Tick Tick Tick

Obama sure is taking his sweet time deciding whether to release those Bush-era OLC memos authorizing various torture techniques, isn't he?  Is he planning to wait until 11:59 pm, or what?

In the meantime, what's your guess?  (a) No release, (b) limited release with lots of redactions, or (c) pretty close to full release with only a few redactions?  Vote in comments.

Cutting Back

Yesterday, as I was talking to an economist about something, he explained that some research he had done had demonstrated a particular small effect.  "It really only affected things at the margin," he said.

"OK," I asked, "But doesn't everything work at the margin?"  He sort of laughed.  "Are you an economist?  That's how economists talk."

Nope, not me.  I just quote 'em on my blog.  Still, that seems to be the best explanation for this story in the Washington Post today:

Denise Kimberlin and her husband, Craig, of Woodbridge are government contractors who make nice livings. They recently got raises. They don't fear losing their jobs.

Yet, something is driving them to change their spending habits. They have cut back by at least $250 a week on clothes, dinners out and other discretionary spending.

....Economists say many still-flush consumers are handcuffed by psychological traps that cause them to tighten their purse strings even though economic hardship is not their reality....Psychologists explain that people fall prey to what is known as social proof. The most famous study pointing at the effect was done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram. He had one or two people stand on a busy city block in New York and stare up at a sixth-floor building window. Most pedestrians ignored them. But when he had 15 people stand and stare at the window, nearly everyone walking down the street looked up at it, too.

I guess that might be the explanation.  But here's another one: when there's massive, objective evidence of a huge recession and rising unemployment, even people with good jobs act to cut their spending on the margin.  Why?  Because they also fear bad news on the margin.  The Kimberlins might not be afraid of losing their jobs, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're, maybe, 1% afraid of losing their jobs.  Or 5% afraid of getting a pay cut.  Or 10% afraid that their bank will raise the rate on their credit card debt.  Or 90% afraid that they can't use their home as an ATM machine anymore.  So they're cutting back spending a little bit, right in line with that limited amount of fear.  Social cues might have something to do with this, but surely a rational response to tangible, predictible outside events has even more to do with it?

No More King

California may be a big state, but we still only get two statues in the Capitol building's Statuary Hall.  And now one of them is being swapped out:

After 78 years of standing in the Capitol, Thomas Starr King is about to be ousted by a better known Californian — Ronald Reagan.

...."Those of who us who love Thomas Starr King and know about his life are really sorry to see him go," said the Rev. Roger Fritts, senior minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.

....Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) launched a campaign nearly five years ago, shortly after Reagan's death, to replace the statue of King, described as "the orator who saved the nation," with one of "The Great Communicator."

Well.  My mother attended Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles, so we take this personally around here.  I guess Unitarians just don't have the clout they used to.

Maybe the system worked.

On Thursday, The New York Times broke the news that the National Security Agency went too far in spying on the emails and phone calls of Americans in recent months. The piece did not make clear what this entailed, and it quoted one official claiming the "overcollection" was an accident. (Blame the computers!) But the piece contained an interesting nugget that caught the eye of Kevin Drum:

And in one previously undisclosed episode, the N.S.A. tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant, an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said.
The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact — as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 — with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations, the official said.
The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some intelligence officials about using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Kevin notes that this is a big deal and should have set off "alarm bells at every possible level at NSA." But perhaps there is another way of looking at the episode. It could well have been that some overeager NSA snoops were keen to eavesdrop on a member of Congress because they believed that could produce intelligence on an extremist target. They made the case for doing so without getting a warrant. They failed to win permission to do so. Superiors told them, no warrant, no wiretap--at least when it comes to a member of Congress. No harm, no foul?

Call me jaundiced, but this does not strike me as a cause for much worry. The intelligence agencies contain operatives who do at times do look to push the envelope, to skirt restrictions or, in some cases, dodge the law. In this instance, hot-to-eavesdrop NSA employees made a case for using a warrantless wiretap to listen in on a lawmaker. Maybe they had good reason to be interested in his/her conversations, maybe not. But they didn't go ahead and intercept on their own. They sought the authority to spy on the legislator and were ultimately turned down. Perhaps alarm bells did sound. But whether or not there was any ringing, the appropriate decision appears to have been made. This is a far cry from most intelligence scandals--when the abuse actually occurs. It could be seen as an indication that all the protests about the NSA's warantless wiretapping--the blogging, the op-eds, the lawsuits--has increased sensitivity within the intelligence community. Yes, it might be a sign of progress.

The New York Times announces the shuttering:

A Pentagon office responsible for coordinating Defense Department information campaigns overseas has been abolished...

Military and civilian critics said the office, the Defense Department office for support to public diplomacy, overstepped its mandate during the final years of the Bush administration by trying to organize information operations that violated Pentagon guidelines for accuracy and transparency.

I'm guessing we won't be planting stories in the Iraqi media while simultaneously claiming we're fostering a free press, either.

Monday afternoon: I see the video (which they won't let you embed, dang it, so watch it here) on Towleroad of frizzy-haired “spinster” Susan Boyle stunning the judges of "Britain’s Got Talent" with an emotional rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." It’s, you know, a cute little internet video.

Monday evening: I hear the very same audio coming out of the laptop of German DJs who are staying at my house for the weekend. They were using my neighbor’s wi-fi to catch up on German news, and the video was the first thing they saw.

Tuesday evening: Charlie Gibson covers the story on the ABC Evening News.

Tuesday night: The Boston Globe reports the clip has been watched over 2.7 million times since it was uploaded on April 11.

Wednesday afternoon: It's the top story on npr.org. They report the clip has been watched 7 million times.

Wednesday evening: A quick YouTube search shows multiple copies of the same clip making the rounds, but an unscientific sum of all their view counts puts the number at approximately 13 million.

Thursday (prediction): Susan Boyle surpasses Barack Obama as the most popular human being on the planet.

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau report in the New York Times today that the NSA may have exceeded the wiretapping authority it was given by Congress in 2008.  The whole story is pretty vague, and introduces the unknown-to-me euphemism "over-collection," which apparently means that technical problems led NSA to " 'target' groups of Americans and collect their domestic communications without proper court authority."

But then there's this buried in the middle of the story, which isn't vague at all:

New details are also emerging about earlier domestic surveillance activities, including the agency’s attempt to wiretap a congressman without court approval on an overseas trip, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials.

....The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact as part of a congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations to gather more intelligence, the official said.

The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some officials in the intelligence community about the idea of using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Jesus.  If a member of Congress isn't a "United States person" protected from warrantless surveillance by every version of FISA that's ever been on the books, who is?  Shouldn't this have set off alarm bells at every possible level at NSA, rather than merely being "ultimately blocked" because "some" officials had "concerns" about it?

SILVER LINING UPDATE: Looking on the bright side, maybe this will finally motivate Congress to take NSA surveillance more seriously.  Having one of their own members come within a hair's breadth of being an NSA target ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully, if anything will.

Nice video from Save The Bay. It's the latest in their campaign to reduce plastic bag pollution in San Francisco Bay Area. You know, the endless crap that traps wildlife and never biodegrades and breeds like rabbits because we insist on accepting a new one of the evil airborne, waterborne immortals every time we buy any little thing.

Did you know the average plastic bag has a use-time of 12 minutes?

California taxpayers spend approximately $25 million every year to collect and landfill plastic bags. San Jose City staff estimates that it costs at least $3 million annually to clean plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains. Single-use bag production depletes resources and contributes to carbon emissions and global warming. We consume 14 million trees  and 12 million barrels of oil to produce the billions of plastic and paper bags we throw away in the United States every year. 

Save The Bay is trying to get Bay Area cities to charge 25 cents on paper and plastic bags from all retailers. Hopefully that'll encourage more people to use less plastic and pony up for durable reusables.

Accompanying the video, a few busted myths:

Myth: Recycling plastic bags is the best solution to the litter problem
Fact: Plastic bag recycling is expensive and doesn’t work

Despite a 15-year effort in California, recycling plastic bags has failed. Less than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags are actually recycled. Plastic bags cost municipal recycling programs millions each year because bags jam sorting equipment. The frak ups cost San Jose about $1 million a year. Failed recycling means billions of plastic bags are thrown away to blow onto streets and float into waterways.

Press Freedom in Iraq

The press is coming under renewed attack from the Iraqi government:

The Iraqi military put local journalists on notice on Monday that their organizations could be shut down for misquoting officials, while the Iraqi government accused the news media of deliberately seeking to promote sectarian strife.

The top military spokesman in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, said he was filing a lawsuit seeking to close the Baghdad office of Al Hayat, one of the most prominent newspapers in the Arab world, as well as the satellite signal of Al Sharqiya, a popular Iraqi television channel that has been a strong critic of the government.

Marc Lynch comments:

That's not a good sign. Reminds me of the bad old days of 2004-2005 when the Iraqi government and MNF-I were routinely attacking the Arab media for fueling the insurgency and the offices of al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations were shuttered....At a time when many Iraqis and Iraq-watchers worry about a creeping authoritarianism in the Maliki government, this move against al-Hayat and al-Sharqiya is a screaming red flag.  Let's hope that it is quickly reversed.

Some of this may be creeping authoritarianism, but it also seems to be related to the steady breakdown of the celebrated Sunni Awakening.  The Sunni tribal chiefs were basically bribed to cooperate with the central government, but as the bribes have dwindled so has the cooperation — and apparently the Maliki government would just as soon not have anyone around to report this.

While the three nightly headliners (McCartney, The Killers, and The Cure) have all dabbled in studio trickery and electronics to accompany their guitar-centered tunes, straight-ahead electronic music has really taken center stage this year at Coachella. The fact that organizers seem to understand electronic music and appreciate its potential for quality live performances has always made the festival a step up from your Bonnaroos and Bumbershoots, but the 2009 lineup is even more electro-riffic: fully 53 of the 133 artists could easily be considered “electronic” (that’s including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs). After the jump, 10 of the highlights.

Plus, don’t forget, Mother Jones is, surprisingly enough, your home for complete Coachella coverage! We’ll have the traditional nightly updates right here on the Riff Friday through Sunday (reminisce about 2008’s festival here, here and here, and 2007’s here, here and here), as well as some chats with whatever artists we can corral, plus a selection of intrepid photographer Kristi’s best shots from the photo pits and lunch tents! Weather.com says 89-95-98 for highs, so if you’re heading to the desert, stay cool!