Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Estate tax lunacy

That's what Harold Meyerson calls it. And he's right.

If enacted, Kyl's bill would plunge the government another trillion dollars into the red during the first decade (2011-2021) that it would be in [/quote]effect....

A decades-long campaign by right-wing activists (brilliantly documented by Yale professors Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro in their book "Death by a Thousand Cuts") has convinced many Americans that the estate tax poses a threat to countless hardworking families. That was always nonsense, and under the estate tax revisions that almost all Democrats support -- raising the threshold for eligibility to $3.5 million for an individual and $7 million for a couple -- it becomes more nonsensical still. Under the $3.5 million exemption, the number of family-owned small businesses required to pay any taxes in the year 2000 would have been just 94, according to a study by the Congressional Budget Office. The number of family farms that would have had to sell any assets to pay that tax would have been 13.

On the other hand, an estate tax repeal would save the estate of Vice President Cheney between $13 million and $61 million, according to the publicly available data on his net worth. It would save the estate of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld between $32 million and $101 million. The estate of retired Exxon Mobil chairman Lee Raymond would pocket a cozy $164 million. As for the late Sam Walton's kids, whose company already makes taxpayers foot the bill for the medical expenses of thousands of its employees, the cost to the government for not taxing their estates would run into the multiple billions.

Is now really the time to blow another $1 trillion hole in the budget? If we decide the answer is "yes", is this the cause we should blow it on? I don't think so.

"Republicans" and "fiscally responsible" don't belong in the same sentence any more. And Democrat Max Baucus should be ashamed of himself:

Behind the scenes, the action has been on the Democratic side in the Senate, as the party's leadership has sought to dissuade Montana's Max Baucus, ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, from forging a halfway-house compromise with Kyl that would deplete revenue by only $500 billion to $600 billion during that decade.

"Only" $500 billion? Boy, what a relief.

Before we repeal the estate tax, how about fixing AMT and eliminating the budget deficit? Just for starters, I mean. The list of things that should be ahead of "repeal estate tax" on the priority list is a long one.

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The human price of war

Both the Star Tribune and the New York Times Magazine had good pieces this weekend about the hurdles reservists face when they return home from Iraq.

From the Star Tribune:

More than 15,000 Minnesota soldiers -- National Guard, Reserve and active duty -- have been deployed to global hot spots since 9/11.

For most of them, as was true for their fathers and grandfathers coming home from earlier wars, the euphoric family reunions were the sweet, easy part of their homecomings.

What follows is tougher: First, a kind of emotional decompression from combat to civilian life. Then the challenge of getting on with work and making a living.

It can be a difficult and sometimes lonely undertaking.

Employers worry about hiring them, knowing the military could call them away again. Some return with injuries that make it impossible to return to their former jobs.

And many come to realize that even the best of re-entries to the work-a-day world require serious attitude -- and adrenaline -- adjustments.

The Strib's web site has been screwed up for months, and here's an example. Accompanying that intro text in the paper was four profiles of reservists who faced different struggles reintegrating into the workplace. But just try to find it online.

It's worth reading, because it describes the economic costs of deployment: the injured man who may never work again; the self-employed soldier who had to sell his trucking business and is now trying to rebuild it; the difficulties he encounters from banks, who are reluctant to loan him money because he might get deployed again and qualify for an interest-rate cap; the difficulties others encounter from employers, who are wary of hiring someone who could be deployed at any time. It really captures how disruptive deployments can be economically.

The New York Times story is largely a portrait of one man's struggle with post-traumatic stress, but it captures some larger issues, too: how boring and meaningless civilian life can seem after the intensity of combat, the difficulty in shedding the hypervigilance and constant stress that kept them alive in Iraq, how hard it can be coming to terms with what they saw and did overseas. As one quote from the story puts it:

"I didn't really know what to expect," Norris said. At first, he recalled, "it all seemed kind of mellow. Nothing happened on our drive up from Kuwait, and from what I'd seen on the news about Iraq, I figured everything was pretty much under control." That assessment changed a few days after his arrival, when Norris and the rest of his eight-man recovery team were led into the back room of a maintenance shed on the base by the team they had come to replace. One veteran had a laptop on which he had stored images of the missions his unit had gone out on. "You're going to see things out there no one should ever have to see," the departing team leader told the new arrivals. "You need to tow a vehicle — you'd better be prepared to reach through a man's intestines to put it in neutral."

This is what war does to the participants. That alone is not a reason to eschew war -- combat, terrible as it is, can be a necessary evil. But it is a reason not to start wars lightly, or carelessly, or without full and careful deliberation and planning. And that is why the invasion of Iraq makes me mad. Because it was poorly planned, and because it was not a last resort, and because it was pursued relentlessly, almost eagerly, by those who thought it would mark the beginning of the American Empire. The planners, in their fantastical ignorance, embraced war far too readily. And this is the result.

If you want peace, prepare for war. But do not pull the trigger until you are certain that the cost is worth it, and there is no acceptable alternative.


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Democracy advances in the Midwest

I'm so proud!

Minneapolis voters likely will get a chance to consider instant-runoff voting in city elections, eliminating primaries and greatly leveling the playing field for independent candidates.

The idea could be a ballot question this November. But don't hold your breath after that: Because such a system means someone's ox is being gored, it will be awhile before such a system is implemented.

Even if voters approve the change, a new style of voting could be a long way off in Minneapolis because of the cost and potential legal challenges....

The earliest city election that could be affected by the change would be in 2009, but Benson said the council could push that back if the cost of acquiring the software to count the votes is prohibitive.

"I don't think anybody on the council is interested in spending $1 million to do this," he said.

To their credit, the Minneapolis DFL (that's Democrats to you out-of-staters) supports the idea. Republicans generally oppose it, for the vaguest reasons. When Roseville tried to adopt the system in 2004, State Senate Democrats approved it but the Republican-controlled House shot it down. House Speaker Steve Sviggum suggested it violates the "one person, one vote" system.

Maybe Sviggum really believes that. Or maybe he's concerned that IRV lessens the influence of parties and empowers voters to vote for the person they really want, rather than choosing the major party candidate that offends them the least.

There are legitimate practical concerns about IRV -- how to ensure the ballots aren't confusing, how to deal with races where, say, six candidates are competing for two open seats, and so on. But those are technical questions, and solvable; they do not justify slamming the door on IRV. As wielded by Sviggum and others, they are just a smoke screen.

If Minneapolis adopts the system, the next step would be to see it applied to county and state races. Minnesota governor races, in particular, have been three-way circuses in recent years; instant-runoff voting would have made those contests fairer and more accurate, with the winner truly reflecting the electorate's preferences.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Supreme Court whistleblower ruling

Today the Supreme Court made what is being called a significant ruling on protections for government whistleblowers.

In a victory for the Bush administration, justices said the 20 million public employees do not have free-speech protections for what they say as part of their jobs.

Critics predicted the impact would be sweeping, from silencing police officers who fear retribution for reporting department corruption, to subduing federal employees who want to reveal problems with government hurricane preparedness or terrorist-related security.

Supporters said that it will protect governments from lawsuits filed by disgruntled workers pretending to be legitimate whistleblowers.

It's best to say up front that my bias in cases like this is to favor the whistleblower. There are already enough barriers to uncovering wrongdoing; why create more? And the government does not need protection from lawsuits. Lawsuits that are without merit will be dismissed, or the government will win the case. That's how it's supposed to work.

In the case at hand, the known facts are these: a Los Angeles County prosecutor, Richard Ceballos, wrote a memo suggesting that a sheriff's deputy may have lied in a search warrant affidavit. He was later demoted and denied a promotion.

The case comes down to whether the demotion was related to the memo, and if so, was Ceballos entitled to protection from such retaliation.

There's some legitimate murkiness here, as Justice Kennedy outlined:

Kennedy said if the superiors thought the memo was inflammatory, they had the authority to punish him.

"Official communications have official consequences, creating a need for substantive consistency and clarity. Supervisors must ensure that their employees' official communications are accurate, demonstrate sound judgment, and promote the employer's mission," Kennedy wrote.

Fair enough. The key is distinguishing actions and consequences. Was he justifiably disciplined because the memo was inflammatory? Or was he unfairly disciplined because he raised an uncomfortable question?

But this ruling is just a bit weird, because it strips protections only from employees whose speech is related to their official duties.

So, it appears that if one's duties are to expose wrongdoing in the workplace, such exposure is entitled to no constitutional protection, but that if an employee whose duties do not involve such whistleblowing makes the exact same complaint, then [protection] still applies. A somewhat odd result, at least on first glance. And odder still: Under today's opinion, if Mr. Ceballos had written a newspaper article complaining about the wrongdoing in question, rather than taking the matter to his supervisor, he would at least be entitled to whatever constitutiional protection Pickering/Connick offers. Does today's decision therefore give employees an incentive to go outside the established channels -- to take their concerns to the newspapers, instead of up the established chain to their supervisors?

So rather than providing clarity, the court has further muddied the waters.

One man's whistleblower is another woman's disgruntled employee, of course. And some whistleblower lawsuits are indeed without merit. But this ruling doesn't do anybody any favors. It practically orders government workers to go to the press instead of using established channels, and it makes true whistleblowers even more vulnerable to retaliation than they were before. Fabulous.

Perhaps this is an example of a conservative court throwing the ball back into Congress' court -- putting pressure on the legislative branch to pass a law clarifying the issue. But in the meantime we end up with a confusing precedent that will likely spur further lawsuits, thus foiling even the stated intent of the ruling's supporters.

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Phone jammer back at work

Bleh; a Hall of Shame member is back at work.

Charles McGee, the former executive director of the state Republican Party, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and served seven months for his part in the scheme to have a telemarketer tie up Democratic and union phone lines in 2002.

He's back at his old job with a Republican political marketing firm, Spectrum Monthly & Printing Inc., and will be helping out at the firm's "GOP campaign school" for candidates.

You know how journalists that make up stories should never work in the field again? Same goes for political operatives that conduct illegal operations.

The Democrats are rather biased, of course, but this time they're right:

Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for a Democratic group called the Senate Majority Project, said Spectrum's clients include many of New Hampshire's most prominent Republicans.

"The very fact that they continue to associate with him and give him their money . . . speaks volumes," she said.

Yep. And again I say "bleh."

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Only one Snow left in the White House

In a long-expected move, Treasury Secretary John Snow has resigned. Bush quickly nominated Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson to replace him.

It's been something of a revolving door at that position; Paulson will be Bush's third Treasury Secretary. Both of the previous ones (Snow and Paul O'Neill) did decent jobs, but that wasn't quite enough:

The administration is said to have been dissatisfied with both previous Treasury secretaries, believing that they could have done more to get credit for the administration for economic growth.

News flash: presidents aren't generally responsible for economic performance, good or bad. Yes, they tend to be held responsible, and it's better to preside over a good economy than a bad one. But it's hard for a Treasury secretary to make a case for a causal connection that doesn't exist.

There were other problems with the job.

Snow informed the White House last week that he would resign after three years as the nation's chief economic officer. The secretary's decision was intended to bring finality to a process that has played out awkwardly in public over months as Snow's job security has been a regular source of Washington speculation....

But the White House spent months trying to find a prominent Wall Street figure to replace Snow, only to run into reluctance by many to take the cabinet job when economic policy was being set inside the White House.

That left Snow hanging out in the Washington rumor mill even amid reports that the White House wanted him out.

The Washington rumor mill can be pitiless, and who really wants to be a figurehead with no real power? Well, other than Tony Snow, that is....

One might well wonder why Paulson agreed to become that figurehead, especially for a lame-duck president with abysmal poll numbers who has made it clear that the job's main duty will be cheerleading the economy. He, like Snow, received assurances that he would "play a central role" in setting economic policy, but given his outsider status and the not-so-encouraging history of the Bush administration in that regard, I'm not holding my breath.

Which is too bad. Because Paulson isn't a bad choice, and some of his other biographical details -- chairman of the Nature Conservancy, for instance -- could lead one to envision him as a conduit for breaking the ideological orthodoxy that has guided the administration since 2000.

Call me cynical, but I expect him to be quickly isolated by other administration insiders, to never gain the policy-making influence he was promised and to grow frustrated with his cheerleader-in-chief role. We may not have seen the last Treasury nomination of this administration.

Side note
For those interested, Bush outright lied about the subject on Thursday:

That timeline raised questions about the president comments on Thursday night — four days after Mr. Paulson accepted the job — that he had not spoken to Secretary Snow about his long rumored departure from Treasury.

During a joint news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, Mr. Bush was asked directly by a reporter whether Mr. Snow had given him any indication that he intended to resign soon. Mr. Bush replied, "No, he has not talked to me about resignation. I think he's doing a fine job."

Tony Snow, said today that Mr. Bush was speaking "artfully," to avoid upsetting the markets with a nomination that he was not yet ready to announce, pending a background check.

"Artfully"? It was a lie. I don't want to make too much of this -- it's understandable that Bush was not ready to reveal his choice, and did not want to surprise the markets -- but a flat-out lie is never a good idea. The president should not lie to the press, because once he has done so, it makes everything else he says suspect. He can refuse to answer, dodge the question, be deliberately vague -- any of a dozen strategies for controlling the flow of information. But lying should not even be considered -- something you'd think Bush would have learned by the fifth year of his presidency.

As you might suspect, left-leaning sites are all over this.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

The national-local conundrum

Do the Republicans deserve to lose big in November? Oh, my, yes.

Does that mean we should all vote Democrat, regardless of who the respective candidates are in any given race? Well, no.

So what are we going to do?

The GOP is starting to pull out the desperation line: "if you don't vote for us the Dems will take over, and they'll destroy the country!" The hope is that no matter how badly the Republicans have messed things up, their conservative supporters will still consider them the lesser of two evils compared to Democrats.

Sure, guys, whatever. On the face of it, it's a silly argument: I don't think either party will "destroy the country" with regards to security or other bread-and-butter issues. So that's a straw man.

But let's say the GOP is right, and the Dems will try to turn us into the Socialist States of America. So what?

Even if they lose Congress the GOP would still control the White House, still have a sizable minority in both houses of Congress, and the judiciary would still lean right. Bush might finally have to exercise his veto pen, but the worst we risk is congressional paralysis.

So for me, the upcoming election is a referendum on the governing party. And they deserve to go down in flames. Big, hot, center-of-the-sun-type flames, the ashes burned and reburned until the electrons have been stripped from their atoms, leaving nothing but a subatomic mist in their wake.

Do I think the Dems will do better? Well, they’d have a hard time doing worse. And it would be a mistake to give the Reps a pass on their proven failures merely out of fear of what Dems might do.

That said, it can get complicated. I generally like my own representative, Jim Ramstad, and may well vote for him even though he’s GOP (the weak Democratic opposition makes that decision easier). So I’m both part of the problem (voting for a GOP candidate) and part of the solution (voting for a moderate).

My excuse is that if the GOP had more Ramstads, they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in. But if everybody thinks that way, the Republicans might keep control of Congress. And they really, really need to lose there.

But I'll take my chances. Because until we find a good way to elect true independents, the next best strategy is to elect moderate members of the major parties and gradually bring those parties more strongly toward the middle and away from their fringes.

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A modern My Lai?

This report has been expected for a while, but it's still not pleasant to read about.

Marines from Camp Pendleton wantonly killed unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, and then tried to cover up the slayings in the insurgent stronghold of Haditha, military investigations have found.

Officials who have seen the findings of the investigations said the filing of criminal charges, including some murder counts, was expected, which would make the Nov. 19 incident the most serious case of alleged U.S. war crimes in Iraq....

First, let's note that the military appears to be handling this appropriately. You can't always stop people from behaving badly, but you can punish them afterwards.

The details:

A roadside bomb explosion killed a fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas. Looking for insurgents, the Marines entered several homes and began firing their weapons, according to the report.

In its initial statement to the media, the Marine Corps said the Iraqi civilians were killed either by an insurgent bomb or by crossfire between Marines and insurgents.

But after Time magazine obtained pictures showing dead women and children and quoted Iraqis who said the attack was unprovoked, the Marine Corps backtracked on its explanation and called for an investigation.

This is a good example of the media performing a vital role: uncovering an unpleasant truth that otherwise might have gone unnoticed. It's not pleasant to face our dark sides, but the fact that we do so makes our society stronger in the long run. Covering up wrongdoing does nothing but guarantee more wrongdoing. And the victims aren't fooled: If U.S. soldiers get away with massacres, the Iraqi people will know and it will undermine everything we claim to be doing in Iraq. If we punish the perpetrators, on the other hand, it builds trust.

The killings will evoke comparisons to Vietnam's My Lai massacre, and the parallels are there: Frustrated troops fighting an elusive enemy taking their frustration out on innocent villagers. But there are differences: the scale (hundreds died at My Lai), the level of command involvement (the troops at My Lai were practically invited to kill civilians) and the response (My Lai was covered up for a year before an investigation began, and then for another six months while charges were prepared).

So be wary about going too far down the road suggested by the headline on this post. Incidents like these should not be used to tar all service members. Most serve honorably, often in extremely trying circumstances. U.S. soldiers are among the most well-disciplined in the world. Unless there is evidence of widespread wrongdoing, this case should be treated as what it appears to be: an isolated tragedy that should be investigated fully and addressed swiftly and fairly. And as a cautionary tale of the dehumanizing effects of warfare, and why it should be considered an option of last resort in our foreign policy.

Update: The New York Times has a much better story on the subject.

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Time ordered to turn over Plame drafts

The judge in the Valerie Plame case has ordered Time magazine to turn over drafts of articles written by reporter Matthew Cooper.

The judge found "a slight alteration between the several drafts of the articles" Cooper wrote about his conversations with Libby and the reporter's first-person account of his testimony before a federal grand jury.

"This slight alteration between the drafts will permit the defendant to impeach Cooper, regardless of the substance of his trial testimony, because his trial testimony cannot be consistent with both versions," Walton wrote.

A person familiar with Cooper's drafts described the inconsistencies as "trivial." The person spoke on condition of anonymity because Walton has warned the case's participants against talking to reporters.


This seems like a minor development, but it's always tricky when newspapers are ordered to turn over unpublished material. Reporters are able to get stories because sources trust their discretion and judgement. Reporters often get information "on background", for instance -- meaning not for publication or attribution -- to help them make sense of the information they can publish. If such private information is too easily seizable by a court, it could cause sources to clam up, seriously hampering the work that reporters do.

If it comes down to it, a defendant's right to a fair trial outweighs a newspaper's right to keep its files confidential. But care should be taken that any demand for media files is narrow, and that the information sought is necessary, clearly relevant and unobtainable any other way.

The judge appears to have done that in this case -- unless the discrepancies truly are trivial. In that case the dubious benefit to Libby does not justify seizing the files.

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Blog power

I got the following mass e-mail from Katie MacGuidwin of the Republican National Committee today.

You’ve heard the buzz – now, take advantage of a new tool on GOP.com that has many features built specifically for bloggers.

Through MyGOP, you can create your own website on GOP.com. The address could be as simple as yourblogname.GOP.com. Through your MyGOP site, you can:

- Keep track of personal fundraising efforts through a personal fundraising page

- Keep tabs on the number of people you recruit, and even run a voter registration drive

- Build a personal e-mail list to distribute your news and GOP talking points

- Post photos

- Link to your blog

- Sidebar widgets to post to your blog promoting your site and your campaigns

- Move up in the rankings through our live leaderboard post on www.GOP.com/MyGOP/.

This tool was built partly in response to feedback from bloggers who asked how they could keep track of the activity they generated through their blogs. Now, you have the opportunity to make an impact online for 2006 and 2008, and to be able to know how many dollars you raised, volunteers recruited, and voters you registered.

Recruiting? Fundraising? A live leaderboard? "Distribute GOP talking points"?

I thought bloggers were supposed to be independent observers. Are they really just supposed to be conduits for party propaganda? Should bloggers really be competing to see who can most slavishly follow the party line, raise the most money for the party, and so on?

It's a GOP effort, but I'm sure the Democrats have something similar going on.

This sort of thing highlights both the power of blogs and the challenges facing them as parties increasingly try to co-opt them. Will conduit blogs be readily identifiable? Or will the independent voices get lost in a sea of party drones?

It's enough to make a blogger say "there ought to be a law" or something.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Abbas rolls the dice

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has given Hamas a choice: accept the idea of co-existence with Israel within 10 days, or he'll call a referendum to settle the issue.

Abbas asked Hamas to endorse a document drawn up by senior Palestinian militants imprisoned in Israel. It accepts statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War.

Approving the document would imply recognition of Israel — one of the three conditions imposed by Israel and the West for doing business with the Hamas-led government. The document falls short of meeting the other two conditions — renouncing violence and accepting past peace accords — so it was unclear if the international boycott would be called off even if Hamas acquiesced.

However, a referendum, which Palestinian pollsters expect to pass, could provide cover for the militants to become more moderate without appearing to succumb to Western pressure. Such a vote could also renew pressure on Israel to return to the negotiating table rather than impose borders on the Palestinians.

It's a bold move, akin to cutting the Gordian Knot. And the fact that such a plan would likely be approved by voters demonstrates that Hamas does not represent the average Palestinian on this fundamental point.

Worth a try, anyway. Along with Israel's plan to draw unilateral borders, the move puts increasing pressure on Hamas to compromise or be marginalized.

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Just shoot them all

Okay, that's an overreaction. But the continued revelations in the Plame case can really make you want to put all the participants in a bus and drive it off a cliff.

On September 29, 2003, three days after it became known that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the name of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, columnist Robert Novak telephoned White House senior adviser Karl Rove to assure Rove that he would protect him from being harmed by the investigation, according to people with firsthand knowledge of the federal grand jury testimony of both men....

After the September 29 call, Novak shifted his account of his July 9, 2003, conversation with Rove to show that administration officials had a passive role in leaking Plame's identity.

On July 22, 2003 -- eight days after the publication of Novak's column on Plame -- Newsday reporters Timothy Phelps and Knut Royce quoted Novak as telling them in an interview that it was White House officials who encouraged him to write about Plame. "I didn't dig it out, it was given to me," Newsday quoted Novak as saying about Plame. "They thought it was significant. They gave me the name, and I used it."

...Novak did not speak publicly on the matter again until September 29 -- later on the same day as his conversation with Rove in which he assured the president's chief political aide that he would protect him in the forthcoming Justice Department investigation.

"I have been beleaguered by television networks around the world, but I am reserving my say for Crossfire," Novak said on his own CNN program, which is no longer on the air. "Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this. In July, I was interviewing a senior administration official on Ambassador [Joseph C.] Wilson's report [on his Niger trip], when [the official] told me the trip was inspired by his wife, a CIA employee working on weapons of mass destruction. Another senior official told me the same thing.

Novak is sleaze. Rove, Libby and Cheney all appear to have been actively involved in revealing Plame's identity. The question of whether that was a crime revolves around whether Plame was undercover or not -- and it now appears that she was -- and whether they knew it at the time, which will be very hard to prove even if they did. But at a minimum we have them carelessly bandying about an agent's name, and then scrambling to obscure the fact when it blew up in their face.

So put 'em all on the bus. Put Wilson on it, too, just for being irritating. Drive it up to the highest point on the Pacific Coast Highway, aim it at the ocean, tie a brick to the accelerator and release the brakes. The world will be a better place for having done so.

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Fast train to irrelevancy

The state legislative session has ended, and the big news (as far as I'm concerned) is that the Central Corridor extension of the light rail system is on the front burner, and drawing strong public support.

Those who testified were asked to comment on a recently completed draft environmental impact study, and to say which transit option they want. Should light rail or bus rapid transit be the mode of transportation along University Ave.? Or do citizens want the status quo and keep the avenue the way it is, with car and bus traffic?

Overwhelmingly, those who testified said they wanted something different, and that light rail is their preferred mode.

Even more pleasant, from my point of view, is how marginalized the Taxpayers League has become on this and other issues.

The League, apparently undeterred by the unqualified success of the Hiawatha line, opposes the Central Corridor extension.

(They also oppose the Northstar Commuter Rail. Their analysis is flawed to start with -- subjecting rail lines to cost-benefit analyses that they don't direct at roads -- and their "build more roads" solution fails the history test.)

Why do they oppose the Central Corridor? They cite the cost, a negligable impact on traffic congestion and opposition by many business owners along the proposed route.

But the cost will be amortized over many years and many, many riders. And the point of light rail is to provide transportation options and slow the growth of traffic congestion; the Met Council, for instance, has never claimed that it would greatly reduce congestion.

And most business owners are concerned about business disruption during construction of the line; they're not opposed to the existence of the line itself. The loss of 660 parking spaces is a minor concern, since the line would carry far more people than that each day. It should be a boon for business, not a liability.

That might be why the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce supports the line. Apparently the Taxpayers League doesn't speak for most business owners.

But then, they never did. They've always represented a small and secretive cadre of backers. Their political influence peaked during the last gubernatorial election (with their "no new taxes" pledge). But then politicians got burned by that pledge, and the public support for mass transit projects became apparent. More directly, their credibility collapsed as their "solutions" became increasingly nonserious. Remember the transit strike, and the League's suggestion that it would be cheaper to buy every poor person a used car?

If we want the Twin Cities to grow in a sensible fashion, it needs to grow with mass transit in mind. And that means having the mass transit systems in place. It would be far more expensive and disruptive to wait another 10 or 20 years and try to graft a mass transit system on to a metro area that grew without regard for such a system. Focusing on the short-term costs is shortsighted. We're building for the future, and doing it with narrow, high-capacity rail lines instead of four-lane highways. It's smart, it's forward-looking and it exposes the pennywise nature of the Taxpayer's League.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Newspaper apologizes for false Iran story

Canada's National Post has apologized for printing a story saying Iran was going to require Jews to wear yellow badges.

"It is now clear the story is not true," Douglas Kelly, the National Post's editor in chief, wrote in a long editorial on Page 2. "We apologize for the mistake and for the consternation it has caused not just National Post readers, but the broader public who read the story."

This was unusual in that it's a mainstream newspaper. But it comes at a time when a lot of false stories are getting circulated: the Karl Rove indictment, for instance, or the Internet movie featuring alleged Ranger Jesse Macbeth.

More than ever it pays to pay attention, and try to separate the trustworthy information sources from the trash.

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Pelosi asks Jefferson to resign committee post

Nancy Pelosi has asked Rep. William Jefferson, D.-La., to resign from the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Jefferson quickly refused.

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Bush on pensions

You might not know it, but I'm not a big fan of President Bush. However, he occasionally does something right. And his proposals for pension reform are one of them.

The basic problem is this: pensions are underfunded by a staggering amount -- $450 billion or so. This puts workers' retirements at risk, but it also threatens the survival of weaker companies. And when those companies shed their pension liabilities in bankruptcy, taxpayers pick up the tab.

Why the underfunding? Some of it can be blamed on corporations promising more than they could afford, or chintzing on their contributions. But some of it results from the complexity of trying to estimate how much money you will have 30 years from now.

Such a calculation requires assumptions about what the economy as well as specific investments will do over that time span. No one really knows what will happen that far out, so all you can do is make educated guesses. Change your guess, and you change the result: a pension fund that is paid up under one set of assumptions could show up as deeply in the red under another set.

Then you have complications, like when companies make their contribution in stock instead of cash or other assets. Enron's pension fund, for instance, would have been fully funded right up until the day it collapsed.

We could simply require companies to make up the difference immediately. But there are trade-offs there, too. If United Airlines had been forced to retain its pension liabilities when it declared bankruptcy it would have been liquidated, throwing 57,000 employees out of work and sending additional shockwaves through the broader economy. Would that have been a preferable result?

So it's not a simple question of forcing companies to pay up. And the administration's proposals reflect that.

They have three basic ideas:

1. Strengthen minimum funding rules. This would replace the current hodgepodge of funding methods with a single set of acceptable procedures. It would require healthy companies to fund the full normal liability, while weaker companies would have to cover "at-risk" liability -- the amount that would have to be paid out if the plan terminated early and resulted in accelerated payment of benefits. They would also set minimum payments for plans that are underfunded, and not allow underfunded plans to increase benefits. In the worst cases, benefits would be frozen until the company made up the shortfall.

Improve disclosure. Requires that plan participants be notified of any underfunding.

Raise pension insurance premiums. This is a direct effort to fix the financing of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which is $23 billion in the red after absorbing the pension liabilities of several large corporations.

The cumulative effect should be more reasonable funding of pension benefits and less exposure for taxpayers.

The one glaring hole in this proposal is that government pension plans remain exempt from the rules. There's a reason for that: it lets the government buy off its workers with ever-increasing pension benefits without having to account for the true cost of those benefits. Taxpayers 30 years from now will find themselves on the hook for huge pension costs that were never properly discussed or provided for. That's inexcusable; the government should have to abide by the same rules it imposes on the private industry.

In the end, though, this whole discussion -- and the spate of pension fund failures -- should probably convince workers that pension promises are largely worthless, a form of deferred payment that is not guaranteed. Lucrative as they can be for workers who qualify for maximum benefits -- working their entire careers at companies that last long enough to pay up -- they're much less valuable to today's workers, who move around from job to job and work for companies that likely won't survive 30 years.

With defined-contribution pensions, workers get the money now, and they can take it with them when they change jobs. Though we need protection for older workers as we transition to a system without defined-benefit plans, the new global economy makes clear that trusting your retirement to your company has become a foolish gesture indeed.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

CIA officials to testify against Libby

Looks like Fitzgerald might have a case after all:

Two top CIA officials will bolster prosecutors' charge that Vice President Cheney's chief aide lied to them, court papers show.

Prosecutors say disgraced Cheney chief of staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby learned CIA spy Valerie Plame's identity from, among others, agency officials who will be called to testify at his trial for perjury, false statements and obstruction of justice....

Libby has said journalists told him about Plame - not Cheney or the six witnesses named so far by prosecutors.

Other than prematurely describing Libby as "disgraced", the article seems solidly sourced. The CIA men told Libby about Plame in response to direct inquiries from him -- so it'll be hard to use the "I can't remember" defense.

Apparently he's not going to be joined any time soon by Karl Rove, as the Truthout report to that effect remains unconfirmed by anyone else.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Stripping civil liberties one packet sniffer at a time

Speaking of Donklephant, they've got a nice analysis of Wired magazine's release of documents from the privacy lawsuit against AT&T. The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed the suit in response to the NSA phone database revelations.

What makes this whole thing especially alarming though, is that by tapping into AT&T, the NSA actually has access to much more than just AT&T customers’s data. Qwest was apparently the only major US telecom company that refused to work with the NSA on this program. So let’s say you’re a Qwest customer. You instant message a friend of yours who, unfortunately, is an AT&T customer. Because of the nature of IP routing, your traffic may very well have been routed through the NSA’s no longer very secret room even though you have no relationship with AT&T at all. According to Wired, ConXion, Verio, XO, Genuity, Qwest, PAIX, Allegiance, AboveNet, Global Crossing, C&W, UUNET, Level 3, Sprint, Telia, PSINet and Mae West were all compromised as a result of the fiber optic splitters that were installed at AT&T. The claim that this is targetted surveillance is growing much harder to believe,


More at the links. Check 'em out.

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Incompetence in Iraq

If you want to get mad, read this.

As chaos swept Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, the Pentagon began its effort to rebuild the Iraqi police with a mere dozen advisers. Overmatched from the start, one was sent to train a 4,000-officer unit to guard power plants and other utilities. A second to advise 500 commanders in Baghdad. Another to organize a border patrol for the entire country. ...

Before the war, the Bush administration dismissed as unnecessary a plan backed by the Justice Department to rebuild the police force by deploying thousands of American civilian trainers. Current and former administration officials said they were relying on a Central Intelligence Agency assessment that said the Iraqi police were well trained. The C.I.A. said its assessment conveyed nothing of the sort.

After Baghdad fell, when a majority of Iraqi police officers abandoned their posts, a second proposal by a Justice Department team calling for 6,600 police trainers was reduced to 1,500, and then never carried out. During the first eight months of the occupation — as crime soared and the insurgency took hold — the United States deployed 50 police advisers in Iraq.

Against the objections of Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, the long-range plan was eventually reduced to 500 trainers. One result was a police captain from North Carolina having 40 Americans to train 20,000 Iraqi police across four provinces in southern Iraq.

You mean the Bush administration based policy on a complete fantasy, and executed the plan with extreme incompetence? Man, that's hard to believe....

I've said several times that, no matter what you think of the rightness of going into Iraq, we should all be incensed by the sheer incompetence of the execution. From sending in too few troops (and now too few policemen) to secure the country, to disbanding the Iraqi army, to lowballing cost estimates, to the near-complete lack of planning for the occupation, to the ignoring of the ethnic and religious divisions that had been papered over by Saddam, this administration has screwed up just about everything it undertook in relation to Iraq. The result is that even if we do "win" in Iraq -- however you define that -- the cost will be far, far higher than it needed to be.

Head on over to Donklephant for more discussion of the story.

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Montenegro votes for independence

The dissolution of Yugoslavia is now complete.

Montenegro's referendum commission has confirmed that slightly more than the required 55 percent of voters supported independence for the tiny republic in Sunday's referendum.

In the capital Podgorica, a key-stronghold for the pro-independence-camp, young people in particular welcomed the birth of Europe's newest nation, with some shooting Kalashnikov rifles in the air, waving flags, and dancing.

At 600,000 people, it becomes one of the smallest nations on earth. And with this final breakup, we've gone a long way toward recreating the Balkans of the early 20th century -- a period of political instability that gave us the term "Balkanization" and helped spark World War I.

Let's hope things go better this time around.

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Gonzalez considers charging reporters in NSA leaks

Striking another blow for government secrecy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales may prosecute reporters for having the audacity to listen to sources describe a secret, controversial and possibly illegal warrantless surveillance program.

On the talk show, when asked if journalists could be prosecuted for publishing classified information, Gonzales responded, "There are some statutes on the book which, if you read the language carefully, would seem to indicate that that is a possibility."

He was referring to the 1917 Espionage Act, which made it a crime for an unauthorized person to receive national defense information and transmit it to others.

This is Gonzales at his best, carefully parsing the letter of laws for anything that can be used to support a preferred course of action, without regard to context, morality or intent. It's the kind of lawyering that let him find torture exceptions to the Geneva Convention. It should surprise no one that Gonzales would resort to such technocratic lawyering, but it should persuade no one, too.

Conservatives have become quite enamored of the 1917 Espionage Act, being as it's the only extant law on the books that affords even the possibility of jailing reporters -- something of a conservative wet dream, it seems.

The problem is that the Espionage Act was a horrid piece of legislation, much of which has been explicitly and implicitly repudiated by successive Supreme Courts in the 90 years since its passage.

The law provides that any attempt to communicate or publish information related to national defense is a criminal act, if doing so was intended to harm national security. The harshest penalties apply if such actions occur during wartime.

The law is incredibly broad and vague, and could apply to just about any reporting on any aspect of military operations that doesn't involve merely repeating official military communications. Used aggressively, the law would gut any meaningful independent coverage of wartime conduct.

It also points up once again why treating our battle against terrorism as a "war" in the conventional sense is a really, really bad idea. Doing so will extend "extraordinary" wartime suspensions of civil liberties into ordinary everyday realities. And democracy is the loser when the public can no longer maintain credible independent oversight of government actions.

It speaks volumes about the administration that it is willing to reach back into the mists of time to find a bad law that it can use to silence its critics and stifle public discussion about the conduct of this "war". I hope they get their butts handed to them for even considering it.

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Congressman videotaped accepting bribes

Yesterday, details of the bribery case against Rep. William Jefferson were leaked to the media.

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), the target of a 14-month public corruption probe, was videotaped accepting $100,000 in $100 bills from a Northern Virginia investor who was wearing an FBI wire, according to a search warrant affidavit released yesterday.

A few days later, on Aug. 3, 2005, FBI agents raided Jefferson's home in Northeast Washington and found $90,000 of the cash in the freezer, in $10,000 increments wrapped in aluminum foil and stuffed inside frozen-food containers, the document said.

Whoops. That sure doesn't look good. They've got confessions, videotape, audio recordings and cash stashed in the freezer.

Jefferson's lawyer is understandably outraged about the leak of 9-month-old records -- there is clearly a political motive there. But it's hard to claim the info is not newsworthy, and it's pretty damning. Jefferson deserves his trial, of course. But if the FBI has this much evidence, it's an open and shut case.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

UN urges Gitmo closure as guards, inmates clash

The UN has become the latest organization to urge that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility be closed, while calling secret detention facilities a "clear violation" of anti-torture treaties.

A U.N. anti-torture panel issued a rebuke of Bush administration counter-terrorism policies today, calling for the closing of the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba and a halt to the transfer of suspected terrorists to countries where they may face torture.

The committee, charged with monitoring the 1984 Convention Against Torture which the United States has ratified, also charged that the imprisonment of suspects in secret detention facilities constitutes a clear violation of the 1984 treaty.

Not too surprising. But it once again drives home how damaging Gitmo and secret detention facilities are to our cause. They continue to cost us the moral high ground we need in order to effectively combat terrorism. They continue to alienate people who should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us. They continue to represent a betrayal of the ideals and principles we profess to defend.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said today that "we're a little bit disappointed" with the U.N. report "because we don't think the commission really took into account all the information provided to it, in terms of changes in policy, changes in laws, changes in procedures."

McCormack said the Guantanamo detainees pose "a threat to people around the world."

Uh-huh. That's why, of the 750 or so detainees, we've released hundreds and only charged 10.

The UN position, unfortunately, is more persuasive:

The committee said it welcomed the U.S. commitment that officials from all U.S. government agencies, including contractors, "are prohibited from engaging in torture at all times and in all places." It also welcomed the U.S. pledge not to transfer terror suspects to countries where they would "more likely than not" endure torture.

But the committee expressed skepticism about the U.S. commitment to comply with such pledges, citing concern about the adequacy of a U.S. policy to obtain "diplomatic assurances" against torture from countries with poor rights records.

That, and this administration's tinkering with the definition of "torture", and Bush asserting his inherent right to authorize torture, and this administration's general penchant for not matching words to actions.

The administration reflects some careful parsing of the truth in its further response to the report:

Snow, at the news briefing today, said the United States invited the U.N. committee to visit the Guantanamo facility "on a number of occasions."

"They chose not to do so," he said.

True. Of course, the reason they chose not to visit was because of the restrictions placed upon them, notably a ban on actually talking to the detainees. So for Snow to now claim that we were open and welcoming is, frankly, BS.

Coincidentally, there was a dustup at Gitmo today, as prisoners attacked guards who entered a medium-security area to stop a prisoner from committing suicide.

Prisoners wielding improvised weapons clashed with guards trying to stop a detainee from committing suicide at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the military said Friday.

The fight occurred Thursday in a medium-security section of the camp as guards were responding to the fourth attempted suicide that day at the detention center on the U.S. Navy base, Cmdr. Robert Durand said.

Detainees used fans, light fixtures and other improvised weapons to attack the guards as they entered a communal living area to stop a prisoner trying to hang himself, Durand said.

Earlier in the day, three detainees in another part of the prison attempted suicide by swallowing prescription medicine they had been hoarding.

Sure sounds like "Club Gitmo" to me. Four suicide attempts? In one day? Maybe being imprisoned without charge or hope for four years can drive people to despair. Maybe that's why Gitmo is such a moral, legal and ethical embarassment.

Update: U.S. officials say the fight was a coordinated effort by the prisoners, and the fourth "suicidal" detainee was simply pretending in order to draw the guards in.

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Trying on the Hitler suit

Canada's National Post is reporting that Iran's parliament has approved a law that would require religious minorities to wear colored bands identifying their faith.

The law mandates the government to make sure that all Iranians wear "standard Islamic garments" designed to remove ethnic and class distinctions reflected in clothing, and to eliminate "the influence of the infidel" on the way Iranians, especially, the young dress. It also envisages separate dress codes for religious minorities, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, who will have to adopt distinct colour schemes to make them identifiable in public. The new codes would enable Muslims to easily recognize non-Muslims so that they can avoid shaking hands with them by mistake, and thus becoming najis (unclean).

The law has apparently been passed by the Iranian parliament but still requires approval by the true ruler of Iran, Ali Khamenei. The law would take effect in the fall at the earliest.

I'm not seeing much independent confirmation of this yet, just articles in some Israeli papers, conservative blogs and Christian news sites. So there may be less here than meets the eye.

If true, though, it's yet another sign of what a nutcase Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is -- he pushed hard to get the law through -- and how willing Iran is to embrace every bad image their critics have ever painted them with.

And how important it is to ensure that these guys never get nukes.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Hamas, police battle in Gaza


Civil war fears are on again in Palestine.

Palestinian police fought gunbattles in Gaza City on Friday with a new Hamas-led security force set up by the Islamist government in defiance of President Mahmoud Abbas.

At least four people were wounded in the first fighting since Hamas deployed the force on Wednesday. Two police, one Hamas member and a gunman from Abbas's
Fatah movement were hurt....

Quick! Can anyone name another country where armed militias are making a bad situation worse?

The 3,000-strong Hamas-backed force, formed under the authority of Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, was deployed in a challenge to the authority of Abbas, whose Fatah movement was defeated by Hamas in elections in January.

In response, Abbas ordered the deployment of a Fatah-loyal police unit. The decision marked the latest step in a deepening power struggle between Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas movement took power in March....

"It seems that the civil war has begun," said one medic, who did not want to give his name. Gunfire echoed as he spoke.

Let's hope not. While some pro-Israeli hawks might see positive things in a divided and distracted Palestine, a collapse of central authority will make dealing with the Palestinians more difficult, and eliminate whatever control the PA has over its more militant factions. Peace talks requires someone in authority to talk to. And that's without getting into the humanitarian disaster a civil war would be.

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Artist faces deportation


Came across this interesting individual face in the ongoing immigration debate. Should Huck Gee be deported?

He's a British national who has lived in the United States since he was 7. He's now 33, and hasn't been back to England in 16 years.

But he never applied for citizenship, thanks mostly (he says) to inertia and not seeing much difference between that and permanent residency. Sounds like a lot of young adults I know.

When he was 18, he was caught selling $5 worth of marijuana to a friend of a friend. Frankly, that also sounds like a lot of young adults I know.

He paid his fine and served 30 days in work release and 3 years' probation.

14 years later, he's a successful art toy designer. He took a trip to Asia. When he got back to the States, he got interrogated by Homeland Security, which initiated deportation proceedings against him based on the 1991 conviction.

Does this seem just to you? Is this the face we want to present to the world? Why do we go out of our way to punch people in the nose? Does that really enhance our security? Is this a good use of our limited resources?

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CIA rendition lawsuit dismissed

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program, saying a trial would compromise national security.
Judge T. S. Ellis 3d ruled in favor of the Bush administration, which had argued that the "state secrets" privilege provided an absolute bar to the lawsuit against a former C.I.A. director and transportation companies. Judge Ellis said the suit's going forward, even if the government denied the contentions, would risk an exposure of state secrets.

The case involves Khaled el-Masri, a Kuwaiti-born German, who was arrested on Dec. 31, 2003, in Macedonia, where he had gone for a vacation. From there, he was flown to a prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he was held for five months before being released. During his incarceration in Kabul, he has said, he was shackled, beaten and injected with drugs.

I understand needing to protect state secrets. But there has to be some recourse for people wrongly detained or abused by the government. "National security" cannot be a blank check for wrongdoing. And in this case the "evidence" of harm appears to be a simple affidavit by Porter Goss. With all due respect to Mr. Goss, it seems ludicrous that the CIA director has the power to squelch a lawsuit against his agency simply by saying it would harm national security.

This case is a bit odd in that regard anyway, because the government has largely acknowledged most of el-Masri's claims:

United States officials have acknowledged the principal elements of Mr. Masri's account, saying intelligence authorities may have confused him with an operative of Al Qaeda with a similar name. The officials also said he was released in May 2004 on the direct orders of Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, after she learned he had been mistakenly identified as a terrorism suspect.

Then make amends to the guy already, and allow a debate on whether we should be rendering people like this, as well as what safeguards are in place to prevent and if necessary remedy mistakes and wrongdoing.

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BellSouth seeks retraction

Ratcheting up the pressure on USA Today, BellSouth has asked for a retraction on the newspaper's NSA database story.

It'll be interesting to see where this goes. BellSouth didn't challenge the story before publication, and the report appears to be at least partly true, in that AT&T hasn't denied it and Qwest has confirmed it. It's a battle of unverified denial vs. anonymous sources. So unless USA Today uncovers some problem with its reporting, I doubt they'll issue the retraction. But we'll see.

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American credibility eroding

I can't say I'm surprised at this, but this report says America's image problem is getting worse.

In increasing numbers, people around the globe resent American power and wealth and reject specific actions like the occupation of Iraq and the campaign against democratically elected Palestinian leaders, in-depth international polling shows.

America's image problem is pervasive, deep and perhaps permanent, analysts say -- an inevitable outcome of being the world's only superpower.

But there is worse news. In the past, while Europeans and Asians and Arabs might have disliked American policies or specific U.S. leaders, they liked and admired Americans themselves.

Polls now show an ominous turn. Majorities around the world think Americans are greedy, violent and rude, and fewer than half in countries like Poland, Spain, Canada, China and Russia think Americans are honest.

"We found a rising antipathy toward Americans," said Bruce Stokes of the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which interviewed 93,000 people in 50 countries over a four-year time span.

Lots of people, myself included, have pointed to this as one of the main drawbacks to the Bush administration's go-it-alone foreign policy. Fighting an enemy as amorphous as terrorism requires international cooperation. Bush's first term was marked by constant and at times deliberate snubbing of both proven and potential allies, with the invasion of Iraq marking a pinnacle of sorts. That not only squandered good will; it damaged our ability to track terrorists and deny them safe havens.

Keeping the peace, winning the war on terrorism and other critical goals are achievable "only if people like you and trust you," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

Kind of a "duh" moment, you'd think. But this administration has only belatedly realized it. Now even our allies aren't thrilled with us.

Almost half of those polled in Britain, France and Germany dispute the whole concept of a global war on terrorism, and a majority of Europeans believe the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. More than two-thirds of Germans, French and Turks believe American leaders lied about the reasons for war and believe the United States is less trustworthy than it once was.

What bothers me is that the study says the problem isn't just Bush; many foreigners have come to believe that the problem is Americans themselves. So it will take more than one election to overcome that.

Obviously, we shouldn't focus solely on winning popularity contests. Sometimes the right thing or the necessary thing isn't the popular thing. But we also shouldn't go out of our way to antagonize other countries, as we have done; we shouldn't appear to be hypocrites, as we have done; and we should listen with an open mind to what other countries have to say, even if we don't always heed their advice. That's what builds bridges and creates allies instead of enemies.

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Air traffic controllers retiring en masse

By the end of next year a quarter of the nation's air-traffic controllers will retire. Besides the loss of that much experience, there is concern that their replacements will not be ready.

Those in the present generation of controllers -- hired after President Reagan fired about 11,000 striking workers in 1981 -- are approaching their 50s. Ironically, the FAA counts almost 500 of the controllers fired in 1981 as possible replacements for the retiring controllers.

Controllers are eligible to retire at 50 or after serving 25 years. They face mandatory retirement at 56.

By the end of 2007, 3,769 of the country's 14,736 air traffic controllers will be eligible for retirement.

The FAA estimates that 7,540 controllers could retire by 2011. That's more than half the current work force. And the number could reach 8,549 by 2012. Additional controllers could be lost through death, illness, resignation and promotion.

I was only 14 in 1981, so I barely remember the effect of firing 11,000 controllers. But I seem to recall that the planes kept flying. If we can handle the loss of 11,000 controllers all at once, I would think we could handle this more gradual attrition. On the other hand, the skies are a lot busier these days, so there's less slack in the system.

The FAA says it's on top of things:

Jay Aul, the FAA's human resources manager for controller operations support, said the agency will have all the replacements it needs even considering the required three to five years of training.

"We have a pool of applicants we can draw on," Aul said. "There are 1,300 military controllers who want to come over, 800 to 900 people in our college training programs, 300 people we reached through our job fairs, and about 500 former PATCO controllers."

I would hope so, since anyone can see this one coming. Though it's pretty funny that they're considering hiring back some of the fired controllers.

In the end this may just be a tactic by the controller's union to stir up interest ahead of contract negotiations. But given that it takes up to five years to train a new controller, a miscalculation could cause problems for an extended time.

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No kidding....

In the "well, duh" category, George Will (who I've found myself agreeing with more often lately) notes that a lot of people are "values voters", not just social conservatives.

An aggressively annoying new phrase in America's political lexicon is "values voters." It is used proudly by social conservatives, and carelessly by the media to denote such conservatives.

This phrase diminishes our understanding of politics. It also is arrogant on the part of social conservatives and insulting to everyone else because it implies that only social conservatives vote to advance their values and everyone else votes to . . . well, it is unclear what they supposedly think they are doing with their ballots.

Every demographic phrase necessarily trades accuracy for pithiness, but Will is right that the "values voter" phrase has been hyped and distorted more than most. And let's not forget that even if you put aside the hopelessly vague meaning of the phrase and accept that it means "social conservatives", their impact on the last election was probably overstated.

But I invite the Republicans to court values voters -- and get creamed in November by an electorate more concerned about substantive problems than ethereal wedge issues.

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Slowdown

I've been a little light on the posts the last couple of days, and I apologize. Work and home life have gotten very busy with the approach of summer, leaving me short on time. I'll have some posts up later today and will play major catch up tomorrow.

In the car I was listening to MPR, which was broadcasting the Hayden confirmation hearings. I had the pleasure of listening to Russ Feingold question Hayden. On this issue I'm very close to Feingold, so it was great to hear him articulating many of the same things that I've written about in the past few months.

I must say I was also impressed by Hayden -- cool, polite, and obviously very smart. I can see why members of Congress who have worked with him like him. He was quite straightforward, not dodging questions and willing to answer hypotheticals -- a refreshing change from the Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

So what have I been doing instead of posting? Besides putting in some odd hours at work, I've been cutting in a new vegetable garden. I do it by hand because I like the work: removing the sod with a shovel (to be transplanted elsewhere), hoeing up the soil (instead of renting a tiller), mixing in fresh topsoil and manure, lining the edge with paving bricks turned on edge to help keep the weeds out and putting up a short fence to keep animals out.

I finished it today and was finally able to plant the tomato plants that I've been growing in pots. They're a family beefsteak hybrid, developed by the last farmer in my family tree and kept going by the rest of us saving a few seeds from each season's harvest. This weekend I'll plant the rest of the garden: lettuce, broccoli, peas, beans, corn and maybe some peppers. I tried carrots last year, but our soil is too clayish and dense. So no roots this time around.

Our raspberry patch should also bear fruit for the first time this year, so I'm a happy farmer. My wife likes developing flower beds; for me, it's only worth it if I can eat it.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hall of Shame member to be sentenced

He's already in the Hall of Shame, but James Tobin will be sentenced to prison today for his role in the jamming of Democratic phone lines in New Hampshire in 2002.

The effects go beyond prison terms:

The New Hampshire Republican Party, burden by legal bills, is virtually broke, with $733.60 in its federal and state accounts.

The Republican National Committee, in turn, has paid $3 million in legal fees in criminal and civil cases growing out of the controversy. The RNC has paid at least $2.8 million to Williams & Connolly and other firms for Tobin's defense, and about $150,000 to Covington & Burling to defend the RNC in a civil suit brought by the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Politics is hardball, but there's no place for dirty tricks. Win fair, or you don't deserve to win.

Update: He got 10 months and was fined $10,000.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Reactor-for-peace deal with Iran?

Europe is considering building a light-water reactor in Iran as part of a package of incentives to get Iran to give up its domestic uranium-enrichment capability.

McCormack said Tehran would be required to halt its program of enriching and reprocessing uranium on Iranian soil, saying the U.S. and others "do not want the Iranian regime to have the ability to master those critical pathways to a nuclear weapon."

The Iranian reaction? I'll give you one guess.

Hojjatollah Soltani, second secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Venezuela, said such a proposal would acceptable only if it "only if they recognize our right to (use) nuclear technology" — including uranium enrichment.

The deal is similar to the one we offered North Korea back in the 1990s, when we began building them two reactors in exchange for them giving up their nuclear program. Work on the reactors was halted a few years later when it became clear North Korea hadn't given up its own program.

There's no reason to think the outcome will be any different with Iran, but it's a worthwhile offer to make. Reactors take years to build, which provides plenty of time to ensure Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. And if they reject the deal it's just one more example of Iranian intransigence on this subject.

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NSA roundup

Two things of note today with the NSA phone database story, and a development in the NSA's warrantless wiretap story.

First, the New York Times has a thoughtful essay by Jonathan David Farley of the Center for International Secuirty and Cooperation, who sheds more light on the question: does copying everyone's phone records help us find terrorists? His answer: no, for several reasons, among them one I mentioned a few days ago: the Kevin Bacon problem.

It's a thought-provoking explanation of how network analysis works, and the problems posed by the NSA's version. His conclusion: the NSA effort would not actually be effective, and for that reason alone it is not worth the civil liberties damage.

Meanwhile, two of the phone companies mentioned in the USA Today story that set off this brouhaha have denied that they were ever approached by the NSA:

Verizon Communications Inc. denied Tuesday that it had received a request for customer phone records from the National Security Agency, bringing into question key points of a USA Today story. ... The statement came a day after BellSouth Corp. also said the NSA had never requested customer call data, nor had the company provided any.

Denials aren't proof of anything, of course. But then, neither are anonymously sourced stories. Their denials leave AT&T as the only company to not deny the charge, and Qwest has already said it was approached but turned the government down.

Finally, Arlen Specter has struck a deal with other GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, laying the ground rules for determining the legality of the NSA spy programs.

It's basically a surrender:

Specter has mollified conservative opposition to his bill by agreeing to drop the requirement that the Bush administration seek a legal judgment on the program from a special court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

Instead, Specter agreed to allow the administration to retain an important legal defense by allowing the court, which holds its hearings in secret, to review the program only by hearing a challenge from a plaintiff with legal standing, said a person familiar with the text of language agreed to by Specter and committee conservatives.

Conservative Republicans who pushed for the change say that it will help quell concerns about the measure’s constitutionality and allow the White House to retain a basic legal defense.

An expert in constitutional law and national security, however, said that the change would allow the administration to throw up huge obstacles to anyone seeking to challenge the program’s legality.

Exactly. The only people with legal standing would be someone who could show they were affected by the program. But with the surveillance targets being kept secret, no one will know if they were a target, and certainly couldn't prove it. So showing standing will be a nigh-impossible task.

All of this is simply to clear the way for legislation that would declare the surveillance program legal. The only bone thrown to opponents is a clause giving the FISA court jurisdiction over challenges to the program. But FISA already had such jurisdiction over intelligence matters, and the administration didn't care, instead asserting non-FISA authority for the program. Bush will continue to assert "inherent" constitutional authority for the program and thus continue to ignore FISA. And thanks to Specter's surrender, FISA can't do anything about it until someone with standing challenges the program.

The story does note that some cases are already in the pipeline:

But a GOP aide familiar with the compromise said more than 20 cases are “in the pipeline” in which plaintiffs have challenged the surveillance program. It was very likely that the court would rule on one of the cases if Specter’s bill passed, the aide added.

Maybe. We'll see how many of those cases survive the "standing" hurdle.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

The Rove indictment kerfuffle

Truthout, which last Friday reported that Karl Rove would be indicted soon, today reported that it had happened.

As I said last time, take it with a grain of salt. Truthout is a wee bit biased, there's no independent corroboration and Rove's spokesman virulently denies it.

That disconnect has led others to speculate that Truthout has been the victim of a well-built hoax. And Wonkette summed up their own skepticism with "Karl Rove indicted, everyone with a blog to get their own unicorn."

When you traffic in rumors, sometimes all you get is air.

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No Iraq War Syndrome yet

On the good news front, researchers have found no evidence of an "Iraq War Syndrome" similar to the "Gulf War Syndrome" that affected veterans of the 1991 invasion.

They examined whether there had been an increase in ill health in soldiers returning from Iraq and compared the mental and physical health of forces who had been deployed and those who had not.

They found only slight increases in symptoms but reserve forces experienced more mental health problems than regular forces.

The most interesting side note is that this seems to knock the legs out from under the "depleted uranium" theory of causation. Depleted uranium, being exceedingly dense, is used in Western tank armor and antitank rounds. The general nervousness surrounding "radioactive" materials led many people to assert that the rounds caused health problems by creating fine dust particles that can be inhaled.

This never made much sense, since depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium. Even uranium miners -- exposed to much higher doses for much longer periods of time -- come out clean.

Depleted uranium weaponry was used as much or more in the Iraq war as it was in 1991. If it was a serious cause of health problems, they would have shown up in the current study. They did not.

Speaking as a former tanker, I'm relieved. I never worked with DU rounds, but the effectiveness of DU -- both as protection and weapon -- is not something I would give up lightly. Even if they posed a health threat, I'd be willing to accept a slight increase in long-term health risks in exchange for surviving the war. It just doesn't make sense to increase your odds of dying now by 10 percent in order to reduce your odds of dying 30 years from now by 5 percent. If you want to live forever, don't volunteer for a combat branch of the military.

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