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Quote of the Day: Questions About Torture Are "Not Helpful"

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 11:38 AM EST

From Jose Rodriguez, the head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in 2002, after field agents began questioning both the utility and legality of extended waterboarding sessions:

Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic). Such language is not helpful.

This is, I suppose, not just the banality of evil, but its prolixity as well. Rodriguez, of course, is the guy who would eventually destroy videotapes of CIA torture sessions on the pretense of "protecting" the people who worked for him.

There's more at the link from the New York Times, which got an advance copy of the Senate torture report and is now releasing it. Along with everyone else in the world, I'll be posting bits and pieces that stand out as I read them. As much as I have the stomach for, anyway.

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The Senate Just Released the CIA Torture Report. Read the Full Document.

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 11:30 AM EST

A much-anticipated report investigating torture methods carried out by the CIA during the Bush administration was released on Tuesday. The report has taken nearly five years to produce and was widely expected to condemn the controversial torture program. Indeed, just last week Secretary of State John Kerry asked Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to consider delaying the release of the report given the ongoing threat of ISIS and the safety of American hostages abroad. Former Bush and CIA officials have also been organizing to preemptively challenge the report's findings.

Read the executive report in its entirety below:

 

We're going through the document now. Catch any highlights? Let us know in the comments.

Watch Dianne Feinstein Address the Senate on Release of CIA Torture Report

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 10:59 AM EST

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is scheduled to speak from the Senate floor this morning to deliver remarks on the upcoming CIA torture report. Watch live below:

Read the Senator's press release:

 

I Boldly Predict That The 2015 Senate Will Be the Same as the 2014 Senate

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 10:37 AM EST

Brian Beutler writes today about the recent Republican practice of gumming up the Senate by deluging every bill with a tidal wave of awkward, superfluous, or just plain dumb amendments designed to force Democrats to cast politically embarrassing votes ("Is Senator Catnip really opposed to free flag pins for all vets?"):

To deny Democrats even symbolic victories, Senate Republicans have flooded each legislative debate with amendments—some pertinent, some absurd—that Democrats didn’t want to vote on, or that threatened the legislative coalition behind the underlying bill. When Reid has stepped in to protect his members from these votes, McConnell has used it as a pretext to filibuster.

....With McConnell coming into control of the Senate, the dynamic will now flip....Thus his promise to open up the Senate...."The notion that protecting all of your members from votes is a good idea politically, I think, has been pretty much disproved by the recent election,” he said.

....I hope McConnell sticks to his guns on this one, because he’s completely correct about it. And if there’s a reason to think he will, it’s that it’s entirely consistent with his other, profound insights about the basic nature of legislative politics in America....McConnell wouldn't choose a more genteel legislative strategy if it weren't in his interest. But if he can prove that taking hard votes like this doesn't actually make much of a difference politically, then he can prove that the amendments themselves are worthless, or at least not to be feared, and perhaps make Congress a less ridiculous place in the long run.

Ahem. Mitch McConnell is notable for many things, but a commitment to principled process improvements in the Senate is rather notably not one of them. As Beutler says, demanding the right to offer a few hundred amendments to every bill is merely a pretext for filibustering, not the real reason. McConnell does it to annoy Harry Reid, not because he has a lifelong dedication to an open Senate.

In any case, the issue is a little more complicated. How many amendments can each side offer? Who gets to offer them? What order are they voted on? Is there a time limit on debate? How do you resolve competing amendments on the same subject? The only way to make this work is to have a cast-iron set of rules governing all this stuff. Without that, it will implode the first time someone breaks whatever gentleman's agreement McConnell strikes with Reid. And I don't think McConnell has the power or the votes to enact a cast-iron rule on amendments.

So....I'd put this in the general category of generic blather that switches sides whenever the parties trade majorities. For the past few years, McConnell has been for filibusters and against limitations on amendments. Starting in January, some alleged Democratic perfidy will quickly give him cover to switch his position, and Harry Reid will switch his too. Life will then go on exactly as before. You heard it here first.

Watch "Emperor" Obama Take Over Hosting Duties for Colbert

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 9:10 AM EST

"You've taken plenty of shots at my job. I'm going to take a shot at yours."

And with that, President Obama seized control of a special D.C. edition of "The Colbert Report" last night, leading off by taking over hosting duties for the latest installment of "The Word," or as the president promptly renamed, "The Decree."

Later on, the two sat down and discussed everything from the midterm elections to the nuclear launch codes. Regarding immigration reform, Colbert asked his guest, "You realize you're an emperor now...Why did you burn the Constitution and become an emperor?"

Colbert, who will be replacing David Letterman over at the "Late Show" soon, concluded the special appearance with a suggestion that melded both immigration legislation and Keystone into one bizarre policy proposal. The president declined: "Stephen, that sounds like a ridiculous idea. But that's why you're where you are, and I'm where I am."

Mitch McConnell Wants to Open a Giant Loophole for Superrich Donors. Harry Reid Has Vowed to Stop Him.

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 6:15 AM EST

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is vowing to block any effort by his GOP counterpart, Mitch McConnell, to loosen the nation's campaign finance limits as part of a bipartisan budget deal taking shape in Congress.

Last week, the Huffington Post reported that McConnell, who will take over as majority leader in January, wanted to slip into a major government funding bill a measure that would give presidential and congressional candidates more leeway to coordinate their campaign spending with political parties. Right now, candidates for federal office can coordinate some of their election spending with the parties—but only up to a certain amount. (The limit ranges from tens of thousands to several million dollars, depending on the size of the state's voting-age population.) Beyond that threshold, parties and candidates can't coordinate their spending plans, and the parties must spend their funds independently of the candidates they back.

The existing rule is intended to prevent donors from using political parties to skirt legal limits on donations to candidates. As it stands, donors can give up to $5,200 every two-year election cycle to each candidate for federal office. But McConnell's measure, if enacted, would create a massive loophole in that rule, says Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group that supports limits on money in politics. If McConnell gets what he wants, rich donors who hit the $5,200 limit could simply route further donations to candidates by giving to political party committees—which may accept far larger donations and could work directly with the candidates to ensure the money was spent as the donors intended. "The practical effort here is to repeal the limits," Wertheimer says.

McConnell has a broader plan here. Politico recently noted that McConnell is seeking to direct more big money to political parties, as opposed to outside groups such as super-PACs that in theory must remain independent of candidates. In a subsequent interview with Roll Call, McConnell suggested he might not force the issue, saying his proposal is "not on the agenda" but that the coordination limit he wants to eliminate is "an absurdity in the current law."

That doesn't mean the plan is dead. Should McConnell reverse course and attach this change to the budget bill, Reid's office says the majority leader will block such a maneuver. "Reid strongly opposes and will fight against any efforts to include the McConnell [measure]," an aide in Reid's tells Mother Jones.

House and Senate members hashing out the budget bill were expected to release a version of the legislation as early as Monday evening.

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American Lives Will Be Saved, Not Lost, If We Release the Senate Torture Report

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 2:35 PM EST

The Senate torture report seems likely to be published this week in some form or another, but there's already a campaign in full swing to keep it under wraps. Why? Because its release might put Americans in danger. Paul Waldman acknowledges that this might be true, but provides the right response:

The cynicism necessary to attempt to blame the blowback from their torture program on those who want it exposed is truly a wonder. On one hand, they insist that they did nothing wrong and the program was humane, professional, and legal. On the other they implicitly accept that the truth is so ghastly that if it is released there will be an explosive backlash against America. Then the same officials who said "Freedom isn't free!" as they sent other people's children to fight in needless wars claim that the risk of violence against American embassies is too high a price to pay, so the details of what they did must be kept hidden.

There's another thing to be said about this: Our conduct during the early years of the war on terror almost certainly inflamed our enemies, bolstered their recruitment, and prolonged the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. This cost thousands of American lives.

President Obama may have banned torture during his administration, but is there any reason to think we've now given up torture for good? Not that I can tell, and it will cost many more thousands of American lives if it happens again. So for our own safety, even if for no other reason, we need to do everything we can to reduce the odds of America going on another torture spree.

How do we do that? Well, all it will take for torture to become official policy yet again is (a) secrecy and (b) another horrific attack that can be exploited by whoever happens to be in power at the moment. And while there may not be a lot we can about (b), we can at least try to force the public to recognize the full nature of the brutality that we descended to after 9/11. That might lower the odds a little bit, and that's why this report needs to be released. It's not just because it would be the right thing to do. It's because, in the long run, if it really does reduce the chances of America adopting a policy of mass torture again in the future, it will save American lives.

Economists Are Almost Inhumanly Impartial

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 12:29 PM EST

Over at 538, a team of researchers takes on the question of whether economists are biased. Given that economists are human beings, it would be pretty shocking if the answer turned out to be no, and sure enough, it's not. In fact, say the researchers, liberal economists tend to produce liberal results and conservative economists tend to produce conservative results. This is unsurprising, but oddly enough, I'm also not sure it's the real takeaway here.

The methodology they used to calculate bias involves a series of bank shots. Here's how it's done. First, take a group of economists with known ideologies. Second, examine the word choices in their papers. Third, create an algorithm that links ideology and word choice. Fourth, apply the algorithm to a large group of economists. Fifth, examine the numerical results in their papers. Sixth, normalize the results within fields to see how left- or right-leaning their conclusions are. Seventh, plot numerical results vs. predicted ideology.

Whew! There are, needless to say, error bars at every step along the way. Still, you will end up with a regression line eventually, and you can see it in the chart on the right. Sure enough, it shows that liberal economists tend to produce more liberal results, and vice versa for conservative economists.

That, however, is not the conclusion I draw from all this. What I see is a nearly flat regression line with a ton of variance. Those blue dots are all over the place. If the authors say their results are statistically significant, I believe them, but it sure looks to me as if (a) the real-world error bars are pretty big here, and (b) economists as a whole are remarkably unbiased. I mean, look at that chart again. I would have expected a much steeper line. Instead, what we see is just the barest possibility that ideology has a very slight effect on economists' findings.

If these results are actually true, then congratulations economists! You guys are pretty damn evenhanded. The most committed Austrians and the most extreme socialists are apparently producing numerical results that are only slightly different. If there's another field this side of nuclear physics that does better, I'd be surprised.

Bill de Blasio Explains Why Encounters with Police Are "Different for a White Child"

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 11:25 AM EST

In his call for Americans to begin an "honest conversation" about broken race relations in America, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended earlier statements he made explaining why his biracial son Dante needs to be especially careful in encounters with law enforcement.

"What parents have done for decades, who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have a connection with a police officer," de Blasio opened up to ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.

"It's different for a white child. That's just the reality in this country. And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don't move suddenly, don't reach for your cell phone, because we knew, sadly, there's a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color."

His appearance on Sunday follows a previous statement he made revealing the personal story of when he and his wife sat down with Dante with instructions on how he should act if he were to ever be stopped by an officer. The anecdote drew outrage from police union leaders who criticized the mayor for "throwing officers under the bus."

In the aftermath of last week's decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer who placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, de Blasio has had the difficult task of demonstrating support for both protestors and members of the New York City Police Department. Many have applauded the mayor for being able to view Garner's death from a raw, personal standpoint.

Backing de Blasio's personal views are a number of studies showing that even absent conscious, blatant racism, our brains are wired with implicit biases that cause all of us, including police, to instincitvely react with prejudice.

After his appearance on Sunday, however, Ed Mullins of the Sergeants Benevolent Association rejected the mayor for doubling down on his comments and suggested the mayor should move out of the city if he can't trust his own police force.

One Simple Truth About Facebook That Snobby Elitists Can't Seem to Wrap Their Heads Around

| Mon Dec. 8, 2014 11:10 AM EST

Alex Tabarrok mulls the question of whether advertising-supported products are fundamentally less attuned to customer needs than, say, Apple products:

Apple’s market power isn’t a given, it’s a function of the quality of Apple’s products relative to its competitors. Thus, Apple has a significant incentive to increase quality and because it can’t charge each of its customers a different price a large fraction of the quality surplus ends up going to customers and Apple customers love Apple products.

Facebook doesn’t charge its customers so relative to Apple it has a greater interest in increasing the number of customers even if that means degrading the quality. As a result, Facebook has more users than Apple but no one loves Facebook. Facebook is broadcast television and Apple is HBO.

No one loves Facebook? This is a seriously elitist misconception. It's like saying that Tiffany's customers all love Tiffany's but no one loves Walmart.

But that's flatly not true. Among people with relatively high incomes, no one loves Walmart. Among the working and middle classes, there are tens of millions of people who not only love Walmart, but literally credit them with being able to live what they consider a middle-class lifestyle. They adore Walmart.

Ditto for Facebook. I don't love Facebook. Maybe Alex doesn't love Facebook. And certainly Facebook's fortunes rise and fall over time as other social networking products gain or lose mindshare. But there are loads of people who not only love Facebook, but are practically addicted to it. And why not? Facebook's advertiser-centric model forces them to give their customers what they want, since happy customers are the only way to increase the number of eyeballs that their advertisers want. Apple, by contrast, was run for years on the whim of Steve Jobs, who famously refused to give his customers what they wanted if it happened to conflict with his own idiosyncratic notion of how a phone/tablet/computer ought to work. In the end, this worked out well because Jobs was an oddball genius—though it was a close-run thing. But how many companies can find success that way? A few, to be sure. But not a lot.

"Quality" is not a one-dimensional attribute—and this is an insight that's seriously underappreciated. It means different things to different people. As a result, good mass-market companies are every bit as loved as companies that cater to elites. They're just loved by different people. But the love of the working class is every bit as real as the love of the upper middle class. You forget that at your peril.