Archive for April, 2009

The Irony in the Jane Harman Mess

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Laura Rosen has a smart piece over at FP’s The Cable looking at the Jane Harman mess. Rozen asks:

If they didn’t have authorization, which seems unlikely but who knows, the former national security officials who leaked portions of the classified transcripts of wiretapped surveillance of Jane Harman that came out in media reports this week would seem to have technically committed a crime that looks to be in the same family of legal violations that got the former AIPAC lobbyists indicted in the first place – unauthorized disclosure of classified information. However different their perceived agendas and the politics of their perceived motives may seem to be. The irony.

I believe Jon Stewart later commented on this irony in his coverage of this potentially burgeoning scandal.

Name, Rank and Serial Number

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury. “Name, rank and serial number” does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this administration wants us to ask.

Porter Goss, former director of the CIA, in the Washington Post.

Right-wingers from the National Review to Rush Limbaugh to Porter Goss has repeated this line ad infinitum – this constant suggestion or occasionally accusation that opponents of torture only want to ask members of al Qaeda for their “name, rank and serial number.” This is a distortion of the position many opponents of torture take – that the Geneva Conventions do apply even to terrorists. A commenter called salubrius provides a decent breakdown:

There are two standards for interrogation in the Geneva Convention. One standard applies to POWs or prisoners of war. These prisoners have a preferred status in that they may not be coerced to provide information other than their name, rank and serial number. The other standard applies to those who do not qualify as POWs. These are also referred to as unlawful enemy combatants. The Supreme Court in 1942 referred to this classification of lawful and unlawful combatants. 

Terrorists and suspected terrorists are still protected under the Geneva Conventions – though not to the extent of prisoners of war or civilians. Geneva provides certain mininimal protections for “those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.” Namely, Geneva provides that such persons “shall nevertheless be treated with humanity” and “shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention.” This is the position held by most if not all of those who insist that Geneva still applies to terrorists.

Proponents of torture try to mislead those not following the political conversation closely by disingenously claiming that their opponents consider asking anything more than “name, rank, and serial number” to be torture. In fact, the most successful interrogators of terrorists so far have also been opponents of torture – from Ali Soufan of the FBI to Matthew Alexander of military intelligence.

(more…)

Obama’s 100 Days

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Richard Reeves makes the observation that must underlie any evaluation of the First 100 days of Barack Obama’s presidency:

[W]e know from observing the modern presidency that there may be very little relation between a president’s first 100 days and the next 1,361. The presidency is essentially a reactive job; any president — be it John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama — inevitably becomes a creature of events unforeseen.

I’ll leave the lengthy evaluations of Barack Obama’s first 100 days to others – but I would wager that the most significant accomplishment of Obama’s short time in office has not been any legislation or government programs or foreign policy – but instead his turning around of the mood of America, giving hope where these was despair.

Specifically, I am referring to a mood captured by the rise in the right track/wrong track numbers since Obama’s election and inaguration. Despite all the continued dire news, Obama has been able to somehow instill a sense of optimism in this short time. In this way, the start to his presidency has been similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan – who likewise took power after an unpopular president who bequeathed them a foundering economy. All turned around public opinion before anything else – and based on this, achieved their later successes.

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Misjudging Risk

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

The bankers – whose enormous salaries were earned based on their skills at judging risk and making money – caused a financial cataclysm because they disastrously misjudged the riskiness of the complex financial instruments they created and sold.

This was the lesson I learned in the immediate days after the financial crisis – and it still explains a great deal of what happened. (Of course, there was also a good deal of outright fraud and the perversity of short-term incentives in which bankers could profit exorbitantly if they made profits regardless of how their investments turned out over the long-term.)

Cognitive errors may have contributed to the misjudging of risk. Megan McCardle for example gave a compelling description of different cognitive errors which contributed to the financial crisis – including the recency effect which she describes:

People tend to overweight recent events in considering the probability of future events.  In 2001, I would have rated the risk of another big terrorist attack on the US in the next two years as pretty high.  Now I rate it as much lower.  Yet the probability of a major terrorist attack is not really very dependent on whether there has been a recent successful one; it’s much more dependent on things like the availability of suicidal terrorists, and their ability to formulate a clever plan.  My current assessment is not necessarily any more accurate than my 2001 assessment, but I nonetheless worry much less about terrorism than I did then.

These cognitive errors were so damaging because they were programmed into the models for minimizing risk that the “quants” created to divvy up mortgages and just about everything else that could be bought and sold. 

Michael Osininski tried to claim some share of the blame in a recent New York magazine article – as one of the top “quants.”  Osininski described how he had an inkling of the disaster ahead:

[T]he world I had helped create started falling apart. I hadn’t anticipated it, but at the same time, nothing about it surprised me.

Last month, my neighbor, a retired schoolteacher, offered to deliver my oysters into the city. He had lost half his savings, and his pension had been cut by 30 percent. The chain of events from my computer to this guy’s pension is lengthy and intricate. But it’s there, somewhere. Buried like a keel in the sand. If you dive deep enough, you’ll see it. To know that a dozen years of diligent work somehow soured, and instead of benefiting society unhinged it, is humbling. I was never a player, a big swinger. I was behind the scenes, inside the boxes. My hard work, in its time and place, merited a reward, but it also contributed to what has become a massive, ever-expanding failure.

Jordan Ellenberg described how these models that purported to minimize risk actually just compressed the risk into “one improbable but hideous situation” in a manner similar to that of the 400 year old sucker bet, the Martingale. For example, Wall Street bankers combined hundreds of mortgages into securities in the belief that while some of the mortgages might default – most would not. The more mortgages you combined, the safer the investment was – as only a small percentage of mortgages typically defaulted. Unless something went very wrong. Comparing Wall Street bets to the Martingale, Ellenberg described the bet Wall Street was making:

(0.99) x ($100) + (0.01) x (catastrophic outcome) = 0

Wall Street bankers thought that the collective assets they were trading were worth $99 each in this estimate – rather than $50 as they would be if each asset were judged individually. 

One of the few people who saw this misjudging of risk as the inevitable cause of a financial crisis was Nassim Nicholas Taleb who wrote that Wall Street had consistently ignored the possibility of what he called “Black Swans” and what Ellenberg described as an “improbable but hideous situation.” Taleb has placed a great deal of blame on the mathematical models used by the quants and on the hubris of the bankers and traders who believed that they were created wealth when they were instead building an elaborate house of cards.

While he was running his own hedge fund in the 1990s, he turned his own knowledge of his lack of knowledge – and others’ lack of knowledge – into enormous profits. It came at the expense of losing a little money 364 days of the year – but making enormous profits in that one remaining day. He would bet on market volatility – which he understood financial firms repeatedly underestimated.

Taleb was castigating Wall Street barons for years as they hubristically bet greater and greater sums of money – making leveraged bets that the market would continue to rise.

Taleb’s key insight is that we know very little of the world itself – and will be more often fundamentally wrong than right. The example he uses is the Black Swan as described by David Hume:

No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.

This fundamental unknowability of the world must inform our actions, and perhaps points to some solutions. Taleb himself recently wrote a list of steps we should take to create a world more resistant to Black Swans. But his overall philosophy insists that we must attempt to resolve this crisis by tinkering with different solutions, and seeing what works, while being mindful that our actions will inevitably have consequences we do not imagine. And remember – at any point – a black swan could come around and reshape our world suddenly – as 9/11 did, as the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to start World War I, as did the invention of the personal computer, as has this financial crisis. The solution will not come from our determined application of fixed ideas, but by our openness to the possibility that we may be wrong, even as we are determined to act. We must see the shades of gray and acknowledge that we do not fully understand the world, yet still act – tinker, if you will. 

In this, Taleb seems to have reached a philosophical end point similar to the famous libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek who in his Nobel Prize speech explained that “we needed to think of the world more as gardeners tending a garden and less as architects trying to build some system.”

To tinker, to garden, to nudge – all of this points to a more modest liberalism, a market-state liberalism.

[Image courtesy of robokow licensed under Creative Commons.]

Right-wingers Obsessed About Obama’s “Apology Tour”

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Reading Foreign Policy‘s series of 100 days evaluations of Barack Obama, I noticed a repeated theme among the conservative graders (most of whom blog at shadow.foreignpolicy.com, FP’s blog for the “loyal opposition”):

Elliot Abrams (former George W. Bush administration member):

The “apology tours” are not the administration’s worst offense…

Peter Feaver (Shadow Foreign Policy):

[I]t will get harder and harder to win applause lines by apologizing for the policies of your predecessor when you continue them in important respects.

Danielle Plekta (American Enterprise Institute) suggests Obama exhibits:

an almost pathological proclivity to apologize for American power and leadership. 

William Inboden (Legatum Institute, Shadow Foreign Policy):

President Obama’s foreign policy thus far consist of a series of apologies, conciliations, and gestures of outreach…it has been indulged in with such consistency, sanctimony, and zeal that it risks creating a meta-narrative of a weak, insecure, apologetic America that is reluctant to lead, unsure of its own power, and unwilling to make the hard but needful choices that might hurt short-term global approval ratings.

Christian Brose (Shadow Foreign Policy):

Obama apologizing in platitudes and generalities for America’s alleged transgressions

Kori Schake (Hoover Institution):

The Obama administration has improved the atmospherics of foreign policy, but only by apologizing for us and asking for nothing from others.

Obama has made a number of apologies during his first 100 days – generally balancing them by a challenge – as in the example below:

Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious. Instead of recognising the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what is bad.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated. They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America.

The fact that this strategy is boiled down to a mere “Apology Tour” which is weakening America by nearly all of the right-wing foreign policy thinkers is a sign of intellectual stagnation. The constant invocation of this distorting meme makes it hard to take these “thinkers” seriously. The right has often benefited from their goose-stepping fealty to the same set of talking points – and the left has been damaged by the often contradictory cacophony of its voice(s) – but in this particular instance, the wires are showing a bit too clearly.

How to Prevent the Swine Flu

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Randall Munroe has some good advice on the swine flu:

Bad flu epidemics can hit young adults hardest because they provoke their powerful immune systems into overreaction, so to stay healthy spend the next few weeks drunk and sleep-deprived to keep yours suppressed.

N.B. All medical advice given on this website should be followed scrupulously as neither I nor Randall Munroe are medical experts and have no knowledge whatsoever on this topic.

When Obama Should Torture Osama

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I feel compelled to respond to Michael Scheuer’s op-ed in the Washington Post. A friend of mine who is in military intelligence brought the story to my attention with an approving comment.

Scheuer is a interesting thinker who have lived and breathed the world of Al Qaeda since before anyone else knew its name. His analysis is always interesting – but his opinions are usually marred by his constant imputation of base motives to anyone with whom he disagrees on policy grounds. This often makes him sound like a political hack rather than an intelligence analyst. In his most recent op-ed, he claims that Barack Obama is “a genuine American Jacobin” placing ideology above reality. (Scheuer doesn’t acknowledge that one of the worse abuses of the real-life Jacobins was their torturing of opponents.) Scheuer goes on:

[T]he president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families.

Scheuer believes that by ending American torture, the administration is “enthroning Obama’s personal morality as U.S. defense policy.” He argues that the bases for getting rid of torture are simply lies – that torture did not inflame Muslim anger and that it is effective. Scheuer fails to make either point convincingly.

His proof that torture did not inflame the Muslim world is that other things make them madder. (“[T]hey do not even make the Islamists’ hit parade of anti-U.S. recruiting tools”.) Certainly, American torture was not one of the core objections of Al Qaeda – but it did apparently inflame the insurgency in Iraq – as any student of history could have predicted, as torture has served a similar purpose in Algeria under French occupation and in Ireland under British occupation.

On torture’s effectiveness, Scheuer simply expresses outrage that Obama would implicity question the integrity of those who authorized torture. (“[T]he president used his personal popularity and the stature of his office to implicitly identify as liars those former senior U.S. officials who know…that the interrogation techniques have yielded intelligence essential to the nation’s defense.”) Scheuer point should be complicated by the fact that these officials now are seen to be liars because came forward to publicly castigate President Obama, at least in part on false premises – not because the president went out of his way to paint them as liars

Most inanely, Scheuer seems to think that it is merely Obama’s “personal morality” rather than a concern for Rule of Law and our national character that motivates him. This assumption of Scheuer’s part makes him look like a political hack – as Obama has always expressed his opposition to torture as a matter of law and national morality – rather than his own human queasiness. It’s hard to understand how Scheuer can get into the mind of an Al Qaeda operative and convincingly describe the motives of a terrorist but is unwilling or unable to convincingly describe the thought-processes of his opponents closer to home, such as the president.

But the most interesting point Scheuer makes is in his opening hypothetical situation- which he abruptly drops in favor of his piss-poor political analysis. 

The scenario Scheuer describes is this: we have captured Osama Bin Laden. He declares that he knows where and when a devastating nuclear attack will hit America, but he refuses to give any further information. Scheuer presumes torture is an efficient method of getting information, a kind of magical truth serum. This is the type of ticking-time-bomb scenario that theorists often discuss but has never yet happened in recorded history.

Under these circumstances, Scheuer explains, Obama must order Bin Laden be tortured.

Given this hypothetical example – and if torture was believed to be effective – even Obama would have to agree based on his public statements and liberal positions. This is what Scheuer does not understand. 

Liberals do not oppose torture merely because they think it makes us look bad in the eyes of the world or because it violates their individual ethical principles or because they do not believe America has ruthless enemies or because they instinctually take the side of America’s enemies – all of whcih either Scheuer or various other right-wingers have suggsted. Liberals oppose torture because they know history – and they know that even the great and good can be corrupted by power. That means, even America can be corrupted.

America was founded on a certain conception of the individual as having inalienable right that cannot be abrogated by the state. Because of this, America has always been able to differentiate itself from it’s enemies by the fact that it did not torture. While the British tortured Americans during the Revolution, our fledgling nation survived; as the American and Soviet armies marched across Germany our reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners led the highest value Germans to flee towards American lines to surrender to us. To highlight this fundamental difference with our enemies, Ronald Reagan championed the United Nations Convention on Torture. Liberals believe in the idea that is America – and refuse to preemptively surrender it out of fear. Liberals know that once a government is allowed to torture, it is a very slippery slope to tyranny. Which is why this torture debate has never been about the terrorists – it is about us.

Which is why I am sure that Obama would, and if not he should, order that Bin Laden be tortured in the hypothetical example above. But to preserve the Rule of Law and “the idea that is America,” he would not try to hide behind talk of “bad apples” and legalistic memos. He would have to take personal responsibility for this extraordinary and illegal use of authority – and once the crisis has passed he would have to appoint a special prosecutor to examine his actions and put them before the public in an open and transparent matter.

To preserve the Rule of Law, any one who ordered torture or who tortured would have to place himself or herself at the mercy of the public and law enforcement. 

Postscript: Antother thing that Scheuer fails to acknowledge is that George W. Bush’s torture regime was nothing like the hypothetical he offered. Torture did not work quickly – and indeed lasted for months in the publicly acknowledged cases. Interrogators had no ticking time bombs forcing their hand. And in fact, we also know that some false information gleaned from torture was used to justify the Iraq war. This is what torture has always been good for – not as a truth serum, but for extracting politically necessary confessions.

Torture Works…For Some Things…

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Throughout history, the main purpose of torture – from the the castration of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace to the water boarding of heretics before councils of the Inquisition to the various stress techniques used by the Soviet Union to break dissidents – has been to extract politically necessary confessions to justify the policies of the state (or church). In this, history has shown that torture has been extraordinarily successful.

Frank Rich in the New York Times suggests a similar motive for American torture in his latest column:

Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002…: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.

Rich suggests a level of malintent which I do not think is necessary to understand the White House decision to torture. But the connection he makes is a valid one. It was largely the confessions extracted by torture that made the case for Iraq seem urgent – beyond the various circumstantial evidence presented. It is known, for example, that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah, each of whom provided key information linking Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, were tortured in order to extract this information. We now know the information they provided was false.

In other words – torture works – it can break someone’s will – and force them to tell you what you want to hear. But history has not demonstrated it can force someone to tell the truth. In action movies it always works – in real life, apparently not.

Joe Campbell’s Google Profile

Friday, April 24th, 2009

I am not the only person to be excited by the new Google Profiles feature. (Here’s me, Joe Campbell.) 

Right now, I’m the top ranked “Joe Campbell” in the profile results – probably because of Google’s awesome ranking procedure – described by Robert X. Cringley:

 Google will rank the results just like it does any other search, by sprinkling magic G-dust over the Web and murmuring a super secret incantation.

Whatever the explanation of how Google’s ranking system work – I like the results it delivers – and it seems to like me (and this blog, 2parse.com.)

Still working on getting this blog, which is to say the blog of Joe Campbell – or any of my other pages (jwcampbe.com for example) into the top page results for Joe Campbell who is me.

Palin the Performer

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

I was cleaning out my draft posts and came across this wonderful take on Sarah Palin by Sam Harris in Newsweek at the height of her appeal:

Here, finally, was a performer who—being maternal, wounded, righteous and sexy—could stride past the frontal cortex of every American and plant a three-inch heel directly on that limbic circuit that ceaselessly intones “God and country.” If anyone could make Christian theocracy smell like apple pie, Sarah Palin could…

For all my concern about Bush’s religious beliefs, and about his merely average grasp of terrestrial reality, I have never once thought that he was an over-the-brink, Rapture-ready extremist. Palin seems as though she might be the real McCoy. With the McCain team leading her around like a pet pony between now and Election Day, she can be expected to conceal her religious extremism until it is too late to do anything about it. Her supporters know that while she cannot afford to “talk the talk” between now and Nov. 4, if elected, she can be trusted to “walk the walk” until the Day of Judgment.

What is so unnerving about the candidacy of Sarah Palin is the degree to which she represents—and her supporters celebrate—the joyful marriage of confidence and ignorance. Watching her deny to Gibson that she had ever harbored the slightest doubt about her readiness to take command of the world’s only superpower, one got the feeling that Palin would gladly assume any responsibility on earth:

“Governor Palin, are you ready at this moment to perform surgery on this child’s brain?”

“Of course, Charlie. I have several boys of my own, and I’m an avid hunter.”

“But governor, this is neurosurgery, and you have no training as a surgeon of any kind.”

“That’s just the point, Charlie. The American people want change in how we make medical decisions in this country. And when faced with a challenge, you cannot blink…”