2011 - %3, January

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 September 2011

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 11:56 AM PDT

Yes, I'm still traveling. Sort of. Actually, right about now I should be sunning myself at Golden Gate Park, where we're holding a MoJo staff picnic. But that doesn't mean you don't get catblogging this week. It only means that catblogging has been reduced 50%.

Sorry about that, Domino fans, but I just didn't get a new picture of her before I left. What I got instead was a rare inside look at the working conditions here at blog central. I am, as you can see in this picture taken through my window, closely supervised. Until my supervisor gets bored, that is, which happens a lot. Still, you have to stay on your toes. It's sort of a feline-opticon around here. 

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Are Genetically Modified Foods Safe To Eat?

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 10:55 AM PDT

We know that eating food derived from genetically modified crops won't make you keel over and die. How do we know that? According to the USDA, about three-quarters of US corn and upwards of percent of soy are from genetically modified seeds—a rapid ascent since their roll-out in the early '90s.

Those two crops suffuse our food system: they provide the sweetener for soft drinks, the cooking oil for French fries, feed for the animals we eat, and countless ingredients used by food processors. By 2003, the Grocery Manufacturers of America was already reckoning that 75 percent of processed food in supermarets contained GMO ingredients. So if eating a bowl of cereal made from GMO corn, or a Pop Tart sweetened with high-fructose GMO corn syrup, posed an immediate threat, or a we'd know it by now. Millions of people do it every day. So for what public-health people call acute effects, GMOs have more or less been proven safe.

But what about chronic effects—slow-moving, unspectacular conditions that could take years to detect, much less to diagnose? Here we're on murkier ground. GMOs have been on the market for less than a generation: not a large span of time for gauging long-term effects on a population.

And to be sure, the US is riddled with chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and heart disese. The CDC reports that one in two Americans now have such conditions, and that seven of every 10 deaths in the US can be attributed to them. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (summarized here), the rate of chronic conditions among US children jumped from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006, with asthma, obesity, and behavior/learning disorders leading the way.

Clearly, such trends are highly complex and can't be explained by any one factor. And the US diet, with its reliance on calorie-dense, additive-laden processed food, went downhill long before the introduction of GMOs in the '90s. But did the introduction GMOs make the whole witches brew of US processed food even worse, and add subtly to its already-bad health effects? To me, it's plausible.

Bank Fees Finally Out in the Open

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 10:43 AM PDT

Banks all over the country, led by Bank of America, are announcing new monthly fees for customers who use debit cards. Why? Because new laws restrict both the insanely high overdraft fees they used to charge and the "swipe fee" they tack on to every transaction — so they're making up for the lost revenue elsewhere. "Thanks Dick!" is a typical reaction, because the new rules are the brainchild of Sen. Dick Durbin. In San Francisco, where I am today, the Examiner puts things a little more colorfully.

If you want to know why so many people hate liberals, this is it. We're annoying! And now, thanks to us, you have to pay a monthly fee to use your debit card.

Unfortunately, it's hard to explain why this is, nonetheless, a good thing. But here's the nickel version: the old fees were largely hidden. The new ones aren't. Overdraft fees were deliberately designed to be unpredictable, unforeseen, and primarily aimed at low-income users. Swipe fees were invisible because the credit card industry is effectively a duopoly and prohibits merchants from adding swipe fees to credit card bills. After all, if they did that, consumers might actually see what they were really paying for the privilege of using credit and debit cards.

All along, banks have had the option of reforming overdraft fees to make them fairer and more transparent. They had the option of allowing merchants to charge customers for swipe fees or not as they preferred. But they didn't. That's because hidden fees, on average, are more lucrative. Hidden or not, though, we're all still paying them.

So yes: the new fees are annoying. But that's a feature, not a bug, because now they're right up front in black and white, which means that consumers will see them and can be properly outraged (or not) by them. This in turn means that the free market has a chance to actually work: consumers will abandon Bank of America if their fees are too high and force them to charge less. Likewise, other banks will compete openly on the size of their fees. In the end, this competition will force fees down to the lowest possible profitable level, which is exactly what competition is supposed to.

It may not seem like much of a blessing at first, and lots of people will remain annoyed at us annoying liberals for introducing this new annoyance into their lives. But if you actually believe that competition is good for consumers and eventually produces lower prices and better service, you should welcome these new fees. Banks liked the cozy old system, where everything was hidden and competition remained subdued. Consumers should like the new one.

UPDATE: Want an even shorter explanation? Here it is: banks hate the new rules. But do you seriously think they'd hate a rule that was going to increase costs to consumers and thereby put more money in their own pockets? Of course not. Obviously they believe that consumers are the ones who are going to benefit, not banks, and who would know better?

Obama's Dangerous Awlaki Precedent

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 9:55 AM PDT

The central question in the death of American extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki is not his innocence. That really misses the point. Awlaki was the only publicly known name on a covert list of American citizens the US government believes it can legally kill without charge or trial. Awlaki's killing can't be viewed as a one-off situation; what we're talking about is the establishment of a precedent by which a US president can secretly order the death of an American citizen unchecked by any outside process. Rules that get established on the basis that they only apply to the "bad guys" tend to be ripe for abuse, particularly when they're secret. 

Terrorism, as compared to traditional warfare, naturally brings up different legal and moral issues. Chief among these is the fact that because terrorists don't wear uniforms, they're hard to identify as terrorists. Those kinds of questions become somewhat easier in a theater of active military combat. No one's questioning, for example, whether or not Awlaki could be legally killed if he were in Afghanistan holding a rifle and firing at a US soldier, simply because he happens to be a citizen. It gets much harder when you start talking about killing people in countries like Yemen where the US can't be said to be fighting anything resembling a traditional military conflict. Courts become much more important in this context precisely because they help credibly determine who is actually a combatant and who isn't. 

Uncritically endorsing the administration's authority to kill Awlaki on the basis that he was likely guilty, or an obviously terrible human being, is short-sighted. Because what we're talking about here is not whether Awlaki in particular deserved to die. What we're talking about is trusting the president with the authority to decide, with the minor bureaucratic burden of asking "specific permission," whether an American citizen is or isn't a terrorist and then quietly rendering a lethal sanction against them. 

The question is not whether or not you trust that President Obama made the right decision here. It's whether or not you trust him, and all future presidents, to do so—and to do so in complete secrecy. 

Policy Riders Ride Again

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 9:00 AM PDT
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.)

You could be forgiven for thinking it's April all over again. On Thursday, House Republicans released draft legislation to fund the government's day-to-day health, labor, and education programs for the rest of the year. The $153 billion measure guts heat subsidies for the poor by nearly a third, phases out funding for the Title X family planning program, cuts federal money for NPR, blocks funding to implement health care reform, and reduces eligibility for grants to low-income college students.

The bill, which cuts program spending by 2.5 percent (relative to its current level) is expected to be packaged into a larger omnibus spending bill, instead of as stand-alone legislation. Committee chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) says it's all about keeping federal agencies solvent. "To protect critical programs and services that many Americans rely on—especially in this time of fiscal crisis—the bill takes decisive action to cut duplicative, inefficient and wasteful spending to help get these agency budgets onto sustainable financial footing," he said.

That's one way of looking at it. Another: That the GOP is anxious to eviscerate Democratic priorities through these policy "riders," just like it did during the prolonged negotiations over a similar budget bill in April. But TPM reports that the bill has no shot in Senate. According to one Senate aide: 

[I]t has no chance of passing the Senate. The Senate will not agree to kicking hundreds of thousands of students out of the Pell Grant program, decimating programs that train unemployed workers to get a new job, or adopting any of the dozens of radical legislative riders that the Chairman has proposed.

But the stopgap bill isn't the first instance of the GOP playing to type. Earlier this month, the House Energy and Commerce committee released legislation to peel back some of health care reform's key patient protections. Neither that measure nor this one helps create jobs or gives a boost to states struggling to keep crucial health and education programs afloat.

Based on the evidence, we can say this much about House Republicans: They're awfully consistent. 

Justifying the Awlaki Attack

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 8:43 AM PDT
John Brennan

Last month, John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism czar, delivered a major speech at Harvard on the administration's counterterrorism practices at home and abroad, contending that they all are guided by the rule of law. He did not specifically address the issue of the US government targeting an American citizen overseas for assassination. Nor did he mention Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who had become associated with Al Qaeda in Yemen and linked to terrorist attacks in the United States—and who was reportedly killed on Friday in a drone strike. But Brennan did defend the Obama administration's right to launch military assaults in other countries aimed at Al Qaeda and its allies.

He noted, "This Administration's counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan and Iraq are focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant—even if only temporary—disruption of the plans and capabilities of Al Qaeda and its associated forces."

Civil libertarians might take exception to this standard. But Brennan noted that the administration did adhere to a standard of "imminence" regarding the threat posed by such targets. He did, however, maintain that a "more flexible understanding of 'imminence' may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups, in part because threats posed by non-state actors do not present themselves in the ways that evidenced imminence in more traditional conflicts."

This high-level drone attack may spur further debate over the rule of law and drone attacks. Then again, it may not spur much debate: Taking out Awlaki will likely be a popular move, and perhaps a productive one, in Obama's necessary war against Al Qaeda. There can be little doubt that his administration's use of drone strikes—and the successful raid that killed Osama bin Laden—has made it tougher for Al Qaeda to again attack the United States.

Obama has repeatedly said that Americans do not have to make a false choice between security and values. Yet counterterrorism practices—including indefinite detentions—raise uneasy questions. Can an effective shadow war be prosecuted within a clear and transparent set of rules that preserve accountability and due process? At Harvard, Brennan claimed that's what the administration is doing. But there still seems to be some fog.

Here's the portion of the Brennan speech in which he addresses the sort of action that struck Awlaki:

As the president has said many times, we are at war with Al Qaeda. In an indisputable act of aggression, Al Qaeda attacked our nation and killed nearly 3,000 innocent people. And as we were reminded just last weekend, Al Qaeda seeks to attack us again. Our ongoing armed conflict with Al Qaeda stems from our right—recognized under international law—to self defense.

An area in which there is some disagreement is the geographic scope of the conflict. The United States does not view our authority to use military force against Al Qaeda as being restricted solely to "hot" battlefields like Afghanistan. Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that —in accordance with international law—we have the authority to take action against Al Qaeda and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time. And as President Obama has stated on numerous occasions, we reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.

That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for a state's sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally—and on the way in which we can use force—in foreign territories.

Others in the international community—including some of our closest allies and partners—take a different view of the geographic scope of the conflict, limiting it only to the "hot" battlefields. As such, they argue that, outside of these two active theaters, the United States can only act in self-defense against Al Qaeda when they are planning, engaging in, or threatening an armed attack against US interests if it amounts to an "imminent" threat.

In practice, the US approach to targeting in the conflict with Al Qaeda is far more aligned with our allies' approach than many assume.  This administration’s counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan and Iraq are focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant—even if only temporary—disruption of the plans and capabilities of Al Qaeda and its associated forces.  Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define "imminence."

We are finding increasing recognition in the international community that a more flexible understanding of "imminence" may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups, in part because threats posed by non-state actors do not present themselves in the ways that evidenced imminence in more traditional conflicts. After all, Al Qaeda does not follow a traditional command structure, wear uniforms, carry its arms openly, or mass its troops at the borders of the nations it attacks. Nonetheless, it possesses the demonstrated capability to strike with little notice and cause significant civilian or military casualties. Over time, an increasing number of our international counterterrorism partners have begun to recognize that the traditional conception of what constitutes an "imminent" attack should be broadened in light of the modern-day capabilities, techniques, and technological innovations of terrorist organizations.

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Obama Assassinates U.S. Citizen

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 8:10 AM PDT

Up until now, the Obama administration's policy of sanctioning the assassination of U.S. citizens has been more theoretical than real. Not any longer:

A missile fired from an American drone aircraft in Yemen on Friday killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was a leading figure in Al Qaeda’s affiliate in this country, according to an official in Washington.

....Yemen’s official news agency, Saba, reported that the attack also killed Samir Khan, an American citizen of Pakistani origin and the editor of Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language Internet magazine. Mr. Khan proclaimed in the magazine last year that he was “proud to be a traitor to America.”

Is this the first targeted assassination of a U.S. citizen as part of the war on terror? Probably. The Bush administration killed Buffalo-born Kamal Derwish in 2002, but at least for public consumption, quickly claimed that they had been targeting someone else and Derwish was simply collateral damage. You can take that for what it's worth, but in any case, even that fig leaf is gone now: no one's even bothering to pretend that al-Awlaki's killing was anything other than deliberately planned and executed.

No one is likely to mourn al-Awlaki himself -- which is what made his assassination so safe in the first place -- but we sure ought be mourning the fact that it happened, and that it's likely to happen routinely from now on. The Obama administration has demonstrated once again, as it did in Libya and as it's done in a variety of surveillance cases, that its view of executive power in the arena of national security is hardly any less expansive than Dick Cheney's was. The fact that this was predictable makes it no less alarming. Regardless of how any of us feels about warmaking in general, there are very good reasons that national governments are more constrained in their ability to kill their own citizens than in their ability to kill foreigners, constraints enshrined in both the explicit rules and longstanding traditions of due process. That bright line has grown a lot dimmer today.

The hardcore national security hawks in both parties will likely cheer Obama's "toughness" today, but they shouldn't. Bright lines, once crossed, seldom survive. Adam Serwer has more here. Glenn Greenwald has more here.

US Kills Al Qaeda-Linked Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 7:11 AM PDT
Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the only publicly known name on a "kill list" of US citizens abroad that the government believes it has the authority to assassinate without charge or trial, was reportedly killed in Yemen on Friday morning by an American airstrike. His death marks the first public example of the US government successfully targeting and killing an American citizen abroad based on the suspicion of terrorist activities. 

Awlaki emerged in recent years as one of the most recognizable figures associated with Al Qaeda, largely because US officials had linked him to high-profile attacks (and attempted ones), including Nidal Malik Hasan's Fort Hood rampage, Faisal Shahzad's botched attempt to explode a car bomb in Times Square, and Umar Abdulmutallab's failed Christmas Day plane bombing. Nevertheless, the extent of Awlaki's operational role in any particular plot was never proven, raising the uncomfortable question of whether or not the US government had asserted the authority to kill a US citizen based solely on his ability to "inspire" terrorism through extremist sermons and magazine articles. 

Though Awlaki was never indicted in a court of law, he was essentially convicted in the court of public opinion, with the mainstream media largely uncritical of the government's shifting explanations for why he was legally targetable. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh has argued that "a state engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force," meaning that killing Awlaki without trial is justifiable because he was a suspected member Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a faction at war with the United States.

Last December, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Awlaki's father, Nasser, seeking to compel the government to disclose the internal legal process by which it determines that it has the authority to kill an American citizen based on the suspicion of terrorism. Judge John Bates ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit because Awlaki could have brought the case himself and chose not to, and that there were "no judicially manageable standards" by which the court could evaluate the government's authority to kill an American terrorism suspect. 

The United States has wrongly announced the death of suspected terrorist figures before. However, if he has in fact been killed, he would be the second American citizen the US has acknowledged killing in the context of a strike against an Al Qaeda-affiliated target. The first was Kamal Derwish, who was born in Buffalo, New York, and killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2002. Back then, US officials felt compelled to assure reporters that he was not the actual target and that they weren't aware he was in the car that was destroyed until after the strike. Perhaps they were worried about the legal implications of asserting that a US president possesses the ultimate power of life or death over an American citizen. 

The Daily Caller Quadruples-Down on Its Wrongness

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 3:05 AM PDT

Earlier this week, I published a post pointing out that the Daily Caller's claim that the EPA plans to hire 230,000 employees to enforce new climate regulations is false. Since then the Daily Caller has quadrupled-down on the claim, despite a number of other outlets—first Politico, then Greg Sargent's Washington Post blog—also pointing out that it was flat-out wrong. Now the Caller has published an editor's note that, rather than reasserting the claim, attempts to reframe their entire argument.

In the note, David Martosko, the Daily Caller's executive editor, claims that the EPA "might hire as many as 230,000." This is a different argument than the Caller was making earlier this week, which was that the EPA actually planned to do this. (It's also different from the argument the Caller made to Politico, which is that its claim was true simply because massive bureaucratic overreach is what EPA is wont to do.) But the argument still misclassifies the entire context of the figure, which is that it came from a legal brief in which EPA was defending an attempt to avoid taking that action.

Despite what Martosko claims, Greg Sargent didn't vindicate the Daily Caller's story—he merely offered the publication another opportunity to once again defend its (false) claim. The Washington Examiner story, which Martosko also suggests vindicates the original piece, actually points out that the Caller was wrong in its claim that the EPA is asking taxpayers to shoulder the cost of the regulations, and reiterates the fact that this is exactly what the agency is trying to avoid.

As a side note, dismissing Mother Jones as a "fringe" publication doesn't make the Daily Caller's original story any less false. See David Corn's piece for more on that front.

A Terror Plot Wile E. Coyote Might Love

| Fri Sep. 30, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Everybody freak out! A radical Muslim scientist planned to destroy the US Capitol and Pentagon with killer drones! Oh, wait…A guy with an undergrad physics degree who lives in his parents' basement was possibly entrapped (or not!) trying to put explosives on model airplanes that he'd bought with a comically false identity. According to the federal indictment against 26-year-old Rezwan Ferdaus:

 

(Dave Winfield, by the way, is the name of one of the best pure hitters in Major League Baseball.) The indictment goes on to say that Ferdaus ordered a remote-control airplane and explained his plan to two undercover FBI agents:

 

Ferdaus allegedly hoped to fly one of his DIY drones "into the center" of the Capitol dome, "which would cause it to cave in."