Monday, July 13, 2009

Reasonable Creatures

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do. -- Benjamin Franklin

No Sift next week
In this week's Sift:
  • Inspector Generals' Report on Warrantless Wiretapping. It's no substitute for a real investigation, but it makes the truth a little harder to deny: The Bush administration constructed a process to give them the answers they had already decided on.
  • Browser Wars to Become Operating System Wars. Google's Chrome Browser is going to turn into an OS and challenge Windows. And Wolfram Alpha is interesting once it figures you out.
  • Why I'm Afraid of Sarah Palin. Conservatives say the liberal reaction to Palin is all about fear. It is, but maybe not the way they think.
  • Short Notes. A first-person healthcare saga. Nate Silver's mathematical model of corruption. John Ensign's scandal keeps getting worse. Six percent of scientists are Republicans. (Why so many?) And the Westboro Baptist Church uploads a music video to tell us that Hank Moody was right: God hates us all.

Inspector Generals' Report on Warrantless Wiretapping
The 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) instructed the inspector generals of the various intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies to report on what we're now calling the President's Surveillance Program (PSP) -- warrantless wiretapping, in other words.

The unclassified version of the report came out Friday. It's short (38 pages) and readable, but contains little that we didn't already know. Like a whole series of the reports that have come out over the years on the Bush administration's illegal activities, it's main virtue is as an authoritative source. Bush supporters can more easily wave off the same information when it appears in the New York Times or in personal accounts like Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency, which I reviewed here.

As Glenn Greenwald points out, the report is no substitute for a real investigation, because the inspector generals had no power to compel anyone's testimony (though they did get to look at a lot of classified documents). Key people like John Yoo or Dick Cheney just didn't bother to answer questions.

Still, seeing the whole process laid out in one place is striking. I am reminded of what the Downing Street Memo said about the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq: "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy". It's the same here: The authorization process for the PSP was whatever was necessary to get it authorized. The threat assessments, the legal opinions -- their purpose was not to guide policy, but to justify decisions already made.

Every 45 days the PSP came up for re-authorization. CIA analysts would compose the scariest possible assessment of the terrorist threat, without knowing that it was being used to justify that an extraordinary spying program was "reasonable". (That's because the Fourth Amendment protects us against "unreasonable searches".) If higher-up folks didn't think the justification was sufficient, the threat assessment was sent back so that the analysts could make it scarier.

The legality of the program was verified like this: Of all the lawyers in Justice Department, only John Yoo and Attorney General John Ashcroft knew about the PSP. Yoo wrote an opinion that the program was legal, and every 45 days Ashcroft signed off on it. ("[C]urrent and former DOJ officials told us that this certification added value by giving the program a sense of legitimacy.")

No one was checking Yoo's work, and it was shoddy. A legitimate legal memo discusses how the recommended action deals with difficult parts of the law and handles difficult precedents. Yoo just ignored them.

Glenn Greenwald summarizes:
These were not legal opinions in any sense of the word. What happened, instead, is clear: Cheney and Addington knew that Yoo was a hardened ideologue who would authorize anything they wanted. So they purposely chose only him -- a low-level Assistant Attorney General -- to be "read into" the program, and then used his memos to give themselves legal cover.
As soon as Yoo left the Justice Department, his replacement (Patrick
Philbin) got his boss (Jack Goldsmith) and his boss' boss (James Comey)
read into the program, and they convinced Ashcroft that there was no
legal basis for parts of the PSP. Ashcroft started refusing to sign,
and ultimately Bush himself had to vouch for the legality of the program (based on his deep understanding of constitutional law, I assume.) If you want to understand the Unitary Executive Theory in a nutshell, it comes down to one memo written by Alberto Gonzales, who was then White House Counsel. Deputy AG Comey wrote a memo about his continuing inability to find any legal basis for parts of the PSP. Gonzales wrote back:
Your memorandum appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of the President's expectations regarding the conduct of the Department of Justice. While the President was, and remains, interested in any thoughts the Department of Justice may have on alternative ways to achieve effectively the goals of the activities authorized by the Presidential Authorization of March 11, 2004, the President has addressed definitively for the Executive Branch in the Presidential Authorization the interpretation of the law.
In other words: the President has spoken, so the Justice Department should stop worrying about justice. Like everyone else in the Executive Branch, the Justice Department is just an extension of the President's will.

The other thing the report verifies is that the PSP includes more than what was revealed in the New York Times. How much more? The report doesn't say. It's still classified.

The other thing the report doesn't say is whether the nation gained anything in exchange for abandoning the rule of law. The IGs asked whoever would talk to them in the CIA, NSA, and FBI. The answers were weak. Nobody would come out and say we got nothing, but at the same time "Most [intelligence community] officials interviewed by the PSP IG Group had difficulty citing specific instances where PSP reporting had directly contributed to counterterrorism successes."

It goes without saying that the Obama administration is not covering itself with glory either. Laws have been blatantly broken, and there is no effort to bring the malefactors to justice. In effect, Obama is ratifying Richard Nixon's old idea that "when the president does it, that means it's not illegal."

Attorney General Eric Holder is hinting at prosecutions for torture, but Glenn is doubtful. The worrisome part of the Newsweek article about Holder's thinking is:
There were startling indications that some interrogators had gone far beyond what had been authorized in the legal opinions issued by the Justice Department, which were themselves controversial.
Glenn's concern is that Holder will focus on the little fish, as in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Sure, low-level CIA interrogators who exceeded their instructions might have committed crimes. But the real problem was that their instructions were criminal. Everything we know points to the conclusion that the Justice Department legal opinions (also written by John Yoo) were written in bad faith; the decisions had already been made and Yoo was instructed to justify them. It was a criminal conspiracy.

An analogy might help. Suppose I'm part of an agency that the president instructs to rob banks -- after he orders a lawyer to tell him he has that power. In the course of robbing a bank, I hit a security guard, which is not explicitly in my instructions. Prosecuting me for assault -- and letting the whole bank-robbing thing go -- won't do much to re-establish the rule of law.

Browser Wars To Become Operating System Wars
Because I use a Mac, I haven't had the chance yet to play with Google's Chrome browser, which has generally gotten good reviews. (Including this promising note about its security. There may be privacy issues, though.) Well, now Google is upping the ante, and things could get interesting: Chrome is going to be the basis of a new operating system that will compete with Microsoft's Windows.

The inner workings of ChromeOS will be Linux while the user interface will be Chrome. They're focusing on the cheap ($250-$500) netbook computers, which are based on the cloud computing model. (Netbooks can be cheap because their users do most of their storage and processing on the internet, not locally. I don't use a netbook, but the way I create the Sift is a simple example of cloud computing: I write the text on the Google Docs word processor -- I tried Zoho once, and it's just as good -- then publish it using Google's Blogger software and email it out using GMail. If my personal hard drive crashed, the Sift wouldn't be affected in the least, because it lives on servers on the internet.)

So far, Chrome has not threatened the dominance of Internet Explorer. But as an OS, Chrome could exploit a market niche where Google already has an advantage over Microsoft, which has been at best ambivalent about cloud computing. If trends break just the right way for Google, Windows could become mainly a business operating system and Chrome could grab the downscale computer-as-home-appliance market.

Slate's Fahrad Manjoo is pessimistic about the Chrome OS, while Wired's Priya Ganapati is just skeptical.

One quirky but interesting competitor to Google's search engine is Wolfram Alpha. It gets stumped by a lot of queries that Google handles easily, but when it knows what you mean, it returns answers, not references. "Capital of Illinois" netted me the name (Springfield), population, position on a map, current time and weather, and so on. "Distance to Mars" produced an up-to-the-minute estimate (171.7 million miles). Given "sunset chicago august 1, 2009" it came back with 8:10 p.m.

Why I'm Afraid of Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin's resignation has turned into the political junky's version of Michael Jackson's death. It's incredibly easy to get so drawn into the details of the soap opera that you forget why you started watching it in the first place. As in: Did you hear what Levi said about a reality show? (Or maybe this is the reality show.) What's up with being interviewed in hip-waders? (An Evening Sun blogger speculates that's all she has left after the RNC reclaimed the $150,000 worth of clothes it bought her for the fall campaign.) All that stuff about Alaska spending "millions" on "frivolous" ethics complaints turned out to be false. (It's more like a few hundred thousand, and if the complaints are all frivolous, why did she reimburse the state $8000 of travel expenses?) Is she really claiming a per diem to live in her own home? And so on.

When I take a step back, though, the more interesting question is: Why do we care? Why is Sarah Palin the bright, shiny object that otherwise thoughtful people can't stop looking at?

The knee-jerk answer (because she's so good-looking) doesn't hold up. We're not talking Anna Kournikova here. Until recently, a female politician could only achieve high office late in her career, so Palin looks great within her peer group of women like 76-year-old Dianne Feinstein or 69-year-old Nancy Pelosi. But put Palin on any national stage other than politics and she doesn't stand out. Let CNN's Campbell Brown interview her, for example, and we'll see who's attractive (and smart and articulate).

So why, then? Palin-pushing conservatives claim it's because liberals are afraid of her authenticity. She's the real deal, they say, like Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich were in the 80s and 90s. But that doesn't explain why she generates so much hostility among non-liberals like Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: "In television interviews she was out of her depth in a shallow pool. ... She wasn't thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough." Or Cathy Young: "While not an intellectual, [Reagan] was a man of ideas. Palin is not known to harbor those."

I'll agree with Bill Kristol this far: It is fear. I do feel a rising sense of panic when I watch Palin, similar to what I felt watching Bush run against McCain in the 2000 primaries. But (in both cases) I don't think it has anything to do with conservative authenticity exposing my liberal false consciousness.

I think I can explain my Palin anxiety in a way that Republicans might recognize from their own experience. (They can fill in the corresponding Democrats themselves.) Like most Americans of left or right, I hold two contradictory visions of American politics. On my happy days, I picture intelligent people of good will who just disagree about how the world works. So in 2008, when Republicans talked about nominating McCain or Romney or even Huckabee, I thought: "Well, I wouldn't vote for them, but I get it." I could understand how somebody with a different worldview might want one of them to be president.

On my unhappy days, I fear that the other side suffers from a dangerous lunacy. Nothing but gibberish comes out of their mouths, and the idea of engaging them in rational discussion seems pointless, even foolish. I'd just be humoring their delusions. In 2000, for example, the Republicans had a choice between a charming war hero and a spoiled rich kid who had failed at everything he had ever attempted (only to be bailed out by his family connections so that he could fail again). They picked the rich kid, and what rational thing could I possibly say about that? I started to panic.

That's how I feel when I see folks getting excited about the prospect of Palin running for president. I start to worry that my unhappy, paranoid side might be right. Maybe I'm living in an insane asylum. Maybe crazy people are the dominant voting demographic.

It's not that I think she's crazy; it's the idea of her as a national leader that is crazy. It's not her incoherent rambling or her constant misrepresentation of established facts or her family issues or anything else people attack her for. It's: Why are we having this discussion at all? As with George W. Bush in 2000, if I start with a blank sheet of paper and try to imagine reasons why a sane person would want her to be president, the page stays blank. It's not her lack of experience, it's her lack of ... everything.

She arrests my attention because there's a vicious cycle running in my head: This can't be happening. It is. This can't be happening. It is. No, wait, if we just explained things more clearly, public sanity would re-assert itself. It won't. No, wait.

BTW, I think my introspection -- to the extent that it applies to liberals in general -- points out a mistake we're making in arguing about Palin. Our this-can't-be-happening panic makes us want to explain to her supporters why they're wrong. But that just feeds our energy into her persecution narrative: Those elite educated liberals don't get it, and so on.

As a result, Palin supporters never have to make a positive case for her. The right question: "Why, of all the 300 million people who live in America, should this one be our leader?" never gets asked, much less answered.

We need to make them explain more clearly. Don't attack; just be curious and keep asking questions.

Other interesting takes on Palin: Dahlia Lithwick, Frank Rich, and Judith Warner. And Scott Bateman's animation and annotation of her resignation is fun.

Short Notes
Some people respond to statistics, some people respond to stories. If you had a "Yeah, I know ..." reaction to the stats about the uninsured I posted last week, read Progressive Fox's "How I Lost My Health Insurance at the Hairstylist's."

Last week I blamed special-interest money for the problems we're having getting a public option into Congress' healthcare plan. Little did I know that Nate Silver already did a mathematical analysis of this a month ago. His conclusion is that special interest money's largest effect is to turn moderate Democrats against a public option.
if a mainline Democrat has received $60,000 from insurance PACs over the past six years, his likelihood of supporting the public option is cut roughly in half from 80 percent to 40 percent.

I was so busy catching up last week that I forgot to mention where I was during my two-week break from the Sift. I was blogging the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Salt Lake City. No, SLC is not sacred to UUs as well as Mormons; the General Assembly moves around. But SLC turns out to be a perfectly wonderful city; I'd happily go back there on vacation.

At General Assembly, I always like to cruise the booths that have snappy buttons and t-shirts. My favorite button, which I probably would have seen a year ago if I lived in California: "Can we vote on your marriage too?" I also liked "God is not a boy's name."

I also forgot to post the funniest video I had found while I was away: Jon Stewart's reaction to Mark Sanford's inability to keep quiet. It doesn't get old.
Dan Froomkin has landed at Huffington Post. Firing Froomkin was just one more self-inflicted wound as the Washington Post struggles to compete.

The John Ensign scandal just keeps getting worse. And Josh Marshall asks: "Which is more emasculating? Getting paid a hundred grand by the guy who screwed your wife? Or being a fifty-something United States senator and still needing mom and dad to cut the check to pay off your mistress and her husband?"

Republicans warned us their families would fall apart if gays started getting married. Why didn't we believe them?

The Pew Research Center has an interesting statistic buried deep in a recent report: 55% of scientists say they're Democrats, 32% Independents, and only 6% Republicans. You think maybe this has something to do with Republican efforts to sneak religion into science classes, deny global warming, and censor reports written by government scientists? It's a theory.

DailyKos' leading economic chart-watcher says the economy has started to turn. But Robert Reich makes a good point: "Recovery" is the wrong way to think about it, because that implies we can go back to what we were doing before.

I know it looks like a parody, but no, they really mean it. Those lovely folks from Westboro Baptist Church (the ones who go around the country reminding us that "God Hates Fags") have made a music video "God Hates the World" to the tune of "We Are the World".

Everything I'm reminded of, though, really is a joke. The main character on Showtime's Californication is the author of a novel called God Hates Us All. And in the intro to the HBO series True Blood (where vampires are a minority group seeking their rights), a roadside sign reads "God Hates Fangs".

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