The Torture Tapes: What We Know Now

There's a certain beauty to the Freedom of Information Act. Even when the government won't give you something under it, they still have to give you a list of what it is they're not giving you. So when the government decided that it would not release the documents the ACLU has been seeking regarding the CIA's destruction, it still had to provide a description—including a date—of each document it was withholding and what its rationale was for doing so.

A date and the description of a document can tell you a lot. That's why the ACLU was able to announce today that it now knows "the precise date the tapes were destroyed" and has "evidence that the [Bush] White House was involved in early discussions about the proposed destruction."

Marcy Wheeler has the highlights of the chronology that the new list provides. I've added some comments for context.

November 1, 2005: Bill Frist [then the Republican Senate majority leader] briefed on torture.

November 1, 2005: [Washington Post reporter] Dana Priest reveals the use of black sites in Europe. In response, CIA starts moving detainees from the countries in question.

November 3, 2005: [Judge] Leonie Brinkema inquires whether govt has video or audio tapes of interrogations. CIA IG Report on Manadel al-Janabi’s death completed.

November 4, 2005: Member of Congress writes four page letter to CIA IG.

November 8, 2005: CIA requests permission to destroy torture tapes. CIA reaffirms March 2005 statement that all interrogation methods are lawful. Duncan Hunter [R-Calif.] briefed on torture. Pete Hoekstra [R-Mich.] briefed on torture.

November 9, 2005: CIA confirms destruction of torture tapes.  Doug Jehl article on spring 2004 CIA IG report on interrogation methods appears.

November 14, 2005: Govt tells Brinkema it has no audio or video tapes.

This is yeoman's work (par for the course from Marcy). If you can't tell, it shows that the tapes were destroyed right after Judge Brinkema and Congress asked about them. That looks pretty damning. Here's Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project, explaining the White House involvement:

[T]he tapes were destroyed immediately after the Washington Post reported the existence of the CIA black sites and the New York Times reported that the CIA Inspector General had questioned the legality of the agency's torture program.

The index also lists the earliest known record of White House participation in discussions about destroying the tapes—an e-mail dated February 22, 2003 revealing that CIA officials met with Bush administration officials to discuss how the agency should respond to a letter from Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) advising the agency not to destroy the tapes. While it was known previously that the White House participated in discussions about the disposition of the tapes, this is the earliest record to date of any such discussions.

I'll say the same thing I said about the Obama administration's suppression of perhaps thousands of torture photos two weeks ago: this smells like a coverup.

The Dems' bombastic pit-bull Alan Grayson started a petition (sub req) yesterday urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to lower the Senate’s cloture requirement from 60 votes to 55. Edging dangerously close to his "die quickly" meme, Grayson says that "every day the Senate delays, more people die from lack of health care." Though this could jumpstart the movement for cloture reform, it's most likely a non-starter since mid-session rules changes require 67 votes. Still, the petition could draw criticism from conservatives who think Democrats are trying to force Obama’s agenda through congress, and liberals who worry that lifting cloture requirements would backfire when the GOP reclaims control of Congress.

But the suggestion is not unprecedented and most harmed by Grayson's reputation as a partisan flame thrower. In the mid-1970s, Congress lowered the supermajority of 67 votes to 60. And Ezra Klein writes that liberals should not be worried about weakening the filibuster:

A system governed by the filibuster is a system in which you can't really do anything, but you can't undo anything, either. If the Democrats pass health-care reform, but an angry populace throws 12 Democratic senators and 35 Democratic congresspeople out of office, and then impeaches Barack Obama and replaces him with Haley Barbour, nothing will happen to health-care reform. At least, not if the remaining Democrats don't want anything to happen to health-care reform. That is, on some level, insane: A landslide election is not likely to result in anything close to a ratification of the public's will.

Whether you agree with Grayson's proposal or not, it is clear that something needs to change. Kevin Drum writes today that "full-blown unanimous obstruction is something new under the sun...Dems, for better or worse, never tried to make every single bill a destruction test of the opposing party's governance."  The filibuster was not consistently abused until the Dems reclaimed control of Congress in 2007.  During the Reagan administration, for example, there were as few as 20 cloture votes per congressional term, compared to more than 100 in the 2007-2008 term, twice what was necessary in the preceding six years.

"If progressives REALLY want to transform America," a Senate Democratic chief of staff told TPM last week, "they'll make an issue of the anti-democratic rules of the Senate which make real change virtually impossible." So Alan Grayson's long-overdue proposal could pick up some steam. Too bad it was proposed by… Alan Grayson.

Chart of the Day

ABC News reports that in the past 16 months the number of people who believe in global warming has dropped 8 percentage points.  But the drop is skewed almost completely by ideology: among liberals and moderates there's been a change of only a couple of points, which might just be statistical noise.  Among conservatives, belief in global warming has dropped a whopping 13 points.

Note that this isn't a drop in conservatives who think that global warming is manmade.  It's not a drop in the number who think it will continue in the future.  It's not a drop in the number who think it's too expensive to do anything about it.  The question ABC asked was whether or not temperatures had increased over the past hundred years.  It's a simple factual question like asking if the Allies won World War I.  But only a bare majority of conservatives believe it.  It's Jim Inhofe's party now.

Abortion and the Filibuster

Megan McArdle has a weird post today:

Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are defending the elimination of the filibuster on the grounds that unpopular legislation will fail even if a majority of legislators are behind it.

I didn't say anything remotely like that.1  I don't think Matt did either, at least not in the linked post.  But it gets even weirder after that:

I find it interesting that a major word is missing from the discussion: abortion.  The most successful Democratic use of the filibuster has, of course, been against judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade.  If it weren't for the filibuster, it's pretty likely that a play to overturn Roe would even now be wending its way through the courts, to a probably-successful conclusion.  Other treasured liberal programs like affirmative action, and certain kinds of environmental regulations, would probably also be in serious danger.

During the Bush era, Democrats filibustered — what?  Ten appellate judges?  And not all of them because of their views on abortion.  In what way has this prevented a challenge to Roe v. Wade from wending its way through the courts?  There are plenty of circuits with conservative majorities on them, after all.  Next:

Why is abortion missing from this discussion, especially when it is currently more central to our main public policy debate than the filibuster?  The filibuster has allowed Democrats to impose a minority view of abortion rights on the country; saying that unpopular legislation tends to fail is true, but not complete, because that is not the most powerful effect to which Democrats have used it.

It's true that polling on abortion attitudes is highly sensitive to question wording, but one of the simplest and cleanest questions is, "Do you support or oppose Roe v. Wade?"  Nate Silver's chart on the right, which aggregates multiple polls, shows the trend on this question clearly: whatever else the American public thinks about abortion, it supports Roe v. Wade by the whopping margin of 2:1.  If Roe ever gets overturned, it certainly won't be because that's what the majority of Americans want.

1For the record, I oppose the filibuster because I think it's unconstitutional.

No Free Lunches

If President Obama decides to escalate our presence in Afghanistan, Congressman Dave Obey (D-WI) is threatening to propose that it be paid for by a "war surtax."  After all, Republicans keep telling us that the deficit is a big problem, and if that's the case then the war ought to be paid for.  Stan Collender writes today that this isn't the first time Obey has tried this tack:

In fact, I watched in awe as Obey used this same strategy about 30 years ago when I was a congressional staffer working for a member of the House Budget Committee. 

The issue at the time was a balanced budget and the Republican demand that the Democratic majority agree to policy changes that would make it happen. They said they would vote against the budget unless it was balanced.

In response, Obey proposed a balanced budget and forced his colleagues to debate and vote on it.  I don't remember all the details of what he proposed, but I'm pretty sure it included the specific program-by-program, across-the-board spending cuts needed to eliminate the deficit.

I have a vivid memory of Obey opening the debate on his balanced budget plan by saying that he was proposing it not because he wanted it to pass but rather because he didn't.  He wanted to call everyone's bluff.  And he did.  The Obey plan got only a handful of votes — including only one or two Republicans — and was overwhelmingly defeated.

Well, I'm sure glad I'm not president right now.  But of course, this is one of the whole points of having taxation with representation: it forces people to make tough choices.  You want healthcare reform?  Figure out how to pay for it and then see if people think it's worth it.  A war in Afghanistan?  Ditto.  Maybe you favor "winning" the war in Afghanistan by sending lots of additional troops over there, but do you still favor it if you know it's going to cost your family $500 per year in additional taxes?  Because that's about what the tab is.  There's no free lunch.

Best Abstinence Advice Ever

If you're like me, and you have trouble keeping friendly frontal hugs from turning into full-on depraved bonefests, you'll appreciate the advice of these side-hug-advocating, Jesus-loving white rappers (h/t the Rumpus): 

Honestly, even though my Catholic-school teachers forced me to watch graphic abortion videos when I was a child, I had a hard time believing a big Christian group would really endorse something this misguided. Forget that even Bristol Palin knows that abstinence-only education is just silly; what's with the gunfire and sirens? But consider the matter fact-checked: "Mm-hm, that was us," the Encounter Generation Conference secretary told me this morning. "The side hug is just a little rule we have around here, to encourage kids to keep their hands off each other." Apparently they've also recorded songs set to the Phantom of the Opera theme and Queen's "We Are the Champions." Since those are, unfortunately, not available on the Internet, I offer you Christian punk band Lust Control's catchy anti-masturbation screed. My favorite part is where they remind you that Jesus "sees everything you do"—though it's a slightly less creepy deterrent than what I was taught in grade school, which is that if you touch yourself, Jesus AND your dead relatives will watch. 

Fertile Opposition to Pesticide-Pushing Ag Nominee

Since Obama tapped Islam "Isi" Siddiqui, an executive for the pesticide lobby, to serve as the chief agriculture negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, discontent with the pick has grown so quickly you'd think it had been genetically modified. On Friday, statements from 90,000 citizens and 80 advocacy groups were delivered to Capitol Hill protesting Siddiqui's nomination. 

The Finance Committee was expected to move his nomination forward on Friday, but pushed its business meeting back until sometime after the holiday. Opponents want to make that delay a permanent one. Siddiqui's critics say he is too close to agri-business interests to perform the job adequately. Since 2001, Siddiqui worked at the agribusiness trade group CropLife America, first as lobbyist and later as vice president of science and regulatory affairs.

Last week, Pesticide Action Network North America delivered a petition to the White House signed by 77,000 people calling for Obama to remove Siddiqui’s name from consideration. Another 14,000 people have emailed their senators about the nomination, and 80 organizations—including sustainable agriculture, farmworker, environmental, trade, and anti-hunger advocacy groups— sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee urging it to reject him. 

"All eyes are on the U.S. to demonstrate international leadership in this arena by withdrawing support for the current industrial model of agriculture, which imperils both people and the planet by undermining food security and worsening climate change," reads the online petition.

The petition also asks Obama to "reconsider" his appointment of Roger Beachy to serve as director of the new National Institute of Food and Agriculture within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beachy was the long-time president of the Danforth Plant Science Center, the nonprofit arm of Monsanto, and his selection also angered sustainable agriculture groups who were hoping that this new USDA office would embrace alternatives to industrial agriculture. But his position did not require Senate confirmation, and at this point it's unlikely that it would be rescinded.

Cute Endangered Animal: Mouse Lemur

These little "darlings" (as Stephen Fry has called them) are tiny and cute enough that even their big-screen versions, like Mort in Madagascar, aren't quite as endearing as the real thing. Predictably, mouse lemurs were bred on the highly biodiverse island of Madagascar, home to some of the world's weirdest, coolest, adorable-ist, and endangered-ist animals. Seventy percent of the animals on Madagascar are found no where else on Earth. The country has dozens of species of lemurs, many of which are endangered due to specialized or restricted habitat on the Texas-sized island of Madagasacar, and the ususal factors: poaching, export as exotic pets, and habitat destruction by logging, agriculture expansion, or human developments. For the mouse lemur specifically, the biggest threats are slash-and-burn agriculture, and predation by carnivores (native and invasive).

The golden-brown mouse lemur, pictured above, is about 10" long (including tail) and weighs about 1.5 oz. The golden-brown lives only in a nature preserve in northwestern Madagascar and unlike other lemurs, it prefers leaping rather than walking to get around tree canopy. Golden-browns live in groups, though there is no alpha and females are not arranged in the harem system like some primates. Instead, scientists say, these tiny primates prefer a "multifemale" arrangement that results in a "promiscuous mating pattern." Meaning, these lemurs mate with whomever, and whenever, they feel like it. Group members communicate with one another through olfactory signals, as well as high-pitched vocalizations called "trills" or "chirps."

Reining in Wall Street

I am — how to put this delicately? — skeptical of Congress's ability to stand up to the world-spanning tentacles of the finance lobby and actually enact serious banking reform.  Thanks to the lobby, the simplest, most robust ways of reforming Wall Street were never even on the table in the first place, and the reform bills now grinding their way through Congress are already complex enough that most bankers will have little trouble eventually figuring out a way to worm their way around them.

But Noam Scheiber reports today that maybe the lobby is about to lose a battle.  Barney Frank's draft legislation to force all derivatives to be traded on a public exchange originally included an exemption for "end users" — that is, ordinary corporations that simply want to hedge the price of oil or pork bellies or whatnot:

But independent experts who studied the measure came to a different conclusion: that it could exempt between 60 and 80 percent of the standardized market because of its vague wording, including many firms who were speculating rather than simply hedging risk....Which, as it happens, was precisely the idea. Though the end users arguably had a legitimate gripe, the banks had long viewed them as a means to deflect additional regulation. “The original plan on derivatives was basically pushed by the industry,” says one bank lobbyist. “What they wanted was, ‘Hey, let’s get the dopey end users to go out and be the face of reform. We don’t have the credibility.'” This lobbyist says the banks helped organize a group called the Coalition for Derivatives End Users, which weighed in with Congress in favor of a robust end-user exemption.

....But a funny thing happened on the way to securing the loophole: A confederation of consumer and investor groups, labor unions, environmental activists and a progressive organization called Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) started raising hackles of their own. In several meetings with Frank, these groups stressed that the exemption was too porous, and that it wasn’t just an obscure, technical issue of interest only to banks, regulators, and lobbyists.

....By early this month, the pressure from [CFTC chairman Chairman Gary Gensler] and the progressive groups had the desired effect. Though Frank believed their concerns were somewhat overblown, he pronounced himself open to tightening the language to make sure the bill didn’t give speculators a pass. “Barney likes to say redundancy is your friend,” says one financial services committee staffer. “If people have concerns, we’ll tighten up the language...hedging done by corporations is what we’re looking to protect.”

To be honest, this seems like only the tiniest ray of sunshine to me.  The derivatives legislation is important, but it's never really struck me as the core of financial reform, and the end-user loophole was so obvious that it's frankly hard to believe it was there in the first place.  Getting rid of it just means that the financial lobby failed in a longshot effort, not that it failed on any point of truly central concern.

Anyway, we still haven't seen the revised wording from Frank's committee, we still haven't voted on the bill, we still haven't seen the Senate version of the bill, and we still haven't seen the conference report.  There's plenty of time for even this minor victory to get sanded down to nothing.  I remain pessimistic on the ability of Congress to rein in the financial community in any serious way.  They just don't have the power.

Are You Pro-Choice?

Perhaps, like me, you've heard that sometimes too much choice is bad.  Consumers get paralyzed by the array of products on offer and just can't make up their minds, so they simply choose to buy nothing.  This effect has been demonstrated in experiments several times, but  via Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford writes that these experiments may not have been as robust as we thought:

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.

But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments — such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the effect.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are. Overall, says Scheibehenne: “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.” Perhaps choice is not as paradoxical as some psychologists have come to believe. One way or another, we seem to be able to cope with it.

Interesting!  Perhaps the paradox of choice used to be true in simpler times, but the internet and the rest of modern life have taught us to revel in choice, rather than being intimidated by it.  In a related vein, maybe it's a generational thing.  Maybe choice dazzles me more than it does a 20-something who grew up with 87 cell phone plans, 300 cable channels, and 1,000 Facebook friends.

Personally, I find a wide array of choice intimidating mainly if I'm trying to buy something brand new that I don't know anything about.  If there are 20 different kinds of cough syrup on the shelf, and I've never bought cough syrup before, I might just give up on the whole thing and keep on coughing.  I suppose that's pretty obvious, but it might explain the differences in some of the experiments.  If you showed me a huge variety of wines, I might throw up my hands in despair rather than trying to puzzle out which one to buy.  Show me an equally huge variety of candy bars and I'd pretty quickly narrow it down to half a dozen that I liked and then choose one.  That's because I consume a lot more candy bars than I do wine.

It's worth noting that whether or not social scientists are certain that the paradox of choice really exists, good sales people are certain that it does.  Watch a good sales person at work, and you'll notice that one of the first things they do is try to narrow your choices for you if you seem even the least bit confused.  When they ask what features are most important to you, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask what things you don't like, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask about your price range, they're trying to narrow your choices.  Because they know in their hearts that if they can just get you down to two or three alternatives, there's a pretty good chance you'll get seriously invested in the decision process and then eventually choose one of them.

So how about you?  When do you get intimidated by choice?