2010 - %3, November

Bush's Biggest WMD Lie?

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 4:00 AM PST

It's official. George W. Bush's selective and self-serving book is a best-seller. He sold 775,000 copies in the first week and the publisher has rushed to print an additional 350,000. The amount of debunking the book deserves could, well, fill a book. But there's one trenchant portion of the book that reeks with hypocrisy. In discussing the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush notes, "That was a massive blow to our credibility—my credibility—that would shake the confidence of the American people." He then adds: "No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn't find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do."

A sickening feeling every time he thought about it? Really? Let's rewind the video back to a moment that crystallized the Bush-Cheney era. It was March 24, 2004. Washington's political and media elite had gathered at the Washington Hilton for the annual Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner, which is something of a cousin to the yearly White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. As thousands of DC's swells enjoyed their surf-and-turf meal, Bush was the entertainment. The tradition is that at such affairs the president is the big speaker, and he has to be amusing, poking fun at himself and his political foes.

Bush was no fan of such gatherings, and he and his aides had decided he ought to narrate a humorous slide show, instead of doing a stand-up routine. Large video screens flashed pictures of him and his aides, which he augmented with funny quips. One showed him on the phone with a finger in his ear. He explained this shot by saying he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." There were humorous bits about his mother and Dick Cheney.

Then Bush displayed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office. His narration: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." The audience laughed. But the joke wasn't done. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.

Bush was actually joking about the missing weapons of mass destruction. He was making fun of the reason he had cited for sending Americans to war and to death, turning it into a running gag. His smile was wide and his eyes seemed bright, as the audience laughed. At the time I wrote,

Few [in the crowd] seemed to mind. His WMD gags did not prompt a how-can-you silence from the gathering. At the after-parties, I heard no complaints.I wondered what the spouse, child or parent of a soldier killed in Iraq would have felt if they had been watching C-SPAN and saw the commander-in-chief mocking the supposed justification for the war that claimed their loved ones. Bush told the nation that lives had to be sacrificed because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used (by terrorists) against the United States. That was not true. (And as [WMD search team leader David] Kay pointed out, the evidence so far shows these weapons were not there in the first place, not that they were hidden, destroyed or spirited away.) But rather than acknowledge he misinformed the public, Bush jokes about the absence of such weapons.

In yet another act reminiscent of Soviet-style revisionism, Bush in his book does not mention this dinner and his performance there. If he indeed felt ill whenever he pondered the missing WMDs—as he insists in his memoirs—how could he turn this into a crass punchline? Asking that question provides the answer. He is fibbing in his book. Moreover, this small episode is proof of a larger truth: Bush's chronicle is not a serious accounting of his years as the decider. As for the hundreds of thousands of readers who shelled out $35.00 for the book, expecting the former president to level with them, the joke is on them.

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After John Tyner: A Five-Step Plan to a Sane Airport Security System

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 4:00 AM PST

In late October, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which handles airport security in the US, began offering passengers a choice: either submit to being imaged by the new, invasive, "backscatter" scanners, which show your genitals to the security officers manning the machine, or risk having your junk touched by those same officers. New regulations require that the TSA perform "enhanced pat-downs"—which some critics have described as "groping"—of anyone who declines the controversial full-body scan. If you decline both procedures, as Californian John Tyner did this week, you can be investigated and face fines up to $11,000

Although a recent poll showed that over 80 percent of Americans are okay with the new scanners, the forced choice between the "naked" imaging and the new pat-downs has a vocal group of fliers and airport security reformers up in arms. On October 29, Atlantic magazine writer Jeff Goldberg, who's cultivated a sort of side-career as an airport security reformer, wrote a hilarious blog post about his experience with the new pat-downs. The post, in which Goldberg banters with TSA officers about his testicles, was widely circulated on the Internet. But it wasn't until John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner taped his own encounter with the TSA that the story really took off, fuelling criticism of the TSA across the media and political spectrum.

My colleague Kevin Drum is tired of hearing the complaints. So on Monday, he issued a challenge

[W]hat I haven't seen is an informed take on what airport security ought to look like. We all hate taking off our shoes and pulling out our laptops and being limited to three ounces of liquid and not being allowed to meet people at the gate anymore — we hate all of that. But if it's all useless, what should we do instead? Shouldn't someone write that article?

Ever dutiful, I set out to complete Kevin's assignment. I asked Goldberg, security expert Bruce Schneier, and airline pilot (and security critic) Patrick Smith about what their ideal airport security schemes would look like. After speaking to them, I think Kevin is missing the point: the elimination of existing useless security procedures is the heart of the plan. It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.

Schneier is famous for explaining that "exactly two things have made us safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else is a waste of money." All three experts favor scrapping most of the security measures that people hate—and not necessarily replacing them with anything. Ideally, the money that was saved wouldn't be spent on airport security at all: it would be spent on trying to stop terrorists before they got to the airport. That means better-funding law enforcement and intelligence.

All that said, Goldberg, Schneier, and Smith did offer some suggestions for new or different security procedures to use "instead" of the methods we're currently relying on. Here are a few options:

  1. Enhance baggage security. All three experts mentioned this. Baggage is where the greatest danger is, and where airport security resources should be focused. "Right now the biggest threats are still bombs and explosives. That's the path of least resistance," Smith says. "All luggage going on passenger planes should be treated the same, and scanned," says Schneier. Making sure that a passenger's bags never, ever fly if he doesn't is also key. And we could do more. Here's an excerpt from a 2006 article by Schneier:
    If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn't spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.
  2. Pay more attention to airport workers. Schneier was an early advocate of background checks and increased screening for airport employees. If you're screening pilots, it's "completely absurd" not to screen the guy who is loading food on the plane, Smith says. This has improved in recent years, and the TSA now conducts random screening of airport employees. That could be broadened. Goldberg suggested considering biometric IDs for airport employees.
  3. Randomize enhanced screening. Schneier has suggested that any "enhanced" screening of passengers be "truly random." That means that while the majority of passengers wouldn't face the invasive security checks they face now, every passenger would face the risk of a thorough search. Terrorists can't avoid or plan for truly random enhanced searches, like they can with protocol-, background-, and profiling-based searches. You don't want terrorists to be able to plan their way around your security. You want them to have to get lucky.
  4. Make security lines less vulnerable. The huge lines of people waiting in airport security lines are themselves a huge target. "If you want to terrorize the country, you don't have to take down an airplane, you can just take people down in a security line," Goldberg says. "All these people packed in tightly waiting and waiting and waiting... The next day all the airports in America will be closed." Moving people through security quickly and efficiently will make the security lines themselves less of a target. 
  5. The Israeli model is unworkable on a large scale. But that doesn't mean you can't replicate parts of it. Some people believe that America should move to the Israeli model of airport security: intense screening based on asking passengers many, many questions and assessing their responses. But the experts I spoke to don't think that plan is workable in the United States. Israel has one medium-sized airport, and it would be next to impossible (and incredibly expensive) to enact Israeli-style security procedures in a country the size of the US. But that doesn't mean you couldn't have more (well-trained!) people observing passengers' behavior or asking key questions of randomly selected passengers. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 19, 2010

Fri Nov. 19, 2010 3:30 AM PST

Indiana National Guard Soldiers of Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 150th Field Artillery Regiment, headquartered in Greencastle, Ind., work together to smoothly execute a fire mission using their M777 Howitzers at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in central Indiana, Thursday, Nov. 4. The Indiana Guard is one of the first states to be issued this piece of equipment. Photo via U.S. Army.

Stuxnet Update

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 11:13 PM PST

Here's the latest on the Stuxnet worm:

The paternity of the worm is still in dispute, but in recent weeks officials from Israel have broken into wide smiles when asked whether Israel was behind the attack, or knew who was. American officials have suggested it originated abroad.

The new forensic work narrows the range of targets and deciphers the worm’s plan of attack. Computer analysts say Stuxnet does its damage by making quick changes in the rotational speed of motors, shifting them rapidly up and down.

....Those fluctuations, nuclear analysts said in response to the report, are a recipe for disaster among the thousands of centrifuges spinning in Iran to enrich uranium, which can fuel reactors or bombs. Rapid changes can cause them to blow apart. Reports issued by international inspectors reveal that Iran has experienced many problems keeping its centrifuges running, with hundreds removed from active service since summer 2009.

Pretty clever of the Israelis, no?

The War Against DADT Repeal

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 8:55 PM PST

I'm not sure how seriously to take this, but Marcy Wheeler retweets this from petulantsage:

Every person I've talked to over the past 48 hours, who works for a 3 & 4-star agrees: it's open warfare. USMC and AF will kill repeal.

No surprise, I guess. The Marine Corps (too red-blooded for gays) and the Air Force (too evangelical Christian for gays) have always been the most opposed to repeal of DADT. We'll see who wins the war shortly.

New START and Its Discontents

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 7:17 PM PST

Josh Marshall realized today that he didn't really know much about the New START treaty, so he made some phone calls to get up to speed. His report:

Have you heard this? Russia still has a massive strategic nuclear arsenal with pretty much the exclusive goal of being able to devastate the United States and kill pretty much all of us. For 15 years we had pretty robust right to inspect their arsenal many times a year, make sure they only had as many as they were allowed under our treaties and actually get up on the delivery missiles themselves and look at the payloads? Now we don't. In fact, we haven't since December 5th of last year.

At first that wasn't that big a deal. Not much can happen in a few weeks or few months. But now it's been almost a year. So all that trust but verify stuff Ronald Reagan was so into? Well, now we can't verify. And for as much as you're worried about some Muslim guy blowing up a plane and killing a few hundred people, these are weapons designed to kill hundreds of millions of people. Do you feel more secure knowing we're just taking everything on faith from the Russians? Or that our intelligence on their missile designs and practices is growing older by the day?

As it happens, yes, I have heard all this. But I think Josh is right: most people don't have a clue. And it does indeed seem like a massive messaging fail by the White House that they haven't been focused obsessively on pushing this message at every opportunity. Forget all the other aspects of the treaty. Forget the reduction in warheads, the reduction in ICBMs, or the reduction in heavy bombers. Forget about the quality of our relationship with Russia and its role in reining in Iran's nuke program. If there's anything that people ought to understand, it's that the treaty restores our ability to inspect and verify the Russian nuclear arsenal.

I've spent some time reading the technical objections that conservatives have to New START, and they're pretty inscrutable. Mostly they either strain the language of the treaty beyond recognition (to claim it obstructs missile defense, for example), criticize something the treaty doesn't even cover (tactical nukes, targeting strategies), object to provisions that both the military and the intelligence community say are fine (telemetry protocols, launch vehicle IDs), or simply rail against the whole idea of signing arms control treaties in the first place — as conservatives have done pretty much forever. There's practically nothing concrete to any of it.

But if we don't approve the treaty, we'll lose our ability to verify Russian nukes completely. That's about as concrete as you can get.

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Bush Kept His "Mission Accomplished" Banner

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 4:07 PM PST

Ever wonder what happened to the big ol' "Mission Accomplished" banner that hung behind George W. Bush during his carrier-deck Iraq victory speech? Wonder no more. Via the USA Today:

As former president George W. Bush broke ground Tuesday in Dallas for his presidential library, officials weighed whether or not to display one item that few know is being held in storage there: the "Mission Accomplished" banner...

The banner now sits in storage and will become part of the library's collection. A decision on how or whether to display the red-white-and-blue banner hasn't been made, said Alan Lowe, director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

No word yet on whether the Bush Library will house any waterboards, yellowcake uranium, or notes from secret energy-industry meetings. But hopefully this golf club will be there:

 

Freudian Eels

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 3:58 PM PST

Two closely-related species of shapeshifting fish inhabit the North Atlantic: the American eel, Anguilla rostrata; and the European eel, Anguilla anguilla. They share a catadromous lifestyle, that is, they live in freshwater but breed in saltwater. That's the opposite of the better-known anadromous fish, like salmon.European eel. Photo by Ron Offermans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.European eel. Photo by Ron Offermans, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Popping the Corks for GM

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 3:49 PM PST

Stephen Spruiell thows a bit of cold water on GM's much ballyhooed IPO:

Regarding the triumphalism attending GM’s IPO, let this post serve as a friendly reminder that GM still owes the U.S. government $43 billion; that its financing arm still owes $14.6 billion; and that its sick friend Chrysler still owes $8.2 billion.

....Let’s also keep in mind that many conservatives did not object to the idea of government-backed debtor-in-possession financing for GM and Chrysler at the height of the credit crisis, arguing that bankruptcy was unavoidable but that it might be necessary for the government to play a limited role in keeping the lights on at GM. The counterargument at the time, which one encountered constantly when arguing with bailout proponents, was that GM could not survive a bankruptcy — even a government-financed one — because the damage to its brand would be too great. Like many of the scare stories the automakers were telling at the time, this turned out to be false. It eventually became necessary for both GM and Chrysler to declare bankruptcy, and this did not prove fatal to either company. However, instead of providing simple debtor-in-possession financing, the TARP-financed bailout of the auto companies gave the Obama administration more control over the process, which it used to allow its union supporters to jump the line ahead of senior creditors. That’s exactly the kind of thing conservatives feared, and why we called for the government to have a much more circumscribed role if it was to have any role at all.

Look, no one is rooting for GM to fail, or for thousands of autoworkers to be laid off, or for the taxpayers to lose their entire stake in the company. But it is just ridiculous to start popping champagne corks left and right over the fact that an industrial problem child like GM managed to put its pants on today without falling on its face.

I'm surprisingly sympathetic to much of this. I remember my main reaction to the GM/Chrysler question at the time being, "I'm sure glad I'm not president of the United States right now." I really detested the whole idea of bailing out GM, but at the same time it was hard to convince myself that if I were actually in charge I'd be willing to risk the loss of another million jobs during the depths of the biggest economic turndown since the Great Depression.

And now? Like Spruiell, I'm far from convinced that GM is truly out of the woods, but I'm not as downbeat as he is over how this all played out. He's right about GM eventually declaring bankruptcy and coming through it OK, but the argument against bankruptcy, as I recall it, was mostly an argument against an uncontrolled bankruptcy. The main virtue of the eventual government involvement was not just that the feds provided some money, but that they were able to create a credible restructuring plan and then run it through the courts as a quick prepackaged bankruptcy. It's impossible to say for sure how much difference that made, but given that the feds were going to be on the hook for a lot of money regardless, it's hard to argue that it was worth taking any more chances than we had to.

And what was the downside? In the end the Obama administration didn't exercise all that much control over the company. The union deal has always stuck in conservative craws, but it was pretty defensible on purely practical grounds, and in any case the UAW almost certainly didn't come out of the process much better than they would have in a standard bankruptcy. And in the post-bankruptcy stage, the administration has taken an almost obsessive hands-off attitude toward GM's operations, especially considering that they were a 61% shareholder.

The precedent the GM bailout set wasn't great. But in the end, I think even conservatives ought to acknowledge that it was handled quickly and competently, and that afterward the Obama administration showed very clearly that it had absolutely no interest in using the government's stake to exercise control over the company. I wouldn't get too triumphal about GM's IPO either, but I guess I also wouldn't be too churlish about acknowledging that, all things considered, it turned out pretty well.

Are Dems Growing a Brain?

| Thu Nov. 18, 2010 1:06 PM PST

Greg Sargent reports:

Steny Hoyer, the number two in the House Dem leadership, told Democrats at a caucus meeting this morning that they would get to vote this year on just extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class, a senior Dem aide tells me, signaling support for a confrontational move towards the GOP that liberals have been pushing.

I don't believe this. It's too smart. Not like Democrats at all.