Archive for the ‘The Bush Legacy’ Category

The Winklevoss Twins of Getting Bin Laden

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Why are we listening to the Bush administration officials anyway? They didn’t get Bin Laden. They’re like the Winklevoss Twins of getting Bin Laden. If you were the guys who were going to kill Bin Laden, you would have killed Bin Laden!

-Jon Stewart on last night’s Daily Show.

When Bin Laden was killed, many of my more right-wing friends were oddly silent. Rather than the relief I and so many others felt, they seemed discomfited — not by the tactics or legality or potential consequences of the action, but by a cognitive dissonance as they tried to reconcile their visceral dislike of Obama as anti-American and perhaps even sympathetic to terrorists and their approval of his actions. Then Rush Limbaugh gave them the defense mechanism they needed — and suddenly it became glaringly obvious to them that Obama was taking too much credit for the operation, that he had used first person pronouns way too much in the speech. (Though the words of the speech don’t bear that out.)

But worse than Limbaugh’s attempts to insulate his audience from that uncomfortable feeling of challenging their preconceptions about Obama are the former Bush administration officials’ attempts to take credit for themselves, using this triumph of American military force and intelligence to justify their subversion of both.

As outrageous as it sound, the contemporaneous record reflects that the Bush administration prioritized Saddam over Bin Laden shortly after 9/11 and was unwilling to provide the boots on the ground or even drones urgently requested by the CIA and Special Forces tracking Bin Laden in the aftermath. The Bush administration was unwilling to provide the Pakistani army the air transport they claimed they needed to move troops to the border to secure it even as the Bush administration relieved relied upon and trusted the Pakistani army to secure their wild and lawless border to cut off Bin Laden’s escape. Worse still, the “intelligence” provided by illegal, tortured confessions in contradiction of America’s long military and intelligence history were used to justify the Bush administration’s belief that Saddam and Bin Laden were working together on a WMD attack on America — and later, this same intelligence sources under torture, provided the basis for shutting down the team focused on finding Bin Laden, as they pretended he was a mere figurehead. (A logical bit of information to make up if you wanted an interrogation to end and you couldn’t give them the actionable intelligence to find Bin Laden they wanted.) It was this last bit of intelligence which the former Bush administration officials claim credit for being used to find Bin Laden:

Al-Libbi told interrogators that the courier would carry messages from bin Laden to the outside world only every two months or so. “I realized that bin Laden was not really running his organization. You can’t run an organization and have a courier who makes the rounds every two months,” Rodriguez says. “So I became convinced then that this was a person who was just a figurehead and was not calling the shots, the tactical shots, of the organization. So that was significant.”

And later that same year, the CIA shut down its dedicated hunt for OBL.

Obama, upon taking office, did not do anything incredible. What he did do was to apply some common sense that the panic-stricken and Iraq-obsessed Bush administration had missed — he re-focused the national security apparatus on destroying Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. That’s why drone attacks began to increase when he became president. That’s part of the reason why he surged troops into Afghanistan. That’s why — as a candidate — Obama promised that he would go into Pakistan after Bin Laden even if the Pakistanis did not sanction the operation. (This bit of common sense caused Hillary Clinton and John McCain to slam him for his position.) That’s why the Bin Laden operation was so carefully planned for, with every possible scenario gamed out — from scenarios where the Special Forces needed to fight their way out of Pakistan to teams ready to interrogate him.

There was certainly a great deal of luck involved — and if the Bush administration had been presented with the same opportunity to get Bin Laden, I’m sure they would have taken it. But surely it is not a coincidence that the administration that had higher priorities than finding Bin Laden let him slip through their fingers several times while the administration that focused the mighty resources of the United States military and intelligence apparatus on Al Qaeda and Bin Laden found the opportunity that had failed to present itself for seven long years under Bush’s leadership.

Leadership matters. It’s a little too late to take credit now.

In Response To Those Disturbed By Celebrating on the Death of Bin Laden

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started seeing this quote popping up in my Facebook feed last night. In response, let me say 2 things:

(1) It’s fake. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t say that. It’s loosely based on this quote.

(2) Do you remember your first time watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid? That feeling of elation in the moments after the witch melted and the munchkins and everyone else began to sing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!”?

Whether rational or not, the figure of Osama Bin Laden — and our inability to find him — has loomed over our consciousness since September 11. His survival despite America’s might directed against him, despite the abhorrence of his crimes, suggested impotence and an inability to control events and affect our own fate. The knowledge that not only did he survive, but he continued to plan to kill and terrorize — that at any moment, some decision of his which we had no way of affecting could wreck the lives of thousands, even our own — loomed over us. But on May 1, 2011, order was restored and the villain taken down. And that is a catharsis worthy of storybooks.

Voices urging restraint and caution at such moments of national catharsis are good and worthy. Because moments of catharsis can be distorted — they can turn to ugly emotions. Wisdom counsels that we “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown.”  It is unseemly to celebrate murder — and all too easy to demonize one’s enemies to justify resorting to violence. But as another wise man said,  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

And it was Martin Luther King who said, “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice” — and even as this prophet of non-violence may not have condoned it — in Bin Laden’s violent end by American hands, there was justice.

An evil man who claimed theological justification and technological means to murder millions; who inspired, authorized and directed the killing of thousands; who wanted women confined to a second-class status; who directed the killings of the vast majority of Muslims as unclean unbelievers — an evil man who murdered 3,000 souls on one fateful September morning — this Sunday, he was removed from this world.

And the world is better for it.

And for that, we should all celebrate.

[Image by Dan Nguyen @ New York City licensed under Creative Commons.]

How the Supreme Court Nomination Process Rewards the Type of People Who Defer to Presidential Authority

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

David Brooks did a great job today of describing the type of individual our current Supreme Court confirmation process tends to reward (to paraphrase):

A person whose career has dovetailed with the incentives presented by the confirmation system, a system that punishes creativity and rewards caginess, and who therefore we are forced to construct arguments based on speculation because they have been too careful to let their actual positions leak out.

Brooks locates this type of individual — as is his wont (see for eg. bobos) — in a general sociological group:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.

Brooks sees this as a flaw in his evaluation of Elena Kagan:

Kagan has apparently wanted to be a judge or justice since adolescence (she posed in judicial robes for her high school yearbook). There was a brief period, in her early 20s, when she expressed opinions on legal and political matters. But that seems to have ended pretty quickly…

But I was struck by the similarity of David Brooks’s evaluation of Elena Kagan now and Dahlia Lithwick’s evaluation of John Roberts when he was nominated:

I knew guys like [John Roberts] in college and at law school; we all knew guys like him. These were the guys who were certain, by age 19, that they couldn’t smoke pot, or date trampy girls, or throw up off the top of the school clock tower because it would impair their confirmation chances. They would have done all these things, but for the possibility of being carved out of the history books for it…

My sense that Roberts has been preparing for next month’s confirmation hearings his whole life was shored up by a glance at the new memos released by the Library of Congress yesterday. As early as 1985, Roberts was fretting about how federal government records disclosed to Congress before confirmation hearings could tank a nomination.

Roberts was widely seen to have been very “careful” and “cautious” throughout his life — intellectually and otherwise. Yet David Brooks had a different reaction to Roberts nomination:

Roberts nomination, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Less important than this minor bit of hypocrisy (which Bill Scher for the Huffington Post mines for all it’s worth) – or perhaps partisan blindness — on the part of David Brooks (and haven’t we all been there?) — is the substance of his critique. Brooks never quite connects the dots — but seems on the verge of making a profound point.

There seems to be a connection between the personality type of Kagan and Roberts — the type of cautious, establishment-minded personality rewarded by our current nomination process — and the tendency of this type of person to defer to the highest authority figure in the American psyche, the President of the United States. In Roberts and Alito, we have 2 of Brooks’s Organization Kids who also happen to be 2 of the most pro-presidentialist Supreme Court justices in history. Though Kagan’s views on this aren’t clear — as she has made some comments indicating an expansive view of executive power only in the context of discussing the views of others — we do know that she felt the Bush administration went too far, unlike Roberts and Alito.

Though I would have preferred a justice more wary of executive power, for me personally, this concern is not enough to give me reason to oppose Kagan’s nomination and appointment. I do want to know more about Kagan’s views on this — to see whether and to what degree she conforms to Glenn Greenwald’s fears (which are, as it should go without saying regarding Greenwald, hyperbolic). Lawrence Lessig has pushed back convincingly against Greenwald on this issue — and of course, Greenwald responded by going ad hominem.

Both Greenwald’s and Brook’s critique ignores the structural element to this pick as neither addresses the degree to which our current confirmation process tends to reward cautious people whose public views are somewhat ambiguous but who are close enough to those in the executive branch that the President nominating them trusts them. The type of person who would meet these criteria would not tend to be the strongest supporters of the Court as a check on executive power. Even aside from the generational category of “Organization Kids,” this would tend to place people deferential to presidential authority into the Supreme Court.

—–

Also interesting: Ezra Klein posits a better analogue than John Roberts to understand the Kagan pick is Barack Obama himself:

When Obama announced Kagan’s nomination, he praised “her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints; her habit, to borrow a phrase from Justice Stevens, ‘of understanding before disagreeing’; her fair-mindedness and skill as a consensus-builder.” This sentence echoes countless assessments of Obama himself.

Obama is cool. He makes a show of processing the other side’s viewpoint. He’s more interested in the fruits of consensus than the clarification of conflict. In fact, just as Kagan is praised for giving conservative scholars a hearing at Harvard’s Law School, Obama was praised for giving conservative scholars a hearing on the Harvard Law Review. “The things that frustrate people about Obama will frustrate people about Kagan,” says one prominent Democrat who’s worked with both of them.

[Image by the Harvard Law Review licensed under Creative Commons.]

A Sustainable Afghanistan Policy

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

Matt Yglesias makes the essential point regarding our Afghanistan policy, illustrating it with this chart:

Whatever this may or may not be creating, it’s not a sustainable and legitimate government.

There simply is no exit plan.

Yet this isn’t tarred with the same politics as the bailout of Wall Street or Greece because the populist right responds first and foremost to invocations of war and patriotism — and only secondarily to the invocation of moochers. And so the pressure to create a sustainable structure and stop the incessant bailout isn’t there. Instead, the populist right is pressuring Obama to stay until….we win…What we might win is never quite explained.

Must-Reads of the Week: The Obama 20-somethings, Graham’s Cojones, Fannie/Freddie, Naive Conspiracy Theorists, Saban, Obama=Socialism, Political Imitations, Underdogs, Lost!, and Julián Castro

Friday, May 7th, 2010

This is a busy season for me — but there should be some more substantive blog posts next week…

1. The Obama 20-somethings. Ashley Parker for the New York Times Magazine profiles “all the Obama 20-somethings” in an interesting profile of the new crowd in D.C. of smart, highly educated, highly motivated, civic-minded, young Obama staffers.

2. Lindsey Graham’s Cojones. You gotta hand it to Lindsey Graham — if nothing else, he’s got guts — from Dana Milbank of the Washington Post:

The lone pro-gun lawmaker to engage in the fight was the fearless Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who rolled his eyes and shook his head when Lieberman got the NYPD’s Kelly to agree that the purchase of a gun could suggest that a terrorist “is about to go operational.”

“I’m not so sure this is the right solution,” Graham said, concerned that those on the terrorist watch list might be denied their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

“If society decides that these people are too dangerous to get on an airplane with other people, then it’s probably appropriate to look very hard before you let them buy a gun,” countered Bloomberg.

“But we’re talking about a constitutional right here,” Graham went on. He then changed the subject, pretending the discussion was about a general ban on handguns. “The NRA — ” he began, then rephrased. “Some people believe banning handguns is the right answer to the gun violence problem. I’m not in that camp.”

Graham felt the need to assure the witnesses that he isn’t soft on terrorism: “I am all into national security. . . . Please understand that I feel differently not because I care less about terrorism.”

Jonathan Chait comments:

There’s a pretty hilarious double standard here about the rights of gun owners. Remember, Graham is one of the people who wants the government to be able to take anybody it believes has committed an act of terrorism, citizen or otherwise, and whisk them away to a military detention facility where they’ll have no rights whatsoever. No potential worries for government overreach or bureaucratic error there. But if you’re on the terrorist watch list, your right to own a gun remains inviolate, lest some innocent gun owner be trapped in a hellish star chamber world in which his fun purchase is slowed by legal delays.

3. Why Isn’t Fannie/Freddie Part of FinReg? Ezra Klein explains why regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac isn’t in the financial regulation bill.

4. Naive Conspiracy Theorists. William Saletan contributes to the whole epistemic closure debate with a guide on how not to be closed-minded politically, including this bit of advice:

Sanchez goes through a list of bogus or overhyped stories that have consumed Fox and the right-wing blogosphere: ACORN, Climategate, Obama’s supposed Muslim allegiance, and whether Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s memoir. Conservatives trapped in this feedback loop, he notes, become “far too willing to entertain all sorts of outlandish new ideas—provided they come from the universe of trusted sources.” When you think you’re being suspicious, you’re at your most gullible.

5. Saban. Connie Bruck in the New Yorker profiles Haim Saban, best known for bringing the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to the United States — but who made much of his fortune licensing the rights to cartoon music internationally. As a side hobby, he tries to influence American foreign policy towards Israel. He doesn’t come off very well in the piece, but at least this one observation seems trenchant to me at first glance:

Saban pointed out that, in the late nineties, President Clinton had pushed Netanyahu very hard, but behind closed doors. “Bill Clinton somehow managed to be revered and adored by both the Palestinians and the Israelis,” he said. “Obama has managed to be looked at suspiciously by both. It’s not too late to fix that.”

6. The Obama=Socialism Canard. Jonathan Chait rather definitively deflates Jonah Goldberg’s faux-intellectual, Obama=socialism smear:

For almost all Republicans, the point of labeling Obama socialist is not to signal that he’s continuing the philosophical tradition of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Clinton. The point is to signal the opposite: that Obama embodies a philosophy radically out of character with American history. Republicans have labeled Obama’s agenda as “socialism” because the term is widely conflated with Marxism, even though Goldberg concedes they are different things, and because “liberalism” is no longer a sufficiently scary term. Republicans endlessly called Bill Clinton a liberal, Al Gore a liberal — the term has lost some of its punch. So Obama must be something categorically different and vastly more frightening.

Goldberg is defending the tactic by arguing, in essence, that liberalism is a form of socialism, and Obama is a liberal, therefore he can be accurately called a socialist. But his esoteric exercise, intentionally or not, serves little function other than to dress up a smear in respectable intellectual attire. [my emphasis]

7. Imitating the Imitators of the Imitation. This Politico piece by Mike Allen and Kenneth P. Vogel explains how some elite Republicans are trying to set up a right wing equivalent of the left wing attempt to imitate the right wing’s media-think tank-political infrastructure:

Two organizers of the Republican groups even made pilgrimages earlier this year to pick the brain of John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who, in 2003, founded the Center for American Progress and was a major proponent of Democrats developing the kind of infrastructure pioneered by Republicans.

And of course, that right wing infrastructure was meant to imitate the left wing policy-media infrastructure of the left — the Brookings-New York Times axis. The whole imitation of imitation of imitation of imitation — spawning more and more organizations — reminds me a bit of those old Mad magazine comic strips:

8. The Underdog. Daniel Engber in Slate explores the underdog effect and various scientific studies of the underdog effect, including how it affects expectations:

The mere act of labeling one side as an underdog made the students think they were more likely to win.

9. Lost! Ed Martin in the Huffington Post is concerned with how the tv show Lost will end:

Not to put too much pressure on Lindelof and Cuse, but the future of broadcast television will to some extent be influenced by what you give us over these next few weeks.

10. Julián Castro. Zev Chafets of the New York Times Magazine profiles Julián Castro, mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and one of the up-and-coming Democrats. The article entirely elided his policy ideas or and barely mentioned his political temperament — but was interesting nevertheless.

[Image by me.]

Must-Reads of the Week: American Power, Inequality, 1 Billion Heartbeats, Hacking Life, Anthora Cups, Structural Deficit, Financial Doomsedays and Crises, China, the Tea Party’s Views on Immigration, and Lady Gaga

Friday, April 30th, 2010

There were a lot of good articles and posts I came across this week — so brace yourself…

1. The American Power Act. David Brooks makes the case for progressive reform — specifically the American Power Act regarding climate change:

When you read that history, you’re reminded that large efforts are generally plagued by stupidity, error and corruption. But by the sheer act of stumbling forward, it’s possible, sometimes, to achieve important things…The energy revolution is a material project that arouses moral fervor — exactly the sort of enterprise at which Americans excel.

Matt Yglesias had earlier this week critiqued Brooks (among others) for taking the exact opposite stance of the one he was adopting here:

Oftentimes in the Obama Era the difference between “reasonable” conservatives (David Brooks and Greg Mankiw often leading the charge) and reasonable liberals has been that reasonable liberals look at flawed legislation that would improve on the status quo and support it while “reasonable” conservatives look at flawed legislation that would improve on the status quo and oppose it, while claiming to support alternative flawed proposals that they don’t actually lift a finger to organize support for within their own ideological faction.

2. Inequality, social mobility, and the American Dream. The Economist had a good piece that can serve as a starting point for a post I’ll be writing soon on inequality, social mobility, and the American dream:

The evidence is that America does offer opportunity; but not nearly as much as its citizens believe.

Parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe, implying that social mobility is less powerful.

3. The Science of Life. Jonah Lehrer for Seed magazine has a brilliant piece on how cities are like living organisms. As a side matter, he notes this beautifully poignant data point:

[A]n animal’s lifespan can be roughly calculated by raising its mass to the 1/4 power. Heartbeats scale in the opposite direction, so that bigger animals have a slower pulse. The end result is that every living creature gets about a billion heartbeats worth of life. Small animals just consume their lives faster.

4. Fine-tuning life. Gary Wolf for the New York Times Magazine explains how the accessibility of computers is creating data about every aspect of our lives — and of the efforts of some people to begin to catalog and find insights in their own data. Surprisingly, Lifehacker was never mentioned.

5. The Anthora Cup. Margalit Fox of the New York Times writes the obituary for Leslie Buck, the designer of the Anthora cup:

It was for decades the most enduring piece of ephemera in New York City and is still among the most recognizable. Trim, blue and white, it fits neatly in the hand, sized so its contents can be downed in a New York minute. It is as vivid an emblem of the city as the Statue of Liberty, beloved of property masters who need to evoke Gotham at a glance in films and on television.

6. Unified Theory of the Financial Crisis. Ezra Klein synthesizes various narratives into a unified theory of the financial crisis.

7. The Structural Deficit. Donald B. Marron provides a coherent and reality-based conservative look at America’s structural deficit. Absolutely a Must-Read.

8. The Financial Doomsday Machine. Martin Wolf dedicated his column in the Financial Times last week to describe the “financial doomsday machine“:

[T]he financial sector has become bigger and riskier. The UK case is dramatic, with banking assets jumping from 50 per cent of GDP to more than 550 per cent over the past four decades…The combination of state insurance (which protects creditors) with limited liability (which protects shareholders) creates a financial doomsday machine. What happens is best thought of as “rational carelessness”. Its most dangerous effect comes via the extremes of the credit cycle.

9. Realism on China. Stephen Walt explains his take on China’s strategic ambitions — and its inevitable rivalry with the United States and other regional powers.

10. The Tea Party & Immigration. Radley Balko explains his take on the widespread support among the Tea Party for the massive government power grab that is Arizona’s new immigration law:

It also makes a mockery of the media narrative that these are gathering of anti-government extremists. Seems like in may parts of the country they’re as pro-government as the current administration, just pro-their kind of government.

Coincidentally, I made that exact point about the Tea Party back in September 2009 entitled: These Protests Aren’t Against Big Government, But About Liberals Running the Government.

Andrew Sullivan piles on:

Worse, on the fiscal front, they’re total frauds. They have yet to propose any serious cuts in entitlements and want far more money poured into the military-imperial complex. In rallies, the largely white members in their fifties and older seem determined to get every penny of social security and Medicare. They are a kind of boomer revolt – but on the other side of that civil conflict, and no longer a silent majority. In fact, they’re now the minority that won’t shut up.

More and more, this feels to me like an essentially cultural revolt against what America is becoming: a multi-racial, multi-faith, gay-inclusive, women-friendly, majority-minority country.

11. Sovereign Debt Crisis. Felix Salmon and Paul Krugman are both very pessimistic about how Greece will get out of this crisis — and what it means for the global economy.

12. Lady Gaga’s Ambition. Brendan Sullivan for Esquire chronicles the life and ambitions of Lady Gaga:

“There is a musical government, who decides what we all get to hear and listen to. And I want to be one of those people.” The girl who said that didn’t yet have the number-one hits (although she had already written most of them).

She was not yet the creative director of the Haus of Gaga, which is what she calls the machine of more than a hundred creative people who work for her. She didn’t make that statement in an interview or from the stage. She made it in 2007, when she was a go-go dancer sewing her own outfits and I was her DJ. She wrote it in one of my notebooks…

Lady Gaga is a student of fame, and the fame she studies most is her own — being famous seems to both amuse and fascinate her.

[1st image by me; 2nd image by LarindaME licensed under Creative Commons.]

Miracles Can Happen!

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Jonathan Chait:

What’s happening with financial reform right now is unlike anything that’s happened since I’ve been following American politics. Look at the fundamentals of the issue. This is a matter where a massive industry — one that accounts for close to half of all corporate profits — is adamantly opposed to new regulation. The merits of the issue are so mind-numbingly complex that even economists and policy wonks sound distinctly fuzzy on the details. Throw in a Republican Party that had pursued, with evident political success, a policy of total obstruction. I’d tell you this was a formula either for defeat or a toothless reform.

And yet a substantial reform now appears close to inevitable. It’s not a toothless reform — a set of derivative regulations more hawkish than anybody could have dreamed possible a couple weeks ago just passed through the Agriculture Committee. It’s one of those strange moments when the normal laws of politics have been suspended.

Must-Reads of the Week: Diabolical Republicans, Strategic Patience, Weiner, China, New York City, -20 Questions, & Glenn Beck’s Obsession With Woodrow Wilson

Friday, April 16th, 2010

1. Diabolical Republicans. Noam Scheiber in The New Republic explains how the “diabolical” plan the Republicans have adopted to achieve their fiscal ends (discussed on this blog here) may backfire:

Ever since George W. Bush massively cut taxes back in 2001, squandering much of the $5.6 trillion, ten-year surplus he inherited from Bill Clinton, liberals have assumed that the fiscal game was rigged. Conservatives had been explicit about their starve-the-beast strategy—the practice of creating large deficits through tax cuts in order to force future spending cuts…

“Depriving the government of revenue, it turns out, wasn’t enough to push politicians into dismantling the welfare state,” Krugman wrote. “So now the de facto strategy is to oppose any responsible action until we are in the midst of a fiscal catastrophe.”

…I suspect…that Republicans believe precipitating a fiscal crisis will force Democrats to roll back entitlement spending (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), which would be both politically unpopular and the realization of the right’s dearest policy fantasy. It’s an altogether brilliant, if diabolical, plan. Except for one minor flaw: There’s a good chance it could vaporize the GOP.

2. Strategic Patience in the Face of Long-Term Problems. David S. Broder, eminence of the press establishment, apostle of bipartisanship at all costs, proponent of convention, seems to have finally come around to Obama with this trenchant observation:

We are beginning to learn that the Obama presidency will be an era of substantial but deferred accomplishments — perhaps always to be accompanied by a sense of continuing crisis. His vaunted “cool” allows him to wait without impatience and to endure without visible despair. It asks the same of his constituents.

The backdrop of the serious long-term issues facing America is precisely what made Obama’s election so important in the first place — as this blog repeatedly argued. David Rothkopf put the matter in a wide-angled perspective:

[T]he reason the health care reform bill is important is not because it was the first major such piece of social legislation in the U.S. in decades, but rather because it represents the first in what will become by necessity an on-going series of efforts to fix deep and serious defects in the American economy. In a decade or two, this legislation is like to be seen by Americans as the beginning of a lengthy, brutal and spasmodic process to cut deficits and restore America’s leadership prospects in the global economy.

3. Answering Sarah Palin. Anthony Weiner meanwhile has arisen as the Democrat’s answer to Sarah Palin and our sensationalized media moment. (Others might argue for Alan Grayson.)

4. Chinese Predictions. Gordon G. Chang, for World Affairs, explains his argument for why the Beijing consensus cannot last and its power will soon begin to wane.

5. New York’s Neighborhoods. Nate Silver, baseball statistician and political polling expert, turned his skills to rating New York’s neighborhoods. Really interesting for locals.

6. Negative 20 Questions. Jason Kottke describes a game that “resembles quantum physics.”

7. Glenn Beck’s Woodrow Wilson Obsession. David Frum puzzles on why Glenn Beck focuses so much on Woodrow Wilson as the beginning point of all things progressive and source of evils in the modern world. There are so many more logical choices, more progressive historical figures of greater note who are more closely aligned to contemporary progressivism. And then he answers his own question:

Here’s a president who took the United States into a very controversial war, ending in an unsatisfactory peace. In response to a domestic terrorist threat, culminating in a deadly attack in lower Manhattan, this president adopted draconian domestic security policies. Oh – and his administration concluded with an abrupt plunge into severe recession.

Any parallels come to mind?

What’s taking place on Glenn Beck’s show is a coy conservative self-conversation. Maybe it’s because I’m in China now, but it reminds me of the way Chinese intellectuals in the late 1970s would discuss the first Qin emperor, as a way of debating – and denouncing – Mao Zedong without explicitly mentioning a sensitive subject.

[Image by me.]

Dammit, Reddit! You know I sorta love you, but sometimes…

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Reddit, you know I sorta love you. You’re my source for news that doesn’t get covered enough in the American press, for pictures of cats doing cute things, for viral videos. You’re the main reason I’ve already seen every cool link on the internet before anyone else. In other words, I kinda love you.

But Easter morning, I woke up to see this:

Which reminded me of the side of reddit that pisses me off. The way uninformed but sufficiently cynical sentiments go unchallenged, complete with “facts” that aren’t facts. It reminds me that as great as you are at finding the holes in the mainstream media coverage, sometimes you too fall prey to group-think. And that not even facts can arrest the momentum of a rapidly rising story.

Because – you see, reddit, there are a few problems with that post.

1) It talks of “the wiretapping program” as if it were one thing. It isn’t. There have been a number of programs that have existed before 9/11 and that evolved in the years afterwards. (More on that in a minute.)

2) Most importantly, no ongoing wiretapping program is illegal. Or at least,  even as it’s hard to state something with certainty about classified programs whose operations are behind a veil of secrecy, the main part of Bush’s wiretapping program that was illegal was eventually authorized by Congress – first temporarily with the Protect America Act of 2007, and then permanently in the summer before the 2008 elections with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act.

This was the infamous bill that gave the telecoms immunity and was all over reddit at the time. It’s main purpose was to authorize certain changes to the FISA bill.

——–

That summarizes what I’m annoyed at. But for some history:

FISA had been proposed by Ted Kennedy to rein in the abuses of the CIA and the executive branch that the Watergate and Church Committee investigations uncovered. (These abuses were largely by the CIA which, though prohibited from operating within America, had abused it’s authority to spy on foreign agents within America to spy on Americans opposed to the Vietnam War and conduct operations on American soil.) FISA was an attempt to check presidential authority by restraining the surveillance capabilities in a few specific ways. (This was parallel to the checks on governmental power that the FBI and other domestic police organizations abided by requiring more proper warrants.)

FISA permitted two types of surveillance:

  • Without a court order, but with the Attorney General’s certification, the president could authorize the surveillance of a communications between foreign powers and their agents so long as “there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” These would include non-American citizens operating overseas.
  • The president could authorize the surveillance of the communications between foreign powers and their agents so long as “proposed minimization procedures” for the interception of communications to which a United States person is a party if they applied for a warrant from a special FISA court within 72 hours after surveillance began. These would include foreign agents operating in America – or later, international terrorists.

After September 11, NSA Director Michael Hayden expanded surveillance to some (undetermined) degree, but believed he lacked the authority to go further. Under the FISA system, a judge for the FISA Court who was driving by the Pentagon when it was attacked, issued a number of emergency warrants from his phone in his car. But Hayden believed he could be more effective if he were authorized to expand “surveillance of what would be classified as ‘international communications’ — because one end of the communication is outside the United States even though one end is here.”  Hayden reportedly pushed back against requests from Dick Cheney to spy on purely domestic targets, but the program continued to broaden. Bush asserted the authority to act outside of the FISA Court and the NSA began to analyze call and email metadata as well without authorization from Congress or the FISA Court. Some unknown program – likely related to metadata analysis – triggered the infamous hospital room standoff that nearly sparked the resignations of the Attorney General and the top levels of the Justice Department, the Director of the FBI, and possibly the top lawyers in the CIA, State Department, and Pentagon.

Congress, under Democratic control after 2006, pushed back with Amendments to FISA in 2008 which conceded to Bush in giving immunity for the telecom companies who cooperated with him and authorized most of the surveillance that he had asserted the authority to do without legislation. What the bill did do was specifically restrain the executive branch from overriding it by invoking war powers and legislate specific rules for how surveillance could be conducted. The new legislation:

  • Increased the time allowed for warrantless surveillance to continue from 48 hours to 7 days. (This includes pen registers and trap & trace surveillance.)
  • Required FISA court permission to wiretap Americans who are overseas.
  • Required government agencies to cease warranted surveillance of an American who is abroad if said person enters the United States. (However, said surveillance may resume if it is reasonably believed that the person has left the States.)
  • Prohibited targeting a foreigner to eavesdrop on an American’s calls or e-mails without court approval.
  • Allowed the FISA court 30 days to review existing but expiring surveillance orders before renewing them.
  • Allowed eavesdropping in emergencies without court approval, provided the government files required papers within a week.

As far as we know, the surveillance currently being conducted by the Obama administration follows these rules and is thus legal, though subject to Constitutional challenge and of course challenges on policy grounds.

On policy grounds, there are two main arguments I’m sympathetic with. First, that collecting too much untargeted data leads to information overload.  And second, that it creates the apparatus that could be used for – as Shane Harris, author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, warned in a Cato Institute event:

The government is already collecting so much information…especially in the meta-space where you’re talking about …transactional logs and phone records and emails and that sort of thing…

There are very few technological and legal impediments anymore to the government getting information one way or another.

That’s not 100% the case but information is sort of there and it will be obtained.

I think that right now, generally speaking, their interest does lie in monitoring for foreign threats and for foreign terrorists and their connections in the United States. My concern is that we’re developing a capability and a capacity that in a different environment, with a different mindset, that that could be turned in very targeted ways on individuals or groups of individuals…

The government is really good at – once someone is in the sights …and they know a target – they’re pretty good at finding out a lot of information about that person and diagramming his network. The hard part is these threats that are existing out there beyond the sights, beyond the crosshairs, and this book is largely about people who exist in that space.

I guess the alarm call that I’m raising is if the government ever want to take that and target it very selectively for reasons that we might find appalling right now and unthinkable, they could in fact know a lot. [my emphasis]

Surveillance In the Bush Administration

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Shane Harris, author of The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State, had a good rundown of changes in surveillance under the Bush administration in a talk for CATO:

What my reporting showed in terms of the evolution…of what was probably called the Terrorist Surveillance Program — or the President’s Surveillance Program or Stellar Wind or The Bag or whatever you know you wanna call it — was that the germ of the idea begins not long after 9/11 when NSA finds itself in need of broadening the aperture of the surveillance that it wants to do — and Mike Hayden who is the director NSA at the time concludes that he has existing authority to do that under an executive order actually fashioned in the Reagan administration coincidentally called Executive Order Twelve Triple Three.

And he tells lawmakers that NSA is broadening its scope of collection and that we have existing authorities to do that. There’s some back and forth between him and the House Intelligence Committee in particular on this question. Nancy Pelosi somewhat famously I think writes this letter that says I’m not sure I quite understand what you’re talking about here. And I’m not quite sure whether or not you can do this or whether you need to have a new order. As it was described to me by people who were familiar with that … that was actually going up on targeted — what they called — hot numbers…They were people that NSA wanted to go after that they thought were tied or connected to the 9/11 attacks.

It is also the case that the FISA court issued a number of warrants immediately after the [attack]. I think Judge Lambert actually was…actually issuing them, or released preliminary orders I think from his phone at one point. He was driving by the Pentagon when the planes hit and people came to get him to issue [unintelligible] orders…[Then] around October of 2001, when George Tenet, then the director of Central Intelligence [Agency], begins making the rounds with the intelligence chiefs and says, “…[A]re you doing everything that you can right now to prevent another 9/11?…Do you’ve got everything that you need?” And Hayden’s response — he’s testified to this — is, “Not within my current authority.” So, Hayden goes down, briefs administration officials, the president, the vice president are there, and essentially lays out a plan by which they could do expanded surveillance of what would be classified as “international communications” — because one end of the communication is outside the United States even though one end is here. And so thus begins the sort of first stage of the Terrorist Surveillance Program.

There was reportedly some desire by Cheney and David Addington to do pure domestic warrantless surveillance — and the reporting I’ve seen on this… — is that Hayden pushed back on that. But he did want to construct a system that whereby they could do what he later called, “hot pursuit of terrorist communications,” without having to go through the FISA warrant process. It’s after that that NSA starts also going to telecommunications companies and wanting access to the metadata as well. I always sort of imagine the program — to sort of make sense of it in my mind — is that in the perfect world if this thing worked, you [would] have all this metadata that would tell you where all the patterns of communications were and as soon as one of them… hit the trip wire of suspicious activity over here, NSA now has the authorities to go zap right down and find that particular communication and pull it out and look at it.

So there were layers to it… It evolved from the initial stage after 9/11 — “We have the authority to do some expanded surveillance” [to] “We need more authority to do more expanded surveillance” [to] “Now we want to go even beyond that as well.” It was my understanding from talking to people who were involved — and people the White House — that it was the expanded metadata surveillance part that triggered the standoff in the hospital room. We’re still I think not entirely sure what part of it it was but — it revolved around that data and the collection and use of that information. [my emphases]