2011 - %3, December

Senate Votes Not To Vote On Indefinite Detention On Americans

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 9:15 AM EST

Can Americans be indefinitely detained by the military on suspicion of terrorism if arrested on American soil? Thursday evening the Senate added a compromise amendment to the defense spending bill that states: Maybe. Specifically, it says the bill does not alter current authorities relating to detention, leaving either side free to argue whether current law allows or prohibits indefinite military detention of Americans captured in the US.  

The compromise amendment passed by a 99-1 after a previous effort by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) that would have explicitly prevented the indefinite detention of Americans without trial failed 45-55. Several Democrats joined Republicans in blocking the latter amendment with Republican Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) Rand Paul (R-Ky) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill) joining most Democrats in voting for Feinstein's amendment. 

The reason the compromise amendment worked is that it leaves the question of domestic military detention open, leaving the matter for Supreme Court to resolve should a future president decide to assert the authority to detain a US citizen on American soil. Senators who defended the detention provisions can continue to say that current law allows Americans to be detained based on the 2004 Hamdi v Rumsfeld case in which an American captured fighting in Afghanistan was held in military detention. Opponents can continue to point out that the Hamdi case doesn't resolve whether or not Americans can be detained indefinitely without charge if captured in their own country, far from any declared battlefield. They have the better of the argument.

The compromise amendment however, does nothing to address the Obama administration's concerns about the bill. The Directors of the FBI and CIA, the secretary of defense, and the director of national intelligence have all said that the bill's provision mandating military detention of non-citizen terror suspects apprehended on American soil would interfere with terrorism investigations and harm national security. That hasn't changed. The question is whether or not the administration is willing to make good on its threat to veto the bill, or whether it was just bluffing.   

The floor debate over the Feinstein amendment showed that the argument over whether Americans in the US could be subject to indefinite military detention without trial doesn't fall neatly along partisan or ideological lines. Senator Kirk, in particular, gave a spirited defense of Feinstein's amendment, saying, "Most Americans think you can only be convicted of a crime in the United States beyond the shadow of a doubt by a jury of your peers. But if this [bill without the Feinstein amendment] is passed, that is no longer true."

Now, we simply have no idea.

This post has been edited for clarity. 



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Budget Crunch Ruins the CIA Party Scene

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 7:22 AM EST
If the economy remains sour, this might be the most the CIA's party budget can afford this year.

The combination of the stagnant economy and Washington's budget-slashing frenzy keeps claiming casualties. Along with the expected toll on small businesses and—believe it or not—chunks of Wall Street, treasured vices have faced hard times. Dippin' Dots, one of the world's favorite drunk-at-a-ballpark snacks, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in early November. Federal agencies have been ordered to seriously cut down on give-aways of government-issued swag (i.e. stress balls, mouse pads, baseball caps, pens, tote bags). And in mid-July, Minnesotans almost had to bid adieu to their beloved cigarettes and beer.

Things might be looking rather barren, but at least we still have those fun annual CIA holiday parties to look forward to...ah, hell, nevermind; scratch that:

U.S. spy agencies might have been eager to celebrate their success this holiday season, following the death of Osama bin Laden, new indications that sanctions and sabotage are working against Iran, and the passage of another year without a major terrorist attack on the United States.

But with budget cuts looming, party plans are being pared back for the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA. Both agencies have for years been known — at least among elites in the insular world of espionage — for throwing lavish year-end events.

Under then-director Leon E. Panetta last year, the CIA brought in shipments of California wine, and served fried oysters, grilled shrimp and quesadillas. His predecessor, Michael V. Hayden, made sure there were musicians playing Irish music while stations set up inside the agency’s cavernous headquarters hallway served drinks and hors d'oeuvres.


But the CIA and DNI both acknowledged this week that the events this time around will be smaller, cheaper and off-limits to the press..."Scaling back our holiday celebrations is just another small example of our commitment to making sure that we continue to make wise fiscal decisions across the board," [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper said in a prepared statement.

Because of the sheer, widely acknowledged awesomeness of CIA-DNI holiday throwdowns, the agency might soon have an #OccupyLangley—comprised of disgruntled employees and elite journos—on its hands.

This latest budget crunch-related move seems to fit with the Obama administration's much-hyped "SAVE Award" initiative, which rewards federal employees who propose the best ideas "to make government more effective and efficient and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely" on the micro level. But as the Washington Post's Greg Miller noted on Wednesday, officials say that the annual DNI mixer typically costs in the ballpark of $50,000—the same amount the government spends on a single Hellfire missile.

So if this is really just another drop in the deep, towering bucket, it begs the question: Why on earth would the government scale back on one of the things the CIA has actually gotten right?

NOAA Arctic Report Card: 3 Fs, 2 Cs

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 6:01 AM EST

Icebergs breaking off glacier, Greenland.: Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons. Icebergs breaking off glacier, Greenland. Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons. NOAA released its 2011 Arctic report card. And then they confused the metaphors by using a traffic signal. *Sigh.*

But if we follow through on the original metaphor, we get the following report card:

Sea ice age in the first week of March derived from tracking the drift of ice floes in 1988, 2009, 2010 and 2011. : Figure courtesy of J. Maslanik and C. Fowler, via NOAA.Sea ice age in the first week of March derived from tracking the drift of ice floes in 1988, 2009, 2010 and 2011.  Figure courtesy of J. Maslanik and C. Fowler, via NOAA.

The foremost conclusion of the report is that 2006 marked a major shift in the Arctic Ocean system. 

The report doesn't say 'tipping point.' But in fact it might well have been a tipping point. Here's what this tippinglike point looks like:

  • Persistent decline in the thickness of sea ice cover
  • Persistent decline in the summer extent of sea ice cover
  • A warmer upper ocean
  • A fresher upper ocean

The tipping-ish part is that the system may not return to what it was before 2006. In other words, another new normal.

Polar bears approach the submarine USS Honolulu (SSN 718) while surfaced 280 miles from the North Pole. : Credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US Navy.Polar bears approach the submarine USS Honolulu (SSN 718) while surfaced 280 miles from the North Pole. : Credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US Navy.The consequences of the tip are broad spectrum, impacting biology, chemistry, meteorology in (often) positive feedback loops.

For marine life, most consequences are a response to ever-smaller areas of ice and ever-larger areas of open water. Specifically:

  • Biological productivity at the base of the marine food chain—aka phytoplankton—has increased
  • Sea ice-dependent marine mammals—like polar bears and walrus—continue to lose habitat

Many of the changes underway for terrestrial life  are linked to warmer temperatures in coastal regions, where sea ice used to keep things cool, but is now in retreat. Including:

  • Increases in the greenness of tundra vegetation
  • Increase in permafrost temperatures

Increased autumn snow in Siberia predicts a weakening Arctic vortex in winter. : Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation.Increased autumn snow in Siberia predicts a weakening Arctic vortex in winter. : Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller, National Science Foundation.A second key point from this report card is the repeat in 2011 of an anomalous wind pattern that first appeared in the Arctic winter of 2010. This weakening of the Arctic vortex led to the jet stream dipping south and warming Greenland and northeastern Canada, while bringing much colder temperatures to Europe and North America. The results:

  • Higher than normal temperatures in the Arctic
  • Record ice sheet mass loss
  • Record low late spring snow cover in Eurasia
  • Shorter lake ice duration
  • Unusually lower temperatures and snow storms in some low latitude regions


Rare deep depletion in the ozone layer over the Arctic in 2011, much like the annual Antarctic ozone hole. : Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.Rare deep depletion in the ozone layer over the Arctic in 2011, much like the annual Antarctic ozone hole. : Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

On top of all that, the Arctic grew its own bona fide ozone hole last winter—one that threatens far more populated areas of the globe than the Antarctic hole, and one with the power to impact the winter crops that feed us. The executive summary of the report concludes:

The 2011 Report Card shows that record-setting changes are occurring throughout the Arctic environmental system. Given the projection of continued global warming, it is very likely that major Arctic changes will continue in years to come, with increasing climatic, biological and social impacts.



A Little Straight Talk on National Defense

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 6:00 AM EST
A paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division’s “Devil Brigade” aims his M240-B crew-served machine gun.

The Economist's Roger McShane is unimpressed with all the doom-mongering over proposed cuts to the Pentagon budget:

So by how much will the defence budget decline over the next decade? That could be seen as a trick question, because in nominal terms it will grow. Prior to the supercommittee's failure, the defence budget was slated to increase some 23% between 2012 and 2021. Now, according to Veronique de Rugy, the Pentagon will have to make do with a 16% boost…Or to put it another way, as Lawrence Korb does, the "sequestration will return defense spending in real terms to its FY 2007 level, the next to last year of the Bush administration, when no one was complaining about devastating levels of spending."

…But these numbers have not quieted the critics. And perhaps the most ardent among them has been [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta. My colleague cites a statement from the secretary, in which he lists the tragic results of a 16% increase: "We would be left with our smallest ground force since 1940, the fewest ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history." Here's another fact: America already has the fewest ships since 1916, despite a 70% increase in defence spending between 2001 and 2010.

We could, of course, have thousands of ships and tens of thousands of warplanes if we wanted. But that would mean buying lots of PT boats and swarms of F-4s instead of a dozen Nimitz- and Ford-class supercarrier groups and a few hundred F-35s. We don't have a small number of ships and planes because we're too cheap to buy more, we have them because that's what the Pentagon wants. Modern war makes a small number of superadvanced weapons systems more effective than a bunch of cheap cannon fodder.

Defense hawks like to insist that we should judge the Pentagon budget as a percentage of GDP. The Bill Kristol contingent, for example, claims that we should never allow defense spending to fall below 4 percent of GDP. But is this a sensible way of looking at things? For some programs it is. Social Security and Medicare, for example, are both inherently tied to population growth and living standards, so as those go up so will outlays. But in other areas this doesn't make so much sense. Do we need more embassies overseas just because our GDP has grown? Not really. There will be some increase in wages that's tied to economic growth, but that's about it.

National defense falls into this category. The United States is no harder or easier to defend when our economy grows, so it's foolish to pretend that defense spending as a percentage of GDP should remain constant. It should go up when we're at war, or when external threats are high for some reason, and it should go down in other times.

This is one of those other times. Despite the best efforts of defense hawks to jangle nerves over China, the plain fact is that China remains a minuscule military threat and probably will remain so for the foreseeable future. We aren't going to start a land war in Asia, after all. Spending on cybersecurity will increase in the future, but it's still a nit in the grand scheme of Pentagon spending. On other fronts, Al Qaeda is all but dead, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. We'll continue to keep troops in the Middle East and (for better or worse) we'll continue with our drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. But those are pretty cheap. As scary as terrorism might be, the fact is that it's primarily an intelligence expense. On a pure military basis, it's simply not a big-ticket threat.

So can we afford to reduce defense spending to 2007 levels? Of course we can. The world is not more dangerous today than it was in 2007, and there's no a priori reason it should cost more to defend the security of the United States today than it did in 2007. We might spend that money differently, of course. Perhaps the Pentagon will decide it would rather have a thousand more drones instead of a single additional supercarrier group. That might well make sense since the mission of supercarrier groups is becoming fuzzier all the time in an era of primarily asymmetric warfare.

The supercommittee sequestration will require the Pentagon to find additional cuts of about $50 billion per year in its budget. To pretend that this would make us virtually defenseless is to insult our collective intelligence. We can make that cut and still have the most powerful military on the planet by a factor of five or six. If that doesn't make you feel safe, nothing will.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 2, 2011

Fri Dec. 2, 2011 5:57 AM EST

"Rooftop Scan"

US Army Sgt. Austen Clair, from Juneau, Alaska, assigned to 2nd Platoon, Action Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas, scans his sector from a rooftop in the Chingay village, Sayed Abad district, Wardak province, Afghanistan, November 21, 2011. The objective of Operation Action Two was to reinforce relationships with the local population, and to deny insurgents freedom of movement in the area. Photo by Spc. Austin Berner.

Newt Gingrich Loves Freddie Mac

| Fri Dec. 2, 2011 1:55 AM EST

Newt Gingrich in November 2011, asked what he told Freddie Mac when he was consulting for them in 2006-07:

My advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me, "We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do," as I said to them at the time, this is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible.

Newt Gingrich in April 2007, during an in-house interview promoting the virtues of Freddie Mac, uncovered today by Morgen Richmond of the blog Verum Serum:

I think it is telling that there is strong bipartisan support for maintaining the GSE model in housing. There is not much support for the idea of removing the GSE charters from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And I think it’s clear why. The housing GSEs have made an important contribution to homeownership and the housing finance system.

....Millions of people have entered the middle class through building wealth in their homes, and there is a lot of evidence that homeownership contributes to stable families and communities. These are results I think conservatives should embrace and want to extend as widely as possible. So while we need to improve the regulation of the GSEs, I would be very cautious about fundamentally changing their role or the model itself.

Hmmm. He seemed much more....upbeat....back when he was getting paid $1.6 million for his historical advice, didn't he? I guess the "insane" part must have been delivered only in private. Richmond comments:

Either he knew Freddie Mac’s lending practices were contributing to an unsustainable housing bubble headed for collapse, as he now claims, and yet accepted money to publicly defend them anyway. On their web site. Or he is now stretching the truth about his assessment of Freddie Mac’s problems at the time, and the advice he privately gave to their management.

Roger that. Newt's defense is (surprise!) that he's changed his mind since 2007. I'll bet you didn't see that one coming.

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Neville Chamberlain Not a Good Reason to Invade Iran

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 6:43 PM EST

Max Boot has a piece in the LA Times today arguing that we should take a much tougher stand against Iran than we have so far:

In retrospect, weakness in the face of aggression is almost impossible to understand — or forgive. Why did the West do so little while the Nazis gathered strength in the 1930s? While the Soviet Union enslaved half of Europe and fomented revolution in China in the late 1940s? And, again, while Al Qaeda gathered strength in the 1990s? Those questions will forever haunt the reputations of the responsible statesmen, from Neville Chamberlain to Bill Clinton.

....Western policymakers have implicitly made the same assumption today that their predecessors made in the 1930s, 1940s and 1990s: that an immediate war, even one fought on favorable terms, is to be feared more than a looming cataclysm that is likely to occur at some indefinite point in the not-too-distant future. That was the right decision to make with Stalin's Russia; it was tragically wrongheaded with Hitler's Germany and the Taliban/Al Qaeda.

I was glad that I ended up reading the whole piece, because when Boot mentioned Stalin's takeover of Eastern Europe I thought maybe he'd lost his mind. But no: in the very last paragraph, he admits that not starting up a new war with the Soviet Union after Hitler's fall was the right thing to do. It was a terrible thing to do, but still the right thing.

But without that, Boot is left with only two examples: Neville Chamberlain, poster boy of the hawkish right for over 70 years now, and Bill Clinton. And Clinton isn't even a very good example: al-Qaeda didn't truly start to seem dangerous until 1998, and Clinton actually kept a fair amount of attention focused on them. It wasn't enough — primarily because the CIA and the Pentagon, like the American right, refused to take non-state terrorism seriously at the time — but it wasn't an example of appeasement. So at best, let's call it one and a half examples.

But here's what's interesting: when hawkish right-wing types make this argument, they always haul out poor old Neville Chamberlain. Boot throws in Bill Clinton, probably more for partisan reasons than because he truly believes Clinton was soft on al-Qaeda. But that's not exactly a complete history of softness toward potential enemies. When China turned communist in 1949, we let it happen. That was a good decision. When Vietnam did the same we eventually sent half a million troops over, and that turned out to be a bad decision. France took an aggressive stand in Algeria, and the Soviet Union did likewise in Afghanistan, and those were also pretty bad decisions in retrospect.

Sometimes aggressive action is a good idea. Sometimes containment is a good idea. Sometimes international pressure is a good idea. And sometimes just sitting back and letting events unfold for a while is a good idea. If you want to make the case for flattening Iran, you need to actually make the case for why it's worth it. We've gotten — or should have gotten — way past the point where you can just yell "Neville Chamberlain!" and expect anyone to take you seriously.

Mitt Romney: "Stuff the Ice Chest"

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 6:30 PM EST

This fun-with-Mitt Romney video is, hands down, the funniest thing I've watched in the past month. Enjoy:

Newt Gingrich's Ideal Border Fence Already Exists

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 5:23 PM EST
Build the danged fence: The US-Mexican border at Santa Elena Canyon, Texas.

On Thursday, GOP front-runner—yes, front-runner—Newt Gingrich signed a pledge from the North Carolina group Americans for Securing the Border. Per the terms of the pledge, the former House speaker has committed himself to completing a fence along the Mexican border by the end of his first year in office. As Gingrich put it in Des Moines, "We haven't been able to build a fence on the border because we have not been a serious country."

But as the Los Angeles Times notes, the pledge has an important caveat: It explicitly states that the Department of Homeland Security should determine which parts of the border need a fence. Under that criteria, Gingrich would only need to extend the fence by two miles to finish the job America has been too unserious to complete.

Although the border fence mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 called for a 700-mile stretch of fence, the Department of Homeland Security later urged Congress to modify the law. That's because only a fraction of the border actually stands to benefit from having a physical barrier; the billions of dollars it would take to construct a barrier through Texas' Santa Elena Canyon (see above) could be much be better spent doing pretty much anything else. As Border Patrol chief Michael Fisher told Congress in October, "we have now constructed 650 miles of fencing out of nearly 652 miles where Border Patrol field commanders determined it was operationally required along the Southwest border." By that standard, Gingrich's work is pretty much done.

There is a difference between "operationally required" and "optimal," of course. If Gingrich decided he wanted to spend an unlimited amount of money and completely ignore environmental concerns, he could probably expand the length of the fence even more. The ASB pledge also calls for the existing fence to be doubled, so that you'll have to go through two fences to get across. But if you can hop over one fence, the second one just seems superfluous. The point is that the current perimeter parameters have already been defined by the agencies Gingrich's pledge defers to.

Give Gingrich some credit, though: His new plan would cost tens of billions of dollars less than Herman Cain's proposal to build a 2,000-mile electrified fence.

Pew Survey Suggests Gingrich's Vision For Immigration Reform Could Legalize Millions

| Thu Dec. 1, 2011 3:44 PM EST
Newt Gingrich speaks at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich's front-runner status has thus far managed to survive the revelation that he doesn't believe mass deportation is a workable solution to illegal immigration. 

"I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community, who may have done something 25 years ago, separate them from their families, and expel them," Gingrich said during a GOP presidential debate on CNN last week. "And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families."

The Pew Hispanic Center decided to break down what Gingrich's plan might mean in practice. According to their survey, first flagged by the New York Times, almost two-thirds of the US' 10.2 million adult illegal immigrants have lived here for at least a decade, and nearly half have kids who are minors. The survey also notes, "Overall, at least 9 million people are in 'mixed-status' families that include at least one unauthorized adult and at least one US-born child."

It's unclear whether "been here for 25 years and has kids" is exactly the criteria for immigrants to whom Gingrich is prepared to offer relief, but the Pew survey suggests millions might be eligible even under those terms. And any solution involving "millions" is probably way more than the immigration restrictionist GOP base is willing to support. 

In the past, Gingrich has been able to thread the needle between advocating immigration reform policies that border on plausible and using inflammatory rhetoric to insulate himself from conservative criticism. For instance, on Thursday in Iowa, Gingrich signed a pledge to build a southern border fence by 2013. Ironically, according to the Pew survey, the large number of unauthorized immigrants in the US who have been here for a long time and have reared families is the result of the fact that "the inflow [of immigrants] has slowed down significantly in recent years, as the US economy has sputtered and border enforcement has tightened." Even Gingrich probably can't get away with saying that during a GOP debate.