More on the Detainee Photos

Kevin Drum responds to my earlier post on Obama's refusal to release more photos of detainee abuse:

We already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

Kevin's right that we're trying to get more images, and he's right that releasing the photos is likely to cause more damage. But I think there is a good chance that the new photos will show us something we haven't seen much of before: visual evidence of abuse in places other than Abu Ghraib. Even if they don't, I can see several things releasing the photos might accomplish. 

Many people still deny that torture and abuse of detainees even took place. (See, for example, Marc Thiessen's debate with Michael Ware on CNN earlier this week.) More evidence won't convince those people, of course, but it will help build a volume of evidence to present to them and others. It will demonstrate that we acknowlege our mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. In addition, we know from the CIA videotape debacle that any evidence left unreleased is vulnerable to destruction. Releasing the photos would prevent that from happening again. We can't just sit around and hope the photos get released sometime down the line—there really is a chance they may be destroyed. That is especially true if any photos still exist that show people committing crimes, such as rape of detainees, that no one was ever prosecuted for. Releasing the photos is the only way to know whether more people should have been prosecuted for detainee abuse than actually were prosecuted for it.

The broader point, though, is that I shouldn't have to defend releasing the photos. In a society that supposedly values transparency and freedom of information, the burden of proof should be on those who want to conceal information about what the government does. One of the great ironies of Obama's position on the photos is that he issued a memo earlier this year encouraging agencies to release any FOIA'd information they were not legally compelled to withhold. (As opposed to the Bush-era presumption that you should withhold almost everything unless you were legally forced to release it.) In his memo, Obama inadvertently makes a great case for making the photos public:

The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama said in the FOIA memo, adding later that "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

It's almost as if all that was bullshit.

Detainee Photo Update

In a conference committee meeting yesterday, House negotiators held firm on their insistence that an upcoming war spending bill not include a Senate amendment that retroactively exempts detainee abuse photos from disclosure under FOIA.  Senate negotiators then dithered a bit, finally backing down only after Barack Obama promised to "take every legal and administrative remedy available" to ensure the photos are not released.  The photos, Obama said, wouldn't add "any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

Nick Baumann isn't impressed:

Obama's argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There's a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It's one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It's another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House's argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there's something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

I agree entirely with Nick's second point, but not with his first.  It's true that images are different from words and videotape is different from images.  But we already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

That doesn't mean that Obama's position is correct.  Preventing release via legislation or unilateral classification just because you don't like the possible result of a court fight is an appalling precedent to set.  If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

Composting vs Methane Capture: A Climate Smackdown

Across the pungent world of waste, a climate debate has been raging. Which is better: turning yard clippings and food scraps into compost, or landfilling them and capturing the methane that they release to produce energy?

Last month, I happened across this question while riding in a muddy pickup across the top of Altamont Landfill, a 30-story hill of garbage run by Waste Management, the nation's largest trash collection outfit. "To me, I think it's good to have more organics in the garbage," operations manager Neil Wise told me. Organic matter in landfills generates methane, a potent and flamable greenhouse gas; Altamont currently captures enough methane to power 8,500 homes.

On the other side of this debate is the City of San Francisco, which this week voted to make composting lawn clippings and food scraps mandatory for every city resident. The nutrient-rich product fertilizes more than 200 Bay Area vineyards. Composting advocates worry that outfitting more landfills with "methane wells," possibly with the aid of carbon offsets created through a climate bill, will detract from those efforts. 

Here's my take: While capturing methane from landfills is certainly worthwhile, evidence suggests that composting is far better. A nine-year study by the Rodale Institute, to be published in the next issue of Compost Science and Utilization, a peer-reviewed journal, found that applying compost to cropland sequestered a staggering 10,802 pounds more carbon dioxide per hectare each year than farming with conventional manure fertilizer. That's more than the yearly emissions of a Chevy Impala. "That's a pretty big deal," says Rodale research director Paul Hepperly, the author of the study. "When you are composting, you are stablizing the carbon" in organic matter.

And though capturing methane at a landfill also reduces greenhouse gasses, it can't match composting's associated benefits. Compared to raw manure, Rodale also found that compost applied to farmland led to a 600 percent reduction in nitrate leaching, which can pollute steams and groundwater, and improved the soil's retention of water by a factor of three. "This relates to looking at things wholistically," Hepperly said, adding that the ultimate goal should be an "agricultural system that invests more in our environment and takes less out of our resources."

 

Mapping Iran

Over at TPMCafe, Todd Gitlin linked today to a post at the Internet and Democracy Blog mapping out the support for the two main presidential candidates in the Iranian blogosphere.  And since we're all whiling away the time waiting for real news now that the polls have closed, I thought I'd share their colorful results with you.  Basically, Mousavi has support from all over the blogosphere, while Ahmadinejad's support is confined mostly to only the most conservative precincts.  This is presumably good news for Mousavi, as is the high turnout so far, which means that urban voters are probably voting in substantial numbers.

No telling what this means, really, but it's kind of cool.  Enjoy.

Friday Photoblog

The new issue of Dispatches is out! This time around the dense, book-sized magazine takes on Poverty. Um, a broad topic to be sure, but given the mag’s already hardy reputation for taking on massive, country-sized subjects, like "Iraq" and "Russia," "Poverty" is likely to deliver the goods.

In their last issue, Dispatches tackled Russia largely by focusing on Putin. (How can you not?) "On Russia" includes essays on Putin & power (by Mark Franchetti), the country’s push to be an energy superpower (by Andrew Meier) the FSB (by Andrei Soldatov), the Putin Youth movement (by Ilana Ozernoy) and, tied more loosely to Putin (because everything in Russia today is somehow tied to the man), the flourishing of computer hackers and the non-punishment of organized crime.

Of course, being a magazine cofounded by VII founding member Gary Knight, Dispatches always features an ample amount of photography. "On Russia" showcases Seamus Murphy’s “East of the Sun” and wonderful collection of Russian photos from 1860 – 2008, curated by Olga Korsunova, Nadya Sheremetova, and Yuri Kozyrev.


There’s a lot to digest.

As a side note, if you sign up for a subscription to Dispatches before Monday, June 15th (hurry!) you have the chance to win an Antonin Kratochvil print from his project “In God’s Country.”

While you’re over at the Dispatches website, be sure to check out the video of a conversation between Susan Meiselas, Gary Knight and Tim Hetherington on War & Photography. They aren’t just some of the best photographers of our day rehashing old stories, but some of the smartest photographers digging into a highly charged subject.

Also, don’t miss former World Press Photo secretary (and current VII Photo Managing Director) Stephen Mayes’ essay on the state of photojournalism, from last April, but every bit as poignant today, a year later. And while you’re at it, if you have 45 minutes to kill, listen to his exceptionally insightful speech from this year’s World Press Foundation awards ceremony, hosted on the Lens Culture website. The takeaway quote (paraphrased): “90% of photos show only 10% of the world.” His list of done-to-death photo essay subject rings particular true to these ears.

Speaking of World Press Photo, the new annual will be available soon (entrants have received copies), with selections from this year’s winning entries. Always a must-see.

While World Press represents the best of the established, working photojournalism community, Magnum photographer David Allen Harvey’s online-only BURN magazine has created a healthy $10,000 emerging photographer grant. The finalists are on the site now. Winning entry to be announced at the LOOK3 Festival of the Photography in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend.

The LOOK3 festival has emerged as one of the best photo festivals in the US. Wish I were there to give a first-hand account of the going-ons this weekend. I hear that the Luceo Images gang (including Mother Jones contributing photography Matt Eich) is there in force, getting a fair amount of attention.

With workshops by Brian Storm (of MediaStorm), Eugene Richards, David Allan Harvey, Larry Fink and James Nachtwey, exhibits by Martin Parr, Gilles Peress, Paolo Pellegrin, World Press Photo, POYi, Redux’s American Youth project and lots more, saying the LOOK3 festival gives you plenty of bang for your buck would be an understatement. Word is they're taking a hiatus next year, so if you can make it this week, it'll be worth the effort.

Alright, that should hold you till next week's snapshot.

Chart of the Day

Via Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, here's a cool chart showing changes in attitudes toward gay marriage at the state level.  (The original paper is here.)  Andrew says there's all sorts of cool statistical wizardry involved in creating it ("multilevel regression and poststratification"), but the bottom line is not just that attitudes toward gay marriage are becoming more liberal everywhere, but that they're becoming more liberal fastest in the states that were most liberal to begin with.  Andrew is surprised by this ("I generally expect to see uniform swing, or maybe even some 'regression to the mean'") but I don't think I am.  My guess is that there's some kind of positive feedback for these kinds of things, where more liberal attitudes feed on themselves as the resulting change turns out to be fairly obviously benign or even beneficial.  Andrew has a couple of other plausible explanations too.  For now, though, just revel in some cool chartmaking and the good news it conveys.

David Rogers' Politico article on the negotiations surrounding Congressional authorization of over $100 billion in war funding is a must-read. Rogers confirms what many already suspected: President Barack Obama seems truly committed to his refusal to release detainee abuse photos. House liberals had revolted against the war funding bill because 1) it was a war funding bill and 2) it included the awful Joe Lieberman-Lindsey Graham amendment retroactively eliminating detainee abuse photos from Freedom of Information Act review. Liberals were able to force the elimination of the Lieberman/Graham amendment from the final bill, but that now appears to have been a pyrrhic victory.

The conference (the meeting that reconciles the House and Senate versions of a bill) on the war funding bill was contentious. According to Rogers, Obama had to write a letter promising to do everything he could to keep the photos from being released in order to get Senate conferees to agree to the final version of the bill:

[T]he letter was significant at two levels. First, it marked the clearest statement yet by the White House recognizing the political problems posed by the Senate amendment — and the threat to the bill. Second, Obama left open the option that he could use his executive power to classify the photos as secret if things go badly for him in the courts.

In the letter, Obama begins by restating his opposition to the release of the photos, saying it won’t add "any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

In dealing with the fallout from the House liberals' rejection of the Lieberman-Graham amendment, Obama has painted himself into a corner. Back when he first changed course on the photos, some observers speculated that he expected to lose to the ACLU in court and knew he would have to release the photos anyway—he didn't really want to release the photos, he was just earning some easy points from the right. Now it appears clear that he is willing to fight hard to defend a position that he didn't originally support. By classifying the photos as secret—using executive power and secrecy to negate court rulings he didn't like—Obama would be emulating the worst behavior of Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration. That would be the firmest proof yet that all Obama's talk about transparency was just that—talk.

I should also note that Obama's argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There's a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It's one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It's another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House's argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there's something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

Update: It looks like Glenn Greenwald is making this same argument. Maybe that's because the administration's position is so transparently ridiculous.

Late Update: Kevin Drum responds.

Haiku Review: Studs Terkel's Last Interview

Studs Terkel passed on October 31, 2008. Published last month, this somewhat hard-to-locate pamphlet (Feeney Publications, $8.00; email seneca321 at yahoo.com) ostensibly contains the final Q&A with the late, great American journalist and storyteller, conducted by British journalist Peter Devine. Indeed, it's titled The Final Interview. Length: 22 pages. Review length: 10 words.

Lucky timing, huh?
Terkel is always a hoot
Wanted: editor

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

 

TV Talk

Two pieces of TV news today.  First, Alex Tabarrok is puzzled by the bizarrely high price of HDMI cables for Blu-Ray players:

Why don't any stores stock cheap HDMI cable?  I knew cables were a ripoff yet I could not find reasonably priced cables at Best Buy, Radio Shack, Target or even Wal-Mart.  Ordinarily, we would expect competition to push prices down but in this case it seem as if the mere existence of Monster is anchoring high prices everywhere but online.

My best guess is that this is an unusually strong version of the hidden fee model of Laibson and Gabaix.  In that model, firms overprice one aspect of service — such as a hotel charging exorbitant rates for telephone service — as an idiot tax.  Crucially, the idiot tax is matched by an IQ-subsidy; the price of the hotel room is lower than it would be without the idiot tax — so the idiots don't know to shop elsewhere and the high-IQ types are, in fact, drawn to stores with an idiot tax.  Thus, buy your blu-ray player at places such as Best Buy which sell a lot of expensive cable as well as massively overpriced extended warranties.

Maybe so.  Another possibility is path dependence: back when I managed a Radio Shack store (about 30 years ago), 10% of my store's sales came from stuff like cables and electronic parts.  However, they accounted for upwards of 50% of the store's profits because the margins were fantastically high.  We got away with this because the absolute prices were so low: people will shop around for the best price on a stereo or a computer, but they just don't care about saving a few dollars on stuff like cables and batteries.  The same thing is true for USB cables, which are bizarrely overpriced in places like Office Max or Staples, or high-tech razor blades at your local supermarket.  My guess is that even now, when the price of things like cables and razor blades is high enough to make it worth shopping around, inertia keeps everyone thinking that this stuff is basically cheap and not worth hassling over.

But I admit that the lack of competition is still surprising.  For a few stores to overcharge is understandable.  Maybe even for most stores.  But all of them?  Last year I made the rounds of every retail store in the area after I got annoyed at the price of a simple Cat-5 network cable, and there wasn't a single place that sold them for a reasonable price.  Not one.  It was almost like there was a cartel or something.  (And the cartel worked!  I didn't feel like waiting the few days it would take to order online, so I went ahead and bought an expensive one.  Their fiendish strategy turned out to be remarkably effective.)

And the second piece of TV news?  Something that's close to my heart: broadcasters have promised Congress that by September they will have standards in place that prevent commercials from being wildly louder than the TV programs they're embedded in.  Hooray!  It's only taken them 40 years to finally address this.  "We get it," an industry flack told Congress about loud ad complaints. "As a matter of pure economics, we do not want to lose viewers."

The bad news, however, is that the industry's sweet talk has convinced Congress to halt work on legislation to force broadcasters to address this.  Too bad.  Like the Do Not Call list, this is one of those things where ideology plays no role for me.  I don't care if this is liberal, conservative, libertarian, or anything else.  I just want it to stop, and I don't care a whit whether or not it's a justified interference in the free market.  JUST MAKE IT STOP!

Von Brunn: More Warning Signs

Easton, Maryland is a summer spa for yuppies from Washington and a popular retirement destination for former law enforcement officials. It is just down the road from St. Michaels, site of Dick Cheney’s country estate and a spread purchased not long ago by Donald Rumsfeld. For some years Easton was also home to James von Brunn, who has now been formally charged with the murder of a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday. A look at his history in Easton makes it clear that von Brunn's racist outbursts had taken on violent overtones before, although locals tended to look the other way.