2005 - %3, April

What's Our Methodology Again?

Tue Apr. 26, 2005 7:54 PM EDT

Looks like the State Department has finally released ins numbers on international terrorist attacks. Coming in at 650 "significant attacks," it's no wonder the State Department was initially averse to making the report public. The previous year's report had only cited 172 attacks. About 300 attacks in 2004 were attributed to violence in India and Pakistan. So that still leaves 350 attacks—a pretty significant increase.

The State Department briefed congressional aides Monday, explaining that part of the increase in attacks can be attributed to the increase in people who are now working full time to monitor attacks. In case you were wondering—that's 10 full-time employees up from 3 in the last report. Those numbers raise questions in themselves—3 full time employees to monitor the very thing that has this country at war? And now, only 10? One wonders how many more terrorist attacks would be recorded if they simply upped the employees…

Perhaps a better argument for why the number of attacks may have ballooned was given by a Republican congressional aide (who chose to remain anonymous). The aide argued that the numbers from the 2003 and 2004 reports cannot be equivocally compared "because we have no baseline, and certainly last year's revised numbers offer no accurate baseline of the universe of terrorist incidents. Without that you cannot reach an accurate conclusion." Indeed, there has been some speculation that a change in methodology may have resulted in a drastic change in numbers. If the State Department wants to justify the increase, this seems to be the issue to discuss.

But that doesn't seem to be what's going on. Apparently anonymity is the condition of any transparent discussion on the glitches or ambiguity in the statistics. This leaves plenty of people, like former intelligence official Larry Johnson, to speculate that the State Department's talk of "methodology" is just a code word for a way to make it look like there are less terrorist attacks so that we can convince people we're winning the "war on terror." Whether true or not, the State Department ended up looking pretty shady by being so reluctant to release the information they had.

Even if there's not a conspiracy to whitewash the surge in terrorist attacks, the State Department and the NCCT need to get a handle on what their methodology is. This is not the time to be arguing over what we mean when we say "terrorism." Aren't we in the middle of fighting a war against it? We already fudged the 2003 report, and the 2004 report is already mired in controversy. The longer the State Department fumbles, the sketchier they look. An open dialogue on the methodology (or their lack of one) can hardly make the State Department look worse. If we don't have a baseline, let's establish one now.

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Empty Promises in Afghanistan

| Tue Apr. 26, 2005 4:37 PM EDT

Combine the war on terror with the war on drugs and you've got the mess that is the current fight against poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. This past weekend, an Afghan tribal leader, Hajji Bashir Noorzai, was arrested in New York, accused of "building a multimillion-dollar heroin trade through an 'un-holy' alliance with the Taliban." Federal agents claimed that the arrest was "part of a newly aggressive pursuit of narcotics dealers in Afghanistan."

It's good the U.S. has wised up to the fact that it's difficult to break up terrorism networks without attacking their sources of funding. British and American officials have been coming up with strategies revolving around "extraditing big dealers to face trial in America, setting up well-trained swat teams and spraying the poppy fields." The increased international pressure on President Hamid Karzai has led to a "jihad against opium." Something appears to be working—the cultivation of opium poppies has apparently gone down by about one-third from last year. But what is working may simply be the short-term lull following threats and promises that are fast showing they don't carry much clout.

For some reason, when illegal drugs are involved, an unfortunate inability to understand basic supply and demand arises in the international community. With $300 million in aid pledged to eradicating poppies in Afghanistan, but a mere $120 million earmarked for alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers, it's hard to see how Afghan farmers can even afford to stop growing poppies. Karzai himself has argued that foreign donors need to put massive amounts of money into the rural economy in order to prevent a resurge of poppy growth. The Economist cites a recent British study that has concluded that "it is not interdiction attempts that have encouraged farmers to abandon poppies. Rather, many farmers expect the government to reward them for giving up the crop."

If these rewards are not forthcoming, it's only a matter of time before farmers begin re-cultivating, or worse, a potential violent backlash emerges. The U.S., Britain, and other foreign donors should take note of the basic economics involved. It's far too early to be optimistic about poppy growth in Afghanistan. As the Economist reminds us:

In the year before its demise, the Taliban regime banned opium cultivation, enforcing the prohibition by both bulling and bribing farmers with false promises. This pushed up prices—and therefore the value of the regime's own stockpiles. With many dealers still at large, a similar manipulation may be under way.

"Bush's Most Radical Plan Yet"

| Tue Apr. 26, 2005 2:49 PM EDT

Osha Gray Davidson has a must-read investigation in Rolling Stone about the Bush administration's efforts to create, in a tiny paragraph buried way way down in its federal budget proposal, a "Sunset Commission." And what, pray tell, would this Sunset Commission do?

The proposal, spelled out in three short sentences, would give the president the power to appoint an eight-member panel called the "Sunset Commission," which would systematically review federal programs every ten years and decide whether they should be eliminated. Any programs that are not "producing results," in the eyes of the commission, would "automatically terminate unless the Congress took action to continue them."

Read the whole piece. If passed, these commissioners would very likely be lobbyists, who would happily strip away the Environmental Protection Agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, etc. Bye-bye worker protections. Bye-bye highway safety commission. Bye-bye— "But wait!," you cry. "Doesn't this violate the separation of powers!? Why should the executive branch be able to disintegrate agencies created by Congress? Surely the Supreme Court would knock this little measure down in a heartbeat." Ah, now we're starting to see what's at stake in the court battles. Contrary to the grand belief out there that the Democrats are opposing "people of faith," (yes, that's it, Dick Durbin, devout Catholic, is declaring a war on faith) the real problem is that nominees like Janice Brown would happily carry the administration's water over little anti-consumer, anti-worker moves like this.

By the way, I see today that President Bush is planning to extend his little Social Security privatization road-trip beyond its originally-allotted 60 days. Okay, well here we have a multi-million dollar federal program that not only doesn't produce results, but does the exact opposite of what it's intended to do: the more Americans hear about Bush's phase-out plan, the more they hate it. By all accounts, it's the worst-performing taxpayer-funded program in the history of this country, and in the name of small government, it should be terminated at once. Thrift starts at home, folks.

The Art of Compromise

| Tue Apr. 26, 2005 1:30 PM EDT

For those who didn't see it yesterday, read Josh Marshall's piece on Democratic strategy vis-à-vis the nuclear option. Even though the vast majority of voters in this country are siding with the Democrats, Harry Reid still floated a compromise, saying that perhaps he might allow a few of the least-egregious judges through in exchange for taking the Republican "nuclear option" off the table. (The Democrats would take this deal because they know the nuclear option isn't just meant to help confirm the seven judges currently under question; it's meant to confirm all manner of radicals and nuts yet to be nominated.) Well, read Josh's post for an analysis of the various ins and outs of this compromise, but needless to say, it seems to have worked.

Today Karl Rove rejected the Reid compromise out of hand. And Bill Frist just followed suit. Indeed, it's important to see that the Republicans can't achieve anything less than total victory on the filibuster issue lest they incur hellfire and wrath from the James Dobson crowd from now until Judgment Day. And maybe beyond. So unless Rove and Frist have some master tactic up his sleeve, it looks like he's finally cornered himself between a wingnut and a hard place.

UPDATE: Also, Jeff Dubner's take is well worth reading.

It's the Judges

| Tue Apr. 26, 2005 1:10 PM EDT

This is exactly the right response to Janice Brown's quip today that "people of faith were embroiled in a 'war' against secular humanists." The idea that there's a "war" going on, or that the left is demanding that religious people accept "second-class status," as Hugh Hewitt so moronically put it the other day (what does that even mean?), is of course nonsense. But back to the point, I'm glad Brown's remarks are getting attention. Ideally, the focus of the debate here should be on the fact that, religious or no, the Bush nominees being held up are truly nutcases. As Atrios notes, it's not likely that the 60 percent of the population siding with the Democrats here are doing so because they have some principled attachment to the filibuster; no, it's because Bush is trying to appoint a few lunatics to the court—lunatics quick to declare religious "war" at the first sign of opposition—and everyone knows it.

In the Absence of Dialogue...

Mon Apr. 25, 2005 7:56 PM EDT

Paul Krugman has an interesting op-ed charting the Bush administration's ever loosening grip on reality. Krugman writes:

Since November's election, the victors have managed to be on the wrong side of public opinion on one issue after another: the economy, Social Security privatization, Terri Schiavo, Tom DeLay…What's going on? Actually, it's quite simple: Mr. Bush and his party talk only to their base—corporate interests and the religious right—and are oblivious to everyone else's concerns.

Krugman makes a good point, though perhaps more interesting is that the Republicans' special-interest agenda seems to have prompted a dialogue with Democrats that excludes the more centrist views of the majority of Americans. A recent Economist article points out that the majority of Americans describe themselves as "independent" (39%) rather than as "Democrat" (31%) or "Republican" (30%). Noting the distinct lack of political success of centrist politicians such as Joe Lieberman, the Economist notes that any political dialogue has been effectively shifted to Republican turf. "Taxes? The debate is not over how much to raise them to close the looming deficit but how to cut them. Life? The issue isn't over how to prevent school shootings such as the one that took none lives in Minnesota, but about Terri Schiavo."

It's not just that we are discussing issues largely on Republican turf. Rather, it appears as though Democrats are using all their energies to fight these ideological battles such as the "right to life," gay marriage, and social security at the expense of dialogue regarding more exigent issues that more directly affect a larger percentage of Americans. To name a few: negotiating security and civil rights post-9/11, finding the necessary resources to supply enough troops and equipment to Iraq before it turns into an even bigger fiasco, ever-increasing deficit, a shortage of teachers and funding for schools.

In the vacuum of constructive debate on these issues, some states seem to have taken matters into their own hands. No Child Left Behind, in particular, has taken a lot of heat recently. Conservative states Utah and Texas recently joined Michigan and Vermont in a National Education Association (NEA) lawsuit against the Bush administration. The states are arguing that unless all portions of the NCLB law are federally funded, their school systems should not be required to, or punished for, not implementing the prescribed changes. Utah even passed legislation which orders stated officials to ignore any provisions of NCLB that required state funding, or, more broadly, conflict with the state's educational goals. According to the NEA site, 21 states are leaning in the same direction and have stated that they want changes to the NCLB law.

In a similar state and federal disconnect, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, "citing irreconcilable differences with how the Federal Bureau of Investigation has operated in a post-Sept. 11 world" announced his plans to take Portland police officers out of the FBI antiterrorism task force. Apparently Mayor Tom Potter was frustrated by the fact that the FBI had refused to give him and the chief of police the top secret clearance afforded to the officers on the antiterrorism force. Potter stated, "It's important that I know what they know because that is part of the oversight process. If there are things that I don't know that they know, there's always an opportunity for something to go wrong."

The lack of necessary debate regarding some of the major issues facing Americans may result in more states taking action against federal programs or opting out of important coordination with federal bodies. It would be unfortunate if, in a backlash to the uniform NCLB guidelines, states adhere only to their own educational goals. Likewise, it would be dangerous if, instead of finding some compromise in the exchange of information between state and national security, states elect to not to coordinate with the FBI. Let's hope some of these issues make their way back to the table. This kind of state fragmentation could add a whole other dimension to the issues this country is facing.

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Fun with Three-Part Interviews

| Mon Apr. 25, 2005 6:29 PM EDT

Heh, As'ad Abu Khalil has some highlights from the three-part, six-hour interview al-Arabiyya is doing with Egyptian president Husni Mubarak. (Hey, will all the other Egpytian candidates get a six-hour televised interview? Oh, hush. No need for such questions.) My favorite part:

And Adib [the al-Arabiyya host] is as sharp and penetrating an interviewer, and as challenging to people in power, as is...Larry King. One of his questions to Mubarak (I am not making this up): How do you reconcile between your firmness, strength, punctuality, and discipline, and between your good-heartness, civility, good-naturalness on the other hand? ("Experience", answered Mubarak).

Now that's hard-hitting! Why, it reminds me of one of my favorite sequences from George W. Bush's own three-part interview with Bill O'Reilly last fall:

O'REILLY: Philosophically, let's talk philosophically. Do you think you get a fair shake?

BUSH: Look I, that's up for the people to decide that. You know, I — I just tell people what I think. And I try to be as clear as I can be. You know, when it's all said and done, and people look at this campaign, they're going to have to decide whether or not they want somebody who tells them what he believes and doesn't change positions based upon pressure and polls or, or articles in newspapers.

O'REILLY: A guy over at "Newsweek," Evan Thomas, one of the editors over there, said eighty percent of the elite media favors Kerry.

BUSH: Yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

O'REILLY: That doesn't surprise you, does it?

Hm.... Ah, just kidding, of course. In fairness, looking over the O'Reilly interview, he was a lot more confrontational than the sycophantic Egyptian press. Or at least "quite a bit more" confrontational. Yes. I don't know if Fox wants to use that as a tag line or anything, but they're welcome to.

What Abu Ghraib Scandal?

Mon Apr. 25, 2005 2:35 PM EDT

This past weekend, the Army inspector general cleared 4 out of 5 senior officers involved in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse. Among those cleared of any responsibility was Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez. This despite the fact that Sanchez has previously been singled out for his responsibility by the Pentagon's Fay-Jones report (PDF):

I find that LTG Sanchez, and his DCG, MG Wojdakowski, failed to ensure proper staff oversight of detention and interrogation operations… It was not always clear to JIDC officers what [interrogation] approaches required LTG Sanchez's approval, nor was the level of approval consistent with requirements in other commands centers.

Not the harshest language. But note that George Fay, one of the authors and investigating officers of the inquiry, was appointed by none other that Sanchez himself. To implicate the guy who appointed you in any way is no small statement.

Similarly, the Schlesinger report concluded that Sanchez "had failed to make sure that his staff was dealing with Abu Ghraib's problems." It also determined that Sanchez's deputy, Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, "failed to act quickly enough to make urgent requests to higher levels for more troops at the understaffed prison."

Yet, the Army Inspector General's recent findings have laid the blame so far with only one high-ranking officer: Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski. Karpinski has long argued that she's merely a convenient female scapegoat. The Fay-Jones report seemed to acknowledge her stance that she consistently tried to get her superiors (Sanchez and Wojdakowski) to heed the concerns she had about Abu Ghraib. Page 37 notes, "BG Karpinski recognized Abu Ghraib's vulnerabilities and raised these concerns frequently to both MG Wojdakowski and LTG Sanchez."

There is obviously some animosity between Karpinski and Sanchez. According to recently unclassified portions of the Taguba report (PDF):

"Karpinski, who was criticized for leadership failures in the Taguba report, said Sanchez refused to provide her with the necessary resources to run Abu Ghraib and other prisons. She said that he didn't 'give a flip' about soldiers, and she added…'I think that his ego will not allow him to accept a Reserve Brigade, a Reserve General Officer and certainly not a female succeeding in a combat environment. And I think he looked at the 800th Brigade as the opportunity to find a scapegoat..."

Sounds pretty defensive. But consider that, similar to Sanchez's involvement in the Fay-Jones report, the Taguba report was ordered by Sanchez. And, he was particularly keen to investigate the actions of the 800th MP Brigade under the command of Karpinski. Also note that there was an air of sexism about the investigations.

There is also something to be said for all senior Army officers involved in the Iraqi prisons to be disciplined for their role in the abuses. Phillip Carter directs our attention to the Army's field on the law of land warfare:

The commander is also responsible if he has actual knowledge, or should have knowledge, through reports received by him or through other means, that troops or other persons subject to his control are about to commit or have committed a war crime and he fails to take the necessary reasonable steps to insure compliance with the law of war or to punish violators thereof.

But by this account—that commanders are responsible for their subordinates as well as what they should have known—Sanchez is even more culpable than Karpinski. The fact that even the flimsy, subjective military inquiries into the abuses make clear that Sanchez either knew or should have known what was going on, added to the fact that the reports also note that Karpinski repeatedly tried to discuss her concerns with her superiors squarely points blame at Sanchez. And yet, Karpinski appears to be the only one taking the heat. Might this have something to do with the fact that she is the only one talking publicly about what went on in Abu Ghraib? It doesn't make her any less guilty, but it makes you wonder why the Army can't seem to take action against those who are found responsible in their own reports.

Advice for Hillary

| Mon Apr. 25, 2005 12:46 PM EDT

Haha, Bob Novak has some "advice" for Hillary Clinton:

Prominent Democrats are advising Sen. Hillary Clinton that, if she runs for president in 2008 as expected, she should avoid the Iowa caucuses as the first competition for the Democratic nomination.

That advice is based on the belief that any Democrat must run well to the left to win the Iowa caucuses. Many Democrats believe Sen. John Kerry's 2004 victory in Iowa, while clinching the nomination, hurt his chances for the general election.

"Oh come on, why be so cynical? Why wouldn't Novak offer Clinton some friendly advice about how best to run her campaign?" Right, right. Anyway, as a matter of tactics, it would certainly seem foolish for anyone to skip the Iowa caucuses, as Wesley Clark found in early 2004. For better or worse, the primaries nowadays generate such a media frenzy, and momentum really is everything—the winner in Iowa gets the headline coverage that then make him or her likely to win New Hampshire, and that effect keeps snowballing on and on. In the past, winning the first primary wasn't entirely necessary for gaining the nomination, but in today's world, with pundits and internet junkies hanging on every poll, watching the race's every shift, far more will hang on Iowa. (Which is a great argument for mixing up the order of the primaries.)

Meanwhile, it's worth pointing out that Hillary Clinton will have some natural advantages on this front if she runs for president in 2008. She's so hated by a large swath of conservatives, drives them to such homicidal frenzy, and is the target of so much frothing right-wing abuse, that really, she doesn't need to run well to the left in order to preserve her liberal credentials. A few Rush Limbaugh rants will do the trick! The Clinton-bashing really does give her a lot of breathing room to tout her largely center-right positions on abortion, foreign policy, violence on TV, etc. etc. I'm still not sure what I think of Hillary Clinton, but face it, she's got the "George W. Bush" strategy down pat—just drive your opponents into a blinding, unfathomable rage, and suddenly you've got a lot of natural advantages.

Give Contractors... Nukes?

| Mon Apr. 25, 2005 12:30 PM EDT

Cheryl Rofer has some very interesting thoughts on the future of America's nuclear arsenal:

I heard a talk last week by a high-up manager at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, someone who characterizes himself as "not doing policy." He said that George Bush is committed to serious reductions in nuclear weapons, down to 5000 from the current 10,000. One of the contributors to the most recent Nuclear Posture Review said something similar about a year ago.

The question in many people's minds seems to be whether that reduction is intended to make the remaining weapons more usable in situations that the US is likely to face in the post-Cold War world.

It goes on, so read the whole thing. There's an open question as to how necessary nuclear deterrence really is in an age of all those shadowy, trans-national terrorist groups lurking around. In the New Republic a few weeks ago, Michael Levi argued that the U.S. should threaten an overwhelming response—presumably an overwhelming nuclear response—even to failed nuclear attacks on American soil. For those threats to work, presumably, we're going to need some usable nuclear weapons. Frankly, I'm not sure whether this is a good idea or not. I do know that I'd prefer we never have this threat, which is precisely why it's worth imploring the White House to get serious about funding programs like Nunn-Lugar, to secure loose nuclear material worldwide.

Rofer also notes that the Bush administration is thinking about taking the nuclear program away from Los Alamos and putting it into private, for-profit hands. (See here for more>.) Oy. You'd think any grand claims about the "efficiency" of the private sector would be at least a little muted after the debacle in Iraq, or even after, as Rofer puts it, "Lockheed-Martin's penchant for using English and metric units interchangeably, which resulted in the crash of one of the Mars vehicles." Heh, wee bit of a mess-up there. But no, apparently that track record is more than solid enough to trust contractors with our nuclear weapons.

Oh, and you also have to wonder: would the private companies who would stand to make billions off of a new and ever-more-dazzling array of nuclear weapons ever—ever—advise restraint on the subject? Hmmm, tough question.