Thursday, June 30, 2005

Time Caves Into the Courts

Most journalists will never have a court ask them to reveal an off-the-record or background source's identity. Prosecutors do try, I think, you get the information they need in other ways and, let's face it, even highly sensitive stories seldom lead to federal grand jury investigations or criminal prosecutions. Stories are more likely to play a role in private lawsuits, and a judge probably wouldn't ask a journalist to betray a source in order to help one citizen sue another.

Still, it does happen and it's happening now as Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller face jail time if they don't reveal the sources who told them the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. The judge obviously thinks that the prosecution of a Bush administration official who leaked secret information is important enough. And, of course, the leak of Plame's identity didn't serve the public good in the way that, say, the leak of the Pentagon Papers, which told the country the truth about what was going on during the Viet Nam war did, or, of course, of Deep Throat, who we now know to be FBI agent Mark Felt.

But, this still sets two dangerous precedents. First, the next Deep Throat might choke on his words, lacking the confidence that a Bob Woodward will guard the secret until they decide to reveal themselves. Second was Time Magazine's actions -- Time had decided, over Cooper's objections, that they'll hand over Cooper's notes (which, we can assume he gave to the magazine's lawyers when this whole thing began).

Cooper faced jailtime, but Time faced fines for Cooper's refusals. Is that why they're doing this? Probably. They also might be looking out for Cooper by taking the decision off of his hands, allowing him to maintain his personal integrity without facing jail time. I suspect a little of both go into Time's decision.

But journalism is a very personal profession. A source's relationship is primarily with the journalist, not the publication. Sure, working for a big publication helps, since sources know you can make better use of what they know than they can by, say, starting up a blogger account, and they figure if you work for a big place, you must be pretty good and credible. But, in the end, it comes down to Mark Felt trusting that Bob Woodward would use the information properly and keep his secret. Time hurts the profession by telling whistleblowers, especially in government, that the person you're dealing with will ultimately not make the final decision.

Time isn't technically wrong. Cooper used their names and resources to pursue the story. Time owns those notes, the same way my employer owns the work I produce for them. But, this causes a problem for anybody with a sensitive story to tell -- sure, the guy I'm talking to might be willing to go to jail to protect me, but are his bosses willing to let him?

Time is ill-served by this maneuver. Its reporters might be trustworthy, but they answer to a higher power that isn't.

Thing is, we'll never see the fallout from this. It will only be recounted in the stories that aren't told.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Face That Launched A Thousand Ships

Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction. It had nothing to do with 9-11. The CIA's own report, by agent Charles Duelfer, describes a Saddam Hussein yearing for the ghood old days, when he was America's favorite against the evil Iran...

And, yet, tonight, Bush continued his justifications. Why do they work?

Because war is best couched in myth. If I ask you all why the Greeks invaded Troy, I'd expect the answer that any good reader of "The Illiad" would give, which is that Helen, the world's most beautiful woman, was stolen from Menelaous and that an army was assembled to retrieve her. This is the myth, it is the "Face that launched a thousand ships" and it has endured, due partly the efforts of the Homeric poets but mostly because of the self-affirming grandeur of the idea. It was a war fought to protect beauty and beauty is good.

Bush's equation of "The War on Terror" with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is Homeric. Iraq might have had nothing to do with 9-11, but the invasion of Iraq would have been impossible without it. Trust me, we would not have made the sacrifices we made over "corruption in the Oil for Food Program." The facts don't add up. Iraq is a diversion from "The War on Terror" and not a part of it.

But, it seems a part of it and historians will one day write that we would never have invaded Iraq without the provocation of 9-11. This is Bush's strength -- the themes are wiping the details away. That's what's happening. It's how the history that our children will read will be written.

And, yes, this is how you lead a massive movement. I'm not sure that Bush gets that, but the people around Bush do. If you wonder how Bush gets away with what he does... this is how.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

African poverty

With the recent debt forgiveness and an upcoming, Bono-led rally, African poverty is near the top of the news. I'm happy to hear it, though I also agree with people who worry that government corruption, racial tensions and oligarchs threaten to keep the benefits of most aid and debt relief packages from the people who need them most.

That said, I think some people, as characterized critically by New York Times columnist David Brooks, get it wrong when they present "lack of natural resources, lack of technology, bad geography and poverty itself as a self-perpetuating trap." Africa doesn't lack natural resources.

That's the problem.

Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States and West African crude is of the highly prized "light, sweet" variety. The continent also has diamonds, gold and minerals in abundance. It's not that Africa has nothing to sell, it's that extractive industries suck.

Having natural resources and being able to safely and efficiently extract and export them do not go hand in hand. In Nigeria, the government enters into joint ventures with big companies that can get the oil out, and they split the profits. So, right there, they lose half the profits from their oil, in order to even get it out of the ground. The half that they keep is then prey to the various political forces in the region.

Of course, since Nigeria needs the help to get its oil to market, environmental regulations are... loose. Ever see an oil flare in the US? Even in the New Mexica and Arizona deserts, where I've seen then, the fires are kept small and on top of tall towers. I saw a flare in Nigeria. It was the size of a few football fields and on the ground, in a cleared out area of a mangrove forest, pumping out a choke-inducing fumes, and crackling like the afterburner of a jet fighter.

Ever seen an oil pipeline in the US? Me neither. I saw them in Nigeria. They ran above ground, by the sides of the roads. And who built the roads? Oil companies. Where do they go? Oil facilities. Some infrastructure!

Africa's poverty isn't about a lack of resources. It's about a lack of ability to market those resources. I'm all for debt forgiveness along with local and international non-governmental organizations bringing aid directly to the people that need it. But the long term problem will only be solved when we find a way to help African countries use and, if they want to, sell, their resources in a safe and effective manner.

We should know this, by now. We've spent $208 billion in Iraq. The war was supposed to be "free." Iraq's vast oil reserves were supposed to pay our way. But, for a lot of reasons (most of the blame goes to Hussein, some to us and our sanctions) Iraq has oil, but not an oil industry.

This puts us in a tough spot. The best way to elevate Africa from poverty is, in some sense, against the interests of powerful players here and in Europe. Nigeria needs to be able to call on itself, rather than a "Super Major" oil Company, in order to sell its oil.

But, is it really against our interests? In the short term, it might create competition for some entrenched players (who are, at the moment, rather highly profitable) but, in the long term, rising economic tides raise all boats. Our own economy, after all, could use more customers. We'll have to bring living standards up before those news customers can buy anything. If you think about our future in terms of decades, rather than months, helping impoverished nations develop the means to make the most of their own natural resources, and doing so safely, with care to the environment and the living standards of their own people, makes a lot of sense.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Comical Che-Ney

No, I'm not the first to make this observation, but, you guys remember "Comical Ali" sometimes known as "Baghdad Bomb" who gave us such great zingers like, "The British are not worth an old shoe," and promises that the Americans were being driven into the Persian gulf while Saddam's army fell around him?

Well, I guess it's not as funny when our own Vice President is, under the same delusion, claiming victory while the Iraqi insurgents continue to attack not only our troops, but the local forces we're building up, adding to the chaos in the region and turning Iraq into a fiasco.

Has Cheney been to Iraq? Is there something in the water that makes it impossible to be honest about the situation on the ground there?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Who's Really After Your Stuff?

Conservatives like to talk about private property rights. In the extreme conservative lexicon, taxation means "thievery" and environmental regulations infringe on people's rights to do whatever they want with the land they own. Liberals have tended to be a little more flexible about the issue, often weighing the public good above inidividual property owner desires. This is an old, old fight.

Today, the Supreme Court handed down a property rights decision that should bother consvertives and liberals alike. The court ruled that the city of New London, CT can annex the property of private citizens who don't want to sell their homes and land in order for an office building to be erected. Emminent Domain seizures, where a government forces citizens to sell property in order for some public good (a highway, a school, a park) are rare. This decision defines office buildings, shopping malls and the like as "public good" under the reasoning that economic development is in the public interest.

Putting aside any outrage or sympathy I feel on behalf of those forced to move, I have to agree that economic development is in the public interest of most communities. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise.

That said, I disagree with the court because I think that the economy shouldn't rule policy -- there should be give and take. Sometimes, you make a decision in deference to economic forces, sometimes you have to expect economic forces to defer to other values like individual rights, freedom, or aesthetics.

Besides, we don't live in a perfect world. Say I'm a developer and I want to go to your town and build an office building. I need approvals from zoning commissions and maybe from the city council. Of course, I'm going to argue that my idea is in the best interests of all of humanity. To further that argument, I'm going to contribute to campaigns, take people golfing, take people out on the town, give some cash to a local charity and let your council representative take the credit for bringing a new friend to your community. It's simply not going to be as simple as a third party economic assessment of my plans, and we all know it.

The irony is that conservatives worry about the government stealing from private citizens. But, who does the government serve? Usually other, more powerful, private citizens. Is the city of New London kicking people out of their homes? Yes. But they're doing it in deference to a corporate interest. I think it's time that people realized that, in many cases, the threat to individual freedom doesn't come from the government, it comes from other, more powerful, individuals.

But why do we have a government in the first place? It's supposed to keep the strong from trampling the weak. That's what's wrong with the Supreme Court's decision -- it exists in some sort of abstract, perfect world, while real life is far mroe complicated.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Durbin hits a nerve

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois hit a nerve when he challenged his colleagues to engage in a little thought experiment. That's right, if you haven't seen his remarks edited in a fair way, then you don't really know what he said. You might think that the Senator compared US troops, or our government, or our management of the Guantanamo Bay internment camp to the attrocities of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

He didn't.

What he said was, and I'm paraphrasing because his own words seems to have led to the misunderstanding, "Read this FBI report. If you just read it, without knowing that it was written by a US FBI agent, about US actions, you'd think it was some document about Nazis or Soviet Gulags."

Give Durbin the benefit of the doubt. Imagine rereading everything you've read about Guantanomo Bay and Abu Grhaib without knowing it was about Americans. How would you react? Maybe you wouldn't jump tp Nazi's and Stalinists. Maybe you'd think of Serbs and Bosnians, or Rwanda, or a Turkish prison or any number of global Hell holes. But, unless you're really cynical, I don't think you'd jump to "America" as a first answer.

See, what Durbin has pointed out, and what people don't want to hear, is that a lot of what's happened in our prison camps defies what we like to think about America, its motives and its conduct. That is a painful realization for a lot of people. They've reacted with a backlash, by ignoring the substance of Durbin's words and going, instead for an attack on him personally as some sort of traitor.

Of course, invoking Nazis in any debate is always dangerous. In "Anything Else" Woody Allen ascribes this thought to one of his characters: The crimes of the Nazis were so attrocious that if the entire huiman race were wiped out as punishment, it could be argued that we got off too easy. A lot of people feel that way, and there are a lot of reasons for feeling that way. For many intelligent people, Naziism represented the worst of humanity, the literal creation of Hell on Earth and a crime not to be used for comparison. Even Stalin falls short of Hitler in the minds of many. So, Durbin fell into that trap.

But, it goes beyond that.

Just as, for many, Nazis represent the incomparable worst, the US, during World War II represents the heroic best. We're dealing with a mythos in both cases. We could argue forever about what genocide was worse or what war was mor justified, or what economic reasons we had for getting into World War II, but it doesn't matter. This is how people feel and their feelings about Nazi evil and US World War II heroism do have rational roots. Most peace-loving pacifists I know make a World War II exception though they criticize some of our more atrocious acts like the firebombing of Dresden and the H-bombing of Japan.

The result of this "U.S. World War II heroism" mythos is to give any comparison of US behavior to Nazis a little extra sting. Us? Nazis? My grandpa, a farm boy from Idaho, lost a hand fighting Nazis! We can't be like them, our entire conception of our military and of who we are, was defined by our opposition to them. By our opposition to evil. This is why Bush's rhetoric has been so effective. He says "evil," and he touches something, ingrained in the schooling of even the most cynical anti-Bush American: we fight evil. Pick up any book by Stephen Ambrose. I did, recently. He was more left wing than I thought. But he buys into this mythology, completely and he made a lot of money selling books to other people, who also buy it.

The thing is, no mythology is perfect and no mythology is completely wrong. There has to be something "right" about it for it to take hold. And yet, back to Durbin -- if you honestly perform his thought experiment, if you read about Abu Grhaib or Guantanomo without knowing that it's American behavior being discussed, you arrive at the frightening conclusion that our behavior right now has strayed quite far from the myths that sustain us.

Instead of calling the man a traitor, we should face ourselves and ask: Can we make American reality closer to America's mythos?

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Over-regulated Corporations? We probably need it.

Dennis Kozlowksi, shamed CEO of Tyco, faces 25 years in prison. He and a partner were convicted of embezzling or bamboozling Tyco's shareholders out of half a billion dollars. Recently, Hank Greenburg of insurance giant AIG left his post, under threat of indictment from New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer for engaging in accounting practices that most people I've spoken with will call "agressive" but don't actually know whether or not they're illegal.

I had an unfortunately off the record lunch with an executive who I can't name here or anywhere who, while complaining about the costs of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation that makes corporate executives and directors personally responsible for the verity of financial statements made by the company. He said something interesting -- he signs off on documents, claiming personal knowledge of things that he can't be reasonably expected to know everything about. He's basically betting that the vce presidents he hires and the regional managers they hire are honest people. He has a point. We don't expect the CEO to be looking over the shoulders of every employee on a day to day basis, and we probably don't want them to.

However, on the issue of Sarbanes-Oxley, the various prosecutions and the increased scrutiny on business in general, he said, "We probably need it."

Still, there have been excesses. I really like and admire Elliot Spitzer, who I hope will be New York's next governor. But, I think he went overboard prosecuting Richard Grasso, ex-head of the New York Stock Exchange. At issue was Grasso's lavish $150 million pay package. But the people who gave him all that money, the exchange's board, are some of the smartest and most ruthless investment bankers in the country. They weren't swindled, they offered him the money and he took it. I can't imagine turning down a $150 million job offer at any point in my life, assuming I think the people making the offer have the money and will make good. Only difference between me and Grasso is that I'd work about half the year, take $75 million, and you'd never see me again as I would then proceed to blow $75 million making a movie like Clerks with a very large special effects sequence in the last 10 minutes.

Grasso's executive assistant even came under fire for her $200,000 salary. When I read those stories, I called a guy I know who works with Grasso and asked about it. To me, $200,000 seemed a paltry salary for a woman who worked for a guy making $150 million (and who you have to expect to be a demanding boss). Well, it turns out that his executive assistant was worth far more than $200,000 a year. She worked 70 hour weeks. She had a freaking law degree and bar membership. Given that attorney partners at white shoe law firms often make half a million a year, she had actually made a sacrifice to work for Grasso. Life's complicated, even for the rich.

Grasso is fighting Spitzer in court. Most folks don't, they just settle and get on with their lives. So, we'll see.

Martha Stewart was another wrong-headed prosecution, I thought. She really went to jail for being a bitch. She was never convicted of insider trading and one could argue that she wasn't an insider of IMClone anyway, she was just a stockholder who knew the CEO. But hey got her on obstruction of justice. She stupidly lied to investgators when she should have said... nothing.

I see a lot of fraud in my job. I've written about it, I've exposed it, I've staid up at night worrying about the connections I've drawn (but have twice been vindicated by indictments against the people I've written about) and I've come to this conclusion: big money doesn't necessarily mean corruption. I've followed many false leads over 6 years. I've seen things that look bad but that aren't. I've seen things that look good and have later learned weren't. I've met people like Vanguard Founder John Bogle, and hedge fund manager Mohnish Pabrai, who are rich because he they are honest and I've met their opposites.

In the wake of the Tyco convictions, you'll see a lot of commentary that says we've gone too far, that we're regulating risk-taking out of corporate America and that the willingness to take on risk is fundamental to the creation of wealth. I think, to be fair, there have been missteps. I think Spitzer has made a few of them. But, don't forget my annonymous CEO: "We probably need it." He wasn't being politically correct. He's also a staunch conservative and he hates regulations of all kinds and, this regulation hits him directly, it complicates his life, it adds hours to his day. But, he says "We probably need it." I'm going to go ahead and defer to him on this one.