Groundhog Day

Denial implies that this administration actually has some sense that something might be wrong and that sense is, in turn, being ignored. In a weird way, it would offer a sort of hope if, in fact, we were dealing with denial on the part of the Bush White House.

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A Tragic Mess

Last time George Bush spent this much time thinking and listening to analysis and opinion, he stopped federal funding of embryonic stem cell research despite pleas – from Democrats and Republicans, scientists and religious leaders – that he not do so…The president will do something similar with Iraq.

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Strangers On a Train

Just about two weeks ago, CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier was on an Amtrak train out of New York, headed to visit her family near Baltimore. Today, I suspect, she’s glad she made that trip, an aside to an around-the-world from a wedding in Bali to back to her job in Baghdad.

It was a crowded train and I happened to sit next to Dozier in one of those odd moments where life plays a sly joke that you can feel but not quite get. The punch-line comes a few days, weeks later. Dozier’s glossy blue-and-white business card, her name in Arabic on one side, in English on the other, sits here today on my desk – I mean to send her a “glad to meet you email” any minute now. I’m a little late, of course. Today, she lies critically injured in a U.S Army hospital, the latest celebrity casualty (although I’m not sure she would think that’s an accurate description) of the U.S. war in Iraq. She has leg injuries and head wounds. Her condition is critical.

My pals on the right like to claim that Iraqi insurgents bomb U.S. targets so those of us here at home will fall for “propaganda” or defeatist tales that give comfort to the enemy. Well, after a couple hours of talking with Kimberly Dozier, I’m not so sure about that. She was not someone anxious to become a martyr. She was savvy, tough and smart. She could sleep anywhere and she could step gracefully over sleeping travel companions – the sort of skills you develop out of habit and courtesy, not out of sloth and selfishness. She was also very clear on a few things about her job and her role as an U.S. newsperson in the Middle East. Among them: the war wasn’t going well and, for the most part, the stories Americans were getting via their TV news weren’t the whole story. They were telling simple, easy-to-understand stories. And, even then, it wasn’t an easy story to tell.

I asked Dozier if she knew Chris Albritton – the Time magazine correspondent who ran his own Iraqi-based web site. Dozier said “no” but was careful to say that TV folks and print folks rarely saw each other. It was, she said, far more dangerous for TV people – with their U.S. press affiliations – to travel around Iraq. They were more constrained, more careful, more at risk, she said because of their equipment, their trucks and the difficulty they had blending in.

This is what, as Chris Albritton is pointing out today, bloggers forget about war coverage; it’s not easy. It’s a constant dance between what story you want to get, what you need and what you can get as a stranger in a strange – or hostile – land. As Matt Bai points out in Sunday’s Times magazine, many of those who are raising their voices so vehemently, so hotly, are really politicians – not journalists. And meeting women like Kimberly Dozier brings that home to me again and again.

Dozier had a few more observations. Jill Carroll, the young girl kidnapped then released by insurgents, was probably the real deal; not a set-up, just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She asked if Katie Couric would last in her job as CBS’s evening anchor. I said, I doubted it. We, women reporters of what they like to call a “certain age,” sighed. We talked about CBS’ demographic – older and getting even older – and what that meant for reporting and for women on-air. We gossiped a bit…the usual stuff.

I have been a journalist all my life and I can only barely see the reasons reporters go to places like Baghdad. It’s a career-maker, yes. But in an era where the good will of this nation has no credibility and where the press is under attack by our own government, you have to wonder if that career is worth a life. It’s not an easy question to answer; it’s not a simple calculation to make. If you love reporting – and to go to Baghdad again and again, you must love it – there are no easy answers, not quick outs, no tried-and-true shortcuts. The business is simply too competitive, your time too limited, the stories too hard to get and too easy to see.

Kimberly Dozier struck me as someone who was dedicated to her job but also as someone who was tired – bone tired – of how that job was going. But she also clearly understood the risks. She talked about them with intelligence and experience.

“Safe journey,” she said before she got off the train in Baltimore. “As if I need your good wishes,” I remember thinking. But I said, in turn, sincerely, “travel safe.” It is unfortunate that we – all of us – often have only words to protect us.

Google Mail

Mail, we get mail. We get mail about Google and the best notes are almost always from folks who don’t agree with I’ve said.
First up: Bob Holmgren who lives in Menlo Park, CA. He also took the time to indirectly highlight something that I’ve noticed: In refusing to comply with the DOJ subpoena, Google has drawn attention to it – and other Internet companies’ – compliance with foreign governments’ requests for censorship or certain words and phrases. Be careful what you look for, huh?

In spite of your suggestion to the contrary, the Department of Justice did not go after any individual’s information. Everyone agrees on this point. Google and other search engines were asked about aggregated data of the sort the Census Bureau will sell you. (Horrors, another government spying program.) What Google was objecting to was the cost in time and manpower in order to comply with the order. Google says that this was harassment and who could argue? When asked by the IRS to submit to an audit I feel harassed – which is not to say I have a compelling legal argument.

As if to underscore Google’s lack of enthusiasm for the sort of human rights issue you’ve attempted to frame, they’ve now agreed to censor aspects of their search technology for the Chinese market. Manpower and harassment be damned. Wonder if they have Chinese lawyers working against the Justice Department.

Another reader, Tim Cole, who’s in Munich, Germany (I love the Internet) sides with my initial distrust and makes a nice follow-up to what Holmgren has said, particularly in regard to China:

It’s encouraging to hear that somebody else distrusts Google, too. They seem to be every Internet lover’s darling right now for supposedly standing up to the Bush administration, but as you rightly point out, their fight will probably only go so far. Meaning they plan to put up some token resistance and hand out a nice press release saying, in effect, “well, heck, at least we tried!”

Admittedly, I am paranoid about Google (and remember: just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me…) but reading about they way they are shafting their Chinese users by knuckling under to the authorities there, censoring out search terms like “democracy”, “human rights” and “Tiamanen”, I have trouble believing that these, as you put it, “progressive libertarians” care for anything but their own bottom line.

In that case, using “Don’t be evil!” as your corporate slogan seems to carry duplicity to new depths.

And then there are folks who just like us. Terry Heaton is nice enough to say nice things about what I’ve said.:

Excellent piece on the government’s latest foray into our behavior. I agree with you completely. This isn’t about protection; it’s about control – specifically the control of knowledge and information. This is what institutions do – their core competency, if you will. Controlling any form of knowledge or information is a license to print money, and it’s why the Web is such a threat to the status quo.

While I think it might be useful to know which porn search terms people use, that knowledge doesn’t belong exclusively in the hands of our government. Good God, don’t they have anything better to do with our tax money?

Seaching, Searching, Not Finding

When we talk about government searches and eavesdropping what – really – are we talking about? Does anyone know?
The president – the same guy who talks about those Internets – says one thing. That this is a limited program that only targets suspicious behavior. But news stories – specifically today’s New York Times’ piece about the overwhelming amount of data collected – seem to indicate something else entirely. And for those of us who know a little bit about how massive data searching works, well, none of it really makes sense. There’s something funny going on here.
A detailed search of your e-mail traffic is the electronic equivalent of a pat down: What do you have tucked away on your laptop or cell phone and what are you going to do with it? But, under the right circumstances – say a search that’s organized, documented and detailed from start to finish where intentions are known and declared in advance – it might be possible to make an argument that such searches are legal. Even those who are adamantly opposed to the very idea of government spying on its citizens might admit that in this electronic age these are, in fact, preventative measures that governments should take. But those sorts of things take time to set-up and implement. So perhaps, in thinking about how the technology actually works, we have an explanation – a weak one – for why the administration was so anxious to avoid the very courts created by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act created to oversee this activity. They didn’t think they could make the technology and the law work in concert.
There have been plenty of calls for a smart and informed conversation about what the administration has done. But given the panic that can be ginned up over what happens on those Internets and the calls the administration will make for national security as a way to protect the details of what’s actually been done it’s unlikely that any conversation will be forthright. Instead, it’s more likely to degenerate into a back and forth between “law and order” types who are mostly Republicans or centrist Democrats looking to get re-elected and Democrats who have legitimate but not very well articulated (out of technical ignorance) fears about the power of the state.
In looking for needles in haystacks – which is really what the NSA is doing when it eavesdrops – it’s possible to make detailed and limited searches, of course. But they cost money and they take time. And it’s not immediately clear if that kind of searching is, in fact, legal. It may, instead, be that there’s just no specific law against it and that ultimately, the absence of control is what the administration is banking on to make its widespread searching legitimate.
More troubling, a large part of what the Bush administration is saying about its domestic spying program seems to rest on the lingering distrust of the technology that is the Internet. What’s worse is that it’s almost impossible to tell if there’s a deliberate attempt underway to muddy the issue; if in fact the Bush folks are relying on the fear of technology and Congressional ignorance to make their case that they should spy to protect us.
A classic example of this: Last week’s story, clearly a deliberate leak, about how “terrorists” were buying pre-paid cell phones – which are thrown away when they’re used up – in bulk to avoid law enforcement listening in on their regular cell numbers. Well, you know, I watch TV and I’ve seen that behavior among drug dealers. It’s not exactly new and it’s not exactly unknown to law enforcement folks either. (Ever seen that show they call “The Wire”? How do you think it got that name? I’m betting last week’s story is not a case of life imitating art, how about you?)
But perhaps – and yes, it is after all this time, very hard to give the Bush folks the benefit of the doubt – the search technology they’re using is so out-of-date that it can’t do fine searches. In other words, the best they’ve got isn’t up to the job. They have to search wide and send FBI agents on what they dismissively called “Pizza Hut runs” because, well, that’s all they have.
In its zeal to keep costs (and taxes) down maybe the NSA hasn’t bought the right equipment. Remember, the FBI didn’t have a working intra-office computer network until Bob Mueller got the directors’ gig. Using the rudimentary stuff they inherited, maybe NSA had to take the what-the-hell approach and go for broke, taking down anything in their path including information that should have remained private. To cover for that, the administration decided to avoid the FISA courts.
Or more frightening, only a few people – the ones not in charge – know the difference between any of these scenarios because no one has ever bothered to see if the technology that’s being used could be improved, if searches could be refined, if the technology could be made to adhere to the law. Or, more chilling and, I suspect, more realistic, given the administration’s track record: They do know and they’re counting on us to not want to explore the matter further. After all, the Internet is a scary place – see this piece in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle about terrorism on the web – and George Bush’s job, as he frequently tells us, is to protect America.
This administration has done a bang-up job of capitalizing on American’s fears. But in its fear, this nation and its leaders have been made powerless to their worst nightmares. They have become afraid of fear; it has paralyzed them and made them do stupid and short-sighted things that are illegal and that, in the long run, will damage individual liberties and forego the very concept of “justice for all.”

Alito: No

Is the abortion debate thats circling around Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito a stalking horse to distract Democrats from a more important issue? One that goes to this administration’s anxious determination to gather more power in the executive branch?
It looks that way. And so far Alito’s hearings have given us more of the same Dumb Democrats Tricks. Can we get these guys on Letterman so they can lay down for a national television audience?
In a back and forth – they call it a colloquy in Washington – with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Pat Leahy, Alito was asked his views on a “unitary executive.” Sounds sort of benign. Given Alito’s views on executive power – like Justice Roberts, he likes “side letters” and other legal mechanisms to preserve executive power – it’s not.
In essence, a “unitary executive” is one who holds the power to run the country. Period. Kennedy restricted himself to legal scholar questions about independent government agencies like the Federal Elections Commission or the Federal Communications Commission which are created and funded by Congress but which, ultimately, do the president’s bidding. That’s too bad. Because Alito’s response, just as limited in a law professor kind of way wasn’t reassuring. “Things can not be managed in such a way that interferes with the president’s exercise of his power – on a functional – taking a functional approach.”
Hmmmm. In response to questions about legal restraint on the president, Alito says no one is above the law. Then he says, no one is below it either. Hmmmm.
UPDATE: Former Democratic Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards is using the phrase “stand up” in his argument against Alito. Interesting. Even more interesting, in his arugment, he puts Alito’s belief in executive branch power ahead of the “choice” argument.
In this day and age – whether you think it’s a war on terror or a subtle campaign to abridge individual rights in the name of facing a faceless and changing enemy who we may never conquer – a little back and forth over independent government agencies is not really what’s at stake here. Choice may be the issue that keeps Democrats on the edge of their seats – oh, and dividing the party along, duh, gender lines – but it’s hard not to worry that the Bush administration has bigger fish to fry.
Writing in the New York Times magazine over the weekend, Noah Feldman started to spell out what might well be at stake with Alito’s nomination: The Supreme Court’s ability to check executive power. And guess what? He blames Congress. Who, of course, have spent the Alito hearing seeing if he’ll do their job for them. Heartening, huh?

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Fasten Your Seat Belts

George Bush has had plenty of rough weeks this year but, for my money, next week is going to be his worst on record.
There is very little he can say this evening about Iraq that will solve his most pressing problem: Bush is in the most serious political trouble ever. Next week the U.S. Senate will be in open revolt against him and his “war” on terror and in Iraq. Moderates in the House are steadily swelling in number.
The 2006 election is – as it should be – in play and every Republican in Congress knows it. You only have to read Bush’s speech to see why.
By the count of the official White House website, it only took President George Bush seven minutes to declare war on America. In seven minutes – and with seven references to September 11, 2001 – Bush swept aside the careful thought and legal reasoning underpinning laws guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom to assembly, freedom of religion, the right to due process and protection from illegal search and seizure. And I’m just hitting the high points.
I’m hitting the high points because this isn’t – sadly – a surprise. There have been too many weird arrests and airport delays and far too many half-hearted immigration and border stops of young men and women of Mid-eastern or South Asian heritage to think someone wasn’t up to something, somewhere. Anyone with any kind of memory for New York’s Red Squad or the Nixon Enemy’s list could see the signs. The cases that the U.S. has brought have – time and time again – fallen apart for lack of evidence or the wrong kind of evidence. Why? Because it wasn’t evidence. It was suspicion – nothing more and, often in the end, a great deal less.
See, eavesdropping is just another one of the short cuts that this White House so loves to take in the name of fighting terror. Understanding how it cut corners makes the case of Jose Padilla who has gone from enemy combatant to a guy who makes threats much more understandable. Realizing that you’re dealing with cheaters shines a whole new light on the case of the German Khaled al-Masri who was abducted and held by the CIA in Afghanistan and turns out to only have a name that sounds like that of a “known” terrorist. These people are listening in? Maybe they should get the wax out of their ears.

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Right and Wrong: Talking Back to Trevino

Well, I’m right about one thing these days. Josh and I are never going to agree. Says the conservative in his latest post: “Chris, I take it, rejects the clash of civilizations thesis; I do not.”
Yup. I’d say that’s the nub of the thing. I am leery – as I think we all should be – of calling the continuing conflict against random bombings a clash of civilizations. I think such terminology sets one type of civilization – one set of social or cultural mores – above another and I am not sure in this connected, always-on digital age that we can afford to draw such harsh lines. Why harsh? Well, in such clashes there is often an air of virtuous determination that I find dangerous. On both sides. In calling something “evil” you are, by definition, assigning an equally exaggerated sense of virtue to those who opposed it. But this is perhaps the deepest divide between my and Josh’s thinking.
I look at the bombings – from New York to London, from Bali to Sharm el Sheikh – as part of a inchoate religious war launched by a violent group of Muslims who see their faith as the only one that is true. And I think, as it’s always been, that it’s an excuse; an excuse to be a bomb-loving jerk who takes a sick and horrid pleasure in inflicting pain. The folks who bomb our planes and trains here in the West think of us as evil, that’s certainly true. But I think in making that same charge back to them – as actors and believers in their faith – we are affirming their point of view. To treat the “war” on terror as a police action is then, for me, the proper course because it both diminishes the threat by stripping it of its rhetorical virtue while at the same time taking it and treating it very seriously. (And oh, if you want a look at how that can be done effectively, have a look at the profile of Ray Kelly’s NYPD in this week’s New Yorker).
The bombings are not a new way of seeking vengence. They are the statements of the outraged, the disenfranchised, the scared, the denied, the confused. Like the poor, they are always with us: Ask an English cop about the IRA, a Spaniard about ETA, the Germans about Baader-Meinhof, the NYPD about the Weather Underground.

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Biting Back

Some of you – you know who you are – would prefer to ignore the “right” hand side of things here at Politics From Left to Right.
For you folks, we’ve added the talented and smart Mr. Christopher Brauchli, a classic American Liberal who works and lives in Boulder, Colo. Chris’ columns can be found here – he usually posts on Thursdays – so I hope you’ll look forward to his work.
But back to Josh. He has filed a fine – if just a touch long – defense of his accusing the Spanish of cowardice in his otherwise very fine post on the London bombings earlier this month.
He uses a lot of longer words. And I disagree with him very strongly. I said as much back in March. You can read that here and, from a friend of the site, here.
Josh and I may never agree. The issue here for U.S. citizens isn’t really whether the Spanish have — as conservatives and supporters of the Iraqi War insist — caved into pressure from terrorist. The issue is — and it’s one that has not been adequately answered on the Left — what to do about it.
Clearly, the Right believes in the power of condemnation and ridicule. The Left believes in hand-wringing.

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The Troubles We’ve Seen

Well Doc Searls has called me on being pessimistic and Ed Cone has said I’m cynical and the New York Times says Bob Novak was Karl Rove’s source and Mickey Kaus wonders if Novak’s source was New York Times reporter Judith Miller. And Matt Cooper, well, he’s telling all and some of that involves Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff Lewis Libby.
Deep breath. Can you say “circle jerk”?
So, as I always do when I worry that my disgust – no, that’s not too strong a word — for politicians’ shenanigans and the reporters who let them get away with it reaches a new high, I have turned to Jon Stewart, a man who gets away with pointed social commentary by repeatedly – and inaccurately – insisting that he is not serious.
Stewart has not let me down. Wednesday, in doing his take on the White House Press Corps’ merciless hounding of Bush Spokesman Scott McClelland, Stewart noted that the usual group had been “replaced by real reporters.” As if.
He then went on to have this exchange on Thursday with Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff.

“Aren’t we already in somewhat of a bad shape,” Stewart asked “if the principle reporters are standing on – in terms of confidentiality – is not a powerless person whistle-blowing to blow the cover on a thing but rather protecting people who are going on double secret probation to basically just go ‘That guy’s wife made him go.’ That, to me, seems like, ‘Wow, We’re already in a difficult position.’
“I understand the reporters’ privilege or whatever it is, to stand on principle. But has the press corps been reduced to the point where now all they have to stand on is ‘I don’t want to loose my access to the White House completely even if all they’re spreading is gossip and innuendo?’
“I can answer that question,” Isikoff dead-panned. “I’d like to do it off the record.”

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