Monday, October 29, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Separation of Powers

New England is currently suffering the shock of two Red Sox championships in four years. It's forcing us to re-evaluate who we are as a region. And the Patriots and Boston College aren't helping: How can we stay lovable when we're pounding people 52-7?

Congress and the President
The DailyKos blogger FWIW has done us all a service by summarizing large chunks of the notes James Madison took during the debates at the constitutional convention in The Founding Fathers Intended. There's no better antidote to the "unitary executive" nonsense than to look at what the Founders actually said.

Here's one simple way to see which branch of government the Founders thought they were making the most powerful: They decided not to divide the executive power among three officials, but split the legislative branch into two houses. A single legislature would concentrate too much power, but a single executive would not. A good satire of where we've gotten instead is also on DailyKos: White House Continues To Deny The Existence of Congress.

Mike Gravel
I forgot to mention it last week, but right after I finished writing WIMTW two weeks ago, I got to sit down for nearly two hours with Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel. (OK, he's not Hillary or Barack, but I'm not exactly Walter Cronkite either.) No handlers, no negotiated question list, just him and me sitting in a living room in Manchester drinking cans of Diet Coke. The interview was for the magazine UU World, because Gravel is a Unitarian Universalist. So mostly I'm not blogging about it until I've written the article for the magazine. But I did get an answer to a question I've heard some of you ask: Why is this guy running?

Here's why: Gravel's passion for nearly two decades now has been something he calls the National Initiative, his proposal to allow voters to pass federals laws without going through the usual legislative process. Californians in particular always roll their eyes at this proposal, because they know what a mess the initiative process is in their state. But Gravel has put a lot of thought into avoiding the problems of the state initiative processes, and as I watch Congress do nothing to stop the Iraq War in spite of massive public opposition, I have a hard time arguing with Gravel's claim that "Representative government is broken." Is this the right fix? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to give it a look. Good or bad, publicizing the National Initiative was Gravel's original motive to run for president. "If I don't run," the 77-year-old Gravel recalls saying to himself, "if I don't do something unusual, I won't live to see it."

Interviewing Gravel is a hoot. In most candidate interviews, the interviewer has to work to knock the candidate off his talking points. With Gravel you have to keep him from wandering off to something else entirely. One radio interviewer didn't, and the two of them wound up discussing The Sopranos.

Gravel hasn't collected much money from contributors yet, but New Hampshire resident Gregory Chase recently started his own million-dollar pro-Gravel advertising campaign. He's also offering a $25,000 prize to the Gravel video that gets the most views on YouTube. A couple candidates for the prize are this and this.

Mercenaries and the Private Sector
Several people have written the same basic idea: the Blackwater mercenaries are the epitome of the conservative effort to privatize government, and liberals ought to make them the symbol of conservatism in general. Journeyman does the best job of laying it out: In the same way that conservatives have for decades tried to turn every issue into "freedom versus socialism" or "freedom versus big government", liberals should frame every issue as responsible government versus the mercenary ideal.

The Edwards campaign appears to get this. Saturday one of my friends held a house party for Elizabeth Edwards, and I got to ask her about John's stand on Blackwater and other mercenary armies. She immediately segued into a larger discussion of privatization: "The hiring of private contractors is something that this administration was dedicated to when they came in, and they've done it in every department. And beginning with the Department of Defense, those job functions need to be taken back. ... Government jobs, particularly in sensitive areas like this, cannot be done by private business. They have to be done by government with government accountability. When we start farming them out, what we do is lose the capability to do them ourselves." And she tied it straight to corruption, emphasizing that Blackwater's founder is a major Bush donor and then generalizing to privatization in general: "We need to regain the skills in order to do it in house, so there are not proper government activities that are profit centers for businesses that are contributors to campaigns."

The New Republic's John Chait identifies a bit of conservative framing he calls "entitlement hysteria." It works like this: You lump together the projected problems of Social Security with the much more serious problems of Medicare to get an Entitlement Crisis. Then you ignore Medicare and focus on the dire necessity of doing something about Social Security right away. Chait neglects the final step in constructing the frame: You claim that privatizing Social Security is the only way out, and thereby create vast new profit centers for your campaign contributors in the financial industries.

Another Committed Politician
Another interesting bit of framing comes from Rosa Brooks' column in the L. A. Times: Straightjacket Bush. Brooks argues that impeachment is the wrong model for thinking about getting rid of President Bush -- we ought to be thinking about commitment instead. Brooks quotes the pertinent D. C. law: If a "court or jury finds that [a] person is mentally ill and . . . is likely to injure himself or other persons if allowed to remain at liberty, the court may order his hospitalization." Brooks proposes that the likelihood of Bush starting a delusional war against Iran qualifies.

Now, I'm pretty sure this is a joke. But I'm having a hard time explaining why it's a joke. Is there any doubt that Bush and Cheney will injure other persons if allowed to remain at liberty? Why is Brooks' proposal a joke, but the drumbeating for war with Iran isn't? Why didn't we all react like this: "Those Bush and Cheney guys, they crack me up. You never know what they're going to say. They're not talking about ending this war, they're talking -- get this -- about starting another one. What a bunch of kidders!"

Short Notes
One of the great things about the blogs is that you get stories of how policies affect real people. Lillygirl describes her 81-year-old dad's arrest at JFK airport: "We are safer now. ... You can't say this wasn't another body blow to the terrorists." Gizmo59 writes about a small-scale act of civil disobedience in My Friend Katie Goes to Jail.

FEMA has come up with a new way to control the message: Hold a fake news conference where your people pose as reporters and ask all the questions. Why didn't anybody think of this before?

I continue to collect explanations of the falling casualties in Iraq. One of the more interesting theories goes like this: Casualties are down because we're in the process of ending one war to start another. We have, in essence, switched sides in the civil war between the Sunni and the Shia. So we're no longer losing large numbers of troops in the Sunni-dominated areas like Anbar, while our losses against the Shia will take a while to ramp up.

Don Rumsfeld is getting the Pinochet treatment: Rumsfeld's presence in France caused a consortium of human rights groups to file suit asking the French government to detain him. The argument is that France, as a signer of the Convention Against Torture, has an obligation to try Rumsfeld for war crimes. Most likely this is going nowhere, but I think efforts like this are going to get more and more serious as time goes on. Like Chile's recently deceased tyrant Augusto Pinochet, who was once arrested in Britain because of a Spanish indictment for crimes against humanity, top Bush officials (including Bush himself) are going to have to be careful where they travel after they leave office.

Mike Huckabee has gotten popular enough that the Wall Street Journal thinks it's necessary to denounce him.

Ex-Army Captain and Iraq veteran Phillip Carter (who runs the blog Intel Dump), asks why we can't renounce waterboarding.

It's long but it's important: This weekend's New York Times Magazine published The Evangelical Crackup, an article describing how a new generation of evangelical pastors is telling the Republican Party that they can still be friends, but they need to start seeing other people. They're noticing that Christianity has more political significance than just anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights, and they're starting to pay attention to a few liberal issues like the environment and poverty. Scriptural religion is a mixed bag, but you have to give it this: No matter how long people ignore the Sermon on the Mount, it stays in the book. Sooner or later somebody's bound to run across it again and ask: "Why aren't we doing anything about this?"

Monday, October 22, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Telcom Immunity

The Corruption Angle on Telcom Immunity
I've been pointing to you to Glenn Greenwald's coverage of the warrantless spying issue because he's been presenting it from an angle I never hear in the corporate-owned press: corruption. But Glenn can be a little verbose on the topic, so I thought I'd shrink the Telcom Immunity issue down to a few excerpts. First, a summary:
AT&T's customers sued them for violating their privacy in violation of long-standing federal laws and for violating their Fourth Amendment rights. Even with the most expensive armies of lawyers possible, AT&T and other telecoms are losing in a court of law. The federal judge presiding over the case ruled against them -- ruled that the law is so clear they could not possibly have believed that what they did was legal -- and most observers, having heard the Oral Argument on appeal, predicted that they will lose in the Court of Appeals, too. So AT&T and other telecoms went to Washington and -- led by Bush 41 Attorney General (and now Verizon General Counsel) William Barr, and in cooperation with their former colleague, Mike McConnell -- began paying former government officials to whom they give money, such as Jay Rockefeller, to pass a law declaring them the victors in these lawsuits and be relieved of all liability -- all based on assertions that a court of law has already rejected. They are literally buying a judicial victory in Congress
The main argument for retroactive immunity was put forward by the Washington Post like this: By cooperating with the administration's illegal spying program "the telecommunications providers seem to us to have been acting as patriotic corporate citizens in a difficult and uncharted environment." But Glenn notes in a different post that the telcoms are being paid very well to be "good corporate citizens" or collaborators or whatever.
It is a never-ending carousel of multi-billion dollar transactions -- pursuant to which enormous sums of taxpayer money are transferred to these telecoms in exchange for the telecoms serving as obedient divisions of the Government, giving them unfettered access to all of the data and content of the communications of American citizens.
And this issue is more than just about a few mega-corporations. It's also about closing the only remaining loophole in the cover-up of the whole program.

Congress has no intention of investigating any of this, and even if they wanted to -- which they don't -- their subpoenas would simply be ignored and they would do nothing about it. Congress has spent the last six years shutting its eyes towards all of this, except when the White House demanded that it be legalized.

These private lawsuits -- brought by heroic privacy and civil liberties groups -- are the only real mechanism left for discovering what the telecoms and our Government have been jointly doing when it comes to spying on our communications, maintaining surveillance data bases of our actions, and violating a whole litany of long-standing federal laws designed to protect the confidentiality of citizens' communications. A law that gives amnesty to telecoms would mean that those lawsuits are stopped in their tracks, and we would likely never find out -- at least not for a long, long time -- the extent of this oversight-less surveillance by our government on Americans, nor would we be able to obtain a judicial ruling as to its illegality.

It's the overall precedent that bothers me. The administration asked the phone companies to break the law. They did, and now Congress is about to immunize them from any consequences. So what's going to happen the next time a president asks a corporation to break the law? What if a president wants an accounting company to fudge some books for a major contributor like Enron? What if a president wants Blackwater to assassinate somebody, like maybe a political rival? The company depends on the government for billions in contracts. There's a history of granting immunity afterwards. Why would they say no?

Poll Trends: Watch Huckabee
This was the week the mainstream media started to notice Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. (I wrote about him seven weeks ago.) Some new poll results have put him the radar screen. The USA Today/Gallup poll that came out Monday the 15th lists Republican horserace numbers in two-week intervals going back to the beginning of this year. The race is amazingly static except for one thing: Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul have broken away from the other lower-tier candidates. Neither of them polled higher than 1% until June, but now Huckabee is at 6% and Paul at 5%. Put together, they have more supporters than Romney at 10%.

TPM reports that a Rasmussen poll of Iowa Republicans has Huckabee third at 18%, trailing Romney at 25% and Thompson at 19%. Then there was the straw poll from the Values Voters Summit: Romney is fractions of a percent ahead of Huckabee, with both at 27-point-something percent. Ron Paul is third at 15%, Thompson fourth, with McCain and Giuliani put together managing slightly over 3%.

It's questionable how large a constituency the Values Voters group represents, but results like these make it harder and harder to treat Huckabee and Paul as fringe candidates. Paul's positions (get out of Iraq and stop illegal spying on Americans) aren't popular among Republicans as a whole, though he still has some room to rise before he hits that ceiling. But Huckabee could break into the top tier. The Evangelical Republicans haven't warmed to Fred Thompson yet, they've never liked McCain, Romney's Mormonism and past pro-choice and pro-gay-rights positions bother them, and Giulani's current social-issue positions (plus his multiple marriages) make him the least acceptable of all. The thing keeping the Evangelicals away from Huckabee is that he looks like a loser. If that starts to change, it could change fast. David Brooks thinks it will.

Iraq: What's Happening?
In September, General Petraeus' statistics showing violence headed down in Iraq looked cooked. Now more intuitively comprehensible statistics are showing something similar. The average daily death rate for American troops in Iraq is 1.36 for the first three weeks of October, down from 4.23 in May and lower than it has been since March 2006.

There are different theories about why this is happening. General Petraeus' is that the Surge is working. Certainly a decline in violence in Anbar Province (after our alliance with the local Sunni tribes) is part of the picture. But Newsweek raises the question of why violence from Iran-supported Shiite militias is also down. Firedoglake points to a post at the Group News Blog making this claim: Violence in Baghdad, where the Surge is centered, is up, but violence in the rest of the country is down.
This information shows a trend up in the Baghdad region and shows that Iraq does not devolve into civil war when the US pulls out. Does not let al Qaeda take over in their absence. In fact the complete opposite, the local security forces quickly run to ground AQI and end them. It seems once the US forces leave the area the score settling and inter-tribal violence ends. Life seems cheap with tanks and machine guns on every corner. Remove those visual and physical reminders and people work out their differences with something other than a pistol and a power-drill.
But Juan Cole isn't buying it, at least not yet.
I don't agree with the authors' conclusion that a US withdrawal would lead to social peace, since I believe that the low intensity war is only low intensity because the US military imposes limits on intensity. If the US forces weren't there, the local forces would fight their various wars to a conclusion or a stalemate.
Quick Notes
One candidate for the Most Important Story You're Not Paying Attention To is the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Wednesday's Washington Post called attention to resistant strains of staph, which apparently are more common than previously thought. Some day this issue will suddenly vault into the public eye and become a panic.

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is making noises about running for president. This could be the most significant comedic campaign since Pat Paulsen in 1968.

On DailyKos, Broken Skull gives a first-hand account of life with Iraq-induced post-traumatic-stress disorder. And Bonddad, who usually blogs about financial issues, lets out his real feelings about the lack of fortitude in the Democratic congressional leadership. And Chris Floyd (guest-blogging for Glenn Greenwald) pretty much agrees.

TPM assembles Sunday talk-show discussion of war against Iran.

Monday, October 15, 2007

This Week: Fall and Frost

In New Hampshire in mid-October, politics, the Patriots, and even the Red Sox end up taking a back seat to Fall. I saw this particular stand of trees in North Conway this weekend. Peak colors should make it as far south as my home in Nashua sometime this week.
Graeme Frost: Shooting the Messenger
A lot of the buzz on the blogs this week had to do with Graeme Frost, the 12-year-old who delivered the Democrats' radio address on September 29. Frost was in a car accident, has major medical bills, and is fortunate that his family was covered by Maryland's S-CHIP program, which provides health insurance to children whose families are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Democrats in Congress passed a bill expanding S-CHIP to cover more children, and President Bush vetoed it. A veto-override vote is pending, but isn't expected to succeed.

Well, it should have surprised no one that the right-wing attack machine went into high gear to try to discredit Frost and his family. Led by Michelle Malkin, a right-wing blogger and frequent talking-head guest on Fox News, the machine tried to show that the Frosts were well-off people who (if not exactly defrauding the government) were squeezing through loop-holes to get help they neither need nor deserve. A lot of half-truths were trumpeted loudly, and liberal bloggers did a good job of exposing the exaggerations -- to the point that even The Wall Street Journal had to concede that the Frosts are "the sort of family that a modest Schip is supposed to help." In other words: They have medium-low income but aren't destitute, and thanks to S-CHIP they didn't have to lose their home and spend themselves into destitution before getting aid.

A lot of people have expressed amazement that the Right would attack a 12-year-old boy, but these are exactly the kind of situations that draw their most vicious fire: Recall Ann Coulter going after the Jersey Girls, four 9/11 widows who publicly protested the Bush administration's stonewalling of the 9/11 investigation.

There are two patterns at work here: First, when attacked the Right always counter-attacks rather than defending its policies. Remember all the nasty false things that were said about Terry Schiavo's husband, or the smears against the people trapped in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina? The whole Valerie Plame mess happened because the administration wanted to attack Joe Wilson rather than answer his charge that they fear-mongered Saddam's alleged nuclear program after they knew better. In this case, if they can divert the public into debating the Frosts' finances rather than Bush's veto of a plan that takes care of sick and injured kids, they've succeeded.

But the more specific pattern is this: Right-wing mythology insists that government programs don't help anyone. So when conservatives cut taxes for the rich and benefits for everyone else, they don't see it as robbing the poor to give to the rich. They think of it as a win-win situation: The rich get more money and the rest of us aren't being screwed up by the government's attempts to help us. If you confront them with incontrovertible evidence that this myth isn't true, that government programs really do help people and that cutting those programs victimizes people, they go berserk, like most folks do when their denial is exposed. That's what happened here.

One more piece of the attack on the Frosts deserves attention: The point that the Frosts are better off than millions of Americans, so S-CHIP forces waitresses and grocery-baggers to pay for the health insurance of people richer than themselves. Isn't it amazing how the Right wrings its hands when the government transfers money from the working poor to the working slightly-less-poor, but not when money is transfered straight to the rich? When the subject is tax cuts, it's as if only the rich pay taxes. But when they talk about benefits, suddenly all the government's money is coming from the working poor.

The American people understand quite well what's going on with programs like S-CHIP: We pool our tax money so that people can get help when they have bad luck. Sometimes that means that the government helps people better off than we are. If some of the people who were rescued off rooftops in New Orleans are richer than me, I'm OK with that. I just want to know that the helicopters will be there for me too.

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine
I won't do a full-scale book review of The Shock Doctrine because a number of people already have, including SusanG over on DailyKos. The important thing about this book is its scope: It ties together a long string of events over the last half-century, from Pinochet's CIA-supported coup in Chile in the Seventies to the current situations in Iraq and New Orleans. Too often the Left analyzes each new situation from scratch, while the Right has ready-made narratives it can plug the new details into. This book is an attempt to fix that problem.

The villain of the book is economist Milton Friedman and the free-market-worshiping movement he popularized. In Friedman's rhetoric (which you can still hear from President Bush) freedom, democracy, and unfettered capitalism are one indivisible whole. Klein's point is that the people of almost every country actually don't want unfettered capitalism, so Friedman economics has almost always wound up in a bundle with coups, dictatorships, death squads, and torture -- not freedom and democracy.

A second point is that the Friedmanians have been looking to remake society from a blank sheet of paper, and so have been callous about the destruction of what already exists. (Don Rumsfeld's nonchalance about the looting of Baghdad is just the most egregious manifestation of a more general attitude.) This has evolved into a complex Klein calls "disaster capitalism," in which any disaster -- whether a natural disaster like Katrina or the Asian tsunami or a manmade one like the invasion of Iraq -- is an opportunity for multinational corporations to come in and remake society from a blank sheet. The paradigm here is Sri Lanka, where the Asian tsunami was used to clear away fishing villages that can now be replaced by four-star beach hotels. Aid that American donors gave to help the tsunami victims has actually wound up financing their relocation to more-or-less permanent refugee camps.

A point I wish Klein had stressed more: The blank-sheet-of-paper fantasy was the grand illusion of the 20th century. Communism, Nazism, and the other major tragedies of the 20th century all revolved around the vision that you could build paradise if you could just bulldoze everything and start over. The only two groups that still have this illusion are the neo-conservatives and Al Qaeda.

Other Random Stuff
Comedian Andy Borowitz reports that the Supreme Court is awarding Al Gore's Nobel Prize to President Bush. And Paul Krugman discusses Gore Derangement Syndrome, that strange apoplexy that overtakes conservatives when they are forced to think about Al Gore.

Over at Talking Points Memo, Steve Benen explains why Mitt Romney will not have a "JFK moment" when he confronts head-on the doubts of those who wonder whether a Mormon should be president. It's simple: JFK defused the Catholic issue by embracing the separation of church and state. But the Republican base doesn't believe in the separation of church and state. So what's Mitt supposed to say to them?

If you haven't seen it already, Saturday Night Live's spoof of Fred Thompson is a hoot.

Here's the link I should have given you last week in my article about torture. It's from Balkinization, my favorite blog about the law. (The blog's founder Jack Balkin is a professor of constitutional law at Yale.) In this article, David Luban explains what is probably in the secret memos justifying torture. He does the common-sense thing: Looks at legal arguments the administration has already made in public and pieces them together into a justification of torture. His conclusion is that the memos define their terms in such a way that "nothing [the government] does to obtain terrorist information counts as cruel, inhuman, or degrading." In other words, there are no limits.

Over on Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley concludes that the recent Israeli attack on what was apparently a Syrian nuclear facility means that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead. Instead of an international system that attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons while encouraging the peaceful development of nuclear energy, we now have "a de facto arrangement in which states that the US approves of are allowed to have nuclear power, while states we dislike get airstrikes."

A subject I haven't discussed nearly enough is the attempt to get Congress to immunize the telecom companies against lawsuits resulting from their conspiring with the Bush administration to tap Americans' phones illegally. Fortunately, Glenn Greenwald has this issue covered. The precedent here would be awful. When the president asks you to break the law, you should say no. It's that simple. Anything that undermines that principle is sending us down the road to being a banana republic.

Monday, October 08, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Torture and Response

The discussion that drew my attention this week started with Thursday's New York Times article revealing that the Bush administration had secretly OK'd the use of torture even as it was publicly declaring torture "abhorrent."

Coincidentally, I told you the beginning of the story last week in my review of Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency. John Yoo worked for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, a powerful group that interprets the laws for the executive branch. Shortly after 9/11, he wrote a series of secret memos saying, in a nutshell, that during wartime the president's constitutional power as commander in chief trumps everything else -- treaties, laws, the Bill of Rights, everything. When Goldsmith took over the OLC, he thought this point of view was a serious mistake and tried to rein things in.

After Goldsmith left the administration and Alberto Gonzales became Attorney General, Gonzales appointed Steven Bradbury head of the OLC. Bradbury wrote a memo providing (according to the Times) "explicit authorization to barrage terror suspects with a combination of painful physical and psychological tactics, including head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures."

A few months later Congress passed the McCain Amendment, which banned "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" treatment of prisoners. Bradbury issued another memo (secret even from Senator Jay Rockefeller, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee) assuring the CIA that none of the previously authorized interrogation techniques violated this standard.

The Administration Response
As soon as the article appeared, the Bush administration went into damage control mode. The President himself weighs in here. And Press Secretary Dana Perino fended off the White House press corps here and here. The message, repeated over and over, is: "We don't torture." The justification for this statement, however, is more than a little Orwellian. It is true that the United States does not torture, because the word torture is defined by Office of Legal Counsel, which has declared that what we are doing isn't torture.

No one in the administration is willing to repeat the OLC's definition of torture in public, or to say what we do or don't do in order to avoid torturing someone. But they are willing to say -- and to say again and yet a third time -- that we do not torture.

Reaction From Bloggers
On the blogs I heard a surprising amount of consensus in reacting to the Times' article: Discovering that the Bush administration lies to us and breaks American laws and treaties is not new. The question is what we're going to do about it.

The strongest words came from Andrew Sullivan, who blogs for and was once a fairly reliable Bush supporter. (He's still a reliable denouncer of all-things-Clinton and still calls himself a conservative.) But he's come around on Iraq and on torture, and has the zeal of a convert.

There is no doubt - no doubt at all - that these tactics are torture and subject to prosecution as war crimes. We know this because the law is very clear when you don't have war criminals like AEI's John Yoo rewriting it to give one man unchecked power. We know this because the very same techniques - hypothermia, long-time standing, beating - and even the very same term "enhanced interrogation techniques" - "verschaerfte Vernehmung" in the original German - were once prosecuted by American forces as war crimes. The perpetrators were the Gestapo. The penalty was death. You can verify the history here.

We have war criminals in the White House. What are we going to do about it?

And he followed up in his next post with:
When conservatives subvert the rule of law ... to enable torture, and when only one man gets to decide who gets detained and tortured, they are no longer conservatives. They are fascists. And they need not just to be defeated; they need to be repudiated.
What I Think
My own prediction is that Sullivan's view will be the view of history. Bush's old age will be a lot like Pinochet's. He'll have to be careful where he travels for fear of being extradicted to someplace that will try him for war crimes.

Watching the ongoing debate, I wish more people would point out just how cowardly the policy on torture is. We are telling the world that Americans are so afraid to die that we will toss all moral principles overboard if we think it will make us safer. That position is not worthy of a great nation.

I also wish people would stop pushing the torture-doesn't-work line. Whether or not something works depends on what the job is. If the job is to get a captured terrorist to tell us where the ticking bomb is, the expert consensus is that it doesn't work. But if the job is to generate false testimony, history shows clearly that torture is the ideal tool: Try to imagine Stalin's show trials or the medieval witch hunts getting anywhere without torture. So if you're running a government in which you occasionally need to generate false testimony in order to push the country into wars that have no legitimate justification, then torture works.

When Bushies Negotiate
Several years ago I was talking to a 9-year-old girl at a party. She was by herself, she explained, because the other kids didn't want to play with her. The other kids seemed nice enough to me, so I asked how she knew they didn't want to play with her. She presented what she saw as totally convincing evidence: "I told them what to do and they didn't do it."

I'm often reminded of that girl when I listen to the Bush administration. They want to play with the other kids. They'd love to have a united bipartisan Congress rather than polarized strife. They'd love to reach an agreement with Iran rather than launch an attack. They tried to get the French and Germans on board before invading Iraq. They even tried to negotiate with Saddam before bringing down his government and hanging him. And when interrogating a suspected terrorist they "start with the least harsh methods first" before resorting to torture. But negotiated solutions never seem to happen because the other kids -- Democrats, Iranians, Iraqis, detainees, our Western allies, everybody -- just don't want to play with the Bush administration.

They told the other kids what to do, and the kids didn't do it.

Across the board it's always the same pattern: The Bush people view themselves as reasonable because they give their opponents a chance to surrender rather than going straight into hostilities. They tell people what to do, and if those people don't do it, well then, peaceful techniques clearly aren't going to work. Time to bring in the cruise missiles and the waterboards and the accusations that Democrats want the terrorists to win. The Bushies don't want to get tough, but their opponents won't surrender peacefully, so what other choice do they have?

Random Stuff I Ran Across Somehow
When I was a kid, TV talkshow host Jack Paar would occasionally show tapes of black comedians performing before black nightclub audiences. Strange as that sounds today, in the Sixties it was a step forward in racial understanding. Well, I found this YouTube tape of an Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani performing for an audience that appears to be made up largely of Americans of various Middle-Eastern ethnicities. It's all part of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which still has a couple of dates, including October 19 in Fremont, CA.

I'm late to this story, but back in September Public Radio International ran a piece on how American and Muslim fundamentalists are working together to fight the theory of evolution in Turkey. Creationism, intelligent design -- you know the drill. I didn't think I could be against Christian/Muslim cooperation, but I guess that was naive of me.

A brigade from the Minnesota National Guard deployed for 22 months, a tour that took them to Iraq and was extended by the Surge. What brought them home? Apparently if they'd been deployed one day longer they'd have qualified for additional educational benefits. Channel 6 from Minneapolis has the story.

DailyKos blogger Puck Goodfellow gives us a glimpse of life in the lower class in My Morning Recertifying For Food Stamps.

I'm going to have more to say about Naomi Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine in some future post. Right now I'll just say that it's an important book. You can watch John Cusack interview the author here.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa warns Democrat Henry Waxman on the downside of investigating Blackwater: If he the investigation takes him to Iraq, a Blackwater team will be his bodyguards. Subtle, don't you think?

Monday, October 01, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week

October in New Hampshire really is quite lovely. The leaves are only starting to turn, and just enough of the heat has gone that long walks without a jacket are perfectly comfortable. It's still a couple of weeks before things become stunningly beautiful, but days like this deserve appreciation for their own virtues.

Iran Speculation
The most important question about the Bush administration's remaining 15 months in office is: Will they attack Iran? No one who knows is posting their ideas on the Internet, but it's hard not to try to read the tea leaves. Sometimes it seems like everyone who has a friend working for the administration is putting forward a theory based on their inside information.

I don't have any friends telling me inside information about the administration's plans for Iran. But it's interesting how many different articles fit into the following frame: Dick Cheney favors an attack of some sort on Iran, but the Joint Chiefs are dead set against it. President Bush is siding with the generals, which is why we haven't attacked yet. But Cheney, possibly with the help of Cheney-like operators inside the Israeli government, hopes to engineer an incident that will change Bush's mind.

I offer not one solid fact to back that story up. I am posting it the way I might post my speculations about the upcoming season of Heroes. It's a narrative that hangs together and fits my general impressions of the major characters.

Finally I have found a statistic out of Iraq that strikes me as genuine good news: For the first time since November, 2006, fewer coalition troops died in Iraq last month than in the same month of the previous year. There were 66 coalition troop deaths in September, 2007 versus 72 in September, 2006. I'll report next month on whether that's a fluke or a trend.

Eliminating the Middle Man
I'm a late-comer to this story, but I'm guessing I'm not the only person who missed it when Wired covered it back in May. Hasan Elahi is a Bangladeshi-American art professor at Rutgers. He travels about 70,000 miles a year, so his name shows up on lists in a lot of FBI offices. After being detained at the Detroit airport in 2002, Elahi started worrying about the possibility that some mistake or misunderstanding could land him in Guantanamo, where it might take years for him to get a hearing.

At some point he realized that the real threat wasn't surveillance, it was bad surveillance: What if somebody at the FBI put together three or four random facts that made him look suspicious? Figuring that if you want anything done right you should do it yourself, Elahi started spying on himself and posting his reports to a website. He carries a GPS tracker that uploads his location (he's in Buffalo today), and he also uploads photographs of meals he eats, receipts for things he buys, urinals he's used, and whatever else he imagines the government might be curious about.

If you had a TMI-reaction to the urinals, that's the point. His sinister strategy is to so totally over-produce information about himself that all information about him becomes worthless. "It's economics," he says, "I flood the market."

Books I: Winter in Kabul
If Ann Jones weren't such a fabulous writer, there would be no hope of anybody finishing her book Winter in Kabul. It's dismal and depressing and does a brilliant job of capturing the dysfunctionality both of Afghan culture and of every Western attempt to "help" the Afghans, including her own. If you've ever thought: "It's simple, we should just ..." put that thought aside and read this book.

For me, Winter in Kabul was like a bad love affair: It made me miserable, but I couldn't stop reading it. Jones went to Kabul in 2002, as soon as the city became (sort of) safe. She wasn't part of any organization, and she went at her own expense to see if she could help. Her plan was to train high school English teachers, many of whom were women who hadn't been allowed to teach (or maybe even to leave their homes) during the Taliban era. For the next two and a half years, she (sort of) did that. She also tried to help with an effort to improve a prison for women, and to teach Afghans about the rights that their constitution claims they have.

But nothing goes according to plan, and along the way you meet some fascinating characters, like one nameless man who gives Jones a ride back to her hotel. In a matter-of-fact tone he explains the momentum that civil war picks up after thirty years: "We all killed people, you see. Someone's father, sister, daughter, brother. So we are all subject to revenge. We cannot put down our arms because we are all guilty."

And there are scenes like this one in 2003, when Jones and a news-starved colleague finally power up the generator and get the satellite TV working.
Fox News went on describing a mission accomplished in a place they called Afghanistan, a country utterly unlike the one in which we lived. One night, as we sat in the dark to save generator power for the TV set, we heard some no-name right-wing think-tank prowar neocon talking head explain that America could speedily repair any incidental damage to Iraq's infrastructure, just as it had done in Afghanistan. Security, water, electricity -- all those things Kabulis had learned to live without -- he said had been restored in Kabul "in no time." Even in the dim glow of the TV, I could see that Helen was weeping. "Please can we go back to the BBC?" she said, and we never watched Fox News again.
For another view of the "success" in Afghanistan, see this video by Lara Logan.

Books II: Dead Certain and The Terror Presidency
Three weeks ago I told you about Charlie Savage's book Takeover, which lays out the Bush administration's unprecedented expansion of executive power. A good companion to that book is The Terror Presidency by Jack Goldsmith. Goldsmith gives the inside view of many of the same events portrayed from the outside by Savage. Goldsmith (now a Harvard Law School professor) was the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from October, 2003 to June, 2004.

The OLC is probably the most powerful organization that the average American hasn't heard of. If you work in the executive branch of the US government -- say for the CIA or the FBI -- and you want to know what the law says you can or can't do, you ask the OLC. They do in advance what the Supreme Court does in retrospect. Their rulings govern whose phone you can tap, who you can torture, and who you can kill. If the president wants to know whether he can invade a country without Congressional authorization, he asks the OLC. Sounds important, doesn't it?

Goldsmith's account is significant partly because of what he can report first hand, but also because of who he is. He's a conservative legal scholar who is not by any stretch of the imagination a Bush-hating liberal. He believes the terrorist threat is real. He thinks the executive branch needs unprecedented powers to deal with that threat. But he profoundly disagrees with the way that the Bush administration has claimed those powers.

When Goldsmith took the OLC job, he discovered that he was now responsible for the work of his predecessors, particularly John Yoo, author of the now-infamous "torture memo" that justified extreme interrogation techniques. A series of highly classified OLC rulings seemed to Goldsmith to be too broad and sloppily reasoned. He spent the bulk of his months at OLC replacing these rulings with narrower, more specific rulings that left less room for abuse. He was fought every step of the way by David Addington, legal counsel for Vice President Cheney.

The book contains a lot of presidential history. In particular, Goldsmith contrasts Bush with two other presidents who sought expanded power at a time of crisis: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. But Lincoln and Roosevelt saw this situation as a political problem: how to build a consensus of support for their new powers. Bush sees things differently.
The Bush adminstration has operated on an entirely different concept of power that relies on minimal deliberation, unilateral action, and legalistic defense. This approach largely eschews politics: the need to explain, to justify, to convince, to get people on board, to compromise.
He describes the administration's approach to the FISA law against domestic wiretaps like this:
After 9/11 they dealt with FISA the way they dealt with other laws they didn't like: they blew through them in secret based on flimsy legal opinions that they guarded closely so that no one could question the legal basis for the operations. ... Before I arrived in OLC, not even NSA lawyers were allowed to see the Justice Department's legal analysis of what the NSA was doing.
Goldsmith sees this strategy as ultimately self-defeating. Rather than building consensus, the administration has created resistance inside the federal bureaucracy, in the courts, in the Congress, and in the general population. In the long run, Goldsmith believes, the presidency will be more constrained and less powerful because it has created an atmosphere of distrust.

I reviewed a third Bush book, Dead Certain by Robert Draper, on my blog a few days ago. This is a different kind of inside look at the Bush administration, and gives more insight into Bush's personality than any other book I've seen.

In Case You Missed It
It's really easy for a news item to get distorted when it agrees with something "everybody knows". For example, everybody knows that marriages don't last like they used to, so when new statistics from the Census Bureau seemed to show that less than half of the marriages in 1975-79 had made it to their 25th anniversary, it made headlines. But not so fast, say Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. It turns out that the data was from mid-2004, so not all the 1979 couples had been given a chance to celebrate their 25th. When the complete results came in, 53% of the couples had made it. Stevenson and Wolfers' examination of the data leads to this conclusion: "The facts are that divorce is down, and today’s marriages are more stable than they have been in decades."

The entry of ex-Governor Jeanne Shaheen into the race probably makes the Democratic senate nomination in New Hampshire a foregone conclusion, but Democrats need to find some way to take advantage of the talents of lesser-known candidate Jay Buckey. Buckey is a professor of medicine at Dartmouth who flew on the space shuttle, and things just sound obvious when he explains them. Check out this video on health care.

I love a great graphic. Bill O'Reilly, currently trying to escape from the consequences of his own idiotic racial stereotyping, claimed that his remarks were taken out of context. So to put things in context, assembled a pie-chart of all the ways O'Reilly has referred to black people over the years. It speaks for itself.

On the Balkinization blog, Paul Finkelman compares President Bush's use of the Blackwater mercenaries to Britain's use of Hessian mercenaries in the Revolutionary War. "Sadly, the more he sanctions the use of mercenaries, hired guns, and armed cowboys on helicopters, the more our Third President George begins to look like our nation's first enemy, George the Third." More on Blackwater here and here.

Capital Eye notes that soldiers are contributing more to Democrats than they used to. In past election cycles, political contributions from members of the military run about 80/20 in favor of the Republicans. This time around, it's 60/40 -- still Republican, but much less so. And the Republican presidential candidate receiving the most money from the military is the only one against the war: Ron Paul.

Satire is alive and well on DailyKos. Hunter parodies bad partisanship in "The Obvious Greatness of My Presidential Candidate." And Carnacki explains some recent votes in Congress with this scoop: "Breaking: Dems WANT to Lose in 2008."

If the situation in Burma (also known as Myanmar) hasn't made it onto your radar screen yet, this article will catch you up. Burma is among the most corrupt countries on Earth, but as long as their oil flows freely no one cares.

Finally, over a period of years Thomas Friedman has written so many columns claiming that "the next six months" would be crucial in Iraq that six months became known as a
Friedman Unit (FU). Well, Sunday he changed his tune and announced that "9/11 is Over". He writes:
9/11 has made us stupid. I honor, and weep for, all those murdered on that day. But our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.
How's that for a 2008 slogan: "Time to get things right again."