Blogs

Bush Executive Powers: The More You Learn, the More Horrifying It Gets

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:54 PM EST

Michael Isikoff of Newsweek breaks down the recently released Bush Administration legal memos and finds that the Bush Administration essentially gave itself the powers of a dictatorship.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Justice Department secretly gave the green light for the U.S. military to attack apartment buildings and office complexes inside the United States, deploy high-tech surveillance against U.S. citizens and potentially suspend First Amendment freedom-of-the-press rights in order to combat the terror threat, according to a memo released Monday....

In perhaps the most surprising assertion, the Oct. 23, 2001, memo suggested the president could even suspend press freedoms if he concluded it was necessary to wage the war on terror. "First Amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully," Yoo wrote in the memo entitled "Authority for Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activity Within the United States."

This claim was viewed as so extreme that it was essentially (and secretly) revoked—but not until October of last year, seven years after the memo was written and with barely three and a half months left in the Bush administration...

The newly disclosed Oct. 23, 2001, memo was in response to a request from Gonzales, at the time President Bush's top lawyer, and Haynes, who was chief counsel at the Pentagon, to determine if there were any restrictions on the use of the U.S. military inside the country in targeting terror suspects. The Yoo memo essentially concluded there were none. The country, he argued, was in a "state of armed conflict." The scale of violence, he argued, was unprecedented and "legal and constitutional rules" governing law enforcement—such as the Fourth Amendment prohibition on "unreasonable" searches and seizures—did not apply.

More on this from Kevin Drum.

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Trepidation Abounds About Obama's CTO

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:42 PM EST

We just put up a piece about Barack Obama's still-missing Chief Technology Officer, and how transparency and technology activists are growing pessimistic about a position they once had very high hopes for. Here's a taste:

While Obama has already given the CTO homework—he or she is tasked with writing recommendations for an Open Government Directive that will implement Obama's transparency agenda—the position remains unfilled, long after many activists thought it ever would. (As it stands, Obama and his staff are struggling with the White House's outdated technology.) Last weekend, attendees of the Sunlight Foundation's Transparency Camp, a gathering of top members of the open government and technology communities, were genuinely befuddled. None in this tight-knit community could identify the frontrunners for the position, and few had explanations for the delay. Multiple in-the-know sources griped that the CTO will likely be a neutered position, lacking budgetary powers or a direct line to the president, and that the Obama team does not appear to have resolved basic questions, including where the CTO will reside on its organizational chart. (One report suggests the CTO is currently being slated for the president's Domestic Policy Council.) The general attitude was pessimistic—no one believed that the CTO would be a high-level position capable of improving the use of technology across executive branch departments or of convincing hidebound bureaucracies to use technology to make their operations and decisions more accessible to the public.

Read the whole thing here.

Healthcare for the Middle Class

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:10 PM EST
David Corn just got back from a breakfast meeting hosted by Nancy Pelosi, who outlined the Democratic messaging strategy on healthcare reform:

The "appeal" of this push, she said, will not be that 48 million people don't have health care insurance. "What is important to the bigger population," she explained, "is their own health care."

....The bottom line: the battle cry will not be, "Health care for all!" Instead, it will be "Better health care for you — and also the rest of us." Given how the Hillary Clinton-led crusade for health care reform flamed out terribly in the 1990s, this sort of tactical shift may be warranted. It may even be wise.

I'd go further than that.  Even as far back as 1993, Bill Clinton understood that fear of change among the already insured was the key issue in building public support for national healthcare.  Unfortunately, even though he got this, he still didn't emphasize it enough, and that's one of the reasons his plan failed.

Since then, however, this has become conventional wisdom.  Like it or not, universal healthcare will never get passed on the grounds that it will help the 48 million Americans who are currently uninsured.  It will only pass if the other 250 million Americans are assured over and over and over again that the new plan will be at least as good for them as what they have now.  The tactical shift Pelosi is talking about isn't just wise, it's absolutely indispensable.

More importantly, however, both David and Ezra Klein report that Pelosi's real priority this year isn't healthcare at all.  It's energy policy — specifically, getting a cap-and-trade bill passed.  My sense from Obama's non-SOTU last week was that this was his priority as well, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if serious healthcare reform ended up getting pushed off until next year.

Moron of the Day

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 1:14 PM EST
The competition for dumbest news story of day/week/month is way too competitive to ever declare a definitive winner.  But Jon Chait sure has a contender today, a piece by ABC's Emily Friedman that's based on the idea that the tax rate on your entire income will jump under Obama's proposed tax reform if your income exceeds $250,000.  Supposedly this makes it worthwhile to get your income a few pennies under the limit, and supposedly lots of people are working on this.  Needless to say, though, the tax code doesn't work this way.  Only the income above $250,000 will be taxed at the higher rate:

The article [] quotes a financial advisor who explains the way that tax brackets rates work, but then quotes a right-wing business professor and the subjects of her article fulminating about class warfare. Pretty clearly the reporter started off on her mistaken premise, found some subjects who shared her ignorance, and then came across a financial advisor who gently corrected her. But, instead of nixing the collosally uninformed article, or writing a different kind of article ("Rich Morons Decreasing Own Income Due To Lack of Tax Code Knowledge") she instead plowed ahead with her initial premise.

Friedman's piece is a train wreck.  What happened to ABC News' editors on this one?

Earmarks

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 12:57 PM EST
As it happens, I think all the hyperventilating over earmarks is kind of silly.  Getting rid of them wouldn't reduce the federal budget by a dime (the earmarked money would just go elsewhere), and in any case I don't have a huge issue with senators having some say in where money is spent in their states.

Still, there's plenty of hyperventilation on the subject, and you can certainly make a good case that it's gotten out of hand.  So as a public service, Taxpayers for Common Sense has itemized all the earmarks in the current budget and tallied them up by senator.  The full spreadsheet is here.  The top ten earmarkers are below — six Republicans and four Democrats.  Keep their names (and party affiliations!) in mind the next time the hyperventilating starts to reach fever pitch on your TV.

Pelosi's Switch on the Dem's Pitch for Health Care

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 12:52 PM EST

On Tuesday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with a bunch of journalists and bloggers from assorted progressive media outlets. As they asked her about the stimulus package, health care, and her relationship with the White House, she mainly stuck to talking points and hailed President Barack Obama, his budget, the stimulus legislation, and the policy agenda she enthusiastically shares with the White House. She declined to bash Rush Limbaugh (or even talk about him), and said she had no plans to apply pressure on Republican legislators from districts that Obama had won in November.

But what was intriguing was how she foreshadowed the health care reform fight to come. With the White House holding a health care summit this week, the Democrats in Congress are gearing up for the titanic legislative challenge of passing a major health care reform package. In years past, the champions of health care reform have relied on a simple slogan: There are 40 million Americans without health care coverage, and they deserve it. (Now, it's 48 million.) Yet Pelosi noted that delivering insurance to this group of Americans will not be the political or rhetorical centerpiece of the latest health care reform effort.

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Bernanke on the Stimulus

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 12:17 PM EST
Ben Bernanke's profile has been a little bit lower since Barack Obama took office, but today he testified before Congress and backed Obama's aggressive spending plans:

U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Tuesday appeared to back the White House's efforts to stimulate the economy, saying aggressive action is needed now to avoid an economic calamity even as it adds trillions of dollars in new government debt.

...."By supporting public and private spending, the fiscal package should provide a boost to demand and production over the next two years as well as mitigate the overall loss of employment and income that would otherwise occur," Mr. Bernanke said in prepared testimony to the Senate Budget Committee.

Basically, Bernanke had nothing good to say about our current mess.  Things are bad and getting worse.  Interestingly, however, he did have one slightly encouraging thing to say about the long-term deficit: he thinks it will be mitigated somewhat when we start selling off all the toxic waste that we're buying up right now. "If all goes well," he said, "the disposition of assets acquired by the Treasury in the process of stabilization will be a source of added revenue for the Treasury in the out years."

If all goes well, that might be true.  I wonder what the odds are of all going well?

Barry Manilow as a Weapon of Mass Destruction

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 11:45 AM EST

Barry Manilow, the coiffed, ever-young hero of blue-haired old ladies the world over, could live to see his music transformed from drunken pub fare into the newest innovation in crowd control, according to the Associated Press. A shopping mall in the New Zealand city of Christchurch is reportedly having trouble with juvenile delinquents spreading trash, getting drunk, getting high, tagging walls with spray paint, and talking filth to local shoppers. The solution? Pipe in hits like "Mandy" and "Can't Smile Without You," which, like this obnoxious tone said to be the scourge of teenage ruffians everywhere, will (it is hoped) clear the area of smack-talking punks. Paul Lonsdale, manager of the local business association, denies that Manilow was selected to drive teenagers crazy. "The intention is to change the environment in a positive way... so nobody feels threatened or intimidated," he says. "I did not say that Barry Manilow is a weapon of mass destruction."

No, for that look to some other acts, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which the CIA used to bully Al Qaeda leader Abu Zabaydah into spilling his beans (along with other forms of "enhanced interrogation"). We should also not forget that Van Halen, Whitesnake, and Black Sabbath, among others, ultimately convinced Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega that he'd rather spend the rest of his life in a federal supermax than sit through another minute of "War Pigs."

Will such tactics work on Christchurch's problem children? Doubtful if we believe 16-year old Emma Belcher. "We would just bring a stereo and play it louder," she told the AP.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Alan Light.

A Deal With Russia?

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 2:31 AM EST
Peter Baker of the New York Times reports on the latest diplomatic move from Barack Obama:

President Obama sent a secret letter to Russia’s president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons, American officials said Monday.

....The officials who described the contents of the message requested anonymity because it has not been made public. While they said it did not offer a direct quid pro quo, the letter was intended to give Moscow an incentive to join the United States in a common front against Iran.

....The officials who described the contents of the message requested anonymity because it has not been made public. While they said it did not offer a direct quid pro quo, the letter was intended to give Moscow an incentive to join the United States in a common front against Iran.

I'm not sure what to make of this.  The story shows every sign of being an official leak, something that Obama wanted to make public prior to Hillary Clinton's meeting with the Russian foreign minister later this week.  But does making it public really help its chances of being accepted?  Doesn't seem like it.  Or perhaps the leak was designed more to put pressure on Iran than it was to put pressure on Russia?

Very odd.  Consider me mystified by this.

12,000 Climate Activists Can't Be Wrong

| Tue Mar. 3, 2009 1:44 AM EST

Ah, the party planner's problem. You send out an invitation, and what happens if they all say yes? 

I'm just back from today's magnificent civil disobedience outside the Capitol power plant. It began around 1 p.m., with the morning's snow still swirling—and out of the snow hundreds and then thousands of people arriving, signs in hand, many wearing green hardhats, all ready to go for a march. And what a march—down a few blocks off Capitol Hill into a strange semi-wasteland of overpasses, newly built luxury condos now unoccupied in the housing bust—and a big ugly power plant.

We marched a lap around the complex, dropping off color-coded contingents at each of the five gates—green flags with several hundred people at the first, red at the second. The mass of us gathered outside the main gate, before a small stage, and then listened to half the most important folk in the environmental movement, from Gus Speth to Wendell Berry to young indigenous activists to some guy named Jim Hansen. Cheering, singing, dancing, shivering.

The only problem was, too many people. We simply overwhelmed the police, who were prepared to arrest 500 but not ten times that many. And so they simply refused. Short of actually assaulting cops, which no one had the slightest interest in, it was simply impossible to get arrested. We were all risking it—we were standing where we weren't supposed to for hours on end. And we shut down the plant for the afternoon.

Not only that, of course, but since Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid had actually caved in last week, announcing they'd end 103 years of burning coal in the plant and convert it to natural gas, there was no obstacle to declaring victory, utter and complete. 

I was the slightest bit disappointed, because I'd looked forward to eating out for a long time on the story of sharing a cell with Berry and Hansen and Terry Tempest Williams and Janisse Ray and Kathy Mattea and all the other good folks who were out there standing their ground. It would have been one hell of a stretch behind bars, and we could have written some kind of great letter from jail. 

But much better to see the wide smiles on the faces of the thousands of college kids who made up much of the crowd. The kind of wide smiles that come with saying: 'so this is how it works.' It's not impossible. All it takes is a movement, which now we've got to build.