Kevin Drum

Here's What Happens When You Challenge the CIA Through "Proper Channels"

| Sat Jul. 5, 2014 12:14 PM EDT

One of the standard criticisms of Edward Snowden is that he should have tried harder to air his concerns via proper channels. This is fairly laughable on its face, since even now the NSA insists that all its programs were legal and it continues to fight efforts to change them or release any information about them. Still, maybe Snowden should have tried. What harm could it have done?

Today, Greg Miller of the Washington Post tells us the story of Jeffrey Scudder, who worked in the CIA’s Historical Collections Division. This is a division explicitly set up to look for old documents that can be safely released to the public. Scudder discovered thousands of documents he thought should be released, and he worked diligently through channels to make this happen. When that ran into repeated roadblocks, he eventually decided to try to force the CIA's hand—legally, openly—by filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act:

Scudder’s FOIA submissions fell into two categories: one seeking new digital copies of articles already designated for release and another aimed at articles yet to be cleared. He made spreadsheets that listed the titles of all 1,987 articles he wanted, he said, then had them scanned for classified content and got permission to take them home so he could assemble his FOIA request on personal time.

....Six months after submitting his request, Scudder was summoned to a meeting with Counterintelligence Center investigators and asked to surrender his personal computer. He was placed on administrative leave, instructed not to travel overseas and questioned by the FBI.

....On Nov. 27, 2012, a stream of black cars pulled up in front of Scudder’s home in Ashburn, Va., at 6 a.m. FBI agents seized every computer in the house, including a laptop his daughter had brought home from college for Thanksgiving. They took cellphones, storage devices, DVDs, a Nintendo Game Boy and a journal kept by his wife, a physical therapist in the Loudoun County Schools.

The search lasted nearly four hours, Scudder said. FBI agents followed his wife and daughters into their bedrooms as they got dressed, asking probing questions. “It was classic elicitation,” Scudder said. “How has Jeff been? Have you noticed any unexplained income? Cash? Mood changes?”

....Last summer, the board recommended that Scudder be fired. Around the same time, he was shown a spreadsheet outlining his possible pension packages with two figures — one large and one small — underlined. He agreed to retire.

So, um, yeah. Snowden should have tried harder to work through proper channels. What harm could it have done?

At this point, of course, I have to add the usual caveat that we have only Scudder's side of this story. The CIA naturally declines to comment. This means it's possible that Scudder really did do something wrong, but spun a self-serving version of his story for Miller's benefit. We'll never know for sure. Nonetheless, I think it's safe to say that this isn't exactly a testimonial for aggressively trying to work through the proper channels, even if your goal is the relatively harmless one of releasing historical documents that pose no threats to operational security at all. By comparison, it's pretty obvious that having his pension reduced would have been the least of Snowden's worries.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 4 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

I think it's time to stop pretending there's going to be anything to blog about this morning, and just get straight to catblogging. I was hoping for something patriotically themed, but that was a no-go. Domino is just not a dress-up kind of cat. So then I thought I'd get her to lounge in front of all the various goodies for tonight's picnic. She wasn't having any of that either. The best I could do was this tableau, which lasted about a second or two before Domino scampered away as if the Peeps were going to leap up and attack her. It's just hard to get her in the proper spirit.

For the rest of you, though, have a lovely 238th birthday party.

The Surly Bonds of Earth

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 9:44 AM EDT

This is hardly the biggest problem American Apparel has right now, but:

American Apparel issued a public apology Thursday after the company posted a stylized picture to its Tumblr page of the space shuttle Challenger disaster thinking it was fireworks.

The company was immediately hammered with negative feedback.

In its apology, the company said it was an honest mistake by the social media manager, who was born after the 1986 explosion that killed all seven crew members, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

In related news, I would like to apologize on behalf of my entire generation for using that picture of a dirigible on fire earlier this week. I thought it was a still from the latest Transformers movie.

Supreme Court Now Playing Cute PR Games With Hobby Lobby Decision

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 7:23 PM EDT

In Monday's Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Samuel Alito struck down a government requirement that employer-provided health insurance cover access to contraceptives. Among other things, Alito wrote that any requirement must be the "least restrictive" means for the government to achieve its goals, and the health insurance mandate clearly wasn't:

HHS itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs. As we explained above, HHS has already established an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious objections. Under that accommodation, the organization can self-certify that it opposes providing coverage for particular contraceptive services. If the organization makes such a certification, the organization’s insurance issuer or third-party administrator must “[e]xpressly exclude contraceptive coverage from the group health insurance coverage provided in connection with the group health plan” and “[p]rovide separate payments for any contraceptive services required to be covered” without imposing “any cost-sharing requirements . . . on the eligible organization, the group health plan, or plan participants or beneficiaries.”

The obvious implication here is that the court approves of this compromise rule. That is, requiring self-certification is a reasonable means of accomplishing the government's goal without requiring organizations to directly fund access to contraceptives. Today, however, the court pulled the rug out from under anyone who actually took them at their word:

In Thursday’s order, the court granted Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant liberal arts school west of Chicago, a temporary injunction allowing it to continue to not comply with the compromise rule....College officials refused even to sign a government form noting their religious objection, saying that to do so would allow the school’s insurance carrier to provide the coverage on its own.

....The unsigned order prompted a sharply worded dissent from the court’s three female members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

“I disagree strongly with what the court has done,” Sotomayor wrote in a 16-page dissent. Noting that the court had praised the administration’s position on Monday but was allowing Wheaton to flout it on Thursday, she wrote, “those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”

For the last few days, there's been a broad argument about whether the Hobby Lobby ruling was a narrow one—as Alito himself insisted it was—or was merely an opening volley that opened the door to much broader rulings in the future. After Tuesday's follow-up order—which expanded the original ruling to cover all contraceptives, not just those the plaintiffs considered abortifacients—and today's order—which rejected a compromise that the original ruling praised—it sure seems like this argument has been settled. This is just the opening volley. We can expect much more aggressive follow-ups from this court in the future.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth noting that quite aside from whether you agree with the Hobby Lobby decision, this is shameful behavior from the conservatives on the court. As near as I can tell, they're now playing PR games worthy of a seasoned politico, deliberately releasing a seemingly narrow opinion in order to generate a certain kind of coverage, and then following it up later in the sure knowledge that its "revisions" won't get nearly as much attention.

Europe's Memory Hole Gets Ever Wider and Deeper

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 2:06 PM EDT

Yesterday I passed along the news that a BBC article about Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, had been removed from Google searches in Europe. Today the Guardian reports on several of its recent pieces that have been scrubbed from Google searches:

Three of the articles, dating from 2010, relate to a now-retired Scottish Premier League referee, Dougie McDonald, who was found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a Celtic v Dundee United match, the backlash to which prompted his resignation.

....The other disappeared articles — the Guardian isn't given any reason for the deletions — are a 2011 piece on French office workers making post-it art, a 2002 piece about a solicitor facing a fraud trial standing for a seat on the Law Society's ruling body and an index of an entire week of pieces by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.

The Guardian has no form of appeal against parts of its journalism being made all but impossible for most of Europe's 368 million to find.

It's a little hard to see how articles that are a mere three or four years old can be deemed "irrelevant," but in Europe, I guess that if you declare something about yourself to be irrelevant, then it is. Congratulations, EU Court of Justice!

UPDATE 1: Interestingly, it turns out that yesterday's removal of the BBC story wasn't initiated by Stan O'Neal. Apparently it was initiated by someone who left a comment on the original story. I'm actually not sure if this is better or worse.

UPDATE 2: Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell argues that it's not really the ECJ that's censoring content, it's Google. But even with the caveats he includes, I think Farrell is being far too kind to the ECJ, which issued an unforgivably fuzzy decision that basically puts Google in the impossible position of being forced to act as a privacy regulator with neither the tools nor the guidance it needs to do the job properly. However, he agrees with a suggestion I made yesterday that Google might be reading the ECJ's directive over-broadly in a deliberate attempt to get everyone in a tizzy over it:

Google may have incentives to accede to [the takedown] request without complaint — and to publicize that it is so doing — because it knows that this is likely to send journalists into a frenzy. Even if the ECJ can press Google into service as an unpaid regulator, it can’t force Google to regulate in the exact ways that it would like Google to. And Google, like the Good Soldier Svejk in Jan Hasek’s novel, can perhaps interpret the court’s mandate in ways that formally stick to the rules, but in practice actually undermine it. There are, of course, other possible explanations for Google’s actions — it may be that there are excellent private reasons why Google is acceding to this request. But for sure, the controversy surrounding the request helps Google to push back (as it wants to push back) against strong interpretations of European privacy standards.

Maybe so.

Liberal Comedy, Conservative Outrage. But Why?

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

Conservative publisher Adam Bellow thinks conservatives need to produce more popular art: beach fiction, TV shows, comedy routines, etc. Paul Waldman thinks he's got an uphill battle:

As I've noted before, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report work as well as they do because they're not shows written and performed by professional liberals who happen to be comedians, attempting to use humor to score political points; rather, they're shows written and performed by professional comedians who happen to be liberals, using politics to produce comedy. It's a really important distinction.

The same distinction applies to other mediums. If you set out to write an explicitly conservative novel, it's likely to suck. If you set out to write a novel, and it has a conservative worldview because you happen to be a conservative, it will probably do a lot better. Unfortunately for conservatives, if you take this approach you're likely to end up writing little more than an establishment-friendly novel, not an overtly pointed takedown of liberalism.

That said, conservatives could produce perfectly good books and TV shows if they took Waldman's advice. But comedy is a special problem. Conservative comedy just doesn't seem to work very well, and I'd guess there are two big reasons why:

The material: Liberals are, generally speaking, opposed to the establishment. Poking fun at the establishment is easy to do, so liberals have lots of ready-made material. Conversely, poking fun at the little guys just seems mean. It's not impossible to get good comedy out of, say, the more ridiculous aspects of the Occupy Wall Street folks at Zuccotti Park, but it's a lot harder and the material is a lot thinner.

The audience: I've never quite understood this, but liberals just seem to like political comedy more than conservatives. Conservatives simply don't consider this stuff a laughing matter. Especially recently, they're convinced, deep in their marrow, that liberals are literally out to destroy America, and how do you find the yuks in that? By contrast, mocking conservatives is a popular liberal pastime. Is this because liberals accept conservatives as an inevitable part of the scenery, to be fought but not really hated? That doesn't seem quite right. Still, it's true that the establishment, by definition, is always with us, and always working in its usual way to preserve itself. You might think it's a malign force, but you don't think of it as something new that's suddenly emerged to wreck the country.

I dunno. I'm just guessing here. Age probably has something to do with this too. In any case, conservatives are great at outrage, while liberals who try to emulate them almost always fail. Liberals are great at comedy, and conservatives who try to emulate that fail as well. In the middle ground of books and movies, I imagine both sides could do well, but since most artists are liberals, there's just more to choose from along the liberal spectrum.

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Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in June

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 10:15 AM EDT

The American economy added 288,000 new jobs in March, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 198,000. The headline unemployment rate dropped to 6.1 percent.

As with last month, there are no serious gotchas in this month's report. The labor participation rate was stable once again, and the unemployment rate fell for the right reason: because more people were getting jobs, not because people were dropping out of the labor force. We've now have five consecutive months of good—but not great—jobs reports, and June's report is an encouraging sign that the Q1 dip in GDP really was an anomaly, not a sign of things to come.

There's a Pitched Battle Being Fought Over the Phrase "Added Sugars"

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 7:09 PM EDT

What do the following organizations have in common?

  • American Bakers Association
  • American Beverage Association
  • American Frozen Foods Institute
  • Corn Refiners Association
  • National Confectioners Association
  • American Frozen Food Institute
  • Sugar Association
  • International Dairy Foods Association

Answer: they are all furiously opposed to an FDA proposal that would add a line to the standard nutrition facts label for "Added Sugars." Big surprise, eh? Roberto Ferdman explains here why it's probably a good idea anyway.

The EU's "Right to be Forgotten" Starts to Take Concrete Shape

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 3:06 PM EDT

A few days ago, Google announced that it was beavering away on the 41,000 requests it had gotten from people demanding that it remove links to unflattering articles about themselves. So just what kind of people are making these requests? Brad DeLong directs me to the BBC's Robert Peston, who gives us a clue:

This morning the BBC received the following notification from Google:

Notice of removal from Google Search: we regret to inform you that we are no longer able to show the following pages from your website in response to certain searches on European versions of Google:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/thereporters/robertpeston/2007/10/merrills_mess.html

What it means is that a blog I wrote in 2007 will no longer be findable when searching on Google in Europe....Now in my blog, only one individual is named. He is Stan O'Neal, the former boss of the investment bank Merrill Lynch.

My column describes how O'Neal was forced out of Merrill after the investment bank suffered colossal losses on reckless investments it had made.

Is the data in it "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant"?

Hmmm.

I wonder if there's a way to make this backfire? How hard would it be to create an automated process that figures out which articles Google is being forced to stuff down the memory hole? Probably not too hard, I imagine. And how hard would it then be to repost those articles in enough different places that they all zoomed back toward the top of Google's search algorithm? Again, probably not too hard for a group of people motivated to do some mischief.

Maybe someone is already working on this. It wouldn't surprise me. And I wonder if Google's surprisingly quick response to the EU decision isn't designed to spur exactly this kind of backlash. That wouldn't really surprise me either.

Does America Finally Have World Cup Fever?

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 2:22 PM EDT

I've been reading a lot of articles about how this year's World Cup is a lot more popular in America than any previous World Cup. I've also read several backlash pieces debunking the idea that we're all about to go soccer mad. I'm not sure which to believe.

But there really does seem to be something different this year. I've personally watched all or most of the World Cup games so far, and I'm pretty sure that in past years I've hardly watched any. Why? Beats me. I'm not really any more interested in soccer than I've ever been.

Or am I? As kind of a joke, I started rooting for Manchester United back in 2008 because they were sponsored by AIG. After the US government basically took over AIG, I figured that meant Man U was America's team. But joke though it may have been, over the last few years I have indeed found myself checking the Premier League standings periodically and even watching the odd match when it appears on American TV. Perhaps that's primed me to look forward to the World Cup.

Or maybe it's just time zones. This is the first World Cup since 1994 that Americans could watch live at a reasonable hour. And we all know that being able to watch live is critical to sports viewership.1 So maybe that's all it is.

How about you? Have you been watching more World Cup than usual this year? Why? Is it because you care more about soccer than you used to? Or something else?

1Except for the Olympics, for some reason.