One of the admirable things about Tom Donohue, the president of the US Chamber of Commerce, is that he can be frighteningly honest about what he does. On Charlie Rose this past Friday, he described the mission of the nation's largest lobbying organization like this:

We said, 'We're going to be the reinsurance salesmen. Now, we're never going to sell insurance, but we we're the people that you could come to us, and when you were in trouble, and you're another association, you couldn't get something passed, we were the reinsurance people. You come in, and if you were our members, you were our supporters, we were going to be there for you.'

The "reinsurance" metaphor is apt in that the nation's dirtiest industries certainly see the Chamber as too big to fail. As I explain in the January/February issue, Donohue has transformed the group from a staid business association to Washington's most ruthless political mercenary. The Chamber allows its biggest donors to set its positions on key issues such as climate change, and it will set up a campaign promoting a company's pet cause if it donates at least $1 million annually. In October, Donohue told the Wall Street Journal: "People have criticized us for helping industries or individual companies. What the hell do you think we do? That's our business!" 

Flickr/kellynigro (Creative Commons).Richard Blumenthal, profile in courage. | Flickr/kellynigro (Creative Commons).

Firedoglake's Gregg Levine has a good catch. Late last week, WNYC's Brian Lehrer interviewed Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic Senate candidate in Connecticut (and very likely its next Senator). In the interview, without any real prompting, Blumenthal advocated sending Khalid Sheikh Mohamed to a military commission. Then, Blumenthal argued that "Christmas bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should "probably not" be tried in federal court, either. As Levine notes, this is almost "completely counter" to the Obama administration's position on those issues—Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, has announced that KSM will be tried in federal court, and no one in the Obama administration has ever advocated sending Abdulmutallab to a military tribunal.

That someone as purportedly liberal as Blumenthal, running in as blue of a state as Connecticut, won't stand up for civilian law says that politicians probably see this is a losing issue. As Marcy Wheeler points out, they're probably reading the polls:

Scott Brown’s pollster found that MA voters–voting to replace Ted Kennedy, of all people!!!–were more than twice as likely to support Brown for advocating against civilian law than Martha Coakley, the AG from the state next door to Blumenthal’s, who supported it. Scott Brown won at least partly because he trashed civilian law (he even went so far as to endorse water-boarding explicitly, in MA, and still won). 

And, as I also pointed out this week, in response to the lesson they took from the Brown win, Republicans are running hard against civilian law. "If this approach of putting these people in U.S. courts doesn’t sell in Massachusetts, I don’t know where it sells," Mitch McConnell told someone at a Heritage event on February 3. He went on to say, "You can campaign on these issues anywhere in America."

Now, I agree with Mitch McConnell on approximately nothing policy-wise. But he’s a smarter politician than a lot of guys on our side. And he, at least, believes "you can campaign" against civilian law "anywhere in the country." Including Massachusetts. And, presumably, Connecticut.

Unfortunately for defenders of the Constitution and the rule of law, this sounds about right. As Marcy notes, despite Holder's push to try KSM and Abdulmutallab, top members of the Obama administration's political team seem to agree with Blumenthal. Those of us who want to see this country's ideals upheld and its justice system defended are fighting an uphill battle. And if Blumenthal's position is any indication of what's to come, it's a battle we're losing.

Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman and Obama ally in reforming Wall Street, went on CNN this weekend to explain why tough financial reform should involve a bank "euthanasia" process. By euthanasia, Volcker essentially means a wind-down, liquidation process for when a too-big-to-fail bank—say, Citigroup—teeters on the brink and threatens to topple much of the financial markets. "There ought to be some authority that can step in, take over that organization and liquidate it or merge it—not save it," Volcker told CNN's Fareed Zakaria on Sunday.

Of course, this kind of financial euthanasia offers more than just a resolution process for the next great Wall Street meltdown. It also eliminates what people like Volcker and financial watchdog Elizabeth Warren call the "moral hazard" in the financial markets in which, as Volcker described, "people think they're going to be rescued and, therefore, will take risks that they shouldn't be doing." Dangling a so-called euthanasia process over banks' heads strips away the government guarantee that banks who take too many risks and implode because of those risks will always be backstopped by taxpayer funds. It's a plan Volcker has been pushing since he emerged on the financial-reform scene in the past year or so, and Obama so far seems to be support some kind of bank wind-down process. "You get very aggressive traders, and they're out there," Volcker said. "Millions of dollars are at stake, and personal bonuses, so they have a real incentive to take risks, which is fine, if you're not being protected by the government."

Andrew Sullivan is making a lot of Dick Cheney's "admission," in an interview with ABC's Jonathan Karl, that he was a "big supporter of waterboarding." It's not news, of course, that Cheney was involved with the waterboarding program—anyone who has been paying attention for the past few years knows that much of the impetus for the Bush administration's torture and detention regime came out of Cheney's office. But Sullivan argues that the admission of involvement, however off-handed, means that Attorney General Eric Holder is legally required to prosecute:

[T]he attorney general of the United States is legally obliged to prosecute someone who has openly admitted such a war crime or be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention on Torture. For Eric Holder to ignore this duty subjects him too to prosecution. If the US government fails to enforce the provision against torture, the UN or a foreign court can initiate an investigation and prosecution.... Cheney himself just set in motion a chain of events that the civilized world must see to its conclusion or cease to be the civilized world. For such a high official to escape the clear letter of these treaties and conventions, and to openly brag of it, renders such treaties and conventions meaningless.

Sadly, the treaties and conventions Sullivan holds so dear have already been rendered meaningless. The consensus among members of the political and media establishment seems to be that punishing anyone who oredered or sanctioned torture is absolutely unacceptable. Many news organizations can't even bring themselves to call waterboarding torture. Digby cites this New York Times profile of Holder as evidence that "Dick Cheney could go on television and admit to personally torturing KSM on the rack and nothing would be done." That sounds about right. Actually, given how blithely everyone responded to Cheney's waterboarding admission, and given how many people seem to want to avoid trying KSM, I strongly suspect an admission of personal, direct participation in torture would redound to Cheney's political benefit.

Need to Read: February 16, 2010

 The must-read news from around the web and in today's news:


Spc. Jesus B. Fernandez crosses a stream during a unit visit to Angla Kala village in Afghanistan's Kunar province, Feb. 6, 2010. Photo via the US Marines.

David Corn appeared on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss Evan Bayh's surprise decision to quit the Senate.

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Incarceration Nation

In “Imaginary Fiends,” which appeared yesterday in the Boston Globe, Joe Keohane asks why Americans stubbornly refuse to believe that the U.S. crime rate has been dropping for at least 15 years. 

 The year 2009 was a grim one for many Americans, but there was one pleasant surprise amid all the drear: Citizens, though ground down and nerve-racked by the recession, still somehow resisted the urge to rob and kill one another, and they resisted in impressive numbers. Across the country, FBI data show that crime last year fell to lows unseen since the 1960s--part of a long trend that has seen crime fall steeply in the United States since the mid-1990s.  

At the same time, however, another change has taken place: a steady rise in the percentage of Americans who believe crime is getting worse. The vast majority of Americans--nearly three-quarters of the population--thought crime got worse in the United States in 2009, according to Gallup’s annual crime attitudes poll. That, too, is part of a running trend…The more lawful the country gets, the more lawless we imagine it to be.  

The implications for the country at large are stark. Democracy is based on an informed public calling upon its representatives to address problems facing their society. If we believe crime is on the march in the streets all over the country, it influences our beliefs on critical issues.

Keohane offers some interesting explanations for this national delusion--though he doesn’t mention the influence of cynical politicians who use fear of crime to win votes, and of a prison industry that uses this fear to sustain itself. 

Whatever is behind it, this public misconception has no doubt helped fuel the enormous growth in the U.S. incarceration rate, which is the highest in the world.  The rise of the supermax prison has been even more dramatic. But as the Sentencing Project has documented, the 35-year imprisonment boom appears to have little relationship to the crime rate--whether crime goes up or down, the incarceration rate just keep climbing. Earlier this month on The Crime Report, Joe Domanick looked at mass incarceration in relation to last year's decline in crime. “No one among the experts I spoke with,” he said ”suggested that as a factor.”

Yesterday, Pomona College senior Nicholas George, backed by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that TSA and FBI agents stomped all over his First and Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him for five hours after they discovered a set of Arabic flashcards and political science books in his backpack. The complaint is worth reading in full (here's the pdf version), but this section in particular is worth highlighting:

TSA Supervisor: You know who did 9/11?
George: Osama bin Laden.
TSA Supervisor: Do you know what language he spoke?
George: Arabic.

Then, according to the complaint, the TSA supervisor held up George's flashcards and asked, "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"

Uh, no. Another choice nugget: "During their questioning, for example, the FBI agents repeatedly asked Mr. George why he had chosen to study physics at a liberal arts college such as Pomona." (I wonder if his answer was anything like this?).

Yesterday I blogged about the political implosion of Debra Medina, the Tea Partier whose Texas gubernatorial campaign came to a crashing halt when she was outed as a 9/11 truther by Glenn Beck (even he has his limits, apparently). Maybe there's something in the water in Texas, because a few hours ago, hair-care baron Farouk Shami, one of two major Democratic candidates, joined Medina in lala-land. Here's what he told a Dallas TV station when asked whether he believed 9/11 was an inside job:

“I'm not sure. I am not going to really judge or answer about something I'm not really sure about. But the rumors are there that there was a conspiracy. True or not? It's hard to believe, you know, what happened. It's really hard to comprehend what happened. Maybe. I'm not sure.

Does this make the Truther conspiracy bi-partisan? For more Texas Tea Party blogging, check out Kevin's take on Debra Medina.