Kevin Drum - September 2010

Living in Jack Bauer's World

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 7:17 PM EDT

A couple of months ago I linked to a Stewart Baker post about a new computer virus. This wasn't your ordinary Windows trojan or worm, it was an extremely sophisticated piece of malware targeted specifically at SCADA systems — industrial control systems made by Siemens that are used in chemical plants and electric power plants and transmission systems worldwide.

Well, it now has a name — Stuxnet — and analysts know a lot more about it. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, a German cyber-security researcher named Ralph Langner has discovered that it's not aimed at SCADA systems in general. Rather, it has a built in "fingerprinting" capability and is aimed at one specific SCADA system:

Since reverse engineering chunks of Stuxnet's massive code, senior US cyber security experts confirm what Mr. Langner, the German researcher, told the Monitor: Stuxnet is essentially a precision, military-grade cyber missile deployed early last year to seek out and destroy one real-world target of high importance — a target still unknown.

"Stuxnet is a 100-percent-directed cyber attack aimed at destroying an industrial process in the physical world," says Langner, who last week became the first to publicly detail Stuxnet's destructive purpose and its authors' malicious intent. "This is not about espionage, as some have said. This is a 100 percent sabotage attack."

....Once Stuxnet identifies the critical function running on a programmable logic controller, or PLC, made by Siemens, the giant industrial controls company, the malware takes control. One of the last codes Stuxnet sends is an enigmatic “DEADF007.” Then the fireworks begin, although the precise function being overridden is not known, Langner says. It may be that the maximum safety setting for RPMs on a turbine is overridden, or that lubrication is shut off, or some other vital function shut down. Whatever it is, Stuxnet overrides it, Langner’s analysis shows.

"After the original code [on the PLC] is no longer executed, we can expect that something will blow up soon," Langner writes in his analysis. "Something big."

....A geographical distribution of computers hit by Stuxnet, which Microsoft produced in July, found Iran to be the apparent epicenter of the Stuxnet infections. That suggests that any enemy of Iran with advanced cyber war capability might be involved, Langner says. The US is acknowledged to have that ability, and Israel is also reported to have a formidable offensive cyber-war-fighting capability.

Could Stuxnet's target be Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, a facility much of the world condemns as a nuclear weapons threat? Langner is quick to note that his views on Stuxnet's target is speculation based on suggestive threads he has seen in the media. Still, he suspects that the Bushehr plant may already have been wrecked by Stuxnet. Bushehr's expected startup in late August has been delayed, he notes, for unknown reasons.

On the bright side, this strikes me as the kind of attack that can only work once. And if once it is, Bushehr seems like a worthy target. On the downside, however, this category of attack seems like it could have almost infinite possibilities. It suddenly makes all those implausible plot lines on 24 seems terrifyingly plausible after all.

(Via Stewart Baker, of course.)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Big Spenders

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 4:55 PM EDT

Over at the New Republic, Alexander Hart catches Republicans playing games with charts to try and make Democratic budgets look bigger than they really are. So he redraws the chart, and then Ezra Klein redraws it again.

Which is fine, but I think everyone is missing the real dishonesty of the chart: it cleverly has a single bar each for Clinton, Bush, and Obama showing only their "average spending" as a percent of GDP. But that average covers a multitude of sins, so a proper chart is below. Can you tell which of these administrations is not like the other?

The Clinton average is about 20% of GDP, but that represents a decline from 22% to 18%. The Bush average is also about 20% of GDP, but that represents an increase from 18% to 22%. And Obama's average is higher than the other two, but that represents a big slug of stimulus spending in response to the Bush recession followed by — you guessed it — a decline. Even his higher ending number is mostly due to increased interest expense, not to wildly higher primary spending.

Anyway, the Republican story is that this time they really really mean it. They really will cut spending, even though they've never done it in the past. You can decide for yourself if you believe them this time around.

Sarah Palin's Common Sense Kickbacks

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 1:45 PM EDT

The Washington Times reports that the Republican National Committee has paid off a quarter million dollars of Sarah Palin's legal fees. RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen explains:

"That was payment for services she was providing, including a couple speeches, a couple fundraising letters and a telephone call," Mr. Pullen said. "There was not a contract so far as I know. It was verbal."

Former RNC Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf said he could not recall a similar arrangement for those helping the party build its financial base during his tenure. "Wow. I never paid anyone money to make speeches and sign direct-mail appeals," Mr. Fahrenkopf said.

Presumably Palin doesn't want anyone to say that she's doing fundraising gigs for her own benefit (she's just a suburban hockey mom fighting to take back America, after all), so instead she worked a deal with the RNC where she'd do fundraising for the party but have part of it kicked back to pay her personal bills. Politics as usual, I guess. But it still baffles me. Palin reportedly has earned upwards of $10 million over the past year and has loads of future earning potential too. So why not just pay the $600,000 legal bill herself and be done with it? It's chump change for someone as rich as she is.

Empty Pledges

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 12:56 PM EDT

Does pundit law require me to comment on the Republicans' "Pledge To America" that was released today? I'm not sure. And it's a pretty tedious bunch of boilerplate. So I'll limit myself to one thing: the section on reducing spending. It has ten provisions. Here's how I score them:

  • Four of them (#5, 7, 9, 10) are just blather.
  • One of them (#3) is quite plainly not a promise the GOP can or will keep.
  • Two of them (#4, 6) are trivial.

So that leaves #1, 2, and 8. Here they are:

  • Act Immediately to Reduce Spending: There is no reason to wait to reduce wasteful and unnecessary spending. Congress should move immediately to cancel unspent “stimulus” funds, and block any attempts to extend the timeline for spending “stimulus” funds. Throwing more money at a stimulus plan that is not working only wastes taxpayer money and puts us further in debt.

  • Cut Government Spending to Pre-Stimulus, Pre-Bailout Levels: With common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops, we will roll back government spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving us at least $100 billion in the first year alone and putting us on a path to begin paying down the debt, balancing the budget, and ending the spending spree in Washington that threatens our children’s future.

  • Impose a Net Federal Hiring Freeze of Non-Security Employees: Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the engine of our economy and should not be crowded out by unchecked government growth. We will impose a net hiring freeze on non-security federal employees and ensure that the public sector no longer grows at the expense of the private sector.

Canceling unspent stimulus dollars is just stupid. There's not all that much left and it would mean leaving lots of programs half finished. But whatever.

The real meat is in the other two. And as usual, Republicans refuse to call out actual programs they want to cut. Everyone knows there won't be an across-the-board anything, not spending cuts and not hiring freezes. There will only be cuts in actual, named programs. But what? The FBI? Highway construction? Food stamps? Ag subsidies? Corporate welfare? NASA? NOAA? Education spending? The NIH and CDC?

What's it going to be, guys? If you're afraid to name any actual programs now, why should anyone believe you're suddenly going to develop the guts to stand up to your own supporters and name them once you're in office?

For more on the general vacuousness of this document, see David Corn, Ezra Klein, and Jonathan Bernstein.

Who Bends the Rules Better?

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 11:44 AM EDT

Having just criticized Democrats for being feckless cowards, now I'll take the other side of the argument. Why? Just to be annoying, I guess. Here is Matt Yglesias commenting on the fact that Paul Ryan disparaged reconciliation when it was used to pass healthcare reform but approves of it wholeheartedly when it's used to repeal healthcare reform:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I think this is a really genuinely and non-ironically praiseworthy attribute of the Republican congressional caucus that makes congressional Democrats look really, really bad....Republicans are determined to follow the actual laws and rules. When in the minority, they don’t rebel. They don’t murder their political opponents, they don’t organize coups d’état. What they do is they try to win legislative battles through all the tools at their disposal. And when in the majority they . . . do the same thing. They believe, strongly, that letting wealthy businessmen get what they want is good for America, and they go about doing that with seriousness of purpose. Many Democrats, by contrast, seem to believe that their highest responsibility is to make themselves look good, to preen for the cameras, or to maximize their own personal authority.

OK, but look: Democrats did use all the tools at their disposal to pass healthcare reform. They hauled out reconciliation and used it in a very unusual way to overcome Senate rules and pass the final bill. And there's more. Obama has made increasing numbers of recess appointments. He used TARP to rescue GM and Chrysler even though that was pretty plainly not what TARP was intended for. Dems passed PAYGO rules and then declared anything that violated it "emergency spending." Likewise, they denounced closed rules when they were out of power but used them routinely when they took over the House. Just last week Obama appointed Elizabeth Warren as a White House special advisor to run the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a way of evading the normal rules for Senate confirmation.

Are Republicans even more ruthless and hypocritical about procedural hurdles than Democrats? Probably. Is this stuff praiseworthy or just part of the rough-and-tumble of politics? I'm not sure, though I can say that it mostly doesn't bother me a whole lot. Either way, though, even if Nancy Pelosi doesn't quite measure up to Tom DeLay in this department, Dems aren't exactly babes in the woods when it comes to manipulating the system.

The Democratic Plan

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 11:04 AM EDT

Ezra Klein says a record isn't enough. Democrats need a vision statement just like the GOP:

Telling them to look at what Democrats have attempted but failed to pass isn't enough. Voters don't know about the 372 bills the House has passed and the Senate has ignored, or the 44 bills the Senate has passed and the House hasn't acted on. And legislation is not synonymous with vision. Legislation is about what you can get done. It's about compromises with Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. It's about the Senate's calendar. It's about the committee structure. Vision is about what you want to get done, and it's worthwhile for voters to know that, too.

Meanwhile.....

A senior Senate Democratic aide told TPM today there won't be a vote on extending the Bush tax cuts in the upper chamber before the November election....The aide said it's already a winning message without a vote since Obama and Democrats have framed the debate as the Republicans being for the rich and Democrats wanting to help the middle class...."We have a winning message now, why muddy it up with a failed vote, because, of course, Republicans are going to block everything," the aide said.

This is why there won't be a Democratic vision statement of any substance. They don't want to run on their record because they're scared to death of it. Voters hate the stimulus, they hate TARP, they don't care about financial reform, and if they don't exactly hate healthcare reform, they aren't too thrilled with it either. And since Democrats have seemingly given up on fighting back and persuading people that this was all good stuff, a defense of their record is out.

And the future? Well, Republicans have the advantage that they can promise pretty much anything. Sure, you'd have to be pretty gullible to think they're seriously planning to reduce the deficit, but there are plenty of forgetful people out there. They'll believe whatever Republicans say. Democrats, however, can't do this. I mean, what are they going to say? That we need a climate bill, repeal of DADT, more stimulus, and immigration reform? Even a forgetful electorate isn't that forgetful.

And anyway, Dems already have a winning message! Just like the man said. Why, just look at the polls.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Threat Above

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 10:26 AM EDT

A regular reader tells me to stop wasting my time on trivial stuff like climate change and the financial collapse and instead focus on what's really important. PR Newswire via Reuters delivers:

Witness testimony from more than 120 former or retired military personnel points to an ongoing and alarming intervention by unidentified aerial objects at nuclear weapons sites, as recently as 2003. In some cases, several nuclear missiles simultaneously and inexplicably malfunctioned while a disc-shaped object silently hovered nearby. Six former U.S. Air Force officers and one former enlisted man will break their silence about these events at the National Press Club and urge the government to publicly confirm their reality.

....Declassified U.S. government documents, to be distributed at the event, now substantiate the reality of UFO activity at nuclear weapons sites extending back to 1948. The press conference will also address present-day concerns about the abuse of government secrecy as well as the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons.

I assure you this is just the tip of the iceberg. Do you really think these disc-shaped objects only care about our nuclear weapons? Don't be naive. They're in league with the UN and they're coming for our guns too. Please take all appropriate precautions.

Healthcare Reform's First Day

| Thu Sep. 23, 2010 12:53 AM EDT

On Thursday the first wave of changes from the healthcare reform bill take effect:

Starting now, insurance companies will no longer be permitted to exclude children because of pre-existing health conditions....Insurers also will be prohibited from imposing lifetime limits on benefits.

The law will now forbid insurers to drop sick and costly customers after discovering technical mistakes on applications. It requires that they offer coverage to children under 26 on their parents’ policies. It establishes a menu of preventive procedures, like colonoscopies, mammograms and immunizations, that must be covered without co-payments. And it allows consumers who join a new plan to keep their own doctors and to appeal insurance company reimbursement decisions to a third party.

....Polls have found that many of the provisions taking effect Thursday are popular, tugging at a national sense of fairness and feeding off distrust of health insurers. They bear particular appeal for the 14 million people who must buy policies on the individual market rather than through employers and are thus at the mercy of the industry. And they land on the heels of a government report showing that the recession drove the number of uninsured Americans to 50.7 million in 2009, up 10 percent in a year.

It's a start.

Obama and His Critics

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 8:25 PM EDT

The current rumor circulating among Beltway types is that Barack Obama is intent on replacing Larry Summers with a female CEO, presumably to blunt critisism that his economic team is both all male and all academic. Jonathan Bernstein:

This is a remarkably stupid plan, if true. It will not “disarm” critics who say that Obama is reflexively anti-business, any more than having Bob Gates at Defense “disarmed” critics of Obama's approach to terror — indeed, actually expanding the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and killing a lot of terrorists didn't slow down those who were intent on claiming that Obama was some sort of secret bin Laden sympathizer. It doesn't work like that. Critics will say what they will say, and it mostly doesn't matter, and at any rate there's nothing you can do about it. What you can do, however, is have a well-run White House and do your best to have a well-run government.

I agree with Jonathan's general point that partisan critics are going to snipe at you no matter what. Still, I'd push back just a little bit on this. First, I think that keeping Bob Gates at Defense and stepping up the Afghanistan war has slowed down some of his critics. Nothing will shut them up completely, of course, and no one expects that. But guys like Bill Kristol have probably been a good deal less vocal than they would have been if Defense had gone to Richard Danzig or Michèle Flournoy, Pentagon reform has probably gone a lot more smoothly, and Republicans in Congress have been more tractable. Overall, I'd say that holding on to Gates has worked out exactly the way Obama expected.

As for having a well-run White House and a well-run government — well, I'm all in favor of that. But Obama has had a pretty well run White House and has also been pretty dedicated to getting policy right. The result has been bleak. The stimulus probably would have done him more good if he'd paid less attention to wonky ideas like spreading out the tax cut over time, and healthcare would have been more popular with both the lefty base and the general public if he'd paid less attention to policy and more attention to politics. Frankly, having a well-run government doesn't buy you much of anything.

That said, I agree that the whole female CEO thing is pretty stupid, if true. But that's not because this kind of thing can't have a positive effect. It's just because this particular thing is unusually vapid.

Voting on Taxes

| Wed Sep. 22, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

Apparently all the Blue Dogs in the House are terrified of being asked to vote on a bill that would extend only the tax cuts on the middle class. Jonathan Chait comments:

So the issue here is that they're afraid a vote to extend tax cuts will be turned into a vote to raise taxes, and thereby into a vote to raise taxes on the middle class. Okay, I kind of get that — this presumes massive communicatory incompetence by these Democrats, but that may be a fair assumption. So why not just hold two different votes? They can vote for both the universal tax cuts and the upper-class-only tax cuts. If both bills pass, Obama can sign the first and veto the second. If Republicans block the universal tax cuts, Democrats can make that their campaign issue.

Or, better yet, a vote on the middle-class-only cuts followed by a vote on the upper-only cuts. Either way, though, I assume this is too easy a solution and doesn't work because there's not enough time to schedule two votes? Or the Blue Dogs don't want two votes? Or something. Not sure what, though.