Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nice while it lasted? It lasted?

It's not just your words the O-crowd wants to be able to track, it's your money, too.

The Washington Post reported a few days ago that
[t]he Obama administration wants to require U.S. banks to report all electronic money transfers into and out of the country, a dramatic expansion in efforts to counter terrorist financing and money laundering. ...

Financial institutions are now required to report to the Treasury Department [cross-border] transactions in excess of $10,000 and others they deem suspicious. The new rule would require banks to disclose even the smallest transfers. [Emphasis added.]
Yep, you got it right: The White House wants to be able to track every single dollar - or franc or pound or baht or rial or whatever - going in or out of the US with the avowed purpose of "establishing a centralized database" of transactions. They don't even claim that this will uncover terrorist plots or their financing, but rather that
the expanded financial data would allow anti-terrorist agencies to better understand normal money-flow patterns so they can spot abnormal activity.
Uh-huh. So they should have access to all our trans-border financial activity just to "better understand normal flow." Because maybe that will help at some point in the future. And maybe they should also be allowed to search all our houses to "better understand normal furniture arrangements," the better to detect "abnormal" arrangements that could indicate the presence of contraband.
[C]ritics have called it part of a disturbing trend by government security agencies in the wake of the 2001 attacks to seek more access to personal data without adequately demonstrating its utility. Financial institutions say that they already feel burdened by anti-terrorism rules requiring them to provide data, and that they object to new ones. ...

"This regulation is outrageous," said Peter Djinis, a lawyer who advises financial institutions on complying with financial rules and a former FinCEN executive assistant director for regulatory policy. "Consider me old-fashioned, but I believe you need to show some evidence of criminality before you are granted unfettered access to the private financial affairs of every individual and company that dares to conduct financial transactions overseas."
FinCEN is the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.
Djinis said he does not think the department has made a case that it could analyze such volumes of data effectively or needs so much raw data. "It's presumed that the information will be valuable in anti-terrorism activity," he said. "We're told, 'Trust us. Once we get the data, we'll determine what's legal or not.'"
Indeed. "Trust us." That's what we always told every single time.

The plan would require money-transfer businesses such as Western Union to report transactions of $1,000 or more - that's some 750 million transfers a year. The feds want to store all that info and datamine it. And to make you feel even better: In addition to the name, address, and account number of both sender and recipient normally included with wire transfers and thus to be available to the government, the Obama proposal wants banks to obtain the Social Security numbers for all such senders and recipients and submit them to the government every year.

Don't you feel so secure now?

Thanks go to Marcy Wheeler for the link to the WaPo story.

Footnote: Earlier this year the US and the EU worked out an agreement that would allow European banks' financial-transaction data to be shared with US authorities for terrorist-finance tracking purposes - but in order to obtain the data, the US would need to substantiate the need.
But if the proposed rule goes into effect, transactions between European and U.S. banks would be captured regardless of whether there is a substantiated need.

Sophie in't Veld, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, said lawmakers undertook "painstaking" negotiations to restrict the amount of financial data to which the United States would have access. "It seems they're getting it anyway," she said.

[FinCEN spokesman Steve] Hudak had no comment.
I'll bet.

It was nice while it lasted

It was nice to be able to praise the O-crowd for something, in this case the effort to preserve federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

But of course it couldn't last. Next year, the White House will push for legislation
to require all services that enable communications - including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype - to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.
That's a polite way of putting it; the more direct way is to say that the Obama administration wants to be able to demand of all communications companies of all sorts that they redesign their systems and re-rig their hardware so that anything you write or say can be made instantly available, on demand, to the government - and in plain text form, even if the message was encrypted. And they will want it to apply even to companies that operate from servers abroad if they do any business in the US, including requiring them to open some office in the US at which taps can be installed.

The thing here is, a 1994 law required telephone and broadband providers to have "interception capabilities," that is, they had to be designed in a way that allowed the cops to conveniently tap into them. But that law does not apply to outfits like Blackberry, Facebook, or Skype because they are not "providers" under the 1994 law. So to put things even more directly, the O-gang wants to be able to demand that all such companies go out of their way to make it easier for the government to spy on you.

As is typical with what years ago was called a "salami slice" ("It's a little thing, not worth fighting about" - but enough such slices and the whole salami is gone.), officials minimized the meaning.
“We’re talking about lawfully authorized intercepts,” said Valerie E. Caproni, general counsel for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “We’re not talking expanding authority."
You're talking about being able to force companies to do what they didn't before, to have cop-friendly capabilities they didn't before, in order to enable you to wiretap where you couldn't before, spy where you couldn't before, to get data (including messages in decrypted form) that you couldn't before. Yes, you are talking about expanding authority, Ms. Caproni, and you are a liar.

And of course there were the horror stories about how without this expanded power all hell could break loose. But that argument seemed especially lame this time around, since this is one of the examples cited:
[A]fter the failed Times Square bombing in May, investigators discovered that the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, had been communicating with a service that lacked prebuilt interception capacity. If he had aroused suspicion beforehand, there would have been a delay before he could have been wiretapped.
So if we had known something we didn't, these new demands might have saved us from a bomb that didn't go off planted by someone who was apparently a lone wolf about whose plot (for that reason) a wiretap - which still could have been placed, just not as quickly - would be expected to reveal little if anything.

I am not impressed. Especially since another thing that gets minimized is that these new capabilities would not be available only in "24" scenarios of "Catch the bombers before they strike!" but would be available to all law enforcement down to the local level for any reason a wiretap on a telephone might be approved now.
Civil rights and privacy groups were quick to condemn the plan, warning that the administration faces an uphill battle.

"This is a shortsighted and ill-conceived power grab by some in the administration," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The balance has swung radically toward enhanced law enforcement powers. For them to argue that it's still not enough is just unbelievable. It's breathtaking in its hubris."

He said that over the past 15 years - particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks - the standards for warrants have been lowered. And he said law enforcement has many new technologies, ranging from biometric tracking to DNA databases, to enhance it's information gathering.

Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that mandating that all communications software be accessible to the government is a "huge privacy invasion."

"Under the guise of a technical fix, the government looks to be taking one more step toward conducting easy dragnet collection of Americans' most private communications," said Calabrese. "This proposal will create even more security risks by mandating that our communications have a 'backdoor' for government use and will make our online interactions even more vulnerable."
One the other hand,
[o]ne senior law enforcement official said it is premature to conclude that the changes would erode computer security or enable identity theft.
Right. So we have to expand the ability of the government to spy on us, to poke and probe our private conversations, without regard to the potential consequences because we have to wait until those consequences actually happen (and are proven over the expected vociferous denials of law enforcement), when it is too late. I feel much better now.

As long as I'm on a science kick

Credit where it's due:
The Obama administration pleaded with an appeals court Monday to overturn a judge's order halting federal funding of stem cell research, arguing the ban would irreparably harm scientific progress toward potentially lifesaving medical treatment.
That ban was issued by District Court Judge Royce Lamberth on the grounds that the administration's research funding guidelines likely violate a federal law against the government funding any program that involved the destruction of human embryos. Lamberth is overseeing a suit against the federal stem cell research program by an anti-abortion group.

That law, passed in 1996 to please abortion opponents, was stretched to a ridiculous extreme by Lamberth. Due to the law, batches, or lines, of stem cells have been harvested, often from aborted embryos, using private money. Those lines can reproduce indefinitely. The new guidelines permitted federal funds to be used in research with existing lines, thus expanding the number of privately-created lines that federally-funded researchers could use from the 21 approved by Shrub up to 75.

Lamberth, however, bizarrely ruled that because those lines had at some point in the past involved the "destruction of an embryo" by someone else, the new rules were using federal money in research that now "involved" destroying embryos and were thus illegal.

The administration strongly defended the rules and urged the three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals to suspend the order while the case proceeded, arguing that interrupting on-going research would irreparably harm scientific progress toward the kinds of cures and treatments that stem cells may make available.

In an unusually quick decision, the very next day the Appeals Court granted the government's motion for a stay of Lamberth's order, allowing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to continue. And while it's unwise to put too much meaning on such things, the temptation still exists to think that the Appeals Court didn't think too much of Lamberth's order, like it really didn't take a lot of thought to say of the order, "Um, no."
"President Obama made expansion of stem cell research and the pursuit of groundbreaking treatments and cures a top priority when he took office," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement after the ruling. "We're heartened that the court will allow NIH and their grantees to continue moving forward while the appeal is resolved."

Ron Stoddart with Nightlight Christian Adoptions, which filed the suit and helps with the adoption of human embryos that are being stored in fertilization clinics, said the case promises to be a long and involved process. "I think that eventually Congress has to step up and deal with it," he said.
Considering that Congress twice passed legislation approving federally-funded embryonic stem cell research only to have it vetoed each time by George Bush, I don't think getting Congress involved is actually what Stoddart is hoping for.

Speaking of space stuff

Barack Obama has now put his stamp on the space program.
Congress approved a blueprint for NASA's future Wednesday that extends the life of the space shuttle program for a year while backing President Barack Obama's intent to use commercial carriers to lift humans into near-Earth space.

The bill passed by the House on a 304-118 vote brings major changes to NASA's space agenda: It dismantles the Constellation program under which former President George W. Bush sought to return astronauts to the moon, and extends the life of the International Space Station from 2015 to 2020. The Senate passed the measure last month. ...

[Obama] told NASA workers at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in April that he was committed to manned space flight and envisioned sending astronauts to near-Earth asteroids in the near future as a prelude to trips to Mars in the coming decades.
Okay, first, I'm not going to get into the argument about "manned" space flight versus probes beyond stating my conviction that while probes should be emphasized (they not only reduce the human risk but in terms of scientific knowledge they produce more bang for the buck) they should not be the sole focus. The very idea of exploring, of actually going out there and seeing, of being there, is such a powerful one that human space exploration should be continued; it must be a part of the overall effort.

Second, what the article mentions but doesn't make clear is that this kills the shuttle program. It extends it to the end of the 2011 fiscal year, but that's it. Instead, the program proposes to rely on the still-barely-existing commercial space industry; that is, it proposes to use commercial rockets, private industry rockets, profit-making rockets, to get to and from the International Space Station. I think that's both utterly idiotic (and the reason why Obama's plan "met resistance from the space industry, former astronauts and lawmakers") and offensive, as it is yet another example of the government (i.e., the public) doing the research, doing the development, proving the concept, creating the technology, and then basically just handing it over to private, profit-oriented interests that never would have been in the field if they'd had to do the original work themselves. And here it's even more offensive because after handing off to private industry another technology developed with public money, the government is going to finance the profit of that industry by paying them to use that same technology (i.e., the rockets).

But what I really wanted to say is that I am just f'ing sick and tired of presidents and politicians (Obama is hardly the first) pushing for their own "vision" of space exploration rather than seeking out the vision of the scientists, the astronomers, the astronautical engineers - of, that is, the people who know what the hell they are talking about.

It just pisses me off.

More Geek! Less filling!

Found this right after I put up the previous post and could not let it pass.
Astronomers say they have for the first time spotted a planet beyond Earth in what is sometimes called the Goldilocks zone for life: where crucial conditions for life to exist are just right.

Not too far from its star, not too close. So it could contain liquid water. The planet itself is neither too big nor too small for the proper surface, gravity and atmosphere.

It is just right. Just like Earth.
The planet circles a star called Gliese 581, a red dwarf some 20-plus light years (about 125 trillion miles or 200 trillion kilometers) away in the constellation Libra.
It may seem like a long distance, but in the scheme of the vast universe, this planet is "like right in our face, right next door to us," [co-discoverer Steven] Vogt [of the University of California at Santa Cruz] said in an interview.
The planet, called Gliese 581g, is not exactly like Earth; it's a little bigger and more massive. It's also much closer to its star, leading to a short year (just 37 days), and rotates little, apparently being tidally locked. However, it is right in the habitable zone and looks so promising
that five outside astronomers told The Associated Press it seems to be the real thing.

"This is the first one I'm truly excited about," said Penn State University's Jim Kasting. He said this planet is a "pretty prime candidate" for harboring life. ...

It is unknown whether water exists on the planet, and what kind of atmosphere it has. Because conditions are ideal for liquid water, however, and because there always seems to be life on Earth where there is water, Vogt believes "that chances for life on this planet are 100 percent."
Another factor here is that red dwarfs such as Gliese 581 are such because they are low mass and "burn" their hydrogen fuel more slowly than more massive stars. Think of them as a glowing red coal as opposed to something burning with a yellow flame: Not as hot but will keep going longer. Whereas the life span of our Sun is estimated at about 10 billion years, the life span of Gliese 581 is on the order of one trillion years - a lot of time for life to start and develop.

Footnote: The linked article does contain one real boner. It mentions a calculation that suggests as many as one out of five or 10 stars have planets in the habitable zone.
With an estimated 200 billion stars in the universe, that means maybe 40 billion planets that have the potential for life, Vogt said.
Um, that's a mid-range estimate for the number of stars in the Milky Way, not the universe. It's actually estimated that the observable universe contains something around one to 10 billion trillion stars (1021 to 1022 stars). A few more.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tales from the Geek

Time for a sanity break with a couple of recent science stories that interested me.

- Last week, paleontologists reported that
they've discovered fossils in the southern Utah desert of two new dinosaur species closely related to the Triceratops, including one with 15 horns on its large head.

The discovery of the new plant-eating species - including Kosmoceratops richardsoni, considered the most ornate-headed dinosaur known to man - was reported [last] Wednesday in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE, produced by the Public Library of Science.

The other dinosaur, which has five horns and is the larger of the two, was dubbed Utahceratops gettyi. ...

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has been a hotbed for dinosaur species discoveries in the past decade, with more than a dozen new species discovered. ...

Paleontologists say the discovery shows that horned dinosaurs living on the same continent 76 million years ago evolved differently.
- Also from last week comes the cool news that
[t]he $10 billion Big Bang machine under the Swiss-French border may be on the verge of its first scientific breakthroughs after appearing to produce a small amount of the matter that existed in the first moments of the universe....

Scientists say they are thrilled about a series of recent experiments with simple protons at the Large Hadron Collider, and that a wealth of new physics knowledge could be unearthed soon when the machine begins to smash more complicated nuclei into each other at nearly the speed of light.

Already, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, and outside experts are hailing the new data. They say colliding particles seem to be creating "hot dense matter" that would have existed microseconds after the Big Bang and might hold the key for understanding how the liquids, gases and solids of our universe were created. ...

Scientists say the effects they are observing are "obscure." But they are possibly a key piece in CERN's ultimate quest of answering the great questions of particle physics, such as the presumed existence of antimatter and the Higgs boson - sometimes referred to as the "God particle" because scientists theorize that it gives mass to other particles and thus to all objects and creatures in the universe. ...

The machine in the 27-kilometer (17-mile) tunnel under the Swiss-French border at Geneva is already operating at 7 trillion electron volts, an energy level three times greater than any previous physics accelerator. The energy won't be doubled to 14 TeV until 2013, but CERN already plans to replace the simple protons with heavier lead nuclei for collisions in October.
As a sidebar to that, the LHC had a lot of technical glitches and one major melt-down at its start-up. So much so that two physicists suggested - no one seems quite sure how seriously - that the Higgs boson was actually causing "ripples in time" from some point in the future and thereby sabotaging its own discovery.

And in April, CNET reported, a "strangely-dressed young man" wearing "a bow tie and rather too much tweed for his age" was found at the collider site, rooting around in trash bins. Upon being arrestred, he said he was looking for fuel for his time machine's power unit. He had come from the future, you see, a future when the discovery of the Higgs had lead to a "communist chocolate hellhole" of limitless power, no poverty, and "Kit-Kats for everyone" - and he was determined to prevent that by cutting off supplies of Mountain Dew to the experiment's vending machines. He was taken to a secure mental facility but later disappeared from his cell.

In considering this, the facts that CNET published it on April 1, that the "fuel for the time machine" sounds suspiciously like the device itself would be built on a DeLorean, and that the description of the "young man" sounds rather much like Matt Smith's Doctor Who should be ignored as thoroughly irrelevant.

- Yesterday, Greek archaeologists announced finding an ancient skeleton covered with gold foil in a grave on the island of Crete.
Excavator Nicholas Stampolidis said his team discovered more than 3,000 pieces of gold foil in the 7th-century B.C. twin grave near the ancient town of Eleutherna. ...

The tiny gold ornaments, from 1 to 4 centimeters (0.4 to 1.5 inches) long, had been sewn onto a lavish robe or shroud that initially wrapped the body of a woman and has almost completely rotted away but for a few off-white threads.

"The whole length of the (grave) was covered with small pieces of gold foil - square, circular and lozenge-shaped," Stampolidis told The Associated Press. "We were literally digging up gold interspersed with earth, not earth with some gold in it." ...

The ruins of Eleutherna stand on the northern foothills of Mount Ida - the mythical birthplace of Zeus, chief of the ancient Greek gods. Past excavations have discovered a citadel, homes and an important cemetery with lavish female burials.

The town flourished from the 9th century B.C. - the dark ages of Greek archaeology that followed the fall of Crete's great Minoan palatial culture - and endured until the Middle Ages.
- And just today, Time magazine reported on new research that shows just how "social" there is in our being "social creatures." It notes that "we've known for some time" that "social denial lights up our central nervous systems," so much so that even if we know the rejection is coming from a computer, the experience sparks the release of a stress hormone called cortisol.
This week a new study shows that these physical effects go further: rejection actually stops your heart. ... The authors of the study - a three-member group led by a University of Amsterdam psychologist named Bregtje Gunther Moor - measured beat-by-beat heart rate changes in 22 students as they received either rejection or acceptance of portrait photos they had submitted. When hooked up to electrocardiogram monitors, the students reliably showed a skip in their hearts when they thought they had been rejected by someone shown their photos. ...

[T]he findings help explain how evolution programs human sociability.
In essence, it reinforces social tendencies by making it unpleasant to be rejected - which in turn pushes us toward seeking acceptance.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Curse of the undead

Via Unknown News (Thanks for the links to here, folks!) I learn that The Hill reports that
Vice President Joe Biden on Monday urged Democrats to overcome their differences and support their candidates at the polls by telling them to "stop whining."
And yes, "stop whining" was a quote, one he declined to walk back the next day. Because we have to "look at the alternatives" - you know, "Look! Over there! ZOMBIE REPUBLICANS ARE COMING! Be afraid - be very afraid!"

Besides, Biden whined, Obama has "kept his promises." Right. Except to people struggling to keep their homes from foreclosure, progressives, social justice activists, gays and lesbians, DADT opponents, unions, Latinos, open-government advocates, civil libertarians, gun-control advocates, pro-choice advocates, supporters of Social Security, supporters of universal health care - I'm sure I've missed some.

But still, in Biden's words, we just have to "buck up" and vote for Democrats because - well, because Look! Zombies!

Or, as Ring Lardner famously put it, "'Shut up,' he explained."

Another example of how they make a story say anything they want it to

This comes courtesy of a Fox News story dated September 24.
An official report released this week says an ACORN offshoot group cannot properly account for how it has spent millions of federal dollars and recommends that the group repay the government and be put on standby mode until it cleans up its act.

The report from the inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development reviewed how ACORN Housing Corporation -- now called Affordable Housing Centers of America -- has spent federal grant money over the past two decades. The report described the group's book-keeping as "problematic and unsupported," and claimed that more than $65,000 in "ineligible" salary expenses were charged to a federal grant last year, including costs for six employees after they were terminated. ...

The study is the latest blow to the beleaguered low-income advocacy group ACORN and its offshoots. After Congress voted to cut funding to the main organization following the release of undercover videos that showed its workers appearing to help a couple posing as a pimp and prostitute, the organization's affiliates and chapters have been reorganizing under different names.

ACORN Housing Corporation, which was formed in 1985 by ACORN organizers, changed its name this year to Affordable Housing Centers of America.
So yeah, once again ACORN has been caught ripping off public money! Once again it's a "criminal enterprise!" Evil, evil, evil ACORN!

Except, of course, in just that excerpt it's crap four times over.

One: It attempts to equate ACORN with an "offshoot" without mentioning that structurally and financially the groups have been separate since AHCOA was founded 25 years ago.

Two: It leads with references to "millions of federal dollars" and "repay the government" - only to admit pretty much in passing later in the article that the actual amount the report calls on AHCOA to repay is $65,000, with more due back only if the group continues to be unable to account for it.

Three: It spends paragraphs outlining the charges but manages to mention only at the very end of the article (in one of I. F. Stone's "shirttails") that the report alleges neither that funds were misused nor that the work for which the grants were made was not done - and neither does it mention that the report "commends" AHCOA for its "efforts to bring its operations into compliance with Federal requirements and its willingness to resolve the issues in the report."

Four: It brings up the infamous "undercover videos" - which Fox promoted endlessly and breathlessly - without mentioning that they have been thoroughly discredited by revelations that they were selectively edited and that chief creep James O'Keefe lied about how he and his co-conspirator presented themselves to the ACORN employees. It also fails to mention that in a plea deal to dodge a felony rap, O'Keefe later pled guilty to a charge of unlawfully entering federal property in a not-actually-unrelated incident involving an attempt to tamper with the phones of Sen. Mary Landrieu. (If that's not relevant, why is it relevant that AHCOA was founded by ACORN organizers 25 years ago?)

So here's the actual story: An organization which has received federal funds over the years is unable to account for some of that money and if after further investigation it still can't, it will have to repay it. In the meantime, the group has made efforts to improve its compliance with federal regulations.

And here is how the story reads as reported: ACORN IS EVIL!

Just another day at the media office.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Angry, depressed - and a bit scared

Just a little. But it's there.

Thuggish police tactics to suppress dissent still generate outrage but no longer shock. At the same time, it's wise to recall that police violence against demonstrators is hardly new - and neither is spying on peace and justice movements.

Still, that doesn't take away the tingle of another '60s flashback, this one being raids on the homes of peace activists coupled with grand jury investigations into vague charges of some sort of associations with "terrorists" - or, as it was back then, "known radicals."
The FBI said it searched eight locations in Minneapolis and Chicago as part of a terrorism investigation Friday. Warrants suggest agents were looking for connections between local anti-war activists and terrorist groups in Colombia and the Middle East.
An FBI mouthpiece said the raids were "seeking evidence relating to activities concerning the material support of terrorism." Although there were no arrests, those raided in Minneapolis, along with those in Chicago, were subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

Ted Dooley, the attorney for one of those whose home was searched in Minneapolis, said
It seems like they're casting a huge seine or net into the political sea and see what they can drag up on shore and dry out. There's no rhyme or reason to it in a free society.
"Casting a huge net." Yup. Or, as it's otherwise known, a fishing expedition. Just keep groping around, see if by chance you can come up with something that can be used to attack or better yet discredit protestors and their causes. Same as it ever was; only the proximate claims have changed.

The claim this time revolves around, again, "material support of terrorism," banned by federal law and a phrase which survived a court challenge this past June even though it's so vague that it could not only be used to arrest people who donated food or clothing to a legal charity allegedly connected to a "terrorist group" (Hamas, for example, has such charitable arms) on the grounds that such a donation "frees up other resources" but could even make talking to a "terrorist group" about nonviolent alternatives a cause for imprisonment.

What makes this especially disturbing is that this comes right about the same time that a DOJ Inspector General report
blasted the Federal Bureau of Investigation for lying and spying on anti-war activists, animal-rights groups, and environmentalists, calling the improper “terror” investigations "unreasonable and inconsistent with FBI policy."

Among those targeted were the anti-war Thomas Merton Center, the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), the Catholic Worker, Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and an individual Quaker peace activist. According to the Inspector General, there was "little or no basis" for the investigations.

The phony probes resulted in innocent people being placed on the infamous “terror watch list” and in FBI boss Robert Muller providing "inaccurate and misleading information" to Congress, the report stated.
A Boston Globe editorial called the FBI's actions "shameful red-baiting at its worst" involving "serious abuses," including (beyond those mentioned above) extending investigations without good cause, improperly retaining information on the groups, and classifying anti-war protests and the like under the category "terrorism."

One part of the report covered a case in Pittsburgh where a rookie agent was sent on a make-work assignment to identify "terrorism suspects" at a rally organized by the Merton Center - but when that story started to come out, the local Bureau tried to avoid being embarrassed by creating fake "routing slips" intended to create - out of thin air - a "counter-terrorism"-related cause for the agent to attend the rally. While at first blush that may seem like just some bureaucratic CYA, it demonstrates beyond doubt that offices of the FBI are entirely willing to lie, to create false records, and thus brand a targeted group as connected to terrorism - maybe even, one could easily think, to branding it as offering "material support."

Damn. There's that tingle again.

Footnote: Still, filed under "Every dark cloud and all that" comes a report from The Uptake, an independent online news site based in Minneapolis, that by 5:30pm Friday, the same day as the house raids, a public meeting was organized to which "several hundred concerned citizens" turned out to hear about what had happened and that there will a rally today, Monday, at the Minneapolis FBI office.

A lesson from the '60s apparently well-learned by some: In the face of these sort of official pressures and tactics and threats (both real and implied), the best thing to do is just keep going. Just keep doing what you were doing. And now I'm frustrated because I know there is an old folky-type song that has a line something like "don't get turned aside" and I wanted to find a link to it or the lyrics and I can't think of the song or find it by any search I can think of. Damn. Help?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse

The O-gang has filed its response to the ACLU-CCR suit on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki's father, who is seeking an injunction against the administration's declared intention to kill Awlaki without any sort of due process despite the facts that he is a US citizen, and is neither on or near any actual battlefield.

The response - big surprise - calls for the case to be dismissed out of hand. Pres. Hopey-Changey has already established a record showing that he does not want any of his actions questioned by the courts. What's important is the basis for the argument. I'm going to turn the next paragraph over to Glenn Greenwald:
At this point, I didn't believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record. ... [W]hat's most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is "state secrets": in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are "state secrets," and thus no court may adjudicate their legality. [Emphasis in original.]
I say again, Mr. President, as I did back in April, just who the hell do you think you are?

This has gone past outrageous right into depraved. I want you to imagine just 10 years ago reading a novel with a plot revolving around a president having the authority to kill US citizens simply on their own say-so, based on secret evidence no one outside their circle ever sees and which no court can review and no one can challenge. You would probably think the idea was too far-fetched to be taken seriously. But that is exactly the power Barack Obama is now claiming for himself.

I'm only having trouble deciding one thing: The WaPo reported that
[g]overnment lawyers called the state-secrets argument a last resort to toss out the case, and it seems likely to revive a debate over the reach of a president's powers in the global war against al-Qaeda. ...

Robert M. Chesney, a national security law specialist at the University of Texas School of Law, said that Obama lawyers would undoubtedly prefer not to stoke the state-secrets debate, or to risk judicial review of its claim to a borderless battlefield. ...

"You're trying to avoid a judicial ruling on the merits of the whole issue," Chesney said, adding, "But at the end of the day, if it's your best argument in a case you want to win, you're going to make that argument."
Which means that its inclusion in the brief is an indication that the government does not have a lot of confidence in its other arguments and thinks this is its trump card.

So here's the thing I can't decide: Does that make this more outrageous or not?

I expect there will be more to say about this, more than I can deal with here and now. But it's hard to express how angry and depressed at the same time it makes me.

Footnote: Marcy Wheeler points out that in its brief,
the government does not commit to the basis for its authority to kill an American citizen like Anwar al-Awlaki with no review.
That is, the government never actually makes a case for the authority it's claiming to order a hit on a citizen. They just assert the authority is there and focus on arguing that al-Awlaki's father doesn't have standing to bring the case and doggone it, even if he does, a presidential order to kill his son without due process is a "political question" that the courts shouldn't even touch.

(I thought the issues in the case revolved around the limits of executive authority and how that sort of question became "non-justiciable" is a mystery to me, but never mind.)

But as Wheeler points out, the O-crowd won't even commit to saying if al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group with which Awlaki is allegedly involved, is part of al-Qaeda itself or just "associated" with it. That makes the entire argument problematical since the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed after 9/11 only authorizes the president to act against those involved with or aiding and abetting those who attacked on that day - and AQAP did not exist at that time.

As a sidebar to the Footnote, she also mentions that the brief whines that the White House and military "simply can’t be expected to operate under 'generalized standards' and 'general criteria.'" Hmmm. Generalized standards. Aren't they what we call laws?

A Second Footnote: In response to the suit,
Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that the groups are asking "a court to take the unprecedented step of intervening in an ongoing military action to direct the President how to manage that action - all on behalf of a leader of a foreign terrorist organization."
Besides referring to it as "an ongoing military action" with all the implications of "the battlefield is everywhere" so no one is ever captured "away from the battlefield," I guess means that in the minds of the O-gang, innocent until proven guilty is another "general criteria" to which the administration can't be expected to adhere.

Friday, September 24, 2010


This is from over a month ago, but I just found out about it now and I didn't want to let it pass.

"Greetings, greetings, fellow stargazers!" No more. Jack Horkheimer died on August 20. If you don't know who he was, just know that his infectious joy about stargazing - coupled with a fair amount of showmanship - undoubtedly served to bring many into the fold.

Thanks for the fun, Jack, and we'll keep looking up.

(Link via the estimable Unknown News.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The things you can find #2

Scanning that same "cool stuff" site, I also found a video of a news report about the aftermath of the BP oil blowout by WEAR-TV of Pensacola, Florida.

It's easy to forget that the disaster affected areas far beyond the Mississippi Delta region, that beaches as far away as Florida have been effected. Well, a reporter from the station named Dan Thomas went with a film crew to the Gulf Islands National Seashore along the Florida panhandle.

After noting that the federal government has directed that the workers hired by BP dig no further down than six inches into the sand to look for oil, Thomas said:
We had come out here to the National Park to show you just what exactly is in the sand, lower than 6 inches. We wanted to use the shovel and give you a look but apparently, that's illegal.
They were challenged first by Pat Gonzales, who claimed to be with the Fish and Wildlife Service and insisted -get this - that it's illegal to dig in the sand. After Thomas and his crew moved to a public beach, a site Gonzales proposed, they were confronted by Officer A. Negron of the National Park Service who demanded to see Thomas's "papers" and then told him not only that "you can't dig" in a national park (Thomas: "So no sand castles, none of that, huh?" Negron: "You're right.") but that it's illegal to film there unless you're with the media.

Thomas ended the report with "Apparently the National Parks Service will only allow BP workers to dig...And only down to six inches."

When the NPS was confronted with this, it turned out - surprise, surprise - that (of course) it's not illegal to dig in the sand and the officials had just no idea how the "field staff" got such a crazy idea.

Right. It was just a nutty fluke, a purely innocent misunderstanding that two separate people from two separate government agencies made exactly the same bogus claim to a news crew that was documenting how digging only six inches down was concealing just how much oil there actually was on that beach. Just pure chance and no one higher up had anything to do with it.

That stinks as bad as the oil, especially when the Obama administration has done its level best to drown the oil in happy talk about how it's almost completely "gone" (Gone where?) even as scientists (and reporters) are finding it is still there, at the bottom of the Gulf, on the beaches, in the tidal waters - and especially when that same administration has effectively made itself a partner with BP's continued pumping and drilling in the Gulf by making the corporation's profits from there the collateral for securing the fund for BP's compensation to those damaged by its corporate homicide of 11 workers and corporate devastation of the Gulf coast.

This really does smell.

The things you can find #1

Scanning through one of those "cool stuff on the web" sites just for the heck of it, I came across something taken from one of NPR's blogs:

It seems that during a talk last week, Bill Simon, the head of Wal-Mart's US operations, said that to see the reality of child hunger and rising poverty
you need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it's real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs, and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when ... government electronic benefits cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs. And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher.

And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they've been waiting for it. ... [I[f you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason.
Simon said this "paycheck cycle," as Wal-Mart calls it, has become "extreme," with lots more shoppers at the beginning of the month than at the end.

"This," the NPR blog said, "is what a rising poverty rate looks like."

Simon's observation was an insightful one that puts a human face on the economic strains and stresses felt by so many among us. Too bad he works for such a scummy company.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Footnote to the preceding

Another case on this front is that of Mumia Abu-Jamal, which will come up again in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on November 9. That is when the court, under a directive from the Supreme Court, will reconsider its 2008 ruling granting him a new sentencing hearing based on a finding that the instructions to the jury were flawed.

This is happening because last year SCOTUS, which has been more concerned with "finality" in capital offense cases than with justice, upheld a death sentence in an Ohio case with similar jury issues and ordered the review in the Abu-Jamal case. That the review is happening is bad news for Abu-Jamal but a lawyer for the defense, Robert Bryan, said he was "cautiously encouraged" that the Appeals Court had scheduled oral arguments rather than ruling on the basis of written briefs, which suggests the Court may distinguish between Abu-Jamal's case and the Ohio one.

I don't know if Mumia Abu-Jamal is guilty or innocent. I do know that the prosecution's case always seemed a little flaky to me - especially as it involved not only Abu-Jamal fatally shooting policeman Daniel Faulkner, but that as the mortally-wounded Faulker fell, he drew his gun and fired up at Abu-Jamal who was bending over him, thus "explaining" the odd path of the bullet that wounded Abu-Jamal, one usually associated with the shooter being above the target.

Guilt or innocence aside, I am certain that Abu-Jamal did not get a fair trial. While it is apparently too late to do anything about that, it's not too late to save him from official murder. So I hope the Court renews its order for a new sentencing hearing.

Footnote: Actually, it may not be too late to do anything about the trial. New evidence indicates that a significant piece of the prosecution's case could be completely bogus. Oh, but wait: This doesn't prove "actual innocence," does it? It only proves a major prosecution witness was lying. Never mind. Pull the switch.

Justice = Just Ice

Tomorrow night, September 23, Teresa Lewis is to be legally murdered by the state of Virginia, becoming the first women to be executed in the US in five years. Last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell denied a clemency request and today, the Supreme Court denied a stay.

This is happening despite Lewis having an IQ of 72, despite having plead guilty (which usually is an opening for some compassion on the part of officialdom), despite evidence she was emotionally manipulated by "a dominant male co-defendant," and despite the fact that her two male co-defendants, who actually pulled the triggers, were sentenced to life in prison rather than death.

This comes just a month after Troy Davis failed to convince a skeptical judge that he had met the impossibly high standard of presenting "clear and convincing evidence" of his "actual innocence" of a 1991 murder and thus failed to get his conviction and subsequent death sentence overturned - a conviction based solely on the testimony of prosecution witnesses, most of who have since said they testified as they did as the result of police coercion. There was no physical evidence introduced and no murder weapon was ever found.

What I just called an "impossibly high" standard was set by the Supreme Court when it sent the case to District Court in Georgia for review in August 2009. While that particular decision was good news for Davis, I noted at the time that it also
points up a dreadful, shocking, moral hole at the core of how we now deal with capital crimes....

[F]or Davis's petition to succeed, he must be presenting evidence "that could not have been obtained at the time of trial (that) clearly establishes petitioner's innocence." That is the standard [Davis had to meet].

Consider what that means. First, if after the trial you produce new, previously-unavailable evidence that punches holes in the prosecutor's case and clearly establishes reasonable doubt - but which falls short of affirmatively proving innocence - our court system doesn't care. Even in the presence of reasonable doubt, we're going to kill you.

And what if it does "clearly establish petitioner's innocence?" If that evidence could have been obtained at time of trial, if maybe it was there but you just didn't know about it or if maybe you were the victim of incompetent representation, our court system doesn't care. Even if we know you're innocent, we're going to kill you.

Why? Because, our court system says, we don't want to be bothered dealing with this. Death penalty cases are an annoyance, an inconvenience. We're tired of people filing multiple petitions on a single case as people try to avoid being electrocuted or hanged or poisoned or shot. So we're going to set an extremely high, almost impossible, bar: You really get just one shot, the trial. After that, you want reconsideration? You not only have to produce previously unavailable evidence (not previously unintroduced, previously unavailable), but the burden of proof has shifted to you; it's no longer "innocent until proven guilty," it's now "guilty until proven innocent."

Because after all, you're not a person, you're not a life, you're a docket number. And what has justice got to do with legal philosophy?
A year before that, I wrote that
[t]here are lots of good reasons, both practical and ethical, to oppose the death penalty. Lots of unrefuted reasons. And yet still this badge of brutality, this symbol of savagery, stays with us, stays with us because ultimately, that's all the death penalty is about: not justice, not deterrence, but vengeance, bloody vengeance - except that we try to convince ourselves we are too civilized for that and so do our best to eliminate the actual blood. It's all neat, tidy, clean, antiseptic, proper, all according to procedure. We don't even have the honesty to call it vengeance. We call it "retribution."
And as a legal principle we pretend - wait, make that contend - that it's just and fair and proper to electrocute/hang/poison/shoot you even if we know you're innocent so long as all the procedural Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.

As I said on one of those earlier occasions, in Joni Mitchell's song "Sex Kills," she says she saw a license plate and "It said 'Just Ice'/Is justice just ice?/Governed by greed and lust?/Just the strong doing what they can/And the weak suffering what they must?"

The answer is yes.

Footnote: Something else I mentioned one of those earlier times was that Antonin Scalia, writing in dissent of the Court's decision to provide review for Troy Davis, said “This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.” And he's right - SCOTUS has never held that it's unconstitutional to knowingly execute an innocent person provided certain procedural formalities have been observed. Ponder that for a while.

Another Footnote: Some good sources of info on the death penalty are the Death Penalty Information Center, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, The Innocence Project, and the death penalty project of Amnesty International.

Friday, September 17, 2010

And now for something completely different

In 2001, the Earth Liberation Front set fire to the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture. In 2008, Briana Waters was tried on a charge of abetting the crime by serving as a lookout during the operation. She maintained her innocence but was convicted largely on the testimony of two women in the group who decided to cooperate with prosecutors. She was sentenced to six years in prison and $6 million in restitution.

Now, however, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned her conviction, concluding that the trial judge, one Franklin Burgess, made several errors that cast doubt on the fairness of the trial.

One of those was allowing jurors to see some inflammatory articles advocating violence against targets such as Wall Street and Disneyland which Waters had supposedly passed on to someone in the group - and at the same time refusing to let them see a documentary advocating nonviolent protest that Waters began two years before the arson occurred.

What's more, during deliberations, the ELF claimed responsibility for torching a newly-built mansion. After news coverage suggested a link between that and Waters' trial, Burgess questioned the jury as a group to ask if anyone had been influenced by the coverage - when he should have polled them individually.

The reason I noted this case is that I commented on it once before, back in April 2008, at which time I noted that the FBI's own records clearly indicated that the agency pressured the two cooperating defendants into naming the "possibly innocent" Waters as part of a plea deal. So her release does please me and I hope prosecutors will decide against re-trying her.

Here are a few more

Updated Homeowners are unhappy: The administration's various flailing attempts to impact the foreclosure crisis have only made a small dent. Nearly half of the 1.3 million homeowners who enrolled in the Making Home Affordable mortgage-relief program have fallen out.

Progressives and social justice activists are unhappy: After some initial excitement about the federal stimulus program, it quickly became clear that it was too small and that any follow-up was not going to happen. Instead, the administration has become a deficit hawk, including creating a stacked commission designed to justify cutting Social Security.

Peace activists are unhappy: The Iraq War is not over. Even the NY Times called the switch from "combat" to "training and support" an "exercise in semantics." Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan is being expanded even as a majority of the public opposes that war and only about one in five expect the situation there to improve over the next year.

The GLBT community is unhappy: In the words of John Aravosis at AmericaBlogGay, "President Obama is about to have accomplished a record zero of his top promises to the gay community." DADT repeal continues to get pushed back until sometime later, whenever that is, and even when a federal court provides the White House with an opportunity to advance the issue (by simply declining to appeal that court's decision that DADT is unconstitutional), it appears the DOJ will reject that opening and try to get the decision overturned.

Unions are unhappy: Their one big legislative goal, the Employee Free Choice Act, was buried under a mound of corporate lies and lobbying while the White House and party leaders stood by, said nothing, and did even less.

Latinos are unhappy: Immigration reform keeps getting what I might start calling the "DADT shove," that is, it keeps getting pushed back with the excuse that "Now is not the time" and the assurance "Don't worry, we'll get to it eventually. Trust us!"

Open-government advocates are unhappy: Candidate Obama declared that “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over." President Obama has surrounded himself with Wall Street insiders and began the health care fiasco by cutting secret deals with lobbyists for the hospital and pharmaceutical industries.

Yet somehow, in the face of all that (and I'm sure I missed some), enthusiasm among Democrats and liberals is actually down. Wow. A real head-scratcher, yes?

Updated with a Footnote: Sean Paul Kelley at The Agonist has his own list which overlaps mine (and includes several things I should have).

Here's another

A line in the first paragraph of a story at on Wednesday tells the tale:
[T]he U.S. economy is still on rocky shoals.
GDP hit bottom in December 2008, when the economy was shrinking at a rate of nearly 7% a year. But after recovering in mid- to late 2009 due to massive government spending, it has stalled.
First quarter [2010] GDP increased by 3.7%. And in late August, the government reported that real GDP [for the second quarter] increased by just 1.6%, less than the 2.4% estimated initially.
This has raised the very real possibility that without more government spending - an unlikely prospect given the O-crowd's embrace of the Holy Church of Deficit Reduction - the economy faces years of slow growth and even a double-dip recession.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate doubled from June 2008 to the fall of 2009 and has stubbornly remained at over 9% for over a year.
A recent Labor Department report shows there are about five job seekers for every available job in the U.S. Economists say that until job creation picks up, there can be no hope of prolonged economic growth in this country.
And that statistic is supposed to be a good sign: At the start of the year, it was six job seekers per job.

As a result, the Census Bureau reported yesterday,
[t]he ranks of the working-age poor in the United States climbed to the highest level since the 1960s as the recession threw millions of people out of work last year, leaving one in seven Americans in poverty.

The overall poverty rate[, covering all ages,] climbed to 14.3 percent [in 2009], or 43.6 million people....
That's more than a full percentage point and nearly 4 million people higher than in 2008 and the highest since 1994. And again, it was government spending - in this case a COLA for Social Security and extensions of unemployment insurance - that helped soften the blow. Without the latter, another 3.3 million people would have dropped into poverty in 2009, according to David Johnson, the chief of the Census Bureau's household economics division.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans without health coverage rose from 15.4% of the population to 16.7%, or 50.7 million people - the biggest single-year increase and the highest total number since the government began tracking the figures in 1987. And one more time it was government that kept it from being even worse, as some of the loss in employer-subsidized health insurance was taken up by expansions of Medicare and Medicaid.

On another front that has been a mainstay of the economy, home prices crashed between June 2008 and May 2009 and have recovered only a little since then. Following the end of federal homebuyer tax credits, which expired in April, home sales plunged so that in July they hit the lowest rate in nearly 50 years. This going on while the number of people losing their homes to foreclosure continues to climb. In fact,
[l]enders took back more homes in August than in any month since the start of the U.S. mortgage crisis. ...

August makes the ninth month in a row that the pace of homes lost to foreclosure has increased on an annual basis. ...

More than 2.3 million homes have been repossessed by lenders since the recession began in December 2007, according to RealtyTrac[, a company that tracks foreclosures]. The firm estimates more than 1 million American households are likely to lose their homes to foreclosure this year.
At the same time, initial default notices, the first step in the foreclosure process, have been dropping. That could indicate that things have finally hit bottom on this front and are starting to improve, if ever-so slowly - but with fewer than one-third of repossessed houses on the market for re-sale for fear of further depressing an already-depressed market, it could just as easily mean that lenders are simply biding their time, not bothering to try to seize properties they can't sell and that a new wave of foreclosures is in the offing as soon as unemployment starts to fall.

Obama called 2009 a tough year but added that "Because of the Recovery Act and many other programs providing tax relief and income support to a majority of working families - and especially those most in need - millions of Americans were kept out of poverty last year." As I already noted, that is likely true. But it's rather like telling someone just diagnosed with kidney disease to be glad it's not AIDS while proposing - à la the "Deficit! Deficit!" mantra - to treat the condition with bloodletting.

Oh, but hey, there's a bright spot: The price of gold hit a record high of $1,271 an ounce on Tuesday! The price is now nearly 50% higher than it was in November 2008 and is expected to hit $1300 an ounce before the end of the year. Great! Um, except that gold prices go up when investors are worried about the economy and are looking for a "safe haven" for their money. So what this really means is that despite the happy talk coming from some places, the wheeler-dealers are as worried as the rest of us.

Why would that be? Here's one idea

Candidate Barack Obama promised "change," a new openness in government functioning and slammed the Shrub gang for its reliance on secrecy and claims of "national security" to conceal its foreign policy activities - that is, its criminality. President Barack Obama has proven the only "change" he is bringing is to make it worse.

Now, adding absurdity to injury, in what Glenn Greenwald pointedly labels "Obama in Wonderland" and a clear case of "sentence first - verdict afterward,"
[t]he Obama administration is considering filing the first criminal charges against radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in case the CIA fails to kill him and he is captured alive in Yemen. [Emphasis added.]
Greenwald also notes that the article says that counterterrorism officials "have revealed few specifics" about Awlaki's supposed terrorist activities and that
the only crime for which there appears to be any known evidence is one which not only raises serious First Amendment issues ... but also one that carries only a "15-year prison sentence." Apparently, though, if the law does not allow for application of the death penalty to a citizen whom Barack Obama wants dead, then all of that annoying "process" about indictments and evidence and trials and the like will simply be discarded with the imperious wave of a presidential hand and the death penalty imposed anyway.
This came just a couple of days after the O-crowd won a major legal victory in what the NY Times called "the administration’s efforts to advance a sweeping view of executive secrecy powers." In a split 6-5 decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals embraced a claim made by the DOJ of the bogus "state secrets privilege" and so dismissed a lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan Inc., a Boeing subsidiary.

The suit, Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, was filed by the ACLU on behalf of five former prisoners who say they were tortured in captivity. It accused the company of arranging flights for the CIA as part of the agency's secret rendition program in which prisoners were sent to other countries for imprisonment and "interrogation," that is, to be tortured.

A panel of the same court had ruled earlier that the privilege could only be invoked against specific pieces of evidence, not the suit as a whole. The majority overturned that decision, agreeing with the O-gang that it should be applied to the entire case.

Writing in Harper's, Scott Horton rips the court's embrace of the privilege claim, pointing out that by an international convention to which the US is a signatory, "the crime of disappearance connected to torture is a crime against humanity, with no statute of limitations and no defense of superior orders applicable" and that the state secrets privilege cannot be properly invoked to cover up evidence of a crime.

The majority of the justices seemed conflicted about their decision, calling it, in the words of Judge Raymond Fisher, a "painful" decision "reluctantly" reached. In an unusual move, the court ordered the government to pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs, even though they lost the case and had not requested such payment. Fisher also called on Congress to grant reparations to victims of CIA “misjudgments or mistakes," a proposal the dissenters labeled unrealistic; "a delusional fantasy" would be more accurate.

But whatever twinges of conscience the members of the majority may feel, the fact is that by their ruling, they have prevented victims of US-approved torture arranged by the CIA from even having their claims heard - even if those victims relied only on public information in pursuing their case. Simply put, they have essentially declared the courts off-limits to victims of torture.

But why? Why would the O-crew go to such lengths to block a suit even if no secret or classified information would be involved? Horton, calling the claim that protecting state secrets is essential to our security "risible," notes the real issue:
The dilemma faced by the Justice Department was rather that evidence presented in the suit would likely be used in the future (not in the United States, obviously) to prosecute those who participated in the extraordinary renditions process. Twenty-three U.S. agents have already been convicted for their role in a rendition in Milan. Prosecutors in Spain have issued arrest warrants for a further 13 U.S. agents involved in a botched rendition case that touched on Spanish soil. Prosecutors in Germany have opened a criminal investigation into the use of Ramstein AFB in connection with torture and illegal kidnappings. Prosecutors in Poland are pursuing a similar matter. And [UK] Prime Minister David Cameron was recently forced to brief President Obama on his decision to direct a formal inquiry which could lead to prosecutions tied directly to the subject matter of the Mohamed case.
Bottom line is that the intent is not to protect Jeppesen Dataplan, it's to protect the entire structure of criminality, the entire structure of kidnapping and torture, from being revealed. Which also leads to the unhappy and deeply unsettling conclusion that what we already know is only a small part of the whole.

Footnote: Circling back the Awlaki case, a suit filed by Awlaki's father with the support of the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights seeks an injunction against the plan to kill him, saying it amounts to an extrajudicial murder. Buoyed by their win in Mohamed, the O-gang is determined to get the case thrown out but hasn't decided yet what the strongest argument or combination of arguments would be most effective.
[M]any in the administration are reluctant to air in court the case that Mr. Awlaki is waging war against the United States, in part because they do not want to concede that judicial review is appropriate for executive branch decisions on targeted killings.

Instead, they are seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed without discussing its merits.
Or, to put it another way, "Like we keep telling you: Shut yer trap."

But this is the bit that really got me:
There is widespread agreement among the administration’s legal team that it is lawful for President Obama to authorize the killing of someone like Mr. Awlaki - regardless of his citizenship - if he is found in an ungoverned place or in a country that grants permission.
So there is "widespread agreement" in the world of President Hopey-Changey that he can on his own authority, subject to no oversight, order the murder of anyone he chooses, a claim even the Bushites never made. If that doesn't chill your civil liberties soul right through, you don't have one.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Speaking of language and framing

Framing, of course, refers to the idea that how an argument is presented affects how it's perceived by others. (A version of which I described over 35 years ago by saying that the first rule of effective communication is that what you say is not as important as what the other person hears.) Some framing, both positive ("we good") and negative ("they bad"), is done deliberately. Other framing is done unconsciously, the result of assumptions that may or may not square with logic or reality but which persist because they are unexamined. That sort of framing can be even harder to overcome, being built right into our social and political discourse. And it can lead to some really weird results.

Consider this article from
Almost half the country opposes tax increases for the richest Americans, according to a poll suggesting that congressional Democrats are taking some risk by backing President Barack Obama's plan to boost levies on the wealthy. ...

The Associated Press-GfK Poll is stuffed with encouraging signs for the GOP. ...

By a 46 percent to 41 percent margin, people want Republicans steering the economy....

[W]hile Americans are evenly split over whether they prefer their district's Democratic or GOP congressional candidate, those likeliest to vote tilt toward the Republicans, 53 percent to 43 percent. ...

The survey showed that by 54 percent to 44 percent, most people support raising taxes on the highest earners....

Even so, the poll underscored the political pickle Democrats face in the tax fight. ...

Overall, 40 percent said the country is heading in the right direction, slightly better than last month but below the 48 percent who said so in the early months of Obama's presidency. ...

More than one in four expressed support for the conservative tea party movement....
Okay. So it's an "encouraging sign for the GOP" that by 46-41, those polled prefer GOPpers to "steer the economy" - even though that gap is well within the margin of error. And it's another good sign that the most likely voters prefer GOPpers by a 10-point margin - even though that tells you little unless you know how that support is distributed. (For example, if this so-called "enthusiasm gap" is very wide in a few places but narrow in most places, the effect on overall national totals is seriously diluted.) And it's apparently also good news for them that the percentage saying we're heading in the right direction is down from a peak - even though the pollsters own chart shows that over the last two years, that number has been trending up. And finally, it's also good news, apparently, that somewhere around 25% support the TPers - even though in another context that number would be dismissed as a "small minority."

But on the other hand, now, the same poll says that by a 10-point margin, people support raising taxes on the wealthiest. Is that "good news" for Obama or Congressional Democrats? Of course not. The headline is that "almost half the country opposes" such an increase, that's it's a "risk" to support the plan and the poll "underscored the political pickle Democrats face in the tax fight" by virture of, um, having the support of the majority.

That's how the game is played. That's how unconscious framing - or as it's often called in the case of the media, "the script" - traps you in your own assumptions in a way that can produce inanity. The script this year is "Republicans are rolling, Democrats are doomed" and everything, just everything, has to be fit into that pattern even when it requires overstatment and contradiction to do it.

I want to emphasize that this is not about GOPpers vs. Dims, it's about the failure of our national media to see beyond the limits of their own assumptions and the distorted coverage of events, trends, and issues that generates. It is surely not meant to endorse Dimcrats, especially when they are so totally gutless that the party leaders in Congress won't even commit to having a vote on the matter before the elections. (As a sidebar, the same fate - a "keep your head down" cowardly refusal to act before the election - may well befall a new nuclear arms control treaty negotiated in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev even though it just passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a vote of 14-4, including three Republicans in the majority.)

And by the way, another finding in the poll was that
[t]wenty-six percent of Democrats said they are excited about politics, compared with 80 percent of Democrats who said so in a November 2008 AP-GfK Poll just after Obama's election.
Gee, I can't imagine why that would be.

A few assorted related thoughts

I know you know about "skateboard-toting" Jacob Isom, the guy who snatched a copy of the Quran from David Grisham of the reactionary group "Repent Amarillo," and so preventing the pseudo-Christian bigot from burning it.
"I snuck up behind him and took his Quran," Isom told KFDA-TV. "He said something about burning the Quran. I said, 'Dude, you have no Quran,' and ran off."
Well, damn good for him and he deserves the happy notoriety he received. But there are three other bits about this, less noticed or discussed, on which I wanted to comment: One is that there were 200 people there - in Amarillo, Texas - to protest the planned burning. And some people put their hands on the grill where Grisham planned to do the deed to keep him from proceeding. There are good people everywhere.

Another is how the right wing, adhering to its Rule #3 for arguing ("When facts are undeniable, change the subject.") groused and grumped about Isom's act of "theft," later adding "assault" for flavor. Now, there was no more than incidental contact between Isom and Grisham, so there was no assault, and it'd probably be hard to push a case of theft when it involved an item the possession of which Grisham had so little interest in maintaining that he had already doused it with kerosene with the avowed intention of destroying it. But of course, that didn't matter to the wackos; anything to distract from the clear public opposition to Grisham's fanaticism.

But the thing I really wanted to mention was something from the video at the link. In what I assume is video from the local TV news, the Unitarian minister who organized the protest said it is a matter of "great dishonor to desecrate the sacred scriptures of any religious tradition."

Yes, but - jeez, can't we do any better than that? Haven't we, even now, even at this late date, learned about sound bites and effective use of the media? I bemoaned this same failing five years ago:
It's really sad how incompetent we on the left have become at expressing our ideas in the kind of language by which non-politically-involved people can be moved.

It wasn't always that way. William Jennings Bryan, before his fear of modernity and science turned him bitter, was a brilliant orator on behalf of progressive causes whose speeches, laced with religious references, sound stilted to us today but suited perfectly the style of the time. So, too, with Eugene Debs, whose style was bombastic but whose words and meaning were crystal clear to the workers on whose behalf he struggled. So, too, right up through the '60s there were those who understood the language of Main Street.

But for some reason, in the past couple of decades we have lost the touch. We have lost our sense of drama, we have lost our skill at rhetoric, we have lost our grasp of symbolism.
So you want the response to people like David Grisham and Terry Jones? You want the sound bite? Here it is:

Real Americans don't burn books.

That's it. That's the message. If you have the opportunity, you can add "Stalinists burn books. Nazis burn books. Real Americans do not. Burning books is un-American." If you have even more time, you can talk about religious freedom and tolerance and respect. But get that initial statement out there first.

The right wing has long since realized the political importance of the bumper-sticker sound bite. It's way past time we did as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This just occurred to me

The coverage of the Saturday demonstrations in NYC about the Park51 project, to the degree it accurately reflects the tenor of the crowds rather than just quoting outliers, served to confirm some of my contentions about the opponents of the center but also prompted one observation that hadn't occurred to me before.

One such contention was how much of the opposition is driven by anti-Muslim bigotry. For example,
[s]hortly after the memorial service for victims killed [in NYC on 9/11], a man from North Carolina burned pages of the Quran, and another protester from Pennsylvania tore out pages of the Islamic holy book and coaxed the anti-mosque protesters to buy it as "toilet paper."
Meanwhile, a woman who said the anti-center demonstration could have been held another day because "It isn't nice for the families of the victims to see us arguing on the day of their sadness" (but who came anyway, so much for being nice) added that she had already helped block construction of a mosque in her neighborhood in Staten Island and that "Muslims build mosques in areas they think they have conquered."

Another contention was about the real motiviation here, the intent to define Muslims out of the American community:
"Muslims will never be American citizens, they don't fit, they don't assimilate," said one elderly protester from Illinois, who declined to give her name. "Let's call a spade a spade: I want them out, not in."
But the thing that just occurred to me was prompted by this:
"They're insensitive people," [said] Ron Silverados, a 57-year-old road striper from Long Island attending the anti-mosque rally. "I'm tired of saying this but this isn't a religious issue ... it is a moral issue."
Leave aside the bigoted use of the sweeping term "they" - and yes, that is bigoted; applying a negative characteristic to all members of a group is the definition of bigotry - and notice the world "insensitive." Oh yes, so much of the blather has been about "sensitivity," how the developers of Park51 have to be "sensitive" to "our" feelings and if only they'd show some "sensitivity" everything would be fine.

Really? The issue is a requirement to be "sensitive" to others' "feelings," to make sure you don't offend anyone? Really?

My gosh! They want to be (GASP!) politically correct! Oh, the horror!

I mean, isn't that supposedly the whole deal with "political correctness?" That you are supposed to avoid offending anyone? And isn't that precisely what these people - the ones who complain about how "insensitive" the project is - are demanding?

What a hoot that would be: Someone complains about the project only to get told "Oh, don't be so politically correct."

Footnote: The most hopeful quote of the day came from Bill Love, a member of the Lower Manhattan Community Board which approved the Park51 project:
I promise you that when that project goes up on Park Place, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, someone will point it out and say, "You know what? That was a big national controversy." ... People will shake their heads and say, "How can that be?"
The hopeful me says yes, that is the way history has played out many times: A generation later, people can't see what the fuss was about. The cynical me says maybe, but there is a rather long dark road between here and there.

Monday, September 13, 2010

More of an addendum than a Footnote

I meant to include a link to this in the previous post but it slipped my mind until today. I've linked to it I think three times before, always with some version of the same basic message, one I'll repeat here.

One of those three times I remarked that Osama bin Laden had done at a stroke what would have seemed impossible the day before: He had turned the US into the victim in the eyes of the world. What an opening, what an opportunity for a new direction that could have been pursued if we as a people, as a nation, had just displayed the dignity and maturity to do so.

But we - our leaders and our society both - had neither in sufficient measure. We went another, a dark, way. So I invite you to look at the link and think, as I've said those previous times, of what we threw away.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Consider this my own personal observance

In the face of the bigots, boobs, buffoons, and baboons who persist in befouling the memory of the innocents killed on 9/11 by trying to turn it into a casus belli against all Muslims, I offer my own personal observance of the date. It consists of a couple of things I wrote about the event at the time. I think they have held up well.

The first is an email, dated September 13, 2001, in response to an online friend asking how I was feeling in the wake of the attacks. The part in brackets is from the friend.
[ How are you doing? ]

I’m hanging in there. Stressed and sad like most, I expect - and fearful of what happens next, wondering what’s going to be the next loop in the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation, a cycle in which everyone (including us) views themselves as the wronged innocents. And, as the reports of attacks on, harassment of, and threats against Arabs and Muslims in the US begin to come in, as people equate Arab with Muslim and Muslim with fanatic (much as if they equated American with Christian and Christian with the KKK) and as cries of, in one form or another, “kill them all” start to rise, reminded of the dictum that those who deal in vengeance tend to become that which they say they oppose.

“We will never be the same” is an instant cliche. And it’s certainly true - the question for us as a people now is what the change will be. I’ve been thinking of the last verse of “There But For Fortune” by Phil Ochs:

Show me the country/Where the bombs had to fall./Show me the ruins/Of the buildings once so tall,/And I’ll show you a young land/With so many reasons why/There but for fortune may go you or I.”

We have indeed been fortunate, and still are. A good question now is when faced with misfortune (not in the sense of bad luck but of bad events) will we as a people act as mature adults who will think about what we do and what it will accomplish or as spoiled brats flailing wildly at any convenient target within reach?

The magnitude of the event remains a little hard to grasp, perhaps (perhaps) more so for those of us who grew up in or around NYC, for who the twin towers were a natural part of the skyline. I’ve been told that the closer people are to NYC, the more the shock hasn’t worn off and the further away, the more anger there is. If there’s a silver lining at all, maybe it’s that the magnitude of the tragedy will keep us focused on the task of rescue and rebuilding long enough for the unreasoning anger to dissipate at least a little.
The second is another email reply to another friend on the same day.
[ Such sad news. Hope no-one close to you is caught up in this. ]

No, no one I know personally. But there’s always more of an impact when it’s something you know, something you can picture. I remember when the World Trade Center was built. Now I’ll remember when - and how - it came down.

Apparently, the delay between the first and second hits enabled a good portion of the second tower to be evacuated. Nonetheless, the loss of life will be huge; I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately reached 5 figures.

Now what happens? I’m afraid of what this could mean to the future. Already there have been incidents of violence and threats against Arabs (who are ALL Muslims, of course, as we all know) and mosques (because ALL Muslims are rabid extremists, of course, as we all know). Even someone I know online who would usually be considered rather liberal said she has “no problem with that” when I expressed a worry about “anti-Muslim xenophobia” because “I never met a nice Arab who wasn’t a Jew-hating racist at heart,” using the attack to justify her own concealed bigotry.

Meanwhile, the White House is promising an “extended military campaign.” We may be in for hard times, times which will not include asking any questions about why it happened that don’t involve “security lapses.” Even wondering about motivations beyond “unreasoning hatred” and being “uncivilized” simply won’t be allowed and risking such a thought is liable to get you branded an apologist for terrorists.

We’re headed, I expect, for more cycles of retaliation and counter-retaliation, everyone insisting their enemies are subhuman devils and they themselves are the offended innocents. It’s gonna get worse.
This is the big one; it's an unpublished op-ed piece dated October 2.
In the wake of September 11, a blunt truth: Barring divine intervention, and I for one do not count on that, we will never “rid the world of terrorism.” As long as there are people there will be those, both individuals and governments, prepared to commit the most venal cruelties against innocents to gain political ends. What we can hope to do is control terrorism, limit it, minimize it.

But if the history of the Middle East over the last 30 years proves nothing else, it proves beyond question that neither terrorism nor “counter”-terrorism, neither retaliation nor counter-retaliation nor counter-counter-retaliation will stop the circle of death - particularly not so long as those on each side insist on seeing themselves at the wronged innocents only defending themselves against unreasoning violence or oppression or exploitation (or all three) while viewing their adversaries as evil brutes fully aware of their own brutality. Another cycle of mayhem is simply not an answer.

If we want to limit, to minimize, terrorism, we have to understand the roots of it, understand what produces it, understand what moves people to embrace such desperation-driven fanaticism. And that in turn requires seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, which is where most of the mainstream commentaries attempting to answer the question “Why do they hate us?” have failed. The authors have projected themselves into the Muslim world and tried to think of what they might resent about the West in general or the US in particular. That is, they have changed their imagined location but not their eyes, still seeing the world through the filter of their own perceptions and desires. So they wind up producing answers like “They hate us because we’re rich” or “we’re modern” or “we support Israel.” Such answers are so removed from context that even to the extent they’re right, they’re useless, the more so because they add up to the unintentionally-revealing “They’re backward, jealous, anti-Semites who hate us because we’re better than they are.”

So for a moment, just for a moment, try to see the world through the eyes of an average person on the ground in the Middle East. This is how the world might look to you:

For centuries the West has looked down on you, regarding you, your culture, and, if non-Christian, your religion as inferior. (There is a reason bin Laden keeps referring to American “crusaders.”) They think of you as “ragheads” or “towelheads.”

Every time a strong Arab leader rises and tries to become independent of the West, they get slapped down. The only regimes that survive are those too weak or too corrupt to threaten Western interests. (One such “threatening” government was that of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, who was overthrown in a CIA-engineered coup in 1953 after he attempted to nationalize oil reserves. The result was the 26-year reign of the Shah, whose army was practically stamped “Made in the USA.”) Yes, you resent the West’s wealth but it’s not so much that they’re rich and you’re poor, it’s that they’re rich because you’re poor, that their wealth is built on exploitation and economic domination.

In just the past 20-plus years, you’ve seen the US pick a fight with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra, bomb Tripoli, openly try to kill Moammar Khadaffi, bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan on the spurious claim it was a chemical weapons factory (leading to thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of deaths due to inadequate supplies of medicines), stand by along with the rest of the West while Muslims were slaughtered in Bosnia (stepping in only when European interests were threatened), shell Beirut, shoot down a civilian Iranian airliner, and fire cruise missiles into Afghanistan.

Then there’s Iraq, it’s infrastructure systematically destroyed in a war which it seems to you had nothing to do with the West except to humiliate another strong Arab leader. In the runup to that war you saw foreign troops stationed near the holy sites of Islam at the insistence of the US despite Saudi Arabia’s reluctance and warnings that doing so would be deeply offensive to conservative Muslims - which it was. (One thus offended being Osama bin Laden.)

For 10 years you have seen the bombing of Iraq continue, so much so that a few months ago a Pentagon press representative referred to one such raid as “routine.” Sanctions imposed by the West have cost the lives (by UN estimate) of 500,000 Iraqi children over the last 10 years, a death toll which then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright described in 1996 as “worth it.” Worth it, yes, you say - as long as it’s Arab children who are doing the dying. [I noted later that some sources dispute that total, saying it may have been “only” 370,000.]

And you see the US justify both the bombing and the sanctions on the grounds that Iraq “defies UN resolutions” while at the same time it pours billions of dollars in economic and military aid into Israel despite the fact that for 30 years Israel has openly defied UN resolutions about Palestinians and the occupied territories. It’s not even so much that the US supports Israel, it’s that the US does it to the detriment, the denigration, the denial, of the Palestinians.

If that was your world, what would the West, what would the US, look like to you? Like a noble friend? Or like a selfish, conceited, arrogant bully which figures it can do as it damn well pleases without cost to itself? And amid all this, what is the only force that has offered you hope, offered you help, offered you a model that has defied the West, offered you self-respect? Islamic fundamentalism. Seen through such eyes, the question “Why do they hate us?” answers itself.

This doesn’t mean excusing the terrorists who brought such ruin and pain to the streets of New York on September 11. We are all responsible for what we do and their acts deserve nothing but condemnation: Understanding does not mean approving.

What it does mean is that our best targets for “attack” in this “extended campaign” are not the actual terrorists (who likely number no more than a few thousand) but the tens of thousands, the millions, among who they recruit and from who they draw their strength. Our best weapons are bread and butter, not bombs; our best tactic reconstruction, not retaliation; our best strategy justice, not jingoism. The best way to minimize terrorism is to ensure that the dispossessed have a genuine stake in the world and don’t see us as grasping bullies - and the best way not to be seen as a grasping bully is not to be one.
These last two aren't complete pieces but excerpts. The first is from a letter to The Nation dated October 16, replying to a column by Eric Alterman in which he condemned some unnamed folks for their reactions to 9/11, saying they should be “rejected for reasons of honor and pragmatism.”
In any political dispute, it is a dreadful tactical mistake - one of which the left has been too often guilty - to let your opponents define the terms of debate. By decrying “the refusal to draw [a] line” between “principled dissent” and an ill-defined “‘Hate America’ left” Alterman effectively acknowledges that questions about our patriotism - however we individually define the word - are proper ones and thus repeats this same blunder. His proposed course of action does not defuse the right’s attack, it legitimizes it.

If “patriotism requires no apologies,” neither should it require conscious demonstration. Instead of trying to prove we are part of “responsible debate” by slicing others out of that range, we should simply assume that we are and act on that basis. I’ve long maintained that the left in this country has been at its strongest and most influential when we have spoken the truth as we understand it without giving a flying damn if anyone was offended or not. Our task must be to present ourselves and what we believe, clearly, strongly, unreservedly, and unashamedly. Time and energy wasted defensively declaring what we don’t believe are just that - and we’ve little enough of either to start with.
Finally, an excerpt from a December 24 letter to Mother Jones. Todd Gitlin, still living off his radical credentials from the '60s, had written a piece blasting what he called the "blame America first" crowd, the single requirement for membership seemingly being not sharing his resurgent sense of flag-waving patriotism.
As deeply as I mourn the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, as much as I admire the dedication of the firefighters and rescue workers, the EMTs and RNs, who rushed to get to the place everyone else rushed to get away from, as hard a wrench as I felt the first time I saw the post-attack profile of New York (with sky where the twin towers should’ve been), I still insist that the question for us as Americans is not, cannot be, what Osama bin Laden could have or should now think or do differently, but what we could have or should now think or do differently. The clock of history did not start on September 11 and refusing to face our own complicity in creating and maintaining the conditions of desperation-driven fanaticism in which such as al-Qaeda can take root and grow (and continue to recruit) is the surest way we as a nation can guarantee a continuation of terrorism directed against us.
I have to admit to finding some bitter amusement in the fact that both Alterman and Gitlin, like a lot of those who supported the Iraq war early on only to feel embarrassed by that later, seem never to mention or even acknowledge those initial reactions. Down the memory hole.

Footnote: For another perspective on patriotism, try this.
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