Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Legacy

"I am feeling pain for you, Mr. President. We didn’t use to have drone strikes on outdoor restaurants in countries we are not at war with."

  Last night was the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the eighth and final #WHCD for @POTUS Barack Obama. While it is ostensibly a celebrity roast of the sitting president, it is almost always kept very tame. Host Larry Wilmore had a few awkward moments of silence and boos when he quipped:
"And I have to admit it’s not easy to follow the president, man. You got some jokes. Mr. President. The president’s funny. Stay in your lane, man. You don’t see me going around president-ing all the time, right? I don’t go around passing health care, and signing executive orders pardoning turkeys … not closing Guantanamo. Oh wait, maybe I did do that.
"But I have to say, it’s great, it looks like you’re really enjoying your last year of the presidency. Saw you hanging out with NBA players like Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors. That was cool. That was cool, yeah. You know it kinda makes sense, too, because both of you like raining down bombs on people from long distances, right? What? Am I wrong? Speaking of drones, how is Wolf Blitzer still on television?"
Back on June 15, 2015, Marc Maron welcomed President Barack Obama to his L.A. garage for an appearance on the number one rated podcast, WTF. What ensued was an hour-long conversation about college, fitting in, race relations, gun control, raising kids in the White House, and, obviously the reason the President would appear on a podcast with a name like WTF -- the Obama legacy. Just like a Correspondent’s Dinner, the jibes were G-rated.

We wondered what could have been.

Marc: Thank you for this honor and I would like to get right to the heart of it. Okay? You are here because you are worried about your legacy, right? I mean, nobody comes to my garage — a President of the United States doesn’t come to my garage — unless you are pretty desperately worried.

POTUS: (laughs) I’ll let other people worry about these things, seriously. There is nothing I can really do about that, so why bother trying? People will judge me, and that comes with the job.

Marc: But lets get right down to it, they will judge you not on the things you got right but where you blew it, right? As Shakespeare said, The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones. Where do you think you blew it?

Tented entrance to Marc's garage
POTUS: Well, I don’t disagree with you. I look at many recent presidents whom I consider to have done a better job than I have but who are vilified, often for the wrong reasons. I came to office at a particularly difficult time when the Republican Party was struggling to find an identity, and in their internal squabbles, made me the scapegoat, which put me in a difficult position. I could have handled that better, perhaps. But when I take an unemployment rate of 10 percent down to 5.5 percent, when I drive the uninsured rate to the lowest it's ever been, when I restore people's 401(k)s, when I make sure that we're doubling clean energy, and we are reducing our carbon footprint, and high school graduations are the highest they've ever been, and college attendance is the highest it's ever been, and LGBT rights have been recognized and solidified in ways that we couldn't even imagine ten years ago – when I look at those things, I can say that in terms of not just managing the government, but moving the country forward, we've had a lot more hits than misses. We've made a difference in people's lives. And that is ultimately what you're looking for.

Marc: But didn’t you invite Boehner over for beers? That is not really what I am talking about, with all due respect Mr. President. I mean — you tortured some folks.

POTUS: I think the line is “We tortured some folks,” and I was speaking in the past tense.

Marc: But all due respect Mr. President. I meant you tortured some folks. They are still being tortured. The CIA is torturing them at surrogate black sites in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Some of those are probably American citizens. You have people still being tortured in Guantánamo because the various human rights commissions have looked at that place and how it is being run and called it torture. You have a former Gitmo prosecutor, going public and calling it “a severe threat to the reputation of the military justice system and even a fraud on the American people.” You have another former prosecutor there calling the process rigged. We know that there are innocent people there. You have released a few of them, but there are still a lot more that if they had their cases tried in court they would be let go. And they are being tortured with isolation and sleep deprivation and force feeding and bags over their heads.

If you aren’t getting these in your NSA morning briefings, you should listen to Brandon Neely speak about his experiences as a guard at Guantánamo.

POTUS: I think you have to be more careful about taking your news from the Internet, Marc (laughs).

Marc: Okay. That’s fair. What about the Uyghurs? You joked about them. Bush had 22 of them sent to Gitmo in 2002 after they were turned in by the Taliban, unarmed, in East Turkestan. They weren’t fighting the US. They liked the US. They were trying to flee the Chinese who were occupying their country and they were on their way to Turkey. The Uyghurs are as oppressed as the Tibetans, but they don't receive as much recognition because they don’t have a spokesman like the Dalai Lama.

POTUS: And like the Tibetians, or the Taiwanese, we are walking a delicate line. We have to consider our interests with respect to the Chinese, and a host of diplomatic relations there from nuclear disarmament to currency exchange rates to global climate change.

Marc: In 2005 it was determined they were not enemy combatants. They sued in US District Court and when the case was about to come up, Bush had the 5 named plaintiffs transferred to Albania. The other 17 were transferred to Isolation in Camp Six — shackled to the floor, 22 hours per day in cells with no natural light. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter.

Their case went to the US Supreme Court and the court ruled the Executive Branch lacked the Constitutional authority to detain them. Congress then revoked habeas corpus so they were knocked out of court and could not enforce the ruling. Great Britain offered them asylum but Bush wouldn’t send them. Munich, which has the largest population of Uyghurs outside China, invited them, but Bush wouldn’t release them.

POTUS: This was all the previous administration….

Marc: So then you get into office, and they were still there. Still in Guantánamo. Kiyemba v. Obama? Does that ring a bell? The Bush government acknowledged as early as 2003 that the Uyghurs were improperly detained and eligible for release. You held them until 2013.

POTUS: In all fairness, Marc, that was a political football, with a court case pending that tied my hands.

Marc: Seriously? The guy you appointed at the State Department to find countries to send them to said he couldn’t get anyone because the guys you appointed over at the Justice Department made them out to be so dangerous that they shouldn’t even be able to use habeas corpus to have their cases tried. And what did you do? You joked about them. Seriously, Mr. President, I have done some pretty lame standup, but the Correspondents’ Dinner joke about the Uyghurs, who were being tortured in Gitmo, would even have been in poor taste for me.

Why didn’t you just offer them jobs in the White House? They could have been gardeners or janitors. They didn’t have to come into the Residence. They could have mopped the floors in the West Wing.

POTUS: Admittedly, not my finest hour. But in all honesty, Marc, you and I can both agree Guantánamo continues to impose significant costs on the American people. It took a while, but we finally got greater flexibility to transfer Guantánamo detainees abroad, and I look forward to closing the facility before I leave office.

Marc: Right. What about Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki?

POTUS: That is quite a mouthful Marc. Are you studying Pashtun?

Marc: Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was a 16-year old US citizen, with no connection to terrorism. He was in Yemen searching for his father, Anwar al-Awlaki, a dual Yemeni-American citizen who worked as Islamic Lecturer in the Arabian Peninsula.

You decided, in your weekly targets meeting, to kill Anwar al-Awlaki with an armed CIA drone because the CIA didn’t like what he was saying in his lectures. Al-Awlaki was killed by us, America, in a country with which we are not at war. He was a lecturer. He was killed by his own government for speaking the truth as he saw it. He had constitutional rights that you, a professor of constitutional law, chose to ignore. Then, when his son went looking for him, two weeks later, Bang! You droned the son too.

POTUS: I cannot speak to matters of national security as you no doubt are aware. The Department of Defense has issued a statement that the boy was killed by accident, collateral damage in a strike against an Al Qaeda bombmaker.

Marc: He was sitting in an outdoor restaurant!

POTUS: (silence)

Marc: Do you see what I am getting at here? Do you understand the pain I feel in asking you? I am feeling pain for you, Mr. President. We didn’t use to have drone strikes on outdoor restaurants in countries we are not at war with. Even Bush didn’t do that.

POTUS: I was talking to somebody the other day about why I actually think I’m a better president and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been. And it’s sort of like an athlete—you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to, but I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless.

Marc: For real. You’re not pretending to be fearless.

POTUS: Right, you’re not pretending to be fearless. And when you get to that point?

Marc: Freedom.

POTUS: And also part of that fearlessness is because you’ve screwed up enough times that you know that—

Marc: It’s all happened.

POTUS: It’s all happened. I’ve been through this, I’ve screwed up, I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged, and I lived. And that’s such a liberating feeling. It’s one of the benefits of age. It almost compensates for the fact I can’t play basketball anymore.

Marc: How do you define terror? We are in a War On Terror that is supposed to last my lifetime. What is terror? Is being afraid to go outdoors terror? Is being afraid to sit in an outdoor restaurant in a country not at war terror? Isn’t that what happened last November in Paris? Isn’t that what terror is — keeping people in a constant state of fear; terrorized? Who is doing that? Aren’t you doing that inside America as well as in places like Yemen and Pakistan too? You don’t have to go through the lines at the airport and take off your shoes and have your toothpaste confiscated so maybe you don’t know. Do you imagine there are not consequences when you do that for a long time? Don’t you foresee some really pissed off people?

Ten years shackled to the floor in Gitmo while known to be innocent. I’d be a little pissed off.

POTUS: It is a dangerous world out there, Marc. But look. We ended two wars. I always said from the start that there really are people out there who would have no compunction about just blowing up an entire neighborhood of Americans – innocent men, women and children – for ideological reasons. We have to deal with that. That then means that we do have to be able to identify those networks. We do have to, when we can find those folks, try to prevent them from doing what they're doing. And so, for the last seven years what I've tried to do is to build up a defense posture that is consistent with our values and due process, build up an intelligence system that is consistent with our civil liberties.

Marc: I know. I get it. You are stuck between Iraq and a hard place. I guess what I am saying is that if you want to know how you will be remembered, this is how you will be remembered. It won’t be for Obamacare or climate change. Your record on torture and terror-killing from the skies has been abysmal. You have droned wedding parties and hospitals. It is a standard riff for standup comics. You are deep in torture “to the point of obstruction, concealment, and ultimate complicity” and that’s not me saying that, that’s Wells Dixon, the senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

You never held Bush officials accountable for what happened. You are still holding back the Senate report on torture.  You had Secretary of State Kerry call Feinstein and tell her to delay the report’s release. Your administration itself has transferred prisoners into facilities run by governments where torture is used — a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture — even though our allies have stopped sending prisoners there, you still do.

You issued an executive order taking control of torture out of the CIA and giving it to the White House lawyers, but you didn’t ban it. You still allow prolonged isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation and intimidating or humiliating practices. Your order specifically did not ban extraordinary rendition or prohibit CIA random and arbitrary secret detention. That was no accident, come on. Although we can’t say for sure that nobody’s been flown off to countries such as Egypt and tortured under your orders, as they were under Bush and Clinton, CIA captives have been transferred to facilities run by the Afghan security forces where we know torture takes place. And lets be serious. That is why you are sending them there.

If they survive and sue you, your guys have repeatedly invoked state-secrets privilege to stop them from having a fair day in court. Without any deterrent of civil or criminal prosecution, future presidents might feel they can bring back waterboarding, or hanging people from the ceiling.  That’s your legacy, Mr. President.

POTUS: This interview is over (muffled mic noise).


tmkowal said...

What a courageous interviewer. Held his feet to the fire and toasted him until he burned. Takes some guts.

dex3703 said...

If only this had happened.




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