Thursday, April 30, 2009

Enthralling Capitalism

Why are poor nations still "enthralled with capitalism"? Dani Rodrik asks. Commenting on an article by Arvind Subramanian, Rodrik wonders why poor countries aren't having their own vigorous debates about the necessity of checks on rampant, rapacious capitalism.

First, is it possible to make such a sweeping claim? If I look to the continent south of my own, for example, I don't see many countries that I'd say were "enthralled with capitalism." Nonetheless, for countries such as India and China doesn't the answer have something to do with the slow move away from poorly functioning state-run economies? That's basically the conclusion of Subramanian's piece. But surely Rodrik is far too sweeping. He writes, "Arvind is being a bit too charitable here to the developing nations. I am afraid one cannot rule out the possibility that poor nations are yet again falling behind the curve."

We can set aside the exuberance of the "enthralled claim" and the similarly sensational claim that poor nations are indeed enthralled but now wrong after a couple of centuries of telling them to go that route. Actually, the large industrialized nations may just possibly be coming around to the view that, in some ways, developing nations are ahead of the curve in their suspicions of ideological capitalism.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009



...let's stipulate that there may conceivably have been a moment of national emergency—a "ticking bomb" moment, if you insist—when the rules were bent a bit. But if this emergency rule-bending is then institutionalized, and kept a secret from Congress and the courts and the voters, and becomes a regular bureaucratic practice known only to an unelected and unaccountable few, then you have created a secret state within the state and are well on the road to becoming a banana republic. The next stage, very often, is that certain inconveniently damaged secret prisoners have to be made to "disappear," as in the death-squad regimes of Latin America in the days when the CIA ruled that roost as well. I am very much afraid that this will be the next awful disclosure we read about.
See again the brief account of Hassan Ghul.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Biodiversity Conservation and Bioprospecting

The Guardian reports on an old theme: first, that biodiverse rainforests contain vast potential for the base formulas of new medicines and biotechnologies (there may be a cure for cancer in there); and, second, that bioprospecting for this basic genetic material is a way of changing the economy of the forest from malignant practices like logging to the conservationist approach of preserving forest biodiversity as a resource in itself.

The first part of that theme is indeed true - rainforests and other biodiverse areas are potentially rich sources of new medical and biotech resources. And, indeed, this is one argument that's often advanced by conservationists; the argument that rainforests are of great instrumental value to humans beyond the value of their timber, and the source of that value should therefore be conserved. This is one of many arguments thta one can advance in the name of protecting rainforests from malignant economic practices like logging or clearage for agriculture.

The second part of the basic theme - about bioprospecting as an economically viable conservation tool - is much more complicated. Another post from 2006 explains,
...Some firms maintain that natural products discovery through genetic prospecting remains an important form of research into the indefinite future. Others at the forefront of the industry, however, suggest that genetic prospecting or natural products research is much less important than previously thought (Service 1999). Virtually all drug development proceeds by “rational drug design,” involving computer visualizations, laboratory production, and high-throughput screening. Genomics and combinatorial chemistry have radically altered the drug research landscape. Instead of designing drugs through testing and altering natural chemical samples from organisms, drugs can be developed from an understanding of how genes and proteins behave. Some researchers have contended for some time that combinatorial chemistry could render genetic prospecting redundant (see interviews in Macilwain 1998; Service 1999). Some university-based drug development chemists contend that such technologies render prospecting for samples from natural products at least less significant; at best, promotion of these technologies and methodologies is cyclical, built largely around cost-effectiveness, institutional inertia, and the potential value of natural products research versus the shorter time horizon of developing drugs through rational drug design (private interviews, 2005; see also Olsen, Swanson and Luxmoore 1997). Olsen, Swanson and Luxmoore maintain that “perceptions of the difficulties associated with [natural products research] appeared to lag behind technological advances which would significantly reduce those difficulties” (1997). One wonders, however, why perceptions do not seem to have changed much over more than a decade. Others suggest that the best approach is a balanced combination of rational drug design, combinatorial chemistry, and natural products research (Lahana 1999). Finally, even if genetic prospecting does remain an important element in drug development, research on extremophiles (organisms inhabiting severe environments such as marine thermal vents) and microbes in environments such as toxic waste dumps indicates that there is no guarantee that genetic prospecting and its benefits are ineluctably tied to biodiverse areas.

Biodiversity's marginal value may indeed be negligible, while new drug development technologies indicate decreasing industrial dependence on genetic prospecting. If so, and if drug development firms are increasingly turning to rational drug design and other methods of drug development, then the basic premise of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) - that conserving biodiversity is a function of developing genetic resources for pharmaceutical and biotechnological application - rests on tenuous grounds, not to mention the entire discourse on bioprospecting as a sustainability mechanism. If there are few future monetary benefits from biodiversity, if indeed its marginal value is close to zero, then expressed conservation objectives could further succumb to short-term, economically beneficial but environmentally destructive agricultural and timber harvesting practices....

Tortured Reality

Andrew Sullivan links to Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who has this to say about torture based on the Uzbekistani version:

In gathering evidence from victims of torture, we built a consistent picture of the narrative which the torturers were seeking to validate from confessions under torture. They sought confessions which linked domestic opposition to President Karimov with Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden; they sought to exaggerate the strength of the terrorist threat in Central Asia. People arrested on all sorts of pretexts – (I recall one involved in a dispute over ownership of a garage plot) suddenly found themselves tortured into confessing to membership of both the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Al-Qaida. They were also made to confess to attending Al-Qaida training camps in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In an echo of Stalin’s security services from which the Uzbek SNB had an unbroken institutional descent, they were given long lists of names of people they had to confess were also in IMU and Al-Qaida.

It became obvious to me after just a few weeks that the CIA material from Uzbekistan was giving precisely the same narrative being extracted by the Uzbek torturers – and that the CIA “intelligence” was giving information far from the truth.

I was immediately concerned that British ministers and officials were being unknowingly exposed to material derived from torture, and therefore were acting illegally.
This dimension of torture is worth a reminder, perhaps especially in the context of "it works" claims... From a post here at Phronesisaical, October 15, 2006:
From the early Middle Ages to the 18th Century, those who were accused of being witches were tortured and thrown on the stake. Not, however, before being forced to give up another name of another witch, and not before having been tortured into explaining reality from the metaphysics of witchdom.

See, one of the accusations made against witches was that they determined the weather - more precisely, bad weather. Lightning, thunderstorms, high winds, were all the doing of witches. For a seafaring age, this influence had economic and political importance as well. When witches were tortured, they were forced to confess their dark manipulations of the weather.

Under torture, of course, one will say anything. This requires that the institution and "triangulation" of torture (and political torture is always institutionalized) engage in the practice broadly so that someone, sometime will surrender useful information out of all the desperate misinformation. In saying anything - perhaps, in the delirium of torture, even believing it - the accused witches would provide the most fantastic stories about their devilish manipulation of the weather. These were stories constructed not only from mere fantasy, but from dreamlike contradictions and paradoxes. So, one tortured story went, the nefarious coven rowed out to sea in a sieve to conjure storms against the king's ships bringing them near the dangerous, wave-strewn rocks.

Various scholars during the period attempted to explain that witches were unlikely to be the source of foul weather. But these scholars risked their own fate on the stake, and, in fact, many were doomed as heretics over the centuries. Notice that, then, the reality of weather was explained through a fantastical delirium that confirmed the mythical suspicions of church and political rulers. Fantasy confirmed fantasy through the abused and uncontrolled imagination of torture and, hence, became reality. Apart from the political uses of torture and the stake, the delirium of the witch became, in effect, the science of weather, something which, to this day, lies beyond fully accurate scientific prediction and technological control.

This is what is at stake in the current institutionalization, the precipice, of torture: the very nature of reality.

Monday, April 27, 2009

At Least Sunburn Will Be Less Painful

There go my vacation plans....


Detention Decisions

Eric Holder has announced that he's almost ready to make decisions about what to do with the remaining Guantanamo detainees. Nothing about this is easy. Much about it is a matter of overcoming the astoundingly incompetent and damaging detainee policy of the Bush administration. If the detainees had been arrested and then treated as either regular prisoners of war or as criminals, it all would have been much clearer. There are domestic and international laws, institutions, and policies widely accepted as legitimate for dealing with POWs and criminals. But not with tortured and otherwise abused detainees, and not when they've been rounded up with little heed for whether they have connections to al Qaeda or not.

As I see it, there are three basic difficulties to be surmounted (and note that these problems arise from Bush administration policy rather than being matters of intrinsically difficult legal questions):

The first is what to do with some of the falsely imprisoned detainees who've been cleared of terrorist connections. The options are basically repatriation, release within the US, or expatriation to a third country. The problem is that some of these detainees risk oppression, imprisonment, and torture in their own countries. This is the case with the group of Uighur prisoners, but also with an estimated 40 or so other prisoners. Although some countries in Europe have offered help (France, Spain, etc.), third parties are nevertheless reluctant to accept former Guantanamo detainees for the potential risks and for the reason that they are a product of a policy that many of these countries strenuously disagreed with. The Czech Republic, for instance, has wondered aloud why they should help clean up a mess the US created.

The second difficulty is the kind of case emblematic in the example of Kuwaiti Abdallah Saleh al-Ajmi. Ajmi was imprisoned in Guantanamo for two years, and passed through the military tribunal system insisting on his innocence of ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban. He was repatriated to Kuwait in 2005. There he was tried and acquitted in 2006. Last year he reportedly drove a truck full of explosives into an Iraqi police station, killing 13 policemen and himself (there's some question of whether he died in this suicide bombing or a separate one). According to family members, al-Ajmi was a regular fellow uninterested in jihad before his imprisonment at Guantanamo. But, tormented by that experience, he became increasingly radicalized. The difficulty with this kind of case (assuming al-Ajmi's prior "innocence") is that little can be done about it. If prisoners are innocent of connections to al Qaeda, other terrorist groups, or the Taliban, they must be released. A person cannot be held legally based upon suppositions about what that person might possibly do one day in the future. If you want to suggest a person can be held on such grounds, you're allowing for the police to come knocking on your door any day now and detaining you indefinitely, which violates the US Constitution and international law. Al-Ajmi's case is an inevitable risk created by Bush policy.

I suppose that Holder will be dealing with these two sets of issues first since the third case is the most difficult, both immediately and over the long-term. That is, how to deal with the truly dangerous prisoners? Especially those who have been tortured and abused? Indefinite detention and military tribunals have been overruled by the Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush (which extended habeas corpus to Guantanamo). They must be tried in some forum. But evidence obtained through abuse is inadmissible in any neutral court. And, furthermore, there are legitimate concerns about exposing intelligence operations during, say, civil criminal trials of these detainees (concerns which, nevertheless, I think can be allayed). There are a number of policy proposals regarding what to do in this third case (from ongoing "preventive detention" to the creation of a "National Security Court" to "try or release"), none of them all that great....

More later on this point....

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Blame-Game Phase in the Quest for Accountability

And this is why it's going to be some time before we see any truly serious pursuit of the torture policy-makers and enablers... Porter Goss in the WaPo:

Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as "waterboarding" were never mentioned. It must be hard for most Americans of common sense to imagine how a member of Congress can forget being told about the interrogations of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. In that case, though, perhaps it is not amnesia but political expedience.

Let me be clear. It is my recollection that:

-- The chairs and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, known as the Gang of Four, were briefed that the CIA was holding and interrogating high-value terrorists.

-- We understood what the CIA was doing.

-- We gave the CIA our bipartisan support.

-- We gave the CIA funding to carry out its activities.

-- On a bipartisan basis, we asked if the CIA needed more support from Congress to carry out its mission against al-Qaeda.

I do not recall a single objection from my colleagues. They did not vote to stop authorizing CIA funding. And for those who now reveal filed "memorandums for the record" suggesting concern, real concern should have been expressed immediately -- to the committee chairs, the briefers, the House speaker or minority leader, the CIA director or the president's national security adviser -- and not quietly filed away in case the day came when the political winds shifted. And shifted they have.

The rest of the op-ed is worth reading. Goss doesn't get it and he's walking out on a limb. Apparently, he's got a lot at stake. But two things more to note today:

1) The CIA and Department of Defense - especially former Bush administration officials at both agencies - seem to be using each other in attempting to deflect blame for their roles in the torture regime. In fact, similar to post-9/11 days and the blame-game wrangling between the CIA and FBI, we now have several players in the blame-game:
  • Cheney and the White House - going all in.
  • The State Department - Zelikow's objecting memorandum, on one hand, but Rice's early role in approving torture, on the other. This seems to be a battle mainly between State and the White House.
  • The FBI - acquitting itself quite competently right now by placing the onus on the CIA.
  • The CIA - no way out but to reframe the issue as "torture works" and/or to deflect blame anywhere it sticks.
  • Ashcroft's Justice Department - mostly on the sidelines for now.
  • Rumsfeld's Defense Department - slowly coming to light, but trying to deflect blame onto the CIA. They scored a three-pointer today.
  • Congress (Democrats and Republicans) - playing dumb while they consider options. This op-ed by Goss calls them on it.
  • Private contractors - this is perplexing; the word is that contractors were heavily involved in torture, but this part of the story remains thus far in the background.
2) Accountability. The only way to restore the rule of law and US credibility in the world is through accountability. Given political realities, whatever accountability we're able to exact will likely be confined to the Bush administration. I can't stress this enough, however: the US will not survive as an influential world power other than through military and economic violence without accountability for the torture regime.

It is in the country's best interests to have a full investigation and prosecutions. But some very powerful people in the country, including the media, are lining up against full accountability. They're thus lining up against the country's best interests. These people, remember, do not own the country. It is not their interests that matter.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Serving Intelligent Public Policy

Former colleague Bill Galston in US News on an education in public policy and career in public service:
Because so much is up for grabs, it is hard to imagine a more exciting time to undertake a career in public service. Whether the issue is long-term fiscal policy, financial regulation, healthcare, terrorism, climate change, nuclear proliferation, or international development, old approaches lie shattered like windows after an earthquake. We have no idea what will happen during the next generation, but today's students of public policy will help invent a new world...

Here, as with much else, good intentions are not enough. The course of study that prepares students for careers in public policy is very different from the curricula at economics departments or law schools, but just as demanding. The analysis of public policy is inherently interdisciplinary, and students must achieve competence in analytical methods ranging from economics and statistics to political science and even applied moral philosophy... And because good writing is an increasingly rare skill, public policy schools must reinforce it. While students may not enjoy it when professors point out flaws in their written presentations, this criticism sensitizes aspiring public servants to the importance of clarity and concision...

Most people who teach in schools of public policy understand that public service is closer to an art than a science. Specifying optimal policies in ideal circumstances is one thing, choosing among second- and third-best policies in the real world quite another. Statistical significance is one thing, significant change in public policy quite another, a gap that only developed judgment can fill.

In the end, public service is a moral calling. Good public servants have the courage to speak the truth as they see it—and the humility to recognize the limits of their understanding. These virtues are not innate; they must be acquired over time. Academic economists often do their best work when they are young; public servants tend to peak much later in life. For most of them, as for the rest of us, it takes the memory of suppressing one's best thoughts for fear of offending those who outrank us to stiffen our spine later on; and only the experience of confidently recommending a course of action that generates bad results can sensitize us to the possibility that we might be mistaken.

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

Joshua Marshall's "deep thought":
If we can't get back to militarism and torture, we're going to become a Banana Republic.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Old Lime

Photo: Helmut


Greenwald, via Sullivan:
This remains the single most notable and revealing fact of American political life: that (with some very important exceptions) those most devoted to maintaining and advocating government secrecy is our journalist class, of all people. It would be as if the leading proponents of cigarette smoking were physicians, or those most vocally touting the virtues of illiteracy were school teachers. Nothing proves the true function of these media stars as government spokespeople more than their eagerness to shield government actions from examination and demand that government criminality not be punished...

Amazingly, when it comes to crimes by ordinary Americans, being "tough on crime" is a virtually nonnegotiable prerequisite to being Serious, but when it comes to political officials who commit crimes in the exercise of their power, absolute leniency is the mandated belief upon pain of being dismissed as "shrill" and extremist. Can anyone find an establishment media pundit anywhere -- just one -- who is advocating that Bush officials who broke the law be held accountable under our laws? That view seems actively excluded from establishment media discussions.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
via The Big Picture

A Quick Review of Torture Law

So that those of you who may be inclined to defend Bush administration torture can see what US and international laws you are suggesting may be broken on command of the Executive, I've done a quick, incomplete run-down of some of the main legal instruments and principles...

The United States Constitution:
Due process is guaranteed by the 5th Amendment (1791).
"[C]ruel and unusual punishment" is outlawed in the 8th Amendment (1791).

Torture is prohibited by federal law in Title 18 of the United States Code, Part I, Chapter 113C, § 2340A. Torture:
(a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life. (b) Jurisdiction.— There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a) if—
(1) the alleged offender is a national of the United States; or
(2) the alleged offender is present in the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or alleged offender.
Torture is defined in Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C, § 2340. Definitions:
“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 control....
A war crime is defined in Title 18, Part I, Chapter 118, § 2441. War crimes (c):
(c) Definition.— As used in this section the term “war crime” means any conduct—
(1) defined as a grave breach in any of the international conventions signed at Geneva 12 August 1949, or any protocol to such convention to which the United States is a party;
(2) prohibited by Article 23, 25, 27, or 28 of the Annex to the Hague Convention IV, Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, signed 18 October 1907;
(3) which constitutes a grave breach of common Article 3 (as defined in subsection (d)) when committed in the context of and in association with an armed conflict not of an international character; or
(4) of a person who, in relation to an armed conflict and contrary to the provisions of the Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices as amended at Geneva on 3 May 1996 (Protocol II as amended on 3 May 1996), when the United States is a party to such Protocol, willfully kills or causes serious injury to civilians.

(d) Common Article 3 Violations.—
(1) Prohibited conduct.— In subsection (c)(3), the term “grave breach of common Article 3” means any conduct (such conduct constituting a grave breach of common Article 3 of the international conventions done at Geneva August 12, 1949), as follows:
(A) Torture.— The act of a person who commits, or conspires or attempts to commit, an act 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 control for the purpose of obtaining information or a confession, punishment, intimidation, coercion, or any reason based on discrimination of any kind.
(B) Cruel or inhuman treatment.— The act of a person who commits, or conspires or attempts to commit, an act intended to inflict severe or serious physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions), including serious physical abuse, upon another within his custody or control...
(D) Murder.— The act of a person who intentionally kills, or conspires or attempts to kill, or kills whether intentionally or unintentionally in the course of committing any other offense under this subsection, one or more persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including those placed out of combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause...
(G) Rape.— The act of a person who forcibly or with coercion or threat of force wrongfully invades, or conspires or attempts to invade, the body of a person by penetrating, however slightly, the anal or genital opening of the victim with any part of the body of the accused, or with any foreign object.
(H) Sexual assault or abuse.— The act of a person who forcibly or with coercion or threat of force engages, or conspires or attempts to engage, in sexual contact with one or more persons, or causes, or conspires or attempts to cause, one or more persons to engage in sexual contact....
Among other instruments and treaties of international law, the United States is party to:
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
The Geneva Conventions,
The American Convention on Human Rights (signatory only),
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and
The UN Convention Against Torture.
One of the major pieces of international law, the The UN Convention Against Torture (1984/entered into force 1987) was signed by Ronald Reagan in April 1988 and ratified by the United States in October 1994. Ratification indicates a legally binding commitment by signatories to follow and uphold the content and spirit of the international law. Drawing out some relevant articles, the Convention states:
Article 1.1:
For the purposes of this Convention, the term 'torture' means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions...

Articles 2.1, 2.2, 2.3:
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture...

Articles 4.1 and 4.2:
1. Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. The same shall apply to an attempt to commit torture and to an act by any person which constitutes complicity or participation in torture.
2. Each State Party shall make these offences punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account their grave nature...

Article 5.1:
1. Each State Party shall take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over the offences referred to in article 4 in the following cases:
(a) When the offences are committed in any territory under its jurisdiction or on board a ship or aircraft registered in that State;
(b) When the alleged offender is a national of that State;
(c) When the victim is a national of that State if that State considers it appropriate...

Article 12:
Each State Party shall ensure that its competent authorities proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation, wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed in any territory under its jurisdiction.
More international law on human rights can be found here, much of which has been promoted by the United States and to which the U.S. is party.

The United States Declaration of Independence (1776) states that,
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..." [my italics].
This sentence, written by Thomas Jefferson, is a direct response to the absolutist notion of a Divine Right of Kings, of an executive power beholden to no authority, no law, and no people. The Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen are considered the two founding political documents of human rights.

Torture Correlations

From a post here a couple of days ago:
Deception has also dominated the bits of information the public has received through officials inserting disinformation through their favorite - and often near-breathless - media mouthpieces. Just do a google to display how many times a news report has portrayed the torture story as something we know today it is not. Everything is a creation of the administration, those involved at the CIA, and a pliant media. It's all in the details - the photo of KSM in his undershirt was staged by his captors; the case of Abdul Hakim Murad was largely a media fabrication encouraged at select moments by administration and intelligence officials (see Stephanie Athey's terrific essay on this here); etc. The intent has always been to create a hall of mirrors.
The torture policy-makers (such as Dick Cheney) and apologists (such as Mark Thiessen again in the Washington Post yesterday) have been trying to staunch the bleeding from their enhanced interrogation, terrorism-thwarting mirage. They're doing so by trying again to frame the issue in implied terms of the bogus time bomb hypothesis, of individual cases of torture of really bad people, and of civilization-rescuing information. In the Post piece Thiessen writes,
...interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that "information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the 'Second Wave.' " In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.
But, as Timothy Noah remarks yesterday in a quickly produced response in Slate,
In a White House press briefing, Bush's counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002, and "at that point, the other members of the cell" (later arrested) "believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward" [italics mine]. A subsequent fact sheet released by the Bush White House states, "In 2002, we broke up [italics mine] a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast." These two statements make clear that however far the plot to attack the Library Tower ever got—an unnamed senior FBI official would later tell the Los Angeles Times that Bush's characterization of it as a "disrupted plot" was "ludicrous"—that plot was foiled in 2002. But Sheikh Mohammed wasn't captured until March 2003.
Like I said, disinformation.... But the "torture worked" claims are going to proliferate the closer we get to serious DOJ or international investigations of Bush administration torture. That is going to be the defense to counter the war crimes prosecutions (if we get that far). And it will run alongside the incoherent assertion that not torturing means coddling the rights of evil terrorists.

That defense requires at least three features to carry any weight at all. First, investigators and/or prosecuting judges must be convinced of the special-ness of the state of emergency or necessity such that it might be considered an overwhelming mitigating circumstance in any verdict. Second, that the pragmatic "worked" morally outweighs considerations such as the basic principles of liberal democratic society or the flouting of international and US constitutional law. And third, that "worked" makes any sense in the first place in relation to the referent of information gained from torture. That is, on this latter point, does "work" mean getting verified information on where bin Laden's driver once had breakfast or on a plot such as the LA tower one advanced above by torture apologists?

Keep that in mind. This is what is going to run up against the most fundamental of human rights abuses and war crimes; a policy of illegal torture produced from the White House that violates international law and the US Constitution; an ever-widening institution of torture; the moral and psychological corruption of those involved in the torture; the torture, abuse, and indefinite detention of "innocents" and children as well; the plummet in international standing, trust, and legitimacy, which are key to American soft power in the world; the probability that US torture has, in the view of new recruits to the cause, proven al Qaeda right about the aggression, hypocrisy, and corruption of the US; and the damage to Americans' self-image of being grander than a banana republic.

Furthermore, let's say Dick Cheney's bluff is called and all the torture memos are released. Let's hold him and the other apologists to their own standard and ask where the ticking time bomb is or was. Would it even be possible to correlate with any precision the information from torture and the prevention of some grave plot? And even if so, professional interrogators say they have more efficient and accurate and non-torturous means of gaining information - why was a regime of torture necessary at all?

Update (3:28):

And get a load of this:
A Republican strategist explains how he knows whether a person should be tortured for intelligence. The combination of bigotry, stupidity and violence that the last president empowered for eight years in the name of national security is truly terrifying.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spending Update

As an update to an earlier post on the teabag events, I present this brief post by John Cole, submitted here without comment:

Every program, every entitlement, every dollar. An opportunity to catalog all the spending Republicans and conservatives think is useless and bring it up for a hearing, and be part of the dialog and have a say in the budgeting priorities. He is giving you guys an opportunity to be relevant. Rahm Emanuel did it again on Sunday:

EMANUEL: And if you go through the process on kids’ health care, national service, as well as getting resources necessary for stabilizing the banks, every one of those votes has been bipartisan.

The challenge will be, will the Republicans come to the table with constructive ideas?

Then, today, President Obama went out and taunted you all and asked for only 100 million in cuts from each department. $100 million. You can sneeze and cut that from the smallest department out there.

So what are right-wing bloggers talking about today? Obama shaking Hugo Chavez’s hand and how waterboarding isn’t torture.

J.G. Ballard

Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images
J.G. Ballard has died. The UK's Borges (not Borges Lite, but Borges Dark) inspired a cult following and, eventually, a path winding through much of contemporary pop culture. My introduction to Ballard came in the 1980s and his 1973 novel, Crash. This book examined with typically dark wit the old question of where human being ends and machine begins (raised in, for example, Shelley's Frankenstein and later in Shinya Tsukamoto's 1989 underground film, Tetsuo Ironman). But Ballard did so through the protagonists' sexual fetish for car crashes and the climax of intertwining flesh and steel.

Ballard was probably most widely known for Empire of the Sun, his semi-autobiographical account of life in a Japanese internment camp in China during WWII, but I have a particular fondness for Ballard's short stories and for the somewhat overlooked ecological fantasy, The Day of Creation (1987). If you haven't read him, I suggest any collection of his short stories (I started with Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories) before moving into his fantastic novels. Or you might go to his experimental study of media politicians, The Atrocity Exhibition, and its chapter essay, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan."

With Ballard's death comes another great loss.

Smart Coups?

Commenting on the Obama/Clinton foreign policy strategy of "smart power," Paul Collier makes a case for military coups.
...the international community monitors elections, declaring whether they are free and fair. The European Community and the Carter Center have been doing it for years. Yet at present these judgments have no consequences. Smart power would link them to the threat of a coup. An election judged free and fair would trigger an undertaking by the major democracies to use their best efforts to protect the government from a coup. Often this would be quite straightforward because the perpetrators of coups could not withstand even modest external military intervention. If a subsequent election was judged not to be free and fair this undertaking would be publicly lifted. It would be sensible to lift it because, if the army did oust a president who had won an election fraudulently, the international community would not want to be committed to restoring him. But the public lifting of protection would be a signal: in effect it would invite the military to oust the incumbent. Were a coup to take place, the international community could then recognise it, conditional upon monitored elections being held within a set period. In effect, the international community would be providing a guidance system for the previously unguided missile of the coup.

This proposal will provoke howls of outrage about infringements of sovereignty. But the outrage will be misplaced. Where an incumbent president abuses power to steal an election he forfeits the right to non-interference. Further, while historically the major international powers have themselves lacked legitimacy, President Obama is not so burdened. Africans are not just as enthused about Obama as the rest of us, they are proud of him. He is, not unreasonably, seen by Africans as partly African himself. Obama's father was a Kenyan Luo, like Raila Odinga, the opposition candidate in the last Kenyan elections. A prescient quip during the Kenyan elections was that America would have a Luo president before Kenya, and so it has proved. This African identity gives Obama the moral authority to intervene, not of course, to further American interests, but to support the basic tenets of accountable governance. Obama now has at his command an African-based American military force, AfriCom, whose mission statement emphasises its intention to conduct military operations which would help to promote a stable and secure African environment. This is the force which could now be entrusted with the role of putting down coups against properly elected governments. There would be ample opportunity to act in such a way. For example, last year the democratically elected government of Mauritania was ousted in a coup which was condemned by the African Union. The condemnation was without consequence. Had Obama authorised a temporary military intervention to restore the elected government, would this have been an outrageous abuse of sovereignty? If a subsequent president of Mauritania stole an election, would it be an outrage for that protection to be withdrawn?

This is, I think, an example of what smart power might look like. A minimal amount of existing hard power, namely the occasional use of AfriCom to put down a coup, is linked to a more extensive use of existing soft power, namely the monitoring and assessment of elections....


The Church of the Chimp

I think I like this religion. How does one sign up? Jane Goodall interviewed in Salon:
In your book "Reason for Hope," you speculate that chimpanzees might also have spiritual lives of their own. You've written, for instance, about a beautiful waterfall they go to. You suggest that they may even have some experience of awe.

Well, they sometimes pass there when they go from A to B, but it's what happens when they're near that. You can hear the roar of the falling water. It falls about 80 feet. The chimpanzees, usually the males, will bristle a little bit with excitement. And as they get near, they start these rhythmic displays, swaying from foot to foot, often upright. They may climb the vines and push out into the spray. And afterward, they may sit watching the water as it falls, watching as it flows past them. What is it? What is this strange substance which is always coming and always going and always here? You can't help feeling that if they had a language like ours, they could discuss whatever feeling it was that led them to these dramatic displays, which would turn into some kind of animistic religion. Watching these displays, you can't help feeling that it must be something that we would describe as awe or wonder or amazement, which can turn into the worship of things that we don't understand.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Pacific sea nettle (Chrysaora fuscescens)
Sometimes photographers reveal a deep beauty we haven't been able to see. Here, jellyfish photos from the Jellyfish Fantasy Hall at Enoshima Aquarium, near Tokyo. Click the photo above for a larger view.

The Regime Unfolds

Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times during the month of March 2003. Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in August 2002. This is according to the 2005 Bradbury Memo. As Emptywheel notes,
So: two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you'd need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you've waterboarded 90 times--still just half of what they did to KSM.
This is a small part of the picture that is slowly filling out. Many memos are still missing from the public record - ProPublica has a helpful running summary of these memos. As the picture becomes clearer, it includes cases like that of Hassan Ghul who, ProPublica pointed out a few days ago, goes mysteriously missing after a public announcement by George Tenet of Ghul's capture and imprisonment. the heavily redacted OLC memo [7] dated May 30, 2005, government censors appeared to have missed a single reference to his name and confinement during a lengthy description of the interrogation techniques used against him. The reference can be found at the bottom of Page 7 in the memo [7], where Ghul’s surname is spelled "Gul."
Brian Tamanaha at Balkinization notes the circularity of legal justifications in the memos.
Time and again the OLC memos conclude that the use of these interrogation techniques do not amount to the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental suffering (the torture standard) based upon the CIA’s own finding that these techniques don’t cross that line. But that is precisely the legal question the CIA (purportedly) is posing to the OLC: Do the interrogation techniques violate the anti-torture statute?...

The empty circularity of the arguments in the latest batch of torture memos exposes what has long been suspected but can now be confirmed: These memos were rubber stamp approvals for CIA interrogators—get out of jail free cards—issued by an obliging cadre of OLC lawyers.
It should be clear by now that the torture memos are ex post facto (and, as many legal scholars say, incompetent) attempts to provide legal cover for a policy that was already in place. This is, I think, where the significance lies and is going to play out further. Yes, the techniques are horrifying. This is torture. (And real interrogators probably know this better than anyone). But look, all the legal wrangling that has dominated the public discussion for the past several years is a screen behind which remains merely a silhouette of the true evil. And that is, on one hand, details of the concrete policy made explicitly at the highest levels of the Executive branch and, on the other hand, the real purposes behind the torture. The latter question remains - see this brief explanation (and also here). The law needs to play out, but we should be careful not to lose sight of the ugliness that lies behind it.

Deception has also dominated the bits of information the public has received through officials inserting disinformation through their favorite - and often near-breathless - media mouthpieces. Just do a google to display how many times a news report has portrayed the torture story as something we know today it is not. Everything is a creation of the administration, those involved at the CIA, and a pliant media. It's all in the details - the photo of KSM in his undershirt was staged by his captors; the case of Abdul Hakim Murad was largely a media fabrication encouraged at select moments by administration and intelligence officials (see Stephanie Athey's terrific essay on this here); etc. The intent has always been to create a hall of mirrors. Here's one small everyday example of what we've been exposed to.

Compare what we know about KSM's torture from the recent memos discussed above with how it KSM is portrayed in this brief, pedestrian piece. It's not denial; it's subtle disinformation regarding the scope and intensity of the institution constructed by the Bush administration. This scope and intensity indicates a more profound assault on basic principles of human decency underlying the liberal democratic state (see Thomas Hilde's brief essay on liberal torture here).

It will get worse. It is not just about the individual cases of bugs or even how many times one man was waterboarded. It is not only about individual cases. And it is, as Darius Rejali has long insisted, not even new. I don't think we yet fully understand this or can even conceive of its meaning.


Well, at least Kutcher can be understood grammatically -- unlike Sarah Palin, for example, who confounded a Reed-Kellogg expert last year. For the record, a phrase-marker tree like the one above couldn't begin to account for Palin's utterances, either, perhaps owing to the fact that her rugged individualism extends even unto grammar.

You Are My Brain-in-a-Vat

While we're waiting for an answer to the lonely, windswept Linksys question MT linked below, why don't we celebrate this critical technological breakthrough for humankind? Here's how the new Bill Gates sees himself, or doesn't:
You guys are all of it because I can't follow me.
I see future brain-in-a-vat developments. Dear Ashton Kutcher,... if we convince the "you guys are all of it" people to cease following you, will you cease to exist?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Technical Support Forum

I'll concede that I'm getting old, but this isn't like my mother needing me to program the VCR, is it?

Here a customer asks Cisco how to use a router.

Basic technical question, no answer It's still up there waiting for one, and it's been about two years.

Given that we're talking about a multinational monopoly vendor of a piece of consumer electronics you can buy at Target, probably nobody above the age of seven ought to be surprised to see it behave as if it had no duty to individuals who exchange money for a package covered in representations about what the item inside will do for him or her. I was shocked I think only because I'd let myself believe that IT people, at least, were always there for one another. Also I made the same purchase and I'm at the same loose ends myself.

Then it occurred to me that maybe time has passed me by. Is programming a default gateway is as intuitive to today's sixth graders as programming a VCR was to me? A black man was just made president, after all.

I don't think so. IT people are there for one another. Just not on company time at a company like Cisco, they aren't.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Unsent Letter to a Teabag Family

I shouldn't blog at all. I'm always too late to current events. I may be wrong about these numbers below too. To the best of my understanding, this is an accurate general account of the numbers behind taxes, spending, and national debt. This unsent email will remain unsent as this is the state of things in this particular family relationship....

We obviously disagree on a lot of things - philosophically and ethically, in terms of political tendencies and in terms of economic policy, in terms of social policy and foreign policy, and even in terms of what political dialogue should look like. I think that I've always understood your positions even if I've often disagreed with them. It's different now, however. I'm struggling just to understand.

I don't understand your tea-bag event. I know it's based on the Boston Tea Party. That was protesting taxation without representation - taxes by the British Parliament on commodities in the colonies while colonists had no voice in the parliament. I'm not sure what those at the current tea-bag events feel they are protesting. I see the signs against protesting higher taxes, calling Obama a "fascist" or an "idiot," and accusing Obama of indebting the nation through the stimulus package. But I wonder what the teabag people believe is the new tax policy and, with some general understanding of economics, where the national debt came from, and whether there is some kind of proposed alternative to stimulus spending.

Are taxes the main issue? As I understand it, the Obama tax plan returns us to 2000 levels, reducing taxes slightly on lower and middle income households and raising taxes only on the wealthiest of the wealthy. It's expected that middle-income taxpayers, for example, will see their after-tax incomes rise 5% by the year 2012. The average increase in tax payments by the wealthy is apparently about $20K per year. Capital gains tax isn't raised on anyone making less than $250K per year - above that number are about 3% of American households, below it 97-98% of Americans. Nothing here applies to 401ks or IRAs. If one has an income stream that isn't in the top 2-3%, one's individual taxes are going to decrease.

In other words, the Obama tax plan is a modest tax cut for the vast majority of Americans and a modest increase for 2-3% of the population. Is the protest that really wealthy people's taxes are going to increase? It's not as if a marginal tax increase of about 3% on the wealthiest 1% of the population is going to wreck an economy that was already wrecked by 2007. I assume that it's a general protest against taxes in general. But that's another issue not only connected to the Obama presidency, but to pretty much any representative at the federal level throughout the history of the country.

National debt? It increased rapidly over the past eight years, nearly doubling from 2002 to 2008 and is now at about $11 trillion. That's a real problem, I agree. But I haven't heard of teabag parties during the past eight years. Roughly 48% of the total national debt was incurred over the past seven years.

Obama's budget accounting now also includes the cost of the wars and Medicare reimbursements to doctors as well as some AMT wriggling (reversing something of which four decades of administrations and Congresses have been knowingly guilty). Bush's budget accounting excluded these from calculations of the budget and deficit (see here). The wars were funded by mid-year appropriations rather than being built into budgets at the beginning of the year. The Bush budget was thus presented to the public as $2.7 trillion lower than it actually was. The new accounting adds that $2.7 trillion to the real budget deficit. The real debt has increased an average $500 billion per year since 2003. $1 trillion was added to the real debt in 2008 alone (that annual deficit passed the $1 trillion mark for the first time in history). The accounting change came into effect in the budget Obama announced in February. (You can track the debt here). National debt by the end of the Bush 2 presidency: $11 trillion. That's what Obama inherited. It seems unfair and inaccurate to hold Obama responsible for that previously-incurred debt except to the extent that he was a member of Congress. Why have teabaggers just now become concerned and active? Has there been some intrinsic change to the debt?

Since the 1940s the debt has increased as a percentage of GDP during only three presidential administrations (and each term of these three): Reagan, Bush 1, and Bush 2 (and very slightly during Nixon/Ford). GDP growth dropped significantly during the recent Bush administration, so the numbers may be less severe for Bush 2, but at the expense of a slowing economy. If national debt is the critical issue in your protests, then it seems to me that the target should be the policies of these three presidencies. It's not clear to me why conservatives who define themselves as opposed to government spending were mostly uncritical of the largest spenders.

Spending in itself? It's unclear to me why government spending should be a problem inherently since spending can boost an ailing economy, let alone help fellow Americans make it through difficult times. Deficit spending seems the more precise issue, and it is then intrinsically connected to taxes and other forms of federal revenue as well as to national debt accumulation. But judging the goodness or badness of spending also depends on the state of the economy at a given moment in time. Spending here again is a relational concept and practice.

On one hand, the key US financial/budget institutions (Treasury, OMB, and GAO) have all predicted dangerous increases in debt over the next couple of decades. They've been doing so for years. The projection is that the country will be bankrupt by as early as 2030 if there are not significant cuts in spending across government and if - in my view - the US continues subsidies to traditional energy resources industries, if it doesn't reduce military spending, and if it doesn't reform the healthcare system.

Deficit spending during a recession, however, especially a deep recession like the one we've been in since 2007, is considered by many economists to be the right approach to ending a recession. The general objective is to raise GDP, which the stimulus is designed to do. Increased taxes can't make much of a dent in the debt; but economic growth can. Economic growth requires economic activity. That is, spending. Consumers and businesses aren't spending money into the economy, so the stimulus is designed to be a catalyst. A growing economy and a better debt to GDP ratio will help bring the debt down. Many economists think that cutting taxes alone is a dangerous idea during a severe recession with high unemployment.

Probably the biggest concern over the longer-term is healthcare costs. We pay more than any other developed nation, yet we don't have nearly the same adequate healthcare as a country like France. France's healthcare system has its own problems, but all French people are covered at a good standard level and can pay more into whatever other medical services they want and even then at a lower cost than in the US for supplemental services. The doctors, technology, medical research, and pharmaceutical development are among the most advanced in the world. And the government and taxpayers pay less into the system than Americans do with their current system. The French system probably isn't the right model for the US, but the US system is in need of serious repair and the French version shows how a less expensive and fairer system is possible. Bringing those costs down will help with the national debt.

Even if a given healthcare system does qualify as "socialist" on some definition of the term, should this label matter if the system is more efficient, less costly, and fairer? It's difficult for policy analysts to see a robust alternative healthcare proposal because what is on offer seems to rest mostly on the scariness of a particular word rather than a concrete, morally sound, and practically feasible policy proposal.

I think everyone in a decent country ought to have adequate healthcare. However, actually creating such a system that might approximate the ideal of adequate universal healthcare - dealing with real, concrete political and economic tradeoffs - is a different story. A serious proposal would be welcome, taking healthcare policy as just one example. No one wants more debt and people don't like to see less take-home income due to increased taxes. But a serious policy proposal has to be one that also takes into account the current and projected state of the economy as a whole.

I guess my main question is: what do teabag people believe they are doing? What purpose do you want these events to serve? I don't understand.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thursday Reads

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

One-Heartbeat-Away Judgment

Another reminder of the stakes:
In March, Palin nominated Wayne Anthony Ross for attorney general. Ross, a colorful far-right lawyer and longtime Palin ally who sports his initials, W.A.R., on his Hummer’s vanity plates, was once considered a shoo-in for confirmation. However, his nomination was thrown into grave peril when his opponents presented evidence that he called homosexuals “degenerates,” leveled invective against an African-American student offended by a statue of a Klansman, vowed to undermine the sovereignty of Native American tribes, and allegedly defended men who rape their wives. According to two sources close to the confirmation hearings, Palin may ask Ross to withdraw before his appointment comes to a vote.
More here on the hideous Ross.

Know Your Somali Pirates

Pirates this and pirates that. I know. But before you're assaulted with more of the sensational "dead teen pirate porn," as Lindsay puts it, you should contextualize:
As soon as the government was gone [in 1991], mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury - you name it." Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing. There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish-stocks by over-exploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

This is the context in which the men we are calling "pirates" have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia...

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn't act on those crimes - but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin to shriek about "evil."

It is my understanding that the standard U.S. Navy practice in maritime kidnapping situations like the Maersk Alabama incident has been to stand aside while ransom negotiations take place between the pirates and the ship owner/operator. The pirates sometimes contact the Navy, but the Navy’s practice in such instances has been to provide them with the telephone number of the ship owner/operator, so that the pirates can negotiate directly with the firm.

I have a few questions. Why didn’t that happen in this case? Why did the Navy in this instance apparently engage in direct hostage (i.e., non-ransom) negotiations with the pirates, instead of letting Maersk negotiate with the pirates for a ransom? Was it because the ship originally hijacked was a US-flag ship? Because the kidnapped person was a US national? Because the situation was logistically different in terms of the kidnapped person being on a lifeboat and the hijacked ship no longer being in the possession of the pirates? Some combination of these factors?...

As acknowledged by Admiral Gortney toward the end of his telephone call with news reporters, the killing of the three pirates by the Navy SEAL snipers creates a risk of elevating the overall level of violence in future ship hijackings, which can increase the risks faced by the mariners on these cargo ships. If that’s the case, and if there aren’t enough naval ships from various countries to fully patrol the area, as the Navy repeatedly acknowledges, then was this operation an unalloyed success?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Opaque Obama

I wrote a long-ish unpublished post yesterday criticizing what appears to be Obama administration resistance to relaxing the Bush administration's systematic practice of invoking the state-secrets privilege on the issues of warrantless wiretapping and the institution of extraordinary renditions and torture. That now-deleted post of mine followed the line of Glenn Greenwald, TPM, and Bruce Fein that the Obama administration is belying its promises of transparency and accountability, respect for habeas corpus rights and due process, respect for civil liberties, and restoration of the rule of law by reaching into Bush-Cheney's bottomless bag of obstructionist tricks. Fine, writing at Slate, explains the basics:
In early February, President Obama sought another imperial power before the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in the case Mohammed v. Jeppesen Dataplan. The complaint alleged that the plaintiffs had been seized by American personnel, taken to airports, stripped, blindfolded, shackled to the floor of a Gulfstream V, and taken to destination countries for torture and harsh incarceration. The District Court dismissed the complaint because then-President Bush and Vice President Cheney argued that state secrets would be exposed if the case were litigated. During oral argument before the 9th Circuit, Obama echoed the state-secrets argument made by Bush and Cheney. Similarly, the president who promised "change" is wielding the tool of state secrets in aiming to dismiss, without the gathering of evidence, challenges to the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program, which entailed warrantless phone or e-mail interceptions of American citizens on American soil in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. This defense has failed before Judge Vaughn R. Walker in early rounds of the litigation. And, again, the state-secrets privilege is the administration's response, if ancillary to a defense of retroactive immunity, in a brief filed last week to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to sue Bush administration officials for the NSA's wiretapping...
In an interview with TPM, David Cynamon, lawyer for four Kuwaiti Guantanamo prisoners, fleshes out the issue, saying this isn't just a matter of abusing state-secrets privilege:

Cynamon detailed three specific areas in which the government is stonewalling. First, he said, it has taken an unduly long time to produce declassified evidence. Indeed, in February, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered one government lawyer removed from the case for failing to comply with repeated orders to make the evidence available. In a court document, the judge wrote that the lawyer's "compliance was not optional," and added that the court "has serious concern about counsel's ability to read and comprehend its orders."

Second, Cynamon said the government is resisting requests for discovery, slowing things down by forcing defense lawyers to go to court at each stage. "Across the board they basically say no," he said. "It's whatever bullshit excuse - 'it's too burdensome, its not relevant, its beyond the narrow...."

But the government's "most egregious" stonewalling tactic, said Cynamon, parallels the misconduct famously displayed by the prosecutors in the Ted Stevens case: It has consistently failed to produce exculpatory evidence in its possession, as it is legally required to do. "They have completely, in my view, ignored that obligation," said Cynamon. "We have come across a number of items of exculpatory evidence that the government should have given us and didn't."

Clearly, there's serious cause for concern. It's not only a matter of transparency (which does have genuine limits, which we can discuss some other time), the rights of detainees, and civil liberties. It's also a matter of upholding the checks and balances at the heart of any healthy democratic government. Even if the Obama administration has no bad faith intention of maintaining such Bush administration violations, the current administration has certainly discovered by now just how bad the institutionalized war crimes and constitutional breaches have been. Likely worse than the public will ever know or understand. The Obama administration may very well be tempted to try to control the disastrous fall-out through ongoing stone-walling.

If Greenwald, Fine, and others are accurate in their criticism, then the Obama administration has already set up at least its Justice Department on the wrong side of history. But is the criticism really accurate? ScotusBlog suggests that there's more here than meets the eye.

More later as this unfolds.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hitching Up, Heading Out

In the crazy rush of preparations to move very far away, I scanned some old photos this afternoon (it was that, or make a hard decision about whether or not to keep some stuff we don't need). They aren't my photos. They were pasted to the black paper pages of an old, moisture-warped album someone had conspicuously thrown away here in Encinal. The man who was at the time collecting garbage for the city thoughtfully saved it for us; why he thought we might want it is its own complicated story in which we figure as -- perhaps the best the two of us could actually hope to do, here -- unusually sympathetic Anglo outsiders in this impoverished, dirty, threadbare town full of decomposing trailer homes and packs of wandering dogs. Still: he brought it over one afternoon, and we were naturally pretty taken with the thing, despite the fact that its invisibly moldy pages made us sneeze.

But then we put it aside. As far as we could tell, the pictures don't bear any relationship to our town after all, as scribbled references on the back seem to situate them in "Cottonwood Falls." That could be one of hundreds of forgotten Texas townships, but it could also be the town of that name in Kansas. The photographs, however, are so beautiful in that melancholic way that old pictures are -- many of them are just coronas of silver at most angles -- that I decided today to scan a number of them before I packed the book away (it's moldy, still, and falling apart, but I can't subject it to the repeated indignity of mingling with trash; instead, I'll wrap it in brown paper, in which it can decompose in a garage north of Houston).

And when I saw this picture again, I thought of my own nom de blog and its goat-association. Along with the pang of guilt for not posting so much for so long (but, hey, where the hell's MT?), I couldn't help noting the implication of a journey in the photo. I can't imagine where, as I can't really imagine this wall-hugging goat (or any goat) putting up with this shit for too long. Still: it's a journey, and I'm a sucker for analogy.

I'm looking forward to posting, power outages and all, from where I find myself in June and beyond. I'll even try to arrange for some more timely photography. For now, though, here's one more rescued from the trash, a Texas one after all, it appears, from Galveston:

Honor Thy DJs

As friends know, I still make mixtapes (more precisely, mix-cds), probably an atavistic adolescent impulse. Some of the music comes from the several thousands of LPs lining a wall chez Helmut. A lot of it comes from the pre-digitalized music collection on an external harddrive that's nearly bursting at the seams. And a lot of that pre-digitalized music comes from converted analog LPs and 45s that I've gotten from all sorts of different places on the internet.

In my view, this is the very best thing about music on the internet - the ability to discover, unveil, introduce, share, and preserve music that might never have been digitalized by professional archivists or record companies or anyone else. Sometimes this music comes from an obscure vinyl pressing of only a few copies. I have one tune for which there are only two known physical copies.

Whether they view it as their goal or not, many people are out there preserving music which would otherwise be lost to history because it doesn't fit the market, and often never did. What does sell on the market is obviously not identical with what is good and valuable (unless one maintains the questionable view that value is determined by market popularity which is in turn a function of individual and collective democratic free choice). Music is an area where that point is made strikingly clear, even if a lot of the obscure music posted is not shared because it's thought to be "good" in any regularly used sense of the term. Sometimes it is simply worth helping it to exist and continue to exist.

I want to honor a few of the best of these explorers and preservationists who share discoveries from the unknown and forgotten corners of music, sometimes new, sometimes old:
Thanks, folks, from a fan.
Image above from With Comb and Razor.

Update: ...and on the right-on suggestion of a commenter (although I never said the list was comprehensive), I should also add 20JazzFunkGreats. For a sample of their handicraft, check out their recent track by Lucci Capri (April 17th, 2009).

Evan at Swan Fungus has also come into his own, moving away from the drone/post-rock aesthetic that dominated the early days of his blog and into a more catholic aesthetic. I think he got a girlfriend. Check out this awesome recent discovery (for me, at least) that he offers up.

Update (about 9 months later): Lovefingers and DonnaSlut have shut down operations. The tunes they've uploaded are still available, though, and there's a treasure trove to go through with both of them. Lovefingers also posts mixes by top and up-and-coming DJs.

I need to pay homage to a few more music blogs sharing great music and informally acting as archivist-anthropologists:
Thanks for the music.