It’s been five years since the 9/11 Commission released its studious but timid report, and questions still remain. But believing that additional investigation is necessary and vital doesn’t require a subscription to the conspiracy theory about the attacks pushed by the so-called 9/11 Truth movement. In my 2006 book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11: What the 9/11 Commission Report Failed to Tell Us, I focused on straightforward, even obvious questions: Why was the airline industry, with its army of well-connected lobbyists, permitted to resist safety regulations that could have saved lives? How did our foreign policy, and "allies" like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, help pave the way for the attacks? Why did a politically driven, Iraq-obsessed administration ignore repeated warnings of the coming danger? Who was in charge as the attacks unfolded?

Some of these questions ought to practically answer themselves. Yet in its 664-page report, the 9/11 Commission managed not to address them—in many cases, by the simple means of not asking them in the first place. The commissioners themselves announced their limited intentions in the report’s opening pages, where they wrote: "Our aim has not been to assign individual blame. Our aim has been to provided the fullest possible accounting of the events surrounding 9/11 and to identify lessons learned." The contradiction inherent in these stated aims is obvious: without blame, there can be no true accountability, and without accountability, there is nothing to ensure that the lessons of 9/11 will be learned.

Watching the Watchmen

Amy Zegart says that one of the biggest unfinished pieces of business from 9/11 is reform of intelligence oversight.  Not reform of the intelligence community itself, which has made at least some progress over the past few years, but specifically of congressional oversight.  Congress simply refuses to take action to make its oversight both serious and consequential.  For example:

Both the House and Senate have repeatedly rejected proposals before and after 9/11 to give the Intelligence Committees appropriations powers. Instead, the intelligence budgetary system is divided: Intelligence Committees can threaten to punish recalcitrant agencies with budget cuts, but Appropriations Committees must deliver. History has shown that they don’t, and that savvy intelligence agencies game the system — bypassing the Intelligence Committees and getting their pet projects funded by the appropriators instead. One congressional staffer recently told me that the Senate Intelligence Committee has tried to kill three expensive and ineffective satellite programs — on a bipartisan basis — for years. They’ve finally terminated 2 of them, but all were funded far longer than they should have. We’re talking billions of dollars.

Bad stuff.  But no surprise, either.  Congress is famously disjointed (it's why the healthcare and climate change bills have both been forced to wend their way through multiple committees, getting watered down at every stop), and Appropriations is always a prize appointment because everything that matters ends up in its clutches eventually.  This strikes me as very, very unlikely to change.  But it should!

The Freefall of 2008

Ezra Klein surveys yesterday's report from the Census Bureau and says: "Median income dropped a bit, poverty rose a bit, and so too did the number of Americans without health insurance. But the actual changes aren't very large."

Based on the reporting I saw yesterday, which initially caused me to think that income had dropped only slightly, this is a widespread view.  But it just isn't true.  In fact, the 2008 drop in median household income was the biggest since the Census Bureau started tracking this stuff in 1976.  Income dropped $1,860 in 2008, and the next closest competitor is 1980, when it dropped $1,439.  Last year was the worst year for household income in both absolute terms and percentage terms in the past three decades.

And, as Ezra says, that was only 2008.  This year is likely to be as bad — or possibly worse. Income drops typically persist for several years during a recession, and the combined impact of this recession is almost certain to do more damage to middle class incomes than any recession since World War II.

Doing Comparisons Right

Apparently the LA Times has some kind of moronic deal that allows them to reprint Ron Brownstein's columns in their print edition but not online.  So it's off to National Journal to see Brownstein's latest, ripped straight from the blogosphere and therefore old news to everyone here (Republicans are the Party of No; old-style coalitions have broken down; we're moving to a de facto parliamentary system; etc. etc.).  It's basically fine, though, except for this one paragraph that's become pundit conventional wisdom lately:

It is revealing that Obama is facing nearly unanimous Republican opposition on health care just four years after President Bush couldn't persuade a single congressional Democrat to back his comparably ambitious Social Security restructuring.

I understand why people write stuff like this, and the parallels are strong enough to make it defensible.  But is it really true?

Maybe I'm remembering things through partisan-colored glasses, but my recollection is that there are some pretty significant differences here.  First, George Bush never sought out any compromise at all.  He insisted on a pure, budget-busting carve-out privatization scheme and never gave Democrats so much as a chance to make a deal.  But what if he'd made it clear that he was open to compromise?  Say, part carve-out, part add-on, and with a modest collection of benefit cuts and tax increases to go along with it?  I suspect a lot of Dems would have been open to something like that, but Bush never gave them a chance.

Second, it wasn't just Democratic opposition that killed Social Security privatization.  Thanks to Bush's intransigence, his plan became so radioactive that even a lot of Republicans didn't support it.  By the time Congress returned from its summer recess, it was obviously DOA and no bill was even introduced.

There are obvious superficial similarities between Social Security in 2005 and healthcare reform in 2009.  But in the former, Bush outlined a purely conservative proposal and never gave an inch on it.  In the latter, Obama has outlined a generally liberal proposal but allowed some give and take with Republicans.  As Brownstein himself mentions, the plan's basic structure has support "from such Republican-leaning groups as hospitals, drug manufacturers, and the American Medical Association, which fought almost all previous reform efforts. Obama told the AMA last summer that he is open to some medical-malpractice reform, a top Republican priority. And for months, he has signaled his willingness to retrench on creating a public competitor to private insurance companies, the idea that most enrages conservatives."

The Social Security comparison will probably never go away because it's just too good a story.  Too good to check, in fact.  But it's only half true.  The punditocracy really ought to stop peddling it.

Is Barack Obama's health care plan nothing but an underhanded plot to bring European-style euthanasia to the United States? And have the American people caught on to this nefarious scheme and risen up in protest? That's close to how my sparring partner James Pinkerton describes what's been going on. Truly. And we discuss—firmly, but courteously—this view of reality in our latest diavlog face-off, as I offer a strong dissent.

Our trigger—so to speak—is Obama's speech to Congress. Jim pans it; I praise it. Which is natural. But then the clash comes, as we explore the opposition to Obama's initiative and whether it's a serious popular uprising in response to a secret plan of social engineering (Pinkerton's view) or the anger of right-wing wackos who would would denounce Obama as a socialist copycat even if he managed to feed thousands of people with one loaf of bread (my view). You can see it all below—and much more, including Pinkerton's frightening encounter with a video camera gone wild:

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Contrary to his usual practice, USC football coach Pete Carroll told the press that players wouldn't be available for interviews after practice on Thursday.  How come?

"We're leaving in 44 minutes," he said, referring to a row of buses waiting to take the Trojans to the airport. "We've got to get out of here."

Part of his concern stemmed from an NCAA rule that prohibits teams from leaving more than 48 hours before a competition. Because kickoff at Ohio Stadium is scheduled for 5 p.m. PDT, the team plane was not scheduled to leave the ground until 6 p.m. on Thursday, with an estimated arrival at the hotel past 1 a.m. ET.

Hmmph.  That's completely unfair to West Coast teams traveling east.  Why not have a rule that says you can't arrive more than 48 hours before kickoff instead?  It's not as if coaches would leave really early and then schedule long layovers at O'Hare, would they?

Did Osama Fail?

Tony Karon writes today that al-Qaeda has failed:

The purpose of the 9/11 attacks was not simply to kill Americans; they formed part of bin Laden's strategy to launch a global Islamist revolution aimed at ending U.S. influence in Muslim countries, overthrowing regimes there allied with Washington, and putting al-Qaeda at the head of a global Islamist insurgency whose objective was to restore the rule of the Islamic Caliphate that had once ruled territory stretching from Moorish Spain through much of Asia.

Today, however, al-Qaeda is believed to comprise a couple of hundred desperate men, their core leaders hiding out in Pakistan's tribal wilds and under constant threat of attack by ever-present U.S. drone aircraft, their place in Western nightmares and security assessments long-since eclipsed by such longtime rivals as Iran, Hizballah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

All true.  At the same time, 9/11 touched off two wars; a regime of officially sanctioned torture by the United States; a massive increase in our surveillance apparatus; a population grown so fearful that it's meekly accepted a new routine of intrusive security checks that would have been unthinkable a generation ago; and a multi-trillion dollar debt that's still growing without end.  Osama didn't get his caliphate, but still: if what he got at the cost of 19 lives and few box cutters was a failure, I'd hate to see what counts as a success.

Since Barack Obama took office in January, his administration has been plagued by a number of contentious controversies. From the economic stimulus to health care reform, Obama has had trouble maintaining support among liberals and conservatives alike. But the president's most consistent critics have been Jewish moderates and conservatives worried that Obama is more likely to challenge Israel than past presidents have been.

But surging to power with the most impressive following since Ronald Reagan, Obama is well positioned to challenge the Israel Lobby's hard-line stalwart, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In his latest Mother Jones contribution, "Is AIPAC Still the Chosen One?" Robert Dreyfuss attributes the dwindling power of one of DC's most powerful lobbies to the popular new president and the recent rise of dovish advocacy groups such as J Street and Israel Policy Forum.

Take a few minutes to listen to the last phone call of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 before it hit the World Trade Center, eight years ago today on September 11, 2001. Ong is calm and matter-of-fact as she describes what was occuring within minutes of the hijacking to skeptical airline personnel on the ground. She was forced to repeat the same basic details again and again: "Ok. Our Number 1 got stabbed. Our purser is stabbed. Nobody knows who stabbed who, and we can’t even get up to business class right now cause nobody can breathe…" She remained on the phone for 23 minutes, calmly relaying information up to seconds before the impact. Just over four minutes of the phone call were replayed at the 9-11 commission hearings. Her last words were "Pray for us. Pray for us."

Without talking about it explicitly, President Barack Obama seems to be trying to guide the nation beyond its state of post-9/11 trauma. In the first days of his presidency, I noted that he had cut back—by design—the use of the phrase "war on terror." Now the White House has acknowledged that the Obama administration has purposefully made fewer references to the United States being a "nation at war."

On Thursday, this interesting exchange occurred at the daily White House briefing between a reporter and press secretary Robert Gibbs:

Q: President Bush used to say repeatedly, "America is a nation at war." He did so on 9/11, but other occasions during the year. My impression is that since taking office, President Obama has purposely tried to turn down the heat on the rhetoric.

A: Well, look, I think we've certainly cut down on the use of the phrase, but, again, our focus is on getting the policy right. I don't—I think the President spends part of each of his day in meetings about and thinking about the men and women that we have in Iraq and Afghanistan and that are through— stationed throughout the world to protect our freedom and to address Islamic extremism. And that takes up part of his day and is something that—the sacrifice which he's thankful for and I think all of us are thankful for each and every day. Regardless of how it's phrased, he's mindful of the effort of so many on our behalf.

It was surprising for Gibbs to actually admit that the White House had turned away from using this dramatic rhetoric—it's accurate. The United States is a nation at war twice over. But saying so repeatedly is an exercise in defining the country, and eight years after 9/11, Obama clearly wants to step back from turning "at war" into an essential part of the nation's self-image.

I thought that conservatives who delight in beating war drums would pounce on Gibbs for this remark. And one can easily hear their thunderous argument: Of course, we are a nation at war; why won't Obama and his socialist pals in the White House say so? Yet so far, they don't appear to have zeroed in on this comment.

When Gibbs said this, I thought it demonstrated a certain maturity on the part of the Obama White House. While no citizen should forget that US troops are dying and killing in two countries--and that these wars need to be resolved—is no need to make war a defining characteristic of the United States, not even when the threat from al Qaeda remains, not even on the anniversary of 9/11.

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