Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 1 August 2014

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Domino's new favorite snoozing spot is the closet in our master bedroom. Naturally, knowing that everyone would want to be kept up to date on this development, I took a picture. Unfortunately, it turns out that cameras need a stream of photons to work properly, and the inside of a closet doesn't have many. So all I got were a bunch of black blurs. Soon enough, though, Domino saw the camera and came out. So I followed her over to the water dish, and eventually took a picture there. Even with plenty of help from Mr. Photoshop, however, it wasn't very good either. So I waited. Eventually, Domino went back into the closet and curled up, and this time I took some pictures with the flash.

Which picture to use? I hate flash pictures. I especially hate them when they basically lie—making a dark closet look brightly lit, for example. But the other picture was pretty lousy. Decisions, decisions. In the end, I opt for lousy but honest. Let's call it "Still Life With Two Cats" just to make it seem a little more refined. Like Domino.

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John Brennan Needs to Leave the CIA, One Way or Another

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 1:43 PM EDT

What's going on with the CIA hacking into Senate computers? Here's a very brief, very telescoped timeline to get you up to speed:

2009: The Senate Intelligence Committee begins working on an investigation of CIA torture during the Bush administration. Then CIA Director Leon Panetta secretly orders a parallel internal review.

December 2012: The Senate finishes a draft of its report and submits it to the CIA for review and declassification.

March 2013: John Brennan takes over from David Petraeus as CIA director.

June 2013: The CIA issues a blistering response to the Senate report, vigorously disputing its conclusions that the CIA routinely engaged in brutal torture of detainees.

December 2013: Sen. Mark Udall reveals the existence of the "Panetta Review"—actually a series of memos—written at the same time Senate staffers were collecting material for their report. He suggests that it "conflicts with the official C.I.A. response to the committee’s report." In plainer English: the CIA lied about what its own review concluded.

The CIA, apparently under the impression that Senate staffers had gotten access to the Panetta Review improperly—and had removed copies from their secure reading room at CIA headquarters—hacks into the computers used by Senate staffers. As part of their secret investigation, they read emails and do a keyword search to find out how the Senate staffers had gotten access to the memos. No one on the Senate is aware of any of this.

January 2014: The CIA presents the results of its investigation to the Senate Intelligence Committee and accuses its staffers of misconduct. They also refer the matter to the FBI for criminal investigation.

March 2014: Sen. Dianne Feinstein launches a blistering attack on the CIA for hacking into the Senate computers in violation of an explicit agreement that they wouldn't do so. Brennan counterattacks vigorously. "As far as the allegations of the CIA hacking into Senate computers, nothing could be further from the truth," he says.

Yesterday: The CIA inspector general releases a report conceding that the "factual basis" for the FBI referral of the Senate staffers was "not supported" and that five CIA staffers did indeed hack into Senate computers. In other words, Brennan was very badly mistaken in March when he loudly insisted that nothing of the sort had happened.

So then: The CIA lied about the conclusions of its own internal review. The Senate found out about this. The CIA then hacked into Senate computers to find out how they had discovered the incriminating evidence. Then they lied again, denying that they had done this. David Corn lays out two possible explanations for Brennan's misleading statements in March:

Either he knew that his subordinates had spied on the Senate staffers but had claimed otherwise, or he had not been told the truth by underlings and had unwittingly provided a false assertion to the public. Neither scenario reflects well upon the fellow who is supposed to be in-the-know about the CIA's activities—especially its interactions with Congress on a rather sensitive subject.

Nope. Either way, he ought to resign or be fired. This is simply not excusable behavior in a public official.

UPDATE: I've reworded the sentence about the IG report. It did not explicitly find that Senate staffers had done nothing wrong. It said that the CIA filed a crimes report against the staffers, but that "the factual basis for the referral was not supported, as the author of the referral had been provided inaccurate information on which the letter was based.  After review, the DOJ declined to open a criminal investigation of the matter alleged in the crimes report."

Should Pundits Apologize More Often?

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 11:55 AM EDT

From Dan Drezner:

One norm I’d really like to see emerge is pundits admitting error and apologizing when they get things wrong, and Frum did that.  But I’m curious what other norms, if any, should be strengthened among the pontificating class.

I'd dissent slightly from this. Should pundits do a better job of admitting when they get things wrong? Sure. Who can argue with that? But should they apologize? I'm not so sure. Being wrong isn't a sin, after all, especially for someone in the business of offering up opinions. I'd be happy to see a bit more self-reflection about what caused the error, but there's no need for an apology.

Now, Drezner wrote this in the context of David Frum's allegation that a New York Times photo had been faked, which turned out to be untrue. This is obviously a case that calls for an apology since Frum accused someone of wrongdoing. But that's a bit different from simply being wrong in an analytic or predictive way. That kind of error, as long as it's honest, deserves some reflection, but not an apology.

Opposition to Obamacare Suddenly Spiked in July

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 11:16 AM EDT

Here's the latest news on Obamacare from the Kaiser Family Foundation: it suddenly became a lot more unpopular in July:

So what happened? I can't think of any substantive news that was anything but good, so I figure it must have been the Hobby Lobby decision. Did that turn people against Obamacare because they disapproved of the decision? Or because it reminded them that Obamacare pays for contraceptives? Or what? It's a mystery, all the more so because every single demographic group showed the same spike. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all spiked negative. The rich and the poor spiked negative. The young and the old spiked negative. Ditto for men, women, whites, blacks, and Hispanics. It's a little hard to figure out why the Hobby Lobby decision would have affected everyone the same way, but I can't think of anything else that happened over the past month that could have caused this. It certainly wasn't John Boehner's lawsuit, and I very much doubt it was the Halbig decision.

So it's a bit of a puzzler—though perhaps another chart explains it. It turns out that in conversations with family and friends, people have heard bad things about Obamacare more than good things by a margin of 27-6 percent. Likewise, they've seen more negative ads than positive by a margin of 19-7 percent. Roughly speaking, the forces opposed to Obamacare continue to be louder and more passionate than the forces that support it. I don't think that's actually changed much recently, so it probably doesn't explain the sudden spike in July's polling. But it might explain part of it.

Or, it might just be a statistical blip. Who knows?

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in July

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 10:22 AM EDT

The American economy added 209,000 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 119,000. The headline unemployment rate ticked up slightly to 6.2 percent.

The jobs number is a little lower than expected, and continues to show that the recovery is weak. On the bright side, the unemployment number increased not because more people were out of work, but because more people were entering the labor force. It's basically not a negative sign. As Jared Bernstein says:

There is some evidence that the all-important labor force participation rate may be stabilizing. It rose a tenth last month to 62.9%, but has wiggled between 62.8% and 62.2% since last August. If the firming job market has in fact arrested the decline in this key metric of labor supply, it will be an important and favorable sign.

Overall, the economy still appears to be dog paddling along. GDP growth is OK but not great; jobs growth is OK but not great; and wage growth is positive but not by very much. More and more, this is starting to look like the new normal.

California Projects Very Modest Obamacare Rate Hikes in 2015

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 1:30 AM EDT

Good news from the Golden State!

Defying an industry trend of double-digit rate hikes, California officials said the more than 1.2 million consumers in the state-run Obamacare insurance exchange can expect modest price increases of 4.2% on average next year.

...."We have changed the trend in healthcare costs," said Peter Lee, Covered California's executive director. "This is good news for Californians."....State officials and insurers credited the strong turnout during the first six-month enrollment window that ended in April for helping to keep 2015 rates in check.

It's still early days for Obamacare, and it's not yet clear if it deserves credit for keeping California's rate hikes low. It may instead be due to the recent slow growth of medical costs nationally. Nonetheless, this is a very positive sign. California is a big market, and it's one that's traditionally seen steep rate hikes in the individual insurance market. At the very least, we can certainly say that conservative predictions of catastrophically high rate increases thanks to Obamacare have turned out to be groundless. Again.

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John Boehner's Lawsuit Against Obama Is Perfectly Reasonable

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 7:24 PM EDT

I've made this point before, but I'd like to make it again: Exactly why is John Boehner's lawsuit against President Obama so frivolous? I don't mean this in a strictly legal sense. It may be that the suit fails immediately for lack of standing.1 Or that the merits of this particular case don't hold water. We can let the lawyers battle that out.

Politically, though, what's wrong with asking a court to decide if a federal agency has overstepped the will of Congress in its execution of the law? The answer, of course, is: nothing. People do it all the time, hundreds of times a year. The only difference here is that a house of Congress is doing it. But why does that suddenly make it frivolous?

It could be that you think courts should stick to their traditional practice of staying neutral in "political" disputes between branches of the government. That's fine. But it's not an argument that's gotten much air time. You might also think it sets a bad precedent. But again, I'm not hearing that. Instead, the argument seems to be that this suit is simply absurd on its face, an idiotic piece of grandstanding by the Republican Party.

There's no question that it's a piece of grandstanding. Nor that House Republicans could be making better use of their time. And yes, it's obviously deeply politically motivated. But that doesn't mean it's frivolous. So once again: why is it that suing a federal agency over its interpretation of a law suddenly becomes ridiculous just because Congress does it?

I'm open to good arguments on this score. Go ahead and convince me.

1I hope not, though. I understand why standing is important,2 but I'm unhappy that there seem to be a fair number of colorably important cases in which it's all but impossible to find someone with standing to sue. That's just not right.

2Honest, I really do.

Microsoft Loses Another Round in E-Mail Privacy Case

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 6:08 PM EDT

The latest in the privacy wars:

A federal court in New York ruled Thursday that Microsoft must comply with a U.S. search warrant to turn over a customer’s e-mails held in a server overseas.

....A number of tech firms and privacy advocates have joined [Microsoft] in arguing that if the government prevails and can reach across borders, it will cause foreign individuals and businesses to flee to their non-U.S. competitors. Microsoft also argued that the United States would not be in a position to complain when foreign governments do the same and insist on access to e-mail content stored in the country.

Hmmm. How would we feel if, say, an Egyptian court demanded that Microsoft turn over emails stored on a server in California? Hmmm.

Yes, the CIA Spied on the Senate

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 1:43 PM EDT

Earlier this year, CIA Director John Brennan accused staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee of removing classified material from the CIA office where they were researching a report on the agency's use of torture during the Bush administration. This turned out to be very poor tradecraft on Brennan's part, since it implicitly revealed the fact that the CIA was spying on Senate staffers even though it wasn't supposed to. Brennan tried to mount a suitably aggressive counterattack to Senate outrage over this, but today it all came crashing down:

CIA employees improperly accessed computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile a report on the agency’s now defunct detention and interrogation program, an internal CIA investigation has determined.

....The statement represented an admission to charges by the panel’s chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that the CIA intruded into the computers her staff used to compile the soon-to-be released report on the agency’s use of harsh interrogation methods on suspected terrorists in secret overseas prisons during the Bush administration.

CIA Director John Brennan briefed Feinstein and the committee’s vice chairman, Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, on the CIA inspector general’s findings and apologized to them during a meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Boyd said.

I find that my reaction remains one of schadenfreude. Dianne Feinstein and the rest of the Intelligence Committee seem to be mostly unconcerned with the omnipresent surveillance apparatus constructed by the US intelligence community, so it's hard to feel very sorry for them when they learn that this apparatus is also sometimes directed at Senate staffers. If this affair had persuaded a few senators that maybe our intelligence chiefs are less than totally honest about what they do, it might have done some good. But it doesn't seem to have done that. With only a few exceptions, they're outraged when the CIA spies on them, but that's about it.

Why American Politics Is Broken In One Sentence

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 12:06 PM EDT

Dave Weigel explains modern politics in a single sentence:

Voters are aware of a border crisis, they are aware that Barack Obama is president—they blame him for nothing getting done.

Yep. Republicans can basically do anything they want and never get blamed for it. Most voters don't even know who's in control of Congress anyway. When something goes wrong, all they know is (a) something went wrong, and (b) Barack Obama is the president and he should have done something about it.

That being the case, what incentive do Republicans have for making things go right? Pretty much none. This is, roughly speaking, a fairly new insight, and it explains most of what you need to know about American politics in the Obama era.