Friday, August 31, 2007

The meaning of "progress"

The Washington Post reports that a leaked GAO draft indicates that only 3 of the 18 Iraq benchmarks have been met. Strange considering that just a few weeks ago the White House reported that "satisfactory progress" had been made on 8. You might think that "satisfactory" should be read as "will reach stated goal by time specified" -- but you'd be wrong. Like most claims of the progress in Iraq, the progress reported by the White House was not progress at all.

In his withering report "Benchmarks In Iraq: The True Status", issued soon after the White House progress claims, Anthony Cordesman wrote:

It is clear, however, that the Iraqi government has not really met the Bush administration’s benchmarks in any major area. Seen from a more nuanced perspective, actual progress as has been more limited and had often had tenuous meaning unless it can eventually be shown that a faltering legislative start will be put into practice over the months and years to come in ways that Iraq’s major factions will accept.

We've been hearing about progress in Iraq for years. Here's a good one from 2003: "WMD hunters tout progress in Iraq". Here's one about the incredible progress we made in Mosul in 2005 -- and then again in 2007.

Iraq's northern city Mosul, in Ninewa province, is a sprawling tangle of historic neighborhoods that straddle the Tigris river. With a mixed population of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and other minority groups, Iraq's third largest city is typical of many Iraqi towns that have see-sawed between periods of violence and relative calm since the U.S.-led invasion.

Is riding on a see-saw progress? It is if you describe it as "going up. Now going up again. And again, going up..."

Progress in Iraq comes in many forms:

  1. Purely anecdotal progress that is not in any way measurable.
  2. "Localized progress" that is not reflective of any larger trends.
  3. Progress that occurs immediately following a regression. One step back, one step forward again.
  4. Progress that is offset by equal regression in some other area.

At any given time in Iraq there is progress happening somewhere. Journalists go on a military-guided tour of Iraq and report that some dangerous areas are safer; progress even though formerly safer areas are more dangerous. A drop in civilian casualties is evidence of progress even as military casualties rise -- or vice-versa. Military security increases while the political situation regresses due to those security measures -- that's progress as well.

The 18 benchmarks represent an objective way of measuring total progress by defining in advance what progress looks like. Instead of retroactively picking out fleeting examples -- yesterday a swimming pool cleaned, the day before a number of insurgents killed -- the benchmarks establish goals and measures in advance. The President said in January:

A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs. To empower local leaders, Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year. And to allow more Iraqis to re-enter their nation's political life, the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution.

Many of these benchmarks are easy to measure. De-Baathification laws have not been passed. Oil-sharing legislation has not been passed. The Bush Administration has touted as good news that Iraqi leaders have pledged to pass these laws -- just as they have pledged in the past without result. (It should be noted that merely passing the legislation is meaningless if it can't be enforced by a government with no power outside of Baghdad.)

Predictably the Administration is distancing itself from the benchmarks and embracing empty claims of "progress" and cherry-picked examples. Tony Snow at a press briefing:

Again, I would -- if you take a look at what Congress has mandated for this report, it says, have you met these? Have you met them in full? Well, the answer is, you're going to find in a lot of cases, of course they haven't met them. Now, the real question is, do you have progress in the right direction?
The real question that people have is, what's going on Iraq? Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact? The answer is yes. There's no question about it. What you've had is the number of ethnic and religious sectarian killings down by 75 percent. You have a doubling of weapons cache seizures. You have a reduction in bombing violence, in bombing killings of U.S. and coalition forces. There have been a number of -- you have kills and captures way up when it comes to those who have been fighting against the government.

Weapons cache seizures. Bombing violence. Kills and captures. These are the progress metrics of today. When weapons cache seizures decline that metric will be replaced with a more convenient one. Perhaps tomorrow seizures will be down but electricity availability will be up, and that will be touted as the latest evidence of progress.

For years we've let the Bush Administration get away with refusing to define the exact end goal or what the path to it looks like. Without an ideal path, let alone a realistic one, progress is impossible to measure. If you don't know where you're going or how your getting there "are we getting closer?" is a meaningless question.

The President said "I've made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended." Nothing could be further from the truth. Our commitment is by definition open-ended: no endpoint has ever been articulated. Under the Bush Administration we're staying as long as it takes -- whatever "it" is, something that has never been elucidated.

Measurable benchmarks only matter when a failure to meet them is actionable, and this Congress does not have the political will to take action. There will be some debate over how many are met, but the reality is that meeting all eighteen or none makes no difference; the report itself is busy work, as is the much-heralded "Petraeus report." Nobody familiar with Bush or Congress can expect these reports to alter our policies in the slightest, regardless of content. There is no benchmark or Petraeus report even conceivable that would lend Congress the political fortitude to press action through legislation. Bush claims that our commitment to Iraq is not open-ended when clearly it is. In the same way, for all their protestations, the Congress' commitment to Bush's war is equally open-ended. The reports of progress and the promise of tomorrow will continue, as they have continuously since the invasion began.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

More brutality in Iraq redux

Here is a video of the Daily Show interview described in this previous post.

Once again the sentiments expressed here, by a real expert, almost entirely contradict the sentiments of the right-wing punditocracy's self-declared experts. For them "winning hearts and minds" is an empty slogan that shouldn't obstruct a good boot to the throat. One example:

Less than two weeks after chickenhawk Dennis Miller complained on Hannity & Colmes that what’s wrong in Iraq is we’re not brutal enough to the insurgents, armchair warrior Michael Reagan, substituting for Sean Hannity, announced last night (12/20/06) that the US is too worried about “upsetting people” and should take “the gloves off of our military, let them go in and win the war the way they need to win the war.” Reagan didn’t explain what that meant or how it should be done but it’s likely he didn’t know, himself. He never served in the military. Those who have, like General John P. Abizaid and Colin Powell, advocate no such thing.

Worrying about "upsetting people" is precisely our new counter-insurgency strategy, the strategy we are being told is working.

Alberto Gonzales did a great job

From a Feature Article defending Gonzales (all emphasis added):

With so little time left in his term, Mr. Bush needs above all an AG willing to explain and defend his policies on the vital and related areas of Presidential power and the war on terror. Mr. Gonzales was mostly a stalwart on the latter, going back to his years as White House Counsel. More recently, he has argued inside the Administration for the usefulness of Guantanamo against those at State and Defense who want to close it for reasons of public diplomacy. Mr. Gonzales understands that these detainees have to be kept somewhere, and that the criminal justice system is not up to the job of trying them.

His successor should be someone willing to engage critics on the Gitmo battle, as well as on fights over military tribunals and wiretaps of foreign terrorists. He should also be someone who understands that even a weakened President needs to act as if he's strong. That is, even a "lame duck" President still retains his powers under the Constitution and will be more effective if he's willing to use them.

Remarkable in the above is how little it has to do with the duties of the Attorney General. The text above and the piece as a whole betrays just how political the Bush Administration appointments are -- job qualifications and performance are literally not considerations. Conspicuously missing is any mention of giving sound legal advice and acting in accordance with the law other than the vague reference to the "powers under the Constitution", a Bush Administration favorite justification for any and all executive actions including those expressly illegal and unconstitutional.

It sadly does not go without saying that the role of the Attorney General is not to defend the President and his policies. It certainly isn't to claim that US laws, FISA and criminal justice-related, are "not up to the job" and should therefore be violated.

Gonzales wrote blank checks to the administration that he knew were invalid; most of his "legal" arguments were presented in briefs and press releases but tellingly not in court. The legal theories he used to justify administration actions were pure public relations fodder. He argued that the right to Habeas Corpus did not exist, but not in a legal setting, backing away from a definitive showdown in court that would have almost certainly ruled against that position. He argued that the President had the right to violate FISA laws, but when push came to shove (read: a Democratic Congress was elected) the TSP program was altered and submitted to the FISA court.

As a long-time Bush defender he had what appeared to be a sharp conflict of interest but there was no conflict -- his interest was solely in hunting everywhere for ways to justify Bush policies, including in John Ashcroft's hospital bed. In the minds of many Bush supporters that is the goal of the Attorney General, and more generally of all appointees to all positions. The distinction between political and non-political appointees is meaningless to them. All appointees are merely "emanations of a president's will" with "no substantial authority independent of President Bush."

The WSJ claims that he was "dragged through the mud for political reasons" and that he was not a "hyper-partisan political actor." Odd given that their qualifications for a good Attorney General and their praise for Gonzales are all overtly political in nature. Alberto Gonzales did a great job -- at defending the President. That isn't the job he was supposed to do, but that's the job the WSJ opinion page wanted him to do, and they are hardly alone on that. Just as Libby did a heckuva job by covering for the exposure of a CIA operative and front organization, as Michael Brown did heading FEMA while ignoring Katrina problems. The question is not "did he do a good job" but "what job did he even do?"

That some people think the Attorney General should operate as a political flack is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how openly they trumpet these views, views that are antithetical to a working government with functional checks and balances. The state of our discourse is such that writing about how "the rule of law must yield to the need for [ill-defined] energy" is perfectly acceptable. Condoning the torture of children by crushing their testicles is morally and legally valid. The window of discussion is moved only when such opinions are made public and eventually normalized. Outing a CIA operative is merely political gamesmanship; an Attorney General that subverts the law is not only proper but necessary in the battle against evil. Regardless of the merit of these positions their constant crowing deafens us to serious abuses.

That Gonzales eventually resigned is no great win for the rule of law. What happens next is critical - we will get someone who does a great job, or someone who does a great job at the job? The job defined not by the WSJ opinion writers but by the official role of the Attorney General to work in service of law and office.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Charles Krauthammer in his own words

I'm going to present these nearly commentary-free. They stand by themselves, but I'll add some thoughts at the end. These are all taken from the archives. All emphasis is added. I've focused on the Iraq War - his opinions on pardons, baseball, Israel, etc are equally inane.

"No to nation building" in 2001

Because the American military is the world's premier fighting force, and ought to husband its resources for just that. Anybody can peacekeep; no one can do what we did in Afghanistan. Many nations can do police work; only we can drop thousand-pound bombs with the precision of a medieval archer. Peacekeeping is a job for others.
It is common sense. Americans make lousy peacekeepers--not because they are not great soldiers, but precisely because they are.
No to American peacekeepers. We fight the wars. Our friends should patrol the peace.

"Perspective on the duration of war" in 2003

With American troops at the gates of Baghdad, the plan is looking pretty good now.
The fact that but a single element was miscalibrated (without significant damage to the overall campaign) is, on the contrary, testimony to a plan of remarkable prescience.

Even more impressive was the speed of the military's adaptation to the new circumstances.

"The critics are wrong again" in 2003

Before the Iraq war even began, the critics were predicting that Iraq was going to be the Bay of Pigs (plus ``Desert One, Beirut and Somalia,'' said the ever-hyperbolic Chris Matthews). A week into the war, we were told Iraq was Vietnam. Now after the war, they're telling us that Iraq is Iran--that Iraq's Shiite majority will turn it into another intolerant Islamic republic.

The critics were wrong every time. They are wrong again.

"Rebuilding Iraq" in 2003

In Iraq, it was Saddam who turned the place to rubble. By any historic standard, the amount of destruction caused by the coalition was small. Most of the damage was inflicted upon the symbols, barracks, ministries and communication organs of the Baathist regime. The infrastructure--roads, bridges, dams, sewage systems, schools, mosques and hospitals--was barely touched.

And as for the people, one of the more unnoticed facts of this war was the absence of refugees--the Iraqi people's silent homage to their trust in the stated allied purpose of coming to liberate and not destroy.

"Chasing after Saddam's weapons" in 2003

The inability to find the weapons is indeed troubling, but only because it means that the weapons remain unaccounted for and might be in the wrong hands. The idea that our inability to thus far find the WMDs proves that the threat was phony and hyped is simply false.

"Everyone's an expert" in 2003

On the reconstruction of Iraq, everybody is a genius. Every pundit, every ex-official and, of course, every Democrat knows exactly how it should have been done.
Losing the peace? No matter what anyone says now, that question will only be answered at the endpoint. If in a year or two we are able to leave behind a stable, friendly government, we will have succeeded. If not, we will have failed. And all the geniuses will be vindicated.

There are an estimated 2 million refugees from Iraq and another 2 million internally displaced people -- out of a total population of about 25 million. Households lack electricity and water; years into the occupation infrastructure is still a disaster and a humanitarian crisis is at hand. A "year or two" has long since passed without meaningful political progress. Saddam did not have WMDs. Our war strategy was not one of "remarkable prescience" and Bush is now invoking Vietnam comparisons himself. Americans are being used a peacekeepers; according to Krauthammer the war ended in 2003. The Iraqi government is openly flirting with Iran.

This genius is vindicated. The critics were right; Krauthammer and his serious expert friends were wrong, as usual.

"Serious voices" call for regime change -- again

From a recent Charles Krauthammer op-ed:

We should have given up on Nouri al-Maliki long ago and begun to work with other parties in the Iraqi parliament to bring down the government, yielding either a new coalition of less sectarian parties or, as Pollack has suggested, new elections.

The brazenness of the "serious voices" of Iraqi "experts" is truly astonishing. After years of crowing about establishing democracy in Iraq as a starting point for broad transformation in the Middle East those same voices are now explicitly calling for regime change again -- the regime in question this time a democratically elected one. Neoconservative pundits have never been able to describe how we could achieve the dual goals of democracy in Iraq and a working pro-US Iraqi government; and now that those goals conflict they are happy to cast off the former entirely.

These "serious voices" are not only undermining the Maliki government, they are undermining Iraqi governance as a whole. They quite clearly believe that the US is ultimately calling the shots, and that the democracy in Iraq is only something we'll put up with when the "right" person who suits are interests is elected. When former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who was voted out of office, wanted his job back he hired well-connected Washington lobbyists to influence US policy rather than campaigning in Iraq itself. He too evidently believes the US is the ultimate decision maker.

One thing the pro-war crowd could never be accused of is consistency of argument; the only consistent viewpoint is that more force is always the solution. Anything else is merely extraneous detail. It is impossible to overstate how often war proponents used democracy in Iraq as a primary justification for war, increasingly the primary justification. Yet now they openly grumble that democracy may be too ambitious; that those pesky Iraqis elected the wrong people and more US meddling is called for.

Like O'Hanlon, Krauthammer consistently plays a game defined to exclude any genuinely opposing viewpoints from the conversation entirely. The central premises are unquestionable; the only debate allowed exists at the margins. Despite the fact that Krauthammer and others like him have been wrong about virtually everything they are still the serious experts -- or so they protest repeatedly.

But the serious voices will prevail. When the Democratic presidential front-runner concedes that the surge "is working" (albeit very late) against the insurgency, and when Petraeus himself concedes that the surge cannot continue indefinitely, making inevitable a drawdown of troops sometime in the middle of next year, the terms of the Iraq debate become narrow and the policy question simple: What do we do right now -- continue the surge or cut it short and begin withdrawal?

Serious people like Levin argue that with a nonfunctional and sectarian Baghdad government, we can never achieve national reconciliation. Thus the current military successes will prove ephemeral.
Nonetheless, continuing the surge while finally trying to change the central government is the most rational choice because the only available alternative is defeat -- a defeat that is not at all inevitable and that would be both catastrophic and self-inflicted.

Krauthammer and O'Hanlon clearly read the same playbook. That the surge is working is unquestionable fact -- despite the fact that the surge strategy is to empower local governments and militias at the expense of the central government and official Iraqi forces, something O'Hanlon freely admits to. It's dreadfully unserious to point out that the surge, rather than creating space for political considerations, is making them impossible and meaningless. Similarly staying the course is the only "rational" choice; just as invading Iraq was the only rational choice at that time, according to these terribly serious experts.

From a Krauthammer Foreign Policy Research Institute speech:

That’s why the entire enterprise of changing the culture of the Arab world was undertaken. It was, as I and others had said at the time, a radical idea, an arrogant idea, a risky idea. But it was also the only idea of any coherence and consistency that anyone has advanced on how to change the underlying conditions that had led to 9/11 and ultimately to prevent the kind of conditions that would lead to a second 9/11.

When Ron Paul points to blowback from our own policies as a root cause of animosity towards the US that is unserious and not an "idea of any coherence and consistency." Killing fewer Arabs and meddling less in Arab affairs is likewise off the table, along with diplomacy of any kind. The only serious option, according to Krauthammer, is to wield American power like a hammer.

At every step along the way it is the unserious voices that have proven correct on Iraq. Time after time Krauthammer and his friends are wrong, while the people unworthy of consideration are correct.

We Americans, looking at a situation like the one that has unraveled in Iraq, immediately want to blame ourselves.
Nonetheless, the root problem is not the United States and not the tactical errors that we have made in Iraq. The root problem is the Iraqis and their own political culture.
I think that has a lot to do with Iraqi history.
But the problem, I believe, is Iraq’s particular culture and history. This after all is a country that was raped and ruined for thirty years by a uniquely sadistic and cruel and atomizing totalitarianism. What was left in its wake was a social and political desert, a dearth of the kind of trust and good will and sheer human capital required for democratic governance. All that was left to the individual in Iraq was to attach himself to a mosque or clan or militia. That’s why at this earliest stage of democratic development Iraqi national consciousness is as yet too weak and the culture of compromise too underdeveloped to produce effective government enjoying broad allegiance.

Plenty of unserious voices warned of exactly these problems well in advance; their concerns about the history and people of Iraq were ignored. The only rational choice was to invade Iraq -- who could have predicted that our efforts there would go disastrously? Who could have predicted that Shia and Sunni's violence was not "pop sociology" but a likely scenario? Who could have possibly known about the culture and history of Iraq in advance, by say reading a book or using Google? Not our serious experts.

Now these serious voices, having told us for years that democracy in Iraq would transform the Middle East, are coming to realize what the unserious non-experts warned us of: that democracy is not a panacea and that a democratic government may be ineffective and reject the US for Iran; that the country could splinter along tribal lines; that the entire enterprise of reshaping Iraq in our image was pure folly to begin with. Yet even now they are the voices we should be listening to. They told us to invade Iraq and install democracy, now they argue that we should bring down that same democratically elected government. It doesn't have to make sense -- they are the experts, and we should listen to them unquestioningly.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

We Need to be More Brutal in Iraq?

Right-wing war advocates constantly repeat that the Iraq War is going poorly because we aren't being brutal enough -- without explaining how more brutality would help or what that brutality should consist of exactly. Beyond thin sloganeering the efficacy of increasing brutality is never directly addressed.

The Daily Show just ran an interview with Lt. Col. John Nagl, author of Counterinsurgency Field Manual. His point can be accurately summarized as "use the minimum force required to get the job done." (Nearly but not quite an exact quote) His reasoning was logical and therefore entirely unfamiliar to the bloodthirsty right-wing war advocates. "Winning hearts and minds" is not a slogan, it's a valid strategy; hearts are not won with blood and minds not won through despair.

Treating Iraqi people with respect and kindness, investing in infrastructure, making sure only the right people are apprehended and killed while protecting the innocent -- these ideas are entirely obvious and exactly what most chicken-hawks oppose. For them the answer is always the same: more gore, more bombs, more torture, regardless of effectiveness. In their fantasy-land insufficient violence is always the problem.

What McConnell Didn't Say about the FISA Debate

Pictured above: some of the story McConnell left out.

The El Paso times has published an interview with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell about FISA and the Terrorist Surveillance Program. The McConnell interview paints a picture of an administration that has attempted to work within the system: it has proposed new legislation and submitted processes to FISA for approval; perhaps a few corners were cut, but that was only to protect us from the dire threat of the terrorists. This picture is entirely false of course. What is remarkable in the interview is not so much what was said as what was left out:

  1. The Terrorist Surveillance Program was submitted to the FISA Court only recently. The program existed for years without any Court approval or oversight.
  2. Likewise changes to FISA were proposed only recently while existing FISA laws were ignored. The administration previously argued that FISA did not need any updates at all.
  3. The TSP that was submitted to the FISA Court was a stripped-down version that had been altered due to the threat of mass resignation from top administration officials. The previous version was even more illegal.
  4. TSP was submitted to the FISA court and FISA changes were proposed only because investigative reporting exposed the illegal program and a Democratic Congress was elected in 2006.
  5. TSP is just one of many programs. We know very little about the others, including whether or not they are also illegal.

Rather than an administration trying to abide by the rules, the accurate portrait is of an administration petulantly breaking the law for years until exposed. Then, only when caught with hand firmly in cookie jar, did the administration grudgingly begin following the proper process.

The notion that the administration had to spring into immediate action and didn't have time to follow the law is blatantly false. The TSP was in place for years without proposed changes to FISA or submission to the FISA Court. Equally empty is the defense put forth by Bush Administration defenders that the FISA laws need fixing and that following them would have exposed us to danger. Again the administration had years to propose fixes to FISA and did not, actively arguing that FISA did not need updating. (Whether or not FISA needs "fixing" or not and whether administration proposals actually "fix" it is another subject)

Bush defenders want to convey the fiction that our government was for years in a mad 24 Jack Bauer-style scramble, rushing at breakneck speed to protect Americans while slamming through those pesky laws that serve only as hurdles. The reality is that the administration lawbreaking was casual and would have continued indefinitely if not for the work of journalists and whistle-blowers.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Quick Hits

Addendum to Previous Post
One of the common reasons profferred that Congress has not reacted more strongly to Bush Administration abuses is that Americans dislike investigations, something repeated ad nauseum by the pundit class without justification. The always-excellent Glenn Greenwald dismantles those claims here and here, arguing convincingly that Congress is unpopular not because it provides too much investigation and oversight but too little.

Cosmetic Issues
I'm playing with layout, images, etc, in an effort to make things a little more readable and attractive.

Wanted: Worker Bees

I hope to cover this in more detail but here is the quick version:

The White House is fighting disclosure of information (yet again), claiming that the Office of Administration is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act because it has "no substantial authority independent of President Bush." This sounds familiar because it is.

Bush administration officials unveiled a bold new assertion of executive authority yesterday in the dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, saying that the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege.
David B. Rifkin, who worked in the Justice Department and White House counsel's office under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, praised the position and said it is consistent with the idea of a "unitary executive." In practical terms, he said, "U.S. attorneys are emanations of a president's will." And in constitutional terms, he said, "the president has decided, by virtue of invoking executive privilege, that is the correct policy for the entire executive branch."[em. added]

According to administration officials those who work in the executive branch are simply extensions of the President. Serving the American people, tending to the good of the nation, abiding by ethics, following the law and relying on independent judgement are all simply not allowed. Mindless zombiedom is the gold standard for behavior.

When Bush ran for President he claimed he would act like a good CEO: hire competent people and get out of their way. What we've seen instead is the hiring of blind loyalists who are given strict marching orders and dismissed if they slightly deviate. One has to wonder who in the executive branch does have "substantial authority independent of President Bush"? The answer appears to be nobody. The same logic being applied to the Justice Department and the Office of Administration applies equally well to every member of the executive branch. They are all "emanations of a president's will" in that he is their ultimate boss.

Is simply following orders, no matter what they are, appropriate behavior in government? (Or anyplace for that matter) According to Bush that is not only appropriate but imperative.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Terrorist Surveillance Program: Powers Seized and Granted

The Bush Administration agenda is defined by a constant push to increase the power of the executive branch. This expansion has been performed in a variety of ways: through laws like the PATRIOT Act and the recent FISA changes, through editorials and talking points advancing theories such as the "energy of the executive" and the "Unitary Executive", through the use of signing statements and executive orders based on those theories rather than commonly understood laws and the power of the President -- and most of all through activities not just outside the scope of the law but in direct opposition to it.

Power granted can be revoked; power seized can only be wrested back.

The Terrorist Surveillance Program is but one example of this axiom. What should be a question of law has been reduced to a contest of wills, with the Bush Administration daring Congress to take some action. By now the story is old: Congress attempts to investigate and the administration stonewalls, as documented in this Washington Post article.

Vice President Cheney's office acknowledged for the first time yesterday that it has dozens of documents related to the administration's warrantless surveillance program, but it signaled that it will resist efforts by congressional Democrats to obtain them.

The disclosure by Cheney's counsel, Shannen W. Coffin, came on the day that the Senate Judiciary Committee had set as a deadline for the Bush administration to turn over documents related to the wiretapping program, which allowed the National Security Agency to monitor communications between the United States and overseas without warrants.
The disclosure of the existence of the documents and their dates sheds new light on some events surrounding the NSA program, including a now-famous legal dispute in March 2004. A half-dozen senior Justice officials threatened to resign if the White House did not agree to change parts of the program that Justice lawyers had determined were illegal.

Contrary to what is bolded above, executive-branch programs do not allow the NSA to break US law. The former head of the NSA, General Michael Hayden, made similar claims in this YouTube clip. (Action begins at the 1:30 mark.) After he lies about the content of the 4th Amendment he goes on to claim that he was merely following a "lawful order" from the Attorney General -- even though that "lawful order" was so offensive and illegal that Justice lawyers threatened mass resignation. Wiretapping without warrant (in the way the TSP "allowed") is not a power granted by Congress and upheld by the Court; it is specifically illegal according to FISA laws.

That the Bush Administration's lawlessness has gone unpunished is the single greatest victory in its quest to expand power for itself. Now that the law has been broken without reprisal the abuses that were previously considered egregious now appear to occupy the middle ground. Unethical actions, or actions that merely push the boundaries rather than vault over them, are the misdemeanors to the high crimes represented by the TSP, if only by comparison.

The window of discussion has moved. It should be unthinkable that an American citizen could be unilaterally declared an unlawful enemy combatant, detained, tortured and denied legal counsel indefinitely. Yet the administration claims to have that power and has used it -- and why not? With a Congress unwilling or unable to effectively counter executive abuses the administration is free to do as it pleases while side-stepping definitive legal showdowns in the Court.

By not taking swift and strong action Congress has tacitly granted that extraordinary abuse of power, in direct violation of the law, is little more than "politics as usual." Outrageous behavior has been normalized, regardless of the end result of the TSP inquiries. The longer Congress meanders without definitive action the more extreme that action must be to stuff some of the genie back in the bottle.

Until that happens the Bush Administration knows that it can break the law without punishment -- effectively rendering laws into suggestions and executive power nearly absolute.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Military Contractors and Right Wing Ideology

Iraq for SaleBlackwater Book

Returning to the subject of miltiary contractors in Iraq. Background information can be found here as well as in the movie "Iraq for Sale" directed by Robert Greenwald and the book "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army" by Jeremy Scahill. Greenwald and Scahill were the two presenters in the video from this previous post.

As Bush's popularity soared in the wake of 9/11 the Republican party agenda became blind allegiance to Bush and blind opposition to the "left-wing fringe" without any theoretical underpinnings or consistent ideology. His departures from traditional conservatism were at the time lauded, as in this fawning WSJ piece. The partisan division over the use and oversight of military contractors in Iraq is a perfect illustration of this elevation of administration loyalty over philosophy and the good of the nation.

Under the Bush administration and the Republican Congress vast numbers of private contractors were (and continue to be) used in the Iraq War with virtually no oversight. While the privatization of military services may be a genuine ideological issue, the refusal to adequately monitor contractors represents nothing more than absolute deference to the Bush presidency.

Providing clean water to American troops is not a uniquely liberal issue. Ensuring the safety of civilian truck drivers is not a left-wing cause; nor is sending them over "red" roads unaware of the potential danger a right-wing one. No-bid contracts, which remove the pressures to create efficient markets, would appear to be dramatically opposed to conservative free-market principles. Yet these too were the norm for a Republican presidency and Congress.

Many contractors in Iraq are ungoverned by any laws -- not by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not by US law, not by Iraqi law and not by international mercenary laws. This lawlessness has persisted for years without serious consideration, serving as a source of humor rather than a source of concern.

Understanding the Republican refusal to perform oversight or even apply laws to military contractors is impossible when viewed as a policy grounded in conservative thought. These policies arise from business ties, the influence of money, the urge to appear tough, loyalty to the President and an overriding need to oppose liberal issues. Hating liberals is big business for conservatives; many conservative policies appear chosen only because they oppose liberal ones, even when those "liberal" issues are mainstream and supported by the vast majority of Americans.

When viewed through this lens the Republican opposition to serious contractor oversight is understandable, even as it endangers our troops. The Republican opposition to Walter Reed investigation and reform follows similar lines. When allegations of Walter Reed deficiencies surfaced they were minimized and dismissed; the vets who complained of poor treatment, the same troops Republicans claim to support, smeared as ungrateful whiners. The Republican ideology is first and foremost to support the President and oppose liberal efforts, even when that means abandoning common-sense positions. Years of praise for the President and derision of liberals makes it difficult for Republicans to support pragmatic initiatives proposed by liberals and opposed by the Bush presidency; Republicans are thus locked into supporting meritless and destructive policies that do not stem from any philisophical underpinnings.

In the face of mass unpopularity Republicans have attempted to wiggle out of this position by painting Bush as a conservative traitor -- even after years of praising his initiatives and lauding his departure from conservative principles as a needed reinvention. One has to wonder how strong the conservative principles were to begin with if they could be so easily cast off and then rediscovered as the Bush presidency waxed and waned.

The lack of a consistent worldview informing Republican policy-making is unsurprising. The Republican party is composed of old-style conservatives, ex-liberal big-government neo-conservatives and religious social conservatives. Of these only the marginalized "paleo-conservative" Pat Buchanan types represent traditional conservative values. That is why traditional conservative wedge issues such as immigration are now wedges driving apart different right-wing factions.

With the historic unpopularity of the Bush presidency one of the two Republican pillars is crumbling. The only remaining tie between different Republican factions is opposition to liberals; Republicans have few affirmative values in common. That is why, as we saw in this post, Republicans still fight efforts to provide adequate contractor oversight. That is why Republicans defended Walter Reed and the Tillman investigations, and why Republican presidential candidates frequently attack Democratic one. Absent any ideological underpinnings their only recourse is to reflexively oppose what Democrats and most Americans support. The drive to blindly support Bush's policies is alive but winding down; in it's wake is not a return to conservative values but a reliance on liberal bashing, the major remaining common Republican value.

Friday, August 17, 2007

State Secrets = Get Out of Jail Free

Get Out of Jail Free

One the fundamental properties of a working legal system is that illegal activities are punished. The Bush administration, however, employs state secrets privilege as an effective method of covering for clearly illegal activities such as the warrantless wiretapping of US citizens. This exploit can be repeated as often as the administration fancies, with no direct legal check or recourse.

The invocation of state secrets privilege was originally use to prevent disclosure of security-critical information and has since expanded to wholesale prevention of court proceedings. If the administration can plausibly argue that evidence or proceedings would jeopardize critical security information judges often accept that argument without verifying its merit. Nothing prevents the administration from falsely invoking state secrets privilege other than the consciences of those involved. The first assertion of state secrets was a fraudulent claim that served only to cover for government negligence. Not a strong precedent. live-blogged the 9th Circuit hearing on AT&T and NSA spying, providing a partial transcript. A key passage:

"Litigating this action could result in exceptionally grave harm to national security in the United States," says Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garr.

Judge Harry Pregerson (left, in file photo) suggests the government is asking the courts to "rubber stamp" the government's claim that state secrets are at risk "Who decides whether something is a state secret or not? ... We have to take the word of the members of the executive branch that something is a state secret?"

Garre counters that the courts should give "utmost deference" to the Bush administration.

The documentation in question is so secret that not even the judges are privy to it. (Or perhaps they simply don't bother to ask) The judges therefore have no rational basis to evaluate the legitimacy of state secrets claims. While they can reject implausible arguments ("what I ate for lunch is a state secret") they cannot detect or reject plausible but false arguments. ("The details of this plane crash are a state secret") It is a system based not on accuracy but on trust.

Why anyone would grant "utmost deference" to the Bush administration is a mystery. The Bush administration has invoked state secrets privilege liberally, using those claims to prevent suits where guilt is confirmed by administration officials, as in the case of Khalid El-Masri

The Bush administration has already admitted to violating the law with regard to warrantless wiretapping:

The New York Times reported that Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to listen in on the phone calls of thousands of people in this country without getting permission from a court. Bush's lawyers maintained that the president had the inherent authority as commander in chief to protect national security through secret spying. The account was confirmed by the Los Angeles Times.

The defense the Bush administration put forth was laughable and the program was declared unconstitutional. The execution of that program was (and is) illegal, yet there has been no punishment for willful violation of the law.

For activities to be illegal has no meaning if punishment of those illegal activities is impossible, which it is if state secrets privileges can be repeatedly and successfully invoked.

One of the primary goals of the Bush administration has been the expansion of executive power. Not only by laws (which can be revoked), but by executive orders, self-serving theories of the "unitary executive" and the "energy of the executive" -- and by blatant law-breaking. There is no greater power than that which is exercised successfully in defiance of the rule of law rather than according to it.

Should the latest claims of state secrets privilege be upheld the message will be clear: the Bush administration is free to openly and brazenly violate the law by claiming, without evidentiary justification, that national security is at stake. In essense the legal system will bow to the word of proven liars rather than to its responsibilities under the law.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Note on Posting Schedule

I expect to update three days a week or so.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Boys of Summer

This post makes a lot more sense if you read the one below it first.

Baseball too boring?. Calvinball not arbitrary enough? Why not try O'Hanlonball?

I frankly don't like the way Brian's making his argument.
Let's please acknowledge where each other have serious data and serious arguments, instead of stooping to this level of personal attack and calling people tools for propaganda.

The first rule of O'Hanlonball: your arguments must please O'Hanlon.

In the clip above there are no personal attacks and nobody is called a tool for propaganda. It doesn't have to make sense -- it's O'Hanlonball!
From the WBUR program:

I don't think I went out of my way to tell a story that was based on a dog and pony show. The military progress is real. Critics should focus on why the opportunity costs of continuing are still too high nontheless, rather than worrying about my motives, as if somehow I've gained some huge benefits.
I don't think I'm a very intersting story here. What's interesting here are the facts on the ground in Iraq. Let's have a policy debate, that's the interesting conversation.

The second rule of O'Hanlonball: You'll focus on what O'Hanlon finds interesting.

Do you keep trying a while longer? What's your theory for how long is long enough before you abandon the effort? That's a question that I think people can disagree on, even if they accept a fairly common factual basis.

The third rule of O'Hanlonball: O'Hanlon will tell when you can disagree.


The "fairly common factual basis" that we should accept includes that there is "minimal political progress" -- which is true in the sense that backwards progress is still progress.

O'Hanlon clearly states that political progress is the key to Iraq. He also appears to acknowledge, in the YouTube clip above (towards the end), that our military strategy in Iraq is undermining the central Iraqi government, arguing only that "it's a gamble" and that "there is no better policy if you still are trying to salvage something."

This explains why O'Hanlon cannot give any rational explanation for why our (supposed) military gains will translate into political ones: the strategy he advocates makes military gains at the expense of political ones.

These are our "liberal" Iraq experts. They define the rules of the debate, bristling at objections that fall outside narrow lines. They advocate a "common factual basis" that is at least partly fiction. They argue explicitly for hope free from logic -- hope in spite of logic. That is the serious argument based on serious data: cross your fingers, roll the dice and hope for the best.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Big Serious Experts Make Big Serious Arguments

I will return to military contractors, but I want to strike while the iron is hot on this one. Apologies to Glenn Greenwald for the stylistically copped title and writing -- in my defense the radio show used so many variations of "big serious expert" that I could reasonably claim to have developed this mocking style independently.

"Michael O'Hanlon and Anthony Cordesman, two big Middle East watchers just back from Iraq, give us their differing takes on what lies ahead for the country."

Much has been written by Glenn Greenwald and others about the media blitz by O'Hanlon, Cordesman and Pollack so I won't rehash it here.

They are big serious experts, so as you would expect, they make big serious arguments. They do diligent investigation, spend time on the ground, ask the tough questions of the right people while probing deeply for answers; all of which inform their big serious conclusions. Conclusions like the following: (@10:00 in the Windows Media feed)

I would like to see us try a while longer, to hope [em. not added] that the military progress can spill over into the political realm, but I certainly can not give you a convincing theory as to why that is likely to happen[em. added], or sure to happen, I'm just hoping [em. not added] that it might.

In case you didn't quite get that, O'Hanlon repeats it later:

I know that's ["hope"] a funny word to end with but I admit, this is a theory of hope, more than of proof.

What would we possibly do without these big serious experts? James Fearon, Professor of Political Science, responds:

I just don't think hope, without any, you know, kind of rational basis -- it can't be the way to make policy on such an important matter.

Clearly Fearon (who was never referred to by any permutations of "big" and "serious" to the best of my knowledge) is somehow incorrect. How exactly is left as an exercise to the reader.


The other striking thing about the show is how O'Hanlon attempts to dictate what sort of discussion and objections are allowed in our serious discourse -- and rules out dicussions of journalistic methods. (These comments are mosly centered around the 24:00 mark) O'Hanlon can not distinguish between attacks on his reporting techniques and attacks on his personal character. He protests that "I am not the interesting story here" and that we should focus on the "facts on the ground" -- largely anecdotal facts he discovered via a carefully managed military-sponsored tour.

For big serious war experts, not only their motivations but their methods are absolutely off-limits. They are literally infallible and it is unserious and petty to point out that sources provided almost exclusively by the US Military have a vested interest in reporting rose-tinted progress.

From "A War We Just Might Win", with example sourcing information added:

Today, morale is high. The soldiers and marines [that we were placed with by the military] told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus;
Everywhere [that we were taken to as part of our tour], Army and Marine units were focused on securing the Iraqi population
In Ramadi [where we were taken as part of our tour], for example, we talked with an outstanding Marine captain [in a meeting arranged by the the military] whose company was living in harmony in a complex with a (largely Sunni) Iraqi police company and a (largely Shiite) Iraqi Army unit.
Today, in only a few sectors [that we were taken to] did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless...

Suddenly not so impressive.

O'Hanlon claims to have asked deeply probing questions, but he never asked what should have been one of the first and most obvious questions: if I am looking for an accurate portrayal of Iraq, why don't I don't I perform independent investigation?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

How Our Congress Operates

I was struggling for an opening topic that would fit the theme and mood of this blog when I came across the video below, a government trainwreck that illustrates why our constant failures in oversight and policy are not only explainable but entirely predictable. What makes the behavior in the video so shocking is not that it is uniquely awful but that it is commonplace and accepted as normal political discourse.

The video above is a remarkable illustration of how our government operates. The content of the video is a fascinating subject in itself (which I hope to cover in later posts), but the broader relevance of the video is the picture it paints of our broken political discourse, not in the oft (and rightly) disparaged media but in the government itself, among our own elected representatives.

The remarks of Rep. Kingston that start at 18:55 are a mini-primer on the rhetorical tricks our representatives use to avoid honest discussion and to shirk their responsibilities as our elected officials. His contempt for the presenters is thinly masked under a guise of noble civility, and rarely if ever does he engage in the subject manner in any meaningful way. Instead he moves from one ill-fitting right-wing talking point to the next, inserting words into the mouths of the presenters, attacking their character while ignoring their presentations and expertise entirely. A summary:

  1. Kingston begins by attempting to portray Mr. Greenwald as a biased liberal.
  2. Kingston informs that it is "somewhat of an insult" to tell a soldier they are underpaid, because they are "not motivated by pay as much as they are by patriotism" -- as if Mr. Greenwald was questioning their patriotism merely by pointing out that contractors make far more money than soldiers.
  3. Kingston moves on to "producers make a lot of money - do you know what kind of money you've made on any of these movies?" This line of questioning continues uncomfortably as Kington's mocking assumed voice describes "dastardly capitalistic corportations."
  4. Switching to Jeremy Scahill, the Representative uses a comment on Jeremy Scahill's blog to attack the "Democrat party" by proxy.
  5. We are now at the 27 minute mark; 8 minutes after Rep. Kingston began his remarks and he has yet to engage in the subject at hand. The entire first 8 minutes of his comments, in a hearing that lasts only an hour, are composed of tangential attacks on the character of the presenters. Not on their facts or figures, not on the accuracy of their reports or even of their analysis and conclusions.
  6. "When was the last time you were in Iraq, by the way?" Just a harmless aside.
  7. Kingston implies that the presenters have talked to only one soldier; clearly an absurd accusation. He lectures them about proper data collection without attacking their methods directly. The relevance of these comments is a mystery.
  8. "There's a huge amount of rhetoric around here." Indeed. Kingston, who has spent 10 minutes failing to do anything other than sling innuendo and accusations, is pontificating on the need for honest discourse.
That concludes Rep. Kingston's comments -- not a single one of which is substantive in any way. Rep. Kingston claims that he is acting as the opposition speaker, but his comments do not qualify as either skepticism or thoughtful opposition. Real skepticism would be challenging facts and accounts, making sure the information presented was independently verifiable, attacking logical leaps. In his ten minutes of comments Kingston does none of that, literally zero. He does not lodge a single factual complaint.

Comments by Representative Kingston starting at the 52 minute mark are similar, accusing the presenters of being anti-Christian, challenging them to propose legislation on the spot, declaring them anti-capitalists and even managing to bring up the conservative trope of Hollywood liberals who live in mansions and hang out in circles that include Barbra Streisand.

Mr. Kingston's style of congressional fact-finding and debate is not an aberration. Kingston is a respected 8-time representative. From

His down to earth style and common sense approach to issues have made him one of the strongest communicators in Congress and he is often a guest on network television shows such as Fox News, MSNBC, the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher. Known as an effective communicator and a conservative voice, Kingston has served as the Chairman of the Theme Team since 1997.

Mr. Kingston can be an effective communicator when it serves his interests, to wit his comments on a recent non-binding Congressional resolution. Agree or disagree, his comments on the nature of non-binding resolutions demonstrate engagement and understanding of the material. His failure to engage on the issue of military contractors appears to be a concious decision rather than a failure; the meandering obfuscation he employs is a familiar Republican tactic:

Democrats want to force us to focus on defending the surge, making the case that it will work and explaining why the President's new Iraq policy is different from prior efforts and therefore justified. We urge you to instead broaden the debate to the threat posed to Americans, the world, and all "unbelievers" by radical Islamists. [...] If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose.

Let's rephrase that slightly:

Democrats want to force us to focus on defending the use of military contractors, making the case that they do not require oversight and explaining why the use of such contractors without oversight is justified. We urge you to instead broaden the debate to the principles of capitalism and to the political leanings and afiliations of those criticizing the use of such contractors.

That exactly decribes the strategy Rep. Kingston employs. Contrast the behavior of Rep. Kingston to the other members of the committee. They apppear genuinely frustrated and concerned. Mr. Kingston is simply not taking part in the discussion at all -- as per the Republican strategy of avoiding detailed and specific debates when politically inconvenient.

Kingston claims to represent an ideology, but the only ideology present is one of obstruction, maintenance of the status quo and the steadfast refusal to engage in the activites Congress is elected to perform. It is a mistake to characterize the proceedings as Democrats against Republicans; it is a battle of discussion vs. irrelevant and deliberate obfuscation.

Why have seven separate Pat Tillman investigations failed to produce an adequate explanation of what transpired? Why did the administration claim that "there was no indication that the levees would break", that Jessica Lynch bravely fought off her attackers with pistol fire? Why have we been subjected to constant scandal and failure? A partial answer is that the executive and legislative branches are populated with people like Mr. Kingston who are disinterested in investigating wrongdoing, providing oversight or improving policy when those actions would repudiate their political maneuvers and allies.

They are not incapable, only unwilling. For Rep. Kingston to admit that there is any problem with military contractors would be to attack, if only slightly, previous decisions made by he and his compatriots. Political preservation is such a compelling force that it takes precedence over American dollars and lives.