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One Two Three Four

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 12:26 PM EST

ONE TWO THREE FOUR....The New York Times reports today on Iraqi reaction to the reporter who threw his shoes at George Bush on Sunday. This is from Najaf:

In the holy Shiite city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, demonstrators chanted: "Bush, Bush, is a cow, your farewell was by a shoe," and, "The shoe got its goal straightly, but Maliki turned it away."

I sure hope this sounds better in the original Arabic. Otherwise the odds are low that it will enter the hall of fame of angry chants anytime soon.

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The Best Albums of 2008

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 12:08 PM EST

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The word of 2008 may be "hope," but the uniting theme of the year's best albums is more like "anxiety." This year, TV on the Radio and Portishead looked ahead with trepidation, while M83 and Hercules and Love Affair found solace in excavating the past, and Kanye, Beach House and Lil Wayne gazed inward at their own troubled souls. However, bubbling under is a celebratory, genre-hopping eclecticism from Santogold, The Very Best, Vampire Weekend and Flying Lotus, a nascent vision of a new world. Maybe there's hope after all?

The Cynicism of John McCain's VP Choice, Illustrated by John McCain

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 11:29 AM EST

When you choose a person as your partner on a presidential ticket, what are you saying about that person? If you're acting honestly and in the best interest of the American people, you're saying that he or she is the second most qualified person in the country, after you, to be president. (Or, to bow somewhat to political realities, you are saying he or she is the second most qualified person who also happens share your ideological leanings.)

That's why it is completely absurd that on Sunday, John McCain wouldn't tell an interviewer that he would support Sarah Palin if she chose to run for president in 2012, saying "I can't say something like that. We've got some great other young governors." McCain cited Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah. Why, then, wasn't Pawlenty or Huntsman his choice for VP?

Let's get real. In 2012, McCain is going to endorse someone for the Republican nomination who is hawkish on foreign affairs but socially and environmentally moderate. He'll endorse from the point of view of 2000 John McCain instead of 2008 presidential election John McCain. He most certainly will not chose someone who is a rabid right-wing fundamentalist Christian.

Meaning he won't endorse the person he wanted to install in the White House just a few short months ago.

UN to Assist in Preserving Mass Graves in Afghanistan

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 11:24 AM EST

The UN pledged today to preserve Dasht-e-Leili, a mass grave site in northern Afghanistan, which was recently excavated and emptied of bodies, allegedly by Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum is believed to have removed the corpses out of fear that shifts in Afghan leadership might open him to charges of war crimes. The story was first reported by McClatchy.

Norah Niland, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told reporters that the UN "remains ready to assist all Afghan stakeholders, including victim groups, to take immediate and concerted action to preserve grave sites."

The move comes a little late, as the remains have already been excavated. The site was thought to contain the bodies of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners captured by the Northern Alliance after the siege of Kunduz in late 2001. News reports at the time indicated that a small number of prisoners had suffocated by accident after being left in shipping containers. The truth, based on recent FOIA release from the US government, indicates that the deaths were not accidental and were far more numerous than previously thought.

From Physicians for Human Rights, a Washington-based NGO that initially investigated the deaths in 2002 and subsequently filed the FOIA request with the Defense Department, the State Department, and the CIA:

The FOIA response reveals startling information that contradicts official US public statements. The Bush Administration stated in 2002 that only several dozen prisoners had died during transport to Sheberghan prison after surrendering to General Dostum and to US Special Forces. The FOIA response, however, contains a State Department intelligence assessment from November 2002 advising government officials that the remains of between 1,500 and 2,000 individuals were deposited at the site, and that approximately four Afghans who witnessed the death of the prisoners and/or the disposal of their remains had been detained, tortured, killed, and/or disappeared. Despite having this information, the US Government did not revise its public statements on the issue, nor did it launch a vigorous investigation into the circumstances surrounding these alleged crimes.

According PHR chief Frank Donaghue, "removing evidence of an alleged mass atrocity is itself a war crime and must be investigated." What about concealing knowledge that a war crime has taken place?

Network Neutrality Update

| Mon Dec. 15, 2008 3:05 AM EST

NETWORK NEUTRALITY UPDATE....Slowly but surely, support for network neutrality on the internet is eroding:

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

....Separately, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. have withdrawn quietly from a coalition formed two years ago to protect network neutrality. Each company has forged partnerships with the phone and cable companies. In addition, prominent Internet scholars, some of whom have advised President-elect Barack Obama on technology issues, have softened their views on the subject.

....Lawrence Lessig, an Internet law professor at Stanford University and an influential proponent of network neutrality, recently shifted gears by saying at a conference that content providers should be able to pay for faster service.

It's not too surprising that big content companies are quietly changing their tune on this: big companies are usually willing to pay for preferential treatment that helps them keep little guys little, and preferential access to the internet is no different from any other competitive advantage. But if even Lessig is starting to give in on this, the jig might truly be up.

If I had to take a (tentative) stand on this, I'd say that preferential treatment might be justified for things like television and video-on-demand services, which require infrastructure buildout and higher service levels just in order to be competitive. (TV subscribers simply won't put up with standard internet quality of service.) But for ordinary content providers merely looking for an edge over possible upstarts? I think that's as corrosive as Standard Oil locking competitors out of the railroads in the 19th century or Ma Bell prohibiting third party equipment on their lines in the 20th century. We shouldn't put up with it.

Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure how to draw the right distinctions here. Nor, in an environment where network traffic is growing at triple-digit rates but the subscriber base is barely growing at double digit rates, am I sure what incentive the backbone providers have to build additional capacity unless they have some way of charging someone for the additional bandwidth. It's a genuine problem, and I'm not sure what the solution is.

UPDATE: Lessig says the Journal is wrong: his views are the same as they've always been. Long story short, he's OK with network providers offering higher service levels to companies willing to pay for it, but only if they offer the same deal to everyone.

Google responds to the Journal here. They say the only thing they've done is offer to colocate Google-specific caching servers within broadband providers' own facilities. Needless to say, your mileage may vary on whether you think this is a violation of net neutrality.

Iraqi TV Journalist Throws Shoes at Bush at Press Conference

| Sun Dec. 14, 2008 3:45 PM EST

President Bush is in Baghdad today for a surprise visit to mark the finalizing of the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the presence of American troops in Iraq going forward. One journalist at the press conference Bush held with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki decided to use the opportunity to express his feelings about Bush. Watch it below.

Bush stated in a recent interview that he wants his legacy to rest, in part, on the fact that he "liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace." But let's be real. There isn't any glory in Bush's legacy. There isn't even dignity. The final image of our occupation of Iraq during the Bush Administration will be an Iraqi citizen making a small, futile, but enraged attempt to make a statement about his supposed "liberator."

And, by the way, that man will never have to buy a drink in Baghdad again. Whenever he gets out of Gitmo, of course.

Monday Update: When I made a joke yesterday about this journalist (whose name is Muntadhar al-Zeidi, by the way) being a local hero and being tossed in Gitmo, I didn't think I'd be right one day later. The headline from today's Washington Post article on the subject: "Across Mideast, Arabs hail shoe-hurling journalist." From the article:

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Metadata

| Sun Dec. 14, 2008 3:28 PM EST

METADATA....So what was it that Jack Goldsmith and James Comey threatened to resign over in 2004? It was some aspect of the NSA's surveillance program, and according to Barton Gellman in Angler, it wasn't just Goldsmith and Comey who were up in arms about it: virtually the entire senior staff of the Justice Department was ready to resign over it until President Bush decided to back down at the last minute. But exactly what part of the program caused the rebellion? Daniel Klaidman reports in Newsweek:

Two knowledgeable sources tell Newsweek that the clash erupted over a part of Bush's espionage program that had nothing to do with the wiretapping of individual suspects. Rather, Comey and others threatened to resign because of the vast and indiscriminate collection of communications data....The program's classified code name was "Stellar Wind," though when officials needed to refer to it on the phone, they called it "SW."

....The NSA's powerful computers became vast storehouses of "metadata." They collected the telephone numbers of callers and recipients in the United States, and the time and duration of the calls. They also collected and stored the subject lines of e-mails, the times they were sent, and the addresses of both senders and recipients. By one estimate, the amount of data the NSA could suck up in close to real time was equivalent to one quarter of the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica per second. (The actual content of calls and e-mails was not being monitored as part of this aspect of the program, the sources say.) All this metadata was then sifted by the NSA, using complex algorithms to detect patterns and links that might indicate terrorist activity.

The metadata sweep has been part of this story almost since the beginning (see here and here, for example), and the New York Times reported last year that it was data mining of some sort that probably sparked the rebellion at DoJ and the showdown in John Ashcroft's hospital room. So this report isn't entirely new. Still, it does add a bit of meat to the bones of the story, and then adds a disturbing coda: apparently we still don't know if, in the end, the rebellion worked:

Days after the hospital clash, Bush shut down the massive data-collection program and stopped searches of the data that had already been stored. (It's unclear whether the administration has since found new legal justification to return to at least some of these activities.)

Looks like the ball's in your court, president-elect Obama. At least, it will be soon, anyway.

Bipartisan

| Sun Dec. 14, 2008 2:39 PM EST

BIPARTISAN....The New York Times writes today about Sen. Chuck Schumer's role over the past decade as the defender of Wall Street. Here's a snippet:

To Christopher Cox, the Republican chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the need for action was obvious in the spring of 2006.

His agency [] had grown deeply concerned about lack of oversight of the nation's largest credit-rating agencies, like Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service...."Without additional legislative authority, the S.E.C. will not be able to regulate in a thoroughgoing way," he told the Senate banking committee at an April 2006 hearing.

....At that time, revenues for the agencies were skyrocketing. The housing market was robust, and Wall Street investment firms were paying the agencies to rate various mortgage-backed securities after first advising the firms — and also collecting fees — on how to package them to get high credit ratings.

It was an obvious conflict of interest, financial experts now say....But Mr. Schumer argued that the companies voluntarily met requirements to eliminate such possible conflicts. He suggested that regulators simply encourage competition and disclosure of agencies' ratings methods.

Schumer has since come around, claiming the rating agencies misled both him and everyone else. But look: when you're arguing in favor of less regulation than Christopher Cox, you should figure that something is wrong. This is not rocket science.

It's also why I haven't been able to work up quite the level of partisan outrage over the fall of Wall Street that some people have. You see, when it comes to environmental regulation, Democrats are mostly on the side of the angels. When it comes to workplace regulation, they're on the side of workers. When it comes to consumer regulation, they're on the side of consumers. But when it comes to financial regulation, they're....um — well, they've been mostly on about the same side as Republicans. It's true that the fanatics are largely on the GOP side, but they've been aided and abetted the entire time by a Democratic Party that went along with their self-regulation agenda with almost nary a complaint. This has truly been a bipartisan train wreck.

The Whistleblower

| Sun Dec. 14, 2008 1:49 PM EST

THE WHISTLEBLOWER....Michael Isikoff has a long, very interesting piece in Newsweek today about the guy who first tipped off the New York Times about the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. Turns out his name is Thomas Tamm, a Justice Department lawyer who learned in 2002 that the government was probably torturing terrorism suspects in its custody. He wasn't happy about it:

But still, Tamm says he was fully committed to the prosecution of the war on terror and wanted to play a bigger role in it. So in early 2003, he applied and was accepted for transfer to the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), probably the most sensitive unit within the Justice Department....But after arriving at OIPR, Tamm learned about an unusual arrangement by which some wiretap requests were handled under special procedures....Tamm says he found the whole thing especially curious since there was nothing in the special "program" wiretap requests that seemed any different from all the others. They looked and read the same. It seemed to Tamm there was a reason for this: the intelligence that came from the program was being disguised.

....At one point, Tamm says, he approached Lisa Farabee, a senior counsel in OIPR who reviewed his work, and asked her directly, "Do you know what the program is?" According to Tamm, she replied: "Don't even go there," and then added, "I assume what they are doing is illegal." Tamm says his immediate thought was, "I'm a law-enforcement officer and I'm participating in something that is illegal?" A few weeks later Tamm bumped into Mark Bradley, the deputy OIPR counsel, who told him the office had run into trouble with Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the chief judge on the FISA court. Bradley seemed nervous, Tamm says. Kollar-Kotelly had raised objections to the special program wiretaps, and "the A.G.-only cases are being shut down," Bradley told Tamm. He then added, "This may be [a time] the attorney general gets indicted," according to Tamm.

....The next few weeks were excruciating. Tamm says he consulted with an old law-school friend, Gene Karpinski, then the executive director of a public-interest lobbying group. He asked about reporters who might be willing to pursue a story that involved wrongdoing in a national-security program, but didn't tell him any details. (Karpinski, who has been questioned by the FBI and has hired a lawyer, declined to comment.) Tamm says he initially considered contacting Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter for The New Yorker, but didn't know where to reach him. He'd also noticed some strong stories by Eric Lichtblau, the New York Times reporter who covered the Justice Department — and with a few Google searches tracked down his phone number.

The rest, as they say, is history. As with many whistleblowers, Tamm's motivations were tangled and a little messy — like so many things in life — and the whole thing is very much worth reading.

Still Fools for Scandal

| Sun Dec. 14, 2008 1:15 PM EST

STILL FOOLS FOR SCANDAL....Peter Baker writes today that Barack Obama and his team have learned a lesson from the scandal-driven "moral jihad" of the Clinton presidency:

Even though Mr. Obama had no known personal involvement, the Clinton veterans understood that was only part of the issue. They had Mr. Obama publicly declare he had never spoken with Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich about the Senate appointment. They imposed a cone of silence on colleagues so they would not make a remark that could come back to haunt them. And they ordered an internal inquiry to document any contacts with the governor's advisers.

Republicans were ready to pounce, rushing out statements linking Mr. Obama to Mr. Blagojevich within an hour or so after the governor's arrest was reported. They too knew the script and that any opening must be exploited. Politics in this hyperpartisan age, after all, is the ultimate contact sport.

All well and good, but it's a little odd that Baker leaves out the role of the press in all this. I'll let Bob Somerby do the heavy lifting here, but I've lost count of the number of op-eds and TV talking head segments over the past week that have started out with something like this: "There's no evidence that Barack Obama was involved in Rod Blagojevich's pay-to-play scheme — in fact just the opposite — but...." After the "but," we get a couple thousand words with some take or another on why this is casting a "lengthening shadow" over Obama even though there's precisely zero evidence that he had even a tangential involvement in the whole thing.

Look, I get it: it was kind of a slow news week, reporters are tired of Obama the Savior stories, the Blagojevich scandal is theatrically sexy, and everyone is desperately trying to find a way to turn it from a local story to a national one. But there's no there there. Maybe Republicans still haven't learned their lesson from the 90s, but that's no reason the press has to follow them over a cliff once again. Cool it, folks.