ communications’’ — a situation, he asserts, that has ‘‘caused us to miss’’ intelligence.

Come to think of it, for all the money that we spend on the intelligence community as a whole, and for all the compromises we make with the Constitution and our liberties, how great is the return? Where are the answers to these questions:

–Did anyone know that Putin would seize Crimea? Did anyone tell President Obama?

–Did anyone predict the Boston Marathon bombing?

–Did anyone predict the uprising that toppled Mubarak in Egypt?

–Can anyone tell us how to get rid of Assad in Syria?

–Did anyone know what was coming in Benghazi?

–What about 9/11? What about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Basically, we need to ask: why do all the big, important things seem to come as such a surprise (to our presidents as well as to the average informed citizen)?

Whenever you don’t find something, doesn’t that tell you that you’re looking in the wrong places?

 

 

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O’Reilly on O’Reilly

By Christopher B. Daly

Not to be missed: this recent commentary by Tim Egan in the NYTimes about Fox News figure Bill O’Reilly and O’Reilly’s recent interview with President Obama. As usual, O’Reilly believes that the key figure in the interview was . . . himself. For days afterward, O’Reilly and his colleagues at Fox milked the interview and scored it a solid win for O’Reilly over the president (as if it were a debate).

Egan makes a good point here:

So, the first point for historians sniffing the odor of O’Reilly’s time capsule in 2114 is that the interview made no news. No ground was broken. It was a journalistic dud. O’Reilly himself spoke for about 40 percent of the time, and devoted 90 percent of the interview to “the full Fox scandal grab bag,” as Jon Stewart called it.

As it happens, I am teaching my students this week about how to conduct interviews in my journalism classes at Boston University (where, yes, I know: Bill O’Reilly attended college). The point I always try to drum into my students about interviewing is simple: It’s not about you. 

Of course, I understand that Bill O’Reilly is not trying to conduct a productive, journalistic interview. He is trying to stage a clash of personalities for television. Like his boss Roger Ailes, O’Reilly is very good at understanding television, even if he seems to have missed class on the day of the lesson about humility.

 

 

 

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Surveillance state: What Obama should have said about NSA

By Christopher B. Daly

President Obama had an opportunity today to say (and thereby do) something meaningful about reining in the surveillance state and re-asserting the Constitution. Disappointingly, he whiffed. 

Here’s what I think he should have said:

1. First and foremost, he should have said, I’m sorry. He should have expressed regret that since taking office, he has fallen under the spell of all the people in the Pentagon and White House whose job it is to tell goblin stories every day to the president. He showed far more common sense when he was a private citizen and even as a U.S. senator than he has been showing since he began starting each day listening to the presidential Daily Briefing, which is basically a  serial horror story told by the surveillance/security apparatus.

2. He should have made a pledge. He should have said that if you are a U.S. citizen living in the United States and you are not a suspect in a crime, then you have an absolute right to be left alone. The government has no business spying on you. He could have quoted the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which says, in part:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, 

He could have explained that in a modern context, your house means not only your literal house but also your apartment and your office and your motor vehicle. Cops and spies cannot enter those places without your leave. Extracting information from me without my permission outside of a criminal investigation is, on the face of it, an unreasonable search.

3. He should have added, If you are a U.S. citizen who is not suspected in a crime, then you have the right to be left alone not just by the NSA but by the whole government — the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, the DOJ, the DEA, your state police, everybody.

4. He should have announced a policy that needs no Congressional approval: No more secret policies about secrets. He should have handed out copies of his administration’s legal memorandum laying out its constitutional rationale for its current practices. He should have said (as he did) that we cannot just get out of the spy business. We have legitimate reasons for spying on other countries and on terrorists. And we will need to keep the operational details of those operations secret. That’s obvious, and I know of no one who disagrees. But the president should have gone further and said, Under the Constitution, any president needs to go to Congress and say, in a general way, Here’s what we need to do … here’s why … here’s how much it will cost. Please vote for it.

5. He should have said that if you are a U.S. citizen who is suspected of a crime, you have an array of legal protections under the Constitution, under state and federal laws, and under case law, and we have no intention of messing with those.

6. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you’re on your own.

7. If you are a terrorist, watch your back.

In short, he should have said: Under our precious Constitution, the government should be transparent to the people, and the people should be opaque to the government.

Instead, he cherry-picked incidents from U.S. history to try to establish the idea that massive secret spying on law-abiding Americans in peacetime is somehow normal. He made it clear that he thinks no one did anything wrong (including Clapper, who blatantly lied to Congress under oath) except for Edward Snowden. And he offered some half-measures and said on anything difficult I am either going to punt or send it to a committee. Disappointing.

Here are other takes, by Jeffrey Rosen and Geoffrey Stone and John Cassidy.

Here’s the president’s text. You decide.

 

 

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Surveillance state: The rationale for secrecy is, of course, SECRET

By Christopher B. Daly

top-secret-stampYou may think you are a sovereign citizen of a free country. You may think that “we, the people” rule through elected representatives who are accountable to us. But that would be wrong.

The latest affront to self-government is a ruling issued by a federal appeals court on Friday (beware of Friday rulings). Here’s the background:

Thanks to accused leaker Edward Snowden, we know that the U.S. government runs a secret program in which the government calls on the telephone companies to hand over information about you without a court order or subpoena, even if you are not suspected of any wrongdoing. You were not supposed to know about it, but that cat is now out of the bag.

So, you might want to know where the government gets off concocting such a scheme and how it could possibly square such massive, secret, peacetime spying on law-abiding citizens with the Constitution. Well, too bad. The Obama administration’s lawyers, who wrote a memo in 2010 attempting to justify the whole thing, decided that the memo itself should be kept secret, and President Obama agrees.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others filed suit seeking to get access to the memo. The government refused. On Friday, Judge Harry T. Edwards said no. EFF can’t see it and neither can we, the people. According to a link-rich story in today’s Times by the redoubtable Charlie Savage, the ruling seems likely to stand.

This is just the latest cause for disappointment in President Obama when it comes to transparency and press freedom. If he wanted to really serve those great causes, he could:

–stop prosecuting and issuing subpoenas to reporters at an unprecedented pace

–stop over-classifying new material as “secret”

–begin reducing the backlog of classified materials that can be de-classified with no harm

–adopt the common-sense reforms recommended by his own task force on surveillance issues.

There are many things to admire about Barack Obama, but his record in this area is not one of them Perhaps it confirms that the Founders were right to be suspicious of executive power per se, regardless of the individual wielding that power. They saw, rightly, that power is by its very nature aggressive, always seeking to expand and never yielding unless forced to do so.

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