The FBI's Racial Discrimination Problem...

Donald Rochon is back in the news. The former FBI agent settled an historic discrimination case against the bureau in 1990. Rochon, who is African-American, alleged repeated instances of harrassment by his white colleagues in the FBI's field offices in Omaha and Chicago. For example, there was the time his fellow agents taped a picture of a monkey over a framed family photo on Rochon's desk. And after Rochon learned to scuba dive, his fellow agents had great fun doctoring a photo depicting him swimming through a garbage dump. The discrimination was as clear-cut as it was offensive. Included in the out-of-court settlement was the promise that upon reaching retirement age, Rochon would receive his full FBI pension. This apparently did not happen, which is why Rochon is again locked in a legal battle with the bureau.

But as bad as things were for Rochon, FBI spokesman John Miller told reporters this week that the bureau has come a long way in twenty years. It now has systems in place through which aggrieved employees can file discrimination complaints to internal investigators. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean the problem is solved. Just ask Bassem Youssef. The bureau's highest-ranking Arabic-speaking agent, Youssef was a star undercover operator who penetrated Al Qaeda years before 9/11. But after the attacks on New York and Washington, he was sidelined to a desk job. Why? Youssef claims it's because of his Egyptian ethnicity. As far as the FBI may have come in the last few decades, it still has a long way to go. Youssef's struggles with the bureau are a sad reminder that the FBI's good-ole-boy culture is in need of a serious overhaul, just as it was twenty years ago.

For more, read my profile of Bassem Youssef, which was published in the May/June 2009 issue of Mother Jones.

Quote of the Day - 5.14.09

From Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration's new drug czar, on banishing the phrase "war on drugs":

Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a "war on drugs" or a "war on a product," people see a war as a war on them.  We're not at war with people in this country.

It's a start.  It's going to take a while to get Congress calmed down enough to do anything sensible on this front, but it's a start.

Obama and Gay Marriage

Andrew Sullivan unleashed a cri de coeur yesterday about Barack Obama's slow to nonexistent progress on gay rights so far, and today Dan Savage agrees, adding a complaint about a lame gag Obama told at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday:

Our lives, our families, and our rights are not a joke, Mr. President. The discrimination faced by gay people — whether coupled and single — is distressingly real and persists even for same-sex couples in Iowa and other states where gay marriage is legal. Stop fucking around and start delivering on your campaign promises to us, to our families, and to our children.

Obama's slow progress is a disappointment and Sullivan's and Savage's anger is wholly justified.  At the same time, I sort of wonder: did either of these guys actually watch Obama during the campaign?  Did he do anything to suggest that he'd be anything other than extremely cautious and pragmatic on gay issues?  Because the guy I saw on the stump was relentlessly measured.  He was endlessly dedicated to bipartisan comity.  He was pals with Rick Warren.  He was anxious to turn down the volume on the culture wars.  Even when he was way ahead in the polls he declined to attack California's Proposition 8.

I'd like to see Obama get off the stick and do something about DADT too.  It's a disgrace that it's still around.  At the same time, it's hardly a surprise that he hasn't made this his highest priority out of the gate.  He gave us plenty of warning.

Wisconsin Upholds Warrantless GPS Tracking By Cops

From the Chicago Trib:

Wisconsin police can attach GPS to cars to secretly track anybody's movements without obtaining search warrants, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
However, the District 4 Court of Appeals said it was “more than a little troubled” by that conclusion and asked Wisconsin lawmakers to regulate GPS use to protect against abuse by police and private individuals.
As the law currently stands, the court said police can mount GPS on cars to track people without violating their constitutional rights—even if the drivers aren't suspects.
Officers do not need to get warrants beforehand because GPS tracking does not involve a search or a seizure, Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel based in Madison.

The facts and legal analysis of this case read just like the kind of law school 'hypo' I sweated so hard over.

Here's what happened:

Sewage Sows Superbugs

Wastewater treatment plants create a hedonistic mating ground for antibiotic-resistant superbugs that are eventually discharged into streams and lakes.

A new study sampled water near five sewage plants around Ann Arbor, Michigan, and found superbugs—bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics—up to 100 yards downstream from the discharge point in the Huron River. (Next: the researchers are going to look further than 100 yards away.)

While the total number of Acinetobacter bacteria left in the discharge effluent declined dramatically after treatment, the remaining bacteria were significantly more resistant to multiple antibiotics than upstream bacteria.

Ooops.

Some strains resisted as many as seven of eight antibiotics tested.

Twenty or 30 years ago, antibiotics would have killed most of these strains. But multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria have emerged as a serious global health issue thanks to the overuse and abuse of antibiotics.

The researchers conclude the problem isn't that treatment plants aren't cleaning the water. It's that they aren't equipped to remove antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals entering the treatment plants.

Therefore wastewater treatment becomes a fertile brew for the creation of superbugs. Good bacteria grow and replicate along with the bad and in the confined space they share resistant genetic materials, effectively selecting for multidrug resistance.

Wow. Unintelligent design in action.

Here's my favorite part of the press release about this paper in Science of The Total Environment: "While scientists learn more about so-called superbugs, patients can do their part by not insisting on antibiotics for ailments that antibiotics don't treat, such as a common cold or the flu."

Patient, heal thyself.

Getting to Sixty

Senate Republicans blocked their first Obama administration appointee on Wednesday, successfully filibustering the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary of the interior department. Democrats needed 60 senators to force a final vote on Hayes, but failed, 57-38.  Senate majority leader Harry Reid voted with the Republicans so that he can bring a motion to reconsider in future. Democrats stand a decent chance of winning a re-vote—in addition to Reid's vote, they would pick up three Democrats who were absent on Wednesday. Hayes isn't the only potential casualty. The GOP is also planning to filibuster Dawn Johnsen, Obama's nominee to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. So far, the Democrats can't stop them—Reid told Roll Call Wednesday that he doesn't yet have the votes he needs to overcome a filibuster.

So it seems that Republicans' strategy of using the filibuster to try to block anything they possibly can is succeeding. Use of the filibuster more than doubled between the 109th Congress, when the Republicans last had control of the Senate, and the 110th, when the Democrats took over. Republican filibustering has continued at that previously unprecedented pace in the 111th Congress.

Democrats did not filibuster early Bush administration executive branch nominees like Jay Bybee, who held the job Johnsen has been nominated for. (Bybee was confirmed by a voice vote.) Matt Yglesias writes: "I think it’s pretty obvious that the trends over the past 5-10 years are pointing in the direction of constant filibustering leading to the total paralysis of the American government."

If Yglesias is right, and constant filibustering will be the rule for the considerable future, Republicans might want to reconsider their obstructionist tactics. The Economist's (anonymous) Democracy In America blog explains that "in the long run," more filibustering is "really bad for Republicans":

Sixty seats are hard to come by; for a party to soar from 45 to 60 seats in two elections, as the Democrats did in 2006-2008, is almost unheard of. And no Republican thinks his party will achieve that soon.

The GOP has not won 60 seats since the Senate became a 100-member body, after Hawaii and Alaska became states. The last time it won 60 percent of the seats in the upper house was 1920. It has literally not held 60 seats in a century. So the standard being set here can only lead to sclerosis.

Will Republicans heed the warning? I doubt it. They haven't had much success recently in the long-term planning department.

Wednesday was a big day for torture-related news, so here's what you need to know:

  • Philip Zelikow, a former aide to Condoleezza Rice and the author of an anti-torture memo that he thinks Dick Cheney wanted destroyed, testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. He outlined the campaign he and a few other Bush administration officials waged to change both the policy and the legal framework surrounding the treatment of terrorism suspects. They were, of course, unsuccessful.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's (D-RI) subcommittee on Administration Oversight and the Courts, which held the hearing, released two unclassified 2005 memos that argued against the Bush administration's detainee treatment policies. I outlined the highlights of the anti-torture memos on Wednesday afternoon.

America's Most Hated Industry

Charles Duhigg has a terrific piece about the credit card industry in the upcoming issue of the New York Times MagazineHere's an excerpt:

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire’s stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.

....Testing indicated that Martin’s predictions, when paired with other commonly used data like cardholders’ credit histories and incomes, were often much more precise than what the industry traditionally used to forecast cardholder riskiness....Data-driven psychologists are now in high demand, and the industry is using them not only to screen out risky debtors but also to determine which cardholders need a phone call to persuade them to mail in a check. Most of the major credit-card companies have set up systems to comb through cardholders’ data for signs that someone is going to stop making payments. Are cardholders suddenly logging in at 1 in the morning? It might signal sleeplessness due to anxiety. Are they using their cards for groceries? It might mean they are trying to conserve their cash.

Credit card companies used to be serious about extending credit only to customers they thought would pay their bills.  But then life changed, and they realized that they could make more money by deliberately extending credit to poor risks, encouraging them to overspend, and then dunning them with an endless stream of fees, penalties, and increased interest rates.  They were helped along in this by laws that allowed them almost insane levels of freedom to screw customers while protecting them from the results of their own folly.

But even the United States Congress wasn't enough to prevent them from taking huge losses during the current recession, so now they're getting serious about evaluating credit risks again.  Which is good.  Except for one thing: do we really want credit card companies making these decisions based on the results of bizarrely opaque data mining experiments?  If you're turned down for a card because you don't pay your bills on time, that's one thing.  But if you're turned down because you bought some generic motor oil — and 37% of generic motor oil buyers are poor credit risks — is that fair?  Is that something we want to allow?  What happens when it turns out — and it will — that a lot of this data mining correlates strongly with sex, race, age, religion, and ethnicity?  This is something we ought to start thinking pretty hard about.

But while you're thinking about it, read the rest of Duhigg's piece.  Especially be sure to read down to the section that describes how card companies like Bank of America are perfectly willing to cut distressed cardholder debt in half just for asking ("Much of what they’re paying, after all, is fees and interest that Bank of America itself tacked on"), but that instead of letting distraught customers know this they cynically and studiously create elaborate faux "friendships" over the phone so that customers feel obligated to their new pals.  It's nothing illegal.  But it is disgusting, indecent, and unscrupulous.  And they wonder why they're the most hated industry in America.

Factlet of the Day

Tyler Cowen passes along the news that Americans used to chew their food 25 times before swallowing, but today the average is down to ten chews.  Interesting!  But how do we know this?  Has it been measured?  Here's the original source for the claim:

The modern American diet is mostly made up of "easy calories."  According to Gail Civille, a food-industry consultant and the owner of Sensory Spectrum, Americans of the past typically had to chew a mouthful of food as many as 25 times before swallowing; the average American today chews only 10 times.

In part, this is because fat, which has become ubuiquitous, is a lubricant. We don't eat as much lean meat, which requires more saliva to ready it for swallowing.  "We want food that's higher in fat, marbled, so when you eat it, it melts in your mouth," says Civille.  Food is easier to eat when it breaks down more quickly in the mouth.  "If I have fat in there, I just chew it up and — whoosh! — away it goes."

John Haywood, a prominent restaurant concept designer, agrees.  Processing, he says, creates a sort of "adult baby food."  By processing, he means removing the elements in whole food — like fiber and gristle — that are harder to chew and swallow.

Hmmm.  That's certainly plausible, but I still want to know where those exact figures come from.  I demand proof.

A Senate judiciary subcommittee released copies of two unclassified 2005 Bush administration anti-torture memos at a hearing on Wednesday. A third anti-torture memo, written by Philip Zelikow, a former aide to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is in the process of being declassified. Last week, Zelikow told Mother Jones that he suspected Vice President Dick Cheney was behind an effort to "collect and destroy" all copies of that memo. Zelikow also disclosed the existence of additional anti-torture memos last week, and the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) was able to obtain them for Wednesday's hearing.