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CIA Officer Accused of Multiple Rapes in Algeria

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 3:23 PM EST

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It's pretty much universally accepted that Karen Hughes was a disaster as America's face to the Islamic world. But wow... this is much, much worse. ABC News reports that a 41-year old CIA station chief in Algeria (his name has not been released) was brought home last October after accusations that he had drugged and raped at least two Muslim women. As if that's not bad enough, our man in Algeria, himself a convert to Islam, videotaped his crimes. Federal investigators are aware of at least a dozen sex tapes. They've now broadened the scope of their inquiry to include Egypt, where the station chief was posted prior to his Algeria assignment.

Abu Ghraib, anyone? Guantanamo? Just when the Obama administration is trying to repair America's image, particularly in the Muslim world (Obama only this week gave an interview to Al Arabiya), we have what could be a fresh dose of gasoline on the fire of anti-Americanism. As Isobel Coleman told ABC, "It has the potential to be quite explosive if it's not handled well by the United States government. This isn't the type of thing that's going to be easily pushed under the carpet."

Indeed, and it could become an early test of Obama's crisis-management skills.

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Chart of the Day - 1.28.2009

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 2:52 PM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....Via Taegan Goddard, Gallup reports on tracking poll data from 2008. They conclude that there are only five solid Republican states — representing a grand total of 2% of the population — left in the entire country. Full report here. Heckuva job, GOP! Congratulations to Utah for topping the list.

*Overwhelming

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 2:25 PM EST

OVERWHELMING....Byron York reports from the trenches:

Just talked to a very clued-in Republican on the Hill. This person wouldn't predict a unanimous Republican vote against the Democratic stimulus package, but said there would be "minimal" GOP support of the bill. "I don't know if it will be unanimous, but Democrats are not going to have the kind of bipartisan support the president was trying to get," he told me. An "overwhelming" number of Republicans will vote no, he predicted.

That's pretty much what I expect too. And hey — I don't blame them, either. The job of the opposition is to oppose, and if this were some big Republican tax cut fest following a GOP victory I'd expect Democrats to oppose that overwhelmingly too.

I really don't think the opposition party owes the president any votes just because he won the election. They owe him votes if he convinces them that, on balance, one of his initiatives is a good thing for the country, or if they get some concession they want, or if they think it's political suicide to oppose him. In other words, the usual political reasons. Contrary to what our talking heads mindlessly recite after every election, honeymoons are for newlyweds, not presidents, and stuff needs to get done for four years out of four, not just for the first hundred days. It's long past time for the media to get over its preoccupation with both of these romantic notions.

Infrastructure Blues

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:49 PM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE BLUES....Some criticism of the stimulus bill from the left:

In testimony before the House Budget Committee yesterday, Alice M. Rivlin, who was President Bill Clinton's budget director, suggested splitting the plan, implementing its immediate stimulus components now and taking more time to plan the longer-term transformative spending to make sure it is done right.

"Such a long-term investment program should not be put together hastily and lumped in with the anti-recession package. The elements of the investment program must be carefully planned and will not create many jobs right away," said Rivlin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. The risk, she said, is that "money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted."

Ryan Avent echoes a similar concern:

Our infrastructure and energy policies need to be drastically overhauled. This is going to require careful forethought — and time. New initiatives in the stimulus might well complicate or undermine later attempts at reform. The simplest example is the highway versus transit debate; it's difficult to make headway on goals to reduce emissions and vehicle miles traveled while funding lots of new lane miles. Better to set up new guidelines for local, state, and regional planners, along with new funding streams and standards. But that can't be done in a month.

Actually, though, the spending on energy and infrastructure in the stimulus bill is fairly modest. This has earned it some criticism from various left-leaning quarters, but I guess my hope is that the reason there's so little infrastructure spending in the bill is precisely because Obama doesn't want to blindly fund a big range of "shovel ready" status quo building projects, but instead wants to think this stuff through and produce something better later in the year. We'll see.

Dear CIA, A.Q. Khan Has a Personal Website

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:40 PM EST

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Thanks to Paul Kerr at TotalWonkerr for catching this. Dr. A.Q. Khan, who once led the world's most expansive nuclear smuggling network, an archipelago of shady businessmen and shell companies that conspired to supply nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya, among others, has been under house arrest in Pakistan since 2004. Virtually no one has been allowed access to Khan since Pervez Musharraf's regime, under extreme pressure from Washington, supposedly shut down his operation. US intelligence agencies have yet to debrief him, and the full picture of his proliferation network is not fully known. Despite Khan's demise, we can't even be certain that the smuggling network he assembled has gone completely dark.

In short, Khan has become one of the most guarded figures in the world, a secret wrapped inside a riddle inside an enigma. Not a guy who would have a personal web page, right? Wrong. Khan has long been an inveterate self-promoter, and house arrest appears to have done nothing to dampen his unfailing enthusiasm for himself. His site (click here) is a classic work of hagiography, extolling his virtues and saying nothing of his decades-long adventure on the nuclear black market.

2010 Senate Rundown

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 1:16 PM EST

Who's vulnerable? What are the open seats? Which party will gain power? The excellent Swing State Project has a full 2010 Senate rundown.

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Change You Can Believe In

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 12:54 PM EST

CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN....Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not been caught up in Obama fever:

The vituperative Iranian president, delivering his first public address since President Barack Obama's inauguration last week and Obama's own overture to the Muslim world this week, suggested today that the "change'' which Obama promised in his campaign means that the new American leader must apologize for U.S. "crimes" against Iran, including American support for the 1953 coup in Tehran and the backing of Iraq during the war between Iraq and Iran.

So, um, I guess this means Obama won't be making that big speech of his from Tehran, like I wanted. Cairo, anybody?

The Obama Girls' First Snow Day

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 12:35 PM EST

A few months ago, we offered up a meager plea to the Obama family that they consider sending their kids to a DC public school. They ignored us and enrolled Sasha and Malia at the tony Sidwell Friends in upper Northwest DC, which supporters contended offered superior safety and a Quaker education. Today, the Obamas discovered one of the drawbacks of their choice.

Washington awoke this morning encrusted in ice after the city's first big winter storm. Sidwell shut down for the day, leaving Sasha and Malia stuck at home. The DC public schools, meanwhile, merely opened a little late. (They were also open as usual yesterday when virtually every suburban school district shut down because of a few snow flurries.) The school closing prompted Obama to offer an unsolicited comment to the press this morning about Washington famous weather wimpiness. He though his kids' school closing was a bit extreme:

"Because of what? Because of some ice?" Obama said to laughter around the table. He said Sasha, his 7-year-old, pointed out that in Chicago, not only is school never canceled for snow, "you'd go outside for recess. You wouldn't even stay indoors." He concluded by saying: "We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town. I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."

Hopefully someone will point out to the president that the city's public schools were showing plenty of flint this morning. It was only Washington's elite who were afraid of a little ice.

Schwarzman at Davos

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 12:13 PM EST

SCHWARZMAN AT DAVOS....Via Felix Salmon, Andrew Ross Sorkin is pretty clearly aghast at Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman's antics at Davos:

In fact, Mr. Schwarzman is already making a splash. At a discussion panel on Wednesday, hopped off his stool during a debate moderated by CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, grabbed the microphone, and boldly called for what private equity loves: More leverage!

Mr. Schwarzman argued that banks should be allowed lower capital ratios, freeing money normally laid away against losses for new lending. He also called for the end of accounting rules that forced lower and lower asset valuations. And, oh yes, the government should guarantee securitizations to help the market get moving.

But hold on a second. I've heard plenty of sensible people suggest pretty much the exact same things: capital ratios that ease up during recessions and tighten when times are good; an end to (or modification of) mark-to-market accounting rules, which force huge fire-sale asset writedowns in illiquid markets; and government backstopping of bank obligations, which was a big part of the Swedish response to their banking crisis in the 90s.

I'm not saying I agree with any or all of these proposals, but it's not as if this stuff comes from the gamma quadrant. There are plenty of reasons to dislike Schwarzman (Daniel Gross has a quick rundown here), but this particular proposition doesn't strike me as being as cringeworthy as it's being made out to be.

Gas Taxes and Climate Change

| Wed Jan. 28, 2009 11:46 AM EST

GAS TAXES AND CLIMATE CHANGE....The Washington Post editorializes today about Barack Obama's recent actions to increase fuel economy standards. They appreciate the sentiment, but:

Unfortunately, the regulatory action that Mr. Obama set in motion is not the best, or even the second-best, approach to curbing climate change. It risks creating conflicting standards across the country and further stressing the domestic auto industry while accomplishing less than could be achieved with a simple tax increase on gasoline.

This is just flatly ignorant. The environmental policy community almost unanimously supports carbon pricing, including measures like increasing the gasoline tax, but I don't think you'd find a serious analyst in the country who thinks that a price increase at the pump is more effective at reducing gasoline use and GHG emissions than an increase in mileage standards. It would probably take a tax of three or four dollars a gallon to have the same effect on emissions as an increase in CAFE standards to 35 mpg, and we all know that's not going to happen anytime soon.

The Post editorial page needs to think before they write. Carbon pricing is an important backbone for any climate change policy, but there are lots and lots of places where ordinary regulation is cheaper, faster, and far more effective than a tax, and increasing auto mileage standards is one of them. We need them both, and Obama did the right thing here.