Friday, March 30, 2007

Three senior White House aides leaving

The Wall Street Journal calls it "routine turnover," but the timing is interesting.

Peter Wehner, the head of strategic initiatives, and political director Sara Taylor are expected to be heading for the White House exits soon, according to a person familiar with the situation. Barry Jackson, a longtime aide to Karl Rove, also is thought to be leaving soon.

A WaPo profile of Wehner supports the idea that it's just routine. ""I've been here six years, and there was just the sense that it was time to go. We've been through a lot," Wehner said in an interview. "If you're not going to stay through to the end, you have to figure out when to get off the train."

But while that may be the underlying reason, the particular timing may be due to the fact that being in the Bush administration is just not much fun anymore.

Although none of those leaving says so publicly, it has been an especially exhausting presidency, one in which many on the inside have grown frustrated by the political and policy setbacks of Bush's second term. Some aides look to the remainder of the administration and see more gloomy times.

Barry Jackson has been a subject of scrutiny amid questions about White House officials' heavy use of outside e-mail accounts to conduct politically sensitive communications. And Sara Taylor had at least a guest star role in the prosecutor firings. One of her deputies, Scott Jennings, has a subpoena with his name on it awaiting the outcome of negotiations with the White House over whether and under what conditions he and five other senior aides will talk about the dismissals.

Meanwhile, over in La La Land, Alberto Gonzales again defended his conduct. Stating "I believe in truth and accountability," he said he had not resigned because he was "fighting for the truth."

Hmm. So it was in the service of truth that he lied to Congress? It was because he places truth on a cherished pedestal that he's had to revise his statements several times to account for inconvenient facts? It's because he holds truth (and accountability) dearer than life itself that he has refused to, in fact, be held accountable?

Got it.

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Religion and politics

They often make strange bedfellows. But some mixtures are more toxic than others.

You've probably heard about James Dobson telling U.S. News & World Report that he didn't think Republican Fred Thompson was a Christian.

That was silly enough. But following Thompson's angry rebuttal, the clarification was even more obnoxious.

Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger said Dobson "use[s] the word 'Christian' to refer to people who are evangelical Christians."

Oh, yes, that makes it all better. In Dobson's formulation, 90 percent of the Christian faith -- Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, what have you -- aren't actually Christian. How charming.

What you might not have heard about was something that took place at the same time: 40 members of Congress calling for a "prayer wall" around the United States.

Mr. Forbes and about 40 other members of Congress from both parties and 19 states will gather outside the Capitol today at noon to issue what they are describing as a call to bring "America back to prayer."

The group has even set up a web site where people can sign up for five-minute slots to pray for the United States.

There's plenty to comment on there. Particularly this:

"If we have several thousand people praying for five minutes for the future of our country, that creates a spiritual fire wall around America that is pretty significant," he said.

"Spiritual fire wall"? Besides sounding goofy, this seems like really bizarre theology, conflating religion with nationalism. What part of the Christian faith would lead one to believe that God would favor the United States over, say, Belgium or Italy or India or Singapore? It's like praying for a sports team to win: it cheapens and distorts the very idea of prayer.

That said, the reaction by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was completely over the top:

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “Lawmakers should stick to their constitutional duties and leave religious decisions to individuals. Congressional meddling in religion is an affront to the First Amendment principle of church-state separation. Religion is too important to become a political football.”

Their weblog went further, stating: "For lawmakers to call Americans to their knees and insist that religious worship is the only way to solve our many problems is insulting, divisive and, frankly, unconstitutional."

Excuse me?

American citizens don't give up their right to free speech when they get elected to Congress. They are as free as you and me to express their opinion on any subject whatsoever, including belief.

What they are not free to do is use their office to compel compliance, or use the levers of government to promote their faith. But the group has not attempted to do so; they have simply expressed their view that the country needs our prayers.

Americans United is laudably vigilant on church-state separation issues. But their willingness to declare simple speech unconstitutional is, frankly, more violative of the Constitution than the behavior they decry. And their shrillness on this incident suggests a religious intolerance that is the mirror image of what they oppose.

Criticize what members of the Prayer Caucus say. But do not deny them their right to say it.

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Concealed carry: no big deal

A new study of Minnesota's liberalized concealed-carry law revealed no positive effect on crime.

Violent crime has risen 13 percent in the three years since the law took effect.

Firearm injuries and deaths have doubled.

There was only one instance of a permit holder using the gun under the "lawful and justifiable" provision -- and it didn't involve stopping a crime or self-defense.

So it seems pretty clear that the law isn't helping fight crime. But nor has it turned into the Wild West. Of 42,189 permit holders just 174 have been involved in a crime, only 23 of which involved a pistol. While that debunks the assertion of some supporters that "no permit holder has ever been involved in a crime" -- an assertion that is statistically ludicrous anyway -- it doesn't show rampant vigilantism either.

Whether you think the law is a problem depends on how closely you tie the rising crime and injury rates to the concealed-carry provision, and what weight you give to the various factors. To me, it's mostly a wash. I didn't feel unsafe before the law; I don't feel unsafe now. The most irritating part is constantly being confronted with those big, legislatedly ungrammatical signs warning that Company X "bans guns in these premises." Given the number of such signs, we probably could have saved a lot of money by requiring instead that businesses voluntarily opt-in with a sign that said "Company X welcomes concealed weapons."

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Meningitis vaccine puts health before profits

It's not as simple as that, but the math is pretty stark. GlaxoSmithKline, which spent decades and more than $400 million developing a meningitis vaccine, expects to sell it only in Africa, and at a price that will never cover the cost of development.

As the story notes, this is not an entirely selfless act. Some of it is PR, attempting to repair the damage done by a lawsuit over AIDS drugs a few years back. Some of it is marketing, establishing a presence in markets where GSK may hope to sell other drugs down the road.

Nor is it a solution to finding cures for "neglected" diseases -- illnesses that occur solely in the developing world, and thus have no rich-nation market that can be charged higher prices to pay for the development costs. Companies cannot be expected to routinely write off $400 million for the global good.

But it is a sign that pharmaceutical companies are waking up to the complex world they operate in, and that profit motive is not the only valid consideration for their research efforts. GSK is doing an extraordinary thing, and millions of lives will likely be saved because of it. Good for them.

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Political profiling?

Somehat apropos to the prosecutor firing flap, a study updated last month by University of Minnesota graduates (and now communications professors) Donald Shields and John Cragan uncovered an interesting data point: The Justice Department has investigated or indicted seven times as many Democratic elected officials as Republicans during the Bush administration. That's out of a pool of officials that is 50 percent Democratic, 41 percent Republicans and 9 percent independent.

Dig a little deeper, and that startling number only holds true for local officials. There's no apparent bias in investigations of statewide and federal officeholders, and overall Democrats get investigated four times as often, not seven.

The researchers postulate that media scrutiny explains the difference. Investigations of prominent officials get attention and thus must be more defensible; investigations of local officials tend to fly under the radar, being covered in a fragmented fashion by local press with no reference to the overall picture.

It would be instructive, of course, to run the same numbers for previous administrations. A certain amount of bias is almost unavoidable, given the political nature of U.S. attorney appointments. But a sevenfold (or even fourfold) difference certainly seems excessive at first blush.

Before jumping all over this factoid, however, perhaps some skepticism of the methodology is in order. David Frum has a go at debunking the study, citing Michael Smerconish, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer who claims the "study" was little more than a tabulation of Google search results.

But his criticisms, while worthwhile, don't do a very good job of explaining why an essentially random search method would come up with seven times as many investigations of Democrats as of Republicans. He makes a good case that the methodology probably misses or miscounts cases; he offers no reason to think that those missing cases would involve disproportionatly Republican defendants.

But don't stop there. A much more thorough debunking is available over at Stubborn Facts, including a reply to Smerconish by the study's authors.

All in all, I'd be skeptical of the claims. The methodology clearly has some holes in it, starting with the rather nonrigorous definition of "investigation". That did not stop the authors from making broad claims based on the data, which should raise alarm bells about their credibility -- because either they don't know how flawed the data are, or they don't care. There might be a kernel of something here, but it requires some serious fleshing out and analysis before we can state anything conclusive.

(H/T: The Moderate Voice)

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Sampson on the spot


This morning I got to watch a portion of the Congressional testimony of Kyle Sampson, the former chief of staff to Alberto Gonzales. I recommend finding the time to view parts of it yourself, because you get a sense of the actors far better than anything you'll get from a news summary or even a quality blog such as this one.

YouTube has tons of video to choose from.

Sampson came across as sincere and convincing, for the most part, though he seemed like a guy who was given far more responsibility than he could handle. He said "I don't know" or "I don't recall" a lot, but that's normal and prudent. He was particularly convincing when he flatly denied that the firings were related to ongoing investigations or other purely political considerations.

His main meme was clear: the firings were legal, but perhaps poorly handled. And the response to Congressional questioning was totally botched, which was why he resigned.

Fair enough, but there were plenty of troubling details that senators of both parties kept bringing up. Orrin Hatch pitched softballs, but Jeff Sessions sharply criticized the whole affair.

Some of the more notable points raised:

1. While saying the firings were based on performance, he acknowledged that the process was not "scientific nor extensively documented." Which led several senators to ask just what criteria were used to select these particular attorneys for removal.

2. He said Lam was criticized for her lack of immigration prosecutions. Then Sen. Diane Feinstein read a February 2006 letter from the Justice Department praising Lam for her immigration work in (I think) 2005, with prosecutions up three or fourfold and alien smuggling down by half. That said, the letter was apparently describing improvements over 2004. So one interpretation could be that Lam was doing a horrible job in 2004 -- when the firing process was already underway -- and her improved performance in 2005 wasn't enough to save her.

3. Sampson later added that Lam was also let go for her failure to go after gun violations aggressively enough, which seemed like a bit of alternate justification after his initial justification was undermined.

4. He repeated several times, under prodding from senators, that Gonzales said various things that were untrue in previous statements to Congress. On March 12, Gonzales said he was "not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions." But Sampson said he discussed the matter four or five times with Gonzales and kept him informed. And of course there was the Nov. 27 meeting at which Gonzales approved the firing plan. Gonzales said Sampson didn't share information within the department; Sampson said he did.

5. Sampson said the firings were in the works for two years, as they first compiled an initial list and then waited for the attorneys' terms to expire. But then there was this bombshell:

Sampson also revealed that New Mexico U.S. Attorney David C. Iglesias was not added to the dismissal list until just before the Nov. 7 elections, after presidential adviser Karl Rove complained that Iglesias had not been aggressive enough in pursuing cases of voter fraud.

Not only proof of direct and forceful Rove involvement, but a last-minute addition that undermines the "two year" and "for performance" claims -- since they apparently had no problems with his performance up until that point, and it would seem difficult to properly assess his performance given the hastiness of the addition.

6. Sampson even suggested firing Patrick Fitzgerald in the middle of his prosecution of Lewis Libby. One can only imagine what a firestorm that would have caused. Luckily for all of us cooler heads prevailed, in the form of Harriet Miers. But that's saying something, consider Miers was the one who initially proposed firing all 93 attorneys at the beginning of Bush's second term. When she's considered the cooler head, you've got some trouble going.

So what does it all mean?

Sampson made a strong case that the firings were legal and proper, and at least some of them probably were. Kevin Ryan, for instance, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, was a devoted Bush loyalist. His removal, everyone seems to agree, actually was performance-based.

But even that case highlights the political nature of the dismissals, because the administration wanted to keep him on because he was so loyal, despite myriad complaints about his performance.

And at least some of the firings, like Iglesias', seem to have no other explanation than politics.

Sampson made a spirited case defending even that practice, saying "the distinction between political and performance-related reasons for removing a U.S. attorney is, in my view, largely artificial." His general argument: if a U.S. attorney lacks political support or the confidence of the President, he cannot be effective.

Legally, he may be right. So far, Congress has not uncovered any criminal wrongdoing, and I don't think they're likely to. The attorneys do, after all, serve at the pleasure of the president. Firing them for sleazy reasons may be sleazy, but it's not illegal.

But ethically and politically, he's dead wrong. Ethically, the firings have undermined the independence, impartiality and morale of U.S. attorneys as a group -- something the attorneys themselves have been rather pointedly telling Gonzales. Politically it's just stupid, because the defense doesn't satisfy the understandable desire to believe our justice system is impartial. This seemed to be something that particularly incensed Sen. Sessions, who opened his statement by saying that he wanted to make clear the justice system worked and the U.S. attorneys were all fine, dedicated public servants, whatever doubts the current scandal may raise in that regard.

Then there's the little matter of lying to Congress. And on that score, I think Gonzales is doomed. His earlier statements have been almost entirely discredited, and his explanations ring hollow. His main defense is that he has since, uh, "clarified" his earlier statements, and his new version of events comports well with Sampson's. Why he considers that a defense, I don't know. Only the most sympathetic reading of his March 12 comments would lead one to say he was merely imprecise or misspoke. Even conservative bloggers have derided his tortured explication of what he meant by "involved", invoking the dreaded Clintonian "that depends what the meaning of 'is' is."

I've said all along that Gonzales should be fired for the totality of his resume, not the prosecutor firings. The true grounds are incompetence -- both in law and in management -- and a willingness to bless things like torture and "enemy combatant" statuses that are grossly violative of clearly written law and basic human decency.

Initially I was simply amused that a relatively minor flap such as this would be what finally brought him down. But Gonzales exceeded my expectations by choosing to lie. It is a fitting capper to the twilight of his tenure: He will be forced to resign because he managed to take a minor embarassment and turn it into a raging disaster.

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Earmark watchdog shuts down

Coming on the heels of the Democrats using $20 billion in pork to buy votes for their war-funding bill, this has me a little bit wary:

The federal agency that tracked pork-barrel spending during the 12 years of the Republican congressional majority has discontinued the practice....

The Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan agency of the Library of Congress created to conduct research for members of Congress on legislative issues, changed its policy in February -- a month after Democrats took control of the Congress and vowed to curb the number of special-interest projects inserted into spending bills or even reports that don't require a vote.

The stated reason:

CRS said the Office of Management and Budget recently has been taking on a greater role in monitoring earmarks. And with both chambers of Congress this year establishing new guidelines and clearer definitions of earmarks, the agency said its role as a scorekeeper of earmarks is obsolete.

Fair enough, if true. And some of it is. The OMB, for instance, decided to get tough on earmarks back in February. And Congress has indeed passed tougher earmark guidelines.

But the OMB policy is simply that, a policy -- one that can be rescinded at any time. And we have yet to see how the new Congressional guidelines will work -- or if they will work -- in practice. Perhaps we should see how the new mechanisms work before scrapping one that has served us well for 12 years.

Further, while OMB will track earmarks, it won't do earmark research for Congress members the way CRS does -- er, did.

Congressional Republicans make two other good points:

Republicans said they want an independent observer because pork is often in the eye of the beholder and estimates of the amount vary widely....

Mr. DeMint said no other agency or group has the resources, expertise and access to provide Congress with data on earmarks.

Yup.

There's no evidence that Democrats pressured CRS to drop the monitoring. But CRS should reconsider it's decision and continue tracking earmarks for at least another year until we see how the replacement mechanisms hold up.

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Income gap widened in 2005

In case you wonder why the American public isn't all that excited about their economic outlook despite an economy that's doing well on the macro level, here's the reason.

While total reported income in the United States increased almost 9 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data is available, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping $172, or 0.6 percent.

So despite what looks like healthy wage gains, very little of it was actually wages. All of the income increase and more went to the top 10 percent. Actually most of it went to the top 1 percent, whose income grew 14 percent.

That explains the following statistics from the article:

1. Both the top 10 percent and top 1 percent have hit income shares not seen since 1928 -- shortly before the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression.

2. The top 300,000 Americans -- one tenth of one percent of the population -- earned almost as much as the bottom 50 percent -- 150 million people. On average, each of those 300,000 people earned 440 times as much as one of those 150 million.

And the numbers probably understate the situation:

The Internal Revenue Service estimates that it is able to accurately tax 99 percent of wage income but that it captures only about 70 percent of business and investment income, most of which flows to upper-income individuals, because not everybody accurately reports such figures.

Defenders of the current tax system argue that the problem isn't tax levels -- even though federal income taxes, measured as a share of income, has stayed largely flat for middle-income workers over the past 40 years while dropping by half for the affluent.

They make two main claims:

1. The numbers simply reflect the demands of the global economy, where skilled workers command ever more of a premium and unskilled workers fall behind.

2. The numbers don't count benefits, such as health insurance, that make up a much larger share of total income for poorer Americans than they do for the wealthy.

There is probably some truth to #1, but it's a stretch to argue it accounts for the entire difference. And even if it did, it's not an argument for complacency or acceptance. Extreme income inequality is a hallmark of unstable societies. Too much wealth concentrated in too few hands sparks unrest.

#2 is mostly bogus. The reason health insurance makes up a larger share of worker income is because health costs have gone up sharply. My employer paying 20 percent more for health insurance doesn't leave me better off if my health costs go up that much; it's a wash as far as disposable income is concerned. Never mind that I'm probably worse off because health-care costs also are eating into my take-home pay, in the form of higher premiums, co-pays, deductibles and all the other ways hard-pressed employers are devising to push more such costs on to workers.

While there can be plenty of principled disagreement about what causes the situation and what should be done about, two things seem obvious:

1. The tax system that conservatives often criticize as "punitive" toward the wealthy or successful has turned out to be nothing of the sort. Despite such "confiscatory" measures, the wealthy have increased their share of income -- to the point of hoovering money out of the pockets of the less affluent.

2. Given #1, as well as the gigantic federal deficit and the consequences of extreme income inequality, it makes zero sense to prolong or enhance tax cuts for the wealthy. The estate tax should be retained, and the AMT fixed instead. The cap on Social Security taxes should be removed, and income caps on benefits should be added. Marginal rates should be re-examined. Tax enforcement should be beefed up to capture more of that non-wage income.

Perhaps you think this is somehow a socialist redistribution of wealth downward, ignoring the fact that the current situation is a socialist redistribution of wealth upward, which simply makes no sense.

Dealing with the national debt will require work on both the spending and revenue side of the federal ledger. But as far as the revenue goes, it is only logical to take the most money from those most able to pay. Everyone's second $100,000 should be taxed more heavily than everyone's first $100,000. Doing so will not only restore our federal finances to health; they will head off a building social convulsion that benefits nobody -- especially the rich.

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Ballot access hurdles

I've written before about the sort of electoral reforms we should push for to make third parties (and any sort of moderate slate) viable. Whether you support a third-party candidate or or a confirmed Democrat or Republican, fixing these problems shouldn't be controversial: it's a simple matter of fairness in most cases.

One thing I left out of the earlier post was specific examples of ballot-access problems.

For example, here in Minnesota, getting a new party on the ballot requires gathering signatures equivalent to 5 percent of the vote in the last statewide election. For 2008, that means 110,000 signatures. There's a reason no party has ever been recognized using this method since the law was enacted in 1913.

Instead, most third parties run not as a party but as a bunch of independent candidates, who only need 2,000 signatures each -- though they only have two weeks in which to do it. Then they hope that one of their candidates nets 5 percent of the vote, which entitles them to "major party" status the next time around.

At least Minnesota has a back-door option. In many states, such as Tennessee, not only do you need to collect a whole bunch of signatures, but once you get on you don't get your party name listed. Anyone who isn't a Democrat or a Republican is labeled simply "independent."

In Texas, you wait until after that year's state primary elections to start collecting signatures, and then you have 60 days to collect signatures of registered voters equivalent to 1 percent of the vote total in the last election. However, to be an independent candidate you cannot have participated in those primary elections -- either as a voter or a candidate -- and nobody who signs your petition can have done that, either. So in order to get on the ballot, both you and your signatories are locked out of the regular election process that year.

It's not like these are simply old laws that have never been updated. In the current session of Congress there's a campaign financing bill, S936, that has been co-sponsored by Arlen Specter and Richard Durbin. It sets up a public campaign-financing fund for Senate candidates that receive a certain amount of tiny ($5, to be exact) donations. The ostensible purpose is to make it easier for nonincumbents and independent candidates to run for office.

However, Democrats and Republicans need 2,000 such donations. Everybody else needs 3,000.

(To check for yourself, go to Thomas.gov and search for "S936". Then scroll down to Section 505 and read Subsection (b).)

Beyond that you have the usual travails of minor-party candidates: not getting media coverage, not getting invited to participate in debates, etc.

Most of those side effects are market-driven and not properly addressed by legislation. But ballot access is another matter. States have a legitimate interest in setting reasonable requirements to getting on the ballot, to weed out crackpots and prevent ballots from being hundreds of names long. But it's manifestly clear that the current limits go way beyond reasonable. And once on the ballot, candidates should be able to identify themselves by party name and enjoy all the othe benefits afforded their major-party rivals.

Then there's the biggie: the winner-take-all nature of our elections, which encourages people to choose the least objectionable major-party candidate rather than take a chance on a third-party contender. Getting on the ballot is the first step; passing instant-runoff voting is the second.

Again, whatever your political stripe, you should support these efforts. There are some technical hurdles to be overcome, but philosophically we should agree that election laws should treat all candidates equally, and encourage people to vote for the person that best reflects their viewpoint, not try to game a system rigged to favor the two major parties.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

McCain stumbles again


That smell is John McCain's presidential campaign crashing and burning.

First there was "I'm not sure what I think, but I'm certain I agree with the president."

Now there's McCain on Iraq, in which he says something dumb and then, when confronted with reality, backtracks.

Yesterday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told CNN that that President Bush’s escalation in Iraq is going so well, “General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed humvee.” On Monday, he told radio host Bill Bennett that there “are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods, today.”

The bit about Baghdad being safe was simply fatuous. But even his claim about Gen. Petraeus is wrong; the good general doesn't go anywhere except in an armored Humvee.

Some Democratic partisans have suggested McCain has endangered Petraeus' life by tipping off insurgents to his vulnerability. The lack of such vulnerability aside, the argument is silly. Anyone setting out to kill Gen. Petraeus would certainly figure out what kind of vehicle he drives.

But McCain was simply wrong. And foolish. And then he made it worse by attempting to deny he had said it.

McCain really isn't to be taken seriously; he's been wrong and alarmist and weak-spined on so many things over the last couple of years that he's going to get tied in knots. If Republicans nominate him they'll essentially be ceding the presidency to whomever the Democrats put up.

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Gonzales deathwatch

Add Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., to the growing list of conservatives and Republicans who have criticized Alberto Gonzales' handling of the prosecutor firings.

(Parts of the list are here, here and here).

Compare that to the number of Republicans who have defended him: zero.

All this comes amid what one former Justice official describes as "open warfare" within the Justice department, something I commented on a couple of days ago.

At some point Gonzales will have to go simply to keep the Justice Department from imploding -- if it hasn't already.

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Kerry gets a scalp

Unexpectedly, the White House has withdrawn ambassador nominee Sam Fox, A Republican money man who was harangued by Sen. John Kerry earlier this month for helping fund the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.

At the time, Fox's confirmation was considered a sure thing. But apparently too many Democratic senators decided Fox wasn't apologetic enough (indeed, he wasn't apologetic at all).

It's hard to feel bad about this. Yes, a president should generally have the right to put anyone he wants into appointed positions, such as ambassadorships, unless they're clearly unqualified. On the other hand, if one is going to fund outrageously partisan organizations, perhaps one should not expect to be confirmed in any post requiring the approval of your victims.

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The Equal Rights Amendment lives!

This feels a bit time-warpish, but Congress may try to re-pass (and then urge the states to ratify) the Equal Rights Amendment.

Oh, joy. I always get excited at the prospect of more Phyllis Schlafly (pictured) on my television.

On the one hand, why not? On the other hand, it's arguable whether such an amendment is even necessary any more, given the current culture and the fact that many states already have laws against gender discrimination.

I do think that some of the "con" arguments advanced in the article are pure scare tactics, however -- like the one that says the ERA would require abortions be legal.

I also like how Schlafly has simply updated her list of bogeymen. In the 1970s she said the ERA woud lead to women being drafted and unisex bathrooms. This time around, it will "compel courts to approve same-sex marriages and deny Social Security benefits for housewives and widows."

Okay, Phyllis. Sure.

Update: Schlafly, in an appearance at Bates College in Maine, was in full cry, calling intellectual men "liberal slobs" and saying feminism is "incompatible with marriage and motherhood." She went on to argue that women should be prohibited from working in traditionally male jobs such as firefighting or construction, thanks to their "inherent physical inferiority." But the topper was when she dismissed the whole idea of marital rape. "By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don't think you can call it rape." (H/T: The Debate Link)

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Bad news from Iraq

Boy, talk about a perennial headline. But this is noteworthy:

Shiite militants and police enraged by massive truck bombings in Tal Afar went on a revenge spree against Sunni residents in the northwestern town Wednesday, killing as many as 60 people, officials said.

The gunmen roamed Sunni neighborhoods in the city through the night, shooting at residents and homes, according to police and a local Sunni politician.

Witnesses said relatives of the Shiite victims in the truck bombings broke into the Sunni homes and killed the men inside or dragged them out and shot them in the streets.

Ali al-Talafari, a Sunni member of the local Turkomen Front Party, said the Iraqi army had arrested 18 policemen accused of being involved after they were identified by the Sunni families targeted. But he said the attackers included Shiite militiamen.

While not a direct reflection on Bush's surge, this is disheartening on three levels:

1. It's the sort of violence we are simply not equipped to stop. Incidents like this are why people say that we're not fighting insurgents, we're caught in the middle of a civil war.

2. It involves police massacring innocents -- demonstrating that, once again, the security forces are part of the problem.

3. It happened in Tal Afar, a city once held up as an example of a pacified city. I've written about it before (and may or may not have received a comment from Col. Sean MacFarland, then the commander in that area). Here's another take, with details on how we rooted the insurgents out of Tal Afar. If we can't pacify that city despite pouring troops in and surrounding it with sand berms, I don't hold out much hope for places like Baghdad.

If this isn't a sectarian civil war, what is it?

And this is just icing on the cake:

Saudi King Abdullah, whose country is a close US ally, on Wednesday slammed the "illegitimate foreign occupation" of Iraq in an opening speech to the annual Arab summit in Riyadh.

"In beloved Iraq, blood is being shed among brothers in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and ugly sectarianism threatens civil war," Abdullah said.

He also said that Arab nations, which are planning to revive a five-year-old Middle East peace plan at the summit, would not allow any foreign force to decide the future of the region.

With friends like these....

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What a kangaroo court looks like

For travesties of justice, it's a bit hard to beat the Guantanamo Military Commission hearings currently going on in Cuba.

As the New York Times opined on Sunday, the proceedings are so slanted that even a confession from a real bad guy, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, couldn't be taken entirely seriously.

When Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — for all appearances a truly evil and dangerous man — confessed to a long list of heinous crimes, including planning the 9/11 attacks, many Americans reacted with skepticism and even derision. The confession became the butt of editorial cartoons, like one that showed the prisoner confessing to betting on the Cincinnati Reds, and fodder for the late-night comedians.

What stood out the most from the transcript of Mr. Mohammed’s hearing at Guantánamo Bay was how the military detention and court system has been debased for terrorist suspects. The hearing was a combatant status review tribunal — a process that is supposed to determine whether a prisoner is an illegal enemy combatant and thus not entitled in Mr. Bush’s world to rudimentary legal rights. But the tribunals are kangaroo courts, admitting evidence that was coerced or obtained through abuse or outright torture. They are intended to confirm a decision that was already made, and to feed detainees into the military commissions created by Congress last year.

The omissions from the record of Mr. Mohammed’s hearing were chilling. The United States government deleted his claims to have been tortured during years of illegal detention at camps run by the Central Intelligence Agency. Government officials who are opposed to the administration’s lawless policy on prisoners have said in numerous news reports that Mr. Mohammed was indeed tortured, including through waterboarding, which simulates drowning and violates every civilized standard of behavior toward a prisoner, even one as awful as this one. And he is hardly the only prisoner who has made claims of abuse and torture. Some were released after it was proved that they never had any connection at all to terrorism.

Okay, but KSM is clearly guilty. So nobody is too concerned if we cut a few corners where he's concerned, right? The complete disembowelment of "rule of law" contained in that attitude aside, I'll concede the point -- and turn to David Hicks, another defendant processed through the system (he's the guy in the picture).

Hicks started out the day with three lawyers. He ended the day with one. The judge removed one lawyer on a technicality -- that although she had been properly appointed by the chief military defense counsel, she was not herself on active duty. He removed the other one, civilian attorney Joshua Dratel, for an even weirder reason. From the ACLU's blogging on the case:

The judge stated that Hicks's civilian defense counsel, well-known criminal defense attorney Joshua Dratel, had not submitted a letter indicating his agreement to comply with the rules and regulations of the Commissions, and therefore was not qualified to serve as counsel. Under Commission rules, a civilian lawyer must sign an agreement issued by the Secretary of Defense indicating that the lawyer agrees to abide by the Commission's regulations. The problem for the judge was that the Secretary of Defense had not yet created that agreement, and therefore Dratel could not sign it.

Instead, the judge had created his own version of the agreement – thereby, in Dratel's words, "usurping the authority of the Secretary of Defense." Dratel would have signed even that version – so long as the agreement made clear that it applied only to regulations that already existed, and not to those (and there are many) that have not yet been issued. "I cannot sign a document that provides a blank check on my ethical obligations as a lawyer," Dratel explained. In simple terms, Dratel was unwilling to pledge compliance with rules that he had not yet seen.

The judge was unpersuaded. "I find no merit in the claim that this is beyond my authority," he said. "That's sometimes what courts do, they find a way to move forward." Because Dratel refused to sign the agreement as written by the judge, he could not serve as counsel. There was a second empty chair.

Got that? He was removed because he wouldn't agree to rules that had not been written yet.

In case you don't like the source, here's a news article covering much the same ground.

Now the judge did give Hicks the option of keeping both lawyers with him as consultants, with all actual lawyering being done by his one remaining lawyer, Maj. Dan Mori. But Hicks said he didn't see much point to that, so they left. Mori then said he needed more time to prepare the case -- a reasonable request, IMO, seeing as how he had just lost two-thirds of his defense team. The request was denied.

A few hours later, Hicks cut a plea deal with prosecutors that will let him go home and serve whatever sentence he gets in Australia.

Hicks may very well be guilty, although what he's mostly guilty of is being a low-level Taliban combatant. But the slanted proceedings cast doubt on the verdict; generate sympathy for the defendant; give us yet another international black eye; undermine our claims of moral superiority; and give people no reason to trust either our word or our legal process. Sure, we don't blow up civilians in crowded marketplaces. Good for us. We just throw people in jail using a process more familiar to banana republics than democracies built on the rule of law.

As the New York Times summarized in its Sunday editorial:

The Bush administration has so badly subverted American norms of justice in handling these cases that they would not stand up to scrutiny in a real court of law. It is a clear case of justice denied.

And that, Mr. President, is why Gitmo and the commissions process is harming our security, not helping us. Way to go.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Minnesota and Muslims


This weekend, the Star Tribune ran an article summarizing recent efforts to accomodate -- or not -- our growing Muslim population. Since then I've been noodling on it, trying to figure out where I stand on particular instances of accomodating minority practices.

First, the background. A while back we had a brouhaha over airport cab drivers refusing to transport alcohol. Then there were the Muslim cashiers at SuperTarget who didn't want to touch (or scan) packages of pork, and now this:

Minneapolis Community and Technical College is poised to become the state's first public school to install a foot-washing basin to help the school's 500 Muslim students perform pre-prayer rituals. "We want to be welcoming," MCTC President Phil Davis said, noting a student was hurt trying to wash in a regular sink.

First, let's put things in perspective. Listing each case like this makes it sound like the Twin Cities are awash in such controversies. They're not. Each of these is an essentially isolated incident in a metro area with a population close to 3 million. We have a sizable Muslim population, so we have more such incidents than cities that don't. But you're still talking about a small number of conflicts.

That said, let's address the philosophical and practical aspects raised in the article.

In each instance, you have a tension between customer service and religious belief. The question is how far do we go to accomodate belief? I'm perfectly willing to make reasonable accomodations. But what constitutes reasonable is a matter of opinion.

Let's take them one at a time:

Taxi drivers. They don't have a leg to stand on. They are licensed (and their numbers limited) by the city to provide transportation services from the airport. If they don't want to carry people who have alcohol, they need to get another job.

Cashiers. It's not that they refuse to sell pork; it's that they don't want to touch it. So they ask a co-worker and sometimes the customer to scan it for them. As a customer, that wouldn't bother me too much, so for me this falls into the "reasonable accomodation" category. But mostly this is a private concern for Target Corp. If it decides accomodating such requests aren't worth the hassle -- or are harming customer relations -- then they can choose to change it. If enough people complain, you can be sure they will.

Foot washer. At first glance this one seems easy. MCTC is a taxpayer-funded two-year college, and so the answer seems obvious: no taxpayer money spent for an explicitly religious purpose.

If students are hurting themselves trying to wash their feet in the sink -- and frankly, I'm having a hard time visualizing how this could be a problem except for the very, very clumsy -- then a cheap and constitutional solution might be to simply educate students on alternative foot-washing methods like, say, carrying an empty water bottle with them that they can fill up and wash with.

But it turns out to be difficult, because there are additional considerations.

As an adult educational institution, MCTC is supposed to accomodate a range of students -- and has a competitive interest in doing so. Would it make competitive sense to turn off potential students simply because of inconvenient lavatory facilities? Building a mosque or a chapel would clearly be both unreasonable and unconstitutional. But a sink? Why not?

In the end, though, what persuades me is another relatively simple argument: A foot washer doesn't just serve Muslim students. Yes, they get a convenient place to wash their feet; but the rest of us benefit by keeping feet out of the regular sinks. Not to mention avoiding the lawsuits from the Clumsy Muslims Student Association.

I strongly support separation of church and state. But remember that the main point of that separation is to prevent a particular religion from exerting undue control over the state, or using the levers of government power to promote itself or force its beliefs on others. Absent such coercion, religion should be treated the same as other interest groups -- not better, but not worse, either.

America remains an overwhelmingly Christian nation; Muslims aren't going to be running things anytime soon. So providing a reasonable accomodation to a minority religion should be just fine, especially when the accomodation is small and benefits all students, not just the minority.

Accomodation is a case-by-case thing, as the mosque example demonstrates. And it's a two-way street as well: members of minority groups have an obligation to adjust their practices to the larger reality of American life as much as practicable before demanding special consideration for their situation. But assuming that has been done, then minor accomodations are not PC run amok or cultural surrender: they are a recognition that Muslims are a part of the American fabric, not a burr stuck upon it. And as that fabric changes, so too will some things that we have "always done" and never thought much about.

Which is a good thing, because that ability to change is one reason the United States has remained a vibrant nation through two centuries of global and social upheaval. Our foundation is strong because it is not overly rigid. And it's why the country will survive this wave of immigrants just like it survived the Italians and the Irish and the blacks and giving women the vote and all the other things that people at the time feared would destroy us. We will survive, and we will remain American in all the ways that matter -- and made stronger by the additional weave brought from overseas.

Just as long as the cab drivers don't give me a hard time for the wine bottle I brought back from vacation....

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Webbgate

Amid all the attention being given to the Gonzales debacle, the usual suspects are floggin an embarassing little kerfuffle involving Democratic Sen. Jim Webb.

An aide to Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) was arrested Monday for attempting to carry a loaded pistol into the Capitol.

At approximately 10:50 a.m. the staffer entered the Russell Senate Office Building through the lower Delaware and C Street Door, according to Kimberly Schneider, spokeswoman for the Capitol Police. The X-ray machine revealed that the aide had a loaded pistol and two additional magazines of ammunition.

Upon questioning, the Capitol Police determined the staffer did not have a license for the pistol or ammunition. Consequently, he was arrested and charged with carrying a pistol without a license and with being in possession of an unregistered firearm and unregistered ammunition.

Seems pretty small potatoes, right? An aide forgets he has a gun in his briefcase and runs afoul of security. The end.

Then it turns out it's Webb's gun. Webb was boarding a flight to New Orleans on Friday and gave the gun to his assistants because he couldn't take it on the plane.

Still small potatoes, right?

The aide, Phillip Thompson, was subsequently charged with a felony for not having a license to carry the pistol. But that's mostly because D.C. law is downright freaky about gun ownership -- so freaky that portions of D.C.'s gun-control laws have been ruled unconstitutional. If the offense was truly inadvertent, expect him to get off pretty lightly.

But now let the speculation begin.

Suppose Webb asked Thompson to carry the gun into the Capitol so he could have it in his office? Suppose Webb routinely carries a pistol in D.C., despite laws prohibiting it?

The latter is quite possible, but the former makes no sense, because Congress -- as they often do -- makes one set of rules for you, and another set of rules for themselves. It apparently is legal for Senators and Congressmen to have guns on federal property -- including the Capitol. So there'd be no point to Webb having his staffer sneak it in, and it would be doubly stupid because while Congress members can have guns there, aides can't. Why have your aide do something that's illegal for him but perfectly legal for you?

So it seems kind of impossible for this to be more than a mild embarassment for Webb's office -- not even Webb personally. It'd be kind of fun, though, to find out which airport Webb flew out of on Friday. If it was a D.C. airport, he has essentially admitted violating D.C. gun laws by having the gun with him in the first place.

Update: To clarify that last paragraph, if I had to bet I would wager that Webb regularly violates D.C. gun control laws. If so, he should be hammered a bit for it. But given that D.C.'s gun laws are so draconian, I don't think you're going to see many Republicans going after him on that score, unless they want to make him a hero to the gun lobby. Even many people who are sympathetic to reasonable regulation of guns aren't going to care, because D.C.'s gun laws are simpy too strict to be taken seriously.

Besides, there's probably a Congressional exception to it anyway.

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Senate Iraq timeline survives


Senate Republicans failed to kill a timeline for ending combat operations in Iraq during debate on a war funding bill today. That means it will be included in the final bill, which is expected to pass either tomorrow or Thursday.

After that it will be reconciled with the House version, then sent to the White House for an appointment with Bush's veto pen.

Two interesting tidbits:

1. Three Senators switched their votes to support the bill: Democrat Ben Nelson and Republicans Chuck Hagel and Gordon Smith.

2. The Senate also attached its minimum-wage package (and accompanying small-business tax breaks) to the bill -- an odd decision, considering the likelihood of a veto.

So how do the bills stack up? While there are warts -- the $20 billion in pork, for starters, of which the Democrats should be ashamed -- I think this is more than a mere waste of time.

As I noted last week, once Bush vetoes it the real politicking begins. But even if the Dems cave in and give Bush the "clean" funding bill he wants, this wasn't a waste of time.

Whatever else it does, the bill expresses the opinion of Congress (and, incidentally, the voters, if polls are to be believed) in very forceful terms -- especially because much of the opposition to the bill came from Democrats who didn't think it went far enough.

That may not matter to Bush. But you can be certain the message will be received in other places -- like, say, Baghdad. The Iraqi government now knows that support past the 2008 elections is highly uncertain unless it gets its act together. So whether the deadline is March 2008 or September 2008 or January 2009, it's very real and very serious.

The real test of our Iraq policy remains the surge. If it works and is sustainable, we stay. If it doesn't, we leave.

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Whale explodes in Taiwan

You read that right. From MSNBC:

Residents of Tainan learned a lesson in whale biology after the decomposing remains of a 60-ton sperm whale exploded on a busy street, showering nearby cars and shops with blood and organs and stopping traffic for hours.

The 56-foot-long whale had been on a truck headed for a necropsy by researchers, when gases from internal decay caused its entrails to explode in the southern city of Tainan.

There are pictures on the link. I'm not going to reproduce them here.

And then there's this:

Once moved to a nearby nature preserve, the male specimen -- the largest whale ever recorded in Taiwan -- drew the attention of locals because of its large penis, measured at some five feet, the Taipei Times reported.

"More than 100 Tainan city residents, mostly men, have reportedly gone to see the corpse to 'experience' the size of its penis," the newspaper reported.

Eeew....

Update: A commenter notes that the story is from 2004, a fact I failed to notice when I first came across it. I still think it's a darned interesting piece, but I apologize for giving the impression that this was current news.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Iran feels the pinch

Diplomacy is starting to have an effect on Iran.

First, Russia suspended assistance for Iran's civilian nuclear program -- not out of principle, but because of a dispute over getting paid -- although today Russia said Iran had resumed payments.

More concretely, both Russia and China are urging Iran to accept United Nations demands, although they have both insisted that the problem be resolved peacefully and have tended to water down sanctions that would harm their lucrative commercial relationships with Iran.

Still, those sanctions got tougher over the weekend, with the U.N. Security Council unanimously voting to ban arms sales to or from Iran, ban access to international funding and impose travel restrictions on prominent Iranian officials.

Finally, Iran is starting to discover that it just doesn't have the pull in world markets that we do.

More than 40 major international banks and financial institutions have either cut off or cut back business with the Iranian government or private sector as a result of a quiet campaign launched by the Treasury and State departments last September, according to Treasury and State officials.

The financial squeeze has seriously crimped Tehran's ability to finance petroleum industry projects and to pay for imports. It has also limited Iran's use of the international financial system to help fund allies and extremist militias in the Middle East, say U.S. officials and economists who track Iran.

A paragraph worth noting:

The campaign differs from formal international sanctions -- and has proved able to win wider backing -- because it targets Iran's behavior rather than seeking to change its government. "This is not an exercise of power," Levey said in the interview. "People go along with you if it's conduct-based rather than a political gesture."

In other words, saber-rattling doesn't always help much. A credible threat of force often is necessary to force movement on difficult issues; but too much of it actually harms our cause by reducing support from people who might otherwise help. Thus the "speak softly" part of Theodore Roosevelt's "big stick" phrase.

The initiative was helped by Iran's repeated insistence on painting a target on itself, first by defying the United Nations and then with the rhetorical excesses of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This is how diplomacy works: gradually ratcheting up the pain level for noncompliance, while dangling carrots for compliance. At some point Iran will have to decide if its nuclear program is worth it -- especially because completing the program becomes increasingly difficult with each turn of the screw, there is the threat of military action if they get close to succeeding and they can expect to be an international and economic pariah as long as they keep trying. If the pain level is high enough, and we also provide a face-saving way out (such as the plan to have Russia take back Iran's spent fuel so it can't be reprocessed), we might yet curb their nuclear ambitions without firing a shot.

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Gonzales aide will plead the Fifth

Monica Goodling is taking the Fifth.

That never looks good. Her defense lawyer cites the Libby case as reason for refusing to testify even though she has nothing to hide, and accuses Congressional Democrats of having already made up their minds about her guilt. But lines like that rarely work, because it doesn't really explain why she is unable to safely explain herself. If nothing else, the perception will be that she does have something to hide.

Who is Goodling? Gonzales senior counsel and White House liaison, who was up to her eyeballs in the prosecutor firings.

Goodling was one of five senior Justice Department aides who met with Gonzales for that Nov. 27 discussion. Department documents released Friday to Capitol Hill show she attended multiple meetings about the dismissals for months.

She also was among aides who on Feb. 5 helped Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty prepare his testimony for a Senate hearing the next day — during which he may have given Congress incomplete or otherwise misleading information about the circumstances of the firings.

Additionally, Goodling was involved in an April 6, 2006, phone call between the Justice Department and Sen. Pete Domenici (news, bio, voting record), R-N.M., who had complained to the Bush administration and the president about David Iglesias, then the U.S. attorney in Albuquerque.

More specifically, Goodling says senior Justice officials have privately fingered Goodling as providing misleading information to McNulty prior to his testifying. Similar accusations have been made against -- and disputed by -- Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff. So we are facing the prospect of two senior Justice officials accusing two other senior Justice officials of lying.

When they start to eat their own, you know the end is near.

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Bush appointee questioned for partisan moves

It will shock everyone to know that yet another Bush appointee is being investigated for improperly intruding politics into government work.

With GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan and up to 40 regional administrators on hand, J. Scott Jennings, the White House's deputy director of political affairs, gave a PowerPoint presentation on Jan. 26 of polling data about the 2006 elections.

When Jennings concluded his presentation to the GSA political appointees, Doan allegedly asked them how they could "help 'our candidates' in the next elections," according to a March 6 letter to Doan from Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Waxman said in the letter that one method suggested was using "targeted public events, such as the opening of federal facilities around the country."

Is such politicking by bureaucrats with federal money illegal? Yes, although the only penalty is being fired:

On Wednesday, Doan is scheduled to appear before Waxman's committee to answer questions about the videoconference and other issues. The committee is investigating whether remarks made during the videoconference violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that restricts executive-branch employees from using their positions for political purposes. Those found in violation of the act do not face criminal penalties but can be removed from their jobs.

It's not like this is an isolated incident:

The committee is also expected to question Doan about her attempt to give a no-bid job to a friend and professional associate last summer. In addition, the committee plans to look at Waxman's charge that Doan "intervened" in a troubled technology contract with Sun Microsystems that could cost taxpayers millions more than necessary.

Doan's response is to say she's the subject of a vendetta by the department's inspector general. Possible, of course, but one of the first signs that one's defense is weak is when she refuses to address the issues raised and instead attacks her accuser.

But it goes beyond Doan, because the videoconference, you may have noted, was run by J. Scott Jennings, who works for Karl Rove. Raising the possibility that a trail of politicizing government spending could be traced back to Rove himself. So this particular probe is going to be around for a long, long time.

Should it be?

I get very tired of the fixation among certain Democrats on "getting" Rove. Such relentless focus not only detracts from the legitimacy of any real inquiry -- by suggesting it's yet one more witchhunt -- but it also detracts from more serious business and possibly blinds people to actual wrongdoing, because if it can't be tied to Rove they're less interested in following it up.

If something pops up that leads to Rove, fine. But don't waste the public's time until you've got something more than speculation and maybes.

That said, this particular probe seems justified, even if it's not a blockbuster. If Doan violated the Hatch act, she should be fired. If the trail leads to Rove, the Democrats can do cartwheels. But pursue the wrongdoing where it leads; don't get off track because of a desire to finally nail Rove's hide to the wall.

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Why logic classes should be required


When it comes to Alberto Gonzales, President Bush has thus far refused to cashier him. Some defenders of that decision have made the argument that giving Gonzales to Bush's critics would simply embolden them, so they must be resisted -- ignoring the fact that Gonzales is doing more damage to Bush's cause by remaining than could ever be caused by his resignation, a point made by Captain Ed in a link in the post below this one.

Now David Schraub sees a similar logic applied to Gitmo. The summary: While the president thinks Gitmo is hampering our broader war effort and ought to be shut down, he is reluctant to do so because that would mean moving the prisoners stateside where they would enjoy greater legal rights. So apparently we'll just have to keep hampering our own war effort.

Now one can be charitable and say the president means that shutting Gitmo would hamper our war effort even more -- except that's not what he said, and it makes little sense in context. Gitmo, on balance, is either helping or hurting our cause. If it's helping, then he should support it. If it's hurting, then it should be shut down. He said it's hurting. So that leaves one of two choices:

1. He's simply concerned about PR rather than the underlying issues, in which case what he's really saying is "I'm getting hammered for Gitmo, and I'd love to shut it down as soon as I can recreate it somewhere else."

2. He's willing to "hamper our war effort", if necessary, to avoid giving the Gitmo prisoners any real legal rights. Which, if true, demands the question Schraub asks: "Why?"

Personally, I think it's #1 more than #2. He's not truly apologetic for Gitmo; I don't think he respects the civil liberties questions involved, or how damaging such an operation can be in a conflict where global perceptions are a major part of the battleground, and where we claim to represent the forces of freedom, law and goodness.

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Gonzales taking even more fire


Alberto Gonzales is now getting fire from every side.

First, another broadside from the conservative Captain Ed:

Is there any other manner in which the Department of Justice can look any more untruthful and deceptive? Apparently so, because the Justice spokesperson now wants to argue about the meaning of the word "involved". Alberto Gonzales told the press on March 13 that he was "not involved in any discussions about what was going on" regarding the terminations. The description adopted by his supporters was that Gonzales acts as a CEO, delegating authority to his staffers and allowing them to act independently, Now we have Tasia Scolinos attempting to sell the notion that the definition of "not involved in any discussions" somehow includes attending the meeting where the decisions were made -- but not absorbing any of the details of the process.

Have we had enough yet? I understand the argument that if we allow the Democrats to bounce Gonzales, they'll just aim for more, but Gonzales made himself the target here with what looks like blatant deception. I don't think we do ourselves any good by defending the serially changing stories coming out of Gonzales' inept administration at Justice. One cannot support an Attorney General who misleads Congress, allows his staffers to mislead Congress, and deceives the American people, regardless of whether an R or a D follows his name or the majority control of Congress....

At this point, the notion that Bush has to retain Gonzales to protect himself and Republicans in general is starting to become absurd. Gonzales inflicted most of this damage on the administration himself, and the longer he remains, the more damage he will do. As Jonah said, it's hard to find a worse example of self-inflicted damage outside of circus tents.

Ooh! A double, at least.

Next up, old hand William F. Buckley:

Of one thing Mr. Bush is manifestly guilty. It is the criminal (in the metaphorical sense) mismanagement of the whole business of the U.S. attorneys. The fault is not personal; it was probably the attorney general and other advisers of the president who took so many clumsy steps. But Mr. Bush's stress on his rights invites a coordinate stress on his responsibilities. "These attorneys," he said, "serve at my pleasure." Right. But presidential pleasures have to rest on defensible grounds.

A nice twist of the knife: it's irresponsible of the president to retain such an incompetent AG. Call it a blooper single over second base; Captain Ed makes it to third.

Up steps clean-up batter Kevin Drum, who lists nine reasons to be skeptical of the AG's account. A selection:

1. Prior to the purge, DOJ lawyers quietly inserted a clause in the Patriot Act that allowed them to appoint new U.S. Attorneys without Senate approval. Why did they do this when their own emails show that the existing system hadn't caused them any problems?

4. DOJ initially lied when asked why they were fired, chalking it up to "performance reasons" even though five of the eight had previously received reviews placing them in the top third of all USAs. Why lie if there's an innocent explanation?

9. DOJ has now had weeks to come up with a plausible story for the firings and they still haven't. This is truly remarkable. Why not just tell the truth? That doesn't take weeks to concoct.

Except for #9, none of these things by themselves would generate much suspicion. Put them all together, though, and you have to be a real dead-end loyalist to believe there's nothing fishy going on. Throw in #9 and even the dead-enders ought to be scratching their chins.

Here's the pitch.... here's the swing.... CRAAACKK!! It's high and deep to centerfield. Looks like an easy out.... NO!! The Bush outfielder bobbles it! Captain Ed crosses the plate! Buckley's rounding third! Drum's going for second! Here's the throw to second.... it's in the dirt! The second baseman misjudges the bounce and is knocked cold! Buckley scores.... Drum scrambles up and races for third as the shortstop chases down the errant ball. He grabs it, turns, throws wildly.... misses third base by a mile! The ball sails into the stand, and Drum walks casually home!

And there you have it, the arc of this scandal. What should have been an easy out for the administration is turning into a home run for its critics. If the administration turns out to have actually done something illegal (other than lying to Congress, I mean), it's hard to imagine that revelation doing any more damage than the parade of bumbling, lies and half-truths that we've been witness to so far.

Perhaps you think Gonzales hasn't done anything wrong. But it's much harder to argue that he doesn't deserve to be fired.

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Chavez moves to nationalize 815,000 acres


And thus the socialist revolution proceeds apace.

Venezuela's government has seized more than 330,000 hectares (815,450 acres) of land to redistribute them under an agrarian reform programme.

President Hugo Chavez said 16 farms - which he described as large and unproductive - had been expropriated.

Taken in isolation, land seizures are not a good thing. In a stable, law-abiding society, land rights should be nearly inviolable, because the ability to acquire and keep property is one of the fundamental building blocks of wealth and thus opportunity. If land can be seized arbitrarily, then people have few rights that cannot be violated.

But the history of Latin America complicates things, because the "thou shalt not nationalize private land" commandment assumes that the land was fairly acquired in the first place. And largely, it was not. In Venezuela, 97 percent of the arable land is owned by 10 percent of the population. And that's not even the worst ratio. In neighboring Columbia, half the land is owned by 0.3 percent of the population; overall, 75 percent of the land is owned by just 2.6 percent of the population.

Those ratios did not arise from free and fair market transactions; they are relics of empire and dictatorship. So it's myopic to condemn land seizures in isolation, without addressing the extreme imbalances that underlie current land ownership.

Given a set of really bad options, a well-planned system of land reform -- one that defines "underused" land objectively and fairly compensates the current owners of the land, however they came to own it -- might be the most reasonable choice. In addition, any such program must contain a sunset provision, under which the program expires once the ownership ratio reaches a certain level, or a specified amount of land has been seized.

Of course, that assumes that Chavez' plan is either well-planned, well-run or fair -- something I'm not willing to bet money on. But in such a case it is Chavez, not land reform per se, that is the problem.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

New e-mails contradict Gonzales

A new batch of Justice Department e-mails released Friday both fill in the "gap" in the previous releases -- and suggest even more starkly that Gonzales lied about his involvement in the prosecutor firings.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and senior advisers discussed the plan to remove seven United States attorneys at a meeting last Nov. 27, 10 days before the dismissals were carried out, according to a Justice Department calendar entry disclosed Friday.

The previously undisclosed meeting appeared to contradict Mr. Gonzales’s previous statements about his knowledge of the dismissals. He said at a news conference on March 13 that he had not participated in any discussions about the removals, but knew in general that his aides were working on personnel changes involving United States attorneys.

Either Gonzales lied, or he is the most inept and unluckiest attorney general in U.S. history. Because consider how this looks: Gonzales denies involvement in such a major matter. The department releases a flood of e-mails to bolster its case -- but with an 18-day gap. When some e-mails from that gap are finally released, they show that Gonzales was, in fact, involved in the firings.

Could he simply have forgotten the meeting? Yes. Could the "gap" have been unintentional? Yes. But when you put it all together, it looks like the AG lied and then tried to cover it up.

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Largo city manager fired

The city of Largo, Fla., decided to fire the city manager they suspended after it became public that he was seeking a sex-change operation.

Most of 70 speakers at the six-hour meeting supported Stanton, but the council fired him anyway. They repeated that they were firing him not because he wanted the operation, but because they felt his announcement of his plans had undermined his ability to lead the city staff.

Maybe they're being truthful about that, although I'll note two things: perhaps they should give him a chance to lead the city for a while after coming out before concluding he couldn't; and the practical effect is the same: come out as a transgender, lose your job.

Weather prediction: 70% chance of a lawsuit.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Former administration official pleads guilty


Another official goes down in the Abramoff scandal.

Former Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles pleaded guilty Friday to obstruction of justice, becoming the ninth person and the highest-ranking Bush administration official convicted in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

The former No. 2 official in the Interior Department admitted in federal court that he lied to Senate investigators about his relationship with convicted lobbyist Abramoff, who repeatedly sought Griles' intervention at the agency on behalf of Abramoff's Indian tribal clients.

Griles pleaded guilty to a felony charge for testifying falsely before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Nov. 2, 2005, and during an earlier deposition with the panel's investigators on October 20, 2005.

Lying to Congress: not a good idea.

As part of the plea deal, Griles probably gets a 10-month sentence and prosecutors dropped allegations that he improperly helped Abramoff or personally benefited from the relationship.

The underlying charge is relatively minor -- he denied he had an unusually close relationship with Abramoff, even though they had been introduced by his girlfriend. As often happens, the cover up is worse than the crime. Nonetheless, he qualifies for the Hall of Shame.

June 26 update: Griles draws 10 months in prison and a $30,000 fine.

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Life under a gag order

If you want to get your inner civil libertarian riled, read on.

We know, of course, that the FBI has been abusing its authority to seek information without a warrant through National Security letters.

What you may not know is that keeping such abuse secret is made much easier by another FBI power: the gag order. If you're served an NSL you're not allowed to tell anyone -- even if the request is obviously improper. Even after the FBI has abandoned efforts to get the information from you, you cannot tell anyone they tried.

Here, then, is one person's story about living under an NSL gag order.

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand -- a context that the FBI still won't let me discuss publicly -- I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

Rather than turn over the information, I contacted lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, and in April 2004 I filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the NSL power. I never released the information the FBI sought, and last November the FBI decided that it no longer needs the information anyway. But the FBI still hasn't abandoned the gag order that prevents me from disclosing my experience and concerns with the law.

In other words, the people with direct experience with NSLs are prohibited from using that experience to challenge the FBI's power. A practical consequence of that is that debate over that power is truncated:

Without the gag orders issued on recipients of the letters, it is doubtful that the FBI would have been able to abuse the NSL power the way that it did. Some recipients would have spoken out about perceived abuses, and the FBI's actions would have been subject to some degree of public scrutiny....

I found it particularly difficult to be silent about my concerns while Congress was debating the reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2005 and early 2006. If I hadn't been under a gag order, I would have contacted members of Congress to discuss my experiences and to advocate changes in the law.

Here's what it's like to have a gag order imposed:

Under the threat of criminal prosecution, I must hide all aspects of my involvement in the case -- including the mere fact that I received an NSL -- from my colleagues, my family and my friends. When I meet with my attorneys I cannot tell my girlfriend where I am going or where I have been. I hide any papers related to the case in a place where she will not look. When clients and friends ask me whether I am the one challenging the constitutionality of the NSL statute, I have no choice but to look them in the eye and lie.

There are legitimate security concerns related to NSLs. Notably, you don't want to tip off a suspect to the existence of an active investigation, particularly the information sought and why. But those concerns can be addressed more narrowly. A broad gag order is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer where a scalpel is needed, and it does more to protect the FBI from scrutiny than it does to protect national security.

Congress has warned the FBI that if they don't clean up their act, they will lose the ability to use NSLs. But Congress needs to do more than that: they need to revise the gag order provisions to protect national security in a way less damaging to democratic debate and less violative of civil liberties.

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