Congress and the CIA

The CIA says Nancy Pelosi was briefed about its interrogation methods.  Pelosi says they're lying.  Bob Graham, the former Senator with an anal retentive habit of tracking his movements to the minute in a spiral notebook, says they're lying too: the CIA claims they briefed him on four occasions, but Graham's notebook says different — and after he confronted them about this, they caved.  There was only one briefing, and Graham says waterboarding was never mentioned.  Jim Fallows:

Part of the payoff of reaching age 72 and having spent 38 years in public office, as Graham has, is that people have had a chance to judge your reputation. Graham has a general reputation for honesty....If he says he never got the briefing, he didn't. And if the CIA or anyone acting on its behalf challenges him, they are stupid and incompetent as well as being untrustworthy. This doesn't prove that the accounts of briefing Pelosi are also inaccurate. But it shifts the burden of proof.

Agreed.  If the CIA could screw up — or lie, or whatever — that badly in Graham's case, obviously they could have done it in Pelosi's case too.  DougJ has an optimistic view of what this all means:

To me, though, the big take away here is that the right is losing the torture debate. It started with “Dick Cheney was just keeping us safe from teh terrorists, don’t you libtards watch ‘24’?”. Then it became “mistakes were made, but it was a difficult time.” And now it’s “okay, maybe the whole thing was fucked up, but Pelosi knew about it so it’s her fault.” It’s just another variation on “Clinton did it too” and it’s essentially a defensive posture.

I'm not sure I believe this, but it's a nice thought.  Anybody else feel like the good guys are finally making some progress on the torture debate?

Obama to Repeat Foreclosure Phil's Mistakes?

Is the Obama administration about to make the same mistakes in regulating Wall Street that led to the current crisis? That's what Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and a finance expert, says in a piece in Friday's New York Times. Partnoy would know. Back in the summer of 2008, he told Mother Jones about how the deregulation of financial markets championed by Phil Gramm, the former Senator and John McCain adviser, created a casino-like atmosphere on Wall Street. "Tens of trillions of dollars of transactions were done in the dark," Partnoy said. "No one had a picture of where the risks were flowing.... There was more betting on the riskiest subprime mortgages than there were actual mortgages."

The Obama administration has promised to reign in that kind of reckless, unregulated speculation. They're off to a bad start, Partnoy warns in the Times: the White House's plan calls for derivatives to be split into two categories. The first category, so-called "standardized instruments," would be exchange-traded and regulated. The second category, privately negotiated "swaps," would not be. Only a small amount of aggregate data about the swaps would be released to the public.

Why is it bad to split the "standardized" derivatives off from the swaps? Because the same idea failed before, Partnoy says. Who was responsible for turning that idea into law? Take one guess:

Cui Bono Bono

A few days ago I blogged about a supposedly blockbuster announcement from a group of healthcare executives: they were 100% with President Obama on his crusade to cut skyrocketing medical expenses and figured they could reduce the growth of healthcare costs by 1.5 percentage points a year.  That's a cool $2 trillion over ten years.

That was on Monday, and nobody seemed to have a problem with the announcement.  Ditto for Tuesday and Wednesday.  On Thursday, however, after, um, consultations, the healthcare honchos started rowing things back:

The president of the American Hospital Association said Thursday that a deal with the White House to cut the growth in health care spending has been “spun way away from the original intent.”

....But in a conference call Thursday, President Richard Umbdenstock told 230 member organizations that the agreement had been misrepresented. The groups, he said, had agreed to gradually ramp up to the 1.5 percentage-point target over 10 years — not to reduce spending by that much in each of the 10 years.

I'm sure the reason it took them three days to correct the record is because they were in such a state of shock initially that they could hardly pick their jaws off the ground.  And the reason they all stood around beaming for the cameras when Obama made the announcement is because they were simply paralyzed in The Presence.  And the reason they're changing their tune now, away from the spotlights, has nothing to do with the fact that they never had the slightest intention of seriously following through on their cost-cutting promises in the first place.

And I have a bridge to sell you.

Look: I never believed the $2 trillion number.  But after weeks of work and a big public announcement, it's just pure mendacity to pretend that they were taken by surprise and had never agreed to anything beyond a "general commitment to be part of bending the cost curve."  Spare me.

These guys are never going to be partners in any kind of real reform of healthcare.  Never.  Beneath the smiles and the photo-ops, I sure hope the Obama team understands this.

Pelosi vs the CIA: A Sad Fight

Here's a good example of what's been wrong with congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies for decades: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the CIA did not tell her at a September 2002 briefing (when she was the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee) that it had used waterboarding on a captured al Qaeda operative; the CIA says it did. And this dispute apparently cannot be settled. From The Washington Post:

Government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified briefings, suggested that the record might never be clear as to what Pelosi and [Republican Rep. Porter] Goss were told. One official familiar with the congressional briefings acknowledged the difficulty of establishing exactly what lawmakers were told. Internal CIA memos about the briefings were "not designed to be stenography" but were based on recollections after the fact, the official said. There were no recordings or precise transcripts, he said.

Shouldn't there be better record-keeping? It's pretty absurd that the CIA cannot say what it actually told a legislator during an official briefing.

Ticking Time Bombs

OK, here's my view on ticking time bombs.  It's not original:

Torture should always be illegal.  But if you're really, truly convinced that a nuke is about to go off in downtown Atlanta and the human filth in your possession can tell you where it is, then do your worst.  I'll cheer you on, the president will pardon you, and the nation will be grateful.  OK?

I wish everyone could just agree on this.  It's not as if it's ever going to happen, after all, and if it does, well, the guy who saved Atlanta really would get a presidential pardon, wouldn't he?

In the meantime, it would allow Charles Krauthammer to apply his allegedly vast IQ to less barbaric sophistries.  And the rest of the pro-torture crowd would have to think up some real reasons for supporting the Spanish Inquisition instead of endlessly bringing up Philosophy 101 arguments as if they were somehow original.  And that would make the world an ever so slightly better place.

Beckenstein

Rush Limbaugh?  Maybe not your cup of tea, but his appeal isn't too hard to get.  Sean Hannity?  Sure, he's a buffoon, but ditto.  And then there's Glenn Beck:

Every time I see a clip of his show I feel as though I’m watching a surrealist dystopian epic where the protagonist, prisoner in a world he no longer recognizes, gazes horror struck at the television. Forget the substance of what he is saying, or his rhetorical style. He could be agitating for The Graeme Wood Quarterly or demanding that his viewers fund my blog on California’s best burrito joints near surf spots and I’d still be freaked out by his schizophrenic, paranoid, Willy-Wonka-on-uppers affectations.

Or at least I assume he’s just pretending (about his demeanor if not his views). I understand why he might do that. Look at the ratings he gets. What I don’t get is... why that drives ratings. You’ll see conservative pundits and bloggers go to the mattresses for Rush, defend Hannity, and even on occasion defend Ann Coulter. I’ve yet to come across anyone who defends Beck... and yet astonishing numbers of people are tuning into his show every afternoon.

That's Conor Friedersdorf.  I think he's just jealous.

Obama's Big Transparency Test

When he took office, President Barack Obama claimed that "transparency and the rule of law" would be the "touchstones" of his presidency. But did he really mean it? He has a chance to keep his word by reversing a key Bush administration decision that's still shielding crucial details of the White House emails scandal from the public eye.

Back in 2007, the Bush administration abruptly decided that the obscure White House Office of Administration would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. For more than three decades, the OA had responded to FOIA requests just like any other government agency. But the OA is responsible for overseeing the White House email archiving system. And by 2007, those archives were missing millions of emails that could have shed light on numerous scandals: the outing of Valerie Plame, the U.S. attorney firings, and the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

The Bush administration didn't want to release documents explaining how the emails got lost. So it claimed that the OA wasn't a federal agency, but an advisory office, and therefore didn't have to respond to FOIA requests. (Mother Jones readers may recall the moment, in January 2008, when litigation surrounding this unusual claim caused a DC district court to allow limited discovery in order to find out whether OA was, in fact, a federal agency.)

Newt Losing It

Man, Newt Gingrich is really losing it.  Here he is on Nancy Pelosi:

I think this is the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I've seen in my lifetime. She is a trivial politician, viciously using partisanship for the narrowest of purposes, and she dishonors the Congress by her behavior.

We all know how much Newt loves his list of "contrasting words" for people he doesn't like, but now he's just sort of stringing them together randomly.  What the heck is "trivial" supposed to mean?  And why use "vicious" twice?  It's like he's getting political Alzheimer's or something.

Fund Manager: US Taxpayers are Suckers

The American taxpayers are suckers. That's essentially what Mark Patterson, chairman of the private equity firm MatlinPatterson Global Advisors, told his fellow finance industry bigwigs in a moment of perhaps too much candor at the Qatar Global Investment Forum, held this week in Doha. “The taxpayers ought to know that we are in effect receiving a subsidy," he said. "They put in 40 percent of the money but get little of the equity upside.”

Patterson is in a good position to know just how sweet a deal Wall Street is getting courtesy of our tax dollars. In January, his New York-based firm closed a deal to buy a controlling interest in Michigan's Flagstar Bancorp using $250 million in its own capital and $267 million in matching bailout funds from the Treasury Department.

Trade War Update

The Washington Post reports on the way modern trade wars are being waged:

Ordered by Congress to "buy American" when spending money from the $787 billion stimulus package, the town of Peru, Ind., stunned its Canadian supplier by rejecting sewage pumps made outside of Toronto. After a Navy official spotted Canadian pipe fittings in a construction project at Camp Pendleton, Calif., they were hauled out of the ground and replaced with American versions. In recent weeks, other Canadian manufacturers doing business with U.S. state and local governments say they have been besieged with requests to sign affidavits pledging that they will only supply materials made in the USA.

Outrage spread in Canada, with the Toronto Star last week bemoaning "a plague of protectionist measures in the U.S." and Canadian companies openly fretting about having to shift jobs to the United States to meet made-in-the-USA requirements. This week, the Canadians fired back. A number of Ontario towns, with a collective population of nearly 500,000, retaliated with measures effectively barring U.S. companies from their municipal contracts -- the first shot in a larger campaign that could shut U.S. companies out of billions of dollars worth of Canadian projects.

....The United States is not alone in throwing up domestic policies assailed by critics as protectionist. Britain and the Netherlands, for instance, are forcing banks receiving taxpayer bailouts to jump-start lending at home at the expense of overseas clients. French President Nicolas Sarkozy initially insisted that his nation's automakers move manufacturing jobs home in exchange for a government bailout, but backed down after outrage surged among his peers in the European Union, of which France is a central member.

This isn't good news or anything, but frankly, it's really not much in the way of bad news either.  If this is as far as things go, I'd say we got through the recession without much damage at all to the international trade regime.

Frankly, I'm surprised there hasn't been more sentiment in favor of protectionism than there has been.  For better or worse, it's a testament to just how strongly the consensus in favor of liberal trade policies has become over the past few decades.  There's really no going back anymore.