Kevin Drum

State Secrets

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 6:30 PM EST

Here's an interesting little story.  Way back in 1993 a couple of CIA agents wiretapped a DEA agent in Burma named Richard Horn, and when Horn found out he sued both the agents and the CIA for violating his civil rights.  The case muddled along for years, and a couple of days ago the government agreed to a settlement.

So far, so boring.  But why, after 15 years, did the government finally cave?  Turns out it's because they were lying to the judge and got caught:

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth suggested that the past and present CIA men may have perpetrated a "fraud on the court" through inaccurate declarations....Until Lamberth's angrily worded July decision, government attorneys had successfully argued that the lawsuit, first filed in August 1994, must be sealed to protect state secrets.

....Tellingly, Lamberth further hinted in September that the government could be on a losing course if the case went to trial, as he suggested that "the only secret the government might have left to preserve is the fact they did what Horn alleges."

The CIA had invoked the state secrets privilege, insisting that the case against one of its agents be dropped because he was working covertly and his identity couldn't be revealed.  And they kept insisting that even after his cover had been lifted.  When Lamberth found out, he was not a happy judge.

More here.  This is yet another data point that restates the obvious: just because the government invokes the state secrets privilege doesn't mean there really are state secrets involved.  Congress and the courts, who know this perfectly well, would be wise to demand a wee bit more judicial oversight in these cases instead of allowing the executive absolute discretion.  Pat Leahy's State Secrets Protection Act would be a good place to start.

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Sanctioning Iran

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 3:12 PM EST

Dave Schuler thinks it's time to crack down on Iran:

We should implement consequences for Iran as stern as we can make them, non-violent in nature but punitive in quality. We should muster all of the permanent members of the Security Council to participate in these measures but be prepared to proceed without them. A peaceful, prosperous, and just Iran is in Russian and Chinese interests as it is in ours and, if they elect to support tyranny in Iran, Russia and China should be made aware that this latest tyranny in Iran will eventually end and the Iranian people will know who supported the tyrants and who opposed them.

Setting aside the question of whether this is wise or not, I don't quite get what the sanctions crowd is after.  We have no diplomatic relations with Iran.  Trade is embargoed and imports are prohibited.  (Except for Persian rugs!)  We sanction foreign companies who do business with Iran.  Investment in Iran is prohibited.  The Treasury Departments forbids banks from processing even indirect financial transactions with Iran.  There's a little more we could do, but not much.

As for Russia and China, sure, the current U.S. sanctions would have a lot more bite if the rest of the world joined in.  But what leverage do we have to make that happen?  Hell, even Europe isn't on board with our sanctions regime, let alone China and Russia.  There's just not a lot we can do on that front.

Is there anything more of any real consequence that the U.S. could do unilaterally?  Is there anything serious the U.S. could do to get the rest of the world to support us?  I don't really see it.  What am I missing here? 

Winners and Losers

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 1:43 PM EST

Felix Salmon is back from vacation and he's tanned, rested, and ready.  Today he notes that Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo made big money on interest rate swaps last quarter and asks:

And there’s another question, too: if the likes of Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs are making billions on these swaps, who’s on the other side of the trade? Who lost billions of dollars by swapping floating into fixed? Call it the Summers trade, after Larry’s disastrous foray into the rates market when he was at Harvard. It didn’t work then, and it clearly isn’t working now, either.

That's a good question.  In fact, I've long wondered about this more broadly: lots of derivatives bets are zero sum deals where winners are always matched up with losers.  So if the financial sector is making boatloads of money betting on derivatives,1 which sectors of the economy are the losers?

To be honest, my main interest in this is polemical.  It's not that I really care all that much about precisely who the winners are losers are, but I do think that public wrath against Wall Street might be very usefully stoked by learning who's paying off on all these bets.  In the case of about $13 billion in CDS winnings from Goldman Sachs, for example, the loser was AIG — and then the taxpayers graciously covered that bet when AIG went bust.  But it's not just banks and hedge funds on the other side of these bets, is it?  It's also pension funds, corporations, and state and local governments.  It would be illuminating, I think, if someone could track the flow of wins and losses in a way that made them a little more concrete for people.  Especially the losses.

1Aside from the late unpleasantness, of course.  But you know what I mean.

Wake Up Call for Dems

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 1:13 PM EST

Democratic losses in Virginia and New Jersey are making Democratic congressmen nervous.  What will happen to them a year from now when they stand for reelection?

Exit polls circulating on the House floor Wednesday were even more unnerving to Democrats. The Republican candidates, the polls indicated, had received the votes of two-thirds of independent voters.

Now, as the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate prepare for next year's midterm elections, some moderate Democrats are wondering whether they can afford to follow President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda on such controversial issues as healthcare and climate change. One said the results were a "wake-up call."

"There are going to be a lot more tensions between the White House and Congress," predicted Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a member of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats. "They've been under the surface so far — and they're going to come out in the open."

Cooper is probably just talking his own book, but even at that I don't really get his point of view.  My take on this is pretty different: if there's any broad lesson to be taken from Tuesday's election (about which I remain agnostic for the moment), it's this: independent voters are getting a little weary of endless political battles with no results.  The problem is not that Congress is trying to tackle too much, but that Congress isn't getting anything done. That's the wake-up call.

The answer to that is to get something done.  Pass healthcare reform, for example.  That would be (no pun intended) a huge shot in the arm for Dems of all stripes, demonstrating to skeptical voters that they can indeed govern effectively.  Ditto for financial regulation, which is a golden opportunity to harness some populist anger against the financial industry.  All Congress has to do is stand up to the finance lobby1 and put some serious constaints on Wall Street's ability to screw people.  Think that won't be popular?

As for Obama, he's probably suffering a bit from his lengthy reconsideration of Afghanistan, but once he decides on a way forward that will all be promptly forgotten.  Memories are short for this kind of thing.

My guess is that the Jim Coopers of the world have everything to gain and nothing to lose by loosening up, following Obama's lead, getting healthcare reform passed, and then following up with some meaty financial reform.  Nobody likes endless wankathons that don't produce results, but they love results once they finally come.  Dems need to have a few.2

1Yeah, yeah, I know.  What are the odds?  I have several thousand words on exactly that subject coming in the next issue of the print magazine.

2And they also need the economy to pick up.  That's not entirely under their control, but it's not entirely out of their control either.  Get cracking, folks.

Fake Plan, Real Score

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 12:27 PM EST

House Republicans released a "healthcare plan" of their own yesterday, but I didn't bother blogging about it because it pretty transparently wasn't a real plan at all.  It was just a few thousand words of miscellaneous text designed to stop people from saying that Republicans don't have a plan.

Still, it has to be kind of embarassing to send if off to the CBO for scoring and have this come back.  Glurk.

The Coming GOP Civil War

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 2:52 AM EST

So what's next on the agenda for the Republican Party after this week's elections?  The New York Times reports:

Despite Mr. Hoffman’s loss [in NY-23], many conservatives promised to press on with opposition to centrist Republican candidates. That vow intensified concerns among party leaders that the opportunities they see coming out of Tuesday’s results could be dimmed by intramural battles over whether to reach for the political center or do more to motivate the base on the party’s right.

....The debate has been fueled by a somewhat inchoate populist anger that has taken hold among grass-roots conservatives, encouraged in part by political leaders like Sarah Palin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee last year, and commentators like Glenn Beck of Fox News. In that sense, the divisions within the party extend beyond the traditional strains between the shrinking ranks of Republican moderates and the social and economic conservatives who have dominated the party in recent years.

And the Washington Post:

As the party turns toward the 2010 midterm elections, pitched battles between moderates and conservatives — and between the Washington establishment and the conservative grass roots — are underway from Florida to Illinois to California. Conservative activists, emboldened after forcing out the moderate Republican nominee in a New York congressional race, said they will fan out nationwide and challenge Republican candidates whom they deem too moderate or insufficiently principled.

Well, good luck with that.  Culture war purity battles may be adrenaline rushes for the Palin/Beck wing of the party, but they sure aren't for independents, no matter how soured they are on the economy or how disappointed they are in the Democratic Party.  They may be able to muster some short-term mileage out of all this, but it's a long-term disaster.

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What Kind of Patient Are You?

| Thu Nov. 5, 2009 2:40 AM EST

A British physician provides a taxonomy of annoying patients:

GPs used to talk about "heartsink" patients (who make your heart plummet the moment you spot them on your morning list) and a psychiatrist called Groves even split them into four groups (manipulative help-rejecters, self-destructive deniers, entitled demanders, dependent clingers). But there are heartsink doctors too, and when a consultation goes tits up, there are issues on both sides.

I'm pretty sure I'm not #1, and I know I'm not #3 or #4.  So either I'm a self-destructive denier or else I'm not an annoying patient at all.  Possibly a bit of both.

Reporting on Strikes

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 9:42 PM EST

Atrios blogs about the transit workers strike in Philadelphia:

A big problem is that in these situations there often isn't much solid information about just what are the real issues for the union. News stories focus on wages, and while everyone thinks 50 grand (with some seniority) is a lot for a bus driver, not many of those people are applying for those awesome bus driver jobs. This article provides a bit more of the union's perspective. Aside from wages and health care, concerns about pension underfunding and other issues exist.

If I'm reading this right, Atrios is suggesting that the media is at fault here: unions (and mangement) have lots of serious issues at stake when strikes are imminent, but reporters just lazily throw out a few lines about wage demands and move on.  The result is that the rest of us remain fuzzy about what's really going on.

But I think something else is going on here.  I noticed this a few years ago during the supermarket strike here in Southern California, and I noticed it again a couple of weeks ago reading about the postal workers strike in Great Britain: neither labor nor management is willing to publicly explain exactly what the current contract provides, exactly what the current dispute is over, and exactly what offers each side has laid on the table.  It's frustrating as hell.  It might also be excellent bargaining strategy (though I wonder about that), but in any case I don't think the vagueness in press reports is usually the fault of the press.  Their reports are vague either because both sides are hurling accusations at each other but aren't willing to provide concrete evidence for them, or because neither side will say anything much at all.  Much like a political campaign.

I'm happy to be wrong about this if anyone with more experience can school me on how this stuff really plays out.  But it seems to be a pretty common problem, and it's a little hard to believe that every single reporter who's ever covered a strike is just a bored hack too lazy to spend ten minutes getting the facts straight.

Gone With the Wind

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 7:25 PM EST

After the election last November I noted that "for the first time since Reconstruction, the South will be almost completely shut out of national power....This is the first time this will be true in well over a century."

Over at the Economist, an exile from Dixie puts a little more meat on those bones.  During the 90s and early oughts, he notes, Washington was almost completely controlled by Southerners: Clinton, Gore, Gingrich, Armey, Lott, Bush, Frist, and DeLay.  "It was southerners in every position of power for an unusually long time."

In 2006, things started to go wrong. Nancy Pelosi (California) and Harry Reid (Nevada) took over the top jobs in Congress. Then Barack Obama (Illinois) was elected president, and declined to balance his ticket regionally by picking a southerner.

But the Republican leadership shifted too. The party ran two non-southerners for president and vice-president in John McCain and Sarah Palin. The RNC is now run by a black Marylander, Michael Steele. The House minority leader, John Boehner, hails from Ohio. The whip's job has gone to Eric Cantor who, though Virginian, is an atypical southern Republican in being Jewish. Only Mitch McConnell (Kentucky), the Senate majority leader, is the stereotypical white Protestant southerner. His whip and assistant, John Kyl, comes from Arizona.

"I want my country back," has become a conservative-populist rallying cry. They have not truly lost their country, but have seen a wild swing of power north and towards the coasts. It won't last, either. But it's a painful reality right now for a region that once revelled in separatism, then dominated the country as a whole for an oddly long stretch.

Despite the oceans of ink spent analyzing the electoral shift in 2006 and 2008, I continue to think this transformation has been underappreciated.  The Old South has punched above its weight in American politics ever since 1787, and during the few times their influence has temporarily waned (Reconstruction, the 60s) it drove them crazy with fear and persecution mongering.  So it's not really surprising that it's happening again.

It's hard to say what's next.  Republicans are the party of the South these days, and sure, the GOP will regain power eventually.  But will they be able to do it if they remain a party dominated by the culture of Dixie?  Demographics suggest pretty strongly that they can't, which means that eventually the South will have to come to grips with the fact that they no longer hold the whip hand in American politics and probably never will again.  This means acknowledging that they're just another region, one with influence that waxes and wanes but basically corresponds to their population.  I wonder how long it will take for them to do that?

The Right Not To Be Framed

| Wed Nov. 4, 2009 6:31 PM EST

Via OTB, here's an NPR story about a couple of guys who were framed for a murder they didn't commit and are now suing local prosecutors in the case for misconduct.  The prosecutors are claiming absolute immunity from suit:

The Supreme Court has indeed said that prosecutors are immune from suit for anything they do at trial. But in this case, Harrington and McGhee maintain that before anyone being charged, prosecutors gathered evidence alongside police, interviewed witnesses and knew the testimony they were assembling was false.

The prosecutors counter that there is "no freestanding constitutional right not to be framed." Stephen Sanders, the lawyer for the prosecutors, will tell the Supreme Court on Wednesday that there is no way to separate evidence gathered before trial from the trial itself. Even if a prosecutor files charges against a person knowing that there is no evidence of his guilt, says Sanders, "that's an absolutely immunized activity."

Well, yeah, there's no actual section in the constitution that says, "The right of the people not to be framed shall not be abridged."  And prosecutorial immunity is a longtime staple of common law.  But deliberately framing someone with evidence you know to be faulty?  Maybe the law is an ass, but one way or another, that just has to be wrong.