Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hey! Iran! Maybe we should, like, talk

Rather surprising, the administration has reversed itself and agreed to talk to Syria and Iran about the situation in Iraq.

The move was announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in testimony on Capitol Hill, after Iraq said it had invited neighboring states, the United States and other nations to a pair of regional conferences.

Okay, it was grudgingly. And they were boxed in by the Iraqi government, which doesn't share Washington's aversion to actual diplomacy and is scrapping for survival. But better late than never.

Rice says the U.S. doesn't want to be subjected to extortion. But it's silly to think Syria or Iran will lift a finger to help if we don't actually talk to them. Yeah, they're going to want something. But it sure doesn't hurt to listen to what it is -- and make a few demands of our own.

As in the past, the administration's knee-jerk reaction to ideas it doesn't like is to stonewall. But unlike in the past, the administration is showing new willingness to reconsider that reaction in the cold light of morning. A willingness to talk brought a deal in North Korea; an acknowledgement that more troops are needed appears to be bringing some success with the surge. We shouldn't get our hopes up too high over the decision to talk to Iran, but it sure can't hurt.

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What goes around....

Boy, this had to be an uncomfortable moment.

Prominent Missouri businessman and Republican financier Sam Fox, accompanied by heavyweight backers, expected smooth sailing in the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday on his way to confirmation as ambassador to Belgium.

He didn't get it.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., broadsided Fox, criticizing his 2004 donation to the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and questioning Fox's credentials for the job.

"You saw fit to put $50,000 on the line to continue the smear, my question to you is: Why?" Kerry said.

Fox's answer wasn't particularly forceful.

Fox, 77, said he couldn't recall who had asked for the contribution and counted it among thousands of contributions he makes yearly. "When I'm asked, I just generally give," Fox said.

Frankly, that's a bit sad.

One can surely understand Kerry's pique. On the other hand, Fox didn't totally deserve the 30-minute grilling: he was a Republican ATM, not a prime mover behind the Swiftboaters. And his confirmation does not appear to be in jeopardy.

But it does show that there is a price to be paid for personal politics.

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The surge might be working

In the first really encouraging sign for the security crackdown in Baghdad, the number of bodies delivered to the Baghdad morgue in February is down by half compared to January.

In addition, today U.S. forces tested the Iraqi government's committment to a nonsectarian crackdown, sweeping into the Shiite slum of Sadr City and seizing several suspected death squad leaders.

The sign of political resolve is a good thing. The success of an increased troop presence, while predictable, is also a good thing. But the next step is the hard one: sustaining both. We appear to be doing the "clear"; what remains to be seen is whether we can manage the "hold."

Let's hope we can.

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Padilla found competent

Well, actually, he was a pretty incompetent terrorist, if that is what he was. But he was found competent to stand trial.

After three and a half days of an intensely argued hearing, Judge Marcia G. Cooke of Federal District Court rejected the defense lawyers’ request that Mr. Padilla be sent to a hospital for psychiatric treatment so that he could be “healed” from what they said was post-traumatic stress disorder caused during his three years and eight months in military detention.

About what I expected. Now the real battle begins: Cooke next must consider the defense motion to dismiss the charges based on what it says is the government's outrageous conduct.

The conduct was indeed outrageous; the only question is whether it was outrageous enough to compel an acquittal.

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Technical difficulties

My Internet connection has been down for most of the day, so posting has been impossible. Hopefully I'll get some stuff up later today. A lot going on: Padilla found competent, Kerry grilling a Swiftboater, the U.S. agreeing to attend talks with Iran and Syria, the Baghdad body count down significantly.... A lousy day for technical problems.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Prosecution says Padilla competent to stand trial

A prosecution expert says Jose Padilla is competent to stand trial, contradicting defense claims that his imprisonment amounted to torture that had induced post-traumatic stress disorder in the dirty-bomb suspect.

That's how it goes in these cases. The defense witnesses say he's crazy; the prosecution witnesses say he's not. The judge then has to sort it out.

I'm a bit skeptical of the PTSD claim. Solitary confinement can be mentally arduous, but it has a long history in our prison system, so it's not particularly unusual, and it doesn't routinely drive people nuts. If Padilla were particularly vulnerable it could cause problems, but in that case I would expect it to lead to something more concrete than PTSD, which while real is vague enough that it strikes me as a second-choice diagnosis by a defense team that knew a more serious diagnosis stood no chance.

Anyway, it's a sideshow. I also don't think we tortured Padilla, as the defense claims. But the government's treatment of Padilla has still been outrageous. Holding a U.S. citizen for more than three years without trial should offend everyone. And suddenly releasing him rather than face Supreme Court review of his detention -- and failing to charge him with anything related to the alleged dirty-bomb plot -- was both cynical and a tacit admission that the detention would not stand up to scrutiny.

It's good that Padilla is getting a trial. If he's guilty, he should be put away for a long time. But it should not have taken three years of legal pressure to secure such a basic right for a U.S. citizen. And the fact that so many Americans supported the government is downright disgraceful.

The PTSD debate is central to the defense's motion to have the case dismissed outright because the government's conduct has been so outrageous. I think they're arguing on the wrong basis, relying on showing torture rather than simply noting the blatant unconstitutionality of imprisoning a citizen without trial. And while I'd prefer to have a trial, I will fully understand if the judge agrees with the defense motion. It will be yet one more lesson that basic civil rights cannot be taken away by government fiat, and that trying to do so ends up harming security more than helping it.

I also find it interesting to compare our treatment of Padilla (and the political reaction to it) with the fate of the Egyptian blogger found guilty of criticizing Islam and Hosni Mubarak. Many of the same people who support holding Padilla manage to (rightly) oppose the treatment of the blogger. But who got treated better? At least the blogger was charged, tried and convicted in open court. He had a chance to challenge the evidence against him. And his lawyers are appealing the sentence. He wasn't simply picked up by security agents and thrown into solitary confinement for three years based solely on the government's say-so.

Padilla's alleged crime (not the long-dropped "dirty bomb" accusation, but the ones he is facing trial for) is more serious than simply posting opinions to a blog, of course. But the key word there is "alleged." The fact remains that Egypt -- a country known for repression, torture and other heavy-handed tactics -- treated their suspect far more in accord with American standards than we did Padilla. And that's a sad commentary on how badly the president's overreach on security matters has tarnished the proud legacy of freedom here.

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U.S. says it found more Iranian weapons

An arms trove buried in a palm grove in Iraq contains items linked to Iran, the U.S. military says.

The cache included what Maj. Marty Weber, a master explosives ordnance technician, said was C-4 explosive, a white substance, in clear plastic bags with red labels that he said contained serial numbers and other information that clearly marked it as Iranian.

It also contained large numbers of formed copper liners, of the sort needed to make explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), although the origin of those items appeared unknown.

The article makes a big deal about also finding a large amount of clearly non-Iranian material, like PVC pipe made in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. But that's hardly surprising; innocuous stuff like that would be bought on the open market, then married up with the speciality components needed to make an EFP. In this case, the copper liners appear to have been made specifically to match the size of the PVC. So what you have is an anti-vehicle pipe bomb: Fill a length of PVC with C-4, attach a liner to the top, and you've got an antitank mine.

If the C-4 is clearly linked to Iran, that's another piece of evidence showing Iranian involvement. But it still isn't conclusive -- C-4 is a very common explosive, just like the area is awash in AK-47s and RPGs -- and it still doesn't address the fact that our main opponents in Iraq, the Sunni insurgents, are probably not being supplied by Shiite Iran. Unless the point is that it's the Shiite militias, and not Sunni insurgents, who are now our real enemy.

Meanwhile, still no further word on the Steyr sniper rifles. That story is beginning to look bogus, considering that the provenance of the captured weapons should be easy to check.


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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Homegrown lunacy

I've said it before, and not to pile on, but Michelle Bachmann -- what a nutbar.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann claims to know of a plan, already worked out with a line drawn on the map, for the partition of Iraq in which Iran will control half of the country and set it up as a “a terrorist safe haven zone” and a staging area for attacks around the Middle East and on the United States.

The best part, of course, is that the area of Iraq she identified as part of the zone is on the other side of the country from Iran.

She later said her words were misconstrued, which actually means "boy, was I stupid."

Minnesota's own Cynthia McKinney. Or maybe Katherine Harris. Anyone wanna bet that Mark Kennedy reclaims his old seat in 2008?

And further: Patty Wetterling couldn't beat this fruitcake. Okay, conservative district and all, but maybe it's time for Patty to hang it up. Call it Minnesota's version of Kerry vs. Bush.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Iran roundup

As expected, an IAEA report has declared that Iran is in violation of U.N. resolutions regarding its nuclear program, opening the way for more severe sanctions.

Despite uncertainty over Iran's actual capabilities, the report nonetheless said that Iran has or soon will have 1,000 centrifuges for purifying uranium -- short of the 3,000 it expected to have by now (enough to produce one bomb's worth of uranium a year), but more than most outside observers expected.

Update: Here's the report (pdf).

Most everybody, including U.S. officials, say military action isn't imminent. Israel's being a bit mum, but Tony Blair said yesterday that an attack would be a bad idea, finally saying publicly what British officials had been saying privately for some time.

Then there's this:

Senior British government sources have told The Times that they fear President Bush will seek to “settle the Iranian question through military means” next year, before the end of his second term if he concludes that diplomacy has failed. “He will not want to leave it unresolved for his successor,” said one.

That's speculation, of course. If true, I'm of two minds on it. It's good not to let the diplomatic dance drag on indefinitely without results. But the end of his term is a fairly arbitrary deadline, and military action might simply hand his successor an ongoing crisis instead of an unresolved dispute. If we have to bomb -- and I'm on record supporting such a move if it proves necessary -- it should be because the talks went nowhere, not because Bush is preparing to leave office.

Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that our intelligence stinks...

Most of the tip-offs about supposed secret weapons sites provided by the CIA and other US intelligence agencies have led to dead ends when investigated by IAEA inspectors, according to informed sources in Vienna.

"Most of it has turned out to be incorrect," a diplomat at the IAEA with detailed knowledge of the agency's investigations said.

"They gave us a paper with a list of sites. [The inspectors] did some follow-up, they went to some military sites, but there was no sign of [banned nuclear] activities.

"Now [the inspectors] don't go in blindly. Only if it passes a credibility test."

...but Iran has some questions to answer.

One of the "outstanding issues" listed in yesterday's report involves a 15-page document that appears to have been handed to IAEA inspectors by mistake with a batch of unrelated paperwork in October 2005.

That document roughly describes how to make hemispheres of enriched uranium, for which the only known use is in nuclear warheads. Iran has yet to present a satisfactory explanation of how and why it has the document.

Whatever you think ought to be done about Iran's nuclear program, it seems beyond doubt that they are pursuing weaponry.

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Congress' next steps on Iraq

In preparation for the next confrontation over Iraq, Congressional Democrats are honing two different proposals that would start scaling back our activities there.

In the House, the plan is to require the military to meet established readiness and training standards that would essentially make a continued large-scale presence in Iraq impossible.

The Senate proposal is more direct, specifically restricting the allowable actions of U.S. troops in Iraq, limiting them to work related to a withdrawal of U.S. forces: direct attacks on Al-Qaeda, training Iraqi units and the like.

Of the two, the Senate has the better plan. The House approach is clever, as it neatly points up the unsustainability of our current troops levels. But it's a somewhat cowardly, back-door way to force a troop withdrawal, and seems to hold plenty of potential for unintended consequences by not forthrightly calling for -- and providing the resources for -- such a withdrawal.

The Senate approach, by contrast, simply commands an orderly end to our mission there. It's simple, direct and clear.

The chance of either plan actually taking effect is minimal. Democrats must overcome Republican opposition in Congress -- including a 60-vote margin in the Senate -- in order to pass them, and then they would face an almost certain veto from President Bush -- even if they are attached to some other piece of "must pass" legislation.

There's another risk for Democrats as well: loss of the Senate. Joe Lieberman is quietly suggesting that he might switch parties if they start pushing an Iraq policy he doesn't like. A lot of that might just be Joe posturing, taking advantage of his swing position to maximize his influence on both sides of the aisle. But he's enough of a true believer in the war that he could be serious. You can be sure any Democratic moves in the Senate will be weighed against the Joe Factor first.

Political machinations aside, are the Democrats doing the right thing by tying the President's hands?

In a general sense, there's nothing wrong with it. Congress has the sole power to declare war, the sole power to fund it and the sole power to truly end it. The President, as commander-in-chief, prosecutes the wars that Congress declares. There has been much blurring of that line over the centuries, but the thing to remember is that Congress, not the President, ultimately decides when and how long to fight. If the people (through Congress) decide they don't want to fight anymore, we should stop fighting.

But is it the right thing to do in Iraq?

Again, in a general sense, yes. The Iraq war was a mistake from the get-go, and incompetently managed besides. It has increased polarization, radicalization and terrorism in the Mideast and worldwide. It has cost a staggering amount of money, political capital, global influence and blood. It has tied up resources better used elsewhere, and divided the American electorate at a time when we needed unity to ensure continued support for the long struggle with terror. Correcting such a blunder is a good thing, and necessary.

"But that means the terrorists win!" I hear war supporters say. Nonsense. Iraq is one battle in a much larger war, and a smart general knows when to cut his losses. Leaving Iraq does not mean abandoning the fight against terror; it means redeploying our resources to more effective fronts, while removing our inflammatory presence from Iraqi soil.

Had war-supporter logic prevailed in World War I, they would have insisted we keep pouring troops into the Dardanelles campaign, lest we "let the Turks win" and show we can be beaten. In reality, of course, the Allies recognized the campaign as a disaster and pulled the plug -- and went on to win the war anyway.

So in a general sense, Congress needs to be prepared to bring our involvement in Iraq to an end. But in specific, their timing is a little premature. Bush's "surge" is just getting under way. He deserves a chance to show it can work, because all things being equal winning in Iraq is preferable to not winning. After all, the logic for withdrawal is not that we don't want to win; it's that winning in any sense meaningful to our national security appears unlikely and reinforcing failure is stupid.

So prepare the bills. But stay the hand until we see the results of the surge. And if it fails (as, alas, it probably will), then report out the Senate version. If we're going to pull the plug, do it responsibly, directly and openly.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Getting my pantsuit in a wad


Suddenly, pantsuits are everywhere.

Washington Post: "To Net-roots sites such as Daily Kos, Firedoglake and Crooks and Liars, (Rep. Ellen Tauscher) is Lieberman in a pantsuit."

P.J. O'Rourke: "Hillary Clinton is Hugo Chavez in a pantsuit."

Peggy Noonan:" They think (Hillary) is a tough little termagant in a pantsuit."

Glenn Beck: "(Cindy Sheehan) is practically Gandhi in a pantsuit."

NewsMax: "It would be even more ironic if conservative news outlets helped Hillary win the White House by pretending she's suddenly morphed into Gen. Patton in a pantsuit."

Hot Air: "(Clinton is) a black hole in a pantsuit." (reader comment)

Christian Science Monitor: "To some voters, (Clinton) is a ruthless Machiavelli-in-a-pantsuit...."

The New Republic: "(Clinton) is Goliath in a pantsuit."

The Jewish World Review: "Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco? She's Ralph Nader in a pantsuit."

The list goes on. The phrase is so common that there's actually a right-wing acronym for Hillary, PIAPS, which stands for "pig in a pantsuit."

The most interesting thing is that as far as I can tell, it's used solely to describe powerful Democratic women. No describing Olympia Snowe as "A RINO in a pantsuit." No calling Condoleeza Rice "A Klingon in a pantsuit." The best I could find was Vanity Fair's James Wolcott calling Laura Bush "just another warden in a pantsuit." But that's hardly fair, considering Mrs. Bush isn't a prime example of a powerful woman.

Second, what's the motivation? Is it an attempt to imply a lack of femininity, to suggest that they are mannish or lesbian or what have you? Is it simply a way to make a cross-gender metaphor? Is there some fascination with pantsuits that I have missed?

In any case, as the list above demonstrates, the phrase has become a cheap cliche and really needs to be dropped. You may think it sounds clever, but trust me: it doesn't. It belongs on the scrap heap along with "smart as a whip", "raining cats and dogs", "Where's the beef?" and all the others.

The picture, by the way, is of Clinton meeting a 6-9 Nevada state Assemblyman, Harvey Munford.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

World roundup

We'll finish off the evening with a quick roundup of notable events.

IRAQ
The British will cut their troop presence in Iraq in half -- events permitting -- by the end of the year. Though apparently Prince Harry will still be going there if the Daily Mirror is to be believed.

GUANTANAMO
A federal appeals court has ruled (in a decision that will be appealed to the Supreme Court) that Gitmo detainees can't challenge their internment in U.S. courts, thanks to the Republican Congress stripping that power from them last year. They can thus be held indefinitely until they are tried before the flawed military commissions that Bush has set up. Congressional Democrats have said they will revisit the commission law to fix the most glaring problems. If they plan to do that, they should get to it; it's an affront to liberty to hold people for years without charge, or try them in a court that doesn't afford them full rights.

IRAN
Iran, in a mirror image of recent U.S. charges, has accused the United States of supplying Sunni militants who last week car-bombed a bus of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Their claim comes complete with bullet cartridges bearing U.S. markings. Does this prove U.S. involvement? No. But it's interesting to note that the Iranians have roughly as much evidence backing up their claim as we have of Iranian involvement in Iraq. And just as it's very likely Iran is meddling in Iraq, would anyone be surprised to discover that we're supporting anti-Iran militants? That is not a reason to turn a blind eye to Iranian meddling; but it is a reason to look askance at the moral outrage the White House has tried to generate over the issue. Meanwhile, there are no updates on the sniper rifles allegedly supplied by Iran. The smoking gun remains elusive.

Separately, Iran is making noises about stopping its enrichment program -- if Western countries do the same. The non-offer comes a day before the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to issue a critical report that will trigger even harsher U.N. sanctions against the country. Iran once again demonstrates it is not serious about negotiating, and the IAEA report will show that it has expanded, rather than slowed, its enrichment activities. The question is what sort of measures Russia and China will allow the U.N. to take.

MITT ROMNEY
Mitt Romney is somewhat ironically attacking John McCain for being inconsistent on abortion. For my money, though, the funniest thing is that Mitt's guy in charge of conservative outreach is named Marx.

SOMALIA
Finally, the U.N. approved an 8,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force for Somalia, a measure that allows the AU to deploy troops and relieve the Ethiopians that have been propping up the provisional government there. It remains to be seen if such a force will be enough to stop the spiraling violence in Somalia, but it demonstrates the renewed international attention being paid to that country after years of neglect. Let's hope they pull it off.

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New Jersey grants gay civil unions

New Jersey becomes the third state to allow either civil unions or marriage.

Meanwhile, a Michigan court ruled earlier this month that the state's recent gay-marriage ban also outlaws domestic-partner benefits to government employees, including those who work for public universities. The logic: health benefits cannot be provided if doing so is based on treating same-sex relationships similar to marriage.

And so while New Jersey expands freedom and fairness, Michigan trips into the minefield of litigation and unintended consequences caused by a hastily passed, too-broadly drawn constitutional amendment that singles out a minority for discrimination. Another 20 states with similar bans probably will face similar troubles -- unless they take the route Alaska took and decide the law doesn't apply to such benefits.

Of course, some people are happy that this will hurt gay families. Take Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association's Michigan chapter:

“For the average Michigan taxpayer whose family does not receive government-paid insurance of any kind, this was a victory because Michigan taxpayers will no longer be forced to subsidize homosexual relationships among government workers as if those relationships are equal or similar to marriage,” he says.

That logic is so disingenuous, not to mention mean-spirited, I don't even know where to begin.

The AFA, by the way, also warns against witchcraft, specifically attacking a middle school newspaper for publishing an 8th-grade girl's article on her Wiccan aunt and Wiccan beliefs. This is a little ironic, considering they have a "religious freedom" section of their Web site where they purport to stand up for religious expression.

Such routine hypocrisy aside, it'll be interesting to see if there is a second wave of constitutional amendments amending the gay-marriage bans. I wouldn't expect outright repeals, but at the very least we might see language exempting domestic partner benefits or allowing civil unions. And the lessons of these first states -- moral as well as legal -- will likely slow the rush to adopt similar measures in the remaining states.

I stand by my prediction that in 20 years, the country will largely look back on this brouhaha and ask "what was the big deal"? Gay marriage laws will go the way of sodomy laws, falling state by state until the Supreme Court repeals the last few holdouts. Because manifest unfairness rarely survives for long, even when it involves something as visceral as homosexuality.

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Right-wing silliness, continued

More "teachers are terrorists" rhetoric, this time from Neal Boortz and Sean Hannity.

I get Boortz's point, and I agree that the NEA can be part of the problem in some places. I also agree that we should be worrying relatively more about education than about terrorism. But "worse than Al Qaeda?" Sheesh.

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Democrats gone wild

I've been slamming Republicans fairly heavily over the last few days. Time to even up the score a little.

In Fredricksburg, Md., 23-year-old Andrew Stone went to the home of a person listed on a Republican Web site. He argued with the person and his two roommates, then attacked them.

We'll presume he was a Democrat, though that's not clear from the story.

In case any of you need the reminder: don't go to people's homes and attack them for their political beliefs. It makes everyone cranky.

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Pelosi plane update

The "Pelosi One" plane scandal was always about nothing, and died despite a week of Republican flogging.

Now the main Republican flogger, Florida Rep. Adam Putnam, admits he had no actual evidence to back up his claims -- and he doesn't care.

Putnam now acknowledges he had no personal knowledge of any Pelosi request. He said he was commenting on an anonymously-sourced story in The Washington Times and additional coverage from CNN.

"This was a classic case where the media got out in front of us," Putnam said. "Did we jump on it? Yes."

And he is unapologetic about that. He calls the Pelosi plane story, whatever its legitimacy, "the first break [Republicans] have had from the media in driving our message since before the Mark Foley story broke."

Got that? Republicans' "first break... in driving our message" was a made-up nonscandal.

What exactly is that message, again? Because surely "we're a bunch of liars" isn't it.

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Another terror myth exploded

Terrorists want Democrats to win, right?

Not always, apparently.

A New York man accused of trying to help terrorists in Afghanistan has donated some $15,000 to the House Republicans' campaign committee over three years.

Abdul Tawala Ibn Ali Alishtari pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan to charges that include terrorism financing, material support of terrorism and money laundering.

From April 2002 until August 2004, the man also known as "Michael Mixon" gave donations ranging from $500 to $5,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Does this mean terrorists support Republicans? Of course not. For one thing, you'd have to examine the motive behind the donations, which could include such things as buying protection, buying access or simply trying to look innocuous.

But it does point up the intellectual emptiness of pointing to such behavior -- or the fact that both terrorists and Democrats say mean things about President Bush -- and claiming an ideological link. At risk of running afoul of Godwin's Law, Hitler disliked abstract art; does that make everyone who hates abstract art a Nazi? No.

When you get down to the facts of this case, by the way, it appears that Alishtari is little more than a scammer who was involved in suspicious money transfers for financial reasons, not ideological ones. So maybe terrorists don't support Republicans; maybe they've got the thieves and liars vote instead....

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The genetics of altruism

Are humans innately good, or innately selfish?

That's a fundamental question when it comes to discussing morality, law and society. If humans are innately selfish, then the only way society functions is by the majority forcing everyone to behave, through tools of social control like government, religion and culture. Without such control, the argument goes, society would disintegrate into a Darwinian anarchy where the strongest reigned through force and cruelty.

In addition, this worldview lends weight to the idea that only an extrahuman authority -- such as God -- can effectively impart a moral code, for if humans are naturally immoral or amoral they simply would not bother to develop one. In such a view, religion is not merely a tool for enforcing whatever society defines as morality; it is an essential source of morality that transcends society.

If humans are generally good, however -- if they are hardwired for altruism, for example, or if our social nature makes us seek approval, and render cooperation and compromise common and successful survival strategies -- then the importance of religion and tradition and government all shrink. They are still useful as founts of distilled wisdom and as a way to enable or compel group behavior. But they are not in and of themselves a necessary component of virtue.

The reality, of course, is as variable as the human experience. Like any other distribution, human behavior follows the bell curve. So even if most humans are innately good, there will be some that misbehave. And if our natural state is despotic anarchy, there would still be a few selfless saps trying to help others. Throw in other considerations, like love of family or economic ties, and the picture becomes more muddied still.

That said, a couple of recent developments shed some interesting light on the subject.

Last year, molecular researchers identified what they called an altruism gene that is present in almost all living things. It's not a gene that makes people give to charity; it's a gene that appears to explain why some cells in a multicellular organism give up their ability to reproduce -- and thus commit genetic suicide -- in order to help the organism as a whole function better. Their conclusion? The function arose for a separate purpose -- letting cells shut off temporarily useless processes to conserve energy -- and was then co-opted by evolution in multicell organisms, in something of a biological bait-and-switch. The resulting combination was so successful that all later organisms retained it.

Another study around the same time found that altering a single gene in a species of bacteria turned resource "cheaters" into cooperative organisms. Further, the genetic change occurred naturally in response to environmental stress. In other words, the stress apparently promoted a genetic change that favored cooperation.

Couple that with demonstrated examples of altruism in the animal kingdom, and it's clear that altruism is compatible with evolution.

If altruism can arise spontaneously on the cellular level and among lower animals, it seems obvious that it can arise naturally at the behavioral level of intelligent species, which have an advantage that bacteria do not: the ability to calculate the costs and benefits of cooperation.

It could start out as loyalty to a family group, wherein a parent, for example, sacrifices itself to save its mate or offspring and thus protect its genetic legacy. As populations grow that definition could be expanded to include clan or tribe, based on a reciprocal economic calculation: I'll come to your defense if you come to mine, increasing our overall chances of survival.

Society would eventually develop ideals and traditions that enforce such altruism, allowing it to apply to larger and larger groups. It would confer approval, admiration and reproductive success on those who are generous or take risks in its defense. As social creatures we are especially susceptible to "doing what is expected" and seeking the approval of our fellows.

And that, in fact, appears to be the case, as a more recent experiment shows.

The experiment hooked up college students to MRIs and had them make decisions about whether or not to give money to various charities. What they found was that deciding to give money produced activity in two different areas of the brain: the part responsible for social attachment, and the same pleasure centers stimulated by food, drugs, money and sex. In other words, acting altruistic made them feel good, as well as involving a bit of social calculation.

Such altruism may be learned rather than innate; the study doesn't attempt to establish a root cause. But it demonstrates that good behavior does not necessarily need ongoing external enforcement. People do not have to be coerced or scared into doing good; they simply need to be attached to a society or family group that prizes such behavior.

This also demonstrates that altruism can in fact be quite selfish. Altruistic acts can lead to very real individual benefits, such as increased reproductive success, enhanced social stature or simply feeling good about oneself.

But such benefits must be weighed against the potential cost. At the extreme, altruism is detrimental: the warrior who is killed in combat never gets a chance to enjoy the fruits of his sacrifice. He may still consider the risk worth it, but how can we explain the person who deliberately sacrifices himself to save others, like the soldier who throws himself on a grenade?

In some cases, even such extreme decisions can be selfish, genetically speaking. A suicide bomber, for instance, knows that his family will probably be taken care of. A soldier's family gets a government pension and the thanks of a grateful nation.

But absent those scenarios, I think such examples demonstrate the power of societal expectations. People raised in a given society often internalize that society's values. The stronger their attachment to the society, the stronger the internalization. Further, people who live when others die often experience "survivor's guilt." Many people talk about how they "couldn't live with themselves" if they behaved in a way society disapproves of. The cost-benefit analysis is different for every individual, of course, but many people would apparently prefer to risk near-certain death than live with the knowledge that they chickened out, or let others die so that they could live.

So it turns out the question I posed at the beginning of this article is a bit misleading, because in many cases being good and being selfish are the same thing. But overall I think the evidence points to morality and altruism being biologically based but socially defined. Religion is a part of society, and thus contributes to defining society's morality just like any other philosophical system. Religion is also a singularly powerful social tool for enforcing that morality -- though like any tool it can also be used for ill. But morality can flourish absent religion, just like religion can flourish absent morality.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

A threefer: Creationist Jew-bashing Republicans

It started in Georgia....

The Anti-Defamation League is calling on state Rep. Ben Bridges to apologize for a memo distributed under his name that says the teaching of evolution should be banned in public schools because it is a religious deception stemming from an ancient Jewish sect.

Bridges (R-Cleveland) denies having anything to do with the memo. But one of his constituents said he wrote the memo with Bridges’ approval before it was recently distributed to lawmakers in several states, including Texas, California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“Indisputable evidence — long hidden but now available to everyone — demonstrates conclusively that so-called ‘secular evolution science’ is the Big-Bang 15-billion-year alternate ‘creation scenario’ of the Pharisee Religion,” the memo says. “This scenario is derived concept-for-concept from Rabbinic writings in the mystic ‘holy book’ Kabbala dating back at least two millennia.”

The memo calls on lawmakers to introduce legislation that would end the teaching of evolution in public schools because it is “a deception that is causing incalculable harm to every student and every truth-loving citizen.”

It gets better.

It also directs readers to a Web site www.fixedearth.com, which includes model legislation that calls the Kabbala “a mystic, anti-Christ ‘holy book’ of the Pharisee Sect of Judaism.” The Web site also declares “the earth is not rotating … nor is it going around the sun.”

It gets better.

The letter was written to Texas lawmakers, and one of them -- House Appropriations Chairman Warren Chisum -- distributed it to colleagues.

In his apology, Chisum (like Bridges) says he didn't bother to read the memo distributed under his name.

That should play well. "I'm not anti-Semitic; I'm just stupid!"

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Earmark discipline

You want a Congressional achievement? Here's one.

The spending bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday contains not one shred of new pork. And the bill is not accompanied by a report, which in the past is how many earmarks found their way into the budget.

It's not that simple, of course. Sen. Tom Coburn charges that the bill still contains between $11 billion and $17 billion in hidden earmarks, and there apparently is a growing campaign to keep funding previous earmarks. And Congress has not yet done away with narrowly targeted tax breaks that by some measures cost up to three times as much as earmarks.

But even $17 billion is better than the $64 billion in earmarks that was larded into the budget bills that died with the 109th Congress. That cut dwarfs Bush's call to cut the number and value of earmarks in half. And while keeping previous earmarks alive is odious, at least Congress isn't adding more to the pile.

Even better, the White House is doing more than talking about earmark reform. The Office of Management and Budget has ordered federal agencies to ignore earmarks that are not written into law. That would appear, in one fell swoop, to solve the problem of hiding earmarks in reports, as well as eliminating the pressure to keep funding previous years' earmarks.

A previous OMB memo carefully defined earmarks and made rules for cataloging them, making them that much harder to hide.

Both are moves the administration could have made any time in the past six years, so let's mute the applause a little bit. And it's executive branch policy, not law, so it's rescindable at any time. But give credit where credit is due: it's a powerful and practical move that plugs the holes in Congress' earmark rules. I'll take this sort of hypocrisy any day.

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House leads, Senate follows

The current Congressional session is still young, but already I'm seeing an interesting phenomenon: the Senate is dancing to the House's tune.

On two pieces of major legislation, the Democratic leadership in the Senate has gotten sidetracked or bludgeoned with its own versions, and ended up adopting the House versions. It happened on ethics, and it most recently happened with the anti-surge resolutions.

There are, of course, counterexamples. Congress will likely adopt the Senate version of the minimum-wage bill, for example, though there will be a debate over the size of the small-business tax breaks that will be included.

Why is the House leading? Some of the blame can be traced to the byzantine procedural rules in the Senate, which make it easy for a minority to tie things in knots and encourages all sorts of complicated proposals. As well, the Senate is supposed to be the more deliberative body, and it's commonplace for it to add superstructure to a too-simple House bill -- ideally turning a legal club into a scalpel. It's a good internal check within the legislative branch.

Further, the House speakership is a far more powerful position than Senate majority leader, so it makes sense that Nancy Pelosi is driving the legislative train.

But some of it seems to be either miscalculation or mistakes by Harry Reid. In both cases the House versions were simpler than the Senate ones, and in the case of the ethics bill the House version was stronger, as well. At a minimum the House leadership appears to be better at bill-writing. On top of that, Reid seems to have misunderstood what sort of compromises were necessary to get the Senate version passed, and not be as good as he needs to be at counting noses.

It'll be interesting to see how the push-pull develops through the remainder of the session.

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The House passed it's anti-surge measure.

The vote was 246-182. In the end, despite fears of massive Republican defections, only 17 Republicans crossed over and voted for the resolution.

The Senate vote on an identical measure is scheduled for Saturday, but Senate Republicans have promised to block it until their alternative resolutions are considered.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Backing off, a bit, on Iran

The White House is slowly backing away from some of the more pointed and explosive assertions it has made in recent days about Iran's involvement in Iraq.

On Sunday, U.S. officials in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity alleged that Iranian officials at the "highest levels" of the government, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were behind the smuggling of a deadly type of explosive device used against U.S. forces.

But during news conferences Wednesday in Washington and Baghdad, Bush and Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, appeared to step back from that claim, just as Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did in interviews this week.

Further, the original claims about IEDs appear to be shakier than they looked at first:

Even the issue of where the weapons were manufactured is cloudy. A U.S. military explosives expert at the news conference in Baghdad acknowledged that there was no forensic evidence or labels linking the canister-shaped weapons to munitions plants in Iran.

Rather, Army Maj. Marty Weber said, the weapons were similar to those that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia used against Israeli forces during Israel's late-1990s occupation of southern Lebanon.

That directly contradicts the statements made by the Pentagon on Sunday. What was presented as fact turns out to be a guess -- a reasonable and informed guess, but a guess nonetheless.

Keep in mind, the dispute over the data obscures some fundamental truths. Nobody seems to deny that Iranian weaponry is finding its way into Iraq. The core of the matter is precisely what weaponry, which groups they're being given to and whether the Iranian government is involved.

But the administration has overreached to justify a war before; this incident points out how important it is to make sure of what we actually know -- as opposed to merely suspect -- before formulating policy.

Interestingly, there has been no follow-up on what would be the most damning evidence of direct Iranian involvement -- the capture of .50-caliber sniper rifles in Iraq, although the Austrian gunmaker says nobody has contacted it in order to compare serial numbers -- which suggests that the connection is, once again, conjecture rather than established fact.

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Republicans come out against "surge"

The debate over a resolution opposing Bush's "surge" in Iraq has exposed some interesting and deep Republican divisions over the war.

On the second day of a four-day showdown over the nonbinding resolution, Democrats looked on as Republican dissidents denounced what they called Bush's ill-conceived plan to put 21,500 more combat troops in the middle of a sectarian civil war.

Some of the 11 Republicans who publicly broke with Bush were long-time opponents of the war, such as Reps. Walter B. Jones (N.C.) and Ron Paul (Tex.). But others, such as Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.) and Jim Ramstad (Minn.), had never sought the limelight and were almost apologetic in their speeches....

Those 11 could be just the tip of the iceberg. One Republican lawmaker close to the leadership, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said GOP leaders have 50 to 60 Republicans on their watch list, with between 40 and 60 expected to break with the White House tomorrow.

Wow.

The article goes on to say that while the resolution exposed deep divisions among Republicans, GOP leaders expect a debate over funding Iraq would rally their members while similarly exposing deep divisions among Democrats, some of whom want to shut down all funding for Iraq.

It also mentions Democratic plans to shut down the military prisons at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. Whether this is a good idea or not depends on what steps are actually taken. Given the notoriety of the two sites, Shutting them down is a smart PR move. But why are they notorious? Mostly because of how they have been used, not their mere existence.

So on the one hand, I'd be satisfied with simple reform: Treat it as a secure holding pen for dangerous people awaiting trial, rather than a legal black hole, and I'm fine with it.

On the other hand, shutting them down doesn't take away the need to put dangerous bad guys somewhere. So some of their functions will simply be transferred elsewhere. Thus unless the legal abuses that led to the notoriety are also remedied, closing them will simply move the same bad behavior elsewhere -- and possibly hide it from sight until, inevitably, it is discovered again in another spasm of bad press.

Should be an interesting month.

Update: The Senate has shelved its troubled version of the resolution and adopted the simpler House version, scheduling a vote for Saturday.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Baghdad: A clean sweep, so far

The surge is on, and so far, not much.

The good news: U.S. forces sweeping Baghdad haven't encountered much resistance. The bad news: That's mostly because the sectarian fighters are lying low and waiting for us to leave. The sweep will only work if it is more than a sweep. It must be an actual occupation of ground, one that either flushes the insurgents out of hiding or forces them to remain there. Keep them lying low long enough, and actual security might be established.

So as long as we're planning to stay in the areas of Baghdad we've swept -- and that's the plan; follow the sweep with an occupation by Iraqi forces and the 82nd Airborne -- this doesn't bother me:

Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, warned that advance publicity on the security operation had given Shiite militias time to flee the city for bases elsewhere in the country.

"I have information that numerous of their leaders are now in Basra and other southern provinces in safe havens," he told Al-Arabiya television. "I believe that those who were behind the bloodshed and the chaos should be pursued and criminals must face justice."

Good. Let them flee. As long as we don't let them come back, we can slowly expand our militia-free zone across the country until they no longer have a place to flee to.

That's how occupation security works. And it's infuriating that it has taken more than three years for us to actually attempt it. But better late than never; if we can sustain this -- and the Iraqi government continues to be a serious partner -- Bush's "surge" will work.

Those are big ifs, especially because sustaining the surge will probably require more troops than we have committed. But for now, hope for the best.

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This gives "war criminal" a whole new meaning

The bad old days of "join the Army or go to jail" might be creeping back up on us.

The Army and Marine Corps are letting in more recruits with criminal records, including some with felony convictions, reflecting the increased pressure of five years of war and its mounting casualties.

According to data compiled by the Defense Department, the number of Army and Marine recruits needing waivers for felonies and serious misdemeanors, including minor drug offenses, has grown since 2003. The Army granted more than double the number of waivers for felonies and misdemeanors in 2006 than it did in 2003. Some recruits may get more than one waiver.

The absolute numbers are still relatively small, though not insignificant. The Army recruited 80,000 soldiers in 2006. Of those, 9,000 received a "moral" waiver of some sort. 901 of them were for felony convictions, up from 411 in 2005; 6,000 were for misdemeanors, up from 2,700.

So roughly 11 percent of Army recruits received a "moral" waiver, with 8.6 percent having criminal records.

This is not an entirely bad thing. Youthful mistakes do not make someone a hardened criminal or preclude them from becoming productive members of society, and the military has a long history of taking in such people and turning them around.

But coupled with other lowerings of military standards -- notably mental and physical aptitude requirements -- what we have is a serious potential threat to the professionalism and capabilities of our military.

The military works because it's filled with motivated, intelligent soldiers who learn to trust each other with their lives -- believing that their comrades are trustworthy, competent and physically capable. This allows the high degree of initiative and flexibility -- not to mention use of complex technology -- that is the hallmark of the modern military.

If too many soldiers are substandard in the trust or competence departments, it undermines the assumptions on which our military doctrine is built. If it goes on long enough or spreads far enough, that doctrine will no longer be supportable.

The report demonstrates once again the strain the military is under merely to sustain itself at current strength. But the problem is going to be exacerbated by the call to add 92,000 soldiers over the next few years. I support that increase, so it's rather troubling to think that it will be difficult to find that many qualified people willing to serve.

It's not the only inroad that threatens. Recall December's Military Times poll, which found that a majority of those polled think invading Iraq was a mistake and disapprove of Bush's handling of the war. This raises fears that the military will be undercut in another way: by soldiers deciding to get out rather than face another tour in Iraq.

The obvious point to be made here is that this is what an open-ended, unpopular war will do to recruiting in an era of a volunteer military. I'm not advocating a return to the draft -- the economic dislocation that would cause aside, I prefer a smaller, motivated military to a larger, indifferent one. But it does show the long-term dangers of launching ill-defined military campaigns -- not just politically, but securitywise. Our military is an astonishingly fine instrument, but using it improperly damages it, even if actual casualties are relatively light.

Let's hope our leaders have absorbed that lesson, and only commit troops when national or humanitarian interests truly are at stake.

Update: Heres the study the article is based on, and here's the underlying data (pdf).

A few things to note:

1. The data only goes back to 2003, since they were studying the effect of the Iraq war on recruiting. It would be interesting to see what the waiver trend was like before then. Logic says it might have been lower in 2002, thanks to post-9/11 patriotic fervor. But what about 2001 and earlier?

2. If you look at the data, you'll see that overall "moral" waivers fell in 2004 before rising in 2005 and breaking the 2003 mark in 2006. But when you look at the service breakdown, you see why: Army waivers have skyrocketed, Marine waivers are up while Navy and Air Force waivers are way down.

The logical conclusion: fully-qualified recruits are gravitating toward the services that are least likely to land them on a street corner in Tikrit.

Also, I should point out that these numbers are only for recruitment. To get a picture of what this trend might mean for the long-term health of the military, you'd want to know how many of these people washed out in their first year or so. The Army might forgive you past screwups, but they're much less forgiving of screwups committed while in uniform. While a high washout rate would indicate an undesirable level of recruiting "churn", it would also indicate that whatever screening process the Army has in place is working.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

More whistleblower protections

A bipartisan effort to strengthen whistleblower and conflict-of-interest laws may actually pass now that Democrats control Congress.

House lawmakers debated measures Tuesday that would strengthen whistleblower protections, restrict "revolving door" employee movement between agencies and industry, and require senior officials to report meetings with lobbyists and others seeking to influence government actions.

Both the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (H.R. 985) and the Executive Branch Reform Act (H.R. 984) were introduced in similar form in the last Congress, and were overwhelmingly approved in committee, only to be sidelined without reaching the floor for a vote.

Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Tom Davis, R-Va., reintroduced the two bills with the hope that they will make better progress in the new Congress.

Protecting and rewarding whistleblowers is not a partisan issue; it's a corruption issue. Despite various laws preventing retaliation against whistleblowers, most people who pipe up find their careers destroyed: any bureaucracy does what it has to to protect itself.

The bills are not comprehensive or perfect, but they're a step in the right direction. And assuming the bills actually pass out of committee this time -- which seems likely -- it's a step that the last Congress refused to take.

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More Iranian weaponry in Iraq?

Could be. But the evidence is far from conclusive.

Austrian sniper rifles that were exported to Iran have been discovered in the hands of Iraqi terrorists, The Daily Telegraph has learned.

More than 100 of the.50 calibre weapons, capable of penetrating body armour, have been discovered by American troops during raids.

The guns were part of a shipment of 800 rifles that the Austrian company, Steyr-Mannlicher, exported legally to Iran last year.

Here's the rifle in question, by the way.

Seems pretty clear, huh? Except that the story is extremely light on details. There is no comparison of serial numbers, for instance, to show that the rifles being captured are the same ones that were sent to Iran.

And as with yesterday's "Iranians supplying insurgents" story, there's an inexcusable fuzziness about who is being armed. We're mostly fighting Sunnis, not Shiites. So while I can see this weapon turning up in the armories of Shiite militias, I have a hard time believing it is being distributed to actual insurgents.

Further, the guns cost several thousand dollars apiece (Iran paid about $20,000 apiece) so they're not exactly flooding the market. It seems unlikely that Iran would provide such expensive and easily-traced weaponry to Iraqis.

Frankly, I have a hard time taking the London press as authoritative sources on anything. In my experience they're highly prone to reporting rumors or slanting stories -- whether out of ideology or sheer sloppiness I don't know. But if this story has legs, it will be a very strong indicator of Iranian government involvement.

I will be vastly unsurprised if it turns out Iran is arming various factions in Iraq. But I want solid evidence before we escalate against them.

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Al-Sadr flees Iraq

In a story first reported by ABC News, American officials say they think Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army militia, has left Iraq, moving to Iran ahead of the expected "surge" in U.S. forces in Baghdad.

A lot of people are pointing to this as proof that the surge is the right strategy, that it's scaring our opponents because they know it will be effective.

I think that's simplistic. Yes, I'm sure he felt that he might be specifically targeted in the upcoming Baghdad campaign, so it was prudent to leave the area. But I think his departure is less a comment on the surge itself than it is on the growing fractures within the Mahdi Army and (more crucially) the withdrawal of Iraqi government protection. If the Iraqi government was still backing him he wouldn't fear an increased American presence, just like he hasn't feared it very much up until now. Forcing the Iraqi government to show it's serious about reining in its extremists was the second and must-win prong of the "surge" effort. So Sadr's disappearance is a positive comment on that aspect of the new strategy, not on the military surge itself.

Just to play devil's advocate, there's also a more pessimistic interpretation available: that al-Sadr is being sent out of the country with the Iraqi government's blessing just to get him out of the way while the heat is on. In other words, it's a way to protect him without appearing to protect him. The key thing to watch for is what happens to the Mahdi Army in al-Sadr's absence, and what happens to al-Sadr when (not if) he returns.

Speaking of the surge, the House today had a contentious debate on a resolution opposing the troop increase. All 435 members were given five minutes to speak, one reason the vote isn't scheduled until Friday. Democrats talked about sending soldiers to die refereeing a civil war; Republicans warned of undercutting the President, emboldening the enemy and darkly described the dire consequences of failure there.

It was a good, strong debate, though heavily marked by partisan posturing -- including an effort by some Republicans to shift the debate entirely away from the resolution and Iraq.

In a formal letter to GOP colleagues, Reps. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.) and John Shadegg (Ariz.) encouraged lawmakers to avoid discussing the resolution and focus instead on a wider war against Islamic radicals.

"This debate should not be about the surge or its details," they wrote. "This debate should not even be about the Iraq war to date, mistakes that have been made, or whether we can, or cannot, win militarily. If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose."

Those two worthys notwithstanding, this is a debate that was long overdue. But in the end the resolution is expected to pass. And that's the important thing. Bush should get his surge -- and if the Iraqi government keeps playing ball, it might even work. But Congress needs to be on record stating its position on the war. If Bush succeeds, he can have his way with a chastised Congress; but if he fails, the resolution is an important first step toward eventually pulling the plug on the whole adventure.

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North Korea agrees to shut down reactor

Wow.

North Korea promised Tuesday to close down and seal its main nuclear reactor within 60 days in return for 50,000 tons of fuel oil as a first step in abandoning all nuclear weapons and research programs.

North Korea also reaffirmed a commitment to disable the reactor in an undefined next phase of denuclearization and to discuss with the United States and other nations its plutonium fuel reserves and other nuclear programs that "would be abandoned" as part of the process. In return for taking those further steps, the accord said, North Korea would receive additional "economic, energy and humanitarian assistance up to the equivalent of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil."

A State Department outline of the deal is here.

After years of doing nothing, this represents actual progress in North Korea -- assuming North Korea actually follows through on its promise.

This is essentially a watered-down version of the deal the Clinton administration gave North Korea in the 1990s -- energy assistance in return for abandoning its nuclear program. But there's a key difference: the Clinton agreement included an agreement to build a couple of modern, proliferation-resistant light-water reactors in North Korea. This deal doesn't include that. So the North Koreans appear to be settling for less than they got before.

The reason for that appears to be twofold. First, they cheated on the earlier agreement, and there was no way we were going to resurrect it. Second and most importantly, their semi-failed detonation of a nuclear weapon last fall cost them much of the diplomatic protection that Russia and China had been giving them.

U.S. pressure on North Korea's various smuggling and weapons-sales schemes surely helped, too, by causing pain directly to the Great Leader's pocketbook.

But let's not be too hasty in breaking out the champagne. North Korea has 60 days before it has to shut down the reactor, and its promise to eventually dismantle it depends on later negotiations. The agreement also put off discussion of what to do about North Korea's existing nuclear stockpile. So there is plenty of room for backsliding.

Then there's the matter of verification. North Korea also said it would let U.N. inspectors return, but the effectiveness of that will depend on the conditions those two bodies negotiate.

Still, give credit where credit is due: after repudiating and harshly criticizing the Clinton approach and following it with five years of mostly empty saber-rattling, the administration finally decided to put results ahead of ideology and develop a workable -- and ironically Clintonian -- solution.

It also raises some questions about the administration's approach in the Middle East, where Bush has categorically ruled out talks with Iran or Syria. But how do we expect to achieve results if we refuse to talk to your adversaries? North Korea demonstrates that sometimes you have to talk to your enemies -- and that such talks can bear fruit. Perhaps this will lead the administration to re-examine it's actions elsewhere.

The deal could face some opposition at home, largely from conservatives who basically don't think we can ever reach a diplomatic solution with North Korea. Prime among them is John Bolton, demonstrating once again why his name and "diplomacy" never really belonged in the same sentence. He's right that the program doesn't address North Korea's uranium program. But he seems to think that that should be enough to destroy the deal. It's a classic case of letting the perfect get in the way of the pretty good. And never mind that Bolton's "no compromise" approach, though it may have felt good, went nowhere. The only good thing to be said about the confrontational approach is that it led North Korea to overreact and actually test a nuke -- a move that backfired on them. But that was luck, not a U.S. policy goal.

So such complaints are so much useless hand-wringing. How else do they suggest we address the problem? The only real alternative is sanctions and military strikes. The former are already in place; the latter have a limited chance of being effective, and are so provocative that they should be a tactic of last resort. This deal is worth a shot, and it doesn't take any options off of the table: we could always bomb them later if we must.

Now we cross our fingers and hope the untrustworthy Kim Jong-Il can be trusted....

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Iran arming Iraqi insurgents?

It's a reasonable thing to suspect, and now the United States says it has evidence: captured Iranian munitions.

Never before displayed in public, the weapons included squat canisters designed to explode and spit out molten balls of copper that cut through armor. The canisters, called explosively formed penetrators or E.F.P.’s, are perhaps the most feared weapon faced by American and Iraqi troops here.

In a news briefing held under strict security, the officials spread out on two small tables an E.F.P. and an array of mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades with visible serial numbers that the officials said link the weapons directly to Iranian arms factories.

For it's part, Iran says "prove it."

The EFPs are pretty good evidence, and fairly alarming given the sophistication of the weaponry. The technology is 30 years old, but it still isn't the sort of thing people might cobble together in their garage. It requires fairly precise machining and design to create a shape that will deform into an aerodynamic projectile, as well as pack the explosives so that they will produce an explosion of the right amount and shape to do the deforming.

The mortar and RPGs are less compelling or surprising -- they're very common weapons, and could well have been introduced into Iraq long ago by Iran-supported groups fighting Saddam. Call them decent supporting evidence.

But merely having Iranian-produced weaponry doesn't prove Iranian complicity. To do that we have to show that the Iranian government is providing the munitions. That link appears to be shaky:

The officials also asserted, without providing direct evidence, that Iranian leaders had authorized smuggling those weapons into Iraq for use against the Americans. The officials said such an assertion was an inference based on general intelligence assessments.

An "inference"? That's not the most actionable piece of data, especially when it involves something as momentous as accusing another country of arming your enemies.

Further, there's a logic problem: most of these weapons are being used by Sunni insurgents. Why would Shiite Iran supply sophisticated weaponry to the Sunnis, weapons that could just as easily be turned against Iraq's Shiite majority -- and probably will be if Iran achieves its presumed objective of forcing the United States to leave Iraq?

The article says many of these weapons have turned up in weapons caches in areas dominated by Iran-friendly militias. Okay, that makes sense. But as far as I know, such militias aren't generally setting up IEDs to attack U.S. forces. So what we may have here is two sets of EFPs: Weapons with clear Iranian provenance being supplied to Iranian-backed groups, but others of unknown provenance being supplied to Sunni insurgents.

It's also possible that some of the weapons transfers are being done by Iranian intelligence, Hezbollah or Revolutionary Guard members without the knowledge or approval of the Iranian government.

Either way, more proof is needed. I'm entirely unsurprised that Iran might be arming groups it supports. but trying to blame Iran for Sunni IED attacks is an extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary proof.

Update: Gen. Peter Pace, when asked about the briefing, said he could not support the assertions of Iranian involvement from his own experience. "It is clear that Iranians are involved," he said. "And it's clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit."

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Office of Special Plans, revisited

Since making my original post on the intelligence work of Douglas Feith and the Office of Special Plans, the Washington Post has come out with a fairly spectacular correction to the original article. Here it is in full:

A Feb. 9 front-page article about the Pentagon inspector general's report regarding the office of former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith incorrectly attributed quotations to that report. References to Feith's office producing "reporting of dubious quality or reliability" and that the office "was predisposed to finding a significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda" were from a report issued by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) in Oct. 2004. Similarly, the quotes stating that Feith's office drew on "both reliable and unreliable reporting" to produce a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq "that was much stronger than that assessed by the IC [Intelligence Community] and more in accord with the policy views of senior officials in the Administration" were also from Levin's report. The article also stated that the intelligence provided by Feith's office supported the political views of senior administration officials, a conclusion that the inspector general's report did not draw.The two reports employ similar language to characterize the activities of Feith's office: Levin's report refers to an "alternative intelligence assessment process" developed in that office, while the inspector general's report states that the office "developed, produced, and then disseminated alternative intelligence assessments on the Iraq and al Qaida relationship, which included some conclusions that were inconsistent with the consensus of the Intelligence Community, to senior decision-makers." The inspector general's report further states that Feith's briefing to the White House in 2002 "undercuts the Intelligence Community" and "did draw conclusions that were not fully supported by the available intelligence."

Ouch; they got their reports mixed up. Somebody ought to be missing part of their posterior over at the Post.

But does that change the underlying point of the article or my post? IMO, no.

For example, the Levin report used the language "Reporting of dubious quality or reliability," and said Feith drew on "both reliable and unreliable reporting" to reach a conclusion "that was much stronger than that assessed by the IC [Intelligence Community] and more in accord with the policy views of senior officials in the Administration".

The IG report notes that Feith's reports drew on sources that were described by the Director of Central Intelligence as "of varying reliability," a fact that (while arguably obvious) Feith left out of his briefings. As for the conclusion Feith reached, the IG report described it as "not fully supported by underlying intelligence." The IG report specifically said that the available data "does not support (Feith's) position of a 'mature symbiotic relationship (between Iraq and al-Qaeda) in all areas.' "

The IG report does not comment on whether such a position was in line with senior administration officials' views, but we know from other sources that it was.

So while an embarassing gaffe for the WaPo (and one that costs us some of the more compelling quotes in the original article), the conclusions remain valid.

One can say that any misrepresentation of intelligence was Feith's fault, not the administration's. But Feith's office was deliberately set up to provide an alternative interpretation of intelligence because the White House didn't like or trust what the actual intelligence folks were telling it. And when Feith's reports began to diverge from what the intelligence agencies were telling it, what did the White House do? Embrace Feith's version. If they were misled, it was because they wanted to be misled.

Is this proof that Bush et al lied us into Iraq? Nope. But it is evidence that the administration, in the person of Feith, was working hard to make the intelligence tell it what it wanted to hear. It remains to be seen to what extent Bush or Cheney were involved in the spin. Did they actively participate in it, or did they simply set up a biased process and let it deceive them? As with so many things involving the Bush administration, it once again boils down to two basic choices: corrupt or incompetent.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Gary Miller pleads his innocence

Following up on Rep. Gary Miller's suspicious land deals, he pleaded his case to fellow Republicans this week.

Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) passionately pleaded his innocence before GOP colleagues at a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday, nearly a week after several media outlets reported that the FBI is looking into his land deals.

Miller told colleagues that the press and Democrats had launched a smear campaign against him, singling out The Hill and the Los Angeles Times as perpetrators, as well as a former Democratic mayor of the Southern California city of Monrovia, Lara Larramendi Blakely, who now works for Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), according to GOP sources.

Ah, yes, the old "media smear job" defense....

So far, so unconvincing. He'll have to rebut the actual claims rather than attacking the messenger -- though to be fair, he might have done so and we just don't know it.

The comments came during an open-mic session at the end of a meeting designed as a discussion on House Republicans’ strategic plans to regain the majority in 2008, which were first laid out during a GOP retreat held the weekend of Jan. 24.

Before Miller spoke, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted that defining an ethics strategy is critical to winning back the majority and that members need to hold each other accountable, sources said.

The good news is the GOP knows they need to set some standards. The bad news is that Boehner is thus far letting Miller keep his seat on the Finance Committee's Oversight and Investigations panel, which oversees the IRS among other things. Considering the stories about Miller involve tax evasion, maybe that's not such a good idea.

Here's an additional revelation I didn't know about:

Since March of last year, The Hill has reported on various land deals involving Miller, including one in which he worked with Lewis to insert an earmark in the 2005 federal highway bill that shut down an airport in the Southern California city of Rialto. Even before the airport was shut down through the earmark, Miller’s business partner and top campaign contributor, Lewis Operating Corp., had an exclusive deal with the city to develop the airport land into a planned community consisting of 2,500 homes, parks and 80 acres of retail space.


Yeah, that looks good.

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Pentagon: Feith office massaged intelligence

Did the administration's hand-picked intelligence massager cherry pick and spin the facts in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq?

Yep.

Intelligence provided by former undersecretary of defense Douglas J. Feith to buttress the White House case for invading Iraq included "reporting of dubious quality or reliability" that supported the political views of senior administration officials rather than the conclusions of the intelligence community, according to a report by the Pentagon's inspector general.

Feith's office "was predisposed to finding a significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda," according to portions of the report, released yesterday by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). The inspector general described Feith's activities as "an alternative intelligence assessment process."

An unclassified summary of the full document is scheduled for release today in a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Levin chairs. In that summary, a copy of which was obtained from another source by The Washington Post, the inspector general concluded that Feith's assessment in 2002 that Iraq and al-Qaeda had a "mature symbiotic relationship" was not fully supported by available intelligence but was nonetheless used by policymakers.


This is the office -- the Office of Special Plans -- that turned into Cheney's favorite intelligence factory, and whose assessments were -- for obvious reasons -- preferred to the CIA's own.

Feith and his defenders are focusing on the finding that his activities were found to be legal. An irrelevancy, since the question has always been whether the administration cherry-picked intelligence, not whether such cherry-picking was legal. It's like Bush leaking classified material -- it's by definition legal, since he has the power to declassify anything he wants. That has nothing to do with whether it is right or proper.

More excerpts:

The summary document confirmed a range of accusations that Levin had leveled against Feith's office, alleging inaccurate work.

Feith's office, it said, drew on "both reliable and unreliable" intelligence reports in 2002 to produce a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq "that was much stronger than that assessed by the IC [Intelligence Community] and more in accord with the policy views of senior officials in the Administration."

It stated that the office produced intelligence assessments "inconsistent" with the U.S. intelligence community consensus, calling those actions "inappropriate" because the assessments purported to be "intelligence products" but were far more conclusive than the consensus view.

Notably, Feith's office produced the isolated and discredited intelligence behind the administration's claim that Mohammad Atta met with Iraqi intelligence in Prague in 2001. That's not only an example of Feith's failings; it's proof that the administration relied on Feith's reports to make their public case -- describing them as "classified intelligence" -- even though the inspector general's report contains denials that they viewed Feith's work as intelligence assessments.

Busted. I'll post a link to the actual report once the committee makes it available.

You gotta love it when the opposition takes over Congress. Suddenly we're getting hearings into things we should have had hearings on years ago, and answers are starting to pop out. This goes a long way toward filling the gap left by the Republican Congressional leadership, which never got around to conducting Part II of its analysis of intelligence failures -- the part that was supposed to investigate whether the White House misused intelligence to justify the war.

The initial answer appears to be "yes."

Update: Here's the report's executive summary (pdf). And here's an unclassified presentation on the actual report.

Update II: The Washington Post has issued a fairly big correction on its original report. I discuss it here.

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