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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 12 May 2006
Facts and Figures: Fun with Numbers
Topic: Backgrounder

Facts and Figures: Fun with Numbers

In the political world, on Friday, May 12, 2006, was all numbers. And the first had to do with the big story that broke the previous day. This big story was, of course, the news that the National Security Agency (NSA) has compiled a database of domestic phone-call records from data provided by the three biggest telecommunications corporations - AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. This would be a record of pretty much every telephone call made in America since sometime around a month or two after the events of September 11, 2001, involving around two hundred million people, and more than a billion calls. The National Security Agency has the number called, the number placing the call, and the duration of each call, stored in what seems to be the largest database in the world - but they don't have any idea of what was said in any given call. That's not the idea. The idea is to run all sorts of data-mining algorithms against the data and look for patterns, but how that would work, and what patterns would show what, is hazy. All this was done with no approval, other than the president authorizing the NSA to go for it - no court order or warrants - and no oversight - it was secret. Congress, save for a few who were told not to talk, knew nothing of this - and it may be massively illegal. The source item is here.


There was a ton of comment about this, or several tons, from the left and right, from those who don't think much of the president and his administration, and from those who think the man and his crew are brilliant and brave. Much of that was covered here.

Some comment was surprising. The politicians spoke - and even Newt Gingrich, right there on Fox News, said "I'm not going defend the indefensible." Really. You can watch the video here.

But expect for Arlen Specter and a few other Republicans, things lined up as they should. The Democrats said the usual about what they saw as the two core issues - first, civil liberties, specifically Fourth Amendment stuff having to do with everyone's right to left alone (no "unreasonable search and seizure") except if there's "probable cause" that they may have done or be doing something really wrong and there's a court-issued warrant allowing the intrusion, and second, the administration claim, once again, that everyone in well over two hundred years had really misunderstood the constitution and the president really does not have to follow any law or court order that messes up his plans, and the choice is his and his alone to decide which laws he should follow. The Democrats didn't like that at all. The Republicans argued this was no big deal, just collected business records and hardly wiretapping (not "unreasonable search and seizure"), and even if it somehow was, it was justified as the country is in the gravest peril ever - what we now face is far worse than the Soviet Union with ten thousand nuclear warheads aimed at our cities for decades, all those missiles on a hair trigger ready to launch, as this was a shadowy group of a few thousand people who didn't play by the rules and could grab airliners and fly them into buildings, or something like that. So in this special case the president really didn't have to follow the fancy pants rules - in fact, he shouldn't, as that would be dangerous, and he bravely recognizes that.

What did the public think? Thursday night the Washington Post conducted a flash poll (small sample and wide margin of error) and came up with this - "63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism."

So that's that - until the next poll.

There's a long discussion of the poll here from Glenn Greenwald -
The reaction is painfully predictable. Bush followers are celebrating with glee, as though the issue is resolved in their favor and they won, while some Democrats are quivering with caution, urging that this issue be kept at arm's length lest they take a position that isn't instantaneously and overwhelmingly popular.
Maybe it was nothing and the left is just being hysterical (some call them "drama queens"). We'll see how it all plays out. Is it a slippery slope thing, or the other metaphor, boiled frog, as in the story of the frog that doesn't realize, as the pleasant warm water get a little more warm, then warmer, then warmer, that he's being cooked dead? Who knows? Being safe is an immediate concern. The concept of what happens, down the road, as you incrementally give up a few basic rights and some privacy, now, for quite practical reasons, is massively abstract. Americans are a practical people. Considering that abstract stuff is for skinny French guys smoking odd cigarettes and sipping bad coffee at some café off rue Bonaparte on the Left Bank some rainy Paris evening, if they still do that.

But it will get more interesting, as we see here - that Tice fellow who blew the cover on the original story of NSA warrantless spying on America citizens (scandal one), will testify next week on the "all phone records everywhere database" story (scandal two), as congress considerers confirming General Hayden, who ran both operations, to head the CIA. Tice says those first two were minor. Hayden's NSA was doing lots more. This would be scandals three and forward.

And Matthew Yglesias has an interesting comment here -
Perhaps this is obvious, but the thing about the big NSA phone records dragnet is that this gives us the previously missing explanation as to why the administration thought it was so important to illegally wiretap people without warrants. That used to be a bit mysterious - if the idea was to spy on people with al-Qaeda connections, getting a warrant should have been easy. The problem is that the evidentiary basis for believing the people in question had al-Qaeda connections now turns out to have been illegally obtained evidence from the broader NSA program. And then the problem reiterates itself - if the listening-in stage of the program reveals anything interesting, you can't use that in a court either. You can't use it to get further warrants, you can't use it as the basis of a prosecution, basically you can't use it at all. So if you want to act, you're going to need to do one of these detention-without-trials deals or maybe a "rendition" or a military tribunal or what have you. And then, once the guy's in custody, if he tells you anything you can't use that either. So the whole process starts again and soon enough there's an entire parallel justice system operating entirely in secret without any oversight or real rules.

And that's the optimistic scenario in which all of the relevant people are maximally honest, honorable, and competent. Leaving aside the reality that nobody with a single shred of honesty or basic human dignity would be working for George W. Bush at this point, that's simply not a realistic picture of any large-scale enterprise. Things are bound to go wrong - badly wrong - when you have all these people operating outside the law without any checks or scrutiny.
An entire parallel justice system operating entirely in secret without any oversight or real rules? Would sixty-three percent of Americans find this an acceptable way to deal with terrorism? Probably.


The big news Friday was this - federal agents searched the house of the resigned CIA agent Kyle "Dusty" Foggo in the morning -
Federal agents Friday morning raided the home of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who stepped down this week from the No. 3 post at the CIA amid accusations of improper ties to a defense contractor named as a co-conspirator in the bribery case of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

... Foggo resigned his post at the CIA on Monday, after the FBI began investigating whether he improperly steered contracts to Brent Wilkes, a Poway defense contractor and longtime friend of Foggo's. The CIA's inspector general has been investigating Foggo for at least three months.
The home, a rental, was in DC, not Poway (inland San Diego county and a nice little place where one of the nephews lives). But it was all over the news, and there was more - the FBI raided his office too, at CIA headquarters in Langley, which is really strange. He has a few more days there, but they escorted him out of the building and took away his security badge. And they didn't give a heads-up to his boss, Porter Goss, still there until General Hayden is confirmed and moves in.

The Justice Department and FBI bust the CIA, with guys from the CIA's Inspector General's office and the IRS tagging along? There's something you don't see every day.

The Cheney administration does, of course, hate the CIA. The CIA kept saying all that stuff about Saddam Hussein and his weapons programs didn't quite add up, no matter what Ahmed Chalabi said was so, and no matter what Rumsfeld's newly formed alternative mini-CIA had been saying.

They paid the price. The message? They were always all crooks.

Comparing Numbers

CNN decided to tick off the remaining twenty-nine percent of Americans who approve of the president with this, bringing up the Great Satan himself -
In a new poll comparing President Bush's job performance with that of his predecessor, a strong majority of respondents said President Clinton outperformed Bush on a host of issues.

... Respondents favored Clinton by greater than 2-to-1 margins when asked who did a better job at handling the economy (63 percent Clinton, 26 percent Bush) and solving the problems of ordinary Americans (62 percent Clinton, 25 percent Bush).

On foreign affairs, the margin was 56 percent to 32 percent in Clinton's favor; on taxes, it was 51 percent to 35 percent for Clinton; and on handling natural disasters, it was 51 percent to 30 percent, also favoring Clinton.

Moreover, 59 percent said Bush has done more to divide the country, while only 27 percent said Clinton had.
That wasn't nice. What about the pure, innocent, underage Saint Monica sweetie that Clinton defiled? And he lied about it, didn't he?

It seems that doesn't count anymore, or it seems minor compared to what now matters to most people. Times have indeed changed.

But that's just CNN. In the extended family out here, quite conservative (not only Poway but Carlsbad), no television is ever tuned to CNN. If it's the news, it's Fox. (But with the grandkids it's usually cartoons, so it doesn't really matter much.)

But this is interesting - "In the first poll of its kind, (using the first choice of TV news network as a demographic variable), in the second OpEdNews- Zogby People's poll has learned that except for viewers of right wing news show, Fox News, poll respondents believe that the 2004 presidential election was stolen."

What? But the New York Times had been saying that only a few fringe extremists and some unhinged bloggers were jabbering on about the theft of the election.

But "of the people who watch Fox news as their primary source of TV news, one half of one percent believe it was stolen and 99% believe it was legitimate. Among people who watched ANY other news source but FOX, more felt the election was stolen than legitimate."

This is very curious, as in -
ABC - Stolen 56% Legitimate - 32%
CBS - Stolen 64% Legitimate - 31%
CNN - Stolen 70% Legitimate - 24%
FOX - Stolen 0.5% Legitimate - 99%
MSNBC - Stolen 65% Legitimate - 24%
NBC - Stolen 49% Legitimate - 43%
Other - Stolen 56% Legitimate - 28%
How odd, but then, among those responding, there was this -
... 37% watched Fox news, more than any other single network. CNN came in second with 21% with MSNBC third, with 13%. It makes sense for these three 24/7 news networks to be the top in this category, since the others air news for limited parts of the day.
Volume, or market share, matters.

Here's another way of looking at it -
These numbers are astounding, because they indicate that at least half of Americans believe that the last presidential election was stolen - unless they watch Fox News. And it isn't that the networks have been beating the Great Drum of Diebold, either. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find ANY coverage of the problems with DRE voting machines in the mainstream media at all. And yet, those who watch even the kind of Bush-coddling news that's been served up by the networks, MSNBC, and CNN for the last five years, believe the election was stolen.

Now I'd like to see a poll about what percentage of Americans believe that the Bush Administration allowed the 9/11 attacks to play out so they could have their war in Iraq.
Well, that's unlikely.

But where's it all lead?

Note this at the journal of the neoconservative crowd, the Weekly Standard -
D. Quinn Mills is worried. The respected Albert J. Weatherhead, Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School fears that America may be headed toward calamity.

Convinced that two straight elections which he characterizes as "tied and disputed" have gone to the Republicans and that good-faithed, but fatigued, Democrats have "exhausted all other legal options," Mills cautions that a third straight cliffhanger marred by Republican skullduggery could well result in a civil war. By which he means a real, honest-to-goodness Civil War, except this time around it won't be the Blue and the Gray but the Blue and the Red. To warn America about this gathering storm, Mills has written a novel titled Blue! Red! (available online here) and is conducting a sparsely attended online seminar on the subject for the Harvard community...
The rest of the item ridicules Mills - one more effete liberal crybaby, from Harvard of course, where no one know anything about the real world, and the man is clearly a fool, or so they imply.

They didn't read the Zogby poll. It could happen. Or not.

Economic Data Reframed

Thursday there was this - "The Senate gave final approval Thursday to a $70 billion election-year package of tax cuts that will extend lower rates for investors and also save billions for families with above-average incomes."

The president's tax cuts get extended for a few more years, but the seventy billion pretty much goes only to those who earn more than a half-million a year. Those who earn less would have been considered, but there were a lot of arguments and no one could decide what to do about them, so that's for later, if they get to it. Nothing's perfect.

Friday there was a lot of bragging on the Republican side on how this was going to turn things around - now voters would stop this flirtation with the idea of changing congress, and make sure those who delivered on cutting taxes would remain in power. Everyone loves it when taxes are cut.

That'll work, excepting people tend to reframe big numbers, like seventy billion dollars, so they understand the numbers on a somewhat more personal level, as in this -
Here's how the just-passed tax cut "benefits" you:

If you earn $50,000 or less per year you will save $2 - $46

If you earn $50,000 - $100,000 per year you will save $110 - $403

If you earn $100,000 - $1 million per year you will save $1388 - $5562

If you earn $1 million or more you will save $41,977 (average)

Here's what was deleted in the new package:

Deductions for state and local taxes
Deductions for college tuition fees
Deductions for school supplies for teachers who pay for them out of their pockets
Deductions for businesses hiring welfare to work (bringing people out of welfare)

It's pretty clear who wins in this one. Just the concept of tax cuts when we're at war, facing a $10 trillion deficit with notes worth hundreds of billions of dollars held by China and Japan should tell you just how much these guys love America and care about its people.
But they say they care, and expect the votes of the grateful. And this will keep the economy booming.

But people do persist in looking at the details, and not at the big picture. It's a day-to-day pay-the-bills thing. Bummer.

A Careful Examination of Demographic Data Indicates Hot and Heavy Sex is Necessary, Now

Now this is interesting -
On the May 11 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, host John Gibson advised viewers during the "My Word" segment of his program to "[d]o your duty. Make more babies." He then cited a May 10 article, which reported that nearly half of all children under the age of five in the United States are minorities. Gibson added: "By far, the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic." Gibson later claimed: "To put it bluntly, we need more babies." Then, referring to Russia's projected decline in population, Gibson claimed: "So far, we are doing our part here in America but Hispanics can't carry the whole load. The rest of you, get busy. Make babies, or put another way - a slogan for our times: 'procreation not recreation'."
At the link you can find the video clip, and the base data the got Gibson started, but the implication is clear - it's a racial thing. White women get naked and open wide. It's the only hope for the white race, whatever that is.

Most curious. Fox News is mighty odd. The "master race" could lose this one? One thinks of Germany in the late thirties.

Beyond the Numbers Previews of Coming Attractions

Note this - "Within the last week, Karl Rove told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials, that he will be indicted in the CIA leak case and will immediately resign his White House job."

That's from a real journalist, Jason Leopold, who has actual sources inside the White House. There are lots of details. The planning for a post-Rove administration is underway, as is a spin strategy to assert that the removal of Bush's Brain really makes no difference at all. Of course not. The irony is too delicious. The late-night comics will be all over that.

But it's only a rumor, and the trading in news futures shows only a thirty percent consensus in the market that Rove will be indicted, with a fifty-six percent consensus he'll resign. Go stake out a position and see how you do.

The numbers are always shifting. Check daily.

Posted by Alan at 22:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 12 May 2006 23:01 PDT home

Thursday, 11 May 2006
Surprise! Making a List, and Checking it Twice
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Surprise! Making a List, and Checking it Twice

Some days there are all sorts of news items that get buried by the big story of the day, but worth a comment. Thursday, May 11, was on of those days, with lots of interesting things happening, but getting short shrift as the attention of the nation was diverted by the one story that that pulled everything together - all the hidden worries about "what it all means" and where we are heading as a nation.

The big story was, of course, the news that the National Security Agency (NSA) has compiled a database of domestic phone-call records from data provided by the three biggest telecommunications corporations - AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. This would be a record of pretty much every telephone call made in America since sometime around a month or two after the events of September 11, 2001. We're talking around two hundred million people, and more than a billion calls. The NSA folks have the number called, the number placing the call, and the duration of each call, stored in what seems to be the largest database in the world - but they don't have any idea of what was said in any given call. That's not the idea. The idea is to run all sorts of data-mining algorithms against the data and look for patterns, but how that would work, and what patterns would show what, is hazy.

The probable is that this was done with no approval, other than the president authorizing the NSA to go for it. No court order or warrants - and no oversight - it was secret and congress, save for a few who were told not to talk, knew nothing of this - and it may be massively illegal.

The odd thing is the story broke in USA Today (the item is here), the paper known for its proud superficiality. The paper has been laughed at for three decades as the home of "MacNews" - the two paragraph item that covers the basics and then stops cold. Travel on business and it's the paper you find outside your hotel room door each morning, as it offends no one and the full-color weather page - with its cool four-color national map with all sorts of symbols and graphics, and with fancy text tables below - is impressive. Of course USA Today, as our only real national newspaper, not tethered to any one city or region, has its limitations - the biggest drawback that it has no attitude, no depth - no soul if you will. And they don't take positions, or even try. It's a paper for everyone and for no one in particular.

And they run this story? You'd think they were trying to be a real newspaper or something, with a big scoop and actual detail (lots of it). What's up with that?

And they hit the sweet spot with this story. The polls show the president's approval rating at near Richard-Nixon-resigns lows - those to the left of him outraged that he has basically claimed that no laws he finds inconvenient apply to him, no matter what the congress passes or has passed in the past, and no matter what the courts at any level have ruled, while his "core supporters" now have started to hate the guy, some on the immigration issue (no wall at the border and maybe the illegal folk could become citizens), and with the "economic conservatives" livid about the massive and record national debt, the record trade deficit, and all the federal spending well beyond anything the most liberal Democrat ever even proposed. The whole country sees the war as a mistake, or two-thirds of us now do, and know it was sold to us on either lies or incompetence or some weird idealistic self-delusion, and it's not only costing a ton of borrowed money, we're nearing twenty-five hundred of our troops killed and ten thousand maimed for life, and the world at best distrusts us and at worst hates us and we have no reputation or credibility or leverage left anywhere, and there's one scandal after another where big money moves around and this Republican or that gets rich and then gets caught, and there's the CIA leak thing where the president's main man, Karl Rove, may be indicted for perjury or obstruction of justice or both, just like the vice president's main man, Scooter Libby, was. The aborted Dubai ports deal, the petulant Harriet Miers nomination that blew up in his face. In the "pick a word" part of the polls people think about the president and come up with "stupid" and "incompetent." Things aren't going that well for him. And he's ticked off. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

This USA Today story just caps it all off. Do secret taps on the phones of foreigners, intercept all their email and check it out, and maybe you get a mulligan if you bypass all the specific laws that apply, as folks have quite nicely been made to be superbly frightened in the last four years. The FISA scandal, with those warrantless wiretaps, seemed okay to about half of the public. But keep a record of each and every phone call any of us has made in the last three or four years, and crunch the data this way and that, to see who's naught and who's nice? We're all suspects? The Thursday scoop in USA Today ticks off everyone, left and right. That newspaper did hit the sweet spot, or caught the wave, or gave expression to the zeitgeist, or whatever. Good timing.

And the USA Today made the other new stories of the day just subsets of the big picture. There was this - "The Senate gave final approval Thursday to a $70 billion election-year package of tax cuts that will extend lower rates for investors and also save billions for families with above-average incomes." Yep, the president's tax cuts get extended for a few more years. But the seventy billion pretty much goes only to those who earn more than a half-million a year. Those who earn less would have been considered, but there were a lot of arguments and no one could decide what to do about them, so that's for later, if they get to it. Nothing's perfect. Half-a-loaf is better than none? Those who didn't get their half-loaf outnumber those who did, by more than nine to one, and they vote. The USA Today item made the tax cut story just a subset of the big picture - the ordinary little guy doesn't matter, just trace his phone calls, and he gets no tax relief, as he's just a bother, and he won't mind either.

Other items fit the pattern, like this, no funding for the stressed-out vets coming home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do they matter? Or this this - Iran thinks talk about the nuclear weapons thing a "possible." Ah, he doesn't matter either.

There's a pattern here. It's the "you don't matter" thing. Tell that to enough people often enough, and even to congress and the courts, and it gets on their nerves, not that it matters.

But it might matter a little, as the head of the NSA, the man who oversaw the development of and ran the "phone-call database," General Michael Hayden, has been nominated to head the CIA, and now there might be problems with that. Can the president just up and say the fellow is, as of say June 1, now head of the CIA - and the whole confirmation thing is unconstitutional anyway, as it places restrictions on his plenary power as commander-in-chief in wartime, or metaphoric wartime? What would congress do if he says it's just so, cry?

As for the NSA program as described in USA Today, they have all your phone records, but they won't confirm if your records are among those examined. And what will they do with them? No one knows, but the item says it's clear they probably they end up at the Pentagon.

It should be noted there was some pushback -
Qwest's refusal to participate has left the NSA with a hole in its database. Based in Denver, Qwest provides local phone service to 14 million customers in 14 states in the West and Northwest. But AT&T and Verizon also provide some services - primarily long-distance and wireless - to people who live in Qwest's region. Therefore, they can provide the NSA with at least some access in that area.

... The NSA, which needed Qwest's participation to completely cover the country, pushed back hard.

Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest's patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest's refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled.

In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest's foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.

Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.
They didn't want their own Justice Department to know what they were doing because they were afraid that the lawyers there would will tell them that this is against the law. They didn't seek warrants from the FISA court for the same reason? It's the "you don't matter" thing, or, in this case, the law doesn't matter.

Curious here is something from James Harper, Cato Institute's director of information policy studies and a member of the Department of Homeland Security Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, on this "phone-call database" -
It flies in the face of Fourth Amendment principles that call for reasonableness or probable cause. It is not reasonable to monitor every American's phone calling in a search for terrorists.

The program was not authorized by Congress and it flies in the face of Congress' intent when it de-funded the Total Information Awareness program because of concerns about the privacy consequences of 'data mining.'

'Data mining' for terrorism - the idea that searching through masses of data can find terrorist patterns or suspicious anomalies - is provably flawed. Probability theory shows that searching for extremely rare events or conditions using even slightly flawed formulae will return mostly false positives. In other words, investigators searching through data about millions of Americans for the very few terrorists will send themselves on wild goose chases after innocent law-abiding citizens, with only the slimmest chance of stumbling onto terrorists or terrorism planning.

It is no defense of the program to say that it only includes information about calls, and not the content of calls themselves. Traffic information is very revealing - it includes the times and frequency of Americans' calls to their doctors, psychologists, paramours, and priests. And there is no way to know whether this surveillance is limited only to telephone traffic information.

It is unlikely that authorities could restrict their use of a database of all Americans' phone calls. If it hasn't been put to new purposes yet, before long this database will be used for general investigative purposes. As we've seen in the past, surveillance powers given to government officials are ultimately used even for political purposes.

For these reasons, oversight is essential. But the secrecy that surrounds the NSA's domestic surveillance programs prevents Congress from debating the issues, prevents researchers and critics from testing the techniques, and prevents testing in the courts to determine whether the programs are lawful...
Other than that it's just fine.

A wrinkle is that this has come up before, as here you'll find a discussion of a whistle blower at AT&T who in early April alleged that AT&T was breaking the law, as he saw them set up special facilities for this illegal program. The idea was the courts should issue an injunction prohibiting AT&T from continuing this alleged wiretapping, and he filed a number of documents under seal, including three AT&T documents explaining how the wiretapping system worked. The administration invoke the rare "state secrets privilege" and stopped that nonsense. No evidence, no case.

Other curiosities?

There's this, two congressman saying "when the Attorney General was forced to testify before the House Judiciary Committee a few weeks ago, he misled the Committee about the existence of the program." Some might say he lied.

As for whether it's legal, this item covers just about every statute and code that applies. It doesn't appear to be legal.

But then the president says we shouldn't worry, and just trust him -
President Bush today denied that the government is "mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans," as Democrats expressed outrage over a news report describing a National Security Agency program that has collected vast amounts of telephone records.

... Making a hastily scheduled appearance in the White House, Mr. Bush did not directly address the collection of phone records, except to say that "new claims" had been raised about surveillance. He said all intelligence work was conducted "within the law" and that domestic conversations were not listened to without a court warrant.

"The privacy of all Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities," he said. "Our efforts are focused on Al Qaeda and their known associates."
Right. And the New York Times item says that trust thing was not going so well -
Senator Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would call executives of AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon "to see if we can learn some of the underlying facts."

He said he would question them about "what we can't find out from the Department of Justice or other administration officials."

... "Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with Al Qaeda?" Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking minority member, asked angrily.

... "It's our government, our government!" he said, turning red in the face and waving a copy of USA Today. "It's not one party's government, it's America's government!"

... Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is a member of the Intelligence Committee as well as the Judiciary Committee, appeared to confirm at least the gist of the article, while stressing that what was under discussion was not wiretapping. "It's fair to say that what is in the news this morning is not content collection," she said.

Even so, she warned, "I happen to believe that we are on our way to a major Constitutional confrontation on the Fourth Amendment guarantees over unreasonable search and seizure."

... The anger among committee members carried over to a number of other related developments. Senator Specter said he was sending a letter to the Justice Department in response to a news report that an investigation by the Justice Department's ethics office into the lawyers who gave approval to the domestic surveillance program was abandoned because the investigators were refused the necessary security clearances.

"It's sort of incomprehensible that that was done," Senator Specter said, adding that he was asking that the clearances be granted so the review could continue.
So much for trust. It's the "you don't matter" thing. Tell that to enough people often enough, and even to congress and the courts, and it gets on their nerves.

On the other hand, this pro-Bush media review site offers this perspective -
Seismic! Shocking! Startling! A bombshell! That's how the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows described a front-page story in today's (Thursday's) USA Today that breathlessly touted how "NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls." Like the TV coverage, USA Today's story insinuated that the existence of the database was a major violation of Americans' privacy rights and evidence that the President was lying last December when he described the NSA's eavesdropping on suspected terrorist communications as limited and targeted.

Today's article does not allege that any calls are listened in on. Indeed, as USA Today describes it, the program seems like a thoroughly innocuous database of the same information that appears on your phone bill, but with your name, address and other personal information removed. Given that another government agency - the IRS - maintains information on American citizens' employment, banking, investments, mortgages, charitable contributions and even any declared medical expenses, this hardly seems like a major assault on personal liberty.

ABC's Good Morning America's was the most over-the-top, as co-host Diane Sawyer breathlessly began the program: "New this morning: NSA bombshell. A new report that the government is secretly tracking your phone calls, seeking information on every call made in the U.S. The war on terror versus your privacy."
Then there's a discussion of the Diane Sawyer interview with the USA Today reporter, Leslie Cauley.

So maybe it's nothing.

Or you could, like Tim Grieve, look at it this way -
Over the years, members of Congress have adopted, presidents have signed and courts have adjudicated all sorts of laws that are supposed to apply when the government wants to know about calls coming into and going out from a particular telephone number. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1984 lays down some of the rules for obtaining that kind of information. Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1998 to set forth rules when the government wants the information in the context of foreign intelligence operations. And in 2001, the Bush administration proposed - and Congress approved - changes in the rules in the course of adopting the Patriot Act.

So what do we learn today? The Bush administration - without an act of Congress, without a ruling from the judiciary, without even the usual F-you of a signing statement - has written its own set of rules for gathering telephone records. Forget words like "subpoena" and "warrant" and "probable cause." Forget fine legislative calibration. Forget all that stuff about amendments and floor debate and compromise in conference committees. None of that matters now. Under the Bush administration's rules, the NSA gets access to every single phone record it can persuade anybody to give it.

What is the government doing with the phone records? Well, we don't know, and we don't really have any way of finding out for sure. The president said today that his administration isn't "mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." OK, but isn't it "mining or trolling" through the data? And if it isn't, why has it gone to the trouble and expense of collecting that data at all?

How is the government safeguarding the information? Well, we don't know that, either. Imagine for a moment that an FBI agent investigating a kidnapping wants to see who has been calling you.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act sets forth the safeguards to be observed before the agent can get the records from a phone company. But now that the NSA has all the records, can the agent simply search through them to find what he needs without getting anyone's approval first? Now imagine that the would-be searcher isn't an FBI agent investigating a crime but a Bush administration official doing some research on a political opponent. Can he run a search through the records, too?

Maybe it's safe to assume that the answer in both cases is no. But the thing is, we shouldn't have to assume. And if we still had a government that operated in the way the Framers imagined, we wouldn't have to. The checks and balances would guarantee it. We'd know that the executive branch was obeying the laws that Congress adopted because it wouldn't have its hands on phone records until a court approved a request and a telephone company complied with it.

It's not like that now. Unless you're lucky enough to live in an area served by Qwest, the NSA apparently already has computer files showing every telephone call you've made or received over the last few years. Maybe the NSA won't look at your calls. Maybe it won't let anyone else do so, either. But you don't know that right now, do you? Sen. Arlen Specter says he's going to hold hearings, and maybe Alberto Gonzales or Michael Hayden or someone from the NSA will appear and say - once again - that innocent Americans have nothing to worry about here. Maybe you'll trust them. Maybe you won't. But at the end of the hearing, those will pretty much be the extent of your options.
Or like Glenn Greenwald, you could look at it this way -
[T]he administration's principal political defense was to continuously assure Americans that they were eavesdropping only on international calls, not domestic calls. Many, many Americans do not ever make any international calls, and it was an implicit way of assuring the heartland that the vast bulk of the calls they make - to their Aunt Millie, to arrange Little League practice, to cite just a few of the administration's condescending examples - were not the type of calls being intercepted. The only ones with anything to worry about were the weird and suspect Americans who call overseas to weird and suspect countries. If you're not calling Pakistan or Iran, the Government has no interest in what you're doing.

That has all changed. We now learn that when Americans call their Aunt Millie, or their girlfriend, or their psychiatrist, or their drug counselor, or their priest or rabbi, or their lawyer, or anyone and everyone else, the Government is very interested. In fact, they are so interested that they make note of it and keep it forever, so that at any time, anyone in the Government can look at a record of every single person whom every single American ever called or from whom they received a call. It doesn't take a professional privacy advocate to find that creepy, invasive, dangerous and un-American.
One the other hand, see Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona here - "This is nuts. We are in a war and we've got to collect intelligence on the enemy, and you can't tell the enemy in advance how you are going to do it. And discussing all of this in public leads to that."

Folks should shut up? Perhaps.

Jack Cafferty on CNN didn't shut up (video here) -
We all hope nothing happens to Arlen Specter, the Republican head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cause he might be all that stands between us and a full blown dictatorship in this country. He's vowed to question these phone company executives about volunteering to provide the government with my telephone records, and yours, and tens of millions of other Americans.

Shortly after 9/11, AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth began providing the super-secret NSA with information on phone calls of millions of our citizens, all part of the War on Terror, President Bush says. Why don't you go find Osama bin Laden, and seal the country's borders, and start inspecting the containers that come into our ports?

The President rushed out this morning in the wake of this front page story in USA Today and declared the government is doing nothing wrong, and all this is just fine. Is it? Is it legal? Then why did the Justice Department suddenly drop its investigation of the warrantless spying on citizens because the NSA said Justice Department lawyers didn't have the necessary security clearance to do the investigation. Read that sentence again. A secret government agency has told our Justice Department that it's not allowed to investigate it. And the Justice Department just says ok and drops the whole thing. We're in some serious trouble, boys and girls.
Maybe so, but "the decider" has his own troubles, as his saying "you don't matter" and "trust me" isn't working that well. At the end of the president's long day, new poll numbers, showing approval of him had dropped under the imagined floor, to twenty-nine percent -
President Bush's job-approval rating has fallen to its lowest mark of his presidency, according to a new Harris Interactive poll. Of 1,003 U.S. adults surveyed in a telephone poll, 29% think Mr. Bush is doing an "excellent or pretty good" job as president, down from 35% in April and significantly lower than 43% in January.

Roughly one-quarter of U.S. adults say "things in the country are going in the right direction," while 69% say "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." This trend has declined every month since January, when 33% said the nation was heading in the right direction. Iraq remains a key concern for the general public, as 28% of Americans said they consider Iraq to be one of the top two most important issues the government should address, up from 23% in April. The immigration debate also prompted 16% of Americans to consider it a top issue, down from 19% last month, but still sharply higher from 4% in March.
The data were collected before the USA Today item had been published.

We live in interesting times. The man cannot be happy. Who knows what he'll do now?

Posted by Alan at 23:50 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 12 May 2006 08:22 PDT home

Wednesday, 10 May 2006
Tautology and Royalty
Topic: Bush

Tautology and Royalty

Monarchies are amusing. There's the British example. Elizabeth I dies and succeeded by her slightly-removed relative, James VI of Scotland, who becomes James I of England. He was an odd duck - very fond of young men rather exclusively, commissioning a new translation of the Bible (the "King James"), and writing his famous tract on the evils of smoking tobacco. He's succeeded by Charles I, who screws up royally, being arrogant, foolish, and rather stupid. He's beheaded in the early 1640's and the English try to do without a king - the interregnum as it were. Charles' son hangs around in France with Thomas Hobbes, who's working on "The Leviathan" (people are nasty and the world awful and we really need a strong government as life is "nasty, mean, brutish and short"), and having no king isn't working out so well (Cromwell was a real bother). So in 1660 we get Charles II, and the Hobbes book. Then comes James II, who decides he wants to marry a Catholic, as if what Henry VIII did in splitting with Rome was just a lark, and that doesn't go down well. The Brits look for some distant relative who might be a better fit for the nation, and not Catholic, settling on William and Mary of the house of Orange in what is now the Netherlands. So we get the Bloodless Revolution, bloodless because all the battles were fought in Ireland, not England - Ireland doesn't count. The forces of William and Mary win the day at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 or so in what's now Northern Ireland, and to this day the Irish are pissed, and on Saint Patrick's Day wear green while those who want to piss them off traditionally wear orange, of course. Then we get Queen Anne, dumb as a post and childless, followed by another search for someone who will do, and not be Catholic, so why not import some Germans? The House of Hanover is full of cousins, and we get the series of Georges, the first not even able to speak English and the last mad as a hatter, and he manages to lose the American colonies too. In the middle of the Hanoverian Georges the old James-Charles line makes trouble - the last of them, Bonnie Prince Charlie, lands in Scotland from France, gets an army of guys in kilts to march south and change things, and they're all wiped out at the Battle of Culloden in 1745, as pikes and clubs just don't work that well against the new field artillery.

This is not a model for stable government. But things settled down with Victoria and the Edwards. And the current monarchy is properly unimportant, as the House of Parliament and the Prime Minister of the moment handle things. There's a reason for that line in the old Beatles song - "Her majesty is a pretty nice girl but she doesn't have a lot to say."

So why are we working on the monarchy thing?

Note this from Wednesday, May 10, from Reuters -
President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he thought his younger brother Jeb would make "a great president" but the two-term governor of Florida had given no hint about his intentions.

"I have no idea what he's going to do. I've asked him that question myself. I truly don't think he knows," Bush said in an interview with Florida reporters posted on the St. Petersburg Times Website.

The president said he had pushed his "independent minded" brother fairly hard about his plans after leaving the governor's office next January. He predicted Jeb could have a "very bright" political future.

"I would like to see Jeb run at some point in time, but I have no idea if that's his intention or not," Bush said.

Asked if Jeb should run for president, Bush said, "I think Jeb would be a great president. But it's up to Jeb to make a decision to run."
Jeb Bush is fifty-three and has said over and over that that he will just not run for president in 2008, and he's saying nothing about it now. But his term as the governor down in Florida ends in January 2007, and his brother's term as president ends in January 2009 and he can't run again, so there's that in-between time where Jeb will be looking for something to do. The first Bush president likes the idea of a second son being president. The hard-drinking, good-time, thinking-is-such-a-drag twins could follow. The younger George Bush showed there's no problem there.

This is very odd.

Reuters notes there has never been a case of two brothers serving as president in this country. A father, then two sons in succession, and then the granddaughters?

Maybe we'll have better luck than the English had. There'd be no competing family line, and no Bonnie Price Charlie. The Clintons, husband a wife, are one generation. Chelsea, the daughter, doesn't seem political at all. This could work.

But maybe not, as Bill Montgomery explains here, referencing the French Revolution, not the British business -
Unfortunately for Jeb - and the younger members of the family waiting in line behind him - it appears the "Bush magic" (a political quality somewhat akin to Walter Mondale's famous "Norwegian charisma") has finally worn off. The mob is back in the streets again, looking to set Mademoiselle Guillotine up with a blind date. If this were an earlier era, I'd advise the Bushes to pack up the family paintings and go look for a friendly autocratic regime (the Saudis would do nicely) to stay with for a while. A long while. As it is, they'll probably just have to endure being the butt of every standup comedian's worst jokes for the next couple of decades.

... Some dynasties repeat their mistakes; others keep inventing new ones. The Bushes have demonstrated a real knack for doing both, which is why Jeb isn't ever likely to have the chance to prove he's the break in the pattern. He may be the smart Bush, but he's definitely not the lucky one.

I guess it just proves the old saying: that it's better to be lucky than smart. Especially when your idiot brother happens to be king - I mean, president.
So we won't have a de facto heredity monarchy, as the current Bush screwed up too bad, and here we do vote?

But the American public is in love with the British monarchy, as you see on Larry King's CNN show every month or so, where his rating jump with talk of young Harry or William, or the late Princess Di, or even of horse-faced Camilla and the goofy Prince Phillip. People on this side of the pond eat up that stuff, no doubt to the great puzzlement of those in the UK.

So the groundwork has been laid, as they say. The whole concept is just so appealing, if you disregard the unpleasantness of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. But then, no one cares much about history these days, except the Irish.

And even if we don't get a succession of absolute monarchs, we can get the halo effect - claims of plenary presidential power and simple moves that stop perky commons who get uppity about their rights, as in this -
The government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter.

The inquiry headed by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, sent a fax to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., on Wednesday saying they were closing their inquiry because without clearance their lawyers cannot examine Justice lawyers' role in the program.

"We have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," OPR counsel H. Marshall Jarrett wrote to Hinchey. Hinchey's office shared the letter with The Associated Press.

... "Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation," wrote Jarrett.
Royal privilege. You cannot see some things. They're not for you.

And the courtiers work on maintaining the power of the monarch, not on policy or fixing anything. The whole idea is to smooth his way, not anything else.

Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post had an interesting column on that the same day the president was lauding his brother and suggesting his brother would be next -
The emerging Republican game plan for 2006 is, at bottom, a tautology: If the Democrats retake Congress it will mean, well, that the Democrats retake Congress. (Cue lightning bolt and ominous clap of thunder.) Karl Rove and his minions have plumb run out of issues to campaign on. They can't run on the war. They can't run on the economy, where the positive numbers on growth are offset by the largely stagnant numbers on median incomes and the public's growing dread of outsourcing. Immigration may play in various congressional districts, but it's too dicey an issue to nationalize. Even social conservatives may be growing weary of outlawing gay marriage every other November. Nobody's buying the ownership society. Competence? Ethics? You kidding?

The Republicans' problem is not simply their inability to run their government and wage their war of choice, it is also their bankruptcy of ideas. On taxes, the Republican legislative leaders' top priorities are to make permanent the tax cut on investment income and to repeal the estate tax - economics, as ever, for our wealthiest 1 percent. (This at a time when the entire theory of trickle-down has been negated by the propensity of U.S. corporations to use their shareholders' investments to expand abroad rather than at home.) On energy, the notions of tougher fuel economy standards and mandating a shift to renewable energy sources are so alien to the Republicans' DNA that they come forth with such proposals as Bill Frist's $100 rebate, the most short-lived legislative initiative in recent memory.
But the have to retain power. The whole system would otherwise collapse. The king would be in danger. The Roundhead would behead him - just think of poor Charles I and all that (but impeachment just isn't beheading) -
And so, to stave off the specter of Democratic rule, Rove has decided that the only way to rally the Republican base is to invoke the specter of Democratic rule. Democrat John Conyers, who would become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has spoken of investigating the president for high crimes and misdemeanors. Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy will get subpoena power if the Democrats win both houses. Unspecified horrors lurk behind every corner if the Democrats take control and hold hearings about the administration's relations with the oil and pharmaceutical industries. A sea of partisan vendetta, Republicans prophesy, stretches to the horizon if the Democrats are allowed to win.
Maybe it is like England around 1640 or so.

Ezra Klein comments on what Meyerson is getting with this -
... their case for retaining Congress isn't an agenda, but a tautology - if the Democrats win Congress, then the Democrats win Congress. It's an unsettling thought, to be sure, though when pollsters ask, "Overall, which party, the Democrats or the Republicans, do you trust to do a better job in coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years?," Democrats come out on top by a 14 percent margin. One might also wonder why the GOP is so obviously terrified by the prospect of investigations. Bush hasn't done anything wrong, has he?
The whole king thing - the king derives his power from God, not man, so he cannot do wrong or be wrong - must be maintained. And this would-be king quite often says he is doing God's work, humbly - so get in, buckle up, shut up and ride. God said so. That's just the way it is.

Rick Klein in the Boston Globe the same day had an analysis of what the courtiers are going to do to stay in power and protect the king. The idea? That would be to narrow the agenda of what should be done and what the public should think about -
Republican leaders in Congress have all but abandoned efforts to pass major policy initiatives this year, and are instead focusing their energies on a series of conservative favorites that they hope will rally loyal voters in November's congressional elections.

The House and Senate agendas are packed with bills that, even supporters concede, have no chance of passing but that social and fiscal conservatives clamor for, like constitutional amendments banning flag-burning and gay marriage. By bringing them up, Republicans hope to inspire a constituency that has fractured in its support for President Bush and the party. They also hope to cast Democrats as obstructionists by drawing their plentiful "no" votes.
Ah, do nothing, propose the absurd, even legislation that you know is bullshit, and point to the other side saying "no." Great plan. Or it's a great plan if not too many see it's all smoke and mirrors, stuff no one would or could ever really get done. Why would you want to?

Constitutional amendments to ban flag-burning and make sure Lars and Spanky don't marry?

What if people just shrug, and go back to worrying about the war, and healthcare, and immigration, and the economy with the nation in debt up to our eyeballs to foreign nations who don't much care for us, and gasoline prices, and what happens with the next hurricanes or some big earthquake?

It seems that's not the point. Here the point of having power is to keep power, not do anything in particular with it. It's the tautology of a monarchy. Governing, well or badly, is just a secondary byproduct the common people think matters. It seems it doesn't. Throw a bone or two to the core and they'll turn out come November, and then things are safe again. And toss some nice words across the fence to the opposition, when possible, to fake them out and keep them quiet. Maybe they'll skip voting in November. Heck, most countries have elections on the weekend, and we have ours on a Tuesday, always, and people have work and family and life is so hectic these days, so maybe they'll just skip voting. It's a plan.

But then those nice words can be a problem with the core. Note this, a prominent red-meat conservative proposes the president be impeached - because the president is sort of saying maybe the illegal workers in the United States would, with some exceptions, make fine citizens, and maybe they could stay. The conservative in this case doesn't give a damn about flag burning and the hypothetical marriage of Lars and Spanky. It's the brown folks. They're everywhere, using public services, the schools and the emergency rooms, all of which they don't really pay for, all the while driving down wages (and costs).

Uneasy sits the king. People seem to expect some sort of governance, and they're not happy. And they have issues with smoke and mirrors, no matter which side of the mirror they're on.

What can you do? Having power is cool, but then people expect you to do something with it. Who'd have guessed?

But then, having power can be just plain satisfying as Sidney Blumenthal points out here, explaining how Bush and the White House get to destroy one of their enemies, in the case the CIA -
... In the absence of any reliable evidence, CIA analysts had refused to put their stamp of approval on the administration's reasons for the Iraq war. Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, personally came to Langley to intimidate analysts on several occasions. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his then deputy secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, constructed their own intelligence bureau, called the Office of Special Plans, to sidestep the CIA and shunt disinformation corroborating the administration's arguments directly to the White House. "The administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made," Paul Pillar, then the chief Middle East analyst for the CIA, writes in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs. "The process did not involve intelligence work designed to find dangers not yet discovered or to inform decisions not yet made. Instead, it involved research to find evidence in support of a specific line of argument - that Saddam was cooperating with al Qaeda - which in turn was being used to justify a specific policy decision."

But despite urgent pressures to report to the contrary, the CIA never reported that Saddam presented an imminent national security threat to the United States, that he was near to developing nuclear weapons, or that he had any ties to al-Qaida. Moreover, analysts predicted a protracted insurgency after an invasion of Iraq.

... the White House was in a fury. The CIA's professionalism was perceived as political warfare, and the agency apparently was seen as the center of a conspiracy to overthrow the administration. Inside the offices of the president, the vice president and the secretary of defense, the CIA was referred to as a treasonous enemy.
The answer was Porter Goss, now gone -
Goss combined the old-school tie with cynical zealotry. A graduate of Hotchkiss and Yale (class of 1960) and married to a Pittsburgh heiress, he had served as a CIA operative, left the agency for residence on Sanibel Island, Fla., a resort for the wealthy, bought the local paper, sold it for a fortune, and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1988. There he struck up an alliance with Newt Gingrich and his band of radicals. And after they captured the House in 1994, Goss used his CIA credential to become chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

In that position, he proved his bona fides to the Bush administration time and again. "Those weapons are there," he declared after David Kay, head of the Iraq Survey Group, reported that there were no WMD. He blocked investigations into detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and into prewar disinformation churned by the neoconservatives' favorite Iraqi exile, Ahmed Chalabi. "I would say that the oversight has worked well in matters relating to Mr. Chalabi," Goss said. He also derided the notion of investigating the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson: "Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I'll have an investigation." Goss was on board with the cavalier way in which Plame was outed, a breach that revealed ingrained contempt for the agency as well as the supremacy of political objectives over national security.

On April 21, 2005, his mission dictated by Bush's political imperatives, Goss became CIA director. Immediately, he sent a memo to all employees, ordering them to "support the administration and its policies in our work." He underscored the supremacy of the party line: "As agency employees we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the administration or its policies."

He installed four political aides to run the agency from his offices on the seventh floor at Langley. Within weeks, an exodus of professionals began and then turned into a flood. In the Directorate of Operations, he lost the director, two deputies, and more than a dozen department and division directors and station chiefs out in the field. In the Directorate of Intelligence, dozens took early retirement. Four former operations chiefs, horrified by the carnage, sought to meet with Goss, but he refused.

... Acting on the president's charge, Goss in effect purged the CIA. He was even conducting lie detector interrogations of officers to root out the sources of stories leaked to the press - to the Washington Post, for example, in its Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé of CIA "black site" prisons where detainees are jailed without any due process, Red Cross inspection or Geneva Conventions protection. Last month, a CIA agent, Mary McCarthy, was fired for her contact with a reporter. Like others subjected to questioning, she was asked her political affiliation.
But Goss is gone now. Exit, pursued by hookers. The new guy, an Air Force general, will finish the job in a different way. The placed will become militarized -
The militarization of intelligence under Bush is likely to guarantee military solutions above other options. Uniformed officers trained to identity military threats and trends will take over economic and political intelligence for which they are untrained and often incapable, and their priorities will skew analysis. But the bias toward the military option will be one that the military in the end will dislike. It will find itself increasingly bearing the brunt of foreign policy and stretched beyond endurance. The vicious cycle leads to a downward spiral. And Hayden's story will be like a dull shadow of Powell's - a tale of a "good soldier" who salutes, gets promoted, is used and abused, and is finally discarded.

No president has ever before ruined an agency at the heart of national security out of pique and vengeance.
Gee, doing absurdly counterproductive things out of pique and vengeance is a characteristic of kings who believe no one has any business questioning them. It got Charles I in trouble - he kept reappointing a buddy, a young incompetent friend, as a general in the wars with the Spanish. Parliament, thinking competence mattered in war, would cut off war funds, he'd dump the guy, get the war funds, and reappoint the guy. The next time the parliament cut off funds he simply dissolved parliament, and eventually Chuckles was in real trouble. Oliver Cromwell. The king was beheaded in 1642.

Here, now, we vote. It's much more civilized. Jeb Bush take heed.

Posted by Alan at 23:58 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 11 May 2006 09:42 PDT home

Storm Warnings
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Storm Warnings
Some news days are slow news days, where there are no one or two big events, just follow-up on the events of previous days as reporters try to work out context and background (and we get long "thumb suckers" - those background stories that run on and on). Those who do commentary in print, and on the net and on air, try to explain the "what it all means" of whatever it is that has recently happened, but that's ephemeral stuff - things will change again and again, and what it all means is will be decided down the road, with more startling news events figured in, if what it all means will ever be decided.

Tuesday, May 9, was one of those slow news days. No big gun suddenly left office, no one else was shot in the face by the vice president, there were no additional odd nominations to key government posts, and, save for the serious brush fires in Florida and the spring tornados from Tulsa to Memphis, no natural disasters.

But there were storm warnings. With the word getting out that the upcoming hurricane season would be as bad as last year, with its new record of twenty-eight named hurricanes, Reuters was reporting this - "A hurricane with only moderate intensity could wreak havoc in New York City because it has been years since the nation's financial center faced severe weather, government forecasters warned on Tuesday." Even a puny Category Two would be a disaster, and they explain why (it has to do with very tall buildings and fluid dynamics). As for the spring tornados, they've been running at three times the normal number. The administration has long claimed that all this has nothing to do with global warming, and punished any government scientist who said such things, but the data are biased against them, once again.

But this is just weather. You can't blame anyone for the weather. Well, maybe you can.

There actually was a milestone sort of storm warning in the financial world - Gold Prices Hit Highest Level Since 1980. That would be just over seven hundred dollars an ounce. Worrisome? Some sort of ominous indicator? Perhaps. Traditionally in times of trouble, when no one knows what government will do what, and which currency will suddenly turn to toilet paper, and no one knows which market will crash or what anything will eventually cost, you move your capital to something safe, and that's gold. Sell the stocks and bonds, and forget holding cash in any one currency. Gold is safe.

Is there a collective agreement forming here that bad times are coming, or worse times if you'd like? It's either a slow panic gathering momentum, or lemming-like copycat trading (we don't know anything ourselves someone seems to know something). Maybe those are the same thing. Still, it is curious. The "market" is said to have its own accurate forecasting insight, even if no individual investor is making any "the world is ending" proclamations - the "collective wisdom" is far more accurate at predicting the future than any individual.

It's a worry. Warren Buffet and George Soros made their fortunes listening to "the market" and not to individuals, riding the trend, not the immediate data. And too the dollar dropped at the same time - a Euro cost 1.28 as the day ended. When watching Al Gore concede the presidency to George Bush on CNN International on a small television in a Paris hotel room, one of those new Euros cost eighty-five cents and walking across the street to the Flore for overpriced coffee was no big deal. The last six years have been odd. And the trend just got really obvious.

But no one follows such things, or few do. High finance, gold prices and foreign exchange rates are for the top business folks, not a concern for Joe Six-Pack. They're not immediate concerns, until it's too late and they are.

And is it too late for the administration? The storm warnings there were clear.

As mentioned previously, the week before the administration got some good news - the Fox News poll showed a reversal in the low approval ratings. The president moved up from thirty-three percent to thirty-eight percent approval. The man who thinks Bush hung the moon, Fred Barnes, here said things were actually turning around. Just look at the numbers. Then on Monday USA Today / Gallup released their new numbers - a drop in the president's approval rating of three points in one week, down to a record low of thirty-one percent. Which is showing the real trend?

Tuesday, May 9, the CBS / New York Times poll was the tie-breaker with this -
Mr. Bush's overall job approval rating hit another new low, 31 percent, tying the low point of his father, George H. W. Bush, in July 1992, four months before the elder Mr. Bush lost his bid for a second term to Bill Clinton. That is the third lowest approval rating of any president in 50 years; only Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter were viewed less favorably.
Only the core of the ever-sinking core remains. Can this be turned around? Bomb Iran? Build that giant wall across the Mexican border and round up the eleven or twelve million illegal immigrant workers, load them in boxcars and send them back? Dump Cheney for Rice? (That last one does sound like a serving suggestion, of course.)

Bill Montgomery says it really doesn't matter -
The point is, when you get down to 31% approval in a Gallup Poll, and your disapproval rating is trying to poll vault over the record high set by Richard Nixon just before he resigned in disgrace, it means the American people essentially think you're the political equivalent of crab lice. At that point, they're probably going to hate anything and everything you do - even if they actually agree with it - just because you're the one doing it.
There is no recovery. Even doing something really cool won't work. The House and Senate probably will shift and be in the control of the opposition party for the last two years, and there'll be more than a bit of explaining to do. Saying "I'm the decider" and walking away won't cut it. It'll be a return to the old days, where elected leaders explain why they made whatever decisions they made, to the people they serve. The experiment in the new "I don't have to explain a damned thing" leadership theory will be over. Back to how democracy had been understood how to work. You thought you owed nothing to the public by way of keeping them in the loop? Well, it was interesting while it lasted. It'll be like old times.

Of course the business with stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons could be a chance to be the cowboy hero, and change everything around, but the same day the second poll showed that thirty-one percent approval rating the bad guys weren't doing the showdown thing at all. They wanted to "communicate" - as if this all wasn't some street in Dodge City but, instead, a "let's talk" session over latte at a downtown Starbucks. Bummer.

The day was filled with the details of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent personal letter to George Bush, in Persian with a convenient English translation (here in PDF format). It was pretty wacky, and the New York Times discusses it here, but basically it says the world's a mess, Saddam Hussein was a really bad man of course, and Jesus is cool, a fine prophet, but bombing Iran would be counterproductive, and Western-style democracy just isn't for us, and, say, we could get together and work out our differences and maybe make things better everywhere. There are eighteen pages of that.

The tone is rather insulting and it's not well-structured, but it is "the first direct communication between the two countries' leaders since Iranian militants overthrew the shah and took Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in 1979." That's got to count for something. To some it seemed a perfect example of "the medium is the message" the actual contents were clap-trap and boilerplate rants. But the news was that the letter was sent at all. The president has been advised to set this up this Iran business as the usual say-nothing and glower cowboy showdown, which is what he sells us all as how things should be done in this world, and Ahmadinejad sends a damned letter saying "you know, we should talk." Not fair. He wants to appear reasonable and open (with the emphasis on "appear") and it seemed an attempt to make the cowboy thing look just bullheaded and rather stupid. It really doesn't matter what was in the letter. Sending it, and making sure the world knew he sent it, is just damned awkward.

The president ignored it, and Secretary of State Rice said it was a ploy. Our UN ambassador, John "The UN Sucks" Bolton, said "We don't have anything to say to Iran until they give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons." One think tank guy summed it up, saying the prevailing attitude was clear - "Why should we reward Iran's bad behavior by talking to it when we haven't in the past? It would be conferring legitimacy on the regime. And why reward them for things they should be doing anyway?"

So we won't talk to Iran, and even though they've been asking us to, we won't even join in the talks we've asked the Europeans to continue. That's for the "little nations." We don't do that. They say we should just try to talk. What's the problem? What harm could it do now? Even some members of congress are saying that.

The irony is the president is saying, just as he said in the run up to the Iraq war, that he wants a diplomatic solution - war is the last resort and all that. The kicker is the diplomacy will be done by others, while we watch from sidelines, and if it fails, we get to bomb. We don't actually do diplomacy ourselves. We set up the appropriate scapegoats for when we do bomb the snot out of Iran, saying, see, diplomacy doesn't work.

Would it work if we joined in? Who knows? It's not going to happen.

Note this -
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's abrupt dismissal of a letter from Iran's president might only strengthen hardline attitudes and mistrust of America, some Iranians warned Tuesday.

As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a high-profile visit to a key Muslim country, Indonesia, a former top Iranian official said Rice's response will give new justification to those who oppose ties with the U.S.

Iran's former ambassador to France, Sadeq Kharrazi, said the letter the first from an Iranian head of state to an American president in 27 years "could have been a turning point in relations." But he said Rice squandered the opportunity with what he called a "hasty reaction."

"This gives a pretext to those in Iran who oppose re-establishment of ties with America," he said.
The brush-off was not a good tactical response. Ahmadinejad is getting great press.

Should have called his bluff and made him look stupid. Kennedy corresponded with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis Eisenhower corresponded with former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh way back when. When things get hot that is what you used to do.

This is a change. Bush is an unusual president, unique in fact. No administration in our history has ever tried this "we won't talk" kind of approach to the world before - no public communication, no backchannel contacts - no nothing. Let others try that if it makes them happy. Knock yourselves out. We take the moral high ground. People will admire us and respect us for that. It's an interesting theory. And quite mad. Had Bush been in the White House in 1962 we'd all be dead, but be right - the Soviet missiles in Cuba had to go.

Ah well. Here we go again. After Iran, Syria, and so on.

And there were other storm warnings the same day, as in this -
America may be the world's superpower, but its survival rate for newborn babies ranks near the bottom among developed nations.

Among 33 industrialized nations examined in a new report, the United States tied with Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovakia with a death rate of nearly 5 per 1,000 babies. Only Latvia had higher mortality figures, with 6 per 1,000, according to the report by the U.S.-based Save the Children.

... Researchers noted that the United States is more racially diverse and has a greater degree of economic disparity than many other developed countries, making it more challenging to provide culturally appropriate health care.

... The lack of national health insurance and short maternity leaves in the U.S. can lead to poor health care before and during pregnancy, increasing risks for premature births and low birth weight, which are the leading causes of newborn death in industrialized countries.
We beat Latvia! We tied Malta! And this got a lot of press. The storm warning, of course, is that voters rank healthcare and health insurance as a major issue, and once again the facts are biased, as they say, making the administration's line - keep the government out of healthcare as the market knows best and economic competition always fixes everything - look just stupid. Dead babies have that effect. Ask Jonathan Swift. Trouble ahead.

But at least our military is strong, except for the recruiting problems. But the same day there was another warning sign from Portland this time, where Army recruiters just signed up an autistic eighteen-year-old. The shy and silent lad didn't know there was a war in Iraq until his parents told him about it last fall. The implications are obvious. This is not a good sign.

In that Gallup poll, seventy-three percent of Americans believe that their country is generally headed "off on the wrong track." Could be.

But there are some signs that aren't storm warnings, as in the latest news about our detention facility down Guantánamo way.

The president gave an interview to a German television station. Why not? German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in town. And putting aside his saying his happiest moment in his six years as president was catching a very big bass down at the Texas ranch, from the pond he had built and had stocked (he may not really like his job and that mean Uncle Dick), he said this -
I very much would like to end Guantánamo; I very much would like to get people to a court. And we're waiting for our Supreme Court to give us a decision as to whether the people need to have a fair trial in a civilian court or in a military court.

Dahlia Lithwick, in a long and detailed item in Slate notes this -
His statement was surprising for several reasons, not least because it represents a major reversal from prior policy statements about the camp. While the president has suggested that he was open to rethinking the camp, as recently as January Bush insisted - in response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's demands that he shut the camp down - that "Guantanamo is a necessary part of protecting the American people and so long as the war on terror goes on ... we will inevitably need to hold people that would do ourselves harm." And only last February Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations, "Every once in a while someone pops up and gets some press for saying 'Oh let's close Guantanamo Bay.' Well, if someone has a better idea, I'd like to hear it." Apparently Bush has a better idea.
Well, the evidence is contradictory, as Kellogg-Brown-Root, the Halliburton subsidiary, is almost finished with the thirty-million-dollar state-of-the-art prison there. It opens in August. On the other hand by then there may only be three hundred or so prisoners left, of the over seven hundred, as we're letting them go in dribs and drabs, as they may not have been "the worst of the worst." Oops. Lithwick has all the details.

But this is big news, as she explains -
The most important aspect of the president's comment isn't just that he acknowledged, at least tacitly, that Gitmo is a disaster and must be closed; or even that he acknowledged that detainees have a basic right to some adjudicatory process. These two concessions are momentous, but they pale next to his admission that he is in any way bound by the decision of the high court - that the court will have the last word on anything to do with the war on terror.

It's been this administration's contention from the start that what happens on Guantanamo is absolutely immunized from court review. That's been the blanket argument from the outset: It's the president's war and the courts and Congress have no role to play - short of lying down very quietly until Armistice Day. The president's newfound acceptance of the authority of the judicial branch may be nothing more than convenient political cover: He can close the camp and say the dumb court forced him to do it, just as the dumb court forced him to release Hamdi and to remove Jose Padilla to civilian court.

Still, with each new concession to the court's ability to constrain his decisions, the president admits that his views alone are not the law of the land.
Now that is news. It's the opposite of a storm warning. Things may get back to normal.

Posted by Alan at 00:31 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 10 May 2006 08:23 PDT home

Tuesday, 9 May 2006
The Eye: Looking Down on Ghosts
Topic: Photos

The Eye: Looking Down on Ghosts

Today's political commentary will be a bit late. Current events can be dispiriting. In place of that commentary, see The Eye: Looking Down on Ghosts at the photography web log, a mediation on Hollywood history, with some odd shots.

Posted by Alan at 20:09 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

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