Friday, April 28, 2006

FBI probes 3,500 without warrants

In a report required as part of the renewal of the Patriot Act, the Justice Department said Friday that the FBI secretly sought information on 3,501 U.S. citizens and legal residents last year. The report covers some but not all National Security Letters, which let the government obtain records without a judge's approval or a subpoena.

3,500 is fewer people than had been feared, although the report doesn't count "requests for subscriber information", so the true number is substantially higher. But I continue to be mystified why we would grant our government permission to spy on whomever it wants whenever it wants. It's not just that it invites abuse and is inimical to liberty. If there's not enough substantiation to get a warrant or a subpoena -- which aren't very hard to get in the first place -- that's reasonably good evidence that the surveillance is unwarranted.

Further, if we know enough about a suspect to demand their records, then we know enough about them to investigate them through other, less violative means. This isn't like warrantless wiretaps, which in the Hollywood scenarios favored by supporters offer at least the possibility of preventing an imminent attack. As the Washington Post explained in November, NSLs are investigative tools, not emergency interventions.

A national security letter cannot be used to authorize eavesdropping or to read the contents of e-mail. But it does permit investigators to trace revealing paths through the private affairs of a modern digital citizen. The records it yields describe where a person makes and spends money, with whom he lives and lived before, how much he gambles, what he buys online, what he pawns and borrows, where he travels, how he invests, what he searches for and reads on the Web, and who telephones or e-mails him at home and at work.


Since the Patriot Act, the FBI has dispersed the authority to sign national security letters to more than five dozen supervisors -- the special agents in charge of field offices, the deputies in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, and a few senior headquarters officials. FBI rules established after the Patriot Act allow the letters to be issued long before a case is judged substantial enough for a "full field investigation." Agents commonly use the letters now in "preliminary investigations" and in the "threat assessments" that precede a decision whether to launch an investigation.

In other words, agents use warrantless snooping to decide if they're going to launch a full-scale investigation. Warrantless searches have become a first and routine step, instead of a narrow and extreme exception to the law.

I am appalled.

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Limbaugh arrested on drug charges

Sounds sexy, doesn't it? Well, there's a bit less here than meets the eye.

Rush Limbaugh reached a settlement with prosecutors Friday in a fraud case involving prescription painkillers, though the conservative radio commentator maintains his innocence.

Limbaugh turned himself in to authorities about 4 p.m. on a warrant for fraud to conceal information to obtain a prescription, the first charge in the nearly 3-year-old case, said Teri Barbera, a spokeswoman for the state attorney. He was released an hour later on $3,000 bail.

Limbaugh’s attorney, Roy Black, said his client and prosecutors reached a settlement on a charge of doctor shopping.

Under the deal, Limbaugh would eventually see the charge dismissed in 18 months if he continues treatment for drug addiction, Black said.

In addition, here's the news release from Limbaugh's attorney.

Limbaugh agreed to pay $30,000 to help cover some of the costs of investigating him. I've always found such payment deals a little weird, and ripe for abuse: what's to stop a prosecutor from shaking down wealthy defendants? What's to stop a wealthy defendant from buying off a cash-strapped local government? But I digress.

Limbaugh's claims aside, it seems pretty clear that the prosecutor had a reasonable case because otherwise Limbaugh wouldn't have settled. But I think justice is served here. And anyway, the main damage to Limbaugh -- his reputation -- has already been done. I obviously don't agree with Limbaugh's politics, but what I always found most obnoxious about him was his breezy, self-righteous moralizing. Between his addiction and his multiple marriages, I hope he has learned something about life and will be humbler and less judgemental from now on.

Hey, a guy can dream.

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The problem with parties

Diverse and Contradictory has a post discussing why political parties are congenitally incapable of governing.

The Republicans and Democrats have tried so hard to be the party of everyone, that it's impossible to gain any real consensus among their members.

Republicans have fought this weakness by creating polarizing issues and then standing for them. The Democrats haven't fought that weakness, which leads to a muddled message and no clear direction. The only thing this leads to is the ability of the opposing party to point out the weaknesses of the other's strategy.

Parties are literally unable to do this and remain the large, overarching, all-issue, conglomerates they want to be. They squabble internally, and rip themselves apart by overindulging in the stands they think they want to take. There can actually be no strategy for them to implement.

The solution is the obvious one: vote for the individual, not the party.

The problem, of course, is that doing so takes a bit more work than simply walking into the booth and voting the straight party ticket. And as economists point out, there are no tangible cost-benefit incentives to go vote. Thus a lot of people don't bother to vote, and many of those who do don't bother to educate themselves. It's quite rational, if a little sad, and destructive to democracy in the aggregate.

So let's make things easy on voters. Specifically:

Make election day a holiday, so people don't have to take time off work to vote. And what about holding them earlier in the year, when the weather is better? Then we could put on ice-cream socials or something at voting stations, making going to vote an event rather than the rather beige experience it is now.

Implement instant-runoff voting, so voting for the individual has more meaning.

Make ballots easy to read. I'm not a big one for micromanagement of local elections, but it's high time we paid a competent graphic designer to create a standardized, easy-to-understand ballot that can be adapted for use in every race. Think of the nutrition labels on food as a model: the same information presented the same way no matter what product you're buying, making it easy to understand and compare.

Lower barriers to voting, notably by not forcing people to stand in line for hours to cast their ballot.

We could also try lots of little things to help people vote and vote intelligently: street signs with "Election Day today!" and arrows pointing to the local voting site; standardized reference sheets at voting stations, listing the candidates and their positions on key issues so people can refresh their memory; things like that.

Very few of these ideas are attractive to parties in general or incumbents in particular. So they won't happen without serious pressure from below. But since elections are implemented by local governments, a small number of voices can make a difference.

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The UN finds its spine

Well, not the UN just yet, but the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said Friday that Iran had enriched uranium and persists with related activities in its nuclear program in defiance of the U.N. Security Council.... The finding set the stage for a showdown in the U.N. Security Council, which is expected to meet next week and start a process that could result in punitive measures against the Islamic republic.

Good. This means the UN will have to take some sort of action.

Iran's reaction was to continue painting targets on itself.

Just before the report was released, Iran's president said the country "won't give a damn" about any U.N. resolutions concerning its nuclear program.... Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said no Security Council resolution could make Iran give up its nuclear program.

The great thing about Iran is the clarity. Oh, there's the question of whether their intent is for peaceful or military use. But that's not much of a question, since they were caught redhanded with a secret enrichment program and have hardened their nuclear sites against attack. You don't really need to do that if you're just pursuing electricity.

No, with Iran there are none of the uncertainties that surrounded Iraq's WMD program. Iran is pursuing nukes, they admit it, and they're daring the world to do something about it. They didn't even bother responding to the Security Council demands for information, a direct diss of the organization.

If the Security Council is to remain relevant, such defiance cannot be tolerated. The question now comes down to what sort of punishment Russia and China will permit -- and whether that will be enough to dissuade Iran from its pursuit. Because that's the bottom line. Try every diplomatic option first. And I mean every diplomatic option. But the only acceptable outcome is for Iran to abandon its nuclear program. We cannot accept a result short of that and call it victory.

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The Smithy Code

Turns out the judge in the recent "DaVinci Code" copyright infringement case has a code of his own.

Parts of London's legal establishment ground to a virtual halt yesterday with lawyers turning into aspiring code-breakers as they tried to decipher a hidden message inserted into The Da Vinci Code trial judgment.

With the revelation Judge Peter Smith inserted a secret code of his own into the April 7 judgment that cleared The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown in his copyright-infringement case, lawyers have been hustling to solve the puzzle.

The code didn't hold up very long, thanks to broad hints from the judge. Here's how one lawyer cracked the code.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Let the panderfest begin

Republicans and Democrats are vying to see who can come up with the stupidest pander to motorists -- all part of a short-sighted election-year reaction to $3-a-gallon gas.

President Bush eases environmental standards for refineries, trading long-term environmental damage for short-term price relief. Republicans say "drill in ANWR!" and suggest sending every taxpayer a $100 rebate, which at least gets points for honesty as a direct money-for-votes proposal. Democrats talk of temporarily suspending the federal gasoline tax.

Then there's the ever-popular "let's investigate the oil companies for price gouging", along with the related "let's make the oil companies pay higher/lower taxes."

None of these "solutions" are more than drops in the bucket, and the oil companies aren't the problem: the problem is ever-rising demand for oil, nervousness in the futures markets and refining bottlenecks.

Frankly, the only rational move thus far was made by Bush, who decided to stop putting oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But he did it for the wrong reason: to try to lower prices at the pump. The real reason to stop putting oil into the reserve is that it's needlessly expensive to buy and store oil you don't need at peak price. Let it drop a bit before resuming purchases.

Here's an idea, guys: stop messing with a good thing. Get up there and lead, and have the courage to explain the real problem with $3 gasoline: it's not expensive enough.

Current "high" gas prices have already had all sorts of salutory effects: renewed interest and investment in alternative fuels, energy-efficient transportation and mass transit. People are carpooling or biking or walking. They're trading in gas guzzlers for Priuses. And there's growing acknowledgement that our oil addiction is a Really Bad Thing, both economically and politically. Imagine how much those effects would intensify if gas got even more expensive.

What we actually need is a hefty increase in the gas tax to drive home the real problem: an economy built on artificially cheap imported oil. Until the pump price of gasoline starts to accurately reflect the true cost of an oil-dependent culture, people will continue to make irrational decisions about energy use. And we will continue to be beholden to despotic oil-rich dictators whose people blame us for their woes.

What is the true cost of a gallon of gasoline? It can be hard to calculate. But for starters we can throw in the $400 billion we've spent in Iraq, and arguably the $1 trillion or so we'll eventually spend in the overall fight against terror. I'm not saying we invaded Iraq for the oil. But we wouldn't give a rat's ass about the Mideast -- or have spent so much time and money backing regional dictators whose oppression and economic mismanagement is part of the longstanding root of the problem -- if it weren't for oil and our desire to maintain a steady and cheap supply of it.

This 1998 study predates Iraq. But it puts the externalized cost of gas at between $4.60 and $14.14 per gallon. If they're right, we should be paying at least $7.60 a gallon for gas. I don't vouch for the validity of all the factors they use, but I think the general point -- that what we pay at the pump reflects only part of the true cost of gasoline -- is valid.

Why are there so many hidden costs? Because assumptions about energy availability and price underly everything we do. As individuals it affects where we live, how we work, the size and construction of our houses, the price and quality of everything we buy. As companies it affects where we locate, what we produce and how we produce it. As a nation it affects who we trade with and what our diplomatic and military priorities are. Change those assumptions, and you change the fabric of the country.

So I don't see a hefty gas tax as social engineering or punitive or anything like that. I see it as true-cost pricing, allowing us to finally start making smart decisions about energy use and start down the road to true energy independence. EThe extra revenue could be used to defray the cost of the Iraq war. Or support the development of alternative energy. Or build giant space billboards that say "Screw you, Iran!" in letters readable from the ground.

A 2002 study by the Congressional Budget Office examined three ways to reduce gasoline consumption: increased fuel economy mandates, gas taxes, and "cap-and-trade" schemes. It concludes that raising the fuel tax is the most cost-effective way to reduce gas use, as well as having positive effects elsewhere. They didn't contemplate a tax anywhere near as large as what I'm suggesting, but it still demonstrates the validity of the idea.

Like any addiction, kicking our cheap oil habit will take time. We'd have to phase in the tax so as to avoid serious economic dislocation, and we might want to provide exemptions or discounts to efficient users. But the sooner we start, the sooner we can tell the oil despots to perform anatomically impossible feats.

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Secrecy for the sake of secrecy

A National Archives audit has found that a controversial CIA reclassification program -- in which previously public documents are reclassified and withdrawn from view -- improperly classified about a third of the records.

Auditors for the Archives who reviewed a representative sample of thousands of formerly public records found that 24 percent were pulled despite being "clearly inappropriate" for reclassification, and another 12 percent were "questionable" as candidates for reclassification.

"In short, more than one of every three documents removed from the open shelves and barred to researchers should not have been tampered with," said Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, who ordered the audit and imposed a moratorium on the reclassification efforts last month.

The effort was also far larger than previously disclosed:

In February, the Archives estimated that about 9,500 records totaling more than 55,000 pages had been withdrawn and reclassified since 1999. The new audit shows the real haul was much larger -- at least 25,515 records were removed by five different agencies, including the CIA, Air Force, Department of Energy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Archives.

But that's not the best part. This is:

Auditors also found that the CIA withdrew a "considerable number" of records it knew should be unclassified "in order to obfuscate" other records it was trying to protect.

Some of the reclassification effort makes sense -- an otherwise innocuous document that contained the name of a still-active CIA agent, for example -- though that raises the question of why they couldn't have simply copied the document, redacted the name and left the copy public.

But much of it was nonsensical and some of it involved information that was merely embarrassing to some person or agency. And classifying nonsensitive records merely to conceal exactly what you are classifying is both indefensible and an open invitation to abuse.

J. William Leonard, who oversees classification efforts at the Archive, puts his finger on the problem:

"We hold people accountable, and rightfully so, when they engage in unauthorized disclosures of information," said Leonard, who led the audit. "But we also have that affirmative responsibility, each and every one of us, to challenge inappropriate classification decisions. And it's not done. It's simply not done with any degree of regularity in this government."

Exactly. The system is biased toward secrecy, with only weak remedial options. Not only is this corrosive to democracy; it devalues the entire classification system. Knowing that much of what is classified does not deserve to be, it's hard to get worked up when people leak classified information.

Make classification mean something. And the best way to do that is to put an end to stupid abuses of the "top secret" stamp.

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More billable hours

Not surprisingly, the judge in Scooter Libby's perjury trial denied Libby's motion to dismiss the charges on specious technical grounds.

[Judge] Walton said Thursday he did not need to "look far" in the law to reject the claim by Libby's defense team. The judge said there is no question the attorney general can delegate any of his functions.

"There was no wholesale abdication of the attorney general's duty to direct and supervise litigation," he wrote.

I wrote previously that such a maneuver was worthy of Saddam Hussein's defense team, but not that of a former vice presidential aide. Maybe now they'll stop attacking the source and start addressing the charges -- and maybe some of my lingering questions will be answered.

If you really can't get enough of this sort of thing, Jurist has the judge's concluding statement as well as links to pdfs of many of the filings in the case.

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Construction begins on Freedom Tower

New York has begun construction on the 1,776-foot replacement for the World Trade Center.

Cheesy name and design critiques aside, I agree with Gov. George Pataki:

"We are not going to just build low in the face of a war against terror," New York Gov. George Pataki said. "We are going to soar to new heights and reclaim New York's skyline."

The tower and four other high-rises are scheduled to be finished in 2011 and 2012. There's some prosaic concern that it will glut the office-space market, and there will certainly be some such effects: the loss of the WTC has been something of a bonanza for New Jersey building owners, for example. But the benefits of rebuilding -- psychological, if nothing else -- outweigh such temporary and unpredictable side effects.

I disagree with this assessment:

Pataki symbolically laid the first stone on July 4, 2004, just ahead of the Republican National Convention in New York. The moderate Republican is considering a run for U.S. president and his legacy from three terms as governor will depend largely on his stewardship of rebuilding "Ground Zero."

Rebuilding Ground Zero was going to happen no matter who was governor, and Pataki is not solely responsible for its success or failure; the mayor of New York City and the Port Authority, among others, have as much if not more influence over the project. I surely hope that Pataki has been doing far more -- and will be judged on far more -- than simply playing Donald Trump.

I look forward to seeing the tower rise over the skyline.

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Bird language

A researcher has found that birds understand complex linguistic structures. If the findings hold up, it demolishes yet another ability that supposedly is unique to humans, joining "tool use" and "abstract thinking".

Researchers trained starlings to differentiate between a regular birdsong ''sentence" and one that was embedded with a warbled clause, according to research in today's issue of the journal Nature.

This ''recursive grammar" is what linguists have long believed separated man from beast.


While many animals can roar, sing, grunt, or otherwise make noise, linguists have contended for years that the key to distinguishing language skills goes back to our elementary school teachers and basic grammar. Recursive grammar -- inserting an explanatory clause like this one into a sentence -- is something that humans can recognize, but not animals, researchers figured.

This news will probably present some conservatives with a cognitive problem. On the one hand, it directly attacks the notion that humans and animals are somehow separate. On the other hand, it debunks a major linguistic assertion by many conservatives' favorite punching bag, Noam Chomsky. So do they accept the former in order to jump on the latter, or defend the latter in order to attack the former?

As an aside, while in Chicago we visited the Field Museum. They have an outstanding exhibit on the evolution of life, which I urge everyone to go see if you have the chance; it's a hugely informative and multilayered explanation of what scientists know, how we know it, and the conclusions drawn from that knowledge.

But what struck me most was the exhibit on Sue, the almost complete T Rex skeleton that is the centerpiece of the Field's collection. The skull was in such good shape that they were able to do a scan of her braincase and build a picture of her brain structure, showing the sinuses, olfactory bulbs and other regions. Judging from the scan, Sue had an excellent sense of smell.

One of the things you can examine is Sue's wishbone. It's a lot bigger and cruder than the one you pull apart after Thanksgiving dinner. But the exhibit notes that there are only two groups of animals that have wishbones: birds and meat-eating dinosaurs. And that is one of the reasons we think birds are the only living descendants of dinosaurs.

Likewise, humans are clearly descended from earlier animals. I don't see why people think this somehow lessens our humanity, disproves God or makes us less amazing. No other species has accomplished what we have in our short existence. And our having emerged from earlier species is far more wondrous than the idea that we were created as is.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Branching out

For a week or so now I've been a regular contributor over at Donklephant. It's a centrist site that gets as much traffic in an hour as Midtopia gets in a day, so it's a much higher-profile platform, and I'm honored and pleased to be invited on board.

That shouldn't set any alarm bells ringing. Midtopia is my baby, and I'm committed to seeing her grow and thrive. I'll usually put up one or two things a day at Donklephant, and everything I post there will be posted here first. So if you want the full Midtopia experience, this is still the only place you can get it.

But Donklephant is well worth checking out on its own merits (a bit like the flea praising the elephant, that). Give them a look, then come back here for that cozy, honored-guest feeling only Midtopia can provide.



The oil alternatives

Popular Mechanics has done what it often does best: break down an issue into the basic facts. In this case, they tackle alternative fuels.

It's long, and the good information is in the downloadable pdfs. But the executive summary is that, in the short term, "alternative fuels" will mean mixing other things with gasoline in some fashion. And most alternatives are more expensive per mile than gasoline. The exceptions are biodiesel (running cars on used vegetable oil) and electricity (which uses plentiful domestic coal instead of oil).

The alternatives have their problems. In cold temperatures biodiesel turns to a waxy solid (though fuel additives could fix that). Electrical cars take a long time to recharge and have limited range, rendering them unsuitable for distance driving. And the coal we'd burn to produce the electricity is both a fossil fuel and has pollution issues of its own. Still, when couched in terms of energy independence, it starts to look very good.

The holy grail, hydrogen, is some ways off technologically, and will initially be four times as expensive as gasoline. But the DOE projects that hydrogen will fall to the equivalent of $2/gallon by 2012. After that the major obstacle is infrastructure: having hydrogen-capable filling stations, as well as developing safe ways to transport and store the highly-pressurized explosive gas.

Anyway, check it out.

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Allies? Who needs allies?

EU investigators have uncovered more than 1,000 secret CIA flights in Europe, and accused several governments -- notably Italy, Bosnia and Sweden -- of knowing about the flights and doing nothing, in violation of European human rights treaties.

The flights were part of the practice of "extraordinary rendition", in which terror suspects are transferred to countries where they are likely to be tortured.

This doesn't answer the question of whether the CIA secret prisons exist:

The investigation began in January after news reports that U.S. agents had interrogated al-Qaida suspects at secret prisons in eastern Europe. But the focus shifted after people gave detailed accounts of being abducted by U.S. agents in Europe and whisked away to jails in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa.

Few of those who testified at the committee hearings touched on the alleged secret prisons in eastern Europe first reported by The Washington Post in November. Italian lawmaker Giovanni Fava, who wrote the report, said the committee would look into those allegations later.

So as part of our war on terror, we (and possibly a few European countries) ignored European law and the niceties of sovereignity. With the result that now we have a freshly cheesed-off Europe. And all for what? So we could torture some terrorists.

Scratch that. Some suspected terrorists:

The officials, who agreed to discuss the operations only if not quoted by name, said the action was reserved for people considered by the CIA to be the most serious terror suspects. But they conceded mistakes had been made and were being investigated by the CIA's inspector general.

"Gee, we're sorry we mistakenly rendered you for torture. Please accept our apologies for the pain, suffering and lifelong disabilities. You can take comfort in the fact that some of the people responsible might be secretly reprimanded."

When will the administration learn that successfully fighting terror involves courting allies instead of alienating them? And that winning the "war of ideas" means living our ideals and values, instead of violating them in secret and hoping we never get caught?

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Roving through the Snow

So conservative pundit Tony Snow is the new White House press secretary.

Surely I'm not the only person who doesn't actually care?

The guy was a commentator. He was a speechwriter for Bush the Elder. So the "this proves Fox News is biased" line doesn't really ring true.

And press secretary is not a particularly powerful position; the major job qualifications are a titanium hide and the ability to verbalize thousands of words without actually communicating anything. Saddam Hussein would have been perfect. In fact, had Bush hired Saddam Hussein to be press secretary I would have approved, because that's one less dictator traveling the conquest-and-slaughter circuit and a hundred grand a year is a bargain for dictator-toppling.

Meanwhile, Karl Rove reappeared before a Plame grand jury to address new evidence that has popped up since his last appearance.

It'll be interesting to see if anything comes of this. There are clear discrepancies, but Rove's defense -- "I forgot" -- is rather hard to disprove. Besides, it's still not clear that any crime was committed in the first place.

This may just be a matter of Fitzgerald tying up loose ends. If he's got something on Rove, I want to see it as much as anyone. But I don't think there's much to get excited about just yet.

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DNA tests free man after 18 years behind bars

yet another example of the fairly high error rate in our criminal justice system:

Based on a second round of DNA tests, the convicted killer of a restaurant manager may be granted a new trial -- or possibly even cleared of the crime -- after spending nearly 18 years behind bars.

In 1989, Drew Whitley was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life for killing Noreen Malloy, 22.

Our justice system will never be perfect, of course. But the large number of cases like this highlight just how error-prone the system can be. Perhaps we can never totally fix that, but we can limit the damage.

For example, I don't have a big ethical problem with the death penalty. But I have all sorts of practical problems with it, from the expense to racial and economic bias to the error rate I mention above. For all those reasons there should be a requirement that the death penalty can only be applied if there is unequivocal evidence of guilt. And by that I mean an uncoerced confession, videotape or (preferably) DNA evidence. Eyewitness testimony, other forensic evidence, circumstantial evidence -- it's all too unreliable. If that's all the prosecutor has, they can still go for life in prison. But the death penalty should be off the table.

We should reserve the death penalty for truly heinous crimes in which there is no credible doubt about the defendant's guilt. I'm talking Timothy McVeigh here, or serial killers, or cold-blooded executions. Because the true crime would be if we executed an innocent person (as we undoubtedly have done). Life behind bars is cold comfort to the wrongly imprisoned, but at least they're still alive and able to continue challenging their conviction.

If that means that executions almost entirely cease, I'm okay with that. The success of the death penalty should be measured in how accurately it is applied, not how often.

We should also have a compensation program for the wrongly convicted. We stole their life from them; the least we can do is try in some small way to make it up to them.

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Egyptian backlash

The Eqyptian bombings, which killed 21 Egyptians and three foreigners, has provoked a large Muslim backlash.

The leader of Egypt's banned Muslim brotherhood condemned the bombings as "aggression on human souls created by God." The militant Palestinian Hamas organization called them a "criminal attack which is against all human values."


Arabs throughout the Middle East also expressed outrage, signalling a growing backlash against al-Qaida-linked groups as fellow Muslims increasingly bear the terrorism brunt.

"I don't think these people care" if Muslims or Arabs are killed. "They'll carry on at any price," music teacher Lara Darwazah, 31, said in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Even if this causes a drop in support for Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, we still have the problem that a lot of people think such tactics are just fine when aimed at Israel or Western targets. But this sort of incident may serve as a starting point for dialogue. If this is an outrage, surely all similar attacks are outrages, too. And if we accompany such dialogue with actual concret change -- dropping support for repressive regimes, actively pushing for democracy and civil liberties among our Middle Eastern allies, foreign aid to help improve economic prospects -- people may well come to the conclusion that we actually mean what we say.

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Russia backs Iran, Palestine... and Israel?

Russia has refused to support serious sanctions against Iran. It has pledged to send aid to Palestine's Hamas-led government. It was one of the leading opponents of the invasion of Iraq, and remains friendly with Syria and other such regimes.

But yesterday it launched an Israeli satellite that will be used to spy on Iran.

Politics and economics sure make strange bedfellows.

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Shouldn't this be a slamdunk?

So Al-Zarqawi has released a video in which he attacks the United States and all of his other enemies. And who are they?

"Any government that will be established in Iraq today, whoever is in it, whether they are the rejecters (Shiite Muslims) or the secular Zionist Kurds or the agents who are Sunnis in name, it will be a puppet government that will owe its allegiance to the (Western) crusaders," he said in the videotape. He likened the new government to "a poisonous dagger in the heart of the Islamic nation."

Let's see. He hates Shiites, Kurds, Zionists, "false" Sunnis, nonMuslims, anyone associated with the Iraqi government, and democracy. By my reckoning that includes about 99% of the world's population and probably 80% of Muslims.

Why is that? Nir Rosen wrote an excellent explanation in the New York Times Magazine back in February. Here are the most relevant parts.

Zarqawi belongs to a tiny "purist" sect of Islam, Salafism, that is violently intolerant of insufficiently "pure" Muslims as well as nonbelievers.
Salafism emphasizes the rootlessness of faith. It despises local saints and mystical practices (like those of Sufism) and any other departures from the most rigid Sunnism. It despises Shiites. It commonly despises all other sects or practices that Salafis might consider ''bida,'' or ''innovation.'' Given this intense preoccupation with purity, Salafis are constantly trying to identify and expel the impure. This is called ''takfir,'' often translated as ''excommunication'': an old, disused term that has found new life in Salafism, which permits, even encourages, the killing of Muslims whom Salafis have expelled through takfir. Perhaps the most ferocious embodiment of takfiri Salafism today is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Some of their attitudes are embodied in a book:
''The Creed of Abraham" is the most important single source of teachings for Jordanian Salafist jihadis. In it [the author, a man named Maqdisi] speaks of infidels and tyrants, using the expansive definitions favored by Salafis. ''Tyrants,'' on my reading of the book, could include idols made from stone, the sun, the moon, trees. They could also include graves, a reference to the Sufi and Shiite practice of visiting the graves of saints and imams. And ''tyrants'' could also include the laws made by men. It was the duty of the faithful to expose the infidelity of all these forms of worship and idolatry and manifest their hatred of them.

According to Maqdisi, democracy is a heretical religion and constitutes the rejection of Allah, monotheism and Islam. (He mounted a full-scale attack in his book ''Democracy Is a Religion.'') Democracy is an innovation, placing something above the word of God and ignoring the laws of Islam. It places the people (or the tyrant) above Islam, but in the Salafist view only God can make laws. Maqdisi held that the regimes that ruled Muslims were un-Islamic. Therefore, Muslims did not owe them obedience and should fight them to establish a true Islamic state.

Fun people.

I quote all this to lead up to a question: Why are we in danger of losing the "war of ideas" to this guy? He's like a human version of Ebola: So exclusionary and deadly that while outbreaks are horrible, he ought to burn himself out before he spreads too far.

You can't say it's about Islam, because he considers most Muslims to be the enemy as well. His beliefs are so radical and unpalatable that there's no way he could ever muster meaningful popular support, as evidenced by the fact that Salafists are a tiny, tiny sect of Sunni Islam.

Maybe it's that most people don't know his beliefs, and so project on to him whatever they want to see: a brave jihadi standing up to the American serpent, say. Maybe it's that they hear the rhetoric but dismiss much of it as heat and light.

Or maybe it's because we have made so many missteps -- the invasion of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, calling the fight against terror a "Crusade", failing to provide decent security in Iraq -- that he doesn't seem so bad by comparison. Sort of the way Hamas won the election in Palestine: Not because of their hard anti-Israel line, but because of their lack of corruption and ability to provide basic services.

Given al-Zarqawi's extremism, we should have won the "war of ideas" long ago simply by publicizing what he actually says and believes. Hell, we should have bought him a gigantic megaphone so that everyone could hear his ideas firsthand. The fact that we think we're in danger of losing the "war of ideas" to a schmoe like him speaks volumes about how badly we have handled things, notably by failing to match words to deeds. Say what you will about Zarqawi, but he's demonstrated over and over again that he really means what he says. We might consider borrowing that page from his playbook.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Democrat on ethics committee steps down

Missed this while on vacation.

The top Democrat on the House ethics committee, Alan Mollohan, will leave the panel -- at least temporarily -- while he defends his own financial conduct, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday.


The Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago that Mollohan steered millions to nonprofit groups in his district -- with much of the money going to organizations run by people who contribute to the lawmaker's campaigns.

Also, a conservative group filed a complaint with federal prosecutors this year questioning whether Mollohan correctly reported his assets on financial disclosure forms.

Innocent until proven guilty, of course. But it's pretty incredible how fast Mollohan's net worth has grown. And funneling earmark money to nonprofits he set up, and which are run by ex-staffers, is just begging for trouble.

Here's his explanation.

He may be a candidate for the Hall of Shame. We shall see.

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Mole hunt, take two

Turns out fired CIA analyst Mary McCarthy may not be the "secret prisons" leaker after all. Oops.

Howard Kurtz has his usual matter-of-fact analysis of the media coverage that led many (including yours truly) to that conclusion.

I think the media's response was perfectly logical. The CIA fired her, saying she had flunked a polygraph and admitted unauthorized contacts with reporters and, the official guidance went, she helped The Post's Dana Priest on the secret prisons story.

McCarthy made no comment, issued no statement, and didn't have a lawyer or a spokesman issue any statement. Ergo, she was not disputing the charges.

Except now she is.

Although the whole thing is still a bit strange. She has still made no comment, issued no statement, etc. Instead, a friend of hers is putting out the denial--several news cycles after the story broke.

Headlines may have overstated what was known, as headlines sometimes do; reporters don't write headlines, and that's what sometimes happens when a copy editor tries to condense a complex story down to six words on deadline.

Anyone who read Priest's stories would have known that she had multiple sources. But it made sense to conclude that she had one primary source, and that McCarthy was it.

So the mole hunt goes on. Oh that the agency would put as much effort into weighing the morality and legality of its covert activities so that such leaks were unnecessary.

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Justice delayed, justice denied

The Pentagon has announced plans to summarily release 141 detainees at Guantanamo, roughly a third of the 490 remaining prisoners, and to charge an additional two dozen or so.

Charges are pending against about two dozen of the remaining prisoners, the chief prosecutor said. But he left unclear why the rest face neither imminent freedom nor a day in court after as many as four years in custody.

Only 10 of the roughly 490 alleged "enemy combatants" currently detained at the facility have been charged; none has been charged with a capital offense.

That leaves the majority of the U.S. government's prisoners from the war on terrorism in limbo and its war crimes tribunal exposed to allegations by international human rights advocates that it is illegitimate and abusive.

So let's review the math. After four years of holding prisoners without charge, and without affording them the protections of either our legal system or the Geneva Convention, we have:

390 prisoners released without charge;
34 or so charged with various crimes;
300 or so continuing to be held without charge or any effective way to challenge their imprisonment.

Then there are the prisoners, such as the pair of Chinese Muslims I wrote about earlier, that the U.S. acknowledges are innocent but continues to imprison because they face persecution if sent home.

So we hold 750 people for years so that we can eventually charge fewer than 40. That works out to a false-imprisonment rate of about 95 percent.

I understand holding soldiers until the end of hostilities. But then you identify them as POWs, give them Geneva Convention rights and carefully detail which conflict you're holding them as part of, and how that conflict will be defined as "ended". If we hold everybody we sweep up in the "war on terror" until the end of the "war on terror", we're going to be holding low-level combatants for decades.

I understand imprisoning terrorists for a long, long time. But in that case we have to prove they are terrorists. Which requires charges, evidence and a civilian trial.

I understand the difficulty of trying people when much of the evidence against them is classified. But that's why you set up special civilian courts where everyone -- judge, prosecutors, defense counsel -- have security clearances. You don't use that as an excuse to set up military tribunals or simply hold people without charging them.

The Pentagon stresses how carefully every case is reviewed:

He contended that the men's detention had been justified. Battlefield commanders in Afghanistan and Pakistan had determined when the men were arrested that they were a threat to U.S. forces in the region, he said.

"Every detainee who came to the Combatant Status Review Tribunals went though multiple reviews" before their arrival at Guantanamo, Peppler said.

But such reviews rely entirely on the sense of fairness and attitude of the reviewer. That's not how a functional justice system works. Our justice system stresses individual rights precisely because governments do not have a good track record of protecting such rights when left to their own devices. A Pentagon reviewer will err heavily on the side of continued detention, every time, simply because it's the safe choice and because the reviewer is less interested in being fair to the prisoner than he is in not releasing a potential terrorist. The safest way to do that is to never release anybody.

Terrorists deserve to be treated harshly, be it execution or long prison terms. But suspected terrorists deserve rights. By ignoring and willfully attempting to blur that distinction, the Gitmo limbo zone has been a legal and moral disaster since its creation. And the latest prisoner release, while undoubtedly a relief to the prisoners involved, is simply another example of why we should not tolerate its continued existence.

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Back home

Made it back home yesterday. The return rail trip from Chicago went just as smoothly as the outward leg -- minus the cheesecake (sob). I'm tanned, rested and ready to return to my usual high level of bloviating. To the keyboard!



Saturday, April 22, 2006

Back from the dead

You know that on-again, off-again deal whereby Russia would enrich nuclear fuel for Iran? Well, apparently it's on again.

Iran's envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Saturday the Islamic republic had reached a "basic deal" with the Kremlin to form a joint uranium enrichment venture on Russian territory, state-run television reported.

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency , "spoke of a basic agreement between Iran and Russia to set up a joint uranium enrichment firm on Russian soil," Iranian state television reported.

That's a pretty vague statement. A "basic agreement" is not the same thing as a specific and signed agreement. A lot of people think Iran used the possibility of such a deal as a delaying tactic the last time around, and they may well be doing the same thing here. As the story points out:

In February, Iran and Russia announced that they had reached a "basic agreement" to establish a joint uranium enrichment venture in Russian, but details were never worked out.

So we still need to hold Iran's feet to the fire. But if such a deal actually becomes a reality, it would be the best solution to the problem.

The next question then becomes ensuring that Iran dismantles its home-grown enrichment program. Ideally the best way to do that is with supervised demolition of the enrichment sites and equipment. But somehow I doubt Iran will agree to that. Expect the dispute to carry on for quite some time even if Iran and Russia seal a deal.

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Mole hunt

I'm writing this while sitting curled up in a window seat on the eighth floor of a hotel overlooking the Chicago River. No, it doesn't suck.

But I digress....

The CIA thinks that it has found and fired the person responsible for alerting reporters to the existence of the agency's secret prison network. Her name: senior analyst Mary McCarthy.

She apparently confessed after failing a polygraph test. If so she isn't likely to face criminal prosecution, as polygraph tests aren't admissible in court.

Predictably, some people are calling her a traitor and others are calling her a hero. I'm not sure "hero" is fully justified, but I still come down in the latter camp.

There's no question that the leak was an important one, and necessary. A secret extrajudicial prison network is something so contrary to American values that it deserves public input and scrutiny. And the revelation that such a network exists is not detailed enough to damage security. If you think it is, then answer this question: tell me where one of these prisons is located, and who is held there. I'll wait.

McCarthy appears to have considered the leak carefully, telling reporters enough to get the story before the public but not enough to endanger operatives or compromise the operation of the system. That allows us to debate whether such a system should exist. If we decide "yes", then it can continue to operate unhampered. If we decide "no", then we can shut it down.

The administration cites the leak as having damaged relationships with other countries. Well, cripes, it should, if we're using their facilities or airports without telling them. It's only McCarthy's responsibility if her information turns out to be false. So far, that doesn't seem to be the case.

The administration also says the leak has damaged the CIA's credibility with other intelligence agencies, who question whether Americans are able to keep secrets. But that's a false question. The secret prison network is an extraordinary operation. Like the NSA surveillance program, there are deep and legitimate questions about its legality and morality. I don't see the harm in demonstrating that such troubling programs will come to light somehow. Maybe it will limit the appetite for such programs.

Leaking classified information is a crime, and I'm not going to argue that it shouldn't be. If something other than polygraph results tie McCarthy to the leak, she may well have to serve prison time. But there should be two acceptable defenses to such charges. One, that the information was improperly classified to begin with. Or two, that the activities being protected were illegal themselves, and thus by breaking one law McCarthy obeyed a higher law -- the Constitution. If she can persuade a judge of either case, she should go free and have a grateful nation's thanks.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Off the road

My wife and I like trains. So whenever we travel, we try to take the train. Part of it is that my wife doesn't like to fly. Part if it is that I'd rather gnaw my own leg off than spend eight hours driving on the freeway. But when we need to take a trip, our first thought is, "can we take the train?"

The answer is not as easy as it should be, because often it is "no." And therein lies a tale.

But first, let me tell you how it should be. Because it happened to us on this trip.

The trip we're on is business for my wife: a gigantic interior-design convention in Chicago. I'm along because I'm a design groupie, and having remodeled three houses I have more than a passing interest in sinks and ovens and other home furnishings. Plus it's close to our anniversary, and this was a chance to spend three nights in a four-star hotel on the Chicago River without any rugrats underfoot.

Step One was to dump the munchkins with my parents, who live near Madison, Wis. So bright and early on Wednesday morning we bundled everyone into the car and made the five-hour pilgrimage to Grandma's house.

The kids were well-behaved, traffic was light, the weather was good. So we arrived five hours later hungry, tired and stiff, and the kids fairly exploded out of the car and began finding randomly destructive ways of working off their pent-up energy.

We spent the night, and the next morning said goodbye to parents and offspring. Then my wife and I drove about 30 miles to Columbus, Wis., to catch the train to Chicago.

We got there about noon. The train was running about half an hour late, and wouldn't be there until 1 p.m. We sat on the platform and ate lunch. It wasn't particularly busy, so about 10 minutes later the stationmaster joined us, and we spent the next half an hour watching freight trains barrel through (hauling coal and what looked like Ford Ranger pickups from the soon-to-be-closed St. Paul plant), amiably discussing trains, the weather and local politics (Columbus' City Council tried to fire the mayor, it turns out, and in response the citizens voted out half of the Council. The legal and political fallout is still expanding. All this in a town of 4,400).

When the train arrived, we got on board and found a pair of empty seats. And what seats! Comfortable, able to lean way, way back, and gobs of leg room. Truly unbelievable amounts of leg room, in fact. I'm tall, and used to being folded up like a pretzel on airplane flights and even bus trips. Here there was so much space that I didn't have to use the foot rests on the seat in front of me. My wife, who is shorter, couldn't even reach her foot rest unless she slumped way down and stretched her legs all the way out. Did I mention the mindblowing amounts of leg room?

We had barely gotten underway when the conductor came through with a plate of strawberry cheesecake. "This cake," he said, "goes to the first person who can correctly answer a trivia question." He told us the question, the answer to which was "Stephen Ambrose." So within five minutes of boarding I was munching on a piece of very good cheesecake while watching the scenery go by.

And it was pretty decent scenery. Because trains don't travel on six-lane highways. They travel on tracks that take you along highways and byways you'll never see otherwise. The land comes right up to the tracks, and there are no gas stations or minimalls lining the roadway to get in your way. You don't look out your window and see one endless commercial strip; you look out your window and see America, up close and personal.

I had some work to do, though, so after a while I pulled out my laptop and got busy. I can't do that in a car or bus, because trying to read in a vehicle makes me motion sick (I get seasick easily, too, which makes for some pretty great stories when we go scuba diving in 7-foot seas....). But a train's motion is so gentle and rocking that it doesn't bother me. It's quiet, too.

Three hours later we pulled into Union Station in Chicago. We debarked and headed up to street level, intending to catch a cab to our hotel. But along the way we noticed a big map showing bus routes, and saw that an express bus ran from the station to the hotel -- for $2 a person. We decided to make this an entirely mass-transit trip, and hoofed it around the corner to the bus stop.

The bus was waiting; we got seated and the driver took off. The other riders were regulars, so they kept up a running patter with the bus driver as we went. For his part, the driver was apparently a taxi owner in a past life, because we went fast and changed lanes on rather short notice. I quickly learned to tune out the sound of angry car horns that seemed to follow us wherever we went.

Ten minutes later the bus screeched to a halt in front of our hotel. We climbed to our feet, thanked the driver for getting us there alive and descended to the pavement. 20 minutes after that we were unpacking our things in our hotel room, with a view of the Chicago River and the new Trump building going up on the far bank.

Total elapsed time from door to door: 5 hours, including the one-hour wait at the station in Columbus. Total one-way cost: $27 each. We arrived fresh, relaxed and unfrazzled, and with a couple of hours worth of work out of the way.

Had we driven or taken a bus it would have taken about 4 hours. But we would also have had to deal with driving and parking in downtown Chicago, and the trip time would have been a total waste, a black hole in the history of my life marked "time spent getting there." The bus would have cost about the same; the car would have been more expensive, the slightly lower per-mile cost offset by the high cost of parking downtown. And that ignores all the hidden costs of driving, such as oil dependency and the cost of building, maintaining and policing highways.

Flying would have been substantially more expensive and not all that much faster, the extremely short flight time being offset by long waits at either end.

I have a dream, a dream that such an experience might someday be the norm in this country, if we ever build (or rather, rebuild) a robust passenger rail system -- at least in regional networks. But alas, it is far from the norm now. And so we get to the meat of my tale.

Our passenger rail system is in tatters, for reasons that have very little to do with how hard or how well Amtrak works, or the public demand for rail travel.

It is not at all uncommon, for instance, for the Empire Builder (the train that runs from Chicago to the West Coast) to arrive two days late. This happens for two main reasons: limited routes (if an accident or landslide block the tracks, the trains stop), and the fact that Amtrak doesn't own the track. Passenger trains are often forced to pull over and wait so that freight trains can go past, and that plays havoc with the schedule.

Even when it's running on time the trip is a long one. And if it's a long trip the train starts to lose its cost advantage over flying, as the need to feed and house passengers for days at a time starts to overwhelm the far cheaper per-mile cost of transportation. Unless you count the trip as part of your vacation, nobody will pay $1,000 and take three days to get to Seattle if you can pay the same amount to fly and arrive the same day you left.

Then there's the service interval. Most lines see one train going each way per day, period. And if your geographic luck is poor, that train may come through at 2 a.m.

Then there are the routes. Amtrak uses a hub-and-spoke system, just like the major airlines. So the Empire Builder, for instance, runs to Chicago. If we want to go to someplace in Iowa, we have to first take the train to Chicago, then change trains for the line that runs through Iowa.

But because of that one-train-per-day service interval, connections stink. We once tried to get to LIttle Rock, Ark., by train. That meant going to Chicago, changing trains, and going on to Little Rock, then reversing the procedure to come home. In both directions, our train would have arrived an hour after the connecting train left, requiring a 23-hour layover in Chicago both going and coming. Not wanting to spend four of our seven days traveling, we took the train to Memphis and then drove to Little Rock.

Finally, there are politics (check out this excellent CBO analysis of the issues). Ask yourself this question: Why is the train station in Columbus rather than in Madison, a city of 200,000? Because that's where the track goes. But, you might think, it surely makes economic sense to run a spur to a city the size of Madison. Well, yes it would. Except Amtrak doesn't own track (except in very small areas of the Northeast). And laying track is expensive. And Congress, many members of which are actively trying to kill Amtrak, won't pay to lay new track for Amtrak -- even if (or perhaps, especially if) that investment would pay off in the long run.

What about bullet trains? Those might make long-haul trips more competitive, right? Well, yes they would (though they're expensive to operate). But Amtrak doesn't own track, so it can't do the track upgrades that high-speed trains require.

Why not kill Amtrak and let a private company run passenger rail service, if the market exists? Because starting up a private service would be almost prohibitively expensive, assuming a new railroad even could acquire the necessary rights-of-way for its track. I think we could privatize the industry eventually, but first we have to remove the senseless barriers we've erected over the past 50 years.

Long-haul train service will always have a difficult time competing with air travel. And for trips of less than an hour it has difficulty competing with the convenience of driving. And there will always be routes that aren't particuarly economical because of low ridership.

But for intermediate trips -- say, 1 to 6 hours in length -- rail is cheaper, more convenient and far more pleasant than the alternatives. If Amtrak were allowed to improve reliability and frequency in a variety of medium-haul markets, the benefits might be huge, reducing car use and the need for ever-more highways.

Because one great thing about rail lines is that they're scalable. A rail line can be expensive to put in, but after that adding capacity is very, very cheap, since trains can run minutes apart without slowing the system down. So instead of constantly adding new highways to handle more and more cars, you just add more cars to an existing train or add more frequent train service on the existing track. And with more frequent service you provide even more incentive for travelers to leave the car at home.

If we want to start weaning ourselves off of oil, we need to find alternative ways for average citizens to get to where they need to go. Air travel is simply too expensive (and oil-hungry) to fill the gap. But picture this: establish regional networks of rail lines connecting population centers within a region, so that people have rail as a viable choice. A three-way connection between Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago, for instance. Or in Minnesota, regular service connecting Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities. All with intermediate stops to provide at least some service to the communities in between.

Tie that into a viable light-rail system in the Twin Cities, and suddenly someone from Duluth could take the train down to the Cities for the weekend instead of driving. Or Twin Citians could take the train to the North Shore. Or college students could travel by train. Or patients at the Mayo Clinic. And so on.

I don't blame people who refuse to ride Amtrak in its present state. But maybe we should demand that passenger rail be given a chance to show what it can do before we pull the plug, free of the conflicting demands that have hampered it ever since Amtrak was created in the 1960s.

And maybe millions of new riders would rediscover just how pleasant mass transit can be.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

On the road

I'm leaving tomorrow for a week-long road trip -- with wife, sans kids. I'm going to lug my laptop along, but I trust you'll understand if posting is a bit sparse for the next seven days -- though I will try to respond promptly to comments and e-mails.

If you need something to do in the meantime, consider taking up midget tossing.


Courage or treason?

Donklephant has a great post reflecting on the results of this year's Pulitzer Prizes, notably the prize that went to the New York Times reporters who broke the story about the administration's double super-secret warrantless wiretap program. The right side of the blogosphere has been going nuts about it, repeating claims that the reporters have committed "treason" in "time of war."

Justin Gardner calls bullsh*t. And he's right. This is not a war in any conventional sense, and cases like this illustrate why viewing the fight against terror in that light is dangerous, self-defeating and downright Orwellian.

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Reflections on immigration

Yesterday's post on immigration drew 200 visitors to the site, eclipsing the old daily record of 140 or so. It also raised some questions that I will attempt to answer now, including "what do you know about immigration, you Minnesotan?" and general attacks on illegal immigrants as being poor, prone to crime, unwilling to learn our language, and retaining excessive affinity for their country of origin -- in short, being unwilling to assimilate.

Setting aside the odd logic of demanding assimiliation from illegal immigrants while simultaneous erecting legal barriers to doing so, here's my answer.

I spent four years living and working in Hudson County, New Jersey. It's right across the Hudson River from Manhattan, but it's worlds apart in many respects. Though areas of it, especially along the waterfront, are upscale, much of the county is poor and crime-ridden. The schools stink, the politicians are corrupt, the infrastructure is crumbling.

Why? Largely because for at least a hundred years it has been a main point of entry for immigrants.

The "old" immigrants were Italian and Polish. Then in the 1960s came the Cubans, followed by Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Then came the Indians, the Bangladeshis, the Pakistanis, the Asians and Filipinos.

I could walk down the street and hear a dozen different languages. I passed people in traditional dress of their home countries. There was an Indian shopping district in Jersey City; Cubans and other Hispanics dominated Union City. Large areas of the county would have qualified as ghettos, where English was scarce and what you heard wafting from windows and doorways was Spanish, Hindu, Urdu, you name it.

Because that is the way it has always worked. Immigrants arrive and seek familiarity in an unfamiliar land. Polish, German and Italian ghettos thrived in major cities at various points in American history. Here in Minnesota, huge swaths of the state were settled by German and Swedish farmers; had you walked through those areas in their heyday you would have been hard pressed to tell what country you were in.

That's because assimilation is a generational effect. The first generation arrives. they are usually poor, and they never fully assimilate. They clump together in cultural groups; they cling to their homeland traditions. Ask any second- or third-generation immigrant and they can probably tell you about their grandmother or aunt who never learned English. Some people just won't.

The second generation is far more American, culturally, and fluent in English. By the third generation, assimilation is complete. This doesn't mean that they abandon their roots, by the way; they incorporate them into the ever-richer fabric of American identity.

Economically, too, it's a generational step. Hudson County is perennially poor because poor immigrants keep showing up and settling there. But look at any given wave and you see the progression. The first generation settles in Hudson County; but their kids and grandkids move up the ladder and out into the suburbs, making room for the next wave of immigrants.

So what people see in some illegal immigrants is exactly what this country has seen from immigrants since its founding. Assimilation probably is a bit easier these days, thanks to the globalization of English and the dominance of American commercial culture. But as always, the first generation will never fully fit in. Their kids will.

As for crime: Crime rates are related to economic situation more than anything else. If you're poor, you're more apt to find yourself in a situation where crime looks better than the alternatives. Illegal immigrants are, obviously, poor. Further, they face all sorts of legal barriers that legal immigrants do not. Ergo, they will have a higher crime rate than average. But that rate will be similar to the crime rate among legal citizens in the same economic bracket.

Illegal immigration needs to be addressed. But we don't help the debate when we fail to understand how assimilation works, or try to impugne the human worth of "them", or seek to hold illegal immigrants to an impossibly high standard that ignores demographics, then point to that failing as evidence that they are undesirables.

Let's address the main issue -- how will we get control of illegal immigration -- and leave off the stereotyping and bad math.

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Hamas muffs its chance

From an editorial in the Toronto Globe and Mail:

The Hamas-led government issued no such condemnation. To the contrary, Khaled Abu Helal, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said the Israelis had brought the attack on themselves, calling it the "direct result of the policy of the occupation and the brutal aggression and siege committed against our people." Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said "the resistance is a legal and natural reaction to the Israeli crimes, and the Palestinian people have the right to defend themselves."

The attack was carried out by Islamic Jihad, not Hamas, which has declared a moratorium on suicide bombings. This was the time for Hamas to show that it understood its newfound responsibilities to the Palestinian people, and that the cutoff of aid from the West was a mistake.

They blew it.

A point of detail is in order. There is nothing inherently wrong with suicide bombing as a tactic. During World War II the Russians trained dogs to run under German tanks carrying antitank mines. The Japanese had kamikaze pilots and suicide torpedo pilots. In a conflict between two totally unmatched opponents, the weaker side will always resort to unorthodox tactics in an attempt to even the contest.

What is completely unacceptable, however, is suicide attacks against civilian targets.

I understand why they do it: to inflict enough pain on Israel to force Israel to make concessions. I understand why they don't limit themselves to attacking military targets: military targets are too well defended. I understand how they justify it: they consider all Israelis their enemy. Morality aside, suicide bombings of civilians are a pragmatic and rational response to the Palestinians' military situation.

But I won't support it.

Hamas could have defended the use of suicide bombers while condemning their use against civilians. But they didn't. So screw 'em.

I disagree with the Globe on one point: the early withdrawal of Western aid was a mistake. We should have given Hamas a chance to show that it would behave responsibly.

But now that they have been given that chance, and blown it, I would be calling for aid to be withdrawn if it hadn't been already.

We should not close the door completely, though. Unless we plan to wash our hands of the entire region -- and on days like this, it can be hard to see the downside to that -- we need to make a distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people. Hamas did not win a majority of the popular vote; Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah condemned the bombing. So suspend the aid -- but stick to the conditions we have laid out for resuming it: namely, recognition of Israel's right to exist.

In the meantime we must prepare for a new reality, where Hamas survives on Russian, Iranian and perhaps Arab aid. Will it decide it has no need or use for the West or Israel? Will the Palestinian people agree and vote to keep them in office? Will it mark a new upsurge in violence? Will Hamas look into the abyss and blink?

Time will tell.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

The trouble with Gitmo

Just a reminder of the sort of problems we've got with some of our prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and why confidence that all the prisoners there are fairly held is misplaced:

The Supreme Court rejected an appeal Monday from two Chinese Muslims who were mistakenly captured as enemy combatants more than four years ago and are still being held at the U.S. prison in Cuba.

The men's plight has posed a dilemma for the Bush administration and courts. Previously, a federal judge said the detention of the ethnic Uighurs in Guantanamo Bay is unlawful, but that there was nothing federal courts could do.

Lawyers for the two contend they should be released, something the Bush administration opposes unless they can go to a country other than the United States.

A year ago, the U.S. military decided that Abu Bakker Qassim and A'Del Abdu al-Hakim are not "enemy combatants" as first suspected after their 2001 arrests in Pakistan. They were captured and shipped to Guantanamo Bay along with hundreds of other suspected terrorists.

The U.S. government has been unable to find a country willing to accept the two men, along with other Uighurs. They cannot be returned to China because they likely will be tortured or killed.

So we screwed up, but we're still holding on to them. Not because of anything they've done, but because we don't want to release them in the United States and we can't find another country willing to take them.

It seems to me that this is a variation of the Pottery Barn rule. We screwed up, and thus we are responsible for fixing the mistake. It is unjust to compound our mistake by continuing to incarcerate men we admit are innocent. They should be released into the United States -- with compensation and reasonable supervision -- until we can find a country to take them.

The alternative is to consider them terrorists because of what they planned to do in China. But that would depend on the nature and extent of the evidence against them in that regard.

In any case, the limbo they are currently in is indefensible.

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How to manage illegal immigration

Watching the furor over immigration policy during the past week, I felt strangely uninvolved. I heard the arguments on both sides, I saw the protesters, I read the commentary. But up here in Minnesota it's not a burning issue, so I've never had to resolve the conflicting impulses that the subject raises for me.

The only thing that was clear was that the subject is far more complex than activists on either side admit. So I decided it was high time I developed a position on the subject.

First I did some thinking. Then I did some research.

It seems to me that any immigration policy should recognize the following facts:

1. Every country has a right to control the flow of immigrants into it.

2. In the aftermath of 9/11 border control is a security issue, not just an economic issue.

3. The cost of the solution should not exceed the cost of the problem.

4. Barring seriously drastic measures, illegal immigration will never be eradicated. We need to manage the problem rather than trying to eradicate it.

5. The best way to fight illegal immigration is to give people incentives, both positive and negative, not to come here illegally.

6. It makes no sense to crack down on illegal immigrants without cracking down on the businesses and individuals that employ them.

Starting from those facts, let's address some of the common arguments used in the immigration debate.

Illegal immigrants are criminals. While technically true, it's a gross oversimplification of the debate. For most illegal immigrants, the only crime they ever commit is crossing the border without permission. Labeling them criminals is a bit like subjecting serial jaywalkers to a "three strikes" rule.

Further, there are huge gray areas that such a simplistic approach does not handle very well. What about the teenager whose parents brought him across the border when he was an infant? He's been raised in America, and culturally is as American as anyone. Is he a criminal? Is justice served by deporting him back to a country he has no connection to?

Then there are the cases where illegal immigrants have children here in the States. Those children are citizens. Do we really support breaking up families by deporting the parents?

Illegal immigrants are a drain on our resources. Like any new arrival in our country, illegal immigrants use a disproportionate share of social services. And that is a cost that should really be borne by the entire nation, not the border communities that are home to the largest populations of illegals.

But that's only part of the picture. Every wave of immigrants starts out poor. What such accounting doesn't reflect is that by the second or third generation most immigrant families are established and moving up the economic ladder. And they bring with them the energy and desire to improve their lives that has powered the United States since its inception. So focusing on the short-term costs misses the larger point. Such a selective analysis could be used to support a total ban on immigration, which clearly wouldn't be in our best interests.

Besides, the cost of illegal immigration are likely overstated.

Mr. Borjas and Mr. Katz ... found that the surge in illegal immigration reduced the wages of high school dropouts by just 3.6 percent. Across the entire labor force, the effect of illegal immigrants was zero, because the presence of uneducated immigrants actually increased the earnings of more educated workers, including high school graduates. For instance, higher-skilled workers could hire foreigners at low wages to mow their lawns and care for their children, freeing time for these workers to earn more. And businesses that exist because of the availability of cheap labor might also need to employ managers.

Illegal immigrants are lazy spongers. Fact is, other than their illegal arrival, illegal immigrants are precisely the sort of people we should want to have coming here. They don't just decide to cross the border on a lark one day and start sucking at the teat of American welfare. These are people who see such limited opportunity in their home country -- for both them and their children -- that they are willing to leave everything they know in search of a better life. They pay smugglers thousands and thousands of dollars to sneak them across the border, risking death, injury and capture. All so they can work for $3 an hour in near-slave conditions, with a built-in ceiling on economic advancement thanks to their illegal status. How desperate would you have to be before you considered doing something like that? And isn't that sort of pluck exactly what we claim as the benefit of being a nation of immigrants?

We should not crack down on immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who are simply trying to make a life for themselves and their families. While illegals should be treated humanely, they are here illegally, and they do have unwanted economic effects. We should have a rational method for cracking down on illegal immigration, but we should not simply turn a blind eye or enact elaborate restrictions that make it unnecessarily difficult to identify and arrest illegals.

We should deny illegal immigrants access to public services and schools. This is just plain stupid from a public policy perspective. They're here; we do ourselves no favors by preventing them from getting an education or other kinds of help. Cutting them off would have the effect of turning them into criminals in the full sense of the word, forced to steal and defraud in order to survive. Cutting them off from public health services would just increase our overall health bill in the end. Let's not cut off our nose to spite our face.

Americans don't want the jobs that illegal immigrants do. This isn't provably true, there will always be exceptions, and even if it is true the reason may be less the work involved than the pay rate. A more accurate assessment might be that without the cheap labor of illegals, those jobs wouldn't be in this country in the first place. But either way, it seems clear that illegal immigration does affect the job and earning prospects of American workers at the bottom of the education ladder.

America can't handle too many immigrants at once. In a theoretical sense, this is true; if 1 million illegal Mexican immigrants suddenly descended on Luxembourg, for instance, it would overnight become a Mexican-majority country. But the United States has 300 million people; we're not so easily overwhelmed. WIth the INS estimating there are only about 9 million illegal immigrants in the United States as of 2005, the "we can't handle it" argument starts to look very weak. Looking at history, it gets even weaker. Between 1905 and 1914, an average of 1 million people a year immigrated to this country -- at a time when the population of the United States was about 90 million. Somehow we absorbed that. To achieve the same relative disruption today, we'd have to be letting in 3.3 million immigrants a year. We're not even close to that. In 2004 we admitted fewer than 1 million legal immigrants. Add to that the INS estimate of 500,000 illegal immigrants a year, and it's clear we're not even close to reaching the limits of our absorption rate -- whatever that rate might be.

(For a wealth of information on immigration, check out Homeland Security's 2004 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. It's a pdf; on page 11 is a chart showing immigration by year going back to 1820).

The problem with illegal immigrants, then, is not the cost, nor the number of immigrants, nor the immigrants themselves. It's that it is uncontrolled, which makes establishing policy difficult and poses a security risk.

The value of closing that security hole is subjective, but the relatively small objective costs of illegal immigration suggest that spending huge buckets of money to stop it just doesn't pass the cost-benefit test. Any solution should either be cost-effective by itself or have other benefits that justify the expense.

We need a comprehensive approach, not piecemeal solutions. Any attempt to address the immigration problem should include stricter enforcement in this country coupled with incentives to keep people from wanting to come here illegally in the first place.

1. Manage the demand side. Crack down on employers as well as their illegal employees, to reduce the demand side of the illegal labor problem. Fines alone won't do it; that just becomes a cost of doing business. If a business is a chronic employer of illegal workers, there should be jail terms for company executives.

We don't even come close to doing this now:

The lack of vigorous enforcement against employers who hire illegal workers has been widely viewed as the main reason that 850,000 immigrants cross the border illegally each year. Facing little in the way of penalties, employers feel few qualms about hiring them for meatpacking, construction, agriculture and janitorial work....

The number of federal immigration agents who focus on work-site enforcement plunged to 65 nationwide in 2004, from 240 in 1999, according to the Government Accountability Office. Moreover, the government reduced the number of notices of intent to fine employers who hired illegal immigrants to just 3 in 2004 from 417 in 1999.

65 agents nationwide? That's the first mistake.

We may want to tread carefully in this area, because as I noted above some of these industries only exist because of the cheap labor of illegals. But if we're going to arrest the workers, we should arrest the employers as well -- be they a corporation or a private individual with an illegal gardener. A few high-profile examples might have a big deterrent effect -- and would certainly reveal whether we as a country have the stomach for such tactics. If we don't, we need to adjust our strategy to that reality.

2. Work with the Mexican government to increase economic opportunity in Mexico. This may seem counter to our national economic interests -- helping set up Mexican workers to compete against us in the global market -- but the best way to persuade people to stay home is to give them some reason to do so. Assuming cultural and family ties are important, most people would prefer to build a life in Mexico than in the United States. Even slight improvements in economic opportunity in Mexico should have an impact on the flow of illegal immigrants.

3. Increase our legal immigrant quota. It's way too low anyway. And by giving people a reasonable chance of being able to immigrate legally, we reduce their incentive to immigrate illegally in the meantime. I'd consider doubling the quota to 2 million a year, with half of it earmarked for Mexico.

4. Implement selective amnesty programs. Have ways to help illegal immigrants become citizens -- if they go home first. Provide amnesty to children who were raised here and are substantially American, perhaps with requirements that they graduate from high school and hold a steady job. A general amnesty is a bad idea. But allow humane exceptions to a general deportation rule.

5. Border security. If we can reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, that makes it easier to monitor our borders for security risks. Building a fence isn't an answer; it would be hugely expensive and easily circumvented. The only way we get a reasonable chance of catching infiltrating terrorists is if they can't hide in a flood of illegal immigrants. So while we should increase our patrol efforts, improved border security will really be a side effect of the other strategies listed above.

6. Sharing the costs. The federal government should provide aid to border cities and states to help shoulder the cost of providing services to illegal aliens.

7. Education assistance for American workers. This is totally off the cuff, but the study I cite above indicates that the only workers adversely affected by illegal immigration are high school dropouts. Given that, we could lessen the impact by moving at least some of those workers up the educational and professional ladder so they no longer have to compete with low-wage illegals.

Adopting just some of these proposals would be a mistake; they're a package deal. They may not be as emotionally satisfying as walling off our southern border, but it would be a whole lot cheaper and far more practical. The Great Wall didn't work for China; it won't work for us.

As long as America is a land of opportunity, we will have people trying to get into the country any way they can. A rational, humane policy that seeks to manage rather than stop that flow will pay off in both the economic and security arenas -- and perhaps the political and diplomatic as well.

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