Thursday, July 28, 2005

Selling Missiles to Terrorists Gives Him the Moral High Ground

Remember how Dick Durbin got in huge trouble for saying that an FBI report describing prisoner maltreatment at Guantanamo sounded like descriptions of maltreatment of prisoners by morally bankrupt regimes? Remember how the right-wing spinmeisters were outraged, outraged, outraged--not by the maltreatment but instead by Durbin saying that when you describe abuse it makes the abuse sound abusive? Remember how Durbin caved in and apologized for having pointed out the obvious?

I was ticked at Durbin for caving in, but beyond that I didn't think much about it. That sort of nonsense happens a lot. Then I remembered Iran-Contra, whereupon I was overwhelmed by a powerful feeling of--I dunno, call it comic historical vertigo.

Iran-Contra, you'll remember, was a scandal during the Reagan years. Reagan supported the Nicaraguan Contras against the Sandinistas (who had overthrown a government controlled by the Somoza family, one of the most astonishingly corrupt US allies in Latin American history). But Congress had passed a law that prohibited funding the Contras, who tended to do things like rape and murder nuns and blow shit up indiscriminately, so Reagan couldn't send troops or money directly to the Contras.

Accordingly, somebody (with or without Reagan's knowledge), orchestrated a scheme whereby the US government sold weapons to the Iranians (who had in 1979 taken a bunch of Americans hostage and then commemorated Reagan's first inauguration by releasing them). Remember that at that time the Iranians were at war with our then-ally Saddam Hussein and were also, as they are now, state sponsors of terrorism. In fact, some of those terrorists (Hezbollah) were holding Americans prisoner in Lebanon, and the sale of the weapons was intended not only to illegally fund the Contras but also to bribe the Iranians to convince Hezbollah to release those hostages.

Lt. Col. Oliver North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter were both found guilty of playing a role in Iran-Contra but were later acquitted on technicalities. They have never once apologized, nor have the right-wingers called on them to do so.

Remembering that is what made me start to feel the vertigo. When Dick Durbin says that the abuse committed at Guantanamo Bay sounds like abuse committed by worse governments, the right-wing pundits start baying for his blood. When Oliver North and John Poindexter get caught and convicted of selling weapons to a terrorist government that sponsors other terrorists, what happens? Poindexter gets brought back under G.W. Bush to be the head of DARPA's Information Awareness Office, and North gets generously bankrolled during a Senate campaign that he nearly wins before he goes on to become, among other things, a right-wing pundit.

Can you imagine what would've happened to Durbin if he'd been the one to arrange the illegal sales of weapons to Iran (that may also have functioned as a bribe to Hezbollah)? Seriously, think what would have happened to any Democrat who'd arranged not just to break the law but to break the law by selling missiles to a nation that sponsored terror against Americans. The Ollie Northish pundits would have been calling for his execution as a traitor.

North's hypocrisy in this is particularly painful and ridiculous because he was one of those who attacked Durbin for saying what he did. In a very dumb recent column, North goes after Durbin for his remarks and lists Durbin as one of his finalists for "Revisionist Historian of the Year" award. North then goes on to attack NBC's Brian Williams at length for not having drawn a bright enough dividing line between our founding fathers and Iran's new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. North also ridicules Ahmadinejad's claims that he only supported that 1979 kidnappings (the ones that ended on Reagan's inauguration) because Ayatollah Khomeni supported it. And then he attacks Ahmadinejad for supporting Hezbollah, including its kidnappings of Americans in Beruit.

What? I mean--what?

That Ayatollah Khomeni is the same guy who held sway over the Hezbollah terrorists who kidnapped the Americans in Lebanon in the mid 1990s. He's the same guy North arranged to sell weapons to in order to illegally fund the Contras.

North is bitching out Durbin for quoting an FBI report that says depressing things about a handful of American soldiers and bitching out Williams for saying that many Iranians might not be as opposed to Iranians taking Americans hostage as Americans are. But this is the same North who did his level best to make sure that Iran got 500 HAWK missiles. What the hell gives this guy the right to natter on about patriotism or to take a hawkish stance on people who don't say mean things about jihadi terrorists?

North broke Congressional and moral laws. He sold weapons to an enemy government that sponsored jihadi terrorists, terrorists who just took more hostages (maybe using American money or weapons) after they'd released the ones he helped bribe them to release. And how dare he criticize Ahmadinejad for supporting Khomeni-inspired terrorist acts when he went further than mere support by actually selling weapons to Khomeni's country?

Even if Durbin and Williams were guilty of the transgressions of which North accuses them, listening to North excoriate them would be like listening to Charles Manson scolding the makers of Grand Theft Auto for promoting sex, drugs, and violence. As it is, it's like listening to Charles Manson scold the producers of This Old House for the same offense. Somebody's revising history like crazy, but it isn't Durbin or Williams.

A little uptight?

Cheri Pierson Yecke, a Republican congressional candidate, is angry that people tell jokes about the appearances of people like Condi Rice and Linda Tripp. When I first stumbled onto her op-ed, I thought, "okay, whatever, she has no sense of humor about Condi Rice dominatrix jokes." But, Linda Tripp? Sheesh, it's 2005, and she's still mad about Linda Tripp "ugly" jokes? Even at the time, Tripp, a backstabbing snitch who wore a wire to record conversations with her supposed friend, had it coming. But to still be annoyed over a few gags at Tripp's expense on late night television, you'd really have to be uptight.

Then I did a Google image search for our offended little congressional candidate.

Uptight? Far be it from me to comment on her appearance...

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Cheap (and Early) Shots

Okay, so it turns out that Johnson & Johnson has had success in early trials using a drug called dapoxetine to prevent premature ejaculation. No word on whether company researchers tested one or both Johnsons.

Also, and I swear I heard this on Marketplace (though it isn't yet in their archives), that Pfizer and Merck are both planning to start work on their own premature ejaculation drugs. Merck's honest-to-god motto: "Where the customer comes first."

Yup, high-quality, highbrow social commentary. That's why you read this blog.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Creeping creeps and slippery slopes.

All right, given that I ride the subway every day, along with 8 million New Yorkers, and given that a bomb could easily be placed in an over-the-shoulder bag, I really don't mind this new policy, that will likely be temporary, of police randomly taking a peak into passenger bags, with their consent, and with a passengers right to refuse and leave the subway station. I doubt, even, that these will be thorough searches. More like: unzip, cop looks... hmmm, says cop, that does look like a laptop computer and a library book, travel safe.

But, every time I swallow some of my social libertarianism and make a compromise, the authorities dissapoint me.

As the Washington Post article says: "If an officer looking for explosives finds some other form of contraband, police said that person would be subject to arrest."

Now, wait a minute... the police have no cause to search for other contraband. Obviously, the vice squads would like nothing more than to open the bag of every chilled out rastafarian, giggling couple coming home from a club and hyped up Wall Streeter in order to check for mood causing substances, but, we rightly see that desire as something that needs to be regulated.

My advice to New Yorkers who like to party and who might use the subway: if you have anything the police might frown upon, keep it in a wallet or mini-purse -- something so small that it couldn't possibly contain explosives.

More seriously -- if the goal of this is really, only to keep explosives and other dangerous devices off of the public transportation system, which is a goal that riders and government both share, then they should explicitly say that they're looking for weapons and will turn their gaze away at anything else. Sure, that would let some pot carriers off, but it's a small trade off. The benefit would be that even hardcore civil libertarians could find some cause to moderate their views in this instance. In a lot of ways, I think, people's mistrust of the government comes not from their hatred of paying taxes but because the government is so rarely specific. Can't they, every now and then, say: "We have one goal and are pursuing only that goal?"

I cannae change the laws of physics, cap'n!

Scotty! Nooooooo!!!

James Doohan was always one of the best things on the old show. A whole universe full of billions of species and Mr. Scott would have stopped the Enterprise on a dime to pick up a bottle of, what else... Scotch.

Here's to ye, lad.

Oh, and his best line: "I cannae change the laws of physics, cap'n! I need thirty minutes!" He said, while altering the laws of the physics to allow the Enterprise to travel backwards in time while whipping around a planet.

Geekily yours,

Mike M.

Reporters Work Better Out of Jail

So the Senate Judiciary committee is considering a federal shield law for reporters that would let reporters protect confidential sources. A similar bill is starting to percolate through the House. Honestly, I'm not sure of the specifics, which seem in flux at the moment anyhow. In general, though, it sounds like a great idea to me.

Reporters these days tend to overuse confidential sources--in large part because the White House will often let, say, State Department officials brief reporters but refuse to let reporters quote the briefer by name (hence all the "a high-ranking administration official" references you hear). But for obvious reasons a legitimate confidential source can be crucial to building a story, particularly a corruption story (public or private sector). If the government can force reporters into naming whistle-blowers, then people will stop blowing whistles. And one of the major reasons for the First Amendment protection of the free press is to allow the people to publicly discuss what the government is actually doing. Sure, the shield probably shouldn't be absolute; the government does have legitimate national security interests to protect sometimes, and it might not always be a good idea to debate specifics about, say, nuclear warhead schematics in the newspapers or even in open court. But a robust general shield law--instead of the irregular and Byzantine patchwork of local and state laws now in place--could carve out those exceptions while still protecting reporters.

Anyhow, the shield laws in the House and Senate sound good and might have enough support to pass, but these are the sort of bills that Congresspeople will vote for only if constituents press them. So maybe read an article or two on the laws, and if they strike you as a good idea, send a short paragraph to your Congressfolk saying so.

FYI--Mike has a good explanation of the sorts of confidentiality that reporters usually engage in below ("What Off the Record Means to Me").

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Summer National Security Fashion News

Remember those très chic flip-flops that were simply everywhere at last summer's frolicksome Republican National Convention? Well, my pretties, word on the coture cobblestones is that in a daring gesture of fastforward retro a major mover-and-shaker from the elephant kingdom is bringing them back for summer '05.

Our flashin'-forward fashion-forward fellah is such a bigwig that the Donald himself can't compete with the power or the wig, and our bigwig is bringing back everybody's favorite sandal with a sunroof in reference to one Mr. Karl Rove, the deputy White House Chief of Staff who everybody loves to watch strut that runway. I can't name any names--national security, my chickadees, national security--so I'll call this mystery man "First Lady Laura Bush's husband."

Anyhoo, it turns out that last June, First Lady Laura Bush's husband said that he would positively usher curbward any naughty White House employee who had leaked Valerie Plame's name to the press: Flip! Since then, the leak involvement of the fetching K-Rove has gone from "ridiculous" to "probable," and First Lady Laura Bush's husband had put that bigwigged brainbox to reevaluating the sitch. In fact, just a couple days ago FLLBH said that he would only fire a naughty employee who had broken the law, not just leaked a name. FLLBH told reporters that this was indeed an eensy-weensy change of policy: Flop!

Stay tuned here for updates as fashion dictates.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

I'll Call Myself Captain Studpants

Big-city dwellers, has your new A/C window unit led to better sleep and better mood? If so, you're in luck, because Chinese PLA General Zhu Chengu can fix that for you.

Zhu, says Friday's Financial Times, just told reporters that the Chinese are willing to go nuclear in the event of a war over Taiwan: "We... will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian. Of course the Americans will have to be prepared that hundreds... of cities will be destroyed by the Chinese."

China stretches, roughly, from 75-to 130-degrees longitude. Xian is at about 110-degrees, meaning that in order to hang onto Taiwan Zhu seems ready to let almost half of China get nuked. And most of China's real cities--including Beijing and Shanghai--are east of Xian, so the death toll would be greater than half its urban population (which composes 36% of China's 1.3 bn people).

How's that for screaming insomnia? Cranking up your A/C won't help you sleep through that, mes amis, though it might help you disguise your sleepless shivers as a response to the cold.

Zhu, who may or may not have followed up his remarks by throwing metal hands and biting the head off a bat, is a real PLA general, although military experts seem to think that nobody with high-level access to real Chinese war-gaming scenarios would actually talk like that in public. Zhu sounds more like a saber-rattling tough guy eager to start up some more Cold War antics, Mutually-Assured-Destruction style. Or he's a nut job who knows where China keeps its nukes. Neither one sounds good.

On the plus side, talk like this is more likely to lead to massive radioactive fallout, and we all know what that means: Jon finally gets those superpowers. I'm hoping for super-strength and -staying power.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Fired for rapping

Is it cool to rap about committing acts of terrorism? Eh, I wouldn't buy the album.

But, it is funny that this guy worked as a baggage screener at George Bush International Airport in Houston.

And, yeah, I buy his explanation in the article. He wants to cash in on some current of Anti-Arab sentiment that he's experienced in society.

But, but, you might say, a baggage screener isn't the appropriate job for somebody saying such things, even in their spare time, away from work, or even in jest.

I might agree. But, then, "baggage screener," should be a high paying job, one that compensates you fairly for giving up your rights to free expression. It isn't.

I Just Said It's Totally Ridiculous

A bit more on the Plame-Rove leak scandal:

***July 14, 2003: Syndicated columnist Bob Novak mentions Plame by name in a column about her husband Joe Wilson (who'd published criticisms of Bush's treatment of evidence during the build-up to the Iraq war [see "Yellowcake, Yellowcake" below]). This blows her cover as a CIA operative.

*** Late July 2003: The CIA refers a complaint to the Justice Department, requesting an investigation of the leak.

*** Early Sept. 2003: Anonymous source leaks fact of CIA referral to news media.

*** Sept. 16, 2003: Bush spokesman Scott McClellan has this exchange with a reporter during a press conference:
Q. [Plame's husband Joe Wilson is] quoted from a speech last month as saying, "At the end of the day, it's of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove marched out of the White House in handcuffs." Did Karl Rove tell …
A. I haven't heard that. That's just totally ridiculous. But we've already addressed this issue.
But did Karl Rove …
If I could find out who anonymous people were - I just said it's totally ridiculous.
But did Karl Rove do it?'
I said it's totally ridiculous.
*** Late Sept. 2003: DOJ officially begins investigation of CIA referral.

*** Late Dec. 2003: Attorney General John Ashcroft recuses himself from the investigation.

*** Jan. 2004: Grand Jury investigation led by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald begins.

*** July 12, 2005: McClellan tells a different reporter something different:
Q. “Did Karl Rove commit a crime?”
“This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation."

Um, wtf? Obviously, by Sept. 16, 2003, McClellan knew the CIA had referred the case to DOJ and that it would be investigated. That's why the reporter was asking him about Wilson and Rove in the first place. Why is it okay for the White House to comment on something during the early stages of an investigation when nobody knows the facts yet but improper to comment on it later, when the evidence is much clearer?

Well, okay, we all know why. But I'd like to hear McClellan admit it.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Light and Heavy tales about Freedom

We'll start off light:

First off, Hillary Clinton, senator from New York and the leading Democrat of the moment, seizing the moment of Karl Rove's vulnerability has... turned her ire against the makers of the Grand Theft Auto video games. Seems somebody made up a little Internet program that you can download that, gasp, lets you perform digital acts of hanky panky! The games are already rated for mature players, so I don't see what the problem is. I'm worried that Hillary is turning into Tipper Gore or Joe Lieberman. She wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate people using their Playstations to get their digital groove on!

Now, more serious:

Ali Timini is an odious fellow. He's a U.S. citizen who has encouraged young Muslims to practice acts of terrorism and to travel abroad to wage Jihads in foreign lands. He's a nut job. He was also just sentenced to life in prison for his teachings.

Nobody he ever taught has ever committed an act of terrorism, nor did they ever join a foreign war, nor did they ever harm US troops or civilians. His students never committed a crime. Ali Timini will now spend the rest of his life in prison for preaching idiocy with no result.

The worst his followers did was practice terrorism and play paintball. Funny how Ali Timini will spend his life in prison for that while no white leader of any militia movement has even been punished in that way, despite all of the spent paintballs. Hell, to put a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in jail you actually have to catch him doing something, not just talking. At least they'd use the pretext of tax evasion!

Saying that the U.S. is the Great Satan, that its people should pay for the crimes of their government and that all of the infidels must perish is, to my mind, a very, very stupid thing to say. But... saying stupid things is no crime.

So, today, in one silly incident, the government acted out against sexual expression. In another, political expression. In both cases, the government was wrong. But I don't see much defense of expression in the mainstream media today. Too bad. It's the defense of the fringes, after all, that creates a zone of safety for everyone else.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Cha Cha Cha Chaaaanges...

As you've no doubt guessed, Thosethingswesay now has two bloggers. Really, it makes more sense, since now I'm not using the royal "we" to talk about myself. Now, it's those things Mike M. says and those things Jon E. says. The gods of proper word usage are rejoicing on Olympus in what can only be described as a Bachanalia of verb conjugation.

I think you'll like what Jon has to say.

Below, Jon notes the disparity in media coverage between bombings in Baghdad and the London bombings, despite the loss of life and deplorable nature of both. One reason I can think of that justifies the increased London coverage is that London isn't a war zone. But that's not a convincing explanation, is it?

Jon's got a better grasp when he says it's about who we identify with, and we Americans are trained to think of the British as an undeclared member of the United States. He poignantly asks if the media should encourage that perception, or if the media should be encouraging us to feel, and object to, the loss of innocent life wherever it happens.

My own take on recent media coverage was a little different. I noticed that the London Bombings took a back seat to Hurricane Dennis this weekened. Hurricane coverage is almost always stupid. Windblown reporter! Check out what happened to this shed! That dog is swimming in the flood! This hurricane is Dennis the Menace! Look at me, I'm Anderson Cooper!

There is some justification for some of the coverage. Hurricanes are dangerous. The media should convince people to leave flood zones when they're asked to leave, and the media should let people know about hotlines they can call for finding loved ones and what charities they can donate to or volunteer for if they want to help. And, yeah, a minute or two of "windblown reporter" is okay.

But CNN and Fox News spent the entire weekend on the story. The entire weekend. I didn't check MSNBC, but, who does?

In summary, this is how American media treats events:

Hurricane hits US in same place hurricanes always hit US > terrorist attack in London > anything that happens in Baghdad.

Which Body Count? Which Bodies Count?

So at least 52 people died in the July 10 London bombing. That's a lot of people, a lot of suffering, and it's beyond anything I can imagine in my own placid existence. But I think we're hearing about it way too much in this country.

Sure, it's a real story with important implications, and it deserves significant coverage. Just not this much.

I don't really blame the UK media for giving the story as much play as possible. The attack happened in their capital. And not only is 52 people a lot of dead people by any measure, it's equivalent to more than 50% of British troop deaths in Iraq since the war began (89 as of July 1), so the number must feel especially big.

I'm not even sure that I blame the US and the UK media for giving the London bombings way more play than they've given (or will give) today's train accident in Pakistan that killed 120. Yes, both events happened on mass transit, but readers and viewers always find death more interesting if someone deliberately caused it.

But I do blame the US media for overplaying the London bombings. Part of it, yes, is that the US media know their customers. Americans know that the British are our allies in Iraq (real allies, not the bribed absentee kind), so an attack on them does feel very much like an attack on us. But our media don't necessarily need to be reinforcing that response. And the definitely don't need to be covering it for some other bad reasons, some of the worst of which follow:
  1. Organizational Convenience. All major US media organizations already have people and infrastructure in London. The story came to them, and did so in a cost-effective way. This is the news equivalent of dating that woman in your apartment building because parking's easy.
  2. Good sound bites. They all speak English, and with so many charming accents.
  3. War on Terror. If an individual story falls under an easy umbrella that editors can put in the crawl, you can make it seem extra important (not just "52 people died" but "52 people died IN TERRORIST ATTACKS"). You can then also make the umbrella story seem that much more important by bolstering it with the individual story ("In more news in the global war on terror...").
  4. Repertorial Comfort. US reporters who do fly in to cover the story can expense account nice hotels and meals. Plus, everybody speaks English, so that's handy.
  5. Ease of Identification. It's not too hard for (white) Americans to identify with the British. Even if you dismiss the mostly unconscious racism that makes it easier for white people to identify with other white people (and, man, the UK is still pretty white), black people with black people, etc., we have a common history and a common language. Our special relationship makes their deaths special deaths. Like their lives, their deaths matter more.
"So what?" you might ask. "So we're hearing a little too much about the London bombings. At least that's a real story. At least the media aren't devoting all their attention to the hunt for some perky blonde teenager who disappeared in the Caribbean." Good point. I'm glad you made it. I guess I got started on this tirade because of a couple other news stories.

First, there's the all too familiar story of continuing deaths in Iraq. On July 10, a car bomb killed 20 Iraqis at a police recruitment center. Today, a car bomb killed 27 people (including a US soldier) in the street where US troops were handing out candy to kids. There were smaller attacks in between. That's about 52 dead right there, just since the London bombings. But we've heard it all before. We don't get excited about it. The US news media know that, and rather than find ways to make us take an interest in people dying in a war we started, they take the easy way out and give us variety, the spice of death.

And I wish it were just variety, bad as that is. But it's also a comment on the limits and blindspots of our empathy. I think most people identify with the British more than with the Iraqis, even though we're all supposedly allies now in the fight against the insurgency--again, a fight that we and the British started. Pick your own reasons why.

Second, 56 people just died in a burst of ethnic warfare between Gabra living in northern Kenya and Borana living in southern Ethiopia. Hundreds of masked Borana gunmen surrounded a Kenyan primary school and nearby houses and then just opened fire. 22 dead kids among the victims. Here's the limits of variety--this is TOO varied, too unfamiliar for the US media to care. I don't know anything about the pasture and water disputes between the Gabra and the Borana. I don't even know if the Gabra speak English or Swahili (or something else). Almost no Americans do, including our reporters. And since Kenya and Ethiopia are both relatively poor countries where we have no immediate plans to fight a war, I bet I won't learn anything more about them from the US media, unless they relay Reuters stories on page 44. But I'm willing to bet we'll know what the London bombers had for breakfast and the colors of their backpacks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Yellowcake, Yellowcake, Fakers, Man

First off, I should point out that this is Jon writing, not Mike. Thus the massive drop-off in quality.

Uh... so... hola, amigos. It's been a long time since I rapped at you. But I've had some heavy-duty text-intake to perform lately.

Anyway. I was reading a
Frank Rich op-ed piece that claims that the Bush Administration's handling of the Iraq war in general and the Valerie Plame leak in particular is worse than Nixon's handling of Watergate, and it reminded me of Bush's Jan. 2003 State of the Union claim about Saddam Hussein trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.

Turned out, of course, that the uranium claim was a crock of crapola based on bad evidence. Bush attributed the claim to the British intelligence services, presumably in large part because the American intelligence services had raised a bunch of red flags about the reliability of that evidence (which turned out to be poorly forged documents).

One of those flag-raisers was Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador assigned to analyze the uranium claim. Wilson is also, as we know thanks to Bob Novak's intrepid blabbing, the husband of now-outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. A lot of people, including Wilson, think that somebody at the White House (evidence points increasingly to Karl Rove having a hand) leaked Plame's name as retribution for Wilson's public criticism of Bush's doomsday interpretation of the uranium docs. Other people suspect that it was (also) done in an effort to discredit Wilson by making it sound like he only had that analyst's job because his wife had pulled strings. (Wilson, btw, was deputy chief of the US embassy in Iraq from 1988 to 1991, when he became acting ambassador until Gulf War I. From 1997-98 he was special adviser to President Clinton and National Security Council Senior Director of African Affairs. In the 1970s and 1980s, he worked for the State Dept. throughout Africa, including a stint in Niger. He must be so embarrassed to be riding his wife's coattails like that.)

Anyway, the Niger story made me think of Dan Rather's 60 Minutes II piece on the memos that supposedly proved that Bush had received special treatment during his time in the Air National Guard. That story also turned out to be a crock based on forged documents.

What struck me is the difference between CBS's reaction and the White House's. When it became obvious that the national guard memos were fakes, Rather and CBS did what responsible newsfolk do: they retracted and apologized. It would've been nice if they'd, you know, been responsible newsfolk the first time around and looked at the memos more skeptically, but at least they 'fessed up that they'd effed up.

In contrast, when it became obvious that the British uranium documents were fakes, the White House did what any stonewalling political administration would do: they pretended that the problem with the claim was bibliographical rather than factual. In July 2003, Rumsfeld told Meet the Press that Bush shouldn't have mentioned the yellowcake uranium not because the claim was, you know, wrong but instead because it was "probably" a mistake to "referenc[e] another country's intelligence, as opposed to your own."

But the Bush administration doesn't seem to have had any (positive) intelligence of its own to reference. If it had, why would it have cited the British report in the first place? I mean, if you're the President of the United States and you're giving a State of the Union address and you have good intel from the CIA and from the British--and for some weird bar-bet reason you have to choose between them rather than citing both--which would you pick, your own agency's intel or a foreign government's? Remember, this is the same President who doesn't believe the scientific intel about global warming that dozens of leaders of important countries--including Great Britain--keep sending him. This isn't a President who cites foreign evidence because he loves foreigners so much.

And it's not just that Bush can't admit when he screws up. It's the consequences of his screw-ups.

Rather's story came out a couple of months before the 2004 election, so it might have swayed the race if it hadn't been corrected. Evaluation: a potentially big error.

Bush's claim came on Jan. 28, 2003, less than two months before we invaded Iraq. The Niger claim itself didn't start the war, and omitting it wouldn't have stopped the war. But a lot of the evidence about Saddam's huge stockpiles of WMDs--remember those?--turns out to have been about at reliable as the Niger forgeries. If Bush had been more honest with us and maybe with himself, would he have been able to lead the country to war?

But he did lead us into war. In that war, we've spent hundreds of billions. (You want a social security fix? energy independence? health care? balanced budget? fifth-grade numeracy in fifth-grade classrooms? Too bad. We spent the money for that kind of thing opening Iraq's borders to al-Qaeda trainees.) In that war, 1,700+ US soldiers and anywhere from 15-25,000 Iraqis (most of them non-combatant civilians) have died.

Evaluation: an actual huge error.

Dan Rather and his producer apologized for messing up a potentially important news story. Is there any way for Bush and his advisers to apologize for 20,000 deaths?

A SIDEBAR: When the Plame leak story broke in Sept. 2003, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said that if a White House staffer had leaked Plame's name, the staffer would get fired. On June 10, 2004 Bush himself said he stood by that claim. Let's see what happens if it turns out Rove did leak it.

My Phone Call from the DEA

Great phone call I had today:

(Phone rings.)

Me (picks up phone): This is Mike.

Guy on Phone: Fausto? This is headquarters.

Me: Uh... headquarters?

Guy: Is Fausto there?

Me: What department is he in?

Guy: Fausto contacted headquarters, we're getting back to him.

Me: What headquarters?

Guy: I'm with the DEA.

Me: Oh. This is Mike Maiello, I write for Forbes Magazine.

Guy (Laughing): Oh. I'm sorry, man.

Me: What number are you calling?

(Guy gives my direct number.)

Me: Right number, no Fausto.

Guy (Faux Angry): What have you done with Fausto?

Me (Faux frightened): I'm innocent, man! I mean, he started it!

Guy: Sorry to bug you, forget I called.

Me: Won't I forget all of this when you push the memory-eraser button?

Guy: Yeah... no. Server's down. Good talkin' to ya, though!

Me: Good luck finding Fausto.

(Friendly Good Byes are Exchanged).


Oh, and, Fausto... if you're out there...

Call headquarters.

They had to impeach Clinton over this...

Remember when Reoublicans argued that Bill Clinton put the nation's security at risk because he might have been blackmailed over his affair with Monica?

Here's a quick recap of that old argument from Accuracy in Media:

"Is Clinton A Security Risk?
By Reed Irvine and Cliff Kincaid  |  September 30, 1998

The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 32, Chapter 1, Part 147 make it clear that the kind of conduct Clinton engaged in makes a person open to pressure and blackmail.

We have commented that an underreported aspect of the Ken Starr report is the testimony that Clinton claimed that a foreign
embassy was tapping his telephones, including his phone sex with Monica Lewinsky. Whether true or not, it raises the question of
whether Clinton's conduct made him a security risk and a potential target of blackmail. It is clear that the man has a personality
disorder, is fascinated with sexual perversion, and may even have a sexual addiction. All of this makes it questionable whether he
would be entitled to a security clearance under federal security guidelines. But the media seem reluctant to even raise the issue."

Funny how worried these guys were about Clinton being potentially blackmailed back in 1998, and yet they seem so silent on the subject of Karl Rove who, you know, DID betray a national secret, under no duress at all.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

OMG, Oliver Stone is making a 9-11 movie!

Let's all whine and panic!

It's Oliver Stone! He's scary to us! He knows Fidel Castro! He's cruh-azy!


I'd go on about how the anti-Stone crowd is a little silly but James Wolcott takes them out with style and verve right here.

Also, sorry to my actor friends, but as a sometime playwright and sometime director, I really laughed at this great line in his article: "Actors say a lot of things during and after a movie that bear little relation to what the writer or director intend or the actuality of the finished product, actors' interpretations are as loose and plentiful as spaghetti..."

Everybody pull out your old High School speech scripts and repeat after me: "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini!"

Saturday, July 09, 2005

They ain't COBRA

I probably don't have to say this to the readers here, but, there's been so much "hit them back!" rhetoric in the wake of the London bombings that I can't help it...

Al-Qaeda isn't COBRA from the old G.I. Joe cartoons. There is no hooded Cobra Commander, giving orders to Destro and there's no "Terrordome" we can hit to just put a stop to everything.

It's far more complicated than that.

On one hand, there is, still an Al-Qaeda organization led by Osama bin Laden and there are probably people moving money around and training operatives, though most of that group's energies are probably spent on keeping OBL in hiding, feeding themselves, and not being capured in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, or wherever they are.

More dangerous -- there are probably a bunch of people planning attacks on their own, using the name "Al-Qaeda" for its fear inducing and headline grabbing power, but who wouldn't be able to get in contact with bin Laden, or any of his top guys, even if they tried. They might well know a lot about him, they might believe everything he does, but they're on their own.

That's not to lessen the threat. Timothy McVeigh, on his own, killed 300 people in one attack. But, you deal with that by arresting Timothy McVeigh and having a trial, not by bombing Iran.

Put it this way -- if I assembled 5 or 10 people and started knocking over liquor stores in Brooklyn and demanding protection money from the local yoga studios, I could call myself "The Mafia." But, it wouldn't really be so.

No, no, I'm not considering a new line of work.

Friday, July 08, 2005

London Reactions

I held off posting on this because there's not much reason for me to give my thoughts about a bunch of bombs in London. I'm against bombs, most people are. I have been reading reactions, though. Atrios catalogues various odd and gleeful conservative reactions, mostly from Fox News. The gist is that some folks over there either believe this will push the British, and maybe other Europeans, towards their more hawkish positions about the Middle East and security. I'm not surprised by this. The key to being a talking head about terrorism is to say up and down that we shouldn't "politicize" issues like this and then, of course, to politicize them. Honestly, most things get politicized. I'm not even sure that's an awful thing. Politics is our mechanism for dealing with such events, after all.

Michelle Malkin spends a lot of her time criticizing protestors at the G8 meeting. I think she'd use whatever news hook she could find to do this. Her argument, which is all over her site at the moment, is especially weak, though. First, she criticizes them for including sympathy with the world's poor or with Iraqis, in their good thoughts for Londoners. It's hard to tell why she's so riled up about that. Not wanting innocents killed around the world seems like a decent position for the protesters to take.

She, of course, just wants the protesters to go away. And, heck, liberal as I am, I often find a lot of the anti-globalization protest crowd to be rather flaky and embarassing. But, since the 1990s, these activists have actually made some real "War on Terror" progress by bringing more attention to African pverty and helping to bring notions like debt forgiveness from the fringes into the mainstream. Republicans don't like to admit it, but colonial legacies and poverty, along with the desperation those things bring, do actually fuel terrorism. Dealing with those issues can only help.

For those of us who consider ourselves "Anti-War Left," these are difficult times. Republicans love to call us out during moments like this, to accuse us, as Rove did, of wanting to coddle terrorists and give them therapy. What they're doing is blurring a distinction that smart people can make but that doesn't play well on TV, it's the distincting between an explanation and a justification. It's not even that subtle a distinction. Blowing up a buch of commuters in London or Madrid isn't justified by any political or economic situation. These acts can't be justified.

But, to pretend that they can't be explained is just silly. And, further, explaining them in terms of Western policies towards the developing world doesn't even mean that we have to change those policies in order to appease bombers. But it'd be a good idea to try to understand what's happening.

And, yes, this does invalidate some of our current policies. Bush says we're in Iraq so that we can fight the terrorists there and not here. Put aside how the Iraqi people must feel about that ("Don't mind us, we're just going to have our war in your back yard") and the notion has still been disproven. Terrorists don't have to go there. They just hit a city with more security and more surveillance, than you'll find in any U.S. city. I'm pretty sure not even Bush believes his "fighting them over there" line, but, if he does, I sure hope he learns from this.

It's not weak and it's not caving in to examine the tactics and motivations of those who perform acts like this. It's necessary. There are a lot of Republicans and conservatives out there who want to act with nothing more than stiff-jawed resolve. That won't help us. It's time to put some thought into this.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

What "Off The Record" means to me.

Most of you reading know that I'm a journalist. I thought, with the Plame case in the news, you might want to know a bit about how we do our jobs and what some terms mean, at least to me.

I'm a self-taught journalist and have never taken a class in the field. So, if you're reading this and have taken a journalism class, this might differ from what you've heard, but this is the way I've learned things work.

Most interviews are just conversations with the key factor being that, as a journalist, you identify yourself and your field, and you tell the source as much as you know about the story you're writing. Sometimes, this is near impossible. Sometimes, you call somebody with questions just because you're curious. There is no story in the works, but there might be. To me, an "on the record interview" is any conversation you have, sober, where you have identified yourself as a journalist with questions. If I already know I'm writing a story, I tell the subject and I give them a sense of what I think the story is, without making promises about what it will be. Conversations like this are "on the record" unless stated otherwise.

Sometimes, a source wants to help, but doesn't want to be in the story. They will give information but don't want to be quoted or to have the information attributed to them. I call this, "On Background." Background information is usually contentious and thus needs to be verified independently. Usually, this is easy. Somebody tells you something about a person and you go to the person for a response. Sometimes, it's more arduous. But, in general, that's a "background" conversation -- it's information you can use, but not information you can attribute. Because of the lack of attribution, whatever you write, based on background information, will be stated in the journalist's voice, as a matter of fact or contention and it's up to the journalist to be sure of its truth.

"Off the record," to me, means -- you must gather this information from some other source in order to use it. See, you can't let somebody annonymously lob bombs at another person. If somebody says "Off the record, Phil robbed the safe," then you'll have to find another way or proving that Phil robbed the safe. Such conversations are often a complete waste of time since you're being given information that you can't use.

An interesting point -- these are conventions, not contracts. There is no legal definition of "off the record" or "on background" or "on the record."

This is how I function, given all of this ambiguity: First, I never let an annonymous person disparage a named person. Second, I always inform all interview subjects about my job and intentions, as best I know them. If my intentions change, I tell them, when the change occurs. If somebody is being criticized and they don't want to talk to me, I always fax, fed-ex or email, and sometimes all three, a point by point summary of what I plan to write, giving them plenty of time to offer rebuttal. I also, of course, gather circumstantial and direct evidence supporting claims made to me.

I write all of this "inside baseball" stuff because journalistic practices are in the news right now and, of course, because they're on my mind because I'm onto something that may turn into a story and may not. The toughest thing about journalism, I think is the need to draw connections between disparate sources and pieces of information, and to create unity that people outside of the field don't have the time to notice or piece together themselves.

There's a lot that passes for journalism that I don't believe is journalism. For exxample, I remember a TV news story from my childhood, a man named Larry Barker, known in New Mexico as an "investigative" journalist, did a story about soup kitchens throwing away edible food. The soup kitchens did this because people weren't eating the food and they didn't have storage space for it (and most of it would spoil soon anyway),,, this is how he got the story: he pretended to be a trash collector. Then he dramatically confronted the managers of the soup kitchen with his big "gotcha!" Thing is, if he had just called them up and asked them, they would have told him what was up. All the theatrics were a waste.

Journalism isn't cloak and daggers. It's about asking questions, drawing reasonable and defensible conclusions, and writing stories. Having sources and connections is, of course, important, but to less a degree than you'd think. 99% of it is just calling people and honestly asking questions, or reading documents with a curious mind. Heck, most of the relevant information is out there, in the public eye, there just needs to be somebody who has all day to read this report from the GAO and that report from the SEC and to make a connection.

The Plame case gives the misimpression that journalism is all about knowing somebody who can tell you secrets. It isn't so. And those "background" and "off the record" sources don't make stories -- they more likely just push the journalist in the right direction, giving them new questions to ask, out in the open.

Anyway, that's the way I think it works, and it's worked for me.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What a strict constitutional approach brings...

We'll all be hearing a lot about activists and constuctionists and liberal and conservative justices. What it all comes down to is whether or not people have any rights not specifically laid out in the Constitution, and whether our society should evolve as needs dictate or we should consider the Founders to have had vast psychic powers that will guide us for centuries.

I'm not being entirely fair. I have some sympathies for people who say that they don't want judges "legislating from the bench." Judges aren't elected, they can't be tossed out of office and there is potential for tyranny.

On the other hand, things aren't right just because they're popular. Slavery was once really popular. Half the country argued that it should be up to the states to decide whether or not to have it. I hear that a lot of people died over the question. But I think we can all agree that even if 99% of the population wanted slavery, it'd still be wrong. In fact, I know we agree with that. We certainly apply that standard to Germany, a country that we demanded continual pennance from, generations after its World War II crimes. Sometimes, the court has to step in and say, "Sorry... that law or practice is wrong and you can't do it if we're to have a functioning Democracy."

Some will argue that the court should only do that in cases where the Constitution specifically spells out a right. A state can't force somebody to incriminate themselves in testimony, for example, because the 5th ammendment says it's not a state right. Anything else not laidm out so clearly is a state right since the Constitution cedes authority to the people, through their local governments.

For a look at what this leads to, I'll excerpt from an absurd column in today's Wall Street Journal, by Robert H. Bork. Bork believes that court it creating rights out of thin air. His criticisms of other justices prove not only that we're lucky he never made it to the court, but the absurdity of the strict coonservative approach to Supreme Court Decisions.

First, he criticizes former Justice Harry Blackmun for writing, in an opinion, that he asserts a "Moral fact that a person belongs to himself and not others or to society as a whole." Think about that. This drives Bork crazy. But think about yourself. Who do you belong to? I might have obligations to society, I definitely owe it a lot, but I don't belong to it as if I'm a piece of property and I can't think of a thoughtful person who would argue that I do. But, Bork doesn't see it in the Constitution so it must not be true. I must belong to society in the same way that my DVD player belongs to me.

Bork's next target is current Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy said, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and of the mystery of human life."

Think about Kennedy's words. Can you honestly disagree? Sure, there's no metaphysical freedom ammendment in the Constitution, but do we need one to justify something so self-evident as the freedom to ponder, and come to conclusions about "the mystery of human life" on our own? Bork thinks so.

Bork is really angry because these opinions led to the creation of, what he calls, "a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy." All right, so Bork's an angry, bitter, old prude. But he's one who apparently thinks that states have the right to criminalize private bedroom behavior. No, it's worse than that. He also doesn't think that individuals have the right to metaphysical meanderings.

Bork's complaints about the court are many. He writes as a defender of the constitution, but what he's trying to do is turn society back. His litany of complains against the court are all social, saying that the court has "protected as free speech the basest of pornography," and "destroyed taboos about vile language in public," "mounted a campaign to normalize homosexuality..." You see where Bork stands on all of this. He's no defender of the Constitution, he's an enemy to individual freedom and a Bork-style appointee will be the same way. It's the ones who'll talk the most about adherence to the letter of the Constitution who will do the most the limit individual freedom, right down to your rights to "determine one's own concept of existence."

P.S. Bork's a moron.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Dumb Question on Fox

Guest hosting on the O'Reilly Factor, Tony Snow just asked the head of Planned Parenthood if the founding fathers would have believed that the constitution protected a the right to choose.

Um... the founding fathers...


Weren't they mostly slave owners?

Seriously, the founders' opinion on issues like this this next to worthless, not because they weren't visionaries but because they lived in an entirely different world. The founding fathers would also be apalled by speed limits on interstates.

A link for you all...

Bored by my politics? Just in the mood for a change of pace?

Go to see bigger issues discussed at

It's the blog of my colleague, Tomas Kellner, devoted to mind-blowing science.

Also, Tomas, whose first language was Czech, is the kind of writer that, like Jerzy Kosinski or Joseph Conrad, makes you wonder why you sometimes bang your head against a table and scream, "I knew English first, why isn't my writing that good?"

Here Come the Judge(s)

Well, a little bit of a shock today from Sandra O'Connor, huh? I never much agreed with her, but you have to respect her for her independence and, of course, for changing the course of history as one of the most influential women in American government ever.

Naturally, we all thought it would be William Rehnquist, who is ill with thryoid cancer. Even the White House was taken off guard. But, Rehnquist will likely step down too, meaning that Bush will appoint two to the court this term.

In both cases, he'll be replacing conservatives, but O'Connor is a very famous "swing voter" and Rehnquist, though often forming an alliance with Scalia and Thomas, is his own man.

In all appointments made so far, the Bush administration has favored loyalty above all else. First, they favor loyalty to the administration and second, loyalty to conservatism. There will be big fights over these important appointments and compromises will be made, but... Bush is Bush and the opposition has spent 5 years practicing the art of caving in without admitting it. I'm not optimistic.

The one light I see is that for all of my disagreements with the Rehnquist court, I get the feeling it has handed down rulings that the nation can live with. Aside from on the extremes of either side, folks aren't looking for a massive change in the court's procedures and they certainly don't want to see the last 50-100 years of rulings radically overturned. It's often said that Presidents are surprised by how their justices rule, once confirmed. I'm not convinced by that, though. I doubt Bush the First is much surprised by Thomas. But, those who can win confirmation do tend to take tje job, and the court's impact on society, rather seriously. So, yes, we face two Bush appointments and yes, Bush tends to appoint pretty right wing types, but... don't necessarily panic. There's a momentum of history guiding the court that would be hard for even two new justices to halt or reverse.

There are also other ways of correcting unpopular court rulings, and they work. A more conservative court would, after all, pass on a lot of authority to states and local governments. This would lead to sharp regional divides in America, sharper than they are now. Conservative enclaves would become more so, liberal areas would become more liberal. It will be a rotten state of affairs, in a lot of ways, if you believe, as I do, that some sense of commonality in American life is important. But, it is a possibility.

I don't think it will come to that. As I said, I think that the nation, as a whole, has been comfortable with the court's rulings, with some exceptions and with some very tense moments, during the 20th century. I hope, and even believe, that the two justice who will be confirmed in the near future, will recognize that and not seek to radically alter American life. One thing that gives me hope here is that whoever is confirmed has also lived with all of those prior decisions and they're unlikely to be radically disaffected by them.

Now, for less weighty matters... an O'Connor replacement... a woman? Got to be. Really should be, right?