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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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Tuesday, 10 January 2006
Playing Fair: Knowing the Rules and What's Permissible
Topic: Dissent

Playing Fair: Knowing the Rules and What's Permissible

Tuesday, January 10, was the second day of the Alito hearings, and the first day of actual questions and answers. One could watch that all day long on television, but doing so, and watching the subsequent days of this stuff, is for those of narrow interests. How much of watching a smart man, with a fine grasp of the law, carefully saying "I have no predetermined position on what you ask and will judge each case that comes before me on its merits" would you like? There may be something fascinating in following all the variations of that - and there were many - but there are others things to do - out here on the west coast Turner Classic Movies was running "Casablanca" against the opening hours of the second-day testimony. Rick once more told Elsa about that hill of beans. Anyway, no one on the Senate Judiciary Committee is going to change his or her mind, and this will be passed on to the full senate for a vote, eventually, where everyone knows who will vote for or against confirmation. The man will take his seat on the Supreme Court. The chances of Alito saying something outrageous, or even controversial, were nil, and it was unlikely he would suddenly jump on the table and break into a chorus of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and dance around. As diverting as that would be, there were other things in the news that could not be covered as the media prefers "the major story," as eventless as it seemed to be.

There was no coverage of our return to the late sixties, even though there was this about the National Security Agency, something new and amusing.

It seems some NSA documents they had to cough up in a court case reveal that the agency ran a massive spy operation on a Baltimore peace group, "going so far as to document the inflating of protesters' balloons." Yeah, they kept records of when balloons were inflated and what was printed on them (quotes from Ben Franklin) - the NSA folks made notes every fifteen minutes and didn't miss any details. They planted a mole in the demonstrators - a fellow none of them had ever seen before - who screamed at the police and dared them to bash some heads. Some of the demonstrators were arrested, and he wasn't. They got all the license plate numbers and started files. They sent in a team to check for WMD threats. For those of us old enough to remember the late sixties, it was bit of nostalgia. Two of those arrested sued for the NSA files on all this, and wonder of wonders, got the files.

Civil libertarians are upset, and one presumes moderates are wondering if all this is a rather stupid waste of tax money (surely these NSA guys have better and more important things to do). On the right? Who knows?

For those of us who graduated from college in 1969, what can one do but sigh, and smile ruefully? Some things never change, although when you think about it, even if the same thing happened on Nixon's watch, he was far smarter and far more articulate than this frat boy. Things have gone downhill. Even the villains now are second-rate. Nixon without the smarts.

Also not much reported (a bit in the print media and next to nothing on the broadcast and cable news), was something co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and one Linda Bilmes. They ran the numbers. This war in Iraq will probably run somewhere around two trillion dollars (that really is a "t" there). They just included disability payments for the 16,000 wounded soldiers - twenty percent of them have serious brain or spinal injuries. And there are a few other things - like the July 2005 Army statistics showing thirty percent of our troops had developed mental-health problems within four months of returning from Iraq. And there's the rise in oil prices, and you figure twenty percent of the rise can be attributed directly to the war. That's twenty-five billion there, so far. Then there's the loss to the economy from injured veterans "who cannot contribute as productively as they otherwise would." Add too costs related to civilian contractors and journalists killed in Iraq. It all adds up.

Before the invasion, the White House budget director at the time, Mitch Daniels, said this would be "an affordable endeavor." As you recall, the White House economic adviser at the time, Lawrence Lindsey, was talking one or two hundred billion, and Daniels said that was "very, very high." Lawrence Lindsey lost his job for being such a pessimist, although there was talk Bush didn't like him because he was so overweight (no discipline) and just didn't want the lard-ass around. Wolfowitz and Cheney were saying Iraq oil revenues would pay for most everything. Right.

Anyway, this Stiglitz fellow from Columbia University is a big gun - he was an adviser to Clinton and was chief economist at the World Bank and won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001 (bio here). As for Linda Bilmes, she was an assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce from 1999 to 2001 and now teaches budgeting and public finance at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Harvard reprints her August 20th New York Times editorial - a much more conservative take on all this here - only 1.3 trillion. She notes that's over eleven thousand dollars for every household in the United States.

Ah, what do the Clinton folks know? It will cost what it will cost.

Yeah, but is this news? You got a spare eleven grand (plus) sitting around the house to pay for this? If you don't, this may be news.

The price is not what you were told. Let's say you bought a cute little Ford Focus, signing a loan agreement with your credit union, and you got a great deal - three hundred a month. When you get the first monthly bill for three hundred thousand, you'd be... surprised? That's the Daniels to Stiglitz ratio. Sorry about that.

You might say you'd been misled (no car is worth that, not even the new Bugatti Veyron at 1.2 million).

But you cannot say you've been misled. That's not right. The president said so.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006, Reuters explains the deal -
President George W. Bush denounced some Democratic critics of the Iraq war as irresponsible on Tuesday and he wanted an election-year debate that "brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our adversaries"

In a speech, Bush made clear he was girding for battle with Democrats in the run-up to the mid-term congressional election in November, when he will try to keep the U.S. Congress in the hands of his Republican Party amid American doubts about his Iraq policy.

... Bush, who has faced a barrage of criticism over his handling of Iraq, said Americans know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being handled "and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people."

He added, "So I ask all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our adversaries."
Got it? Saying anyone was misled about any of this is out of bounds. That would offer "comfort to our adversaries" - as in "providing aid and comfort to the enemy." That's treason, as you know. And no talk about oil and how Israel may be part of the motivation for all this. And he claimed Americans know treason when they see it. He's just, as you see, stating the obvious.

He didn't name names. He didn't have to. He was talking about Howard Dean, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and that pesky Dick Durbin fellow, the senator from Illinois - folks who say such things about how we were all misled. They all said Bush has no strategy for Iraq. Can't do that.

Reuters quotes Ted Kennedy - "I wholeheartedly agree with President Bush about the need for accountability in the debate on the war in Iraq. 2006 must be the year when the American people demand that President Bush and other high government officials be held accountable for their mistakes." He's toast, but he's firing back. Reid said that it was "outrageous" that the president was using our troops "as a shield from criticism in an address to veterans and also had refused to address a recent Pentagon report on the inadequacy of body armor for American soldiers in Iraq." Reid's exact words - "Patriotic Americans will continue to ask the tough questions because our brave men and women in Iraq, their families and the American people deserve to know that their leaders are being held accountable."

Well, Bush did speak to the VFW. They agree this kind of criticism is just wrong, one supposes

California Democratic congressman Adam Schiff agrees we should have some reasoned discussion of the war, but "the administration cannot question the patriotism of those who disagree on war strategy and at the same time call for greater civility. We should be exploiting the divisions among our enemies, not among ourselves."

The White House transcript of the speech is here and the whole thing is about how disagreement is really, really bad - in Iraq the Shiites and Sunni had better stop fighting with each other about all the small stuff.

This was an unusual speech. The message was "shut up or the American people will know you are traitors and we'll have to deal with you."

Cool. That's one heck of a call for civility.

And this reaction seems appropriate -
Seriously. If Bush is going to go on national TV and declare that the Democratic leader in the Senate (Harry Reid), the head of the Democratic Party (Howard Dean), and a lead Democratic Senator (Dick Durbin) are committing treason by "giving comfort to our adversaries" by criticizing Bush's disastrous handling of the Iraq war, then arrest all three of them and have them summarily shot without a trial and let's be done with it.

I'm serious. If our president is going to argue in favor of America embracing the ideals of a Soviet police state, if that's the reason hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives during WWII, if that's the reason 160,000 US soldiers are risking their lives in Iraq right now, all for the purpose of America touting the ideals of our worst enemies, some of the most repressive and hated dictatorships in the history of the world, then be enough of a man to admit it, do it, and be done with it.

Otherwise shut up and start acting like the commander in chief of the greatest democracy on earth rather than some sniveling coward who doesn't even known enough about his own country, let alone the world, to understand what it is we're really fighting for.
That's blunt, but all Bush is saying is let's stop all this bickering. Some, however, think such "bickering" is what people do here. We argue things out. It seems some don't think that, and they're in charge.

Who thinks we do? Note this from Democratic National Committee Communications Director Karen Finney -
The Bush Administration's attack, distract and distort tactics reflect a Nixonian paranoia that is un-American. It's shameful that once again the Bush Administration resorted to attacking the patriotism of fellow Americans rather than answering legitimate questions surrounding the President's failures in Iraq. Personal attacks won't change the fact that hundreds of fatalities in Iraq could have been avoided if only our troops had the equipment they asked for.

Democrats welcome and will continue to push for the open and honest debate that is fundamental to our democracy and the liberties we hold dear.
It seem people have different ideas about what is fundamental. As Kos asks, can we debate whether the trillion dollar cost of the war is a wise investment? Can we debate why these clowns got us into a war without adequate planning? Can we debate what "victory" might be, since that's has never been clear? Can we debate why we don't have an exit strategy?

Maybe not. But even some Bush supports are not amused, as in this from Joe Gandelman, who stipulates he has supported the war in Iraq and does not believe an immediate pullout is the wisest course. Even he's got some advice for his leader -
An American President - especially one who has proven to be one of the most partisan in modern times - doesn't get to define a whole part of an issue's limits. You can bet that what Mr. Bush and Karl Rove consider "responsible" debate are points that won't raise prickly issues, don't beg immediate answers (even in the form of a swift denial and condemnation of the question as being silly), or seriously threaten to chip away at their party's standing in the polls.

Presidents don't get to set limits on political debate which centers on the credibility of their own and their cabinet members' statements, the accuracy of original information presented to the public to justify the war, the competency of the administrative policies and execution of the policies... particularly during a year in which Americans will generally vote for one of two parties. And, in a Democracy's tradition, that means FREE DEBATE. If the Democrats' act dumb and irresponsible there will be a price for them.

Mr. President: if you don't like the debating points raised, then answer them. Unequivocally. Point per point. Denounce each question you don't like as being extreme if you feel that is what it is.

But, no, the democracy I read about when I was growing up didn't place critical comments ... off limits.

... By the way: people who ask tough questions are as patriotic as you, Dick Cheney or the officers in the field.
The man thinks Democrats are fools, but he seems a tad put off, doesn't he?

Here's another way of looking at it, logically -
Is the Bush administration doing (1) a heckuva job; (2) a heckuva great job; or (3) a totally heckuva great job? And how can we help The President be more right?

Before we can answer that second question, we need to understand exactly why The President refuses to consider the topics he mentions as worthy of responsible discussion.

Of course, we didn't invade Iraq because of oil. Why this isn't obvious to everyone is one of the mind-boggling mysteries of our epoch. Briefly, all we're trying to do is grow the Iraq economy. Now, everyone knows the world is in a post-industrial phase, where it's high tech that rules, not Big oil-gobbling Iron. Therefore, it's vital to Iraq's infrastructure that they make use as soon as possible of their most abundant resource - sand - and become the major player they deserve to be in the international chip market.

... As for Israel, it simply must be recognized that any critic who mentions Israel in the same sentence with Iraq is not only thoroughly irresponsible but clearly an out and out anti-Semite. Now I admit, Pat Robertson may have been overstretching a bit, but only those who refuse to acknowledge cause and effect fail to see the connection between Sharon's recent stroke and the unremitting criticism he received in the past few months by all those here in the US who refused to support the Iraq war.

... How can The President be more right? Okay. I'll tell you and I'm not going to mince words. And I don't care who wants to turn me in for saying them!

I think the Big Problem is that everyone thinks The President is wrong and they won't trust his judgment. I think it's wrong that these people are wasting The President's time by making him worry that he's only doing a heckuva job. I think responsible debate should be limited to whether The President is doing a heckuva great job or better. If this proposal is adopted, The President by definition would immediately be more right! And that's what we, and he, want.

I think if irresponsible opponents weren't clogging The President's time with so many questions and empty scandals that his presidency has begun to resemble a New Orleans sewer, The President would have been able to sign the necessary emergency orders for more upper body armor for our troops. Now, let me be crystal clear about this: Because The President couldn't find time to sign that order, the critics of the The President's performance are responsible for much more - way much more - than aiding and comforting our enemies. The irresponsible critics of The President are systematically killing our soldiers. And I don't care who knows it.

Now, the Doomsayer Democrats object to certain wiretaps made without authorization. I say if they don't like them, here's a plan that will end the "illegal" wiretaps debate immediately. Disconnect the critics' telephones! And while we're at it, deny 'em ADSL. Let them rant over a 28.8k AOL connection and see how well they like it.

Bottom line: The President couldn't be more right. After all, he wouldn't be The President if that wasn't so. That's self-evident, just like it says in the Constitution. Or somewhere.
And that's only part of it. The whole thing is amusing, or would be if this weren't a case of the president making a serious threat to those who have questions.

Ah well.

Things aren't going well for him. You can understand his wanting to strike back. You don't want to mess with him when he's feeing cornered.

Watch the Alito hearings. It'll take you mind off all this.

Posted by Alan at 21:15 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006 07:01 PST home

Monday, 9 January 2006
Press Notes: Hazards Regarding Selecting What to Report
Topic: The Media

Press Notes: Hazards Regarding Selecting What to Report

The hottest nonfiction book at the moment is the one from James Risen, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, which is the "long form" version of his late December, big scoop New York Times story revealing the president had instructed the National Security Agency to disregard existing law and listen in on, or at least track the contents of, millions of phone calls each day, and scan millions of emails, to see what's up.

That's created an uproar, reviewed here, but that's not all that Risen was up to.

As he has said in interviews, there's more, as in it was more than twelve government officials who "blew the whistle" on the NSA program - they thought something was really wrong. But there are other interesting items - the president may have suggested that pain medication be withheld from our detainees - the ones we hold around the world who have been declared to have no rights - and this may have been the beginning of the brainstorming sessions which eventually led to what looks like torture to everyone but the administration's in-house attorneys, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. There's some evidence that the president's "what ifs" got out of hand, but then there are all those stories about how, when the president was just a lad, he was fond of jamming firecrackers down live squirrels and blowing them up. Maybe he was just being playful.

What else? The CIA asked about thirty Iraqi-Americans to go to Iraq before the war - the idea was they'd use their contacts there, either family or friends, and ask questions, and then we could really "determine the state" of those WMD programs. We had only one agent on the ground there, so that wasn't a bad idea. The bad guys would talk to family, and tell the truth. But every single one of them came back and said that all of WMD programs had stopped in the early nineties - or been destroyed in the first Gulf war. Our precision bombs actually flattened the building where they worked on all the nuclear stuff. There was no way to even restart the program. So? The CIA decided the reports of those thirty folks must really be planted propaganda from that clever Saddam Hussein. Risen also hints in the book that since this "send the thirty" idea came from an old hand at the agency, the new guys thought he was grandstanding and decided to slap him down. So we have evidence of either the Bush Administration ignoring intelligence that did not help its goal of starting a preemptive war over there, or we have office politics screwing things up again.

Overall, however, Risen says that "the checks and balances on the Executive Branch broke down." Foreign policy "was radicalized at the hands of Rumsfeld, Tenet, Cheney, Rice and a few others who would not allow career professionals in the State Department to participate." Yeah, yeah. So it seems.

As for the NSA program and all the controversy surrounding the question of why the Times sat on the story for a year, and has yet to comment on the other scoops in the Risen book, there's a new explanation from Jonathan Swartz here - Risen tried but failed to get it into the newspaper, so he went ahead and wrote a book, and then, when the book was going to "break the story," the Times had no choice. They had to run it - they didn't want to be scooped by a book by one of their own reporters. Whatever.

As the UCLA professor Mark Kleiman comments - "... the right criticizes the press for doing its job, while the left criticizes the press for not doing its job. The wingnuts are throwing around the word "treason" because the Times told its readers something that was about to come out in a book, while Schwarz complains that the Times has not told its readers other facts that came out in the same book."

Sometimes you just can't win.

And the voices on the right keep up that drumbeat - the Times has committed treason (a review of that argument here). Are the nuttier of those on the right-wing (the wingnuts) just venting, or are they serious?

There's this from the Associated Press, Monday, January 9 - Police Investigate Journalist's Killing - "Police on Monday appealed to the public for help in finding two men sought for questioning in the death of a retired New York Times journalist."

No, no - this seems to be just another Washington DC street crime. And the fellow may have been head of the Times' DC bureau at one time, but he was retired. He seldom wrote anything for the Times after he retired. This is not a message for James Risen and Bill Keller. Judy Miller didn't hire these "two men sought for questioning." It's just a coincidence, and a sad business.

If you're going to send a message, you don't mess with ambiguity, unless you're subtle and want to keep people on their toes. You do what Bill O'Reilly did on Fox News, for his massive national audience - he promised he'd go after specific New York Times people, personally, and dig up dirt on their private lives, and broadcast it (see this) - Bill is issuing what he calls a "secular fatwa." Unless they stop saying bad things about the president, what he calls their "personal attacks," well, they'll pay the price. He'll do the same to them, with the full force of the Fox News empire.

That's not subtle, nor is this from The Guardian UK, concerning one of their reporters in Iraq.

It seems our troops raided the home of an award-winning Iraqi journalist named Ali Fadhil, who was working for The Guardian, and British Channel 4. He had a hot story. And Fadhil requested an interview concerning claims that "tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi funds held by the Americans and British have been misused or misappropriated." Bad move. They raided his home, shot up the place, scared the heck out of his wife and two young children, and confiscated all his videotapes for the story. Crude, but effective.

Details? -
Ali Fadhil, who two months ago won the Foreign Press Association young journalist of the year award, was hooded and taken for questioning. He was released hours later.

Dr Fadhil is working with Guardian Films on an investigation for Channel 4's Dispatches programme into claims that tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi funds held by the Americans and British have been misused or misappropriated.

The troops told Dr Fadhil that they were looking for an Iraqi insurgent and seized video tapes he had shot for the programme. These have not yet been returned.
That works.
Dr Fadhil was asleep with his wife, their three-year-old daughter, Sarah, and seven-month-old son, Adam, when the troops forced their way in.

"They fired into the bedroom where we were sleeping, then three soldiers came in. They rolled me on to the floor and tied my hands. When I tried to ask them what they were looking for they just told me to shut up," he said.
They just told him to shut up. Ah, that's a real Bill O'Reilly line. There's a lot of that going around.

Of note, one of Ali Fadhil's awards is noted here, with a photograph of him. A previous article of his for The Guardian is here - Fallujah, City of Ghosts. Not that any of that matters now.

Comments? When asking a question can get you killed, War on the Press, and How Soon In The States? - Are these guys practicing for their return home? - and so on and so forth.

Do we have a war on the press? One has not been declared, officially. But even the pro-war, hyper-intellectual apologist for President Bush and all his efforts, Christopher Hitchens, notes something is heating up, as in The Bush Bombshell - Did the president propose to take out Al Jazeera?, posted on the eve of this -
... in a court in London, two men will appear to face charges under Britain's Official Secrets Act. The first man, David Keogh, a former employee of the Cabinet Office, is accused of unlawfully handing a confidential memorandum to the second man, Leo O'Connor, a researcher for a former Labor member of Parliament, Tony Clarke.

The memorandum is actually a five-page transcript stamped "Top Secret." It describes a meeting at the White House on April 16, 2004, between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

At that meeting, which took place while desperately hard fighting was in progress in the Iraqi town of Fallujah, Bush mooted the idea of taking out the headquarters of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar.

The network's correspondents inside the city had been transmitting lurid footage of extreme violence. The exchange apparently puts Blair in a good light, in that he dissuaded the president from any such course of action and was assisted in this by Colin Powell, who was then secretary of state.
Ah yes, this is all about that item in the Daily Mirror last November (that's here and was discussed in these pages here at the time) - George Bush was talked out of bombing Arab television station al-Jazeera by Tony Blair. Hitchens reminds us that in 2001, the Al Jazeera office in Afghanistan was destroyed by "smart" bombs, and, in 2003, an Al Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad was killed in an American missile strike. Is this Bush whim so far-fetched?

There are problems Blair and Powell might have noted -
The state of Qatar, which though a Wahabbi kingdom has a free press and allows women to run and to vote in elections, has not been the host of just Al Jazeera since the network's predecessor was kicked out of Saudi Arabia. It has also been the host of United States Central Command, and of many American civilians. It is the site each year of a highly interesting and useful conference, co-sponsored by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, where American and Middle Eastern academics and journalists and others meet in conditions of informality. Its emir has been a positive help and supporter to many democrats in the region. Bombing or blowing up the Al Jazeera office would involve hitting the downtown section of Doha, the capital city of a friendly power. It's difficult to think of any policy that would have been more calamitous. (But perhaps it was proposed to do it "surgically"?)
Who knows? But it was a stunningly bad idea, even if emotionally gratifying. Bill O'Reilly would have loved it, as would his boss, Roger Ailes, as would have Ailes' boss, Rupert Murdoch. Report the wrong things and you die. That'd make those guys smile.

In any event, Hitchens reviews the evidence that this discussion actually happened (convincing), and that Bush wasn't kidding at all (also convincing).

He comments that Al Jazeera "is not describable, perhaps, as a strictly objective station, but it is the main source of news in the Arab world because it is not the property of any state or party, and it has given live and unedited coverage of things like the elections in Iraq."

And there's another problem - "If it becomes widely believed that it has been or is being targeted, the consequences in the region will be rather more than Karen Hughes' 'public diplomacy' can handle."

He also notes Colin Powell is neither confirming or denying anything about this meeting, and that's curious.

Something is up.

But then there are safe things to report, like Monday's opening day of the Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, but was that news? All of it was opening statements from the members of the Senate judiciary committee - the "interrogatory" (questions and answers) is Tuesday. This was a non-event. But it was all over the news, but who wants to watch posturing?

There was lots of spin - Robert Kuttner in the Boston Globe with this - "At this moment in American history it would be hard to find a worse Supreme Court nominee than Samuel A. Alito Jr." The confirmation "would give Bush effective control of all three branches of government."

Rick Moran at Right Wing Nut House (really, honest) with this, calling the nomination confirmation a shoe-in - "It's the mismatch of the century!" Why? Because of "Judge Samuel Alito; scary smart, learned judge, judicially tempered, unflappable, and given the highest rating by the American Bar Association for competence." Those who oppose the nomination? That would be "the Democrats; piddle brained, highly emotional, tending toward hysterics, and character assassins extraordinaire."

Yale law professor Robert Gordon here - "Bush cannot get the legislative votes to repeal the New Deal and Great Society social safety nets, or legislative protections of labor, work safety and the environment and regulation of corporate frauds and torts. But he can appoint people in the executive and judicial branches who will work toward these aims covertly, gradually, and under the radar, while feigning otherwise. ... If [Alito] is unwilling firmly and forthrightly to declare his independence from the ideologies and executive authorities he has served his entire career, the Democrats should try to keep him off the Court by filibuster."

But nothing happened Monday. The story is the spin. So you report that. It's safe.

Do you report on this stringer for The Guardian being roughed up, or events in the UK where we may learn all about our president's plan to blow up foreign news service in the middle of an ally's capital city? Do you report on the pretty American reporter for the Christian Science Monitor kidnapped in Baghdad over the weekend? No you don't - Abduction of American Reporter in Iraq Blacked Out By US News Outlets. You report what you can.

It's rough out there.

Posted by Alan at 21:08 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006 21:37 PST home

Sunday, 8 January 2006
Defining Terms: He Who Defines the Terms Controls the Argument
Topic: For policy wonks...

Defining Terms: He Who Defines the Terms Controls the Argument

Of course, if you want to win an argument, you know your winning it depends on both sides agreeing on just what you're arguing about, and on your controlling just what that is - the terms of the argument. Your opponent says there's a problem with X and points out there is only one really effective answer to that problem, at it's his answer. You reply, graciously, that may be so, but really, if you look at this X thing, well, that's not really the problem - X is only a symptom of a the real problem, which is Y, and the only really effective answer to the Y problem is your answer. Defining the terms of the argument actually is the argument, or often is.

Concerning the ongoing national discussion, or argument, or quarrel - or whatever it is - regarding the News York Times revealing the president had instructed the National Security Agency to disregard the law and listen in on, or at least track the contents of, millions of phone calls each day, and scan millions of emails, to see what's up, we have the same problem in defining terms.

The 1978 FISA law is clear, and so is the is Fourth Amendment. Citizens, given that part of the constitution, have the right to a sort of privacy - the government cannot "search" to find out things about them without probable cause and a warrant issued by a judge who decides there is, actually, probable cause, as a crime may have been committed, or one is being committed, or one is being planned. The FISA law just fills in the details for circumstances involving "foreign intelligence" involving American citizens - it lays out procedures and rules.

The president told NSA to disregard those procedures and rules, and implicitly to disregard that Fourth Amendment detail of the constitution. More than a dozen of the NSA folks leaked this to the Times, and the Times, after sitting on the story for a year, reported it. The president asked them, a few weeks before they did, not to run the story. They did anyway, but left out technical details they were told would aid "the enemy." The president then explained, publicly, that yes, he had ordered this effort, outside the law, and there should be an investigation - those who leaked the information should be exposed and prosecuted. And he intended to continue this effort - letting the Attorney General and others explain that any president, as commander-in-chief when the country is at war, has the authority to do this sort of thing when any particular law conflicts with his constitutional responsibility to direct the war, and secondly, this president had specific authority to do so because the congress authorized him to "do what's necessary" to go after terrorists and those nations who support them. So there!

What followed was a disagreement on what this is about. The more hysterical of the civil libertarians did the expected - "Oh my God, this president is spying on all American citizens - it's a 1984 Big Brother move and we now live in a Stalinist America with our own KGB keeping files on anyone who disagrees with the leader!"

The less hysterical of these folks note the government does have a right to "spy" on its citizens, and always has had that right - that's just part of law enforcement - but the right to do this stuff is based on showing a judge you have some probable cause and getting a warrant, and bypassing that is a bit disturbing. Some wonder if, without "judicial oversight," such a program might be used to create an enemies list of the Nixon sort, to "get" those who make trouble for the administration by disagreeing too loudly and too embarrassingly - and maybe this is just too tempting for any administration to resist.

Then there's the-world-has-changed group saying this is really about how, since September 11, 2001, we really do have to toss out old ways of thinking - we don't have the luxury to worry about privacy rights these days.

Closely related to that is the "things are different in wartime" crowd. But are we at war? The Korean and Vietnam Wars were called that popularly, but the first was officially our participating in a UN police action. We were, on the record, just supporting the UN there. It was not a war - not at all. It was our supporting a UN action. It just looked like a war. Regarding Vietnam, what the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was is still a matter for some debate. The least inaccurate way to explain what it was would be to say it was a resolution ceding the authority to wage war to the executive branch, as the legislative branch didn't want to decide or declare anything - in short, it was tossing the constitutional authority and prerogative to declare and wage war down the street to the White House. "Yeah, it's our job, but you decide." All "war powers resolutions" since are an admission that the constitution doesn't work in the modern world - one man in the White House should decide these things. It's quicker, more efficient, and, if you're in congress, you don't catch crap when things go badly. Anyway, you're not given all the information, or you're lied to, so just how can you decide? Let the executive do what it will. What's the point in pressing the issue? The last official declaration of war was with WWII, after Pearl Harbor. There has been, since then, no official war anywhere in which we have participated. None at all. But we toss the word around - the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Christmas. The word "war" doesn't mean anything very specific now - it is now purely metaphor. Is it any wonder this is confusing? The congress is useless. This president says we're at war. Not quite so - but so. Close enough for government work. But are things different even when at war? Can a president when at war ignore pesky laws? Truman tried to nationalize the steel industry and thus end a strike threat when we were "at war" in Korea, and the Supreme Court slapped him down.

What can a president do and not do? Jean Schmidt, the newly elected congresswoman from Ohio - the one who called a fellow house member and decorated ex-Marine a coward on the house floor - says we're at war and when you're at war you just have to suspend the constitution. We've never officially done that, but maybe she's onto something.

Other takes on this include going after the Times for treason (see this) - the Times was aiding and abetting the enemy by revealing that we were tracking their calls and emails. The bad guys didn't know? By revealing there was this NSA, and there was this FISA law? They didn't know? They didn't think there'd be warrants? Are they cunning, clever, evil monsters, or are they bumbling idiots ("Don't worry, Ahmed, I've read the American newspapers and no one is listing in on us.") - which is it? It's hard to see what aid the Times provided the bad guys. This seems to be about following our own internal rules.

Is this about the rules? If it is true that the corporate owners of the phone, wireless and web hubs have given the government access to all the data flow to look for patterns and key words, is this about what sort of law we should have to assure monitoring isn't abused for political or even financial advantage? Is this about how antiquated the FISA law is now? But this attorney general said the administration did not try to change the law they decided not to go to congress when told they'd not get changes, and because, too, they'd have to reveal too much about the technology. This is interesting. What law should we have with all the new data mining technology available these days? Should it be used, and if so, under what rules?

Finally, there are two more ways to define this argument. For the Cult of Bush there's the "you have to trust the Man." He says it's necessary, so it is. He says he'd never abuse the power he assumed, so he wouldn't. And from the "whatever" crowd there's the argument this doesn't matter - if you have nothing to hide there's no problem.

Of course there are subsets to all of these positions, and there is the superset - this is about a small group of people with a pliant figurehead taking over the country, or it isn't.

We'll see who gets to define the terms here. And that is not yet clear.

But this is not the only example of such maneuvering, as we see in this regarding that fellow congressman Jean Schmidt called a coward -
Murtha was criticized during a Pentagon news conference Thursday, when the chairman of the joint chiefs said Murtha's weekend criticism was "damaging" troop recruitment efforts.

In a statement released by Murtha, the decorated Marine veteran responded that the real damage to recruitment comes from prolonged deployments, inadequate equipment, and the "lack of any connection between Iraq and the brutal attacks of 9/11."
As Oliver Willis explains what happened there - "Reject the premise of the attack, repeat with your original point. Bang. Murthanized."

The hearings on whether Judge Alito should become a member of the Supreme Court are underway. Is that really all about God? The Wall Street Journal notes this - three Christian ministers claim to have snuck into a Senate hearing room in order to anoint the chairs that will be used for Alito's confirmation hearing. They used oil. Doesn't that stain?

Is public health really about morality and evangelical Christian values? That depends on who frames the argument. See this -
The Society of Adolescent Medicine, in one of the most exhaustive reviews to date of government-funded abstinence-only programs, has rejected current administration policy that promotes abstinence as the only sexual health prevention strategy for young people in the United States and abroad.

"We believe that current federal abstinence-only-until-marriage policy is ethically problematic, as it excludes accurate information about contraception, misinforms by overemphasizing or misstating the risks of contraception, and fails to require the use of scientifically accurate information while promoting approaches of questionable value," the report concludes.

"Based on our review of the evaluations of specific abstinence-only curricula and research on virginity pledges, user failure with abstinence appears to be very high. Thus, although theoretically completely effective in preventing pregnancy, in actual practice the efficacy of abstinence-only interventions may approach zero."
Let's see - "theoretically completely effective" but of "zero value" and "ethically problematic." Gee, that's kind of like the whole effort in Iraq, with bad science thrown in as a bonus.

And then there is that war. There is this argument about winning it here, but don't click on the link. It's complicated, dense, and confusing. Duncan Black straightens it out here -
... Bush and his defenders have defined leaving Iraq as losing. Period. It's one reason crazy people like me think that may having some sort of arbitrary timetable or rough events-triggered withdrawal is a good idea - because there will never be some magical day when the Iraq security situation suddenly improves. There will never be a day when George Bush can wake up in the morning and decide, again, "Mission Accomplished!" without some arbitrary guidelines for when that is. There will never be a day when George Bush can credibly say "things are better today than yesterday" and therefore we can start to leave.

We will never leave Iraq while George Bush is president, because they've decided that leaving is losing.
Yep, defining terms matters, and who gets to define the terms matters too.

Black also links to Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Washington Post with this -
... "Victory or defeat" is, in fact, a false strategic choice. In using this formulation, the president would have the American people believe that their only options are either "hang in and win" or "quit and lose." But the real, practical choice is this: "persist but not win" or "desist but not lose."

Victory, as defined by the administration and its supporters - i.e., a stable and secular democracy in a unified Iraqi state, with the insurgency crushed by the American military assisted by a disciplined, U.S.-trained Iraqi national army - is unlikely. The U.S. force required to achieve it would have to be significantly larger than the present one, and the Iraqi support for a U.S.-led counterinsurgency would have to be more motivated. The current U.S. forces (soon to be reduced) are not large enough to crush the anti-American insurgency or stop the sectarian Sunni-Shiite strife. Both problems continue to percolate under an inconclusive but increasingly hated foreign occupation.

... The real choice that needs to be faced is between:

An acceptance of the complex post-Hussein Iraqi realities through a relatively prompt military disengagement - which would include a period of transitional and initially even intensified political strife as the dust settled and as authentic Iraqi majorities fashioned their own political arrangements.

An inconclusive but prolonged military occupation lasting for years while an elusive goal is pursued.
But Cheney just said it was simple. Victory or defeat.

People are, however, asking him (and the administration) to define the terms. What do the terms mean? Everyone knows? No, they don't.

We'll define them for you? Folks are understandably wary.

What's going on?

As Yul Brenner, in the role of the King of Siam in The King and I, was wont to say - "Is a puzzlement."

And how will this be spun, with carefully defined terms? From the Los Angeles Times, another scandal -
In a case that echoes the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, two Northern California Republican congressmen used their official positions to try to stop a federal investigation of a wealthy Texas businessman who provided them with political contributions. Reps. John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo joined forces with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to oppose an investigation by federal banking regulators into the affairs of Houston millionaire Charles Hurwitz.
There's a bit of discussion here, but how will you spin this? What happened may have cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars, but what about loyalty to your friend and contributor? You block the investigation. People understand friendship and loyalty do really matter. That may not fly.

Ah, sometimes you just explain the rules don't apply to you, as in this from Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn of Knight-Ridder -
President Bush agreed with great fanfare last month to accept a ban on torture, but he later quietly reserved the right to ignore it, even as he signed it into law.

Acting from the seclusion of his Texas ranch at the start of New Year's weekend, Bush said he would interpret the new law in keeping with his expansive view of presidential power. He did it by issuing a bill-signing statement - a little-noticed device that has become a favorite tool of presidential power in the Bush White House.

In fact, Bush has used signing statements to reject, revise or put his spin on more than 500 legislative provisions. Experts say he has been far more aggressive than any previous president in using the statements to claim sweeping executive power - and not just on national security issues.

"It's nothing short of breath-taking," said Phillip Cooper, a professor of public administration at Portland State University. "In every case, the White House has interpreted presidential authority as broadly as possible, interpreted legislative authority as narrowly as possible, and pre-empted the judiciary."

... The White House says its authority stems from the Constitution, but dissenters say that view ignores the Constitution's careful balance of powers between branches of government.

"We know the textbook story of how government works. Essentially what this has done is attempt to upset that," said Christopher Kelley, a presidential scholar at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who generally shares Bush's expansive view of executive authority. "These are directives to executive branch agencies saying that whenever something requires interpretation, you should interpret it the way the president wants you to."

... Some members of Congress from both parties also question the legal authority of presidential signing statements.

"He can say whatever he likes, I don't know if that has a whole lot of impact on the statute. Statutes are traditionally a matter of congressional intent," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In 2003, lawmakers tried to get a handle on Bush's use of signing statements by passing a Justice Department spending bill that required the department to inform Congress whenever the administration decided to ignore a legislative provision on constitutional grounds.

Bush signed the bill, but issued a statement asserting his right to ignore the notification requirement.
Ha, ha! It all depends on how you look at it.

Posted by Alan at 23:38 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006 10:14 PST home

Politics and Photography
Topic: Announcements

Politics and Photography

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format parent to this daily web log is now on line. This is Volume 4, Number 2, for the week of Sunday, January 8, 2006

What's there? Do we have a constitutional crisis? When can the president ignore the law? The controversy continues, as things fall apart in the Middle East with a leader removed from the game (God's will?) and there's a mine disaster here where the press makes the worst of mistakes, and then too, this was the week that strange graduate of Beverly Hills High School, Abramoff, pleads guilty to multiple felonies and starts singing, which remake congress as careers are ruined. Here we trace his odd career as a movie producer (yes, he did that). All those new odd recess appointments are considered. Aren't we supposed to get qualified people now? Michael Brown? Too, what's this with calling a major newspaper treasonous? And then, at the end of the week, they start to fall in Washington while Los Angeles gets all drôle. And too, is this the news Middle Ages (or the old)? It's all here.

Ah, Ric Erickson, "Our Man in Paris," provides some respite - Friday night music there, with photo.

Bob Patterson is back. Do we have a coronation? And too, he covers the hottest book of the week.

Photography? A special this week - four pages on the most famous Frank Lloyd Wright house in California, which may or may not survive. And there are two divertissements - what the Texans saw in Hollywood this week after the big football game, and an odd drive down Sunset Boulevard.

The quotes this week? Deception and truth are a problem, and the quotes are full of truthiness.

Note, in Links and Recommendations, the page of political sites, blogs and such, has been completely revised.

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Judging Events: Context Is Everything
Washington 90210: Alumni Note, Beverly Hills High School - Class of 1977
Perspective: Making Much of Little, Perhaps
Changes: Just when you thought you knew the players and the rules...
Press Notes: When Reporting is Treason
In All Seriousness: Late Week Catch-Up

History and Its Uses ______________________

Nomenclature: We Ourselves Are Only Temporarily Modern

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in Paris: Music Near Alesia

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - Letting Democracy Die By Asphyxiation
Book Wrangler: "Read All About It!" - While You Still Can

Southern California Photography ______________________

Architectural Ruins: Ennis House - Frank Lloyd Wright - Los Angeles, 1924 (four nested pages)
Sightseeing: Hollywood for Texans
On the Move: Driving Down Sunset Boulevard

Quotes for the week of January 8, 2006 - Is That True?

The revised page of political sites, blogs and such...

The mean dog guarding the Frank Lloyd Wright Ennis House in the Hollywood Hills -

Posted by Alan at 17:14 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 7 January 2006

Topic: Breaking News

In All Seriousness: Late Week Catch-Up

No news happens on Saturday. That's the day to work on assembling the Sunday edition of Just Above Sunset. But on Saturday the 7th that wasn't to be. The ongoing lobbying scandal drew blood. And it's best to resign outside the normal news cycle, as in this:

AP - DeLay Abandons Bid to Remain House Leader - "Embattled Rep. Tom DeLay the defiant face of a conservative revolution in Congress, stepped down as House majority leader on Saturday under pressure from Republicans staggered by an election-year corruption scandal."

Washington Post - DeLay Abandons Bid to Remain House Leader - "Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) today abandoned his bid to remain House majority leader, bowing to pressure from a growing number of fellow House Republicans who wanted a permanent leadership change because of his indictment on campaign finance charges."

Well, late Friday house Republicans had stared circulating a petition to call for a vote to elect a replacement for him. He fell on his spear for the Party. This business was getting out of hand.

Ass to that this - Fellow Republican: Ney likely to be indicted - "Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, is likely to be indicted in an ongoing public corruption scandal, according to a fellow Republican congressman, Jim McCrery of Louisiana. - Ney has been linked by prosecutors to Jack Abramoff."

They're staring to drop. Next week should be interesting.

Then too the New York Times reported this -
A secret Pentagon study has found that as many as 80 percent of the marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if they had had extra body armor. Such armor has been available since 2003, but until recently the Pentagon has largely declined to supply it to troops despite calls from the field for additional protection, according to military officials.
Everyone then picked up on the story.

A typical reaction here -
Christ almighty, if you’re going to send these people - kids, most of them - out on such a fool’s errand, at least give them a fighting chance of surviving their tour of duty. Repeal the goddamn tax cuts and buy them the basic armor they need. Or run up the deficit a little higher. Or just add on a special “armor tax” to this year’s tax return - I’ll pay it happily. Hell, I’ll throw in extra. Eighty percent might have survived. Eighty percent. Words fail me.
Yeah, and someone in the military is real unhappy, and leaking secrets to the Times. That's not good for the administration. The families of the dead may have something to say too. We'll see.

On the other hand, Forbes reports this - US Soldiers Question Use of More Armor - "US soldiers in the field were not all supportive of a Pentagon study that found improved body armor... " Mobility matters, of course. Forbes is a business magazine.

Then too, the same day there was this - the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has determined that the Bush Administration "probably" cannot claim the broad expansion of Presidential powers the President has relied on to justify the NSA intercept program -
President Bush's rationale for eavesdropping on Americans without warrants rests on questionable legal ground, and Congress does not appear to have given him the authority to order the surveillance, said a Congressional analysis released Friday.

The analysis, by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research arm of Congress, was the first official assessment of a question that has gripped Washington for three weeks: Did Mr. Bush act within the law when he ordered the National Security Agency, the country's most secretive spy agency, to eavesdrop on some Americans?

The report, requested by several members of Congress, reached no bottom-line conclusions on the legality of the program, in part because it said so many details remained classified. But it raised numerous doubts about the power to bypass Congress in ordering such operations, saying the legal rationale "does not seem to be as well grounded" as the administration's lawyers have argued.
That's push back. There's a train wreck coming.

There was that Rasmussen poll that showed the sixty-four percent of American has no problem with the government spying on its own citizens. But they didn't ask how anyone felt about doing that without probable cause or warrants.

Well, someone asked and the same Saturday we see the results -
A majority of Americans want the Bush administration to get court approval before eavesdropping on people inside the United States, even if those calls might involve suspected terrorists, an AP-Ipsos poll shows.

Over the past three weeks, President Bush and top aides have defended the electronic monitoring program they secretly launched shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, as a vital tool to protect the nation from al-Qaida and its affiliates.

Yet 56 percent of respondents in an AP-Ipsos poll said the government should be required to first get a court warrant to eavesdrop on the overseas calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens when those communications are believed to be tied to terrorism.

Agreeing with the White House, some 42 percent of those surveyed do not believe the court approval is necessary.
So fifty-six percent of us are cowards and traitors, who aren't sufficiently frightened?

Interesting, and this is all serious stuff.

On the other hand, if all that is too heavy for you, when LA Weekly, the pretty much mainstream alternative weekly out here, hit the newsstands on Thursday the 5th, there was much to consider in their year-end (or year-beginning) Feuilletons Sketches - Whimsies, Curios and Ephemera of All Kinds.

This stuff will clear your head.

You could think about some of Dave Shulman's Unanswered Questions of 2005 - Why is there still no pornstar named Laura Bush? When will Osama bin Laden be captured from his perch at the Texas School Book Depository? Has the Taliban formally merged with the Religious Right, or are they just dating? Why, when the Easter Bunny rises from Lincoln's Tomb on Christmas Day, does it fail to obey Santa's shadow?

Yes, one wonders, and the same link will give you Judith Lewis' Things We Learned from the Intelligent Design "Controversy"
1. Some complexity is irreducible.

2. Evolutionary theory has gaps.

3. Gaps are evidence of God.

4. Naomi Watts is evidence of God.

5. God doesn't play dice, but he does play Life.

6. God is falsifiable.

7. What's religion in Delaware is science in Kansas.

8. Thirty-eight Nobel laureates aren't as smart as the Kansas Board of Education.

9. It's quite possible that humans rode dinosaurs.

10. Any crackpot theory deserves a hearing, unless it involves spaghetti.

11. A man is like a watch: If you don't wind him up, he doesn't work right.

12. Some people spell Creationism with only two letters.
Regarding the tenth item, see The Flying Spaghetti Monster from August 28th in these pages.

Wendy Molyneux offers Happy Endings for 2005 News Stories, and two of them are on target -
The Valerie Plame Affair

When Judith Miller was released, she proudly walked onto the Senate floor and said, "Gentleman, may I present my source, the magical psychic unicorn Corinne Jones?"

The unicorn turned to the committee and said, "I have been the source of the leak all along. The name Valerie Plame came to me in one of my psychic visions. I apologize for all the trouble I've caused, but rest assured that your government is as honest as the day is long. I'd like to make it up to the American people by using my magical powers to make everyone billionaires who live in houses made of candy."

The Terri Schiavo Incident

Just as the doctors were about to disconnect Terri from her feeding tube, Terri sat up and said, quite clearly, "Stop! I'm fine!"

The doctors, amazed, looked at each other. Finally one shrugged and said what everyone was thinking: "Call the Republicans and tell them they're right. Science isn't real."

Here Tom Christie offers his Annual Anagrams. The list is long, but some stand out -
America + Iraq = CIA REAM IRAQ
Rumsfeld = DR. FLUMES
Rumsfeld + Iraq = ALFRED SQUIRM
Bush + Rumsfeld = BLUSHED SMURF
Bush + Rice = U.S. BE RICH
Katrina = ANTI ARK
Tom Cruise = MR. SO CUTIE
And there's lots more, like The Year in Useless Products, a list which includes these -
Cheetos Lip Balm In a bold era of never-ending synergy between fast-food products - LAY'S ® KC MASTERPIECE® BBQ Flavored Potato Chips, Pizza Hut Cheese Pizza Popcorn, et al. - it was just a matter of time before salty snacks and personal hygiene would join forces. Cheetos Lip Balm is out in front of that trend with, well, a lip balm that tastes like Cheetos. Delicious, dusty Cheetos. But no orange fingers or powdery mess here! One application is all it takes to bring the taste of junk food to your lips for several hours.

Liquor in a Sword Ararat5 is a brandy that comes in a unique sword-shaped bottle. Pour it into your goblet or drink it straight from the hilt. Ararat5, made by a Polish company, contains 40 percent alcohol by volume and is guaranteed to work. And what better commercial pairing than alcohol and deadly weapons?

Aromatherapy in a Bottle Purifique is the name of a new beverage claiming to be "the world's first all-natural aromatherapy energy drink." Not just for drinking, Purifique is also an olfactory experience! Purifique's "botanical infusions" are supposed to deliver "pure plant oxygen" and a compliment of aromatherapy benefits to lift your spirits, regulate your system and focus your mind.

Boob Muffs Just what it sounds like - sort of. These are not winter wear for breasts but rather regular old earmuffs shaped like boobs. This one comes from Baron Bob's Boob Bonanza, where one can also procure the more common boob mugs. It's the muffs, however, that are Thinsulate approved.
There are more. There is more. Sometimes it is good to live in La-La Land.

Posted by Alan at 17:36 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 7 January 2006 17:41 PST home

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