Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Chavez takes over

Hugo Chavez's captive National Assembly voted to give him the power to legislate by decree for 18 months, marking another step in Venezuela's remarkably open journey from democracy to dictatorship.

So what does he have in mind?

Chavez, a former paratroop commander re-elected with 63 percent of the vote in December, has said he will decree nationalizations of Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector, slap new taxes on the rich, and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries.

The one I have the most problem with is the nationalization of the telecom. State control of the media is the first prerequisite for tyranny, and there's no compelling reason for it.

The law also allows Chavez to dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth" as part of a new "social and economic model."

Chavez's defenders like to minimize his powers, noting that they are carefully defined and restricted to certain topics. But read the above list: what has been left out? His new authority is properly described as "sweeping." The only real check is the National Assembly's ability to revoke his power.

Chavez plans to reorganize regional territories and carry out reforms aimed at bringing "power to the people" through thousands of newly formed Communal Councils designed to give Venezuelans a say on spending an increasing flow of state money on projects in their neighborhoods, from public housing to potholes.

Local control over spending is a fine principle, but a lot depends on how those Communal Councils are formed and operated. Anyone want to bet that they turn into a patronage mill for Chavez supporters?

Sad as it is to see what is happening to democracy there, our proper response is to do nothing. As I've written before, Chavez is genuinely popular in Venezuela. His actions have majority support at the moment. I think Venezuelans will come to regret throwing democracy away, but if they want a socialist dictatorship they should have it, and it should be none of our business.

But it is sad to see George Lucas made into a prophet: "So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause."

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A cure for cancer?

It sounds too good to be true. But everything I can find says this could be legitimate.

A molecule used for decades to combat metabolic diseases in children, may soon be available as an effective treatment for many forms of cancer, University of Alberta researchers are reporting.

In results that “astounded” school scientists, the molecule, known as DCA, was shown to shrink lung, breast and brain tumours in both animal and human tissue experiments. The study is being published today in the journal Cancer Cell.

Besides being known and safe, the drug is in the public domain -- meaning if this pans out, treatments would be dirt cheap. On the downside, it might be difficult to get it through clinical trials and bring it to market, since there's little or no profit in it for drug companies. So public financing of the trials may be necessary.

And those clinical trials are crucial. Lab results and even animal testing are nice, but the drug industry is littered with compounds that passed those two hurdles and failed in human testing. Such trials are expensive and take time, so any actual treatment is still years away.

But if this works, it would be way, way cool.

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A Republican deadline in Iraq

Republican war supporters have given Bush their own deadline to show progress in Iraq -- six to nine months.

Several leading Senate Republicans who support President Bush's troop-boosting plan for Iraq say they will give the administration and the Iraqis about six months to show significant improvement.

“I don't think this war can be sustained for more than six months if in fact we don't see some progress,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Wednesday. Until this month, he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Roberts' comments came two days after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the new U.S. military push was the Iraqis' “last chance.”

“This needs to be successful over the next six to nine months,” McConnell said in an interview Monday with Fox News Channel's Neil Cavuto. “And if not, we're going to have to go in a different direction.”

There you have it. As I've said before, Bush has one last chance to succeed in Iraq, because both Democrats and Republicans want it off the table for the 2008 elections.

These are war supporters, mind you, and their work is largely an attempt to derail the anti-surge resolutions making their way through Congress. But it's a sign of how far the debate has shifted that the hawkish alternative is a six-month deadline.

Speaking of resolutions, war opponents appear to have found bipartisan common ground.

Two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, leading separate efforts to put Congress on record against President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq joined forces Wednesday, agreeing on a nonbinding resolution that would oppose the plan and potentially embarrass the White House.

Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., had been sponsoring competing measures opposing Bush's strategy of sending 21,500 more U.S. troops to the war zone, with Warner's less harshly worded version attracting more Republican interest. The new resolution would vow to protect funding for troops while keeping Warner's original language expressing the Senate's opposition to the buildup.... It lacks Levin's language saying the troop increase is against the national interest, and it drops an earlier provision by Warner suggesting Senate support for some additional troops.

Works for me. The important thing is to get Congress on record opposing the plan. Though I hope Bush's "surge" works, I doubt it will, and Congress needs to get out front on the issue to avoid being accused of armchair quarterbacking with hindsight. The resolutions lay the groundwork for later, more robust action if such proves necessary. And it will give Bush a huge cudgel to use against Congress if he turns out to be successful.

Debate on the measure could begin Monday.

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Gonzales to release details of NSA program

It's always nice to see the Attorney General respond so quickly to Midtopia's concerns.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Wednesday he will turn over secret documents detailing the government's domestic spying program, ending a two-week standoff with the Senate Judiciary Committee over surveillance targeting terror suspects....

The documents held by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — including investigators' applications for permission to spy and judges' orders — will be given to some lawmakers as early as Wednesday.

Gonzales said the documents would not be released publicly. "We're talking about highly classified discussions about highly classified actions of the United States government," the attorney general said.

Good. Congressional oversight is needed to ensure that Congress' concerns are being taken seriously.

And as always, Gonzales is good for an Orwellian laugh:

"It's never been the case where we said we would never provide the access," Gonzales told reporters.

Technically true. What he did do was spend hours saying that turning over details might pose a security risk, with the clear implication that the administration might refuse to do so. And National Intelligence director John Negroponte said that separation of powers might prevent the administration from turning over the documents. So he did everything he could to resist such a turnover without actually saying he wouldn't turn them over.

Now we have to trust our Congressional representatives to do their job.

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Bipartisan ethics trouble

Republicans raised red flags when Democrat Allan Mollohan -- whose finances are currently under investigation by the FBI -- was poised to chair the House Commerce, Justice and Science subcommittee, which oversees the FBI's budget. Democrats ignored the protest and Mollohan today chairs the subcommittee -- though he has promised to recuse himself from votes on the Justice Department's budget.

The Republicans were in the right on that one. But it turns out they have their own problem with another subcommittee. The Financial Services Committee's oversights and investigation committee, and the ranking Republican, Gary Miller.

After months of GOP ethics scandals, House Republicans chose Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) as the ranking member of a panel charged with investigating financial institutions — even as the FBI was looking into his land deals.

Representative Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Financial Services Committee, named Miller to the top GOP spot on the oversight and investigative subcommittee Jan. 9, according to a committee release. Watchdog groups have been raising red flags on several of Miller’s land deals since The Hill and other media outlets first scrutinized them early last year. Yesterday, a spokesman for the southern California city of Monrovia confirmed that agency officials had contacted the city about Miller’s land deals in the last two months.

The quoted portion is wrong, because Miller's problems involve allegations of tax evasion -- the domain of the IRS, not the FBI. That makes his situation the same as Mollohan's, because his subcommittee oversees the Department of the Treasury, which contains the IRS. He's not the chairman, true; but Miller should not be the ranking member, either. A member, fine; he is innocent until proven guilty. But not in a position of authority.

Details of Miller's transactions can be found here and here. Among them: trying to get a federal position for a city councilman who was about to vote on a land deal that would net Miller $10 million, using his staff for personal errands, and using his office to try to get Rolling Stones concert tickets.

Further, he avoided paying taxes on the $10 million by claiming the property was taken through eminent domain -- even though Miller had been lobbying the city to buy the parcel, and the program the city was using to buy the land specifically prohibited eminent domain takings. He then repeated the tactic twice more with the proceeds.

Like William Jefferson's frozen, foil-wrapped $90,000, the evidence against Miller is too strong to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to important positions.


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Good principle, bad law

Remember those campaign dirty tricks from this past election season? The fliers falsely claiming endorsements, or attempting to fool voters into thinking a candidate belonged to the other party? Or intimidate Hispanic voters? Or give voters an incorrect polling place? Or annoy opposition voters with repeated computerized phone calls?

Barack Obama and Charles Schumer do. And according to the New York Times, they plan to introduce a bill outlawing such behavior on Thursday.

Along with defining these crimes and providing penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, the bill would require the Justice Department to counteract deceptive election information that has been put out, and to report to Congress after each election on what deceptive practices occurred and what the Justice Department did about them.

The bill would also allow individuals to go to court to stop deceptive practices while they are happening.

I understand and agree with the principle: in my above linked post on the Maryland false-endorsement scam, I suggested that Gov. Robert Ehrlich's campaign should face lawsuits and steep fines for its sleazy behavior.

But practically speaking, the law -- especially the part that allows for immediate lawsuits -- will probably just create a mess. The bill will apparently not apply to honest mistakes. But how do you separate the deliberate acts from the honest mistakes, especially in a world where someone sees a conspiracy behind every mistake?

The only way to draw that line is in court, after a full investigation. And that's not going to happen on the day of an election. I understand the desire to stop bad behavior before it affects the vote, but what the bill would do is provide an avenue for partisans and crackpots to turn Election Day into a circus. Ironically, the act of filing lawsuits could itself become a deceptive campaign tactic, attempting to use smoke to create the impression of fire.

So fine: make deceptive campaign tactics a crime that carries steep penalties. But apply them after the fact. On Election Day, rely on the deterrence value of the new penalties as well as the system we have now: the vigilance of the parties, election officials and the media. That system brought to light all of the acts that inspired this bill.

If we're going to enact Election Day reforms, let's make it reforms that matter. Require election boards to have enough voting machines on hand in all precincts to handle the volume of voters; establish training and ethical standards for poll workers; establish ballot-design standards to eliminate confusion; and provide resources to ensure a fast official response to reports of fraud, not so much to catch the perps but to contain the damage and protect everyone's right to vote.

Update: Captain Ed feels much the same way.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

No more Tomcat parts

In response to Congressional criticism (and, of course, fear of Midtopia), the Pentagon has announced it will stop selling F-14 parts as surplus.

Well, for now, anyway. The Pentagon has halted the sales pending a "comprehensive review" of its auction procedures.

The sales were less of a big deal than it seems, because my earlier speculation was correct: the parts that were being marketed were general aircraft hardware like nuts and bolts, things not unique to the F-14 and thus not particularly sensitive. So to some extent this is Congressional (and mostly Democratic) grandstanding.

But given that Iran is the only other user of F-14s, it's reasonable to ask why we should make their life easier by selling any aircraft parts to them, even those they could obtain elsewhere. And there's also the documented problem of sensitive parts getting mixed in with the basic stuff. Until that is sorted out -- presumably what is being done by the "comprehensive review" -- there's no sense in selling anything.

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Congress finds its spine


Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee began laying the constitutional groundwork today for an effort to block President Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq and place new limits on the conduct of the war there, perhaps forcing a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

They were joined by Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who led the panel for the last two years, in asserting that Mr. Bush cannot simply ignore Congressional opposition to his plan to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.

"I would respectfully suggest to the president that he is not the sole decider," Mr. Specter said. "The decider is a joint and shared responsibility."

Mr. Specter said he considered a clash over constitutional powers to be "imminent."

I don't particularly agree with Russell Feingold, who is calling for American troops to be withdrawn within six months. There may come a time for such a curtain drop, but it isn't now: Bush should be given one last chance to try to pull this out, to show that his "surge" will work. I'm skeptical, but I'll be happy to be proven wrong.

But I fully support Congress starting to exert its Constitutional authority and responsibilities. If they don't lose their nerve, we may end up with a historic delineation of the relative wartime powers of the executive and legislative branch.

First, let's quickly dispose of a tangential political canard.

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch repeatedly talked about the need to "support our troops," suggesting that a resolution opposing Bush's strategy would undermine them. He was handily cut apart by Feingold, who noted that the troops would not be hurt in any way. They would still be paid, supplied and trained as usual -- just not in Iraq. Richard Durbin delivered a second blow, noting that troops are being sent to Iraq without proper training or equipment. "Now who is standing behind the troops?" he said. Specter, citing a Military Times poll, added that since only 35 percent of service members support Bush's plan, questioning that plan would seem to be doing what the troops want.

Those responses neatly demolish the idea that "supporting the troops" requires supporting the president's use of them. That was a central tactic in war supporters' attempts to stifle debate on Iraq, and both the attempt and the faulty logic behind it always angered me. Sad as it is to see the tactic still being used on the floor of the Senate, it's good to see it quickly and robustly refuted.

But back to the constitutional debate. Congress's authority to cut off funding is undisputed. That's how Congress -- not the executive branch -- finally ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. And Congress has the sole authority to declare war as well. That bookends the debate: Congress can start and end wars. But what power does it have over the conduct of a war?

As a practical matter, it's usually better to have one commanding general than 536 of them. So let's stipulate that as long as the president and Congress agree on a course, the president should generally be left alone to command the troops.

But if push comes to shove, who wins?

It seems to me that if Congress has the power to start and end wars, it must also have the power to take lesser steps, such as establishing limits on a particular war or attaching strings to military funding. Congress' impeachment power supports this idea: If Congress really wanted to, it could impeach the president and then keep on impeaching his successors until they found one willing to fight the war to their liking.

The Founders, remember, had just gotten rid of one executive tyrant; they did not wish to empower another. Most important governmental powers rest in Congress, and the real biggies -- the power to tax and impeach, for example -- belong exclusively to the House, the people's representatives.

The president's commander-in-chief powers, then, are subservient to Congress: he fights the war on their behalf. At the Senate hearing, that was the testimony of Louis Fisher, a constitutional law specialist for the Library of Congress. As he put it, "The same duty commanders have to the president, the president has to the elected representatives."

But as another witness -- Robert Turner, a professor at the University of Virginia -- noted, such power comes with a price: blame. He said Congress was responsible for the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia because they wouldn't let Nixon fight inside Cambodia. That's a stretch, but it also demonstrates why Congress has generally been only too happy to let the president make such decisions in all but the most extreme cases.

Besides moving toward a confrontation on Iraq, Congress also issued another pre-emptive warning on Iran.

"What I think many of us are concerned about is that we stumble into active hostilities with Iran without having aggressively pursued diplomatic approaches, without the American people understanding exactly what's taking place," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told John Negroponte, who is in line to become the nation's No. 2 diplomat as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's deputy.

And for today's political humor, here's Negroponte's response to a question from Chuck Hagel.

Negroponte repeated President Bush's oft-stated preference for diplomacy, although he later added, "We don't rule out other possibilities."

"Preference for diplomacy"? Surely he jests. Bush, after all, has flatly rejected talks with Syria or Iran over Iraq. And he has let the Europeans take the lead on talks over Iran's nuclear program, contenting himself with rattling sabers in the background.

Some of that is reasonable, even justified. I'm doubtful diplomacy will succeed in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. But to claim Bush has a preference for diplomacy is a bit removed from reality.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

The meaning of race

Rep. Tom Tancredo is a partisan buffoon. But even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes, and his latest hobby horse manages to hit a target worth skewering -- even if it's not exactly the target he was aiming at.

Tancredo, a Republican from Colorado and an outspoken opponent of diversity who has called Miami a "Third World country", is calling for an end to race-based caucuses. He's specifically taking aim at the Congressional Black Caucus, which has 43 members, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which counts 21 members.

First, let's outline how Tancredo is wrong. To begin with, he apparently doesn't understand what a caucus is.

The purpose of caucuses is to provide a gathering point and support for minorities within a larger group whose views and interests might otherwise be diluted or ignored by the larger group. I'm not talking just race: you could have a female caucus, an opera fan caucus, a sneaker caucus, or what have you.

Check out this list of Congressional caucuses. They're all over the map. The only common principle is that they represent smaller interest groups within the larger body of Congresscritters.

A white caucus would be pointless, because the entire Congress is a white caucus. That said, Tancredo has every right to form one; he would just be displaying ignorance.

Being informal interest groups, caucuses should have the right to include or exclude anyone they want, since their sole purpose is to promote a particular interest, and it should be up to the caucus members to define what that interest is. So race-based caucuses are fine, in my book.

But not all caucuses are equally deserving of respect. And this is where the blind squirrel finds a nut.

Tancredo's latest outburst was prompted by what he said were the efforts of a white Republican, Stephen Cohen, to join the CBC (Cohen's district has a large black majority), only to be rejected because he was white.

Never mind that Cohen never actually sought to join the group. The thought that he might was enough for the CBC's chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, to confirm that only blacks are welcome.

I've been underwhelmed by the actions of the CBC in recent weeks; they've seemed determined to put skin color above everything else, including ethics and common sense, as when they gave William "my freezer is my bank" Jefferson a standing ovation, or pressuring Nancy Pelosi to make Alcee Hastings chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Then there is their historic snubbing of a black Republican, Gary Franks, in the early 1990s, which seemed to suggest that to be a CBC member you not only had to be black, but you had to be a Democrat -- or at least hold certain views on civil rights.

So while I respect the CBC's right to have to a "blacks only" policy -- and the policy even makes some sense, if the purpose of the CBC is less about advancing black causes in general and more about increasing the number, power and visibility of black members of Congress -- I'm not so impressed by their actions of late. And the reaffirmation of the "blacks only" policy forces me to wonder:

What constitutes "black"?

It's similar to a question I like to pose to anti-Semites, who rave about Jews controlling the world: How do you define Jew? If it's cultural, how do you determine they are part of the culture? If it's religious, can we exclude nonobservant Jews? If it's racial, how much Jewish blood do you have to have to be considered a Jew for the purposes of world-domination statistics?

So here's the question I would pose to the CBC: How much black blood is required before you can join the CBC?

Is Tiger Woods black enough? Or too Asian? I suspect he'd make it in, because Barack Obama is a member and he's half white. But then where do they draw the line? A quarter black? An eighth? A sixteenth? Just give me a number, that's all I ask.

I suspect it will come down to "looking" black. Which is fine and arguably valid, since "looking black" is at the heart of most racism and discrimination. But seeing them try to define the dividing line would be both entertaining and a reminder of how truly silly and meaningless racial distinctions are.

Thanks, Tom. You're an idiot, but sometimes you're a useful idiot.

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Maybe -- maybe -- real change

I'm oddly heartened by the extended and bloody fighting currently taking place along Haifa Street in Baghdad.

Attack helicopters pumped rockets at gunmen holed up in office towers and apartment blocks yesterday, as US and Iraqi forces swept through a notorious Sunni-insurgent enclave in the heart of Baghdad.

The US military said the fighting around Haifa Street was part of a new offensive launched before dawn to disrupt illegal militias and bring the volatile area at the heart of Baghdad under the control of Iraqi security forces.

At first glance, there's not much to be heartened by. This is the third or fourth time we've "retaken" the area since the invasion. And it's a Sunni stronghold, so it could be viewed as just another battle between the Shiite government (supported by U.S. troops) and the Sunni minority.

But one reason Haifa Street is restive again is that Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has been less active, thanks to an apparently real withdrawal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's protection. Doubts over whether Maliki was willing or even able to bring al-Sadr to heel drove a lot of skepticism over Bush's "surge" plan, which could only work if the Iraqi government finally got serious about getting its house in order. Not only does Maliki appear to be making a genuine effort, but al-Sadr himself seems to have realized that a confrontation with the government is not in his interest.

There remain, as always, serious signs of concern. For instance, A Sunni general respected by his American advisers was replaced midfight by a Shiite general, on Maliki's orders. And an American vow to fight gunmen in Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods alike remains untested. I don't doubt the Americans are willing to be evenhanded, but are the Iraqis? Maliki says yes, but he's been, uh, less than truthful on that score before.

This is but a small first sign -- not even a step. And there still remains the hard tasks, like cracking down on death squads, eliminating corruption and "ghost soldiers" in the Iraqi army, reforming the Iraqi police.... the list goes on.

But for now, Maliki has shown more willingness to do what is necessary than I would have believed even two weeks ago.

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Truth or dare

Republican Rep. Tom Davis released a report (pdf) a couple of weeks ago slamming the Justice Department's handling of the Sandy Berger case.

"My staff’s investigation reveals that President Clinton’s former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger compromised national security much more than originally disclosed," Davis said. "It is now also clear that Mr. Berger was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to compromise national security, apparently for his own convenience."

Well, he doesn't really come up with much new information. And at least he doesn't accuse Berger of attempting a cover-up, though he intimates such might have occurred.

His major action point (signed by every Congressional Republican): Make Berger take the polygraph test he agreed to as part of his 2005 plea bargain.

That's a fairly pointless requirement, since polygraphs are unreliable. And the failing here is the Justice Department's, not Berger's. But okay: if Berger agreed to take such a test, he must. Obviously.

The issue here is not holding Berger to the terms of the agreement; it's what will be done with the polygraph results if they are made public.

At best, such tests are only 70 percent or 80 percent reliable, and that's when administered by a skilled technician to a relatively normal subject. Knowledgable subjects can lie and get away with it; anxious subjects will generate lots of false positives. And if the technician isn't top-notch, all bets are off.

So let's say Berger flunks the test. Does that mean he stole other documents or is guilty of a cover-up? Maybe. He could just be part of the unlucky 20 percent. Or it could mean he was nervous.

If he passes the test does that mean he's innocent? No. Maybe he was a cool villain and spoofed the test. Maybe he just got lucky. Maybe the technician was incompetent.

Polygraphs can be useful tools for helping focus an investigation: if a subject routinely fails on certain topics, then those topics might be worthy of further investigative scrutiny. But a polygraph test in and of itself is too unreliable to tell us anything useful about guilt or innocence. In partisan discourse, though, such nuances will be lost. No matter what the result of the test, Berger is screwed.

He gets limited sympathy from me on that score: he stole classified documents, after all. But let's not see this particular move for more than what it is: a partisan attempt to keep a Democratic scandal alive.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ain't capitalism great?

If you need a few belly laughs, check out the 2006 edition of "101 Dumbest Moments in Business" as assembled by Business 2.0.

Wal-Mart wins pride of place for 2006, grabbing 6 of the 101 spots for its snake-bitten marketing efforts.

But there are countless jaw-dropping other contenders. The first link will let you click through all 101. Some individual highlights:

Northwest Airlines providing "live cheap" advice for laid off workers, including dumpster diving.

Chevrolet sponsoring a "make your own commercial" promotion for their Tahoe SUV -- only to watch in horror as ads proliferate with taglines such as "Yesterday's technology today."

Kazakhstan's central bank misspelling "bank" on their currency.

A Comcast repairman falls asleep on a customer's couch -- and the customer turns it into a video.

The BBC invites an IT expert in for a segment -- but end up mistakenly interviewing an unknown computer technician who was waiting in the lobby for a job interview.

Great stuff.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Another made-up scandal

I've been ignoring this one for a couple of days, but hot on the heels of the "Paul Pelosi owns Del Monte stock" fabrication, we get a twofer: accusations that Barack Obama was raised Muslim -- and that the accuser is Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The dual claims were raised in an unsigned, anonymously sourced article in Insight Magazine, a publication of the Moonie-owned Washington Times that was so unsuccessful as an actual magazine that it went online-only a couple of years ago.

An investigation of Mr. Obama by political opponents within the Democratic Party has discovered that Mr. Obama was raised as a Muslim by his stepfather in Indonesia. Sources close to the background check, which has not yet been released, said Mr. Obama, 45, spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia.

"He was a Muslim, but he concealed it," the source said. "His opponents within the Democrats hope this will become a major issue in the campaign." Sources said the background check (was) conducted by researchers connected to Senator Clinton.

Let's note that even if the claim were true, the writer is suggesting that attending a madrassa between the ages of 6 and 10 somehow makes one a fundamentalist Islamist and terror supporter -- never mind that Obama has been a Christian for his entire adult life.

Fox News picked up the story repeatedly, first on "Fox and Friends" and later John Gibson, who had the flair to bring on a Republican strategist to discuss the issue -- who promptly said the effort could be a "despicable act by an absolutely ruthless Clinton political machine."

But the story isn't true. CNN actually sent a reporter to Indonesia to visit the school. Turns out that while the student body is predominantly Muslim -- hardly a surprise, because so is Indonesia -- it's a secular, public school with a mixed population and no religious curriculum.

That didn't stop the usual right-wing suspects from spreading the fake news -- from the Freepers to, again, Rush Limbaugh.

And Insight Magazine itself? Its response to CNN's story was a classic duck -- "We didn't say it -- we simply reported that Hillary's people were saying it." Well, actually, it appears you just made it up. How morally reptilian.

For their part, the Clinton campaign denies any involvement and Obama ripped Fox and Insight a new one.

And in any case, this whole thing fails the logic test. Why would Clinton's people even be talking to a nutrag like Insight? Even if Clinton wanted to smear Obama, why would she choose a little-known partisan website to do so? Further, Clinton is presumably trying to weaken Obama in the Democratic primary. What part of this story would do so? I just don't see Democratic primary voters giving a rat's ass that Obama spent a few of hs younger years at a Muslim school.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense for an amoral conservative publication to run such a story. Even if the specific accusation is debunked, it reminds voters that Obama has a Muslim background and quitely reinforces the idea that Hillary Clinton is evil, even if she can't actually be traced to this particular brouhaha. Tada! Both Democratic frontrunners tarred.

If Insight has any actual evidence to back up their story, now would be the time to provide it.

Coupled with the Pelosi smear, I think we're seeing a resurgence of the bad old days of conservative commentary, one marked by conspiracy theories and rumor-trafficking. Such fare occurs on both the left and the right, of course, most notably the left's fascination with Karl Rove and the belief that Bush controls oil prices. But it is usually most marked in the side that is currently out of power. What is disheartening is that it has taken just two months of minority status for the right wing's old habits to emerge.

Shame on them, and shame on conservative commentators and media outlets for their unquestioning acceptance of complete rubbish.

Update: John Gibson remains cartoonishly unrepentant. Just for example, Gibson assumes that the CNN correspondent involved is Indonesian, "probably went to the same madrassa", and thus is probably lying. Except that if he had bothered to actually read the CNN story, he would have known that CNN sent John Vause, an Australian, from their Beijing bureau. Idiot.

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While Congress fiddles....

The minimum wage bill saw a lot of action in the Senate but few actual results.

As promised, Harry Reid let the Republicans propose a line-item veto amendment on the bill. That was rejected 49-48, but could come back up again because that vote was far less than the 60 needed to invoke cloture and cut off debate.

However, the immediate debate moved on to other grounds, namely Republican insistence that the wage increase be paired with tax breaks for small businesses to help cushion the blow. Senate Democrats are amenable, but the House could force the issue on two fronts: the House bill doesn't contain tax breaks, and it's the House's prerogative to propose tax measures.

The lack of tax breaks led Senate Republicans to block the wage bill, so it's currently at an impasse.

I would have liked to see the line-item veto pass, but it had its chance and is done. If there's a reasonable opportunity to revive it, fine, but it should not be used to hold up the wage bill.

Overall, the House should compromise in this case. The proposed tax breaks are reasonable: extending a tax credit for employers that hire low-income workers, and a simplified expense deduction for small businesses. Further, as required by the new pay-as-you-go rules, the $8.3 billion cost will be offset by a cap on tax-deferred executive pay and the elimination of an array of tax shelters. That provision alone is worth the price of admission, as such tax-deferred paydays are at the root of many a tax-avoidance scheme. House Democrats would be foolish to let a fit of pique get in the way of such progress.

Negotiations continue, and the Senate will take another crack at it soon. Let's hope reason prevails.

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Pointless silliness

Glad to see our representatives are wasting time on stuff like this.

In a move that left Republicans crying foul, the House voted Wednesday to change its rules and grant limited and mostly ceremonial voting rights to the five delegates representing the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories.

The resolution passed 226-191, largely along party lines. The voting rights for the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are largely symbolic and the rules change is designed to make sure that the delegates' votes cannot affect the fate of legislation.

How will it work, you ask?
The rules change will allow the delegates to cast votes on amendments. However, they cannot vote on final passage of a bill, and, if the delegates tip the balance on any given amendment, the House will re-vote on that amendment without the delegates' participation.

So what's the point? There isn't one, really. Most of the delegates are Democrats, but because their votes don't count this is more feel-good symbology than anything else.

Pointless as the move was, Republican reaction was over the top:

Republicans were fuming after the vote and labeled it "a power grab."...

"The Revolutionary War was fought over the idea of 'taxation without representation,' but the Democrats are pushing forward the policy of 'representation without taxation,'" Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said, noting that voters in the four territories do not pay federal income taxes.

They'd have a case if the delegates had any actual power. But they don't.

There's a history here. This essentially reestablishes rules first put into place in 1993 -- the last time Democrats controlled Congress. The Republicans took over in 1994 and promptly canceled the arrangement. So this could be viewed as a simple move to reassert a political principle -- or it could be viewed as the Democrats giving Republicans a poke in the eye.

Is it Constitutional? Apparently so, as ruled by the Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals in Michel v. Anderson, a 1994 ruling dealing with the 1993 law. Territories cannot have Senators or full voting rights in the House, but the House is free to give territorial delegates limited power through its organizational rules. Delegates already participate in committee votes and have other privileges too, such as franking. This is an extension of that.

So it's partisan and pointless, but legal. Now that that's over with, I hope they move on to more important things.


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Check 'im out

I'm not a gay atheist Republican neocon, but if I were I'd want to be The Gay Republican. It's a new blog by a political debater I've known for a couple of years now. And while I disagree with nearly everything he says, he's consistent, smart, and funny. Oh, and arrogant; very, very arrogant.

You might not agree with him, but you'll find him interesting and entertaining, if occasionally infuriating. And you'd be surprised at the places you do agree with him.

Check him out.

Update: He got tired of fighting MySpace's code, so the blog has moved to Blogger, here.


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Kerry bows out

Thank God. And I say that as someone who voted for the doofus in 2004. In my defense, I stated at the time that I would vote for a trained pig if the alternative was another four years of Bush. My vote was a vote against Bush rather than vote for Kerry.

Anyway, this isn't a big surprise; nobody wants Kerry to run, and any polling he did would have confirmed that. The real story would have been if Kerry was stubborn and tin-eared enough to run anyway.

One question remains: What will Kerry do with the $13 million in his campaign war chest? That's enough money to make a difference in either the primary or general elections. The question is, would anyone want the money bad enough to accept the "supported by John Kerry" tag that goes with it?

Assuming he gives it to anybody -- as opposed to, say, using it for his own Senate re-election campaign or donating it somewhere -- I see two intriguing possibilities. He could give it John Edwards, framing it as a donation to his former running mate, which would take away some of the "Kerry supports me" stain. Or he could give it to Dennis Kucinich, who doesn't stand a chance of winning the nomination but could do some interesting things with $13 million in his pocket.

Or he could just donate it to the DNC or one of the Congressional campaign funds.

Update: Just musing here, but consider what might have been had Kerry won in 2004. We might have begun an earlier withdrawal from Iraq (although there's a good chance Kerry would have tried to show he could fight the war better than Bush). But outside of that, assume he was as terrible a president as his critics feared. His power would have been hobbled by the Republican majority in Congress, so there would be a limit to how much damage he could do. Further, Congressional Republicans would have had a good foil to work against, and not been borne down by the lead weight of Iraq. So conceivably a Kerry presidency might have left the GOP in charge of Congress in 2007, and positioned them well to recapture the White House in 2008, since Kerry would presumably run again.


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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Iraq war resolution gains momentum

There are now two versions of an anti-surge resolution circulating in the Senate, but unlike many such instances one is not an attempt to derail the other; sponsors on both sides expect to reconcile them into a single text that will draw bipartisan support.

One is mostly Democratic, but with key Republican co-sponsors: Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe. The other is mostly Republican, but with a key Democratic co-sponsor: Ben Nelson. You can find the text of the Democratic version on by searching for "S Con Res 2". The GOP version is still being drafted; I can't find a copy of the actual text.

If the resolution actually comes to a vote -- opponents have threatened a filibuster, though it will be interesting to see if they follow through and can sustain it -- I'm dying to see what the final vote total will be. If it's lopsided enough, it will speak volumes about the future of our Iraq adventure.

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Libby trial opens

And the opening statements were pretty interesting on both sides.

Legally speaking, Fitzgerald has an uphill battle to fight here. He has to prove that Libby deliberately lied; Libby's attorneys say he misremembered. He also has to persuade the jury that Libby had something to hide, despite the revelation of Richard Armitage's earlier leak of Plame's identity. Otherwise he will be (fairly) criticized for prosecuting a coverup of a nonexistent crime.

In his opening statements, Fitzgerald gave it his best shot:

Mr. Fitzgerald provided his own dramatic moment of the day when he played audio tapes of Mr. Libby’s grand jury testimony in March 2004.

But before doing so, he meticulously laid the groundwork for his case that Mr. Libby had lied during those appearances. He first presented charts showing that Mr. Libby learned about Ms. Wilson in conversations with several fellow administration officials in June and early July 2003, and that he also talked to reporters and other administration officials about her identity in that same time period.

Jurors then listened intently as Mr. Libby’s voice wafted through the courtroom while he sat silently at the defense table. Mr. Libby was heard to say that he believed he first learned about Ms. Wilson in a conversation with Tim Russert of NBC on Thursday, July 10. Mr. Libby also told the grand jury that he was taken aback by Mr. Russert’s information.

“You can’t be startled about something on Thursday that you told other people about on Monday and Tuesday,” Mr. Fitzgerald said referring to conversations Mr. Libby had only days before.

Further, he said, Mr. Russert will testify that his July 10 telephone conversation with Mr. Libby did not include any mention of Ms. Wilson. Mr. Libby, he said, had telephoned instead to complain about a talk show on the network.

“The evidence will show the conversation he claims took place about Wilson’s wife never happened,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “And even if it did happen he couldn’t have been surprised.”

Then the defense weighed in:

White House officials tried to sacrifice vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby to protect strategist Karl Rove from blame for leaking a CIA operative's identity during a political storm over the Iraq war, Libby's lawyer said Tuesday.

After Libby complained "they want me to be the sacrificial lamb," Vice President Dick Cheney personally intervened to get the White House press secretary to publicly clear Libby in the leak, defense attorney Theodore Wells said in his opening statement at Libby's perjury trial.

The defense also raised the expected "he was a busy man, and he misremembered" explanation.

I'm not going to spend a lot of time dissecting the blow-by-blow maneuvers in the case, because I don't expect there to be much illumination in the end. We won't find out if the Plame leak was deliberate. We might find out that there was a coverup, but not exactly of what. Or we might discover that Fitzgerald's got nothing.

So for me the most interesting aspect of the case is the glimpse it provides into internal White House workings. The picture being painted is of an administration in a bit of disarray, so anxious to discredit Joe Wilson that they engage in a bit of "ready, fire, aim," in which there wasn't a cohesive response strategy and nobody really knew who was saying what to who. It reveals tensions between the vice presidential and presidential staffs, and Cheney being bluntly protective of Libby after the scandal broke. It reveals that even senior administration staffers thought the administration would be willing to sacrifice lesser staffers to save Rove.

Stay tuned.

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State of the Union, Schmate of the Union

This may be heresy for a political blogger, but I'm going to come right out and say it: I hate State of the Union speeches.

Except for the first one of each term, they rarely contain anything of monumental importance. People look at them as a description of the president's priorities -- but if they were actual priorities he would have gotten around to implementing them sometime before the seventh year of his administration.

And this SOTU speech will be even less relevant than most, coming as it does from a deeply unpopular President facing an opposition-controlled Congress, a President whose explosive borrowing and staggering spending leave little room for ambitious new initiatives, even if he had the political capital to push them.

Further, with just two years left in office, most of the things Bush will push for will have to be accomplished by his successors. Take his ethanol proposal, for example: he says we should seek to produce 35 billion gallons a year by 2017. What will or can he do to achieve that? Nothing, beyond tax breaks. It's classic bully pulpit, urging people to go do something. It's a laudable goal, but as a practical matter it's just words: cheap, easy, and meaningless.

So the speech will be interesting as a snapshot of how he will deal with the new political reality, and how he hopes to shape his legacy. But as a policy blueprint it's garbage.

So watch it, if you want. I've got it on right now in the background. So far the best thing about it is the look on Dick Cheney's face as he sits behind the president and next to Nancy Pelosi. He looks more bored than she does.

But recognize that the speech is more theatre than substance -- especially this one.

Update: Here's the speech, and here's the fact sheet that goes with it.

Update II: Here's the text of the Democratic rebuttal, delivered by Sen. Jim Webb. It's remarkably succinct and sharp, even if you don't agree with the sentiments expressed.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Ann Coulter update

When last we left our sordid tale of wealth and right-wing vote fraud, Palm Beach elections official Arthur Anderson, after being stonewalled by Coulter, had referred her case to the state attorney for criminal prosecution.

Now the plot thickens!!

Anderson has been unable to find anyone willing to take the case. The Palm Beach police concluded they didn't have jurisdiction, and without a police file State Attorney Barry Krischer is uninterested. so Anderson's trying to persuade the sheriff or Florida's Department of Law Enforcement to handle it.

Meanwhile, it appears that Coulter used the fake address not only on voter registration forms but also on her driver's license application -- a second felony. So if anyone could be bothered to bring charges against her, she could face even more sanctions.

In closing, remember Midtopia's Coulter Motto: "Root for the jail term!"


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Not serious about war, Part II

A month or so ago, I wrote about how the Future Tactical Truck (FTT) program shows that the Pentagon is not taking the war in Iraq seriously.

Now, we've got yet more evidence.

After nearly four years of war in Iraq, the Pentagon's effort to protect its troops against roadside bombs is in disarray, with soldiers and Marines having to swap access to scarce armored vehicles and the military unsure whether it has the money or industrial capacity to produce the safe vehicles it says the troops need....

Even if the Pentagon can find millions of dollars not currently budgeted, and even if it can find factories to produce the armored vehicles, most U.S. troops in Iraq will not have access to the best equipment available, as President Bush has often promised.

The Army acknowledged last week, for example, that it is still 22 percent short of the armored Humvees it needs in Iraq despite heated criticism in 2004 and 2005 over the lack of armored vehicles.

Army officials said it will be another eight months before that gap can be filled.

Wait, it gets better. Unable to actually protect the troops, the Army is putting a Band-aid on a gaping wound:

The Army is shipping 71,000 sets of fire-resistant uniforms to Iraq so that soldiers will have a better chance of surviving the fires that often consume Humvees that hit roadside bombs.

It's not just armored Humvees. The military plans to largely replace Humvees with V-shaped vehicles call MPVs -- a class of armored car that has been produced and used for years by other countries that are very good at surviving explosions. We're not talking about having to develop a new vehicle from scratch; we're talking about buying or modifying an existing design.

Even so, the first MPVs aren't expected to reach Iraq until March 2008.

The Pentagon says it is doing all it can. Apparently "all it can" means that even four years into this fight we haven't ramped up development, production or purchasing of vehicles everyone knows we need. Just like with the FTT, we're still on a peacetime development cycle.

As I said a month ago, if this mentality had prevailed in World War II, we would have fought the whole thing with Grant tanks and 37mm antitank guns -- and lost.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Senate passes ethics bill

Second time was the charm, as Republicans (rightly) withdrew their attempt to attach a line-item veto amendment to the package, which derailed an earlier attempt at passage. The unamended bill passed 96-2.

Democrat Robert Byrd, the main obstacle to a compromise, found himself isolated.

For nearly two days, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- who jealously guards the Senate's prerogatives on spending matters -- single-handedly blocked efforts to come to an accord on that line-item veto vote....

But Reid found a path around Byrd, offering Republicans a chance next week to add the spending control measure to a bill to raise the minimum wage if they can find the votes. That broke the logjam, and the Senate then began debating several amendments to the bill, with an eye toward completing work late last night.

A good compromise. The minimum wage bill has plenty of momentum, too, and attaching the veto to it could actually increase support by drawing in Republicans who otherwise would oppose the wage bill. That could end up giving the bill a Byrd-proof majority (and veto-proof, too, though that's not a real risk).

The ethics bill is pretty good, but there are still some problems. For instance:

Lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, also talked to lawmakers about excluding from the measure's travel ban trips to Israel sponsored by the group's nonprofit foundation affiliate. The legislation, as written, would allow those trips to continue.

So as long as a lobbying group has a nonprofit affiliate, they can still pay for legislator travel? That's stupid.

And the story notes a big loophole related to fundraising events, which aren't mentioned at all.

It's a good sign, though, that lobbyists worked so hard to derail the bill. It's not a solution, but it's a step forward.

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Gonzales pooh-poohs habeus corpus

In yesterday's Senate hearing, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to argue that there is no constitutional right to habeus corpus -- that is, the right to challenge the legality of your detention.

The link is ThinkProgress; sorry about that. But they've got video and a transcript.

GONZALES: I will go back and look at it. The fact that the Constitution — again, there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution. There is a prohibition against taking it away. But it’s never been the case, and I’m not a Supreme —

SPECTER: Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. The constitution says you can’t take it away, except in the case of rebellion or invasion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus, unless there is an invasion or rebellion?

GONZALES: I meant by that comment, the Constitution doesn’t say, “Every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right to habeas.” It doesn’t say that. It simply says the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended except by —

SPECTER: You may be treading on your interdiction and violating common sense, Mr. Attorney General.

Anyone agree with Gonzales? I mean, he's right about the wording -- it doesn't positively grant the right, it says the right cannot be taken away. But he seems to read a positively lunatic significance into that distinction.

I wonder what he makes of the First Amendment, which reads "Congress shall make no law.... abridging the freedom of speech." Nope, no positive grant of the right to free speech either.

No wonder this guy was able to justify torture.

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New, improved -- but still flawed -- military tribunals

The Pentagon has released a manual outlining new procedures for President Bush's terrorist-trying military commissions. The manual reflects the bill passed in September by the then-GOP-led Congress.

The good news is that it's better than what Bush had originally proposed. The bad news is that it still contains needlessly troubling provisions, such as allowing hearsay evidence and coerced confessions.

Unsurprisingly, Congressional Democrats say they'll revisit the military commissions law to try to fix the worst problems. And Arlen Specter says he'll support that. It remains to be seen whether such changes would survive a Bush veto, but they should be pursued nonetheless.

As I've written before, terrorists deserve to be treated harshly; but suspected terrorists deserve rights, including a fair trial. The new tribunal rules come 90 percent of the way toward achieving that; let's take care of that last 10 percent and start putting people on trial.

Update: A list of reactions from defense lawyers and human rights groups. Among the comments:

Martin S. Pinales, president, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers:

"Hearsay, double hearsay, and coerced confessions are all admissible, including statements extracted from witnesses by torture. Given the shaky constitutionality of the Military Commissions Act, the detainees' habeas corpus right to challenge their detention -- and the validity of any conviction -- is more important than ever."

Colonel Dwight H. Sullivan, U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, Chief Defense Counsel:

"The rules appear carefully crafted to ensure than an accused can be convicted -- and possibly executed -- based on nothing but a coerced confession."

Yeah, problems remain....

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Pre-emptive strike on Iran

... By Democrats, aimed at the president.

Democratic leaders in Congress lobbed a warning shot Friday at the White House not to launch an attack against Iran without first seeking approval from lawmakers.

"The president does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking congressional authorization," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record), D-Nev., told the National Press Club.

Reid's wording invokes the War Powers Act, a law that no president has ever accepted as valid -- even though they tend to obey it in order to avoid provoking a Constitutional confrontation that they might lose.

As a practical matter, Reid's words are as toothless as the upcoming resolution opposing the troop surge in Iraq, which is garnering increasing bipartisan support. Neither the Iraq resolution nor the Iran warning can effectively prevent Bush from doing whatever he wants in the short-term, in either place.

But they do serve a handful of useful purposes. They put Congress on record as opposing the president's actions; they serve notice that funding for such actions will be closely scrutinized and debated; and they raise the political cost to the president for pursuing such actions, because they essentially isolate Bush. In order to attack Iran, for instance, he would have to acknowledge that he was doing so entirely on his own initiative, without the backing of the people's representatives. In normal political calculations, that makes it less likely that such an attack will occur.

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Will Bush simply ignore Congress? He can do that for a little while, but not forever. Will he call their presumed bluff? Risky, if they're not actually bluffing. Will he try to co-opt them? I can imagine him going to Congress in a classified briefing and saying "Iran is about to develop nuclear weapons. Here are the production sites; we need to bomb them." What will Congress do then?

The answer to that last question isn't that important from a constitutional viewpoint; the consultation is the important thing. I expect Bush to play political hardball in pursuit of what he thinks is right; but he should get Congress on board for his plans if he wants those plans to have any staying power after the dust settles.

Tangent: My second link leads with the White House calling Pelosi's attack on the "surge" plan "poison" and not in the spirit of bipartisanship. For my money, Congress is supposed to have a somewhat adversarial relationship with the executive branch; that's what "checks and balances" mean. I expect Pelosi to work cordially with Congressional Republicans; they are her colleagues. And I expect her to seek common ground and compromise with the president where possible and necessary. But the White House complaining that Congress has tired of being a doormat for the president misses the point. Congress is a private club, and the president is not a member; get used to it. Republican deference helped the pendulum of power swing way over to the executive side of the ledger in the last six years; a correction is not only to be expected, but desired.

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Ney gets 30 months

... in prison, plus two years probation and a tiny $6,000 fine. If he completes an alcohol treatment program, it'll cut a year off of his sentence.

A pretty mild punishment, especially the fine -- he could have been forced to pay up to $500,000 -- but still harsher than the 27 months or so that prosecutors recommended.

Hall of Shame has been updated.


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Thursday, January 18, 2007

That sinking feeling

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales went way out of his way to avoid saying anything useful about the administration's agreement with the FISA court on wiretapping.

He said he might not be able to provide Congress with details of the presidential order authorizing the new program. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said there might be "separation of powers" issues over such disclosure, as well as disclosing anything about individual court orders.

Gonzales also refused to say whether the new program involved individual warrants or blanket warrants that could conceivably cover dozens of people.

Got that? An executive branch agreement with the judicial branch might have to be kept from Congress because.... well, because.

This even though the court in question has no problem sharing the information.

In a letter released at the Senate hearing, FISA Court Presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, said she has no objection to giving lawmakers copies of orders and opinions relating to the secret panel's oversight of the spy program.

"However, the court's practice is to refer any requests for classified information to the Department of Justice. In this instance, the documents that are responsive to your request contain classified information and, therefore, I would ask you to discuss the matter with the attorney general or his representatives," Kollar-Kotelly wrote in the Jan. 17 letter.

If allowed, the Court will, of course, cooperate with the agreement," she wrote.

The administration is once again demanding that we just trust it, despite plenty of past experience demonstrating that such trust is misplaced. I understand keeping sensitive operational details out of public view; but Congress has to be in the loop for "oversight" to have any meaning whatsoever.

To quote Han Solo: "I've got a bad feeling about this."

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Manufacturing a scandal

A few days ago I slammed Democrats for hypocritically exempted American Samoa from the new minimum wage law. In passing, I noted that one of the beneficiaries of low wages on the island is Starkist, a subsidiary of Del Monte, which is based in Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district.

Partisans have now taken that basic data and run with it, providing a fascinating look at how a scandal can be ginned up out of, literally, nothing.

It started on Jan. 12, when somebody modified the Wikipedia entry on Del Monte to add a sentence claiming that Pelosi's husband, Paul, owns $17 million worth of Del Monte shares -- suggesting, of course, that personal financial interest drove the Samoan exception. The right-wing site Newsbusters picked it up that same day, and it started spreading through the right-wing blogosphere. It gained momentum on Jan. 15, with an unsourced allegation by Rush Limbaugh. Along with the buzz came the usual smug and knowing comments of "I wonder why the mainstream media is ignoring this?"

Perhaps because it isn't true. Setting aside the wisdom of relying entirely on an unsourced Wikipedia edit, Wikipedia erased the edit a few hours after it was posted on Jan. 12.

Then the story morphed to say Pelosi owned $17 million of Heinz stock, and since Heinz owns 75 percent of Del Monte, the Pelosis still have a substantial financial interest.

First, consider that Heinz has 332 million shares outstanding, at a current stock price of $46.56, for a total market cap of about $15.5 billion.

So if Paul Pelosi actually does own $17 million worth of Heinz stock, that means he owns approximately 0.1 percent of the outstanding shares.

Further, this accusation appears to represent a misunderstanding of who owns what. The Del Monte transaction was completed in 2002. But it was Heinz shareholders received shares of the new Del Monte based on their share of ownership in Heinz. Thus Heinz shareholders -- not Heinz itself -- owned 75 percent of Del Monte as of 2002, through separate, non-Heinz stock. Heinz the company has no ongoing interest in Del Monte.

So assuming Pelosi owned 0.1 percent of Heinz in 2002, he would have received a 0.1 percent share of the 75 percent of Del Monte owned by Heinz shareholders. Del Monte is much smaller than Heinz -- $3 billion in annual sales, market value of $2.2 billion. So Paul Pelosi's share of Del Monte would be worth about $1.6 million.

Then consider that Starkist represents just part of Del Monte's portfolio, generating annual sales of about $565 million (you'll have to get the 2005 Del Monte annual report and turn to page 54 to verify this). That's 18.8 percent of Del Monte. So Pelosi's direct interest in Starkist would be about $300,000.

But that all assumes Pelosi owns $17 million of stock somewhere. And he doesn't. If you check out the Pelosi's financial disclosure statement for 2005 (click on the link under Nancy's picture), you discover that not only do they not own any stock in Del Monte or Heinz, but they have only one asset worth anywhere near $17 million -- a vineyard valued at between $5 million and $25 million.

So to sum up: the right-wing blogosphere, up to and including the venerable Rush, fell for and helped spread a completely false slander about the Pelosis -- even though rudimentary logic and standards of evidence should have set off alarm bells, and a few basic fact checks could have shown the whole thing to be bunk.

To their credit, Newsbusters and a few other sites were quick to post updates that at least partially backed away from their initial claims. But Rush remains unrepentant, and the goofballs over at Free Republic took it on faith, as did Red State News and Right Wing News -- even three days after the fact.

I don't know who to slam most -- the sleazebag that made stuff up in the first place, or the willingly gullible partisans who jumped all over it.

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To arm or not to arm

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a solution for keeping U.S. troops out of Iraq: adequately equip Iraqi government forces.

"If we succeed in implementing the agreement between us to speed up the equipping and providing weapons to our military forces, I think that within three to six months our need for the American troops will dramatically go down. That's on the condition that there are real strong efforts to support our military forces and equipping them and arming them," Maliki said.

He's right as far as he goes. The United States has been reluctant to provide the latest gear to the Iraqis, including heavy weapons and high-tech equipment. And that has definitely hampered the Iraqi ability and will to fight.

But there's a good reason for that reluctance: we don't trust the Iraqi government to maintain decent control of those weapons, and not simply let them slip into the hands of militias, death squads, Iran or the insurgency itself -- or simply become major tools for the Shiite side of an outright civil war.

It's a classic Catch-22: Iraq can't defend itself and stop the sectarian violence until we give them weapons, and we don't want to give them weapons until they demonstrate they can control the sectarian violence. And Maliki's words don't change that equation: is he asking for weapons in his role as Prime Minister, or in his role as a prominent Shiite with militia and Iranian ties?

Maliki is trying to demonstrate he's serious, most recently by arresting 400 members of the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. But it remains to be seen whether that's a serious effort or mere windowdressing, the sacrifice of a few scapegoats.

While I understand the Iraqi government's dilemma, I see no reason to start shipping them heavy weaponry. Heavy weapons don't win counterinsurgency campaigns; boots on the ground do. Give them armored Humvees and decent APCs, plus plenty of good small arms; those are the kinds of things that are helpful and not particularly sensitive. But a large-scale weapons program should be viewed with skepticism, especially if it involves items like tanks and artillery that have limited application in a guerrilla war but can prove highly useful in ethnic cleansing.

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Senate ethics bill goes down

Thanks to Republican hardball.

Senate Republicans scuttled broad legislation last night to curtail lobbyists' influence and tighten congressional ethics rules, refusing to let the bill pass without a vote on an unrelated measure that would give President Bush virtual line-item-veto power.

The line-item measure was offered as an amendment, and the Democrats couldn't muster enough votes to cut off debate and proceed to a vote on the ethics bill sans amendment.

The Post story seems to accept the Democratic line too strongly, because a line-item veto is arguably related to pork-barrel reform, and all that was required to move things forward was allowing an up-or-down vote on the amendment. But things are rarely that simple in Congress, Where a majority of senators support the veto but a large minority oppose it as well. Meaning that in a simple up-or-down vote the veto amendment would pass, but the full amended bill would then likely fail because not enough senators would agree to cut off debate and allow a vote.

The Republicans, however, refused to accept a promise by Harry Reid to bring the line-item veto to the floor later for a separate debate, because they know that the veto needs to be attached to some legislation with serious momentum if it's going to stand a chance. Complicating things further, any compromise is opposed by Democrat Robert Byrd, a known opponent of the line-item veto.

The Republicans (and Byrd) are in the wrong on this one. Let the ethics bill come to a vote, and schedule a later debate and vote on the line-item veto -- or attach it other must-pass legislation later. Such a veto is not a panacea, but it is a helpful tool in eliminating the most egregious forms of pork and waste. Clinton had it briefly until that version was declared unconstitutional (thanks in part to a lawsuit by several senators, including Byrd); there's no reason not to let a GOP president have it, too, and see if it passes constitutional muster this time.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Unpleasant math

What can $1.2 trillion buy?

Less than half of that would let us double cancer research funding, treat every American who has diabetes or heart disease and immunize every child on the planet against measles, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, polio and diptheria -- all for a decade.

$350 billion would provide a decade of universal pre-school.

$100 billion over a decade would be enough to fully implement the 9/11 Commissions recommendations and provide more aid to Afghanistan.

Or you could choose, as we have, to blow it all on Iraq. And that's a relatively conservative estimate.

The sheer scale of waste and forgone opportunities boggles the mind.

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Ex-president Bush

With negotiations -- and protests -- underway over Bush's presidential library, and analysts trying to predict what his legacy will be, I've been musing about a not-so-far-off time. Specifically, what will Bush do once he waves goodbye for the last time and leaves office in 2008?

I figure it's pretty certain he won't be sent on any goodwill ambassador missions like his dad and Clinton have been. I mean, where could he go? Disaster relief? Not after Katrina. International diplomacy? I don't think so. Blue-ribbon commissions? I can envision plenty of snarky responses to that question, but not Bush sitting on one.

Humanitarian work? He just doesn't strike me as the "establish a Habitat for Humanity" type. Donate to charity? Sure. Run a charity? No. Though he could prove me wrong there, especially if he consciously attempts to gild his legacy.

The welcome mat isn't really going to be out at the RNC or the other usual partisan haunts. It's not just disagreement on specific issues. Many of them are mad at him for losing Congress -- and perhaps positioning them for even heavier losses in 2008. That kind of odor doesn't go away quickly. Then there's the whole thing about rampant incompetence. If he doesn't pull something out of his hat, he'll be a political pariah in his own party. Even the neocons will shun him, for setting their cause back 20 years or more.

Recent reports offer one clue: he wants his presidential library to have a conservative think tank associated with it. So maybe that's how he'll spend his time. Of course, that raises the snarky question of "will they actually be conservative, or will they use Bush's definition of the term?" And "Bush" and "think tank" don't really belong in the same sentence anyway. Expect his role to be more of frontman and funder rather than policy wonk.

With so many doors closed, and him not being a real elder statesmen type, I'm having a hard time envisioning him doing much more than going back to Texas and cocooning. Maybe doing some well-paid speeches to the faithful. Maybe organizing his papers. Maybe clearing a lot of brush down in Crawford. But mostly just kicking back and enjoying retirement.

I'm not trying to be mean here; for one thing, who cares if that's all he does? There's no requirement that ex-presidents be any more publicly involved than any other retiree. I think he'll turn out to be a bit like Gerald Ford -- although even Ford was more involved in (and credible on) public policy than I expect Bush to be.

Weigh in with your own opinions. Try to keep it thoughtful; the cheap shots are just too easy, and I think I used most of them already anyway.

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Bush gives in on secret surveillance program -- we think

The fact that such a small step is such a big deal provides sad testimony to the unreasonableness of the Bush administration's previous position, but here it is:

The Justice Department announced today that the National Security Agency's controversial warrantless surveillance program has been placed under the authority of a secret surveillance court, marking an abrupt change in approach by the Bush administration after more than a year of heated debate.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said that orders issued on Jan. 10 by an unidentified judge puts the NSA program under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret panel that oversees most intelligence surveillance in the United States.

Wow. Excellent.

This is a small step because the court is practically a rubber-stamp for surveillance requests. But that's fine: one presumes the government would only bring solid requests to the court, and that the court would err on the side of approval while retaining the right to pull that approval if the request turns out to be spurious. The issue for me has never been "let's prevent the government from listening to bad guys"; it's been "let's ensure that the program is properly supervised, warrants are sought, and the administration can't simply listen to anybody it wants to for any reason."

There's still reason to be cautious, because much is not known:

Gonzales also said that the administration has been exploring ways to seek approval from the surveillance court for nearly two years, but that "it took considerable time and work to develop" an approach that "would have the speed and agility necessary to protect the nation from al-Qaeda."

That could mean a lot of things, including "the court rolled over for us." For instance:

In a background briefing with reporters, Justice officials declined to provide details about how the new program will work -- including whether the surveillance court has issued a blanket order covering all similar cases or whether it will issue individual orders on a case-by-case basis. Authorities also refused to say how many court orders are involved.

Oh, great.

At this point I have to place my faith in the FISA court, and trust they wouldn't have just abandoned their oversight role.

But even if I don't need to be informed of the details, Congress should be... and they haven't.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he welcomed the new approach but called on the administration to provide more details about the "contours" of the program.

Charles Schumer sums things up best, though with a lot more skepticism than I.

"This announcement can give little solace to the American people, who believe in the rule of law and ask for adequate judicial review," Schumer said in a statement. "And why it took five years to go to even this secret court is beyond comprehension."

Congress should demand answers. And if they are not forthcoming, I hope to see another newspaper report like the one that first exposed this program to the light.

Tangentially, Gonzales attempted to portray the decision as not driven by news coverage.

The attorney general sought to portray the administration’s change of posture as anything but grudging. “In the spring of 2005 -- well before the first press account disclosing the existence of the Terrorist Surveillance Program -- the administration began exploring options” for seeking such approval, he said.

Uh-huh. That's why they established the program in secret, staunchly defended it when they were caught, spent months heaping abuse on FISA and the FISA court and only abandoned that defense when Democrats took control of Congress. Sure. Pull the other one.

They tried the same "we've been intending to do this all along" tactic when discussing Bush's new/old strategy for Iraq. It wasn't persuasive then, either.

It's also possible that they were lying all along. The conservative Captain Ed, of all people, raises that point:

On one hand, having this process remain in our counterterrorism arsenal is great news. However, for those of us who supported the White House on this contentious point, the speed in which they reached accommodation with FISA will call into question that early support. By my count, we've had ten entire weeks since the midterms and they've managed to scale a mountain that they claimed was insurmountable for the previous five years....

They took everyone along for a big ride, making all sorts of legal arguments about the AUMF and Article II -- and now Gonzales has revealed that even they didn't really believe it.

If they were negotiating with FISA to place the program under their jurisdiction, then they must have agreed with their critics that insisted FISA was a covering authority for such action. And if they've spent the better part of two years reaching an accommodation with FISA, why not just tell people what they were doing when the program got exposed? And for toppers, why didn't they start negotiating with FISA in November 2001 when they started the program?

The Bush administration just torpedoed a large chunk of their credibility. This is in no way a victory for the White House, but a huge climbdown. All of that effort and argument went for absolutely nothing.

This is way Captain Ed is one of my favorite conservative bloggers. He can be partisan and speculative, but he also recognizes when things don't add up, even if the person doing the math is a conservative.

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