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The Ultimate Assistant to the President

From the Scrapbook.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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In the midst of the Osama bin Laden news last week occurred one of those quiet cultural transitions that catch The Scrapbook’s attention. We are speaking of the death, in Stamford, Connecticut, of 91-year-old Hubert J. Schlafly Jr.

Barack Obama, teleprompter

The president, with teleprompter

AP / Gerald Herbert

Mr. Schlafly, who so far as The Scrapbook is aware was not closely related to Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum fame, was the onetime “director of television research” at 20th Century Fox. One day, in the late 1940s, he received a request from the vice president for radio and television at Fox, Irving Kahn. Kahn had been talking to a Broadway actor named Fred Barton, who told him that he had an idea for a mechanical device that could help him remember his lines. Could Hub Schlafly build the contraption conceived by Fred Barton?

“I said it was a piece of cake,” Schlafly told the Stamford Advocate a few years ago. He attached a motorized scroll inside a suitcase shell, printed half-inch letters on the scroll, and set the device beside some television cameras. The teleprompter was born. 

Schlafly, Kahn, and Barton must have instantly realized they’d hit the jackpot, for all three quit their jobs and founded the TelePrompTer Corp., which revolutionized not only television production—it was first used on a soap opera in 1950—but also politics as well. Former President Herbert Hoover was the first prominent politician to use a teleprompter, in a speech at the 1952 Republican national convention, and Lyndon Johnson was the first president to use a teleprompter routinely in public appearances.

Since then, of course, presidents, game show hosts, news readers, and just about anybody who regularly speaks into television cameras has come to rely on Schlafly’s device. In its early days, there was a certain stigma attached to teleprompter dependence, and some presidents used them more than others; but the stigma has long since vanished. Indeed, so ubiquitous has it become that, in 1994, when Bill Clinton realized that his teleprompter contained the wrong speech during an address to Congress, he was obliged to improvise for several minutes. When it was revealed that Clinton had winged it on national television, he was widely congratulated for not melting down.

Which makes the case of President Obama even more intriguing. Among the president’s many magical qualities, of course, is his reported high intelligence and golden tongue. He is admired, especially in journalistic circles, for his oratory and lawyer’s gift of gab. But Obama is also unusually dependent on teleprompters—the apparatus can be seen just about anywhere he speaks, even to children—and when he is obliged to say a few words in public without a teleprompter, he is surprisingly inarticulate. The smooth, teleprompted operator suddenly sounds tongue-tied, confused, even a little panicky. 

Which proves, in The Scrapbook’s estimation, one of two things—maybe both: that the influence of the teleprompter on American politics has been nearly as profound as the invention of aerosol hairspray; and that Barack Obama is not quite as miraculous as he—and E.J. Dionne and Maureen Dowd and Jonathan Alter and all the other camp-followers—seem to believe.

Giving Interrogators Their Due

On Sunday, May 1, a team of Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and killed him. Over the next several days, we learned about the intelligence that made the assault possible. It started, according to senior intelligence officials, with the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s courier and housemate​—​Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. That crucial piece of information was the first step on the long, difficult path to bin Laden. Without it, according to a U.S. intelligence official The Scrapbook’s colleague Stephen F. Hayes spoke with last week, Osama bin Laden would be alive today. The intel came from captured al Qaeda terrorists who had been subject to the enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) employed by the CIA during George W. Bush’s presidency. 

But if you get your news only from the New York Times, the self-styled newspaper of record, you would have read on Wednesday that information from enhanced interrogations played only a “small role at most” in finding bin Laden.

The Times is heavily invested in this storyline, having claimed repeatedly over the years that such interrogations are ineffective. Never mind that the CIA’s own declassified assessment of the interrogations demonstrates the opposite: Some 70 percent of what the U.S. intelligence community knows about al Qaeda came from detainees subject to enhanced interrogation, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad willingly gave “terrorist tutorials” to his interrogators after he was broken.

The Times reporters knew better. Scott Shane, whose coverage of national security would fit comfortably in the pages of the Nation, was one of those reporters. The other was Charlie Savage, author most recently of Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy.

The authors pitted Bush administration officials against “human rights advocates” and former intelligence officials. They quoted Glenn Carle, a former CIA operative. Carle did not speak directly to the piece of intelligence that set the CIA on the trail to bin Laden, but he did share his opinion that coercive techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” Such procedures, he added, were “un-American.” The next day, Carle continued his campaign against enhanced interrogation on a conference call conducted by the left-wing think tank Center for American Progress​. 

If Carle was not in a position to talk specifically about the intelligence that led to bin Laden, others were. In 2007, former CIA director Mike Hayden told analysts and operatives at the agency to refocus their search for bin Laden on his courier network. In a radio interview on the afternoon before the Times piece ran, Hayden said that there is a “straight line” between the intelligence produced by interrogators and bin Laden’s death. 

But it was the comments of current CIA director Leon Panetta that were particularly newsworthy. In an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams that aired the night before the Times piece ran, Panetta confirmed that intelligence obtained through enhanced interrogations helped the agency find bin Laden. 

Williams asked Panetta about “the sourcing on the intel that ultimately led to this successful attack” and whether “it was as a result of waterboarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after bin Laden.” 

Panetta said: “You know, Brian, in the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here. We had a multiple source​—​a multiple series of sources that provided information with regards to the situation. Clearly some of it came from detainees and the interrogation, but we also had information from other sources as well.”

Williams pressed: “Turned around the other way, are you denying that waterboarding was, in part, among the tactics used to extract the intelligence that led to this successful mission?”

Panetta was clear: “No. I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I’m also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question.”

To some extent, then, Barack Obama owes his singular national security achievement to interrogation practices that he condemned for years and finally banned as president. And the confirmation of that deeply ironic point comes from the two most recent heads of the CIA​—​including the man that Obama selected for the job and has now chosen to run the Pentagon. 

The Times, however, did not find this news fit to print. They ignored it.

A third source with deep knowledge of the intelligence also contradicted the paper’s analysis. Jose Rodriguez, who ran the CIA’s counterterrorism center from 2002 to 2005, said that the intelligence extracted from two high-level al Qaeda operatives after EITs was “the lead information” that made the operation possible. Rodriguez told Time magazine: “Information provided by KSM and Abu Faraj al Libbi about bin Laden’s courier was the lead information that eventually led to the location of [bin Laden’s] compound and the operation that led to his death.”

Readers of the New York Times do not know this. The paper neglected to mention the assessments of Rodriguez, Hayden, and, most astonishingly, Leon Panetta. Perhaps that helps explain why weekday circulation is down nearly 9 percent since last year.

 

Don’t Drive, He Said

Throughout the Obama presidency there’s been a steady stream of stories about radical policy proposals from various quarters of the administration. As a general rule, these stories are so crazy it’s scarcely believable they’re even contemplating the cockamamie ideas. Remember when the EPA was considering a ban on traditional lead ammunition? Or the Obama administration’s feints at putting serious curbs on sport fishing? Such proposals have a tendency to be quickly squashed, but they are a rather revealing window into the mentality of the Obama administration’s worker bees.

Well, here’s the latest what-on-God’s-green-earth-are-they-thinking story: A proposal is afoot to tax people based on how much they drive. Curiously, the administration is trying the neat trick of saying it doesn’t necessarily support the proposal even as it floats the plan.

“This is not an administration proposal,” White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told the Hill. “This is not a bill supported by the administration. This was an early working draft proposal that was never formally circulated within the administration, does not take into account the advice of the president’s senior advisers, economic team, or cabinet officials, and does not represent the views of the president.”

Not supported by the president? Well, it has been a whole month since the president told citizens at a town hall in Pennsylvania struggling with gas prices to buy new cars. This is a president who can’t bring himself even to pretend to feel your pain.

It’s also curious that this is happening now in light of contemporary transportation trends. We used to decry “white flight” to the suburbs, but in recent years the opposite has been happening. Wealthy transplants have been driving up property values in revitalized city centers, causing many to seek affordable housing elsewhere. 

Just last week, the Los Angeles Times had an editorial celebrating the fact that growth in the “Inland Empire” outside of L.A.—driven mostly by minorities and urban poor—had slowed. Apparently, this growth was responsible for Southern California’s “dependence on cars, its sprawl and the lack of regional planning.” 

Naturally, the Times editorial board’s concern over a “lack of regional planning” devolves into predictable whining about not building pie-in-the-sky public transportation projects. Apparently, the fact that millions can’t afford to live in the city but can afford cars is a problem that needs to be rectified. (The car tax proposal is one possible solution to this vexing conundrum.) Reason writer Tim Cavanaugh, a former Times editorial board member, has called this editorial out for what it is: “Purse-lipped snobbery wrapped up in a disguise of liberal concern.”

There’s an election next year, so don’t expect the president to push a driving tax. But deep down, just know that his administration is probably seriously considering any number of ridiculous ideas to stop the angry phone calls from Al Gore and force Americans onto those impractical high speed rail lines Obama’s so intent on building. We might call taxing car drivers by the mile “purse-lipped snobbery wrapped up in a disguise of liberal concern,” but to Obama it’s simply “catering to the base.”

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