Wednesday, July 30, 2008

LA Quake: No News is News

Most of my family lives in the Los Angeles area, so when I heard about the quake that struck Tuesday, I was concerned. . .

. . . until I heard it was “only” a 5.8 (later downgraded to a 5.4). Anything under a 6, and I think, “not to worry.”

I’ll let the LA Times pick up the story:

The earthquake that rattled Southern California on Tuesday might have caused devastation if it had taken place in some parts of the world, but relatively strict building codes ensured that most of the region's infrastructure -- homes, schools, freeways and rail systems -- rolled with the magnitude 5.4 punch, which was centered near Chino Hills and felt as far as Las Vegas.

The story also points out that most of the buildings in the area had been built or retrofitted since codes were strengthened in the wake of the 1994 Northridge quake, so it’s not just that this temblor might have caused devastation if it had struck in a different place, it very well might have caused destruction and death if it had happened in a different time. Had this been LA circa 1968, the “news” might have been filled with news.

At first blush, that might seem like a matter-of-fact point—big deal, things get better, hooray for science! That sort of thing. But the underlying message is far from run-of-the-mill. Tuesday’s Chino Quake was an example of the triumph of government regulation; it was an example of what a responsible and responsive government can and should do for its citizens. As Sara Robinson notes:

The fact that Los Angeles returned to normal (as if anything in Los Angeles can ever be considered normal) within just a few hours is one of those invisible but important lessons in the collective power of a functioning government -- the kind of non-controvertible, essential fact that conservatives tend to gloss right over when they talk about shrinking government until they can drown it in a bathtub.

California's seismic codes are serious, strict, and effective. The state has been working on them for 80 years now, refining them through the years after every major quake to incorporate new knowledge and engineering practices. (A major revision this year has recently sent all the state's architects, engineers, and contractors back to school yet again.) To see the results of this ongoing effort, consider the 1931 Long Beach quake, a 6.4 shaker that damn near flattened Long Beach, killed 120 people, and caused over $40 million (in 1931 dollars) in property damage. And then reflect on the fact that in 1989, it took a quake eleven times bigger -- the 7.1 Loma Prieta quake -- to create a comparable amount of damage.

. . . .

Generous state support is one reason CalTech was able to build the world's first and foremost seismology department, where the Richter scale and the seismograph were developed. Decades of government competence has also ensured that California's county building inspectors are widely considered the toughest, smartest, least corruptible pros in the country.

Forty years after the Long Beach quake, a very young me lived through the San Fernando (or Sylmar) Quake, which weighed in at 6.6, killed 65, and caused about a half-billion dollars in damage—and scared the shit out of me—but our house was built to post-Long Beach standards, and suffered only minor damage.

My parents’ house was further upgraded to incorporate what was learned and legislated after the San Fernando quake, so when the stronger and much closer Northridge quake rung in a January 1994 morning at 6.7, the house lost its old brick chimney, but otherwise remained intact.

So, the next time a selfish, single-minded Republican (or Libertarian, for that matter) asks what government has ever done for the American people, you can point to me and my family, and the countless other Californians who have survived numerous major seismic events thanks to improvements instituted and enforced by a strong government.

But perhaps my continued existence will not be considered a plus. In that case, point out how much money was saved by the city, state, and federal government because they didn’t have to rebuild as much infrastructure as would have been the case in an unregulated world. And they didn’t have to provide as much disaster relief as they might have, either.

Or point out how much private industry has saved because they have standing buildings with safe, healthy workers inside. Look how fast Los Angeles got back to work on Tuesday—without improved and enforced building codes, things wouldn’t have looked the same.

I have often worried that after nearly thirty years of Republicans underfunding and defunding our social institutions, many in this country have forgotten what government can do for them. They don’t know what to expect, nor do they know what they have a right to demand. A simple contrast drawn between the neglected levees in Louisiana or Iowa, or the neglected bridges of Minnesota, and the highway overpasses, homes, and businesses that stand safe and sound today in and around Los Angeles is a good place to start remembering.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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Monday, July 28, 2008

WTF is a Tentative Milestone?

The New York Times dug deep into its rhetorical bag of tricks Sunday for this front-pager on the “remarkable change” sweeping through Shiite-controlled portions of Baghdad.

BAGHDAD — The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq.

First off, how many unimportant milestones have you ever encountered? But, more to the point, how would you define a tentative milestone? Here’s how I’d describe it: A steaming load of CYA.

Maybe someone lost the Green Zone’s only dictionary, so let me help a little:

mile•stone: 1. A stone marker set up on a roadside to indicate the distance in miles from a given point. 2. An important event, as in a person's career, the history of a nation, or the advancement of knowledge in a field; a turning point.

Can you imagine driving along the highway and seeing a sign that says you are tentatively five miles from town? Or can you imagine Winston Churchill proclaiming that, “This is not the end, nor the beginning of the end, but it is tentatively the end of the beginning?” And, as for turning points, we have seen where that gets us (hint: after a few turnsright back where you started).

I guess my big question is: When did hypotheticals become front-page news?

I suppose one could write a news story here about the shifting, unpredictable landscape in the Shiite neighborhoods in and around Baghdad, but reporter Sabrina Tavernise and the Times did not structure this article that way. This is an article with a premise (a premise strikingly similar to the line put forth by the US-backed Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki, I might add), and the author attempts to string together anecdotes and predictions to confirm that supposition.

How did Tavernise come to substantiate her tentative claim about the downgraded influence of Mahdi leader Moktada al-Sadr?

In interviews, 17 Iraqis, including municipal officials, gas station workers and residents, described a pattern in which the militia’s control over the local economy and public services had ebbed.

And those interviews, I should point out, were likely not conducted by Tavernise, herself, but, because of safety concerns, were instead done via Iraqi stringers. (I admit that this is a supposition on my part—the NYT and most papers do not make a habit of differentiating between direct reporting and information gathered through proxies—most parts of the area in question in this article are almost certainly not safe for western reporters.) I do not envy the conditions under which reporters have to work in Iraq, but I do have a problem with secondhand accounts from a small, unscientific sample being magically transformed by the of the New York Times into a seemingly certain evaluation of conditions on the ground, and by direct inference, an endorsement of what from my point of view (and I reiterate that this is my point of view) was factional bloodletting rather than a well-orchestrated security operation by a legitimate Iraqi government. Four paragraphs toward the very end of the story seem to lend credence to my take:

The shift comes at a crucial moment: Iraqis will vote in provincial elections in December. The weakening of the Sadrists in national politics clears the stage for the group’s most bitter rival — a Shiite party led by another cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. One of the party’s members, Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a sheik and a member of Parliament, is arranging state aid for Sunni families willing to move back to Topchi.

The timing was not missed by the Sadr movement’s spokesman, who said the government had recently warned the group to vacate its office. He blames Mr. Hakim’s party for the attempts to marginalize his movement, whose members have also been targets of a political crackdown in southern Iraq.

“Some parties are occupying large buildings in Jadriya,” he said, referring indirectly to the headquarters of Mr. Hakim’s party. “That’s what makes us suspicious. Why only us?”

He added, “The main motive is to exclude the Sadr movement from politics.”

Again, this is in no way to be read as an endorsement of the Mahdi faction or their brutal tactics—but I think short passages like the one above show the situation to be more complicated than the tale of a good government forcing out a bad criminal syndicate.

Also missing from the Times piece is any consideration that at least some of the lull might be the result of an intentional pulling back by Moktada al-Sadr or an effort by the Shiite cleric to contain the worst elements of his movement himself.

However, there are these two lines at the very end of the article:

The militia is painting its response on Sadr City walls: “We will be back, after this break.”

The Iraqi Army is painting over it.

Which is perhaps the best metaphor for what is happening in Baghdad: a superficial improvement. It is possible that this is not the story of a strong government that has been battling organized crime now reaching a milestone (however tentative), but rather a tangled tale of a weak political faction’s whitewashing of a long and dirty picket fence. This makes the Iraqi government look less like Elliot Ness, and more like Tom Sawyer. It would great if New York Times reporters weren’t so eager to grab a brush.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Friday, July 25, 2008

NYT Flips for Obama

Friday’s New York Times features a short piece on Senator Barack Obama’s speech yesterday in Berlin. Billed as “News Analysis”—NYT code for “we like making assertions on the news pages without the annoying responsibility of providing sources or facts to back them up”—the article, written by Steven Erlanger, makes up for what it lacks in reportage with a healthy dose of all-out absurdity.

In a nutshell, the article analysis, headlined “Obama, Vague on Issues, Pleases Crowd in Europe,” criticizes the Democrat’s presumptive nominee for a) delivering too eloquent a speech, and b) not fixing America’s foreign policy problems before he is actually president.

For Senator Barack Obama, who came to Europe once in the last four years, making a stop in London on his way to Russia, the response of many Europeans to his potential presidency has been gratifying — emotional, responsive, replete with the sense of hope he seeks to engender about a more flexible, less ideological America.

European governments and politicians are not so sure.

On Thursday evening in a glittering Berlin, Mr. Obama delivered a tone poem to American and European ideals and shared history.

But he was vague on crucial issues of trade, defense and foreign policy that currently divide Washington from Europe and are likely to continue to do so even if he becomes president — issues ranging from Russia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to new refueling tankers and chlorinated chickens, the focus of an 11-year European ban on American poultry imports.

First, there is the snark, right up front: He’s only been to Europe once in the last four years—and a layover at that! As best I can count, Obama has been busy being a US Senator the last four years (and kind of extra busy the last year-and-a-half)—since when do Congressional junkets rate as good job performance?

Second: “European governments and politicians are not so sure.” Governments AND politicians??? Is Erlanger trying to draw a distinction between the permanent bureaucracy and the elected heads of state? Because, if he is, he sure doesn’t give us quotes from both those groups (from either of them, really). I mean, honestly, I thought that words like “politicians” usually stand as journalistic metonymy for things like “government,” and vice-versa. But I’m not based in Paris, maybe Erlanger knows more about this than I do. Maybe over there, “government” is not comprised of politicians, but of toast soldiers and highly evolved dolphins.

As for Mr. Erlanger’s literary criticism (or is it musical criticism?), I don’t instantly think of tone poems as bad, but I know what would be bad, and that would be a tone poem filled with wonky details about refueling tankers and chlorinated chicken. That would suck.

I dare say that Obama probably wasn’t looking to negotiate European trade deals with 200,000 curious Germans—it’s just a hunch. More likely, Obama was making a campaign appearance, aimed mostly at the folks who actually vote for American presidents (OK, I lied—he probably didn’t design this speech to appeal to the members of the electoral college), but also designed to signal to the folks that he might have to deal with if elected that he will be a very different kind of president from George W. Bush. . . or John W. McCain.

“Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world?” Mr. Obama asked in his speech, then added pointedly, “Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law?” The huge crowd applauded and waved American flags.

Nice words, sure, but you know that the crowd was actually waving those flags to get Obama’s attention so that they might ask him about those befouled foul.

Oh, but wait, there’s more:

Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations said, “The Obama who spoke tonight did not put all his cards on the table.” Mr. Obama “tried to use all the symbolism of Berlin to indicate that as president he would reach out to Europe,” Mr. Sandschneider said. “But between the lines he said very clearly that Europe needs to do more,” especially on Afghanistan and Iraq.

. . . .

And, despite what appears to be his sensitivity to European concerns, they perceive Mr. Obama as largely uninterested in Europe, even though he is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee responsible for the region. As the newspaper Le Monde pointed out on Thursday, Mr. Obama has never asked to meet the European Union’s ambassador in Washington.

OK, let me get his straight. . . Obama is reaching out to Europe, but also saying he wants Europe to do more, yet, he is apparently uninterested in Europe—wtf?

And, as for not meeting the EU’s ambassador, mon dieu! I’m not arguing that the Distinguished Gentleman from Illinois is the hardest working man in the Senate, but honestly, how much business would Obama have with the ambassador—especially in the era of the authoritarian executive? It’s not like the White House lets Democrats negotiate trade deals.

But wait, there’s more:

[Europe’s trade commissioner, Peter] Mandelson noted that Mr. Obama had pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and had opposed a new trade deal with Colombia. “A crisis of American confidence in globalization,” Mr. Mandelson said, “could knock it off course.”

Wait—an Obama presidency could knock globalization off course?!? Who in the electorate could possibly want to see that? Oh, yeah, all of those hard working Americans that Obama was supposedly not going to win over. Hmm. . . .

But all (OK, some) sarcasm aside, I really am at a loss as to what Erlanger and his toast soldiers wanted from a political speech. I expect Obama might have to wait till the end of January before he can do much about giving Europe the bird (I’m talking about the chickens again—damn!).

However, none of this is what I set out to write about. Not really. Rather, fix your attention on that picture up there (by Jae C. Hong of the AP). Looks kind of impressive, no? One man, alone, before a gigantic crowd of adoring Germans, one arm raised. . . .

But wait, uh, there’s more. Take a closer look:

Unless the German people have taken to writing in code, or Obama accidentally went through a worm hole and landed in some mirror universe, this picture has been flipped. But why? What is served by this?

Is it really as simple as Barack Obama stands far to the left—looking left—with most of the people standing to his right? Can it be that basic? Isn’t that just too on-the-nose?

Maybe I’m just talking crazy, but in the digital age, this is not simply a case of an accidentally flipped negative. This was intentional, and worthy of some news analysis of our own.

UPDATE: brendan1963 argues under the cross-post on dKos that the picture is not flipped, and provides this alternate photo as evidence. While that seriously messes up my title and my final burst of consternation, I stand by the rest of my, uh, tone poem.

(Over-arching hat tip to Michael Shaw and his Gilly Award winning blog BAG news Notes. Shaw uses his site to ask just these sorts of questions about the pictures that accompany our news; seeing his presentation at Netroots Nation in Austin inspired me to tap into a part of my brain and education that I hadn’t used in a while. Of course, having to dissect the words and the images just makes my job that much harder—thanks, Michael!)

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sen. Graham compares torture at Gitmo to McCain’s long, boring talks about birds

In speaking to David Kirkpatrick for a piece in the New York Times’ ongoing (and going, and going. . .) series “The Long Run,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) contributes to the ever-growing list of leading Republicans’ attempts to dismiss the illegal abuse of detainees at Guatanamo Bay as little more than a mild discomfort or a puckish hazing ritual.

[McCain] likes trading jokes about colleagues with a small group of friends that includes Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. . . . Entertaining guests at his property in Sedona, Ariz., [McCain] invariably drags them for long walks to indulge his passion for bird watching. “If you took all the people at Gitmo, put them in the cabin for the weekend and made them listen to John talk about the birds, they would all spill their guts.” Mr. Graham said.

I will agree with Lindsey Graham on one point: listening to John McCain speak is unfailingly tedious—however. . .

While some former detainees have commented on the intense boredom experienced during their long incarcerations, it is often the least of their complaints. The ritualized torture that makes up what Bush Administration officials call “enhanced interrogation”—reverse-engineered from a decades-old report about resisting Communist Chinese “brainwashing” techniques—includes the use of stress positions, intense heat and cold, sleep deprivation, routine beatings, and controlled drowning, commonly referred to as “waterboarding.”

The Times’ Kirkpatrick lets Sen. Graham’s comment stand without counterpoint or comment. From the context and structure of the paragraph, I can only assume that Republican Presidential candidate McCain—once a victim of torture himself—shares his colleague’s humorous take on detainee abuse (oh, right, we already know that he does). And perhaps the news division of the New York Times does, too.

To date, none of the torture techniques used by American interrogators have produced a single piece of information that could stand up in US court as permissible evidence. If Senators Graham and McCain believe that they have a better method for extracting vital facts that could convict terrorists or protect Americans, then perhaps they should push for legislation to replace the torture sanctioned by the 2006 Military Commissions Act (a bill the supposedly anti-torture McCain helped pass*) with personal appearances by Arizona’s most famous avian aficionado. In fact, I’m sure Bush’s new BFF McCain could pull some strings, dispense with the legislation, and get the President to let him bring his “passion” to Gitmo posthaste.

The security of the nation may depend on it. . . only time will tell. It appears likely that the Times will not.

*This sentence, which appears toward the end of the Times article, not withstanding:

In 2005 and 2006, for example, he spearheaded battles to prod the administration to sign laws banning the use of torture on military detainees.

That one-liner, presented as a matter of fact, is not really accurate in-and-of itself, and it is most certainly incomplete. Though Senator McCain did initially speak in favor of a so-called “torture ban” in 2006, he eventually accepted a much-watered-down “compromise.” When President Bush then issued a signing statement for the MCA that essentially reiterated the administration’s assertion that it could continue to treat prisoners however it saw fit, regardless of the language of the law, McCain remained eerily silent.

The Times also completely fails to continue the McCain/torture narrative into this election cycle. In February, McCain voted against a Democratic effort to apply Army Field Manual strictures to interrogations conducted by the CIA.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

The writing’s on the wall

Just in case anyone was wondering what the hell happened to me this week. . . well, I have made my way to Austin, home of Netroots Nation 2008.

I snapped this picture when I walked into the hotel. . .

. . . and then promptly forgot to take any more pictures. (Sorry.)

There is a full schedule of meetings and events, and the wifi in my room costs a king's ransom and pretty much sucks. . . and of course there’s always that barbecue that I keep taking about. . . so I might not be the most dependable correspondent this week. (Again, sorry.) But you never know, so check back one in a while, OK?

In the meantime, you know where to find me—and if you’re in Austin, be sure to come say “hi.”

(cross-posted on guy2k)

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A heartbreaking work of staggering cynicism

There have been many terrible, abhorrent, un-American, unacceptable, and unconstitutional laws passed over the last seven-and-a-half years (The Patriot Act, the AUMF, and the Military Commissions Act come immediately to mind), but today’s vote to codify the Bush Administration’s illegal surveillance program could top them all.

I have many reasons to feel that way; only one of which is the red raw emotion and strong sense of betrayal I feel as a Congress supposedly controlled by Bush’s opposition bends over backwards to give a president with a record low approval rating everything he could have ever wanted—even after so many of the Democrats’ own rank and file worked so hard for so long to fight the villainous activities of Republican rule.

As Senator Russ Feingold has pointed out, there are numerous ways in which this bill seriously erodes our Constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure. The law provides little protection against reverse targeting, no prohibition of bulk collections, a giant loophole that allows intelligence agencies to spy without FISC approval virtually without end, no limits on the use of illegally obtained evidence in court, and few protections for citizens inside the US that correspond with parties outside of our borders.

As I have written in the past, the debate about changes to FISA has gone forward with little respect for what should now be common knowledge: The Bush Administration began its expansion of warrantless domestic surveillance within weeks of taking office—seven months before the attacks of 9/11/01. This is almost certainly (you know what, never mind “almost”—it is certainly) a program or collection of programs designed with an intent other than protecting America from foreign terrorists, and likely has made the fight to shield America from future violent acts more difficult.

There have been published accounts of how the Bush Administration used spy agencies to investigate journalists and their contacts. I would deem it likely that the White House used illegally obtained information to target Democratic politicians and civil organizations. It is even believed that the hospital contretemps between John Ashcroft, Andy Card, James Comey, and Alberto Gonzales was provoked by White House orders to illegally use intelligence agencies to spy on American citizens inside the US without a court order.

Also noted in the past, a majority of Americans oppose retroactive immunity and warrantless domestic surveillance. Democrats who fall in with the Bush Administration today are actually not only stepping on the Constitution, they are stepping across the line that divides the will of the American people from the interests of wealthy telecom executives and a political party that is bracing for record losses this November.

Many Democrats will also vote today to side with Bush and Cheney against the judgment of what’s left of this country’s independent judiciary, which, almost every step of the way, has tried to uphold the Fourth Amendment, force adherence to the original FISA restrictions, and insist that the White House turn over evidence explaining the timing and scope of their illegal spying endeavors.

Congress and the President will also be ignoring the advice of countless constitutional scholars who, like Jonathan Turley, have labeled this bill an act of “political convenience—not compromise” that shows “not an ounce” of respect for the Fourth Amendment. Democrats today will also turn a deaf ear to the calls of noted Americans such as Studs Terkel, who, having experienced nefarious government repression himself, has challenged the leadership to let other Americans who believe that they have had their rights abridged have their day in court.

And it is that day in court, and the very real probability that with the passage of this devilish capitulation none of us will have one, that has me thinking this the very darkest day of a very dark decade. Without a loyal opposition loyal to the interests of the American people, or a body of elected officials loyal to the oath that they took to protect and defend the Constitution, without a professionally (as opposed to ideologically) staffed Justice Department loyal to the rule of law instead of to the man that approved their hires, it is only through concerned citizens and through the civil courts that any of us can hope to uncover what really took place behind the thick, green glass of the Oval Office or inside the slick marble corridors of power that crisscross the Capitol.

If we are ever to know the who, what, where, when, and how of the Bush Administration’s illegal domestic spying program, we will need the civil suits currently making their way through the federal courts to go forward. It is the cessation of this process—first, foremost, and forever—that drives the urgency Bush and his enablers convey every time they address FISA. Indeed, President Bush has vowed to veto any bill that does not include retroactive immunity for the telecoms, and, by fiat, for him and his staff, too. He could get every other radically permissive spy tool he has ever sought, but without retroactive immunity, he has no interest in making this bill law.

And with the granting of this immunity by his own presidential pen, with a big thank you to Democrats Jay Rockefeller, Steny Hoyer, and many, many more, that Bush will make sure that American citizens’ options for justice will be severely and permanently limited. While any of the other aspects of this law could, theoretically, be revisited by the next Congress—while any of the other egregious laws passed during the Bush presidency can be (again, theoretically) revised, reformed, or overturned by a future Congress working with a different executive—once the government grants immunity, it cannot move to take it back. Retroactive immunity might be permissible, but retroactive criminalization is prohibited by the Constitution.

It is that irreversibility, that unredeemable point, that has me so inconsolably bereft today. Though looking up the page forbids me from saying that I am left without words, looking forward to an America without as many Fourth Amendment protections or without the same respect for the law that existed prior to this vote does leave me without any good explanation. It is a vote that can only be seen through the lens of beltway myopia, a political calculation born of cynicism and hubris. Democratic leaders might think that they are moving forward, putting a difficult national security issue behind them before the November election, but this is a giant step back, a closing of the door on years of actions that so badly need to be brought out into the open, without so much as a glimmer of hope.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Urgent plea: John McCain caught in endless loop of his own circular logic—can you help?

Some jokes, as they say, write themselves. . .

The Politico has posted the new! improved! Jobs for America: The McCain Economic Plan, and this can be found on page four:

The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction.

So, let me see if I have this right: assuming he can claim victory in this long struggle where victory cannot be defined, and McCain ends a deployment that he believes might require another 100 years, he is going to take the money not added to the deficit that was never included in the annual budget to pay down the budget deficit.

This is an argument so absurdly twisted back on itself that it almost lies outside the bounds of basic written language to debunk it. (At this moment, I have an image of comedian Lewis Black shivering with rage, screaming, “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college!” But, honestly, that statement contains far more logic than McCain’s.)

Let’s put it this way: If all of the wars’ “costs” have been “financed with deficit spending” (“costs” “financed” by “spending”? oh, never mind) and you somehow miraculously end the wars (even though you have no intent to do so, and no plan as to how if you did), then you don’t actually get money back—you just stop adding to the deficit!

Now I guess you could call that deficit reduction of a sort—stopping the making it larger—if those expenditures had actually ever been counted against the revenue stream in the annual budget. . . except, of course, they never were. The Bush Administration has financed its folly via supplementals—which, at the president’s insistence, have never been included in the calculations of the annual federal budget.

And who voted for those supplementals every single time? Who never so much as made a peep or raised a finger in protest? Who went along with the Bush Administration’s irresponsible and dishonest ploy every step of the way and, even today, continues to tow the Bush line on the Iraq fiasco?

For the sake of the rhetorical device and “the google,” I will tell you. The man who has supported the Bush war and the Bush budget the last five years, and has pledged to carry on the occupation with no new plan to end it and no meaningful pledge to honestly finance it, is none other than long-time Republican Senator and presidential wannabe John McCain.

And you know, as comical as that first plank up there is, the next paragraph is perhaps just as stupid:

A one-year spending pause. Freeze non-defense, non-veterans discretionary spending for a year and use those savings for deficit reduction. A one-year pause in the growth of discretionary spending will be imposed to allow for a comprehensive review of all spending programs. After the completion of a comprehensive review of all programs, projects and activities of the federal government, we will propose a plan to modernize, streamline, consolidate, reprioritize and, where needed, terminate individual programs.

A pause? You mean like the pause we’re supposedly enjoying in Iraq these days? Will the jobless rate, inflation, the crumbling infrastructure, Medicare costs, or a host of other national priorities too long ignored pause while you waste the first year of your presidency (and all of our time) figuring out what you are going to do?

What has John McCain been thinking about during the last year while he ran to take over for George W. Bush—not to mention what was he thinking about over the last eight years? Did he not think that maybe Americans might want to know what he planned to do before they voted? After he’s sworn in, he expects us to wait another year while he studies the situation—man, talk about not being ready on “day one.”

Besides, while he pauses, the military budget will continue to grow—he says so right there—and since there is no actual plan in the McCain “plan” to increase revenue (beyond the cutting of waste that apparently he plans to add to his own budget in order to cut it—yes, this sounds like paragraph one to me, too), the deficit will grow larger than the one his review will be studying. . . unless, of course, they plan to “finance” the extra spending with additional pork inserted into the budget in advance of the cut.

Hey, don’t laugh—it’s not really a joke. . .

. . . it’s actually his plan!

If John McCain isn’t willing to propose a serious solution during his remaining time in the Senate, I see no reason to consider him as a leader somewhere down the line.

But that’s linear thinking, a form of logic apparently alien to John McCain.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

“Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War” or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Torture

I’m mixing my movie metaphors, I’m afraid. The headline is a reference to Dr. Strangelove, but an article in today’s New York Times is more reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate.

Well, part of it, anyway.

The part where the Chinese commandant brainwashes Americans such as Laurence Harvey (never mind that accent) and Frank Sinatra.

I don’t know if Richard Condon had seen the article titled Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War which was published two years before his novel The Manchurian Candidate came out in 1959, but I could not read the Times article without flashing on the 1962 film.

The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”

What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The chart was part of collection of documents made public a couple of weeks ago at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, but the connection to the Chinese version was not realized till an independent interrogation expert pointed it out to the New York Times. This chart, mind you, was taken verbatim from the Chinese version as published a half-century ago—only the title at the top was changed before the thing was brought down to Guantanamo to train interrogators there.

The 1957 article from which the chart was copied was entitled “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War” and written by Alfred D. Biderman, a sociologist then working for the Air Force, who died in 2003. Mr. Biderman had interviewed American prisoners returning from North Korea, some of whom had been filmed by their Chinese interrogators confessing to germ warfare and other atrocities.

Those orchestrated confessions led to allegations that the American prisoners had been “brainwashed,” and provoked the military to revamp its training to give some military personnel a taste of the enemies’ harsh methods to inoculate them against quick capitulation if captured.

In 2002, the training program, known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, became a source of interrogation methods both for the C.I.A. and the military. In what critics describe as a remarkable case of historical amnesia, officials who drew on the SERE program appear to have been unaware that it had been created as a result of concern about false confessions by American prisoners.

Is it historical amnesia, or is it willful ignorance? I gotta ask, because this is hardly the first piece of evidence we’ve had that the Bush Administration adopted a policy of torturing detainees using techniques repeatedly proven to be ineffective, and, most likely, counterproductive. Techniques that were also known to be in direct conflict with standing American policy and the Geneva Conventions. Techniques that were repeatedly labeled as torture and/or “brainwashing” by the US government throughout the previous six decades.

And, perhaps it is not only the administration apparatchiks who have pretended that they know nothing.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after reviewing the 1957 article that “every American would be shocked” by the origin of the training document.

“What makes this document doubly stunning is that these were techniques to get false confessions,” Mr. Levin said. “People say we need intelligence, and we do. But we don’t need false intelligence.”

Every American—and apparently Senator Levin—would be shocked, shocked, to discover that there is torture going on in American-run establishments.

Would be shocked? Who is going to make sure that they are shocked, Senator? Who is going to shout it from the highest hill? Who is going to cut off funding to the prisons and programs that practice these cruel and inhuman techniques? Who is going to hold the perpetrators and their bosses accountable for this historical amnesia? Who is going to overturn the now thoroughly discredited Military Commissions Act? Who is going to restore Habeas rights so that more about the sub-human practices inside the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gulag system can come to light?

I’m sorry, I’m being a little rhetorical. Perhaps I’m overacting a bit. Just imagine I’m Sinatra in high dudgeon, rendered in Black and White (lord knows I do sometimes).

The bottom line here is that the Bush Administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were never about keeping America safe—there was far too much evidence in the public and classified record that demonstrated just how counterproductive this torture was and is. Maybe it was about an executive power grab, maybe it was done out of cowardice, panic, or shear vindictiveness, but let no one claim it was done to gain the advantage in the War on Terror™—that just isn’t credible.

As fans of the book or movie know, things in The Manchurian Candidate don’t end well. The “brainwashing” is exposed, there is a psychotic break or two, much Oedipal drama, and a great deal of blood is spilled. After seven-and-a-half years of torture, bloodshed, and Oedipal drama, is it really so shocking to discover another disgusting misuse of executive authority? And, is it really too much to ask that someone in the loyal opposition takes to heart Laurence Harvey’s final words? (No, nut-o-sphere, not his final deeds—just his words.)

You couldn't have stopped them, the Army couldn't have stopped them. So I had to.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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