Friday, October 19, 2007

Slowing down

Regular readers may have noticed that I haven't been posting a lot lately, and I regret to inform you that the trend will continue for at least a couple of weeks. I've been getting some nasty pains in my wrist, forearm, shoulder, and hand. In layman's terms, it's "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome," although in proper medical terms it's some other form of Repetitive Stress Injury. The long and the short of it: too much computer. I just saw my primary care physician, who gave me a referral to the Physical Medicine Department, but the next available appointment is more than two weeks from now. In the mean time, I'll be taking lots of ibuprofen and trying to stay off the computer. I tried some voice-recognition software, but its accuracy "weasel out to be desired." (That's supposed to be "leaves a lot to be desired.")

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Into the Wild

Sean Penn has a new film out, telling the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who graduated from college, gave away his life savings, and hitchhiked across the country, ending up in the Alaskan wilderness, living with little if any human contact. He meets up with a number of people along the way, including a few who act as surrogate parents. The story reminded me of a darker version of the Newberry-Award-winning novel My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, in which Sam Greeley, a high school student, runs away to live on his grandfather's disused farm in upstate New York. Sam Greeley had a penknife, an axe, a ball of cord, fire-making tools, and a small amount of money, but he learns to hunt and fish and harvest wild edible plants. Christopher McCandless had a rifle, some matches, and a few provisions, but was even more on his own, much deeper in the wilderness.

Into the Wild has been in limited release for almost a month, but today it begins its general release. The ads, which you have seen if you watched Daily Show and Colbert Report the last couple of days, focus on the indescribable sense of freedom McCandless feels when he is truly on his own, but the film also chronicles his travels and travails. Emile Hirsch turns in a gripping performance as McCandless, with Jena Malone (Saved!), Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, and the ever-amazing Hal Holbrook supporting. The scenery, from the east coast to the midwest to the southwest to the middle of nowhere, Alaska, is stunning, and the story is compelling. As the TV ads suggest, it's a good way to step out of the pressures and politics of 2007 for 2½ hours; strongly recommended.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Yes, Waterboarding is Torture

I am dumbfounded that this could ever in a million years be a controversial issue. I'm not prepared to tell you exactly where the legal line is between "legitimate aggressive interrogation" and "torture," but I can tell you that — wherever in the fog that line may lie — the practice of waterboarding — "the practice of putting somebody in a reclining position, strapping them down, putting cloth over their faces, and pouring water over the cloth to simulate the feeling of drowning" — is miles over the line.

I am referring, of course, to Attorney General nominee Judge Michael Mukasey's refusal to answer the straightforward question asked by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI): Is waterboarding constitutional? Right now, I'm watching MSNBC Live with Dan Abrams, a show I make a particular point of watching when there is a significant legal controversy. Dan Abrams is a lawyer himself, so he can often speak with considerably greater clarity than us non-lawyer people. Pressed by his right-wing guest Cliff May to give a definition of torture, but then interrupted every time he tried to answer, Dan Abrams cut into the middle of the following commercial break to read a dictionary definition of torture:

The act of inflicting excruciating pain as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty. — Dan Abrams, quoting an unspecified dictionary
The Geneva Conventions don't have a definition of torture, but the reference to it in the Fourth Geneva Convention is couched thusly: it prohibits "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture." Protocol II goes on to prohibit, at any time, in any place whatsoever, to any person who has ceased actual combat,
  1. violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder as well as cruel treatment such as torture, mutilation or any form of corporal punishment;
  2. collective punishments;
  3. taking of hostages;
  4. acts of terrorism;
  5. outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault;
  6. slavery and the slave trade in all their forms;
  7. pillage;
  8. threats to commit any or the foregoing acts.
There's no direct answer in that particular language to the question of whether waterboarding is torture, but it takes an unimaginably twisted definition of torture to exclude simulated drowning. In fact, it takes an unimaginably twisted definition to exclude waterboarding from "violence to the physical and mental well-being of persons."

I've never been waterboarded, but I did once come seriously close to drowning, and it's not an experience I care to repeat. It brought me to a remarkable level of mental and emotional focus: having already exhausted myself to the point that I would have collapsed in any normal situation, I knew that the only thing that mattered to me was that I somehow do whatever was necessary to survive. In my case, it was a matter of swimming a short distance to get myself out of a river current that was stronger than I could handle, but if I were strapped to a plank in a prison cell, I would say absolutely anything I thought my interrogators wanted to hear. That establishes both that it is torture and that it would be unreliable in extracting "actionable intelligence."

Since Cliff May brought it up, let's look at the "Ticking Time Bomb" scenario. You have a terrorist who has been captured, and you have reason to believe (or perhaps he has even said) that he knows details of a plot that will kill a large number of people, just a short time from now. You ask him nicely, pretty please, would he mind awfully much telling us where and how to neutralize the threat, and he demurs. What is the scope of the interrogation tools that are permissible in that situation? Can you torture this guy? Can you ram a steak knife into his thigh? Can you waterboard him? Can you cut off his pinky finger or break his kneecap? Can you slap him upside the head repeatedly? Can you tie him up and tickle him? Can you threaten to hunt down his wife and children? Can you take him over your knee and spank him like a child? Some of those are tougher questions than others, but waterboarding is definitely a gimme.

Setting aside for the moment the obvious ethical and legal considerations, though, let's take a cold and calculating look at the question of effectiveness. One need only look to Jack Bauer and an old episode of 24 for a plausible scenario: the bad guy is being roughed up, so he tells Bauer where the nuclear bomb is. Exactly where the bomb is. Except that the bomb isn't there — it's back at the airport where they started. The point is, what possible incentive is there for this terrorist to tell you the truth, thereby thwarting the plan to which he has committed not only his life, but his immortal soul? Does it even make sense to believe he would do anything other than lie, misdirect, stall for time, or do whatever he could to keep the terror plot on track?

The Attorney General nominee Judge Mukasey should be ashamed of refusing to answer such a straightforward question, and Cliff May should find a new name for his "Foundation for the Defense of Democracies." I would suggest just changing Defense to Destruction, so you don't have to change the abbreviation. Seldom in law will you find a question that is more black-and-white, more inescapably unambiguous, than Is waterboarding torture? Hell yes, and why does anyone even need to ask?

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Colbert in, Brownback out

Tuesday night, Stephen Colbert officially announced his candidacy for President of the United States — although he will be entered as a "favorite son" only in the primaries of his native South Carolina, 2008-01-26. Yes, I said "primaries," because Colbert is running both as a Republican and as a Democrat. In today's news, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas announced that he is ending his bid for the Republican nomination. Is it a case of cause and effect, or mere co├»ncidence?

Here are a couple of excerpts from Colbert's announcement on 2007-10-16:

on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Tonight, I, Stephen Colbert, am officially announcing that I have decided to officially consider whether or not I will announce that I am running for President of the United States [in South Carolina], and I will be making an announcement of that decision very soon — preferably on a more prestigious show.

on The Colbert Report

Well, after nearly 15 minutes of soul-searching, I've heard the call. Nation, I shall seek the office of President of the United States. ...

I am from South Carolina, I am for South Carolina, and I defy any other candidate to pander more to the people of South Carolina — those beautiful, beautiful people.
Brownback is expected to officially announce the withdrawal of his candidacy tomorrow in Topeka, Kansas, the state capital. Brownback is consistently anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights; his position on evolution, though, is somewhat more nuanced. He said in a New York Times op-ed that he believes in "microevolution" — small changes within a species — but rejects any theory of evolution that does not include a divine guiding hand. In other words, a salamander may turn into a somewhat different salamander, but not into a wholly different species; that would require God to zap the new species into existence. Although Brownback's credentials as a religious conservative are solid, he failed to attract major support from the religious right in the Republican Party. His fundraising was so ineffective that he lacks the cash even to compete in Iowa.

It remains to be seen what candidate(s) Colbert will drive out of the Democratic race.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Jon Stewart spars with Tony Snow

Last night (2007-10-15), Jon Stewart had a lively discussion with President Bush's former White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow. Before becoming WHPS, Snow worked at Fox News, as well as on radio and in newspaper columns, and was a speechwriter for President George H. Bush. The interview on last night's Daily Show was expansive enough that it took two segments — almost 14 minutes, not including the commercial break.

First off, the video links:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, original air date 2007-10-15, ©2007 Comedy Central
And now the transcript:
Jon Stewart: Welcome back! My guest — until recently, he was the White House Press Secretary. Please welcome back to the program Tony Snow! [applause] Thank you for joining us.

Tony Snow: Good to be here. Thank you.

Stewart: First of all, may I say this: you look great.

Snow: Thank you.

Stewart: You look very healthy, and I'm very glad. How are you feeling?

Snow: I'm feeling great; thank you. Look, I've gotta say: this has been one of these things, having been sick, Democrats and Republicans have both come out and were terrific, so there was at least good bipartisanship there.

Stewart: You're a "uniter."

Snow: There you go.

Stewart: It is — I could imagine, too, going through the pressure of that job must be — incredible.

Snow: It actually — I love the job, it was so much fun. You know this — you get people on, you spar, I loved it, so in many ways being Press Secretary is pretty good therapy. It's a whole lot better than sitting around at home feeling sorry for yourself or thinking, "Is it worse today or better? I don't know. God! I don't know!"

Stewart: So, why leave, then? Was it really the thing, you just gotta make some money?

Snow: Got broke, yeah.

Stewart: See, that is admirably honest. Most people would say, all those guys always say, you know, "Geez, I'm gonna go, I really love my family and I want to spend some time with them." Nobody ever says, like, "This thing pays for crap."

Snow: Well, the other thing I figured out is you can actually make out like a bandit once you leave.

Stewart: Crazy.

Snow: It's great. So, I can make more money and spend more time on my family. It's a pretty good deal.

Stewart: See? People don't realize, that's how you should sell government service. Give us a couple of years, and then you can take a bath in gold. Let me show you this, I think you'll find this very interesting. As the Bush Administration's fortunes began to go — what's the direction? — downhill, look at the difference between press secretaries. Look how much better-looking they made them. Okay, [photo of Ari Fleischer] starts there, then things start to go south, but not so south. [photo morphs into Scott McClellan] Then they go, you know what, let's bring in a guy [photo morphs into Tony Snow] Okay, now, that's a nice-looking guy, but it's still tanking. What are we gonna do now? [photo morphs into Dana Perino] Hello, Mommy! You see how that went? And now, from there, [photo morphs into Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) from Star Trek: Voyager] yeah, that's where they go next. I really — here's what I like: you were great at it. Much better — McClellan always felt like it was Chuck Wepner getting into the ring. You know, it was like "The Bayonne Bleeder."

Snow: I know who Chuck Wepner was, yeah.

Stewart: "The Bayonne Bleeder." They'd call him up and go, "Muhammad Ali needs somebody to punch." What makes a good Press Secretary?

Snow: I think, you know, the answer is, I don't know, but one thing that probably helped me: I was in the press for 28 years. I liked reporters — still like 'em — and furthermore, look, there wasn't any trick they tried to pull that I hadn't tried to pull before, so when they were jerkin' me around I'd jerk back, but on the other hand, when they had legitimate needs, you also try to make sure you stand up for 'em.

Stewart: What tricks are they pulling, because, from the outside, watching it, they seem overmatched. [audience laughs] You know, just when I watch them, they seem, literally, like, [nasally] "I got something," and then they say it, and you're like, you know, "That's great, Helen," and then you move on. They seem overmatched, like it's almost vestigial in some [inaudible].

Snow: A lot of times, it's pulling an old quote from a Tony Snow column; well, that's easy enough. Or pull an old quote, try to find something incriminating, or try to set up a fight even where one doesn't exist, so there are a couple of kinds of stories that reporters now do. One is a process story, which is really boring. It's like, what color tie is the President wearing? Whoo-oo. And the second is —

Stewart: What does that mean?

Snow: Exactly. And the second is to try to pick fights. "Nancy Pelosi said this about the President; what does he say?" And it ends up being kind of kindergarten stuff a lot of times, but —

Stewart: That's how it appears to the outside is, it seems to be things that are maybe not as crucial, but on the other side, the President's got a tough time because he's so — their administration is so — uh, irrational.

Snow: How so?

Stewart: To business? We're going to take a commercial break, and we'll come back and we'll talk about — what I just said. We'll have more with Tony Snow in just one second.

[commercial break]

Stewart: Welcome back! We're speaking with Tony Snow. Before we left, I mentioned something about irrationality for the Administration. To some — me — the things that he says, for instance, that he is, seem to be the opposite. Like, he would say, "I don't like the partisanship in Washington. I don't like the tone," and then he would be very — he would politicize the Administration in a way that's unusual or be really dickish.

Snow: I've heard you say — but I defy you to go back and find a time when he's actually been the one throwing the mud or calling the names, because it is his instinct, if you go back to his history [audience groans] — sorry about that, look it up, do your homework, Google it.

Stewart: Remember 2006, so the Democrats taken, and everybody is talking about how the President is going to make sort of an olive-branch speech, and in it, he uses the phrase "the Democrat-controlled Congress," which is a real poke in the side. That seems unnecessary, and would only be used if you were exhibiting — what was the word I used earlier?

Snow: Irrational behavior. It's the way he talks. If you go back and look at the content of the speech, the content of the speech, the State of the Union Address, the President talks about trying to go to probably the most "green" energy policy in American history, going away from oil, going to ethanol, going to biofuels: big deal, that's something the Democrats could get behind. Have they tried to support it? No. No Child Left Behind, something Democrats and Republicans worked together on —

Stewart: See, this is fascinating, what you're doing right now. What I said is, why did he use that phrase?

Snow: What I'm trying to do is put in the context of the speech so I can give you a sense of the tenor of the speech. You're taking one word —

Stewart: But that word is an emotionally loaded word that he is aware of. These gusy are — everything is focus-grouped to within an inch of their lives. The phrasing that they use is really repetitive and rigid. It is a move designed to poke.

Snow: Actually, because we went through this, we went and talked to him and said, "Come on, did you mean to say —" and he said, "No, that's just the way I talk."

Stewart: You did ask him about it?

Snow: You've got the Senate Majority Leader who calls him a liar, you've got people who've been far more direct and personal in their criticism of the President, and suddenly they're howling as if he's been Jack the Ripper because he said Democrat instead of Democratic.

Stewart: What about politicizing, let's say, the Department of Justice? We had Jack Goldsmith on the show, and he said the first question he was asked in his interview was, "What's this campaign contribution to a Democrat? What's that?"

Snow: Well, I guarantee you, first, when you're having political jobs — he was a political appointee — they do ask questions like that, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican —

Stewart: The Department of Justice, though, is traditionally —

Snow: Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican — well, that doesn't mean that he's going to be called upon to try to do political hackery.

Stewart: So, you believe this, in your heart, you believe he's not a partisan guy, and he's not politicizing — has he had one Democrat in his administration, in his Cabinet, in a position of authority?

Snow: Uh, no. But, on the other —

Stewart: What I'm saying is, he says things that are, "I'm a uniter," but all of his actions — the problem that I have with their administration, in terms of credibility, everything that they say they are is what they're not. [audience cheers] Don't you think?

Snow: Here's where I want to come back at ya. First, if you go back to George Bush's history in Texas, the guy he worked with, Bob Bullock, a Democrat, he came to Washington thinking, "Okay, I'll work with Democrats," and he did a lot of outreach, and he said, "Look, let's work together," and basically what he's gotten is the back of the hand.

Stewart: So, this is the Democrats' fault?

Snow: Well, no, I'll tell you what's the Democrats' —

Stewart: They have turned a kind man, a uniter, into a bitter shell of a man. This is not right!

Snow: No! Wrongo, my friend, he's still somebody —

Stewart: All right, here's another one —

Snow: Whoa, whoa, let me just throw in one more, because behind the scenes there are regular meetings with Democratic leaders and he's still trying to reach out to these guys, and what will happen is, they'll have a perfectly pleasant meeting, and then they'll go out to the microphones and say perfectly awful things.

Stewart: But he'll say something to them like — okay, "This is the most important conflict of our lives. This is the fight. This is World War II," but he won't do anything like call for a draft or do anything else. You know, he's got the military on 15-month stop-loss. You know, it doesn't seem to make sense to say, "This is the battle of our lives," and yet, "Just go about your business; we got it covered."

Snow: Well, he's asked for 90,000 additional troops, and they're being built in, so that's happening right now. The other thing is, he understands, if you have a draft, think about Vietnam: a lot of people went unwillingly to a war they didn't support. What you have now is a volunteer military, where people know what they're getting into. They're more motivated, they're far more competent, and as a result you have a professional military force. You're asking for trouble, and you're really asking for political trouble — there is no political consensus for —

Stewart: You're definitely asking for political trouble, but do you understand people's frustration that the person that they see in the sound bites does not live up to the actions of the administration?

Snow: No, I get a different frustration, which is the person —

Stewart: Comedians?

Snow: No, because you guys have — look, you've got a great ability to sort of find points that are funny about people, but the fact is, the President is somebody — it's always frustrating when you've got somebody — I think he's a terrific leader. I think he's a guy who's made tough and courageous decisions.

Stewart: Now, see, that's a great — "He's a terrific leader": how is that?

Snow: Okay, number one —

Stewart: I mean that seriously, because my definition of a leader is to make tough decisions and then convince people to support them actively and follow you, not — you know, he says, "I'm not popular 'cause I make tough decisions." Maybe they're wrong. I mean, I could say, "Everyone should wear coats made out of puppies," and nobody wants to do it, and I say, "What a great leader I am! Look at me! It's unpopular!"

Snow: Coats made out of puppies?? Oh, my god!

Stewart: You know what I'm saying. But he's basically saying — [audience applause] [to the audience:] Settle down — He's basically saying, "Look how unpopular I am! I'm a leader!"

Snow: Well, think of it this way: he has said to Congress, "You need to fund the troops." They say, "No, we're going to pull them out." They come to a vote — guess what! — they do; they end up financing the troops. He says, "We're having success in Iraq." Today's Washington Post editorial indicates — guess what! — they are having success.

Stewart: They're apparently defeating Al Qaeda.

Snow: They're defeating Al Qaeda, and they're also [inaudible] the Shia.

Stewart: Let's leave!

Snow: No! Let's finish the job.

Stewart: How do they know what emboldens the terrorists so well? They seem to always know what emboldens the terrorists. For instance, when we have an argument about his policies, that's very emboldening, apparently, to the terrorists.

Snow: Well, let me put it this way: if you're Al Qaeda, and you think you're going to be able to chase the United States out, when we have clear military superiority, we've got the ability to win on the battlefield, and you end up leaving because of political pressure that in some ways have been fomented by their ability to stick it out, you look at yourself as a winner!

Stewart: But the President says we'll leave when there's an acceptable level of violence. So, if I'm Al Qaeda, and I want the U.S. to leave, don't I just lay low until they leave?

Snow: Yeah, but apparently they're not smart enough to figure that out, because —

Stewart: They're smart enough to watch C–SPAN, and make sure that if the Democratic leader from somewhere says something, they know to make their strategy around that, but not smart enough to do the other?

Snow: No, no, that's not how they build a strategy.

Stewart: You don't think the President and his administration has made it so that to discuss the war plan is to embolden the terrorists?

Snow: No, I mean, look: you gotta have a debate about war plan. You're gonna have it any time. [Jon Stewart laughs] It's true!

Stewart: No, I know, that's what I'm saying.

Snow: Yeah, well, I agree. I'm not fightin' you on this, and I don't think the President would fight you on this. Of course you're going to have a fight about it —

Stewart: Didn't you say yourself, "You gotta look at who's watching this: Iraq — Al Qaeda"? You don't think that has a chilling effect on debate to say to somebody, "Hey, those points you're bringing up, I think they're great points, but just know, Osama bin Laden's jumping up and down happy"? That's very tough!

Snow: I haven't noticed a lot of Democrats skittering frightened into the bushes because we [inaudible] the argument.

Stewart: Really?? Which Democratic Congress are you watching? Because to me, they look like giant pussies to me! They don't do anything! Don't you think? A non-binding resolution about the possibility of maybe saying something.

Snow: Exactly — which is why they lost an argument to a leader!

Stewart: You turned it around! Son of a bitch! Listen, that was fun!

Snow: That was fun.

Stewart: And I really do appreciate your coming on. You know, you were on before, and I really respect you as a person and I like what you bring. I really appreciate it.

Snow: The feeling is mutual; congratulations.

Stewart: Thank you very much, I appreciate it. Tony Snow, everybody!
Tony Snow does have a point that Bush has succeeded in getting the Democrat Party — um, I mean the Democratic Party — to cheerfully follow him down the road to Hell, not just on funding the Iraq War and Occupation, but on other misbegotten projects as well. However, I just can't bring myself to call that "leadership" on Bush's part. In particular, the key element of Jon Stewart's definition that Bush lacks is the part about "convinc[ing] people to support [your decisions] actively and follow you." Bullying the milquetoast Democrats into grudging capitulation is not "convincing them to actively support your decisions." Indeed, the qualities that makes someone a bully — we know that Dubya was a schoolyard bully as a child, and the trait seems to have stuck — are antithetical to leadership.

Avenging Angel over at DailyKos — crossposted at Perrspectives — listed a few of the dozens upon dozens of times that Bush has said Democrat Party. Sure, it's a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly does get to personality and temperament, as well as lack of leadership. When Dubya repeatedly uses a term he knows is insulting and offensive, it is impossible to pass it off as "just the way I talk." He claims to be reaching out across the aisle, and Tony Snow makes it sound like it was entirely the Democratic Party that was rebuffing Bush's efforts at bipartisanship, but the record is clear, and it is not favorable to the President. His lack of leadership also shows in the way that prominent members of his administration have systematically attacked the patriotism, courage, intellect, and morality of anyone who disagrees with their program of unconstitutional surveillance, unconstitutional detention, and unconscionable treatment of detainees.

Tony Snow mostly ducked the point about "emboldening the terrorists," but the Bush Administration has systematically chilled debate about important issues of how best to protect the United States from the threat of international terrorism. To even discuss the notion that there are some forms of interrogation that are so uncivilized as to be anathema under even the worst circumstances is "emboldening the terrorists." To suggest that there should be some judicial oversight over the Executive's exercise of powers expressly denied it by the Constitution is "emboldening the terrorists." No, Mr. President, invading an Arab nation without provocation has emboldened the terrorists in ways that will harm our nation for a generation or more.

Tony also talked about concepts like "clear military superiority" and "the ability to win on the battlefield," but in order to win on the battlefield, you first have to get the enemy to engage you there. Given our overwhelming military superiority, the terrorists, insurgents, and other assorted Enemies of Freedom choose instead to engage us where "clear military superiority" doesn't work for us. Think about it: the Redcoats had "clear military superiority" over the Continental Army, the ARVN had "clear military superiority" over the Vietcong, the French had "clear military superiority" over the Algerians, and yet the underdog prevailed time and time again, because the superior military power lacked the agility and adaptiveness to fight an unconventional opponent. Our clear military superiority won't win the War on Terror — not in a decade, not in a generation, not even in a century — because we're on the wrong battlefield. We need to shut down Al Qaeda not by picking away at its extremities, the small fry we're going after in Iraq, but by going directly for its jugular vein and its aorta: the financing and the pool of new recruits. Military superiority acts against us in both, because the war in Iraq has been a magnet for recruits and contributions.

The Republicans succeeded in 2004 in tarring John Kerry with the idea that he would address the War on Terror as primarily a law-enforcement problem, rather than a military problem. Well, guess what! It is primarily a law-enforcement problem. We need more of Charlie and Don Eppes on Numb3rs and less Jack Bauer on 24.

I also take issue with Tony Snow's dismissive remark about "process" stories. Yes, sure, a story about what color necktie Bush is wearing is inane drivel, but that's not what a "process" story is. The American people need — and want — to know more about the ways the Bush Administration has subverted the fundamental processes of government, and especially the ways it has arrogated unprecedented powers to the Executive Branch. It isn't enough merely to fix Bush's insanely misguided policies, we must also fix the broken processes that allowed them to ever see the light of day.

On the subject of Bush's personally slinging mud, no, he doesn't call anyone "Poopy Pants," but here's an illustrative quote from just last week:
Congress must make a choice: Will they keep the intelligence gap closed by making [Bush's evisceration of the FISA law] permanent? Or will they limit our ability to collect this intelligence and keep us safe, staying a step ahead of the terrorists who want to attack us? — George W. Bush, 2007-10-10
So, anyone who opposes Bush's watering down of the protections of the FISA law — a law that was enacted precisely because the Executive Branch had, under orders from President Nixon, routinely eavesdropped on Americans in direct contravention of the Fourth Amendment — wants to hinder the ability of the government to protect America from terrorists. In other words, "You support my legislation, or you are a traitor and a fool."

Tony Snow chides the Democrats for partisanship because they didn't leap on board Bush's new "greenest ever" energy policy. Let's see: he still wants to drill in ANWR, last I checked, and his program for corn ethanol isn't an energy policy, it's a corn farmer subsidy program. His insistence that all emissions reductions be entirely voluntary undermines his entire "green" position. Likewise with No Child Left Behind, many Democrats oppose it because they believe it to be fundamentally misguided policy. That's not partisanship for the sake of partisanship, it's a legitimate policy disagreement. But Bush and his backers consistently paint any disagreement as nothing more than petty partisan squabbling.

There is one respect in which Bush's policies cannot be described as irrational. Viewed through the lens of what is best for the United States of America, they are insane, counterproductive, and downright frightening. Viewed, however, through the lens of what is best for the Imperial Presidency, the wealthiest Americans, the big corporations, and the narrow circle of his close political contributors and ideological backers, Bush's policies make complete sense. The Iraq War is welfare for Halliburton and Blackwater. Ignoring the hurricane bearing down on New Orleans and taking no measures to coordinate the evacuation and relief efforts is fostering distrust of government as a tool for helping ordinary people. The Energy Task Force is a way of funneling money from the public purse into oil company profits. Politicizing the Department of Justice and the courts is a way of pushing an ideological agenda through activist conservative judges and prosecutors who take a hands-off attitude on crimes by Republicans.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Why Shawn Hornbeck didn't run

Back in January, I posted an entry about the case of Shawn Hornbeck, the Missouri boy who was kidnaped and held for four years by Michael Devlin, a pizzeria manager. One of the burning questions at the time was, why didn't Shawn run away? He appeared to have had ample opportunity to escape — he was often left unsupervised, and had at least some access to telephone and Internet. Bill O'Reilly and some others took the position that "obviously" Shawn must've been enjoying himself, or he would've made some attempt at escape. To this day, the most disturbing comments that have ever been posted by the readers here at The Third Path were in that thread. One of the comments suggested that Shawn "enjoyed his private and independent life with his pal [Devlin]," and callously ignored his parents' distress because he was having a good time playing hooky, and perhaps even actively participated in the abduction of the second boy.

Today we learned the truth, and all the people like Billo and "Therran" are shown for the insensitive idiots they truly are. It is they — not Shawn — who are Michael Devlin's accessories in crime.

Shawn Hornbeck didn't try to run away because Michael Devlin had already tried to kill him at least once. Any unsuccessful escape attempt could have been fatal. Shawn made a deal with the devil — rather more literally than the phrase is usually used — that he would do whatever Devlin asked, if only Devlin would let him live. He made that deal as Devlin's hands were around his neck, trying to kill him. We know that Shawn was not only sexually abused, but also tortured, because Devlin kept the video he made. We know that Shawn was kept tied to a bed for weeks at a time, with duct tape on his mouth. How many adults do you know who could go through that sort of horror with their faculties intact? But Shawn wasn't an adult. He wasn't even in junior high yet when he was kidnaped at gunpoint.

I said it nine months ago, and I'll say it again: just because you don't see the reason for someone's apparently "irrational" behavior, doesn't mean that there isn't a reason.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Seymour Hersch on Inside Iraq

On this week's Inside Iraq on Al Jazeera English, the first half of the program was a one-on-one interview with Seymour Hersch of The New Yorker magazine. The second half was a discussion with Dr. Seyed Mohammad Marandi, professor of North American Studies at Tehran University, and John Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The topic was the possibility of a U.S. military attack against Iran at some time before the end of George W. Bush's term as President [2009-01-20].

Here is the transcript of the first half of the program, the interview with Seymour Hersch. ©2007, Al Jazeera English, original air date 2007-10-05.

Jasim Azzawi: Hello and welcome to Inside Iraq. I'm Jasim Azzawi. Reports indicate the Pentagon's growing plans to attack Iran. A routine procedure, or an indication of a regional war before President Bush ends his term? If Iran's nuclear dream goes up in smoke, will U.S. soldiers in Iraq become Iran's favorite target, and will the Iraqi government and militias side with the mullahs in Tehran or the Great Satan? Raoui Raggeh reports.
All options are on the table. — Bush
All options are still on the table. — Cheney
If you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target. — [U.S. official]
[correspondent]: If there's one thing the US Administration has made clear in its policy towards Iran, it is: the US has the option of carrying out a military strike on Iran. Recent reports indicate that if the attack were to take place, it's not about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Rather, it's about its alleged role in backing Iraqi fighters and providing weapons that end up killing American soldiers. But can the country currently embroiled in the Iraq war, and the source of so much resentment across the world, carry out another military strike.

[analyst]: Iran is not Iraq. They are different. Iran is not Afghanistan. And at the same time, I really believe the American people [are] fed up with the corpses of their girls and boys coming back from Iraq.

[correspondent]: Reports suggest there's internal dissent within the Bush White House over what course of action the Administration should take against Iran. On one side, proponents of a more aggressive approach, led by Dick Cheney, have recently been able to get the State Department to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. But what would a strike on Iran mean on America's endeavors in Iraq and the broader Middle East in general?

[analyst]: Iran will attack not only Israel, but the American administration in the Gulf. That means Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, all the countries.

[correspondent]: It's highly unlikely that a US strike on Iran could encourage the Iranian regime, or the Revolutionary Guards, to change their ways. In fact, it's likely to cause a surge in sympathy towards Iran around the Arab world, and from Iraqi politicians and clerics. A possible influx of Arab fighters could be expected. If the United States has learned anything from its endeavor in Iraq, there'd better be an idea this time around about what's to follow a possible strike on Iran. Raoui Raggeh on Inside Iraq.
Azzawi: To examine whether a U.S. military strike against Iran is a rumor or hard fact, I am joined from Washington by New Yorker magazine reporter Seymour Hersch. Welcome to Inside Iraq. Mr. Hersch, in your article you said that plans by the Pentagon are being redrawn, perhaps selecting the specific targets for the US military to strike. Is this part of a regular, routine procedure, or is this driven by political consideration in Washington, D.C., as well as hard facts on the ground in Iraq?

Seymour Hersch: Well, it's beyond just normal. There's of course, always, always contingency planning. In other words, my government's always planning for everything, you know, every contingency possible. But in the case of Iran, it's a little more complicated, and it's gone well beyond the normal contingency planning and what the military would call operational planning. This has been going on, you know, I've been writing the same story now for almost 2½ years. The planning traditionally, until recently, the American planning was targeted mostly, largely at the Iranian nuclear facilities, Natans and other places that were very hard targets. Natans, for example, is 75 feet [22 meters] underground. And that was the planning until what I reported in the New Yorker this week, is that there was a sudden change this summer. For a number of reasons, they decided the American government would no longer target primarily Iran's nuclear facilities, but instead go after the Revolutionary Guards.

Azzawi: Wouldn't that be the same for Iran? I mean, if American fighter-bombers come and bomb targets within Iran, does it make much difference to them whether they are hitting the Revolutionary Guards or the nuclear facilities? Wouldn't the response by Iran be the same regardless?

Hersch: Washington's thinking is that they've been telling the world for the last 2 or 3 months that the Revolutionary Guards are responsible — indirectly — with supplies and ammunitions and guidance responsible for the deaths of American soldiers and British soldiers, coalition soldiers, in Iraq. And that has been a new thesis put out by this President since early summer: Iran is directly involved in the problems we're having in Iraq. The British say the same things about the problems they had in Basra; as you know, they're leaving the south gradually, not so gradually, and they blame the Iranians, too. Of course, the case isn't that clear, so the thinking is that the American public would accept a cross-border raid, a raid on revolutionary camps, and some of our allies, Britain in particular, might even go along with the idea of limited raids. So, from the American point of view, this is a huge change from what we call counter-proliferation.

Azzawi: If that is the case, Mr. Hersch, what would be the spark in order to precipitate this military strike? Would it be some sort of miscalculation by Iran? Would it be an increase in the IPF or IED or even the money or training for the militias? Like you said, you've been writing about this for 2½ years, and the last two articles indicated somehow there might be a military strike against Iran. President Bush leaves office January 20, 2009. He's a lame duck, perhaps next year. Will this be indicated or driven by time or driven by other factors like Cheney, as you suggested in your article?

Hersch: Well, one of the things that would certainly trigger it would be if the Iranians did something across the border, made a serious raid. I quote one American general as saying it would take 10 American — 10 dead soldiers and 4 burned trucks, and that would be enough of a casus belli. That would be a justification. There's no evidence that Iran has done any military action across the border. There's also no evidence — there's a great dispute, as I said — about the extent to which the Iranian arms and et cetera aid is any different than it was over the last 20 years.

Azzawi: They are not that stupid, are they, Mr. Hersch, to give Mr Bush the casus belli as you said, for Cheney and Cole to start, you know, driving the President, as well as the other establishment, to say, "This is it. This is what we've been looking for. Let's go after them"? The Iranians so far have been extremely careful. Their calculus is very meticulous. While it's true they are supporting the militias with military training and arms and money, and yet, even commanders on the ground are saying that it is not very explicit.

Hersch: Well, you know, there is always Ahmadinejad. The Americans can always fall back on him, but I don't think his statements are going to be enough of a driving force. It certainly doesn't help Iran's position in America when he does things like challenge the Holocaust; that's quite foolish in my book, but that isn't a military action. I think you're right: so far, the Iranians have been very, very careful about what they do, and the aid they provide, particularly to their fellow Shi'ites in the South, is essentially the same aid they've been providing since Saddam was in power and putting his foot on the neck of the Shias all the time, so there's always been a tremendous tie, as everybody in your audience knows, between the Shias of Iran and the Shias of Iraq, and there, unfortunately, is America's dilemma.

Azzawi: I don't know whether President Bush is a poker player or not, but when you play poker and pretty much, as the game comes to a close and you lose all your money, oftentimes poker players double down, they put the last chip they have on the table with a view of recouping their earlier losses. Is the President perhaps that kind of a guy? The dominant thinking in this region is, since the President made a huge, calamitous gamble in Iraq and he lost, the only way he can recoup his credibility and perhaps some interest for the United States is by going up to Iran. Does that play in Washington?

Hersch: Well, that's certainly the concern of some of the people with whom I talk. That is, there's a fear that the President — this may not be necessarily a rational act — there's a tremendous opposition, but, you know, I just happened to have breakfast with somebody this morning who knows the Pentagon, who described people there, worried in the military, worried about what they see as a messianic President. I have no idea what George Bush is really thinking on the inside. I can just tell you, I've been watching this President for a long time, and the one thing that's interesting about George Bush is, I do believe him when he says things. He said he was going to go into Iraq, and he's making threats to Iran right now, he's constantly threatening them, and he's saying in private, he's making clear in private, that he would very much like to go. I report some of that in the article in the New Yorker this week.

Azzawi: Political analysts, including Mr Antony Cordesman, have this theory that right now it does not make sense for the US to attack Iran, especially its nuclear facilities, simply because we don't know the extent of that facility, how far advanced it is, perhaps about 5 to 7 years away, as Mr El-Baradei of the IAEA says, so, why attack it now? Why not let the Iranians spend the energy and the money and bring it to almost fruition, to about 90% or 95%, and then the next President has the luxury of attacking it and get Iranians to spend another 20, 30 years in order to bring it back again. What do you think of that theory? Because, simply, the military and strategic assets right now do not exist in the region. Most of the carriers have gone.

Hersch: You know, you can ask me questions, hypothetical questions, all week. What I do in my articles and my basic, when I do interviews, I try to stick — I'm not a theorist, and when it comes to guessing about what's going to happen, I will tell you that I think it's very likely, and from what I understand, this President, George Bush, sees himself as "The Man," and he's not sure that the next President, whether Democrat or Republican, would have the integrity, in his view, or the courage, in his view, in his belief, to do what he can do.

Azzawi: Given the fact that this final act by President Bush might not be played according to some sort of calculus and logic, I was surprised and fascinated by a quote you have in the article, "Shifting Targets," by somebody saying, "Cheney does not give a rat's ass about the Republicans," so this is above and beyond politics right now? This is driven by some sort of a special agenda within a certain group within the White House and the executives?

Hersch: Oh, yes. I don't think there's any question there are many people who believe any rational assessment of the situation would preclude going to Iran. There's just too many things. Iran has too much potential to strike back. I saw some senior — for this article, I saw some senior European intelligence officials, who believe Iran would not strike back at America or Israel, but would strike asymmetrically other targets, perhaps oil targets and gas targets in the Gulf, to drive the price up, perhaps go back to terrorism and even trigger activities against Americans or Europeans in Europe or even Latin America, bring in Hezbollah, perhaps.

Azzawi: Mr. Seymour Hersch of The New Yorker magazine, thank you for being a guest on Inside Iraq.

[voiceover]: No President, at any juncture in history, has ever taken military options off the table. — Dan Bartlett, White House spokesman
I very much agree with Jasim's point that Bush is like a gambler who has been losing big and is ready to go all-in. The problem is, our soldiers and our grandchildren's taxes are the chips. No sane person would order an attack on Iran, but it remains to be seen whether or not George W. Bush will.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

New Mexico's new area code

My two key interests are politics and telecommunications. Every once in a while, the two intersect. The state of New Mexico, which has been served by the single area code 505 since area codes were created in 1947, gets a second code on Sunday. Several years ago, there were plans for an area code split. Rural commissioners on the NM-PRC overrode the commissioners from the more urban part of the state; the result was that Albuquerque and Santa Fe would've changed to the new code, leaving most of the state in 505. (There is precedent for such a move. In eastern Kentucky, the urban areas of Lexington and the Cincinnati suburbs changed to 859 while the rural areas kept 606.) However, the issue was kicked down the road a couple of years by number conservation measures.

When the need to split again rose to the surface, the urban commissioners managed to swing the vote their way: Albuquerque and Santa Fe will remain 505, while places like Las Cruces, Roswell, and Tucumcari change to 575. The boundary has a rather odd shape, looking a bit like a dragon in flight, or perhaps a dog crawling out from under a blanket.

If you have friends in New Mexico, specifically in the yellow area of the map above, you have until 2008-10-05 — a year from today — to get used to the new area code.

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