Monday, May 28, 2007

Again with the head scratching

I'm unceasingly amazed at the ability of moderate Democrats to believe that any day now, any moment now, sanity is going to penetrate the dark, dank chambers of the conservative mind.

Two weeks ago it was the statement by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that if the Iraqi parliament said it wanted US forces to leave, "we'll be glad to comply." That was taken, even by some lefty blogs, as proof that GOPper support for Bush was collapsing and soon they'd be voting against the war in Congress.

As I pointed out at the time, what McConnell really offered in that interview was the same old bullshit talking points, just with the addition of the recent twist of blaming the Iraqis for any problems.

Still, the faith holds true: Now, Steve Benen at TalkingPointsMemo and Eric Kleefeld at the related TPMCafe have gotten excited by Senator Jeff Sessions' remark that
[b]y September, when General Petraeus is to make a report, I think most of the people in Congress believe, unless something extraordinary occurs, that we should be on a move to draw that surge number down.
He was, he said, prepared to look at bipartisan solutions.

Okay. In September, he could be prepared to look at bipartisan moves to draw down the surge. In other words, in something over three months from now he'll be willing to think about going back to where we were the end of last year.

And this is a major breakthrough exactly how?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Quiz time

A few days ago, a guy named Dale Franks had some "Questions for Our Liberal Friends" about Iraq addressed to "people like Oliver Willis." While some (such as Atrios) greeted the questions with "a contemptuous snort," Willis (who, I note, I stopped reading quite some time ago) tried to treat them respectfully. So I figured, why not get in on the fun and offer my own reactions. The questions and my answers follow; the questions have been edited slightly for space but their meaning is unchanged and none have been omitted.

- I have questions to which I'm curious to hear the answers. I'm not asking in a snarky way. I'm honestly interested.

No, you're not, you're posing what you imagine to be a bunch of "gotcha"s to advance an ideological position. At least be honest about it. Nonetheless, I'll take your gotchas on - primarily because showing there is no cha to be got will itself be useful.

- Let's dispense with silly arguments about whether we should've gone into Iraq in the first place. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. We are there. What do we do now?

Right off the top we can see where this is going. The roots of the war, the conduct of the war, all of that is off the table. Actual, existing right-wing screw-ups must not be mentioned, only hypothetical future left-wing screw-ups can be discussed. This is about serious consideration of Iraq? How do you propose to discuss where we should go from here without any consideration of how we got where we are? In fact, you don't; you hope rather to be like a prosecutor whose witnesses are never cross-examined. That may be useful on a partisan political level, but it's idiotic on a practical one, an example of a blatant refusal to learn from, even to admit the existence of, your mistakes. (Flashback to Shrub being stumped by the question about what mistakes he might have made.)

Still, I think we now understand the ground rules, so we'll plunge ahead.

- What do you think the result of an American withdrawal would be?

Since the rest of the questions are really expansions on this one, I'll leave it aside in favor of answering the rest except to note that it's unnecessary to ask the companion question of what the effect of continuing present policy would be since we've seen its results so far: chaos, civil war, hundreds of thousands dead and wounded - oops, wait, sorry, we're not allowed to talk about right-wing fiascos. Reality is out of bounds.

- Do you reject the "you broke it, you bought it" idea?

Yes. Period.

Okay, not period. Maybe semicolon. First, in the real world a better formulation would be "you broke it, you fix it." But "fixing" what you "broke" by definition can't involve breaking more stuff. Last December, in response to something I posted about the Iraq Study Group, I got this, very much along the same lines as your question:
When my kid messes up I don’t tell him “Oh, just give up and walk away.” I tell him “Go back and fix what you broke and let’s get it right.”
To which I replied:
I’m prepared to assume that “fixing it” does not involve first stomping on the broken pieces and smashing several more items into the same pile. But that is exactly what “fixing” Iraq with more troops and more combat means - except that in that case, the broken pieces are actually human lives which can and have been by the hundreds of thousands “broken” quite literally beyond repair.

And if we’re going to throw silly analogies around, I’d remind you of the old line about when you’re stuck in a hole you’ve dug, the first thing to do is to stop digging.
We have a moral responsibility to undertake a massive reconstruction and humanitarian relief effort in Iraq - but that can't be accomplished in the middle of a war. The best way to meet that responsibility is first to stop digging, that is, stop making things worse - that is, get out militarily. Then, be prepared to go back in, in civilian mode, as soon as the opportunity arises.

- I'm not opposed to punitive expeditions when they appear necessary, but punitive expeditions have never been a liberal "thing".

Suggesting that withdrawing from Iraq would turn the whole mess into a mere "punitive expedition" is absurd. Interestingly, though, the bombing Clinton inflicted on Iraq in 1998 much better fits the description of a "punitive expedition," which you say is not a "liberal 'thing.'" I'll remember that the next time some idiot right-winger wants to hang "even the liberal Clinton" around my neck for some asinine reason.

- Do you think the Iraqis will find a way to cobble their state together?

Actually, yes I do although I don't think it will be easy or pretty. I do know it will be much more likely once the Shias realize they can no longer count on US forces to prop up a Shia-dominated government and they'll have to make real compromises. I do, however, think it will be a federalist rather than a centralized system; any attempt to enforce a dominant central government would probably lead to Kurdish secession.

- Do you think it will descend into a civil bloodbath?

A deceptive and misleading question. It is already a civil bloodbath. The insistence of the government, the media, and especially the war-loving wingnuts on turning a blind eye to that fact is appalling.

So the real question should be if I think Iraq will descend into a worse bloodbath. I fear that initially it would.

- Why don't we have any responsibility to try to prevent it?

Because we can't. All we could do would be to temporarily repress it and that only by establishing a reign of brutality and terror that would make Saddam's Iraq look like Sweden. The hatreds our invasion unleashed are long-standing ones which the decades of Saddam's rule obviously did not cool. Unless you are proposing turning all of Iraq into one huge US military base to be patrolled in perpetuity, the idea that we can "prevent" a civil war, especially "prevent" one that has already started, is nonsensical.

I have said this before: Our leaving will not stop the violence. But the violence will not stop until we leave.

- What if Iraq turns into a Taliban-like cesspool, and becomes a base for terrorist operation against the US?

"What if?" Is there a more tendentious way to start a question? It's a way of suggesting anything and everything without having to offer any rational foundation for it. What if your grandmother had wheels? Then she'd be a wagon.

But I'll try anyway. First, I'm not sure what a "Taliban-like cesspool" means; during the Taliban reign, Afghanistan had relative quiet and stability for the first time in some years. This is not to defend the Taliban (although the US found it quite defensible when it was a convenient tool for tying the USSR down in Afghanistan. Wait, sorry, bringing up factual history again. Sorry.) but it is to wonder exactly what is meant by "cesspool."

Assuming the question is actually supposed to be about the supposed risk of Iraq becoming a terrorist "base," the chances are actually quite slim and the comparison to Afghanistan is feeble at best. First, al-Qaeda had been in Afghanistan, fighting the Soviets alongside the mujahadeen, for some time. It was well established there and, more importantly, well-connected to the government that emerged when the Soviets withdrew. Neither is true in Iraq.

Further, al-Qaeda is Sunni. Iraq is majority Shi'ite. Strong links to the government are, to put it politely, unlikely.

Third, even according to the US military, the number of so-called "foreign fighters" in Iraq is a relatively small portion of the resistance. And there are clear indications that they are not popular among Iraqis, who tolerate them only because they are opponents of the US occupation. Rather than creating a "base" for terrorists, our withdrawal from Iraq is more likely to see the Iraqis, who have seen enough of outsiders, turn on those other outsiders and say "Thanks for the help, but it's time for you to go. Now."

Fourth, there is another important point here: the implied equation between "terrorist" and "Islamic fundamentalist terrorist," as if there is no other kind. Well, strictly for and limited to the purposes of this discussion, I will stipulate that that is what we both mean by the term. But we must never forget that Eric Rudolph was not an Islamic fundamentalist. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were not Islamic fundamentalists. William Krar was not an Islamic fundamentalist. The Alabama militiamen are not Islamic fundamentalists. This list goes on.

- Do you think that the Iraqis can build a stable, functioning democratic state? If not, why? Are they not suited for democracy? If so, what are their deficiencies?

There are a great many assumptions in this question revolving around what constitutes a "functioning democratic state." I strongly suspect you mean one that looks a lot like us. But what about, say, Iran? We tend to - like to - forget that Iran has a functioning parliament which includes members of opposition parties who were freely elected. (The problem the opposition has is having candidates well-known enough to have a good chance of winning who can obtain approval to run from a board - one dominated by the mullahs - that screens them.) If Iraq came out looking like that, would that be a "functioning democratic state?" Or what about Afghanistan, which has a constitution containing a provision that says that no law can contradict Sharia law? Is that a "functioning democratic state?"

So given that the term is open to interpretation and variation, can they "build a stable, functioning democratic state" of some form or another? Yes. Will they? I have no clue. A lot of your questions seem to demand guarantees of things unknowable, a demand which you are not willing to apply to yourself. I do know that for most nations throughout history, achieving a "stable, functioning democratic state" has been the result of a struggle over time, a struggle that rarely if ever proceeds smoothly or in a straight line. And I know it is almost never successfully imposed from the outside. Yes, there have been examples - think Japan after World War II - but they are better regarded as the exceptions that prove the rule. And in the case of Japan, there was a pre-existing government which after its military defeat cooperated in maintaining order and in the creation of a new government, conditions which do not apply to Iraq.

As for the Iraqi deficiencies in this area? Just one: inexperience.

- Will it embolden terrorists?

A few individuals, I expect it will. Overall, no. Why should it? Seriously. That's the question that never gets asked. "Embolden," a word that almost owes its existence to current right-wing paranoia, is always assumed; it's always, as a friend of mine used to say, "proved by blatant assertion." Any terrorist group or leader or organizer or whatever, looking at a US withdrawal from Iraq, would reasonably conclude "Okay, in the short run this can look like a good thing. In the longer run, it's bad." For a couple of reasons why, see the following answers.

- Will our withdrawal make it more or less likely that terrorists will marshal forces for another 9/11 style attack? Why?

It'll make no difference one way or the other. Again, why should it? What is it with this nutso notion that having 150,000 troops in Iraq somehow makes it physically impossible for any terrorist group to make any plans to do anything anywhere else? How can you even get a grip on such a completely moronic concept?

- Will a withdrawal from Iraq help or hinder the Global War on Terror?

To the extent that the phrase War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.) has a discernible meaning, withdrawal will help. Our invasion of Iraq was a positive boon to every terrorist group in the entire region and perhaps beyond. It has been terrorism's recruiting poster. And now it emerges that it has turned into a cash cow for a resurgent al-Qaeda. Our military presence in Iraq is actively harming efforts to combat actual terrorism.

- Do we need to make an effort at all, other than some Special Ops stuff here and there, and intelligence, prevention, and law enforcement operations?

You make it sound like "some Special Ops stuff ... intelligence, prevention, and law enforcement operations" are not really trying. But contrary to the Jack Bauer fantasies of the right, the patient, steady work of intelligence and investigation has done and will do more to prevent and limit actual terrorism than all your bombing sorties combined. Ultimately, terrorism is a law enforcement issue. (Especially true if we go to a rational definition of "terrorist" rather than the artificially limited one used here.) And the traditional methods of law enforcement - that is, minus the secret prisons, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (my new favorite euphemism), the expanded Traitor Act powers to invade privacy, the invasive, intrusive, rapidly-expanding databases, and so on - are the best weapons we have.

- What would be the US's military role after a withdrawal from Iraq?

In Iraq? None, except potentially for logistical support for future reconstruction and relief. Here? Pretty much what it was (or rather should have been) before the invasion: defense.

- Does the US military have much of a role beyond repelling an invasion?

Not really, no. Historically, it's role has been more to push US power outward and to protect US economic interests abroad than to "defend freedom." Remember General Smedley Butler's statement that
[w]ar is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
He also said
I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. ... And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. ...

Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
Yes, there have been arguable exceptions to that rule. (You did notice I used the modifier more rather than solely in describing the military's role over our history, yes?) But not many. And now that you've brought it up, why don't we start thinking about alternative defense?

- Are we doomed to fail at achieving anything worthwhile in Iraq?


- Why? Is it something organic to Iraq, or simply a problem with the current president? Would another administration be able to achieve some reasonable level of peace and stability?

Because it's too late and has been all along. Because - you know, the hell with this "shoulda, woulda, coulda" being off the table crap and especially the hell with the bilge that it's a "silly" argument - because we blew it as soon as we invaded, an invasion I'm willing to bet you endorsed, which is why you want to avoid talking about it. Because we "broke it" beyond our ability to fix. Because we are invaders and occupiers and seen as such and will continue to be seen as such. Because our presence there has not contained civil violence, it has unleashed it. Because our presence there does not prevent conflict, it provokes it. Because our presence there does not reduce terrorism, it generates it - and, if terrorism can be defined as inflicting violence on innocent civilians in the pursuit of a political agenda, our presence there often enough is terrorism.

Is it a problem with this president? Not solely: We must not forget Madeline Albright's infamous comment that the deaths of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children as the result of sanctions was "worth it" to oppose Saddam. But this administration, with its ignorance, its monomaniacal obsession with Saddam Hussein, its power lust, its stubbornness, deceit, and hubris, its stupidity, has increased and continues to increase the problems geometrically.

Would a new president be able to change that? Only by getting out. It's not Bush that's at fault, it's the policies. Any administration pursuing those same policies would have wound up at the same place. Of course, it's hard to imagine any other administration doing so.

- One final question: What if you're wrong? Keep in mind that you are essentially betting the future of left-liberalism's credibility on national security on the outcome of that policy.

You sound like a lawyer for Microsoft trying to instill FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). Don't actually say there will be some dire consequence of a given course of action, of straying from the "stay the course," just suggest the possibility and let the other side's imagination do the rest.

Of course, like I've already said, there are no absolute guarantees on the future - something your side learned with its slam-dunk cakewalk. Or, rather, would have learned if you weren't so determined to avoid doing so. ("Silly argument" and "shoulda, woulda, coulda" indeed.) But your "bet" is one I'm quite willing to make with but one stipulation: By even laying it out you are admitting that by your own argument, right-conservatism's credibility on national security is already busted, because it has been wrong, wrong, and wrong again, with tragic consequences for thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of Iraqis, as well as squandering and continuing to squander hundreds of billions of dollars, actually advancing the interests of international terrorism, undermining our moral authority around the world, and creating a moral debt for reconstruction in Iraq that will take decades to repay.

- So, other than sunny optimism, what assurances can you give that the consequences of quick pullout from Iraq will be relatively painless?

You are in no position to accuse anyone of "sunny optimism" and the reference just shows how little those of your ilk actually listen to what's being said to them by their political opposites. Who the hell said anything about "relatively painless?" Because of practices and policies pursued by your side of the argument, there are, as has been widely said from this side, no good choices for Iraq. There are only less bad choices. The least bad choice is to get out as quickly as possible, aware of the pain that will follow, aware of our own role in creating that pain, and standing ready to do what we can to heal the wounds as soon as such healing is actually possible.

Those are all the questions asked, those are my answers. Now to wrap up, some questions for my conservative friends.

- What do you think the consequences of staying in Iraq will be? How many do you think will die in the next month, the next year, the next five years?

- Considering that one classic definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result, how can you argue that "staying the course" - and for all the talk about "new directions" and "surges" and all the rest, they're just minor variations on the same theme - is a rational plan?

- In fact, given the spectacular record of failure marked up by the right wing and the neocons since before the war began, how can you expect any argument, any prediction, any claim, any rant about "they're a threat to your children" to be taken seriously?

- Since you get to ask "what if" questions, so do I. What if Iraqis don't want to have a "stable, functioning democratic state" of a form of which you'd approve? Then what? I know it's a nice, safe, notion, one that makes us feel comfortably superior, to imagine everyone in the world wants to be at least more or less just like us - but what if that's not true? What if their notion of "freedom" does not encompass "democracy" as we would understand the term? What should we do then?

- Finally, other than sunny optimism, what assurances can you give that not pulling out of Iraq quickly will not result simply and solely in more pain, more suffering, more destruction, more loss of life and resources and moral standing and money and security, both here and there?

The bottom line is that despite your understandable desire to avoid "shoulda, woulda, coulda" discussions, there is an established record here, one more than clear enough, more than long enough, to shift the burden of proof: It is not up to us to justify pulling out of Iraq. It is up to you to justify staying, a justification that cannot rely on tales of the coming of the boogeyman, tales which did not have any rational relation to the invasion of Iraq and do not have any rational relation to continuing the carnage going on there now. That is a burden of proof you have not, and I am confident that before an impartial jury you could not, meet.


Saturday, May 26, 2007

A few additional bits...

...about The Vote.

1) It turns out that only $1.6 billion in the supplemental bill is even subject to the non-existent, soon-to-be-waived "benchmarks." (Thanks to Eric Kleefeld at TPMCafe for the link.)

2) On "Countdown" on Friday, MSNBC analyst Craig Crawford said the Democrats got rolled by the GOPper spin about "abandoning the troops." It was of course nonsense, but the Democrats "could not [even] spin the truth," he marveled.

But that's all wrong. The Democrats didn't fail to beat the GOPper spin, they bought into it, straining to declare their utter fealty to and adoration of every single person in uniform as the very embodiment of all that is just and decent and good and brave and noble (so much for Abu Ghraib) and swearing they would never, ever, horrors no, "defund" the war, er, the troops.

Gary Trudeau expertly punctured that GOPper bs 'way back on April 1 in a strip in which a soldier muses that a cut-off of funding would require a withdrawal - so "supporting" the troops means he stays in the meat grinder while "opposing" the troops means he gets to go home. "Permission to think it through denied," he's told.

3) Rep. David Obey, despite being among the people who "negotiated" the "compromise," apparently joined the ranks of the "idiot liberals" he previously denounced and voted against the bill. In fact, 140 Democrats voted against it (along with two GOPpers) while only 86 voted for it.
“The anti-war Democrats have reached their tipping point,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a leader of the Out of Iraq caucus, [the day before the vote]. “It’s going to take Republican votes to pass it.”
And so it did.

4) This is the kicker. MSNBC reported on Friday that
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell predicted a change [in Bush's Iraq policy], and said Bush would show the way.

"I think the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall and I think the president is going to lead it," he said.
So we already know the "surge" is a bust? The "give it time to work" brigade is just blowing smoke? And there's going to be a Plan - well, I started to say Plan B but they've got to be to Plan R (With a wing attack?) by now? Wouldn't it just be the ultimate, the true ultimate, in farce if in September the "different direction" was to withdraw and this whole thing with the funding really was just so Bush could say he decided to withdraw rather than that Congress made him do it?

No, I don't actually expect that, but like a car wreck at which despite yourself you keep looking, it's so phenomenally bizarre I can't stop thinking about it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A wreck

So the vote has come, the "deal" has been made. Others have expressed their outrage, their frustration, their fury; some crudely, some eloquently, all passionately.

But I can't join them. I do feel some anger, yes, but not outrage. What I feel, rather, is disgust. Disgust and bitterness, the bitter weariness of the repeatedly jilted lover who responds to the latest plea of "I promise, honey, next time it really will be different!" by shaking their head and closing the door.

This is not to say that I didn't see this coming more than six weeks ago. (And of course I was hardly alone in that.) The hints of a "deal," laughably labeled a "compromise," involving no timetables, no commitments, no requirements, just vague "benchmarks" and "goals" that could be waived at the whim of Bush's bloodlust, had been there for some time, right there alongside the evidence that for Bush it was as much a matter of ego and "manhood" as policy.

Still, I kept some faith, kept up some hope, took some comfort in some of the moves and events, such as Rahm Emanuel's memo urging colleagues to not back down, Harry Reid's reference to the war as "lost," and the House's response to Bush's initial veto of passing a supplemental that only covered two months. But now that it's finally happened, now that the betrayal, the collapse, the craven captulation, is finally here, I just don't have the energy - I just don't feel the surprise - that generates outrage.

But disgust - of that feeling I have more than an ample supply. Disgust driven not only by the facts that both Rahm "Don't Back Down" Emanuel and Harry "The War is Lost" Reid backed down and supported spending another $100 billion and an unknown number of lives in pursuit of more loss, not only by the unconditional surrender of principle, but by the stomach-turning whining of the Dummycrat leadership that they had "no alternative" but to bow down and kiss the boot. For example, on May 24, the New York Times said that
Democrats said they did not relish the prospect of leaving Washington for a Memorial Day break - the second recess since the financing fight began - and leaving themselves vulnerable to White House attacks that they were again on vacation while the troops were wanting. That criticism seemed more politically threatening to them than the anger Democrats knew they would draw from the left by bowing to Mr. Bush.
Well, Dums, since you're shaking in your boots at the idea of being called nasty names by people to who the public is no longer listening while figuring you can ignore not only that antiwar majority but the people who goddam elected you toad-faced buffoons, here's an idea: Don't take the flipping recess! Say "We are not going to bullied into surrendering the desires and interests of the people to who we are responsible and we are especially not going to be lectured on 'responsibility' by a president who ignored warnings of 9/11, mislead the public about intelligence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, declared "mission accomplished," and has taken more vacation time than any other president in our history. We are going to stay here and we are going to support the call of the people of the United States to get us out of Iraq." And have some leading Democrat with something to say along those lines out there every single damned day.

But no, you couldn't do that. I wonder if you even thought of it.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe was quoting Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean as telling a fundraiser that the bill was actually a great achievement, even an outright win!
"We accomplished in five months what the Republicans refused to do or even try. We are holding President Bush and the Iraqi government accountable," said Dean. "He said he would never sign a bill with any accountability, and he will now have to do that."
Oh, it gets even better. Molly Ivins would have had a ball with this kind of material. Democrats were actually claiming that the bill really involves a timetable! Really! We swear! Harry Reid told MSNBC that
[w]e now have the timeline that the Republicans have set, and that’s this September. And that’s the very least, and then as I’ve indicated – the Defense authorization – we’re going to start right where we’ve left off with this bill, continuing our push to change direction in the War on Iraq.
So even though the bill calls only for pro forma reports on "requirements" that Bush can waive at will and the timetable was stripped out completely, still this is a clear case of both accountability and timetables!

And what's more, we're going to "continue our push!" The phrase "ratchet up the pressure" has probably seen more use in the last few weeks than in the previous 10 years. Because this is only the beginning! Or, in other words, "I promise, honey, next time it really will be different!"

But that brings us right back to the whining about not having any choice, a mewling whimpering whose self-pitying tears were based on the pout "we couldn't override a veto." Or, as the pundits like to put it, "they didn't have the votes." That is, the lack of a historically-rare veto-proof majority in both houses of Congress leaves the Dummycrat leadership impotent and helpless in the face of the childish petulance of an emotionally stunted president. "We had no alternative," they sob.

But of course there were alternatives. An alternative, for one, of not passing a bill. Of saying "That's is, no more, the end, finis. Use what's left from what's already been appropriated, use the contingency funds the Pentagon has, use them to withdraw the troops safely. There's more than enough available for that and you know it." Or an alternative of passing the same (or a similar) bill as before, complete with definitive timetables and benchmarks with actual teeth and telling the White House "We are not your piggy bank to be drawn on whenever you feel like it and we are under no damn obligation to do whatever you want. Here's your money. If you want it, you take it with the conditions. Or you leave it. That's the deal."

But no, that was apparently impossible because that would require, well, something vaguely akin to a backbone and those are rare in the hallowed halls of Congress. Instead, we got another chorus of "just wait until next time!"

"Next time," in this case and according to Reid, being the Defense Authorization Bill. Well, uh, excuse me, but this "don't have the votes" business is going to change exactly how between now and then? Assuming Congress does pass that bill with some provision that leads Shrub to pitch a hissy fit and veto it, are you telling us, Mr. Reid, that the unable-to-override-a-veto Congress will shrug and say "in that case, no bill?" Or will we instead get another tale of how gee whiz helpless you are and how your duty is not to the American people but to "pass[ing] something the president will sign," that is, to following not the will of the public but the whims of the president and so the provision gets dumped? Why should we believe it will be any different then than it was now?

Indeed, why should we believe it will be any different in September? In his prepared remarks before the vote, John Kerry said it well:
So the bottom line is that come September, we are probably going to be in the same position we are now, watching our kids get killed for a strategy that isn't producing real results in the only category that really matters: political progress. And what are we going to hear from this Administration? More of the same backward logic: the price of failure is so high that we must continue to pursue a strategy that is failing.
Glenn Greenwald puts it more sharply and in the wider context of the political non-debate among the self-proclaimed "serious" pundits:
[A]ll that is going to happen In September is that we are going to await with bated breath for General David Petraeus - he of infallible wisdom, judgment and honesty, and unquestionable objectivity - to descend upon Washington and reveal whether there is Real Progress being made (by him) in Iraq. ...

And, needless to say, General Petraeus will, cautiously though emphatically, declare that progress is being made, though there is much work that remains to be done. And therefore we must redouble our resolve and stay until The Job is Done. ...

[And so] it would be irresponsible and reckless (and terribly unserious) not to continue with our Great Progress, that we should leave such judgments to the Generals on the Ground, not Politicians in Washington. ...

And in September, when the great (though incomplete) progress is unveiled by General Petraeus, our pundit class will continue their canonization of The General, and thus, that there is Progress in Iraq will be the conventional wisdom which all serious and responsible people recognize....
Why are we supposed to think that argument, that received wisdom, that self-satisfied pomposity, combined with renewed cries of anyone daring to suggest otherwise is "anti-troop," will have any less sway in September than it had this time?

In fact, we shouldn't. We should rather assume that on its own Congress will take no steps to enforce a withdrawal, no steps for "benchmarks" with actual penalties attached, no steps for "goals" that can't be ignored or dismissed or simply, if that proves more convenient, lied about.

In sum, we are where we have been all along. I have said it and I say it again: What will stop this war is
tens of thousands of pissed-off Americans in the streets, over and over again, in the streets of DC, of New York, of Indianapolis, of Albuquerque, of Minot and Montpelier, Walla Walla and Wheeling, screaming "Out NOW!" Screaming it until the walls of Congress rock. Screaming it until Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have headaches. Screaming it until a withdrawal in 90 days or 120 days is the safe, "compromise" position.

Short of that, the best we can hope for - the best we can hope for - is a war like Afghanistan has become: one that grinds slowly on, month after month, year after year, and death after death. Until, finally, it can said of us, if it cannot already, that "they have made a wasteland and call it peace."
This does not mean abandoning legislative efforts. It does not mean abandoning lobbying. It does not mean you shouldn't "call your representative." It does mean we can't count on Congress to do anything that we don't force it to do, that nothing will truly change until the price of ignoring us - and in this case I mean that majority us, the "get us the hell out" majority us - is greater than the irrational, trembling fear of what omigod some White House aide might mutter to Matt Drudge. That is, Congress will act and act firmly only when it becomes clear that there is a genuine price to pay for doing otherwise, whether that price is a direct threat to their comfy positions or serious social disruption à la the notorious, demonized, but actually quite admirable '60s.

In short, do something! Then, and only then, Congress will follow along.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The numbers game

This is certainly old by blogging standards but I just came across it yesterday and I thought it was worth mentioning.

Back in the first part of February, USA Today/Gallup did a poll about American attitudes towards certain groups of people as possible presidents. The question was "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [fill in the blank], would you vote for that person?" (Scroll down at the link to find complete results.)

Now, the question is asking people to confess to some sort of bias, so it's safe to say that the "no" answers were lower in the poll than they would be in reality. Still, for every group listed, there were some who said they would refuse to vote for someone for that reason. Those percentages ranged from 4% of those polled for a Catholic candidate to 43% for a homosexual one, passing through (in increasing percentage of "no") black, Jewish, female, Hispanic, Mormon, married for the third time, and seventy-two years old along the way.

There was, however, one additional category, one case in which a majority of Americans were willing to say they would refuse to vote for a candidate based solely on that one characteristic: if he or she was an atheist.

There may be a constitutional separation of church and state, but the idea that there is a practical separation between being churched and state is a fantasy.

Footnote: With the exception of Hispanic, thrice-married, and being 72, the same basic question has been asked about these groups before, in three cases as far back as 1937. In every case but one, the percentage saying "no, I would not vote for such a person" has dropped dramatically since the question was first asked.

What was the one exception, in which the "no"s have gone up, in fact soared from 17% to 24%? Mormon. I wonder if it's because the possibility didn't really occur to people before this year.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Be afraid - be very afraid

The question is, just what is it that we should fear? And who? The opening days of Jose Padilla's trial have proved to be odd ones for the government that re-open that question.

First, it develops that the "Mujahideen Identification Form" Padilla supposedly filled out - and which provides the only evidence, at least of which we know, that connects him to training camps in Afghanistan - is less than it seems. For one thing, as the Washington Post reported on Saturday,
[t]he form is filled out with Padilla's birth date and personal information that resembles his, but it is signed in Arabic by "Abu Abdallah Al-Muhajir," not "Jose Padilla."

The form is labeled "military administration" and "top secret," but nowhere does it mention al-Qaeda.
What's more, one of the government's own witnesses, one described as "critical" to the government's case, contradicted two of the government's central assertions. Here's one:
"This piece of paper [i.e., the identification form] proves that Jose Padilla trained at one of the al-Qaeda camps," Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Frazier told jurors. "The fact that this form even exists proves that Padilla was there." ...

[But] Yahya Goba, 30, of Lackawanna, N.Y., who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, testified that he filled out a similar form before attending the al-Farooq camp run by al-Qaeda. ...

But then he testified that, after completing the form with false information as he was instructed, he was given the explicit opportunity not to proceed to the training.
That is, the "fact that the form exists" does not necessarily mean Padilla ever went to one of the camps. And if Goba was instructed to fill out the form with false information, what does that say about linking the other form to Padilla by virtue of it containing accurate information about him?

Here's the other:
Goba testified that he attended the camp not to commit terrorism but to get military training so that someday he could possibly defend Muslims under attack in Chechnya, Kosovo and Kashmir. ...

"This was not a terrorist training camp, was it?" asked Michael Caruso, one of Padilla's attorneys.

"No," Goba replied.

"It was just a military training camp?"

So according to the government's witness, it was not a "terrorist" camp and even if it can be established that Padilla went to a camp, to the extent Goba's testimony is relevant, it does not necessarily mean Padilla did so with an intent to commit terrorism.

(Sidebar: Goba, testifying in the hope of reducing his sentence, is one of the so-called Lackawanna Six, who pleaded guilty to giving material support to a terrorist group after, their lawyer says, being told they had the choice of doing that or being sent to Gitmo.)

But we are living in the Age of Bush, the age where reality is manufactured, not uncovered, so the prosecution is disputing the testimony of its own witness because it doesn't jibe with official reality.
"I think the jury is left with a false impression at this point," Frazier complained to the judge. "This was a terrorist training camp."
To that end, prosecutors wanted to introduce a video showing Osama bin Laden speaking to recruits at the camp Goba attended. But, depending on what was actually said, not only does bin Laden's mere presence at the camp not necessarily mean it was a "terrorist training camp," it establishes very little about whatever camp Padilla was at - assuming, again, he was at one. So District Judge Marcia Cooke agreed that the video would simply be prejudicial and barred it.

And one other thing: Prosecutors have tried to overcome the limits on connecting Padilla to the identification form by noting his fingerprints were found on the document. However, those prints were found on the front of the first page of the five-page form and the back of the last page - but not on the middle pages. That would appear to be more consistent with Padilla being handed the form sometime after his capture rather than having filled it out, especially since the fingerprint expert testifying for the government admitted there as no way of telling when those fingerprints were made.

All in all, the prosecution is off to a very shaky start.

This does not mean, by the way, that I regard Padilla is a wholly innocent victim of a frame-up. It does mean that I believe in innocent until proven guilty even during the War on Terror(c)(reg.)(pat.pend.). It does mean that I believe the US government's conduct in this case, both legally and morally, has been egregious and its treatment of Padilla has been grossly wrong and patently inhumane.

What do I think is the truth about Jose Padilla? Obviously I don't know and what I can offer is pure speculation. But I do sometimes get a gut feeling about something and over time I have learned to trust my instincts. They're not always right, but they're right often enough for me to pay attention to them.

I suspect Padilla did go to a camp in Afghanistan, but whether it was a "terrorist" or a "military training" camp isn't important - because I think he neither went nor returned as a committed jihadist but attended in a surge of revolutionary daydreaming. That is, he favored imagining himself part of some grand, revolutionary movement - much like the Weatherpeople (née Weathermen) in the late '60s. Yes, some of them were into bombs and similar mayhem, but a greater number of those who considered themselves Weatherpeople thought breaking some windows was a dramatic blow against The Empire and many more beyond that simply liked to envision themselves as part of some revolutionary army engaging in the urban guerrilla warfare they were convinced was going to break out any day now. I certainly met enough of the latter two categories (and a couple of the former) to testify to that division.

So did Padilla return to the US as part of some terrorist plot or with some plan in his head? I very much doubt it. Did he return expecting he would be called to jihad on behalf of some terrorist group? Possibly, although "imagining" or "picturing" is probably the more accurate verb. If he was called on to perform a terrorist act, would he have done it? Of that I'm unsure. Perhaps he would, but I suspect that in the event he was asked to take part in some plot, it would turn out to be more like the plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, which was abandoned before the FBI knew about it, or - at least as it appears so far - the Fort Dix plot, where it seems the informants did more to move it along than the accused did: In other words, a plot marked by a lot of talk, a lot of planning, a lot of scheming, a lot of casing the site, but very little of anything actually happening.

Be that as it may, time will tell, and other assorted wrapping-up clichés, for me the bottom line of the Padilla case remains what it has been: one of government misconduct, of violations of human rights and the Constitution, and of inhumane treatment justified by a never-ending "war" against an "opponent" who can be redefined as is convenient, all in pursuit of unrestrained power. Let's not forget that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Footnote to the foo - you get the idea

According to a couple of sites, the Reid-Feingold bill, which would cut off funding for the occupation as of next March 31, was going to be brought up in the Senate for a vote today. I haven't seen any news on it, but keep an eye out. It's actually not a separate bill, it's an amendment to a water resources bill.

While Reid-Feingold, if passed, would be a major step forward, it's still not a final answer. It's enthusiastic supporters note that it says in one section that
[n]o funds appropriated or otherwise made available under any provision of law may be obligated or expended to continue the deployment in Iraq of members of the United States Armed Forces after March 31, 2008.
(N.B.: The link is from Thomas and such links can be temporary as events change in Congress. If it doesn't work, that's why.)

However, those fans invariably fail to note that the very next section lays out a list of exceptions to that prohibition, which are:
(1) To conduct targeted operations, limited in duration and scope, against members of al Qaeda and other international terrorist organizations.

(2) To provide security for United States infrastructure and personnel.

(3) To train and equip Iraqi security services.
When those kinds of exceptions were originally raised in the report of the Iraq Study Group, it was noted that the result could well be tens of thousands of US troops remaining in Iraq for the indefinite future. Frankly, that's not good enough. What's needed is an absolute ban, finis.

Instead of providing free-floating loopholes unanchored in any specific limits, put an end to it - and then if some narrow exceptions become necessary, make the Executive Branch come and ask for each one and explain how big an exception and why it's necessary.

For example: "Well, we have an embassy there. It'll need a security detail." "Okay, how many?"

Or just suppose a withdrawal plan is adopted and as part of that there was some agreement to transfer some US arms to the Iraqi army as we leave. "We'll need to leave some people to train the Iraqis in their use. And they'll need security. And infrastructure, you know, housing and the like. And that infrastructure will need security. And...." "Hold on there, buckaroo. How many trainers? For how long? Why do they need security or US-military-provided housing? Why can't the host country provide that?"

You get the idea. The point is, our experience with the Bushites is that they will exploit any loophole, no matter how small. During Iran-contra, one of the secret plans in the Reagan White House was called "Operation Elephant Herd" because an loophole in a limitation on funding of the contras was "big enough to drive a herd of elephants through." That is a mistake we need do everything possible to avoid repeating. The best way to do that is to allow no loopholes and make the White House individually and very specifically justify every single exception it wants to have.

Footnote to the preceding, On The Other Hand Div.

This is old news as these things go, but I still wanted to mention it because, contrary to McConnell's blather, it's something of which I think insufficient note was taken, including on the blogs.

Last week, as the House was debating funding the Iraq occupation, a vote was taken on a proposal by the Out of Iraq caucus to require a troop withdrawal to begin within three months and to be completed six months after that. It was handily defeated, 255-171.

But wait. It got 171 votes? Really? The first time a clean bill came up, one that would require getting out of Iraq in no more than nine months, no evasions, no loopholes, no "benchmarks," just "that's it, we're outta here," got 171 votes in the House? Got 40% of the vote?

. That's every bit as good as the first "out of Vietnam" proposal did in the Senate back in 1970. That was the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, which would have required withdrawal in roughly 15 months. Remember, that vote was taken after five years of major combat and at a time when there were 334,000 US troops in Vietnam and the US death toll was pushing 50,000, including over 40,000 killed in action - and after quite literally millions of people in the US had protested the war the previous fall. (In fact, the link, which says two million protested, may well understate it: Estimates at the time ran up to seven million.)

Given all that, I find a total of 171 votes in this case not only worthy of note but actually quite encouraging, a clear sign that the widespread disillusionment among the public about the bloody chaos we have unleashed on Iraq is penetrating the halls of Congress.

Footnote to the footnote: Looking up stuff for this, I came across this article from Salon from January which lays out the lesson from Vietnam that the political danger arises not from opposition to the war but from insufficient opposition.

I don't get it

There was some excitement among various left bloggers this weekend about a statement made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer (which still sounds like some defensive signal call in football: "ok, team, it's wolf blitz-R"), McConnell said
the Iraqi government is a huge disappointment. ... I read just this week that a significant number of the Iraqi parliament want to vote to ask us to leave.

I want to assure you, Wolf, if they vote to ask us to leave, we'll be glad to comply with their request.
GOP support evaporating! Republicans running away from Bush! Or so, based on their breathless prose, some lefty blogs believed.

Not so fast.

First off, just how does this statement really mean anything? I mean, what, we're supposed to think it incredibly significant that McConnell says that if the Iraqi government tells us to get lost, we'll leave? Can you suggest a realistic - emphasize realistic - scenario in which even George Bush would try to get away with doing otherwise? This is just bluster, designed to come off like he's going to be tough with the Iraqi government. But all he's really doing is setting them up to be the fall guys when things finally do go down for the third time.
MCCONNELL: We're particularly frustrated with the Iraqi government.

So far, they've not been able do anything they promised on the political side. ... It's a growing frustration, I think, among...

BLITZER: What is the problem with the Iraqi government? Is it that they're simply too weak, the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, or they just don't want to step up to the plate?

MCCONNELL: I don't know what their problem is, but this country has made an enormous investment in giving the Iraqis a chance to have a normal government after all of these years of Saddam Hussein and his atrocities. And there's a growing sense of bipartisan frustration in the Senate over the lack of progress on the political side of the Iraqi government.
But when it came to challenging Shrub instead of the Iraqis, McConnell was suddenly a good deal more circumspect, not to say evasive. For example, when McConnell expressed support for "benchmarks," Blitzer asked how binding they would be. Would they be just goals or would there be specific consequences for specific failures to achieve certain results? This is McConnell's reply, in full:
MCCONNELL: Well, you know, the House Democrats have gone from micromanaging the war to now trying to microfund the war. Splitting up the funding. The good news is that there's a bipartisan majority in opposition to that in the Senate, including the majority leader of the Senate and the chairman, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Service Committee, Senator Levin, both of whom think that splitting up the funding is a bad idea.

The majority leader and I are working to get a quick passage into conference with the House, and a bill signed by the president of the United States before Memorial Day. It's clear that benchmarks should be and will be a part of that process.
Literally no answer at all. (And Blitzer, of course, did not pursue the point.)

Other gems:
MCCONNELL: Well, let me tell you what I think Republicans believe overwhelmingly, is that the decision to get on offense in the war on terror after 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq has protected us fully here at home. That part has been an enormous success. ...

What we have to ask ourselves is, if we give up prematurely, we go home, declare it over, will they be back here on the - in our own country? And I think the chances of that are overwhelmingly likely. ...

Well, the president knows what's going on. ... He's not in a bubble, he's not isolated. What he's trying to do is succeed. And we have to continue to ask ourselves, if we go in a different direction, what is it? What is the option? Do we want to allow Iraq to be a failed state? Do we want to embolden al Qaeda and really almost invite them to come back here again?
Funding constraints are "micromanaging" the war. Benchmarks, but nothing about enforcement. George Bush has protected us. George Bush is on top of things. George Bush wants to "succeed." If we leave Iraq "prematurely," it will "embolden" al-Qaeda, making it "overwhelmingly likely" they will "come back here again." And everything bad is all the Iraqis' fault. This all standard GOPper boilerplate straight from the White House press office. I have no clue what people were excited about.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Not quite back

Updated We're actually not quite back at things around here, so you'll have to wait a day or so before you get to be reminded more thoroughly of the fact that the oh so dramatic, "defiant" vote in the House to fund the Iraq occupation for just two months was actually an idea tossed out here over six weeks ago.

But for the moment, I couldn't resist making mention of this, from AP for Thursday:
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore is under investigation by the U.S. Treasury Department for taking ailing Sept. 11 rescue workers to Cuba for a segment in his upcoming health-care documentary "Sicko"....

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control notified Moore in a letter dated May 2 that it was conducting a civil investigation for possible violations of the U.S. trade embargo restricting travel to Cuba. ...

In February, Moore took about 10 ailing workers from the Ground Zero rescue effort in Manhattan for treatment in Cuba, said a person working with the filmmaker on the release of "Sicko." ...

After receiving the letter, Moore arranged to place a copy of the film in a "safe house" outside the country to protect it from government interference, said the person working on the release of the film.
It's ironic that this happens just as The Nation had an issue with several articles about Cuba, including some indicating a softening of attitude within the Cuban-American community. (And yes, nitpickers, the word "ironic" is used correctly here in the sense of an unexpected, expressive conjunction.)

But I have to say that what immediately popped into my head when I read about Moore was this:
William Worthy isn't worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he's not American anymore
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay

- Refrain from the Ballad of William Worthy by Phil Ochs.
The more things change....

Updated with the news that Michael Moore has responded via an open letter. Thanks to Tim at DemLeftInfoasis for the tip.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Going bye-bye for a bit

I'm going to be away for a few days. I'll be back to blogging on Tuesday, May 8. "See" you then.

Yes, I missed the anniversary

Updated The anniversary in question, of course, being the fourth for "Mission Accomplished," perhaps the greatest, purest example of hubris and chutzpah of the last several decades.

There were, as there should have been, any number of blog commentaries about the lies, incompetence, and inanities that have been the stuff of US policy in the intervening four years, but on this particular anniversary my thoughts ran in a somewhat different direction. So even though it's a day late, I'm going to express them briefly.

Last Wednesday, Senator Dick Durbin said on the floor of the Senate that at the time of the Congressional vote on the authorization to use military force against Iraq, he knew for a fact that the administration was lying to the public. Fox News carried his quote that
"[t]he information we had in the intelligence committee was not the same information being given to the American people. I couldn't believe it," Durbin said....
As one specific example, Durbin said that the infamous aluminum tubes, which the White House insisted publicly were proof that Saddam was actively developing nuclear weapons, were actually the subject of "active, heated debate" within the administration.

Durbin's remarks were almost entirely ignored by news media. Keith Olbermann covered it (and was the source of the video clip linked above) but beyond that source and, interestingly enough, the story on Fox News and another in the Washington Times, there was almost complete silence. A search on the terms "durbin intelligence" turned up zero links to this story on the websites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor. Searches at Yahoo! News and Google News only turned up the Fox and Washington Times stories and a few that fed off them.

(Note one: I am only counting news media here; I am not including blogs. Note two: Yes, the search terms were valid, as in every case the search did turn up an earlier article relating to global warming being a national security issue.)

So is that what I was thinking about, about the virtual wall dropped around Durbin's bombshell? Not exactly. Rather it was this:
"I was angry about it. [But] frankly, I couldn't do much about it because, in the intelligence committee, we are sworn to secrecy. We can't walk outside the door and say the statement made yesterday by the White House is in direct contradiction to classified information that is being given to this Congress."
God dammit, why the hell not? Do you have any idea, Senator, of the depth of indecency to which you descended? The utter abyss of immorality? Do you have any sense, any notion, of the pain, the blood, the shattered bodies, the shredded limbs, the loss, the horror, the hunger, the death, the senseless, needless death you wrapped into your silence?

Why the hell couldn't you "walk outside the door" and tell the people, tell the world, that the White House was populated by a cabal of power-hungry liars? You knew, you knew, you knew that the country, your country, was being lied into a war. A war, Senator, not some pet pork barrel project of some bureau in the Executive Branch. A war.

But you kept silent. You kept your mouth shut. Because propriety, because protection of your privileged position, was more important than truth. More important than justice. More important than decency. More important than human lives.

You had a chance, Senator, a chance to do more than cast what you had to know in the circumstances, including the circumstances of your contemptible silence, would be little more than a protest vote. You had a chance to speak the truth, a truth that might have - yes, I say might have rather than would have but that brings no consolation because it still might have - prevented the whole, sorry, disgraceful, inhumane crime that we have with your complicity committed.

Yes, you might have been one man, but sometimes one man, one man fed up with the lies, is all it takes. The fact is, Senator, you had the chance to speak the truth. And you failed.

No, that's not right. You didn't fail. You did worse: You refused. And while I'm aware that you neither know nor care what I think, I will still say that forgiveness for that refusal is, at least for now, beyond my reach.

Updated at the urging of my wife to note that Durbin was not alone in his silence because all the other members of the Intelligence Committee knew that same things he did. That is true and they share the guilt for their silence. But my anger remains primarily aimed at Durbin because he's the one, as I said in comments, that admitted it; he's the one, that is, who was truly aware of what he was doing and what his silence endorsed - and he did it anyway.

Just wondering

The Guardian (UK) reported on Saturday that the European Union
would not lift a boycott of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government, despite warnings from aid organisations that the structure of a future Palestinian state is being severely eroded.
Despite an international boycott lead by the EU and the US, the total amount of aid getting into Palestine has actually increased - but that is largely because of the need for humanitarian relief is soaring.
Nearly 60% of the population live on less than £1 [$2] a day and a third do not have enough food. The economy shrank by 5% to 10% last year, according to the IMF. ...

"We are witnessing the slow, steady collapse of the public sector infrastructure and a steady loss of human and social capital. The damage done by the sanctions will take years to repair," said Elizabeth Sime, country director of Care International.
And what was the reason given for this apparent determination to destroy Palestine as a functioning society with a functioning governent?
"There is no change as long as you have in the government a party that refuses to leave its armed wing and armed action," Louis Michel, the EU aid commissioner, said yesterday. "We cannot deal with people who have an armed wing. It would be a very dangerous precedent."
Uh-huh. Just out of curiosity, have any of these people ever heard of Sinn Fein?

A passing noted in passing

Tom Poston has died at the age of 85.

While I expect for many he's best known as George Utley, the handyman at Bob Newhart's Vermont inn in "Newhart," I'm old enough to recall him as a "man on the street" (along with Louis Nye and Don Knotts) on the old Steve Allen show, his broad grin fading to panicked, wide-eyed desperation as he realized he couldn't remember his name.

By all accounts of which I'm aware, a gentle soul and one whose comedy didn't poke fun at anyone but himself.

Turkish update

An update to the piece about Turkey contained in this post from Saturday.

The secularists succeeded in convincing the nation's highest court to annual the parliamentary vote that had favored Abdullah Gul. The "technicality" mentioned in the earlier post was the claim that the constitution requires 2/3 of the parliament be present to have a quorum. Because opponents boycotted the session, that threshold was not reached. The AK Party insisted a simple majority was sufficient, but the court sided with the opponents.

The BBC correspondent there said that
the court is officially independent but had been under immense pressure to reach precisely the verdict it did.
Such pressure included the statement from the military brass that
the Turkish Armed Forces are a party in those arguments [about the future of the country], and absolute defender of secularism. ... It will display its attitude and action openly and clearly whenever it is necessary.
Some took that to mean that a coup was being threatened should Gul be elected, giving the AK Party, with its Islamist roots, dominance over much of the government. Others, it appears, took it somewhat less ominously and regarded it as a threat of action only if a Gul government moved away from the legal secularism that has marked modern Turkey. In either event, it set up a rather dark backdrop against which events will play out.

However, that was not the only source of pressure, as a rally in support of secularism drew over 700,000 people to Istanbul on Sunday, just two weeks after a similar event drew some 300,000. Meanwhile, business leaders called on the court to annul the vote.

Now that the court has ruled, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for early elections for parliament. They could be held as early as June 24 rather than, as now scheduled, in November. He also called for a constitutional amendment that would change the president from someone chosen by the parliament to one seven-year term to one chosen by popular election to up to two five-year terms, with expanded powers. Stay tuned.

Interestingly, while the AK Party dominates parliament, it does not dominate the electorate. When It came to power in 2002 it got 66% of the seats in Parliament - but it got just 34% of the vote.

Footnote: When I said in my earlier post that Gul was suspected of Islamist sympathies because his wife wears the traditional headscarf, I recognized the symbolism involved but I didn't appreciate the intensity of the feelings surrounding it. Not only would she be the first First Lady to wear a headscarf, but the roots of secularism in modern Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, are so strong that wearing such a scarf in government offices and schools is illegal.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Privacy notes

Another collection of items over the past few weeks, this one relating to privacy concerns. As is often the case, it's not necessarily any individual item that really matters - although they are bad enough on their own - but the pattern they collectively demonstrate.

March 30 - In a regulatory filing, TJX Cos., parent company of nearly 2,500 discount stores including T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, revealed gross security holes in their handling of customer data, holes that lead to the personal information of at least 45.7 million credit and debit card holders being compromised.

Those holes included failure to delete customer data promptly and failure to adequately protect encryption methods.
"It's not clear when information was deleted, it's not clear who had access to what, and it's not clear whether the data kept in all these files was encrypted, so it's very hard to know how big this was," said Deepak Taneja, chief executive of Aveksa, a Waltham, Mass.-based firm that advises companies on information security.
Experts say such failures are common. The data theft has been tied to a gift card scam in Florida involving fraudulently obtaining $1 million in electronics and jewelry.

April 2 - HealthDay News reported that
urine-based drug tests have a lot of room for error and may not be useful in schools and other venues, a U.S. study says.
Researchers from the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children's Hospital in Boston reviewed 710 random urine drug test from 110 patients aged 13 to 21. Of the 217 positive results, a shockingly high 21% were attributable to legitmate prescription or OTC meds - that is, more than one out of every five positive results was wrong.
Given the high potential for misinterpretation, there is no justification for widespread use of random drug testing for adolescents, the researchers concluded. ...

"Drug testing should be reserved for patients with a clinical indication for this procedure, and when drug testing is indicated, the best available procedures should be used," [study author Dr. Sharon] Levy said.
Pressure for random testing of teens both in schools and the home is paired with pressure for, and the increasing occurence, of, such testing in the workplace. The researchers, as is normal practice, limited their judgment to adolescents because those were the people studied - but it can fairly be asked if in light of these results there is any "justification for widespread use of randon drug testing" for anyone at all.

April 4 - Schools in Taunton, Massachusetts plan on becoming the first in the state
to have students pay for lunch by scanning their fingerprints, a plan that is triggering an uproar among parents and ACLU officials worried about privacy and possible identity theft.
The plan was going to be mandatory but because of the strong opposition, it's voluntary.
Still, some parents are concerned that the fingerprints their children register with the school district could be stolen, misplaced, or used for a form of fraud that hasn't even been invented.

They note that supermarkets and retail stores have had customer information compromised, and argue that there are no state guidelines for schools using the technology. The parents also say they are skeptical that the 8,100-student Taunton school system can keep their children's information secure.
In a letter to the school superintendent, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts objected to teaching students to be casually fingerprinted. In a later interview, she called it "Orwellian."

School officials, on the other hand, played the same card that always gets played: the "it's for your benefit!" argument. They said
the new system will speed the cafeteria line, possibly let parents monitor what children eat, and lift the stigma from poor students who receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Okay - in addition to taking note of the creepy "everything you do is being watched" overtones, I have another question, not so much about this attack on privacy but related to it: Just how does treating food assistance programs as something so shameful that participation in them is something that has to be hidden, "lifting the stigma?"

April 17 - The crime laboratory of the Massachusetts State Police is considering changing its rules on DNA database searches to allow for reports of partial matches.

Right now, DNA recovered from a crime scene is sent to the lab, which looks for a match among its database of DNA samples taken from convicted felons. If there's a match, investigators are informed. If there's not, they're not.

The change being considered would allow for investigators to be told about a "close match," one which could indicate that a suspect is a close relative of someone in the database. The problem is, such a practice would not only invade the privacy of, and cast suspicion on, innocent people who happened to be related to convicted felons, it would also inevitably wind up pointing fingers of suspicion at people unrelated to the person in the database but who just happened to have a DNA profile similar in the regions examined.

On a sidebar, in January the database administrator was found to have violated the ban on so-called familial searches. He was fired Friday. Just like in the Bush administration, when officials are found to be violating policies or laws and invading privacy, the response it to make what they did legitimate.

April 25 - At a debate in New York City about privacy rights, Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, estimated that there are at least 10,000 cameras around the city conducting surveillance of passersby. Most of those are run by private businesses.

Siegel said such cameras should be
registered with a government agency and people on the street should be informed that they being filmed. ...

He suggested that it be made a criminal offense to abuse surveillance camera footage.
On the other side, Heather MacDonald of the conservative Manhattan Institute, dismissed concerns as people "amusing themselves with Big Brother fantasies" while fantasizing the cameras deter criminals and terrorists. She insited it wasn't an issue because "there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces."

That's an interesting argument because the "no reasonable expectation of privacy" garbage has been used to justify all sorts of intrusions of, and limitations on, exactly that reasonable expectation, from saying police could search your garbage with no need for a warrant to arguing passengers in a car could be searched, again without a warrant or an arrest, because since the car is not their "possession" they have no basis to expect to be "secure" in it. I only wonder how long it will be before someone declares that you had no "reasonable expectation of privacy" in your own home because a shade was up. Increasingly, our "expectation of privacy" is being limited only to those areas our most intrusive technologies cannot reach - and is shrinking as the latter expands.

April 27 - Just this week, a White House task force lead by the FTC and the DOJ released a plan to fight the increasing levels of identity theft, identity theft made increasingly possible by the increasing amount of what many of us naively believe to be personal information increasingly gathered and increasingly shared by an increasing number of public agencies and, more importantly, un- (or barely-) regulated private companies.

Certainly some action is needed.
In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has recorded approximately 250,000 complaints of identity-theft fraud annually. A survey study by the data-analysis group Javelin Strategy and Research estimated total adult victims in the United States at nearly nine million in 2006, with the value of the fraud totaling $56.6 billion. Common violations, perpetrated by individuals as well as organized groups, range from credit-card forgery to assuming a new identity to cover up other crimes.
And of course, we're not going to see action from the Shrub team.
To privacy-rights and consumer groups, identity fraud reflects structural vulnerabilities, as technology casts sensitive records into more unknown hands. In response, groups are calling for much-tighter controls than those the White House proposes on how corporations and government agencies harvest personal information. ...

[O]verall, the [task force] report is light on explicit recommendations for new regulations on companies and agencies that handle sensitive information. Rather, it emphasizes further monitoring of the problem, such as studying how companies use social-security numbers.
Oh, of course not, we can't put restrictions on business! Not without studying the problem! So let's have a study. Then we can have a second study to check the first study, a third to examine differences between the first two, a panel to do a meta-study of the three studies, a review panel to check the meta-study panel's results, a "high level" review of the review - by which time it will be decided that the original study is outdated and a new one is required. All the while, corporate America goes its merry number-crunching, database building and swapping, way.
David Sohn, counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), ... said existing laws miss new security and privacy threats posed by the "revolution in data technology, in terms of the ability to gather, store and manipulate large quantities of data." ...

Fundamentally, privacy and consumer groups say the most effective way to combat identity theft is to minimize the amount of data available for stealing. Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), for example, support strict limits on the use of social-security numbers as an identifier.
Which is actually something I've been advocating for well, let me see, for over 20 years now. As I recall, what first got me going on this was discovering that the student ID numbers at the college where I was working were their Social Security numbers - and I couldn't understand why they were in effect being required to reveal their SSNs to anyone who had occasion to see their ID. My long-standing proposal was to limit the use of your Social Security number to uses directly related to Social Security and taxation and the only people who could ask for it are people who are legally required to make reports about you to the IRS, such as your employer and your bank. And within a certain period of time after you left a job or closed an account, information linking you to your SSN would have to be destroyed.

There are additional proposals on the table such as making companies liable when harm results from misuse of the data they collect - but again of course industry opposes such measures and so does the White House. And so it goes on as the same corporations and government agencies that keep telling you to "protect yourself" and "beware of identity theft," putting the onus all on you as an individual, at the same time keep demanding from you more and more personal information of the type that makes identity theft possible.

Footnote: The article linked is too long to be easily summarized here; I urge you to read the whole thing. I also have to note, sadly, that The New Standard, the source of the article, ceased publication as of April 27. The archives will be up at least for a while. It will be missed.
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