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2009-05-05

Senator Russ Feingold on Obama’s Escalation of the War in Afghanistan, Torture, State Secrets and Single-Payer Health Care

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President Obama’s first 100 days in office was the subject of much scrutiny last week. Pundits offered analysis, criticisms and even grades on the President’s record so far on a range of issues such as the economy, the environment and healthcare reform. But what about other issues like torture, wiretapping, his use of the State Secrets Act, and his plans for the withdrawal from Iraq and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan? We speak to Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.). [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama’s first 100 days in office was the subject of much scrutiny last week. The pundits offered analysis, criticisms and even grades on the President’s record so far on a range of issues such as the economy, the environment and healthcare reform. But what about other issues like torture, wiretapping, his use of the State Secrets Act, and his plans for the withdrawal from Iraq and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan?

AMY GOODMAN: I had a chance to sit down with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin last week to get his assessment of President Obama’s policies on some of these issues. Senator Feingold was in Madison for the hundredth anniversary celebration of The Progressive magazine. I began by asking him to talk about the significance of The Progressive.

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: The Progressive magazine is a reflection of the great progressive movement that came out of Wisconsin under the inspiration of Robert M. La Follette, Sr., so-called Fighting Bob La Follette, my father’s hero, one of my heroes. Those of us that follow that political tradition have gotten enormous help in our thinking and our philosophy, both with regard to domestic issues, such as fighting corruption and problems like that in government, but also internationally, almost more than any other movement or publication in the country. The Progressive has questioned unwise military interventions, whether under Democratic presidents or Republican presidents. So it’s a very rich and important tradition. It’s one of the reasons that I am who I am, is because of The Progressive magazine.

    AMY GOODMAN: You were the first senator to call for withdrawal from Iraq. Are you satisfied with President Obama’s plan for Iraq right now?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Not satisfied. Pleased that it’s significantly better than the Bush administration. But the idea of leaving a force of 50,000 troops there that includes not just what I consider to be legitimate purposes, such as protecting our troops or fighting counterterrorism, but also a huge undefined idea of training Iraqi troops, to me, is way more than was anticipated or campaigned on, and I’d like to see the President drop that piece. So, it’s an improvement, but I am not yet satisfied with it.

    AMY GOODMAN: And military contractors, about equal number, they haven’t talked about what should happen to them in Iraq.

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Hopefully that will still be coming. There’s still a lot of activity both in the Congress and some conversations with the executive branch. That has to be pulled back. That has to be controlled. It is one of the worst abuses. It is a classic example of what President Eisenhower warned about many decades ago with the military-industrial complex. It’s a frightful thing to see. And I’ve seen it in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where we have our troops not making very much money, and then you see these other people making all kinds of money through private contractors. It creates a really bad environment in many different ways.

    AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Afghanistan. What do you think of President Obama expanding the war there and into Pakistan?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, I am pleased that he has identified Pakistan as the greater threat in the situation than Afghanistan itself. That is an important improvement over the tunnel vision of the Bush administration.

    On the other hand, I think I was the first member of the Congress to say, “Wait a minute. Why would you increase the troop force in Afghanistan by 21,000 troops, when you haven’t even figured out exactly how to control the situation in Pakistan?” The leaders of al-Qaeda are in Pakistan. The leaders of the Taliban are in Pakistan. Why would you create this further environment that is perceived as occupation in Afghanistan? I think it’s counterproductive. I think it may make the situation in Pakistan worse.

    So, the greater understanding of the region is a good thing, but I think troop buildup is dangerous, and I have expressed that as recently as yesterday directly to the Secretary of State at a meeting we had.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what does Secretary Clinton say?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, of course, she’s part of this administration, and they have a belief that various steps they can take on the civilian side in Afghanistan can help. And, of course, that part of it, I’m more comfortable with.

    But I question whether that, combined with a military buildup, really is something that’s at cross purposes. One of the things that unifies those that — such as the Taliban and others, is our military presence there. We need to have a lesser military presence in Afghanistan so the people of that country can believe it’s going to be their country some day. We’ve been there now eight years. And yes, I did support the original invasion, but I did not support a permanent occupation of Afghanistan.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think President Obama is pushing the expansion of the war there? I mean, some might say he’s president today because of his brave antiwar stance against Iraq. And yet he’s taking a very different approach to Afghanistan.

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I’m sure he would dispute the claim that he is expanding the war. I happen to think the expansion of the war in Afghanistan is happening. And so, he would dispute it. But I think that’s what’s happening.

    Now, he is not talking about invading Pakistan, and that — it is not fair to suggest that he’s talking about American troops in Pakistan, which, of course, he has not talked about, would not be wise. It is a good move to put pressure on the Pakistani government to try to crack down on the militants within their own country, because that situation is very dangerous for us. But to simultaneously broaden our military presence in Afghanistan, to me, is unwise and does constitute an expanding of the war.

    So, I fear it. I understand he’s doing it because he wants our troops to be protected, he wants to give protection to those that are trying to do civilian things in the communities. I understand that rationale. I just don’t think putting a lot of more troops in there really helps you do that. I think it makes it harder.

    AMY GOODMAN: And in Pakistan, these unmanned drone attacks?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: This is part of a strategy, apparently, that has to do with trying to locate militants and deal with them. “Is it effective?” is a good question. What is the collateral damage, in terms of human beings that have done nothing wrong? And also, what is the collateral damage in terms of unifying those that are angry about the United States and angry about the Pakistani government? So, to the extent that activity is occurring, we have to really think about whether it’s working and whether it really makes sense.

    AMY GOODMAN: Senator Feingold, President Obama said at his last news conference that waterboarding is torture. Does he then have an obligation to prosecute those who were involved with it, either authorizing it or doing it themselves to prisoners?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, the President did say clearly at his press conference that waterboarding is torture. I say, “Therefore, it’s against the law. And therefore, those who formulated the policy, at a minimum, should be held accountable.”

    Now, I think it’s appropriate that he’s letting the Attorney General, Mr. Holder, take a look at this and determine if that is in fact their conclusion. But I do not believe people can say, “Well, they were just offering their valid legal opinions.” They are not valid legal opinions. They are not reasonable legal opinions. They are outrageous legal opinions. And I certainly, for one, hope that there’s serious consideration of prosecution in some of those cases.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Jay Bybee should be impeached?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I don’t believe he should be in the office he’s in. I’d prefer to see him resign. I would not rule out impeachment. As a senator, my job is to review an impeachment by the House as a juror, just as I did in the case of President Clinton. So I’m not going to prejudge a situation. But on the face of it, I certainly would understand why any member of the House would say, “Wait a minute. Maybe we ought to consider articles of impeachment if he does not resign.” What he did here was truly against American law and against American values, and I question why somebody like that should be a federal judge for life.

    AMY GOODMAN: So that’s impeachment. Of course, that doesn’t go to the issue of prosecution, which you said you would support.

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I said that I think the Attorney General ought to take seriously the issue of whether these individuals should be prosecuted. I’d like to hear his view first, and I certainly would want to listen to it. But I would be surprised if the Attorney General did not come to the conclusion that somebody needs to be prosecuted for putting in place something that the President himself has said is torture and is therefore illegal.

    AMY GOODMAN: Would you sign onto the letter that the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers, the New York congressman, Nadler, are sending to Attorney General Holder, calling for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate and prosecute Bush administration officials?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I’d be very open to that. I want to see the letter. That is one of the options that I agree with. I potentially agree with prosecutions. I agree with the idea of the truth commission. And I potentially would support a special prosecutor. I want to see the letter.

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of Baltasar Garzon, the Spanish judge who led the charge for the indictment against Augusto Pinochet, going after Bush administration officials?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: This is what happens when we don’t have accountability in our own country. I think we should have accountability here. I think we should have appropriate prosecutions here, and the Spanish should wait. But, of course, other countries aren’t going to wait forever, if we don’t show any concern about the lawlessness that affected our own country. But I do think that it’s our responsibility, not the responsibility of the Spaniards.

    AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of state secrets, you have written and spoken about this. President Obama has invoked them several times, continuing the tradition of the Bush administration. Where has he invoked them, and what do you think about this?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, I’m disappointed in this part. Now, overall, I think the President, President Obama, has made enormous progress in terms of the rule of law. We cannot take away from him the fact that he stopped the torture practice, he stopped the detainee abuses in Guantanamo, he has pledged to close Guantanamo, he has opened up Freedom of Information Act. So there are — most areas are very positive. But this is an area of great disappointment, surprising, that the President is using the state secrets privilege in a way that reminds us exactly of the Bush administration. Now, his excuse the other night was that, well, these cases were pending, and they hadn’t had time to review it. So I’m expecting good things from the President in changing this policy.

    One of the potential effects of this is, in the most recent case, this may make it so we would lose an opportunity to question the illegal warrantless wiretapping program that President Bush put into place. Now, we have legislation that would change this, that would make it so that the judge could actually review this material in open court — closed court, rather than just relying on government affidavits. And the President indicated a willingness to look at that. I’m hoping that happens, and I hope they stop the sort of automatic use of the state secrets privilege. It’s been probably the biggest disappointment in the rule of law area since Obama was inaugurated, in an area where he has actually done quite well.

    AMY GOODMAN: Explain that last case invoking state secrets.

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, I can’t talk about the specifics of it, other than to say that one of the things that could happen as a result of this litigation is that the plaintiffs may be able to question whether they can be prosecuted because of an illegal warrantless wiretapping program. So it goes to the very core of a question that I want resolved, which is my belief that the President, under Article II of the Constitution, lawlessly ignored the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is the law, the only law, the exclusive law allowing this kind of wiretapping, and they went ahead and did it on their own anyway. So this is an opportunity in litigation to get at that core constitutional question. State secrets privilege could prevent us from having that opportunity.

    AMY GOODMAN: Wiretapping, torture — do you think that President Bush, that Vice President Cheney should also be prosecuted?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I have not come to a conclusion on that. I want to think about it. I want to see what the Attorney General has to say. And I want to see where the evidence leads.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of President Obama saying we have to look forward, not back.

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I understand that, in general, that’s the right thing. Throughout the campaign, I said our first priority is to get our economy back in place, and our other priority is to make sure we change our international reputation and policy. But I said, “But we cannot ignore the third priority, which is accountability for things that have happened in the past.”

    And I am troubled when the President says, “I just want to look forward.” That’s not the way we do things in our society. We have to, just like they did in South Africa, just like we did when we realized the mistakes we made with Korematsu and the internment of Japanese Americans — you can’t just sweep it under the rug.

    And I know the President cares about this, and I understand the political dynamics. But there is a way here, through a truth commission, other steps, to make sure that people know that we understand a terrible mistake was made and that Americans will not do it again. So I would like to see the President find a way to speak more in terms of what kind of accountability we can have for past misdeeds.

    AMY GOODMAN: I know that you have to go give the speech. One last question around the issue of healthcare. Do you support single-payer healthcare?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I do. I always have. I don’t think there’s any possibility that that will come out of this Congress. And so, for people to simply say, “That’s — it’s this way or nothing,” are looking at something that can’t happen now. But I would love to see it. And I believe the goal here is to create whatever legislation we have in a way that could be developed into something like a single-payer system.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why can’t it happen, since polls show most people are for it?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I guarantee you. I know the members of Congress, and it’s not going to pass in this Congress. So, there are certain things that can’t happen right away, and this is one of them. But I do support a single-payer idea.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why do they resist it?

    SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, I think they’re afraid of the criticisms that it’s a big government bureaucracy program. You know, Paul Wellstone, before he died, started talking about having a guaranteed healthcare for all Americans, but having — giving the states flexibility to do it their own way. That’s not a single-payer system, but it achieves many of its same goals. I think that’s another way to get at this, and Paul Wellstone was even talking about it.

    AMY GOODMAN: Senator Feingold, thanks so much for joining us.

AMY GOODMAN: Wisconsin Democrat, Senator Russ Feingold. We were speaking in Madison, Wisconsin.

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