Kevin Drum

Republicans and the Criminal Courts

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 1:40 AM EST

The case of Aafia Siddiqui has always been a strange one. But strange or not, the Bush administration believed that she had connections to al-Qaeda, and after a long manhunt they took her into custody in 2008. The next day she tried to kill several U.S. soldiers and FBI agents who had come to question her. Shortly after that she was transported to the U.S., arraigned in New York, and put on trial. Marc Ambinder continues the story:

What makes Siddiqui's conviction relevant for the current debate is that she was captured, on a recognized battlefield — Afghanistan — and tried to kill FBI agents and American soldiers who had come to question her. Siddiqui, 40, could easily have been designated as an enemy combatant. But the Bush administration determined instead that she be tried in federal court. She was read her Miranda rights, and given access to a lawyer.

....The police found documents on her possession that led them to believe that she was part of a plan to cause a mass casaulty incident in the United States. Specific locations listed on the documents included the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. Notes on one document referred to the components of a dirty bomb. They found various sealed canisters of chemicals and gells.

....Siddiqui's conviction on February 3, 2010 was noted in a press release by the Justice Department. So far as I can tell, Republicans on Capitol Hill did not utter a peep of protest.

I'm willing to bet they didn't utter a peep of protest when she was brought to New York in 2008, either. Funny that. (Via Steve Benen.)

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Data Mining and You

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 9:46 PM EST

The Declan McCullagh piece on cell phone tracking that I posted about below also contains this interesting tidbit:

Two years ago, when the FBI was stymied by a band of armed robbers known as the "Scarecrow Bandits" that had robbed more than 20 Texas banks, it came up with a novel method of locating the thieves.

FBI agents obtained logs from mobile phone companies corresponding to what their cellular towers had recorded at the time of a dozen different bank robberies in the Dallas area. The voluminous records showed that two phones had made calls around the time of all 12 heists, and that those phones belonged to men named Tony Hewitt and Corey Duffey. A jury eventually convicted the duo of multiple bank robbery and weapons charges.

....Update 10:37 a.m. PT: A source inside the U.S. Attorney's Office for the northern district of Texas, which prosecuted the Scarecrow Bandits mentioned in the above article, tells me that this was the first and the only time that the FBI has used the location-data-mining technique to nab bank robbers. It's also worth noting that the leader of this gang, Corey Duffey, was sentenced last month to 354 years (not months, but years) in prison. Another member is facing 140 years in prison.

I'm only linking to this because it's a pretty good guess that this is similar to the kind of data mining that the NSA is doing as part of its warrantless wiretapping program. (See here and here.) Poring through huge databases might provide clues based on patterns of when calls were made or who they were made to that allow authorities to backtrack to somebody they're looking for.

In other words, it's potentially genuinely useful, and this is a real-life example of how it can work. Whether or not it should be allowed without a search warrant, however, is a whole different question.

What Part of "Search Warrant" Don't You Understand?

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 9:14 PM EST

Should the government be allowed to track your location via cell phone without getting a search warrant? The Obama administration thinks it should:

In the case that's before the Third Circuit on Friday, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, said it needed historical (meaning stored, not future) phone location information because a set of suspects "use their wireless telephones to arrange meetings and transactions in furtherance of their drug trafficking activities."

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Lenihan in Pennsylvania denied the Justice Department's attempt to obtain stored location data without a search warrant....Lenihan's opinion (PDF) — which, in an unusual show of solidarity, was signed by four other magistrate judges — noted that location information can reveal sensitive information such as health treatments, financial difficulties, marital counseling, and extra-marital affairs.

In its appeal to the Third Circuit, the Justice Department claims that Lenihan's opinion "contains, and relies upon, numerous errors" and should be overruled. In addition to a search warrant not being necessary, prosecutors said, because location "records provide only a very general indication of a user's whereabouts at certain times in the past, the requested cell-site records do not implicate a Fourth Amendment privacy interest."

Honest to God, what do these people have against search warrants? Practically everybody carries a cell phone today, so the DOJ position is tantamount to saying that the government has the right to track anybody in the country everywhere and at all times whenever it feels like it. You don't have to be a lawyer to know that unlike, say, tailing a suspect, this is so cheap and attractive that it practically begs for abuse. It violates every instinct we have about what the government should and shouldn't be allowed to do.

If you have evidence of a crime, get a search warrant. Then track away. How hard is that to understand?

Public: Government Waste Tops $1.8 Trillion

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 4:36 PM EST

Here's a fascinating little chart. The question is, "Out of every dollar the federal government collects in taxes, how many cents do you think are wasted?" The average answer, in the latest Washington Post poll, is 53 cents. A few comments:

  • Clearly, Republicans are winning the PR battle on this score. The idea that 53 cents of every dollar is wasted is obviously ridiculous even for the most ardent tea partier, but I don't suppose this ought to be taken especially seriously as an actual response. Rather, it's sort of crude proxy measure of dissatisfaction with gummint spending. And it's been going up steadily for 25 years.
  • If the average was 53 cents, that means lots of people must have said 60 or 70 or 80 cents. Even more fascinating! I'd love to see the distribution on this answer.
  • Although there's a secular rise over time, specific dips and spikes seem unrelated to the party in power or to economic conditions. Maybe this is just statistical noise, though the drop from 1998 to 2000 was pretty substantial.
  • At this rate, by the year 2135 the average voter will think the entire federal budget is pure waste.

I wonder how people in other countries would respond to a question like this? And what does it all mean? Ponder away in comments.

The Healthcare Death Spiral

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 2:51 PM EST

Last week the LA Times reported that Anthem Blue Cross planned to raise premium rates by 39% for some of its customers.  HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius demanded to know why. Today they answered:

Financial woes have pushed healthier people to drop coverage or buy cheaper plans, the company argued to Sebelius.

...."While this dynamic always exists, in a challenging economy it becomes more prevalent as individuals who are paying for coverage without a government or employer subsidy must choose to continue coverage or use the money for other necessities," wrote Brian A. Sassi, president and CEO of the consumer business unit at Wellpoint, Anthem's parent company.

....WellPoint said the increases relate only to the individual insurance market, less than 10 percent of its California members, and that a minority of its 800,000 individual policy holders will see 39 percent increases. The company said an independent actuarial firm concluded its rates were "sound and necessary."

That's pretty much the answer everyone expected. Normal medical inflation was up less than 10% last year, so that doesn't come close to justifying a 39% rate hike. The only thing that does is getting stuck with a smaller, sicker pool of customers as healthy people decide to pay their mortgages instead of continuing to shell out for health insurance they're willing to risk living without.

This is, of course, the primary argument for single-payer healthcare, in which everyone is covered and everyone shares costs equally. Failing that, it's also the argument for an individual mandate. Basically, any system that doesn't rely on pools of customers (the entire country, an entire age cohort, an entire union, an entire company, etc.) runs the risk that healthy people will opt out, driving prices up for everyone else in an endless spiral. They'll eventually opt back in, of course, but only when they get sick — and this is, needless to say, not a sustainable business model.

However, as President Obama said on Tuesday, it's "a preview of coming attractions" if we don't get our healthcare act together. That's why the Senate and the House need to get serious about figuring out a compromise and passing healthcare reform. It's not going to get any easier by waiting.

How Good Is Sarah Palin?

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 2:12 PM EST

I'm going to take my life in my hands and defend David Broder today.  After watching Sarah Palin's speech in Nashville and her Sunday talk show appearance with Chris Wallace, he writes:

The snows that obliterated Washington in the past week interfered with many scheduled meetings, but they did not prevent the delivery of one important political message: Take Sarah Palin seriously.

....Her invocation of "conservative principles and common-sense solutions" was perfectly conventional. What stood out in the eyes of TV-watching pols of both parties was the skill with which she drew a self-portrait that fit not just the wishes of the immediate audience but the mood of a significant slice of the broader electorate.

....Palin did not wear well in the last campaign, especially in the suburbs where populism has a limited appeal. But when Wallace asked her about resigning the governorship with 17 months left in her term and whether she let her opponents drive her from office, she said, "Hell, no."

Those who want to stop her will need more ammunition than deriding her habit of writing on her hand. The lady is good.

I can't see into Broder's heart. Maybe he actually likes Palin. But his column never really says that. What he says is that (a) she has a natural talent for appealing to a certain kind of disaffected voter, and (b) there are a lot of disaffected voters out there right now. "The lady is good" sounds to me more like a warning than a personal opinion.

Now, it so happens that I disagree about how seriously to take Palin. There was a short window of time when I figured that she might bone up a bit on substantive issues and then meld her instinctive populism with just enough additional gravitas to make her a serious threat. But as near as I can tell, she has no intention of doing that. She's sticking with pure right-wing populism, and that just doesn't appeal to enough people to get her to the White House. If by some miracle she wins the Republican nomination in 2012, she'll be the 21st century version of Barry Goldwater, not the 21st century version of Ronald Reagan.

Still, maybe Goldwater would have succeeded if he'd been more telegenic and had run during a time of 10% unemployment. You never know. And I know plenty of fellow liberals who think I should take Palin more seriously too. It's hardly an outrageous opinion.

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Iraq Election Update

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 1:38 PM EST

Last month about 500 allegedly Baathist Sunnis were banned from running in Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections. Sunnis were pissed. But then, a week ago, an appeals court overturned the ban. The elections were saved! But no: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after some pro forma attacks on American interference, at first tried to convene an emergency session of parliament to overrule the court but then switched gears:

Calls for the emergency session were later dropped after a highly unusual meeting convened by Maliki with other key leaders and the head of the Higher Judicial Council, Medhat al-Mahmoud. Following the meeting, the appellate panel was directed to immediately recommence its review of all case files with decisions having to be announced prior to the start of the official electoral campaign period on February 12. It appears, based on the public statements of al-Maliki and others, that the impending decisions of the panel on the de-Ba’athification status of these individuals will bring this entire affair to a close.

Needless to say, this is a .... noteworthy .... amount of executive interference with the judiciary. Marc Lynch is cautiously pessimistic:

I still expect this to work out in one way or the other and for the elections to go ahead, and for some Sunni politicians to take advantage of any attempt by others to boycott. I don't expect it to lead directly to a return of the insurgency. But at the same time, by this point significant damage has probably already been done....Sunni-Shia resentments have been rekindled, with such polarization evidently being seen as a winning electoral strategy in certain quarters. Sunni participation may well be depressed, though a full-out boycott is unlikely. The damage is likely to be measured in increments, not in a single apocalyptic collapse.

Gregg Carlstrom is, I guess, slightly more pessimistic. But no one seems to think it spells doom. The election is on March 7.

Bipartisan Tax Cut Watch

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 12:23 PM EST

Two days ago in the LA Times:

In a rare move toward bipartisanship, Senate Democrats prepared Tuesday to unveil an $85-billion jobs bill that would include payroll tax breaks for employers who create new jobs, aid to small businesses and other GOP-backed ideas to attack unemployment.

....According to a draft outline of the bill circulated by Senate Democrats, the cornerstone would be a proposal to give businesses that hire unemployed workers this year an exemption from the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax. If they keep those workers more than a year, employers would get an additional $1,000 tax credit per employee.

But wait! It turns out that's not quite enough bipartisanship! So there's this:

Notably, the measure does not address the estate tax, a legislative priority for many Republicans. But according to Baucus and Grassley, the negotiators agreed not to put off the issue much longer.

"First we will work to ensure that the scope of the Finance Committee package retains its bipartisan character," they said. "Second we are committed to timely consideration of permanent bipartisan estate and gift tax reform."

And what exactly does the estate tax have to do with a jobs bill? Nothing — unless you're concerned about out-of-work Wall Street heirs. It's just the price of cooperation from Republicans, because making a tax cut the centerpiece of the actual jobs bill wasn't enough for them. So they demanded quick action on even more tax cuts.

But it's bipartisan! And with regular folks suffering in a bad economy, who could possibly object to a tax cut for the rich? It'll be trickling down to you and me soon enough, I'm sure. Via Ezra Klein.

The Heirs of the John Birch Society

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 11:30 AM EST

Via Matt Yglesias, conservative Jonathan Kay describes the conspiracy theory madness that was running rampant at the national tea party convention last week:

In Nashville, Judge Roy Moore warned, among other things, of "a U.N. guard stationed in every house." On the conference floor, it was taken for granted that Obama was seeking to destroy America's place in the world and sell Israel out to the Arabs for some undefined nefarious purpose. The names Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers popped up all the time, the idea being that they were the real brains behind this presidency, and Obama himself was simply some sort of manchurian candidate.

A software engineer from Clearwater, Fla., told me that Washington, D.C., liberals had engineered the financial crash so they could destroy the value of the U.S. dollar, pay off America's debts with worthless paper, and then create a new currency called the Amero that would be used in a newly created "North American Currency Union" with Canada and Mexico. I rolled my eyes at this one-off kook. But then, hours later, the conference organizers showed a movie to the meeting hall, Generation Zero, whose thesis was only slightly less bizarre: that the financial meltdown was the handiwork of superannuated flower children seeking to destroy capitalism.

Kay was appalled at all this, but in fairness, he's a Canadian conservative, so he's probably something of a parlor pink by tea party standards. He doesn't really count as a true believer. As for the movie, centrist conservative John Avlon liked it. It was "a smart and comprehensible look at the results of fiscal irresponsibility," he said, though he undermined that point immediately by admitting that it featured "commentary from Amity Shlaes, Shelby Steele, Victor Davis Hanson, and Newt Gingrich, among others." But you can watch the trailer for yourself and make a snap judgment. We'll have to wait for spring to see the whole thing.

Chart of the Day: Palin Edition

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 9:03 AM EST

So is Sarah Palin really tapping into the id of the American public, ready to ride a wave of anti-Washington populism straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? The Washington Post's David Broder seems to think she might be, but his newspaper's numbers say different. Palin's favorability rating? Down six points since November. Her net favorable/unfavorable rating is now -18%. Is she qualified to be president? A stunning 71% say no. Even among the fabled base of conservative Republicans, only 45% consider her qualified. I guess that tea party speech didn't work out as well as she'd hoped.