Friday, June 30, 2006

The media-military relationship

I came across this article in the Naval War College Review today. It's from 2002, but it's still a good exploration of why the media and the military so often find themselves at odds.

The author, Douglas Porch, is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.

A choice and perhaps surprising quote:

the strained relationship between the media and the U.S. military has nothing to do with censorship—for the simple reason that media-military relations have always been rocky, never more than in World War II. The difference between World War II and Vietnam was not the presence of censorship but the absence of victory. In other conflicts, victory has erased memories of a troubled relationship; after Vietnam, the media was caught up in the quest for a scapegoat. Furthermore, the nebulous goals of the War on Terrorism, the fact that it is likely to be a prolonged operation, and the inherent difficulties from a media perspective of covering a war fought from the air and in the shadows virtually guarantee a degeneration of the relationship between two institutions with an inherent distrust of each other.

Indeed. Contrary to popular myth, the press during World War II was every bit as contentious as it is now.

And what about Vietnam? The canonical story is that it was the first "TV war", in which the press had nearly unrestricted and real-time access to soldiers, units and battlefields -- and then used that access to turn the public against the war. We didn't lose Vietnam on the battlefield, goes the mantra -- we lost it at home, our will to win sapped by defeatist media coverage.

This explanation, however, has been discredited by numerous studies. In fact, press coverage was generally favorable until the Tet offensive of 1968. As later became clear, that dramatic campaign was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong; nonetheless, it blasted the credibility of claims by the White House and Westmoreland that the United States and South Vietnam were on the threshold of victory. The critical tone adopted by the press thereafter “confirm[ed] the widespread public view held well before Tet, that the people had been victims of a massive deception” and that the prospects for success were in fact doubtful.

In fact, then, the press did not so much create public opposition as reflect it. And the government had no one to blame for that but itself. By routinely lying to the press (and thus the public) and painting a rosy picture of the war, their credibility vanished when Tet and subsequent actions exposed their deception.

And what about the media glamorizing war protesters? That's mostly myth, too. Press coverage of violent antiwar protests tended to increase support for the war by showing protesters in an unflattering light.

So what drives the poor relationship between the media and the military? Culture and mission, mostly. Setting aside hard-to-prove issues like "media bias", you just have two groups with different yet important goals.

Journalists want to shine light into dark places, to expose abuses of power, and to force public debate over issues that might otherwise never receive democratic scrutiny.

The military, like any bureaucracy, prefers to conduct it's business in private. Moreover, it's business is war -- the professional management and application of violence. This is inherently an awful thing that rarely looks good on camera. Moreover, the military necessarily breeds a culture of "team players" who adhere to strict discipline and often display a near-obsession with loyalty and security. Throw in operational security concerns, and one can understand why they're leery of, suspicious of or just plain disgusted by reporters.

So you end up with the classic standoff:

Military people typically believe that reporters, untutored in the fundamentals of the military profession, are psychologically unprepared to deal with the realities of combat. They fear that reporters, in quests for sensationalism rather than truth, may publish stories or images that breach security, cost lives, or undermine public support. For their part, reporters insist upon their professional obligation and constitutional duty to report the news. They consider the military’s culture closed, its insistence on operational secrecy exaggerated, and its “command climate” a barrier to outside scrutiny.

Both are right, to a degree; each reflect different facets of what it means to live in and defend a free society. Soldiers defend society from outside threats; journalists defend it from internal threats and the government itself. As with many such things, this comes down to an exercise in line-drawing; and the biggest problems arise when one side or the other tries to swing the pendulum too far in one direction.

But in the end, warfare in a democracy requires approval of the people. And that means the military needs the press.

Warfare is a political act. Political leaders, in democracies at least, must inform the public about foreign policy goals; the military must convince the public that it can achieve those goals at an acceptable cost; and both must do so largely through the press. Press reports of success and progress strengthen and extend public support. The media also familiarize the public with the military and with the complexity of its tasks. In short, the media offers the military a means to tell its story.


Familiarizing the public with the military is a crucial strategic need in this day of volunteer soldiers, when the share of the population that knows somebody in uniform has shrunk to tiny proportions.

The press needs the military, too: military connections are often the only way to gain access to the battlefield and to military deliberations -- the kind of access that lets a democracy know what is being done in its name. A press that cannot intelligently and fully cover the military in peacetime also cannot competently cover it in wartime -- and such a press is useless as a foundation of democracy.

The media-military relationship will always be a contentious one. But ultimately, that's a good thing. As long as a reasonable balance can be struck, their competing interests form a smaller version of the checks-and-balances that make our governmental structure so durable. The press provides public oversight -- and understanding -- of the military; the military uses the press to get its side of the story out. And that helps ensure that our military is used in support of democracy instead of to its detriment.

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Condi Iraq discussion caught on tape

For a fascinating look at diplomacy in action, check out this report from the Washington Post.

The official State Department version is that "there was absolutely no friction whatsoever" between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting of foreign ministers in Moscow on Thursday.

But a recording of the ministers' private lunch, made when an audio link into the room was accidentally left on, showed that "Condi" and "Sergei" -- as they called each other -- had several long and testy exchanges over Iraq.

For example, here's what Rice said in response to Russian concerns about security at diplomatic missions:

"Urgent methods are being taken to provide security for diplomats," Rice said. The sentence "implies they are not being taken, and you know on a fairly daily basis we lose soldiers, and I think it would be offensive to suggest that these efforts are not being made."

Lavrov countered that the sentence was not intended to criticize but was "just a statement of fact, I believe."

"I don't believe security is fine in Iraq, and I don't believe in particular that security at foreign missions is okay," he said. He suggested shortening the sentence to emphasize "the need for improved security for diplomatic missions."

"Sergei, there is a need for improvement of security in Iraq, period," Rice said in a hard voice. "The problem isn't diplomatic missions. The problem is journalists and civilian contractors and, yes, diplomats as well."

Just in passing, this -- along with the recent cable from the U.S. ambassador describing the security situation in Baghdad -- should explode the "everything is fine in Iraq" mantra chanted by war supporters.

But mostly, it shows how bluntly diplomats speak behind closed doors. And it gives me increased respect for Rice.

The punchline:

Reporters traveling with Rice transcribed the tape of the private luncheon but did not tell Rice aides about it until after a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity as usual, assured them that "there was absolutely no friction whatsoever" between the two senior diplomats.

Once the flabbergasted official learned of the tape, he continued the briefing. He paused repeatedly, asking before describing a discussion whether reporters had heard it.

Diplomacy is like sausage: you don't want to know how it's made. But I enjoy an unfiltered glimpse now and then. It gives me greater confidence in my government officials when I see them acting honorably in unguarded moments.

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Hamdan ruling, continued

The Washington Post has a good analysis of the Hamdan ruling, reflecting several points I brought up yesterday. The military commissions aspect got all the headlines, but the ruling is really a repudiation of the notion that Bush has near limitless "inherent authority" in times of war.
For five years, President Bush waged war as he saw fit. If intelligence officers needed to eavesdrop on overseas telephone calls without warrants, he authorized it. If the military wanted to hold terrorism suspects without trial, he let it.

Now the Supreme Court has struck at the core of his presidency and dismissed the notion that the president alone can determine how to defend the country. In rejecting Bush's military tribunals for terrorism suspects, the high court ruled that even a wartime commander in chief must govern within constitutional confines significantly tighter than this president has believed appropriate.

For many in Washington, the decision echoed not simply as a matter of law but as a rebuke of a governing philosophy of a leader who at repeated turns has operated on the principle that it is better to act than to ask permission.

Which ought to worry everyone, including conservatives. Asking permission is at the core of our balance of powers.

"There is a strain of legal reasoning in this administration that believes in a time of war the other two branches have a diminished role or no role," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has resisted the administration's philosophy, said in an interview. "It's sincere, it's heartfelt, but after today, it's wrong."

Yep.

And what is the source of that legal reasoning? Here's one answer, from the New Yorker via Donklephant. The name is David Addington, Scooter Libby's replacement as Cheney's chief of staff. And he co-authored (with Alberto Gonzales) not only the infamous torture memo, but a legal strategy dubbed the "New Paradigm."

This strategy rests on a reading of the Constitution that few legal scholars share -- namely that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to disregard virtually all previously known legal boundaries, if national security demands it. Under this framework, statutes prohibiting torture, secret detention, and warrantless surveillance have been set aside. A former high-ranking Administration lawyer who worked extensively on national-security issues said that the Administration’s legal positions were, to a remarkable degree, "all Addington." Another lawyer, Richard L. Shiffrin, who until 2003 was the Pentagon’s deputy general counsel for intelligence, said that Addington was “an unopposable force.”

This view of unbridled executive power is what was disemboweled by the Hamdan ruling. But will the administration adjust its behavior? Somehow, I doubt it. Look for them to continue seeking forgiveness rather than permission, and force each and every action to be challenged by lawsuits before they conform to the narrow ruling in each case.

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Space shuttle set for launch tomorrow

The shuttle Discovery is scheduled to blast into space tomorrow, weather permitting.

The weather delay nonetheless served as a reminder of the bleak forecasts for launch day. NASA predicted a 60 percent chance that weather conditions will ground the shuttle Saturday. The prospects aren't any better Sunday or Monday, as clouds from area thunderstorms are expected to continue threatening rain and lightning.

Regular shuttle flights are needed if we're to complete the International Space Station and keep the Hubble telescope operating until the James Webb telescope is launched in 2013.

In other recent space news, two moons of Pluto discovered by the Hubble telescope have been named: Nix and Hydra join Charon as Plutonian satellites.

That still doesn't settle whether Pluto is actually a planet -- and if it is, whether that means we have more than nine planets after all, because there are several nonplanetary objects in the solar system that are as large or possibly larger than Pluto.

Fun stuff.

I hope tomorrow's launch goes well and that the astronauts go and return safely.

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Soldiers accused of killing Iraqi family

Actually, it's a bit uglier than that. They allegedly raped a woman, then killed her and three members of her family.

The investigation is still in the early stages, so no one should jump to conclusions about guilt or innocence. But one soldier has reportedly confessed, apparently prompted to do so by the recent kidnapping and killing of two soldiers from the same regiment.

Assuming they are guilty as charged, this does not impugn the military as a whole. But it does show, yet again, why war should be a last resort. Because there's no way to keep war from getting ugly in lots of ways both large and small.

Also, how many such incidents add up to evidence of declining discipline among American troops? The perception will develop long before the actuality, of course, but it's still a concern. Even the best troops can endure the pressure and frustration of occupation duty for only so long. Most won't go the route demonstrated here -- a descent into pure criminality. But they might get less careful about discriminating between insurgents and civilians. Either would be a setback for our counterinsurgency efforts, not to mention the lasting psychological damage among our soldiers.

I'm willing to accept such things as an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of a necessary war. But since I don't think invading Iraq was necessary in any way, this is just another piece of "collateral damage" that didn't have to be.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

Kuwaiti women go to the polls today

Back in April, Kuwaiti women voted for the first time in a by-election.

At the time, full parliamentary elections weren't scheduled to be held until 2007. So the April vote, while significant, was a baby step.

But five weeks ago, Kuwait's emir dissolved parliament and called early elections. So today Kuwaiti women vote in their first full-fledged election, featuring 28 female candidates.

Even more interesting: because members of the all-male military are banned from voting, 57 percent of registered voters are women.

None of the female candidates are expected to win, but their mere existence is a victory for democracy in a conservative and tribal culture.

It's not all wine and roses, as one female candidate has discovered:

Detractors spread text messages ridiculing her Lebanese accent and Persian ancestry. Gossips whispered that the Bush administration was bankrolling her efforts. Vandals tore down her campaign posters. Islamist hardliners lambasted her for refusing to wear a veil.

"If I put the veil on today, I know I could get 600 or 700 more votes," she said. "But I won't. I respect my religion, and I won't use it as a political tool."

As the barbs grew more ruthless in the final days before the vote, Dashti's family became so concerned that they implored her not to accept food or drinks from strangers for fear that she would be poisoned. Dashti agreed, but only after speaking out against the "psychological terrorism" she considers as great an ill as the violence that has marred elections in other parts of the Middle East.

Changing attitudes can take decades. But it started with one woman filing a lawsuit. And now women are voting, and able to vote for female candidates. Of such things are great changes made.

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Mideast heats up (again)

There was a brief (if probably meaningless) moment of hope in Palestine a couple of days ago, when Hamas and Fatah agreed to recognize the so-called "prisoner's manifesto", which implicity recognizes Israel.

But Hamas later denied that it agreed to recognize Israel. If so, then this is worrisome:

The deal appeared likely to lead to the cancellation of a July 26 referendum Abbas had scheduled, over Hamas's objections, on the prisoners' document. Such a showdown would have heightened tensions between Fatah and Hamas, whose fighters have clashed repeatedly in recent weeks.

So what we might have here is a meaningless deal that allows Abbas to cancel a divisive referendum -- and squander a chance to move Palestinian-Israeli relations forward.

Things didn't get any better after Hamas-linked groups kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Israel responded by invading Gaza and arresting dozens of Hamas lawmakers -- and also venturing into Syrian airspace.

At times like this it's tough to avoid a "pox on both their houses" response. Hamas is split both politically and militarily, Abbas is largely powerless and Israel's outsized response to militant provocation further poisons the well. Israel may well have concluded that there's no point to negotiating or playing nice with a group that refuses to recognize their right to exist -- and they'd have a point. Israel also has a history of going all-out to retrieve captured soldiers, believing that it cuts down on the number of such captures. And again, they have a point.

But the fact is that the only way out of the current mess -- a mess that harms both sides -- is to show restraint and a committment to dialogue. Hamas' refusal to deal with reality carries consequences -- but Israel should strive to make those consequences proportionate. Otherwise Israel makes itself captive to the most extreme Palestinian elements -- elements that would like to see the peace process dead and buried.

Israel needs to battle the extremists and talk with the moderates, as does Hamas. But both need to take care that the methods used to achieve the former don't undermine the latter. Because the latter is the only thing that will lead to a long-term solution.

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No military tribunals for Gitmo trials

I am stunned and happy and feeling very appreciative of our system of government.

The Supreme Court today delivered a stunning rebuke to the Bush administration over its plans to try Guantanamo detainees before military commissions, ruling that the commissions violate U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of war prisoners.

In a 5-3 decision, the court said the trials were not authorized by any act of Congress and that their structure and procedures violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949.

It should be a no-brainer that creating a separate legal system for arbitrarily defined prisoners -- one with far fewer legal protections than either our civilian or military justice systems -- was a bad idea. It might be Constitutional (though still ill-advised) if Congress created such a system, but to do so solely through executive power represented an usurpation of Congress' role. I'm glad to see our judicial branch come down clearly on this.

In the short term, nothing will change at Guantanamo. But the ruling means the prisoners there must be tried either as civilians in federal court, or as military combatants under the UCMJ. Presumably they are entitled to a speedy trial as well, and won't simply remain detained indefinitely because the administration refuses to submit to a trial.

The ruling also deals a blow to the President's heavy reliance on his "inherent authority" to disregard laws he finds inconvenient. Part of his legal justification for the military tribunals rested on such "inherent" authority. This ruling kicks the legs out from under that argument, and points up that the only valid opinion on Bush's "inherent" authority comes from the judicial branch.

If Bush wishes to claim such authority, he ought to seek a Supreme Court ruling validating that claim -- not simply assert the authority and then exercise it until such time as a lawsuit challenging that authority wends its way through the courts. If an emergency requires him to act before he has an opportunity to seek such a ruling, he should still seek the ruling as soon as possible -- and use the power sparingly in the meantime.

The three justices that voted in favor of the administration's position were -- unsurprisingly -- Scalia, Thomas and Alito. John Roberts recused himself because he had heard the case as a lower-court judge; but he likely would have voted with the other three.

What's interesting about that is that it takes the idea of judicial deference to a whole new level. Their dissent rests largely on a law passed in 2005 that stripped the courts of any jurisdiction over Guantanamo detainees. It's rather amazing to see three Supreme Court justices meekly accept Congress' power to arbitrarily diminish their authority over a geographic region. Congress has the power to regulate the courts, of course, but where does that power end? What would stop Congress from legislating the judicial branch out of existence, either by defunding it or simply narrowing its authority to the point that it is powerless?

But that's a battle for another day. For now the Supreme Court has reaffirmed some basic principles of American law, and for that we should be happy.

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Signing statements get scrutiny

Bush's previously reported addiction to signing statements will now get Congressional scrutiny, courtesy of Arlen Specter.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter yesterday scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday on President Bush's use of signing statements to claim the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.

Specter said he is asking the Bush administration to send an official from the Justice Department to testify before the committee about the president's legal contentions, as well as several constitutional law scholars. It was not yet clear who from the administration would come, he said.

"I think that the president is trying to expand his executive authority at the expense of Congress's constitutional prerogatives, and it's very problemsome," Specter said in a phone interview. "I want to get into the details with the administration on what they think their legal authority is."

Good for him. It's one thing for Bush to issue a signing statement saying he believes the law is wrong or unconstitutional; it's another for him to actually disregard the law. One is opinion; the other is constitutionally dangerous.

So what I want to hear is how Bush has treated those laws. Were the statements merely his opinion, or did they guide how (and whether) he followed the law in question?

Bush supporters note that he's not the first president to use signing statements, and the Justice Department argues that Bush's practices are in line with that of his predecessors.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michelle E. Boardman testified during the committee's hearing on signing statements [committee materials] that presidents dating to James Monroe have used the statements to express constitutional concerns about legislation. President Bush's use of the technique is "indistinguishable" from that of previous presidents, according to Boardman's prepared remarks [text], and the number of statements Bush has issued "is in keeping with the number issued by every President during the past quarter century." She continued:

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Michelle E. Boardman testified during the committee's hearing on signing statements [committee materials] that presidents dating to James Monroe have used the statements to express constitutional concerns about legislation. President Bush's use of the technique is "indistinguishable" from that of previous presidents, according to Boardman's prepared remarks [text], and the number of statements Bush has issued "is in keeping with the number issued by every President during the past quarter century." She continued:

If she's right, then no problem. But I want to see examples of how various laws were handled. I want to know whether they're bluster or something more troublesome.

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Flag-burning amendment fails

... By one measly vote.

Obligatory meathead quote from amendment supporters:

"Countless men and women have died defending that flag," said Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., closing two days of debate. "It is but a small humble act for us to defend it."

Yes, let's honor the men and women who died for our freedom by damaging one of those freedoms. Perhaps someone should send Frist a dictionary with the entry for "irony" highlighted.

You also have to admire the spin of the pro-amendment folks, who note that flag-burning has increased 33 percent this year.

The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.

The number has increased to four, from three.

Yes, we certainly need an amendment to deal with that.

I am glad this issue is dead for another year. And I hope the November elections cause Senate support for this stupidity to recede.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Camptopia

I'm heading off on a camping trip with the family, so I won't be posting for several days. Meanwhile, check out the excellent posts at sites like Donklephant, the Moderate Voice and the Reaction.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Reserving a seat for Ney

In the Hall of Shame, that is.

Check out this squirming and word-parsing:

In the fall of 2004, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) told Senate investigators that ... "he was not at all familiar with the Tigua" and could not recall meeting with members of the tribe, the report said.

Six days after the interview, Tigua representatives testified at a committee hearing that Abramoff had set up a lengthy meeting with Ney in his office in August 2002 as well as a conference call, and that the congressman had assured them he was working to insert language that would reopen their casino into an unrelated election reform bill. Team Abramoff and the tribe that year became Ney's biggest donors, contributing $47,500 to his campaign committees....

Ney's statements to the committee have been contradicted by others as well, including his former longtime chief of staff, Neil G. Volz, in admissions he made this year as part of his guilty plea to corruptly seeking to influence Ney on the Tigua issue.

Busted! Ney's response:

Brian Walsh, a spokesman for Ney, said yesterday that the congressman's meeting with the committee "was a voluntary meeting -- it was not conducted under oath."

Translation: "Sure, I lied -- but it wasn't illegal."

Walsh also pleads a misspelling: Ney's calendar showed a meeting with the "Taqua", not the "Tigua."

Funny stuff. But it doesn't explain why Ney further claimed he never met with an El Paso-based tribe. Even if he got the name wrong, surely the location would have stuck.

Finally, Walsh complains that the report relied on testimony from "convicted felons." Well, yeah. But one of those felons is Ney's own chief of staff. It's pretty hard to impeach that kind of testimony with character attacks.

As a side note, the report details $4 million in payments from Abramoff to Ralph Reed, carefully funneled through Grover Norquist so that Reed wouldn't be taking money directly from gambling interests. Slimy as that is, neither Reed nor Norquist are Congressmen. Although this should certainly be a factor in Reed's bid for Georgia's lieutenant governor seat.

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From telephone calls to bank records

The big revelation in today's papers are that the government has been monitoring a huge international database of financial transactions, looking for evidence of terrorist funding so they can trace it and shut it down.

The program is limited, government officials say, to tracing transactions of people suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda by reviewing records from the nerve center of the global banking industry, a Belgian cooperative that routes about $6 trillion daily between banks, brokerages, stock exchanges and other institutions. The records mostly involve wire transfers and other methods of moving money overseas and into and out of the United States. Most routine financial transactions confined to this country are not in the database.

Nobody should be suprised by this. We know the administration was monitoring phone calls, and we know they were trying to trace terrorist funding.

The one thing I find surprising is that a company based in Belgium agreed to share the data, despite rules to the contrary. But they have U.S. operations, which makes them subject to U.S. law. And in the aftermath of 9/11 they were interested in helping if they could.

So is this program another warrantless wiretap program? Yet another power grab by the administration in the name of fighting terror?

Yes and no. As constructed, I have fewer problems with this effort than I do with the eavesdropping program.

First, it's not warrantless:

Treasury officials did not seek individual court-approved warrants or subpoenas to examine specific transactions, instead relying on broad administrative subpoenas for millions of records from the cooperative, known as Swift.


Yes, it's a broad grab. But at least they're getting subpoenas (though it appears that's only because Swift demanded them). They're just National Security Letters, true, which require very little in the way of factual support. But it's better than just ignoring the whole warrant/subpoena process.

Second, it's mostly international records, and there are safeguards to keep the records of American citizens private.

Among the safeguards, government officials said, is an outside auditing firm that verifies that the data searches are based on intelligence leads about suspected terrorists. "We are not on a fishing expedition," Mr. Levey said. "We're not just turning on a vacuum cleaner and sucking in all the information that we can."

The auditing firm is a nice touch. But regardless, I have no problem with scanning foreign transactions. It's similar to what the NSA was created to do: monitor foreign communications. They don't need a warrant to do so, because foreigners have no protections under the Constitution.

So I don't have a big problem with the broad outline of the program. My concerns are smaller.

1. This program, created as a temporary, emergency measure right after 9/11, is becoming entrenched as a permanent tool. If this is going to be a long-term effort, then the program needs to ensure that it takes careful care of individual rights. As one official noted: while tight controls are in place, "the potential for abuse is enormous." It's the same problem we run into with other "emergency" powers claimed under the "war" metaphor; they are inherently incompatible with a decades-long fight such as we're facing with regard to terrorism. We need to find ways to access this data without invoking "emergency" powers that trample on rights.

2. If they're using an audit firm to ensure that every search is based on intelligence leads, that raises a big question: why do they need to use broad administrative subpoenas? If they know enough to request a record, they should be able to get a narrower warrant that would be far more protective of individual rights. The administration has shown little interest in such balancing measures. But as in the phone database case, it's not clear why -- other than a general desire to operate with as few restrictions as possible.

So while this program bears watching, and probably could use some reforms to make it compatible with long-term use, I don't find it as offensive as the more purely domestic operations that Bush has authorized.

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As expected, House votes to slash estate tax

The vote was 269-156.

Now it goes to the Senate, where the vote is expected to be much closer.

Republicans trot out the same discredited rhetoric:

"I've never thought that every trip to the undertaker should be a accompanied by a trip by the I.R.S. to your family," said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican whip. "Do I have to sell the corner grocery store or the service station, just to pay the inheritance tax?"

Of course, Republicans have been unable to show examples of that actually happening. I'm blown away by Blunt's ability to repeat a talking point with a straight face, even after it's been debunked.

The Democrats have it right on this one:

Democrats, with equal vehemence, countered that fewer than 1 percent of estates are subject to any tax and that a further rollback would benefit only the very richest families while widening the federal deficit.

"This is the Paris Hilton tax relief act — not Conrad Hilton, Paris Hilton," said Representative Stephen Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts. "This Congress has bent over backward to take care of the wealthy, the strong. Who do we neglect? The people who do the menial work."

It's all about priorities. And it makes no sense for this to be a top priority. Fix other things first.

Bleh. Let's hope the Senate is made of sterner stuff.

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Good for her

In an example of why we have warrant requirements, there's this story:

Library Director Michele Reutty is under fire for refusing to give police library circulation records without a subpoena.

Reutty says she was only doing her job and maintaining the privacy of library patrons. But the mayor called it "a blatant disregard for the Police Department," which needed her help to identify a man who allegedly threatened a child.

If you read the piece, you'll note that the only thing the librarian did was uphold the law by requiring the police to have proper authorization before they accessed private records. Once the police did that, she helped them out and they found the guy they were looking for.

Now she's being condemned and faces possible disciplinary action for doing her job:

Borough labor lawyer Ellen Horn, who also represented the library trustees, said Reutty was "more interested in protecting" her library than helping the police.

"It was an absolute misjudgment of the seriousness of the matter," Horn said at Tuesday's meeting.

What's more serious: a slight delay in identifying a subject, or a complete disregard for the Fourth Amendment, thus creating an environment where the police have the right to demand access to any records they want, without having to give a reason?

And anyway, what if Reuty had simply acquiesced?

The whole episode is "shocking," Reutty said Wednesday. "I followed the law. And because I followed the law, at the end of the day, the policemen's case is going to hold strong. Nobody is going to sue the library and nobody is going to sue the municipality of Hasbrouck Heights because information was given out illegally."

Precisely. By insisting that police follow the law, she ensured that a crucial piece of evidence will not be challenged by defense lawyers and thrown out of court. And she ensured that neither the borough nor the police will be sued.

I don't actively fear my government; I think government in general tries to do a good job. But things like the Fourth Amendment are one reason I feel that way.

For instance, Britain doesn't have an equivalent of the Bill of Rights. Which leads to things like this:

The police have launched a crackdown on English soccer hooligans to prevent them from reaching Germany for the World Cup, officials said Wednesday.

Intelligence officers were stationed at ports across the country, said Commander Bob Broadhurst, who leads the Metropolitan Police operation against soccer violence.

Broadhurst said about 3,500 troublemakers had been ordered to hand in their passports before the tournament begins.

Think about that. The government prevents perfectly legal private travel by temporarily revoking the passports of 3,500 people they think might cause trouble at the World Cup. It's an arbitrary exercise of government power. A good idea, perhaps. But nothing stops the government from exercising that power for bad reasons.

The United States can revoke a citizen's passport, too, but only on very narrow grounds: they are a criminal defendant who poses a flight risk, or a condition of parole requires them to stay in the country -- that sort of thing.

Britain's not a bad place to live. But in many ways British citizens rely on tradition and the good graces of their government to protect them from abuse. They have laws protecting privacy, but they are not rights; they can be revoked as easily as they were granted.

Rights are important. Yes, they protect the bad as well as the good. But since the founding of this country we've considered that a good trade-off. We should not let security fears goad us into surrendering those rights.

Update: Reutty resigned in October 2006 after six months of battling the library board, and took a job as head of the Oakland, N.J., Public Library.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Puppy killed; call Judge Judy!

At the risk of becoming the Ann Coulter of dead puppies, I had a couple of unorthodox reactions to this sad story.

A miniature pinscher puppy in North Branch, just a couple of months old, was beaten to death by three boys, ages 6 to 8, for no apparent reason -- not that there's ever a good reason for doing that.

This is terrible. I am saddened. It was a difficult moment in our house when my daughter accidentally killed a toad. And having recently lost our cat, I know how much the loss of a pet can hurt.

But I couldn't help noticing two things:

1. The family is named Darwin.

2. The family plans to take legal action. Maybe small claims court. Or maybe not:

They also plan to take legal action in small claims court or on the TV show "The People's Court." The Darwins contacted the show and have been told there is interest in their case. If nothing else, the boys should get community service, Darwin said.

You know, when my dog is killed, the first thought that goes through my head is not "hey, let's call People's Court!"

I'm going to hell, I know.

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Less than meets the eye

Congressional corruption is a hot topic, but these seem to be more smoke than fire:

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) made a $2 million profit last year on the sale of land 5 1/2 miles from a highway project that he helped to finance with targeted federal funds.

A Republican House member from California, meanwhile, received nearly double what he paid for a four-acre parcel near an Air Force base after securing $8 million for a planned freeway interchange 16 miles away. And another California GOP congressman obtained funding in last year's highway bill for street improvements near a planned residential and commercial development that he co-owns.

I'm all for scrutinizing lawmaker finances, and earmarks are a growing problem. But the connections here seem tenuous at best. For instance:

Arthur C. Zwemke, a Robert Arthur partner whose company plans to build a 1,635-home residential and commercial development on the site, scoffed at assertions that the Prairie Parkway had boosted the value of Hastert's land. The price for the land had been locked up in 2004 by land speculator Ron March, who then ceded the project to Robert Arthur Land, he said. The price, he added, could not have risen with the news of the Prairie Parkway funding. Besides, the parkway is still years from construction, he noted, and land prices are soaring as Chicago's sprawl moves ever westward.

The California airbase case is a little stronger, because even if Rep. Ken Calvert's gains were "in line with rising property values," one reason the property values were rising was because of his earmark. It's Congressional insider trading. So look more closely at that one.

The third case, involving Rep. Gary Miller, seems as weak as Hastert's:

Miller, the other California Republican, helped secure $1.28 million in last year's highway bill for street improvements near a planned residential and commercial development in Diamond Bar, Calif., that he co-owns with a top campaign contributor.

Kevin McKee, a Miller spokesman, said the road improvement was a mile away from the development and had been designated by Diamond Bar officials as their top priority.

Scrutinize Congress? Fine. But care must be taken to avoid turning a concern about corruption into a witchhunt. Congressmen live (well, maintain a residence) in their district, and bring federal money home to their district. That almost inevitably leads to federal money being spent near places that the Congressman may have a financial interest in. There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Watchdogs must meet a higher standard of proof than simply pointing out those geographical facts.

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WMDs FOUND IN IRAQ!!!!

Well, sort of. Okay, not really.

In case you had any doubts that Rick Santorum and Pete Hoekstra are idiots, I give you this:

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told reporters yesterday that weapons of mass destruction had in fact been found in Iraq, despite acknowledgments by the White House and the insistence of the intelligence community that no such weapons had been discovered.

"We have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chemical weapons," Santorum said.

The lawmakers pointed to an unclassified summary from a report by the National Ground Intelligence Center regarding 500 chemical munitions shells that had been buried near the Iranian border, and then long forgotten, by Iraqi troops during their eight-year war with Iran, which ended in 1988.

Saddam was known to have developed and used chemical weapons; we sold him the components for some of it, and his gas attacks against Kurdish villages are a component in his ongoing trial. Iraqi troops used poison gas during the Iraq-Iran war. We have previously found old artillery shells modified for chemical warfare.

What we have never found -- and still haven't -- is any indication that he had functioning stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, or a functioning nuclear program. 15-year-old artillery shells do not constitute a reason to invade.

Even the Pentagon rejects the senators' contention:

Asked why the Bush administration, if it had known about the information since April or earlier, didn't advertise it, Hoekstra conjectured that the president has been forward-looking and concentrating on the development of a secure government in Iraq.

Offering the official administration response to FOX News, a senior Defense Department official pointed out that the chemical weapons were not in useable conditions.

"This does not reflect a capacity that was built up after 1991," the official said, adding the munitions "are not the WMDs this country and the rest of the world believed Iraq had, and not the WMDs for which this country went to war."

Idiots.

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Government on the cheap

First, Gov. Tim Pawlenty wanted contractors to front their own money in order to get contracts to work on the Crosstown Commons project. The result? Nobody submitted a bid, and the project is now delayed for at least a couple of months.

Now Pawlenty wants private businesses to lend the state their top IT experts for a year -- for free.

The state is asking high-tech firms and large corporations to lend their computer experts for as long as a year to the Office of Enterprise Technology. The private companies would continue to pay their employees' salaries and benefits.

The computer experts would be put to work on an ambitious project to reinvent the government's computer network. The proposal lists 14 categories of work, ranging from cyber security to systems development to government Web site design.

The first question that jumps to mind is, "why would the private sector agree to this?" The answer to that, the state hopes, is civic-mindedness and the chance to guide the direction of state government.

That's a beautiful thought. And if it works without murky quid pro quos, great; I'll admit I was wrong.

But consider these other thoughts:

1. Why would a party that routinely demonizes government as "the problem" suddenly expect companies to respect government enough to donate their top people?

2. There is no free lunch. Why is it better to effectively tax a few individual companies in order to fill a statewide need, rather than spreading the pain around by simply hiring the necessary experts with taxpayer money?

3. What kind of example do we set when our government keeps trying to find ways to not pay for what it wants?

The article calls this a "grand experiment." But it doesn't strike me as grand so much as chintzy, an attempt to chisel the private sector for something that should simply be paid for like any other government obligation. This isn't the Peace Corps; this isn't an attempt to change the world. It's computer infrastructure. We would not expect Dell to give the state free PCs, nor would we expect AT&T to provide free high-speed data links. So why should we expect free IT design services?

A "grand experiment" would be a project designed to help citizens directly, like a statewide WiFi network or an education initiative or something like that. Modernizing the government's computer network just doesn't fit the bill. It's small-bore thinking wrapped up in gaudy language.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Khomeini's grandson calls for invasion of Iran

His name is Hossein Khomeini, and he did it from inside Iran; he lives in Qom.

The grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, the inspiration of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, has broken a three-year silence to back the United States military to overthrow the country's clerical regime....

"My grandfather's revolution has devoured its children and has strayed from its course," he told Al-Arabiya, an Arabic-language television station. "I lived through the revolution and it called for freedom and democracy - but it has persecuted its leaders."

He also made clear his opposition to Teheran's alleged development of a secret nuclear weapons programme. "Iran will gain real power if freedom and democracy develop there," he said. "Strength will not be obtained through weapons and the bomb."

It's not the first time he's said this -- he first did so in 2003 -- but it's still startling to hear.

I think it's pretty cool. An invasion would be a seriously bad idea, but it's good to hear more and more voices being raised against the ruling mullahs -- and their nuclear program. It's been clear for years that the mullahs do not represent the people of Iran. As internal opposition grows, the mullahs come under increasing pressure to either relent or crack down. And they lose either way.

This is probably the last we'll hear from Khomeini for a while, though. His connections will probably spare his life; but he'll be even more thoroughly muzzled than he has been up until now.

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Estate tax vote looming

The estate tax will go up for a vote in the House this week, but full repeal isn't on the table.

Here's the compromise:

Estates worth as much as $5 million -- $10 million for couples -- would be exempt from taxation indefinitely.

The tax rate on estates worth more than the exemption level up to $25 million would be set at the same tax rates that apply to capital gains -- now 15 percent but scheduled to rise to 20 percent in 2011. The rate for estates worth more than $25 million would be twice the capital gains rate.

Here's what I don't like about the bill:

The bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the estate tax cut would cost the government $279 billion over 10 years.

And with no "pay as you go" provision, guess where that money will come from? If you answered "piled on top of the already big deficit", you'd be right. It's better than the $1 trillion cost of a full repeal, but it's still too much money.

As I've written before, "fixing" the estate tax just makes it that much harder to address more-pressing concerns, like the Alternative Minimum Tax or, say, reducing the deficit.

There's also this lovely piece of bribery:

To lure Democratic senators from Washington state and Arkansas, Thomas included a lucrative tax break for the timber industry, pushing the total cost of the bill to nearly $280 billion.

You gotta love it when both sides sell out their principles for a buck.

The good news: Passage isn't certain, and is even less likely in the Senate, which rejected an estate-tax appeal earlier this year.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Safavian found guilty

Refocusing attention on Republican corruption, a former Bush official has been found guilty in the Jack Abramoff probe.

A federal jury found former White House aide David H. Safavian guilty yesterday of lying and obstructing justice, making him the highest-ranking government official to be convicted in the spreading scandal involving disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Safavian, a former chief of staff of the General Services Administration, was convicted in U.S. District Court here of covering up his many efforts to assist Abramoff in acquiring two properties controlled by the GSA, and also of concealing facts about a lavish weeklong golf trip he took with Abramoff to Scotland and London in the summer of 2002.

He could get up to 20 years in prison, as well as a hefty fine.

It will be interesting to see how the various corruption scandals play out as we lurch toward the November elections. The Abramoff probe is sexy because it's a many-tentacled beast that helped bring down Tom DeLay and could yet ensnare other leading Republicans, notably Bob Ney. It's organized corruption that springs directly from Republican efforts to ramp up fundraising and both co-opt and embrace lobbyists.

The Democratic scandals, on the other hand, are a series of inidividual incidents. William Jefferson suspected of soliciting bribes; Alan Mollohan growing suspiciously wealthy in a very short time. It's personal greed, which speaks to the broadness of the "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill but doesn't implicate the entire Democratic Party the way Abramoff implicates Republicans.

But will voters care? And should they? Is that a distinction without a difference? Will voters blame the parties or the individuals? Or might they decide "a pox on both your houses" and stay home?

I think the difference is important. Democrats aren't notably less corrupt per capita than Republicans, but in this case the corruption is concentrated in the Republican leadership. The Democratic leadership has many problems, but systemic corruption a la Abramoff isn't one of them.

One might argue that the GOP is simply more efficient and open about its ravenous pursuit of cash, but that's still a reason to prefer Democrats: they're simply too disorganized at the moment to manage truly harmful levels of greed.

As long as the Democrats feel corruption is a winning issue for them, it will have a salutory effect: they will police themselves more vigorously in order to retain that political leverage. And their efforts to spotlight Republican corruption will force some discipline on the GOP, as well as keeping the issue in the public eye.

It worked for the GOP in 1994, when they swept a sclerotic Democratic majority from power. In a demonstration of the truism that power corrupts, it is now the Democrats' turn to return the favor. The GOP, knowing the electoral power of the issue, managed to maintain its anticorruption discipline for several years; we can only hope that if the Democrats regain power in part because of an anticorruption platform, the same will hold true for them.

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Two plus two

The two missing soldiers have been found dead. And they did not get the quick and painless death I hoped for.

General Caldwell declined to speak in detail about the physical condition of those who had been found, but said that the cause of death could not be determined. He said the remains of the men would be sent to the United States for DNA testing to determine definitively their identities. That seemed to suggest that the two Americans had been wounded or mutilated beyond recognition.

The suspicion is that they were beheaded:

The Mujahedeen Shura, an umbrella group that claims Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia as a member, said in a statement posted on the Internet that the successor to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had slaughtered the two Americans. The authenticity of the statement, like many that are posted on the Internet, could not be verified. The Arabic word used in the posting — "Nahr" — denotes the cutting of the throat, and it has been used by jihadi groups when they have beheaded their victims.

Medieval idiots.

I oppose the war in Iraq. But even though the war may be a mistake, that doesn't change the fact that there are some very bad people on the other side that badly need to be helped off this plane of existence. I happen to think our presence in Iraq is creating more and more of them, which is one reason I think the war is a mistake. But that doesn't even begin to excuse behavior like this. May the perpetrators find themselves on the wrong side of a Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore.

Separately, an Army investigation has concluded that two soldiers killed in 2004 were shot by the Iraqi troops patrolling with them.

The deaths of Army Spc. Patrick R. McCaffrey Sr. and 1st Lt. Andre D. Tyson were originally attributed to an ambush during a patrol near Balad, Iraq, on June 22, 2004.

But the Army's Criminal Investigation Command found that one or more of the Iraqis attached to the American soldiers on patrol fired at them, a military official said Tuesday.

Not so good, and something that has been a low-level worry among war observers for awhile. That and the infiltration of the armed forces by militias is one reason we've been reluctant to provide the Iraqi army with heavy weaponry, which has hampered their development as a capable fighting force.

Luckily, this sort of thing is rare, according to the Pentagon. Take that with a grain of salt, since this report only came about after a lengthy investigation. But if it were truly a serious problem we would hear a lot more about it from the soldiers involved.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Al Qaeda claims to have two missing soldiers

A group of Al-Qaeda affilated groups claim to be holding the two missing American soldiers.

The umbrella group, called the Mujahedeen Shura Council, said it was holding the two privates — one from Texas and the other from Oregon — as well as four Russian diplomats kidnapped June 3 in Baghdad. It also claimed to have killed a fifth Russian.

My stomach always clenches when I hear about U.S. troops getting captured, because the possibilities are so much messier than the relatively straightforward fates of being killed or wounded in combat.

I'm not hopeful about what will happen to these two. A lot depends upon which insurgent faction captured them; I would have been happier to see them fall into the hands of native Iraqis rather than groups linked to Al Qaeda.

A couple of thoughts and observations from the coverage:

1. Why do we "capture" insurgents, but insurgents "kidnap" U.S. soldiers? The answer is usually because we're uniformed combatants and they're not. But i don't recall us describing the Viet Cong as "kidnapping" soldiers during the Vietnam war. This isn't a criticism; it's just an observation on the role language plays in shaping perceptions of this fight.

2. The reason we should treat prisoners humanely is for precisely this situation: it gives us some hope that the enemy will treat our prisoners similarly. And if they don't, it gives us solid grounds for moral outrage.

But what can we say if they treat these two prisoners the way we treated the Abu Ghraib prisoners (some of whom died)?

What can we say if they simply decide to hold them indefinitely, like we do with the prisoners at Gitmo?

What can we do if they decide to waterboard them, or stick them in "stress positions", or freeze and bake them?

May we find them and rescue them so we don't have to answer any of the above questions. And if they are killed, may their deaths be quick and merciful.

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Speaking of Iraq news....

I got so wrapped up crafting my "truth in Iraq" post that I forgot to mention the report that inspired it.

The Washington Post has obtained a copy of a cable from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, outlining the difficulties faced by embassy staffers.

You can download the full text of the cable in pdf format at the link. But here's a taste.

Women staffers reported being harassed if they didn't cover their heads and faces. Men reported that it was dangerous to wear shorts in public. Electrical supplies were scattered, some neighborhoods having no power and others having it for four or five hours a day. But corruption is involved, too: one woman reported that a building housing a government minister suddenly found itself with power 24 hours a day after his appointment. There are long lines (really long, as in a 12 hour wait) for fuel in some places.

More ominously: Working for the embassy can be a death sentence. Embassy employees tell no one where they work, not even their families. They don't take their cell phones home because that's a giveaway, and they cannot be called at home. Many of them have made plans in case they are abducted, and they avoid embassy events where cameras will be present. The embassy shreds documents that contain local staff names.

The guards at Green Zone checkpoints have become "more militia-like", taunting employees, even holding up embassy credentials and announcing what they are -- a potentially lethal revelation. Several staffers have asked for press credentials instead, out of safety concerns.

These are not the sort of things that should be happening in the capital of a country in its third year of occupation.

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Where's the truth in Iraq?

One of the ongoing themes in the Iraq debate is the argument that the "true" picture of life in Iraq is not reaching Americans. Either it's better than portrayed (the prowar argument) or worse (the antiwar argument). Any report one way or another is dismissed either as biased in its own right, or simply "missing the bigger picture."

Some examples of the whiplash of conflicting reports:

Bush's recent trip to Iraq. On the one hand you have people hailing Bush's recent trip to Iraq as a sign of the improving security situation, since he was able to fly by helicopter over Baghdad to reach the Green Zone. The last time he visited, he landed and stayed at a military base.

Critics point out that we are in the midst of an offensive to "retake" Baghdad, 3 years after the end of the invasion, which certainly doesn't imply progress. And Bush didn't even tell the Iraqi prime minister he was coming, which certainly doesn't imply trust.

But then we get reports of coalition forces handing control of parts of Iraq over to Iraqi forces, which indicates that the security situation is improving.

Ignoring the good news. Reporters are criticized for not covering "good news", while others counter by pointing to the high death toll among journalists in Iraq, and note that if Iraq is so dangerous reporters can't leave the Green Zone, that says all we need to know about the security situation.

There's probably some truth to the "not reporting good news" argument, for a couple of mundane reasons: the inability of reporters to get out and witness such occurrences, and the fact that a school opening simply isn't as interesting or important as the ongoing violence. Reconstruction statistics tend to get reported as roundups, with such things as "3,000 schools have been renovated in the last year", rather than as 3,000 separate stories. It's fair to say that that lessens the impact of the good news.

But such complaints need to be taken with a grain of salt as well; a raw number like "3,000 schools renovated" or "100 playgrounds have been built" doesn't say much about what is meant by "renovated", doesn't say whether a playground is actually used, and doesn't mean anything unless we have some context: how many schools are there?

Last year a reporter (CNN, I think; the story has aged off the Web) traveled to several of these "renovated" schools and found that many of them had been superficially repaired but lacked supplies or electricity or functioning toilets or many of the other things one needs to have a working school.

Also last year, the New York Times did a short piece on a playground in Baghdad. U.S. troops spent $1.5 million in 2004 building it in a nice spot along the banks of the Tigris. A year later the playground was abandoned, the grass dead, because it was simply too dangerous to go there. But I'll bet that playground is still listed among successfully completed reconstruction projects.

We have undoubtedly renovated a substantial number of schools, and repaired a substantial number of sewer lines, and rebuilt a substantial number of electrical systems. But what that number is, and what it actually means as far as the quality of life in Iraq, is far more complicated than the bland "renovated schools" count suggests.

And here's another thought: you may think the media underreports the good news, but they also underreport the bad news. There's only so much space in any given newspaper or so much airtime on TV. The vast majority of photos never get seen by the vast majority of people, who also are not confronted with the vast majority of daily outrages. They, too, get aggregated into statistics. If you want a taste of just how much bad news you're not bombarded with each day, check out this site.

Economic measures. These are things like electricity and oil production, both of which have struggled to reach prewar levels. That may sound like we're not doing well, despite pouring billions into reconstruction. But the insurgency has diverted much of that spending to security, and it's difficult to increase electricity production when insurgents keep blowing up power lines and distribution stations. On the other hand, our inability to establish a secure environment is the reason the insurgency is able to do so much damage.

The fact is that Iraq is not one place, but multiple places. Outside of the Sunni Triangle, there is not much of an insurgency. What you do have, though, is sectarian violence, including Shiite death squads and security forces infiltrated by militia members. And in all places violence and corruption make rebuilding difficult.

Within the Sunni Triangle, the insurgency makes meaningful reconstruction especially difficult. But that just highlights one of the main criticisms of the occupation -- that it was poorly planned, and we've never had enough troops to do the job properly. Which is why we find ourselves retaking the same cities again and again, and spending more on providing security for construction projects than we do on the actual construction.

Is Iraq getting better? In places. Is it getting worse? In places. Is it safe and secure? Not even close, unless you're a Shiite in a predominately Shiite area or a Sunni in a predominately Sunni area. And that will remain the case until we have enough boots on the ground -- coalition or Iraqi -- to reestablish the governmental monopoly on violence that is essential to a secure state.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Found: Missing idiot

And his name is Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. He appeared on "The Colbert Report" last night. Crooks and Liars has the transcript:

COLBERT: You have not introduced a single piece of legislation since you entered Congress.

WESTMORELAND: That's correct.

COLBERT: This has been called a do nothing Congress. Is it safe to say you're the do nothingest?

WESTMORELAND: I, I, ..Well there's one other do nothiner. I don't know who that is, but they're a Democrat.

COLBERT: What can we get rid of to balance the budget?

WESTMORELAND: The Dept. of Education.

COLBERT: What are the Ten Commandments?

WESTMORELAND: You mean all of them?--Um... Don't murder. Don't lie. Don't steal Um... I can't name them all.

That last exchange is lovely because he's a co-sponsor of various bills letting the Ten Commandments be displayed in government buildings. To find the text of the bills, check Thomas for "Ten Commandments" or specifically H RES. #214 and H CON. RES. #12.

He also was caught distributing auto-industry talking points verbatim to colleagues under his own letterhead, without attribution.

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Supreme Court approves no-knock searches

I generally consider myself a civil liberties partisan. I'm a free-speech fanatic, and my main objections to Gitmo, warrantless wiretapping and the like all have to do with civil liberties.

But I have a hard time getting worked up about yesterday's Supreme Court ruling.

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police armed with a warrant can barge into homes and seize evidence even if they don't knock, a huge government victory that was decided by President Bush's new justices....

Dissenting justices predicted that police will now feel free to ignore previous court rulings that officers with search warrants must knock and announce themselves or run afoul of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.

A lot of observers are saying this strips an essential protection from citizens, but I just don't see it. The police have a search warrant, so they've already satisfied the main Constitutional requirement. All this ruling says is that they don't have to knock and then wait 15 to 20 seconds before barging in.

The specifics of this case aren't particularly interesting, either.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said Detroit police acknowledge violating that rule when they called out their presence at a man's door, failed to knock, then went inside three seconds to five seconds later. The court has endorsed longer waits, of 15 seconds to 20 seconds.

"Whether that preliminary misstep had occurred or not, the police would have executed the warrant they had obtained, and would have discovered the gun and drugs inside the house," Scalia wrote.

His point is that inability to use evidence is too high a price to pay for such a minor misstep.

He's right. It's like throwing out a case because prosecutors failed to dot an "i" or cross a "t".

There are a few side risks that need to be addressed, even though I don't consider them reason enough to oppose the ruling:

One is that police will take this as a blanket invitation to break in first and apologize later. That's a reasonable concern; a search warrant should not come with the additional extrajudicial punishment of having to pay for a new door after the police knock it down. But that concern can be addressed separately, and probably will be; expect a small wave of lawsuits that will spell out the boundaries of police behavior now that this ruling is law.

Another risk is more civilian-police violence, as a search that might have gone peacefully turns violent when a surprised homeowner resists the intrusion. That risk and a desire for good community relations may become the main check on police overaggressiveness in this new environment. But it bears watching.

As a side note, much of the uproar came about because the decision overturns 90 years of precedent. Perhaps liberals can now start complaining about "activist judges". At the very least I hope conservatives will shut up about it.

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Hamas offers, then rejects, renewed truce with Israel

You read that right.

What actually happened is that the Hamas-led Palestinian government offered to restore the truce. But later Hamas militants rejected the idea, saying it did not speak for Hamas-the-movement.

I think the Palestinians are now learning the frustrations of dealing with an organization that has a growing separation between its political and military wings, just like the Irish endured with the IRA and Sinn Fein. People always suspected Sinn Fein was colluding with the military wing, but in the end it turned out that Sinn Fein didn't exert as much control over the military side as people thought. That made ending the conflict in Northern Ireland more difficult, since Sinn Fein couldn't guarantee it could deliver on its agreements.

Let's hope that doesn't foreshadow events in Palestine.

Meanwhile, as if to demonstrate how surreal the Palestine/Israel relationship can be, we get this story from the Washington Post:

Israel is unlikely to target Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh despite recent threats to kill leaders of Hamas if the Islamic group resumes suicide bombings, a senior Israeli defense official said on Friday.

This undoubtedly makes Palestinian legislators a bit more willing to attend Haniyeh's next parliamentary address....

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Flag desecration goes to Senate floor

On an 11-7 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the flag-desecration amendment and sent it to the full Senate.

Fatuous quote of the day:

"If we can protect the bald eagle, another symbol of our nation, from killing, I think we ought to be able to protect our flag,'' said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn.

What a ludicrous analogy. Prevent Flag Murder! Save The Flag From Extinction!

Some opinions:
Chicago Tribune: "It's Flag Day and that can only mean one thing, congressional Republicans and Democrats are using the day as an opportunity to essentially say to each other 'my patriotism is bigger than yours.'"

Detroit Free Press: "The best tribute that Old Glory could be afforded on this Flag Day would be for Congress to leave intact the freedoms for which it stands."

Wisconsin State Journal: "Without such free speech, a democracy cannot function or become better. And without democracy, the flag would represent ideals far less inspiring and far less worth fighting for."

Paul McMasters: "To raise a symbol above the reality it stands for would be unwise, unnecessary and ultimately un-American."

May sanity prevail in the Senate. And if you haven't yet, write your Senators.

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Democrats vote to boot Jefferson off committee

The Democrats know a looming embarassment when they see one:

Democrats voted last night to strip Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.) of a plum committee assignment while he is embroiled in a federal bribery investigation.

The 99 to 58 vote followed weeks of public and private wrangling, as Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) sought to take a strong election-year stance on ethics, while Jefferson's allies -- mainly fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus -- protested that he was being singled out for unfair treatment.

The party vote to remove him from the Ways and Means Committee is nonbinding, so if Jefferson refuses to step aside the next step would be to a vote of the full House to force him out.

Normally I'm an "innocent-until-proven-guilty" kind of guy. But what's at stake here is a committee seat, not jail time. And committee members serve at the pleasure of their caucus. The caucus is not legally required to show cause before displacing one of their members; all it takes is a vote. Committee seats are a privilege, not a right.

Besides, the evidence against him is pretty compelling, including a former aide who has already pled guilty and implicated Jefferson. And who can forget the $90,000 in his home freezer?

Jefferson has one valid point: that there is no rule requiring him to give up committee assignments.

He noted that he has not been charged with a crime, and that "historically, even when a member of Congress has been so charged, he or she steps aside from a committee or subcommittee chairmanship, but not from the committee itself."


Fair enough. But on the other hand, why must we have a rule for every little thing? Rules help establish consistency in treatment of members, but they aren't a prerequisite for action.

Pelosi has a political motive, of course. She wants to use Republican corruption as a weapon in the November elections. And to do that she needs to cleanse her own house of embarrassing examples. So Jefferson can justifiably feel that he's being sacrificed on the altar of Democratic ambitions.

But in the end, that's just too bad. His citation of historical behavior ignores the fact that historically, "ethics" and "Congress" have not been favorably linked. Pelosi appears to be in the middle of redefining Congressional ethics. Even if her motives are far from pure, that's a good thing. And if it means members that are heavily implicated in a bribery scandal have to temporarily give up committee seats, I'm okay with that.

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Midtopia in mourning

I won't be posting much until later today, because this morning we had to bury our cat. She was 14, and basically stopped eating two weeks ago. There was nothing the vet could do that didn't involve surgery.

She's the third pet we've had to put down in recent years, and the last animal connection to our post-college days.

She died peacefully, while I held her. We buried her this morning in our back yard, next to our other cat. We're down to one animal now, our dog. Hers may be the only dry eyes in the house today.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Zarqawi windfall

Putting aside the usual caveats that "body count" is not a good way to measure success, the death of Zarqawi has given U.S. and Iraqi troops at least a temporary edge against insurgents.

American and Iraqi forces have carried out 452 raids since the June 7 airstrike on al-Zarqawi, and 104 insurgents were killed in those actions, said U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell.

The nationwide raids led to the discovery of 28 significant arms caches, Caldwell said.

He said 255 of the raids were joint operations, while 143 were carried out by Iraqi forces alone. The raids also resulted in the captures of 759 "anti-Iraqi elements."

A lot of the raids were apparently based on documents found in the ruins of Zarqawi's safe house, as well as information gathered but not acted on during the hunt for Zarqawi.

That's good news, tactically speaking. At the very least Zarqawi's group will be off-balance for a while as they try to reorganize. Whether it translates into a strategic advantage depends on how deep a blow these raids represent.

The more explosive news might be the discovery of a document that appears to show the insurgency is weakening.

The document said the insurgency was being hurt by, among other things, the U.S. military's program to train Iraqi security forces, by massive arrests and seizures of weapons, by tightening the militants' financial outlets, and by creating divisions within its ranks....

According to the summary, insurgents were being weakened by operations against them and by their failure to attract recruits. To give new impetus to the insurgency, they would have to change tactics, it added.

There's no independent verification of the document's veracity. Criticism has focused on two things: how closely the document mirrors U.S./Iraqi talking points, and the absence of typical resistance language.

The language contained in the document was different from the vocabulary used by al-Qaida statements posted on the Web. For example, it does not refer to the Americans as "Crusaders" nor use the term "rejectionists" to allude to Shiites.

Much of what is in the statement from al-Rubaie echoes results that the U.S. military and the Iraqi government say they are seeking. It also appears to reinforce American and Iraqi arguments that al-Qaida in Iraq and its operatives are a group of imported extremists bent on killing innocent civilians.

The fact that it was the Iraqi government, not the American military, that released the document also raises a flag. I don't think the Pentagon would outright fabricate a document like this; I'm not so sure the Iraqi government has such qualms.

So for now I wait for further analysis and verification. The full text of the document is here.

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