Monday, April 28, 2008

Who Works For You?

People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true. -- Lewis Lapham

In This Week's Sift:

TV's Military Analysts: Who Do They Work For? Eight days ago the New York Times made a stunning attack on the integrity of the major media's military analysts and the networks that employ them. The networks responded by ... well actually they haven't responded. And maybe they can't.

Pretty Laws, Ugly Practices, and the Demonization of Lawyers. Why bother to take away people's rights when you can accomplish the same thing by taking away their ability to claim their rights? How John McCain, Senate Republicans, and conservatives on the Supreme Court have eviscerated a woman's right to equal pay.

Religious Issues. This week I gave the religious short notes their own section. Moyers interviews Wright. An atheist sues the Army. And Ben Stein stands up for innocent religious extremists who are being oppressed by nasty scientists.

Short Notes. How to make John Ashcroft lose his temper. Being poor can kill you. What's underneath the Obama-Clinton battle. And a high school prank I wish I'd thought of.

TV's Military Analysts: Who Do They Work For?
It's hard to claim that a story that made the front page of the Sunday New York Times is flying under the radar, but this one is: On April 20 the NYT had a major article called "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand". The article describes the incestuous relationship between the Pentagon, the "independent" military analysts you see on TV, and the military contractors these analysts often work for.

Short version of how the system works: Ex-generals can make much more money after their military retirement by working for government contractors. To certain extent they're selling their expertise, but mainly what they sell is their access to decision-makers in the Pentagon and to inside information about the military's needs. A number of these retired officers also work as military analysts for the major TV networks. They purport to be independent, but the Pentagon thinks of them as its spokesmen in the media. The Pentagon "pays" them by arranging special events that enhance their access -- and give them more to sell to contractors.

The article describes specific moments when meetings were held and talking points were distributed -- which the analysts then repeated on their networks as if they had come to these conclusions independently.

At the Pentagon, members of Ms. Clarke’s staff marveled at the way the analysts seamlessly incorporated material from talking points and briefings as if it was their own.

“You could see that they were messaging,” Mr. Krueger said. “You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying it over and over and over.” Some days, he added, “We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’ ”

The article is impressive by itself, but this video compiled by brings it home by collecting the TV excerpts. It's one thing to read about talking points, but another to see them come to life.

It's debatable whether this program broke any of the laws against institutionalized propaganda, but the Times' article strikes at the heart of the integrity of networks like CNN. (It also strikes at Fox News, but integrity has never been an issue there.) So you would think that they would respond swiftly either by defending themselves or taking action to right their ship. But no. There's been an almost complete silence about the story from the major media.

Glenn Greenwald has kept after the story in his characteristically relentless way. (Note to self: Never get on Glenn's wrong side.) Already on Sunday he was observing the media non-reaction: "Having just watched more Sunday news shows than a human being should ever have to endure, it is striking -- though unsurprising -- that not a single one saw fit to mention this NYT story demonstrating that these news programs all fed government propaganda to their viewers." On Tuesday he found documentation that CNN had presented its list of military analysts to the Pentagon for approval prior to the Iraq invasion. On Wednesday he was interviewing ex-CNN-anchor Aaron Brown, and destroying the claim "that [the military analysts] were there only to instruct viewers on tactical and military questions, not to engage in political advocacy."

To me, this story looks like the tip of an iceberg that the networks don't dare examine. In the old model of journalism, from the Walter Cronkite era of my youth, journalists were supposed to be working for you, the reader or viewer. Being human, they had points of view that sometimes would distort their coverage, but that was a failing. When exposed, it was deplorable.

Today, though, most of the talking heads you see are not working for you, not even in theory. They're working on you. In political coverage, for example, it has become very hard to tell the difference between the hired campaign operatives being interviewed and the pundits who interview them. This week CNN hired Tony Snow to be a political commentator. Is he working for you now, or is he still working for President Bush and the conservative movement? Is he going to help you understand the political scene, or try to manipulate you into thinking what the conservative movement wants you to think?

In theory, it would be possible to assemble to team of pundits of a variety of political philosophies, but still have them work for you. Their statements would be colored by their philosophies (the same way mine are), but they would say only what they truly thought, and not what their side's strategy wanted you to believe.

In practice, I don't see this happening anywhere.

Pretty Laws, Ugly Practices, and the Demonization of Lawyers
In order to be meaningful, a right has to be embedded in a much larger structure of oversight and enforcement. The constitution of the Soviet Union, for example, guaranteed all kinds of rights -- freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and just about any other right you'd want. But if the Soviet government violated those rights, a citizen had no way to call it to account. In this way, beautiful laws and oppressive governments can get along quite nicely.

Rights are popular in America, so no political party can run on the platform "We want to take away rights." But what this administration has consistently done instead is chip away at the structure of oversight and enforcement. On paper, for example, you haven't lost your fourth-amendment right not to be spied on without probable cause. But if the state secrets privilege prevents a court from examining the government's domestic spying, just try to claim that right. And if habeas corpus is weakened enough that you can't see an impartial judge at all, pretty much all your rights become unenforceable.

Habeas corpus is a little abstract, but this week we saw a much more easily grasped example of the enforcement-denying process. Federal law protects women from discrimination in the workplace, and in particular makes it illegal to pay a woman less purely because she's a woman. Last year, the Supreme Court re-interpreted the 180-day statute of limitations on this law. Under the old interpretation, each discriminatory paycheck restarted the statute-of-limitations clock. But the new interpretation is that the clock starts only once, when the discrimination starts; if you don't catch on and file suit within six months, tough luck.

The new interpretation makes the law (Title VII) just about useless. If it takes you more than six months to figure out that your male colleagues make more money, too late. Given that companies discourage their employees from comparing paychecks, very few women are going to pull a case together under the time limit.

In response, the House passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (named for the woman who lost the Supreme Court case), which would reinstate the old interpretation -- each paycheck is a new act of discrimination. But it died in the Senate Wednesday under Senate rules that allow 41 senators to block consideration of a bill. (It's an implicit filibuster; you don't have to actually talk the bill to death if you can demonstrate enough support to show that you could talk the bill to death.) Every Democratic senator voted for the bill. (Except Harry Reid, who joined the opposition for procedural reasons after it was clear the vote had failed. You have to be in the opposition to bring the bill up again in this session of Congress.) Forty-one Republicans voted against.

John McCain didn't stop campaigning long enough to vote. (Obama and Clinton showed up and voted in favor.) But he expressed his opposition from the road: "
I am all in favor of pay equity for women, but this kind of legislation, as is typical of what's being proposed by my friends on the other side of the aisle, opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems."

There you have it in a nutshell: McCain isn't against equal pay, he's just against lawsuits. But how does he intend for a woman to claim her right to equal pay, if she can't file a lawsuit? It's a Soviet-style position: We can retain our pretty law against pay discrimination, as long as we don't allow anyone to use it.

Keep this example in mind whenever the Republicans trot out their favorite whipping boys, the trial lawyers. Lawyers have a bad image these days, so it sounds good to be against lawyers. But lawyers represent clients, and clients need some way to enforce their rights. Are the Republicans offering some alternative way to defend rights? Or are they in effect doing away with those rights?

When pressed, of course, Republicans will even deny that they're against lawsuits; they're just against frivolous lawsuits. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick presents a good summary of Lily Ledbetter's case. Go and check its frivolity for yourself.

Religious Issues
So many of this week's short notes concerned religious issues that they're worth a section of their own.

This week's Bill Moyers' Journal demonstrates why Bill has become such a hero in the liberal blogosphere: He sits down with Jeremiah Wright and has a real conversation with him about religion and the black experience of Christianity. You can watch the whole thing online. (Or you can go to Salon and let Joan Walsh give you the view from Planet Clinton.) Wright's discussion of how black Christians have been taught to be ashamed of Africa and African culture gave me some new understanding of the black church: "A lotta the missionaries were going to other countries assuming that our culture is superior, that you have no culture. And to be a Christian, you must be like us. Right now, you can go to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and see Christians in 140-degree weather. They have to have on a tie. Because that's what it means to be a Christian." A lot of whites have been reading the "unashamedly black" part of Trinity Church's self-description as some kind of militant separatism. But Wright comes out of a context where the shame of being black is very real and has to be addressed.

Jeremy Hall, a soldier who happens to be an atheist, is suing the Army for religious discrimination. Now he's an atheist with a lawsuit, which gives the Army two reasons to treat him unfairly.

Ben Stein's new anti-evolution movie Expelled is out now, and crystallizes the challenge that the scientific community faces in bringing its message to the public. One of the most important plot-types in our culture is: "A privileged elite is using its institutional power to suppress the evidence against the story that justifies that power. But a brave few are trying to bring out the truth." If you can fill in the blanks in that plot so that you are the brave few and your enemies are the privileged elite, you've got a powerful propaganda weapon. That's what Stein has set out to do. He presents intelligent design as the oppressed scientific rival of evolution, and tars the scientific community as the oppressors. This kind of narrative is hard to fight with facts and reason alone, as Chris Mooney observes.

Basically, you have to fight stories with stories. A humorous parody of the Expelled trailer is here, advertising a non-existent movie about the Stork Theory of where babies come from. And this video from the National Center for Science Education makes heroes out of the people who protect students from creationist disinformation.

Short Notes
John Ashcroft made a speech Wednesday at Knox College in Galesburg, Illnois. Elsinora from DailyKos was there, and gives a good example of how to confront an unrepentant torture advocate. My favorite part: In response to someone else's question about the UN Convention Against Torture, Ashcroft says, "Now, I don't have a copy of the convention in front of me ..." and Elsinora jumps up and says: "I do! Would you like to borrow it?"

I've talked about this before, but the evidence just gets more and more disturbing: Being poor means that you die sooner, and the number of lost years is growing. Sunday the New York Times called attention to recent reports that life expectancy has flattened out for poorer women, and is actually going down in many parts of the country. This graphic is, well, graphic. If you want to chase down the details, the two reports the article is based on are from the Public Library of Science's medical journal and the Congressional Budget Office.

Another NYT article: The story of one principal's attempt to start an Arabic-language-based public school in Brooklyn, and the smear campaign that brought her down. The article ends with the now-former principal, Debbie Almontaser, touring a Spanish-language school and thinking about what might have been.

Last week I wondered whether the 2001 quote ("we didn't do enough") that is being used to paint Bill Ayers as an unrepentant terrorist might have been out of context. Well, this week I ran across the letter Ayers wrote to Times right after the quote appeared. In it he embraced the interpretation I speculated: that he didn't do enough to end the Vietnam War, not that he didn't set off enough bombs.

David Sirota raises an interesting point: As we talk about the importance of white working class voters, at some point the discussion starts to shade over into a less savory notion -- that Democratic superdelegates shouldn't take black primary voters as seriously as white primary voters.

In the course of a speculative post about who would make a good VP for Obama, BooMan brings up something that it seems like everybody in the liberal blogosphere knows, but never gets discussed in front of the general public: Underneath the Clinton-Obama battle are the same forces that lined up in the Terry McAuliffe vs. Howard Dean battle over the direction of the Democratic Party. The Dean position has been: Evangelize for liberalism. Try to compete in all 50 states, and tell people everywhere why Democratic principles and programs would work for them. The McAuliffe position is: Focus all your energies on the battleground states and the swing voters, and move to the right to make yourself more appealing to them. Deaniacs see the 2006 sweep as a vindication of their approach, with victories in places that McAuliffe would never have put resources. As current head of the DNC, Dean is officially neutral in the Obama-Clinton race, but the Deaniac activists are almost unanimously for Obama, while McAuliffe is working for Clinton. One reason there's so much hostility between the campaigns is that the activists on each side have been battling much, much longer than Obama and Clinton.

EmptyWheel is one of the best investigative bloggers -- she covered the Scooter Libby trial better than any mainstream journalist -- and doesn't usually get into the horserace side of politics. But she's also a Michigan Democrat who resents the way her state has been turned into a political football. So she presents her own plan for handling the Michigan delegation.

SlateV lets us in on White House Life's plan for President Bush's retirement.

Am I the only one who wishes I had pulled off a prank like this when I was in high school?

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Well-Distracted Electorate

Government supported by an uninformed citizenry is not a democracy; it is a sham. -- David Mindich, Tuned Out

Some people drink Pepsi. Some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy's a joke.
-- Cake, "Comfort Eagle"

In This Week's Sift:
The Chaff Debate: ABC vs. Obama. When I defined "chaff issues" last week, I didn't know I'd get such a good example of them two days later.

Guilt By Association. The Obama-Ayers smear as a new example of an old tactic.

Short Notes. I couldn't totally ignore the world outside the campaign, so it all gets crammed in here: Bush on climate change. Rove decides not to testify after all. Re-splicing the state of the union address. And some pretty young women making tongue-in-cheek public service announcements.

Over the last few weeks I've been trying to stay away from the campaign, figuring that it was a long time between primaries and we'd just end up rehashing the same stuff. But tomorrow is the Pennsylvania primary, so I'm making up for lost time with an all-politics issue.

On the big question -- what's Pennsylvania going to do? -- you can find a poll to support any prediction you want to make. It's a mess. To me, the most persuasive analysis comes from Geekesque on DailyKos: Clinton by 8-16%. Geekesque notes that the variance in the polls is between Clinton and Undecided: Obama's support is stuck in the 40-45% range. We may be seeing the Bradley effect, where white voters refuse to tell pollsters that they plan to vote against a black candidate.

That result would keep the Democrats on the road to a disastrous convention fight, so I hope I'm wrong.

The Chaff Debate: ABC vs. Obama
Last week I talked about chaff issues -- those content-free political topics that distract the public from issues that affect their lives. Right on cue, Wednesday night's Democratic debate on ABC [video, transcript ] served up the full smorgasbord of chaff. ABC News moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos (a former Bill Clinton staffer) barraged Obama with questions about the "bitter" comment, flag pins, Rev. Wright, and his neighbor the ex-Weatherman. They balanced it slightly by tossing one chaff question (about her false sniper-fire story) to Hillary Clinton. When Gibson did finally get around to talking about real issues (after at least 45 minutes) he devoted a significant chunk of time to arguing in favor of the Bush/McCain position on capital gains taxes, strongly implying (against all evidence or sense) that this is a big deal to middle-class voters.

As so often happens, the best critique of the debate was by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. After running clips of the most ridiculous moments from the first hour, he described it as "a 60-minute master class in questions that elevate out-of-context remarks and trivial, insipid miscues into subjects of national discourse -- which is my job. Stop doing my job." Another comic response: a mock ABC ad for the debate.

Josh Marshall reflected on what the debate said about the media's changing role:
Organized campaigns of falsehoods, distortions and smears used to be something most people thought of as a bad thing, if not something that's ever been too far removed from American politics. Now, however, members of the prestige press appear to see it not as a matter of guilty slumming but rather a positive journalistic obligation to engage in their own organized campaign of falsehood, distortion and smear on the reasoning that it anticipates the eventual one to be mounted by Republicans.
Press reaction. ABC's performance drew bad reviews throughout the press. The New Republic's Noam Scheiber called the first half of the debate "a 45-minute negative ad". The Philadelphia Daily News' Will Bunch wrote to Gibson and Stephanopoulos: "you disgraced my profession of journalism, and, by association, me and a lot of hard-working colleagues who do still try to ferret out the truth." Greg Mitchell (author of the new book So Wrong for So Long about the media's failures regarding Iraq) called the debate "a shameful night for U. S. media". Richard Adams of the British newspaper The Guardian headlined his piece: "Worst. Debate. Ever." The Washington Post's Tom Shales said the moderators put in "shoddy, despicable performances" and "ABC's coverage seemed slanted against Obama."

Criticizing the critics. But let's be fair and balanced: A few people liked the debate. Right-wing people, mainly. Michelle Malkin parodied the criticism as: "How dare they explore questions of character, truthfulness, and judgment?" And for New York Times columnist David Brooks "the questions were excellent." Friday Brooks defended chaff issues in general: "But the fact is that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences. Fairly or not, they look at symbols like Michael Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry’s windsurfing or John Edwards’s haircut as clues about shared values." (Oddly, they never look at such symbols when judging Republican candidates.) Don Imus -- yes, he's back on the air now -- thought Stephanopoulis was "great" and the debate was "fine" and added that Obama "is almost a bigger pussy than she is." Thanks for sharing that, Don.

Clinton supporters claimed that ABC's critics were just Obama supporters trying to protect their candidate from "tough" questions, saying "if you cant handle a tv anchor how should the American people expect you to handle a hostile world leader?" As if Kim Jong Il is going to grill Obama about Rev. Wright.

ABC's defense. In an interview with TPM's Greg Sargeant, Stephanopoulos described his questions as "tough, fair, relevant, and appropriate." (Though Huffington Post's Jason Linkins unearthed a video of Stephanopoulos when he was working for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, saying that the American people "don't want to be diverted by side issues, and they're not going to let the Republican attack machine divert them.") Unfortunately, Sargeant did not ask him specifically about the most outrageous question of the evening: "Do you think Rev. Wright loves America as much as you do?"

Or maybe the most outrageous question was "raised by a voter in Latrobe, Pennsylvania" and "comes up again and again when we talk to voters." That voter, Nash McCabe, appeared by videotape to ask Obama: "I want to know if you believe in the American flag." From the way they introduced it, you might think that ABC went out asking voters what questions they wanted to ask and then presented the most typical one. You would be wrong. Actually the New York Times quoted McCabe on April 4. ABC then tracked her down to put the question on video. So ABC went looking for some "typical voter" to ask a question they wanted asked. (The Clinton sniper-fire question was also asked on video by a voter. Was he a ringer too? I don't know.)

ABC's defense continued Sunday on Stephanopoulos' "This Week". The roundtable discussion was uniformly pro-ABC and anti-Obama. All four panelists took for granted that debate critics were Obama supporters, and they promoted the Clinton-campaign spin about "toughness".

Objectivity? In an effort to determine if there was anything objectively different about the ABC debate, Huffington Post's Nico Pitney analyzed the four one-on-one debates, two hosted by CNN and one each by ABC and NBC. He categorized the questions in each debate as either policy questions, non-policy questions about process issues (like the role of superdelegates), and scandal questions. Result: ABC's debate had more scandal questions than the other three debates put together (13-8). Of the 21 scandal questions in the four debates, Obama was the target of 17 and Clinton 4.

I did my own research and wrote an article on Daily Kos examining ABC's bias. I went back to the previous ABC-hosted debates, a Republican and a Democratic one held back-to-back in Manchester on January 5. I found a consistent pro-Republican bias, and in both January debates the candidates were invited to attack Obama. No other candidate, Republican or Democrat, was singled out like this. In all three debates, ABC consistently assumed that in November Republicans will be on offense and Democrats on defense: Republicans were not asked to anticipate Democratic attacks, and Democrats were not asked how they would attack Republicans.

Only Democrats got questions of the form: "What will you do after your plans fail?" After you fail to protect an American city from a terrorist nuclear weapon? After the generals tell you that pulling troops out of Iraq will be disastrous? And so on.

I invite you to watch for these patterns as the campaign continues.

Brushing it off. Thursday Obama was in North Carolina, using the debate as an example of "the old politics." The crowd loved his mime of brushing the negativity off his shoulders. Observers younger and cooler than I am have pointed out a connection to Jay Z's rap "Dirt Off Your Shoulder". And then Obama went on The Colbert Report to put "manufactured political distractions" on notice.

Guilt By Association: "Can You Explain That Relationship?"
In Wednesday night's debate, that was how George Stephanopoulos phrased a question about Obama's neighbor, the ex-Weather Underground member William Ayers. Ayers has also recently been the subject of a conversation between Sean Hanity and Karl Rove, a memo by a Clinton supporter, and John McCain on Stephanopoulos' Sunday morning show. The Clinton and McCain camps are trying very hard to make this an issue.

I'll describe that bit of chaff in a moment, but first I want to discuss in general the propaganda tactic of guilt-by-association. The essence of the technique is to associate some fear-inducing person or event or imagery to a person, and then to demand an "explanation" from that person. But no explanation is possible because there is no accusation, just a cloud of amorphous negativity. As Glenn Greenwald said about another chaff issue back in March
It's just illusory innuendo that, by design, can never be satisfactorily addressed because nobody can ever apprehend what the substance of the "scandal" is.
Now let's look at Ayers and his wife wife Bernardine Dohrn, another former Weather Underground revolutionary. The Washington Post had a good profile of them Friday, and its Fact Checker discussed the Ayers-Obama relationship in February. The Weather Underground was a radical anti-Vietnam-War group that did a number of bombings during the Nixon years, including one at the Pentagon. Three Weathermen were killed when one of their bombs went off prematurely, but otherwise the bombings were crimes against government property. A comparable organization today might be the Earth Liberation Front, an environmental group that blows up stuff, but doesn't target people.

Ayers and Dohrn were fugitives for several years before surfacing in 1980. The outstanding charges against them had been dismissed in 1974 due to misconduct by the prosecution, so Ayers never went to prison and Dohrn served a few months on another charge. They're both college professors now: Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois and Dohrn a law professor at Northwestern. They've stayed married all these years and raised three children, including the son of their imprisoned Weather Underground colleagues. (They did OK by that kid -- he won a Rhodes scholarship in 2002.)

Ayers wrote a book about his radical years, and did not repent. (I don't believe that Gordon Liddy and Oliver North have never repented for their crimes either. And North, like Ayers, got off on a technicality.) He said to the New York Times: "I feel we didn't do enough." But from the Times' write-up, I can't tell whether he meant "We didn't blow up enough stuff" or "We didn't do enough to end the Vietnam War." The book was published September 10, 2001 and his remarks appeared in the Times on September 11. That's Ayers' sole connection to 9/11.

What's his connection to Obama? They both live in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago (where I lived when I was in grad school). Their kids have attended the same school. Ayers and Dohrn hosted a meeting in 1995 in which the outgoing state senator anointed Obama as her successor, and Ayers gave $200 to Obama's state senate campaign in 2001. For three years Obama and Ayers were both on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, "a grantmaking foundation whose goal is to increase opportunities for less advantaged people and communities in the metropolitan area, including the opportunity to shape decisions affecting them." (Ayers is still on the board.) Obama describes Ayers as a friend, but says they disagree on a number of issues and don't exchange ideas on a regular basis.

These undisputed facts allow people to construct sentences that include the words Obama, terrorist, bombing, and 9/11 -- sentences that Obama can then be asked to "explain". In Wednesday's debate, Senator Clinton piled on to Stephanopoulos' guilt-by-association attack by adding that "people died" in the Weather Underground bombings, and that Obama's "relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11." While none of Clinton's statements are technically lies, they are well constructed to mislead you into thinking that Ayers killed innocent people and that his comments came in response to 9/11, rather than coincidentally appearing on 9/11.

Association attacks thrive in a confused, non-specific environment. In conversation, the best response to an association attack is to insist on hearing an accusation before making any further defense. Exactly what did the target of the attack do wrong? If that question can't be answered, then no "explanation" is needed.

Short Notes
The funniest thing I saw this week: Somebody has re-spliced the 2003 state of the union address to be a bit more honest: "Every year, by law and by custom, we meet here to threaten the world." [standing ovation]

What do other Chicago ministers think of Rev. Wright? Pastor John Buchanan of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago published this statement in the church newsletter: "Among Chicago churches and Chicago clergy of all denominations, Jeremiah Wright’s ministry is widely admired as a model of what a public church can and ought to be, and he, himself, is widely respected."

Comedian Lee Camp has a series of videos he calls Pranktivism. In this episode, he stands outside fast food restaurants distributing pamphlets for the fictitious Obesity Exchange Program, which sends our overweight five-year-olds to Bangladesh in exchange for their underweight kids.

Intel Dump's Phillip Carter responds to President Bush's admission that he exaggerated the progress in Iraq to "bolster the spirits of the people in the field". Carter was in Iraq during those pre-surge days, and he says: "It's disappointing to hear now, two years after the fact, that the president was knowingly bull----ing us the whole time."

One response to the revelation that the National Security Council designed torture programs for individual detainees: a petition for Condi Rice to resign. (Except for Cheney, the other participants are already gone.) Explanatory video here.

Public service announcements from Funny Or Die: Kristen Bell appeals for contributions to the McLovin Fund to help actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who can never work again after playing the McLovin character in Superbad. And Hayden Panettiere warns against sexual harassment, or at least the kind of harassment you might get if you were Hayden Panettiere.

MoveOn asks how you stay in Iraq for 100 years. Answer: Six months at a time.

In the days of the smoke-filled room, a party's nomination depended on the endorsement of powerful bosses. Well, this week a big-name boss endorsed Obama, and Slate-V anticipates Clinton's counter-attack ad.

Grist's David Roberts discusses Wednesday's Bush speech on global warming: "I hate to be the party-pooper. But we've been here before. How many times does Lucy expect us to try to kick this football?"

John McCain released his own tax returns this week, but not his wife's -- and she's got all the money. John Kerry tried this tactic in 2004 and didn't get away with it. But McCain is teflon. Let's see what happens.

The GAO reports that the Bush administration has no plan to eliminate terrorist base camps in Pakistan, where bin Laden allegedly is hiding. EmptyWheel does a timeline, noting that it's been 87 months since Richard Clarke first asked the administration to develop a comprehensive anti-al-Qaida strategy.

Last week (second Short Note) I linked to Dan Abrams' interview with former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who claims that Karl Rove orchestrated his prosecution for political reasons. In the interview, Abrams quoted Rove's lawyer saying that Rove would welcome the chance to testify before Congress about the case. Well, now that the House Judiciary Committee is asking, the lawyer is saying his words were taken out of context. Don't expect to see Rove under oath any time soon. (Of course we all remember what happened the last time Rove put his hand on a Bible.)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Flying Pork and Other Signs of Success

All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting. – George Orwell

In this week's Sift:

Leave Iraq? No Time Soon: General Petraeus came back to Washington, but his troops will stay in Iraq for a long time.

Time to Assess the Bush Boom: If we're going into a recession, we can make fair comparisons to the start of previous recessions. The results don't look good.

Chaff and Bitterness: Chaff issues sparkle, but have no content. They work because voters are cynical, and voters get more cynical when chaff issues dominate the debate.

Short Notes: Bush confessed to war crimes and no one cared. Railroading Don Siegelman. And the Daily Show's history of Fox News.

Leave Iraq? No Time Soon
That minor skirmish in Iraq came briefly back into the spotlight this week. General Petraeus spent two days testifying in front of Congress, and it all led up to a speech in which President Bush "accepted" Petraeus' advice to stop withdrawing troops when the Surge brigades leave -- as if he ever considered doing anything else. In a conversation with Bill Kristol, Bush admitted the deception: "My answer is no. [But] I'm not going to say that. I'm going to say that I agree with David, that we ought to take a look."

You can watch Bush's 17-minute speech for yourself. It closes with this heartfelt message to our worn-down troops:
The day will come when pigs sprout wings, and you will fly home on their backs.
Wait, I must have nodded off and dreamed that part. According to the transcript he actually said this:
The day will come when Iraq is a capable partner of the United States. The day will come when Iraq is a stable democracy that helps fight our common enemies and promote our common interests in the Middle East. And when that day arrives, you'll come home with pride in your success, and the gratitude of your whole nation.
No time soon, in other words.

So what did we learn this week? The gist of General Petraeus' testimony was predictable: We're making progress in Iraq, but that progress can't be quantified in any way that would allow us to make predictions (at least not in a time frame shorter than "the day will come"). The failure of the recent Basra offensive was spun like cotton candy into a sign of this unmeasurable progress. Petraeus kept using mathematical metaphors like "battlefield geometry" and "political-military calculus," but appealing to the intimidation factor of mathematics rather than the objective, calculable aspect. "Political-military calculus" seems to be something that experts like General Petraeus can understand, but can't explain to doofuses like the American people or their elected representatives (like that well-known blond airhead, Senator Clinton).

The hearings were also a chance for the presidential candidates to audition their Iraq policies. (See TPM's selected highlights of the hearings, including Ohio Republican Senator George Voinovich saying: "The American people have had it up to here" at about the 5:40 mark.) Their performances are good examples of how each one thinks.

Senator McCain gave an opening statement that sounded a lot like President Bush: He framed the situation in simplistic terms that appeal more to American emotions than to the complicated reality of Iraq -- success, failure, victory, dying in vain, and so forth. He also read his statement as badly as Bush usually does. (Check out Clinton's bored expression at the 2:20 mark.) His conclusion: "With the untold costs of failure and the benefits offered by success, the Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq. We should choose instead to succeed."

Senator Clinton tried to turn the administration spin around. She responded to "suggestions that have been made leading up to this hearing and even during it that it is irresponsible or demonstrates a lack of leadership to advocate withdrawing troops from Iraq. ... I fundamentally disagree. Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again."

Senator Obama treated the hearing as if it were a genuine discussion rather than a set-piece for everyone to play predictable roles. (The first time I watched, I had no idea where he was going.) He stated his personal opinion -- "I continue to believe that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder" -- and then tried to craft a bipartisan narrative for the committee as a whole: "Our resources are finite. This is a point that has just been made by Senator Voinovich. It's been made by Senator Biden, Senator Lugar, Senator Hegel. ... When you have finite resources, you've got to define your goals tightly and modestly. ... I'm trying to get to an end point. That's what all of us have been trying to get to." And then he plunged into the details to see if he could drive the definition of "success" downward to something that is achievable. His ultimate question was: If "a messy, sloppy status quo" in Iraq -- modest Al Qaida involvement, some violence, some corruption, some Iranian influence, but no threat to Iraq's neighbors and no secure base from which Al Qaida could launch external attacks -- could be maintained by the Iraqi government without American troops, would that count as success? Crocker and Petraeus did not seem to know what to do with this kind of questioning. Crocker first tried to interpret it as a proposal for "precipitous drawdown". Then he got condescending: "This is hard. This is complicated." And then he seemed to me to more-or-less agree, while closing on the caveat: "That's not where we are now."

Time to Assess the Bush Boom
One way people get tricky with statistics is to pick their dates carefully. Unless you're at the worst moment in all of human history, you can always say: "Stuff has improved this much since that time when stuff was worse." If you go back to the Great Depression or the Black Death, you can always show phenomenal improvement.

That's how on January 4 the White House was able to announce: "Since August 2003, more than 8.3 million jobs have been created." Why August, 2003? Because that's when the job market bottomed out. Stuff has improved by 8.3 million since that time when stuff was worse. Should we be impressed or not?

In economics, the only meaningful comparison is across a complete business cycle. If you're, say, 40% of the way through a cycle, the meaningful comparison is to a time 40% of the way through the last cycle. Unfortunately, you usually don't know where you are -- the term business cycle is sort of a euphemism -- so you aren't sure what to compare to. The economy goes up and down, but it doesn't roll along smoothly like a wheel. It's more like a wheel on an icy, bumpy road.

Right now, though, it's pretty clear where we are: We're going into a recession. So that makes this a good time to total up. How do things look compared to the start of the last recession in 2000? And how does that complete cycle compare to previous cycles?

For years, cheerleaders like CNBC's Larry Kudlow have been telling us about "the Bush Boom" and how media bias has kept Americans from appreciating just how wonderful things are. In December Kudlow wrote:
fiscal and monetary coordination will continue the Bush boom for years to come. Though mainstream media outlets will never admit it, President Bush has kept America safe and prosperous. But history will eventually judge him in a more kindly light.
Now that this business cycle is over, history can start judging. And you know what? This cycle, to use the technical economic term, sucked. The suckiness shows up in jobs, GDP, length of expansion, and all the other statistics. But in Wednesday's New York Times David Leonhardt put his finger on the key number: median annual family income.
In 2000, at the end of the previous economic expansion, the median American family made about $61,000, according to the Census Bureau’s inflation-adjusted numbers. In 2007, in what looks to have been the final year of the most recent expansion, the median family, amazingly, seems to have made less — about $60,500. This has never happened before, at least not for as long as the government has been keeping records.
This graph of median annual family income makes the point even clearer. No recent cycle comes close to the Kennedy-Johnson record of a 37% increase, but the subsequent cycles have shown increases of 7%, 6%, 6%, and the Clinton cycle's 11%. And now it goes down. Heck of a job, Georgie.
“We have had expansions before where the bottom end didn’t do well,” said Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economist who studies the job market. “But we’ve never had an expansion in which the middle of income distribution had no wage growth.”
So what happened? Briefly, the expansionary part of this cycle was pretty anemic to begin with, and all the money that it did generate went to the rich. That trend towards increased inequality goes back to Reagan, as Paul Krugman argued last September using this graph of the percent of total income going to the top 10%.

For a more detailed analysis, see this post by Hale Stewart (a.k.a. "bonddad" on Daily Kos). He argues that increased debt makes the median family even worse off than the income statistics suggest: Total household debt was 92% of GDP in 2005 compared to 70% in 2000. Stewart sums up:

1.) Job growth was the weakest of any post WWII recovery.

2.) Real median income actually dropped for the duration of this expansion.

3.) To sustain consumption, consumers went on a mammoth debt acquisition binge, so that now

4.) Debt payments are as high as they have ever been on a percentage of disposable income basis.

So after 7 years of economic expansion we have lower incomes and more debt.

Lower income, more debt -- sounds great, doesn't it?

I'm tempted to end on a Bush-is-the-worst-president-ever note, but that's too easy. The Bush administration is not some bizarre anomaly; it is the culmination of a conservative movement that started with Goldwater and took control with Reagan. The Bush policies -- cut rich people's taxes, spend a lot on defense, squeeze the welfare state, and deregulate business -- are core Goldwater-Reagan policies that will continue if conservatives keep power by electing McCain.

We've tried those policies. They don't work.

The only difference between Bush the Second and other recent conservative presidents was that W had a freer hand. He had Republican majorities in Congress for most of his term, and the Democratic opposition was unusually timid in the wake of 9/11. So this administration is the fairest test yet of conservative economics.

Those ideas don't work. It's that simple. The facts are in, and among rational people the debate should be over: We don't just need a new face in the White House, we need a fundamentally new approach to the economy.

Chaff and Bitterness
I wasn't going to comment on this week's campaign controversy: Obama's "they get bitter" comment about small towns that have been exporting jobs overseas for 25 years. It seemed like a non-issue that had already gotten too much attention elsewhere. But then I realized that, precisely because it is so vacuous, this story provides a good opportunity to discuss what I have started calling "chaff issues".

Chaff, as all Cold War buffs know, is the aluminum foil that B-52s release in strips as they approach a target. It looks all sparkly on radar, so it confuses air defense systems. A chaff issue works the same way: It sparkles like a major issue, but has no content. If a campaign releases enough chaff, the real issues facing the country might never be detected at all. The classic chaff issue was the pledge of allegiance, which Bush the First used against Dukakis in 1988.

Daily Kos has a good review of the "bitterness" issue: text of what Obama said, responses from McCain and Clinton, and a video of Obama's comeback. Obama's point, in essence, explains chaff issues: The reason they work, he claims, is because people have lost faith in the government's ability to change their lives in a meaningful way. (Bill Clinton made more-or-less the same point in 1991.)

Let's flesh that idea out. If people had believed that they'd get better jobs under a Gore administration than under Bush, would they have cared whether or not Gore claimed to have invented the Internet? Of course not. But if government is so useless or corrupt that it makes no difference in your life, then why not treat the presidential race like an episode of American Idol? Elections become dramas about characters, not attempts to change the country. "That John Kerry is rich and he windsurfs and his wife has a funny accent. Screw him."

The McCain/Clinton attempt to flog Obama's comment into some issue about "elitism" or being "out of touch" with regular people -- really that just illustrates Obama's point. Suppose you genuinely believed that Obama would end the Iraq War but McCain wouldn't. Would you care whether Obama was "elitist"? Picture it: "Sure, my nephew in the Marines might have to die if McCain gets in, but I can't vote for Obama because he's just not a regular guy."

No. Chaff issues work because people are cynical about government. They don't believe that their votes can end the Iraq War, get them health care, or change their lives in any meaningful way at all. And it's a self-reinforcing cycle: The more campaigns revolve around chaff issues -- issues that by definition lead to no change in everyday life -- the more cynical people get.

Here's a key point that is often missed: Republicans do well with chaff issues because they want people to be cynical about government. But Democrats play with fire when they stir up chaf. A cynical electorate is never going to support a new New Deal. Instead, it's going to use government as a club to beat down people it doesn't like -- gays, immigrants, Muslims, foreigners -- because that's all government seems to be good for.

So in the long term Democrats can't win by developing new and better chaff. Democrats need to overcome voters' cynicism rather than pander to it. They need to run on issues that mean something -- Iraq, health care, the environment, energy -- and then deliver clear progress after they get elected. And they need to encourage the opposite of cynicism, to (in the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner) "overcome the alienation from each other that this way of being has created so that we might once again recognize each other as embodiments of God."

Short Notes
Last week I linked to Phillippe Sands' article alleging that "enhanced interrogation" came to Guantanamo from top-level administration lawyers. Well, this week ABC News went further and placed the blame right at the top: First came a report (based on anonymous sources) that the National Security Council principals group -- Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet, and Ashcroft -- approved specific tortures for specific detainees. Friday, this claim was confirmed by the highest possible source. President Bush told ABC News' Martha Raddatz: "Yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved." For some reason a lot of us are having a hard time fathoming, the president's confession of war crimes has not become a major story. (See Digby, Emptywheel.) I remember the media outcry for Obama to denounce Rev. Wright -- where's the outcry for McCain to denounce Bush?

If you wonder why anyone should care about the U.S. attorneys' scandal and the politicization of the Justice Department, watch this 60 Minutes piece on former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, who has spent most of the last year in prison. CBS presents Siegelman's conviction as the result of a long-term attack plan masterminded by Karl Rove. I was struck by this quote from Siegleman's lawyer: "You still have to investigate crimes, not people. It undermines the entire system of justice, because at that point anybody can be a target. Any prosecutor can look across the table and say, 'You know what? I just don't like you.' " Last Monday, MSNBC's Dan Abrams' interviewed Siegelman (part 1, part 2), who just got sprung from prison (pending his appeal) by an appellate judge.

Blue Texan on FireDogLake gives us a great example of how to respond quickly and efficiently to pro-war propaganda. In Friday morning's Wall Street Journal, Michael Yon wrote a glowing account of the achievements of the Surge and its new counterinsurgency strategy: Now young Iraqi boys want to grow up to be American soldiers; Abu Ghraib has been forgotten; our hired Sunni tribesmen are like the soldiers at Valley Forge; Iraq is making political progress, because military progress IS political progress. These "facts" lead to a conclusion about the "outdated" discussion going on in Congress: "Precisely because we have made so much political progress in the past year, rather than talking about force reduction, Congress should be figuring ways and means to increase troop levels." (In other words: Congress should reach into its top hat and pull fresh brigades out like rabbits.) By 10:30 that morning, Blue Texan had googled Yon's previous articles and pointed out that the Surge and counterinsurgency have nothing to do with Yon's rosy outlook: Two and even three years ago Yon was waxing eloquent about how we were "winning" the war, despite how the media was "deluding" us.

Your weekly minimum humor requirement: The Daily Show's John Oliver does a hilarious and biting history of Fox News. And 23/6 cuts an episode of Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room down to one minute -- losing surprisingly little.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Dark Parallel Universe

It’s all like some dark parallel universe – not the America I thought I grew up in. -- Scott Horton

In This Week's Sift:
This week the election, the war, and the economy take a back seat and we focus on new developments about torture and the law.

The Green Light: In the May issue of Vanity Fair, Phillippe Sands destroys the "a few bad apples" theory of torture, and raises the possibility of future war-crime trials for some high-ranking administration officials. I'm reminded of the reaction Philip Zambardo (of the Stanford prison experiment) had to Abu Ghraib: "President Bush gets on and says 'We're going to get to the bottom of this,' which parenthetically always means 'We're never going to get to the top of this'." But maybe we're starting to.

It Had To Be Yoo: This week a new and far more detailed John Yoo memo got declassified. It turns the Convention Against Torture inside-out, and puts forward a legalistic rationale for the president wielding the powers of a king.

Short Notes: Mugabe holds on in Zimbabwe, out-sourcing government spying, and my April Fools' post on another blog.

The Green Light
The May issue of Vanity Fair contains a very important article: The Green Light by Phillippe Sands. In it, Sands traces "enhanced interrogation techniques" from their conception at the highest levels of the Bush administration to their application at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
The Bush administration has always taken refuge behind a “trickle up” explanation: that is, the decision was generated by military commanders and interrogators on the ground. This explanation is false. The origins lie in actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration -- by some of the most senior personal advisers to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense. At the heart of the matter stand several political appointees -- lawyers -- who, it can be argued, broke their ethical codes of conduct and took themselves into a zone of international criminality, where formal investigation is now a very real option. This is the story of how the torture at Guantánamo began, and how it spread.
Sands' article ends by considering whether these administration lawyers might be subject to trial for war crimes. The Military Commissions Act -- passed shortly before the 2006 elections took control of Congress away from Republicans -- gives them immunity from prosecution in the United States. But Sands notes that this protection may backfire.
“That is very stupid,” said the [anonymous European] prosecutor, explaining that it would make it much easier for investigators outside the United States to argue that possible war crimes would never be addressed by the justice system in the home country—one of the trip wires enabling foreign courts to intervene.
Sands concludes that for many administration officials "prudence may well dictate a more cautious approach to international travel."

It Had To Be Yoo
One man who should consider his international travel plans carefully is John Yoo.

Tuesday an ACLU lawsuit succeeded in declassifying a previously secret memo in which then-Bush-administration-lawyer John Yoo justified the president's right to order torture. The blogosphere has been full of commentary ever since -- Marty Lederman over at Balkinization has called it "the full employment memo for bloggers."

Background. In March, 2003, John Yoo was a deputy assistant attorney general working in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Last October (in a review of Jack Goldsmith's book The Terror Presidency) I described the OLC as "probably the most powerful organization that the average American hasn't heard of." In simple terms, the OLC is the executive branch's internal supreme court. Unlike the actual Supreme Court, the OLC makes rulings about what the law will or won't let the government do in the future. Administration officials can't ring up the Supreme Court and ask "What if I did this?" so they call the OLC.

Once the OLC has put something in writing, that becomes the executive branch's official interpretation of the law. From the president down to the lowliest paper-pusher, following an OLC memo creates a presumption that you are making a good-faith attempt to obey the law.

This process works fine as long as the OLC itself operates in good faith -- if, in other words, it seriously tries to figure out what the law says rather than trying to justify the administration doing whatever it wants. But the OLC is part of the executive branch, and (according to the unitary executive theory of the Bush administration) the entire executive branch is simply an extension of the president's will. Carried to its logical conclusion, this creates a hall-of-mirrors situation that Georgetown law professor Jonathan Turley has called Mukasey's Paradox:
Under Mukasey's Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers. ... Mukasey's Paradox, if adopted, will result in administration officials being effectively beyond the reach of the law.
The Memo. On March 14, 2003, Yoo sent an 81-page memo (innocuously titled "Re: Military Interrogation of Alien Unlawful Combatants Held Outside the United States") to William J. Haynes II, the Pentagon's chief lawyer. Presumably, the DoD wanted to know what its interrogators could legally do, and the bureaucratic path to resolve that question was for Haynes to ask the OLC. Yoo's memo was the OLC's reply. It follows up on a far less detailed August, 2002 Yoo memo.

These memos are no longer the official interpretation, because a later head of the OLC, Jack Goldsmith, rescinded them. (Details in the Washington Post.) As he describes at length in The Terror Presidency, this brought Goldsmith into conflict with the superiors Yoo was toadying for, Dick Cheney and Cheney's lawyer David Addington. Neither Goldsmith nor Yoo is currently in the government, but Cheney and Addington are still very much in power, and the thinking behind the Yoo memos is still the animating philosophy of the Bush administration.

In order to understand the memo, you need to grasp the simple torture-is-illegal argument it is trying to get around.
  1. Article VI of the Constitution says: "all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the land"
  2. The Senate ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) treaty.
  3. The CAT defines torture as: "Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information ..."
  4. The CAT also says: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Instead, Yoo concludes:
Although these [interrogations] might violate CAT, they would still be in service of the more fundamental principle of [national] self-defense that cannot be extinguished by CAT or any other treaty. Further, if the President ordered that conduct, such an order would amount to a suspension or termination of the Convention. In so doing, the President's order and the resulting conduct would not be a violation of international law because the United States would no longer be bound by the treaty.
Yoo's memo twists definitions until torture means only the purposeless, sadistic infliction of pain. Because interrogation has a purpose -- "obtaining from him or a third person information" -- Yoo believes it cannot be torture. Further, as in the quote above, treaty obligations melt away in the face of the president's will. In Yoo's reasoning it is tautological that the president cannot violate a treaty; whether or not he has notified anyone that the U. S. is withdrawing from a treaty, the mere fact that his orders seem to violate the treaty implies that the president has suspended the treaty's provisions.

Deeper Implications. As I said previously, this memo is not currently in effect, so it's main significance is that it illustrates Bush administration thinking, especially the tautological reasoning that has been showing up in arguments for executive power ever since Richard Nixon's 1977 interview with David Frost.
NIXON: Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.
FROST: By definition.
NIXON: Exactly. Exactly.
Bear this in mind the next time someone from the administration claims that it does not torture, or that it does not break the law. In their minds, such statements are true by definition, without reference to any facts.

Presidents and Kings. Personally, I was brought up short when I came to this statement (on page 5 of Yoo's memo), which hasn't gotten much attention yet:

the structure of the Constitution demonstrates that any power traditionally understood as pertaining to the executive -- which includes the conduct of warfare and the defense of the nation -- unless expressly assigned to Congress, is vested in the President. Article II, Section I makes this clear by stating that the "executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." That sweeping grant vests in the President the "executive power" and contrasts with the specific enumeration of the powers -- those "herein"-- granted to Congress in Article I.

Let me unpack that a little. The Constitution was designed to limit the government by listing its powers -- if it's not listed, the government can't do it. That's how Patrick Henry could say "The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government." In Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton argued that the enumeration of powers made a Bill of Rights unnecessary: "For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?"

But here Yoo argues that the Constitution's enumeration limits the powers of Congress, but not those of the president. Beyond the powers listed in the Constitution, Yoo grants the president "any power traditionally understood as pertaining to the executive." When the Constitution was written, the executives of all other nations were kings. So presumably it follows that traditional executive power means kingly power.

Commentary. My favorite blogs for commentary on the Yoo memo are Balkinization and the new Convictions blog on Slate. Both promise more detailed analysis of the Yoo memo in the future, so stay tuned.

Jack Balkin on Balkinization writes: "
If the Supreme Court adopted John Yoo's theory of Presidential dictatorship, it might send us spiraling down toward the end of our two centuries' old constitutional experiment with democracy, a possibility that the framers imagined but tried to forestall through the creation of doctrines like the separation of powers and checks and balances."

Jonathan Hafetz on Convictions: "
The memo has been rightly vilified here and elsewhere for making the president a king and for contributing to a torture culture in America. But even though Yoo’s memo has been repudiated, its discredited ideas live on in the detention system he helped create."

FireDogLake's looseheadprop reports a more emotional reaction to reading Yoo's memo: "
I kept tearing up. My law partner asked me if someone close to me had died." She promises a more detailed rebuttal of the memo's claims later, but does comment on its shoddy workmanship: "The Yoo memo, as you will see in later posts, completely lacks any citation whatsoever for the most sweeping and outrageous claims. Small wonder, since I doubt he could find any law or case that even came close to some of his nuttier propositions."

Balkinization's Marty Lederman also promises a researched critique later, but comments on the bizarre procedures surrounding the memo: "Did John Ashcroft or Jay Bybee sign off on this memo? Did either authorize Yoo to issue it without any review by the AAG or AG? If the answer to both questions is 'no,' then why did John Yoo think he was empowered to issue it? Why did Jim Haynes accept it as the official view of the Office of Legal Counsel? Didn't anyone check with Bybee and/or Ashcroft? If not, why not?"

EmptyWheel quotes Bill Leonard, who until December was the head of the administration's Information Security Oversight Office: "The document in question is purely a legal analysis" containing “nothing which would justify classification." So why was it classified? Harper's Scott Horton explains: "The memorandum would have produced reactions of ridicule and outrage from throughout the professional community—as indeed it has. The author and the classifier knew that. They used classification as a political tool to keep something which is a quintessentially public document out of the reach of the public."

Horton goes on to say, echoing Sands' Vanity Fair article: "The circumstances under which the memoranda were prepared and issued constitute a joint criminal enterprise involving individual actors; the memos were issued as part of an actual plan to induce individuals to commit criminal acts by ensuring that their crimes would never be investigated or prosecuted."

Glenn Greenwald: "Yoo wasn't just a law professor theorizing about the legalization of torture. He was a government official who, in concert with other government officials, set out to enable a brutal and systematic torture regime, and did so. ... That John Yoo is a full professor at one of the country's most prestigious law schools, and a welcomed expert on our newspaper's Op-Ed pages and television news programs, speaks volumes about what our country has become." The same post has an embedded video in which, asked to comment on the legality of the president hypothetically ordering the crushing of a child's testicles, Yoo says: "I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that." [Yoo is probably making the point I described earlier: If the president is just being a purposeless sadist, it's illegal. But crushing children's testicles to protect the nation is not torture, by definition, so it's OK.]

The New York Times quotes former Air Force lawyer Scott Silliman about the impact of Yoo's memos: Because opinions issued by the OLC are binding on the Defense Department, "Mr. Yoo’s opinion effectively sidelined military lawyers who strongly opposed harsh interrogation methods."

The major media for the most part ignored this issue, preferring to keep us informed about Obama's bad bowling. (Glenn Greenwald has the numbers.) But Andrew Sullivan managed to say the words "war crimes" on Chris Matthews' Sunday show.

Jesus' General writes one of his classic spoof letters to Yoo's current boss, the Dean of the Berkeley Law School. He congratulates Berkeley on hiring Yoo, which "allows Berkeley to finally get past its sordid history as the battleground for the expansion of our civil liberties and become the foremost advocate for that 'shining interrogation center upon a hill' so many of us wish our nation to become."

Short Notes
Back in 2003 when we were being told what a monster Saddam was, a lot of us asked "What about Robert Mugabe?" Well, Zimbabwe isn't a major oil producer, so the U.S. could live with Mugabe's monstrous ways. But last week Mugabe's party lost control of parliament for the first time since Zimbabwe stopped being Rhodesia 28 years ago. Mugabe may or may not have also lost the presidential election, whose results haven't been released. Maybe there will be a run-off, and the question of how fair that run-off will be is still being discussed. Time has the details. Today's NYT reports that Mugabe's party is asking for a recount of an election whose results still haven't been announced. So how do they know they lost the first count?

What's worse than being spied on by the government? Being spied on by a profit-making government contractor. Bad publicity is causing the Pentagon to shut down their Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), one major source of such contracts. But Emptywheel doubts the DoD's sincerity, and expects another hydra-head to sprout somewhere else. Emptywheel has been watching CIFA for awhile, as this post from May, 2006 makes clear: "So let me connect the dots here. Republican legislators have set up this nifty scheme, whereby their buddies ply them with golf trips, swank real estate deals, and prostitutes. In exchange for that booty, they give their buddies contracts at Defense or Homeland Security or CIA. Spying contracts. Under those spying contracts, the buddies spy on American citizens, even funny bloggers [like Jesus' General] and peaceniks [like the Quakers]."

A couple April Fools Day posts you might want to look at: Scarecrow on FireDogLake reports that Bush will seek a third term: "The president issued a signing statement announcing that he is not bound by the Constitution's term limits." And on my Free and Responsible Search blog I invent a pioneer of the peace movement in Unsung Hero: Arjuna Bhishma.