Obama Sides With Bush Again

This time over the Bush administration's refusal to release then-Vice President Dick Cheney's interview with the FBI regarding his role in the Valerie Plame leak. At the time, Bush and his attorney general, Michael Mukasey, cited executive privilege. They also floated the idea that future officials would be unwilling to cooperate with criminal investigations if they knew their interviews could be made public. Except special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald never offered Cheney confidentiality. But the Obama administration—citing arguments similar to Bush's—has refused to make the interview public.

So Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sued the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act, whose guidelines Attorney General Eric Holder altered in March "to favor disclosure and transparency." They argue their case in U.S. District court on Thursday, and it appears they will base their argument partially on Holder's own loosening of Ashcroft-era FOIA restrictions. In an April letter to the Justice Department, CREW's attorney David Sobel wrote:

As the Attorney General has directed, echoing the words of President Obama, information should not be withheld “merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, [or] because errors and failures might be revealed.”

That certainly hurts the Justice Department's case, though perhaps not enough to compel the court to side with CREW. The Justice Department is also basing its case partly on certain exemptions from FOIA, one being Exemption 7a, which authorizes:

[T]he withholding of "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that production of such law enforcement records or information . . . could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."

Determining the applicability of this Exemption 7 subsection thus requires a two-step analysis focusing on (1) whether a law enforcement proceeding is pending or prospective, and (2) whether release of information about it could reasonably be expected to cause some articulable harm.

So the DOJ is reasonably expecting the release of Cheney's testimony to interfere with enforcement proceedings. How? The proceedings are over. The jury convicted Scooter Libby. Obama has not so much as hinted he wants to prosecute Cheney. In fact, he has said the opposite, all while promising transparency. What articulable harm could result in releasing Cheney's interview?

Housekeeping News

Quick note: I've gotten lots of email this morning asking me what happened to the Washington Monthly site.  Answer: it got hacked last night and their tech gremlins are busily rebuilding it.  With luck it should be back up sometime this afternoon.

UPDATE: They're back up now.

Who Voted for Ahmadinejad?

Conventional wisdom says that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main base of support was in Iran's small towns and rural villages while Mir-Hossein Mousavi's support came mainly from young people and urban areas.  Eric Hooglund, an expert in rural Iran, casts some doubt on this:

Take Bagh-e Iman, for example. It is a village of 850 households in the Zagros Mountains near the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz. According to longtime, close friends who live there, the village is seething with moral outrage because at least two-thirds of all people over 18 years of age believe that the recent presidential election was stolen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

....Carloads of villagers actually drove to Shiraz to participate in the massive pro-Mousavi rallies that were held on the three nights prior to the balloting. And election-day itself was like a party in Bagh-e Iman. Many people openly announced their intentions to vote for Mousavi as they cheerfully stood in line chatting with neighbors, and local election monitors estimated that at least 65 percent of them actually did so. “Although some probably really voted for [Ayatollah Mehdi] Karubi, who also is a man of the people,” said election monitor Jalal.

....By Saturday evening, the shock and disbelief had given way to anger that slowly turned into palpable moral outrage over what came to be believed as the theft of their election. The proof was right in the village: “Interior Ministry officials came from Shiraz, sealed the ballot boxes, and took then away even before the end of voting at 9 pm,” said Jalal. In all previous elections, a committee comprised of representative from each political faction had counted and certified the results right in the village. The unexpected change in procedures caught village monitors off guard, as it did everywhere else in the country.

Read the whole thing.

Healthcare CEOs Shoot Themselves in the Foot

Yesterday the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations decided to investigate the practice of recission.  This is when you pay your premiums for years to a healthcare insurer, then get sick, and then have your insurance cancelled.  The insurance industry executives at the hearing did not exactly cover themselves with glory:

A Texas nurse said she lost her coverage, after she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, for failing to disclose a visit to a dermatologist for acne.

The sister of an Illinois man who died of lymphoma said his policy was rescinded for the failure to report a possible aneurysm and gallstones that his physician noted in his chart but did not discuss with him.

....Late in the hearing, [Bart] Stupak, the committee chairman, put the executives on the spot. Stupak asked each of them whether he would at least commit his company to immediately stop rescissions except where they could show "intentional fraud."

The answer from all three executives: "No."

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said that a public insurance plan should be a part of any overhaul because it would force private companies to treat consumers fairly or risk losing them. "This is precisely why we need a public option," Dingell said.

Even the Republicans on the committee couldn't defend the insurance company position.  A few more hearings like this and getting a public option into healthcare reform is suddenly going to look like a real possibility.  Nice going, guys.

Obama's Derivatives Loophole

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama released his proposal (PDF) for new regulation of financial instruments, including derivative products like credit default swaps that many believe contributed to the financial meltdown. But separate sets of rules for two types of derivatives could undermine the effectiveness of the administration's regulatory reform. Obama's Derivatives Loophole.

On Wednesday, the White House released its plan for reviving financial regulatory reform. And the plan nicely sums up how credit default swaps--complex financial instruments traded between financial firms to cover possible losses--helped grease the way to the current economic disaster:

One of the most significant changes in the world of finance in recent decades has been the explosive growth and rapid innovation in the market for financial derivatives. Much of this development has occurred in the market for OTC derivatives, which are not executed on regulated exchanges. In 2000, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA) explicitly exempted OTC derivatives, to a large extent, from regulation by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In addition, the law limited the SEC’s authority to regulate certain types of OTC derivatives. As a result, the market for OTC derivatives has largely gone unregulated.
The downside of this lax regulatory regime for OTC derivatives – and, in particular, for credit default swaps (CDS) – became disastrously clear during the recent financial crisis. In the years prior to the crisis, many institutions and investors had substantial positions in CDS – particularly CDS that were tied to asset backed securities (ABS), complex instruments whose risk characteristics proved to be poorly understood even by the most sophisticated of market participants. At the same time, excessive risk taking by AIG and certain monoline insurance companies that provided protection against declines in the value of such ABS, as well as poor counterparty credit risk management by many banks, saddled our financial system with an enormous – and largely unrecognized – level of risk.
When the value of the ABS fell, the danger became clear. Individual institutions believed that these derivatives would protect their investments and provide return, even if the market went down. But, during the crisis, the sheer volume of these contracts overwhelmed some firms that had promised to provide payment on the CDS and left institutions with losses that they believed they had been protected against. Lacking authority to regulate the OTC derivatives market, regulators were unable to identify or mitigate the enormous systemic threat that had developed.

Sarah Palin's Political Instincts

A few days ago David Letterman told a crass joke about Bristol Palin.  It was, as Paul Farhi points out, similar to a million other crude jokes told about the Palin family over the past year.  But this time Sarah Palin went ballistic and last night Letterman apologized. James Joyner comments:

A week ago, I wrote a post titled Letterman Palin Jokes Cross the Line, both excoriating Letterman for his remarks but defending him from the ridiculous charge that he was some sort of pervert who liked to joke about 14-year-olds.  Since then, Letterman first explained his remarks and subsequently apologized for them profusely. And rightly so.

But I have a hard time believing Palin was legitimately confused days later about the target of the joke and, in light of the previous jokes told about Bristol’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, particularly outraged at this one.   Instead, she took advantage of the initial media brouhaha over the Willow/Bristol confusion and made a big spectacle, hoping to both remove the Bristol mess out of the realm of legitimate ridicule and reframe herself as an aggrieved party rather than a rather cartoonish figure.

Letterman may have gone over the line, but that plainly wasn't what bothered Palin.  She was just looking for some free publicity, and getting her supporters worked up over a supposed insult from a dissolute member of the East Coast liberal elite played directly into her standard class resentment schtick.  It shows impressive political instincts, in a way.  It's a good thing she's not as ruthless, smart, or tireless as Richard Nixon or we might all be in real trouble.

In related news, check out the Sarah Palin shrine at the New York Stock Exchange.

U.S. Army 1LT Jared Tomberlin (left) from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment gets a first hand view of the land with outgoing commander 1LT Larry Baca from Charlie Co. 1-4, on top of a ridge near Forward Operation Base Lane, Zabul Province, Afghanistan, on February 21, 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini / Released)

The Childhood Obesity Puzzle

What's making American kids fat? Some blame food deserts, while others implicate fast-food restaurants, lack of exercise, or poor parental eating habits. But a few recent studies seem to suggest that the childhood obesity epidemic may be more complicated than we thought.

In the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports that among kids under 13, burgers and fries are out, while yogurt, soup, and grilled chicken are in. This, she says, is good news:

To be sure, pizza, burgers, fries and kids’ meals are still the most popular items ordered by children; the percentage gains for items like soup and yogurt are from a smaller base. But the trends bolster an argument that children’s health researchers have made for years: if you offer more healthful food, kids will eat it.

But will they? Another recent study suggests that parental eating habits actually have little to do with kids' food choices. And according to a study released today by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, household proximity to fast-food restaurants doesn't have much bearing on whether a child is obese, either. (And get this: The Purdue researchers found that living near a gym or rec center was actually associated with weight gain.)

So, what to make of these counterintuitive findings? While any one of these factors might not explain childhood obesity on its own, it's also not realistic to think of them as existing in a vacuum. Instead, they act in concert, along with other variables, like genetics. It's not totally out of the question that a kid who is genetically predisposed to obesity might also live near McDonald's and watch his dad eat Quarter Pounders three times a week. A wholistic study that figures out which factors matter most, and how they interact—that's a tall order. It'd take a long time, and a whole lot of research power to boot.

Till that happens, is it really useful to isolate these variables? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Ahmadinejad Photoshop Fail

Iran's powers that be are not very good at Photoshop:This is a pretty obvious Photoshop fail. Begun, the clone war has. (h/t BoingBoing)