Friday, June 29, 2007

SCOTUS to examine Guantanamo case

What a difference two months makes.

After revelations that the military's Combatant Status Review Tribunals might have been, shall we say, a bit of a farce, the Supreme Court overrode administration objections (and reversed its own April decision) and agreed to decide whether Guantanamo detainees can contest their detention in U.S. courts.

How unusual is this? Very.

The move to grant a motion for re-hearing in a previously denied case is rare. Court observers pointed to a 1968 case as the closest parallel to what happened Friday.

Back in April, three justices wanted to take the case: Breyer, Ginsburg and Souter. So this decision indicates that at least two other justices changed their minds. I'll just hazard a guess that their names are Kennedy and Stevens.

The case, which is expected to be heard in the fall, will be interesting on several levels. For one thing, it will involve the judicial branch ruling on the constitutionality of a legislative move stripping the judiciary of the power to hear detainee challenges.

Assuming the tribunal revelations were a triggering event, it could also indicate the court will take a jaundiced view of the administration's key defense: the tribunals themselves.

The detainees' attorneys want the appeals court to allow a broad inquiry questioning the accuracy and completeness of the evidence the Combatant Status Review Tribunals gathered about the detainees, most of it classified.

The Justice Department has been seeking a limited review, saying that the findings of the military tribunals are "entitled to the highest level of deference."

But the demand for deference assumes the tribunals were carried out with integrity and due regard for the rights of prisoners. Kangaroo courts deserve no deference.

Couple that with the recent reversal for the "enemy combatant" designation, as well as the dropping of charges against other detainees because they have not been designated "alien unlawful enemy combatants" as required, and it appears the whole Combatant Status Review Tribunal process could be nullified. That would require the United States to start over from scratch, proving that each detainee deserves to be detained.

Maybe this time around they'll give the detainees some basic legal protections instead of railroading them.

The administration's handling of Guantanamo has always been a practical and moral disaster; now it's becoming a legal disaster as well. Add another line to this administration's towering record of hubris and incompetence.

Update: It'll be interesting to see if the court's decision is made moot by a Congressional push to shut down Guantanamo. Probably not, as the prisoners wouldn't be released; they'd simply be transferred elsewhere.

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Fly like an eagle


Everybody of a certain age has a bald eagle story.

I spent six of the first eight years of my life in Buffalo, N.Y. Growing up there, the bald eagle had almost mythic significance to my young mind because it was a symbol in more ways than one. Not only did it represent our country; it was vanishingly rare. You never saw one except on television. It wasn't like cardinals, for instance, which are the state bird of seven states precisely because they're everywhere. The eagle's very scarcity added to its mythology, as well as providing a potent lesson in environmentalism, conservation and the fragility and interconnectedness of life.

In the summer of 1976 -- another interesting piece of symbolism, being the bicentennial year -- my family moved to Wisconsin, far closer to eagle habitat. And as my brothers and I grew older we started making annual treks to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.

There we finally caught glimpses of eagles in the wild -- huge birds, black wings outstretched, seemingly headless because their white skulls often blended into the brightness of the sky as they circled far above us. Each encounter was a moment of awe and wonder. Merely seeing the puffy shape of an empty eagle's nest, high up in some ancient dead tree, was enough to provoke excitement. It was almost like spotting a Yeti or a Sasquatch -- finally meeting up with a legendary but seldom seen king of the wild places.

I attended college in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities. But my glimpses of eagles remained confined to the still-frequent trips to the Boundary Waters.

When I was 25, our parents took us on a trip to Alaska. One day we decided to go deep-sea fishing. We arrived at the dock and piled on to the charter boat. As it eased out into the channel leading to the ocean, I saw them: eagles, dozens of them, perched in the trees lining the channel. Juveniles, adults, pairs and singles. They were there for the same reason we were: fish. And they were there in droves.

The fishing was awful, at least for me: I caught one tiny rockfish, which appeared to have been hooked accidentally as it ignored my line. But the fishing expedition turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip, thanks to the eagles.

My career took me around the country, to places like New Jersey and Florida. The latter is another eagle-dense state, but I didn't see many there, since I spent most of my time in urban areas. Several years later, though, I landed a job back in the Twin Cities, and we returned to Minnesota.

We first lived in Minneapolis, which had lots of sparrows but no eagles. But we drove back and forth to Wisconsin a lot to visit my parents, and increasingly spotted eagles circling far above the highway. We thought that was cool, a small sign of the comeback we'd been reading about.

Then we moved to the western suburbs, pursuing a better school district and more affordable housing. We found ourselves surrounded by lakes and wetlands -- and eagles.

Now, despite living in a densely populated suburb, we see eagles every day. A nesting pair lives a couple miles from our house. Another lives somewhere in the opposite direction; I see them overhead in the morning as I drive my daughters to school and day care.

To me and my wife -- raised during a time when eagles were on the brink of extinction -- this is endlessly amazing. We never tire of seeing them, craning our necks or pulling the car over to the side of the road merely to watch.

Our daughters like eagles, too. But they don't understand our fascination, and they likely never will. They see eagles every day. When we go to the Minnesota Zoo -- a not-infrequent occurence -- we always attend the bird show, where they get to see a bald eagle up close.

They like it when I point out wildlife as we drive along. But I've lost all credibility with them as far as eagles are concerned.

"Look up there!" I'll say.

"WHAT? WHAT?" they'll ask excitedly, squirming around in their seats to get a look. "What is it?"

"A bald eagle!"

"Oh." They'll immediately stop squirming and go back to annoying each other.

So I'm very happy that the bald eagle is officially back from the brink -- removed yesterday from the federal government's list of threatened species. And I'm glad that they plan to continue managing the eagle population so that it doesn't end up back on the list -- even though that appears to means that the Minnesota man whose lawsuit prompted the action still won't be able to develop his eagle-infested property despite winning the suit.

But I'm sad that my daughters will never share our sense of wonder at their existence. They'll grow up bemused by their parents' eagle fixation, never quite understanding the experience that underlies it.

Still, it's a good problem to have. Welcome back, bald eagle. May you soar for many years more.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Former Alabama governor sentenced


Don Siegelman, a Democrat who was governor of Alabama from 1999 to 2003, was sentenced to seven years in prison and $230,000 in fines for taking bribes during his governorship.

If I were so inclined, I could take a cue from Republican defenders of Lewis Libby and Tom DeLay and decry the "political motivation" behind Siegelman's prosecution, given revelations of a potential Karl Rove connection, other Republican connections to his case, prosecution attempts to have his sentence calculated based on the charges on which he was acquitted, and the fact that a judge entirely threw out -- with prejudice -- the prosecution's first attempt to charge Siegelman in 2004. Or that when a Republican governor, Guy Hunt, was convicted of pocketing $200,000 in 1992, the state (indeed, the same prosecutor) sought probation, not jail time.

But I won't, because the motivation of the prosecution doesn't matter as much as the facts of the case and the conviction that resulted. The man took bribes; he deserves to go down. The fact that someone else in a similar situation got off lightly is irrelevant.

Partisans might take a lesson from that.

Hall of Shame has been updated.

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Can Iraq meet its benchmarks?


The AP's Robert Reid has an interesting take on the push for benchmarks for the Iraqi government.

Iraqis are making some progress toward enacting legislative "benchmarks" the United States demands — but probably not fast enough to satisfy critics of Iraq's political impasse. The bigger question: Would any laws passed by a parliament at each others' throats really lead to true unity?

He notes that previous American-urged measures did little to stem violence, for one main reason: "Laws enacted by Iraqi officials holed up in the Green Zone have limited impact in a country whose institutions have all but collapsed."

He also notes that many of the current measures are American-supplied efforts to fix previous American-supplied laws.

The encouraging thing is that the Iraqi Parliament is working through the issues. The discouraging thing is that even if they meet the benchmarks it may not matter.

Reid's takeaway point is that we should recognize that Iraq is already a failed state, and fixing it will take years.

I find myself sympathetic to the analysis while disputing the conclusion, particularly as it bears on American policy.

The purpose of the benchmarks, for instance, isn't to pass some sort of "magic bullet" legislation that will fix the myriad problems facing the country. It's simply a demand that the Iraqi government stop stalling and show some seriousness about actually governing, demonstrating the will to address some of the biggest problems. I'm not expecting miracles; I just want them to start getting off their duffs.

Second, if Iraq has already failed in three short years under our watch -- under conditions far more favorable than what prevails today -- what makes him think that three or six or ten more years will help?

Third, if the Iraqi government cannot exercise meaningful control over its own institutions, then our entire strategy -- which is premised on the Iraqis holding (and effectively governing) the territory we clear of insurgents -- is meaningless. Which makes our presence aimless, rudderless and pointless.

Give me solid evidence that the surge is working and even minimal evidence that the Iraqi government is changing its ways, and I'll support us staying past September. But I insist that the Iraqi government be a partner, not a passive bystander or just one more partisan player trying to manipulate things to its own sectarian ends.

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Former "gay conversion" officials apologize

Exodus International is the leading practitioner of something known as "conversion therapy" or "reparitive therapy," in which homosexuals are "healed" of their affliction through prayer, religion and counseling, becoming happy, healthy heterosexuals.

There are plenty of excellent reasons to be skeptical of this approach. For one particularly trenchant commentary, consider a Salon writer's account of his session with one such "therapist" -- who, among other things, made false claims about psychology's stance on homosexuality. He also said homosexuality was "highly correlated" with poor hand-eye coordination (you know, bad at sports), childhood loneliness (lonely kids are apparently more likely to masturbate, which somehow leads to being gay), wanting love from a distant father (thwarted filial affection turns into generalized sexual desire) and a whole lot more fluff.

Now, on the eve of Exodus' annual conference in Irvine, Calif., three former top executives at Exodus are apologizing for their actions on behalf of the group. They were sincere, they say, but they eventually came to realize the harm they were causing.

The three are Michael Bussee, a co-founder of Exodus; Jeremy Marks, former president of Exodus' European operations; and Darlene Bogle, founder and former director of an Exodus referral agency in California.

"Some who heard our message were compelled to try to change an integral part of themselves, bringing harm to themselves and their families," the three, including former Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee, said in a joint written statement presented at the news conference. "Although we acted in good faith, we have since witnessed the isolation, shame, fear and loss of faith that this message creates."...

All three said they had known people who had tried to change their sexual orientation with the help of the group but had failed, often becoming depressed or even suicidal as a result.

To his credit, Exodus president Alan Chambers acknowledges problems while defending his organization.

"Exodus is here for people who want an alternative to homosexuality," Chambers said. "There are thousands of people like me who have overcome this. I think there's room for more than one opinion on this subject, and giving people options isn't dangerous."

He added that sexual orientiation "isn't a light switch that you can switch on and off."

Well no kidding.

Things like reparative therapy will always be able to claim some "success" because of two things: the power of the human mind and the fact that sexual orientation is more of a spectrum than a pair of opposites. Let's deal with each in turn.

The adaptability of the human mind is legendary. Given time, people are able to accustom themselves to situations that, looked at from a distance, would seem completely degrading, impossible or entirely undesirable. On the negative side, it's why we have things like genital mutilation, the "untouchable" castes in India and people living in garbage dumps. On the positive side, it's the determination behind incredible feats, like the marathon monks of Japan.

Sexual orientation is a strong force, but given the range of things humans can adapt themselves to, it's not an insurmountable one. If the societal norm were homosexuality and someone really, really, really wanted to fit in, they could probably find a way to accomodate the need to take a same-sex mate.

This becomes even more true if you view sexuality as a spectrum. In that view, most humans have a mix of same- and opposite-sex attractions, with the only difference being the ratio between them. The spectrum probably looks like a lopsided, inverted bell curve, with most of the population clustered at either end of the scale. A practicing heterosexual, for example, might be 99% hetero and 1% homo.

Such people have little inclination and absolutely no need to address the 1% -- indeed, they may be entirely unaware of it. But a certain percentage of the population is more mixed, becoming increasingly bisexual: 80/20, 70/30, 60/40, 50/50 and all the way through to the other end of the scale, where the most strongly identifying homosexuals reside.

If you accept that view, then it's possible to understand how a 60/40 homosexual, for example, might be able to suppress the 60 and express the 40 in order to fit in and gain societal acceptance. Or, with far greater mental effort, a 90/10 homosexual could do the same thing.

But at that point you have to stop and ask: Why? What's the point? Is there any rational basis to the societal bias against homosexuality? And is it either fair, reasonable or humane to push gays to get "fixed"?

Then, too, consider the situation where a group points to a 60/40 who was cured, by way of increasing the pressure on a 90/10 to view himself as both "there's something wrong with me" and "I'm too weak-willed to fix it." When the situations aren't remotely parallel, and all in service of... what?

I'll grant Exodus' Chambers the philosophical point that "choice is good," and if gays think they can become nongay they have every right to make the attempt. But that facile justification ignores the source of the problem -- societal bias. Wanting to "go straight" isn't generally something that comes from within. It's most often a reaction to discrimination imposed from without.

Chambers' argument also ignores the complexity of sexual orientation, and in that area groups like Exodus are complicit. They acknowledge that change is hard, but they don't acknowledge that sexuality isn't binary, and so change is harder for some than for others.

I respect monks that can run marathons every day. I just don't see why that sort of effort is a reasonable thing to ask gays to attempt simply because society is uncomfortable with them. It's a "blame the victim" approach that fails any society-level cost-benefit analysis. On an individual level it may pass such an analysis, but only because of pervasive social bias against gays. And the analysis is warped when people are misled by bad science and false claims perpetrated by groups like Exodus.

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Lucy on tour


This is way cool:

The State Department gave final approval Wednesday for one of the world's most famous fossils — the 3.2 million-year-old Lucy skeleton unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974 — to tour the U.S. on exhibit for the first time.

Okay, the actual experience promises to be quite a bit less impressive than the idea -- a partial skeleton arranged in a box. But to actually get a chance to view real 3-million-year-old bones -- instead of a replica -- has my inner science geek excited. The fact that Lucy is thought to be one of the oldest human ancestors yet discovered is simply icing on the cake.

Lucy's first stop is Houston, where she'll stay until April 2008. Then it's on to other cities, including Washington, New York, Denver and Chicago. We've been meaning to take a family vacation to Chicago anyway, and if that's the closest Lucy comes to Minnesota it provides a good excuse to go.

LUCY RESOURCES
1. A primer on Lucy from Arizona State University. The info is pretty good, even if the Web designer was unable to spell "institute."

2. A fairly extensive review from Washington State University of what is known about her species, Australopithicus afarensis.

3. A Scientific American piece on "Lucy's baby," (a baby A. afarenis), that includes a discussion of some of the questions and controversies surrounding Lucy and her species.

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Okay, joke's over


Fun is fun, and it's mighty tempting to keep heaping scorn on Dick Cheney for his ill-considered "not part of the executive branch" claim.

But now Rahm Emanuel is actually wasting significant floor time in the House on it, with an amendment to defund the VP's office and residence.

Some of the quotes in the story are pretty funny, particularly the ones from the Republicans. They seem intended to ridicule the amendment, except they come off sounding like they're in on the joke. But it's still a waste of time, especially considering that Cheney's lawyers have now essentially backed off from the claim.

It wasn't explicit, like Emanuel wants. They've simply stopped making the claim; they haven't repudiated it. But that's still not worth tying up the House for even a short time.

In cases like this -- highlighting the embarassing behavior of the opposition -- pressing the issue too hard can cause it to boomerang, as your overreaction becomes embarassing in its own right. Everyone's had a good laugh at Cheney's expense, and I hope it continues to be talked about and brought up. But as far as official House business goes, it's time to drop it and move on to more important things.

Update: Emanuel's amendment failed, 217-209.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

DeLay update

Haven't heard from the Hammer in a while. But we have some progress in his glacially slow legal showdown with prosecutor Ronnie Earle.

Tom DeLay's lawyers prevented prosecutors from reinstating a tossed conspiracy charge, on the simple grounds that the law in question didn't exist when DeLay was accused of violating it. It's a little more complicated than that, but apparently not complicated enough for Texas' highest court to reverse earlier rulings.

Next up: resolving arguments about the validity of the two remaining charges. And then -- assuming the charges hold up -- maybe we can finally set a trial date.

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Meek seeks halt to controversial project

Following up on yesterday's post about Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek and his connection to a questionable Liberty City development, Meek has now called for the project to stop using federal funds until questions are answered.

Meek sent a letter Monday to Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, demanding that the county stop using federal funds for the troubled Poinciana Biopharmaceutical Park and recoup any money that was misspent....

"The county must act immediately to ensure that any funds improperly expended . . . be recovered," Meek's letter said.

It's good to see a newspaper article prompting such swift action. It remains to be seen, though, what the extent of Meek's involvement in -- and knowledge of -- the project was. The payments to his mom still don't look good.

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Cheney the... okay, he's no environmentalist


In the final installment of the Washington Post's series on Dick Cheney, the story focuses on his environmental record (previous commentary, including links to the rest of the series, is here and here).

We again see the same methodology: operating in secret, reaching down to the lowest levels of the bureaucracy to effect the policies he wants.

In this case, though, it's hard to discern a guiding principle at work other than "in any conflict between the environment and business, business is always right."

Actually, make that "businesses I care about."

The main example in the story focuses on the Klamath River basin in Oregon, which pitted drought-stricken farmers against the survival of two species of fish in the Klamath River, from which the farmers wanted to draw their water. The law and science supported the fish, but Cheney wanted the farmers to get their water. So he challenged the science, and based on a preliminary report, declared there was "no threat" to the fish and got the restrictions removed.

What happened next is classic Cheney. The fish died in droves, causing the collapse of commercial salmon fisheries in Oregon and Northern California. In order to protect a few farmers, Cheney destroyed an even larger -- but less politically valuable -- industry. Typically, his approach later lost in the courts, where an Interior Department fish-management plan was decisively rejected because it would essentially have managed the fish out of existence.

It's especially appalling when you consider that the Endangered Species Act has a provision for overriding environmental concerns when the economic impact is judged to be too large. Or that the farmers could have been helped out more cheaply and less controversially simply by giving them drought relief checks so they didn't need to farm.

By the way, you have to love this paragraph. It involves Robert Smith, a former Republican congressman who was a lobbyist for the Klamath farmers.

Smith had served with Cheney on the House Interior Committee in the 1980s, and the former congressman said he turned to the vice president because he knew him as a man of the West who didn't take kindly to federal bureaucrats meddling with private use of public land.

Yep, the Western spirit of rugged individualism means the federal government shouldn't regulate the private use of public land. Let's not even get into the fact that the land is usually leased at far below market rates, providing a government subsidy to the lucky recipients.

Maybe, if people are so ruggedly individualistic that they don't want federal oversight, they should buy their own land and stop sponging off the government.

The second major example involved the administration's efforts to weaken pollution-control rules for power plants, under the Orwellian-named "Clear Skies Initiative." The administration pushed through the revised rules -- drawing searing public criticism, the resignation of EPA chief Christie Whitman and, of course, eventual legal defeat.

A federal appeals court has since found that the rule change violated the Clean Air Act. In their ruling, the judges said that the administration had redefined the law in a way that could be valid "only in a Humpty-Dumpty world."


Jonah Goldberg, a columnist I usually have little respect for, actually sums it up perfectly this time:

Seemingly countless sources inside the Bush administration tell the Post that Cheney has a contempt for bureaucratic and legislative consensus-building that rivals his contempt for cultivating public support through the media. As a result, he often succeeds in bulldozing policies -- on enemy interrogations, etc. -- all the way to the president's desk. But he's isolated when it comes time to defend these policies in Congress and the public.

The biggest question now is one I asked in earlier installments. There's no doubt that Cheney is an effective bureaucratic combatant, and also effective at getting things done. In sane hands, those are admirable traits. But given the often-disastrous outcome of his meddling, why does Bush still listen to him?

I'm sure it's useful to have Cheney as a lightning rod, deflecting at least some criticism away from Bush. But that only goes so far, because the reason Cheney is able to do what he does is that Bush lets him. Further, you'd think the adverse practical effects of his approach would outweigh the convenience of having someone to take the blame. Especially when Bush already has Karl Rove for that.

The whole series also raises the question of whether Bush is/was aware of the extent to which Cheney manipulated the bureaucracy and constrained the choices that were eventually presented to the president. It's one thing to have a trusted advisor; it's another for that advisor to make sure that opposing views are rarely heard or weakly presented. Echo chambers do not produce good policy.

All in all, a fascinating, deeply reported series by the Post. This is investigative, explanatory journalism at its best, offering an authoritative inside look at the operations of government, a feat that's all the more impressive given the secretiveness of its subject.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cheney's office responds to critics

Dismissively.

“Constitutional issues in government are generally best left for discussion when unavoidable disputes arise in a specific context instead of in theoretical discussions,” Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington, said in a letter to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Meanwhile -- it sounds like Henry Waxman is just getting started, outlining a whole series of reported security violations in the White House. Most of them appear aimed more at embarassing the president than correcting substantive problems, inasmuch as the rules that are said to be violated are rules that the president could change at will. And the reference to Karl Rove is just silly. That said, while the president can do stupid things with classified documents, that does not mean he should. If the White House information security operation is as sloppy as Waxman alleges, Bush deserves embarassment.

Update: The Washington Post has a more detailed piece on the response, noting that the argument being advanced by Addington doesn't appear to be supported by the language of the EO, and has thus been specifically rejected by the National Archives office charged with enforcing the EO. That said, the letter may be a signal that the VP's office won't try to push the "not part of the executive branch" defense.

Too bad. Apparently somebody with a lump of sense got ahold of Cheney's lawyers.

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Good reads

A roundup of links worth clicking on:

1. A New York Times story on an Army platoon dealing with a Baquba neighborhood that is one big booby trap. They get through without a scratch.

2. The former chief judge of the FISA court, Royce C. Lambeth, reveals some details of the court's workings. His anecdotes are interesting, and provide yet another rebuke to the White House's contention that the court functions too slowly to combat modern terrorists.

3. The CIA continues to release once-secret documents detailing their most controversial activities from 1959 to the mid-1970s, including assassination plots and domestic surveillance. They serve as a reminder of why civil liberties and governmental openness are such crucial foundations of democracy. You can dig through the documents themselves at the CIA's Freedom of Information page.

4. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes a somewhat sardonic column about everything Cheney.

5. A few Democrats, going a bridge too far, aren't satisfied with leaving Iraq; they want us out of Afghanistan, too. They're wrong. Afghanistan has its problems, and the conflict is fueled by the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan. But our invasion was justified, the government legitimate, the enemy beatable, and we're not stuck in the middle of an ethnic and regional cauldron. As well, the troop demands and casualty rates are much lower, so our presence there is far more sustainable. And most importantly, Afghanistan is far more likely than Iraq to return to being a terror haven if we withdraw.


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Surge update: bad news edition


The surge is still proceeding fairly well, but it's running into a major problem that has implications far beyond the success of the current operation.

The Iraqi forces, which have been sidelined for much of the actual fighting, are still not ready for their most basic task: holding the territory once U.S. troops clear it of insurgents.

Several senior American officers have warned in recent days that Iraqi soldiers and police are still incapable of maintaining security on their own in the most crucial areas, including Baghdad and the recently reclaimed districts around Baqouba to the north.

It's a pattern that has emerged elsewhere: provinces are turned over to the Iraqi military with great fanfare -- and within months U.S. or British troops have to return because the Iraqi troops aren't up to the job or are actively making it worse.

The problem is one that I've discussed before, and it affects both the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police (scroll down a bit to find the relevant part, or go here to read the New York Times story the post is based on).

Although some Iraqi units appear competent, U.S. officials privately complain that many others still lack ammunition, weapons and an adequate supply network to operate on their own. Leadership in many units is weak, and the force has yet to develop the professional spirit to cope with adversity.... [There are] high rates of absenteeism in the Iraqi military — including desertions, vacations and AWOLS — which Dempsey said average about 25 percent among Iraqi units at any given time.

Iraqi troops manning checkpoints often wave through cars carrying women or children without proper searches, U.S. troops complain. Some residents of a contested area south of Baghdad say Iraqi police and soldiers turn a blind eye to insurgents as long as they don't attack their checkpoints.

It's an open question whether the mostly Shiite military will ever be able to maintain order in Sunni areas. The obvious solution -- patrol those areas with Sunni units -- has its own risks, notably what happens when those units are shot through with insurgent sympathizers.

If this problem doesn't get straightened out soon, it won't matter how well our part of the surge goes. In the end, the performance of Iraqi forces will decide the fate of our misadventure in Iraq.

Which is why more and more Republicans are coming out in opposition to the war -- a harbinger of things to come this fall, when the next funding bill comes up for debate. Today it was two GOP Senators -- Richard Lugar and George Voinovich -- that jumped ship.

"We must not abandon our mission, but we must begin a transition where the Iraqi government and its neighbors play a larger role in stabilizing Iraq," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, wrote in a letter to Bush....

"The longer we delay the planning for a redeployment, the less likely it is to be successful," said Lugar, who plans to meet later this week with Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser.

It remains to be seen whether either would actually vote to end the war if it came to that. But the trend line is clear. If America decides to bring the troops home, it will be a bipartisan effort.

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Fun with interns

Today I got an e-mail from Kristen, an intern at MSNBC. Based solely on the fact that I have posted about Ann Coulter in the past, she wanted to alert me to upcoming appearances by the banshee on her network.

I realize that semi-personalized spam is what PR interns are for, so I do not blame Kristen for the failings of her employer. However, I felt I needed to respond rather than simply ignore the message. Perhaps a young mind could be reached while it was not yet too late.

Here's what I wrote.

Kristen,

Thanks for the note. Unfortunately, I consider Ann Coulter a vile slug of a human being, and I fail to understand why your network persists in giving national exposure to such a vituperative and shallow worm. So I won't be helping you publicize your latest bit of pandering.

If you were to announce that Coulter would no longer be appearing on your shows.... now *that* I would help publicize. Keep me in mind if your employer ever reaches that level of intellectual credibility.

Sean

I somehow doubt the message will find its way to her higher-ups.

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Democratic corruption in Miami

The Miami Herald has written an expose of fraud and corruption in the poor neighborhood known as Liberty City, and tangled up in the center of it is three-term Democratic Congressman Kendrick Meek.

While Meek was seeking federal funds for a massive development project, the developer was diverting money for personal use and giving Meek's mom -- former Congresswoman Carrie Meek -- $40,000 and a car as payment for consulting services related to the project.

Some details to make you pull your hair out:

• After the county spent millions preparing one of its last open stretches of public land for development, the trust gave Stackhouse's company control over half of it for 75 years -- then allowed him to use the land as collateral for a $4.2 million private loan while paying just $1,500 a month in rent.

• A year later, the trust provided Stackhouse's company with a $3 million interest-free county loan despite the developer's financial record, which is marred by foreclosures, liens, and a bankruptcy totaling more than $20 million.

• Once he had access to the county's money, Stackhouse diverted more than $500,000 from the project by submitting more than 40 bills to the trust that had already been paid with the private loan, including construction expenses, architectural fees and property taxes.

In one case, he turned in the same $26,000 invoice three times -- collecting a total of $78,000 from the trust.

• Stackhouse pitched the project to local leaders by claiming multinational companies and world-class universities would lease thousands of square feet and employ hundreds of people.

But most of the tenants touted by Stackhouse told The Miami Herald they have no plans to lease space at the park. Two of the companies said they had no knowledge of the project at all.

• In fact, the only biotech firm committed to moving into the park is a Massachusetts company called MediVector, which Stackhouse said will serve as the anchor tenant, creating 150 biotech jobs while leasing thousands of square feet to test and manufacture drugs.

But MediVector is little more than a small consulting firm run by one of Stackhouse's longtime business partners from a 300-square-foot office in Cambridge.

It's clear the developer duped a lot of people, and county officials and both Meeks are claiming they are among the victims. Kendrick Meek, for example, says he had no idea his mom was being paid, and said she never lobbied him about the project.

That stretches credibility. But even if you believe them, then you're talking about extremely poor oversight and incredibly bad financial judgement by county officials, a failure by Meek to do even minimal due diligence, and a failure by his mom -- who should have known better -- to disclose an obvious conflict of interest.

Here's hoping this investigation gets more national attention. Meanwhile, Meek is a prospective candidate for the Hall of Shame.

(h/t: Debate Link)

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Cheney the tax wonk


Today's installment of the Washington Post series on Dick Cheney covers his influence over economic policy. (Comments on the first two installments are here.)

The vice president's staff encouraged people to cooperate on this part of the package, with unsurprising results: far fewer anonymous sources and a far more positive portrayal of the VP.

Some of the classic Cheney traits are there: a penchant for secrecy, and a profile so low he's invisible:

In a town where politicians routinely scurry for credit, Cheney more often kept his role concealed, even from top Bush advisers.

"A lot of it was a black box, and I think designedly so," said former Bush speechwriter David Frum. "It was like -- you know that experiment where you pass a magnet under the table and you see the iron filings on the top of the table move? You know there's a magnet there because of what you see happening, but you never see the magnet."

This segment also does an excellent job of illustrating how Bush's "CEO-style", big-picture approach leaves plenty of room for a detail-oriented vice president to amass power. Cheney immersed himself in the inner workings of the White House bureaucracy. He would attend low-level policy meetings, helping shape the menu of options that would eventually percolate up to Bush. Then he would sit in on the higher-level meetings, shepherding ideas he had helped germinate. Finally, of course, he almost always had the final word with Bush before decisions were made.

Possibly most important, Cheney was well positioned to simply block proposals he didn't like, because officials learned to run proposals past him before formally submitting them. A lot of things Cheney didn't like were simply never proposed.

The result was that while Cheney didn't win every battle, he won most of them -- and most battles were framed by him from the beginning, so even when he lost the final choice was within a range of options he had defined.

We also get a glimpse of Cheney the compromiser, problem-solver and peacemaker. He was responsible for resolving issues on subjects as diverse as the future of NASA, tax cuts, FBI searches of Congressional offices and what to do about Jim Jeffords -- with Cheney eventually persuading Bush to let Jeffords throw control of the Senate to the Democrats rather than meet his demands for new spending.

You also get a sense that the same traits that served Cheney, Bush and the country so badly in the realm of national security -- inflexible attachment to rigid principles, a push to win internal policy debates at all costs -- worked out better in the economic realm, where constitutional principles aren't at stake and there's a lot of incentive to abandon principles for mushy compromises, buying opponents and political capital with taxpayer money. One can dispute Cheney's principles -- the solution to everything is tax cuts for the wealthy! -- but it's hard to fault the dogged determination and bureaucratic skill with which he pursued them.

Tommorrow we'll cover the last segment.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Cheney the legislator update

I had planned a roundup of (informed) reaction to Dick Cheney's assertion that the Office of the Vice President isn't part of the executive branch, But Joe Gandleman beat me to it.

He links to Captain's Quarters and Glenn Reynolds -- both conservatives, both unimpressed.

And he also notes the hay that Rahm Emanuel is making with it, including a move to strip funding for the OVP from the funding bill currently before the House.

Meanwhile, Newsweek notes that one reason Alberto Gonzales has not responded to the National Archives letter requesting his opinion on the matter could be because, five months later, Justice still hasn't looked into it.

The L.A. Times had a story on Friday saying the White House was exempting itself from the EO as well, something that contradicts reporting in other stories as well as the letters from the National Archives to Cheney and Gonzales. If true, it doesn't make Cheney's "not part of the executive branch" argument any less silly. But it would mean the OVP is no longer acting differently from the White House itself, isn't openly flouting an EO and that the main focus of criticism shifts from Cheney to Bush.

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Separate but unequal justice

Raise your hand if you're surprised by this. Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

An Army officer who played a key role in the "enemy combatant" hearings at Guantanamo Bay says tribunal members relied on vague and incomplete intelligence while being pressured to rule against detainees, often without any specific evidence.

His affidavit, submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court and released Friday, is the first criticism by a member of the military panels that determine whether detainees will continue to be held.

Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a 26-year veteran of military intelligence who is an Army reserve officer and a California lawyer, said military prosecutors were provided with only "generic" material that didn't hold up to the most basic legal challenges.

As generally suspected, the panels were a crock. But that's not the best part.

Abraham was asked to serve on one of the panels, and he said its members felt strong pressure to find against the detainee, saying there was "intensive scrutiny" when they declared a prisoner not to be an enemy combatant. When his panel decided the detainee wasn't an "enemy combatant," they were ordered to reconvene to hear more evidence, he said.

When the panel didn't reach the "correct" conclusion, they were ordered to try again. But that's not the best part.

Ultimately, his panel held its ground, and he was never asked to participate in another tribunal, he said.

If you're a panel member and you still insist on delivering the wrong answer, you aren't invited back!

Employ such a filtering technique two or three times, and you could end up with panels that would reach the "right" conclusion nearly every time.

To be fair, this is one man's testimony. We don't know if what happened to him was typical, or whether the decision not to let him sit on any more panels was related to the verdict rendered. More data is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.

But this is yet another example of why legal shortcuts are a bad idea that almost guarantee miscarriages of justice.

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Cheney's destruction of executive power


The Washington Post is publishing an excellent four-part series examining Dick Cheney's role in the current administration, from terrorism to the economy to the environment. The first two installments are already out, with the next two coming tomorrow and Wednesday.

The series' name, "Angler", seems pretty odd until you realize it's Cheney's Secret Service codename. Though relying heavily on anonymous sources, the breadth, depth and carefulness of the reporting is impressive: More than 200 interviews with administration insiders with direct experience working with or against Cheney, who gave the reporters access to notes, calendars and other records to bolster their words. This isn't a careless, anonymously sourced hatchet job, and the story names so many names that if its claims are not accurate they would be easily demolished. This appears to be "best-practice" use of anonymous sources.

In Sunday's piece, Barton Gellman and Jo Becker detail how Cheney operates: behind the scenes, in secret, depending on his extraordinarily close relationship with President Bush to bypass other agencies and the normal review mechanisms and essentially upend the traditional model of the vice-president's role.

There's nothing particularly wrong with that; A VP who is the president's chief adviser or doppleganger could be very useful, and at a minimum is a way to squeeze extra value out of what has long been a mostly ceremonial post. Sure, one can always paint Cheney as some sort of Rasputin (or, in the current parlance, Lord Voldemort), but there's little evidence to back that up: it's not like he is blackmailing or hypnotizing Bush. It's what Cheney has done with that influence -- not the influence itself -- that deserves criticism.

(If anyone should be blamed for that influence, it's Bush -- who continues to listen to Cheney even though the veep has unhesitatingly led him down losing path after losing path in the last six years.)

The influence goes beyond Bush, though. In the early days of the Bush administration, at the height of his influence, Cheney filled the administration with allies, loyalists and former aides. That gave him huge influence at lower levels of government, allowing him to strongly influence other departments and Congress. It also reinforced his advice to the president, because the president would hear the same advice echoed by Cheney allies elsewhere in the executive branch.

Then there's his legendary penchant for secrecy:

Man-size Mosler safes, used elsewhere in government for classified secrets, store the workaday business of the office of the vice president. Even talking points for reporters are sometimes stamped "Treated As: Top Secret/SCI." Experts in and out of government said Cheney's office appears to have invented that designation, which alludes to "sensitive compartmented information," the most closely guarded category of government secrets. By adding the words "treated as," they said, Cheney seeks to protect unclassified work as though its disclosure would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."

Across the board, the vice president's office goes to unusual lengths to avoid transparency. Cheney declines to disclose the names or even the size of his staff, generally releases no public calendar and ordered the Secret Service to destroy his visitor logs.

As well, there's his recent assertion that his office isn't part of the executive branch when it comes to having to obey Executive Orders. As the story says, information flows into the VP's office -- but nothing comes out. It's a Roach Motel for information.

After 9/11 his priority became fighting terrorism without any restrictions whatsoever, be they constitutional, legal or moral. He directed the legal team that sought so many spurious rationales for ignoring plain readings of law or any meaningful limits on executive power in wartime -- regardless of whether that war were actually declared or not, or even meaningfully defined.

That disregard helped him bull through opposition in the short term, but over time has dealt him the usual punishment for overreaching:

The way he did it -- adhering steadfastly to principle, freezing out dissent and discounting the risks of blow-back -- turned tactical victory into strategic defeat. By late last year, the Supreme Court had dealt three consecutive rebuffs to his claim of nearly unchecked authority for the commander in chief, setting precedents that will bind Bush's successors.

One of the main themes of the series is that Cheney, while harshly rebuked, has in practice been far less leashed than most people think, thanks largely to his willingness to build and exploit legal loopholes and questionable claims to get around adverse rulings. But the fact remains that he has weakened the White House for future occupants, especially ones with more respect for legal precedent, logic and intent.

Cheney and his legal team knew their assertions would never withstand scrutiny, which is why they went to such lengths to avoid scrutiny -- even if it meant bypassing Congress, the courts, and administration officials with direct responsibility for the matter at hand.

Cheney's office couldn't be bothered to join administration discussions about what to do with captured Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, preferring instead to simply ignore all the discussion about legalities and nuances and do what he wanted by going directly to the president. One of the most interesting sections of the first article explains how this practice went directly against a lifetime of Cheney's own advice.

When James A. Baker III was tapped to be White House chief of staff in 1980, he interviewed most of his living predecessors. Advice from Cheney filled four pages of a yellow legal pad. Only once, to signify Cheney's greatest emphasis, did Baker write in all capital letters:

BE AN HONEST BROKER

DON'T USE THE PROCESS TO IMPOSE YOUR POLICY VIEWS ON PRES.

Cheney told Baker, according to the notes, that an "orderly paper flow is way you protect the Pres.," ensuring that any proposal has been tested against other views. Cheney added: "It's not in anyone's interest to get an 'oh by the way decision' -- & all have to understand that. Can hurt the Pres. Bring it up at a Cab. mtg. Make sure everyone understands this."

In 1999, not long before he became Bush's running mate, Cheney warned again about "'oh, by the way' decisions" at a conference of White House historians. According to a transcript, he added: "The process of moving paper in and out of the Oval Office, who gets involved in the meetings, who does the president listen to, who gets a chance to talk to him before he makes a decision, is absolutely critical. It has to be managed in such a way that it has integrity."

Two years later, at his Nov. 13 lunch with Bush, Cheney brought the president the ultimate "oh, by the way" choice -- a far-reaching military order that most of Bush's top advisers had not seen.

He should have listened to his old self.

The story contains repeated examples of how Bush delegated extraordinary authority on terrorism and intelligence to Cheney -- so much so that when officials went to the White House to complain about Cheney's policy moves, they found themselves meeting with... Cheney.

His reach was long. Supposedly confidential memos from White House officials to the national security advisor -- at the time, Condoleeza Rice -- were secretly routed to Cheney, too; Cheney was reading Rice's mail. In another sign that Alberto Gonzales is an empty shirt, Cheney's staff would prepare memos for Gonzales -- then the White House counsel -- to sign, hiding Cheney's role and putting Gonzales' name to words he never wrote. thus Bush would sometimes hear identical advice from Gonzales and Cheney -- because Cheney had written Gonzales' memo.

Monday's article delves deeper into Cheney's destructive efforts to expand presidential power -- including Cheney's nonstop efforts to allow torture, to exclude the CIA from legal restrictions on torture and to set up the President as the sole authority for deciding what is torture and what isn't (even though abuses by the executive branch are what such laws and conventions are designed to protect against). All this while ignoring, undermining and punishing anyone who dared argue differently.

Once again, the story describes repeated examples of Cheney hiding from the light -- making breathtaking assertions of executive power, then hiding those assertions from anyone who might question or oppose them.

In secret memos, Cheney's chief lawyer, David Addington, pushed some of the most extreme interpretations of presidential power:

The vice president's lawyer advocated what was considered the memo's most radical claim: that the president may authorize any interrogation method, even if it crosses the line of torture. U.S. and treaty laws forbidding any person to "commit torture," that passage stated, "do not apply" to the commander in chief, because Congress "may no more regulate the President's ability to detain and interrogate enemy combatants than it may regulate his ability to direct troop movements on the battlefield."

According to that logic, the president could "accidentally" strangle a prisoner with his own hands in the course of an interrogation, and there is no authority on Earth that could outlaw it. That assertion is so bizarre, so contemptuous of any limit on presidential power, that it's easy to understand why the administration kept it secret. They changed the rules to their own satisfaction, then didn't tell any of the other players.

Cheney refused to step back from even his most outrageous claims, even as they were clearly headed for defeat in the courts. In this he had the continued help of the spineless Gonzales, who often sided with Cheney and Addington over the objections of the Justice Department and even his own staff.

Even when, as predicted, Cheney's views were repudiated in court, he refused to accept reality. For example:

When a U.S. District Court ruled several months later that Padilla had a right to counsel, Cheney's office insisted on sending [solicitor general Ted] Olson's deputy, Paul Clement, on what Justice Department lawyers called "a suicide mission": to tell Judge Michael B. Mukasey that he had erred so grossly that he should retract his decision. Mukasey derided the government's "pinched legalism" and added acidly that his order was "not a suggestion or request."

Even after Cheney's views had been soundly rejected by the Supreme Court -- a defeat that probably helped prompt Olson to resign -- Cheney exercised veto power over the choice of Olson's successor.

Later, Cheney overrode the Defense Department when it tried to formulate rules for the treatment of prisoners after Abu Ghraib.

In late August 2005, [Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon] England called a meeting of nearly three dozen Pentagon officials, including the vice chief and top uniformed lawyer for each military branch. Matthew Waxman, the deputy assistant secretary for detainee affairs, set the agenda.

Waxman said that the president's broadly stated order of Feb. 7, 2002 -- which called for humane treatment [of prisoners], "subject to military necessity" -- had left U.S. forces unsure about how to behave. The Defense Department, he said, should clarify its bedrock legal requirements with a directive incorporating the language of Geneva's Common Article 3. That was exactly the language -- prohibiting cruel, violent, humiliating and degrading treatment -- that Cheney had spent three years expunging from U.S. policy.

"Every vice chief came out strongly in favor, as did every JAG," or judge advocate general, recalled Mora, who was Navy general counsel at the time.

But Cheney objected. Guess who won?

In the following year, Congress and the courts imposed most of those restrictions, and Waxman's successor pushed through the directive Cheney had derailed. But Cheney still found loopholes. Restrictions on torture applied to the Pentagon, not the CIA; and while Bush publicly promised to close down secret CIA prisons, he didn't promise not to open new ones -- and so he did.

For all Cheney's bluster about the supremacy of national security concerns, he has shown a willingness to subordinate those to political concerns. The article describes the case of Australian David Hicks. In plea negotiations with Hicks, they offered to jail him for "only" 20 years in exchange for a guilty plea and an affidavit that he hadn't been tortured as his lawyers claimed.

But then Cheney visited Australia, where he was told that the Hicks case threatened the re-election of Prime Minister John Howard.

Shortly after Cheney returned from Australia, the Hicks case died with a whimper. The U.S. government abruptly shifted its stance in plea negotiations, dropping the sentence it offered from 20 years in prison to nine months if Hicks would say that he was guilty. ... The deal, negotiated without the knowledge of the chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, was supervised by Susan J. Crawford, the senior authority over military commissions. Crawford received her three previous government jobs from then-Defense Secretary Cheney.

Thus Hicks -- up until that time portrayed as a dangerous terrorist who deserved to be locked up for a long time -- was returned to Australia with a short sentence in order to bolster Howard's re-election bid.

There's a lot more in the stories themselves. And one of the reporters, Barton Gellman, will be online in a couple of minutes answering questions about the series. Meanwhile, stay tuned for Parts III and IV.

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Chemical Ali sentenced to hang


Saddam's murderous cousin gets what's coming to him, along with two others.

The most notorious of the defendants, Ali Hassan al-Majeed -- a former general known as "Chemical Ali" -- received five death sentences for ordering the use of deadly mustard gas and nerve agents against the Kurds during the so-called Anfal campaign. ...

Also sentenced to hang were Hussein Rashid al-Tikriti, 66, former armed forces deputy chief of operations, and Sultan Hashim al-Tai, 67, a former defense minister.

Several more defendants were involved as well:

Two of the defendants in the Anfal case received multiple life sentences: Farhan al-Jubuiri, a former military intelligence commander in northern Iraq, and Sabir al-Duri, former director of military intelligence. In reading the verdict, Uraibiy said the court took into consideration Duri's expressions of regret.

Taher al-Ani, 70, the former governor of the northern city of Mosul, was acquitted because of a lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, 423(!!!) former officials remain under investigation in the Anfal case. And that's just one massacre out of several that could lead to charges.

Human Rights Watch criticized the fairness of the trial, as they did the trial of Saddam. Those concerns need to be taken seriously, because a fair and impartial judicial system is a crucial element for a unified, peaceful Iraq.

That said, it's not like there was any doubt about Ali's guilt. Such concerns are important in this case more for precedent and setting an example than for any real worry that there was a miscarriage of justice. Nonetheless, the concerns are real, and should be taken into account on appeal. Not necessarily for Ali, but for the less cut-and-dried cases that are certain to follow. If the courts cannot be counted on to provide a fair trial in a case where the defendant's guilt is beyond doubt, it cannot be trusted to deliver fair verdicts in murkier circumstances.

But I shed no tears for Ali.

And for pro-war hawks who will trumpet this as justification of the invasion: It's not. It's a terrible idea's silver lining, just like Saddam's ouster. Their apprehension and trial was not worth anything close to $500 billion, 3,500 American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi ones; the cost-benefit analysis isn't even close. They simply demonstrate that few human endeavors are wholly evil or wholly good.

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"Swinging" Bishop's case goes before ethics panel

Alabama state Sen. Charles Bishop, who punched a fellow senator on the chamber floor, will have his case examined by the state Senate's ethics committee after the punchee lodged a complaint. A decision is expected by the end of summer.

Expect little more than a handslap, though, because the attack apparently doesn't qualify as a felony and Alabama apparently immunizes legislators against misdemeanors while the Legislature is in session.

Also expect fun testimony about just what Democratic Sen. Lowell Barron -- a man apparently given to directing obscenities at fellow senators -- said to provoke the wallop. All in all, this YouTube moment should shower disrepute down upon all involved.

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Pants suit plaintiff comes up empty

Roy Pearson, who claimed his lost pants were worth $54 million, was told by a judge today that, to the contrary, his pants were worth nothing at all.

In a verdict that surprised no one, except perhaps the plaintiff himself, a D.C. Superior Court judge denied Roy Pearson the big payday he claimed was his due.

Delivering her decision in writing, Judge Judith Bartnoff in 23 pages dissected and dismissed Pearson's claim that he was defrauded by the owners of Custom Cleaners and their "Satisfaction Guaranteed" sign.

And, as Pearson should have suspected, the boomerang could be quite unpleasant.

Financially, Pearson could soon be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees incurred by the owners of Customer Cleaners, and professionally, Pearson could find himself out of his $96,000-a-year job as an administrative law judge for the District government.

For once, idiocy appears to be its own punishment.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Good news

It's Friday, so why not ring out the week with a good news roundup?

HABEAS CORPUS
The House is finally producing legislation that would match a Senate provision passed out of committee earlier this month. Both bills face tough floor fights and possible vetos, but it's yet another small step on reasserting the rule of law and putting terrorism back on a criminal footing, where it largely belongs.

PORK REFORM
Even as earmark reform and other ethics measures work their slow and creaky way through Congress, far more sweeping reform is taking place at the state level -- both providing an example for and increasing pressure on Congress to clean up its act. Whether you think pork is a valid government function, a necessary evil or simply evil, you have to agree that transparency in the process is a good thing. Though there's this caveat:

Even with greater transparency, will the humiliation factor work? Amid all House Appropriations Chairman David Obey's unconvincing reasons for keeping the public in the dark, he did make the fair point that even when embarrassing earmarks have been disclosed, Congress rallies around its porksters and approves the money. It's hard to shame people who have no shame.

And that's the next stage of the earmark debate. Forcing national politicians to admit to their bad spending habits is clearly difficult. Forcing them to stop, or pay the price at the polls, is the real test of "earmark reform."

Let's find out.

ENERGY INDEPENDENCE
The Senate passed an energy bill Thursday that includes a provision raising the average gas mileage requirement to 35 mpg by 2020 -- a significant increase over today's 25 mpg, even if the time frame is a long one. On the other hand, Republicans blocked the "tax hike" (see second item in link) on oil companies, as well as measures requiring electrical utilities to use far more renewable power sources. The latter item won't actually matter much, considering state regulators are already well down that path. But it does make one wonder why Republicans think the status quo is so great.

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Cheney the Legislator update

I've colonized the Friday open thread over at Stubborn Facts in search of a respectable legal opinion on Cheney's claim that his office isn't part of the executive branch. You can follow the discussion there if you like, and if either Pat or Simon weighs in with a fuller opinion I'll link to it.

Update: Both the L.A. Times and the Washington Post weigh in -- with the Post piece doing a good job of outlining Cheney's long obsession with secrecy. It also quotes the Justice Department saying that it's looking into the matter.

Update II: The press grills White House spokeswoman Dana Perino about the matter, and gets the runaround.

As you get further into it, she seems to be saying that yes, the president meant for the OVP to be exempt from reporting requirements. But she says that's because the president views the OVP as being essentially the same as the office of the president in this matter. The question, then, is why the president's office and the White House are complying with the EO if they're exempt. Again, it's the OVP that's the outlier.

And she doesn't even try to address Cheney's argument that his office isn't part of the executive branch.

She does, however, seemingly answer one of my questions from yesterday, which is that Congress has no authority to enforce or otherwise question how an EO is being carried out. They can attack the EO itself in various ways, but if Bush wants to let Cheney run wild, he can.

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Immigration a net plus


The White House's Council of Economic Advisors has -- unsurprisingly, given the White House's support for some sort of guest-worker program -- come out with a report that shows immigration provides net benefits to the United States and its citizens.

Among other things, they say immigrants don't depress the wages of native-born citizens, have a lower crime rate than native-born citizens, are more likely to be entrepreneurial, assimilate quickly and boost the solvency of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, because immigrants tend to be young (and illegal immigrants contribute but will never collect).

Some of the data is striking, such as the observation that while 72% of first-generation Latino immigrants speak Spanish as their first language, only 7% of their kids do. This supports what I've often said, that judging assimilation requires a generational view and by that measure is quite robust.

But beyond broad observations like that -- and obvious macroeconomic principles like the fact that our aging workforce and growing retiree population benefits from an influx of young workers -- the conclusions of the report require a big grain of salt as far as how it applies to the immigration debate.

That's because it lumps legal and illegal immigrants together. Which is fair when discussing the net effect of immigration. But the immigration debate tends to revolve around illegal immigration; outside of extreme nativists and xenophobes, most people agree that legal immigration is one of our strengths.

This report not only fails to address that distinction, it distorts the picture because legal immigrants tend to have higher incomes, more education and be more likely to assimilate than illegal immigrants -- many of whom are poor, poorly educated and have no legal avenue to become citizens and thus limited incentive to assimilate.

What it does do, however, is show that a big part of any immigration reform must include a sharply higher quota of legal immigrants.

#1, we have the room; a recent piece on NPR noted that if the United States had the same population density as England, our entire population would fit in Texas.

#2, as this report demonstrates, legal immigrants strongly benefit the country.

And #3, offering would-be immigrants a realistic chance of entering the United States legally will cut down on the incentives to try to enter illegally.



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Barrasso named new Wyoming senator

Ending speculation after Republican Sen. Craig Thomas died, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal has chosen a conservative state legislator, John Barrasso, to replace him.

You may recall that under Wyoming law, the deceased senator's party -- in this case, the Republicans -- selects three nominees, one of whom the governor must choose. There was some added spice to the process because Freudenthal is a Democrat, and both parties would presumably be considering the 2008 election when making their choices -- though everyone involved said they wouldn't.

Freudenthal chose Barrasso over Cheyenne attorney and lobbyist Tom Sansonetti and former state treasurer Cynthia Lummis. The Hill has a breakdown on the three.

Lummis had the disadvantage of having had sharp public disagreements with Freudenthal when she was treasurer, and she chaired the campaign of Freudenthal's opponent in the November elections.

Sansonetti was state Republican chairman in the 1980s, during part of which Freudenthal was the state Democratic chairman. But neither apparently let that get personal. Similarly, while Freudenthal vetoed some Barrasso bills, it never turned personal.

Barrasso appears to be the most qualified of the three. Thus Freudenthal's claim that he didn't take politics into account may be true, if only because it would probably be futile: Wyoming hasn't had a Democratic senator since 1977. But assuming he was considering politics, he may have relied on history: Barrasso ran for the Senate in 1996, only to lose in the Republican primary to current Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi. And he already enjoys high name recognition, so serving in the Senate doesn't help him there. Two years in office will give him a voting record during a difficult time for Republicans, conceivably making him more vulnerable in 2008 than he would have been otherwise.

Lummis, by contrast, has handily won statewide office twice, another strike against her. Sansonetti has never run for office, which would seem to make him a weaker candidate; but the high profile of the Senate would help him more than the other two. And he's a Bush appointee, which carries its own baggage.

That's how one of the Hill's sources broke it down in the process of correctly predicting that Barrasso would be the pick:

GOP insiders say that Lummis is the top potential candidate and that Sansonetti might struggle as somebody with no campaign experience who has spent a lot of time outside of the state.

A political science professor at the University of Wyoming, James King, said Freudenthal’s clashes with the Bush administration on recent environmental issues could also cause him to shy away from choosing a Bush appointee like Sansonetti.

“Which leaves us with Barrasso, more as a process of elimination than as someone who has an array of strengths,” King handicapped. “It’s maybe more the weaknesses of the other candidates that make me think that he might be the selection.”

Which makes you wonder if the GOP gamed it that way. They had to know Freudenthal wouldn't be inclined to pick Lummis, both for their personal history and her electoral success. And if the Bush taint on Sansonetti was obvious, they'd know that was unlikely, too. Leaving Barrosso as the only palatable pick, giving the GOP a senator with a long political resume and high name recognition, positioning them as well as possible for 2008.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

General silliness

Stories to make you shake your head:

SAVAGELY WRONG
Michael Savage's ego blasts C-SPAN for being "left-wing" -- resulting in his getting demolished by C-SPAN's mild-mannered president and prompting prominent conservatives to call him nuts.

TAX BREAKS ARE FOREVER
Senate Republicans blocked what they claimed were unjustified, burdensome "tax hikes" on large oil companies. Except the "hikes" were largely made up of two things: a repeal of tax breaks given to oil companies in 2004 (apparently targeted tax breaks are fine, but removing those same breaks is unfair), and a recouping of lease money that should have been paid by oil firms for the right to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, but which was lost because of errors in the lease contracts.

HOW ABOUT 'FORCIBLY NONCONSENSUAL INTERCOURSE'?
A Nebraska judge overseeing a rape trial has banned the word "rape" from the courtroom as potentially prejudicial to the jury -- along with "sexual assault," "victim", "assailant" and "sexual-assault kit." You might ask how one can discuss a rape without using any of those words. The answer, in this case anyway, was to use the word "sex". So instead of "he raped me", you'd say "we had sex without my consent" or something along those lines. You might ask if such locutions, besides obscuring actual meaning, aren't themselves prejudicial in the other direction. And you'd have a point.

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Justice Department roundup

Three Justice-related stories today:

1. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty returned to Capitol Hill to revise some of his previous testimony and remarks about the prosecutor firings. Nothing particularly explosive came out of it, but it's yet another example of a Justice official saying one thing under oath only to have to revise it when later contradicted by facts -- although in this case there are people who feel McNulty's major crime was being honest, and he's being used as a scapegoat by Alberto Gonzales' supporters.

2. Former Attorney General John Aschroft confirmed the sharp disagreement within the administration over warrantless eavesdropping during a closed-door meeting with the House Intelligence Committee, according to committee chairman Silvestro Reyes. That is yet another bit of evidence contradicting Gonzales' claim that there was not much disagreement over the policy, and underlining once again that Gonzales is either clueless or a total hack.

3. Finally and most interestingly, Bradley Schlozman -- the last Justice official to have to do over his sworn testimony -- also played a central role in politicizing the hiring of career prosecutors during a stint as acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Karen Stevens, Tovah Calderon and Teresa Kwong had a lot in common. They had good performance ratings as career lawyers in the Justice Department's civil rights division. And they were minority women transferred out of their jobs two years ago -- over the objections of their immediate supervisors -- by Bradley Schlozman, then the acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Schlozman ordered supervisors to tell the women that they had performance problems or that the office was overstaffed. But one lawyer, Conor Dugan, told colleagues that the recent Bush appointee had confided that his real motive was to "make room for some good Americans" in that high-impact office, according to four lawyers who said they heard the account from Dugan.

But wait! There's more! It's not just Democrats that were targeted, but insufficiently Bushie Republicans:

In another politically tinged conversation recounted by former colleagues, Schlozman asked a supervisor if a career lawyer who had voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a onetime political rival of President Bush, could still be trusted.

On top of that, he was a coward:

That spring, Schlozman told a resistant Flynn to transfer Stevens to the disability rights section. According to sources in the office, Schlozman instructed Flynn to tell Stevens that the transfer was related to performance and was her idea.

View the allegations with a grain of salt, seeing as how they all come from anonymous sources without independent confirmation. But the extensiveness of the sourcing -- five lawyers and a supervisor within the civil-rights section -- helps boost credibility. And what verifiable facts are known are consistent with the story -- in particular that the various attorneys targeted by Schlozman have all returned to their previous jobs now that Schlozman is gone. It's unlikely they would have been returned so quickly if they were truly punished on merit grounds.

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