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Bera probes Hagel on Syria; Boxer votes to attack

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made the Obama administration’s case for bombing Syria to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The committee has no Bay Area members; Rep. Ami Bera, D-Rancho Cordova, is the only member from Northern California, and here’s how he began questioning Hagel:

“It is of critical importance that we are having this discussion. I applaud the President for including Congress in this debate. I agree that we have to show resolve and we have to show that we are committed to our allies, but my constituents and I still need to be convinced, not that atrocities occurred — we all are unanimous in our condemnation of what Assad has done — but we need to know exactly what our goals are and our objectives, because this is increasingly a complex situation.

“And to that extent, let me ask Secretary Hagel a question. When I was home in Sacramento County this past weekend people were stopping me in the grocery store, my neighbors were pulling me aside on the street. I think all of my colleagues have been inundated with phone calls, emails, and almost unanimously, people don’t want us to strike Syria. They’re fatigued. And I answer to these people. These are the people that I represent. My question, Secretary Hagel, is what can I tell my constituents about why these strikes are in our national security interest, why these strikes matter to these folks that are struggling every day? How do I effectively communicate what the plan is?”

Watch their full exchange here:

Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 – and not along party lines – on Wednesday to approve a resolution authorizing limited military force against Syria. The resolution is significantly narrow than that which the president had proposed: It would limit hostilities to 90 days, allow military action only within Syria’s borders and prohibit putting any U.S. troops on Syrian soil.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. – who had said Tuesday that she would “support a targeted effort but not a blank check to respond to Syria’s unspeakable deeds to gas its own people to death” – voted for the resolution by proxy today; she was absent due to the imminent start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, at sundown tonight.

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Barbara Boxer on the Chuck Hagel filibuster

U.S. Senate Republicans defeated a motion today to end debate and call a floor vote on confirming former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as U.S. Secretary of Defense.

The 58-40 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to end the Republican filibuster. Republicans are saying they intend to allow a floor vote at the end of this month, but Democrats say this is the first time there has ever been a filibuster – however temporary – of a defense secretary nominee.

Four Republicans joined with Democrats in voting for cloture today: Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Mike Johanns, R-Neb.; and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Here’s what U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor before the vote:

Barbara Boxer“Mr. President, I am glad we are voting today on the President’s choice for Secretary of Defense, our former colleague, Chuck Hagel. I stand here as a Senator who has had a number of questions as well about some of the things he said in the past, some of the votes he has cast, and some of his philosophy. And what I did, as soon as I learned he was the President’s pick, was to ask those questions. Remember the President is the Commander in Chief. This is a critical appointment. It has to be someone he has faith in, puts his trust in, and he picked someone. He picked a brave hero who served in Vietnam.

“So I wrote all my questions down, and believe me, they covered some tough ground on women’s rights, gay rights, Iran, and Israel. There were a number of questions.

“I asked if it would be all right if when the answers came we could put them online so people could see the answers. The answer that came back was absolutely yes. The answers to my questions were very clear and very strong.

“Senator Hagel has evolved on certain issues. He admitted to a mistake on a couple. That is the hardest thing for any politician to admit. There are four words politicians hate to say – ‘I made a mistake.’ He admitted to that on a couple of issues.

“I just think the way he is being treated is so sad. It is so sad. When I watch some of the questioning from my colleagues — not all of them, a couple of them, and I am not referring to my dear friend, Senator Inhofe – it was reminiscent of a different time and place when someone would say: ‘I have here in my pocket a speech that you made on such-and-such a date,’ and, of course, nothing was in the pocket. It was reminiscent of some bad times.

“I am so glad we are voting today. I know it is going to be a close vote. I don’t know what the outcome will be. I do believe eventually this good man will be the Secretary of Defense. I believe that in my heart. If anyone is still undecided on this vote, let’s understand that never in history have we had a 60-vote requirement – to my knowledge – for a nominee for Secretary of Defense. If I am wrong, I hope to be corrected. There is a reason for it.

“Lord knows I was one of the key voices of dissent on the Iraq war, and I was not happy about a lot of the people who were put into place by George W. Bush. Believe me, I didn’t want to see them continue in those positions. I think they led us astray in Iraq, and it led to so many thousands of deaths. However, I never dreamed of requiring a 60-vote majority. In my view, this is not a good day for the Senate.

“I know my friend, Senator Inhofe, is very sincere. I am on the Foreign Relations Committee; I am a senior member of that committee. We have listened to the State Department on Benghazi. We have had briefings and hearings and answers came in. We had secret briefings that were highly classified. We had open hearings.

“I have to say, what more are you trying to get out of this? Benghazi was a crisis. It was a disaster. It was terrible. There should have been more security there, but don’t blame the brave Americans for it. Blame the terrorists who did this. As the facts became available, those facts came right out. Why are we trying to stop this good man because of something he had nothing to do with?

“In closing, I hope if you are on the fence, you will vote today for Chuck Hagel, and a ‘yes’ vote on cloture.”

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Congress votes to ban waterboarding, etc.

This just in from the office of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.:

Congress today approved legislation by U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that would require the CIA to follow the Army Field Manual’s rules on interrogations.

The legislation, which now goes to the President, will establish uniform standards on interrogation of detainees for all parts of the U.S. government. It prohibits waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation techniques.

“Today, the Senate stood tall and declared in a strong voice that the United States will not engage in torture,” Senator Feinstein said. “This is an historic moment, and I strongly urge the President to sign it into law. This legislation will require the CIA to follow the Army Field Manual’s protocols on interrogations. It will help restore America’s credibility abroad by establishing a single, uniform standard for the interrogation of detainees in our custody. No longer will the United States allow actions by its intelligence services which clash so sharply with the very ideals upon which this nation was founded. This legislation ensures that the United States will follow the law – the Geneva Conventions, the Conventions Against Torture, and the Detainee Treatment Act. Only by living up to our principles can we regain credibility in the eyes of the world. The President should sign this bill into law.”

[snip]

The measure was included as an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization bill, which was approved today by the Senate.

The provision reads:

“No individual in the custody or under the effective control of an element of the intelligence community or instrumentality thereof, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations.”

It specifically requires the CIA and all other U.S. intelligence agencies to follow the Army Field Manual’s protocols on interrogations.

The Army Field Manual specifically prohibits eight interrogation techniques:
· Forcing a detainee to be naked, perform sexual acts, pose in sexual manner;
· Placing hoods or sacks over the head of a detainee, duct tape over the eyes;
· Beatings, electric shock, burns or other forms of physical pain;
· Waterboarding;
· Use of military working dogs;
· Introducing hypothermia or heat injury;
· Conducting mock executions; and
· Depriving detainee of necessary food, water, or medical care.

The Army Field Manual allows 19 interrogation approaches, mainly based on psychological techniques, such as making a detainee believe that cooperation will shorten the length of a war and therefore save his country.

Just yesterday at the Berkeley protests regarding U.S. Marine Corps recruiting in Berkeley, I heard Rabbi Michael Lerner — founder of the Tikkun community and cofounder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives — list Feinstein among lawmakers who enable the war by failing to stand up to the Bush Administration, in her case by voting to confirm Michael Mukasey as Attorney General despite his refusal to explicitly characterize waterboarding as torture. (Go see here how some protestors heckled Feinstein for this back in November.)

But it seems Feinstein found a way to act on the issue, after all.