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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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Monday, 2 January 2006

Topic: Couldn't be so...

Context Is Everything

The Setup

In considering what follows, note that last week one item opened with this idea - often one writes just to get one's thoughts organized, not for an audience. The idea is not to plead some case or promulgate some particular point of view, but only to look at events and see if there's a way to make some sense of them. It's just, really, trying to figure out what's going on. If readers want to tag along for the ride, that's fine. But there are no promises.

And few readers do tag along. The weekly site here, Just Above Sunset, averages about three-hundred twenty-five unique logons a day, about a third of those from western Europe and well beyond, and this daily web log gets twenty or so hits a day. You can click on the number at the bottom of the gray block on the right side of this page and see information on the location of the readers and which page they access and all that sort of thing.

Of course on both sites there are those who only access the pages of photographs, in what you might call the "reverse Playboy" effect (the opposite of that "I only read it for the articles" line that "serious" guys once used). In any event, since May of 2003 there's been a lot of this "getting one's thoughts straight" - more than 1,700 pages in the weekly's archives, and now over a thousand web log entries, although they overlap quite a bit.

Of course this is small stuff - and not journalism. It is an attempt to put what journalists report, and what one finds doing a bit of digging in primary sources, into context. The New York Times ran a long, unfocused article on the difference between the two on Monday, January 2nd - Katharine Q. Seelye's Answering Back to the News Media, Using the Internet. There the idea is reporters (journalists) are the good guys - they do all the work, all the interviews and setting out the facts in a reasonable way - and those who write on the net are the bad guys - parasites second-guessing the folks who bring us the world and explain it to us. But maybe that wasn't exactly the point. It's kind of hard to tell. But the article's subhead - "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink" - seems to indicate the idea that those who write political and cultural commentary on the net are somehow unfairly attacking the hard-working real journalists. Yeah, we buy that electronic ink by the barrel and we use it. Heck, it's practically free these days.

Of course, sometimes there are internet attacks, as with the ganging up from the left on the Times's Judy Miller, and from the right all the gloating about how the right-side web logs brought down the mighty Dan Rather. But what happened with these two "journalists" probably wasn't caused by swarms of web logs only policy wonks and partisans read. That's wishful thinking - or delusional thinking, actually. Things would have played out the way they did, sooner or later, no matter what was on the blogs.

Electronic magazines and web logs, of the political and social sort, have a different purpose, as Jane of the blog Firedoglake explains here -
... bloggers serve the function of analysts. Or re-analyzers, more aptly, who attempt to contextualize as they sort through available data and look for patterns, inconsistencies and greater truths.

... From our standpoint we're trying to come up with new ideas and theories as we try to sort through the available information and expose the systemic bias from which it comes. We're not afraid to be wrong in our speculations, nor are we afraid to interact with people who like to think along side us.
That'll do.

The problem, to which web magazines and blogs off a solution, is that world is awash in information - the Times says this and the Post says that, about the same thing, and AFP sees it slightly differently than does the Washington Times, while Fox News tells it like it is in a "fair and balanced" way while the story seems quite different on CNN or MSNBC.

The problem is not at all that you feel like arguing with how the news is being reported. You look at all the news and want to know what's really going on. You even end up reading the electronic papers from the UK, where they openly practice "advocacy journalism" (you do know where The Guardian stands), and don't even pretend to have no point of view, as we do on this side of the pond. (Fox News pretends that a lot with their "no spin" chant.) And then there are all those papers in other countries, often available in translation, out there for consideration. Everyone is telling this story or that, slightly differently.

So, given what happened (the events), how do you figure out just what really happened, and how do you fit that, if you can figure it out, into a context of how the things in the world are going? You'd like to know that, but there's a torrent of reporting, and some days al Jazeera seems more accurate than what you find on the ABC Evening News. It seems a lot of Iraq civilians have died rather nastily in the last three years as the result of what we're up to over there, and the locals aren't too happy about it - they don't seem grateful at all. Is consistently reporting on those deaths (it has been consistent) and outrages (depending on you point of view) "news," or should the domestic audience's "sensibilities" over here be taken into account?

Maybe so, as "the news" is "the news business" - journalists get paid from advertising revenue, and advertisers don't want to offend anyone. Bloggers - web writers - don't generally get paid. And they offend a whole lot of people, not just professional journalists.

Welcome to the Information Age - and now try to figure out what's happening in the world.

The Context Puzzle

Okay, late in December the New York Times, after sitting on the story for more than a year, tells us the president had, in late 2001, authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to ignore the FISA Act of 1978 and listen in on the domestic calls of American citizens - and it seems this may also involve "data mining" - scanning two million calls an hour, and all email passing through all the major ISP hubs, and wholesale tracking who visits what websites (although that last may be both silly and impractical). The FISA Act of 1978 is law, passed by congress - you cannot "spy" on American citizens without a warrant and probable cause. The Fourth Amendment is clear. You certainly can do it - and should to protect the country - but you have to have that warrant. It's a bit of a safeguard against abuse. The FISA Act of 1978 created a special, secret court to issue such warrants. They approve almost all requests for warrants - the "probable cause" bar isn't high. And if it's an emergency, you can do the spying and inform the court of why you did that up to fifteen days after the fact. The president told the NSA to ignore the court and just do the spying. This seems to be a clear case of the president ordering the folks in a federal agency to break the law. No wonder some of them spilled the beans to the Times.

Newsweek then tells us the president had, in early December, called the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Times to the Oval Office and asked them not to run the story - but that didn't work. Three weeks later they ran it. Their only concession was to leave out technical details that would reveal too much about what we really can do. What did that matter? Their story was not about the technical details - it was about the executive order to ignore the law.

The story comes out. The president says he has the authority to do what he did, and he definitely will continue the program. The claim to authority is two-fold. His in-house law team, from John Yoo to Harriet Miers to the Attorney General, says the constitution gives him this power during wartime, as he is commander-in-chief of the armed services, and this is, really, part of that job. This may seem like he's breaking the law, but he really isn't, as his "war powers" renders that specific law moot. Secondly he claims the 2001 congressional authorization, to use "necessary and appropriate force" to deal with terrorists and those who support terrorism, implies that he was given the authority to ignore this specific and old law passed by congress. What else could they have meant by their vote? They said he could.

Then the Attorney General holds a news conference says they thought about going back to the congress and asking that the law be changed, but were told they'd lose that one, so they didn't.

This begs context of course, and the issue isn't really weather the president broke the law, and continues to do so. The question is whether he has the inherent authority to do so, or even if not, was he given, by congress, specific authority to do so. The answer is not in any news story. It is a question of how our government works - how it has worked in the past and how it should work in the future.

But putting the question in context causes no end of spin. There are constitutional scholars who think this view of the president's inherent power to put himself above any specific law is anywhere from "novel" to "bizarre." Such claims are rare, and they have been shot down again and again. Ask Harry Truman's ghost, or the ghost of Richard Nixon.

There are many in congress who now argue they did not in any way grant the president any such specific authority to ignore a law they passed. There are, though, those in congress who say it makes sense in this day and age - and you get folks on television saying following the letter of the law doesn't do much good when you're dead, and having Patrick Henry's words thrown back in their face - "Give me liberty or give me death!" And the commentary runs from people saying the president is only doing what needs to be done to keep us all safe - the "battered, misunderstood but noble hero" ploy - to others saying this a is a de facto coup and he's made himself a dictator, above all laws. Take your choice.

And what do most folks think? There was that Rasmussen poll that showed sixty-four percent support for this "secret eavesdropping" program. And then someone pointed out the question did not include "without a warrant" - nothing about eavesdropping with no probably cause and all that. So that poll is of limited use. Who doesn't think that if there's probably cause and a judge issues a warrant, the government really ought to find out just what's going on that could hurt us all badly? Who thinks probable cause doesn't matter? You cannot tell from this poll.

Here's an interesting comment, from the ULCA professor, Mark Kleiman -
... unlike some of my liberal friends, I don't think the answer would be much different if the phrase "without a warrant" had been included. The key missing word was "illegally."

The idea that we need to protect our privacy even in the face of the terrorist threat is almost certainly restricted to a minority, though a minority that includes almost everyone you know. So if the question is framed in terms of security versus privacy or liberty, it's a losing issue for the Democrats...

But the idea that the President should obey the law enjoys very widespread support. That's the frame Democrats, and friends of civil liberty, should try to put around this issue. Just keep repeating "a government of laws, not of men."

One blogger - I'd be grateful for a pointer to a link - made another point I'd like to hear more of. The ability to spy on domestic conversations is obviously abusable. And we already know that Tom DeLay tricked the Department of Homeland Security into tracking the whereabouts of Texas Democratic legislators who had fled to Oklahoma to try to block a quorum for DeLay's redistricting scheme. And we know that DeLay got away with it. So if the question on the table is "Will the Republicans abuse domestic-security powers for political purposes?" We know that the answer is "Yes."
Ah yes, context and framing, and thinking back on what happened before. As for "the idea that the President should obey the law enjoys very widespread support," well, that may now be a misreading. It's hard to tell. That, to keep us safe, he really doesn't have to, and shouldn't, is now on the table. Kleiman maybe misreading the current context - and this is then wishful thinking. We'll see.

Context? Here Andrew Sullivan works on it , saying this is the big question of the new year - "Do we have a president who refuses, in any matter tangentially related to the war on terror, to obey the law? We know he broke the FISA law and lied about it. We know he broke US law against torturing detainees, and lied about it."

The problem for Sullivan is a new detail, adding further context. The president just signed the McCain Amendment into law, but as we see here, issued a "signing statement" saying he doesn't see himself as bound by the amendment -
The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.
Sullivan's translation? "I will violate this law whenever I feel like it."

This is most curious. One really does want to know just what's going on.

More context from Steve Benen here, trying to make sense of how this "new theory" of presidential powers (or, from the other point of view, this "correct theory" of what the constitution really means) is playing out in terms of who is supporting the president on this.

He notes Senator Richard Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana (and Denison University '55), is an example of the president's own folks pushing back. Last month Lugar criticized the administration's practice of paying Iraqi news outlets to publish American propaganda, then said the president "should be more like Bill Clinton" when it comes to being exposed to a variety competing ideas, and now he's one of those calling for congressional hearings into this here warrantless-search program. (Benen has links to all those news stories, if you like to see that's just what Lugar did.) And that makes five Republican senators calling for hearings.

Here we see, from disparate news stories, a pattern. But Benen lists too the Republican senators arguing the other way, like Senator Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) arguing on Fox News that the warrantless-search program was a legitimate use of presidential power because "the president believes very, very strongly that he has the constitutional authority."

Yeah, if you believe it then it must be so.

Anyway, this bit of context is odd - the big question may be which senate committee chairman will get to host the hearings - Arlen Specter (Judiciary) or Pat Roberts (Intelligence). Roberts has already announced he believes that the administration's actions in this are perfectly legal.

By the way, a review of all the conservative critics of the president on the NSA illegal spying scandal can be found here - Glenn Greenwald doing what bloggers do - filling in the detail.

One really does want to know just what's going on.

How do you fit this in the pattern - the Times again, reporting the former Attorney General and his second in command wouldn't sign off on this "bypass the law" executive order?

The Times reports this -
On one day in the spring of 2004, White House chief of staff Andy Card and the then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales made a bedside visit to John Ashcroft, attorney general at the time, who was stricken with a rare and painful pancreatic disease, to try -without success - to get him to reverse his deputy, Acting Attorney General James Comey, who was balking at the warrantless eavesdropping.
Without success? Newsweek also reports John Ashcroft had qualms about the NSA secret domestic spying program here. And James Comey resigned in March 2005, of course.

How do your read those tealeaves? Maybe like this (Kevin Drum) -
... something is seriously wrong here. After all, we now know that the FISA court was unhappy about the NSA program; Congress was unwilling to pass a law authorizing it; and both John Ashcroft and his chief deputy - in an election year! - eventually came to feel that the program was being abused. That's the trifecta: senior officials in all three branches of government felt that the program went beyond the president's authority.

This whole thing is kind of depressing, isn't it? I don't mean in just the obvious sense, but also in the sense that this issue seems like such a clear loser for Democrats. Once again the president will be allowed to paint this as an issue of either wholeheartedly supporting the fight against terrorism or else being one of those whiny liberals who's allied with Osama in all but name. That the real issue is that Bush secretly broke the law instead of getting congressional authorization for it - which would have been a slam dunk for any remotely reasonable program - will end up lost in a whirlwind of the jingoistic bloviating we've come to expect from Fox News and Dick Cheney.

But who knows? Maybe this time the press will see through the prattle and write about this scandal without the usual insistence on accepting transparently childish talking points from the conservo-bots as actual reportable news. That would be a nice New Year's present.

Oh, and maybe then the tooth fairy will drop by with that quarter he forgot to give me 40 years ago. You never know.
Yeah, and fit this into the puzzle - Christopher Lee in the Washington Post: Alito Once Made Case For Presidential Power - "As a young Justice Department lawyer, Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. tried to help tip the balance of power between Congress and the White House a little more in favor of the executive branch. - In the 1980s, the Reagan administration ..."

Why was this guy nominated to the court?

Something is up.

And then there's this NSA gave other agencies surveillance data -
Information captured by the National Security Agency's secret eavesdropping on communications between the United States and overseas has been passed on to other government agencies, which cross-check the information with tips and information collected in other databases, current and former administration officials said.

The NSA has turned such information over to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and to other government entities, said three current and former senior administration officials, although it could not be determined which agencies received what types of information. Information from intercepts -- which typically includes records of telephone or e-mail communications -- would be made available by request to agencies that are allowed to have it, including the FBI, DIA, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, one former official said.
So the field office of the Pentagon that checks up on Quaker grandmothers and vegans and gay groups as subversives gets the data too. Oh great.

Here's a video clip of President Truman from April 24, 1950, saying this - "Now I am going to tell you how we are not going to fight communism. We are not going to transform our fine FBI into a Gestapo secret police. That is what some people would like to do. We are not going to try to control what our people read and say and think. We are not going to turn the United States into a right-wing totalitarian country in order to deal with a left-wing totalitarian threat."

Ah, those were the days.

Is this (Atrios) how things are? -
... 2005 was the year that the president of the United States declared proudly that he had broken the law repeatedly and with full intention, that he had the power to do so whenever he wanted to, and that he would continue to do so whenever he determined it to be desirable. This declaration was met with basic approval from much of the beltway chattering classes, prominent libertarian bloggers, and just about every small government conservative.

The issue is simple: Bush has declared that one man has the right to make the law whenever, in his determination, national security warrants it. While even I can understand the necessity of broad executive powers in emergency situations, we aren't anywhere close to being in one of those. If Bush decides that personally shooting dissident bloggers or pesky journalists in the head is in fact necessary for national security, then no one can object. The fact that he has not, as far as we know, done any such thing does not matter in the slightest. By conferring dictatorial authority on himself Bush has declared that this is, in fact, a dictatorship even if he hasn't (yet) bothered using such authorities to the fullest of his claimed ability.

It's a mystery why Russert [see Meet the Press and MSNBC] and the gang can giggle over their little roundtables, essentially ignoring what amounts to a military coup by our own president. He's asserted the authority of commander in chief over the entire country, and not just the military to which the constitution grants him such authority. Yes, we hope and generally assume that this temper tantrum by our boy king will pass in three years, that his overreach will not have long lasting effects, that the crisis will pass.

2005 was the year the president declared he was the law, and few of our elite opinion makers and shapers bothered to notice, or care.
Well, maybe that's just what is up - what amounts to a military coup by our own president.

No, that couldn't be.

Newsweek has a long item on what's really going on, and as they explain - "The message to White House lawyers from their commander in chief, recalls one who was deeply involved at the time, was clear enough: find a way to exercise the full panoply of powers granted the president by Congress and the Constitution."

Bullshit. The "full panoply of powers granted the president by Congress and the Constitution" is under discussion. That's the issue.

Another blogger adding context? Digby, here -
First of all, I'm sick of this bullshit about the president being the commander in chief all the time. This isn't a military dictatorship. Citizens, and even lawyers in the Justice department, don't have a commander in chief. We have a president. I know that's not as glamorous or as, like, totally awesome, but that is what it is. A civilian, elected official who functions as the commander in chief of the armed forces.
And, like all bloggers, who love to look at source material, he links to Henry Hyde arguing for the impeachment of Bill Clinton here -
That none of us is above the law is a bedrock principle of democracy. To erode that bedrock is to risk even further injustice. To erode that bedrock is to subscribe, to a "divine right of kings" theory of governance, in which those who govern are absolved from adhering to the basic moral standards to which the governed are accountable.

We must never tolerate one law for the Ruler, and another for the Ruled. If we do, we break faith with our ancestors from Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord to Flanders Field, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Panmunjon, Saigon and Desert Storm.

Let us be clear: The vote that you are asked to cast is, in the final analysis, a vote about the rule of law.
There's context for you. We're there again.

But if this really is "a military coup by our own president," he really ought get the military in line. See this -
Support for President Bush and for the war in Iraq has slipped significantly in the last year among members of the military's professional core, according to the 2005 Military Times Poll.

Approval of the president's Iraq policy fell 9 percentage points from 2004; a bare majority, 54 percent, now say they view his performance on Iraq as favorable. Support for his overall performance fell 11 points, to 60 percent, among active-duty readers of the Military Times newspapers. Though support both for President Bush and for the war in Iraq remains significantly higher than in the public as a whole, the drop is likely to add further fuel to the heated debate over Iraq policy. In 2003 and 2004, supporters of the war in Iraq pointed to high approval ratings in the Military Times Poll as a signal that military members were behind President Bush's the president's policy.
Oh crap. You can't have "a military coup by our own president" if the military isn't on board.

The context question, with all this news - what this all means and how it fits together - is a puzzler. Let's go with the "coup" narrative here.

Posted by Alan at 22:24 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 3 January 2006 06:54 PST home

Sunday, 1 January 2006

Topic: Making Use of History

Nomenclature: We Ourselves Are Only Temporarily Modern

Eric Jager teaches medieval literature at UCLA - and is the author of The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France (Broadway Books, September 2004). There he takes us back to 1386, when two knights in full armor faced each other in a duel to the death at a monastery in Paris - the last time the French government authorized a duel to settle a legal dispute.

Ah, so long ago. Those were the days. But things have changed. Don't expect the short and feisty Nicolas Sarkozy and the tall, elegant and intellectual Dominique de Villepin to strap on the steel any time soon.

But have times changed? From the Michael Sandlin review of this book about "14th century France in all its disease-ridden, anarchic, litigious, bellicose glory," where land acquisition and foreign conquest drove the economy, Sandlin comments, "Much like the future of the United States under the rule of Neo-con warlords, one's vocational options in medieval France were few: you either inherited wealth and real estate, or joined the military to help your country acquire further real estate."

That seems to be about where we are now - you're born into the class of people who can, with some effort of course, make it in this world, or you join up, as Lyndie England did when there were no jobs at the local Wal-Mart, and help your country assert control over a key chunk of the Middle East. That's ridiculously oversimplified, of course, but in "cubicle world" - the corporations of America - you find those who can and will rise to some comfort, working for those who started out on third base, as they say. Then there is the underclass - they can join the military, or shuffle along however they can until it's over.

Jager seems to have decided to address that implication of his book, and a bit more, in this, a short column in the New Years Day edition of the Los Angeles Times.

There he argues we are not in the Information Age at all, or the Digital Age or the Connectivity Age, or whatever you choose. This is the New Middle Ages. And he thinks we ought to be honest about it - "With the resurgence of legalized torture, rampant religious fanaticism, widespread poverty and illiteracy, the threat of mysterious plagues, fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science, what else would you call it?"

Well, that actually makes sense.

He does mention Barbara Tuchman's bestselling book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books, 1978), and wonders about that mirror thing in the title. This isn't the fourteenth century, but we do have our own "disastrous wars, popular revolts, religious strife and epidemic plague." Yep, we've have AIDS for years and the avian flu on the way - the modern plagues - and too, "the fall of communism unleashed civil war and genocide in the Balkans" and "religious extremists seized power in Iran and Islamic terrorists began attacking Western cities, giving dangerous new life to medieval words like 'crusade' and 'jihad.'"

This man may be onto something, and he notes one of his UCLA students recently wrote, "Medieval people were so ignorant, they had no idea they were living in the Middle Ages."

Just so. The same for us.

His main point -
We now use the word "modern" as a compliment, not just for ourselves but also for our latest inventions. But human know-how changes at the speed of light compared with human nature. Has our collective virtue really increased since, say, 1348? Or have we confused technical upgrades with signs of moral progress? Terrorists and identity thieves take to computers with the same enthusiasm as teenagers and bond traders. Tools are only as good - in every sense - as those who use them.

Like our gadgets, we ourselves are only temporarily modern, and that label will be taken from us very soon. What sort of mirror will later generations find in us? The people of the future, looking back on our violent and benighted era, may decide to call us "medieval," so I suggest we just go ahead and accept that the New Middle Ages have begun.
Yep, so it seems. Torture is now effectively legal, and we have our own Crusade - but this time not to take back Jerusalem, the birthplace of our Christ, from the infidels. This time we want these same infidels to stop this religious stuff entirely and form secular governments and play nice, economically. But there is a reason the president used the word "crusade" when all this started after the events of September 2001 - without meaning to he was channeling the "collective unconscious" of western history. He stopped using the word (he's not much of a scholar of history) when his people told him that word "caused issues" in the Middle East, but it was just natural.

As for, on the other side, "jihad" - this time around we want to keep the Muslim hoards out of Toledo, the one in Ohio, not the one in Spain.

And as for "rampant religious fanaticism" we now have dueling fatwa calls on each side - as our Osama, Pat Robertson, calls for the assassination of the elected leader of Venezuela and for God to abandon Dover, Pennsylvania. Sigh. The latter ties into our "fascination with magic and the occult and suspicion of science" - as the State of Kansas, unlike the ungodly in Dover, last year officially redefined science to include the supernatural, so what hasn't yet been figured out and tested by experiment can be taught in public schools as, logically, the obvious work of an "intelligent designer" (the Big Guy in the sky). So stop all that science stuff. Have faith.

A quick aside: Susan Jacoby, in this review of a new book on the Black Plague, mentions this incident -
The Muslims in Spain, whose knowledge of medicine was far more advanced than that of European Christians, could do little, because Islam had declared earlier theories of contagion heretical (since God alone supposedly had power over life and death). Ibn al-Khatib of Granada (1313-1374), one of the last great Muslim intellectuals of the Iberian convivencia, or coexistence, bravely declared that the role of contagion in spreading the plague was "firmly established by experience, research, mental perception, autopsy and authentic knowledge of fact." Not surprisingly, he was eventually imprisoned for heresy, then dragged from his cell and murdered by a devout Muslim mob.
Why does that sound familiar? Well, these days, doing that Darwin and science thing, relying on "experience, research, mental perception," can get you in trouble. You do recall the University of Kansas professor, Paul Mirecki, who planned a course on creationism and intelligent design, then canceled it when the Christian conservatives raised a fuss, and then got a good roadside beating by a few of the anonymous God guys. That was December 6, 2005 - not the Iberian convivencia of the fourteenth century.

This is the New Middle Ages. So don't be ignorant. Use the right term.

Eric Jager, by the way, isn't an angry fellow. He's quite mellow, as you can hear here, where he's interviewed on National Public Radio about the "trial by combat in Medieval France" book.

He's just a careful academic type. He wants people to use the right terms.

Posted by Alan at 18:19 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Announcements

Happy New Year - from Hollywood to the Catskills to London to Paris

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format parent to this daily web log, is now on line. This issue - Volume 4, Number 1 for the week of Sunday, January 1, 2006 - is the New Year Special.

In commentary on current events note that the last week was supposed to be a slow news week, but it wasn't. From the "outside the law" spying scandal (where specific laws bump up against raw politics and public opinion) to our new ambassador to Britain putting his foot in his mouth - he used to be a car dealer out here in Beverly Hills - to the lobbyist about to blow up congress (sort of) to matters in Uzbekistan, well, there's much here. And of course, along with our discussion, you get pointers to all sort of folks making other assessments of just what happened to us all in the last year. The devil is in the details.

Outside the realm of politics you'll find some year-end notes on some of the oddest assessments of 2005, and some of the extraordinary predictions for the New Year.

At the International Desk, Mike McCahill, "Our Man in London," posts his last column for these pages, as he starts full-time with The Scotsman this week. How will we ever keep up with the London scene? "Our Man in Paris," Ric Erickson, with photos, reviews the unusual snow on the ground there, and shows us late minute shopping for the traditional feast at the New Year - that Soirée de la Saint-Sylvestre.

Bob Patterson is back with his journalist ruminations on the year past and what it portends for the future, and, as the Book Wrangler, puzzles out who might write what in the coming year.

Photography this week includes, from the opposite ends of the continent, snow in the Catskills and surfers on Christmas Day out here. The feature section is backstage shots of the floral floats being assembled for this year's Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

The quotes this week were easy - odd things about time and all that, for the New Year - but only the out of the ordinary ones.

And there is, too, a link to a new photo album of sixty-one shots of those Rose Parade floats being assembled, and the scene out there in Pasadena.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Untangling Events: The Week the Year Ends
Hollywood Amateurs: A matter of perspective...
Storm Warnings: Rough Weather Ahead
The Year in Review: Too Much Information
Coming Attractions: Getting Ahead on the News

The Unusual ______________________

Year End Notes: 2005 in Perspective, and 2006 Predictions

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in London: To 2006
Our Man in Paris: This is Snow?

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - "This is working out quite well for them."
Book Wrangler: What Effect Will 2005 Have on Literature?

Guest Photography ______________________

Snow: New Years Eve in the Catskills

Southern California Photography ______________________

Backstage: Building the Floats for the Tournament of Roses Parade
Surf: Christmas Day in Encinitas

Quotes for the week of January 1, 2006 - We Have a New Year

Links and Recommendations - New Photo Album

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Note this, the Ivory Soap float being prepared for tomorrow's Tournament of Roses Parade - "Generations of Good Clean Fun"

Posted by Alan at 11:56 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 1 January 2006 11:57 PST home

Saturday, 31 December 2005

Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Coming Attractions: Getting Ahead on the News

Between the Tournament of Roses Parade on Monday the 2nd and the Rose Bowl Game on the 4th (the Trojans and the Longhorns) nothing much is scheduled for Tuesday between the two, except for this, as the Associated Press notes here - "Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff are putting the finishing touches on a plea deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The plea agreement would secure the lobbyist's testimony against several members of Congress who received favors from him or his clients."

The New York Times puts it this way - "The indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff must decide by Tuesday whether he will accept a plea or stand trial on fraud charges in a Florida case, a judge in Federal District Court told Mr. Abramoff's lawyers and prosecutors in a court hearing on Friday." Or putting it another way - "how far up the chain is he willing to spill the beans to save his own sorry hide from a substantial chunk of time in the federal prison system? How much is he going to pay back in restitution to all those tribal interests that he bilked for his crony pals in Congress and in the Republican money chain?" The hearing should be at 3:30 in the afternoon - regardless of whether the deal is reached or not, presumably to go over with the guy what the ramifications of his decision are, and to take care of any scheduling matters for trial, or otherwise.

We're talking up to twenty criminal cases against congressmen and their staffers. That should be interesting.

But on the last day of the year, it got even more interesting - as it seems Abramoff passed millions from Russian oil and gas interests over to Tom DeLay, the already indicted (on another matter) former Republican house leader. The Washington Post in the last day of the year ran this in the front page - "The DeLay-Abramoff Money Trail - Nonprofit Group Linked to Lawmaker Was Funded Mostly by Clients of Lobbyist."

Say what?

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

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

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

The former president of the US Family Network said Buckham told him that Russians contributed $1 million to the group in 1998 specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation the International Monetary Fund needed to finance a bailout of the collapsing Russian economy.
That's amusing. And is Josh Marshall comments here, for five years in the late nineties this the US Family Network did little or no public advocacy on behalf of conservative family issues or much of anything else - "It seems to have been run pretty much as a piggy bank and money pass-through by and for a number of DeLay operators - including Jack Abramoff and Ed Buckham." The Marianas Island put in a half million to protect the sweatshops there, the Choctaw Indians tossed in a quarter million; and shadowy Russian oil and gas interests (also Abramoff clients) came up with a million or more - money laundered through a now-defunct British law firm. As the Post puts it, "records, other documents and interviews call into question the very purpose of the US. Family Network, which functioned mostly by collecting funds from domestic and foreign businesses whose interests coincided with DeLay's activities while he was serving as House majority whip from 1995 to 2002, and as majority leader from 2002 until the end of September."

The US Family Network was supposed to be an advocacy group focused on the conservative "moral fitness" agenda. Right. They never actually advocated anything, and there was never a staff - there was just one person. One of DeLay's fundraising letters for the group calling it "a powerful nationwide organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizen control" by mobilizing grass-roots citizen support. He was funning with us. The Marianas Island folks wanted DeLay's public commitment to block legislation that would boost their labor costs. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians - Abramoff's largest lobbying client - wanted help in fighting legislation that would allow the taxation of its gambling revenue. You have to pay for these things.

And it's not just Delay. In April last year, a Federal Election Commission investigation found that the US Family Network had illegally received a half million from the National Republican Congressional Committee (see this). The US Family Network was a slush fund to hand out large blocks of money to congressmen who voted the right way - for what the contributors suggested. Cool. As Marshall notes, foreign and domestic corporations pay money into front groups for favors. "And what happens to the money? Lots certainly goes to personally enrich the chief lobbyists like Abramoff and Buckham. But look closely and you'll see that lots gets pumped back in to the machine - the capitol hill 'safe house', political ads, money to the consultancies that no doubt underwrites other political operations, 'grassroots' and otherwise."

Sweet. So that's how things work. If Abramoff is flipped, this will be big, but he may fall on his sword for the Republicans, or he may mysteriously die before Tuesday.

Stay tuned.

And this was just one day after the Post broke another story with this from Dana Priest (again) - "The effort President Bush authorized shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to fight al Qaeda has grown into the largest CIA covert action program since the height of the Cold War, expanding in size and ambition despite a growing outcry at home and abroad over its clandestine tactics, according to former and current intelligence officials and congressional and administration sources."

Most of the stuff is illegal and violates treaties we have with the rest of the world - torture, kidnapping, "disappearing" people.

But the rationale is still the same -
The administration contends it is still acting in self-defense after the Sept. 11 attacks, that the battlefield is worldwide, and that everything it has approved is consistent with the demands made by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, when it passed a resolution authorizing "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks."

"Everything is done in the name of self-defense, so they can do anything because nothing is forbidden in the war powers act," said one official who was briefed on the CIA's original cover program and who is skeptical of its legal underpinnings. "It's an amazing legal justification that allows them to do anything," said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues.
But too many in the CIA are upset by this, or ticked off because it doesn't get us information, alienates our allies, and seems designed simply so George and Dick can get their macho-jollies. Lots of folks are leaking to the Post.

Here's a cool detail of how the "new" CIA works - "The agency is working to establish procedures in the event a prisoner dies in custody. One proposal circulating among mid-level officers calls for rushing in a CIA pathologist to perform an autopsy and then quickly burning the body, according to two sources."

Well, this whole story may not have legs, as they say. It's too Hollywood. We know, from the movies, that's what the CIA does. It's all what folks expect.

Will the matter of the president's executive order to the National Security Agency - that they bypass all existing laws and check out what Americans citizens say to each other on the telephone, what they send to each other in emails, and what websites they visit, without any warrants or probable cause - continue to be of interest? The president flat-out said he ordered these guys to break existing laws and violate the Fourth Amendment and he'll keep them doing it. He said he's allowed, as he's the president and we're at war, and the congress told him to fight it any way he wanted.

We'll see. Friday the Associate Press reported here and CNN here that the Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak of classified information about this secret domestic spying program to the New York Times. Oddly this is a year after the Administration knew Times was working the story and tried to talk them out of running it. Retaliation? Michelle Malkin, the right-side pundit who has called for internment camps for all American Muslims just as we "rightly did" with the Japanese in WWII, is pleased. She'd like the Times shut down - treason and all that.

Curiously, on the last day of the year, the White House said it had "no role" in the Justice Department's decision to investigate the leaking of classified information indicating that the president authorized this secret government wiretap program (see this). They just did it on their own? Maybe so. Believe what you will.

This story won't die.

On the other hand, its subset will. As reported in Business Week, if you visited the NSA website, until recently you got a cookie. No, not chocolate chip - one of those bits of code was dropped onto your hard drive that allowed the NSA to follow what websites you visited from then on. Some "cookies" are common - they allow you to retain passwords and registration information, and for Amazon and the like, allow Amazon to track what books you've ordered and offer similar good stuff just for you. You can disable all cookies, so you computer doesn't accept them, but that's a pain. Except for the tracking cookies - watching your surfing habits - they're useful. The problem is the government isn't supposed to use them at all. In a 2003 memo, the White House's Office of Management and Budget prohibits federal agencies from using persistent cookies - those that aren't automatically deleted right away - unless there is a "compelling need."

The NSA folks said this was an accident. They won't do it any more. No cookies. The White House website, by the way, has been passing out cookies, too (see this). That'll stop.

By the way, there is software that allows you to block only the bad tracking cookies, not the useful ones. Here the Lavasoft software has blocked 14,967 tracking cookies so far - since July. There are lots of such tools. This issue is minor.

Is Uzbekistan a minor issue?

Friday the 30th there was this in The Independent (UK) - Ex-Envoy to Uzbekistan Goes Public on Torture -
Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has defied the Foreign Office by publishing on the internet documents providing evidence that the British Government knowingly received information extracted by torture in the "war on terror".

Mr Murray, who publicly raised the issue of the usefulness of information obtained under torture before he was forced to leave his job last year, submitted his forthcoming book, Murder in Samarkand, to the Foreign Office for clearance. But the Foreign Office demanded that he remove references to two sensitive government documents, which undermine official denials, to show that Britain had been aware it was receiving information obtained by the Uzbek authorities through torture. Rather than submit to the gagging order Mr Murray decided to publish the material on the internet.

The first document published by Mr Murray contains the text of several telegrams that he sent to London from 2002 to 2004, warning that the information being passed on by the Uzbek security services was torture-tainted, and challenging MI6 claims that the information was nonetheless "useful". The second document is the text of a Foreign Office legal opinion which argues that the use by intelligence services of information extracted through torture is not a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.
That's curious. Uzbekistan is one of our allies in this War on Terror too, although they are nasty folks, and we probably should have nothing to do with them, as both Fred Kaplan and even mad-for-war Christopher Hitchens point out. Markos at Daily Kos - "The US marriage of convenience with Uzbekistan, perhaps the most repressive regime in the world, gives lies to all the bullshit post-WMD justifications for invading Iraq ('evil regime' and all that jazz). Among other atrocities, Uzbekistan boils its dissidents alive. And no, that's not from Amnesty International or other "do-gooder" organization, but from the State Department's 2004 human rights report."

There's much more here - the documents are all over the web.

Here's an excerpt - "At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family's links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services."

The Brits use these guys. So do we. The coordination between the Uzbek, British, and American governments is quite public (and they have lots of oil and natural gas there too). Last year we gave Uzbekistan half a billion in aid, a quarter of it military aid. Contractors at our military bases there are extending the design life of the buildings from ten to twenty-five years.

A comment from Greg Saunders here -
And this is the standard that we're living under with a President who looks the other way while children are being tortured.

To the fools out there who routinely praise the President for having the "moral clarity" to call terrorists evil, how can you reconcile that with the chummy relationship he's made with tyrants? The lesser of two evils argument doesn't really work when you chide anyone whose view of fighting terrorism is more nuanced than "smoke them out of their holes" and you verbally fellate the President for being "right on the only issue that matters". You're either in favor of moral relativism or you're not.

Of course, coming up with a worldview that's logically consistent has it's troubles, since it would naturally lead to having an open, honest debate about whether or not the United States should be torturing people. Which is why the Administration (and their sycophantic toadies) ignore the substance of the seemingly-neverending stream of torture memos in the hopes of running out the clock (ie. news cycle) with their vehement denials to misstated questioning.

But to take things back to square one, it should be repeated again and again that this would all stop if the President wanted it to. With a phone call to the Uzbek government, he could threaten to eliminate foreign aid until human rights abuses ceased. With a stroke of his pen, he could fire Donald Rumsfeld and replace him with a Defense Secretary serious about curbing detainee abuse. Working with Congressional leaders, he could cooperate with stymied investigations into torture. For the most powerful man in the world, the torture of innocent people could be eliminated tomorrow if he cared enough.

Why he hasn't done any of these things leads us back to the eternal debate about the presidency of George W. Bush. Is he so isolated from bad news that he has no idea about the abuses that are happening on his watch? Is he a callous monster who thinks the torture of innocents is justified by the "greater good" of whatever the hell he's trying to accomplish? Or is it a combination of the two? Either way, I don't know how much longer we can afford to have the reputation of the United States tarnished while we ponder the endless "idiot or asshole?" debate.
All very curious.

But all this is on the blog and in the foreign papers. No American media will touch this. Don't expect a January follow-up.

As for other late-year stories that may or may not have legs, there's this - as with all the stories of the CIA abducting (kidnapping) suspects, sometimes on the basis of a mistaken name, flying them off to countries like Egypt or Syria for some "enhanced" interrogation (torture) - "extraordinary rendition" and all that - it now seems the British government may have been doing the same thing, using Greece as its torture chamber, after last summer's London subway bombing. They're learning from us.

Then there's this (via - a recently-passed house bill, introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner and praised by President Bush, would subject priests, nurses and social workers who render aid to illegal immigrants to five years in prison and seizure of assets. The word is that it will die in the senate. But it is curious. Compassionate conservatism? Would the seized assets go to the Republican National Committee? Put a band-aid on the scrapped knee of some five-year-old and do five in the pen and lose your home? Interesting. Better check his Green Card first.

The first few weeks of the year should be interesting.

Posted by Alan at 15:48 PST | Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 31 December 2005 15:57 PST home

Topic: Backgrounder

The Year in Review: Too Much Information

In Year End Notes: 2005 in Perspective, and 2006 Predictions, there was some pretty odd stuff about the year that just passed and what might happen with the new year. But for reference one should note the big events, or what really matters, to some.

William Falk in the New York Times offers the stories of "subtle significance" that didn't get that much press, in Big Little Stories You Might Have Missed.

He opens with these -
A BLAST FROM THE PAST - To find out whether human activities are changing the atmosphere, scientists took ice cores from ancient glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Bubbles of air trapped in the ice provided a pristine sampling of the atmosphere going back 650,000 years. The study, published last month in the journal Science, found that the level of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases that can warm the planet, is now 27 percent higher than at any previous time in that period. Climatologists said the ice cores left no doubt that the burning of fossil fuels is altering the atmosphere in a substantial and unprecedented way.

THE DAY AFTER TODAY - One of the more alarming possible consequences of global warming appears to be already under way. The rapid melting of the Arctic and Greenland ice caps, a new study finds, is causing freshwater to flood into the North Atlantic, deflecting the northward flow of the warming Gulf Stream, which moderates winter temperatures for Europe and the northeastern United States.

The flow of the Gulf Stream has been reduced by 30 percent since 1957, the National Oceanography Center in Britain found. In the film "The Day After Tomorrow," the collapse of the Gulf Stream produces a violent climate shift and a new ice age for much of the Northern Hemisphere. Climatologists don't foresee a future quite that catastrophic, but something worrisome, they say, is afoot.
And he notes that scientists have pieced together, from fragments found in tissue samples, the Spanish flu virus that killed twenty-five million people in 1918 - it produces 39,000 times more copies of itself than regular flu and, in an experiment, killed all the mice being tested in six days. Then they published the flu's genetic blueprint. So who has a home chemistry kit?

He also mentions that, in 2005, scientists developed a vaccine against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease that is the primary cause of cervical cancer. The vaccine produced total immunity in the 6,000 women who received it as part of a multinational trial. The Family Research Council and other social conservative groups in America vowed to ban it, even though it could virtually eliminate cervical cancer. Vaccinating girls against a sexually transmitted disease, they say, would reduce their incentive to abstain from premarital sex. Oh well.

There's much more there.

Additionally see these:

From AFP - The Year of Unnatural Disasters - and from The Independent (UK) - Review of the Year: Climate Change -

Other summaries of 2005 -

BBC's offbeat stories - The best 'and finallies' of 2005

Business stuff from CNN-Money - Top Tech Stories of 2005

From the San Francisco Chronicle, the top California stories - The 10 Biggest Stories of The Past 363 Days

The top national stories - from The Oregonian here and from The Clarion-Ledger (Mississippi) here

From the mainstream, CNN's "Year in Review" is here and the amazing, in-depth "The Year in Ideas" from the New York Times is here. National Public Radio's top stories, with podcast, are here.

For the Brits, from BBC, most popular stories, among BBC readers - Stories That Mattered to You - in February, Prince Charles to Marry Camilla was the biggest story.

Obituaries of prominent and influential people who died in 2005 from the Associated Press here, from the New York Times here, and from BBC here. Time Magazine's "Persons of the Year" item is here (Bill and Melinda Gates, and Bono) - and Barbara Walter's "Most Fascinating People of 2005" is here (Tom Cruise at the top).

General reviews - highlights of key events of 2005 by month from Infoplease here, and the online cooperative encyclopedia Wikipedia covers most everything from the year here.

Hooray for Hollywood? From the Internet Movie Database a complete index of all 17,337 movies released in 2005 here. Whatever.

For the politically minded, see Eleanor Clift's Biggest Political Lies of 2005 - "Who told the worst political untruth of 2005? It's a shame the list of contenders is so long." And Newsweek offers the twenty-four political cartoons of the year here, and the best quotes of the year here. In that last item you'll find former First Lady Barbara Bush, on hurricane refugees in the Houston Astrodome - "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." The White House qualified that remark as a "personal observation."

So much for the year.

Posted by Alan at 12:05 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 31 December 2005 12:13 PST home

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