Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 31, 2005

BILL BENNETT TO CNN....Rumor has it that conservative radio talk-show-host and best-selling compiler Bill Bennett will soon join CNN as a political analyst. Oh, where to begin.

The natural thing to recall is that Bennett made national headlines a few months ago when he declared on his radio program that if "you wanted to reduce crime ... if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." There was considerable debate about whether his comments were taken out of context, but the controversy surrounding the remarks led to widespread denunciations, including from the Bush White House.

Before this brouhaha, Bennett's last major contribution to the political world was news that the nation's virtue czar had a gambling problem. (In the wake of the controversy, Bennett said his "gambling days are over," though he later amended that to say "the excessive gambling is over.")

But perhaps the most disconcerting aspect to Bennett moving to CNN is the questionable journalistic integrity he showed while working as a commentator for Fox News. Bennett would appear regularly on all of the major FNC programs and consistently, as one would expect, defended the Bush administration. Unfortunately, Bennett never disclosed the fact that his primary business venture at the time was on the administration's payroll.

Money from a federal program intended to expand public school choice has instead been used to prop up a scheme cooked up by William J. Bennett to boost home schoolers in Arkansas, Education Week has reported.

Newspaper staffers David J. Hoff and Michelle R. Davis report that a for-profit firm called K12, Inc., run by former Education Secretary and "drug czar" Bennett, has received $4.1 million from the U.S. Department of Education.... One department employee involved in the process, who wished to remain anonymous, told Education Week, "Anything with Bill Bennett's name on it was going to get funded."

Possible corruption aside, as far as journalism is concerned, the problem was one of disclosure. Bennett was on the administration's payroll while appearing on TV offering commentary about the same administration. A minimum standard of journalistic ethics suggests viewers should have been made aware of Bennett's possible conflict of interest.

Bill Bennett seemed to believe he could secure a lucrative Bush administration contract -- under suspicious circumstances -- one day, then turn around and offer analysis of the administration as a political pundit the next. As long as viewers were none the wiser, Bennett figured, there's no conflict.

And now Bennett appears poised to bring this same level of ethical, professional commentary to CNN. Great.

Steve Benen 12:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (141)

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THE U.S. FAMILY NETWORK....To a limited extent, The U.S. Family Network, primarily a project of Tom DeLay, was already somewhat controversial. In April 2004, a Federal Election Commission investigation found that the group had illegally received $500,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee. At the time, it just seemed like routine campaign shenanigans. The 2004 controversy, however, was but a footnote compared to the revelations from today's Washington Post.

The U.S. Family Network, a public advocacy group that operated in the 1990s with close ties to Rep. Tom DeLay and claimed to be a nationwide grass-roots organization, was funded almost entirely by corporations linked to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to tax records and former associates of the group.

During its five-year existence, the U.S. Family Network raised $2.5 million but kept its donor list secret. The list, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that $1 million of its revenue came in a single 1998 check from a now-defunct London law firm whose former partners would not identify the money's origins.

Two former associates of Edwin A. Buckham, the congressman's former chief of staff and the organizer of the U.S. Family Network, said Buckham told them the funds came from Russian oil and gas executives. Abramoff had been working closely with two such Russian energy executives on their Washington agenda, and the lobbyist and Buckham had helped organize a 1997 Moscow visit by DeLay (R-Tex.).

The former president of the U.S. Family Network said Buckham told him that Russians contributed $1 million to the group in 1998 specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation the International Monetary Fund needed to finance a bailout of the collapsing Russian economy.

Just when it seemed things couldn't much worse for DeLay, this blockbuster story is splashed all over the front page.

The poorly named U.S. Family Network was billed as an advocacy group focused on a conservative "moral fitness" agenda. The stated goals were basically a fraud. Indeed, the group hardly existed beyond its fundraising operation, USFN never actually advocated anything, and there was never a staff beyond one person. When DeLay wrote a fundraising letter for the group calling it "a powerful nationwide organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizen control" by mobilizing grass-roots citizen support, he was wildly misstating the facts.

The group was created to collect big checks from corporations, many of which were foreign, with lobbying ties to Abramoff. The story ties many of the Abramoff ends together, with this bogus nonprofit group at the middle.

[H]alf a million dollars was donated to the U.S. Family Network by the owners of textile companies in the Mariana Islands in the Pacific, according to the tax records. The textile owners -- with Abramoff's help -- solicited and received DeLay's public commitment to block legislation that would boost their labor costs, according to Abramoff associates, one of the owners and a DeLay speech in 1997.

A quarter of a million dollars was donated over two years by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, Abramoff's largest lobbying client, which counted DeLay as an ally in fighting legislation allowing the taxation of its gambling revenue.

The records, other documents and interviews call into question the very purpose of the U.S. Family Network, which functioned mostly by collecting funds from domestic and foreign businesses whose interests coincided with DeLay's activities while he was serving as House majority whip from 1995 to 2002, and as majority leader from 2002 until the end of September.

As Josh Marshall explained, we're talking about "a slush fund," with "lots of secret money, often from overseas, that can get spread around off the books in DC."

Not incidentally, Abramoff is putting the "finishing touches on a plea deal" with federal prosecutors, the results of which could be announced as early as Tuesday.

As Michael Crowley noted, there will likely be several congressional Republicans drinking champagne tonight "for distinctly non-celebratory reasons."

Steve Benen 11:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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December 30, 2005

IMMIGRATION 'REFORM'....There are plenty of reasons to worry about immigration "reform" measures recently passed by the House, but there's one provision in particular that's generating quite a bit of attention.

Churches, social service agencies and immigration groups across the country are rallying against a provision in the recently passed House border-security bill that would make it a federal crime to offer services or assistance to illegal immigrants.

The measure would broaden the nation's immigrant-smuggling law so that people who assist or shield illegal immigrants would be subject to prosecution. Offenders, who might include priests, nurses or social workers, could face up to five years in prison. The proposal would also allow the authorities to seize some assets of those convicted of such a crime.

The reality is that senators from both parties acknowledge that the House bill isn't going anywhere. But expectations aside, House Republicans are walking a perilous political tightrope here. On the one hand, the conservative base wants harsh restrictions that punish illegal immigrants for being in the country. On the other, many faith-based groups that the GOP would like to impress, including the politically powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, not only oppose the bill, they're pushing the White House to oppose the measure publicly.

Indeed, in a manner of speaking, this is a Republican "faith-based initiative" gone awry. For all the talk about empowering churches to create "armies of compassion," House Republicans have endorsed legislation that essentially tells ministries, "We want you to help those in need, but if one of the needy turns out to be in the country illegally, be prepared to go to jail."

Of course, if the bill did become law, the moment the evening news aired images of a priest getting arrested for providing care to an ailing six year old, Congress would act with amazing efficiency to rewrite the legislation. Those lawmakers can move pretty quickly when they want to.

Steve Benen 3:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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IT DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU MEAN BY 'HEALTH'....There are plenty of great museums in Washington, but Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) has an idea for one more: a national health museum near the Smithsonian. To hear Gingrey's pitch, it sounds like a pretty straightforward and non-controversial concept: there would be one museum near the national mall devoted exclusively to medicine and health. "My vision of it is the history of medicine," Gingrey said. "What we have done, how far we have come, just basically like, similar to what you have in the space museum."

Gingrey introduced a bill (H.R. 3630), it picked up some bi-partisan support, and it seemed like the kind of effort that wouldn't generate a whole lot of controversy. After all, who's against the study of medicine and health?

Take a wild guess.

[S]ome conservatives fear the museum could be a back door for promoting a liberal agenda. Jim Backlin, a lobbyist for the Christian Coalition, told [Focus on the Family's news website] he could envision displays covering issues such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, sex education and more.

"This is just yet another dumb, expensive idea," he said. "I noticed that one of the original board members an executive of Planned Parenthood, one of the most dangerous and destructive organizations in America."

Worried about the political implications, Gingrey added a disclaimer to his legislation, explaining that the health museum will avoid discussion of health-related issues that may be controversial, including "abortion, physician assisted suicide, human embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and even in vitro fertilization."

In other words, we can have a health museum, as long as far-right activists are satisfied that people only learn about certain kinds of health.

Steve Benen 2:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (64)

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TAKING TECH SECURITY SERIOUSLY....The bad news is 2005 was an awful year for tech security. The worse news is the federal government could invest more in cybersecurity, but doesn't appear interested.

2005 saw the most computer security breaches ever, subjecting millions of Americans to potential identity fraud, according to a report published Thursday.

Over 130 major intrusions exposed more than 55 million Americans to the growing variety of fraud as personal data like Social Security and credit card numbers were left unprotected, according to USA Today.

The Treasury Department says that cyber crime has now outgrown illegal drug sales in annual proceeds, netting an estimated $105 billion in 2004, the report said.

At the same time, the Department of Homeland Security's 2005 research budget for cybersecurity programs was cut 7% to $16 million.

After the ChoicePoint debacle, the recent breakdown in tech security at Ford, and the fact that terrorists are coordinating operations online, you'd think cybersecurity research would get a little more than $16 million -- and wouldn't face budget cuts right now.

That, coupled by the fact that the Bush administration has gone through four cybersecurity chiefs in three years, hardly inspires confidence in the system.

Steve Benen 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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THE WAR TAX ON YOUR PHONE BILL?....Take a look at your phone bill sometime and you'll notice that the telecoms charge something called a "federal excise tax." Of course, a phone bill is filled with a series of modest fees for one thing or another, so most of us just pay the bill and never give these line items a second thought.

But some opponents of the war in Iraq have taken a closer look at that excise tax -- and have decided to stop paying it.

Peace activist Bill Sulzman in Colorado Springs protests the war in Iraq by refusing to pay the federal excise tax of about 50 cents on his monthly phone bill.

Sulzman also recruits others who are against US military involvement in Iraq to stop paying the tax, which was first adopted in 1898 to pay for the Spanish-American War.

The tax raises about $5 billion a year, which activists say goes to fund war efforts. The Internal Revenue Service won't confirm that the money goes exclusively to the military but instead says it goes for general fund expenditures, including military spending.

Apparently, this isn't an entirely new phenomenon. The Denver Post explained that some opponents of the Vietnam War also withheld the phone tax as an act of civil disobedience.

As it happens, the telecoms aren't thrilled with the tax and don't appreciate being pulled into the tax-collection business in the first place. In fact, according to the article, Qwest, Verizon, Cingular, and AT&T all said they'll "adjust" customers' bills to remove the excise tax if customers request it. (The catch, of course, is that the phone companies are also required to alert the IRS with a list of those who don't want to pay it.)

As a rule, I'm not fond of tax resistance, even when I agree with the cause. Once people can pick and choose which taxes are consistent with their ideology, and they start ignoring the "bad" ones, it's a pretty dangerous road.

But am I the only one who didn't know that this war-inspired tax existed?

Steve Benen 1:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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A NEW LEAK PROBE....Two weeks ago, at his year-end press conference, Bush responded to a question about whether the Justice Department would investigate the leak that exposed his warrantless-search program.

"There is a process that goes on inside the Justice Department about leaks, and I presume that process is moving forward. My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war."

Today, we learned that an investigation has already begun.

The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak of classified information about President Bush's secret domestic spying program, Justice officials said Friday.

The officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the probe, said the inquiry will focus on disclosures to The New York Times about warrantless surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In other words, Bush circumvented the law with warrantless searches, but it's the whistleblower who's facing a criminal investigation.

Inevitably, the right's talking points will tell us that the administration's critics are hypocrites. We wanted the Justice Department to probe the Plame leak, they'll say, but not the "snoopgate" leak. But if Bush's political allies can't see the difference between exposing official wrongdoing and exposing a CIA agent to help cover up bogus pre-war claims, there's just no hope for them.

Steve Benen 11:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (196)

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OH CANADA....The idea of an American invasion of Canada is not entirely new. The U.S. first gave it a shot in 1775, and tried again during the War of 1812, but the campaigns were never successful. A couple of centuries later, we can all look back at the "incidents" as quaint misadventures.

But as the Washington Post's Peter Carlson noted today, as recently as the 1930s, the U.S. government had a frequently updated plan for a Canadian invasion. It was a 94-page document called "Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan -- Red," with the word SECRET stamped on the cover. The plan was to seize Canada by capturing Halifax, then taking control of Canadian power plants near Niagara Falls, and finally launching a three-front invasion through Vermont, North Dakota, and the Midwest. The whole thing sounds more detailed than Bush's plan to invade Iraq.

It sounds like a joke but it's not. War Plan Red is real. It was drawn up and approved by the War Department in 1930, then updated in 1934 and 1935. It was declassified in 1974 and the word "SECRET" crossed out with a heavy pencil. Now it sits in a little gray box in the National Archives in College Park, available to anybody, even Canadian spies. They can photocopy it for 15 cents a page.

Apparently, war planners expected a long, drawn-out battle that might ultimately lead to Canada demanding Alaska.

But before anyone condemns 1930s America for its military ambitions, it's worth noting that Canada had an invasion plan of its own.

In fact, Canadian military strategists developed a plan to invade the United States in 1921 -- nine years before their American counterparts created War Plan Red.

The Canadian plan was developed by the country's director of military operations and intelligence, a World War I hero named James Sutherland "Buster" Brown. Apparently Buster believed that the best defense was a good offense: His "Defence Scheme No. 1" called for Canadian soldiers to invade the United States, charging toward Albany, Minneapolis, Seattle and Great Falls, Mont., at the first signs of a possible U.S. invasion.

Fortunately, we can all get along now. "Canadian Bacon," "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," and Jonah Goldberg notwithstanding, no one seriously believes there will be a military conflict between the U.S. and Canada. Well, almost no one.

Floyd Rudmin is a Canadian psychology professor and author of "Bordering on Aggression: Evidence of U.S. Military Preparations Against Canada." Apparently, he's a little concerned about Fort Drum, the huge Army base in Upstate New York.

Is he worried that the Yanks will invade his country from Fort Drum?

"Not now ," he said. "Now the U.S. is kind of busy in Iraq. But I wouldn't put it past them."

He's not paranoid, he hastened to add, and he doesn't think the States will simply invade Canada the way Hitler invaded Russia.

But if some kind of crisis -- perhaps something involving the perennially grumpy French Canadians -- destabilized Canada, then . . . well, Fort Drum is just across the river.

Jon Stewart recently joked that Canada has nothing to worry about unless the United States runs out of natural resources. He was kidding. I think.

Steve Benen 10:48 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (132)

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OFF PACE....It was pretty embarrassing a month ago when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace publicly, and awkwardly, contradicted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over whether American troops have a responsibility to intervene if they witness torture by Iraqi authorities. Indeed, the two were standing side by side at a Pentagon press briefing when they couldn't agree on the non-trivial issue of preventing torture.

Yesterday, however, Gen. Pace insisted that it was all a big misunderstanding. When he and Rumsfeld took conflicting positions, Pace said yesterday, they were actually saying the same thing.

When General Pace was asked again on Thursday by reporters in Bahrain about the exchange, he said for the first time that he and Mr. Rumsfeld had not really disagreed at all. General Pace said he was talking about the obligations of American soldiers in a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan; Mr. Rumsfeld, he said, was talking about the obligations of Americans in a nonhostile setting like, say, Tokyo.

"When I discussed it with him after the fact, it seemed to me he was talking about global conditions, and I knew that I was talking specifically about conditions in Iraq," General Pace said in an interview later aboard his plane as he continued a weeklong troop visit in the Middle East.

Gen. Pace is usually a pretty credible guy, but his explanation is clearly wrong.

During the Nov. 29 press briefing, UPI's Pam Hess asked specifically about torture by Iraqi authorities. Rumsfeld said, "[O]bviously, the United States does not have a responsibility" beyond voicing disapproval. Pace disagreed, saying, "It is the absolute responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it." Rumsfeld hoped to clarify the disagreement, noting to Pace, "I don't think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it's to report it." But Pace stood his ground, arguing, "If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it."

Yesterday's unpersuasive spin notwithstanding, it's not at all comforting that the Defense Secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can't quite get together on how the U.S. military will respond to torture by Iraqi officials. And the fact that they're still trying -- and failing -- to explain the disagreement a month later is hardly reassuring.

Steve Benen 9:40 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (31)

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By: Christina Larson

GOODBYE, 2005 ... As the year winds down, the Pew Research Center has released its list of the Top Ten Opinion Trends of 2005:

1. Presidential popularity plunge
2. Hurricane blowback
3. Iraq disillusionment
4. Pump shock and economy anxiety
5. Inward [isolationist] turn
6. Domestic issues ascendant
7. Schiavo backlash
8. Evolution devolution
9. Social Security missteps
10. Feds out of favor

What's also interesting is to look at what major news did not grip public attention -- or what expected consequences never materialized. Among such non-trends of 2005:

* The Democrats did not gain much ground in public opinion polls, even as the GOP lost ground. Yet in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll from Dec 18, respondents said they trusted Democrats over Republicans, 47 to 42 percent, to handle "the main problems the nation faces over the next few years."

* The London subway bombings did not trigger much change in Americans' views of Islam or Muslim-Americans. Further, the number of poll respondents who believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence has declined over the past two years, from 44 to 36 percent.

* Americans do not generally regard the mainstream media as a four-letter word, though you wouldn't know it from listening to the talk shows. 80 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of their daily newspaper; 79 percent and 75 percent had a favorable opinion of local and network TV news. Christina Larson 9:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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December 29, 2005

WISH UPON A STAR....At face value, the Supplemental Terrorist Activity Relief Act (or STAR Act), passed shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, was a good idea. Countless businesses were badly hurt by the terrorist attacks, and the STAR Act was a federal loan program designed to help businesses avoid bankruptcy and recover.

The problem seems to have been in the execution of the idea.

A Texas golf course, a Nevada tanning salon and an Illinois candy shop were among small businesses that may have improperly received U.S. subsidized loans intended for firms hurt by the September 11 attacks, an internal government watchdog has found.

The Small Business Administration's inspector general said in a report made public on Wednesday that in 85 percent of the sample of loans it reviewed, a company's eligibility to receive the money through the program could not be verified.

If this story sounds familiar to you, details about bizarre STAR Act funding first surfaced several months ago. There was the money a Dunkin' Donuts shop in western New York received, despite not having been affected by terrorism. An air-testing services company in Wyoming received $158,500 through program, despite the fact that the company didn't even exist before 9/11.

Bear in mind, the businesses themselves are hardly to blame. They applied for routine Small Business Administration loans and had no interest in the terrorism-relief funds. The SBA, however, according to the report released today, failed to properly oversee lenders to make sure that only eligible borrowers obtained STAR loans.

On a related note, who's the head of the Small Business Administration? That would be Hector Barreto, the former Republican fundraiser recently featured by The New Republic as one of the Bush administration's most inexperienced hacks.

Senate Small Business Committee Chairwoman Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said today that her panel would launch an investigation into STAR abuses. She said the same thing back in September, so we'll have to wait and see if substantive follow-up happens or not.

Steve Benen 5:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Paul Glastris

GIFTED BUT NOT MOTIVATED, PART III... Is our campaign to use value-added testing to rescue smart kids left behind by No Child Left Behind beginning to catch on?

Paul Glastris 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (30)

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LINGERING CONFUSION....For an embarrassingly long time, large numbers of Americans believed a series of bogus claims about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, including non-existent connections to 9/11. The good news is the percentages have fallen considerably since the war began. The bad news is we still have a ways to go.

According to a new poll published today by the Wall Street Journal, war-related myths continue linger in the public's mind.

* 41% of poll respondents said Saddam Hussein had "strong links" with Al Qaeda. This is down from 64% who believed this 10 months ago.

* 22% said Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the United States on 9/11. In February 2005, 47% believed this. (Complicating matters in the more recent poll, an additional 30% said they were "not sure" if this is true or not.)

* 26% said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded. That's down 10 points since February.

* 24% said several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis. Ten months ago, 44% believed this. (In case you've forgotten, the actual number of Iraqi hijackers on 9/11 is zero.)

Who's responsible for such widespread confusion? The Bush administration clearly deserves some blame with its irresponsible and highly misleading rhetoric, before the invasion and after it. That said, some of these claims were dropped from the White House talking points over a year ago, and some (such as the notion of Iraqi hijackers) were never uttered in the first place.

News outlets may bear some blame, but even the worst of the he-said, she-said reports make clear that there's no evidence of "strong ties" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda and/or 9/11. (This does not include Fox News, whose viewers are more confused than anyone else.)

Maybe it's the one-in-four Americans who still believe Iraq had WMD who should take responsibility and get better informed? You don't have to be a news junkie reading six newspapers a day to recognize reality.

Steve Benen 3:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (169)

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By: Christina Larson

DEMOCRACY IN EGYPT ... Remember when President Bush held up Egypt as an example of freedom on the march in the Middle East?

In February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had called for nation's first multicandidate presidential elections, sparking a wave of optimism about political reform. Alas, in the September elections, opposition candidates faced unreasonable legal and technical hurdles, security forces intimidated voters and arrested some campaign workers, and today Mubarak's most serious challenger, Ayman Nour, is in jail on dubious charges of forgery.

That the Bush administration has responded with little more than public statements expressing "serious concerns" isn't such a surprise. But I'm tickled to wonder why Egypt dropped so quickly off the White House's radar screen.

In a Washington Post editorial calling for the administration to stand up to Mr. Mubarak, the paper's editors offer this thought:

Mr. Mubarak supposes that Egypt's maintenance of a cold peace with Israel, and its sporadic efforts to help the Palestinian Authority, immunize him from any consequences for his persecution of Mr. Nour.

Has anyone seen any tidbits about discussions inside the administration that might bolster or disprove this idea? Christina Larson 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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GOOD STORY, BAD QUOTE....The LA Times ran a pretty good front-page story this week on Canadian gray wolves, which have made a comeback thanks to protection under the Endangered Species Act, and difficulties they face from hunters in western states.

In particular, the article quoted Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal declaring that the Endangered Species Act is no longer in force and that the state "now considers the wolf as a federal dog," unworthy of protection. Unfortunately for the LAT, Freudenthal never said that.

A front-page story in Tuesday's editions of the Los Angeles Times attributed a quote to Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal that was taken from a fake news release circulated as an April Fool's joke earlier this year. [...]

"The reporter saw it on the Internet and had talked with the governor in the past, so she was familiar enough with the way he talks and writes that she thought it sounded authentic, and she didn't check, which she should have," Times Deputy Metro Editor David Lauter told the Casper Star Tribune.

"We hate when this kind of thing happens, and we correct it as quickly as we can," Lauter said.

The paper, of course, ran a correction and added it to the online version of the article.

I fell for a similar hoax last year, so I can relate to the reporter's embarrassment. It's probably best to be careful about too-good-to-be-true quotes we find online, isn't it?

Steve Benen 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (22)

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FOOTBALL AND FREE SPEECH....For years, disgruntled football fans have taken some pleasure in mocking their team when it's losing. Fans have worn paper bags over their heads, held up signs calling for a new coach, and generally shouted rude things at anyone on the field who'd listen.

But in Buffalo, where the Bills are nearly finished with their disappointing 5-and-10 season, there's a new free-speech debate underway. The methods of protest that fans have been enjoying for years are suddenly off-limits.

Among the many disgruntled Buffalo Bills season-ticket holders, Mike Allenbaugh looked forward to having the chance to voice his frustrations at the team's final home game by holding up a sign of protest.

After checking the team's stadium policy, Allenbaugh came up with a sign that read: "firE coacheS dumP maNagement" -- the capital letters aligned to spell out ESPN, the national cable-TV network which broadcast the Dec. 17 game in which Denver defeated Buffalo 28-17.

Allenbaugh, however, never had a chance to hold up his sign. Ralph Wilson Stadium security officials confiscated it shortly before kickoff after first threatening to have him ejected.

Allenbaugh told reporters, "I can go in there and say, 'Go Bills.' I can go in there and say, 'Go Patriots.' Why can't I say, 'I don't like you as a manager'?" It's hardly an unreasonable question.

Apparently, this wasn't an isolated incident. The Bills organization has a policy that encourages security to confiscate negative signs, T-shirts, and, yes, even paper bags. In a more amusing example, before a game against Atlanta, the Bills barred fans wearing "Ron Mexico" jerseys from even entering the stadium after Michael Vick allegedly used the name as an alias after being sued by a woman who accused him of infecting her with herpes.

In other words, in Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium, which is a public facility that has enjoyed public financing, fans are finding that they're checking some of their First Amendment rights at the gate. Signs are acceptable, unless the team finds them "negative." T-shirts and jerseys are fine, as long as they're supporting the Bills and/or the league's public-relations strategy. It's reminiscent of the Bush White House's Bubble-Boy policies in which people are welcome at presidential events, as long as they agree to be on-message.

Could this be an untapped market for free-speech litigation?

Steve Benen 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (35)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE END OF IRAQ?....Well, this is bad news:

Kurdish leaders have inserted more than 10,000 of their militia members into Iraqi army divisions in northern Iraq to lay the groundwork to swarm south, seize the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and possibly half of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, and secure the borders of an independent Kurdistan.

....The Kurds have readied their troops not only because they've long yearned to establish an independent state but also because their leaders expect Iraq to disintegrate, senior leaders in the Peshmerga literally, "those who face death" told Knight Ridder. The Kurds are mostly secular Sunni Muslims, and are ethnically distinct from Arabs.

Their strategy mirrors that of Shiite Muslim parties in southern Iraq, which have stocked Iraqi army and police units with members of their own militias and have maintained a separate militia presence throughout Iraq's central and southern provinces. The militias now are illegal under Iraqi law but operate openly in many areas. Peshmerga leaders said in interviews that they expected the Shiites to create a semi-autonomous and then independent state in the south as they would do in the north.

This is from Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder, who's been reporting on ethnic fragmentation in the Iraqi military for quite a while. It's worth noting that Lasseter's reporting has been pretty pessimistic on this score for some time, which could be because he's better informed on these issues than most others, or just because he's more pessimistic. Who knows? But he's a good reporter, and his pieces from Iraq are data points that are worth taking seriously.

Juan Cole has more.

Kevin Drum 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (195)

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JAMES STOCKDALE....I was catching up on with the New York Times Magazine last night, and the current issue offers brief biographies of some of the high-profile figures who passed away in 2005. The piece on James Stockdale stood out.

For political observers, Stockdale is a Trivial Pursuit answer, or maybe an amusing lesson on how not to engage in a nationally televised vice presidential debate. As Ross Perot's ill-suited running mate in 1992, Stockdale was cast in a role for which he was unprepared.

Stockdale, however, shouldn't be remembered for his short-lived political career. For those who don't know about Stockdale's Vietnam experience, the NYT profile highlights a man of extraordinary courage, gifted intellect, and almost super-human strength.

Cmdr. James Stockdale parachuted out of his nose-diving Skyhawk over the North Vietnamese jungle in September 1965, the war was still young. Little was known about the fate that awaited American prisoners of war. It didn't take Stockdale long to gain a clearer sense. After a few months in solitary confinement in Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, he was introduced to "the ropes," a torture technique in which a prisoner was seated on the floor - legs extended, arms bound behind him - as a guard stood on his back and drove his face down until his nose was mashed into the brick floor between his legs. The North Vietnamese knew they were overmatched militarily, but they figured they could at least win the propaganda war by brutalizing American P.O.W.'s until they denounced their government and "confessed" that they had bombed schoolchildren and villagers.

For his part, Stockdale intended to return home with his honor intact. One afternoon, he was given a razor and led to the bathroom - a sure sign that he was being readied for a propaganda film. Instead of shaving, Stockdale gave himself a reverse Mohawk, tearing up his scalp in the process. More determined than ever now, his captors locked him in the interrogation room for a few minutes while they fetched a hat for him. Stockdale glanced around, looking for an appropriate weapon. He considered a rusty bucket and a windowpane before settling on a 50-pound stool, and proceeded to beat himself about the face. Then, realizing that his eyes were not yet swollen shut, he beat himself some more. By the time the guards had returned, blood was running down the front of his shirt. For the next several weeks, Stockdale kept himself unpresentable by surreptitiously bashing his face with his fists. The North Vietnamese never did manage to film him.

Even as a tortured detainee -- Stockdale lived in his cell with an untreated broken leg -- he organized fellow prisoners into a resistance movement. Stockdale helped keep a sense of sanity by relying on lessons of Aristotle, whose lessons taught him that even the imprisoned have free will, and Epictetus, whose lessons on perception shaping experiences helped Stockdale endure years of brutal abuse.

After his release, Stockdale became president of the Citadel, a civilian military college in South Carolina, but only lasted a year. Stockdale apparently wanted to curb the school's violent hazing culture, his board blocked his efforts, so he quit. As he later told a friend, "When you've been tortured by professionals, you do not have to put up with amateurs."

Many of us recall Phil Hartmann doing a funny Stockdale impersonation on Saturday Night Live after the debate in which Stockdale rhetorically asked, "Who am I? Why am I here?" If that's the only thing people remember of Stockdale, we're missing a remarkable story about an extraordinary individual.

Steve Benen 10:51 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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LEAST HELPFUL...POLL...EVER....In the unlikely event you haven't seen this information elsewhere, Rasmussen Reports released a poll yesterday afternoon on the story we've all been watching closely: Bush's warrantless-search program. Well, that's sort of what the poll was about.

Sixty-four percent (64%) of Americans believe the National Security Agency (NSA) should be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States. A Rasmussen Reports survey found that just 23% disagree. [...]

Eighty-one percent (81%) of Republicans believe the NSA should be allowed to listen in on conversations between terror suspects and people living in the United States. That view is shared by 51% of Democrats and 57% of those not affiliated with either major political party.

As with all polls, the wording of the question makes all the difference. This is a relatively complex controversy, so gauging public opinion on it requires a poll that appreciates the details. This one didn't.

According to Rasmussen's online report, the question for poll respondents read: "Should the National Security Agency be allowed to intercept telephone conversations between terrorism suspects in other countries and people living in the United States?" Given this phrasing, just under two-thirds said the NSA should be able to do this. John Aravosis makes the case that the number should have been much higher and I'm very much inclined to agree.

The problem, of course, is that the Rasmussen poll seems to miss the point of the controversy. Should the president order the NSA to eavesdrop without a warrant? Should there by any checks and balances on the president's authority? Did Bush abuse his power? Should the surveillance program be subject to oversight? Do you believe the president's program violated the law? These are the relevant questions in measuring public opinion on this controversy. Simply asking whether the NSA should "be allowed" to eavesdrop on terrorist suspects doesn't tell us much. Given the wording, I'd say yes too, and I'm deeply concerned about the White House's conduct.

When a poll is released with results that disappoint one side of an argument, there's frequently a temptation to rationalize the results and spin them in a way that bolsters your position. That's not the case here. The poll simply doesn't offer any sense of what Americans believe about the controversy on the points that matter most.

Steve Benen 9:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (150)

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By: Christina Larson

THE GODFATHER ... Folks at the Monthly had been wondering when the Post would turn its considerable resources to a full-fledged account of the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff.

Here it is.

Christina Larson 9:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (13)

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By: Christina Larson

VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS ... Republican strategist Matthew Dowd doesn't have much in common with Santa Claus. But if he saw your holiday wish-list, chances are he wouldn't have to check it twice to guess how you voted last November. In 2004, Dowd, a chief strategist for the Bush campaign, helped organize an effort in 16 states of matching voter information with consumer data 182 unique data points per voter to reveal likely Bush supporters. As Dowd recently told Texas Monthly's S.C. Gwynne:

"Traditional political science says that you can predict who a person is going to vote for based on his income or whether he is pro-choice or pro-life, for taxes or against," Dowd said. "Well, that does not work. Lifestyle is what determines political choice. I would rather know where they shop, what they buy, what kind of car they drive, what sports they watch, where the kids go to school. Income is no predictor ..."

According to Dowd, if you bought a camo vest at Cabela's, you probably vote red. If you bought organic rice cakes at Whole Foods, you probably vote blue. Some results are less obvious: Dr. Pepper guzzlers trend red; Fanta drinkers trend blue. Republicans drive domestic-made SUVs and minivans; Democrats drive foreign-made ones. You can nitpick the categories (I don't like Dr. Pepper or Fanta), but his track record reveals Dowd must have been on to something. Still, what to make of the following tidbit?

The TV show "Will & Grace," for example, which centers on the lives of a gay man and a straight woman, leans heavily Republican. It's the Republican women who are watching it.

As a side note, though I'm sure many Cabela's shoppers vote red, anyone who assumes that all conservation-minded hunters and anglers are hunky-dory with the Grand Old Party might turn out to be as they say in Texas a bum steer. More on that next week.

UPDATE: By way of clarification, Dowd's data-mining method doesn't hold that voting habits can be deduced from a single shopping excursion. Rather, his formula weights many factors (yes, you can drink Dr. Pepper while munching rice cakes) to determine likely party affiliation according to Dowd, with 85-90% accuracy.


Christina Larson 8:34 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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December 28, 2005

A FRAME UP....When it comes to the debate surrounding Bush's warrantless-search program, most Dems, and a surprising number of Republicans, have been pretty vocal about their concerns that the president exceeded his authority. It's interesting, though, to consider why some Dems are hesitant to criticize Bush on this.

"I get nervous when I see the Democrats playing this [civil liberties] issue out too far. They had better be careful about the politics of it," said [Michael O'Hanlon, a national-security analyst at the Brookings Institution who advises Democrats on defense issues], who says the Patriot Act is "good legislation."

These Democrats say attacks on anti-terrorist intelligence programs will deepen mistrust of their ability to protect the nation's security, a weakness that led in part to the defeat of Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, last year.

"The Republicans still hold the advantage on every national-security issue we tested," said Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to President Clinton, who co-authored a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) memo on the party's national-security weaknesses.

Marshall Wittmann expressed similar concerns last week when he argued, "[T]he donkey is effectively "rebranding' and 'framing' itself as weak on national security."

First, I'm not at all convinced Dems are focusing excessively on civil liberties as the principal problem with the White House's conduct. Most of the criticisms seem to emphasize the rule of law, the constitutional process, and Bush circumventing the judiciary while ignoring the separation of powers. There's a civil liberties angle to these concerns, but the criticisms have gone considerably further than ACLU talking points.

Second, there's no reason for any Dem to help the right frame the debate in a way that helps the administration downplay its significance. If the controversy boils down to "Bush wants to spy on bad guys and Dems aren't happy about it," it's a phony debate that skirts the real issues. However, if it's "We need to eavesdrop in order to protect the country" vs. "Go right ahead, just follow the law and allow for some checks and balances," it's at least a fair fight based on the facts.

The White House and its allies would prefer that all criticism of the warrantless-search program be dismissed as petty ideological squabbling over civil liberties. Why any Dem would want to help in that endeavor is beyond my understanding.

Steve Benen 4:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (169)

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PRIMARY COLORS....The good news is the Democrats are making progress on a plan that would revamp the party's presidential nominating calendar. The bad news is it may not address the problems that prompted the review in the first place and it may lead to a fight that the DNC is unprepared to deal with.

For much of the past year, a Democratic Party commission labored to build a better mousetrap. The goal is to create a 2008 presidential nominating calendar that reduces the outsized influence of Iowa and New Hampshire and stretches the process into the spring to give a better chance to potentially strong candidates even if they do not win early contests.

Now that the commission has made its proposal and the Democratic National Committee is deciding what to do, the reviews from outsiders are a mixed bag.

Here's the basic plan: Iowa's caucuses would still be first, followed immediately by a state or two with caucuses of their own. Within a week or so, New Hampshire voters would then participate in the nominating process' first primary, which would come shortly before another primary or two in other states.

If the goal is to get some ethnic and geographic diversity early on in the process, the proposal is a step in the right direction. But if the purpose of changing the calendar is to avoid "front-loading," it's hard to see how five or six contests in the first two weeks of voting will help. Granted, it would be slightly fewer than in 2004 (nine contests in the first 15 days), but not by much.

Perhaps the more interesting question is what New Hampshire will do in response to the proposed change. As Sam Rosenfeld explained, the state is exploring its options -- some of which make the DNC very uncomfortable.

Few...question the ferocity with which New Hampshire guards its prerogatives in this process. Granite State pride -- and Granite State coffers, which swelled by $264 million because of primary-related economic activity in 2000, according to one study -- are on the line. New Hampshire law stipulates that the state must hold its primary seven days prior to any "similar election" in another state. The commission, interpreting "similar election" to mean "primary," recommended inserting one or more caucuses between Iowa's and New Hampshire's so as not to contravene the statute. New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, has offered no indications that he agrees with that interpretation. "The law doesn't define 'similar election' and gives us total freedom," he told The (Manchester) Union Leader in late November.

If New Hampshire decided to move up its primary to preempt the post-Iowa caucuses, the DNC would then have to decide whether to punish the state by refusing to seat its delegates. For that matter, other states would consider counteracting New Hampshire's move. It could get ugly.

And what about Republicans? Well, they're not going to change a thing. As Rosenfeld explained, Dems might want to consider the benefits of the GOP's approach.

A look at the Republican Party's approach to the issue of primary-calendar structure and reform might be instructive. "For the most part they've been less seized by the rules and the process," says [the Brookings Institution's Thomas Mann]. "They devote less time and attention to these matters than Democrats." Obviously the top-down organizational instinct of Republicans fundamentally ill-suit earnest, process-oriented Democrats, for whom "small-d" democracy remains an end in itself and freedom is an endless meeting -- or commission. But it will behoove Democrats desperate to end their electoral dry spell to keep in mind that process is not destiny.

A point for the DNC to consider before it reaches its final decision.

Steve Benen 3:15 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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IT'S ONLY HOMELAND SECURITY....The Washington Post ran a severely unflattering multi-part series last week on the Department of Homeland Security, explaining in alarming detail how the agency has been beset by almost every bureaucratic problem imaginable. You name it -- turf wars, incompetent management, political cronyism, budget shortfalls -- the DHS has had it. About the only project the agency has successfully taken on has been the creation of a logo, and even that took a couple of tries.

With this in mind, House Democrats released a report yesterday (why this couldn't wait until after the holidays is unclear) highlighting the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has fallen short of fulfilling 33 of the agency's own goals. It's not a pretty picture.

DHS pledged to create a list of chemical plants, bridges, skyscrapers and other potential terrorist targets -- at this point the department is over a year late in delivering. The agency also said it would install monitors to screen for radiation material entering the country at borders, seaports, and airports; create an efficient network to share alerts with state, local and private industry officials; and install surveillance cameras at all high-risk chemical plants. None of this has happened.

And while the lack of progress is disconcerting enough, the reaction from DHS was hardly reassuring.

Responding, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the department is prioritizing resources and programs based on "today's greatest threats."

"Rather than looking backward at yesterday's threats, we are building upon what we have already accomplished to meet evolving threats," said Knocke.

I can appreciate the fact that these circumstances are tough to spin, but when an agency is found to have fallen short, repeatedly, of its own goals -- and those goals are crucial to keeping Americans safe -- it's not exactly comforting to hear that DHS will build on what they've "already accomplished."

Steve Benen 1:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

GAY MARRIAGE IN CALIFORNIA....Californians got some good news today, but it came with an ambiguous lesson:

Infighting, voter fatigue and a slow fundraising start appear to have plagued efforts by conservatives to place a measure on the 2006 ballot banning same-sex marriage in California.

....One group, ProtectMarriage.com, gathered fewer than half the 598,000 signatures required by Tuesday's deadline. Organizers said they might still decide to press ahead for the ballot next November, but a confluence of events has made it unlikely.

While the battle against same-sex marriage was an issue to conservatives this summer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's September veto of a bill to legalize such unions defused the issue for the time being.

...."Everything we need to educate voters about the need for such a measure has been temporarily taken away," said ProtectMarriage.com's legal counsel, Andrew Pugno. "I think it is very unlikely there will be any measure on the ballot this coming year."

Even the initiative's supporters concede that Arnold's veto which I mocked earlier this year is the main reason they can't drum up support for a complete ban on gay marriage. In the end, Arnold's political cowardice may deserve the bulk of the credit for the failure of gay marriage opponents to make further inroads in California.

So does this mean that keeping a slightly lower profile and relying instead on multi-decade trends running in our favor would actually help the gay marriage cause in the long run? It's not an argument I'm very comfortable with, but news like this suggests it might. Hmmph.

Kevin Drum 12:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (59)

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LOWERING CLASS SIZES....Syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas may not agree with a federal court ruling that struck down intelligent-design creationism in a Pennsylvania school district's science classes, but in a principled way, he welcomed the development. As Thomas hopes, the decision should prompt parents to abandon public schools altogether.

[The court ruling] should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs.... Religious parents should exercise the opportunity that has always been theirs. They should remove their children from state schools with their "instruction manuals" for turning them into secular liberals, and place them in private schools -- or home school them -- where they will be taught the truth, according to their parents' beliefs. [...]

Too many parents who would never send their children to a church on Sunday that taught doctrines they believed to be wrong, have had no problem placing them in state schools five days a week where they are taught conflicting doctrines and ideas.

I disagree with Thomas on practically every political issue I can think of, but he raises a legitimate point. Most public schools will expose students to history that sometimes paints the U.S. in an unflattering light, science that contradicts biblical literalism, and literature that may be at odds with a rigid conservative worldview. Thomas thinks there's no point in evangelicals working to change this system -- and I can think of a lot of school districts that would welcome the end of some of these culture wars.

In fact, Thomas doesn't mention it, but there's a significant schism among many social conservatives about just what to do with the public schools. In many far-right political circles, the emphasis is on shaping curricula to match their ideology on issues like abstinence, evolution, school libraries, etc. But it's worth remembering that a sizable segment of the far-right wants to completely give up on the public school system.

In 2002, Focus on the Family head James Dobson seemed to get the ball rolling when he encouraged California parents to abandon public schools because, as he saw it, "homosexual propaganda" was harming students. Two years later, the Southern Baptist Convention took up a resolution urging all Southern Baptist families to "remove their children from all government schools and see to it they receive a thoroughly Christian education."

At a minimum, it's an unorthodox way to lower class sizes.

Steve Benen 12:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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MOVING AMERICA BACKWARDS....Some of Bush's more blindly loyal supporters are taking to the airwaves to bolster support for the war in Iraq. You'll never guess what they're saying.

The television commercials are attention-grabbing: Newly found Iraqi documents show that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including anthrax and mustard gas, and had "extensive ties" to al Qaeda. The discoveries are being covered up by those "willing to undermine support for the war on terrorism to selfishly advance their shameless political ambitions."

The hard-hitting spots are part of a recent public-relations barrage aimed at reversing a decline in public support for President Bush's handling of Iraq. But these advertisements aren't paid for by the Republican National Committee or other established White House allies. Instead, they are sponsored by Move America Forward, a media-savvy outside advocacy group that has become one of the loudest -- and most controversial -- voices in the Iraq debate.

In one sense, I can understand the appeal of insisting -- facts be damned -- that Bush was right all along. After all, in 2002 and 2003, when arguments about WMD and ties to al Qaeda dominated, the war enjoyed considerable political support. It's only when the discussion shifted towards reality that Americans started to believe that the war was a mistake. In this sense, it was only a matter of time before some brilliant conservative strategist said, "I know! Those old arguments worked before, so let's use them again!"

Just as importantly, Move America Forward, which claims to have no formal connections to the White House or the RNC, has raised more than $1 million for its efforts -- and they've been awfully busy. The recall effort against Gray Davis? These guys. Ads supporting John Bolton's United Nations nomination? Ditto. Backing abuse at Guantanamo Bay? Them again. Five far-right radio-show hosts broadcasting from Iraq for a week? Same group.

And now Move America Forward, which somehow manages to be a tax-exempt non-profit organization, is hitting the airwaves with bizarre ads about non-existent weapons stockpiles. I have to admit, the group has the shtick down pat -- spend a little money on modest ad buys with a ridiculous message, then wait for news outlets to start repeating the ad as part of their political coverage.

It's an effective page from the far-right playbook. Just ask the Swiftboat guys.

Steve Benen 11:46 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (172)

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'FRUIT OF THE POISONOUS TREE'....The principal problem facing the Bush administration over its warrantless-search program is political -- the president's critics are outraged, there's bi-partisan support for congressional hearings, and op-ed pages are filled with commentaries about Bush intentionally circumventing the rule of law.

It's not, however, the administration's only problem. There's also issue about using illegally-obtained information -- the ever-popular "fruit of the poisonous tree" -- in criminal cases against suspected terrorists.

Defense lawyers in some of the country's biggest terrorism cases say they plan to bring legal challenges to determine whether the National Security Agency used illegal wiretaps against several dozen Muslim men tied to Al Qaeda.

The lawyers said in interviews that they wanted to learn whether the men were monitored by the agency and, if so, whether the government withheld critical information or misled judges and defense lawyers about how and why the men were singled out. [...]

"If I'm a defense attorney," one prosecutor said, "the first thing I'm going to say in court is, 'This was an illegal wiretap.' "

This is a multi-faceted problem for the administration. In pending cases, defense attorneys will demand information on how evidence was gathered against their clients. In instances in which the administration was already successful, many of which were plea bargains, attorneys will be anxious to reopen cases. One lawyer even raised the prospect of a civil case against the president directly.

For that matter, the controversy surrounding Bush's surveillance program -- now on Day 13 -- is still producing new revelations. UPI and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the administration initially sought warrants from the FISA court, but when judges balked at some of the president's more sweeping requests, the administration decided to stop asking.

Specifically, the FISA Court modified 179 of the 5,645 requests for surveillance since 2001, and rejected or deferred at least six requests for warrants during 2003 and 2004. In other words, the court that had approved practically every request for a warrant for decades found that the Bush administration wanted to go too far. It was then that the president suddenly decided that judicial oversight wasn't so important after all.

Asked about these reports yesterday, White House spokesperson Trent Duffy declined comment. I can't say I blame him.

Steve Benen 10:39 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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SNL HITS ONE OUT OF THE WEST VILLAGE....Slate's Josh Levin wrote late last week, "If you haven't seen Saturday Night Live's Chronicles of Narnia rap, then you don't have any friends. Or at least any friends with Internet access." That's probably a little overstated, but only a little. The SNL video has generated widespread media attention, and yesterday, even got the Paper of Record treatment.

For most aspiring rappers, the fastest route to having material circulated around the World Wide Web is to produce a work that is radical, cutting-edge and, in a word, cool. But now a pair of "Saturday Night Live" performers turned unexpected hip-hop icons are discovering that Internet stardom may be more easily achieved by being as nerdy as possible.

In "Lazy Sunday," a music video that had its debut on the Dec. 17 broadcast of "SNL," two cast members, Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg, adopt the brash personas of head-bopping, hand-waving rappers. But as they make their way around Manhattan's West Village, they rhyme with conviction about subjects that are anything but hard-core: they boast about eating cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery, searching for travel directions on MapQuest and achieving their ultimate goal of attending a matinee of the fantasy movie "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

It is their obliviousness to their total lack of menace - or maybe the ostentatious way they pay for convenience-store candy with $10 bills - that makes the video so funny, but it is the Internet that has made it a hit.

It may sound odd, but a couple of very whitebread guys rapping like Run DMC about cupcakes, The Notebook, and Narnia is hilarious. You can watch it online, for free, by way of NBC or iTunes.

On a related note, when was the last time Saturday Night Live was this successful in creating a cultural sensation?

Steve Benen 9:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Paul Glastris

GIFTED BUT NOT MOTIVATED, PART II... Andy "Eduwonk" Rotherham and Matt Yglesias both take issue with the Washington Post op-ed I mentioned yesterday, about how Bush's No Child Left Behind Act shortchanges gifted students. Both Andy and Matt argue that if a federal testing mandate must concentrate public schools' attention on one group of students at the expense of another, better--for political, moral, and policy reasons--that the focus be on the lowest-performing kids.

I can see their point, and Andy especially knows more and has though more about this issue than I have. But I'm not convinced. As a matter of pure politics, how can you expect to retain public support for a school reform regime that short-changes high-achieving students, whose parents, whether rich or poor, are likely to be more politically engaged and influential than the parents of low-performing students? And as a matter of morality, if one has to choose between helping the low-performers or the high-performers in an impoverished school, why is the former the obvious moral choice? If I were an innercity teacher and I had to decide which students to give extra time to, I can easily see myself deciding to focus on the smarter, more motivated ones, on the grounds that they want the help more and the investment in them would have a higher chance of paying off in terms of increased life chances. Others might make a different moral calculus, but it's not clear why mine would be wrong.

The larger point, though, is that I'm not sure we want to have a government-sponsored testing regime that forces teachers to go one way or another. That's one of the reasons I'm intrigued by value-added testing, which, if I understand it correctly, would rate teachers and schools based on the progress made by each and every student, not just select groups.

Paul Glastris 9:11 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (52)

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December 27, 2005

'LET THE STUDENT DECIDE'....Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hopes to become the oldest person ever elected president, but he's still making an effort to reach out to younger voters. Consider what Mr. Straight Talk told an MTV audience recently.

"Let the student decide." With those well-chosen words John McCain summed up his view on the teaching of "intelligent design" along with evolution in public schools.

In related news, McCain said he'd like to see students decide whether to believe the earth is flat, the South won the Civil War, the value of pi is exactly 3, and one can contract the AIDS virus through tears and sweat.

OK, so he didn't actually endorse these other positions, but by saying that students should decide whether to learn pseudoscience alongside modern biology, McCain appears willing to make science classes popularity contests. One wants to believe McCain knows better and he's just saying these nonsensical things to bolster his presidential ambitions, but that makes him even less appealing.

Matt Yglesias recently said that McCain is "more honest than the conventional Republican, but basically has the same worldview." I agree, but it remains to be seen just how far McCain is willing to stray in order to appeal to presidential primary voters.

Early indications suggest the answer is, "Pretty far."

In February 2000, for example, then-presidential candidate McCain traveled to Virginia Beach, home of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, in advance of Virginia's GOP primary. Taking what he said was a principled stand, McCain blasted the religious right.

"We are the party of Ronald Reagan, not Pat Robertson," McCain said, adding, "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."

That was then. Just last month, McCain's office confirmed that the senator has been chatting with Falwell. Given the context of McCain's presidential ambitions, it's probably safe to assume the senator didn't give Falwell a private audience just so he could remind the TV preacher that he's an "agent of intolerance."

McCain isn't in a comfortable position. He angers the right by fighting Bush on torture, but then angers everyone else by embracing a rigid state ban on gay marriage and intelligent design. He makes one side happy with a vote on repealing the estate tax, but disappoints the exact same people with the Gang of 14 compromise. He backs Bush on privatizing Social Security and the war, but lets Bush down on stem-cell research and campaign-finance reform.

My friend Ari Berman recently explained that McCain has "an uncomfortable predicament for a pragmatic problem solver." Somehow, I doubt his "let the student decide" pronouncement will make things any easier.

Steve Benen 4:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (129)

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DO WE GET WHAT WE PAY FOR?....I tend to believe that members of Congress shouldn't give themselves pay raises until they start doing more to earn it, but conservative economist Thomas Sowell has considered the quality of today's lawmakers and has come to the opposite conclusion.

I don't make a million dollars a year but I think every member of Congress should be paid at least that much. It's not because those turkeys in Washington deserve it. It's because we deserve a lot better people than we have in Congress.

The cost of paying every member of Congress a million dollars a year is absolutely trivial compared to the vast amounts of the taxpayers' money wasted by cheap politicians doing things to get themselves re-elected. You could pay every member of Congress a million dollars a year for a century for less money than it costs to run the Department of Agriculture for one year.

There is no point complaining about the ineptness, deception or corruption of government while refusing to do anything to change the incentives and constraints which lead to ineptness, deception and corruption.

I suppose there's a hint of a point in there somewhere. Sowell believes the best and brightest avoid public service in Congress in part because they can't afford to live on $165,200 congressional salary. That's certainly possible.

I'm hardly convinced, though, that the quality of lawmakers would improve if their salaries grew by a factor of six. For one thing, members of Congress already spend an inordinate amount of their time raising money so that they can keep their jobs. If their annual salary was $1 million, the desperation with which these politicians would approach fundraising would be almost comical. The same thing goes for ethical, above-board campaigning. If these guys embrace character assassination for a temp job that pays $165,200, what would they do for the same position if it pays $1 million?

For that matter, a massive pay raise would seem to undermine the notion that political service should appeal to the most honorable among us. Sowell talks about "incentives" in a system that rewards politicians with mere power. But what would Congress look like if candidates were driven by desire for power and a million dollars a year?

Steve Benen 2:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (104)

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MORE THAN A 'THEORY'....By way of John Cole, we see that James Q. Wilson helped highlight one of my biggest pet peeves in all of public policy discourse: when opponents of modern science dismiss evolutionary biology as "only a theory."

People use "theory" when they mean a guess, a faith or an idea. A theory in this sense does not state a testable relationship between two or more things. It is a belief that may be true, but its truth cannot be tested by scientific inquiry. One such theory is that God exists and intervenes in human life in ways that affect the outcome of human life. God may well exist, and He may well help people overcome problems or even (if we believe certain athletes) determine the outcome of a game. But that theory cannot be tested. There is no way anyone has found that we can prove empirically that God exists or that His action has affected some human life. If such a test could be found, the scientist who executed it would overnight become a hero.

Evolution is a theory in the scientific sense. It has been tested repeatedly by examining the remains of now-extinct creatures to see how one species has emerged to replace another. Even today we can see some kinds of evolution at work, as when scholars watch how birds on the Galapagos Islands adapt their beak size from generation to generation to the food supplies they encounter.

The point of Wilson's piece was to dismiss intelligent-design creationism, but thankfully, he also took time to deal with this confusion surrounding "theories." Watch any conflict over evolution and, within minutes, you'll hear a creationist insist that students should be exposed to competing "theories" and that the "theory of evolution" is no better than any other "theory." The idea is to suggest that if the science were absolutely true, it'd be called the "fact of evolution."

It's maddening, and yet, the reality-based crowd has to keep dealing with it. The National Academy of Sciences, one of the world's most respected institutions of scientific and engineering research, took this on a few years ago.

Scientists most often use the word "fact" to describe an observation. But scientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. The occurrence of evolution in this sense is a fact. Scientists no longer question whether descent with modification occurred because the evidence supporting the idea is so strong.

Gravity is a theory; just like electromagnetism, plate tectonics, general relativity, and evolution. But that won't stop a few misguided souls in Georgia (and elsewhere) from insisting that science textbooks feature warning labels that tell students that evolution "is a theory, not a fact."

The mind reels.

Steve Benen 1:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (137)

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DE FACTO ABORTION BAN....The reality that women seeking abortions in conservative states often have enormous practical hurdles to clear is not new, but this front-page Washington Post piece was nevertheless helpful in capturing the difficulties women who want to end their pregnancies face in South Dakota.

The waiting room at the Planned Parenthood clinic was packed by the time the doctor arrived -- an hour late because of weather delays in Minneapolis.

It was clinic day, the one day a week when the only facility in South Dakota that provides abortions could take in patients. This time it was a Wednesday. The week before it was a Monday.

The day changes depending on the schedules of four doctors from Minnesota who fly here on a rotating basis to perform abortions, something no doctor in South Dakota will do. The last doctor in South Dakota to perform abortions stopped about eight years ago; the consensus in the medical community is that offering the procedure is not worth the stigma of being branded a baby killer.

South Dakota is one of only three states to have only one abortion provider -- North Dakota and Mississippi are the other two -- but at nearly 76,000 square miles, the Mount Rushmore State is the biggest of the three. What's more, the state's lone clinic offers abortions once a week, but which day each week depends on when out-of-state doctors will visit.

Of course, South Dakota is also home to some of the nation's poorest counties, which makes it awfully difficult for women with meager resources to travel several hundred miles.

In this environment, the fight over Roe is secondary to a de facto ban on abortion that's already in place.

Steve Benen 12:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (152)

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TAKING ON 'ANCHOR BABIES'....Slowly but surely, the conservative drive to deny citizenship to babies born in the United States to illegal immigrant parents is generating widespread media attention. Whereas the proposal was initially fascinating only to conservative news outlets, now even the AP is covering the story.

With more than 70 co-sponsors, Georgia Republican Rep. Nathan Deal tried to include a revocation of birthright citizenship in an immigration bill passed by the House in mid-December. GOP House leaders did not let the proposal come to a vote.

"Most Americans feel it doesn't make any sense for people to come into the country illegally, give birth and have a new U.S. citizen," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which backs Deal's proposal. "But the advocates for illegal immigrants will make a fuss; they'll claim you're punishing the children, and I suspect the leadership doesn't want to deal with that."

At least as far as political analysis goes, this sounds about right. GOP leaders saw no upside to holding a vote on this, but the fact that 77 House Republicans -- about a third of the House GOP caucus -- were willing to put their names on the idea suggests ending "birthright citizenship" is a measure that's catching on in conservative circles.

In a practical sense, this fight over what some on the right call "anchor babies" seems like a lost cause. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says that those "bornin the United States" are "citizens of the United States." For that matter, the Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that a baby born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants was legally a U.S. citizen, even though federal law at the time denied citizenship to people from China. The court said birth in the United States constituted "a sufficient and complete right to citizenship." House Republicans may think a provision in an immigration bill can get around all of this, but I'm not sure what they're basing their confidence on.

I'm also intrigued by the underlying point advocates for ending birthright citizenship are making with their proposal. Under existing law, children of illegal immigrants can sponsor their parents for legal permanent residency once they become adults. For lawmakers like Tom Tancredo, this means couples have an incentive to get into the U.S. illegally in order to have a baby, who can then help them establish residency nearly two decades later.

Does anyone know how often this actually happens? I can appreciate long-term thinking, but realistically, how many families are sneaking into the country to give birth in 2005 as part of a residency plan for 2023?

Steve Benen 10:42 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (162)

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SOFT BIGOTRY, LOW EXPECTATIONS....If you're a high-ranking cabinet official responsible for helping operate secret prisons where detainees were tortured, and you get caught, it stands to reason that you won't be a high-ranking cabinet official for very long. At least that's the way it works in some countries.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, whose ministry is accused of operating clandestine prisons where some detainees were tortured, will vacate his job shortly, security and political sources in Baghdad said yesterday.

Mr. Jabr has been under pressure to step down since a Nov. 15 raid by U.S. forces of a secret prison in the Baghdad neighborhood of Jadriyah, where 166 prisoners were discovered, most of them Sunni Muslims and some showing signs of torture.

The Washington Times added that there was some debate as to whether Jabr was being forced out or was leaving voluntarily under "unbearable" political pressure.

Donald Rumsfeld sure is lucky to have a boss willing to forgive incompetence and mismanagement, isn't he?

Steve Benen 9:58 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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By: Paul Glastris

GIFTED BUT NOT MOTIVATED... An op-ed in today's Washington Post points out one of the more troubling flaws in President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) school reform act. By focusing all incentives on lifting the performance of the least-proficient students, the law has invited schools to ignore the most-proficient students. The result, according to the author Susan Goodkin, an advocate for gifted students in California, is that in recent years "the percentage of California students scoring in the "advanced" math range has declined by as much as half between second and fifth grade."

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand why this is a frightening trend, presuming it's real and widespread. How is America going to compete with the rest of the world if our brightest kids--the ones we will be relying on to create new technologies and new industries in a knowledge-based economy--stop progressing?

Sure there are morally compelling reasons to focus on low-performing students. But let's not kid ourselves--there's a moral price to be paid for ignoring the potentially high-achievers. As Goodkin points out, "studies establish that up to 20 percent of high school dropouts are gifted."

Indeed, there is mounting evidence from other states that high-potential but low-income kids are the ones who are really being left behind. As Thomas Toch recently reported in The Washington Monthly "the rate of progress for high-achieving students in low-performing schools in Tennessee has actually declined since the implementation of NCLB."

Progressive-minded folks ought to be shouting from the rooftops about this problem, especially because there's a solution to it, as Toch explained in his piece. It's called "value-added testing." Read about it here.


Paul Glastris 9:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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THE MINIMUM-WAGE WEDGE....Rick Klein had a good piece in the Boston Globe over the weekend on Dems embracing a wedge issue that, they hope, will do for them what anti-gay-marriage initiatives did for Republicans.

New Year's Day will bring the ninth straight year in which the federal minimum wage has remained frozen at $5.15 an hour, marking the second-longest period that the nation has had a stagnant minimum wage since the standard was established in 1938.

Against that backdrop, Democrats are preparing ballot initiatives in states across the country to boost turnout of Democratic-leaning voters in 2006. Labor, religious, and community groups have launched efforts to place minimum-wage initiatives on ballots in Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Arkansas, and Montana next fall.

Democrats say the minimum wage could be for them what the gay-marriage referendums were in key states for Republicans last year -- an easily understood issue that galvanizes their supporters to show up on Election Day.

In principle, this sounds very compelling, especially in an election cycle in which Republicans are likely to face an uphill climb. Of the seven states that will likely have a minimum wage increase on the ballot, three feature Senate pick-up opportunities for Dems (Arizona, Ohio, and Montana). As strategies to boost turnout in the Dems' favor go, this seems like a good one.

The only flaw in the approach is that hasn't worked according to plan lately. Last year, minimum wage increases passed easily in Florida and Nevada (with 71% support and 69% support, respectively). Voters heard all the predictable horror stories about massive job losses if wages went up, and they immediately saw through the nonsense.

Bush, however, beat Kerry in both states. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was reportedly scared to death of this issue appearing on the ballot, but his concerns were unwarranted. Floridians overwhelmingly backed a minimum wage increase -- while supporting a Republican presidential and senatorial candidate who opposed the idea.

To be sure, the issue has all the makings of a perfect wedge issue for Democrats. The polls tend to be one sided, Republicans are put on the defensive, and working-class families who may find the right's social conservatism appealing nevertheless want to see a little more money in their pocket.

The trick seems to be getting voters to connect the issue to the party that represents their economic interests.

Steve Benen 9:12 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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December 26, 2005

THANKS A LOTT....When incumbent senators are gearing up for re-election, they usually spend the year before the race building up a campaign war chest. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is up in 2006, but he raised an underwhelming $26,690 in the third quarter of 2005, a tiny fraction compared to the totals of his similarly situated colleagues. It seemed to be a strong hint about the embattled senator's future plans.

Or was it? Not long after Lott's anemic fundraising prompted a series of rumors about his retirement, Lott told reporters that he may not only return to the Senate, but he's also likely try to replace Bill Frist as Senate Majority Leader (unless the Dems regain the majority, of course).

According to Bob Novak, the mystery surrounding Lott's future is causing all manner of GOP consternation.

Trent Lott within the next week plans to decide between seeking a fourth term in the U.S. Senate from Mississippi or retiring from public life. That could determine whether Republicans keep control of the Senate in next year's elections. For the longer range, Lott's retirement and replacement could signal that Southern political realignment has peaked and now is receding. [...]

Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman pleaded with Lott last week to run again. The senator was as blunt with this emissary from President Bush as he was with me. "Where is our vision and our agenda?" he asked. The malaise afflicting the Bush administration not only threatens a Senate seat in Mississippi but impacts Lott's decision whether to retire.

There are a number of angles to this, each of which offer a compelling narrative for 2006.

* Lott's hurt feelings -- Lott is still bitter about the way in which his party threw him overboard in 2002. With his GOP colleagues desperate for him to run for re-election, he'll milk this for all it's worth.

* The Democratic field -- If Lott does retire, Dems have a surprisingly strong bench in Mississippi, including former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Rep. Gene Taylor, former Rep. Mike Espy, and the likely frontrunner, former state Attorney General Mike Moore.

* The South -- In 2004, Republicans gained Senate seats thanks, in part, to the fact that five popular, incumbent, Democratic Southern senators all retired at the same time -- and all were replaced by a Republican. And yet, 13 months later, GOP leaders seem to believe that a Dem would replace Lott next year in a state Bush won by 20 points.

* K Street -- Lott lost a home to Hurricane Katrina and has never been one of the chamber's independently-wealthy members. This may be Lott's best chance to do what so many of his colleagues have already done -- leave the Senate for an incredibly lucrative gig as a DC lobbyist.

* The White House -- The days in which a call from the White House could dictate a candidate's plans are over. Karl Rove's vision for the party notwithstanding, there's not much the Bush gang can do to affect Lott's future.

* Let's make a deal -- Might Republicans be so worried about Lott's seat that they would offer him the Majority Leader slot if he agreed to stay? What would Mitch McConnell say?

Lott hasn't exactly been a quiet backbencher since the White House helped orchestrate Bill Frist's ascension three years ago. Lott famously told Time magazine, "I am sending the signal that they're going to have to deal with me, and they need to keep that in mind, because I can be a problem." In at least this sense, he's kept his word.

To be sure, Lott hasn't exactly become the Linc Chafee of the South, but he hasn't been a reliable team player either, including stiffing the National Republican Senatorial Committee, balking at Bush's first-term request for a dividend tax cut, and even calling for Karl Rove's resignation after Scooter Libby was indicted.

So, what's his next move? Only Lott knows for sure, but watching this play out should be awfully entertaining. Pass the popcorn.

Steve Benen 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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SANTORUM'S MARRIAGE INITIATIVE....When the Senate barely struck a deal on spending cuts last week, most of the attention emphasized the detrimental effect the cuts would have low-income families, specifically those who rely on Medicare, child-care programs, child-support enforcement funding, student loans, and foster care programs. As it turns out, though, not all of the provisions in the bill cut spending; some programs got a boost.

For example, Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-Pa.) "healthy marriages" proposal was awarded $100 million for federally-funded programs that will allegedly help families stay together.

The new marriage initiative Mr. Santorum pushed will parcel out $100 million a year for five years to promote marriage through counseling and educational programs in communities with high rates of out-of-wedlock birth. About $50 million would be set aside for each year over five years for the initiatives encouraging fatherhood.

Now, as my wife can attest, I happen to love the institution of marriage. However, I'm less fond of Santorum's idea.

First, I vaguely remember the time -- I believe it was called the "1980s and '90s" -- when Republicans railed against the idea of social engineering. In 1993, Henry Hyde wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post (which is no longer online) in which he lambasted the Clinton White House for its alleged belief that government could use its power to interfere with family structures. Hyde called the very idea "exotic social engineering."

Republicans don't seem to believe that anymore. The right may not want to admit it, but the GOP over the last five years has embraced social engineering as much, if not more, than anyone since the Great Society. The marriage initiative, faith-based initiative, fatherhood initiative, abstinence-only programs ... social engineering is predicated on the idea that the power of the state can alter how people can and will behave. It used to be anathema for anyone who valued "limited" government. The Bush presidency didn't herald the end of the government's drive towards social engineering; it marked the end of worrying about it.

Second, some far-right supporters of Santorum's marriage initiative praised the new funding because, in part, "children who come from single-parent homes experience more poverty." This won't do; conservatives can't praise budget cuts for low-income health care and child-care programs, and then express concern about reducing poverty through government spending.

And third, there's the matter of where the federal funds will actually go.

Santorum boasted that grants will go to "faith-based organizations to carry out marriage promotion activities." Bush pursued a very similar approach through cabinet-agency grants in his first term. Guess who benefited.

President Bush has some new troops in his crusade to promote "healthy marriage" and teen celibacy with federal funds -- followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial Korean evangelist and self-proclaimed new world messiah.

At least four longtime operatives of Moon's Unification Church are on the federal payroll or getting government grants in the administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative and other "faith-based" programs.

I'll be the first to defend the Moonies' right to create marriage initiatives, if that's what they want to do, but I'll also argue that they should do so with voluntary contributions from their fellow supporters, not the federal government.

It's the funny thing about faith-based grants; sometimes tax dollars will end up in the coffers of unpopular ministries.

Steve Benen 1:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (54)

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FALL FROM GRACE....All has not been well lately for military chaplains. There was the fiasco surrounding Capt. James Yee; the Navy's punishment for dozens of military chaplains for offenses ranging from sexual abuse to fraud; and the Air Force Academy was rocked by a controversy regarding chaplains proselytizing and harassing religious minorities with official support.

But James Klingenschmitt's fight is altogether different.

There will be no Christmas ham today for chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt. The Navy lieutenant has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 20 and says that nothing but water will pass his lips until President Bush "gives me back my uniform and lets me pray in Jesus's name."

Klingenschmitt, 37, held prayer vigils in front of the White House at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day last week, attracting small crowds even though the Navy forbade him from wearing his uniform. He has gained a larger following on Christian talk radio programs and in Congress: More than 70 lawmakers signed a letter to the president calling for an executive order to guarantee the right of military chaplains to pray publicly as they wish.

Klingenschmitt's three-year Navy contract expires Saturday, and his commanding officer has recommended against renewal. The chaplain says his troubles stem from his insistence on praying specifically to Jesus rather than to "God," "the Father" or "the Almighty."

The religious right and the Washington Times have tried to make Klingenschmitt something of a cause celebre, and now the mainstream press is picking up on the story.

This isn't complicated. The Navy has public ceremonies -- where attendance is mandatory for sailors and officers -- in which chaplains are asked to use inclusive language that reflects the diversity of the armed forces. Klingenschmitt doesn't care for that approach and wants to use his post to promote Christianity. His superiors said no, so Klingenschmitt started a hunger strike and wants the White House to support him.

What's more, 70 members of Congress, nearly all of whom are Republicans, are using Klingenschmitt's fight to argue that Christian chaplains should be able to proselytize on the job. In other words, we'd have official government ministers, whose salary is paid with tax dollars, preaching Christianity to American troops. Suggesting that, at a minimum, official military prayers should be "non-sectarian" is, in the minds of these congressional critics, "censorship of Christian beliefs." (One wonders if they'd feel the same if a Muslim military chaplain wanted faith-specific religious expressions at mandatory Navy ceremonies.)

What a mess. No wonder James Madison thought military chaplains were a bad idea.

Steve Benen 11:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (92)

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POWELL SEEMS CONFUSED....One can criticize the Bush White House for circumventing the law and creating a warrantless-search program, or one can defend the administration and conclude that the president has the authority to engage in these kinds of activities. But leave it to Colin Powell to do both.

Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on Sunday that it would not have been "that hard" for President Bush to obtain warrants for eavesdropping on domestic telephone and Internet activity, but that he saw "nothing wrong" with the decision not to do so.

"My own judgment is that it didn't seem to me, anyway, that it would have been that hard to go get the warrants," Mr. Powell said. "And even in the case of an emergency, you go and do it. The law provides for that."

But Mr. Powell added that "for reasons that the president has discussed and the attorney general has spoken to, they chose not to do it that way."

"I see absolutely nothing wrong with the president authorizing these kinds of actions," he said.

Powell at first seems comfortable joining the chorus of conservative critics who believe Bush exceeded his authority. The White House could have followed the law and asked for warrants, Powell noted, even in an emergency. As Powell told ABC, there was "another way to handle it." These aren't the comments of an enthusiastic supporter.

Second, Powell takes a position that, while not the polar opposite, is certainly at odds with the first point. Bush could have easily requested a warrant and followed the rule of law, but, Powell concludes, it's just fine that he didn't.

Maybe Powell is trying to make nice with his former administration colleagues after rejecting the White House line on torture, or maybe Powell is grudgingly taking on the role of good soldier (again). But this is one controversy where it's awfully difficult for anyone, even Powell, to play both sides of the fence.

Steve Benen 10:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (62)

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WITH GOODWILL TOWARDS SOME....When it comes to presidential pardons, Bush can be a bit of a scrooge.

President Bush has granted 11 pardons, bringing to 69 the number of clemency orders he has issued since taking office five years ago, the Justice Department said.

Three moonshiners and a bank robber are among those pardoned, as is a Denver lawyer with Republican political ties. The pardons were issued [Friday], in keeping with a tradition of granting clemency during the holidays.

With 69 pardons over five years, Bush is on pace to be the stingiest two-term president in American history when it comes to granting clemency. Among Bush's more recent predecessors, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, and Kennedy had several hundred pardons each, while Eisenhower was among the most charitable, with 1,157 pardons over his two terms. H.W. Bush was less generous, but his 77 pardons during his one term -- including, not incidentally, Christmas Eve pardons for Reagan-era officials who could have implicated him in the Iran-contra scandal -- at least gives him higher a per-year average than his son.

Indeed, over the last 200 years, only three presidents have had fewer pardons than George W. Bush -- Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, and William H Harrison. Taylor died after one year in office; Garfield was shot four months into his term and was bedridden until he died two months later; and Harrison died of pneumonia within a month of taking office. Among healthy presidents, Bush is in a league of his own.

Given Bush's Texas record, this shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise. As governor, Bush not only executed Texans at a record clip; he signed only 18 clemency grants, making him the stingiest Texas governor in recent memory. (This isn't a partisan matter; the last Republican to hold the office before Bush, Bill Clements, used the power 822 times -- or about 46 clemencies for every one of Bush's.)

At this point, the cushiest job in Washington has to be the deputy attorney general at the Justice Department who reviews the files in the pardon office. "Compassionate" conservatism? Not so much.

Steve Benen 9:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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December 25, 2005

FOR THE REST OF US.... In the life-imitates-art category, Seinfeld-inspired Festivus celebrations seem to be catching on in a big way. I haven't done a direct comparison with last year's media reports, but there seems to be more Festivus-related coverage this year. We're dealing with a "holiday" with real growth potential.

* Two fairly popular Festivus books are on bookstore shelves: Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us and The Real Festivus: The Handbook for the Rest of Us.

* Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) is not only celebrating Festivus, he added a Festivus pole to the holiday decorations at the governor's mansion. "I assume we'll be celebrating the traditional Festivus," Doyle deadpanned in an interview last week.

* There's a Festivus wine, Festivus beer, a Miss Festivus pageant, and a Festivus ice cream from Ben & Jerry's.

* In Lakeland, Fla., local officials created a "free speech zone" outside the county administration building, allowing local residents to feature holiday displays, leaving no tradition behind. Someone, naturally, placed an aluminum pole with a "Festivus" sign on site. (The sign was defaced and the pole stolen. How soon until "war on Festivus" talk dominates Fox News?)

As the New York Times explained last year, Festivus was invented in 1966 by Dan O'Keefe, whose son became a writer on "Seinfeld" and who appropriated the family tradition for the show. It's a good thing; there are apparently a lot of disaffected people looking for an alternative holiday this time of year.

It'd likely drive Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson mad, but I'm still waiting for the U.S. Post Office to get in on this. For a business that's perennially short on revenue, Festivus stamps would be a real money-maker.

Steve Benen 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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December 24, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

MERRY CHRISTMAS....It's a few hours early, but I'm signing off for the year now. Merry Christmas, everyone!

I'll be on vacation until shortly after New Year's. Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report will be guest blogging for me, and various Washington Monthly editors may be popping in from time to time as well. In fact, I might even pop in occasionally myself depending on mood and availability of internet time.

In the meantime, have a nice holiday, eat yourselves silly, and root for the team of your choice in the upcoming bowl games. In Marian's family, tradition says that even-numbered years are always better than odd-numbered years, and I'm sure hoping that's true of next year. See you in 2006.

Kevin Drum 6:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

CONSERVATIVE BLOGS....Tis the season to be what? Charitable toward ones sparring partners, I suppose. With that in mind, I periodically get email asking me for a list of good conservative blogs. In fact, I got another one just yesterday. Around these parts, we consider "good" and "conservative" to be oxymorons for most of the year, but today I'm going to make an exception. For a variety of reasons some are entertaining, some I learn things from, some are mainly anthropological excursions there are several non-liberal blogs that I read daily or almost daily. Here they are:

DISCLAIMER: I'm not recommending any of these blogs. I'm not giving any of them a seal of approval. I disagree with 90% of what they say. But I do read them regularly. If you check them out for a few days, you might find one or two that you enjoy reading too.

And one more thing: in the spirit of the Christmas etc. season, keep it clean in comments, OK? I already know you guys don't like conservatives, so you won't be telling me anything new by explaining in detail why one or more of these folks are fit only for worm food. Let's play nice today.

On the other hand, further recommendations in comments are welcome.

Kevin Drum 4:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (134)

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By: Kevin Drum

AL-JAZEERA....Via the Aardvark, Rami Khouri of the Daily Star suggests that American criticism of Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite TV stations is badly misguided:

Unlike most American officials who routinely criticize Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab media, I've actually watched these stations virtually daily since their inception during the past decade....On the basis of what I have witnessed during the past 1,000 days, I would like to bet Donald Rumsfeld a double cheeseburger with cheese, and Karen Hughes two tickets to a Yankees-Rangers baseball game on a balmy July evening, that the overall coverage of Iraq on the mainstream Arab satellite services has been more comprehensive, balanced and accurate than the coverage of any mainstream American cable or broadcast television service.

....These stations, in fact, have provided a vibrant television form of precisely that which Bush and his nonstop string of dizzy dames of public diplomacy have been calling and warring for in this region: democratic pluralism, at least in television news and opinion. The U.S., Israel and others understandably dislike the criticisms of their policies that they see and hear on Arab television. To respond by attacking the Arab journalist messengers who carry the bad news, however, rather than addressing the contentious underlying political problems between the U.S., Israel and the Arab world, is a sign of political amateurism and personal emotionalism.

When the history of our era is written half a century from now, I'll bet that satellite TV and the internet get far more credit for democratizing the Middle East than any military intervention ever does. And deservedly so.

As Donald Rumsfeld might say, a free press is a messy thing. But when all is said and done, Al-Jazeera might well be the greatest force for reform in the entire history of the region.

Kevin Drum 2:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (57)

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By: Kevin Drum

YEAR END QUIZZES.... The annual King William's College General Knowledge Quiz is now available here. I think I managed to puzzle out three or four correct answers last year (out of 180 questions), and a quick glance suggests I'd do no better this year. However, those of you with broader liberal arts educations and more patience for rhetorical trickery than I possess should give it a go.

For a more straightforward, but still British, year-end quiz, check out the Guardian's version. I got 34 out of 50 right, which seems fairly respectable since we Yanks could hardly be expected to know about Jamie Oliver's campaign against Turkey Twizzlers or Andrew Flintoff's consoling gestures at the Ashes. My favorite pair of questions are shown above. I liked the simple blandness of Question 35 too.

Kevin Drum 2:29 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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By: Kevin Drum

A BETTER MIDDLE EAST....Joshua Muravchik of AEI writes today about a small but gratifying advance in global freedom this year (as quantified here by Freedom House). He is especially gratified that six of the nine counties that improved their freedom scores were majority Muslim, a significant change from the decline of the past:

Some of the credit for reversing this belongs to President Bush's strategy of promoting freedom and democracy, including by means of war in Iraq. Saad Edin Ibrahim, the dean of Egyptian dissidents and an opponent of the war in Iraq, said recently that it had "unfrozen the Middle East just as Napoleon's 1798 expedition did."

This, I think, is pretty much the only justification left for the Iraq war: the slim possibility that simply by kicking over the status quo in the Middle East we might make things better. It's a last gasp justification, to be sure, but at this point we'd all better hope there's something to it.

Kevin Drum 2:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE ON THE NSA PROGRAM....James Risen and Eric Lichtblau provide some additional technical information about the NSA's domestic spying operation today:

"There was a lot of discussion about the switches" in conversations with the court, a Justice Department official said, referring to the gateways through which much of the communications traffic flows. "You're talking about access to such a vast amount of communications, and the question was, How do you minimize something that's on a switch that's carrying such large volumes of traffic? The court was very, very concerned about that."

....What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.

This is interesting stuff, and it sounds like pretty useful stuff to me, too. This program and this technology might very well be important elements in the fight against al-Qaeda.

But that's not the point. The point is that it appears to be illegal, and if George Bush believed it was genuinely critical to our national security he should have asked Congress to pass legislation authorizing it. The president is simply not allowed to decide for himself to break the law simply because it's inconvenient, and the excuse that he couldn't go to Congress because that would expose valuable secrets to al-Qaeda is laughable. It's tantamount to saying that he never needs to ask Congress for approval of any black program because that might somehow tip off al-Qaeda to its existence. Not only is that untrue (Congress routinely holds closed hearings to discuss sensitive issues), but it's a transparent rationalization for the president to do practically anything he wants with no oversight at all, and that just doesn't fly, wartime or not.

Kevin Drum 1:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (110)

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By: Kevin Drum

PUBLIC EMPLOYEE UNIONS....This single paragraph from the New York Times does a pretty good job of encapsulating the mixed feeling a lot of people probably have about public employee unions:

To control soaring pensions costs, the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] at first demanded raising the retirement age for future employees to 62. Workers can now retire at age 55, after 25 years on the job, and receive pensions equal to half their earnings. They average $55,000 a year, including overtime.

An average salary of $55,000 a year? That's fine. Sure, it's pretty good money, but my guess is that most people are OK with it anyway.

But retiring at age 55, with 25 years on the job, at half salary? I support unions and I support the notion that Americans work too much, but even so that strikes me as indefensible. After all, most people have working lives of 40-50 years, and it's hard to imagine that they have a lot of sympathy for a deal like that. I have to confess that I don't.

I don't really have any bigger point to make here. I just thought I'd toss this out for comments.

Kevin Drum 12:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (233)

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December 23, 2005
By: Benjamin Wallace-Wells

KOS CORRECTION... After we put up an online link yesterday to a profile I wrote of the blogger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos, Moulitsas put up a pair of posts on his blog saying he'd found some errors in the piece. I spent much of today reconnecting with sources to seek clarification and looking back through my notes, and would like to make several corrections. The corrections will also appear in the Monthly's next print issue, and will be made in the online version of the story. All errors are mine.

My piece quoted a staffer for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee indicating that Moulitsas makes calls to prospective candidates on behalf of the DCCC. The source was definitely in a position to know, and a review of my notes shows that the quote was what my source said. When I emailed him this morning for clarification, the source said that while he had "brainstormed" with Markos, a different blogger had made the recruiting calls. This is Moulitsas's position too, and I take him at his word.

My story states that Moulitsas speaks frequently and regularly with DCCC Chair Rahm Emmanuel and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. In fact, he speaks regularly with their staffs, never with Emmanuel, and only very occasionally with Reid.

Moulitsas is correct when he says that the speech he gave to the Senate Democratic caucus took place in the Kennedy Center and not, as my story had reported, in the Capitol's LBJ room (the normal place such caucuses occur). And I have no reason to doubt Moulitsas when he says he talked about how Democrats can use blogging politically and not about overall political strategy.

Nor do I doubt that he raised for Democratic candidates more than the $500,000 I said he did. When I wrote that his site gets "3.7 million weekly readers," I should have used the technical term "unique visitors," which is the closest available approximation of a website's readership, but is certainly bigger than the actual number of weekly readers. On the issue of the fight at the Democratic Convention, others remember it differently. Moulitsas also takes issue with a number of other smaller points in my piece. He may well be right, though I asked him about several of these in an email before publication and never heard back.

Finally, Markos has taken exception to my description of his readership as "under-35 liberal professionals." According to the results of a 2004 BlogAd survey of his readership, posted on the Daily Kos site, 63 percent of the readers in that year were 40 years of age or younger. It's possible that more than 13 percent of those were in the age range of 36 to 40, but even if that is the case, it does not substantially alter my description of Kos readers as part of a "younger generation." In that same year, 59 percent of Kos readers reported making $60,000 or more, firmly qualifying them as professional.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells 7:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (83)

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By: Kevin Drum

SHIELD LAWS REVISITED....Those of us who support a federal shield law for reporters have been having a rough time of it lately. Having Judy Miller as our primary poster child hasn't helped our cause much.

But things have been looking up lately. Last month Dana Priest revealed the existence of CIA "black sites" in Eastern Europe and last week James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed the existence of a secret NSA spying program. Both of these stories were leaked by multiple sources, and it's almost certain that those sources broke the law by doing so.

Now, I happen to think that it was a good thing these stories were broken, but I suspect the Bush administration disagrees with me about that. And needless to say, they can do something about this difference of opinion. If they felt like it and they might, this being wartime and all they could appoint a prosecutor to investigate these cases, and the prosecutor could then subpoena Priest, Risen, and Lichtblau and demand to know who they talked to under threat of jail time.

A qualified shield law would make it clear that this couldn't happen and would encourage more whistleblowing of this nature. That sounds like a great idea to me. Anyone else disagree?

Kevin Drum 4:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Kevin Drum

AIR FORCE BOO....This story has been making the rounds:

After a four-day overseas trip that took him to four countries in the Middle East, Vice President Dick Cheney really wanted to get his iPod charged for that long return flight to Washington.

Since it is his plane, the vice president's iPod took priority and was plugged into one of the only working power outlets on Air Force Two, frustrating reporters who were trying to file stories.

Fine, whatever. The vice president has an iPod. The reporters had to break out their quill pens. Got it.

But what I want to know is whether it's really true that Air Force Two has only two working power outlets. Two? For a plane that routinely carries the vice president, his staff, a slew of reporters, various other hangers-on, and an enormous pile of high tech communications equipment? Is there some reason they can't install a few more power outlets?

Kevin Drum 1:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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By: Kevin Drum

MEME OF FOURS....Via Roy, here's another silly but (as usual) oddly compelling internet list meme:

Four jobs you've had in your life: Radio Shack manager, technical writer, product manager, VP of marketing.

Four movies you could watch over and over: Star Wars, Office Space, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Wizard of Oz.

Four places you've lived: Garden Grove, CA; Kge, Denmark; Pasadena, CA; Irvine, CA.

Four TV shows you love to watch: The Daily Show, Lost, The Simpsons, USC football (when they're playing well).

Four places you've been on vacation: Rome; Cerro Gordo, IL; Katowice, Poland; Solvang, CA.

Four websites you visit daily: The usuals: Atrios, Kos, Marshall, the New York Times, plus a cast of thousands of others.

Four of your favorite foods: Chocolate, popcorn, hamburgers, chocolate.

Four places you'd rather be: Um....permanently? I really like Southern California a lot. [UPDATE: You mean just to visit? In that case: Bryan's Pit Barbecue, New York City, Highway 1, anyplace with lots of friendly cats.]

Since the proprietor of Hullabaloo remains so resolutely mysterious, perhaps Digby will pick up this meme next.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (78)

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By: Kevin Drum

PLAYING POLITICS....John Kerry and Ted Kennedy have attached amendments to this year's intelligence funding bill asking for copies of the White House's daily intelligence briefing (Kennedy) and more information about secret CIA prisons (Kerry). Pat Roberts has already agreed to these amendments, but intelligence funding is now being held up because someone objects to them.

Who? We don't know. Some brave but anonymous Republican who's apparently doing the White House's bidding but is afraid to say so has put a hold on the bill. Stout fellow. I'm glad to see that for Republicans in the Senate, covering up for the White House is more important than our national security.

Kevin Drum 12:24 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

SIGNS OF WITHDRAWAL....The New York Times reports that Donald Rumsfeld has signed an order reducing force levels in Iraq by 3,000-5,000 troops:

The elevated troop level for the Dec. 15 vote already was intended to drop back to 138,000 by early next year, and the new orders mean troop strength will drop below that by next spring....American commanders and senior Pentagon officials have said that American troop levels could fall to about 100,000 by next fall, depending on security conditions, political stability and whether Iraqi soldiers and police officers continue to assume greater responsibility for securing swaths of their country.

Reports from Britain are vaguer, but along the same lines:

Tony Blair indicated yesterday that a phased withdrawal of British troops from Iraq could begin within six months in the first official confirmation of an exit plan....Asked whether Major General Tim Dutton, the former British commander in southeast Iraq, had been right when he said troop withdrawals could begin in six months, the prime minister replied: "There is no reason why not, if everything goes to plan."

I think this is probably bigger news than it seems. Although the initial troop reduction is small, further reductions are almost inevitable since anything else would be taken as an admission that things are getting worse in Iraq. Once this process is started, it becomes a symbol of progress and there's not much choice except to continue it.

Plus Republicans have an election coming in the fall. Can't forget that. And while I continue to think these reductions would do us even more good if we were more forthright about our plans, I suppose beggars can't be choosers. Whatever the reason, this announcement is good news.

Kevin Drum 11:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PENTAGON'S DATABASE....Last week NBC reported that the Pentagon was keeping a database of "suspicious incidents" that included such things as antiwar demonstrations and protests against military recruiters. According to William Arkin, this data is supposed to be purged after 90 days if it turns out to be unrelated to foreign governments or transnational terrorist organizations or illegal activity, but that's not what's happening:

I now know that the database of "suspicious incidents" in the United States first revealed by NBC Nightly News last Tuesday and subject of my blog last week is the Joint Protection Enterprise Network (JPEN) database, an intelligence and law enforcement sharing system managed by the Defense Department's Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA).

What is clear about JPEN is that the military is not inadvertently keeping information on U.S. persons. It is violating the law. And what is more, it even wants to do it more.

....According to a JPEN classified briefing obtained by this blogger, the 90-day "data content limit...creates issues for long-term correlation and analysis."

....The managers of JPEN are hardly being inadvertent about either the 90-day restriction or the intentional collection of information on U.S. persons. So far, it appears that they have broken the law. And what is more, they are agitating internally to find ways of circumventing the legal restrictions.

Arkin needs to simmer down. All you have to do is shut up and support the war and you won't end up in the Pentagon's database. What's so hard about that?

Kevin Drum 3:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (125)

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By: Kevin Drum

"LINKED WITH"....Laura Rozen has a question about the 4,000 or so people within the United States who have been targeted by the NSA's spying program:

Surely if there were 4,000 US persons in the past four years "linked with al Qaeda," who communicated directly with known al Qaeda terrorists, we should have vast sweeping arrests around the country and our papers would be full of these stories, the trials, the deportations, the threats averted....

But the administration has only cited one arrest from the program, the guy who planned to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge.

....I think we're in store for some pretty tortured definitions of "linked to" in the near future, coupled with allegations that the administration continues to lie to Congress and the public about the safeguards it put on this program to prevent vast interception of calls of those suspected of no wrongdoing at all, and what it did with that information. One can almost hear the shredder.

Actually, I think there might be a fairly simple answer to this question: information gleaned from the NSA program can be used for purposes of counterintelligence, but it can't be used in court. In fact, the results of the NSA program can't even be used as the basis for a subsequent FISA wiretap warrant.

In other words, the primary intent of this program wasn't to build criminal cases against persons in the U.S. Thus the low number of arrests. Most likely, the information was primarily useful for overseas operations.

Needless to say, I'm just tossing out a guess here. And arrests or not, I'd still like to know if there have really been 4,000+ communications from within the U.S. to al-Qaeda members in the past few years. That frankly doesn't seem very likely considering what we know about al-Qaeda, and I suspect that Laura is right to wonder about the precise meaning of the government's definition of "linked with." I have a feeling "affiliated" might have gotten a bit of a semantic working over as well.

Kevin Drum 1:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (67)

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By: Kevin Drum

A PRESIDENT, NOT A KING....Tom Daschle, who negotiated the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force with the White House, says categorically that Congress never intended to give the president the power to perform domestic wiretapping:

On the evening of Sept. 12, 2001, the White House proposed that Congress authorize the use of military force to "deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States." Believing the scope of this language was too broad and ill defined, Congress chose instead, on Sept. 14, to authorize "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed or aided" the attacks of Sept. 11. With this language, Congress denied the president the more expansive authority he sought and insisted that his authority be used specifically against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

What's more, Daschle says that even after that language was agreed on, the White House tried to add the following phrase:

(a) IN GENERAL That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force in the United States and against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001....

Daschle says:

This last-minute change would have given the president broad authority to exercise expansive powers not just overseas where we all understood he wanted authority to act but right here in the United States, potentially against American citizens. I could see no justification for Congress to accede to this extraordinary request for additional authority. I refused.

If the intent of Congress means anything at all, this is pretty good evidence that it didn't intend for the AUMF to give the president power to override FISA within the United States. And the White House knew it.

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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December 22, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERAL WONKERY....Max Sawicky defends liberal policy wonkishness here. Henry Farrell follows suit here. Both make the point that lefty bloggers did a lot of good, wonkish work in the Social Security debate earlier this year, most of which depended on the even more serious ongoing wonkery of lefty policy analysts. And in the end, it made a difference.

I think Max in particular makes a good point about the terms of the debate. The Republicans may have an awesomely efficient noise machine, but there's more to it than that:

Now you could say the other side has nothing but crap to say, but you would be kidding yourself. Underestimating the power of the opposition. It's a delusion. We still live in a conservative country, sports fans. People don't like unnecessary wars and Congressional corruption, but they aren't crazy about moving to an ample, generous welfare state either. There is no mass outrage over our unsustainable fiscal policy, or the ginormous trade deficits. Concern for poverty in the wake of Katrina has vanished faster than a sunshower.

....My view is that bullshit starts to stink before too long, but a good idea can walk a hundred miles. We need propaganda and agitation, but to give the public something substantive that it can take to heart is the basis for progressive transformation of society....Being angry and stupid isn't good enough.

My own view is that in addition to activism, which blogs obviously excel at, blogs can also be very good at what I call "policy-lite" short but serious takes on policy issues leavened with enough red meat to make it entertaining. It's not the same thing as a Brookings white paper or even a 5,000-word Washington Monthly article, but blogs do provide a forum to educate and inform at a non-expert level in between all the snarkiness and partisan catcalling.

In fact, despite what I said earlier, the lefty blogosphere does have at least a few high traffic sites that provide a steady diet of policy-lite: fact-heavy posts containing numbers, graphs, and summaries of serious policy research. On the right, not so much.

Much like the real world, in fact.

Kevin Drum 11:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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By: Kevin Drum

KOS CALL....In the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, Benjamin Wallace-Wells profiles the blogosphere's favorite liberal, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of Daily Kos. And whether you love Kos or hate him, I think Ben captures something important in his piece:

The conventional wisdom is that a Democratic Party in which Moulitsas calls the shots would cater to every whim of its liberal base. But though he can match Michael Moore for shrillness, the most salient thing about Moulitsas's politics is not where he falls on the left-right spectrum (he's actually not very far left). It's his relentless competitiveness, founded not on any particular set of political principles, but on an obsession with tactics and in particular, with the tactics of a besieged minority, struggling for survival: stand up for your principles, stay united, and never back down from a fight. They want to make me into the latest Jesse Jackson, but I'm not ideological at all, Moulitsas told me, I'm just all about winning.

....Moulitsas's sensibility suits his generation perfectly. But it also comes with a built-in cost. Moulitsas is just basically uninterested in the intellectual and philosophical debates that lie behind the daily political trench warfare. By his own admission, he just doesn't care about policy.

All political movements have both tacticians and theoreticians, so there's nothing odd that Kos is all about tactics and prefers to leave the ideology to others. But there's more to it than that. To a large extent, I think Kos is symbolic of nearly the entire political blogosphere, which tends to be far more a partisan wrecking crew than a genuine force for either progressive or conservative thought.

I'm honestly not sure what I think of that. Maybe it's just the nature of the medium, and we should be happy to leave the serious thinking to the think tanks. At the same time, I have a feeling that it's also a reflection of something that's been obscured by the ever shriller noise machines on both sides: the death of ideology. Partisanship may be at an all-time high in Washington DC, but when you cut through the chatter, ideology may be at an all-time low.

I suppose I ought to defend that statement, shouldn't I? And perhaps I will someday. For now, though, I'm just going to toss it out as food for thought. In the meantime, read Ben's profile. It's terrific.

UPDATE: Kos has a few factual corrections here. They aren't super serious, but perhaps Ben will address them later.

UPDATE 1.5: Ben has indeed addressed Kos's concerns. His correction is here.

UPDATE 2: Atrios suggests that political wonkery is sort of pointless these days given the modern Republican Party's well documented lack of interest in serious policy. There's something to that, and as a blogger who enjoys talking about policy I find this atmosphere pretty discouraging. Still, liberals will be back in power someday, and it would be nice if the blogosphere could help keep the wonkish embers glowing in anticipation of that happy day.

None of which is to say that Kos himself has to be a policy wonk. There's plenty of room for all kinds.

Kevin Drum 3:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (158)

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By: Amy Sullivan

BASKET-BLOGGING FOLLOW-UP...."Butler Starts, Wizards Finish." Also, Antawn Jamison's shooting slump ends. Coincidence? Not from where we're sitting.

Amy Sullivan 3:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (16)

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By: Kevin Drum

TAKING TERRORISM SERIOUSLY....Part 1 of a multi-zillion word story about the trials and tribulations of the Department of Homeland Security is running in the Washington Post today, and a lot of it is pretty much what you'd expect: a huge new agency trying desperately to deal with turf wars, lack of leadership, and budget issues. But they also had to deal with political cronyism, as Tom Ridge and Christine Todd Whitman discovered:

One stark example was the White House's blockade of a Ridge-supported plan to secure large chemical plants. After Sept. 11, Whitman had worked with Ridge on a modest effort to require high-risk plants especially the 123 factories where a toxic release could endanger at least 1 million people to enhance security. But industry groups warned Bush political adviser Karl Rove that giving new regulatory power to the Environmental Protection Agency would be a disaster.

"We have a similar set of concerns," Rove wrote to the president of BP Amoco Chemical Co.

In an interagency meeting shortly before DHS's birth, White House budget official Philip J. Perry, who also happens to be Cheney's son-in-law, declared the Ridge-Whitman plan dead.

"Tom and I would just throw our hands up in frustration over that issue," Whitman recalled.

This is the most infuriating aspect of George Bush's approach to terrorism: that he treats it as a partisan weapon instead of a genuinely serious business. Chemical plants really are a prime target for terrorists, but Dick Cheney doesn't want to annoy his corporate pals, so EPA's plans to address it get shelved. WMD counterproliferation really is important, but it's not very sexy and doesn't serve any partisan ends since Democrats support it too. So it's ignored and underfunded. Detention of enemy combatants when the enemy is an amorphous group like al-Qaeda is a genuinely vexing issue that deserves a serious bipartisan airing, but the Justice Department treats it like a child's game, inviting barely concealed rage from a conservative judge who thought this was supposed to be life-and-death stuff.

One of the worst results of all this is that because George Bush treats terrorism mostly as a handy partisan club to make Democrats look weak and cement his own support with his corporate base, he's managed to convince a lot of liberals that the whole thing is just a game. Unfortunately, this is pretty understandable. At this point, I don't really blame liberals for feeling that terrorism is little more than a Republican bogeyman that's pulled out whenever the president's poll numbers are down. After all, that's pretty much how Republicans treat it.

But it's not. Osama bin Laden really would like to find a way to kill a whole bunch of us, and we really should all be working to keep that from happening. Maybe someday Karl Rove will figure out that that's more important than bringing back the glory days of William McKinley and his 30-year Republican reign.

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias responds with some good points here.

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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By: Kevin Drum

FAIR AND BALANCED....The Carpetbagger soon to be guest posting at the Washington Monthly again! has the fascinating inside story of Fox News' John Gibson going postal* on the air and then, a couple of hours later, going mega-postal** over the phone because one of his guests suggested that his tales about the War on Christmas were a bit....um....exaggerated.

You can read it here. Don't miss it.

* I realize that comparing honest postal workers to John Gibson is unfair. My apologies.

** This is mega-unfair. Mega-apologies.

Kevin Drum 12:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

SMILE!....The British, who have already blanketed their country with closed circuit TV cameras, are now going a step further. Their latest plan is to link all those cameras to software that can read license plates, use it to track every car in the country at all times, and hold the results in a gigantic database that will tell police where, when, and with whom you've been driving your car. The Independent has the story:

By next March a central database installed alongside the Police National Computer in Hendon, north London, will store the details of 35 million number-plate "reads" per day. These will include time, date and precise location, with camera sites monitored by global positioning satellites.

Already there are plans to extend the database by increasing the storage period to five years and by linking thousands of additional cameras so that details of up to 100 million number plates can be fed each day into the central databank.

I had several immediate reactions to this story:

  • The Independent mildly suggests that a few civil liberties nutbags might be concerned about this, but they don't even bother quoting anyone. The British seem to be surprisingly unconcerned about this.

  • And why should they be concerned? It's only going to be used to catch crooks and terrorists, right? Not quite: "The national data centre will also check whether each vehicle is lawfully licensed, insured and has a valid MoT test certificate." I think it's fairly easy to imagine a bit more mission creep the next time some MP gets a bright idea for how to use all this shiny new data.

  • Do you really believe that police won't use this for random fishing expeditions against people they just don't like? Do you also believe in Santa Claus?

  • On the other hand, unlike our domestic spying, at least this is out in the open, voted on by parliament and everything. Rule of law, don't you know.

Hell, maybe David Brin is right. Perhaps we should just implant GPS chips in everyone's brains at birth and be done with it.

Kevin Drum 12:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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By: Kevin Drum

FISA FIGHTS BACK....The 4th Circuit Court isn't the only pissed off court these days. The secret FISA court is pretty unhappy too:

Several members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said in interviews that they want to know why the administration believed secretly listening in on telephone calls and reading e-mails of U.S. citizens without court authorization was legal.

....Presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly...told fellow FISA court members by e-mail Monday that she is arranging for them to convene in Washington, preferably early next month, for a secret briefing on the program, several judges confirmed yesterday.

....The judges could, depending on their level of satisfaction with the answers, demand that the Justice Department produce proof that previous wiretaps were not tainted, according to government officials knowledgeable about the FISA court. Warrants obtained through secret surveillance could be thrown into question. One judge, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also said members could suggest disbanding the court in light of the president's suggestion that he has the power to bypass the court.

Did you catch that last sentence? "Why do we even exist if the Bush administration claims absolute wartime power to do anything it wants without our approval?"

Good question. It's a proposition I'd like to see Bush try to defend publicly.

Kevin Drum 1:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (418)

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By: Kevin Drum

TRIVIALIZING TERROR....Remember Jose Padilla, the "dirty bomber"? Last September, in a major victory for the Bush administration, the 4th Circuit Court ruled that the government could detain Padilla in a military brig indefinitely without charges even though he was a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil. It was an expansive ruling that gave the administration broad powers to treat suspected enemy combatants in virtually any way they wanted.

This should have made the government happy, right? Unfortunately, there was one hitch: this being the United States, wartime or no, Padilla could appeal his detention to the Supreme Court, and there was a chance that the Supremes might not be as accomodating as the conservative 4th Circuit.

So the Justice Department came up with a brainstorm: at the last minute, it asked the 4th Circuit to vacate the government's big victory and transfer Padilla to the civilian court system, where they planned to charge him not with being a dirty bomber, not even with planning to blow up apartment buildings, but with a humdrum variety of low-level conspiracy charges.

Today, the 4th Circuit announced that it was not amused:

The government has held Padilla militarily for three and a half years, steadfastly maintaining that it was imperative in the interest of national security that he be so held. However, a short time after our decision issued on the governments representation that Padillas military custody was indeed necessary in the interest of national security, the government determined that it was no longer necessary that Padilla be held militarily.

....In a plea that was notable given that the government had held Padilla militarily for three and a half years and that the Supreme Court was expected within only days either to deny certiorari or to assume jurisdiction over the case for eventual disposition on the merits, the government urged that we act as expeditiously as possible to authorize the transfer [to a civilian court]. The government styled its motion as an emergency application, but it provided no explanation as to what comprised the asserted exigency.

The opinion, which denied the transfer and sent the case to the Supreme Court, was written by conservative darling Michael Luttig, who until today was considered a possible contender for a spot on the Supreme Court. Now, probably not. In fact, he's probably not even a conservative darling anymore.

It's worth reading Luttig's whole opinion. It's not very long and it pretty clearly indicates that Luttig and his colleagues were seriously pissed. They want to know why the government claimed it was absolutely essential to national security that Padilla be detained indefinitely and then suddenly changed their minds without so much as an explanation. They also want to know why this change of heart came only two business days before Padilla's appeal was scheduled to be filed with the Supreme Court.

And that's not all. They want to know why the government provided them with a completely different set of facts than they provided to the civilian court in Miami. They want to know why the government provided more information about the case to the media than they did to the court. And finally, they want to know why the government did all these things even though they must have known that these actions rather obviously undermined their own public arguments about the importance of the war on terror:

They have left the impression that the government may even have come to the belief that the principle in reliance upon which it has detained Padilla for this time, that the President possesses the authority to detain enemy combatants who enter into this country for the purpose of attacking America and its citizens from within, can, in the end, yield to expediency with little or no cost to its conduct of the war against terror an impression we would have thought the government likewise could ill afford to leave extant.

And these impressions have been left, we fear, at what may ultimately prove to be substantial cost to the governments credibility before the courts, to whom it will one day need to argue again in support of a principle of assertedly like importance and necessity to the one that it seems to abandon today. While there could be an objective that could command such a price as all of this, it is difficult to imagine what that objective would be.

In other words, if the government's own actions make it clear that they consider the war on terror to be little more than a game designed to expand presidential power, how can they expect anyone else to take it seriously either?

It's a good question. No wonder Luttig was pissed. He was one of the ones who thought the Bush administration took this stuff seriously.

Kevin Drum 12:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (79)

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December 21, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

EMERGENCIES AND NON-EMERGENCIES....I've been waiting for a conservative to make a reasonable argument about President Bush's secret spying program that isn't just a regurgitation of the usual fatuous talking points (Clinton did it too, the constitution allows the president to do anything he wants, etc.), and Jonah Goldberg has done it:

From what we know, it sounds like the initial decision to be as aggressive as possible in rolling up al Qaeda was completely justified. Recall what it was like in the weeks and months after 9/11, when the death toll was still believed to be much higher than 3,000, anthrax was buzzing through the postal system, and an unknown number of sleeper cells existed on our soil....Speed was of the essence, and the system back then was not speedy.

....There's very little an American president can't do when there's an immediate crisis. But as it became clear this war was going to be a marathon instead of a sprint, Bush should have figured out how to reinsert the rule of law into the process.

I think that's exactly right. With the caveat that we still don't know exactly what this program entails, it appears to be just the kind of thing people have in mind when they say that the executive branch should be given a lot of leeway during wartime because only the executive can act speedily enough when the country is under attack.

"Under attack" describes 9/11, and the president had every reason to suppose that those attacks might continue. If Bush had ordered the NSA to broaden its mandate immediately, and then gone to Congress a few weeks or a month later to get permanent authorization for a change in the law, I'd probably have no problem with it.

But that's not what he did. In fact, he did just the opposite. He deliberately declined to ask the FISA court to authorize his program because he knew they'd turn him down. Likewise, he declined to ask Congress to authorize the program because after consulting with congressional leaders he concluded that Congress would turn him down too. But like it or not, once the initial emergency was past he no longer had the authority to act unilaterally. He's our president, not our king, and even though he likes to style himself a "wartime president" he still has to obey the law. Somebody ought to remind him of that occasionally.

Kevin Drum 8:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (131)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICAN SHENANIGANS, PART 364....You all remember the rule for budget reconciliation bills, don't you? Sure you do. The basic agreement is that they can't be filibustered (gotta pass a budget, after all) but that the bill can only include things that actually have an impact on the budget. Otherwise congressional leaders would just toss everything in the world into each year's budget bill in order to avoid the possibility of filibuster.

Today, Mark Schmitt explains how the Republican leadership managed to figure out a way to stuff increased work requirements for welfare recipients into this year's budget bill:

Let's say, for argument's sake, that we all agreed that the work requirements for welfare recipients should be even tighter than they are. You could increase them somewhat, all states would comply, and people on welfare would work more. But that would have no budget impact. You couldn't get away with sneaking it into budget reconciliation.

Or, you could increase the requirements to a ridiculous level, where states would find it easier to pay a fine than to spend what it takes to get people working....The result: Now you have a budget impact and you can sneak welfare reauthorization into the budget reconciliation bill. But welfare recipients in those states that don't comply won't work more. In fact, they'll probably work even less than they would under the first plan.

Charming, isn't it? Republicans deliberately tightened the requirements so much that they knew lots of states wouldn't comply. Result: they get to look tough on welfare, they get to use budget reconciliation rules to pass a bill that has nothing to with the budget, and they end up having less actual impact on work requirements than if they'd taken the whole thing seriously in the first place. It's as if they wanted to reduce speed limits in Washington DC and decided to reduce them to 15 mph solely because that would generate lots of fines and would therefore have a budget impact.

Your Republican party at work.

Kevin Drum 6:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (39)

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By: Kevin Drum

BLACK IS WHITE, UP IS DOWN....Via the Carpetbagger, Treasury Secretary John Snow explains why a president who has vastly increased the federal deficit is more fiscally responsible than a president who vastly reduced it:

Sipping a latte at a Starbucks coffee shop with reporters in Washington two days ago, he said that "the president's legacy will be one of having significantly reduced the deficit in his time," and said Clinton's budget was a "mirage" and "wasn't a real surplus."

Snow said the Clinton surplus was inflated by a stock-price bubble and that Bush will be remembered for cutting the gap from a record $412 billion in the 2004 fiscal year.

You can't make this stuff up. Consensus reality just doesn't exist for these guys anymore.

Kevin Drum 3:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (118)

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By: Kevin Drum

IN DEFENSE OF LEAKERS....President Bush, with a flock of conservative apologists quacking in his wake, tried to convince us on Monday that we should all shut up about abuses of power because leaks of sensitive information have damaged our war against al-Qaeda in the past:

[Osama bin Laden] was using a type of cell phone, or a type of phone, and we put it in the newspaper somebody put it in the newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team, and he changed. I don't know how I can make the point more clear that any time we give up and this is before they attacked us, by the way revealing sources, methods, and what we use the information for simply says to the enemy: change.

It turns out this "leak" was published in the conservative Washington Times, and they beg to differ with our president:

The story was a profile of bin Laden that said, in the 22nd paragraph, "He keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and has given occasional interviews to international news organizations."

....But the story in The Washington Times was not based on a leak, and it did not say the U.S. was monitoring the phone. Reports of bin Laden's using a satellite phone had been in the press for years.

I checked Nexis in order to read the entire Washington Times piece, and their summary is a fair one. That really is all it said, it really wasn't a leak, and it really had been reported extensively before.

The Washington Times didn't give away any state secrets. Likewise, Jay Rockefeller kept quiet about the secret NSA program even though he disapproved of it and the New York Times held its NSA story for over a year based on national security concerns. The simple fact is that most Americans genuinely care about national security and don't leak damaging information. What they do leak is embarrassing information, and pretending that anything that's embarrassing to the president is a breach of national security just makes people take national security less seriously than they should.

The fault for that, of course, lies with the president, not the leakers. He should take responsibility for that, instead of making up tall tales to cover his tracks.

UPDATE: Laura Rozen has tall tale #2.

UPDATE 2: Hmmm. Daniel Benjamin, co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror, writes in Slate that the Washington Times story really did tip off bin Laden:

This occurred less than two weeks after the destruction of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam by al-Qaida and the day after the United States had bombed al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. After that report, Bin Laden stopped using his phone and let his aides do the calling.

....The Washington Times story was a classic case of "sources and methods" being compromised. Bin Laden undoubtedly recalled the fate of the Chechen insurgent leader Djokar Dudaev, who was killed in 1996 by a Russian missile that homed in on its target using his satellite phone signal.

Benjamin is no Bush administration shill, but this story makes even less sense the way he tells it. Sure, the Times ran a story saying that bin Laden used a satellite phone, but that was nothing new. What was new was that the previous day the U.S. had sent a few cruise missiles his way. Maybe that's what prompted him to dump the satellite phone? Especially if the missiles reminded bin Laden of Dudaev's fate, as Benjamin suggests.

Kevin Drum 2:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (66)

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By: Kevin Drum

REVOLT OF THE PROFESSIONALS....David Ignatius writes today about the "Revolt of the Professionals," career military and intelligence officers who are happy to see the jury-rigged emergency structure put in place after 9/11 slowly being replaced by serious debate about the best way to fight a long-term war against terrorism:

I met this week with a senior intelligence official who has spent much of his career pursuing terrorist targets. I asked him what he thought, watching the emergency structure come down around him. "We all knew it would," he said. The interim structure was inherently unsustainable....As we learned after Sept. 11, a frightened nation loses its sense of balance. Now that the nation feels more secure, we insist anew on the rule of law.

Over at American Footprints, Nadezhda has a good comment on Ignatius's column:

Many of the actions taken in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 may have made some sense at the time, but they were not well-thought through as long-term policy shifts. Since 9/11, however, the dominating fear of another attack has kept the White House focused on not losing the next skirmish rather than promoting the nation's long-term interests.

....The pros have been trying to push the system back toward a more sensible, balanced and, in the long-run, more sustainable approach to strategy, operations and practices. The recent revolts by a number of Senators and Congressmen who are long known as strong advocates of the military and intelligence communities have been a clear signal that the pros have failed to get their message through to the White House, so they've decided that Congress must at least hear the full story.

If this is really a multi-decade project, we need laws and policies in place that we're comfortable sustaining for decades. And those laws and policies need to be debated openly and approved by Congress and the courts. We should learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them.

Kevin Drum 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (91)

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By: Kevin Drum

LIBERTY AND SAFETY....Richard Posner's op-ed in the Washington Post today has been pretty well picked over already, but this passage really floored me:

The information that enables the detection of an impending attack may be scattered around the world in tiny bits....Many of the relevant bits may be in the e-mails, phone conversations or banking records of U.S. citizens, some innocent, some not so innocent. The government is entitled to those data, but just for the limited purpose of protecting national security.

Entitled! The federal government is entitled to read my email, phone conversations, and bank records even if I'm not suspected of anything. As long as it's a computer doing the sifting, and as long as there's some alleged connection to "national security," anything goes.

Ben Franklin had people like Posner in mind when he said that "Those who would give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Sentiments like that made Franklin the greatest of the Founding Fathers, a man whose good judgment, good sense, and fundamental trust in his fellow citizens we would do well to rediscover.

Daniel Solove has more.

And Kieran Healy has yet more. Too many more op-eds like this and we're all going to start becoming dues-paying member of the Cato Institute.

Kevin Drum 12:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (151)

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By: Kevin Drum

TOMORROW'S TALKING POINTS TODAY....Max Boot regurgitates the latest conservative apologetics about the NSA spying case today:

I eagerly await the righteous indignation from the Plame Platoon about the spilling of secrets in wartime and its impassioned calls for an independent counsel to prosecute the leakers. And wait....And wait....

I suspect it'll be a long wait because the rule of thumb seems to be that although it's treasonous for pro-Bush partisans to spill secrets that might embarrass an administration critic, it's a public service for anti-Bush partisans to spill secrets that might embarrass the administration.

You'd think that even Boot would be embarrassed to write a passage like that. But just for the record: yes, it's wrong for those in power to abuse their power by leaking the identity of a covert CIA operative, an act that's against the law. At the same time, it's a public service to reveal abuses of power, including illegal programs to engage in domestic surveillance. That ought to be pretty easy to understand.

Still, I recommend Boot's column because he's become very good lately at distilling all the standard conservative talking points about a subject into a single 700-word column. So you can save yourself a lot of time by reading his column and skipping everything else. Take this, for example:

Ask yourself why there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 2001. Not one. It's hard to know the exact reason we've been spared, but surely part of our good fortune should be attributed to the very measures the Patriot Act, the NSA surveillance, the renditions, the enhanced interrogation techniques that are now being pilloried by self-righteous journalists and lawmakers.

Of course, you might just as well ask yourself why there were no terrorist attacks on American soil in the four years before 9/11. The fact is, superhawks always claim their programs are vital to American security, and they almost always turn out to be wrong. We didn't need to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II, we didn't need Joe McCarthy's theatrics during the Cold War, and we didn't need COINTELPRO during the Vietnam War. And when the Church Committee outlawed the most egregious of our intelligence abuses in the 70s, guess what happened? The Soviet Union disintegrated a decade later. Turns out we didn't need that stuff after all. America is a lot stronger than its supposed defenders give it credit for.

In any case, Boot has succinctly expressed a talking point you can expect to hear a lot more of when al-Qaeda eventually mounts another successful attack on American soil, an act so likely as to be almost inevitable. No matter how big or how small that attack turns out to be, the hawks will rush to announce: it's the liberals' fault. It's your fault. It's my fault.

But never their fault. Never the fault of those who have so little faith in America's institutions in the first place. It's never their fault.

Kevin Drum 11:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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By: Kevin Drum

ABRAMOFF READY TO SQUEAL?....The New York Times reports that Jack Abramoff may be trying to cut a deal with prosecutors:

Mr. Abramoff is believed to have extensive knowledge of what prosecutors suspect is a wider pattern of corruption among lawmakers and Congressional staff members. One participant in the case who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations described him as a "unique resource."

A unique resource indeed. I'll bet quite a few people in DC are feeling pretty nervous these days.

Kevin Drum 1:52 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Kevin Drum

FISAGATE UPDATE....A FISA court judge has resigned in protest over the president's approval of domestic spying by the NSA. Five senators, including two Republicans, have called for hearings into the program. Some purely domestic communications turn out to have been trapped by the NSA's surveillance.

This program was the result of a panicky decision by a panicky president. As with its spiritual predecessors the Palmer raids of the 20s, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the excesses of McCarthyism in the 50s, and the FBI's COINTELPRO program in the 60s cooler heads will eventually conclude that it was unnecessary and maybe even counterproductive.

As Arthur Schlesinger says, whenever we do things like this, we always regret it in the morning. The only question is when we're going to wake up this time. When we do, maybe we'll finally get serious about fighting terrorism.

Kevin Drum 1:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (123)

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December 20, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WARTIME....Do President Bush's inherent constitutional powers as commander-in-chief give him the authority to override federal law and approve domestic spying by the NSA? That's certainly the justification he provided at Monday's press conference:

Do I have the legal authority to do this? And the answer is, absolutely. As I mentioned in my remarks, the legal authority is derived from the Constitution, as well as the authorization of force by the United States Congress.

Bill Kristol and Gary Schmitt support this assessment in the Washington Post today, and they've been joined by a small army of other commentators.

Of course, their argument is not that the president has the inherent power to authorize domestic surveillance anytime he wants, only that he has that power during wartime. And as near as I can tell, that's the elephant in the room that no one is really very anxious to discuss: What is "wartime"? Is George Bush really a "wartime president," as he's so fond of calling himself? Conservatives take it for granted that he is, while liberals tend to avoid the subject entirely for fear of being thought unserious about the War on Terror. But it's something that ought be brought up and discussed openly.

Consider a different war, for example. It's safe to say that whatever Bush's NSA program actually involves, no one would have batted an eyelash if FDR had approved a similar program during World War II. Experience suggests that during a period of genuine, all-out war, few people complain when a president pushes the boundaries of the law based on military necessity. But aside from World War II, what else counts as wartime?

If you count only serious hot wars, the United States has been at war for over 20 of the 65 years since 1940. That's a lot of "wartime."

However, if you count the Cold War, as conservatives generally think we should, the tally shoots up to about 50 years of war. That means the United States has been almost continuously at war during the past 65 years and given the nature of the War on Terror, we'll continue to be at war for the next several decades.

If this is how we define "wartime," it means that in the century from 1940 to 2040 the president will have had emergency wartime powers for virtually the entire time. But does that make sense? Is anyone really comfortable with the idea that three decades from now the president of the United States will have had wartime executive powers for nearly a continuous century?

Somehow we need to come to grips with this. There's "wartime" and then there's "wartime," and not all armed conflicts vest the president with emergency powers. George Bush may have the best intentions in the world and in this case he probably did have the best intentions in the world but that still doesn't mean he has the kind of plenary power Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt exercised during their wars.

During a genuine emergency, the president's powers are at their most expansive. The rest of the time they're more restricted, whether he considers himself a wartime president or not. Right now, if George Bush needs or wants greater authority than he currently has, he should ask Congress to give it to him after all, they approve black programs all the time and are fully capable of holding closed hearings to debate sensitive national security issues. It's worth remembering that "regulation of the land and naval forces" is a power the constitution gives to Congress, and both Congress and the president ought to start taking that a little more seriously.

UPDATE: I haven't read all the comments, but a couple of emails have persuaded me that part of this post was sloppily worded. To make myself clear, then: although Presidents have increased authority during wartime, both in theory and in practice, that authority doesn't extend to deliberately violating acts of Congress. The president is required to obey the law during both war and peace. I've modified the post slightly to make that clearer.

Kevin Drum 8:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (352)

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By: Kevin Drum

OUR POTEMKIN LEGISLATURE....Roll Call tells us about the latest shenanigans from the leaders of the modern Republican Party:

Shortly before midnight on Sunday, the leaders agreed after House and Senate negotiators had already signed the report and announced its details to the public to insert controversial language that protects vaccine manufacturers from product liability claims in the event of a viral pandemic, such as one caused by avian flu.

Observers familiar with the procedural history of conference reports said that they were unaware of any precedent for inserting language after conferees had signed off on the report. A review of several Congressional Research Service guides to conference proceedings make no reference to any prior example.

It's not enough that Republicans have already corrupted the normal conference procedure beyond recognition, stacking conference committees solely with allies and routinely amending bills to make them almost unrecognizable. Now they're adding language to conference reports after the report has already been signed off.

It's our latest step toward a Potemkin legislature. I hope conservatives are proud.

UPDATE: More here on a different subject. Apparently Republicans, who have been delaying the Pentagon budget bill because they want to stuff it full of unrelated goodies, are now getting ready to adopt a "temporary" nuclear option that would allow them to add a provision for ANWR drilling and defeat a Democratic filibuster by a simple majority vote despite longstanding rules that clearly prevent this. But hey rules are for suckers, right?

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By: Kevin Drum

INTELLIGENT DESIGN....A federal judge has struck down the Dover School Board's attempt to mandate the teaching of Intelligent Design in Dover schools. Good for him. PZ Myers highlights a few pieces of the judge's ruling:

First, while encouraging students to keep an open mind and explore alternatives to evolution, [the Board's disclaimer] offers no scientific alternative; instead, the only alternative offered is an inherently religious one, namely, ID.

....The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.

....Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

Amen. You can read the court's full decision here.

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (188)

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By: Kevin Drum

THE IRAQI ELECTIONS....I suppose I should comment on the Iraqi elections, shouldn't I? Well, here's my comment: it's genuinely wonderful that they went well, but I don't think they're going to make much difference. The underlying dynamics that are driving the insurgency haven't really changed, and might, in fact, have gotten a bit worse. And if there's any lesson we've learned over the past couple of years in Iraq, it's to pay attention to those underlying dynamics, and not get too distracted by day-to-day news, both good and bad.

Matt Yglesias has more.

Kevin Drum 11:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (56)

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TIMING THE TIMES....Last Friday, while I was visiting the Washington Monthly offices, my colleague Amy Sullivan got a call from the Joe Scarborough show asking her to join them to discuss the NSA bugging story the New York Times had just run. Specifically, Scarborough was apparently convinced that the Times had deliberately chosen to run the story on Friday in order to ruin the otherwise good news about the Iraqi elections, and wanted to chat about that.

I just laughed and told Amy to enjoy herself. It seemed like the kind of twist only a real wingnut could come up with. The liberal media is always against us!

Today, though, we learned just how wildly wrong Scarborough was:

The initial Times statements did not say that the paper's internal debate began before the Nov. 2, 2004, presidential election in which Iraq and national security questions loomed large....

But two journalists, who declined to be identified, said that editors at the paper were actively considering running the story about the wiretaps before Bush's November showdown with Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

So not only was the timing not intended to hurt Bush, it's far more likely that the timing helped him considerably. After all, if this firestorm had been made public before the election, do you think a hundred thousand people in Ohio might have decided to change their votes?

Brendan Nyhan has more on the subject.

Kevin Drum 11:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (68)

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December 19, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT IS THE NSA UP TO?....So what's the nature of the secret NSA bugging program? Why did the Bush administration feel like they couldn't continue to seek warrants via the usual FISA procedures? Take a look at the following quotes and you can see a single thread that starts to emerge:

  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, telling reporters why Bush didn't simply ask Congress to pass a law making the program clearly legal: "We've had discussions with members of Congress, certain members of Congress, about whether or not we could get an amendment to FISA, and we were advised that that was not likely to be that was not something we could likely get, certainly not without jeopardizing the existence of the program, and therefore, killing the program."

  • President Bush, answering questions at Monday's press conference: "We use FISA still....But FISA is for long-term monitoring....There is a difference between detecting so we can prevent, and monitoring. And it's important to know the distinction between the two....We used the [FISA] process to monitor. But also....we've got to be able to detect and prevent."

  • Senator Jay Rockefeller, in a letter to Dick Cheney after being briefed on the program in 2003: "As I reflected on the meeting today, and the future we face, John Poindexter's TIA project sprung to mind, exacerbating my concern regarding the direction the Administration is moving with regard to security, technology, and surveiliance."

  • New York Times editor Bill Keller, explaining why the Times finally published its story last week after holding it back for over a year: "In the course of subsequent reporting we satisfied ourselves that we could write about this program withholding a number of technical details in a way that would not expose any intelligence-gathering methods or capabilities that are not already on the public record."

None of these quotes makes sense if the NSA program involved nothing more than an expansion of ordinary taps of specific individuals. After all, the FISA court would have approved taps of domestic-to-international calls as quickly and easily as they do with normal domestic wiretaps. What's more, Congress wouldn't have had any objection to supporting a routine program expansion; George Bush wouldn't have explained it with gobbledegook about the difference between monitoring and detecting; Jay Rockefeller wouldn't have been reminded of TIA; and the Times wouldn't have had any issues over divulging sensitive technology.

It seems clear that there's something involved here that goes far beyond ordinary wiretaps, regardless of the technology used. Perhaps some kind of massive data mining, which makes it impossible to get individual warrants? Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Lots of people have suggested that the NSA program has something to do with Echelon, a massive project that vacuums up communications of all kinds from all over the globe. The problem is that Echelon has been around for a long time and no one has ever complained about it before so whatever this new program is, it's something more than vanilla Echelon. What's more, it's something disturbing enough that a few weeks after 9/11 the administration apparently felt that even Republicans in Congress wouldn't approve of it. What kind of program is so intrusive that even Republicans, even with 9/11 still freshly in mind, wouldn't have supported it?

Kevin Drum 11:28 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (260)

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By: Kevin Drum

ALTER ON BUSH....Back in 2004, I took a swipe at Newsweek's Jonathan Alter for not being forthright enough about expressing his real opinion of George Bush. But those were apparently days of sweet innocence. Now that Bush's illegal domestic spying program has been exposed, he's not holding anything back:

Were seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator....Bush was desperate to keep the Times from running this important storywhich the paper had already inexplicably held for a yearbecause he knew that it would reveal him as a law-breaker....If the Democrats regain control of Congress, there may even be articles of impeachment introduced. Similar abuse of power was part of the impeachment charge brought against Richard Nixon in 1974.

Alter says that Bush summoned both the editor and the publisher of the New York Times to the Oval Office a couple of weeks ago in an effort to keep them from publishing their story about the NSA program. But given the lame and megalomaniacal justifications he's been spouting since then for approving the program, it's easy to understand why they didn't find his request very convincing.

On the other hand, there's still no word on why the Times held off on printing this story for a year. I can't imagine that's going to stay a secret for very much longer.

Kevin Drum 8:50 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (144)

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THE NSA AND THE LAW....What's the technical legal status of the NSA bugging program exposed by the New York Times last week? As near as I can tell, here's the nickel version of the legal issues involved:

Q: Is the NSA program a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

A: That's unclear. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that warrants are required in cases involving purely domestic surveillance, but has punted on the question of whether the same rules apply to domestic surveillance for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence. A couple of cases during the 60s and 70s suggest that warrantless wiretaps are constitutional if their "primary purpose" is collection of foreign intelligence, but there have been no definitive rulings on this.

Q: Did the NSA program violate the FISA act?

A: Yes. FISA, which was specifically enacted in 1978 to clear up some of the questions left unresolved by the Supreme Court, allows warrantless surveillance of conversations between "foreign powers" (and their agents) only if "there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party." We don't know all the details of how the NSA bugging plan operated, but it seems pretty clear that tapping conversations of "United States persons" was not only a substantial likelihood, but practically the whole point of the program.

Q: Does the president's inherent power as commander-in-chief during wartime override the provisions of FISA?

A: No. The president has made the rather remarkable claim that the Authorization to Use Military Force (passed shortly after 9/11 and aimed at al-Qaeda) allows him to override FISA and authorize domestic surveillance on his own authority. But just as its name implies, a fair reading of the AUMF suggests that it was meant to apply only to military force. In fact, the Supreme Court only barely agreed that it extended even to the detention of enemy combatants, a fairly standard wartime power. Legalizing domestic surveillance of U.S. persons simply wasn't the intent of Congress when it passed the AUMF, and this is precisely why they spent so much time amending FISA to apply to terrorism investigations after passing the AUMF. After all, why bother codifying all this if the AUMF already gave the president plenary powers in this area?

Likewise, the proposition that Congress has no power to interfere in any way with the president's Article II commander-in-chief power is ludicrous. There's no case law to back this up and no reason to believe this except for the president's own apparent belief in his unlimited authority during wartime.

In other words, the president's program is almost certainly illegal unless you accept his unprecedented notion that we are currently in a state of war so grave that he has virtually unlimited power to override federal law whenever he considers it necessary. Even more importantly, by keeping his program secret, he has set himself up as the sole arbiter of whether his actions are legal or not. Neither Congress nor the courts are allowed any oversight, a position that is both breathtaking and dangerous.

Note that this post is based primarily on three sources:

  • A 2004 overview by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service about the statutory framework of the FISA act.

  • A detailed post by Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy analyzing the legal status of the NSA program.

  • A couple of posts (here and here) by Marty Lederman focusing primarily on the issue of the president's inherent powers.

Read all three if you want more detail on the legal issues surrounding all this.

Kevin Drum 7:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (168)

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SETTING A LOW BAR....I see that Steve Benen had the same reaction to George Bush's Sunday night speech that I did:

Talk about your soft bigotry of low expectations, Bush won praise for acknowledging that the "work has been especially difficult in Iraq," and for recognizing that there are a more than a few Americans who disapprove of his handling of the war. It's as if there was an expectation that the president would, once again, tell us how great everything in Iraq is, facts be damned. It's frustrating; we seem to have reached a point in which the president's willingness to concede a few obvious facts is so unusual, it's literally front-page news.

Yes, it's remarkable. Even the slightest deviation from the usual White House happy talk is now cause for headline writers to rejoice. We sure don't expect much from this guy, do we?

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FISA FOLLOW-UP....Earlier this morning I noted that the FISA court is notorious for its willingness to approve any and all wiretap requests from the federal government. Via Josh, I see that EPIC has tallied up the record of FISA requests between 1980 and 2002, the year the NSA's secret domestic bugging program started, and has a hard number for the number of requests that had been turned down during that period:

None.

Since then, one or two applications have been turned down, but the basic point is still clear: FISA approves 99.98% of all surveillence applications presented to it. What's more, federal law already allows emergency wiretaps without a FISA warrant, as long as you apply for a warrant within 72 hours. Following the law wouldn't have hamstrung the administration in any way.

And there's more: it wasn't even a matter of keeping the NSA program a secret from the FISA court. The judge knew all about it, and even warned the administration not to use information from the unapproved program as the basis for further wiretap requests.

So what's the deal? It must be pretty obvious to everyone that there's more going on here than the administration is fessing up to. Since there was no apparent reason to bypass the law, there must be an unapparent one. But what?

Kevin Drum 1:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (182)

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT DOES MATT BAI WANT?....Garance Franke-Ruta noted this morning that there's a new round of Matt Bai-bashing in the blogosphere today. This sounded exciting, but even so I clicked the link to Bai's latest article gingerly. See, I was expecting it to be the usual 10,000-word NYT Magazine manifesto and wasn't sure I was up to plowing through it to see what the fuss was all about.

But no. "New World Economy" turns out to be just a few hundred words. And sure enough, I can see the point of bashing this particular passage:

So what if Social Security and Medicaid functioned best in a world where most workers had company pensions and health insurance and spent their entire careers with one employer? The mere suggestion that these programs might be updated for a new, more consumer-driven economy sends Democratic leaders into fits of apoplexy.

I can't make any sense of this. If anything, a simple, guaranteed, government retirement benefit makes more sense today than it did when lots of people had company pensions. And what does government healthcare for the poor have to do with anything? Did he mean Medicare? I'm confused.

On the other hand, his concluding passage does make sense but only because it seems to make exactly the opposite point of the passage above:

If you were going to sit down and create a system for our time, it probably wouldn't look much like the one we have. Does it make sense to expect businesses to finance lavish health care plans when foreign competition is forcing companies to cut their costs? Isn't government better equipped to insure a nomadic work force while employers take on the more manageable task of childcare a problem that hardly existed 50 years ago? If government were to remove the burden of health care costs from businesses, enabling them to better compete, wouldn't it then be more reasonable to create disincentives for employers who are thinking of shipping their jobs overseas? Isn't the very notion of a payroll tax for workers antiquated and inequitable in a society where so many Americans earn stock dividends and where a growing number are self-employed?

Ezra Klein bashes this particular passage because it demonstrates that Bai "apparently believes that the Democrats are antiquated because they don't support government-provided health insurance and progressive taxation" proposals that Democrats self evidently do support. What's with this guy?

And yet, I think I see Bai's point. Maybe. Do Democrats support national healthcare and elimination of payroll taxes? Not that I've heard lately. Among actual politicians, we mostly hear small bore proposals to make modest changes to healthcare (catastrophic coverage, prescription drugs, etc.) along with timid suggestions that we should roll back Bush's tax cuts for the rich. But bold proposals for single-payer healthcare and a serious revamping of the tax system along progressive lines? Not so much.

Now, if this really is Bai's point, he probably should have made it clearer. Is his beef that Democrats are wedded to big government programs? Or is it just the opposite: he's unhappy because they aren't willing to speak up loudly in favor of the even bigger government programs we need in the bold new consumer-driven world of the 21st century?

I guess we'll have to wait for the book. Overall, I'm not sure Bai is wrong, but the charge of incoherence seems pretty well founded. As it turns out, a few hundred extra words might have been a good idea here.

Kevin Drum 12:41 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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By: Kevin Drum

FISA AND HAM SANDWICHES....I haven't been reading the blogosphere very much for the past few days, so excuse me if this is old news. But I wanted to mention the part of the NSA bugging story that strikes me as the strangest.

Remember that old saw about how a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich if a prosecutor asks it to? Well, as near as I can tell, the secret FISA court that authorizes domestic wiretaps is pretty much the same way: it would approve a wiretap on a ham sandwich if the government asked it to. I don't think official numbers are available, but unofficially it's clear that out of thousands of requests over the past decade, FISA has turned down only a tiny handful. Getting a FISA warrant is the closest thing to a slam dunk there is in the criminal justice system.

In fact, the New York Times article that exposed the NSA program made this very point:

The standard of proof required to obtain a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is generally considered lower than that required for a criminal warrant intelligence officials only have to show probable cause that someone may be "an agent of a foreign power," which includes international terrorist groups and the secret court has turned down only a small number of requests over the years. In 2004, according to the Justice Department, 1,754 warrants were approved. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can grant emergency approval for wiretaps within hours, officials say.

Administration officials counter that they sometimes need to move more urgently, the officials said. Those involved in the program also said that the N.S.A.'s eavesdroppers might need to start monitoring large batches of numbers all at once, and that it would be impractical to seek permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court first, according to the officials.

This explanation is so weak as to be laughable. So what's the real reason for this program? Working with the FISA court wouldn't stop the Bush administration from doing anything they want to do, so what's the point of bypassing them? The real point, that is.

Kevin Drum 11:47 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (191)

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By: Kevin Drum

BACK FROM VACATION....It looks like I missed the excitement over George Bush's latest assertion that he can do anything he wants because we're at war including warrantless spying on U.S. citizens. Luckily, both Hilzoy and Shakespeare's Sister kept up a terrific drumbeat of coverage over the weekend, so I feel like I've caught up just by reading my own blog now that I'm home.

(Yes, it's mildly ironic that I keep up with current events far better when I'm in California than I do when I'm actually in our nation's capital. But I've barely even read a newspaper for the past four days.)

In any case, many thanks to both of my guest bloggers for filling in while I was gone. I hope everyone enjoyed the change of pace. I'll be back blogging as usual Monday morning.

Kevin Drum 1:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (77)

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By: Amy Sullivan

ONE IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES OF BASKET-BLOGGING....I can't let Jason Zengerle and Matt Yglesias dominate the field of political-journalists-who-blog-about-basketball. And I certainly can't let our hometown Wizards' current streak of tough losses in close games go without comment. Especially when they just lost to a team that boasts Steve Blake--Steve Blake!--as its starting point guard.

Juan Dixon did put on an shooting clinic, providing another reminder of the role he used to play for the Wizards. Of course, we gave him up (along with Blake) for Antonio Daniels, who has done such a bang-up job that he's now been replaced as starting point guard by Chucky Atkins.

But the Wizards' woes really come down to two other factors. The first is that we don't have anyone who can spell Antawn Jamison at power forward and it's starting to wear on him. Earlier in the season, he was the team's most consistent player, but it's a pace he can't keep up. The other problem is that Caron Butler is still coming off the bench and playing the minutes to match. Even so, he's the team's third highest scorer. Give him more minutes and Butler just might take some pressure off Jamison while drawing some coverage off Arenas.

Now if I could just come up with a plan to fix the economy and Iraq, we'd really be in business.

Amy Sullivan 1:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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By: Hilzoy

Why Habeas Corpus Matters

Next week Congress should vote on the Defense Authorization Bill, which contains Lindsay Graham's amendment stripping Guantanamo detainees of their right to file habeas corpus petitions. The point of habeas petitions is to allow prisoners to ask the government why they are in prison, and to allow a judge to decide whether the government's answer holds up.

Graham's amendment, in its last published version, would grant Guantanamo detainees the right to appeal the verdicts reached by their military tribunals. But that's not a substitute for the right to file habeas petitions. To see why not, consider the latest development in a case I've written about before: the case of Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim. Here's an article about the case, and here's an op-ed by al-Hakim's lawyer.)

This is a case that illustrates why habeas corpus matters. It could not have been brought if Graham's amendment had been enacted, since the people who brought it have no reason to appeal the decision of their military tribunal. The military tribunal found that they were not enemy combatants; why would they want to appeal that? What they want to know is: since they were cleared months ago, why are they still locked up in Guantanamo?

Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim are Uighurs: members of an ethnic minority in Western China. They were picked up in Afghanistan a little over four years ago, by bounty hunters who had been promised $5,000 for each Taliban or al Qaeda member they turned over. But Qassim and al-Hakim were not, in fact, al Qaeda or Taliban, or any other sort of enemy combatant, according to the US military tribunal that cleared them last March.

You might think that once the two men had been cleared, they would be released. You'd be wrong. Having taken them into custody, the government can't seem to find a place to release them to. Nor did the government bother to inform either their lawyers or the judge who was hearing their case that they had been cleared until their lawyers had a chance to meet with them last July, despite the fact that the justification for holding them was supposed to be that they were enemy combatants.

When the two men met with their lawyers for the first time, three and a half years after being taken into custody and four months after being cleared, they were shackled to the floor. They had not been allowed to contact anyone; when a newspaper article about them came out, one of their attorneys got a phone call in the middle of the night from his client's sister, who had believed, for nearly four years, that her brother was dead.

During the last hearing I wrote about (warning: pdf), government claimed that it needed more time to 'wind up' Qassim and al-Hakim's detention. Even then, it was not at all clear when the government would manage to let them go:

""THE COURT: Counsel, you said that -- you used the word 'soon' to describe when you thought that this might be resolved. Define 'soon'.

MR. HENRY: I don't know when that is. I apologize if I misspoke. I mean, I think I said 'soon' in kind of the hopeful sense of the word.""

(Last time I wrote about this, I added: "Ah: the hopeful sense. The sense in which it is true that I will "soon" win the lottery, publish my twenty-sixth book, finally become an organized person who answers her email on time, and realize my Buddha-nature.")

Now, four months later, there has been another hearing (warning: pdf). Because during those four months, nothing has happened:

"THE COURT: I issued a memorandum order, as I said, nearly four months ago on August the 19th declining to decide whether the government really had such a wind-up power, because the parties were in agreement that both Hakim and Qassim should be and would be released. But that hasn't happened. As far as I can tell, nothing is happening.

My first instinct when I heard this case was I didn't want to hear ex parte representations from the government. I didn't really want to have a public/private part of this, and my suspicions, my instincts were correct for reasons that I didn't expect. They were correct because what I heard ex parte wasn't any different from what I was hearing in the courtroom. There isn't any -- the government, if it's making any progress at all, doesn't even want to tell me about it ex parte."

So: the government has met with the judge alone, to discuss in private its efforts to find a place where Qassim and al-Hakim can be released. But "the government, if it's making any progress at all, doesn't even want to tell me about it ex parte." There is no evidence that the government is doing anything at all to find a way to release these men.

"THE COURT: I am more interested today in the fundamental underlying question, which is the basic motion to vacate the stay order and issue a writ directing the immediate release of the petitioners. It is getting to be time, and it may be time now, to fish or cut bait on this motion. I think the premise on which I declined to decide this three or four months ago was that the government was making good faith efforts, and that something would happen, and that we were not thinking about indefinite detention of these people because the government wants them released.

The time has stretched out to the point where indefinite is not an inappropriate word to describe what's happened, and the question is whether I or anybody can or should tolerate that situation. And if it's intolerable, what I or anybody else can do about it.

From the standpoint of the petitioners at Guantanamo Bay, it clearly is intolerable. It seems to me that I basically have three options. There's a fourth option, and the fourth option is let's wait a few more months, and I don't frankly think that's an option. I think we've had enough time."

There follows an extended discussion of whether the Court has the authority to order the Uighurs' release, and if so on what conditions; whether they can be released without being deemed to have "entered" the country, and so forth. But while these are crucial issues for the court, they are not the main issues as far as justice are concerned.

Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim are in Guantanamo not because they had done anything wrong, but because our government decided to pay bounty hunters for each alleged al Qaeda or Taliban member they turned over, and then to accept those bounty hunters' word that the people they turned over were in fact enemy combatants. That is: our government set up a policy that created incentives for bounty hunters to pass off innocent people as enemy combatants, and Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim are victims of that policy and the perverse incentives it created.

As a result, they have been held incommunicado for a little over four years. Think about being imprisoned for four years because of a mistake. During most of those four years, their friends and family thought they were dead. At least one of them has children; he has missed four years of his children's childhood, and they have spent four years not knowing their father. At least one of them is married; God alone knows what happens to a marriage when one spouse simply vanishes from the face of the earth, and the other has no idea what has happened to him for four years.

While I have a lot of concerns about Guantanamo, I do not fundamentally object to the fact that our government held Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim while it believed that they were enemy combatants. But it has been about nine months since they were cleared. And the fact that Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim are still in prison, nine months after our government determined that they had done nothing wrong, and that it was holding them by mistake, is just wrong.

Remember this case the next time someone says that the Graham amendment is about giving legal rights to terrorists. Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim are not terrorists. They are the victims of our government's mistakes. And remember this case the next time someone says that the rights provided by the Graham amendment are an acceptable substitute for habeas corpus. The Graham amendment only allows Guantanamo detainees to appeal the findings of military tribunals. It does not allow detainees like Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim, who have no quarrel with the findings of their tribunals, to ask why, having been found innocent, they are still in prison.

Luckily, the Graham amendment was not in force when Abu Bakker Qassim and A'del Abdu al-Hakim brought their case. Had it been, they would not have been allowed to proceed, innocence or no innocence. As it is, they filed a habeas petition. The judge in the case has said that he will rule soon:

"The one thing that I am sure of is that I'm going to act on this motion within the next week or two one way or another. There isn't going to be any more waiting. So if anybody has anything to say to me by way of augmenting the record -- I don't -- thank you, Mr. Henry, for your offer to speak to me off the record, but I don't want that. I'm just not going to be in that position. If you can tell me that they're going to be released on X date, you can tell me that publicly. Or if you can tell me that they're going to be released on X date and you have a date, I'll accept that. But "diplomatic efforts are proceeding," no thank you."

But it's only because they had habeas rights that they have a judge at all. If the Graham amendment passes, no other Guantanamo detainee who is cleared by a military tribunal will be able to ask a court to decide whether he can still be kept in detention. (And bear in mind that the government's position is that it does not have to tell anyone when detainees are cleared.) Again: this is just wrong.

If you haven't already, please call or write your Senators and Representatives and ask them not to support this amendment, especially if you live in the district of any of the Conference Committee members listed here. (And yes, I know that Duke Cunningham shouldn't be on this list.)

Thanks -- and thanks as well to Kevin Drum for letting me guest-blog, and to all of you for putting up with me.

Hilzoy 12:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (60)

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December 18, 2005
By: Shakespeare's Sister

Farewell....Well, Bush gave a speech tonight (Think Progress has the full transcript here). In case you dont feel like reading the whole thing, heres a summary:

Good eveninglandmark day in the history of libertydemocracy at the heart of the Middle EastI know many Americans have questions about the cost and direction of this war (but Im not going to answer themquick, over there, look at the sparkly freedom!)weapons of mass destructionmass gravesglobal terrorist movementperpetual war against America9/11(do they look scared again yet, Dick?)stay the coursefight them over thereonly two options before our countryvictory or defeatwe remember the words of the Christmas carol, written during the Civil War: God is not dead, nor [does] He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on Earth, good-will to men.

Amen, brother.

And on that note, I will bid you adieu, because I am a French weasel, and thank Kevin very much for inviting me and you Political Animals for being so very gracious.

Shakespeare's Sister 10:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Hilzoy

It's A Puzzlement

In his radio address yesterday, the President also said this:

"The House of Representatives passed reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Yet a minority of senators filibustered to block the renewal of the Patriot Act when it came up for a vote yesterday. That decision is irresponsible, and it endangers the lives of our citizens. The senators who are filibustering must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment."

Under normal circumstances, I would have understood this. But since the President apparently feels that he doesn't need to concern himself with what's legal, why can't we "afford to be without this law for a single moment"? How on earth could not having it "endanger the lives of our citizens"?

As far as I can tell, Bush and his crack legal team think that it wouldn't matter if the law said that he could order wiretaps only at midnight on Hallowe'en while dangling from a chandelier wearing a gold lam evening gown and stiletto heels. He can do whatever he wants.

So why on earth does the fate of the PATRIOT Act matter to him?

Hilzoy 6:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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By: Hilzoy

Bush And The Separation Of Powers

As Shakespeare's Sister noted yesterday, President Bush admitted that he authorized the surveillance program described in Friday's New York Times, which allows the government to conduct surveillance on American citizens without a warrant.

This is an extraordinary admission. But since some of our friends on the right are having difficulty understanding why, I thought I'd spell it out.

First, this program seems to be illegal. I explained in my last post why I think this; you can read the relevant law (FISA) for yourself, or check out the relevant bits, which I pasted into a comment on Obsidian Wings.

(Some of the legal commentary from the right is beyond bizarre. This, for instance:

"This was done and reviewed periodically every 45 days. 50 USC 1802 says:
(a)
(1) Notwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year...."

If you check out the text after the ellipses, it says: "if the Attorney General certifies in writing under oath that...", and one of the things the AG has to certify in order to engage in these warrantless wiretaps is: "(B) there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party". A 'United States person' is defined here; it includes any US citizen or legal permanent resident. So this section explicitly does not authorize the sort of warrantless surveillance of US citizens that the NY Times describes.

After writing this, I found more debunking of right-wing legal analysis here.)

Unless there's some intriguing legal authority that I'm missing, the President has admitted to ordering his subordinates to violate the law. And that is extraordinary in itself.

***

In addition, President Bush's actions violate the crucial doctrine of the separation of powers, which is one of the founding principles of our country. The separation of powers requires that the three branches of government be strictly separated. The role of the Legislature is to write the laws and to impose taxes. The role of the Executive is to carry out those laws. The role of the judiciary is to interpret them, and to carry out the judicial proceedings that decide the guilt or innocence of individuals. When one branch takes it upon itself to usurp the powers of the others, the separation of powers is threatened, and our liberty is at risk.

Montesquieu, the great theorist of the separation of powers, wrote:

"Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. (...)

To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power. (...)

When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner.

Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control; for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.

There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals."

James Madison wrote, in Federalist 47:

"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, selfappointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. Were the federal Constitution, therefore, really chargeable with the accumulation of power, or with a mixture of powers, having a dangerous tendency to such an accumulation, no further arguments would be necessary to inspire a universal reprobation of the system."

What George Bush has done, by signing his Presidential Order, is to produce exactly that accumulation of powers that Madison and the other framers of the Constitution were determined to prevent. He has decided to circumvent the courts' power to decide whether the government has enough evidence to place someone under surveillance, thereby removing a crucial check on executive power, and arrogating one of the powers of the judiciary to himself.

Moreover, the power he seeks to strip the judiciary of is not a peripheral one; it is essential to the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Thus, from a 1972 Supreme Court decision (United States v. United States District Court):

"Lord Mansfield's formulation touches the very heart of the Fourth Amendment directive: that, where practical, a governmental search and seizure should represent both the efforts of the officer to gather evidence of wrongful acts and the judgment of the magistrate that the collected evidence is sufficient to justify invasion of a citizen's private premises or conversation. Inherent in the concept of a warrant is its issuance by a "neutral and detached magistrate." Coolidge v. New Hampshire, supra, at 453; Katz v. United States, supra, at 356. The further requirement of "probable cause" instructs the magistrate that baseless searches shall not proceed.

These Fourth Amendment freedoms cannot properly be guaranteed if domestic security surveillances may be conducted solely within the discretion of the Executive Branch. The Fourth Amendment does not contemplate the executive officers of Government as neutral and disinterested magistrates. Their duty and responsibility are to enforce the laws, to investigate, and to prosecute. Katz v. United States, supra, at 359-360 (DOUGLAS, J., concurring). But those charged with this investigative and prosecutorial duty should not be the sole judges of when to utilize constitutionally sensitive means in pursuing their tasks. The historical judgment, which the Fourth Amendment accepts, is that unreviewed executive discretion may yield too readily to pressures to obtain incriminating evidence and overlook potential invasions of privacy and protected speech."

In addition, in deciding that he has the right to disregard clear statutes, President Bush is arrogating to himself the power of the legislature as well. The Legislature has the power to make laws; the Executive carries out the laws the Legislature has written. Had George W. Bush wanted to, he could have gone to Congress and asked it to change the laws. Instead, he decided to simply ignore them: to act as though he had the powers that the Constitution reserves to the legislative branch.

He is, essentially, claiming that he has the right not just to execute the laws, but to write them himself, and then to judge their application. Moreover, he claims the right to do this in secret. Were he to announce openly that he had decided to concentrate all the powers of government in his own hands, we could at least argue about whether or not we thought that was a good idea. But by acting in secret, he is, essentially, asserting the right to amend the Constitution unilaterally and without having the decency to let us know.

***

President Bush claims that "the NSA's activities under this authorization are thoroughly reviewed by the Justice Department and NSA's top legal officials, including NSA's general counsel and inspector general." Unfortunately for us, there is no reason to doubt that this is true. The New York Times reported that:

"For example, just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Mr. Yoo, the Justice Department lawyer, wrote an internal memorandum that argued that the government might use "electronic surveillance techniques and equipment that are more powerful and sophisticated than those available to law enforcement agencies in order to intercept telephonic communications and observe the movement of persons but without obtaining warrants for such uses."

Mr. Yoo noted that while such actions could raise constitutional issues, in the face of devastating terrorist attacks "the government may be justified in taking measures which in less troubled conditions could be seen as infringements of individual liberties."

The next year, Justice Department lawyers disclosed their thinking on the issue of warrantless wiretaps in national security cases in a little-noticed brief in an unrelated court case. In that 2002 brief, the government said that "the Constitution vests in the President inherent authority to conduct warrantless intelligence surveillance (electronic or otherwise) of foreign powers or their agents, and Congress cannot by statute extinguish that constitutional authority.""

This is the same administration whose lawyers wrote, in one of the torture memos (pdf):

"In light of the President's complete authority over the conduct of war, without a clear statement otherwise, criminal statutes are not read as infringing on the President's ultimate authority in these areas." (p. 20.)

They apparently believe that when the Constitution says (Art. II, sec. 2) that "The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States", what it means is that the President has the power not just to, well, command the Army and Navy, but to set aside laws, treaties, and the rest of the Constitution itself, so long as there is even a tenuous connection between what he wants to do and national security.

I have no idea how they square this with other parts of the Constitution, like its statement that the President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed", or with the fact that the Framers seem to have completely disagreed with them. (Federalist 69 on the Commander in Chief power:

"It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the DECLARING of war and to the RAISING and REGULATING of fleets and armies, all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.")

But if it's hard to reconcile the administration's position with the Constitution and the views of the framers, it's even harder to reconcile it with anything remotely resembling common sense. Because, on this view, the President can do anything he wants -- anything at all -- during wartime.

Does he want to imprison a United States citizen indefinitely, without a warrant, and habeas corpus be damned? Fine! Does he want to tap our phones and read our email, also without a warrant, in defiance of the FISA statute and the Fourth Amendment? Also fine! As far as I can see, on this reading of the Constitution, there's no reason he couldn't decide that his war powers extended to levying taxes without Congressional approval (wars cost money, you know), or throwing Congressman Murtha in jail to prevent him from sapping our troops' morale, or suspending the publication of all newspapers, magazines, and blogs on the same grounds, or making himself President For Life on the grounds that we need the continued benefit (cough) of his awesome leadership skillz to successfully prosecute the war on terror.

To quote the Federalist Papers one last time (this time, no. 48):

"An ELECTIVE DESPOTISM was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others."

In this country we do not have an absolute monarch. We have a President who is bound by the rule of law, just like the rest of us. When he asserts the right to set the laws and the Constitution aside, and to arrogate all the powers of government in his hands in secret so that he can use it unchecked, we have an obligation to make it clear that he is wrong. And if we love our country, we will.

Hilzoy 5:37 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (84)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Dr. Demento....This story is just outrageous. A gynecologist has been convicted of two counts of rape and two counts of indecent liberties, and faces up to 23 years in prison, after he (and possibly his twin) abused what may be hundreds of women. On Friday, eight women sued the Washington State Health Department, alleging that the doctor, Charles Momah, was allowed to practice for eight years after the Health Department was made aware of his scumbaggery. The suit also alleges he never should have been licensed to practice medicine in Washington State, having been accused multiple times of malpractice in his former home of New York State.

Another article on Momah clarifies that the state Health Department has been receiving complaints about him since 1995, but did not suspend his license until 2003, which is when they claim they fist had indication of any boundary violations by Dr. Momah. However:

[Daleena Rollins] became concerned about Momah's sexual touching, and switched doctors in early 1995. With the help of the new doctor, she filed a written complaint with the commission that April. The commission assigned a case number but apparently never followed up, the lawsuit said.

And in 1997, the Health Department sent a letter to Momah, indicating he was the target of an investigation for "unprofessional conduct." Further investigations against Momah were launched by the Washington state medical quality assurance commission in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2002, and he was censured and reprimanded by the New York State Department of Health in 1999, paying $500,000 to settle civil fraud charges. Still no disciplinary action was taken against him in Washington.

What the hell went so tragically wrong here? I cant imagine why on earth it took so long to stop this nutjob in his tracks. Often, in cases like this, abusive doctors act with impunity for so long because patients are embarrassed to come forward, but that certainly doesnt seem to be the case here. Women were identifying that he was touching and treating them inappropriately and filing complaintscomplaints that were never investigated. Im really at a loss. I never understood the job of state Health Departments to be abetting sex offenders and providing yet more disincentive, by way of indifference, to victims of sex abuse from coming forward.

Shakespeare's Sister 4:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Worrisome Pattern....The WaPo reminds us that the Times revelation of the Bushies secret spy program is only the latest in a troubling trend.

Since October, news accounts have disclosed a burgeoning Pentagon campaign for "detecting, identifying and engaging" internal enemies that included a database with information on peace protesters. A debate has roiled over the FBI's use of national security letters to obtain secret access to the personal records of tens of thousands of Americans. And now come revelations of the National Security Agency's interception of telephone calls and e-mails from the United States -- without notice to the federal court that has held jurisdiction over domestic spying since 1978.

Defiant in the face of criticism, the Bush administration has portrayed each surveillance initiative as a defense of American freedom.

Well, now that depends on ones notion of freedom, doesnt it? If youre one of the peaceful civilian protesters who was caught up in the dragnet launched by the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), or one of the tens of thousands of ordinary Americans, most of whom were not suspected of wrongdoing, whose telephone calls, correspondence, and finances were screened (and the information dumped into a government database) after the FBI issued a national security letter on you, you might reasonably feel that your freedom was being rather limited, and not so much defended.

Of course, you (and I and everyone else) have no way of knowing if were one of the people whose freedom has been encroached upon, or if were one of the citizens being told we should be thankful that others freedom is limited so that ours may be defended. The question each American, irrespective of political leanings, has to ask her- or himself is whether the circumvention of checks and balances, the evasion of official oversight, the subversion of civil libertiesincluding, possibly, your ownis, in the end, a bigger threat to freedom than the threats (of terrorism? of peaceful demonstration?) used to justify an abandonment of the rule of law in the first place.

Shakespeare's Sister 1:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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December 17, 2005
By: Shakespeare's Sister

Discussion Question....With Kevins recent defense of the media against constant criticism (and little praise) in mind, I wont abuse the platform hes graciously granted me to tear the Gray Lady a new a-hole for sitting on the domestic spying program story for over a year.

[The Times] said the White House had asked the paper not to publish the story at all, "arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny."

[]

In a statement yesterday, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote that when the Times became aware that the NSA was conducting domestic wiretaps without warrants, "the Administration argued strongly that writing about this eavesdropping program would give terrorists clues about the vulnerability of their communications and would deprive the government of an effective tool for the protection of the country's security.

If someone else were to suggest it seems as though the Times is blowing as much smoke up our collective bum as the cretinous louts who dodged Johnny Law in the first place, I certainly wouldnt disagree, ahem, but for this particular discussion, Im curious to hear your thoughts on the governments justification for convincing the Times to withhold publication.

I should note, for the record, that Im no criminal mastermind, which may inform my failure to comprehend how the publics awareness of its governments evasion of official oversight would alert terrorists that they may be spied on. It seems to me that most nogoodniks probably try to hide their schemes, irrespective of whether the exact specifics of the governments attempts to thwart them are widely known.

Shakespeare's Sister 9:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (157)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Bob Barrs on Bushs Case....Ouch. Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) was on CNN yesterday, debating Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) on the merits of the secret domestic spying program, and he is not pleased:

Well, the fact of the matter is that the Constitution is the Constitution, and I took an oath to abide by it. My good friend, my former colleague, Dana Rohrabacher, did and the president did. And I dont really care very much whether or not it can be justified based on some hypothetical. The fact of the matter is that, if you have any government official who deliberately orders that federal law be violated despite the best of motives, that certainly ought to be of concern to us

Well, gee, I guess then the president should be able to ignore whatever provision in the Constitution as long as theres something after the fact that justifies it

The fact of the matter is the law prohibits specifically prohibits what apparently was done in this case, and for a member of Congress to say, oh, that doesnt matter, Im proud that the president violated the law is absolutely astounding, Wolf

Barr is no left-winger, hes a fire-breathing conservative who tried the case against Clinton, strongly supports the Second Amendment, drafted the Defense of Marriage Act, staunchly apposes abortion, and has been a speaker before the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has been noted as becoming increasingly radical and racist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, who classifies the CCC as a hate group. Certainly not the credentials of a left wing wacko like me.

The problem isnt the spying; its the secrecy. Surely thats something conservatives can wrap their heads around, as Bob Barr seems to have done. All they have to do is substitute sex for spying, and lying for secrecy, and theyll come up with a phrase thats bound to ring rather familiar.

(Hat tips to Pam and Pensito Review.)

Shakespeare's Sister 6:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (107)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Saturday Musings....Im continually fascinated by presidents (and his supporters) insistence on rightness, and their predilection for equating it with goodness. So it was of interest that, as I mentioned earlier, the president used his weekly radio address to reassert not only the necessity, but the rightness, of his decision to authorize a secret domestic spying program, and cast those who exposed it to the light of day as putting American citizens at risk and endangering the country. There seems, at this point, little chance that Bush will be any more likely to admit error after this revelation than with any other that has come before. Being wrong is not an option. It never is.

I always find it particularly curious when a self-identified born-again Christian seems so patently incapable of admitting being wrong, as forgiveness is such a significant part of Christian doctrine. When a Messiah has died for your sins, surely it indicates an expectation that youll commit some.

Back in July, Mannion penned (so to speak) a brilliant post on why (certain) conservatives feel free to cast the first stone, which included one of my favorite lines of all time:

[I]f Jesus were around today and a woman taken in adultery ran to him for protection and he said to the crowd, Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone, forty-six Republican adulterers would bean her with rocks.

His post, in turn, inspired a post of my own, adding to his thoughts mine about the nature of born-again conservatives in the Bush mold. An excerpt:

Born-agains, like Bush, have a different attitude about this stuff than, say, traditional guilt-ridden Catholics or Lutherans, or even your average atheist. There's a sense of accumulation among the latterthe feeling that life is a continuing thread, and bad behavior may be past, but hasn't disappeared. Believers in souls might suggest that each sin leaves an indelible mark; absolution may wash the soul clean, but its shape is forever changed by the dings and dents of living a mortal, and hence imperfect, life. Non-believers might say that your mistakes stay with you, even after you have made amends, and leave a mark on your psyche, in your memory, on a strand of time. Whatever the language, the principle is the sameour flaws are a part of us, and it's usually considered a good thing. Youve learned. Built character. When we fall in love and find ourselves, on a lazy weekend morning, investigating a new and mysterious naked skin, we ask about the scars our fingertips find. How did you get this one? In the same way, we come to know who a person is by finding out about the bad things that have defined them, as well as the good thats ever more readily apparent.

Born-agains start with a 'clean slate' somewhere in life, andthey intend to keep those slates clean. They carry around their erasers, fastidiously erasing any sign of a mark on their shining slates and bemoaning the states of ours, messy as they are. The only good slate is a clean slate. They can't see the artwork that the rest of us see, finding beauty in each other's flaws and pain and mistakes and scars.

Inextricably linked with this notion seems to be (for many people, our president among them) the aforementioned unyielding determination to be right. Being wrong isnt necessarily bad or evil; on most occasions, its a neutral situationan unintentional error that can be easily repaired with a correction, and an apology, if one is required. And yet, all the stay-the-course rhetoric, the unwillingness to apologize (or even admit mistakes), the stubborn refusals to acknowledge disagreements as anything but ill-intentionedit all stinks of someone who fears more than simply being seen as vulnerable by virtue of error, someone who instead equates being wrong with being bad.

Im the good guy, so what I think is right. Anyone who disagrees is therefore not only wrong, but the bad guy.

This kind of black-and-white thinking is the vile, festering bog from which swells the impetus behind casting liberals as traitors. Not just opponents with genuine and legitimate disagreements. Not even just plain old wrong. Bad. Theres no room for such rigidity of thought in a healthy, vibrant democracy, which should accommodate a plurality of ideas, and yet we repeatedly find ourselves left with a choice between two extremesgood and bad, proponents of each pole casting themselves as the former, and their rivals as the latter. One side starts throwing stones over the vast wasteland that separates them, devoid of common ground, as the other finds it increasingly difficult to remain reasonable, particularly when affected measure does nothing to discourage the onslaught.

This isnt an argument for mushy political centrism, which I typically regard with no small amount of disdain. I just wonder if its possible for those who only see in black and white to start seeing some grays in the process of political debate, to stop casting their political adversaries as bad. To stop throwing stones long enough to admit a mistake occasionally. Maybe mumble the occasional sorry. Its not that hard; I do it all the time. Im a klutz with a mind like a steel sieve and a penchant for occasional bitchiness, the sum total of which provides plenty of occasions which require a fix, an amends, an apology. And, you know, sometimes it is hard to admit a mistake, to apologizebut its those times in particular when stepping up is a sign of strength, and staying the course is the cowards way out.

Clean slates are overrated. Especially the ones that remain so only because mistakes have not been admitted, even though theyve been made. My slate is a mess, and so are the slates of most people I know, but Ill take an honest mess over an insincere, chalkless tidiness any day of the week.

Ive no doubt that Bush will continue to steadfastly assert his rightness on a whole array of issues, no matter how starkly all evidence may point to the contrary. The question I have is why. No one is infallible. (In fact, thats sort of the whole point of his favorite philosopher.) So who does he think hes foolingand why does he try?

Shakespeare's Sister 4:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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By: Paul Glastris

OP-ED PAYOLA... As Shakespeare's Sister notes, taking money from Jack Abramoff in exchange for writing newspaper columns supporting the lobbyist's clients, which Cato Institute scholar Doug Bandow has admitted doing, is rather more than a "lapse of judgment," considering the practice went on for nearly a decade. But at least Bandow had the common decency to admit that what he did was wrong. And Cato had the common sense to accept his resignation. Others in the right-wing think tank world can't seem to see the obvious intellectual squalor in this sort of arrangement. "If somebody pinned me down and said, 'Do you think this is wrong or unethical?' I'd say no," says Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation. Giovanetti was referring to the behavior of the institute's Peter Ferarra, who also took money from Abramoff in exchange for op-ed pieces advocating for the lobbyist's clients and is similarly unapologetic.

This blithe attitude tells you something about how deviancy has been defined down in conservative Washington. As with cocaine use in the 1980s, respectable conservatives today simply don't understand that what they're doing is wrong since all their friends are doing it too.

Steve Clemons was the first brave soul in the DC think tank industry to blow the whistle on the corruption of think tanks (his thoughts on the resignation of Bandow, who happens to be his friend, here). Josh Marshall has also written some devastating posts on the op-ed payola racket in recent years. And both Clemons and Marshall were generous in helping The Washington Monthly's Nick Confessore break the story of how James Glassman's online magazine Tech Central Station is actually a front for the GOP lobbying powerhouse DCI. But you get the sense that all these stories of expert-opinion payola are like mushrooms that sprout up for a few days and disappear, and that below the surface there is a massive rotten tangled underworld waiting to be exposed.

Paul Glastris 3:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (11)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Bush Defends Secret Program....The President used his weekly radio address to justify the secret program which allowed the NSA to spy on US citizens and foreign nationals without a warrant. He also added that revelation of the secret program has hurt US security.

In the weeks following the terrorist attacks on our nation, I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations.

Before we intercept these communications, the government must have information that establishes a clear link to these terrorist networks. This is a highly classified program that is crucial to our national security. Its purpose is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks against the United States, our friends and allies.

Yesterday the existence of this secret program was revealed in media reports, after being improperly provided to news organizations. As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk. Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country.

As the 9/11 commission pointed out, it was clear that terrorists inside the United States were communicating with terrorists abroad before the September the 11th attacks, and the commission criticized our nation's inability to uncover links between terrorists here at home and terrorists abroad.

[]

This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties. And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States.

So it was the media that broke the law by revealing this classified program, not his administration by authorizing it. But heyeven if they did, its the 9/11 commissions fault for criticizing their ability to uncover terrorist activity. Just a thought here, but maybe paying attention to briefs with titles like Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US was a better start than a criminal enterprise to illegally eavesdrop.

As for his doing everything in his power under the lawsyeah, not so much.

Shakespeare's Sister 3:07 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (90)

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December 16, 2005
By: Shakespeare's Sister

RIP John Spencer....The actor John Spencer, probably most well known for his roles on The West Wing and L.A. Law, died of a heart attack today. He was 58.

The actor mirrored his character in several ways: both were recovering alcoholics and both, Spencer once said, were driven.

"Like Leo, I've always been a workaholic, too," he told The Associated Press in a 2000 interview. "Through good times and bad, acting has been my escape, my joy, my nourishment. The drug for me, even better than alcohol, was acting."

I'm not much of a TV watcher, so I've never seen The West Wing, but I know there are tons of people throughout the blogosphere who love it, so I thought it was worth mentioning. Being more of a movie person myself, I remember him best from Forget Paris, playing Billy Crystals odious chauvinist pal who referred to his wives as the first and second Mrs. Jack, and Presumed Innocent, playing a cop who remains loyal to Harrison Ford.

Shakespeare's Sister 7:36 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Friday Cat Blogging....I mean, its tradition, right?

Matilda


Olivia

Other random Friday Fun:

Typepad Refugees.

Happy Cheney-kah!

Jackassery-a-go-go.

The Awful Truth About the Radical Gay Agenda.

Hipster trap!
(Original here.)

Cheap drunks need not order.

The years best media corrections
(via Evan Derkacz at AlterNets Peek).

And a picture via Paul the Spud:

Shakespeare's Sister 5:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Filibustered!...The Senate fell seven votes short of ending a filibuster directed at blocking legislation renewing the Patriot Act. Think Progress has more, including video of Russ Feingold, infamously the lone no-vote against the original Patriot Act, who swore to filibuster its renewal this time.

Shakespeare's Sister 4:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (45)

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By: Hilzoy

I just wanted to echo what Shakespearer's Sister said about the report that Bush signed an order allowing the NSA to spy on US citizens without a warrant.

This is against the law. I have put references to the relevant statute below the fold; the brief version is: the law forbids warrantless surveillance of US citizens, and it provides procedures to be followed in emergencies that do not leave enough time for federal agents to get a warrant. If the NY Times report is correct, the government did not follow these procedures. It therefore acted illegally.

Bush's order is arguably unconstitutional as well: it seems to violate the fourth amendment, and it certainly violates the requirement (Article II, sec. 3) that the President "shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed."

I am normally extremely wary of talking about impeachment. I think that impeachment is a trauma for the country, and that it should only be considered in extreme cases. Moreover, I think that the fact that Clinton was impeached raises the bar as far as impeaching Bush: two traumas in a row is really not good for the country, and even though my reluctance to go through a second impeachment benefits the very Republicans who needlessly inflicted the first on us, I don't care. It's bad for the country, and that matters most.

But I have a high bar, not a nonexistent one. And for a President to order violations of the law meets my criteria for impeachment. This is exactly what got Nixon in trouble: he ordered his subordinates to obstruct justice. To the extent that the two cases differ, the differences make what Bush did worse: after all, it's not as though warrants are hard to get, or the law makes no provision for emergencies. Bush could have followed the law had he wanted to. He chose to set it aside.

And this is something that no American should tolerate. We claim to have a government of laws, not of men. That claim means nothing if we are not prepared to act when a President (or anyone else) places himself above the law. If the New York Times report is true, then Bush should be impeached.

The Law:

Here is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Its Section 1809a makes it a criminal offense to "engage in electronic surveillance under color of law except as authorized by statute."

FISA does authorize surveillance without a warrant, but not on US citizens (with the possible exception of citizens speaking from property openly owned by a foreign power; e.g., an embassy.)

FISA also says that the Attorney General can authorize emergency surveillance without a warrant when there is no time to obtain one. But it requires that the Attorney General notify the judge of that authorization immediately, and that he (and yes, the law does say 'he') apply for a warrant "as soon as practicable, but not more than 72 hours after the Attorney General authorizes such surveillance."

It also says this:

"In the absence of a judicial order approving such electronic surveillance, the surveillance shall terminate when the information sought is obtained, when the application for the order is denied, or after the expiration of 72 hours from the time of authorization by the Attorney General, whichever is earliest. In the event that such application for approval is denied, or in any other case where the electronic surveillance is terminated and no order is issued approving the surveillance, no information obtained or evidence derived from such surveillance shall be received in evidence or otherwise disclosed in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding in or before any court, grand jury, department, office, agency, regulatory body, legislative committee, or other authority of the United States, a State, or political subdivision thereof".

Nothing in the New York Times report suggests that the wiretaps Bush authorized extended only for 72 hours, or that normal warrants were sought in each case within 72 hours after the wiretap began. On the contrary, no one would have needed a special program or presidential order if they had.

According to the Times, "the Bush administration views the operation as necessary so that the agency can move quickly to monitor communications that may disclose threats to the United States." But this is just wrong. As I noted above, the law specifically allows for warrantless surveillance in emergencies, when the government needs to start surveillance before it can get a warrant. It explains exactly what the government needs to do under those circumstances. It therefore provides the flexibility the administration claims it needed.

They had no need to go around the law. They could easily have obeyed it. They just didn't want to.

Hilzoy 4:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (371)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Uh-Oh....The Abramoff scandal has hit the op-ed pages. But Shakespeares Sister, you may be thinking, the Abramoff scandal has been in the op-ed pages for awhile now, you dim ninny. Ahh, yes, but not quite in this way:

A senior fellow at the Cato Institute resigned from the libertarian think tank on Dec. 15 after admitting that he had accepted payments from indicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff for writing op-ed articles favorable to the positions of some of Abramoff's clients. Doug Bandow, who writes a syndicated column for Copley News Service, told BusinessWeek Online that he had accepted money from Abramoff for writing between 12 and 24 articles over a period of years, beginning in the mid '90s.

"It was a lapse of judgment on my part, and I take full responsibility for it," Bandow said from a California hospital, where he's recovering from recent knee surgery.

A ten-year lapse in judgment, huh? Zany. Its amazing how such long-term lapses in judgment always seem to come to a screeching halt as soon as some judgment-impaired knob gets busted, and never a moment before.

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Novaks Outta There....Bob Nofacts tenure at CNN will come to an end on Dec. 31. Aww. Dont let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya, Bobby.

Media Bistro reports he's moving to Fox. Shocking.

(Via Atrios.)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Older Americans Souring on Bush....The Wall Street Journal reports that the latest WSJ/NBC poll has found Americans 65 and older have become most critical of Bushs job performance and are keen to see Democrats take control of Congress. Not an insignificant problem for the GOP, with older voters traditionally having a higher turnout in midterm elections than their younger counterparts.

By a 65%-19% margin, Americans age 65 and above disapprove of the performance of Congress; those under 65 are also negative but less lopsidedly, 58%-27%. Moreover, senior citizens say by 47%-37% that they want Democrats rather than Republicans to win control of Capitol Hill. Those under 65 prefer a Democratic victory by a narrower 45%-39% margin

[O]lder voters, having given Mr. Bush slightly greater support than younger voters in his narrow 2004 re-election victory, have now become the most critical of his job performance. In the Journal/NBC poll, for instance, Americans under 65 disapprove of Mr. Bush's job performance by a margin of 16 percentage points, while those 65 and above disapprove by a margin of 20 percentage points.

Older voters are largely dissatisfied with the presidents handling of the economy as well (58% disapproval), and are none too pleased with the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, deemed too complicated and confusing by 73% of respondents.

The GOP is hoping that immigration reform may bring seniors back into the fold, but with seniors increasingly concerned about the war, too, all I can say is good luck with that.

Shakespeare's Sister 12:08 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (80)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Above the Law....The WaPo reports that Bush signed a secret order in 2002, which authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on US citizens and foreign nationals by monitoring e-mail, telephone calls, and other communications. There are, however, prohibitions against this sort of thing.

The law governing clandestine surveillance in the United States, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, prohibits conducting electronic surveillance not authorized by statute. A government agent can try to avoid prosecution if he can show he was "engaged in the course of his official duties and the electronic surveillance was authorized by and conducted pursuant to a search warrant or court order of a court of competent jurisdiction," according to the law.

"This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration," said [Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies at George Washington University], who has been sharply critical of the administration's surveillance and detention policies. "It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans."

So, basically, we have an administration who will claim once again that the law and Americans civil liberties dont matter, because the war on terra is more important.

Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she is "dismayed" by the report.

"It's clear that the administration has been very willing to sacrifice civil liberties in its effort to exercise its authority on terrorism, to the extent that it authorizes criminal activity," Fredrickson said.

Superb.

Shakespeare's Sister 11:20 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (162)

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By: Hilzoy

As all the newspapers are reporting, President Bush has agreed to John McCain's amendment prohibiting torture. However, Newsweek adds this:

"But the Bush administration may still secure something of a victory in the Graham bill. According to an amended draft of the measure being circulated Thursday among the sponsors, Graham has agreed to language that loosens the restrictions on terror evidence thats obtained through coercive interrogations that may occur in other countries. Whereas Grahams previous draft had forbidden the use of such evidencein accordance with standard rules of military justicethe new draft says that it should be barred only to the extent practicable. The latest bill language also now says that the probative value of evidence should be consideredin other words, whether the information is persuasive.

In theory, this would permit U.S. military tribunals to use evidence obtained through torture or abuse in the prisons of other countries. The new Graham draft also adds more restrictions on the rights of terror detainees to sue or launch an action against the U.S. government outside of a narrow appeals process.

Wes Hickman, a spokesman for Graham, said he had no immediate comment on the negotiations. However, a Republican Senate aide who spoke on condition that he would not be named conceded that new language had toughened the bill. "There was a clause in the original bill that said the [tribunals] had to exclude any statements that were the result of torture or coercion. Now that's been changed to a 'consideration' clause that says the tribunal board must take into account the source of the information." He contended the change had been requested by military judge advocates general."

So: instead of banning the use of evidence obtained through torture, tribunals have to 'consider' the source of that information. Great.

The Graham amendment already strips Guantanamo detainees of their right to file for habeas corpus. (For more info, see the series Katherine and I wrote on it at Obsidian Wings. Links to most of the posts are here.) The amendment adopted by the Senate did allow detainees to appeal tribunal findings to the courts, but that doesn't get at one of the most important functions of habeas corpus: the right to ask why you're being held when the government has either held no hearing at all, or held one and found you innocent. And we are holding people who have been found innocent by tribunals. I wrote about one such case here.

Now, Graham is jettisoning one of the few good provisions in his bill: its ban on the use of evidence gained through torture. As Scott Horton of Balkinization wrote:

"In the history of the American Congress, this would mark its first acceptance of torture as a technique and blessing on the use of its fruits.

Coming after an 18-month public debate over torture policies at the end of which a solid consensus has formed against the Administrations viewpoint, this would be a shocking result."

If you oppose this change to the Graham Amendment, call your Senators and Representatives. This is especially important if you live in the district of one of the conference committee members. I've put a list of them below the fold.

Conference Committee members:

Senate

Republicans:

Stevens, Ted (AK), Chair

Cochran, Thad (MS)

Specter, Arlen (PA)

Dominici, Pete V. (NM)

Bond, Christopher S. (MO)

McConnell, Mitch (KY)

Shelby, Richard (AL)

Gregg, Judd (NH)

Hutchison, Kay Bailey (TX)

Burns, Conrad (MT)


Democrats:

Inouye, Daniel (HI), Ranking Member

Byrd, Robert C. (WV)

Leahy, Patrick J. (VT)

Harkin, Tom (IA)

Dorgan, Byron L. (ND)

Durbin, Richard J. (IL)

Reid, Harry (NV)

Feinstein, Dianne (CA)

Mikulski, Barbara A. (MD)


House

Republicans:

Young, C.W Bill (FL, 10th District), Chair

Hobson, David L. (OH, 7th District)

Bonilla, Henry (TX, 23rd District)

Cunningham, Randy Duke (CA, 50th District)

Frelinghuysen, Rodney (NJ, 11th District), Vice Chair

Tiahrt, Todd (KS, 4th District)

Wicker, Roger F. (MS, 1st District)

Kingston, Jack (GA, 1st District)

Granger, Kay (TX, 12th District)

Jerry Lewis (R-CA, 41st District), Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations


Democrats

Murtha, John P. (PA, 12th District) Ranking Member

Dicks, Norman D. (WA, 6th District)

Sabo, Martin Olav (MN, 5th District)

Visclosky, Peter J. (IN, 1st District)

Moran, James P. (VA, 8th District)

Kaptur, Marcy (OH, 9th District)

David Obey (D-WI), Ranking Minority Member of the House Committee on Appropriations

Hilzoy 11:04 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Benjamin Wallace-Wells

War Torn.... The New Republic's Mike Crowley, who's one of the most dogged and interesting reporters in Washington, has what must be a grit-your-teeth kind of gig. Being any kind of liberal reporter in DC over the last few years has been depressing enough, but Crowley's got it worse than most of us: He's got to cover, close enough to see its institutional nosehairs, the House of Representatives, the place where the Republicans tend to look even more pernicious and theatrical than they do elsewhere, and where the Democrats tend to look even more hopeless and confused. But the persistence of what must be this painful journalistic intimacy means that Crowley frequently generates great pieces of analysis, like this one, just out in TNR, which details the brewing tensions within the Democratic caucus over what the heck the Democratic position on Iraq should be. (A good read, too. Anytime you can get the man my mother calls Dennis Kuspinach into your lead, your article is basically a success). Coming after yesterday's successful vote, and facing an unknowable Iraqi future, this seems like the opener to one of the critical debates for Democrats over the next yearand a half: What's the simple message they're going to send voters about what should be done on Iraq?

Benjamin Wallace-Wells 11:01 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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December 15, 2005
By: Shakespeare's Sister

Question of the Day....At Shakespeares Sister, we do a QoTD each day around this timesometimes political, often cultural, always sure to provoke an interesting discussion. One of the most popular weve ever done is What is the worst movie ever made?, so apropos of the below post and associated comments thread, Im making that todays Political Animal QotD.

There are plenty of dire flicks out there, but Im hard-pressed to think of any I enjoyed less than the loathsome Alexander, so resolutely horrible that, upon its viewing, I was prompted to make a Public Service Announcement warning off any potential viewers.

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Brokeass Mountain....Everyones got a theory about why Hollywood profits are in the toilettoo much emphasis on awards season leaving the rest of the year bereft of decent films, the ever-shortening length of time between theatrical and DVD releases, not enough films for teenage boys, too few family flicks, etc. etc. etc. Personally, I think its a combination of the increasing unpleasantness of the movie-going experience and Hollywoods compulsion to release swill like Kingdom of Heaven, which was great for Mr. Shakes and my regular habit of deliberately watching bad films to mock them, but not much else.

Tammy Bruce, self-described half Italian, half Irish, half troublemaker, may not be good at math, but adeptly asserts her own theory on why Hollywood is faltering. Looking at the 2005 Golden Globe nominees for Best Picture tells Bruce everything she needs to knowBrokeback Mountain (A love story between two gay sheepherders (erroneously labeled 'cowboys' by the media, I suppose because they wear hats)), Goodnight and Good Luck (A film portraying as noble the efforts of journalists to demonize and take down a US Senator whose anti-communist policies they did not like), The Constant Gardener (A film about, as one movie-going reviewer noted, ...the horrors of big business and the way they are willing to experiment on the poor to achieve their goals...), A History of Violence (The demonization of the average mid-western American man as someone who is no hero, but a cold-blooded killer at heart), and Match Point (a Woody Allen film about infidelity. Well, he should know.).

Not only will we not go see films which insult us, we refuse to support an existential worldview. We happen to think life does matters, that decency is a good thing, and that people are inherently good, not bad. We also have stopped believing the lie that Americans are bad people. We looked away for 4 decades as that lie was spread, but that time is over.

So you can take your gay sheepherder, noble communist supporting reporters, big-business is evil, Americans are hopelessly and inherently corrupt and violent and unfaithful movies and go to Cannes where at least the Parisian set will love you. But that won't exactly pay the bills, will it?

Tough stuff, Hollywood. How do you respond?

Hollywood: Uh, doesnt Tammy Bruce also call herself an openly gay, pro-choice, gun owning, pro-death penalty, voted-for-President Bush progressive feminist?

Yes.

Hollywood: Were too confused to answer.

The Heretik, who gets the hat tip for this one, and who Im pretty sure is a traitorous French weasel, notes that Quite a story and a movie could be made of Tammy The Bruces life. But if the movie of Tammy The Bruce got made, it sounds like Tammy would be the least likely to see it. He also proposes what I think is a very good solution to Hollywoods woes:

What America needs is a return to its roots. And who better to lead us there than a man with foreign roots? More action fare featuring brainless violence is what the people want. Arnold needs to come back to his first job. Or his second job. The one after he was an um bodybuilder, posing in a small suit that well displayed his large um talents. Lead us, Arnold, to moneymaking movie Mecca. Bring us to the Hollywood Holy Land of Profits, if not prophets.

See, thats the way to do it, Tammy. Not just complainingcoming up with solutions.

To be fair, Bruce does have one solution to address her concern that Hollywood is making despicable films about what they think our culture should look like.

I'll be adding some of the old classics to my Netflix queue.

Splendid idea. The only problem will be finding time to watch all the old classics that feature openly gay, pro-choice, gun owning, pro-death penalty, voted-for-President Bush progressive feminists.

Actually, come to think of it, there arent many of those. It might be because Hollywood has never been all that interested in what our culture really does, or should, look like. But heyif Bruce prefers to watch movies where people like her seem not to exist, who am I to criticize her decision?

As for me and my golden globes, well be seeing Brokeback Mountain.

Shakespeare's Sister 5:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (132)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

I Call Bullshit....A bill which would cut or freeze education, research, health, and labor spending, including a cut in federal education spending for the first time in a decade, in pursuit of a balanced federal budget, has passed the House on a 215-213 vote.

Republican leaders have sent mixed signals about whether they believe the budget plan can pass before Congress adjourns, but the issue is important to fiscal conservatives eager for the Republican Party to regain its footing on the budget.

"It is absolutely imperative that we stay as long as it takes," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. "The American people want to see this Congress, this (Republican) majority reassert its commitment to fiscal discipline and limited government."

I dont doubt that the American people would like to see a return to fiscal discipline and limited government, but Im not sure this is exactly what they had in mind.

Within the last two weeks, the House has voted to extend the Patriot Act, and a House bill was passed preserving the 15% tax rate for capital gains and dividends, among the other various tax cuts for individuals and businesses which were slated to expire at the end of the year. Thats not just a difference of opinion on how best to limit government and attain fiscal responsibility; thats a complete hypocrisy on the part of anyone who asserts to give a rats patoot about either issue. Look, Im willing to debate the merits of the Patriot Act and tax cuts for the rich with anyone goofy enough to support either one, but spare me the disingenuous bullshit about how the GOP is committed to principle, when their (non)application of same routinely demonstrates otherwise.

Shakespeare's Sister 4:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (48)

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By: Hilzoy

Some recent comedic gems from the Bush administration:

(1) Asked about the idea that our soldiers would be 'welcomed as liberators' in Iraq, President Bush said:

"I think we are welcomed. But it was not a peaceful welcome."

Ah, yes: just another one of those non-peaceful welcomes, like the Russian welcome of Napoleon, or the Lakota welcome of Custer at Little Big Horn.

(2) A few days ago, Condoleeza Rice said that "the United States prohibits "cruel and inhumane and degrading treatment" of suspects, "whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States."" Asked whether this represents a policy shift, a senior State Department official said:

"Do not read this in a tortured, convoluted and contrived way."

Yes, but can we read it in a way that, while undoubtedly painful, does not make Dr. Rice's remarks feel a degree of suffering equivalent to organ failure or the loss of a limb? What if a CIA agent, in an undisclosed location outside the US, gives the reading in question? What if we just shut her remarks up in an unheated room on the middle of the Afghan winter, or waterboard them? Would that be OK? Would feeding her remarks lemon chicken make it all better?

(3) As we know, Bush has refused to answer any questions at all about the leak of Valerie Plame's name on the grounds that it might compromise an ongoing investigation. Does he know who leaked her name? No comment. Does he still have confidence in Karl Rove? No comment. What does the President think of Karl Rove's taste in suits? No comment. Does Karl Rove even exist, or is he some sort of collective nightmare? No comment. Anything Bush or any member of the administration says -- anything at all -- might compromise Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation; and, as we all know, George W. Bush is too deeply concerned with letting justice take its course, and with the integrity of judicial investigations, to say a word.

So this was a surprise:

"President Bush said on Wednesday that he thought Representative Tom DeLay, under indictment in Texas, was innocent and that he hoped Mr. DeLay could return to the post of House majority leader.

In an interview with Fox News, Mr. Bush broke with his usual practice of avoiding direct comment on pending criminal investigations to express his faith in Mr. DeLay, who was forced by party rules to step aside as majority leader after being indicted in September on charges of funneling corporate campaign contributions to Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature."

I'm with Reddhedd on this one:

"Um, hello??!?? The President of the United States and former Governor of the State of Texas says he thinks that Tom Delay is innocent to a national news outlet after a presiding judge has just ruled that the charge stands as proper to be tried by a jury of Delay's peers. Did he or his staff even stop to think about the consequences of this public display of affection for Delay? Has anyone explained to the Preznit the meaning of the words "jury tampering?""

But here comes the funny part: Scott McClellan was asked about this in today's press briefing, and guess what? He refused to answer, on the grounds that that would constitute commenting on the Plame investigation:

"Q Scott, the President told Brit Hume that he thought that Tom DeLay is not guilty, even though the prosecution is obviously ongoing. What does the President feel about Scooter Libby? Does he feel that Mr. Libby --

MR. McCLELLAN: A couple of things. First of all, the President was asked a question and he responded to that question in the interview yesterday, and made very clear what his views were. We don't typically tend to get into discussing legal matters of that nature, but in this instance, the President chose to respond to it. Our policy regarding the Fitzgerald investigation and ongoing legal proceeding is well-known and it remains unchanged. And so I'm just not going to have anything further to say. But we've had a policy in place for a long time regarding the Fitzgerald investigation.

Q Why would that not apply to the same type of prosecution involving Congressman DeLay?

MR. McCLELLAN: I just told you we had a policy in place regarding this investigation, and you've heard me say before that we're not going to talk about it further while it's ongoing.

Q Well, if it's prejudging the Fitzgerald investigation, isn't it prejudging the Texas investigation with regard to Congressman DeLay?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I think I've answered your question."

Gotta love those guys in the White House -- they're such kidders.

Hilzoy 4:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (38)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Koufax Awards....Nominations for the Koufax Awards, which honor the best blogs and bloggers of the left, are now open. Awards will be granted in 15 categories: Best Blog, Best BlogPro Division, Best Blog Community, Best Writing, Best Post, Best Series, Best Single Issue Blog, Best Group Blog, Most Humorous Blog, Most Humorous Post, Most Deserving of Wider Recognition, Best Expert Blog, Best New Blog, Best Coverage of State or Local Issues, and Best Commenter. Be sure to nominate your favorites!

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

Superman Indeed....Via Pam comes the story of the new supermans super package.

Producers are reportedly worried about the size of Brandon Routh's bulge which would make his profile in the superhero's skintight costume distracting, reports the Sun.

Hollywood executives have ordered the makers of Superman Returns to cover it up with digital effects.

The Sun's source said: "It's a major issue for the studio. Brandon is extremely well endowed and they don't want it up on the big screen.

We may be forced to erase his package with digital effects.

Lucky guy. Its every mans dream to don tights onscreen and be digitally reduced to the appearance of a smooth-fronted Ken doll.

Now Ive no idea whether this will actually happen, although Disney reportedly gave Lindsay Lohan a digital breast reduction for Herbie: Fully Loaded, since they thought family audiences might be offended by a fully loaded actress. That the veracity of this ridiculous maneuver could even be considered possible, however, is indicative of the influence of a particular brand of thought about sexuality that is, in reality, more perverse than the views of sex it asserts to combat. Purveyors of this dubious chastity love to assert the idea that there is a normal sexualityone man, one woman, and two gold bands that bind themwith any other sexual expression deemed abnormal or unnatural. Homosexuality? Unnatural. Bisexuality? Unnatural. Premarital sex? Oral sex? Anal sex? All unnatural. Deviations from the norm. Their practitioners? Deviants. A wholesale rejection of the spectrum of (legal and consenting) sexuality recognized by sex experts, the psychological community, and most people.

And yet, how natural or normal is it to pretend Superman doesnt have a penis? (Isnt having one what makes him Superman, as opposed to Super Gender-Indeterminate Individual?) How about pretending Adam didnt have one? From Charles Pierces November Esquire piece, Greetings From Idiot America, his description of the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky:

Today, for example, one young artist is working on a scale model of the moment when Adam names all the creatures. Adam is in the delicate process of naming the saber-toothed tiger while, behind him, already named, a woolly mammoth seems to be on the verge of taking a nap. Elsewhere in the museum, another Adam figure is full-size, if unpainted, and waiting to be installed. This Adam is reclining peacefully; eventually, if the plans stay true, he will be placed in a pool under a waterfall. As the figure depicts a prelapsarian Adam, he is completely naked. He also has no penis. This would seem to be a departure from Scripture inconsistent with the biblical literalism of the rest of the museum. After all, Genesis 2:25 clearly says that at this point in their lives, "And the man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed." If Adam courageously sat there unencumbered while he was naming saber-toothed tigers, then why, six thousand years later, should he be depicted as a eunuch in some family-values Eden?

Good question.

The insistence on pretending that certain parts of the human body dont exist, that theyre somehow intrinsically dirty, has its genesis (no pun intended) in the same thinking which has determined abstinence-only sex education is better for young people than a proper sex education course, which includes information on the mechanics of sex, its possible consequences (including both pregnancy and STDs), and how to avoid them, i.e. safe sex and the myriad of birth control and prophylactic options available. Abstinence-only sex programs dont work and are generally rife with errors that serve an anti-choice and anti-equality political agenda, editing out the truth about sex and sexuality like so much Supermanhood.

In spite of the claims to the contrary, detecting the vague outline of a penis in a red spandex codpiece, or seeing breasts moving along with the rest of a womans body, or even having access to condoms, doesnt suddenly create a desire to have sex where none before existed. Humans are sexual creatures by nature. Its pretending otherwise thats unnatural. Its the dogged assertion that only one specific sexuality is normal that is unnatural. Nature, as it happens, loves deviation.

And Ill wager Superman is fairly fond of his package. I say we let him keep itand while were at it, we could all keep a modicum of perspective on human sexuality, too.

Shakespeare's Sister 1:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (94)

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By: Shakespeare's Sister

HIGH TURNOUT IN IRAQI ELECTIONS....Well, Kevin certainly seems to have gotten his wish. From everything Im reading this morning, the Iraqi elections had a high turnout, including strong Sunni participation, and only scattered reports of violence. I continue to be amazed and impressed by the Iraqis who risk bodily harm to cast a vote, and wonder what the hell is wrong with Americans who cant be bloody bothered.

Anyway, from my perspective, as an advocate for withdrawal, this is good news indeed. Many Iraqis told reporters they see the elections as a means to end the American occupation, and I hope theyre right. Still, theres always got to be a downer whos all negative and shit, trying to undermine any success in Iraq.

However, the Bush administration has stressed that a successful election alone will not be a panacea for Iraq's problems.

Geez, dont they know that our soldiers are listeningand the enemy is, too?

Shakespeare's Sister 11:35 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (297)

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By: Kevin Drum

OUT OF TOWN....I'll be on vacation for the next few days, but I've roped in a couple of wonderful guest bloggers to handle the site while I'm gone: Hilzoy from Obsidian Wings and Shakespeare's Sister from her eponymous blog. I expect them both to raise the tone around this place a bit, so treat 'em nice, OK?

Unfortunately, this means that I'll miss the Iraqi elections on Thursday while Marian and I are out sightseeing. Here's hoping that they go well.

I'll be back on Monday. See you then.

Kevin Drum 12:32 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (32)

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By: Kevin Drum

JOHN BOLTON....Mark Leon Goldberg has a good article in the Prospect on the continuing disaster that is John Bolton at the UN. Even the British can't stand the guy.

You can read the whole thing here.

Kevin Drum 12:27 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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By: Kevin Drum

CONTEXT....George Bush gave a speech Wednesday in which he acknowledged that we got lots of bad intelligence about Iraq's WMD before the war but failed to take any personal responsibility for demanding that very intelligence in the first place and ignoring all dissenting views. Of the major news outlets, only Knight Ridder bothered to point that out:

"It's true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong," Bush admitted omitting that he and top aides had ignored warnings from midlevel intelligence agents that some of the evidence was suspect....

See how easy that is? Why can't they all do this?

Kevin Drum 12:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (75)

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December 14, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE EARTH vs. WINDOWS LIVE LOCAL.... Like a lot of people, I've had fun playing around with Google Earth lately. Today, though, I tried Windows Live Local for the first time, and it blew me away.

Take a look at the image on the right. It's the house my father grew up in during the 40s. The top image is from Google Earth and it's barely legible. The bottom image is from Windows Live Local, and it looks like it might have been taken from a helicopter flying overhead. Plus the Windows site doesn't require a download. It just runs from your browser.

A quick scan suggests that Google Earth covers more territory than Microsoft, however, so keep it handy. But for urban areas covered by Microsoft, it's the hands down winner.

Kevin Drum 8:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (89)

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By: Kevin Drum

HUMAN FALLIBILITY....As I said a couple of days ago, I'm opposed to capital punishment even though I don't really have any serious moral qualms about the death penalty per se. This is why.

Kevin Drum 7:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (58)

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By: Kevin Drum

ZERO TOLERANCE....Over at The Nation, the editors explain why we should care about the torture and abuse of prisoners:

If the twentieth century proved anything, it is that no nation, no constitutional system, is immune from the downward human rights spiral signified by torture as Britain, France and Israel, among other nations, learned at great political cost....The point is not so much that we are "better than our enemies," as Senator McCain and others have argued, but that our democratic institutions are vulnerable to erosion.

What's ironic about this passage from America's premier liberal journal is that it's a profoundly conservative argument and yet it's one that most conservatives refuse to grapple with seriously.

They should. After all, conservatives have long taken a dim view of human nature, and with good reason. The whole history of mankind has shown just how easy it is for people to slip into barbarism when the shackles of civilization are loosened even a little bit, and it's all too foreseeable that a "little bit" of prisoner abuse won't stay little for long once people get used to it.

Conservatives who support "broken windows" policing because they believe that tolerance of even petty crime leads to a culture in which larger crimes also become tolerated, should likewise believe in a zero tolerance approach to torture. It's the same view of human nature at work.

Kevin Drum 3:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (165)

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By: Kevin Drum

MOVIE PEEVES....Two movie memes I'm already tired of:

  • The phrase "beloved children's classic." And don't pretend you don't know which movie I'm talking about.

  • Whether or not Middle America is ready for a movie about gay cowboys. The answer is almost certainly no, so let's move on, shall we?

Speaking of movies, I saw the beloved children's classic yesterday, and it wasn't bad. One thing's for sure, anyway: under the definition of "cutie pie," dictionaries around the world are now going to have to insert a photo of Georgie Henley. The other Pevensie kids, not so much. In fact, the biggest problem with the movie, I thought, was that you never really develop any affection for the children as the movie progresses. Was the book like that too? I don't remember.

Kevin Drum 2:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (192)

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By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE: NOTHING TO LOSE SLEEP OVER....Shorter Max Boot: Torture? It's not so bad! After all, we torture our own soldiers! Saddam tortured worse than us! We've only killed .02% of the inmates under our control! That's no gulag! It's just a few bad apples! And it's yielded valuable information! Trust us on that!

I think Sullivan needs a new award for writers who are able to pack the highest number of vacuous and robotic talking points into a single 700-word op-ed. We can call it the Max Boot Memorial Cretinism Award.

Kevin Drum 11:24 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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By: Kevin Drum

BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE....What happens when you try to enter an order to sell one share of stock for 610,000 yen, but accidentally hit the wrong key and enter an order to sell 610,000 shares at one yen each? And then a software glitch prevents you from rescinding the order?

Answer: You lose $331 million. Oops.

Kevin Drum 11:13 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (72)

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By: Kevin Drum

DOMESTIC SPYING....Oh goody. The Pentagon is spying on anti-war protesters in the United States:

The DOD database obtained by NBC News includes nearly four dozen anti-war meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far from any military installation, post or recruitment center. One incident included in the database is a large anti-war protest at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles last March that included effigies of President Bush and anti-war protest banners. Another incident mentions a planned protest against military recruiters last December in Boston and a planned protest last April at McDonalds National Salute to Americas Heroes a military air and sea show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Fort Lauderdale protest was deemed not to be a credible threat and a column in the database concludes: US group exercising constitutional rights. Two-hundred and forty-three other incidents in the database were discounted because they had no connection to the Department of Defense yet they all remained in the database.

Can you say "COINTELPRO"? I knew you could.....

Kevin Drum 1:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (295)

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December 13, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

COUNTERINSURGENCY....In Vietnam, the Army figured out too late that it needed to fight a counterinsurgency, not a conventional war. In Iraq, Lawrence Kaplan writes, the Army has once again figured out too late that it needs to fight a counterinsurgency, not a conventional war:

Having been drained of blood and prestige in Southeast Asia, the Army responded by banishing "counterinsurgency" from the lexicon of U.S. military affairs. And, in Iraq, where the Army has spent nearly three years launching big-unit sweeps, relying heavily on firepower, and otherwise employing conventional tactics against an unconventional foe, it shows...."[I] don't think we'll put much energy into trying the old saying, 'Win the hearts and minds,'" ground commander Lieutenant General Thomas Metz said last year. "I don't look at it as one of the metrics of success."

....After combating the insurgency for nearly three years in Iraq, the Army is finally starting, slowly and fitfully, to incorporate these lessons into doctrine....But why didn't such a strategy emerge 30 months ago? Last month, for example, an excited David Ignatius revealed in his Washington Post column that General Abizaid and other senior officers in Iraq were reading Lewis Sorley's A Better War, the definitive account of America's improved counterinsurgency efforts in South Vietnam after the Tet Offensive. One can take this as evidence that the generals correctly grasp the nature of the war in Iraq, as Ignatius does. Or one might ask what the discovery of a standard text on Vietnam, without which no college course on the subject would be complete, says about the strategic literacy of leaders who get surprised by problems and then go read a book to resurrect a dubious answer from the past.

This has been by far one of the biggest mysteries of the Iraq war: why did no one in the military leadership foresee the insurgency? And once it started, why did they turn a blind eye to it despite advice from counterinsurgency experts in their own ranks? And now that they've finally figured out what they're up against, why are they still only haltingly and far from unanimously willing to change doctrine?

This is probably the single biggest reason that I think we need to figure out a way to withdraw from Iraq. Contrary to current conventional wisdom, which suggests that it's OK to criticize the war but not criticize the troops including the top brass the fact is that the military leadership's longstanding refusal to take counterinsurgency seriously is little less than a dereliction of duty. They've insisted on planning for the kind of war they'd like to fight instead of the kind of war they should have known they were likely to fight.

Would a focus on counterinsurgency ever have worked? I'm skeptical, although it might have. But it's almost certainly too late now, and without a robust and well thought out counterinsurgency plan our presence in Iraq is now doing more harm than good. Leaving Iraq may not guarantee a happy outcome, but at this point it's the best chance we have.

UPDATE: I've modified the post slightly to make it clear that I'm talking about a lack of attention to counterinsurgency among the highest ranks of the Pentagon's leadership, both civilian and uniformed. In fact, there have always been counterinsurgency experts at lower levels in the military, but they've never had much success getting the top generals to take it seriously.

Kevin Drum 9:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (207)

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By: Kevin Drum

DO NOT CALL....A government agency has been detected doing its job:

DirecTV Inc. will pay $5.34 million to settle charges that its telemarketers called households listed on the national do-not-call registry to pitch satellite TV programming, Federal Trade Commission officials said Tuesday.

....The FTC arrived at the $5.34 million penalty by multiplying the $11,000 maximum it can assess per call by the 485 days between the onset of consumer complaints about DirecTV and when the company entered settlement talks, said Allen Hile, acting associate director of marketing practices for the FTC.

Good for the FTC. At the same time, though, it's worth noting that they apparently received 1.4 million complaints about DirecTV, so that's only about four bucks per complaint. And at a rough guess that fewer than one in ten people complains when they get a call, that's less than 40 cents per illegal call. And it took DirecTV 485 days just to start talking to the FTC, let alone settle. And I'll bet they raked in more than $11,000 per day in business from their illegal calls during the period they were telling the FTC to pound sand.

Maybe crime pays after all.

UPDATE: Hmmm. I think I'd like to revise and extend my remarks. In response to a question in comments, here's a rough guess at how much money DirecTV made from their illegal calling:

  • If they got 1.4 million complaints, they probably made ten times that many illegal calls. So figure 14 million illegal calls. [UPDATE: Apparently this figure is wrong. See below.]

  • Assume they converted .2% of those calls into new customers. That 28,000 new customers.

  • How much revenue do they get from each new customer? Some sign up for more services than others, while some drop out after a few months. Taking a guess at their churn rate, I figure the average new customer generates at least $1,000 in marginal earnings over five years.

  • So: total five-year revenue stream from illegal calls = $28 million. Total fine from FTC = $5.34 million.

  • Even if I'm overestimating some of this stuff and I'll bet I'm not that's still a pretty good ROI. Looks like the FTC rolled over big time on this.

In other words, crime does pay, as long as you're a big corporation with a top notch legal staff. But we knew that already, didn't we?

UPDATE 2: CNN has corrected its story to say that the FTC received "thousands" of complaints against DirecTV, not 1.4 million. So forget all this. Maybe a $5.34 million fine wasn't so bad after all.

Kevin Drum 2:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (74)

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By: Kevin Drum

REPORTING AND PUNDITRY....Avedon Carol alerted me yesterday to an ombudsman column in the Washington Post in which the Post's national political editor whines about Dan Froomkin's delightful daily web column:

Political reporters at The Post don't like [web] columnist Dan Froomkin's "White House Briefing," which is highly opinionated and liberal. They're afraid that some readers think that Froomkin is a Post White House reporter.

John Harris, national political editor at the print Post, said, "The title invites confusion. It dilutes our only asset our credibility" as objective news reporters. Froomkin writes the kind of column "that we would never allow a White House reporter to write. I wish it could be done with a different title and display."

Unfortunately, I got distracted and erased the post I wrote and didn't feel like trying to recreate it at the time. Long story short, the whole thing sounded silly to me. Sure, some readers don't know the difference between a reporter and a columnist, but some readers don't know the difference between the front page and the op-ed page, either. It just goes with the territory, and I doubt that the title of Froomkin's column has much to do with it.

Today, however, Atrios makes an even better point:

If editors and journalists are upset because the walls between punditry and reporting, between fair journalism and hackery, have been eroded and news consumers are confused they have no one to blame but themselves. Every week, if not every day, journalists appear on roundtable shows with pundits and partisan hacks, usually but not always conservative. Every day "reporters" go blabbing on Imus and Tweety (MSNBC is the worst offender for this for some reason), clearly stepping outside any clear boundaries between reporting and opining or speculating.

Yes indeedy. If you don't want people to think that reporters have opinions, keep them away from shows that traffic primarily in opinion. That's surely a much bigger deal than the "title and display" of Froomkin's column.

Kevin Drum 2:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (46)

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By: Kevin Drum

CORY MAYE....Last night I wrote that something about the Cory Maye case "continues to niggle at me," and this morning I'm still feeling a little bit niggled. To start, here's Jonathan Adler's summary of the case over at The Corner:

In the process of executing a warranted no-knock search on Maye's neighbor in the middle of the night, cops burst into Maye's home, unannounced. Maye woke up and, fearing for his life (that of his 18-month-old child), fired on one of the police, who later died from the wound. The cop's death is a horrible tragedy, but the cause was the cops' mistake breaking down the door of the wrong home not Cory Maye's. If Maye reasonably believed his life was in danger, the shooting was self-defense.

I'm reproducing this only because versions like Adler's are rapidly becoming conventional wisdom. But Radley Balko, who has been pursuing this case, has documented that this isn't what really happened.

To begin with, it turns out that police didn't mistakenly believe that Maye's door was just a side door to his neighbor's home (Maye and his neighbor shared a duplex). They knew perfectly well that Maye and his neighbor lived in separate residences and they had warrants for both houses.

This leads directly to an even bigger problem with the conventional wisdom: Adler states as fact that the police failed to announce themselves before breaking into Maye's house, which means that Maye might justifiably have fired his gun because he was frightened that someone was breaking in to rob or assault him. But that's precisely one of the facts in question. If police thought Maye's door was just a side door to his neighbor's house, it's reasonable to suppose they might not have announced themselves. After all, why anounce yourself twice to the same residence? But it turns out they did know Maye lived in a separate house, which makes it considerably more likely that they really did announce themselves. After all, why wouldn't they? Apparently they did it next door.

Now, as near as I can tell, this case is still a travesty. Maye had no criminal record; there's no reason to think he would have fired his gun if he'd known that cops were breaking into his house; investigators initially reported that they found no drugs in Maye's house but then mysteriously found some the next day; and Maye was apparently beaten pretty thoroughly by police after he was arrested. Oh, and the police officer was the son of the police chief; he was white; Maye is black; and the Mississippi jury was mostly white.

In other words, this still sounds like a serious miscarriage of justice, and there's certainly no way that Maye should be a candidate for the death penalty. Still, we should keep our facts straight.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (101)

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LA TIMES OP-ED REVIEW....To my considerable surprise, the normally smarmy Joel Stein actually has a good column in the LA Times today. It's about Johnny Knoxville, his new film The Ringer, and whether or not it's OK to make jokes at the expense of people with mental disabilities. If, like me, you've been feeling vaguely guilty for thinking that the ads for The Ringer look pretty funny, read the column.

Elsewhere on the Times op-ed page, I came face-to-face with an op-ed by Paul Wolfowitz extolling the virtues of free trade, and it really drove home one of the big problems with having Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank: how do you deal with the cognitive dissonance of agreeing with him? I mean, roughly speaking, I'm in favor of free trade. On the other hand, Wolfowitz's record of being wrong about everything is almost unparalleled. So should I stick with my belief that free trade is good, or should I remember that Wolfowitz is always wrong and review my premises?

Decisions, decisions....

Kevin Drum 11:56 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (154)

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THE DEATH PENALTY....I'm basically with Max on the whole Tookie Williams/death penalty thing: I'm not opposed to the death penalty qua death penalty, but I long ago became convinced that it was impossible to administer fairly or reliably and thus should be abandoned. At the same time, if anyone does deserve the death penalty, Tookie Williams is surely it. Regardless of what he's done since, the man was a gangster and a thug and hardly deserving of our sympathy.

Cory Maye, however, is a whole nother story. Radley Balko has the grim details here, and even though something about it continues to niggle at me, it hardly matters. Regardless of whether or not there's more here than meets the eye, there's not much doubt that Maye doesn't deserve to die. It's yet another example of how capriciously the death penalty is applied in the United States, and Maye's case is an almost perfect demonstration of the intersection of race, lousy representation, and likely police misconduct that are so often the hallmarks of capital cases.

Kevin Drum 1:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (253)

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December 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

KISSINGER ON IRAQ....Should we announce a firm set of benchmarks for withdrawal from Iraq? Henry Kissinger thinks not, and suggests that the key issue is "whether, in the end, withdrawal will be perceived as a forced retreat or as an aspect of a prudent and carefully planned move on behalf of international security."

Oddly enough, that's one of the very reasons I'm in favor of setting benchmarks: it provides a perception that we're leaving on our own terms, not getting chased out. Given the current stalemate in Iraq, and the slim prospects for breaking this stalemate in the future, it seems like it's only a matter of time before something happens that forces an American withdrawal la Beirut or Somalia, and that would be far more dangerous to American credibility than a planned withdrawal following successful elections.

Kissinger also makes the point that our ultimate goal is a political one, not a military one:

Real progress requires that the Iraqi armed forces view themselves and are seen by the population as defenders of the national interests, not sectarian or regional ones. They will have become a national force when they are able to carry the fight into Sunni areas and grow willing to disarm militias, especially in the Shia regions from which the majority of them are recruited.

Well, yes. But what makes us think that the presence of U.S. forces will help this to happen? Since a considerable part of the insurgency is motivated by the presence of American troops, withdrawal seems more likely to help this process along than a continued U.S. presence would.

The fundamental problem is that Kissinger and the hawks seem to foresee a decade-long U.S. presence in Iraq, something that I think would be disastrous beyond comprehension. The United States has never demonstrated either the desire or the skill to fight a successful counterinsurgency, and it's delusional to think that the American public will put up with a ten-year stalemate. But that's what we're likely to get. In fact, a prolonged U.S. presence is the very thing that's guaranteed to keep the insurgency alive regardless of whether or not we have the help of Iraqi troops, and eventually this is almost certain to lead to some fatal disaster that will force a hasty withdrawal whether we like it or not.

Benchmarks may not be a panacea and withdrawal is certain to be messy under any circumstances but they do send a strong signal that we have firm plans to leave, and to leave on our own terms. This is better for the Iraqis and better for the United States, and it's the best chance we have to influence a reasonable outcome in the region. An open-ended presence, conversely, is practically an invitation to failure.

Kevin Drum 6:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (113)

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By: Kevin Drum

MUSLIMS AND ATHEISTS....Eugene Volokh takes a look at a couple of different polls regarding attitudes toward the religious views of political candidates:

[In 2003], 49% said the candidate's being a Muslim would make it less likely that they'd vote for him, though presumably for some respondents, there would remain some possibility that they'd vote for the Muslim candidate.

Yet in 1999, only 26% of respondents said they'd consider voting "for a political candidate who doesn't believe in God" (even without any reference to the possibly emotionally laden term "atheist"), and 69% apparently wouldn't even consider such a possibility.

On the other hand, half the country voted for Richard Nixon on the thin pretense that he was still a Quaker, so it's not as if you have to betray your own principles all that much to get elected president.

At any rate, I guess the atheists can adopt this as their new motto: "Now only 50% more hated than Muslims!" Progress marches on.

Kevin Drum 5:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (133)

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OSIRAK REDUX?....Via Prof Bainbridge comes a London Times article suggesting that Ariel Sharon is getting ready to reprise the Israeli attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981:

Israel's armed forces have been ordered by Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, to be ready by the end of March for possible strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran, military sources have revealed.

The order came after Israeli intelligence warned the government that Iran was operating enrichment facilities, believed to be small and concealed in civilian locations.

....The order to prepare for a possible attack went through the Israeli defence ministry to the chief of staff. Sources inside special forces command confirmed that G readiness the highest stage for an operation was announced last week.

This strikes me as doubtful, and not just because everything I've read suggests that even the United States would have a hard time mounting an effective attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, let alone Israel. Rather, what are the odds that someone in the Israeli military would leak this news if they were genuinely planning something? Even the famously leaky U.S. military manages to keep stuff like this under wraps, and the Israeli military is not famously leaky. This kind of operational disclosure if genuine would be stunningly irresponsible, and it beggars belief that anyone highly placed enough to know about this would also be craven enough to reveal it. I assume it's a capital crime, for one thing. [UPDATE: Apparently not. But still an exceptionally serious one.]

So it must be an approved leak. But if that's the case, what's the point? Routine saber rattling? An attempt to panic the Iranians into doing something stupid? Misdirection? Something for domestic consumption?

Hard to say. But I'll bet the least likely alternative is that the Israelis genuinely have a plan to attack Iran in March.

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By: Kevin Drum

BUSH IN THE BUBBLE....Time and Newsweek both have long thumbsuckers about George Bush this week, and although they take different tacks they have one thing in common: lengthy passages about how insular the Bush White House is. Take this from the Newsweek story, for example:

Lately, there are some signs that the White House is trying to dispel the image of the Bush Bubble (or Bunker). Last week, as part of a campaign to reach out to critics, the president addressed the Council on Foreign Relations, a bastion of East Coast establishment moderates. This week Bush will entertain a delegation of Hill Democrats (routine in the administrations of his father and Reagan, very unusual under this president).

And this is the good news! We're supposed to be impressed that Bush actually gave a speech somewhere other than a military base (though he took no questions, natch) and plans to meet with a few Democrats this week. It's a measure of just how far into his bubble Bush is that these kinds of routine activities are supposed to be newsworthy.

Kevin Drum 12:46 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (76)

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BOOKS WE LIKE....Quick note: In yesterday's list of recommended books, the book titles were all linked to a site called Books (etc.) We Like. This is, as you might guess, a place where we collect recommendations from WM staff members and readers for books, CDs, DVDs, etc. Every item is linked to a variety of sellers, and if you buy an item from the link the Washington Monthly gets a small commission on the sale. Here's the URL:

http://washingtonmonthly.bookswelike.net/books

This is a good place to find other people's recommendations as well as to make your own, and the revenue helps support both the magazine and the website. Use it for all your holiday shopping!

Kevin Drum 11:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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SECRET LAWS....Do we have secret laws in America? Apparently we do, as I wrote incredulously on Saturday. We actually have federal statutes that no one is allowed to know about.

Am I a rube for not knowing about this? And for being astonished that such a thing is possible? Maybe, but Bruce Bartlett, who has far more experience with the highways and byways of Washington DC than I do, tells me via email that he too was taken aback when he first found out about secret laws:

I first heard about secret laws some years ago when I worked at the White House. One of the White House lawyers told me he had been ordered to make some alien a U.S. citizen ASAP not just give him a green card, but grant him citizenship. I dont recall the details of why. Anyway, the lawyer said that short of going through the usual drill, only Congress could grant citizenship. But for some reason the White House chief of staff was hot on this matter and told the lawyer that he had better find a way or start cleaning out his office.

It was then that the lawyer discovered these secret laws. He told me that there is a whole U.S. Code section that is simply blank for this reason. He said most of these laws had been passed during World War II. Apparently, one gave the president the authority to grant citizenship under certain circumstances that, thankfully for the lawyer, applied in this case. So my lawyer friend was able to keep his job. Weird.

I would just like to say calmly for now that I don't think this is right. If someone can explain to me why it is right, I'm all ears.

UPDATE: Responding to my original post, Orin Kerr points out that the secret TSA "law" in question is actually a secret regulation. I'm not sure this is really any better, and might actually be worse, since I imagine it's a lot easier to promulgate a secret regulation than to pass a secret law.

In any case, apparently we have both secret regulations and secret laws. This does not help me to sleep easily at night.

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December 11, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

2005 BOOK PICKS....Need some last minute gift ideas? How about a book for the political wonk in your life? Here's my nonfiction Top Ten list for the year.

Note that this is not a list of books published in 2005, just a list of the best books I happen to have read in the past 12 months. With the exception of the first two books, which were the best I read all year, the list is in no special order:

  • The Assassins' Gate, by George Packer
    The best book length examination we have about how we got into Iraq, how we screwed it up, and what the political prospects for Iraq's future really look like. Must reading for liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between. Additional posts about Assassins' Gate are here, here, and here.

  • Before the Storm, by Rick Perlstein
    Stunningly good and well-written examination of the rise of movement conservatism from the 50s through the Goldwater campaign of 1964. Perlstein is not only thorough, but also evocative, capturing the feel of the conservative movement of the era better than any other book I've read. Mini-review here.

  • An Unfinished Life, by Robert Dallek
    Top notch biography of John F. Kennedy. Dallek tells the story straight, warts and all, and for my money Kennedy comes through it looking better than if Dallek had written a hagiography.

  • President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon
    This is not so much a biography of Ronald Reagan as it is a book length profile. The organization of the material is fascinating, neither chronological nor strictly by subject, and it works brilliantly. I came away admiring Reagan a bit more than I had before but simultaneously scared shitless of the man.

  • Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
    Great little book about how the Oakland A's figured out a way to evaluate baseball players a little differently from every other team, and how they used that technique to build surprisingly good teams on a shoestring budget.

  • The Working Poor, by David Shipler
    A comprehensive and heartbreaking look at being poor in America. Shipler focuses equally on both instability and actual poverty as the biggest problems of the working poor. Mini-review here.

  • Perfectly Legal, by David Cay Johnston
    Eye-opening look at how our tax system increasingly punishes the poor and middle class and rewards the already rich. Blog readers know a lot of this story already, but Johnston puts it all together and makes it accessible in a way I haven't seen anywhere else. Mini-review here.

  • Survivor, by John Harris
    A patchy but still worthwhile examination of Bill Clinton's presidency by a reporter who covered him in real time.

  • Perfect Soldiers, by Terry McDermott
    A deeply reported book about the 9/11 hijackers: who they were, where they came from, and why they did what they did. Mini-review here.

  • A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin
    An excellent and comprehensive maybe too comprehensive history of the end of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, as well as the subsequent map drawing that created the countries that make up the modern Middle East. The book was written in 1989, but obviously has newfound relevance in the post-9/11 world.

  • Off Center, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson
    A provocative book with a provocative contention: that the Republican Party has figured out a way to move far away from the center of American politics and yet continue to get elected anyway. I wasn't completely convinced by Hacker and Pierson's argument (as I noted here), but there's plenty of stimulating material in Off Center and the book's central thesis is worth grappling with.

    Chris Hayes' review for the Washington Monthly is here. For more, click on the October 2005 archives and read Hacker and Pierson's guest blogging starting on October 10.

If a book doesn't show up on this list, you may be wondering if it's because it didn't make the top ten or because I just didn't happen to read it. To help you out, my complete reading list for the year is below the fold.

I discovered an odd thing while compiling this list, too. Remember that I was whining a couple of weeks ago about not reading as much as I used to? It turns out that's not true. The number of books I read this year is about the same as always.

Which just shifts the question. It's no longer why I don't read as much as I used to, it's why I feel like I'm reading less even though I'm not. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Non-Fiction

  1. An Unfinished Life, by Robert Dallek

  2. Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, by Ross King

  3. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon

  4. Collapse, by Jared Diamond

  5. The Oxford History of the American People, Volume 2, by Samuel Eliot Morison

  6. The Oxford History of the American People, Volume 3, by Samuel Eliot Morison

  7. The Cartoon History of the United States, by Larry Gonick

  8. A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin

  9. Twilight in the Desert, by Matthew Simmons

  10. The Pentagon's New Map, by Thomas P.M. Barnett

  11. When Presidents Lie, by Eric Alterman

  12. Before the Storm, by Rick Perlstein

  13. Moneyball, by Michael Lewis

  14. The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman

  15. The Working Poor, by David Shipler

  16. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

  17. Perfectly Legal, by David Cay Johnston

  18. The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo, by Rick Perlstein

  19. The Law in Shambles, by Thomas Geoghegan

  20. The Plot Against Social Security, by Michael Hiltzik

  21. The Sling and the Stone, by Thomas X. Hammes

  22. The End of Equality, by Mickey Kaus

  23. Survivor, by John Harris

  24. America the Book, by Jon Stewart & Co.

  25. The Malpractice Myth, by Tom Baker

  26. The War for Muslim Minds, by Gilles Kepel

  27. Perfect Soldiers, by Terry McDermott

  28. The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney

  29. The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil

  30. Off Center, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson

  31. The Assassins' Gate, by George Packer

  32. Our School, by Joanne Jacobs

  33. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss

  34. Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid


Fiction

  1. The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

  2. The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman

  3. The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

  4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling

  5. The Godfather Returns, by Mark Winegardner

  6. Notes from the Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  7. I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe

  8. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

  9. Shadow of the Giant, by Orson Scott Card

  10. Ordinary Heroes, by Scott Turow

Kevin Drum 7:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

Q&A WITH CROOKS AND LIARS....In person John Amato can't be shut up, but on his blog, Crooks and Liars, he lets his video clips do most of the talking. To make up for this online shyness, the LA Times has a Q&A with John here. Check it out if, like me, you're a fan.

But how did they manage to keep him from talking about the Yankees?

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THE OTHER NOVAK....The speculation-to-fact ratio in Valerie Plame blogging has gotten so far out of hand that I've mostly given up writing about it. But today's story by Time reporter Viveca Novak (no relation to Robert Novak) does explain a few things we've only been guessing at before. It describes a series of meetings she had with Karl Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, in 2003 and 2004:

Toward the end of one of our meetings, I remember Luskin looking at me and saying something to the effect of "Karl doesn't have a Cooper problem. He was not a source for Matt." [They're talking about Time reporter Matt Cooper here.] I responded instinctively, thinking he was trying to spin me, and said something like, "Are you sure about that? That's not what I hear around Time." He looked surprised and very serious. "There's nothing in the phone logs," he said.

.... I didn't find out until this fall that, according to Luskin, my remark led him to do an intensive search for evidence that Rove and Matt had talked. That's how Luskin says he found the e-mail Rove wrote to Stephen Hadley at the National Security Council right after his conversation with Matt, saying that Matt had called about welfare reform but then switched to the subject of Iraq's alleged attempt to buy uranium yellowcake in Niger. According to Luskin, he turned the e-mail over to Fitzgerald when he found it, leading Rove to acknowledge before the grand jury in October 2004 that he had indeed spoken with Cooper.

Of course, this is intended to explain why Karl Rove failed to mention his conversation with Matt Cooper during his initial testimony in front of the grand jury. He just forgot. And he only remembered after Luskin's "intensive search" refreshed his memory.

Well, maybe. But keep in mind Raw Story's claim that Rove's assistant, Susan Ralston, testified last month that Rove had specifically instructed her not to log Rove's call with Cooper. I don't know if Raw Story has this right, but if they do then Patrick Fitzgerald probably isn't very impressed by Luskin's intensive search. Telling your assistant to scrub the phone log isn't really the kind of thing you'd forget in the first place.

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By: Kevin Drum

CALIFORNIA BLOGS....The fastest way to unite the blogosphere is to write an article about blogs. It will inevitably be taken as an insult of some kind.

Case in point. A week ago the LA Times ran a long article titled "The New Faces of the City." Its subject was Los Angeles-based blogs, and it struck me as fairly dull. In fact, I don't remember even getting all the way through it back when it first appeared.

But Cathy Seipp did. And she was pissed:

Kinder-hearted people than me have been fretting lately about the impending loss of 85 editorial jobs at the Los Angeles Times. But I'd up the number to include anyone who had anything to do with the unbelievably lame cover story on the L.A. blogosphere in the Dec. 1 Calendar Weekend, including the editors responsible for it.

This was followed, ironically, by a complaint that the article characterized political bloggers as writing "intense, phlegm-flecked rants."

Now, I happen to think that Cathy's spittle-flecked rant missed its mark pretty widely with its complaint that the article focused on small, low-readership blogs instead of the more popular LA-based sites. I don't buy it. Big blogs already get plenty of ink, and there's nothing wrong with shining the spotlight somewhere else for a few moments. Besides, the article was plainly focused on blogs that are written by Angelenos about Los Angeles. Little Green Footballs may be written by an Angeleno, but it's not about Los Angeles. So it didn't get mentioned. What's the problem?

On the other hand, Cathy does have an idea for the assignment desk that suprisingly I've never seen anyone take up at the Times or anywhere else:

You'd also have no idea that since the post-Sept. 11 explosion of political blogs, L.A. has been the capital of the [political] blogosphere. But The Times which has a sorry tradition of ignoring trends in its own backyard has been missing that story from its beginning.

This is true, although I'd argue that the capital is California, not Los Angeles. Past and present Golden State big hitters in the political blogosphere include Daily Kos, Volokh Conspiracy, Little Green Footballs, Calpundit/Washington Monthly, Hugh Hewitt, Steven Den Beste, Huffington Post, Kausfiles, and Crooks and Liars. And as Cathy points out, proto-blogger Matt Drudge got his start out here too, as has train-wreck-in-the-making Pajamas Media. By most measures, California has about a quarter of the most trafficked political blogs in the country.

Why? How is it that California, 3,000 miles away from the main nerve of American politics, has so damn many popular political blogs? Is it because California is 3,000 miles away from the main nerve of American politics? The Times could do worse than assign someone to try to figure it out.

Kevin Drum 1:25 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

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URANIUM FROM AFRICA....Peter Wallsten and Bob Drogin of the LA Times report that the French intelligence service tried repeatedly to warn the Bush administration that the idea that Saddam Hussein had tried to procure uranium from Africa was crazy. Their source is Alain Chouet, France's former chief of counterintelligence, backed up by a former CIA official:

The French-U.S. communications were detailed to The Times last week by Chouet, who directed a 700-person intelligence unit specializing in weapon proliferation and terrorism. Chouet said the cautions from his agency grew more emphatic over time as the Bush administration bolstered the case for invading Iraq by arguing that Saddam Hussein had sought to build a nuclear arsenal using uranium from Niger.

....When President Bush gave his State of the Union address in January 2003, citing a report from the British that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from Africa, other French officials were flabbergasted.

One government official said that French experts viewed the statement attributed to the British as "totally crazy because, in our view, there was no back up for this." Nonetheless, he said, the French once again launched an investigation, turning things "upside down trying to find out what was going on."

The French say that American queries appear to have been based almost solely on the infamous Niger forgeries and nothing else. However, the British continue to claim that they had independent evidence of Saddam's procurement attempts, which means that even if George Bush's 2003 SOTU statement ("The British government has learned....") was mendaciously misleading, at least it was still technically correct.

But was it? Maybe someone from MI6 ought to think about leaking the real story about this, since at this point it appears that the British actually had no more evidence than we did. Which is to say, bupkis.

This story just gets more ragged with every telling.

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December 10, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SECRET LAWS....John Gilmore is suing the government because he doesn't think he should be required to show ID before boarding a commercial flight. I think this is stupid and he deserves to be thrown out of court.

At least, that's what I'd think if it weren't for this:

The Bush administration...claims that the ID requirement is necessary for security but has refused to identify any actual regulation requiring it.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals seemed skeptical of the Bush administration's defense of secret laws and regulations but stopped short of suggesting that such a rule would be necessarily unconstitutional.

"How do we know there's an order?" Judge Thomas Nelson asked. "Because you said there was?"

....The Justice Department has said it could identify the secret law under seal, which would be available to the 9th Circuit but not necessarily Gilmore's lawyers. But any public description would not be permitted, the department said.

WTF? Call me naive, but I've never heard of a secret law. I've heard of secret courts and secret evidence which are bad enough already but not secret laws. When did this happen?

And another thing. How could it possibly harm national security to identify the text of the law that requires passengers to show ID before boarding a plane? Maybe someone with a more vivid imagination than me can come up with something, but I can't.

POSTSCRIPT: Seriously, is this true? I'm just gobsmacked. Congress is passing laws that the American public isn't allowed to know about? Any of us might be prosecuted under one of these laws that we don't know exists? Courts are being asked to interpret laws they've never seen?

This gives Kafakesque a very chilling and newly concrete meaning.

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FIGHT ON....Congratulations to Reggie Bush for his runaway Heisman Trophy victory today. That's three Heismans out of the past four years for USC.

And I was pleased to see that, as usual, the Heisman award ceremony was hands down the most amateurish major award ceremony on the planet. Every year it looks like something produced by a bunch of high school students, and this year was no different. It's good to see that some traditions never change.

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CREDIT SCAVENGERS....Timothy Egan of the New York Times explains why credit card companies spent so much money and energy lobbying to pass a new bankruptcy bill earlier this year. It makes it even more profitable than usual to sell new credit cards to the very people who have just been ruined by them:

Under the new law, which the banking industry spent more than $100 million lobbying for, [recent bankruptcy filers] may be even more attractive because it makes it harder for them to escape new credit card debt and extends to eight years from six the time before which they could liquidate their debts through bankruptcy again.

"The theory is that people who have just declared bankruptcy are a good credit risk because their old debts are clean and now they won't be able to get a new discharge for eight years," said John D. Penn, president of the American Bankruptcy Institute, a nonprofit clearinghouse for information on the subject.

....But the new law makes for an even better gamble for lenders, consumer groups say. It not only makes bankrupt debtors wait eight years to clear their debts again, but it also requires many of those who do go back into bankruptcy to pay previous credit card bills that may have been excused under the old law.

The bankruptcy bill had nothing to do with "personal responsibility" or any of the other shibboleths of modern conservatism. It's just a pure corporate payoff. Credit card companies know full well the risks of issuing cards to different kinds of people, and they know almost to the penny the risk/reward ratio of issuing cards to their worst credit risks, including those who have just filed for bankruptcy. This bill was intended solely to change that risk/reward ratio a little further in favor of the banking industry. The result: $100 million worth of lobbying is turned into $1 billion per year of extra revenue, all on the backs of consumers who the credit industry's own computer models tell them are the most likely to be ruined by it. It's disgusting.

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PAPER TRAILS....The Justice Department has taken some heat recently because its political appointees have taken to overturning the recommendations of staff lawyers who analyze civil rights cases. What do do about this? In the Bush administration, the answer is simple: prevent the staff experts from making recommendations in the first place:

Career voting-rights attorneys who analyze planned state changes have been barred recently from making a recommendation, three former Justice Department officials and a congressional aide familiar with the change said this week.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, said lawyers who assess the state submissions known as requests for pre-clearance have been told to send their analysis memos to political higher-ups minus the recommendations that have historically been part of the decision-making process.

"They are supposed to present all sides and not even give an inkling as to where the evidence is leading them," said a former Civil Rights Division attorney. "Clearly it was done I don't think there is any question about this so that there would be no paper trail."

That makes sense. After all, every time some outsider manages to get hold of a paper trail from this administration, it causes no end of embarrassment so better not to have them in the first place. Sunshine isn't a disinfectant for modern conservatives, it's just a nuisance.

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PRICKISH BEHAVIOR....I wonder if anyone else had the same reaction to this story as me? It's about Zach Rubio, a 16-year-old high school student in Kansas City who was chatting in Spanish with a friend at school:

"We were in the, like, hall or whatever, on restroom break. This kid I know, he's like, 'Me prestas un dolar?' ['Will you lend me a dollar?'] Well, he asked in Spanish; it just seemed natural to answer that way. So I'm like, 'No problema.' "

But that conversation turned out to be a big problem for the staff at the Endeavor Alternative School, a small public high school in an ethnically mixed blue-collar neighborhood. A teacher who overheard the two boys sent Zach to the office, where Principal Jennifer Watts ordered him to call his father and leave the school.

There's no school policy against speaking Spanish in the hallways, but Watts suspended Rubio anyway. She sounds like a real piece of work.

On the other hand, here's the rest of the story:

[Rubio's father] then called the superintendent of the Turner Unified School District, which operates the school. The district immediately rescinded Zach's suspension.

For Zach's father, and for the Hispanic organizations that have expressed concern, the suspension is not a closed case. "Obviously they've violated his civil rights," said Chuck Chionuma, a lawyer in Kansas City, Mo., who is representing the Rubio family. "We're studying what form of legal redress will correct the situation."

It's true that there are potentially some larger issues at stake. As the Kansas City Kansan's more detailed story makes clear, deliberate policy was at work here:

Zach and a friend were told not to speak Spanish in the lunch area on Monday. As he left to go to his class, he started speaking Spanish again to his friend and was told again not to speak Spanish on the way to class. About 45 minutes later, he was sent back to the office by his teacher for speaking Spanish to a classmate in a classroom. Zach was then told to call his father because he was suspended from school for the rest of the day and on Tuesday for non-compliance. A "reasonable" request to not speak Spanish at school, signed by Jennifer Watts, the principal of the school, was written on a disciplinary referral dated Monday.

In addition to the reason for suspension, Watts also wrote, "This is not the first time we have asked Zach and others to not speak Spanish at school."

Sure, Watts sounds like a prick. Still, when Rubio's father appealed to the district, his suspension was immediately rescinded and the policy was cleared up: speaking Spanish in the hallways is now officially OK. So maybe it's time to declare victory and go home. Surely not every example of prickish behavior has to end up in court?

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THE MAGIC OF NARNIA....In the weeks preceding the release of the Narnia movie, we've been inundated with stories about the Christian allegory at the heart of the books. For example, here's an explanation from George Sayer, CS Lewis's pupil, friend, and biographer:

It is possible to extract from the Narnia stories a system of theology very like the Christian....But the author almost certainly did not want his readers to notice the resemblance of the Narnian theology to the Christian story. His idea, as he once explained to me, was to make it easier for children to accept Christianity when they met it later in life. He hoped that they would be vaguely reminded of the somewhat similar stories that they had read and enjoyed years before. I am aiming at a sort of pre-baptism of the childs imagination.

Does this make any sense at all? I'm curious because I wonder if my nonreligious ways prevent me from seeing something that's more obvious to Christians.

Here's the thing: would a fantasy story like Narnia really make children more accepting of Christian theology when they encounter it in the future? That strikes me as nonsensical. After all, the whole point of the stories in the Bible is that they are actually true. Conversely, the whole point of Narnia is that it's a fantasy. If children make any connection at all, wouldn't the most likely connection be that Christ's miracles sure seem an awful lot like Narnia's magic, which we all know is just a made-up story?

In any case, that certainly seems to be the viewpoint of all those evangelicals who object to the magic in Harry Potter. So why is the magic of Narnia any different? Just because CS Lewis says so? Help me out here.

UPDATE: I've got a couple of additional remarks based on some of the themes in comments.

First of all, it's true that most Christians don't take the Bible literally. Still, most Christians do take the stories of Christ's miracles, including the resurrection, literally. He really did walk on water, raise the dead, and multiply the loaves and fishes. In that sense, it still seems to me that Narnia acts more to teach children that such things are mere fantasies, not things that could happen in real life.

Second, as several people pointed out, Narnia also provides moral lessons: the victory of good over evil and the triumph of compassion and sacrifice over selfishness. Point taken. But pretty much all children's stories do this. The comic books I read as a kid did this. Star Wars does this. Harry Potter does this. If the virtue of the Narnia stories is merely that the moral values they teach prepares kids to accept those same values later in life, then there's nothing uniquely Christian about them at all. So why the fuss?

My own view, by the way, is that the Narnia books have no impact on acceptance of Christianity at all. But CS Lewis and many of his religious fans seem to disagree. I don't quite understand why.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE PERIL OF BEING #3....On Friday Timothy Noah wrote in Slate about al-Qaeda's "suspiciously large number of members holding the organization's No. 3 position." After accounting for one he had missed in an earlier article, he said:

So, make that five No. 3s in al-Qaida over the past four years. Which assuming there's only one No. 3 at a time would be a turnover more rapid even than that for Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts. Maybe our strategy is to beggar al-Qaida by forcing it to make too many severance payments.

The periodic reports that we've killed Osama's #3 guy make good fodder for late night jokes, but I'm curious: why does anyone think this is really noteworthy?

After all, the United States executive branch has a #1, a #2, and then about two dozen cabinet-level officers who could fairly be described as #3s. Corporations frequently have a dozen senior vice presidents who all report to the CEO. This is a pretty standard kind of organization chart.

So maybe Osama has five or six #3s. Or given the decentralized nature of al-Qaeda that we're constantly hearing about, maybe there are 10 or 20 lunatics who call themselves #3. And if that's the case, the fact that we manage to pick off one of these guys per year doesn't really seem either very unusual or very impressive. In fact, at the rate their #3 executives are taking early retirement, al-Qaeda may be more stable than IBM.

Kevin Drum 12:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (1)

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MORE WEIRDNESS IN THE WHITE HOUSE....Even by the standards of the Bush administration, this is too weird for words:

Bush-administration officials privately threatened organizers of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, telling them that any chance there mightve been for the United States to sign on to the Kyoto global-warming protocol would be scuttled if they allowed Bill Clinton to speak at the gathering today in Montreal.

....Its just astounding, the source told New York Magazine. It came through loud and clear from the Bush peoplethey wouldnt sign the deal if Clinton were allowed to speak. Clinton spokesman Jay Carson confirmed the behind the dustup took place and that the former president had decided not to go out of fear of harming the negotiations, but Carson declined to comment further.

What was it that Teresa Nielsen Hayden said a couple of years ago? Oh yes, here it is: "I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist."

Apparently this threat really happened. But why? Why would even the pathological image fetishists who protect George Bush for a living object to Bill Clinton repeating his well known views in favor of controlling greenhouse gases? It makes no sense.

Nor does it make any sense that anyone would do anything except laugh at this. The article speaks of "frantic back-channel negotiations," as if the conference organizers seriously thought that maybe the Bush administration would support the Kyoto protocols if only they kept Clinton off their stage. That makes no sense either. Bush would sooner rip off his own fingernails than sign up for anything that even resembles a global-warming protocol.

I'm stumped. Can anyone offer up an explanation that's even remotely plausible for this?

Kevin Drum 12:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE WORLD'S MOST TRIVIAL PET PEEVE....Friday's New York Times story noting that Chris Rock won't be hosting next year's Academy Awards had this to say:

He was considered a bold choice as an Oscar host, hired to bring a youthful, more energetic pace to the sometimes plodding ceremony, which can run close to four hours. He did so, bringing the show to a close in just three hours.

Among my many pet peeves, the weird movie industry conspiracy to pretend that the Oscar ceremony mysteriously runs long every year is surely one of the most trivial. Still, what's the deal with that? Chris Rock has exactly nothing to do with how long the show goes. The producer and director have everything to do with it, and judging by every other award show in the business, show producers are consistently able to time their productions down to the minute. The Academy Awards go long every year because they're plainly designed to go long.

This is so obvious that it's inexplicable that people keep pretending it isn't true. What is it that accounts for this?

Kevin Drum 12:25 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

BRINGING DOWN THE DUKE....San Diego City Beat has a story this week about Marcus Stern, the reporter who brought down Duke Cunningham. Here he explains his methods:

Before I went into journalism, I worked in psychiatry and I learned there not to listen to what people say but to look at what they do, he said. The same is true with politicians. Ive learned to pay little attention to what they say but watch very closely what they do.

And what tipped off Stern to the Cunningham story in the first place? It was a combination of Cunningham's history of boorish behavior, a couple of suspicious trips to Saudi Arabia, and some shoe leather:

Stern remembers an incident he witnessed in 1996 between Duke and Congressman Barney Frank, the gay congressman from Massachusetts, embroiled at the time in his own scandal involving a former male companion who had been caught running a prostitution ring from the congressmans basement. The exchange happened at a meeting on immigration during which Republicans were maneuvering to prevent Democrats from commenting on a related bill. Frank objected to being steamrolled.

When Barney started to make his plea, Cunningham cut him off and said, Well, would you like to talk about prostitutes and basements, Stern remembered. The room just fell silent.

Cunninghams comment, one among a litany of others just like it over the years, left Stern with an indelible impression that he says never squared with the congressmans stated motive for visiting Saudi Arabia.

It was not to improve relations, I promise you, Stern said. Hes not a peacemaker; hes a bully.

With that red flag on Cunninghams travels, Stern, in May, filled a few idle hours at his desk by performing routine lifestyle audits of members of the California Congressional delegation. Thats when he stumbled upon the sale of Cunninghams home.

I basically kicked over this one last stone, which was looking to see if he had upgraded his living accommodations, Stern said. What he found was that Cunningham had purchased a new home in the exclusive neighborhood of Rancho Santa Fe for $2.55 million.

And the rest is history.

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FLIGHT 924 UPDATE....Mark Schlueb of the Orlando Sentinel follows up today on the question I asked yesterday: what did Rigoberto Alpizar really say as he was running off Flight 924 on Wednesday?

A Miami-Dade police spokeswoman said Thursday that multiple witnesses reported that the 44-year-old was yelling that he had a bomb as he made his way down the aisle with a backpack slung across his chest. Later, the agency's chief of investigations insisted that Alpizar was yelling about a bomb but declined to say whether he was on the plane at the time.

Seven passengers interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel seated in both the front and rear of the main passenger cabin said Alpizar was silent as he ran past them on his way to the exit. One thought he had taken the wrong flight. Another thought he was going to throw up.

"I can tell you, he never said a thing in that airplane. He never called out he had a bomb," said Orlando architect Jorge A. Borrelli, who helped comfort Alpizar's wife after the gunfire. "He never said a word from the point he passed me at Row 9....He did not say a word to anybody."

Two teens seated in Row 26 agreed. So did Jorge Figueroa, a power-plant operator from Lakeland seated a few rows behind first class.

"He wasn't saying anything; he was just running," Figueroa said. "I said to myself, 'It is probably a person who took the wrong plane.' "

To be clear: the air marshals who shot Alpizar may have reacted properly. Maybe he started yelling about a bomb after he got onto the jetway. But they don't do their own case any good when they seemingly decline to tell us the straight truth about exactly what happened and why Alpizar was being pursued in the first place.

The first law of crisis PR is: talk to the press and tell the truth. If you don't, people will concoct stories far worse than anything you can imagine. I think the Federal Air Marshal Service needs some lessons in this.

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STATE-SANCTIONED TORTURE....One of the things that I think gets less attention than it deserves in the debate about torture is the crucial difference between torture and state-sanctioned torture. It's an important distinction, and one that's too often elided.

The infamous "ticking bomb scenario," for example, asks whether we should torture someone if we had good reason to believe that this would cause our prisoner to reveal the location of the bomb and save thousands of innocent lives. Should we?

Keep in mind that it's not practical issues that are at stake in this thought experiment. Rather, the question is simpler: assuming that torture would actually work in this case, would you do it?

I would. Likewise, in the unlikely event that I could travel back in time and murder Hitler, I'd do that too. In the imperfect world we inhabit, it's simply not possible to say that there are never any circumstances in which we might choose the lesser of two evils.

But that's not and never has been the question at stake in the torture debate. The real question is whether the United States should support the routine use of state-sanctioned torture, and that's quite a different thing. Are beatings, waterboardings, endless hours of stress positions, cigarette butts in ear opening, strangulations, sleep deprivation, and murder examples of torture? And as a routine matter, should the CIA be allowed to use these techniques on prisoners in order to coerce information out of them?

I'm not naive enough to think that the United States has never engaged in torture. But even though we've fought in more than dozen wars in the past 70 years, some of them against existential enemies far more dangerous than al-Qaeda, we've never felt that routine torture or even abuse of prisoners should be government policy. On the contrary: it's the kind of thing we always believed that only our enemies engaged in. But now we have met the enemy. And it is us.

In our hearts, we all know that state sanctioned torture has long been the exclusive tool of the thugs and dictators we've spent most of our history reviling. For reasons both moral and practical, we shouldn't join their company.

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FOREIGN INTELLIGENCE....William Arkin writes today about European hypocrisy. Or is it willful blindness?

This week, while in Amsterdam, I've gotten an earful of Euro-weenies whining about U.S. law-breaking and American hegemony....

Poor Europeans! Behind closed doors, I suspect this is what is really happening: Elected officials from Berlin to Kiev are being informed by Ms. Rice of an incredibly uncomfortable truth. Little if nothing occurs on their soil no CIA flights, no secret bases, no interrogations, no renditions without some secret affiliate in their government being informed of the U.S. (or joint U.S.-local government) action.

....I suspect that not one of the super-revelations of American "wrongdoing" in the war on terrorism in Europe not one torture story nor death nor rendition, not one secret CIA flight or secret base; not even the public exposure of Curveball, the Iraqi biological warfare fantasist being handled by German intelligence originated with a European government whistleblower. The hard reality for those on the continent should be that despite all of their huffing and puffing of the incompatibilities of war on terrorism methods with European standards of human rights and civil liberties, it is their secret services that are beyond oversight and out of control, it is their governmental structures that are increasingly shown to be inadequately reflective of their citizens' values.

In a general sense, this is probably unfair. The British press, for example, has exposed Tony Blair's "sexed up" dossier, the Downing Street Memos, and George Bush's desire to blow up al-Jazeera. Last month La Repubblica in Italy published a series of articles about the complicity of Italian intelligence in the Niger forgeries, and Italian prosecutors have exposed illegal American kidnappings of suspected terrorists. And German intelligence officers did talk to the LA Times about Curveball.

And yet....Arkin has a point. It's no surprise that the U.S. press has been the one most interested in reporting on the activities of U.S. intelligence, but why are there whistleblowers in the CIA willing to talk to Dana Priest and Doug Jehl but no one in MI6 or the Bundesnachrichtendienst willing to talk with the Guardian or Der Spiegel about U.S. activities in their countries? It's a question worth raising.

Kevin Drum 12:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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TORTURE ROUNDUP....A while back I posted about Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda prisoner who was turned over to Egypt for questioning in January 2002. Libi provided some false information about ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, but the reporting about this last month didn't make it absolutely clear if Libi provided that information before or after he was turned over to Egypt. Today, the New York Times clears this up for us:

Mr. Libi was indeed initially held by the United States military in Afghanistan, and was debriefed there by C.I.A. officers, according to the new account provided by the current and former government officials. But....it was not until after he was handed over to Egypt that he made the most specific assertions, which were later used by the Bush administration as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons.

....American officials including [Condoleezza] Rice have defended the practice, saying it draws on language and cultural expertise of American allies, particularly in the Middle East, and provides an important tool for interrogation. They have said that the United States carries out the renditions only after obtaining explicit assurances from the receiving countries that the prisoners will not be tortured.

Ah yes, "cultural expertise." It's funny how little we normally care about these countries' cultural expertise, but then suddenly develop trememdous respect for it as soon as it comes time to interrogate prisoners.

In other related news, a U.S. official essentially admitted for the first time on Thursday that we are indeed holding prisoners at black sites:

The state department's top legal adviser, John Bellinger....stated that the group International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had access to "absolutely everybody" at the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which holds suspects detained during the US war on terror.

When asked by journalists if the organisation had access to everybody held in similar circumstances elsewhere, he said: "No". He declined to explain further.

And in still other news, Britain's highest court has ruled that intelligence extracted by torture is not admissible in any British court:

Home Office sources confirmed that they now expected "coerced evidence" to be a key issue in the appeals yet to be heard in the cases of 22 men held pending their deportation to countries such as Algeria and Libya, and a further five placed under anti-terror "control orders".

The damage that all this has done to our moral standing to fight radical extremism in the Muslim world is hard to calculate. The Bush and Blair administrations have probably set our cause back by a decade by refusing to take a clear and immediate stand against state sanctioned torture from the very beginning.

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SQUARE ONE....Yes, it's true: being uninsured means that doctors won't see you if you get sick. Apparently some people don't understand that.

I guess our healthcare education campaign really needs to go back to basics. "46 million uninsured" doesn't make a very impressive rallying cry if you don't realize that uninsured = no medical care, does it?

Kevin Drum 12:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 8, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

OUR SCHOOL....What with Christmas the holiday season approaching, I figure I should blog about the books I'm reading these days. Plenty of good gift ideas there!

My latest is Our School, by Joanne Jacobs, a former education columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and currently a freelance writer and education blogger. It's the story of Downtown College Prep, a charter school that started up in San Jose five years ago with the specific mission of attracting kids who were getting lousy grades and putting them on track for college careers. DCP's goal was for every one of its students to go on to a four-year college.

About the book itself, I had a mixed reaction. Its biggest problem is its tone: Jacobs is obviously both a fan of charter schools as well as a personal booster of DCP, and because of that the book suffers from an "authorized biography" flavor that it never quite shakes. Warts and all, far from hurting DCP's case, would probably have made its story both better and richer.

At the same time, though, I was sorry to see the book end. In fact, I think it could easily have been twice the length it was. I was left wishing for an even deeper look at some of the students and their families as well as a deeper discussion of charter schools in general and how effective they are.

Still, any book that you're sorry to see end obviously has something going for it, and Our School does. In particular, it really is an inspiring story that features some pretty inspiring people. DCP recruits its students, which makes it impossible to say whether its student body is representative of low income kids in general, but it almost doesn't matter. Recruited or not, the mostly Hispanic kids DCP gets really are the dregs: they've all got low grades (Ds and Fs), nonexistent motivation, no role models, and no vision for their own futures. Virtually the only thing they have going for them is that someone has managed to talk them into giving DCP a try.

That's not much, but DCP makes it enough through its formula of small classes, long class days, daily homework, constant nagging, and lots of personal attention. Out of its original class of 102 ninth graders, 54 graduated in 2004 and every single one of them went on to a four-year college. Obviously the DCP formula didn't work for the ones who left during that period, but still: 54 out of 102 going on to a four-year college is little short of miraculous. After all, when they started at DCP most of these kids read at a fifth grade level, couldn't do more than basic arithmetic, and in many cases barely spoke English.

So could the DCP formula be replicated on a widespread basis? The evidence of the book makes me think probably not, but in a sense, who cares? DCP acts as sort of an existence proof: some kids who seem like hopeless cases obviously aren't. If schools like DCP can work their magic on even a modest percentage of children who would otherwise drift into the equivalent of an educational coma, it's worth it. After all, panaceas are in short supply these days.

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WHAT HAPPENED ON FLIGHT 924?....There's something screwy about the story of Rigoberto Alpizar, who was shot by air marshals on Wednesday. Here's one account from CNN:

Dave Adams, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service, said Alpizar had run up and down the plane's aisle yelling, "I have a bomb in my bag."

Here's a second version from AP:

Before he ran off the plane he "uttered threatening words that included a sentence to the effect that he had a bomb," said James E. Bauer, agent in charge of the Federal Air Marshal Service field office in Miami.

And here's a couple of passenger quotes from the CNN story:

[Alan] Tirpak said he didn't hear Alpizar himself say anything.

....Like Tirpak, [Mike] Beshears said he did not hear Alpizar say anything. "He just was in a hurry and exited the plane," he said.

The marshals might have acted perfectly properly. I don't know, and neither does anyone else at this point. But can we at least get the truth about what Alpizar did? Did he run up and down the plane's aisle yelling, "I have a bomb in my bag," did he merely mutter a "sentence to the effect" that he had a bomb, or did he just run off the plane? There's a big difference, and it shouldn't be hard for the FAMS spokesmen to give us the straight dope about this.

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FROM THE ANNALS OF CONGRESSIONAL IDIOCY....LA Times sports columnist Chris Dufresne reports on Rep. Joe Barton's moronic hearings to investigate college football's postseason bowls:

To my mind, the most interesting question of the day was posed by Barton to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany:

"Why are there 11 teams in the Big Ten?"

Delany, obviously unprepared and reeling under this intense grilling, had no answer.

And you know what else? Nose tackles. What's up with that? Don't all the players have noses? Oh, and does a field goal count if the ball goes higher than the top of the uprights? And what about the yardlines? I've always wondered how they manage to paint those lines on the grass and not have them get all torn up by the end of the game.

Let's call a hearing.

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A FRIENDLY NOTE TO THE COPY DESK....Sam Rosenfeld, who apparently has a better memory for my own blog than I do, is quite right: I did make a snarky remark about the Washington Post's headline writers last month, and it's one I should follow up on. It turns out I owe them half a pat on the back. Only half, though.

Here's the deal: congressional Republicans have cleverly split next year's budget bill (technically a "spending reconciliation" bill) in half. In the first half they cut spending and in the second half they cut taxes. The overall result is to increase the deficit, but by splitting the bill in two they make that less obvious. Will our nation's headline writers fall for this trick?

You be the judge. Here was the Post's headline for the first half of the bill:

Senate Passes Plan to Cut $35 Billion From Deficit

And here's their headline for the second half:

House Passes 3 Tax Cuts, Plans a 4th
Cost Would Outstrip Recent Action on Deficit

It's true that the second headline includes a confusingly worded subhead indicating that the tax cuts will "outstrip" the spending cuts, and that's better than nothing. So one and a half cheers for the headline writers.

On the other hand, Republicans basically got what they wanted. The first headline tells the world that Congress is cutting the deficit, and the second headline tells the world that Congress is cutting taxes. Instead, why didn't the second headline mirror the first, something like this:

Senate Passes Plan To Add $94 Billion To Deficit
Planned Tax Cuts Would Far Outstrip Recent Spending Cuts

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

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HOWARD DEAN'S TRACK RECORD....Was Howard Dean wrong to say that we can't win the war in Iraq? John Judis says that although it might not have been the most politic thing to say, we ignore Dean at our peril:

During the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and during the invasion and occupation, Dean has been almost consistently correct in his statements. He has been the Democrats' and the nation's Cassandra willing to reveal bitter truths about which Republicans and his fellow Democrats would prefer that he remain silent.

If you don't believe him, he's got a little list.

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JUST CALL HIM "DOC"....Congratulations, Dr. Adesnik. Just what the world needs: yet another addition to the ivory tower!

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TORTURE BY PROXY....A Guantanamo detainee named Majid Mahmud Abdu Ahmad filed a court petition recently that describes yet another torture related memo:

The March 17, 2004, Defense Department memo....suggested sending Ahmad to an unspecified foreign country that employed torture in order to increase chances of extracting information from him, according to the petition's description of the memo.

....The memo appears to call into question repeated assertions by the administration that it does not use foreign governments to abuse suspected militants what critics call "torture by proxy."

The defense team's characterization of the memo was not disputed by either government lawyers or by the judge in the case, who was able to read the entire memo.

For more on this, see Fafblog.

Kevin Drum 12:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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WEASELING ON TORTURE....Did Condoleezza Rice really say that the United States considers itself obligated not to torture prisoners under its control? Eric Umansky unpacks her statement on Wednesday and says the answer is no at least not if you're talking about foreigners abroad or prisons outside of territory under U.S. jurisdiction. In other words, all the actual real-world cases that anyone cares about.

Better liars, please.

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December 7, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE MEDICAL MALPRACTICE MYTH....Here's a book recommendation for you if you're (a) interested in medical malpractice and (b) really interested in medical malpractice. It's The Medical Malpractice Myth, by Tom Baker, and it's a terrific, readable, fact-filled analysis of what we know and don't know about medical malpractice. And it's less than 200 pages long!

Here's a bullet point summary of Baker's case:

  1. There's a lot more genuine medical malpractice than you think. A long string of studies has shown that about 1 out of 100 hospitalized patients are victims of negligent malpractice. These studies were supervised by doctors and used a very strict definition of "negligent."

  2. Most victims never sue. Less than 5% of patients who are victims of negligence file a claim.

  3. Patients who bring weak claims usually do so only because hospitals refuse to disclose information about their quality of care unless they are taken to court. Patients who learn that their care was reasonable usually drop their claims.

  4. What's more, contrary to myth, insurance companies very seldom pay off weak claims even if patients continue to pursue them.

  5. Rising malpractice awards are not responsible for skyrocketing insurance premiums. The insurance cycle is.

  6. In any case, the evidence that fear of malpractice suits produces significant amounts of defensive medicine is pretty thin although a small amount of defensive medicine does exist. Likewise, the evidence that malpractice payouts are driving doctors out of practice is low and mostly restricted to doctors in rural areas which have been losing doctors for decades for financial reasons anyway.

Baker also has a proposed solution, which he calls the Patient Protection and Healthcare Responsibility Act. The four main goals of PPHRA are to reduce the actual amount of malpractice; provide patients with more information up front so they can decide if they are the victims of malpractice; make compensation for medical injuries fairer; and regulate the boom-and-bust insurance cycle that's responsible for the skyrocketing insurance premiums that are so disruptive for doctors.

Yes, this is a very wonky subject. But Baker's approach is both comprehensive and heavily evidence based, relying on peer-reviewed research and exhaustive studies. There are no polemics here, just a concentrated dose of facts and common sense.

Highly recommended for doctors and anyone else interested in cutting through the noise machine that mostly surrounds the medical malpractice debate.

NOTE: An excerpt from the book is here.

Kevin Drum 8:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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LIFE IN THE BUBBLE....Henry Farrell links today to the latest example of the Bush administration deciding that the best response to bad news is to pretend that it doesn't exist. Jefferson Morley reports in the Washington Post:

Last week the [State Department] stopped posting surveys of how the international press is covering significant developments in U.S. foreign policy....The information, posted regularly since 1998, constituted a comprehensive documentary record of the impact of U.S. foreign policy on global public opinion.

....No more. The Web address of the Office of Media Reaction
usinfo.state.gov/products/medreac.htm now yields a "page not found" error. The archive of past surveys is also unavailable. The page states, "The USINFO website is undergoing significant design changes." There's a link to the surveys from the main State Department press page, but it's dead.

....[An] official told me the department is still monitoring foreign media reaction but the resulting written surveys are for "internal consumption only."

Life is always happier inside the bubble....

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OBAMA FOR PREZ?....Ryan Lizza argues in the New Republic that Barack Obama needs to run for president in 2008. Why? Because in 2012 he'd have to face an incumbent and in 2016 he'd be perilously close to terminal overexposure:

My favorite law of American politics is that candidates have only 14 years to become president. That is their expiration date. The idea was conceived by a very smart political junkie who happens to be a senior aide to Vice President Cheney (don't hold that against him), and the law was popularized in a column by Jonathan Rauch of National Journal. As Rauch put it, "With only one exception [Lyndon Johnson] since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, no one has been elected president who took more than 14 years to climb from his first major elective office to election as either president or vice president."

As Rauch showed, the majority of presidents since 1900 have fallen on the low end of this zero-to-fourteen-year spectrum: zero (Dwight Eisenhower, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft), two years (Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt), four years (Franklin Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge), and six years (George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Warren Harding). The lesson is that Obama must strike while he is hot or risk fading into obscurity.

This is actually an interesting theory that I'd not heard of before. And yet....it doesn't sound quite right. The phrase "from his first major elective office to election as either president or vice president" sounds pretty strained to me, as though it were invented solely to make the 14-year point.

Instead, how about taking a broader look at political fame and figuring out how long it usually takes between becoming nationally famous and becoming president? Roughly speaking, that puts Hoover at 11 years (1917-1928), FDR at 12 years (1920-1932), Eisenhower at 10 years (1942-1952), Nixon at 20 years (1948-1968), and Reagan at 16 years (1964-1980). And even by the original measure, LBJ took 20+ years, Kennedy took 14 years, and Clinton took 14 years to become president.

This doesn't completely defang the theory. After all, Nixon is always the spoiler to any general theory of who can and can't become president, and aside from him that leaves only Reagan and LBJ as exceptions to the 14-year rule. It does, however, suggest that 2016, when Obama will have been in the public eye for 12 years, is closer to the sweet spot than it is to the upper end of his shelf life.

And there's another thing to consider: what's the low end? How many people have become president a mere four years after winning a major office or otherwise bursting onto the national scene? No one recently. Even Jimmy Carter and George Bush Jr. had six years of major office experience behind them when they were elected.

So count me as skeptical that Obama should be thinking of running in 2008. On the other hand, he should be thinking of ditching the Senate as soon as possible. The "baggage of a complicated voting record and the stench of the Beltway" are indeed campaign killers in American politics. Maybe he'd like to move out to California and run for governor in 2010?

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FACING REALITY....Over at The Corner, Andy McCarthy complains about a New York Times story today that describes the "sudden and thorough tarnishing" the Bush administration is suffering in Europe at the moment. His Cornermate Cliff May sets him straight:

When Richard Bernstein writes that it would be hard to imagine a more sudden and thorough tarnishing of the Bush administration's credibility than the one taking place here right now, " hes reporting what hes seeing and reading on the ground in Europe. Ive been on the BBC several times in recent days and its really unbelievable.

....The U.S. is indeed taking an astonishing beating in the European media right now, abetted by those most virulent anti-Bush and anti-American politicians. Bernstein is reporting on this wave of America-bashing, I dont see that hes endorsing or encouraging it.

Welcome to the reality-based community, Cornerites! It's true: when reporters report unpleasant news, it's most often because there is unpleasant news on the ground to report. You can either accept that as reality and figure out a way to deal with it, or you can cover your ears and chant "liber-r-r-ral media" over and over in the hopes it will go away.

This is a start. A small one, but a start. Now, how about Iraq, guys?

Kevin Drum 12:43 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE PASSION OF THE ARNOLD....After his drubbing at the polls in last month's special election, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger decided he needed to pretend to become more liberal. As part of his conversion to the "New Arnold," he hired Gray Davis's former cabinet secretary, Susan Kennedy, as his chief of staff.

Grass roots Republicans are furious. Their answer? Try to draft Mel Gibson to run against Arnold in the primary next year.

I am not making this up. Website here.

Kevin Drum 11:44 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SOWING AND REAPING....The New York Times reports that Condoleezza Rice has assured European audiences that the United State does not tolerate torture, but for some reason they don't believe her.

That's astonishing. I wonder why not?

Kevin Drum 12:09 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 6, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CRAVEN AND STUPID....The Carpetbagger reviews the recent boycott history of the American Family Association:

The AFA launched a nine-year boycott of Disney, for example, during which time none of the group's demands were met and the company enjoyed a surge in profits. The AFA also launched boycotts against Crest toothpaste, Volkswagen, Tide detergent, Clorox bleach, Pampers, MTV, Abercrombie & Fitch, K-Mart, Burger King, the Carl's Jr. hamburger chain, Kraft Foods, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Old Navy stores, NutriSystem, and American Airlines. Late last year, the AFA went after the movie "Shark Tale," because the group believed the movie was designed to brainwash children into accepting gay rights. Then, it was American Girl dolls. Then it was Target for its lack of the word "Christmas" in its advertising. The whole thing is pretty embarrassing, but the AFA just keeps doing it.

Everyone just ignores these yahoos. Everyone but Ford, that is, which apparently didn't understand the ground rules of the AFA game and immediately caved in when they complained recently about Ford's advertising in gay publications. So not only is Ford management craven, but they're stupid as well.

That explains a lot about the American car industry, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 11:44 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JEOPARDY MELTDOWN....Tonight's Final Jeopardy was the worst Jeopardy performance I've ever seen. The question answer was to name a state, now the fourth largest, that was primarily formed from land that was part of the Louisiana Purchase. The three contestants guessed Florida, Mississippi, and Nevada.

Not a single one of these states was part of the Louisiana Purchase, and in size they rank 22nd, 32nd, and 7th.

What a disgrace. I blame George Bush.

Kevin Drum 11:38 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT'S GOOD FOR GENERAL MOTORS....General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner is almost but not quite! ready to support universal healthcare in America:

So what are the fundamental challenges facing American manufacturing? One is the spiraling cost of health care in the United States. Last year, GM spent $5.2 billion on health care for its U.S. employees, retirees and dependents a staggering $1,525 for every car and truck we produced. And the figure is going up again this year. Foreign auto makers have just a fraction of these costs, because they have few, if any, U.S. retirees, and in their home countries their governments fund a much greater portion of employee and retiree health-care costs.

....Some say we're looking for a bailout. Baloney we at GM do not want a bailout. What we want...is the chance to compete on a level playing field. It's critical that government leaders, supported by business, unions and all our citizens, forge policy solutions to the issues undercutting American manufacturing competitiveness.

It's obvious that the "level playing field" Wagoner is talking about would include the government taking over healthcare costs for GM's employees. And presumably, the only way to do this would be for the government to also take over everyone else's healthcare costs as well. In other words, universal healthcare.

But even though he's staring into the abyss of financial self-destruction, Wagoner isn't quite willing to support that. He's willing to imply it, but he can't quite step up to the plate.

Give him another few months, though, and I'll bet he will.

Via Professor Bainbridge, who agrees that this is what Wagoner is ever so gingerly leading up to.

Kevin Drum 10:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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BUSH AND THE CFR....Dan Froomkin charges the Council on Foreign Relations with taking a dive on President Bush's behalf:

In a sharp break with the council's own traditions, Bush is being allowed to speak for 50 minutes then leave without taking any questions.

"Obviously, we strongly suggested certainly made the case that it would be in the interest of the president and in the interest of our membership that the president take questions," council vice president for communications Lisa Shields told me this morning.

"But true to his format, they declined."

I can't think of any reason for CFR to do this. Do they truly think Bush is going to break new ground in his speech? That they'll get anything other than a standard stump speech about freedom and liberty and democracy? That a Bush speech will actually add luster to their reputation?

And what exactly are they getting in return for this sharp break with their own traditions? As near as I can tell, nothing. If Bush insists on staying inside his bubble of sycophants and underlings, let him find another military base to speak at. CFR should demand better, even from a president.

Kevin Drum 7:22 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

BLOGS AND THE PRESS....Hum de hum, kind of a slow day. What can I do to piss someone off?

I know. I'll defend the honor of the mainstream media. Or, perhaps more accurately, I'll besmirch the honor of the blogosphere. But it pretty much amounts to the same thing these days, doesn't it?

Anyhoo, let's start off with Franklin Foer, who wrote today that although the conservative blogosphere is batshit crazy when it comes to the MSM, he's also concerned about the "reckless, sweeping assault on important institutions especially The New York Times and The Washington Post that emanates from large swaths of the liberal blogosphere." Atrios was unamused:

I've never seen most liberal bloggers making a "reckless, sweeping assault" on the Times and the Post. They aren't just institutions, they're outlets run (cough keller cough) and staffed (cough miller bumiller nagourney bruni cough) and published (cough pinch cough) by individuals.

....Nonetheless, institutions only deserve the respect that they... well, deserve. Until Conrad Black bought it the Telegraph was a fine, if conservative-leaning, newspaper in Britain. It then became a pile of steaming crap. If idiots destroy institutions there's no reason to continue to respect them.

Now, my reputation as a shill for the MSM has probably already tainted me beyond redemption when it comes to media criticism, but I want to try to make a serious point about this anyway. As Atrios himself has noted in the past, emphasis matters. The things we choose to emphasize are often a reliable guide to what we think, and even if we don't always set those thoughts down directly on the page, they nonetheless expose our real motivations.

Even though analogies in the blogosphere are akin to throwing chum in the water, let me offer one anyway. There are blogs that concentrate exclusively on the subject of Muslim terrorism and Arab perfidy. There are other blogs that devote their attention exclusively to the evidence of low test scores and other negative intellectual attributes of nonwhite people. What do we think of such sites?

Personally, I find them odious. It's not because there are no Muslim terrorists, of course, nor because blacks don't generally score lower on standardized tests than whites. It's because I find it creepy that anyone would devote all their attention to such things. They don't have to say they're racists for me to suspect that they are, indeed, racists.

A similar thing is true of the blogosphere, both liberal and conservative, when it comes to the MSM. It's not that pointing out the shortcomings of the MSM is out of bounds. Far from it. But when blog coverage of the MSM focuses solely on its shortcomings as it generally does surely it's safe to conclude that the blogosphere is not just practicing its own version of toughlove on a beloved but wayward institution. Rather, the blogosphere hates the MSM with a white hot passion.

And that's long been my problem with what passes for media criticism in the blogosphere: it consists solely of scathing critiques and just about nothing else. And while it's true that recent events Wen Ho Lee, the 2000 election, Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelly, Rathergate, and the Plame debacle, to name just a few have made this kind of pit bull attitude both easy and appealing, that's hardly an excuse.

I don't hold much of a brief for TV news, but I do for newspapers. Despite their many faults, they're pretty much the only source of serious daily news we have. And they do a lot of good work. Peter Gosselin at the LA Times has churned out dozens of good stories on economic insecurity. Dana Priest at the Washington Post is a terrific reporter covering the intelligence community. John Burns of the New York Times and Tom Lasseter of Knight Ridder do great work from Iraq. Dan Froomkin gives us the straight dope from the White House briefing room on a daily basis. Paul Krugman continues to roam the pages of the MSM with no apparent misgivings. And again, that's just to name a few.

Bloggers often link to stories they like, but that's all they do: link. But when they link to a story they don't like, they generally do more: they make it into yet another chapter in the grand narrative tale of the Fall of the MSM. That may be a pleasing storyline, as well as a satisfying rationalization for liberal defeats in the past few elections, but it's only a small part of reality. The bigger story is more complex.

So attack away. The MSM surely deserves it. But they also deserve equally sustained praise for the stuff they do well. It wouldn't hurt to combine a bit more of the carrot with the everpresent stick.

Kevin Drum 6:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RESTORING DEMOCRACY....Michael Crowley reports on a CAP forum he attended yesterday:

Barney Frank also said another interesting thing: Republicans have become less prone to holding open floor votes for hours on end, as they notoriously did to pass their 2003 Medicare bill, because reporters have begun flocking to the press gallery to observe the arm-twisting and horse-trading on the floor during such marathon sessions, which can lead to some embarassing reportage the next day. Frank said Republicans leaders understand that they're now being watched. It's a start.

I figure Republicans have two choices here: they can either clean up their floor votes and stop the last minute arm twisting, or they can try to figure out ways to keep people from watching while they do it. I wonder how long it will take them to switch from the former to the latter?

Kevin Drum 1:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SHILLING FOR DELAY....Yesterday a judge dismissed a conspiracy charge against Tom DeLay but allowed the money-laundering charges against him to go to trial. Jonah Goldberg rounds up the headlines.

Jonah passed along the headlines without comment, but I won't. It's pretty obvious that the big news was the fact that the judge allowed the serious charges to go to trial, and that tossing out the one conspiracy charge was a decidedly secondary part of the story. With that in mind, the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times all got it right. Fox News and the Washington Times acted as partisan shills (Conspiracy Charge Rejected!!!).

And CNN? They joined the shills, which is even more bizarre than you'd think considering that the AP story they ran opened like this:

A judge dismissed a conspiracy charge Monday against Rep. Tom DeLay but refused to throw out the far more serious allegations of money-laundering, dashing the congressman's hopes for now of reclaiming his post as House majority leader.

The lead makes it crystal clear what the most important part of the story is. So why did the headline make it sound as if DeLay had won a major victory?

Kevin Drum 1:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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THE ECONOMIC PICTURE....Great economy we have going here:

Productivity rose by 4.7 percent in the non-farm business sector of the economy from July to September....Real hourly compensation, which adjusts wages and other benefits for inflation, fell 1.4 percent.

This isn't really a surprise. As near as anyone can tell, productivity appears to be primarily a result of technology advances, and neither Democrats nor Republicans have very much to say about that. Compensation, on the other hand, is primarily a function of how tight the labor market is, and Republicans have long done the business community's bidding by pursuing policies that keep the labor market slack. Democrats, by contrast, generally try to pursue full employment policies.

So if productivity is skyrocketing, but labor compensation is going down, where's all that extra money going? Yes, you in the back? Bingo: it's going to the class of people who are willing to turn around and tithe a portion of it back to the GOP and its allies in election years.

Nice racket, isn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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CHANGING COURSE IN IRAQ....I have to confess that I'm mystified by Wes Clark's op-ed in the New York Times today about how we should change course in Iraq. For starters, he makes a few recommendations regarding troop deployments:

20,000 troops...along Iraq's several thousand miles of vulnerable border....military efforts against insurgent strongholds...maybe 30,000 troops....six to eight American brigades...available as a last resort if there is trouble in cities with large militia factions like Baghdad, Basra and Najaf.

....Still, none of this necessitates a pullout until the job is done. After the elections, we should be able to draw down by 30,000 troops from the 160,000 now there. Don't bet against our troops.

What am I missing here? Does this arithmetic add up?

And the politics is even worse. Iraq needs to ban militias. The Pentagon needs more translators. Iraqis need to federalize all oil revenues and prevent the creation of a Shiite region in the south. Sectarian influences need to be reduced. And Iran needs to be told to respect Iraq's independence.

If any of this stuff were possible, we wouldn't have any problems in Iraq in the first place. But the Shiite majority doesn't want to ban militias, it doesn't want to prevent the creation of a Shiite super-region, and it doesn't want to reduce sectarian influences and we can't make them. The Kurds don't want to federalize oil revenues, and the Pentagon doesn't have any more translators. As for Iran, good luck.

This might have been a great plan two years ago. Today it's a pipe dream. What's the point of writing stuff like this?

Kevin Drum 1:37 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS....When the CIA told Italian police that a terror suspect they were searching for had fled Italy for the Balkans, they were not quite telling the truth:

In fact, according to Italian court documents and interviews with investigators, the CIA's tip was a deliberate lie, part of a ruse designed to stymie efforts by the Italian anti-terrorism police to track down the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian refugee known as Abu Omar.

The strategy worked for more than a year until Italian investigators learned that Nasr had not gone to the Balkans after all. Instead, prosecutors here have charged, he was abducted off a street in Milan by a team of CIA operatives who took him to two U.S. military bases in succession and then flew him to Egypt, where he was interrogated and allegedly tortured by Egyptian security agents before being released to house arrest.

And remember, these are not cheese eating surrender monkeys. The Italians supported George Bush, supported the war in Iraq, and have been firm allies in the war on terror.

One might wonder: what's the point of being a steadfast U.S. ally if this is how you get treated? I'll bet the Italians aren't the only ones wondering.

Kevin Drum 1:06 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 5, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

THE PUBLIC AND THE WAR....Over at Foreign Affairs, the burning question of the day is why public support for Iraq has fallen so precipitously. John Mueller, a scholar of war and public opinion, says the answer is simple:

American troops have been sent into harm's way many times since 1945, but in only three cases Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq have they been drawn into sustained ground combat and suffered more than 300 deaths in action. American public opinion became a key factor in all three wars, and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases.

The White House begs to differ. As the New York Times reported on Sunday, they figure the public is OK with casualties as long as victory is in sight, a view that originated with Peter Feaver, a Duke University political science professor who joined the NSC staff in June. Today, Feaver's research partner, Christopher Gelpi, takes to the pages of FA to defend their position.

Unfortunately, the result is a mess, and as near as I can tell the reason is simple: with only three wars to work with, and one of them with scant polling data, there's just not enough information to draw any firm conclusions. What's more, public opinion is so delicately sensitive to question wording that even for Vietnam and Iraq it's hard to tease out trends with any reliability. Gelpi, in an effort to fix this, actually makes things worse by trying to use presidential approval as a proxy for approval of the war:

From July to November 2003, there were 200 U.S. deaths in Iraq and the president's approval rating dropped by more than eight percentage points. On the other hand, from July to November 2004, there were 300 deaths, but Bush's approval rating remained unchanged.

This doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny. Not only is presidential approval the result of a lot more than just the state of the war, but Gelpi fails to note that July-November 2004 was right in the middle of a presidential campaign. The best conclusion to draw from this data is probably that public opinion can be temporarily turned around if you're in the middle of a viciously partisan campaign and willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on slick advertising aimed solely at boosting the president's poll numbers. As soon as it stops, though, you're doomed.

Given the paucity of the data, it's a little hard to take this debate seriously. Common sense, after all, suggests that both explanations are true: support for war does decline as casualties mount, but the rate of decline also depends on whether the public believes in the war and believes that its casualties will eventually bring us victory. Proving it, though, will take a lot more than looking at a bit of thin and unreliable polling data.

Kevin Drum 11:57 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SWEET HOSPITALITY....Last week Duke Cunningham pled guilty to accepting $2.4 million in bribes and evading more than $1 million in taxes. Government documents in the case also referred to a "co-conspirator No. 1," later identified as a military contractor named Brent Wilkes. But acording to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Cunningham wasn't the only guy Wilkes was associated with:

Wilkes befriended other legislators, too. He ran a hospitality suite, with several bedrooms, in Washington first in the Watergate Hotel and then in the Westin Grand near Capitol Hill.

Several bedrooms? Tell us more, please.

Via the Hotline.

Kevin Drum 9:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Amy Sullivan

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS THE WASHINGTON MONTHLY?....The physical offices of The Washington Monthly (as opposed to the cyber-office here at Political Animal) are in the process of moving a few blocks away to 1319 F Street NW. This means we're leaving behind our old budget office--which was itself a step up from our older, even more budget offices of yore--with its occasional lack of running water, non-existent smoke alarms, and man-eating elevators. It does not, however, mean that we can receive phone calls.

So if you need to reach us this week (we're told that phone service will resume by next Monday), call our cellphones if you have our numbers and if you don't, try emailing us. We don't have internet access at the office either, but we can check email at our Caribou Coffee outpost down the street.

Amy Sullivan 9:27 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FOUR ORCHESTRAS PER BALLET?....I'm generally in favor of workplace safety regulation, but there are limits. Australia has probably reached them.

UPDATE: More details here.

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WAS IRAQ EVER WINNABLE?....Today we have the ultimate in inter-blog backscratching. Henry Farrell says that he just finished George Packer's Assassins' Gate, but "discovered when I got back home that Kevin Drum had already said half of what I wanted to say about it."

Guess what? It turns out that Henry's other half is something I wanted to say, but just haven't gotten around to yet. It revolves around the question of whether the Iraq war might have been winnable if not for the Bush administration's incompetence, and Packer suggests the answer is yes. Henry, however, complains that although the book harshly indicts the Bush administration for everything it did wrong, Packer never really grapples with the central question:

This isnt only an indictment. Its also an apologia for a claim that is never directly defended that the project of bringing democracy to Iraq could have worked if it had been executed more competently. Packer has documented over four hundred odd pages just how bad the implementation was. But proving the negative doesnt prove the positive, and Packers method of presentation allows him to avoid making the case that deposing the Hussein regime in 2003 could feasibly have brought democracy to Iraq. Theres a strong case to be made that this wasnt doable in the first place.

Henry's right: there is a strong case that it wasn't doable in the first place, and it's a case I'm inclined to accept. What's more, I agree that Packer should have addressed this more directly although I think it's always tricky to complain about what people don't write about. Assassins' Gate is primarily a descriptive book, not a work of analysis, and that's a legitimate way to approach a subject. Frankly, at this point we could all probably use a little more description and a little less analysis.

In fact, I'd turn Henry's complaint around. It's obviously not possible to prove the counterfactual of whether Iraq was "doable" or not. What is possible is to describe what happened and let readers come to their own conclusion, and this is one of the book's signal strengths. So while I'm mostly on Henry's side about whether the Iraq venture could ever have been successful, Assassins' Gate gave me pause. Packer's relentless description of the criminal negligence and ideological blindness of the Bush administration regarding Iraq is so complete, and so compelling, that it's hard to come away without concluding that maybe it could have worked if someone else even minimally competent had been in charge.

Maybe. All I can say is: read Chapter 4, and the couple of chapters after it. It's hard not to have some doubts. Even a few more troops, and more importantly the will to use them to keep order, might have made the difference at the very start. Re-forming the Iraqi military would have pulled the teeth of a big part of the insurgency. Starting provincial elections earlier would have given ordinary Iraqis a stake in democracy and more patience with the slow pace of reconstruction from the Americans. A genuine effort to reach out to the rest of the world could have eventually delivered more troops, more expertise, and more legitimacy. Having a plan in place to spend money on reconstruction immediately might have prevented Iraqis from losing their initial faith in the ability of the U.S. to help rebuild their country. A more serious effort to understand Iraqi politics up front could have prevented some of our worst mistakes in places like Fallujah and Najaf.

Then again, maybe not. Perhaps the insurgency was inevitable no matter what we did and western powers have a batting average pretty close to zero when it comes to fighting insurgencies. I'm inclined to believe that. A Christian superpower invading a violent, explosive, Muslim state in the heart of the Middle East was always bound to ignite an insurgency, and nothing I've read makes me think that the U.S. military could have dealt with that regardless of who was in charge.

But read the book and decide for yourself. It doesn't and can't prove anything one way or another, but it can and does lay out the reality on the ground brilliantly. I'm not sure we can ask for much more than that.

Kevin Drum 2:51 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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I GUESS THE GLASS CEILING REALLY DOES START AT HOME....Jeanine Pirro has been something of a disaster in the first couple of months of her senatorial campaign against Hillary Clinton, and pressure is building for her to abandon the race and run for attorney general instead. Today, the New York Post reports that the man behind the groundswell urging her to drop out is....Albert Pirro, Jeanine's husband. Apparently he hatched the plan with the help of Governor George Pataki and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno:

The stunning effort to convince Jeanine Pirro to drop out began after "Albert Pirro asked Bruno to do it," a Pataki aide said.

A source close to Bruno said Albert Pirro had actually relayed his views to Steve Boggess, secretary of the Senate and a key Bruno political aide.

Either way, Al Pirro's move was without his wife's knowledge, amazed sources said.

Damn. Looks like Jeanine married beneath herself.

Via KC Johnson.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WINTER VEGETABLES....Today the LA Times has a story about the shortage of immigrant labor to harvest the winter vegetable crop. Here's how it starts:

"Come January, we could see lettuce rotting in the fields because there will be no one to pick it," said Jon Vessey, who farms 8,000 acres near El Centro.

Hmmm. Jon Vessey. El Centro. 8,000 acres. Where have I heard that before?

Oh yeah. Now I remember. It was a week ago in the Washington Post, which ran an essentially identical story and used Vessey as its centerpiece. Copley News Service and USA Today have also quoted Vessey recently. What's up with that? Is Vessey the only farmer concerned about his crops rotting in the field due to a lack of labor?

Kevin Drum 12:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

GAY MARRIAGE UPDATE....And in other news from overseas that's guaranteed to offend conservative Christians, civil partnerships for gay couples are now legal in Britain. The British version is gay marriage in all but name, and they now join Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Canada in a depraved hellride toward moral degeneracy and the beginning of the end of Western civilization.

Kevin Drum 9:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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HUFFING OVER NARNIA....I'm not an especially militant atheist myself, but I have to admit that it's bracing to see one in high dudgeon occasionally. Today, the Guardian's famously acerbic Polly Toynbee, honorary associate of Britain's National Secular Society, takes on the Christian imagery of CS Lewis's Narnia books:

Philip Pullman he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials has called Narnia "one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read".

Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth.

Does any of this matter? Not really. Most children will never notice. But adults who wince at the worst elements of Christian belief may need a sickbag handy for the most religiose scenes. The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw gives the film five stars and says, "There is no need for anyone to get into a PC huff about its Christian allegory." Well, here's my huff.

Bradshaw is probably right as Toynbee herself admits. When I read the Narnia books as a kid I never had the slightest clue that they had anything to do with Christianity, and unless the movie takes considerable liberties with Lewis's story I doubt that present day youngsters will figure it out on their own either.

Still, if you're in the mood for an entertaining rant, you know what to do.

Kevin Drum 8:54 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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SWEETS AND FLOWERS....We're all aware that back in 2003 pro-war hawks were largely convinced that Iraq would be, as Ken Adelman put it, a "cakewalk." We'd be greeted as liberators, crowds would throw sweets and flowers at us, and we'd quickly turn the country over to a few handpicked exiles and then leave in triumph.

And yet, despite plenty of evidence that the hawks really believed this fantasy, it's still hard to believe that they really believed this fantasy. Were they truly this far out of touch with reality?

Answer: Yes they were, and sometimes it's the smallest anecdotes that are the most telling on this score. Here's a very small one from George Packer's Assassins' Gate. It takes place in July 2003, just before the author's first trip to postwar Iraq:

Before leaving for Iraq, I'd had dinner at the usual Brooklyn bistro with Paul Berman. He kept comparing the situation in post-totalitarian Baghdad to Prague in 1989. I kept insisting that Iraq was vastly different: under military occupation, far more violent, its people more traumatized, living in a much worse neighborhood.

Prague in 1989! I can think of plenty of halfway reasonable analogies for what we could have expected in Iraq Afghanistan, maybe, or Kosovo, or perhaps Haiti or East Timor. Even the much loved analogies to postwar Germany and Japan had at least a tiny kernel of narrative truth to them.

But Prague in 1989? That's insane. And it wasn't just Berman. Apparently this comparison was a popular one among high ranking officials all throughout the administration. They really believed that the Velvet Revolution a homegrown revolt that drove out an occupying force from a modern European country was a good guide to what would happen in Iraq, which was marked by the entrance of a Christian occupying force into a violent and traumatized Muslim country.

It's mind boggling. But, yes, they really believed it. Sweets and flowers.

UPDATE: Paul Berman claims that he never said this. More here.

Kevin Drum 7:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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STUPID WAR TRICKS....Abu Aardvark writes today about the dismay of Tareq Alhomayed, editor of an influential pro-American Arab newspaper, over the news that the U.S. military has been paying to place sympathetic articles in the Iraqi press:

The payola scheme has immensely corrosive longer-term implications for media institutions, for American credibility, for building the institutions of pluralism and democracy. Most immediately it has devastaging implications for the credibility of pro-American voices in the region (hence Alhomayed's dismay). Every pro-American voice in Iraq and in the region now comes under greater suspicion of having been on the take. Those voices already often unfairly risked being tarred as American puppets. Now their burden has become that much heavier.

That's exactly right. My objection to this scheme isn't so much that it's morally wrong as that it's stupid and counterproductive. It's the kind of program that's almost dead certain to be exposed eventually too many ordinary people are involved for it to stay secret forever and when it does, it damages your supporters, undermines their already strained credibility, and casts into doubt every pro-American piece that's ever been written in the Arab or Iraqi press.

It's almost a perfect metaphor for the way George Bush has run this war from the beginning. It's never been about winning so much as it's been about looking like we're winning. And that's why we aren't.

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SUNDAY'S NEWS....Today, the Washington Post revisits the story of Khaled Masri, a German citizen who was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned by the CIA for five months because his name was similar to that of an actual terrorist. Turns out he's just an ordinary schmoe.

Meanwhile, the New York Times tells us that security at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is so bad that genuinely dangerous al-Qaeda members held there can pick the locks on their cells and sneak out through the fence.

Finally, the Los Angeles Times confirms last week's Telegraph story that private contractors are shooting "scores" of Iraqis just for the hell of it and pretty much doing it with impunity.

And of course the black sites in Eastern Europe are still operational, Dick Cheney still opposes the torture bill, the insurgency still appears to be quite a long way from being in its last throes, and the pope has decided that gays are officially pariahs in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Have a nice day!

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A LESS DANGEROUS WORLD....Contrary to what you might think, the world is actually a much safer place than it used to be. Dan Drezner has the details.

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By: Kevin Drum

STANDARD OF PROOF....The Oregonian has a story today about a young woman who reported last year that she had been raped by her boyfriend and two other men. However, because of disputes over the facts, prosecutors decided not to charge the men, an action that even the victim's lawyer says he understands. If you don't think you can convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, then you don't go to trial.

But what happened next he doesn't understand: instead of just dropping the case, prosecutors turned around and charged the victim with filing a false statement. On Friday a judge found her guilty. She faces a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine.

This is obviously pretty troubling. If everyone agrees there were significant disputes over the facts, how was it possible to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman's version of the story was the false one? The Oregonian provides only this brief explanation:

[Judge Peter] Ackerman explained his decision, saying there were many inconsistencies in the stories of the four, but that he found the young men to be more credible. He also said he relied on the testimony of a Beaverton police detective and the woman's friends who said she did not act traumatized in the days following the incident.

That sure doesn't sound like "beyond a reasonable doubt," does it? Phrases like "more credible" combined with specious reasoning like "did not act traumatized" seem more suitable to a civil lawsuit or a dorm room bull session than to a criminal prosecution.

Kevin Hayden, who knows the victim, has more here and here (in comments). Shakespeare's Sister has analysis and reaction here and here.

This prosecution sounds pretty outrageous though it's impossible to say for sure given the small amount of information at hand. I'd sure like to hear more from the judge about exactly what evidence convinced him beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim maliciously made up her story.

Kevin Drum 12:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 3, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FINAL FOOTBALL WEEKEND....Texas has taken care of business against Colorado, and now it's time for USC to do its job against UCLA. If USC wins, we're barbecuing steaks for dinner. If they don't, it's hamburgers.

HALFTIME UPDATE: Looking good. I'll take mine medium rare.

FINAL UPDATE: That went well, didn't it? Time to fire up the barbecue and grill me some Longhorn!

Kevin Drum 5:01 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

IDENTITY THEFT....A while back I got an email asking me if I'd learned any good ways to stop identity theft during the research I did for my identity theft article earlier this month. The answer is yes but only if you live in California, Louisiana, Texas, Vermont or Washington, the states that currently allow you to request a "credit freeze" from the three major credit reporting agencies. Bankrate.com describes what a credit freeze is:

With a credit freeze, no one can open any form of credit in your name. Your credit file is off limits to potential lenders, insurers and even potential employers. Here's how it works.

When you apply for a loan, credit card or cell phone, the company issuing credit contacts one of the three credit reporting agencies and requests to see your credit file. If you have a freeze on your account, the company will be told that it cannot see your credit file because your account is frozen. At this point, most companies would not allow the loan, issue the credit card or activate the cell phone.

But this does not mean that you won't be able to get credit for yourself or allow potential employers to run a background check. The three credit bureaus assign a personal identification number for you when you freeze your report. Using this PIN, you can lift the freeze when necessary.

In other words, you'll be notified whenever someone tries to take out credit in your name. If that someone really is you, you just unfreeze your credit report using your PIN and the credit is granted. Unfreezing costs a few dollars each time you do it.

The downside? If you open up a charge account or try to take out a car loan, you'll have to wait a few days until you're contacted and provide your PIN. No more driving off the lot the same day. Plus it costs a few dollars to freeze and unfreeze your account.

The upside? Almost no more risk of identity theft. Crooks can still steal your credit cards, of course, but that only costs you a maximum of $50 per card and doesn't wreck your credit report in any case. You just have to report them as stolen.

Thanks to Debra Bowen, who's currently running for Secretary of State here in California, I can request a credit freeze on my credit reports, and I'm planning to do exactly that. Other states are following suit.

But ask yourself this: why is this happening at a state level anyway? Why not at a federal level? And why do you have to pay for it? And why can't you make one request instead of having to send a certified letter to three separate companies? And why does it take "several days" to unfreeze your account each time you do it? Why not a few hours? In fact, why isn't a credit freeze the default option for credit reports in the first place?

Those are all excellent questions, and the answer is simple: because the credit industry doesn't like credit freezes and wants to make them as confusing and hassle prone as possible. But that's why we elect a government, isn't it? Call your representative and complain.

Kevin Drum 4:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE ASSASSINS' GATE....I'm reading George Packer's Assassins' Gate right now and can't recommend it highly enough. It's an absolutely stunning portrait of how we ended up in Iraq, what happened once we got there, and why things unfolded the way they did.

Blog readers know a fair bit of this history already from magazine articles and newspaper reporting, but as I was saying a few days ago, the only way to really know a subject is to read a book. It's true that most of us don't remember everything we read in books, but that's not the point: only when you get the whole story, in all its glorious detail and told all at once, do you really get a narrative sense of what happened. That's what Packer has done in Assassins' Gate.

I'll have more to say about this over the next few days, but for now I'd just like to mention one thing. I've seen a lot of lefty critics who have hammered Packer because he supported the war and, in their eyes, hasn't been forthcoming enough about admitting that he was wrong about that. Michael Hirsh led the charge in these pages a couple of months ago. I have three words for these critics: get over yourselves. Perhaps someday we'll ship Packer and his fellow liberal hawks off to reeducation camps and force tearful confessions of doctrinal error out of them, but for now partisans on both sides could do worse than admit that the world comes in shades of gray and neither success nor failure in Iraq was quite as preordained as you might think. A little bit of difficulty figuring out where you stand on the war isn't quite the moral failing some seem to think it is.

But however you feel on that score, don't let it stop you from reading Packer's book. It's fascinating, authoritative, maddening, and gripping all at once. What's more, it's about all we've got. I spoke with Packer on Thursday because I was curious about his sourcing for a few of the things he wrote about, and during the conversation I asked him if he knew of any similar books that had been written by confirmed right-wing war supporters (Packer himself is merely a self-described "ambivalently pro-war liberal"). Given all that's happened, I wondered if any of them had undertaken a similar effort from a conservative point of view. He said no, he hadn't seen one.

I guess that's no surprise. Any detailed look at the war is unlikely to be a happy experience for conservatives. In the meantime, this effort from an ambivalently pro-war liberal is the best we have so far. Very highly recommended no matter what you thought of the war in the first place.

Kevin Drum 1:09 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

SHRILL IN NEW ORLEANS....The LA Times reports that Hurricane Katrina is a bad memory literally:

Veteran members of Congress say they cannot remember another humanitarian issue that started out with such sympathy on Capitol Hill and then lost support so rapidly.

"I don't think I have ever seen an issue flip so quickly as this did," said Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), chairman of a key subcommittee involved in reconstruction efforts.

...."I'm not sure it was ever the intention of this administration to really help," said [Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu]. "I would say that really it's a pattern of this administration to promise a lot and deliver very little to pretend like you care, but when it comes down to really putting your money where your mouth is, it doesn't happen."

...."I'm ready to start a revolution," said former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.). "This is an absolute outrage. Here we are in Month 4 of a terrible, terrible tragedy, and other than hotel rooms and meals-ready-to-eat and some reconstruction, we haven't gotten squat."

Republican congressmen apparently blame the whole thing on Landrieu, who they say has been "shrill" compared to her more stalwart Republican male colleagues in Mississippi. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Kevin Drum 12:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 2, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SPEND....Cathy Young captures my thoughts perfectly when she says: "The 'save Christmas' hysteria this year seems to be worse than ever (though that's what I thought last year, too)."

Hey, me too! But is that because it really is worse, or is it because I'm paying more attention lately? After all, before I started blogging Bill O'Reilly could rant til he was blue in the face and I'd never know it. But now, thanks to the miracle of the internet, when O'Reilly and his guests bloviate, people like Cathy transcribe it and put it on their blogs for all us pixel-oriented people to read. Here is the Rev. Tim Bumgardner, a pastor in Wellington, Florida, who is fighting to have a nativity scene included in his town's holiday display:

Rev. Tim Bumgardner: I think they should put a Nativity scene be American! Hey, celebrate Christmas people spend more money! Jesus makes people want to spend money!

O'Reilly: I agree. I'm with you.

Look, folks, if that's what Jesus wants, then I guess America is a Christian nation after all. But if that's the case, Bill and the reverend might want to think twice about whether the game is worth the candle.

Kevin Drum 5:06 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING....Sometimes it's hard to find the cats, even when I can hear them. Jasmine, lithe little thing that she is, frequently turns out to be hiding on the patio cover on warm days, soaking up the California sunshine and rolling around the slats. That's where I found her last week.

Inkblot, who is more geometrodynamically challenged than Jasmine, can't lumber his way to the roof. However, he has a newfound fondness for our (floor level) cupboards, and that's where I found him hiding yesterday. Unfortunately, he still seems unwilling to help out with the cooking.

Kevin Drum 2:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

PRESERVING OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY....Nativist Republican congressman Tom Tancredo recently wrote a Thanksgiving letter to his Team America PAC expressing gratitude for their help in the "struggle to preserve our national identity, against the tide of illegal immigrants flooding the United States." Marc Ambinder at the Hotline comments:

"Preserving national idenitity" is an innocuous enough phrase, and in the context of political traditions or history or even language, it means what it means.

But in the immigration debate, many GOP pollsters and strategists and big thinkers believe that independent voters, especially women, and nearly all Latino voters, interpret "preserving national identity" as a code word for "keeping America white and Christian."

Some have tested the phrase in polls and focus groups and confirmed their findings.

I'll just bet they have. Tell us more, Marc. That post ended rather abruptly, didn't it?

Kevin Drum 1:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

ABRAMOFF READY TO CRACK?....Is the big fish about to flip?

With a federal corruption case intensifying, prosecutors investigating Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist, are examining whether he brokered lucrative jobs for Congressional aides at powerful lobbying firms in exchange for legislative favors, people involved in the case have said.

The attention paid to how the aides obtained jobs occurs as Mr. Abramoff is under mounting pressure to cooperate with prosecutors as they consider a case against lawmakers. Participants in the case, who insisted on anonymity because the investigation is secret, said he could try to reach a deal in the next six weeks.

If Abramoff caves, there's no telling how far this case could go. 2006 could be a pretty festive year.

The Carpetbagger has more.

Kevin Drum 1:31 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

WHAT THEY'RE WATCHING....Abu Aardvark crunches the numbers from a recent survey of Arab public opinion and unsurprisingly reports that (a) everyone watches Al-Jazeera and (b) nobody watches the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra. Karen Hughes, take note.

Kevin Drum 1:16 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK....The liberal anti-anti-Wal-Mart backlash seems to be picking up steam. First up is John Kerry advisor Jason Furman making the liberal economic case for Wal-Mart:

Wal-Marts low prices help to increase real wages for the 120 million Americans employed in other sectors of the economy. And the company itself does not appear to pay lower wages or benefits than similar companies, or to cause substantially lower wages in the retail sector. Although there may be a dispute about the magnitude of the cost savings for consumers, no one disputes that they are large. In contrast, the effect on workers is relatively smaller and far from obviously negative.

At worst, to the degree the anti-Wal-Mart campaign slows or halts the spread of Wal-Mart to new areas, it will lead to higher prices that disproportionately harm lower-income families.

Next up is a friend making the cultural case via email:

The access to something like a sophisticated-enough-looking, urban-enough-looking, really dirt-cheap lifestyle that this store provides to rural folks is a really big deal to them. The customers I interviewed when I was a reporter at the ------ don't just love this store in the way, say, I love Best Buy, they love it because they think it promotes them in class, lets them decorate their home in a way that all the middle class people do.

Third in the batting order is Ed Kilgore making the tactical political case:

In the southern small-town, rural and exurban communities I know best, and among the low-to-moderate income "working family" voters Democrats most need to re-attract, Wal-Mart is considered pretty damn near sancrosanct. And if Democrats decide to tell these voters they can't be good progressives and shop at Wal-Mart, we will lose these people for a long, long time....If you think we've been damaged as a party by culturally conservative working-class perceptions of us as people who want to take their guns away, you ain't seen nothing yet if we become perceived as the party that wants to take Wal-Mart away.

Finally, here is Rosa Brooks making the feminist case:

For frantic women who juggle careers and children, what's not to love about stores that sell practically everything under one roof? One of my female friends, a union labor lawyer who wouldn't be caught dead in a Wal-Mart, nonetheless confesses a penchant for Target. "I get a perverse thrill whenever I'm there," she admits.

And let's face it: Who would really rather go back to the age of small mom-and-pop stores? How did women live before the advent of the superstore? Actually, we know the answer. They generally didn't work, which was just as well because they had to spend a couple of days a week meandering from butcher shop to green-grocer to baker, not to speak of all those trips to the drugstore, the shoe store and so on.

Food for thought.

Kevin Drum 12:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

OUT OF CONTROL....John Glionna and Lee Romney have a long but interesting story in the LA Times today. It's about rogue snitches, lying DEA agents, drug roundups gone crazy, and the poor guy who got caught in the middle of it. If he hadn't decided to fight back in court, we'd never know about it.

Kevin Drum 12:21 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

MORE SOUND SCIENCE....The Fish Passage Center is an agency in Portland, Oregon, that counts endangered fish in the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Last summer, based on data from the FPC, a federal judge ordered that water be spilled over federal dams in the Snake River to increase salmon survival.

Question: Suppose you are a United States senator who has been named "legislator of the year" by the National Hydropower Association and are therefore unhappy about this ruling. What do you do?

  1. Openly make the case to your colleagues that electric power is more important than salmon and try to muster up the votes for a change to the Federal Salmon Plan.

  2. Work with the scientific community to see if there are additional programs that might increase the salmon population without affecting the dams.

  3. Since it's the Fish Passage Center that produced the research used in the judge's decision, eliminate their funding. After all, if we don't like the data, we should stop collecting it.

Oh did I mention that you should pretend to be a Republican senator with that famous Republican dedication to sound science while taking this quiz? Does that make it easier to see that answer (c) is obviously the right one?

Kevin Drum 1:28 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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December 1, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

PLANTING STORIES....On Wednesday, Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times broke a story about the U.S. military secretly writing stories and having them planted in the Iraqi media with the help of a consulting outfit called the Lincoln Group.

A few hours later Knight Ridder posted a story by Jonathan Landay that covered the same ground and added that "U.S. psychological-warfare officers have been involved in writing news releases and drafting media strategies for top commanders."

Today, Jeff Gerth and Scott Shane of the New York Times chimed in. They made it clear that they had been chasing this story on their own before the LA Times printed it.

All of these articles are the product of weeks of research, and it's not just coincidence that all of these reporters have been working on the exact same story. Somebody's been trying to get the word out about this. Somebody who's not very happy with this program. But who?

Kevin Drum 8:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

RUMSFELD vs. PACE....Crooks and Liars has the video of Donald Rumsfeld and General Peter Pace disagreeing about the duty of American soldiers to stop torture and inhumane treatment whenever they see it. Here it is.

Kevin Drum 8:11 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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2006 IN IRAQ....In a short piece about Nancy Pelosi's call for withdrawal from Iraq, ber-neocon hawk Bill Kristol throws out this aside:

It is possible that the situation in Iraq will worsen over the next year....But it is much more likely that the situation in Iraq will stay more or less the same, or improve.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but that tacked on "or improve" sure doesn't sound very convincing, does it? It looks to me like even the hawkish Kristol can't persuade himself that the most likely scenario is any better than "stay more or less the same." Is it any surprise that those of us who aren't monomaniacs to begin with are somewhat less optimistic?

Kevin Drum 1:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

A NEW MEANING FOR "OFFICE HOURS"....Well, this is definitely an unusual way to start your morning.....

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LIKUD/LABOR/KADIMA FOR DUMMIES....Israeli parliamentary politics is so Byzantine that I usually have no idea what's really going on when, say, prime minister Ariel Sharon leaves the party he co-founded three decades ago, sets up a new one, and is then joined by the former leader of the Labor opposition. Is it really what it seems, or are there deep underground currents which only the cognoscenti understand?

I'm not sure, but over at Reality-Based Community Jonathan Zasloff has a brief summary that's both plausible sounding and easy to understand. Check it out for a bit of informed background on what's going on.

Kevin Drum 12:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

COUNTERINSURGENCY....Matt Yglesias, quoting Lawrence Kaplan, raises a vexing question. We are frequently told that the military finally learned its lesson by the end of the Vietnam war and figured out how to do counterinsurgency right. In fact, the story goes, we were damn close to winning the war when Congress pulled the plug and everything went to hell.

The point of this story is not that we could have won the Vietnam war if we had stuck it out a little longer (a proposition I doubt). The point is that we learned how to do counterinsurgency. But if that's true, why have we performed so abysmally at counterinsurgency in Iraq? Why have we, in fact, not even pursued a strategy of counterinsurgency during most of the time we've been there?

Matt proposes that the answer lies in Dwight Eisenhower's military-industrial complex: Defense contractors make their money selling big ticket weapons systems and therefore spend a lot of time promoting those kinds of weapons systems as the right way to wage war. The U.S. military has fallen in line, and counterinsurgency has therefore become a Pentagon backwater.

That sounds plausible to me, though I think the causality works in the other direction too (much as Eisenhower suggested). The U.S. military likes big wars against big enemies, not messy little pissant wars, and this keeps the contractors happy and makes counterinsurgency a career killer for ambitious military professionals.

But I think there's at least one other critical point to all this: nobody ever thinks these wars are going to last very long. The very act of fighting a counterinsurgency is an admission that you're going to be around for years, because that's how long insurgencies last. If your war planning driven by neocon ideologues is so wildly divorced from reality that you don't plan to be around for more than a few months, what's the point of even thinking about counterinsurgency?

That's what happened in Iraq, and it's been the source of nearly all our problems since then. More on this later.

Kevin Drum 12:23 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

JUST HOW AUTONOMOUS IS THE KURDISH AUTONOMOUS REGION?....The LA Times reports today that Kurds are signing their own deals for new oil exploration. The central government is not amused.

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BUSH AND THE MILITARY....In the LA Times today, Tyler Marshall and Mark Mazzetti offer this assessment of George Bush's speech at the Naval Academy:

After months of a lingering disconnect between the White House and senior military commanders, Bush's comments also seemed to bring him into line not just with America's military, but with the rest of his administration.

Repeatedly, military commanders have made the case that only a draw-down of U.S. troops would make Iraqi forces take control of their nation's security. They also argue that the very presence of American troops viewed as occupiers by most Iraqis helps drive the insurgency.

On Wednesday, Bush finally seemed to accept the argument.

Actually, I hope this is true. But I doubt it. Bush said a lot of things in his speech today, but the military arguments in favor of a drawdown weren't among them. In fact, they were conspicuously missing. I didn't get the sense that he's modified his views in any way at all.

Kevin Drum 1:54 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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By: Kevin Drum

CHOICEPOINT UPDATE....ChoicePoint, the data broker whose databases already hold 19 billion pieces of personal data, would like to add California's vehicle registration records to its hoard. That would be 30 million new records for its glittering collection.

Unfortunately, ChoicePoint is also the company whose sloppy procedures allowed a ring of identity thieves to steal 162,000 of its records late last year and that makes California authorities justifiably nervous. The answer? Invoke the magic words, "Homeland Security." Who can say no to that?

But is ChoicePoint's request really related to homeland security? Or is that just a convenient way to avoid annoying questions from pesky, privacy conscious bureaucrats? Michael Hiltzik investigates.

Kevin Drum 1:41 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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