Assassination by PowerPoint

Robert Baer writes in Time about the CIA program that's been kept secret from Congress for the past eight years.  It was, as well all know by now, an "assassination squad":

Like many of these stories, there's less to it than meets the eye. The unit conducted no assassinations or grabs. A former CIA officer involved in the program told me that no targets were picked, no weapons issued and no one sent overseas to carry out anything. "It was little more than a PowerPoint presentation," he said. "Why would we tell Congress?"

That's a good question, especially since the program was an open secret. On Oct. 28, 2001, the Washington Post ran an article with the title "CIA Weighs 'Targeted Killing' Missions." And in 2006, New York Times reporter James Risen wrote a book in which he revealed the program's secret code name, Box Top. Moreover, it is well known that on Nov. 3, 2002, the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone over Yemen, killing an al-Qaeda member involved in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. And who knows how many "targeted killings" there have been in Afghanistan and Iraq?

As Baer goes on to point out, assassination is a no-no: "In the CIA, that was the closest thing we had to the Ten Commandments."  But what about assassination during wartime?  A plot to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1995 would have been illegal, but the same plot in March 2003 would surely have been OK.  In fact, we tried pretty hard to do exactly that during the "shock and awe" bombing phase that kicked off the war.

But as usual, the "war on terror" is in a gray area all its own.  Is it a real war?  Is a guy with a sniper rifle different from an Air Force specialist guiding a Predator drone?  Is the CIA under the same restrictions it would be under during peacetime?  What are the rules?

If the news reports are right about this program, it deserves a full-scale investigation by Congress.  Everybody knows we're trying to kill al-Qaeda operatives one way or another, so it's not as if we'd be revealing any dark secrets of national security.  And if the whole thing really was just a "PowerPoint presentation," it might exonerate the CIA and remove the cloud currently surrounding them.  What's the argument against doing this?

The Sotomayor Hearings, Day Four

Our D.C. bureau Legal Affairs reporter Stephanie Mencimer is reporting live from inside the Sotomayor confirmation hearings this week. You can watch day four using our video and live blog here, or follow Stephanie's and David Corn's coverage on Twitter. If you missed Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, check out the wrap-ups: Pride and Prejudice, Where Did Sotomayor's Empathy Go?, and Sotomayor Slips Up

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday July 16

Stories on health, energy, the environment, and other Blue Marble-appropriate topics from our other blogs you might have missed.

I Love Sonia: GOP tells Sonia Sotomayor she has some "splainin" to do.

 

Al Franken's Perry Mason Moment

Hey, it's Laura. Instead of doing a MoJo Mix tonight, I thought you might like this video of Al Franken's first funny as senator. His Perry Mason bit (see below) comes from Wednesday's Sotomayor hearings, (which you can watch with livestreaming MoJo commentary all week on our All Things Sotomayor blog/video extravaganza page). Worth a watch:

And if you missed the hearings Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, check out Stephanie Mencimer's wrap-ups: Pride and Prejudice, Where Did Sotomayor's Empathy Go?, and Sotomayor Slips Up. [For Thursday's live analysis, there's our video and live blog here, or follow Stephanie's and David Corn's coverage on Twitter.]

Laura McClure hosts podcasts, writes the MoJo Mix, and is the new media editor at Mother Jones. Read her investigative feature on lifehacking gurus in the latest issue of Mother Jones.

Sotomayor Video: Al Franken's Perry Mason Joke

MoJo D.C. bureau Legal Affairs reporter Stephanie Mencimer is reporting live from inside the Sotomayor confirmation hearings this week. If you missed Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, check out the wrap-ups: Pride and Prejudice, Where Did Sotomayor's Empathy Go?, and Sotomayor Slips Up. For the latest analysis, watch our video and live blog here, or follow Stephanie's and David Corn's coverage on Twitter.

Stephanie Mencimer: Wednesday, Sonia Sotomayor confessed that she was inspired to become a prosecutor by the TV show "Perry Mason." It was the rare candid admission by the Supreme Court nominee, and naturally, at least one member of Congress pounced on it.

Watch the video below to see Sen. Al Franken's probing questions.

Fighting the Zombies

Bryan Caplan offers up a criticism of the House healthcare reform bill:

The Krugman we've got is sold on the House health bill.  But the Krugman we had, the thoughtful economist who wrote The Accidental Theorist, would have responded differently.  Krugman Past, unlike Krugman Present, would have pointed out that when the unemployment rate is 9.7%, it's a bad idea to legislate an 8% payroll increase on businesses that fail to offer health insurance.   Employers are reluctant to hire workers at today's wages; how are they going to feel once the marginal worker gets 8% pricier?

It's not just Krugman who should be against such legislation at a time like this; so should any sensible Keynesian.

"At a time like this."  I think I've read critiques similar to this about a thousand times now.  I guess it sounds mighty clever, hoisting Keynesians by their own petard or something.  But it's nonsense.  The "pay-or-play" payroll tax increase doesn't go into effect until 2013 — and if the recession isn't over by then we've got way bigger things to worry about than a minor increase in payroll tax receipts.

Ditto for Waxman-Markey, which frequently gets the same treatment.  But W-M won't have any effect on energy prices for years, and even when it does the impact will be tiny at first.  Like healthcare reform, it won't have the slightest effect on the recession because it won't take effect until well after the recession is over.

If you want to argue that higher payroll taxes are bad in general, then fine.  I might even agree with you depending on what alternative you offer up.  But leave the recession out of it.

Climate Security vs. National Security

So here's an interesting value test in the modern age. What's of greater importance—keeping secret our secret observations of other Arctic nations, or making available our secret observations in order to transform our understanding of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice?

The National Research Council asks that hundreds of images derived from classified data be immediately released and disseminated to the scientific community. The images provide otherwise unavailable data of melting and freezing processes associated with climate change.

As things stand now, our ability to project future Arctic ice cover is severely hampered by a dearth of data. Readily available satellite images generally suck because the data are low-res. Data collected from drifting manned stations are unreliable since ice stations fall apart before data collection is complete. Data collected from aircraft flights are low-yield and expensive. 

But the classified images that already exist could illuminate a bunch of important stuff:


Moreover, the National Research Council says the 2007-2008 images would greatly enhance intensive ground-based observations carried out during the Fourth International Polar Year. The 2007 summer sea-ice minimum was a record low—more than 20 percent below 2005's previous low and nearly 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average minimum. The release of the high-res imagery would enable a lot more investigation into those banner bad years.

In the 21st century, climate security is national security.
 

War Criminal Charles Taylor: I'm the Victim

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor took the stand Tuesday to testify before an international court at The Hague, which is probing his alleged war crimes. Taylor is charged with multiple heinous crimes, including sending invasions into Sierra Leone "to terrorize the civilian population" and wrest control of the West African country's diamond mines, and ordering the rape and murder of girls and women and the forced conscription of boys and men.

The criminal trial, which began in 2006, has heard the testimony of more than 90 witnesses of Taylor's crimes, and the defense plans to call more than 200 witnesses to argue Taylor's innocence. Though Taylor admitted that he knew such atrocities were occurring, he said that he "never, never, ever" would have condoned them. He also rejected the means by which he was arrested and tried. "The prosecution, because of disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumours, would associate me with such titles or descriptions," he said.

If the court finds Taylor guilty, West Africa will take a giant step toward repairing the blemish of ethnic violence and injustice that has plagued the region since Western countries began jockeying for control hundreds of years ago.

Read more on Taylor's troubling history below the jump.

Is Calorie Labeling Playing Favorites?

We wrote on Monday about the numerous benefits of calorie labeling on health and consumer choices. Here's an update on how the debate is unfolding throughout the intertubes. Blogger Ezra Klein has a print piece in today's Washington Post praising calorie labeling as a way to wean Americans off foods that will increase our waist size and most likely kill us. An excerpt:

But will putting calorie counts where we can see them make a difference? Possibly. Early studies, along with some anecdotal evidence, show that this practice is driving eaters to choose lighter items.

We're still waiting for the full data from New York's experiment. But the researchers there shared unpublished numbers with the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department, which was preparing an analysis in case Los Angeles wanted to follow New York's lead. Based on those numbers, Los Angeles researchers settled on a "conservative" estimate: 10 percent of chain restaurant patrons would order meals that were merely 100 calories lighter.

Surprisingly, that mild change in behavior has a huge and immediate effect: It would avert 38.9 percent of the county's expected weight gain in the next year. If 20 percent of patrons order meals with 150 fewer calories, it would avert 116 percent of the expected weight gain, which is to say that the County of Los Angeles would actually lose weight.

On his blog, Matt Yglesias agreed, but argued that "what seems really wrongheaded about the NYC law is to limit its effect to chain restaurants." Atrios responded that New York's labeling law is limited to chain restaurants because "requiring it of every restaurant for every item would really place a really large burden on small establishments." He added, "It's more reasonable for large chains because their menu items are standardized and the cost can be spread over their entire chain.

So the netroots seems to agree that calorie labeling is beneficial. But is it appropriate to force it on some restaurants, and let others off the hook?

Sotomayor for the Prosecution

Sonia Sotomayor's all-but-certain confirmation will be a notable victory for Democrats, and for the cause of diversity on the nation's highest court. Whether it will be a victory for criminal justice is another question—one that seems to matter little to most of her liberal supporters. Read the progressive case against Sotomayor here.