Saturday, October 25, 2014

This, Though, Will Be Ignored.

The word "incredible" is abused nowadays but is perhaps fitting to describe George Will's criticism of Democratic- yes, Democratic- "obstruction" of the US Senate under Majority Leader Harry Reid. The syndicated columnist contends
Such paralysis of the Senate leaves Obama uninhibited in his use of executive orders and bureaucratic mission-creep to advance goals that should require legislation. In January, in the most statesmanlike Senate speech in years, McConnell explained how, under Republican leadership, the Senate would be restored as the creator of consensus:
“An executive order can’t [create consensus]. The fiat of a nine-person court can’t do it. A raucous and precarious partisan majority in the House can’t do it. The only institution that can make stable and enduring laws is the one we have in which all 50 states are represented equally, and where every single senator has a say in the laws that we pass.”
Eviscerating Will's argument, Salon's Jim Newell explains
McConnell made a decision at the very beginning of the Obama presidency that he, and his conference, would filibuster every significant piece of legislation that the Obama administration proposed, before even hearing out the merits. He and his party would then criticize the president for refusing to work with Republicans. This, in turn, would give the administration a reputation for being partisan and ineffective. This plan was as cynical as it gets, was in purely bad faith, and it worked.
That the Senate has lurched away from the consensus-building body so idealized by Will and toward a more majoritarian, parliamentary system is a direct result of McConnell’s tactics. When not filibustering legislation as pure political sport, McConnell and his conference were rampantly filibustering judicial and executive nominations. They filibustered nominees to court vacancies not because they had legitimate concerns over qualifications, but because they didn’t want Democratic appointees on the benches. They filibustered nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Labor Department, to name a few, simply because they (and the particular corporate interests that fund the Republican Party) don’t think these agencies should exist. It was only a matter of time before some minority leader abused the filibuster to this extent — as a weapon to prevent the government from functioning — and it was Mitch McConnell who finally did it. So Harry Reid responded by eliminating the 60-vote cloture threshold on executive and judicial appointments.
Whether the Senate or the House, the GOP long ago decided it simply wouldn't consider anything the President did as legitimate, and would criticize him at nearly every turn.
That would be nearly every turn, because most of the time that Barack Obama deserves scrutiny, Republicans won't provide it.  For all the hysteria about Benghazi, the GOP has failed to notice, or chosen to ignore, an event in which the White House appears to have acted badly.  Eli Lake, soon to depart The Daily Beast, reports 
The parents of James Foley, the journalist ISIS beheaded in August, learned about the U.S. government’s attempt to rescue him about an hour before the rest of us did.
The grieving parents got word from President Obama himself....
The president, according to John, responded, “Well I should tell you, we did try to save him.” Then Obama stunned John and his wife Diane, informing them of the failed special operations rescue mission from early July.
In the call, Obama explained that this information about the rescue mission was classified. But not for long, it would seem. Foley added, “An hour later he went and told the world.”
White House spokesmen have said that there was never any intention to share with the public details of the failed rescue mission in Syria. Word of the mission began to leak out on August 20, a day after James Foley was beheaded in a gruesome and slickly produced internet video narrated by a man with a thick British accent. White House officials briefed reporters that afternoon on the failed mission.
For the Foleys, it was a tragic ending to an awful ordeal. Since their son first went missing right before Thanksgiving in 2012, Diane Foley, in particular, began a mission to find any way she could to try to get her son back alive. She pressed the White House, the FBI and the State Department for any information she could find on James. Often, she and John would tell the FBI about what they learned from other European hostages who were released this year by ISIS. The response the Foleys received was, for the most part, beyond disappointing—little more than a “pat on the head,” John said.
Two months after the murder of James Foley, his parents are still frustrated with how they were treated by the White House—even as the Foley family works to establish a legacy fund for their son.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, John Foley explained that the President seemed upset during their phone call. Diane was unimpressed with Obama’s empathy. “In between golf games mind you,” she said. “He did stop to call us in the middle of his vacation,” she continued. “In the United Kingdom, the prime minister came home from his vacation.”
The Foleys were frustrated with the Administration and began arguing their case to the media in September. Lake continues
They discussed a moment in May, right after the White House announced a prisoner exchange that released Army Private Bowe Bergdahl. Diane Foley said she and other families of ISIS hostages thought there was hope the Obama administration would reverse its longstanding policy against paying ransom or negotiating with ISIS.
But only a few days after Bergdahl’s release, the Foleys and other families of the hostages were on the phone with a senior White House official who informed them there was no chance at all for negotiations with ISIS. “It was out of the question,” Diane Foley remembers the official saying. (The Daily Beast is declining to name the official at the request of the White House).
John Foley remembered the White House official going even further than that, saying there was no chance third parties would pay ransom or trade hostages with ISIS either. “’We will not ask any of our allies to do something we ourselves wouldn’t do like pay ransom, or trade hostages,’” Foley recalled the official as saying.
Bernadette Meehan, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined Thursday to discuss the details of the communications with the Foley family. She did, however, defend the policy of not negotiating with ISIS.
“The United States has a long-standing policy that we do not offer concessions to hostage takers because doing so would only put more Americans at risk of being taken captive,” she said. “Sergeant Bergdahl was not a hostage—he is a member of the U.S. military who was detained during the course of an armed conflict. His return was consistent with the longstanding practice of prisoner exchanges in war and, as such, is different from policy and practice relating to civilians held hostage.”
While Meehan speaks for the White House, other parts of Obama’s government have pressed to change the U.S. policy of not paying ransoms to terrorists.Foreign Policy magazine’s Shane Harris reported this month that the White House and the State Department remain opposed to paying ransoms to terrorist groups, while the FBI and the Justice Department have asked for more flexibility.
Diane Foley detected a difference in tone and emphasis on ransom payments from the FBI, which “was very willing to walk us right up to that point,” she said. “They made it clear that an exchange of funds may be necessary, but they themselves could not do that.”

For the most part the Foleys had high praise for the FBI. Diane Foley said that the bureau gave them advice on how to craft a response to an email they received from ISIS at the end of 2013. “The FBI told us to write back a letter humanizing Jim,” she said. “They would look them over and tweak a word or two.”
As the summer dragged on, the Foleys began to seek out their own ways to get their son back. Towards the end of Foley’s captivity, John and Diane Foley began a pledge drive to raise money for a possible ransom, even though they say the White House informed them that any efforts to pay a ransom to ISIS would violate U.S. law.
“We had a million dollars in pledges at the end,” Diane Foley said. “Our hands were tied, we could not make it obvious, it had to be done under the guidance of pro bono attorneys… We didn’t want the money, we didn’t want to handle it, so we sought pledges. We didn’t want the money unless we needed it.”
European governments, for their part, have long agreed to pay groups like ISIS ransom money. And that has yielded tangible results. Foley was held in Syria at the same location as several European hostages. But the Europeans had been freed in the weeks before Obama ordered the rescue mission into Syria, the Foleys said.
In the end, the Foleys say they hope other families of hostages will be able to learn and benefit from their experience. They were in Washington this week to receive an award given posthumously to their son on behalf of the Oxi Day Foundation, a Greek American organization that celebrates Greek resistance to the Nazis.
“The enemy is ISIS, not our government,” Diane Foley said. “All we are saying is that our government can do better for our citizens. We hope the James Foley foundation can foster dialogue for a more consistent policy on this.”
We can debate till the cows come home, or till there is no more hokey cliches in this blog, the wisdom of negotiating with terrorists or of involving private actors in rescue attempts.  We can point out that President Obama takes less time off his job than did President Bush or that it really doesn't matter, given that a President is not overworked and has agencies and individuals perform whatever- including rescue attempts- need to be done.
But it can't be denied that Obama entered the presidency promising considerably more transparency than received from the office in the past. After being sworn in, the President told his senior staff "I will also hold myself as president to a new standard of openness .... Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency." Federal agencies similarly were assured "We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” 
Yet, as Paul D. Thacker observed
in March 2010, the Associated Press found that, under Obama, 17 major agencies were 50 percent more likely to deny FOIA requests than under Bush. The following year, the presidents of two journalism societies— Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Professional Journalists—called out President Obama for muzzling scientists in much the same way President Bush had. Last September, Bloomberg News tested Obama’s pledgeby filing FOIA requests for the 2011 travel records of top officials at 57 agencies. Only about half responded. In fact, this president has prosecuted more whistleblowersunder the Espionage Act than all prior administrations combined. And an analysis released Monday by the Associated Press found that the administration censored more FOIA requests on national security grounds last year than in any other year since President Obama took office.
Thacker, a former Senate investigator, wrote this 19 months ago.  In his article this past week, Lake revealed
In September, the Foleys began to talk to the media about their frustrations with the Obama administration. At the time they said the White House threatened them with prosecution if they tried to raise private funds to purchase their son’s freedom. 
Threatened them with prosecution?  The heavy hand of big government (which Republicans endlessly claim to despise) comes down on the family of a victim of terrorism (photo of James Foley, below) and Republicans say.... nothing.
So Thacker's aggravation, reflected in a tweet from "one of Washington's watchdogs " in which Administration supporters were giving Obama a free pass on "drones & assassinations & military commissions & secret memos expanding secret surveillance powers," is misplaced.  Admittedly, there has been little complaint from Democrats- but even less from Republicans, who complain incessantly about the Administration because of the IRS and other matters when their criticism is baseless.  The Foleys allegedly try to save their son with assistance from private actors (the Republican modus operandi) and their is silence.
Notwithstanding attacks on other fronts from Republicans, the President may have been keeping them at bay with a kind of triangulation-lite which has characterized his Administration. Similarly, Lake notes “I told Obama that Jim worked hard to get him elected,” John Foley, James’s father, told The Daily Beast. “He believed till the end his country would come and get them.”

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