Kevin Drum - November 2012

How the CIA Became the 6th Branch of the Military

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 8:55 AM PST

Robert Wright, in an obvious effort to use Petraeusgate to draw attention to a boring subject that has nothing to do with sex, says the real scandal here isn't Petraeus leaving the CIA, it's the fact that he arrived there in the first place:

When, in the fall of 2011, David Petraeus moved from commanding the Afghanistan war effort to commanding the CIA, it was a disturbingly natural transition. I say "natural" because the CIA conducts drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and is involved in other military operations there, so Petraeus, in his new role, was continuing to fight the Afghanistan war. I say "disturbingly" because this overlap of Pentagon and CIA missions is the result of a creeping militarization of the CIA that may be undermining America's national security.

The militarization of the CIA raises various questions. For example, if the CIA is psychologically invested in a particular form of warfare—and derives part of its budget from that kind of warfare—can it be trusted to impartially assess the consequences, both positive and negative, direct and indirect?

And then there's the transparency question. [A piece in the Washington Post] noted concerns among some activists that "the CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services. The CIA doesn't officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies, and by what rules." Indeed, only a few months ago, in compliance with the War Powers Resolution, the Obama administration reported (vaguely) on targeted killings in Somalia and Yemen that had been conducted by the military, but not on those conducted by the CIA.

....The circumstances of Petraeus's departure from the CIA are a little alarming; you'd rather your chief spy not be reckless. But the circumstances of his arrival at the CIA a year ago were more troubling. Yet no alarm was sounded that was anywhere near as loud as the hubbub surrounding Petraeus now. That's scandalous.

As near as I can tell, drone warfare was largely handed over to the CIA precisely in order to avoid normal military accountability. That really is scandalous, but it attracted only fleeting notice. It's probably too much to hope that the Petraeus scandal will cause anyone to rethink this, but rethink it we should. Wright has more at the link.

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Another Shoe Drops in Petraeusgate Investigation

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 11:09 PM PST

I've been wondering why Jill Kelley hired a lawyer after Petraeusgate broke, since she was merely a victim of some harassing emails and wasn't under investigation for anything. Maybe because of this?

The FBI probe into the sex scandal that led to the resignation of CIA director David Petraeus has expanded to ensnare Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced early Tuesday.

According to a senior U.S. defense official, the FBI has uncovered between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of “potentially inappropriate” emails between Allen and Jill Kelley, a 37-year-old Tampa woman whose close friendship with Petraeus ultimately led to his downfall....The senior defense official said the voluminous collection of emails sent between Allen and Kelley occurred between 2010 and this year, but did not give details. The official also declined to say whether Allen sent or received any of the messages from his military or government email accounts, or if classified material was compromised.

That works out to about 20 pages of emails per day for the past three years. WTF?

Does Anyone in Washington Understand the Simpson-Bowles Plan?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 9:50 PM PST

Steve Benen draws my attention to Sen. Lindsey Graham's comments on Face the Nation yesterday regarding a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction:

"Say yes to Simpson-Bowles, Mr. President. I'm willing to say yes to Simpson-Bowles," Graham said. Graham said Washington needs more revenue, but that the revenue should come from closing tax loopholes and deductions for the rich, not from raising tax rates. "Mr. President, if you will say yes to Simpson-Bowles when it comes to revenue, so will I and so will most Republicans. We can get revenue without destroying jobs," Graham said.

Really? Most Republicans will agree to this? Can we talk?

First: Of the $2.1 trillion in discretionary spending cuts proposed by Simpson-Bowles, we've already enacted $1.5 trillion of them. That doesn't count any of the fiscal cliff/staircase stuff, either. It's all solid cuts. So if we "say yes" to Simpson-Bowles, it means we're saying yes to only a small amount of additional discretionary cuts. (There are also some Social Security and Medicare proposals in the plan, but for now I'm just focusing on the tax and discretionary spending stuff.)

Second: Has Graham actually read the tax proposal in Simpson-Bowles? I've annotated it below for easy reference, but just to hit some of the highlights:

  • Itemized deductions go away completely, replaced by a tax credit capped at 12% of income.
  • The capital gains rate would increase from 15% to 28%.
  • On average, about a quarter of the value of your health benefits would be subject to tax. This would go up over time.
  • Tax-free municipal and state bonds would be eliminated.
  • "Nearly all other" tax expenditures would also be eliminated. This sounds easy when you put it like that, but every one of those tax expenditures has a constituency. Just because you've never heard of them doesn't mean no one cares about them

Does Graham really think Republicans would agree to this? It's true that ordinary income tax rates would go down under this proposal, but total taxes paid would go up significantly, especially at the high end. House Republicans refused to support this back when it was first proposed, and I can't think of any reason they'd support it now. Especially when this $2.6 trillion tax increase would be complemented by only modest additional discretionary spending cuts. What does Graham think he knows that I don't?

The Microscope Moves From David Petraeus to the FBI

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 8:41 PM PST

A couple of days ago I wondered out loud how a few harassing emails received by Jill Kelley had prompted the FBI to open a full-bore cyberstalking investigation, something that I suspect they don't do routinely. Turns out I had no idea just how odd this was. Here's what we learned today about Kelley's complaint to her FBI agent friend:

The emails that Jill Kelley showed an FBI friend near the start of last summer were not jealous lover warnings like “stay away from my man,” a knowledgeable source tells The Daily Beast....“More like, ‘Who do you think you are? ... You parade around the base ... You need to take it down a notch,’” according to the source, who was until recently at the highest levels of the intelligence community and prefers not to be identified by name

....When the FBI friend showed the emails to the cyber squad in the Tampa field office, her fellow agents noted that the absence of any overt threats.  “No, ‘I’ll kill you’ or ‘I'll burn your house down,’” the source says. “It doesn’t seem really that bad.”

The squad was not even sure the case was worth pursuing, the source says. “What does this mean? There’s no threat there. This is against the law?” the agents asked themselves by the source’s account. At most the messages were harassing. The cyber squad had to consult the statute books in its effort to determine whether there was adequate legal cause to open a case. “It was a close call,” the source says.

What tipped it may have been Kelley’s friendship with the agent. The squad opened a case, though with no expectation it would turn into anything significant.

Ah yes, Kelley's friendship with the agent. What's up with that, anyway?

The FBI agent who started the case was a friend of Jill Kelley....That agent referred it to a cyber crimes unit, which opened an investigation. However, supervisors soon became concerned that the initial agent might have grown obsessed with the matter, and prohibited him from any role in the investigation, according to the officials.

The FBI officials found that he had sent shirtless pictures of himself to Ms. Kelley, according to the people familiar with the probe.

And here's a bit more about our besotted FBI agent:

Later, the agent became convinced — incorrectly, the official said — that the case had stalled. Because of his “worldview,” as the official put it, he suspected a politically motivated cover-up to protect President Obama. The agent alerted Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who called the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, on Oct. 31 to tell him of the agent’s concerns.

If the Washington Post is to be believed, this agent's conspiratorial worldview (thanks, Fox News!) is what caused the whole thing to unravel. The FBI was apparently ready to close the case after it concluded that no laws had been broken and national security hadn't been compromised, but that was before our dittohead FBI agent decided he needed to make sure Obama paid for his misdeeds:

At some point during the summer, the Tampa FBI agent whom Kelley had first approached for help [...] got in touch with the office of Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.). Reichert passed the information on to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

“I was contacted by an F.B.I. employee concerned that sensitive, classified information may have been compromised and made certain Director Mueller was aware of these serious allegations and the potential risk to our national security,” Cantor said in a statement.

Cantor contacted FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Oct. 31, and a week later [James] Clapper told Petraeus he needed to resign. “I don’t know if it would have taken this course without Cantor,” a person close to the inquiry said.

This is pretty rich. If you connect the dots, it seems as if this whole thing got started by a smitten FBI agent; would have been closed without charges; but then got reenergized by some Benghazi-fueled (?) concerns that Petraeus was covering up for Obama. Or something. In the end, Petraeus was undone by the wingnuts.

I'm not usually all that super fascinated by tittle tattle, but something about this investigation just screams that there's more here than meets the eye. I'm not sure there was anything especially scandalous about all this—though there might be!—but I'd sure like to know more about how the whole thing unfolded.

Peak Texting Still Years in the Future

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 6:28 PM PST

Tyler Cowen highlights this headline in the New York Times:

Text Messaging Declines in U.S. for First Time, Report Says

At first, I figured this was probably just raw math. If you multiply the total number of teenagers times the total number of hours per day times the number of text messages it's possible to send per hour, that has to be a hard limit, right? And maybe we've finally reached that limit, where teenagers are now spending 99.9% of their waking hours texting each other.

But no. It turns out that texting hasn't declined. Only a particular kind of texting has declined:

In the third quarter of this year, cellphone owners sent an average of 678 texts a month, down from 696 texts a month in the previous quarter....[Chetan Sharma] noted that Internet-based messaging services, like Facebook messaging and Apple’s iMessage, had been chomping away at SMS usage. He said the decline would become more pronounced as more people buy smartphones.

....The seemingly imminent decline of text messaging, which is highly lucrative for carriers, doesn’t mean they need to lose much sleep. Big carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless are still posting healthy profits, largely because of revenue from mobile data plans, the fees people pay to use the Internet over their networks. Among the top three carriers, mobile data accounts for about 45 percent of the average amount of money made from each customer, Mr. Sharma said.

So peak texting isn't imminent yet. You may go about your business. Nothing to see here.

The Fiscal Staircase Explained

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 12:06 PM PST

Do you need a bit of a primer on this whole "fiscal cliff" thing? I'm here to help. For starters, it's more of a fiscal staircase than a fiscal cliff. If you want to know why—along with a breezy explanation of everything else cliff-related—just click here. It's got everything you need to know in order to sound knowledgeable at your next cocktail party.

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Companies That Want Better Workers Need to Pay More

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 12:02 PM PST

Last night 60 Minutes did a segment about manufacturing companies that can't find good entry-level workers even though millions of people are out of jobs. While reporter Byron Pitts was reading the intro, I threw my shoe at the TV (figuratively) and told Marian acidly that it would almost be worth watching the segment just to see what idiocy they were going to promote this time around. I was just about to switch back to the Bears-Texans game, but it turned out Marian wanted to watch the segment, so I ended up watching it too. About halfway through, after describing a local community college in Reno that trains students to run complex, computer-controlled machines, we got this:

Most of the students here will start at jobs paying 12 dollars an hour.

At that point I jeered. You're wondering why you can't get highly qualified applicants for 12 bucks an hour? Spare me. But then, to my surprise, a few minutes later Pitts dealt with this head on:

Byron Pitts: Do you think if manufacturing paid more, could that be part of the issue? Part of the equation?

Klaus Kleinfeld [CEO of Alcoa]: I don't think that manufacturing is not paying well. In fact, I think manufacturing is paying very, very well.

Peter Cappelli disagrees.

Peter Cappelli: This is a market. And so, you know, if you're not willing to pay more, don't expect to get better quality people....One of the things we know now is wages are not going up. In fact, they've been stagnant and some cases even declining over time. So where is the shortage?

Byron Pitts: What's changed in the way that American companies hire workers compared to a few decades ago?

Peter Cappelli: I think there are big changes. And I think this is the heart of what is new. What's new now is that employers are not expecting to hire and train people....Companies are now saying, for all kinds of reasons, "We're not going to do it anymore." And maybe they're right, they can't do it. But what they probably can't do is say, "We're not going to do it, and it's your problem. It's your problem to provide us with what we need, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer. You need to pay for this for us."

Shortly after that, Pitts talks to a guy at a local company that's having trouble finding workers, and he confirms this: "I can't afford to develop every worker that I need from scratch. One, that's not my core competency. We're not a school, we're a company. We can't do that well. Two, we can't afford to do that. If we actually had to do that from scratch, even if we could, the jobs would have to go somewhere else, because it's simply not economically tenable to do that."

Companies like this all insist that American manufacturing is too competitive with anyone in the world. But look. If you can't afford to train workers, but you also can't afford to pay the wages it takes to attract experienced workers, then by definition that means you aren't competitive. The only time you're competitive is when a recession has made people desperate and the government helps you out with training. And who knows? Maybe this kind of training is a good use of taxpayer money. Wall Street certainly benefits from the training provided by state universities. But it's still a subsidy no matter how you slice it. Without it, apparently, American manufacturing just isn't very competitive.

I Am Not a Number. But You Might Be.

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 10:46 AM PST

Via Andrew Sullivan, Geoffrey Pullum talks today about the weirdness of all the long strings of numbers that infest our lives:

I have often stared at documents like gas bills and been amazed to see things like account numbers or other identification numbers as long as 18 or 20 digits. There are only about 7 × 109 people in the world. Some account numbers are so long you could give separate account numbers to every member of the population on a billion planets with populations like ours. Those numbers could record the addresses and ages and incomes of the customers instead of just being random digit strings. But we don't do that. The information society that people get so worried about — the world in which The Government knows all your details and tracks everything you do — hasn't arrived yet, and probably never will. We're not that organized as a species. We waste too much time and too many of our computational resources keeping track of pointless random digit strings and being unable to relate them to each other.

This is an interesting misconception on a couple of levels. First, most long strings of numbers aren't simply random. They encode information in various portions of the digits, and they usually (though not always!) do it for good reasons. One of the most common reasons is to make the numbers comprehensible to trained human beings. If the first two digits of a part number indicate that it's a TV set, for example, that can make life a lot easier for a clerk who's entering the order. People frequently write down part numbers incorrectly, and human-readable chunks that don't match the English-language description can alert order-entry clerks that there's a problem. This in turn saves a ton of time and trouble remediating bad product shipments. I can attest from personal experience that this ability to decipher chunks of long alphanumeric strings comes in handy in a million different ways.

(Another example: yesterday Marian and I bought a new refrigerator. It turns out that in the model numbers used at Sears, "3" means stainless steel and "2" means white. We were able to catch a mistake before it happened by knowing this and mentioning it to the sales person who was helping us.)

Second, the fact that these strings of digits are or aren't random, and may or may not be longer than they need to be, has exactly zero effect on the government's ability to track everything we do. It does not imply any lack of organization, nor does it make anyone's job harder. The computational resources used to keep track of strings of digits is probably something like 0.0001% of the world's computational resources, and believe me, the fact that IP addresses are long doesn't slow down the NSA one bit. However, the fact that, in this case, they are largely random, slows them down a lot. There are times when we should praise randomness, and this is one of them.

Question of the Day: Was Mitt Romney's Campaign Delusional or Incompetent?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 10:11 AM PST

There have already been dozens of postmortems of the Romney campaign making the point that they screwed up their data analysis. But I'm not quite sure I buy it. A couple of passages from John Dickerson's piece in Slate today explain why. Here's passage #1, explaining that Team Romney figured Obama couldn't match the turnout he got in 2008:

Though Romney said he was “severely conservative,” it was the Obama team that played its hand conservatively. They, too, planned for fewer Democrats to show up at the polls, but in their case it was so that their campaign organization would work twice as hard. On election night in Ohio, when turnout exceeded their intentionally conservative estimates in some districts, they knew that they’d win the state 45 minutes before the networks called it.

It’s not that the Romney camp failed to meet its targets. They say they actually met their voter outreach goals in Ohio....“We did everything we set out to do,” says a top strategist about the Ohio effort. “We just didn’t expect the African-American vote to be so high.” African-American participation in Ohio jumped from 11 percent of the electorate to 15 percent between the 2008 and 2012 elections. "We could never see that coming. We thought they'd gotten a lot last time." But that wasn’t the only problem. Romney underperformed George Bush’s results from 2004 in the vast majority of Ohio’s counties, not just the ones with big African-American populations.

It wasn't crazy to think that Obama couldn't match his turnout from 2008, or that Democrats were less enthusiastic than they were four years ago. In fact, the Obama team apparently thought the same thing. And Ohio was a pretty close-run thing if Obama's campaign wasn't sure they'd won there until 10:30 pm.

But here's what I continue to not get. Is it really that hard to predict turnout? Public polls in the last month of a campaign are all based on "likely voters," and there's no rocket science to this. They just ask people if they're likely to vote. And for the entire four weeks prior to the election, Obama was winning the swing states among people who said they were likely to vote. No matter what preconceptions you might have, why would you dismiss this? It's a butt-simple metric, and it's worked before: if someone says they're likely to vote, then they're likely to vote. Boom. There's your most probable turnout distribution.

And with that, here's passage #2:

In the final 10 days of the race, a split started to emerge in the two campaigns. The Obama team would shower you with a flurry of data—specific, measurable, and they’d show you the way they did the math....The Romney team, by contrast, was much more gauzy, reluctant to share numbers, and relying on talking points rather than data. This could have been a difference in approach, but it suggested a lack of rigor in the Romney camp. On Election Day, the whole Romney ground-game flopped apart. ORCA, the much touted- computer system for tracking voters on Election Day, collapsed....Field operatives never saw a beta version. They asked to see it, but were told it would be ready on Election Day. When they rolled it out Tuesday, it was a mess. People couldn’t log on and when they did, the fields that were supposed to be full of data were empty.

This tells a whole different story. First, it suggests that the Romney camp didn't simply misinterpret their numbers. They never really had them in the first place. If their polling operation was anything like ORCA, it just wasn't rigorously run. It was a mess.

I'm not sure which story to believe. Did they really have solid numbers but completely screwed up their analysis? Or was their whole operation being run on a hope and a prayer from the start?

The FBI's Surprisingly Thorough Investigation of Some Harassing Emails

| Mon Nov. 12, 2012 8:55 AM PST

The Wall Street Journal provides an extra bit of detail today on the David Petraeus case. It all started in May, when Jill Kelley complained to an FBI agent she knew about receiving a series of harassing emails:

Agents spent weeks piecing together who may have sent them. They used metadata footprints left by the emails to determine what locations they were sent from. They matched the places, including hotels, where Ms. Broadwell was during the times the emails were sent. FBI agents and federal prosecutors used the information as probable cause to seek a warrant to monitor Ms. Broadwell's email accounts.

....They learned that Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Petraeus had set up private Gmail accounts to use for their communications, which included explicit details of a sexual nature, according to U.S. officials. But because Mr. Petraeus used a pseudonym, agents doing the monitoring didn't immediately uncover that he was the one communicating with Ms. Broadwell.

That's not a trivial amount of work. The FBI team spent weeks (months?) tracing email metadata, which requires court permission. Once they figured out the emails had come from Broadwell, they began tracking her movements. Then they went to court to get a warrant to read her email. Then they apparently got a warrant to monitor a second email account belonging to someone Broadwell was having an affair with. It turned out to be Petraeus.

Wow. What kind of juice does Kelley have? This sure seems like a helluva lot more than your ordinary FBI attention to some harassing emails.