Are Presidents Who Cover Up Crimes Murderous Sociopaths?

Kevin Drum and Adam Serwer are having a MoJo fight over how to respond to the news that Obama intervened to keep journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye imprisoned. Drum started the debate by asking what I consider a straw man argument: Is President Obama a murderous sociopath? Serwer objected because,

it essentially turns a policy issue into a matter of trusting Barack Obama. Instead of questioning the approach to Shaye’s detention, we’re invited to consider whether this fine fellow, Barack Obama, is a murderer.

And Drum responded by arguing that there are some times the public is just not going to be informed.

The question, given the legitimate sensitivity of intelligence sources, is whether the U.S. government is required to be entirely transparent about every single action it takes. In this case, President Obama expressed “concern” about the release of Shaye, which caused the Yemeni president to withdraw a pardon that was in the works. Should Obama be required to explain in detail the reasons he did this?

[snip]

The plain fact is that when it comes to terrorism and the intelligence community, there are some cases where the public just isn’t going to be informed.

Drum does say he hopes the press asks for more information on this front, but he seems fairly complacent about the possibility that in a democracy citizens are being asked to simply trust the President.

That stance seems to operate in isolation from some things we do know, however. Consider these facts:

Obama has covered up a number of crimes committed in the name of counterterrorism.

The kidnapping and torture of Khaled al-Masri. The warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. The kidnapping and torture of Binyam Mohamed–before the torture memos were written.

Those are just a few of the crimes that the Obama Administration has taken affirmative actions–either with state secrets invocations or pressure on our allies–to cover up. It has also pursued habeas appeals in cases where the government has no reliable evidence tying a detainee to al Qaeda, effectively imprisoning someone unnecessarily … because of political difficulties in  Yemen.

An Obama Administration official insinuated those who try to verify civilian casualties are al Qaeda sympathizers.

When journalists from the Bureau of Independent Journalism risked their lives to get a real sense of how many civilians had died in drone strikes in Pakistan, an Obama official speaking anonymously suggested that such journalism amounted to support for al Qaeda.

Let’s be under no illusions — there are a number of elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help Al Qaeda succeed.

This, in spite of the fact that TBIJ’s report actually debunked some claimed civilian casualties and disproved Pakistani opposition claims of much higher civilian casualties. This, also in spite of the fact that TBIJ reported a lower level of civilian casualties than the AP did in its own independent reporting released a short time later.

The Administration spent 3 weeks worrying about the impact of the December 17, 2009 strike in Abyan.

In Drum’s first piece, he dismisses the notion that the Administration might be upset with Shaye’s coverage based on ABC’s reporting of US involvement in the strike.

Now we get to the part where I wonder what’s really going on. Because here’s the thing: the attack on al Majala was no secret. It happened on December 17, and the very next day, on its nightly newscast, ABC News reported this:

On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.

….Until tonight, American officials had hedged about any U.S. role in the strikes against Yemen and news reports from Yemen attributed the attacks to the Yemen Air Force.

….Along with the two U.S. cruise missile attacks, Yemen security forces carried out raids in three separate locations. As many as 120 people were killed in the three raids, according to reports from Yemen, and opposition leaders said many of the dead were innocent civilians.

This story was picked up fairly widely, including in this detailed report from Bill Roggio and in this post from Glenn himself. So while Shaye’s photos might have been the kind of smoking-gun proof you’d need in a courtroom, within a few hours of the strike it was common knowledge that U.S. cruise missiles had done most of the damage and that there were local reports of many civilian casualties.

Note that ABC used Shaye’s work in this period, so it’s possible that Shaye was one source for this story (though he reported fewer civilian casualties than ABC did).

But in any case, the fact that this story got reported doesn’t change the Administration’s concerns about reporting on this strike.

Consider the detailed assessment of media coverage of the civilian casualties–including the ABC report–in this December 21, 2009 cable circulated to the White House and Secretary of State.

¶2. (C) The ROYG made swift work of announcing the preemptive dawn strikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Sana’a and Abyan governorates on December 17. But ABC TV news reports of U.S. intelligence and logistical assistance to the ROYG were picked up on the same day by Yemen’s opposition media, and were quickly followed by charges of scores of civilian deaths due to the “joint” airstrikes in Abyan by ROYG and U.S. forces. Opposition demonstrators and media outlets, as well as members of Parliament, have called for an investigation of the civilian deaths in Abyan due to the airstrikes. The story, heavily reported in the international press, of an extensive role by U.S. counter-terrorism forces in assisting the ROYG will linger as long as interest in the civilian deaths continues.

¶3. (C) Raids against AQAP at dawn on December 17 in Arhab (a suburb of Sanaa) and a training camp located in a village in Abyan’s al-Mahfad district were reported immediately by the Ministry of Defense Web site 26sep.com and picked up by local and international media by noon on December 17. Reports of U.S. logistical and intelligence assistance to ROYG counter-terrorism forces were reported on ABC TV later the same day. That TV broadcast was swiftly reported on the opposition Islah party’s Web site, al-Sahwa, repeating assertions of U.S. assistance to the ROYG, and citing unnamed eyewitnesses claiming that 18 children and 41 men and women were among the civilians killed by airstrikes. Also on December 17, al-Jazeera aired footage of civilian casualties and quoted locals as saying that U.S. aircraft were sighted on overflight surveillance on the eve of the airstrikes in Abyan. The official media was slow to respond to rapid coverage critical of the raids by opposition media and to organized protests in the region, instead focusing its initial reporting on AQAP leaders killed or captured in the raids.

OFFICIAL MEDIA DEFENDS STRIKES, DENIES U.S. INVOLVEMENT

——————————————————-

¶4. (SBU) By December 18, the regional and international media, led by the report in the New York Times that the U.S. had given intelligence, firepower and other assistance to the ROYG in their raids against AQAP, began to cover the question of U.S. involvement. The sensationalist and often inaccurate Almenpar.net, the Houthis’ official Web site, and Iran’s PressTV.net both reported 63 people dead in the raids in Abyan, including 28 children. On December 19, the ROYG went on the offensive, reporting on the MOD’s Web site that operations against AQAP militants were targeted to foil suicide bombers planning attacks against Yemeni and foreign installations, that the raids resulted in killing four suicide bombers and arresting four others, and that the attack on the training center in Abyan resulted in the deaths of 24-30 AQAP members. Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, broadcast a report on December 19 that the number killed in Abyan was over 60, according to eyewitnesses, and that most of the deaths were civilians. The satellite channel also showed video of artillery shells with visible serial numbers and claimed that “U.S. warplanes or cruise missiles probably conducted the strike.” On December 21, official media attempted to get the damaging story of civilian deaths off the front pages by diverting focus to the war in Sa’ada.

Again on December 21 (these cables seemed to be concerned, in part, about the upcoming strike on December 24), Ambassador Stephen Seche recorded Yemen’s wish to continue claiming it–not the US–had conducted the December 17 strike, even while expressing skepticism they’d be able to do so given the likelihood US munitions would be found at the attack site. The cable also made it clear that the US-based reports on US involvement were unauthorized leaks. In a December 27 cable reporting on the Yemeni government’s briefing to Parliament about the strikes, the Embassy noted concerns about civilian casualties among even those Yemenis who supported the strikes. It also acknowledged and described the civilian victims: Bedouins who had provided food to al Qaeda members. On January 4, 2010, Saleh complained to David Petraeus about the civilian casualties. On January 11, Seche that Saleh continued to support US counteterrorism efforts in spite of the three weeks of pressure put on Saleh because of the strike.

Clearly, from the White House on down, the Obama Administration was concerned that pressure arising from the civilian casualties might make Saleh less willing to partner on counterterrorism.

And all that’s independent of whether the US wants evidence out there that there were, in fact, civilian casualties whose targeting was of dubious legality.

Now, all these facts don’t prove that Obama wanted Shaye kept in prison because of his reporting and not–as the Administration has claimed–because he had an operational role to Al Qaeda (though the insinuation directed at TBIJ suggests the Administration may see them as one and the same thing).

But they do show that Obama is not above going to some lengths to cover up crimes committed in the name of counterterrorism, and they do show that they were concerned about how the particular strike Shaye reported on would affect their counterterrorism efforts.

Which shows that Obama, unsurprisingly, will do what he can get away with–however ethically or legally questionable–to make his counterterrorism efforts easier. I’m not sure that makes him a murderous psychopath–it makes him just like most other Presidents, as unfortunate as that is.

But it does show the importance of doing more than just accepting Administration silence on it.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

33 replies
  1. William Ockham says:

    No, Obama is not a murderous psychopath. To be a murderous psychopath you have to do stuff that socially unacceptable and, sadly, Obama’s actions aren’t socially unacceptable. This sort of thing is just considered business as usual by our political elites.

    I find it more disturbing that a morally decent man can be corrupted by our system into participating in such evil endeavors. If he were a murderous psychopath, it would be easier to take.

  2. John Shreffler says:

    @William Ockham: You never know how moral someone is until they get the power of deciding life and death. Obama flunked. An empty suit when all’s said and done.

  3. orionATL says:

    the president is not a psychopath of any sort.

    he is, however, disturbingly amoral and disturbingly alegal with respect to some major constitutional issues.

    he has tolerated a department of justice that has institutionalized attorney misconduct and subsequent cover-up of attorney misconduct,

    that has looked the other way a three varieties of major bank fraud,

    that has mistreated the muslim community in the u.s. egregiously, including entrapping muslim men and spying on individuals and places of worship,

    that has conducted what can properly be called a jihad against whistleblowers who point out nat’l security incompetence,

    that has looked the other way at american torture that is both domestically and internationally illegal,

    that has repeatedly covered up prior misconduct of doj officials,

    that has sneered at the freedom of information statutes,

    that has lied to the courts and the nation about state’s secrets litigation.

    this is only a partial bill of accounting of doj as a rogue american government institution coddled by the president.

    my view has been steadily hardening,

    as new stories of obama’s ruthless use of the powers of a president AGAINST INDIVIDUALS, always against the relatively powerless INDIVIDUAL, keep coming to light,

    that obama is not morally fit to be an american president,

    in the same manner that dick cheney and george bush were not morally fit to be v-p and p.

    obama the president seems always to sidle up to, and then to side with, powerful institutions that could do him political harm – big banks are the premier example of this.

    when it comes to individuals on the other hand, politically harmless and relatively helpless to defend themselves, the president seems to have no compunction or moral sensitivity that prevents him from targeting them with government power.

  4. orionATL says:

    @orionATL:

    i refer, above, to individuals the obama administration has targeted with gov’t power, as “politically harmless” to the president.

    i should also point out the other side of that coin:

    targeting certain individuals can be politically helpful to the president,

    in fact, that is precisely why they were targeted in the first place.

  5. P J Evans says:

    @orionATL:
    He looked the other way on his predecessor’s criminal actions and let the statute of limitations expire on them, while he used those same actions as a precedent. And he claims to have a degree in law….

  6. orionATL says:

    @P J Evans:

    indeed.

    well, not really just any ordinary “degree in law”.

    the president has a degree from harvard law school; the same degree that five of the seven supreme court justices have.

    what a mess these fools have made of governing in our country.

    not surprisingly, since that is how you get into harvard law, its graduates learn first where power lies and how to kiss up to it – perfect candidates for corporate law jobs or appellate court justices.

    as an aside, the current head of harvard law is, if i am remembering correctly, martha minnow, the sister of chicago lawyer newton minnow for whom obama worked as a young man, the two of whom were, i believe, obama’s conduit into harvard law.

    it’s all about superior talent, don’t you know.

    well, o.k., it’s about being superior kept talent.

  7. JTM says:

    Please note that a sociopath is not the same thing as a psychopath. It’s not clear to me which Obama is being accused of being

    Sociopaths are “users.” They lack empathy and treat other people almost like objects to be controlled. Thus, they lie a lot, but are usually otherwise quite nice or even charming.

    Psychopaths are similar, but a bit more crazy (to use a technical term, tee hee). Most of all, they have at least borderline personality disorder if not outright paranoia. In contrast to sociopaths, they do see other people as people; the problem is that these other people are their enemy.

    Based on this, I’d say that people often seem to accuse Obama of being a form of sociopath. He is too cool and calculating. But he doesn’t seem paranoid or borderline (and Fox et al. have given him plenty of chances to show this, but he hasn’t). So I can’t see him as being a psychopath.

    Or were the terms just being used loosely and I’m wasting all our time on this?

  8. MadDog says:

    OT – Via the NYT comes the Pentagon’s spin:

    Accused G.I. ‘Snapped’ Under Strain, Official Says

    “The American staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers had been drinking alcohol — a violation of military rules in combat zones — and suffering from the stress related to his fourth combat tour and tensions with his wife about the deployments on the night of the massacre, a senior American official said Thursday.

    “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues — he just snapped,” said the official, who has been briefed on the investigation and who spoke on condition of anonymity because the soldier has not yet been formally charged…

    [snip]

    …“There will be questions raised about his emotional and mental stability for a fourth deployment,” the American official said.

    The Army still has not named the soldier, but on Thursday a lawyer who said he had been retained by the soldier’s family offered some information and questioned some of the American official’s claims.

    The lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said it was “nonsense” that there were marital issues. “I know that is not true,” he said at a news conference at his office Thursday night in Seattle.

    Mr. Browne added that the inaccuracy of the claim made him “suspicious” of the suggestion that alcohol and stress contributed, though he noted that virtually anyone posted at a remote base in Afghanistan would be under stress…”

    To me, this sounds like a clear message from the US government to defense counsel that if he takes this tack in the soldier’s defense, the US government will wink nod knowingly and with appreciation.

    As in, let’s not define this as a systemic Army problem. Let’s sweep this under the rug as an individual’s crack up.

  9. Roman Berry says:

    @JTM: You wrote “Please note that a sociopath is not the same thing as a psychopath.” But that is actually not correct. A sociopath and a psychopath are for all intents and purposes the exact same thing. Check it:

  10. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Some additional thoughts on what the anonymous Pentagon officials are spinning in regard to this tragedy. Namely, that a US soldier “snapped”.

    This doesn’t seem to me to be something that occurred in a momentary fit of murderous drunken rage. When I consider all the things that have been reported about this incident, the word “snapped” doesn’t come to mind. It doesn’t comport with all the things that happened.

    These are the words that register for me:

    Cold-blooded.
    Dispassionate.
    Deliberate.
    Methodical.
    Careful.
    Sneaky.
    Planned.
    Systematic.
    Organized.
    Disciplined.
    Efficient.

    As I said yesterday, this makes me wonder if this US soldier did something similar (killing civilians) in his previous 3 tours and had gotten away with it.

  11. Ben Franklin says:

    Kevin is kinda like E.J. Dionne; nice guys both. Why Drum went to MJ is a mystery.

    They must have an onerous quota for posts. He never comments, but says he visits the comments.

    He should stick to less controversial topics. His Friday Night cat blogging will do.

  12. JTM says:

    @Roman Berry: If you knew what my day job was, you wouldn’t have directed me to some You-Tube video….

    @Marcy – I agree. People are usually accusing him of being something like a sociopath and I’ve never seen him accused of being psychopathic.

  13. shekissesfrogs says:

    @Ben Franklin:
    Are you serious? He does Friday Night Cat Blogging?

    After learning that, in my mind he’d be a good replacement for that nice man, Mr. Rogers. Gosh, even Miss Julie.
    I’ll be he likes milk toast.

  14. Valley Girl says:

    to William Ockham #1

    ~~I find it more disturbing that a morally decent man…~~

    I see no evidence whatsoever that Obama is is a “morally decent man”, if that is what you were saying about Obama.

    I could cite chapter and verse, but I’ll leave it at that…

  15. Valley Girl says:

    I can’t find the comment where I read this idea (despite trying), but such was- sociopaths and psychopaths are same in presentation. What differs is the origin. Sociopaths come by their ways via societal influence, psychopaths come by this genetically.

    Made sense to me. And, not a whit of difference as to the damage they do.

  16. passepartout says:

    ‘Murderous sociopath’? No. But ‘sociopath’, perhaps. It is very hard to look at what Obama has done — as well as what he falsely promised, quite convincingly, during his campaign — and not come away feeling that he (1)lacks empathy, (2)disregards the rights and well-being of others, and (3)is impervious to social norms (like due process or not killing women and children). Which would make him a sociopath.

  17. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @William Ockham: Precisely. Al Capone wasn’t a murderous sociopath; he was all business. In many ways, this behavior is not far removed from Rockefeller unleashing machine guns on striking miners and their families in Ludlow, Colorado, or Andrew Carnegie (before he endowed libraries and universities) setting an army of thugs on striking Homestead employees, or the presidents who have unleashed the Marines on one Central American and Caribbean populace after another, decade on decade.

    That such conduct as Mr. Obama’s is considered routine by other members of the power elite does not make it less morally and legally reprehensible. It just means there are many prior examples of it. Sociopathic is exactly right.

  18. JTM says:

    @Valley Girl: We (as in psychologists) have been using the diathesis/stress model for many years. As such, we don’t recognize any purely genetic psychiatric disorders. The odds of there being a larger organic contributor is higher for the nastier disorders, such as schizophrenia, but they are all a combination under the current view. Etiology is only a small part of sociopath vs psychopath.

    The line between sociopath and psychopath is gray, but so is the line between many pairs of disorders. In general, a sociopath is higher functioning in terms of day-to-day activity (e.g., they often have jobs; in fact, they often have very good and high-paying jobs), but mostly a sociopath sees other people as objects to be controlled (usually through lies), while a psychopath sees other people as people to be fought against (usually because if the psychopath doesn’t fight first, said others will get them; i.e., they are borderlines or paranoids).

    Note that I’m giving you my reading of the current party line. I actually don’t buy much of this, mostly because I don’t see sociopathy as being a disorder, because being a sociopath is highly adaptive. After all, they get to be CEO of Goldman-Sachs or, even, President of the United States.

  19. Bob Schacht says:

    @JTM: JTM,
    Thanks for sharing your expertise with us, and outlining your stance on the psychopath vs. sociopath diagnosis.

    The debate you underline (genetics vs. environmental factors) emerges in many of differential diagnosis. If it’s all a matter of genetics, well then, what can you do, unless there’s a pill to take care of it? If it’s environmental, the task of adapting to that environment is often deemed impossible. So, which philosophy you prefer can have a big effect on how you advocate fixing it.

    Bob in AZ

  20. JTM says:

    Ah, now you’re getting real close to some of the politics of the APA, why non-MDs should be able to prescribe, and the latest version of the DSM. If the disorder is entirely organic, then why would you pay a guy with (only) a couch to fix it, eh? (And by “pay a guy” I mean, of course, have it be covered by insurance.) And I’d be lying if I said that that sort of thinking isn’t in some people, including people on the panels that help revise the DSM. But keep in mind that there are others who are brutally honest in a different way, but one that is equally undermining to “talk” therapy: those who have been arguing for years that there is no “fix” for some of the disorders that appear to be most non-organic. The best example of this are those who have been warning us that certain violent sexual disorders will never go away. I know that it’s politically incorrect to say things that fit with offender registries and such, but I’m sorry to say that the data actually support these things (if not outright continued institutionalization).

    But now I’m drifting way off topic (when I ought to be checking my new tires for flat-spots). All I meant to say in here is that the standard view sees sociopathy as distinct from psychopathy. But, at the same time, remember that one component of any diagnosis is whether the person is a danger or problem for others, instead of just themselves. Some of us don’t quite agree with that part and see sociopathy as quite adaptive to modern society. And I’m not just saying that because I’m about 85% of the way to such a diagnosis, myself. (If you’ve been paying attention, that means that you’re only about 15% of a person to me and most of my posts are lies.) tee hee

  21. Bob Schacht says:

    @JTM:

    Ah, now you’re getting real close to some of the politics of the APA, why non-MDs should be able to prescribe, and the latest version of the DSM. If the disorder is entirely organic, then why would you pay a guy with (only) a couch to fix it, eh? (And by “pay a guy” I mean, of course, have it be covered by insurance.)

    Well, now you’ve gone and spilled the beans! The whole diagnosis scheme is built for the insurance industry, not for Truth and Beauty. The system is predicated on impairments of the individual that can be fixed (Medical model). If the fault lies *outside* of the individual, well, then, its a whole different ballgame. What do you do if the person’s depression is associated with a really terrible and insoluble life situation? Giving him a pill won’t fix him. Unless you just sedate him to where he doesn’t care. But then he won’t be “functional.”

    I’m just not blowing smoke here. There’s a book, Disciplined Hearts, about an Indian community where it is the *norm* to be depressed. There, they say (mixing ethnic metaphors) that if you’re NOT depressed, you’re not a real mensch. I suppose this means that depression is a sign of maturity, to them.

    Bob in AZ

  22. JTM says:

    No, you are not blowing smoke by any means. One of the jokes going around during the last revision of the DSM was that they were going to add two new axes to the system: one axis would go from PsyD to MD (with PhD somewhere in the middle) and code for who should be paid; the other axis would go from $0 to $250 per hour and code for what the MediCare standard should be. To be really snide, the reason that these proposals fell apart is because it made it so obvious how strongly correlated the two axes would be, with the MDs getting $250/hr and the lowly PsyDs getting close to nothing.

    Remember the old saying from the Freudians: “you don’t get better unless you pay.” At least they were honest about it.

    Full disclosure: I quit the APA many years ago over Gitmo. I’m still bitter and probably not entirely fair.

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