Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Past McCain Bites Present McCain Again

I've already illustrated John McCain's 180 on foreign intervention depending on the administration and whether or not he's running for president. Having pleaded for Bill Clinton to pull troops out of Somalia and Haiti in the 90s, he pleads with the American public for the exact opposite in Iraq.

I've refrained from using McCain's now-infamous '100 years' line because I think he was clearly stipulating a situation like Germany and South Korea, not active conflict for a century. (Of course, I don't think that's possible, but that was his contention.) Well, it seems past McCain doesn't agree either.

From January, 2005, on Hardball:

MATTHEWS: Well, what do you think of the Democrats sharpshooting now, saying come home?

MCCAIN: Well, I don‘t...

MATTHEWS: As a policy suggestion, is it something that we all want the world to know we‘re eventually coming home and we might as well argue about when or...

MCCAIN: Sure we‘re going to come home.

But the fact is that the key to it is not when the troops come home. It is when we stop reading—today, Shuster just reported four brave young Marines were killed. It is the casualties that creates the discontent amongst Americans. We‘ve been in Bosnia for, what, 10, 12, years, Kosovo for 10 years, South Korea for 50 years. Americans aren‘t upset about that.

But we have got to get the casualty rate down. And that‘s the transfer of well-trained and well-equipped Iraqis to handle the security situation.

MATTHEWS: But you‘ve heard the ideological argument to keep U.S. forces in the Middle East. I‘ve heard it from the hawks. They say, keep United States military presence in the Middle East, like we have with the 7th Fleet in Asia. We have the German—the North Korean—the South Korean component. Do you think we could get along without it?

MCCAIN: I not only think we could get along without it, but I think one of our big problems has been the fact that many Iraqis resent American military presence.

And I don‘t pretend to know exactly Iraqi public opinion. But as soon as we can reduce our visibility as much as possible, the better I think it is going to be.

MATTHEWS: So no Guantanamo in Iraq?

MCCAIN: I don‘t see any reason for it.

He begins with the same line about staying but eliminating casualties, but then illustrates that at least at some point in time in the past he had a somewhat accurate perception that the scenario in Iraq isn't comparable to post-conflict Germany or Korea.

Also of note is his dismissal of Iraqi public opinion. While the United States extends its infinite benevolence across the globe, it seems that the opinion of those upon whom it bestows such beneficence barely registers.

Almost three years later, in the midst of a presidential run, McCain reiterated much the same stance on the Charlie Rose Show:

ROSE: Do you think that this — Korea, South Korea is an analogy of where Iraq might be, not in terms of their economic success but in terms of an American presence over the next, say, 20, 25 years, that we will have a significant amount of troops there?

MCCAIN: I don’t think so.

ROSE: Even if there are no casualties?

MCCAIN: No. But I can see an American presence for a while. But eventually I think because of the nature of the society in Iraq and the religious aspects of it that America eventually withdraws.

During a subsequent visit in November, McCain would answer the same question with an answer closer to his January answer in the townhall meeting.

Either this is a natural progression, one in which McCain takes in facts and new realities and adapts his opinions to meet them, or it's simply yet another reflection of McCain's constant remaking of his image. As this campaign has progressed, McCain's rhetoric and policy suggestions have taken a hard turn right, with the occasional buffeting when he misplaces his notes.

Eventually, once the Democrats are done beating each other up, perhaps someone will notice the inconsistencies.

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On Diversion

Two weeks ago, the GAO released a report detailing the ability of al Qaeda to reconstitute in the tribal areas of Pakistan (FATA region) and the failure of the government to prevent regression in the War on Terror.

Today, it was the State Department's turn, releasing its annual terrorism assessment. As usual, Iran is declared the largest state sponsor of terrorism. Warren Strobel, writing for McClatchy, discusses the report's application to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border:

Terror attacks in Pakistan doubled last year, and casualties from terrorism quadrupled, as extremists reasserted their hold in tribal areas and attempted to extend their reach deep into the country, the State Department said in its annual report Wednesday.

There was also a 16 percent increase in terrorist attacks in neighboring Afghanistan in 2007, the report on global terrorism trends said.

It said that al Qaida has proved "adaptable and resilient" and used a cease-fire agreement along the Afghan-Pakistan frontier to reconstitute its capabilities.

Taken together, the findings appear to confirm that the struggle against terrorism in the troubled Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, which many specialists consider the central battleground in the fight against al Qaida and its affiliates, was set back last year.

While the report seems loathe to mention the Iraqi occupation and its concomitant diversion of resources, it does speak to our reliance on the Pakistani government to police the tribal regions on its western border with Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have long criticized the deal struck in September 2006 between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and militants in the North Waziristan tribal agency.

Under the agreement, which collapsed last year, the Pakistani military stopped attacks on the militants, and the militants were supposed to evict foreign jihadists and stop cross-border infiltration into Afghanistan.

Senior U.S. officials say that the deal in fact allowed al Qaida and the Taliban to reconstitute and led to an increase in attacks against U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The newly-elected leaders of Pakistan of course suggest that their approach will be more effective, but it remains fact that our past reliance on the Musharraf-led government to deal effectively with the region was misguided at the least. Combined with a diversion of both attention and resources to Iraq, the ineffectiveness of Pakistan has worsened the situation and created a safe haven from which al Qaeda has reconstituted and is free to launch attacks into Afghanistan virtually unmolested.

In addition, al Qaeda has continued its expansion by "making greater use of regional groups, particularly the Algeria-based al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which once focused its attacks exclusively on the Algerian government."

The State Department's report shows in yet more light that the US policy towards terrorism, despite all of its rhetorical flourish, has done nothing to codify the nexus of terror that spawned the World Trade Center attacks, which were the impetus for the counter-terrorism effort in the first place.

To say that the occupation of Iraq has decimated our ability to root out the terrorist stockpiles from whence the attacks came is no longer an opinion or a show of partisanship. It is a statement of fact, borne out again and again by the government's own reports.

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Crickets at the Pentagon

It's now been 10 days since the New York Times ran its piece exposing the propaganda machine in which the Pentagon utilized retired military commanders, who stood to gain from defense contracts, to propagate its message--unattributed--in the mass media outlets. In those 10 days, not a single major news outlet has discussed it, clearly indicative of the significant role played by the outlets themselves.

Consider the implications here. In the run up to the war, and in its early stages, the press of a free nation willingly disseminated the government's propaganda message in support of the war. A free press that is supposed to speak truth to power, thereby enfranchising the public, instead chose to serve, unadulterated, the meal the Pentagon was dishing out.

Until last Sunday, it seemed that the embed program was the biggest embarrassment for free press in decades. Now that pales in comparison, yet not a single major news outlet has seen fit to even broach the subject or offer apologies for committing crimes against intellectual honesty and serving the will of the state before their viewers.

Finally asked about it today (probably by someone other than a regular member of the White House press corps), Dana Perino repeated the company line that the program was okay because "it's absolutely appropriate to provide information to people who are seeking it and are going to be providing their opinions on it." The law, however, disagrees.

The GAO addresses just such a program:

Because the Department’s role in the production and distribution of the prepackaged news story is not revealed to the target audience, the prepackaged news story constitutes covert propaganda. We disagree with the Department’s contention that the prepackaged news stories are not covert propaganda because they contain only factual information. To constitute a legitimate information dissemination activity that does not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition, the Department must inform the viewing public that the government is the source of the information disseminated.

In two successive sentences, the administration's argument (along with Max Boot and John Podhoretz) loses two of its main ingredients. Namely, that the factual basis of the information disseminated is immaterial to the question of propaganda and that failure to cite the government as the source--regardless of intent--qualifies as covert propaganda. The Pentagon met the government's own criteria for propaganda.

As is par for the course in this administration, the Pentagon, who has suspended the program, and its spokespeople are relying on recipients of the party line to forget that words have definitions. Words like occupation and invasion and torture. But propaganda does have a working definition, and the Pentagon program surely meets it.

The Office of Legal Council has insisted that the Executive Branch is not subject to the GAO, but even its legal semantics don't do much to alter the basic premise. The OLC claims that publicity doesn't meet the standard for propaganda so long as it is factual in nature and not meant to support a particular program or department policy.

Consistent with that view, OLC determined in 1988 that a statutory prohibition on using appropriated funds for "publicity or propaganda" precluded undisclosed agency funding of advocacy by third-party groups. We stated that "covert attempts to mold opinion through the undisclosed use of third parties" would run afoul of restrictions on using appropriated funds for "propaganda."

Assuming that they are correct in this assessment, the test is still met by the Pentagon program, as the military analysts were clearly supporting a specific policy, not merely disseminating facts. Those that didn't were denied access and those that did were rewarded. Documents obtained by the Times prove as much. Support of the administration's war policy was a prerequisite for participation, so clearly the program fails to adhere to the OLC's own standards for legal communications.

No matter how you slice it, the Pentagon's propaganda campaign was at the very least immoral and dishonest, and by many standards--the GAO, the OLC, and the US Code--probably illegal.

The possibility that there will be consequences aside (there won't), the mass media owes the American public at least a cursory story about the program. Voters deserve to know that the government of a free country is engaging in covert propaganda to push its policies through a complicit media.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Do What Now?

Sometimes you can't help but laugh:

As negotiations on a farm bill have stumbled, Bush has asked the House and Senate to extend the law for a year or longer. He says the new legislation is too expensive and would not do enough to cut subsidy payments to wealthy farmers in a time of record crop prices.

So, let me get this straight. Bush doesn't like the legislation because it subsidizes wealthy members of a large, profitable industry in a time of record prices for the products of said industry.

It seems that same logic could apply to another industry in those exact terms. Care to cut those subsidies, Mr. Bush? Didn't think so.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Down Is the New Up

Doug Feith, everyone's favorite revisionist historian, took the opportunity on Hugh Hewitt's show to claim, "We took an extremely strongly pro-Geneva Convention position in the Pentagon." An interesting take on historical record, indeed, considering the well-documented steps Feith and the rest of the Justice Department took in the overt aim of subverting the Geneva Conventions. War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. And so on.

In Feith's conversations with Phillippe Sands, one might mistakenly construe that just the opposite is true.

With the war in Afghanistan under way, lawyers in Washington understood that they needed a uniform view on the constraints, if any, imposed by Geneva. Addington, Haynes, and Gonzales all objected to Geneva. Indeed, Haynes in December 2001 told the CentCom admiral in charge of detainees in Afghanistan “to ‘take the gloves off’ and ask whatever he wanted” in the questioning of John Walker Lindh.


On January 25, Alberto Gonzales put his name to a memo to the president supporting Haynes and Rumsfeld over Powell and Taft. This memo, which is believed to have been written by Addington, presented a “new paradigm” and described Geneva’s “strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners” as “obsolete.”

As to Feith's own opinion:

Douglas Feith had a long-standing intellectual interest in Geneva, and for many years had opposed legal protections for terrorists under international law. He referred me to an article he had written in 1985, in The National Interest, setting out his basic view. Geneva provided incentives to play by the rules; those who chose not to follow the rules, he argued, shouldn’t be allowed to rely on them, or else the whole Geneva structure would collapse. The only way to protect Geneva, in other words, was sometimes to limit its scope. To uphold Geneva’s protections, you might have to cast them aside.


As he saw it, either you were a detainee to whom Geneva didn’t apply or you were a detainee to whom Geneva applied but whose rights you couldn’t invoke.

Feith seems to be in a constant state of schizophrenic flux, not sure if he's settling on the storyline that he played an immense role in the administration or whether he was merely swept along unwittingly by the "idiots" that surrounded him.

Whatever narrative he chooses, the historical record enjoys no such fluctuation, always landing on the precise opposite of Feith's ludicrous claim to the Pentagon being "pro-Geneva."

There is enough in the public record now to firmly conclude, without an ounce of doubt, that the Bush Administration, both the Departments of Justice and Defense, actively sought a legal apparatus to eliminate the need for adherence to the Geneva Conventions. Far from being pro-Geneva, the Administration sought to render it useless and inapplicable.

As far back as 2004, around the time of Abu Ghraib, it was clear to nearly everyone that Feith had a long-standing, personal opposition to Geneva.

It was Feith who devised the legal solution for getting around the Geneva Conventions' prohibition on physically or psychologically coercing prisoners of war into talking. As a Pentagon official in the 1980s, Feith had laid out the argument that terrorists didn't deserve protection under the Geneva Conventions. Once the war on terrorism started, all he had to do was implement it. And even more damning than his legal rule-making is Feith's reported reaction to complaints by military Judge Advocate General lawyers about the new, looser interrogation rules. "They said he had a dismissive, if not derisive, attitude toward the Geneva Conventions," Scott Horton, a lawyer who was approached by six outraged JAG officers last year, told the Chicago Tribune. "One of them said he calls it 'law in the service of terror.'"

Whatever the Defense Department's outlook, it is clear that Feith has held a grudge against the Geneva Conventions for a long time, and most certainly would never have been confused with someone who was "pro-Geneva." It is fairly clear by any standard that the US is bound by not only the Geneva Conventions but numerous other treaties and mandates entered into of its own volition and prohibited from engaging in the torturous interrogations Feith and his cohorts actively supported.

Far from saying Feith supported Geneva, one could easily make the case that Feith acted as a pro-torture activist.

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John McCain on How Not to Frame a Speech

Perhaps an all-too-fitting backdrop from a recent economic speech delivered in Youngstown, Ohio by John McCain:

Standing before a nearly shuttered factory pocked with broken windows in a city devastated by the erosion of its industrial base, John McCain on Tuesday urged Americans to reject the "siren song of protectionism" and embrace free trade.

McCain suggested to the five remaining workers at the factory that, "if you just hold on...sometimes life will surprise you."

McCain is no stranger to poor timing, as MSNBC saw fit to interrupt a speech on progress in Iraq with illustrative proof of the opposite a couple of weeks ago.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tony "Hvfvgpd" Zirkle: Certifiable

Everyone tends to caricature members of the other party, but every once in a while a politician comes along that is so far beyond the pale his own party wants nothing to do with him. Tony Zirkle is just such a man.

Beginning with the least repulsive fact about Zirkle, we find that our hero has recently applied to have his middle name officially changed to "Hvfvgpd," hoping to have it approved in time for the May Republican primary in Indiana's 2nd district. The article cited, from the Kokomo Tribune, sifts through Zirkle's vague allusions to what it means and arrived at Homeless vet — f — versus — gpd." I'll go further in assuming that 'gpd' stands for 'great porn dragon,' based on this quote from Zirkle's website:

The GPD (Great Porn-Dragon) is seeking so set up this country as a Broke-Barack mountain of gay pride Obama-Nation...

So, 'homeless vet f versus great porn dragon.' Hmm.

The best thing about having a name like that for Zirkle, presumably, is that it will draw attention away from him expressing his thoughts in written or verbal form, never a bonus for his campaign. Unfortunately for him, he just can't resist.

Maybe the name isn't so innocent, after all. This, for instance, seems like a veiled threat of violence:

If history cannot produce one mono-syllabic tax cut king to stick his fluking harpoon between the porn Tiamat's oeilles, then perhaps history will one day send a homeless vet [!] to attempt a confoundation of those incognoscenti who think they're wise. I'm starting to feel very strongly that a lot of very bad events are going to happen to me in the very near future for writing this. They say that fools rush to where angels fear to tread. Would that the world could produce just one punk porn dragon slayer.

In March, Zirkle suggested that renewed segregation by race in the United States should be debated. Not that he's taking sides, mind you. To wit: "Zirkle said he wasn’t saying which side of the debate he’d take but that segregation might be a way to deal with the high rate of black men in prison and out-of-wedlock births among blacks." So, really, he could go either way.

In keeping with the theme of 'arcane,' Zirkle is also a big fan of reviving the guillotine as punishment for sex offenders.

Maybe it was an attempt get his name out there. Maybe Zirkle didn't think his ideas were far enough out there. I don't know. But whatever the case, Zirkle decided drastic action must be taken in the final push before the primary. So, of course, he decided to speak at a Nazi celebration of Hitler's birthday this past Sunday. Not to worry, Zirkle assures us, he was just there to speak out about pornography. Oh, and Jews. The website has an account:

Zirkle spoke on his history as a state's attorney in Indiana, prosecuting Jewish and Zionist criminal gangs involved in trafficking prostitutes and pornography from Russia and the Zionist entity.

Not to fear, Zirkle spreads regressive hatred around equally:

So how did his comment about Jews fit in?

"Most of the male porn stars were Jewish at the beginning," Zirkle explained.

Now the male porn stars are mostly black [seems dubious], he claimed, and the women who appear in pornographic works tend to be "young, white, Christian women."

If people think he is targeting the Jews, he said, they are misinterpreting his position. He is targeting, Zirkle said, the "porn dragon" that inspires Jews to get involved in pornography.

The best line? It's no contest:

He also told WIMS radio in Michigan City that he didn't believe the event he attended included people necessarily of the Nazi mindset, pointing out the name isn't Nazi, but Nationalist Socialist Workers Party.

Wow. For someone stuck in the past, he sure doesn't know much about it: " When asked if he was a Nazi or sympathized with Nazis or white supremacists, Zirkle replied he didn't know enough about the group to either favor it or oppose it." He doesn't have time to study such trivial aspects of history. He's got a race to save.

A perusal of Zirkle's campaign page is good for some light reading. Including such thoughtful nuggets as these:

My understanding of history is that anti-porn militants are the only effective pacifists.

Militants make good pacifists. Surely.

As a side note, the first person I ever heard of in high school who had brought divorce aids [I presume from the context he means sex toys] into his marital bedroom shortly thereafter put a shot gun to himself and a suicide ring sprang up afterward in my home town. Because we abuse women's body temples with divorce aids and serial polygamists, many man now need to be drugged with viagra in order to get excited.

Sex toys cause rampant suicide and impotence. Any questions?

Like all campaigns, Zirkle promises to address the issues of great importance to Americans, such as "Health Care, Jobs, Immigration, Iraq, [So far, so good] Internet Porn, and Anti-Semitism [Oh]."

A detailed plan follows: To address health care, eliminate treatment of STDs.

Regarding immigration, Zirkle worries that whites and black are destroying themselves sexually [apparently through interracial relationships] so that "the currently more meek Latinos are inheriting the land."

On Iraq:

In 2004, I suggested we begin a gradual withdraw from Iraq starting in the north and keep the pace depending on the situation on the ground. Since then, we have done next to nothing to address the great porn dragon; therefore [sic] so too will tolerating Internet porn extend the Iraq war.

Interesting theory if nothing else. Zirkle contends, "You may disagree, but I'd like to see anyone disprove this point in a public debate." An unlikely scenario, indeed. Afterward, of course, would come the disproving of a vast, Unicorn conspiracy to unleash their leprechaun army upon the masses and forcing them to use divorce aids. Disprove that? I'd like to see you try.

Jobs. Now there's something on the minds of a large number of Americans. Strikingly, Zirkle doesn't cite immigration or free trade as the culprit for lost jobs. No, you guessed it, internet porn is to blame:

Workers' productivity is decreased when they surf Internet porn instead of producing. Accordingly, business are less profitable, have to lay off workers and taxes are raised to pay for unemployment and to replace the lost taxes from what would have otherwise been a more profitable taxable income.

As for Anti-Semitism, Zirkle lands firmly in the region 'in favor of.'

We mocked Comstock's, who died in 1915, stance against the white slave trade, and we received World War I. We did not listen to Henry Ford, who claimed that the world's foremost problem was a culture that the fascists targeted [Jews] and who culiminated their slander with an undocumented fantastic claim of cartelling 97% of all International Prostitution in their slanderous work, "The Eternal Jew," and we inherited World War II. It was observing prostitution in Vienna that caused a "shudder" to go down the Fuehrer's back. Fast forward 50,000,000 deaths.

Sprinkled throughout the front page of Zirkle's campaign website are various links to Anti-semitic and white supremacist websites, rendering his claims about not being aware of what the Nazis supported somewhat hollow to say the least.

Zirkle's actions aren't an indictment of the Republican Party. For all intents and purposes, they're incensed that he's allowed to put an 'R' after his name. Cheers, Tony Zirkle. We'll miss you.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Proving the Point

Nash McCabe, Obama's flag-lapel-pin questioner from last Wednesday's debate, seems to be Obama's San Francisco comments incarnate. McClatchy explains:

McCabe met her husband, Lloyd, in April 1983 at a dance. They married two months later. Six months after that, she says, he was injured in a coal mine accident. He hasn't worked since.

They never had children. He had back surgery. The muscle relaxers he took damaged his heart. He's had three bypasses, nine angioplasties, seven stents and a pacemaker. Three months ago doctors found a brain tumor. His choice: surgery that he may or may not survive, or life in a wheelchair.

Over 25 years of marriage, McCabe was the breadwinner. She said it took eight years to get her husband disability payments, during which time they racked up huge bills.

..."It took me almost two-and-a-half years to find a job that I got laid off from recently"...

"People who have sick spouses or children understand how hard it is," she said.

McCabe sympathizes with working-class people who got in over their heads during the housing boom. She opposes the Iraq war and thinks President Bush has hurt the country.

Yet for all of the issues Nash McCabe has had to deal with over the course of 25 years, what is the most pressing thing on her mind? The one question she would pose to the candidates?:

Senator Obama, I have a question, and I want to know if you believe in the American flag. I am not questioning your patriotism, but all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't.

I don't think ABC could have found someone to illustrate Obama's point better than that, albeit unintentionally.

What Obama said in San Francisco, and what McCabe demonstrated brilliantly Wednesday night, is that even though economic and health issues play a much larger and tangible role in people's lives, they still fall back on singular, dissonant issues in voting. Once we get past the use of the term 'bitter,' it is clear that this sentiment is overwhelmingly true. Demonstrably so.

Only if his contention were true would a woman who is the sole breadwinner for her family, unemployed, caring for a husband with catastrophic health issues for a quarter century, and waiting for help of any kind ask that ludicrous a question.

Nash McCabe is overwhelmingly more directly affected by the economy and health care. Whether Obama wears a flag pin could not possibly affect her situation less, yet that is what she asks about. In doing so, she demonstrates Obama's assertion more clearly than he could ever hope to.


As an aside, Nash McCabe didn't appear out of nowhere.

Ask whom she might vote for in the coming presidential primary election and Nash McCabe, 52, seems almost relieved to be able to unpack the dossier she has been collecting in her head.

It is not about whom she likes, but more a bill of particulars about why she cannot vote for Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

“How can I vote for a president who won’t wear a flag pin?” Mrs. McCabe, a recently unemployed clerk typist, said...

The above is from the April 4th edition of the New York Times. That ABC sought her out specifically to ask this question, as she has admitted, suggests that there were questions even Stephanopoulos and Gibson thought too ridiculous to utter. Better to have some lady to deflect the criticism.

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Ducking the Point

Yesterday, I examined the New York Times piece detailing the Pentagon's efforts to promote its policy in the media via retired military officers who were less-than-retired from positions from which to profit from the war.

Predictably, supporters of the war were less than impressed with the article. Specifically, Max Boot and John Podhoretz, writing at Commentary. To take on Boot's objection first:

Hold the front page! Heck, on second thought, hold three full inside pages as well. Notify the Pulitzer jurors. The New York Times has a blockbuster scoop. Its ace reporter, David Barstow, has uncovered shocking evidence that . . . the Pentagon tries to get out its side of the story about Iraq to the news media.

After getting past the obligatory condescension, Boot opens with the premise that the Pentagon deserves to disseminate its side of the story. Undoubtedly, this is fair, but Boot misses the point in framing his argument this way. Namely, that the Pentagon wasn't simply disseminating its side of the story. It is more than welcome to do so, as that's what press conferences are for. I do contend, however, that portraying the presentation of its talking points as efforts of a detached, autonomous group of retired generals who in fact were being fed their lines offstage is not comparable.

The Times piece illustrates as much when it claims, "the access came with a condition. Participants were instructed not to quote their briefers directly or otherwise describe their contacts with the Pentagon."

It is the effort to conceal the influence of the government propaganda mechanism that, by its very existence, exhibits the folly of Boot's supposition. These military men were not rolled out as agents of the Pentagon's "side of the story," they were presented as objective commenters expressing their own opinions.

The second objection is perhaps more thoughtless than the first:

As I read and read and read this seemingly endless report, I kept trying to figure out what the news was here. Why did the Times decide this story is so important? After all, it’s no secret that the Pentagon–-and every other branch of government-–routinely provides background briefings to journalists (including columnists and other purveyors of opinion), and tries to influence their coverage by carefully doling out access. It is hardly unheard of for cabinet members–-or even the President and Vice President–--to woo selected journalists deemed to be friendly while cutting off those deemed hostile. Nor is it exactly a scandal for government agencies to hire public relations firms to track coverage of them and try to suggest ways in which they might be cast in a more positive light. All this is part and parcel of the daily grind of Washington journalism in which the Times is, of course, a leading participant.

Here, after yet more condescension, Boot employs the well-worn tactic of 'yeah, well everybody does it.' It would not be much further for Max to have opted instead for the 'well, they started it' routine.

He seems to be suggesting that because the Times relies on government sources--and thus access--that it's merely part of the game for the Defense Department to spread half-truths and outright lies to the public, and thus nothing to be concerned about. But, really, all he's doing is illustrating a second issue, as I noted yesterday:

..the crux of our journalistic problem in the States can be found [here:] In an effort to gain--and maintain--access to 'sources' or 'government contacts,' journalists have sacrificed skepticism. How can we expect journalists to speak truth to power when they rely as their main sources on cogs in the incarnation of that power?

So in saying that journalists do it too, Boot thinks he's made a point of some significance, though clearly in reality he has simply illustrated the second half of the main point, that journalism as a whole relies too heavily on access and succombs to the pressures to maintain that access, sacrificing integrity in bits and pieces along the way.

Certainly, the Times failed to turn the spotlight back on itself, which it absolutely should considering its performance from 2002-2004, but in saying so Boot does not dispel the central theme of the article. He merely extends it to its logical conclusion. This is not, I think, what he had in mind, but I won't argue his point.

Yesterday's article merely covered but one spoke in the propaganda wheel. My objection to Boot though, is that he sees the collection of spokes circling the hub but doesn't think to throw a stick in between.

Podhoretz, contrary to Boot's proximity to a logical conclusion, simply spins toward the edge without hope of re-gaining traction. He's not really sure what all the hubbub is about since the Pentagon was simply looking for "good coverage."

But, of course, it's not 'good coverage' that is of concern. It's, well, 'false' coverage. The Times:

Mr. [Robert] Bevelacqua, then a Fox analyst, was among those invited to a briefing in early 2003 about Iraq’s purported stockpiles of illicit weapons. … Mr. [Robert] Maginnis said he concluded that the analysts were being ‘manipulated’ to convey a false sense of certainty about the evidence of the weapons. Yet he and Mr. Bevelacqua and the other analysts who attended the briefing did not share any misgivings with the American public.

One…participant [of a hosted trip to Iraq in Sept. 2003], General Nash of ABC, said some briefings were so clearly ‘artificial’ that he joked to another group member that they were on ‘the George Romney memorial trip to Iraq,’ a reference to Mr. Romney’s infamous claim that American officials had ‘brainwashed’ him into supporting the Vietnam War during a tour there in 1965.

Podhoretz's opening salvo:

I think, based on many years of experience working at various newspapers, that there is an explanation for the extreme length — 7800 words — of the story and the fact that it manages to find nothing more than an effort by the Pentagon to get good coverage. The Times thought it was on to something very big, ended up with something very small, and then took what little they had and tried to make a silk purse from the sow’s ear that was reporter David Barstow’s investigation.

Claiming "many years of experience working at various newspapers" is nothing more than an erroneous implication that his conclusion is not to be confused with mere opinion. He knows about papers, so you just shut your mouth and listen to him, okay?

His conclusion?: That the Times failed to persuade a fanatical believer in the war, namely John Podhoretz, and thus must admit that they "tried to make a silk purse from the sow's ear." Mind you, Podhoretz offers nothing in the way of support of his thesis, but he knows papers, so that would just be superfluous.

Barstow’s endless tale reveals nothing more than that the Pentagon treated former military personnel like VIPs, courted them and served them extremely well, in hopes of getting the kind of coverage that would counteract the nastier stuff written about the Defense Department in the media.

Both Boot and Podhoretz mention the length of the article several times, ostensibly in an attempt to elicit sympathy from the reader for their having to have turned a page or two. I can think of no other reason to continuously mention it, other than perhaps some relationship I've missed regarding the inverse nature of article length and accuracy.

Other than that, though, this sentence is incredible. First, the Pentagon didn't have "hopes" they would receive friendly coverage. They had a team of military men they knew to be sympathetic who had an added financial incentive they were unlikely to opine against. There was no hope involved.

Second, neither Boot nor Podhoretz ever broach the subject of whether the information provided was true. They both seem adamant that the Pentagon's side should be included, even if delivered under cloak of darkness, regardless of its veracity. That journalism should be a vehicle for truth seems anathema to both theses.

Maybe they believed the Pentagon, maybe they didn't. But whether it was being honest with the American people clearly is of minimal concern. Both pundits are merely concerned with the right of the propaganda machine to exert its influence on public discourse, not the right of the public to honesty.

My favorite line:

I intuit that this story, which features extensive use of Freedom of Information requests...

One need look no further. The obvious disdain Podhoretz has for the mere idea that the public has even limited access to facts from within government illustrates clearer than anything I can imagine why he must cling to his dismissal of the story. One would suppose, based on this aversion to government documents being viewed, that he would support the alternative method of public fact-finding endeavors. Namely, that the public would graciously accept the government talking points delivered to them in stealth form. After all, if democracy can rest on nothing else, shouldn't it be able to preside happily over the ignorance of its constituents?

Other than eliciting a chuckle or two, I have yet to find after several readings any significant analysis of why the story was unimportant, misleading, inappropriate or any other adjective.

Podhoretz feels strongly about the issue, we are left with no doubt about that. But all one can ascertain from his parable are his imaginative suppositions as to the process of development of the piece itself. Even the phrasing of the title--What the Times Was Up To--in the form of the affirmative rather than the inquisitive leaves no question as to his premise.

It can be surmised, I guess, that somewhere in America, someone was clamoring to hear John Podhoretz's opinion as to how the story came to be printed, though I'm at a loss to comprehend where this might be.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Talking Points Lost

November's election is sure to revive the old adage that Republicans are strong on national security while Democrats lack the resolve to confront foreign threats. This narrative is based mainly on the premise that the best thing one can do to protect the country is to beat one's chest and illustrate strength and fortitude. Where that show of force is directed is not important, merely that it exists.

Thus, the diversion of resources to the debacle in Iraq is seen by those who wish to see it continue indefinitely--or at least until the United States achieves a victory that has yet to be clearly defined--as a signal to terrorists that the US means business. A sign that America is not a country to be messed with, that she is firm in her resolve and holds steadfastly to a principled defense of its right to exist. Everywhere.

That holding such a fallacious contention is demonstrably false and its tenets and presuppositions continuously shattered by the facts and realities of its real-world application is of little concern to the Bush administration, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, or Lindsey Graham. Foreign policy in their myopic worldview is that of the lunchroom or playground. If someone smudges your Pumas, you must show them you aren't afraid, regardless of the actual severity of the offense.

But, again and again, in a waterfall of revelations and realizations of an objective analysis of reality, this school of thought is picked apart piece by piece until all that is left is a small gaggle of fanatics desperately clinging to the shattered remains of a foreign policy so thoroughly debunked it is verging on comical.

This GAO report is but the latest in the school of piranhas nibbling away at the cause of the Iraqi occupation.

The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas

No comprehensive plan for meeting U.S. national security goals in the FATA has been developed, as stipulated by the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (2003), called for by an independent commission (2004), and mandated by congressional legislation (2007).

Not only has the US not developed a workable strategy for the FATA region in Pakistan, but it has failed to do so in defiance of five years of stipulations that it must. The 9/11 Commission Recommendation Act, signed on August 3, 2007 states explicitly:

(1) REQUIREMENT FOR REPORT ON STRATEGY. Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the President shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report, in classified form if necessary, that describes the long-term strategy of the United States to engage with the Government of Pakistan to address the issues described in subparagraphs (A) through (F) of subsection (a)(2) and carry out the policies described in subsection (b) in order accomplish the goal of building a moderate, democratic Pakistan.

Like reports illustrating the lack of an al Qaeda/Saddam link or the reality of Iran's ties to the Maliki government before it, the GAO's assertion that the Iraqi Occupation has diverted resources away from the true center of al Qaeda's influence illustrates quite clearly that opponents of the war--Republicans and Democrats alike--are not merely terrorist apologists or lax on defense. Rather, they overwhelmingly see the most pressing need for American national security interests where it really lies, in the FATA lands of western Pakistan, and not where a dwindling number of Iraq War true believers caustically and unconvincingly try to insist.

The USA Today:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Terrorists are still operating freely in Pakistan along the country's Afghanistan border, despite the U.S. giving Pakistan more than $10.5 billion in military and economic aid, according to a government watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office says in a report released Thursday that the U.S. lacks a comprehensive plan to deal with the terrorist threat.


Pakistan is widely seen as the linchpin in the U.S. anti-terrorism strategy. After the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters retreated across the mountainous 373-mile border into Pakistan's unpoliced tribal areas.

Last month, CIA Director Michael Hayden said that if there were another terrorist attack against Americans, it would almost certainly originate from that region, where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

To lump every opponent of the Iraqi Opposition in Iraq into the arena of Code Pink and other pacifist groups is to falsely undermine the validity of the reasoning behind the opposition.

Like the GAO, Democrats or Republican critics of the occupation of Iraq aren't simply speaking out against perceived American interests. They are pleading with the Bush administration or a potential McCain administration to look under the right rock in order to protect those interests.

To say the US has to 'fight them over there so [it] doesn't have to fight them over here' doesn't synch with the policy it's purporting to defend. If a fight 'over there' is what the US is after, it must ascertain an accurate picture of 'over there.' Every day it becomes increasingly clear, to the point that it is now blaringly obvious, that 'over there' is the tribal lands of western Pakistan, not the Shiite slums of Sadr city.

Defense, State, U.S. embassy, and Pakistani government officials recognize that relying primarily on the Pakistani military has not succeeded in neutralizing al Qaeda and preventing the establishment of a safe haven in the FATA. State’s April 2007 Country Reports on Terrorism states that, despite having Pakistani troops in the FATA and sustaining hundreds of casualties, the government of Pakistan has been unable to exert control over the area. The report concluded that Pakistan has now recognized that military operations alone will not restore security and stability to the FATA. Similarly, U.S. embassy officials in Pakistan stated that Taliban and al Qaeda elements have created a safe haven in the FATA and have used it to plan and launch attacks on Afghan, Pakistani, U.S., and coalition forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The embassy further noted that al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to recruit, train, and operate in the FATA.


al Qaeda is now using the Pakistani safe haven to put the last element necessary to launch another attack against America into place, including the identification, training, and positioning of Western operatives for an attack. It stated that al Qaeda is most likely using the FATA to plot terrorist attacks against political, economic, and infrastructure targets in America "designed to produce mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the population.

It is long past time to change the framework of this debate. Portraying opponents of US policy vis-a-vis Iraq as opponents of American self-interest is fallacious and intellectually dishonest. It has become blindingly clear that these dissenters are begging for someone, anyone, in the Bush administration to notice where those security interests lie. Like so many others, they are dismissed out of hand, only to be proven right down the road.

For six years, opponents of Bush's policy in Iraq have been proven overwhelmingly correct in their assertions with the passage of time. Whether it concerned weapons of mass destruction, the response of the Iraqi population or the lack of preparedness for extended occupation, critics of the war have been vindicated time and again. But this vindication comes much too late.

There is still time, though. There is time for the Bush administration to cease waiting to be proven wrong. There is time to change paths, time to own up to the realities of the world as it is and not as they wish it were. But time is running out. For when the vindication of the GAO's findings comes, it may not be in a form that lends the US many options.

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Truth From Power

Another day, another incredible revelation of the true scope of the Orwellian fantasy world that has been constructed in just a few short years in the United States.

Not that it should come as a surprise. That pundits and military analysts began selling a fallacious stock of goods in the run up to and in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq is not news. That it was the product of active collusion with the Pentagon and the Bush administration should, though, elicit more outrage than it probably will.

To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.

Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.

The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.

Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the men on the plane and several dozen other military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror. It is a furious competition, one in which inside information and easy access to senior officials are highly prized.

It is in that last sentence that I believe the crux of our journalistic problem in the States can be found. In an effort to gain--and maintain--access to 'sources' or 'government contacts,' journalists have sacrificed skepticism. How can we expect journalists to speak truth to power when they rely as their main sources on cogs in the incarnation of that power?

Often in the media, there is a drive to present 'both sides' of a story. This is to be applauded, certainly, but only if both sides are playing fair. To have a supporter of the war who speaks glowingly of it of his or her own misguided volition is one thing. To present someone who is simply relaying the Pentagon's talking points in order to defend a policy upon which their financial standing depends is entirely another.

If the government talking points were trustworthy, journalism wouldn't be necessary. We could simply read the White House press releases and be done with it, assured that "we are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia" or "2+2=5" and move on with our lives. But that isn't so.

One of the most essential feats for a budding dictatorship is to render control of the press. There's a reason for that. There's a reason that the people of North Korea, some of the poorest and most downtrodden in the world, don't rise up against a 5-foot-tall laughingstock of a man. Military force is certainly part of that, but control of the press goes even further toward explaining how a small percentage can control the masses.

We need journalists as a check on power, not beholden to it. The press in this country presided over the marginalization of the war opposition, often holding up these financially-dependent military analysts as evidence of their folly. But the folly lies with journalists. Having spent a year graciously disseminating the government line in the run-up to the war, pleasantly granting air time to false prophets, and failing to present the slightest bit of skepticism, it is time journalists come clean.

Journalists have a duty to American citizens. A duty that lies in skepticism and truth. The White House disseminates its own line, there's no reason for the press to engage in the redundancy of doing that as well.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ghosts in the Medicine Cabinet

Just this past Tuesday, I wrote about the federal government's efforts to enforce a policy of pre-emption, which would render moot any attempt to sue the manufacturer of a drug which had been approved by the FDA.

One of the key points I tried to emphasize was that a policy of pre-emption is implicitly reliant upon the presumption that the FDA's rulings are based on a sufficient volume of and intellectually honest array of facts regarding those drugs. I didn't expect a significant payoff to that theme so quickly, but then came this article in Wednesday's New York Times.

The drug maker Merck drafted dozens of research studies for a best-selling drug, then lined up prestigious doctors to put their names on the reports before publication, according to an article to be published Wednesday in a leading medical journal.

The article, based on documents unearthed in lawsuits over the pain drug Vioxx, provides a rare, detailed look in the industry practice of ghostwriting medical research studies that are then published in academic journals.

The report the article refers to is Guest Authorship and Ghostwriting in Publications Related to Rofecoxib, which appeared in the Journal for the American Medical Association. (Rofecoxib is the generic name for Vioxx)

Thus, as the Bush administration pushes hard for pre-emption in the pharmaceutical industry, information proving the policy's reliance on demonstrably false and potentially fatal tenets abound. From Johnson & Johnson's withholding of evidence as to the true levels of estrogen in its Ortho Evra birth control patch to an even more egregious policy of ghostwriting at Merck, the level of scientific dishonesty implicit in these revelations is astounding.

But this is more than a case of intellectually dishonest research practices. The failure to adhere to generally accepted rules governing scientific research--adherence to the Scientific Method, peer review, etc.--goes hand-in-hand with the argument against pre-emption.

If the FDA were accepted as the sole and unmutable authority governing the pharmaceutical industry, it would be imperative to prove that the rulings made by that agency were based on sound scientific judgment. Yet every day that goes by brings more evidence to the contrary.

Americans place an enormous amount of faith in the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA. That faith must be backed by an equally-large investment from the industry in scientifically and intellectually honest research practices. That it has not illustrated such a commitment is overwhelmingly evident by recent revelations. To back up that lack of commitment with a promise not to prosecute--or allow civil retribution of any kind--those dishonest practices would be a monumental failure of the FDA's responsibility to the American public.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

He Who Speaks for the People

I'll admit to watching about 10 full minutes of last night's Democratic debate before opting for the much more interesting--and informative--wallpaper across the room. That the debate, and I use that term loosely, can stand as tantamount to failing and shortcoming of the current state of political discourse would be an understatement of epic proportions.

The first 50 minutes was devoted entirely to a rehash of the same BS that's been harped on for the last six weeks without any sign of ebbing. American politics has come to resemble a hybrid of Tiger Beat and US, offering absolutely nothing substantive or of any consequence.

What's more infuriating, though, is the suggestion, based on absolutely no evidence, that this style is exactly what Americans demand. George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson were just begrudgingly fulfilling the role demanded of them by the public. In their response to criticism, they hold themselves up as helpless hostages of the will of the citizens. Servants are they, with not a second to waste on such distractions as the economy, or the specifics of a health care plan, or the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In an interview with Greg Sargent, Stephanopoulos repetitively invokes that mindset:

He dismissed criticism that it had focused too heavily on "gotcha" questions, arguing that they had gone to the heart of the "electability" that, he said, is forefront in the minds of voters evaluating the two Dems.

"This [Stephanopoulos' definition of 'electability'] is the core question for the campaigns, and a lot of Democratic voters right now. That's why we decided to lead with it."

Asked why we should presume that electability, rather than issues, was the dominant concern of many Dems right now, Stephanopoulos argued that it was a frequent topic of discussion on the campaign trail.

With that, Stephanopoulos brilliantly demonstrates the kind of circular logic which allows for the presentation of tabloid political coverage as legitimate. The thought is prevalent in the media, but no less nonsensical for being so. Suggesting that something is important because it's talked about is a logical trainwreck traveling in circles and barely gripping the rails of sanity.

The suggestion that the volume of media coverage is in some way an objective judge of relative importance is insane and ludicrous on its face. The idea's idiocy is surpassed only in its supreme arrogance, the arrogance to claim some secret, personal knowledge of the will and desires of 'the people' despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Consider ABC's own data as to the most pressing issue among voters:

Economy/Jobs 41
War in Iraq 18
Health care 7
Terrorism 5
Ethics 4
Immigration 4
Other 13
Unsure 5

Even if we can assume that every single person who selected 'other' meant 'tabloid-style political hackery,' it still doesn't rate anywhere near the top priority.

The consensus today seems to be that Obama took the brunt of the questioning, but even that evaluation glosses over the main travesty. The problem isn't that Stephanopoulos and Gibson asked either Clinton or Obama tougher questions, went easier on one than the other, or illustrated quite clearly what the General Election debate will look like.

The problem, the underlying root of everything wrong with politics in America, is the top-down approach to the entire game of debating. Instead of a forum for presenting reasons to vote for a specific candidate, debates have become a spectacle of attempted erosion of credibility and parade of inconsequential, patronizing reasons not to vote for the other guy.

So we can debate endlessly about weather or not someone is sufficiently patriotic or feminine. We can talk about bowling as a sitting President admits to violating international and domestic law. We can discuss who's really the Everyman, even though it's clear that none of the 3 candidates will ever again be confused as such. We can do that.

But lapel pins don't secure borders, either domestically or abroad. A shot of Crown Royal won't bring back jobs. And an association with Reverend Wright won't make John McCain's foreign policy less disastrous.

As long as the media is allowed to dictate the discussion, the public loses. It's not that the media is liberal or conservative or whatever the running narrative is that week. It's not whether they go softer on one candidate or another. It's whether we as Americans continue to allow them to set the agenda. It's whether we continue to stand for a debate almost entirely devoid of substance and keep sailing along mindlessly until the next vapid windstorm of faux controversy sweeps us away, only for us to be ripped back the other way by the undercurrent.

The quandary, then, is whether we choose to stand up, walk to shore, and stake out a path that suits our needs or simply lie back and let the unheeding river push us along the unforgiving banks of its own telescopic worldview.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Contraction Retraction

Back in March, I wrote about a loophole in an anti-fraud bill that would have excluded contracts enacted overseas (where our nation-building goes on) from having that law applied to them.

On April 3, Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) introduced legislation to close the loophole and the administration has since closed it on their own.

Although, they could have kept the reasoning to themselves:

A Bush administration official on Monday called the loophole "a drafting error" that happened when policy writers merely cut and pasted a 20-year-old Defense Department regulation into the contracting crackdown. As required under government guidelines, the updated draft calls for public comment about the new effort to close the loophole.

That's how you write a term paper, not a legal document. But, either way, a positive development and they deserve sarcastic golf claps all around.

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Absolute Insanity

Executive privilege has been invoked throughout the decades for any number of violations of the law, most recently in regards to the ability of the President to do whatever pleases him because the country's in an infinite state of war (on 'terr').

I've never heard of executive privilege used as a defense of slander, though. But that's just what Missouri Governor Matt Blunt (R) has claimed in recent court filings.

"The absolute privilege provides complete immunity to its holder — even for intentionally false statements…,'' Blunt's court document states. "Under this standard, absolute immunity prevents Governor Blunt's alleged conduct from giving rise to defamation liability."

John Yoo would be proud. Where does one find lawyers who believe that simply writing something down makes it legally viable? Torture's not torture because we say it's not. Even if it is, treaties don't apply because we say so. Fourth Amendment? Applied at the President's discretion.

One of the central tenets of the American representative democracy is that our leaders are citizens themselves, not extra-judicial monarchs. That was the point of breaking from, well, a monarchy. To claim that holding an executive office grants the holder of that office carte blanche to do whatever he or she wishes requires an unfathomable amount of audacity.

Here, Blunt (and others) is(/are) claiming the specific right to spread outright lies about a former aide, Scott Eckersley, namely that he was fired for visiting a group-sex website and maybe a drug user. They later rescinded those claims.

The most significant deviation from President Bush is illustrated by this line: "Officials routinely contend that "absolute privilege," or executive privilege, shields them from legal liability for actions or comments made in connection with their governmental duties."

While I don't buy Bush's claims, at least he can attribute his misdeeds to his view of necessary governance. Blunt wasn't governing, and slander doesn't typically fall in the category of "part of official duties." 'Absolute privilege'--as his court filings term it--in this case, if followed to fruition, is basically a declaration that any act by an executive done while in office is immune from prosecution.

Snorting coke in the Governor's mansion has just as much to do with official duties as slander does.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

While You Were Out, April 15

Drug Makers Near Old Goal: A Legal Shield

In keeping with the theme of 'if we say it's okay, it is,' the Bush administration is pushing for a policy known as 'pre-emption' which would declare that pharmaceutical companies could not be sued over drugs that had been approved by the FDA.

The Bush administration has argued strongly in favor of the doctrine, which holds that the F.D.A. is the only agency with enough expertise to regulate drug makers and that its decisions should not be second-guessed by courts. The Supreme Court is to rule on a case next term that could make pre-emption a legal standard for drug cases. The court already ruled in February that many suits against the makers of medical devices like pacemakers are pre-empted.

This theory, or course, works off the assumption that if the FDA has investigated a drug and approved it and its label, the courts are in no position to rule in opposition to the medical experts of the federal agency. But that relies on the FDA being provided with all of the facts and studies of the pill, something that drug companies are demonstrably opposed to complying with.

Consider Ortho Evra, the birth control patch made by Johnson & Johnson, around which this article is centered:

Documents and e-mail messages from Johnson & Johnson, made public as part of the lawsuits against the company, show that even before the drug agency approved the product in 2001, the company’s own researchers found that the patch delivered far more estrogen each day than low-dose pills. When it reported the results publicly, the company reduced the numbers by 40 percent.

Allowing for the FDA to be the final voice on all things pharmaceutical is based on the presumption that there is no pertinent information withheld. Clearly that isn't the case. Johnson & Johnson is not the first drug maker to be outed as having held back information, and they won't be the last. The makers of OxyContin actually marketed their drug (an opiate) as non-addictive, a laughable proposition for a drug of its sort, but approved as such by the FDA nonetheless.

If we expect the FDA to act as the only oversight arm of the entire drug business, we have to be assured that its acting well-informed and as an operative of the public. That isn't happening, and if lawsuits are a vehicle toward achieving an end better suited to the needs and expectations of American citizens then pre-emption is a disastrous precedent to set.

But pharmaceuticals aren't the only area where the protective arm of pre-emption is being extended, as this AP story details.

If you think the prescription drug you took for headaches caused your heart attack, the Food and Drug Administration says you can't sue the maker for injury if it met agency standards.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says you can't sue a mattress maker if your mattress bursts into flame despite meeting commission standards. Companies making sport utility vehicles would get similar protection from suits brought by people injured or the families of those killed in rollovers under National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposals for stronger roofs.

Plaintiffs' attorneys call it "silent tort reform."

Tort reform has been a platform for the Republican Party in recent years, and certainly supported by Bush. But for all its clamoring about judicial activism and laws made by fiat instead of legislation, the Party seems to be quietly utilizing that very same method to achieve its own ends. Obviously, its not activist judges they're worried about, its judges who aren't activist in their direction.

Surely frivolous lawsuits abound in the United States, but eliminating them altogether removes just one more bullet in the arsenal of consumer protection in the midst of a continual volley by the Bush administration.

Supplier Under Scrutiny on Arms for Afghans

Sure, fighting terrorism costs a lot of money, but what's the price of freedom, smart guy?

If you're a 22-year old arms dealer with a massuer for VP, about $300 million.

But to arm the Afghan forces that it hopes will lead this fight, the American military has relied since early last year on a fledgling company led by a 22-year-old man whose vice president was a licensed masseur.

With the award last January of a federal contract worth as much as nearly $300 million, the company, AEY Inc., which operates out of an unmarked office in Miami Beach, became the main supplier of munitions to Afghanistan’s army and police forces.

Since then, the company has provided ammunition that is more than 40 years old and in decomposing packaging [sic]. Much of the ammunition comes from the aging stockpiles of the old Communist bloc, including stockpiles that the State Department and NATO have determined to be unreliable and obsolete, and have spent millions of dollars to have destroyed.

The ends of eliminating terrorism (however much a fantasy that may be) has always been held to justify the means of its incredible expense in the eyes of those that would have the United States police the world. Whether or not that is the case, shouldn't that expenditure come attached to a bit of research?

If it's not granting no-bid contracts to former employers of the Vice President, the Defense Department is shelling out money to a man just old enough to have finished college for worn-out arms made in China between 1962 and 1974.

The Soviet Union, which designed the ammunition that AEY bought, developed similar tests, which are still in use. But when the Army wrote its Afghan contract, it did not enforce either NATO or Russian standards. It told bidders only that the munitions must be “serviceable and issuable to all units without qualification.”

What this meant was not defined. An official at the Army Sustainment Command said that because the ammunition was for foreign weapons, and considered “nonstandard,” it only had to fit in weapons it was intended for.

“There is no specific testing request, and there is no age limit,” said Michael Hutchison, the command’s deputy director for acquisition.

In purchasing munitions, the contractor has also worked with middlemen and a shell company on a federal list of entities suspected of illegal arms trafficking.

Bang-up job, fellas. Another case that screams out for the elimination of anyone watching how the government conducts its business.

Judge dismisses challenge to lobbying disclosure law

The National Association of Manufacturers suffered a major blow Friday in its legal battle against the new ethics and lobbying law.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court dismissed the group’s challenge to a key provision of the law. The group took issue with the clause that would require disclosure of the member companies of “stealth lobbying” coalitions.

Part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, the measure would require public disclosure of members of such coalitions who gave at least $5,000 every quarter to the group and participated actively in lobbying campaigns.

On what grounds would lobbyists oppose transparency of this sort? Why, free speech protection, of course.

The NAM argued the provision was constitutionally vague, hindering protections for free association and speech, and could lead to harassment of its member companies.

Yet again we are faced with an argument centered on free speech centered not on the ability to express yourself, but rather on the ability of others to respond to that expression. The First Amendment doesn't say anything about no one being able to react to free speech, but that's essentially the position the NAM has taken here.

In regards to free association, the new law--effective April 21--again says nothing about lobbyists not being able to associate or give money. It just says people have the right to know to whom and by whom.

That there is opposition to that premise illustrates the need for it by virtue of its very existence.

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I Stand Corrected

Apparently, there are still at least a couple of journalists or pundits out there who understand the concept of delegates and their central role in the nominating process.

Given 24 hours to continuously banter for 6 weeks about a single Democratic Primary vote in Pennsylvania would allow for at least a minimal amount of time to devote to the actual process. Alas, it hasn't. What, with constantly searching for the next non-controversy to stoke continuously until, Presto!, you can say people care. No, actually looking at the process itself requires a small bit of research, and who wants to waste time with that when there's endless repetition of things other people say for you to drone on about.

Thankfully, Greg Giroux and Jonathan Allen at CQPolitics have taken the time so the talking heads won't have to.

That answer will be mainly determined not by the sum of the votes Clinton and Obama win in Pennsylvania, but rather by the state’s parts. Pennsylvania will send 187 Democratic delegates to the party’s national convention in Denver this August, and most of them — 103 to be exact — will be allocated according to the votes the candidates receive in each of the state’s 19 congressional districts.

And a CQ Politics analysis of the political circumstances in Pennsylvania’s congressional districts, detailed below, projects an edge to Clinton — but by just 53 district-level delegates to 50 for Obama under the Democratic Party’s proportional distribution rules.

These numbers suggest that Clinton, even with a victory in Pennsylvania, would make only a small incremental gain against Obama’s overall lead in the delegate race.

Of the state’s remaining 84 slots, only 55 pledged delegates will be distributed based on the statewide popular vote, with the state’s remaining 29 seats going to unpledged “superdelegates.”

As is made clear by the authors' breakdowns between the 19 congressional districts, the margin of victory is only important in a PR sense, and bears little effect of the outcome in terms of delegates. For the 103 delegates divvied up by district voting, the margin of victory needed to obtain more than a single delegate more than the opponent is essentially prohibitive. Giroux and Allen speaking of 4-delegate districts, of which there are 5: "So if Clinton defeats Obama 60 percent to 40 percent, the district delegates would split 2-2; if Obama defeats Clinton 60 percent to 40 percent, a 2-2 split would also ensue." Likewise, in a 5-delegate district, 70 percent of the vote would be needed to have a split other than 3-2.

Giroux and Allen continue in a detailed, district-by-district analysis and prediction (they arrive at Clinton 53, Obama 50). But the main point here is that even if they're off slightly--even completely inverse in most districts--the results won't change much unless one candidate absolutely trounces the other, which is implausible.

Even the 55 delegate divided by state-wide vote won't lend Clinton that large a margin. A 55-45 split for Clinton would yield her 30 delegates to Obama's 25. Even a highly-unlikely 60-40 divide would grant a 33-22 mix.

Given that a 20-point margin of victory is highly improbable, a best case scenario for Hillary would have her walking away from Pennsylvania with around a net gain of 10, perhaps 15, delegates. Not nearly enough to cover a margin of over 100.

Assuming Clinton wins Pennsylvania (a safe assumption at this point), the fact remains that nothing will change other than feeding fundraising and continued campaigning. A victory in the popular vote may help morale, but it is clearly not going to gloss over the fact that she is all-but mathematically eliminated from the race and has been for several months.

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Jon Stewart Takes 9 Minutes to Detail Everything Wrong With Today's Political Coverage

While we're at it, all Obama said was people have been lied to on the economy so long that they vote on different values or single issues. Nowhere did he say only bitter people are religious. I know it's fun to get outraged, and feigned offense is the oil that lubricates the political machine, but it'd be nice if a little comprehension skill were employed along the way.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Tortured Logic

If there's one thing the War on Terror has made unambiguous, it's that ambiguity will continue to surround the actions of the United States and the Bush administration in its attempt to prevent further attacks upon the nation. Faced with preserving rights or preserving the ability of government to take those rights, Bush always sides with the latter, be it ever-growing surveillance powers or the use of torture in interrogations.

All too often, the administration is allowed to toss around misleading statements and outright falsehoods in the pursuit of those aims, and just as often cable news networks with 24 hours of space to fit questioning of the process fail miserably to that end. When the Attorney General was making up implausible scenarios in San Francisco, the news was centered on Barack Obama's inability to bowl. When the leader of the free world admitted that he knew and approved of violations of international and domestic law, the media wrapped itself in a blanket of despair over perceived elitism. From the poorest (relative term, of course) and least-established of the three candidates, no less.

What began years ago as "a few bad apples" participating in a sophomoric lapse in judgment has been fleshed out into full-fledged human rights violations under the umbrella of international and domestic statutes. And the media couldn't be less impressed.

As time has progressed from March of 2004, so has the overwhelming mountain of evidence pointing ever higher in the administration in search of the origins of the use of torture in US interrogation techniques. But, until Friday, there was nothing to link President Bush directly to the negotiations and planning. Those who thought such a revelation would portend some sort of culmination were sorely disappointed, as the country ignored the news with the same callous disregard in which Bush delivered it.

For the leader of a free nation to be admitting freely, without any hesitation or outwards sign of guilt, that he had full knowledge of his surrogates planning to break the law and be greeted with a shrug is nothing short of breathtaking.

First, it is important to emphasize that there is a definition of torture under US Code. It is a legal definition, not something which Bush or John Yoo get to manipulate with shifty words or maneuvering.

Sec. 2340. Definitions

As used in this chapter--
(1) "torture" means an act committed by a person acting under
the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or
mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to
lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical
(2) "severe mental pain or suffering" means the prolonged
mental harm caused by or resulting from--
(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of
severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened
administration or application, of mind-altering substances or
other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or
the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be
subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the
administration or application of mind-altering substances or
other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or
personality; and

(3) "United States" means the several States of the United
States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths,
territories, and possessions of the United States.

Waterboarding has been the most-discussed method of interrogation (though the administration admits to using it on only 3 prisoners), and despite the rhetorical side-stepping of Bush and his appointees, it clearly meets the criteria of "'servere mental pain or suffering' resulting from threat of imminent death." There is really no way being made to feel as though drowning does not constitute 'threat of death.'

Yet, the act is still presented as an unclear procedure which may or may not be wrong, although any discussion of the veracity of either position is typically centered on the personal feelings of those involved in the argument rather than an objective utilization of definitions. When asked if the US tortured prisoners, Bush assured us "the United States does not torture," but we have admissions that waterboarding was used and the clear-enough definition of 'torture' under US Code to compare it to. This isn't a matter of asking the participants if they think they did anything wrong. It's not a matter of semantics. All that is required is a faithful adherence to the English language.

But beyond waterboarding, those interrogation techniques--though not talked about--which are much more widely-used still meet the definition. Consider several of the commonly-used methods: deprivation of sleep, deprivation of senses, exposure to extreme temperatures, and electric shock. To contend that these techniques fail to meet the definition spelled out in the US Code strains credibility and illustrates a wanton disregard for objectivity.

The definition clearly defines torture as "causing mental harm through procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality." The Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit "violence to life and person," "outrages upon personal dignity," and "conditions exposing [prisoners] to contagion or infection." All of the previously-listed techniques meet one or more of those definitions.

So George Bush is free to say that the "United States does not torture," but it is equally fair for others to bring up the actual definition of the US Code he has sworn to uphold in claiming he's lying. It's not a matter of opinion whether or not these acts are torture. There are legal definitions, and they are all met.

The administration, of course, does all this under the umbrella of homeland security. You've gotta break a few eggs to stop all the terrorists attacks. This first requires the belief that a government that missed a massive attack spanning two presidencies is suddenly competent enough to act upon what some schmuck says in conditions designed precisely so he'll say anything to get out of them. But, that aside, this again begs the question: When did the Executive Branch become responsible for interpreting and re-writing the law?

All good intentions aside, if the laws need to be changed, get them changed. Through legislation, not back-room semantic mangling by a sycophant flunkie. As much as it pains me, I mostly think Bush is a somewhat pitiful, hopeless idealist. I don't believe him to be inherently evil. But one thing is clear, and that is that the United States has flouted international treaties it has promised to uphold--and expects other countries to uphold when detaining our soldiers--and its own code.

Bush often says that history will be the true judge of his presidency. Sadly for him, I think that's true, because we haven't reached the end of the line yet. For all its egregious acts and slaps in the face to representative democracy, this administration has proven time and again that something more scandalous always lurks just around the corner.

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Tough Love, With Pillows

Americans have a peculiar habit of skipping from one concern to the next. That which fills hours of continuous coverage on Cable News today will be forgotten before the sun rises on tomorrow. Such is the case with corporate crime.

Back in 2002, George Bush was fully on board with the effort to crack down on shady accounting practices which brought down Enron and Arthur Anderson along with numerous other companies and not least of all the pensions of thousands of innocent employees.

Bush, upon signing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002:

This new law sends very clear messages that all concerned must heed. This law says to every dishonest corporate leader: you will be exposed and punished; the era of low standards and false profits is over; no boardroom in America is above or beyond the law.


Corporate misdeeds will be found and will be punished. This law authorizes new funding for investigators and technology at the Securities and Exchange Commission to uncover wrongdoing. The SEC will now have the administrative authority to bar dishonest directors and officers from ever again serving in positions of corporate responsibility. The penalties for obstructing justice and shredding documents are greatly increased. Corporate crime will no longer pay. CEOs who profit by betraying the public trust will be forced to return those gains to investors. And the maximum prison term for common types of fraud has quadrupled from five to 20 years.


This law gives my administration new tools for enforcement. We will use them to the fullest. We will continue to investigate, arrest and prosecute corporate officials who break the law. The Corporate Fraud Task Force I established is now hard at work, overseeing investigations of alleged fraud and insider trading. More than 200 federal prosecutors are at work detecting and punishing corporate crimes. Every corporate official who has chosen to commit a crime can expect to face the consequences. No more easy money for corporate criminals, just hard time.

Sounds good enough. Corporate accountants risk jail time for playing fast and loose with the all-too-precarious futures of shareholders and employees. Increased SEC scrutiny and audits. All around, promises that major collapses like those of 2001 and 2002 would never happen again.

But, as is often the case, Americans moved on. They moved on to more inane celebrity gossip, got wrapped up in whatever reality show was popular at the moment, or occasionally paid attention to a fleeting political faux-scandal. But mostly, they lost interest. And the tide moved out. Almost immediately.

President Bush's utilization of signing statements to undermine the effectiveness of the bills he signs into law--often effectively nullifying them entirely--is no secret. The corporate crime bill was no exception, as Bush eliminated a provision to protect whistle blowers who bring to light violations by companies not already under investigation. In other words, at the same time he was declaring a new tough stance against corporate crime, President Bush was working to ensure that the process of prosecution would be stamped out at its root.

From there, many of the other mechanisms intended to prevent another catastrophic corporate malfeasance were rolled back or put on the back burner. Kim Clark details many of those efforts in this April, 2006 article in US News. Among other things, Clark details the elimination of SEC oversight positions and illuminates the first glimpse of what would become a theme later, saying "Since 2004, federal prosecutors have struck at least nine deals with companies accused of accounting fraud, to defer prosecution or not prosecute at all. In the previous five years, the Justice Department announced just four, according to the Corporate Crime Reporter."

But that jump--from 4 over 5 years to 9 over 16 months--in deferred prosecutions was but the tip of the iceberg, as Eric Lichtblau reveals in the New York Times.

In a major shift of policy, the Justice Department, once known for taking down giant corporations, including the accounting firm Arthur Andersen, has put off prosecuting more than 50 companies suspected of wrongdoing over the last three years.

Instead, many companies, from boutique outfits to immense corporations like American Express, have avoided the cost and stigma of defending themselves against criminal charges with a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, which allows the government to collect fines and appoint an outside monitor to impose internal reforms without going through a trial. In many cases, the name of the monitor and the details of the agreement are kept secret.

While the fines levied still carry a modicum of determent by punishment, it is not nearly the substantial and public retribution promised by Bush in 2002. Bush didn't say that corporate misdeeds would merely be met with fines, he promised purveyors of magic accounting and other corporate malpractice would be greeted with "hard time."

Consider, though, that many of those shady accounting practices have made their way into today's economic framework. Much of the attention is payed to inability to pay mortgages, which decidedly misses the point. The failure of a company like Bear Stearns stemmed from lax corporate oversight which allowed companies to take poor investments (sub-prime mortgages) and pass them off further and further up the chain until the system simply couldn't handle it anymore.

And once again, it's the employees of that company that bear the brunt of the fallout. Much is made of the use of federal funds to back JP Morgan's buyout, but nary a peep about the employees whose shares were bought for $2. They pay the price with their retirement plans.

Faced with an economic downturn strongly tied to dishonest and creative accounting practices, withholding of the shaky foundations of investments, and active pushing of disastrous mortgage agreements, attention needs to be given to the role that lax oversight played.

Corporations, like children, only understand and respond to consequenses, not words. Bush spoke strongly six years ago, but his actions illustrated to accountants and bankers that they would be mostly free to practice business as usual. Deferred prosecution agreements instilled an accurate perception that shady practices could be persued with a virtual guarantee that if caught a company would be greeted with a slap on the wrist and a fine.

Proponents of these agreements say they work to "avoid the type of company-wide havoc seen most acutely in the case of Arthur Anderson." While there certainly is credence to that--bringing a company to its knees (along with its innocent employees) out of a sense of retribution does more harm than good--it effectively, as we've seen in the mortgage scene, kicks the can down the road.

Prosecuting every wrongdoing with the zeal required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is probably impractical, but simply laying the foundation for a regulation/oversight-free environment that comes back to bite the country cannot be a reliable substitute.

Also, those suggesting that every prosecution would wreak havoc must explain the discrepancy in numbers. Jumping from 4 deferred prosecutions over 5 years to more than 50 over three years and 35 last year alone requires explanation stretching the bounds of credibility. The implication of disaster doesn't sync with the fact that prior to the Bush administration these agreements were rare without a simultaneous rash of company failures. The reality, once again, fails to support the administration's factual maneuvering.

Deferred prosecution agreements on the scale that the Justice Department has utilized them in recent years is indicitive of a larger picture. A picure painted with broad strokes of lax regulation, failure to employ oversight, and attempts to stymie investigations at their very root. Failure on this scale has allowed an entire segment of the economy to be propped up on a foundation of popsicle sticks. Sadly, it's not an accident. The economic issues created by the poor investment practices of the banking industry are a direct result of the nod-and-wink relationship it has with the Bush administration.

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