2013 - %3, February

More Drones, Ever More Drones

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 1:35 PM EST

Speaking of drones, they just keep getting more and more popular. Today brings two pieces of drone news. First, Afghanistan:

The U.S. military launched 506 strikes from unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan last year, according to Pentagon data, a 72% increase from 2011 and a sign that American commanders may begin to rely more heavily on remote-controlled air power to kill Taliban insurgents as they reduce the number of troops on the ground

....The use of armed drones is likely to accelerate as most of the 66,000 U.S. troops in the country are due to withdraw by the end of 2014. The remotely piloted long-range aircraft, which kill targets with virtually no risk to American lives, carry an unmistakable attraction for military commanders.

Next, Mali:

President Obama announced Friday that about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to the West African country of Niger, where defense officials said they are setting up a drone base to spy on al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara.

....The drone base in Niger marks the opening of another far-flung U.S. military operation against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, in addition to ongoing combat missions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA is also conducting airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Yemen....The drones will be based initially in the capital, Niamey, but military officials would like to move them eventually to the northern city of Agadez, which is closer to parts of northern Mali where al-Qaeda cells have taken root.

I don't think we should expect this trend to abate anytime soon.

UPDATE: And now this: "The United Arab Emirates is close to purchasing Predator drones from a San Diego County defense contractor, sparking concern among arms control advocates....The agreement would mark the first time a non-NATO country has obtained the American-made technology, which has reshaped modern warfare."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 22, 2013

Fri Feb. 22, 2013 1:32 PM EST

U.S. Army Spc. Ladarion Banks, assigned to Killer Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, fires his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon during squad level training at the Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Feb. 12, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Markus Rauchenberger.

 

Can the President Target American Citizens on US Soil?

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 12:51 PM EST

A combination of uncertainty and ignorance has kept me from writing very much about either the wisdom or legality of drone strikes in general. The same is true of drone strikes against American citizens overseas. There is, obviously, a difference between killing citizens and killing foreign nationals, but I can't quite decide how important the difference is or where it should apply. On hot battlefields, there's no difference: you shoot at bad guys, and if one of them turns out to be an American turncoat, that's not a problem. But in our current war against Al Qaeda, where's the battlefield? Anywhere? Everywhere? Is it reasonable to restrict it solely to regions where American troops are actively fighting? If not, just how expansive should the definition be?

I apologize for being a squish about this, but I'm just not sure. This is one of the reasons so many of us would like to see the OLC memo spelling out the president's legal authority for targeting American citizens. Is it based on the 2001 AUMF and therefore constrained to Al Qaeda operatives, or is it based on the president's Article II authority and therefore usable against anyone? Is it geographically constrained? Is it constrained in any way?

In particular, is it, at the very least, constrained to prohibit the targeting of American citizens on US soil? Even a squish like me knows that it better be. But as Glenn Greenwald points out today, the Obama administration flatly refuses to acknowledge this:

[CIA nominee John] Brennan has been asked the question several times as part of his confirmation process. Each time, he simply pretends that the question has not been asked, opting instead to address a completely different issue. Here's the latest example from the written exchange he had with Senators after his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee; after referencing the DOJ "white paper", the Committee raised the question with Brennan in the most straightforward way possible:

Obviously, that the US has not and does not intend to engage in such acts is entirely non-responsive to the question that was asked: whether they believe they have the authority to do so. To the extent any answer was provided, it came in Brennan's next answer. He was asked:

Could you describe the geographical limits on the Administration's conduct drone strikes?"

Brennan's answer was that, in essence, there are no geographic limits to this power: "we do not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa'ida and associated forces as being limited to 'hot' battlefields like Afghanistan." He then quoted Attorney General Eric Holder as saying: "neither Congress nor our federal courts has limited the geographic scope of our ability to use force to the current conflict in Afghanistan" (see Brennan's full answer here).

I'm not happy over the wingnut attacks on pretty much all of Obama's nominees for Cabinet-level posts, and I'm loath to add fuel to the fire. But in this case, both liberals and conservatives deserve a straight answer. As CIA director, will Brennan be working under legal guidelines that allow him to target American citizens on US soil? Or, since the CIA is prohibited from operating domestically, a better question might be: will he be working under legal guidelines that allow him to work hand-in-glove with the Pentagon to target American citizens on US soil?

It's not enough to say there are no plans to do so. I should damn well hope not. But we deserve to know whether the president thinks he has the authority to do this if he ever changes his plans.

For more on this, see Adam Serwer's piece today noting that even some former Obama officials are now calling for limits to the president's unilateral authority over targeted killings.

The GOP's Benghazi Obsession Explained!

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 11:54 AM EST

Benghazi!, the long-running off-off-Broadway musical extravaganza, is still packing them in. Ed Kilgore points today to a brief review of the current state of play from NPR's Ari Shapiro, who makes an interesting point at the end:

Benghazi has become a sort of catchword. To Republicans, it symbolizes everything bad about the Obama administration. It's not the first word to fill that role. At the start of the president's first term, it was Obamacare. Later, Solyndra.

....Data from the Pew Research Center suggest not every voter is following this story equally. In November, Pew found that Republicans were twice as likely to follow Benghazi closely as Democrats or independents.

That could be because conservative media hammered the story nonstop. But the discrepancy suggests that this rallying cry could be effective at ginning up the base without driving away people on the other side, who may not be paying attention.

OK, I guess that's obvious. It's obvious after someone points it out, anyway: If you're going to make fundraising hay out of a pseudo-scandal, it's actually better if you focus on something that the rest of the world thinks is too ridiculous to bother following. Not only does this help with the fundraising pitch—the liberal media is part of the cover-up!—but you don't lose independent votes since non-wingnuts have simply tuned the whole thing out. This helps solve a mystery: why do congressional Republicans spend so much time obsessed with such palpable nonsense. Aren't they embarrassed? Answer: Maybe,1 but it's actually safer not to stray outside the fever swamp and take the risk of independents realizing what you're spending your time on.

1Then again, maybe not.

Steven Brill Explains Why Hospitals Screw the Uninsured: Because They Can

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 11:07 AM EST

Steven Brill has a gigantic cover story in Time this week about one of my pet healthcare peeves: the simply insane prices that hospitals charge uninsured patients. We often talk about American healthcare prices being 50 percent or 100 percent or even 150 percent higher than in other developed countries, and that's obviously a serious public policy problem. But those are just the prices that insurance companies pay. If you don't have insurance, and you're unlucky enough to land in the hospital, you can expect to be charged 3x, 4x, or 5x those prices. A heart attack that costs Aetna $50,000 will cost you $200,000 or more if you don't have insurance.

Why? You'd think there would be some answer more sophisticated than "because they can," but that's about the size of it. Most people who come to the emergency room have no choice and no bargaining power. Hospitals can, almost literally, charge them whatever they feel like. And as Brill documents meticulously, they do. They're not eager to talk about it, either. As one hospital spokesman told Brill when he asked to see the "chargemaster" price list used to bill uninsured patients, "Most people never pay those prices....So I’m not sure why you care." Faced with an actual bill, he got annoyed: "I’ve told you I don’t think a bill like this is relevant. Very few people actually pay those rates."

And of course, that's true. Few people do pay those rates. But it's a scandal nonetheless that the most vulnerable possible group of people you can imagine—uninsured patients with emergency problems—are routinely gouged by hospitals just because they can.

Obamacare will help when it kicks in next year because more people will be covered by commercial insurance. More could be done by either covering everyone or else mandating competitive rates even for the uninsured. Unfortunately, as Matt Yglesias says, Brill shies away from the obvious conclusion of his own research:

For reasons I do not understand after having read the conclusion twice, Brill rejects both of these ideas in favor of meaningless tinkering around the edges. He wants to alter medical malpractice law, tax hospital operating profits, and try to mandate extra price transparency. That's all fine, but it's odd. His article could not be more clear about this—health care prices are high in America because, by law, we typically allow them to be high. When foreigners force prices to be lower, they get lower prices. When Americans force prices to be lower (via Medicare), we get lower prices. If we want lower prices through new legislation, the way to get them is to write laws mandating that the prices be lowered.

Read the article anyway, though you might want to have your blood pressure meds handy when you do. Just don't pay any attention to Brill's policy recommendations. That part is all wet.

In "The Gatekeepers," Israeli Security Chiefs Say What US Leaders Can't

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 6:06 AM EST

The Gatekeepers
Sony Pictures Classics
97 minutes

"What's unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant," says Yuval Diskin, the 12th director of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, during the opening sequence of The Gatekeepers. His blunt testimony sets the grave and mournful tone that defines the rest of this illuminating and devastating film.

The Oscar-nominated documentary, directed by Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, uses interviews with all six living ex-directors of the Shin Bet to paint a stark portrait of the agency and how it figures into the Jewish state's past, present, and future. For those who haven't heard of this security service, here are a couple lines from my crib sheet: Imagine the FBI, only tremendously more efficient, brutal, and terrifying. Now, imagine if the war on terror were half a century old, and if we had drone strikes and black sites in Florida and Montana.

That's what the Shin Bet is like for Israelis.

It's a juggernaut of counterterrorism and intel gathering. Shin Bet directors answer directly to the prime minister. The agency's greatest blunder was their failure to protect Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli leader who came closest to making peace with the Palestinians, from being murdered by a right-wing Israeli terrorist.

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9 out of 10 French Wines Contain Pesticides

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 6:01 AM EST
There's a place in France, where the pesticide molecules dance.

Oddly for someone who loves to cook and eat as much as I do, I have a reputation among friends as a bit of an appetite spoiler. When I'm not going on about various grotesque aspects of factory-farmed meat, I'm informing you of arsenic in apple juice and rice, or the knotty paradoxes of quinoa. What beloved foodstuff will I take on next? Well, be assured, this one pains me as much as anyone else: A recent study of French wine found 90 percent of samples contained traces of at least one pesticide, the wine trade journal Decanter reports.

Exclusive: Free Download of "Anonymous," the New Single by Conor Oberst's Desaparecidos

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 6:01 AM EST
Desaparecidos Press Here

Desaparecidos, the recently reunited, politically minded rock-and roll-outfit led by Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, is gearing up for its first New York-area shows in more than a decade—this coming Tuesday and Wednesday at NYC's Webster Hall. For the occasion, the band is offering MoJo readers an exclusive free download of its new single "Anonymous," a rambunctious ode to the shadowy hacktivist group (which we've written about on several recent occasions). Unlike so many contemporary protest songs that reek of moralistic windbaggery, "Anonymous," actually rocks pretty hard as Oberst bellows: 

"Slay Goliath! Slay Goliath!"
The flashmob all held up their phones
But you cannot predict when the students riot
And a big machine always moves slow
So throw your little stone

You can't stop us
We are Anonymous
You can't stop us
We are Anonymous
Expect us
We know what all of us know

Give it a listen and judge for yourself. You can click at right for your free download:

"Owlcatraz" and 9 Other Terrible Corporate-Named Sports Venues

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 6:01 AM EST

GEO Group, a billion-dollar private-prison firm that owns or operates 101 "correctional, detention, and residential treatment facilities" worldwide, jumped into the sports world Tuesday when it was announced that the company will pay $6 million over 12 years for naming rights to Florida Atlantic University's new football stadium. The backlash came quickly: The school's football play-by-play man suggested calling GEO Group Stadium "Owlcatraz"; a company flack was caught scrubbing the GEO Group Wikipedia page of negative press; and there's already an online petition requesting the name be changed.

This ill-conceived branding exercise got us to wondering: What are the other worst-named corporate-shilling sports venues?

1. Enron Field, Houston Astros
How bad was it to be associated with Ken Lay and Co.? As one team executive told reporters before Enron Field became Minute Maid Park, "The Houston Astros have been materially and adversely affected by the negative public perception and media scrutiny resulting from Enron's alleged bad business practices and bankruptcy." Well, that and the fact that they stopped wearing these.

2. Citi Field, New York Mets
Timing is everything, right? So don't sell the rights to your new ball field to a bank that just took $45 billion in bailouts from the federal government. (Even at $20 million a year for 20 years.) Because you're basically handing the headlines over to the New York tabloids: TARP FIELD! BAILOUT PARK!

3. University of Phoenix Stadium, Arizona Cardinals
Also enticed into forking over big money for increasingly low standards: Cardinals fans.

4. Jobing.com Arena, Phoenix Coyotes
Maybe the real problem is naming a site Jobing.com.

5. O.co Coliseum, Oakland Raiders and A's
Because Overstock.com Coliseum was too hard to say, and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum was too…municipal.

6. Hunky Dorys Park, Drogheda United
Hunky Dorys is a brand of potato chips, and Hunky Dorys Park is where the Irish city of Drogheda's soccer team plays. This is sort of like naming a venue after, say, Whataburger. Wait…

7. Whataburger Field, Corpus Christi Hooks
Damn you, minor league baseball.

8 and 9. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and KFC Yum! Center, University of Louisville
Not content to have sold its football naming rights to this guy, Louisville went back to the well and named its by-all-accounts beautiful basketball arena for a company that produces the Supremo P'Zone Pizza and the Doritos Locos Taco Supreme.

Obama Does Indeed Have a Proposal to Avert the Sequester

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 12:48 AM EST

It's fascinating to watch the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Brooks show. Today brings a sighting of Mr. Brooks, explaining why politicians of both parties have decided they secretly love the sequester after all:

Democrats get to do the P.C. Shimmy....Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition for not having as politically popular a concept. Then he returns to Washington and congratulates himself for being the only serious and substantive person in town.

Sequestration allows the White House to do this all over again. The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.

He does have a vague and politically convenient concept. (Tax increases on the rich!). He does have a chance to lead the country into a budget showdown with furloughed workers and general mayhem, for which people will primarily blame Republicans. And he does have the chance to achieve the same thing he has achieved so frequently over the past two years, political success and legislative mediocrity.

If Brooks doesn't like Obama's proposal, that's fine. But Obama certainly has one. It includes specific cuts to entitlements, including the adoption of chained CPI for Social Security and $400 billion in various cuts to healthcare spending, along with further cuts to mandatory programs as well as to both defense and domestic discretionary programs. Altogether, it clocks in at $1.1 trillion in spending cuts and $700 billion in revenue increases, mostly gained from limiting tax deductions for high-end earners. The proposal is here. Today, just hours before Brooks wrote his column, the White House put up a blog post specifically saying that this proposal is "still on the table."

So to recap: President Obama does have a proposal. It's extremely specific. It includes cuts to entitlements. And by all measures, its roughly 2:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases is pretty popular with the public.

Brooks is right about one thing, though: it's not politically plausible. But that has nothing to do with either the reasonableness of the plan or with Obama's willingness to cut a deal. It's solely because of Republicans' flat refusal to tolerate any deficit reduction plan that includes even a dime in additional revenue. Unless you believe that any proposal which doesn't pander to this intransigence is inherently unserious—and I'm not sure why you would—it's unclear to me how this can be laid at Obama's feet.