2009 - %3, December

Air Insecurity and the Failures of Government Oversight

| Thu Dec. 31, 2009 1:26 PM EST

In announcing January hearings of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which he chairs, Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman promised to address the “big, urgent questions” raised by the midair bombing attempt that took place on Christmas. Lieberman said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “evaded our homeland security defenses,’’ adding, “We were very lucky this time but we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened.’’

The answer to those questions may lie not far from home--in Lieberman’s own office and those of other members of Congress who have routinely turned away federal whistleblowers trying to alert the government to the weaknesses in our air security systems. These alarms were sounded even before 9/11, and have been repeated many times in years following.

Steve Elson, a former Navy Seal, served as a member of the FAA’s “Red Team”— a special ops outfit deployed to secretly probe U.S. air security defenses—from 1992 to 1999. After 9/11, as a private citizen, he continued to try to draw attention to the serious security problems in commercial aviation. Elson began working with TV reporters in setting up undercover operations and penetrated air security systems, he says, in dozens of airports around the United States, including JFK, Dulles, O’Hare, and San Francisco. In most cases, he smuggled lead protected bags, which could hide explosives, through checkpoints tailed by TV crews using hidden cameras. Elson easily made it past screeners in more than 70 percent of the cases.

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A Systemic Failure?

| Thu Dec. 31, 2009 12:19 PM EST

I've been waiting for someone smarter than me to make this point. So here's Spencer Ackerman on the Christmas bomber:

Abdulmutallab’s father told embassy officials in Abuja that he didn’t know where his son was, but might be in Yemen. The CIA had that information. NSA has information that a Nigerian might be used for an attack sponsored by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If all of this had gone into the [National Counterterrorism Center], would someone have put two and two together — setting off the process for pulling Abdulmutallab’s visa or putting him on the no-fly? Maybe. And the rationale for the all-source, multi-agency NCTC is all about intelligence sharing. But remember: the inputs are that the guy’s dad says he’s dangerous; he’s Nigerian; he might be in Yemen; and al-Qaeda in Yemen may be looking to use a Nigerian in a forthcoming attack. Is that really enough?

The answer to that question most certainly requires a policy decision, not an intelligence decision. The intelligence community is drinking from a fire hose of data, a lot of it much more specific than what was acquired on Abdulmutallab. If policymakers decide that these thin reeds will be the standard for stopping someone from entering the United States, then they need to change the process to enshrine that in the no-fly system. But it will make it much harder for people who aren’t threatening to enter, a move that will ripple out to effect diplomacy, security relationships (good luck entering the U.S. for a military-to-military contact program if, say, you’re a member of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, since you had contacts with known extremists), international business and trade, and so on. Are we prepared for that?

In retrospect, terrorism dots always look easy to connect, but people rarely think about all the other similar dots. If the information we had on Abdulmutallab should have been enough to keep him off the flight to Detroit, then we're also saying that that's the level of information that should be sufficient to keep anyone off a flight to Detroit. Is that what we want?

Maybe. But it's far from obvious after just a cursory glance. Public pressure is invaluable to keep the federal government honest, but it can also become a myopic feeding frenzy. The intelligence community plainly needs to account for itself here, and upon investigation we might decide that there really was a systemic breakdown. But it's way too early to say that with any confidence.

Fiore Cartoon: Year in Review

Thu Dec. 31, 2009 7:05 AM EST

2009: A year of balloon banks, balloon boy, broken promises, "God's work," socialist killers, an Afghanistan surge, and a war-time President who won the Peace Prize.

Watch satirist Mark Fiore's not-so fond memories below:

Cheney Urges Palin to Run in 2012

| Thu Dec. 31, 2009 3:01 AM EST

No, that's not true, Dick Cheney urging Sarah Palin to campaign for president—at least, as far as I know. But now that I have your attention, I'm going to hit you up for a couple of bucks.

If you're reading this, you already know that 2009 was a tough year for the media. Notice I said "the media," not "journalism." Newspapers and magazines have been taking multiple hits. The economic downturn created a crash in ad revenues, and the continuing rise of (free) online media has undercut the traditional business model (paying for news and information). All this has led news outfits to lay off reporters, downsize their products, and scale back their ambitions. Still, there's plenty of quality journalism going on. And I'm pleased to say, we in the Washington, DC, bureau of Mother Jones, are doing our share.

This past year, we've broken stories on the Tea Party movement, the Birthers, the Copenhagen climate talksSonia Sotomayor's confirmation, President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy, the Animal House-like antics of private military contractors, a top Treasury Department aide who once tried to kill an Obama initiative to restrain CEO pay, the appointment of a former lobbyist for an Enron-like firm to a key financial watchdog position, former congressional aides lobbying for Big Finance, the big secret kept by the health insurance industry's top official, the public option's No. 1 enemy, the missing Bush White House emails, the disappearance of Bush administration torture documents, Bush's former UN ambassador appearing to back an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran,  the Watergate tapes, and yes, Palin and Cheney.

Unfortunately, all this good journalism doesn't come cheap. Mother Jones has bucked the tide by expanding its Washington bureau and setting its reporters loose on the nation's capital. That costs money. (Note to self: here's an idea for a New Yorker cartoon—a reporter stands in front of the Washington Post building and holds a sign, "Will break news for food.")

If you appreciate this sort of journalism, please support us. That means sending money. It can be $5 or $10. But we will accept more. We're trying to plug a hole in our budget, and every little bit counts.

I know things are tight for most people. But if you've read this far, you probably give a damn about independent, kick-ass journalism and recognize its importance, especially as politicians in Washington and citizens across the nation contend with some of the hardest and most complicated challenges that have ever faced the country. These days we need strong journalism more than ever.

Spare us some of your hard-earned dough, and we'll put it to good use, pursuing the important stories in Washington—and elsewhere—that need to be told. Heck, it's easy. You can donate via a credit card or through PayPal.

Increasingly, the fate of journalism is in the hands of people like you. It's quite simple; with your help, we can continue to produce quality journalism and shape the debate in Washington and beyond. The more money we receive from supporters, the more muck we can rake. And there's always plenty of muck in DC. So as you're making all those resolutions for 2010, help us keep our only one: to practice the kind of independent reporting the nation needs in the coming year. Or think of it this way: Cheney, Palin, and many others will be quite happy if you don't.

Airport Security

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 8:53 PM EST

Matt Yglesias says he's skeptical about the value of ratcheting up security even further in airports, and then adds this:

The last point I would make, raised by DanVerg on Twitter, is that even if airplanes were completely secure you could always kill people by detonating a bomb in some other crowded place. For example, you could blow something up in a crowded airport security line.

I'd take something different away from this. The fact that al-Qaeda keeps focusing on airplanes is a sign of how weak they are. Sure, they could detonate a bomb in a security line, but it wouldn't kill very many people and it certainly wouldn't have the psychological impact of taking down a jumbo jet. Alternatively, they could try to blow up a chemical plant or something like that, but that's out of their league. They'd have to get a team of operatives into the country and then they'd have to do all the planning and all the execution within the borders of the United States, where surveillance is far greater than it is in Yemen or Nigeria. They plainly don't have the resources to do this, and every in-country plot we've uncovered since 2001 has been bumbling and amateurish.

Obviously this could change, but at the moment I think it's wrong to say al-Qaeda "could always kill people" in a bunch of other ways. In fact, the evidence suggests that they can't, at least not in any wholesale way. In that sense, then, airport security really does seem like one of the better places to focus our security efforts. I just wish we could do it more sensibly.

The Rich Are Different From You and Me

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 7:59 PM EST

Thanks to a combination of Republican idiocy (in 2001) and Republican obstinacy (in 2009), the estate tax will go away completely in 2010, only to return in 2011. So if you're rich, and you're close to death, you'd do well to hang on for another couple of days before you expire. Or so the story goes:

"I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days," says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. "Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?"

....To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. "We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently," says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

Of course, plenty of taxpayers themselves are eager to live to see the new year. One wealthy, terminally ill real-estate entrepreneur has told his doctors he is determined to live until the law changes.

"Whenever he wakes up," says his lawyer, "He says: 'What day is it? Is it Jan. 1 yet?'"

This seems crazy to me. Congress has long had the power to retroactively change tax rates, and they'll almost certainly reinstate the estate tax sometime in 2010. The Journal says that the odds of a successful court challenge to a retroactive increase "is a subject of debate in the estate-planning world," but it's hard to believe that anyone really takes that seriously.

But who knows? Maybe this is all a clever plan on the part of Democrats. Maybe they're just waiting for some rich and unsympathetic person to die (think Leona Helmsley or someone like that) and then they plan to use this person as a poster child for Republican greed and pandering to the rich. The ads write themselves: "You pay taxes on everything you earn. But conservative mogul Richard Mellon Scaife just left $1.2 billion to his kids and they don't have to pay a single cent on it. Today's Republican Party: protecting billionaire contributors while you keep the country running."

Eh. Probably not. But you never know. Someone might be able to make hay out of this.

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Kids' Movies, For Adults

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 7:02 PM EST

A recent BBC Magazine article ponders a bunch of kids’ films that keep grown-ups interested with references to the adult world. The article seems to suggest that adults will only sit through a movie made for kids if it slips them an occasional allusion to classic film vocabulary or pop cultural effluvium. It eludes the wee ones, but tickles their parents pink! So the theory goes.

Finding Nemo, for example, has a scene with seagulls that echoes Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. (On that note, Mr. Hitchcock would like to say a few words to you.) In Wall-E, the trash-compacting robot in question has a boot-up sound like that of the Apple Mac. (Strangely, there’s no mention of his system crashing and requiring replacement every two years. Sequel?) The first Shrek movie was liberally peppered with self-conscious references that reviewers found notable. (The two-minute trailer alone cites Pinocchio, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Tic Tacs, 360-degree action movie camera pans, and Otis Redding’s version of "Try a Little Tenderness.")

Test Scores Cause Some to Question Duncan's Record

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 4:07 PM EST

Until last year, Obama's Secretary of Education choice and pick-up basketball pal Arne Duncan was chief of Chicago's public schools, a position he held for seven years and one that allowed him to forge a strong relationship with Obama, a former Chicagoan himself. Duncan's over-the-top reputation as a crusading education reformer had been trumpeted by his supporters, and in his new post Duncan will control Race to the Top funds—$3.5 billion in grants for school districts to turn around failing schools and $4 billion for states to invest in education innovation. However, the latest test scores from Chicago's public schools have some wondering if Duncan is more hype than performance: and if so, how will it affect the distribution of much-needed grant money?

Soon after Duncan left Chicago in 2008, the city's 400,000-plus students took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), exams which are used as yearly benchmarks of school chiefs' success. The test results came in this month, but they don't show what you might expect considering Duncan's image as an iconoclast. Chicago Public Schools trailed several other districts of comparable size in math performance, and in test score gains made over the past six years, the Washington Post reports.

Districts that did better in math achievement than Chicago include Miami, Houston, and New York, while Boston, San Diego, and Atlanta had greater year-to-year performance gains. But NAEP data is just one way to measure the success of education reform. By firing under-performing and unneeded staff, shuttering schools that seemed impossible to fix, promoting charter school growth, and encouraging teachers with performance pay, Duncan helped raise Chicago's state and federal test scores along with the city's graduation rate during his 2001-2008 tenure. This new data does show that although improved, Chicago Public Schools is not leading the pack in education performance like some experts thought it was. Also, that although schools chiefs like Alberto Carvalho, Terry Grier, and Carol Johnson (from Miami, Houston and Boston, respectively) are not as well-known as Duncan, it doesn't mean they deserve any less recognition by education scholars.

Full Body Scanning

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 3:50 PM EST

As much as I hate both the partisan screeching and the inane rush to pin blame in the underwear bombing case before we really have any idea what happened, I also confess that I don't understand the (bipartisan! international!) hysteria that's prevented full body screening machines from being put in use on a wider basis. They perform "virtual strip searches that see through your clothing and reveal the size and shape of your body," says the ACLU, and earlier this year the House voted to prohibit their use for primary screening. Both Democrats and Republicans voted for the ban by wide margins.

I'll defer to the experts on how and where these devices are best used, but privacy concerns strike me as daft. Yes, the machines show the shape of your body under your clothes. Big deal. That strikes me as way less intrusive than pat-downs, wands, bomb-sniffing dogs, hand inspections, and no-fly lists. If we put up with that stuff, why on earth would we suddenly draw the line at a full body scanner?

We go nuts whenever a terrorist tries to set off a bomb, but we also go nuts over an effective, noninvasive technology just because it gives TSA screeners a brief glimpse of our body fat level? That's crazy.

Happy New Year, Geezers. Please Die Soon.

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 2:58 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal reports today on a temporary suspension of the estate tax (what conservatives call the “death tax”), which will go into effect on January 1, 2010.  The lapse dates back to the bundle of tax cuts passed under the Bush Administration in 2001:

Congress raised estate-tax exemptions, culminating with the tax’s disappearance next year. However, due to budget constraints, lawmakers didn’t make the change permanent. So the estate tax is due to come back to life in 2011--at a higher rate and lower exemption.

The WSJ piece is titled “Rich Cling to Life to Beat Tax Man,” and its interviews demonstrate, once again, that the rich really are different: They’re really creepy. It seems quite a few of them are making end-of-life decisions based on how it will affect their inheritance taxes.

“I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days,” says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. “Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?”…

To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. “We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently,” says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

The article focuses on people who are trying to keep their so-called loved ones alive until 2010 begins. But you can just as easily imagine all the  greedy bastards out there who are hoping their healthy old relatives will get really sick, really soon, so they can kick off before the year ends.

On the Atlantic’s business blog today, Derek Thompson comments on the political implications of the year-long estate tax suspension. He highlights the hypocrisy of Republican policymaking, which insists upon deficit reduction while simultaneously serving the interests of wealthy people like these, whose riches have to be wrested from their cold, dead hands: