Political MoJo

Department of Homeland Security opens Kansas professor's mail

| Mon Jan. 9, 2006 5:55 PM EST

The Progressive reports that Grant Goodman, an 81-year-old professor emeritus of Asian history at the University of Kansas, writes regularly to his colleague, a former professor history at the University of the Philippines. Last month, Goodman received from his friend a letter that had already been "Opened by Border Protection," and which displayed the seal of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The other professor, also in her 80's, according to Goodman, "hasn't written about anything in years."

Goodman, who was very upset by the government's opening his private correspondence, was also surprised by the crudeness of the letter-opening. The letter had been slashed open and then secured with heavy green tape. Unlike other prying government agencies, Homeland Security wants you to know it is watching you.

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The NRA Abroad

| Mon Jan. 9, 2006 5:49 PM EST

David Morton of Foreign Policy has a long and fascinating piece this month on how the NRA has become a global lobby of sorts, fighting against arms control laws abroad and giving "gun-rights" movements in other countries aid and assistance. And it's working: the NRA has helped defeat gun-control legislation in Brazil and Australia, and has managed to help stall arms control efforts at the UN.

All these efforts seem a bit like overkill, though. So long as the United States continues to make cheap arms by the ton and sell them all around the world, international arms-control efforts will never really get anywhere anyway. And the NRA has pretty much ensured that American arms manufacturers are untouchable here at home. So why spend all the extra effort in tiny countries abroad? A variety of reasons, sure, though Morton gets at the "sordid" one: even when the NRA fails to defeat gun-control legislation abroad, "doing battle with the United Nations and promoting fears of a global gun-grabbing conspiracy is a boon for fundraising and publicity back home." So there.

How Necessary is That NSA Program?

| Mon Jan. 9, 2006 4:52 PM EST

I haven't been following the NSA surveillance story all that closely, so apologies if some of the points made below have been repeated elsewhere over the past month or so (or heavens, if some of the facts are wrong!), but it seems like there are still a few things worth questioning in, for instance, Kevin Drum's argument today:

[T]he NSA program itself is quite likely a reasonable response to 9/11.... Politically, I continue to think Democrats should make it absolutely clear that what they're attacking isn't necessarily the NSA program itself, but the fact that the president unilaterally decided that he could approve the program even though Congress had specifically forbidden it.
Ezra Klein agrees:
The base controversy here, as anyone following it knows, is legal, rather than operational. I'm on the mailing list for quite a few liberal organizations, politicians, pundits, and bloggers, and not a single one has demanded the NSA program's dismantlement.
Well, "politically" this stance probably makes sense, and obviously any potential law-breaking by the Bush administration is an extremely serious matter and the primary issue at hand, but why not attack the "NSA program itself"? Why not call for its "dismantlement"? Is the dimly-understood NSA program in question, whatever it is, actually a reasonable response to 9/11? If the Bush administration felt it couldn't even get it approved by Congress, perhaps not. Does the program do any good? We don't really know, because the details remain classified. Maybe it doesn't.

Of course the Bush administration says that it's super-effective, but is there any actual evidence that whatever this secret NSA program is—"data mining," perhaps, or some ECHELON-like program—has stopped a single terrorist plot, or led to a single terrorist conviction? (A quick Google search doesn't bring anything up; Joe Klein claims there's "evidence"; but what?) And even if so, could these plots have been stopped or disrupted in some other, less secretive or less invasive way? Yes, nearly everyone will agree that the government should try to spy on al-Qaeda, but that still leaves a lot of leeway on how to go about it.

The track record of the NSA has been pretty poor in the past—among other things, all that high-tech gadgetry failed to notice that India and Pakistan were getting read to explode nuclear bombs in 1998—so why should anyone assume that Echelon or other newfangled surveillance programs are magically more competent and useful for stopping terrorism? Intuitively, it has never seemed so hard to elude the NSA if you really wanted to: a good set of substitution codes in your email and telephone calls, along with perhaps RSA encryption, should help careful terrorists stay undetected. Maybe that's not true and these new and secret surveillance techniques really are that effective, but the long history of U.S. intelligence failures doesn't really give one hope.

Meanwhile, so long as the country's in a permanent state of war whose duration is decided by the whims of the president, and so long as terrorism suspects can be held without trial in secret prisons, any sort of classified surveillance program, especially one that potentially sweeps up large numbers of Americans, looks pretty indefensible. Any program is going to make errors and scoop up the wrong people from time to time, and even if the Bush administration was getting warrants for everything, that's still a lot of innocent people who can potentially be stuffed in Guantanamo Bay or extradited abroad for torture and questioning without judicial oversight. Even a "legal" NSA surveillance program becomes problematic when set against a larger background of lawlessness.

Another, side question: Why is it always acceptable to subject foreigners to data-mining and other forms of intrusive warrantless surveillance, without oversight, if it's not acceptable to subject Americans to the same? Obviously that's what the law and Constitution allows, but in certain cases this seems like an arbitrary distinction to make, especially when we know that innocent foreigners very frequently get swept up and detained without trial by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, the European Parliament, among others, has accused the NSA of using secret intercepts abroad to bolster American corporations or conduct industrial espionage, tasks well outside the NSA charter. So there are real concerns with even perfectly legal forms of NSA surveillance abroad, and other abuses aren't hard to imagine.

(Speaking of which, and perhaps this has been brought up elsewhere already: It's long been suggested that the NSA has gotten around USSID 18, preventing warrantless surveillance in the USA, simply by partnering up with British agencies, which have far fewer restrictions than our spies, and having them spy on Americans for us. It's not something that's ever been proven, I think, but it sounds plausible enough. So in practice the foreign-domestic distinction may not be all that rigid anyway.)

A few weeks ago in the New Republic, John Judis revisited the question of whether we should abolish the CIA, something Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested in 1996 (even better, see Chalmers Johnson, who actually worked for the CIA for awhile). And why not? Apart from overthrowing elected governments, decimating labor movements abroad, and starting crack epidemics in Los Angeles, the agency doesn't appear to be all that crucial. Its most benign and important function, intelligence analysis, has been bested by unclassified and public sources time and time again.

As far as I know, though, no one has laid out as thorough a case for curtailing (or at least declassifying large parts of) the NSA, but the argument would probably run along similar lines. Here you have yet another unaccountable and possibly ineffective agency—when Bob Drogin of the Los Angeles Times heard the "official" NSA self-defense in 2000, here were their list of successes:

NSA successes are real enough. Over the years, NSA operatives have listened to Cuban captains in their ships and Kremlin leaders in their limos. They bugged the Chinese embassy in Australia, tapped Cali drug cartel phone calls in Colombia and identified the Libyan suspects in the bombing of a Pan Am jet. They even bugged arms control and trade talks.

"If you've got the other guy's basic negotiating plan and his three fallback plans on a piece of paper when you're sitting down, you're in pretty good shape," said a former Reagan White House intelligence official. "That's what the NSA gave us. . . . There was a constant stream of incredibly good stuff.""Incredibly good stuff," they say. But really? Intelligence agencies failed to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union and much of Reagan's cabinet repeatedly insisted that Gorbachev wasn't someone who could be negotiated with. Exactly how useful are we talking here? That, plus accusations that the NSA is involved in political and industrial espionage against our ostensible allies, along with its long history of abuses and law-breaking (even when there has been "oversight"), would probably comprise the bulk of the case for the prosecution here. I honestly don't know how strong that is. Note also that, even if this latest NSA spy program, whatever it does, were "legal" and subject to oversight, Congress has always taken a minimalist approach to babysitting intelligence agencies; legality is no guarantee against abuse (although it's certainly better than nothing).

Maybe that just means that better congressional oversight will take care of all these problems, and the problems with the NSA are nothing the rule of law can't clear up, but then again, maybe not. I don't think saying so has to be considered "civil liberties absolutism" so much as skepticism that these specific programs and agencies are all truly and honestly vital to the security of the United States.

The Decline of Corporate Convictions

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 5:30 PM EST

Corporate Crime Reporter has a long and interesting new report out about "The Rise of Deferred and Nonprosecution Agreements" with respect to corporate crime. The brief summary goes something like this:

Federal and state prosecutors are increasingly offering major corporations – including Adelphia, Computer Associates, KPMG, Merrill Lynch, Monsanto, Sears, Shell, WorldCom/MCI – special deals – known as deferred prosecution or non prosecution agreements.

Under these agreements, prosecutors agree not to criminally prosecute the corporation to conviction in exchange for cooperation against culpable executives, implementation of corporate monitors, and fines.So, for instance: In August 2005, the accounting firm KPMG admitted to fraud that generated at least $11 billion in phony tax losses. But there was no conviction, and the company was instead given a deferred prosecution deal, which came over the objections of N.Y. Attorney General David Kelley. KPMG appealed directly to Deputy Attorney General James Comey—the man who has received a few plaudits of late for refusing to sign off on the Bush administration's spying program—and the deputy AG ordered Kelley to cut a deal. Comey was reportedly worried that KPMG would go the way of Arthur Andersen, and figured it was a company that was too big to fail. (Arthur Andersen, by the way, received its own deferred prosecution deal in 1996, in a case involving real estate fraud.)

This practice has become much more common since 2002, after prosecutors became skittish about bringing more Enrons down, and the practice picked up legitimacy for major corporate crime cases after then-Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson issued a memo in 2003 setting new "guidelines" for prosecuting corporations. (Previously, prosecutors defended these deals by saying they didn't want to clog up the courts with minor crimes—but now they're being used for major crimes as well.)

Now there's at least a plausible case for avoiding an indictment and possibly a conviction of a major corporation. Some prosecutors will say that corporations are too big to indict. If there's an indictment, the company's stock could tumble, innocent people could lose their jobs, the economy could suffer. And a conviction could put a company out of business altogether. (This isn't exactly true: Convicted criminals such as Chevron, Exxon, Tyson Foods, Pfizer, and Samsung are all still in business, last I checked.) So it makes much more sense, the prosecutors say, simply to put those individuals responsible (i.e."bad apples") in jail and just let the corporation reform itself. No conviction necessary!

The downside, of course, is that without the threat of conviction hanging over their heads, corporations have less incentive to avoid wrongdoing, especially if they know that if they get caught, at worst, they'll have to pay a fine, serve up the head of an executive or two, and then carry out a few nominal "reforms." After all, Arthur Andersen certainly didn't learn any heartfelt life lessons after cutting a non-prosecution deal in 1996, after engaging in real estate fraud.

Another potential problem is that the leeway that prosecutors get in cutting these deals opens the doors for abuse. In 2005, Bristol Myers Squibb, as part of its deferred prosecution deal over charges of conspiring to commit securities fraud, was ordered to pay a fine, make some reforms, and fund a chair in business ethics at Seton Hall, which just happened to be the New Jersey Attorney General's alma mater. It's hardly the slimiest thing in the world, and perhaps this example was perfectly innocent, but the possibility for corruption is certainly there.

So it's an interesting issue, and not something that has really been fully thrashed out yet. Me, I tend towards the "law and order" side of corporate crime and punishment, and probably wouldn't mind seeing the death penalty hauled out for especially flagrant corporations. But the debate's obviously less cartoonish than that. Russell Mokhiber of CCR suggests that even if you accept the arguments of prosecutors who favor these deals, it still might make more sense for AGs to pursue "corporate probation." That would achieve basically the same thing—force the company to pay a fine, reform itself, hand over executives head's on platters, etc.—but would keep the process within the judicial system, as a judge makes sure that the company has rehabilitated itself before lifting probation.

Repealing the Magna Carta

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 3:44 PM EST

New at Mother Jones:

Nick Turse on the Bush administration's drive to dismantle our constitutional and legal system-- effectively repealing the Magna Carta. (Read it.)

Winslow T. Wheeler wonders why, on a budget of $1 billion a day, the Pentagon supplies US troops with such lousy combat equipment. (Read it.)

Sara Catania profiles Ernie Chambers, the lone African American in the Nebraska legislature, who has been almost singlehandedly changing the state. (Read it.) Plus, an interview with Ernie Chambers. (Read it.)

Beyond GDP Growth

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 3:42 PM EST

The Economic Policy Institute has a short paper answering the question of why Americans might still be so dissatisfied with the state of the economy when GDP growth has been relatively strong for quite some time. Profits are up, but wages and incomes are down for the average worker; more and more people are sinking deeper into debt; the employment rate has fallen; poverty is rising; and health care costs are slowly getting out of control. Set in this context, of course, the figures for GDP growth really doesn't matter much at all, although that seems to be the big number everyone always talks about.

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What Abramoff Bought

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 3:26 PM EST

It's hard to improve on this point about the Jack Abramoff scandals by Jeanne of Body and Soul:

Yesterday Amy Goodman interviewed Brian Ross about his 1998 story on Tom Delay's fight to continue horrible labor conditions and forced abortions on U.S. soil in Saipan. The current news hook, of course, is that Delay got interested in Saipan when Jack Abramoff arranged a nice trip there for him.

I'm glad the corporate media is covering the corruption, but I wish there was more emphasis on what these inducements were in support of. But then that's why we call it corporate media, isn't it? A little scandal here and there can be fun to cover, but look into the effect of all this on people's lives? Not powerful people's careers and ambitions, but ordinary people's lives? That Ross covered the story in '98 proves it can be done. But it's never part of the big juicy stories.Right, right. The corruption and the process gets all the coverage, but ultimately the end result matters most. It's not like DeLay was taking a bit of money to do something that was good for the world—calling attention to the plight of the ongoing mess in the Congo at the behest of Congolese lobbyists, say. (Or whatever; it's just an example.) He was blocking legislation in Congress that would have prevented corporations from contracting with sweatshops in Saipan. He was trying to preserve what were essentially forced labor camps. All for a few bucks and a nice little trip abroad.

Bioshield Boondoggle

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 2:52 PM EST

Time Magazine has a fantastic article on the massive boondoggle that is the world of BioShield. In 2003, President Bush asked Congress for nearly $6 billion to pay drug companies so that they could develop vaccines for exotic diseases that terrorists might unleash on the country: Ebola, smallpox, plague. It turns out that most of that money went… well, nowhere:

BioShield hasn't transformed much of anything besides expanding the federal bureaucracy. Most of the big pharmaceutical and biotech firms want nothing to do with developing biodefense drugs. The little companies that are vying for deals say they are being stymied by an opaque and glacially slow contracting process. The one big contract that has been awarded -- for 75 million doses of a next-generation anthrax vaccine -- is tangled in controversy.

With the industry's profits under pressure, none of the big firms are keen on diverting research from potential blockbusters to drugs for exotic germs like Ebola and plague, which may be stockpiled and used only in an emergency. …

Public-health experts are also worried that money is flowing into terrorism-related medicine at the expense of more basic needs like hospital beds and respirators, which may be just as critical to saving lives in a crisis. And they are concerned that the government's obsession with biodefense is distracting from research into infectious diseases. Last March, 758 microbiologists signed a petition to the NIAID, complaining about the "massive influx of funding" for bioterrorism agents like anthrax, tularemia and plague. The institute now spends nearly $1.7 billion on biodefense -- up from just $42 million in 2001 -- out of a $4.3 billion budget (although the biodefense funding hasn't detracted from other research, according to the agency). Meanwhile, hardly any new antibiotics have been approved by the FDA in recent years, despite the fact that scientists have grown more concerned about antibiotic-resistant bacteria. "The big challenge is how we deal with epidemic infectious diseases, not anthrax," says Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health.So pretty much useless all around. That's good to know. On the other hand, the threat of shadowy terrorists waging biological warfare on the United States has always sounded pretty implausible. If, say, some guy from Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Syria got ahold of smallpox and tried to spread it in the United States, he would almost certainly end up devastating Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Syria much, much more—poorer countries, after all, are poorly equipped to deal with plagues, far more so than the United States or other OECD countries are. Maybe the best defense against biological warfare is simply publicizing this fact far and wide…

Car Ownership and Poverty

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 7:15 PM EST

Margy Waller of Brookings has a modest suggestion for tackling poverty: Help low-income workers, especially those in urban and rural areas, buy their own cars so that they can actually commute to the suburbs, where most of the jobs are these days.

A recent GAO study determined that during the 1990s almost three-fourths of all welfare recipients lived in central cities or rural areas, while in over 100 metropolitan places three-fourths of all jobs were located in the suburbs. ...

Bridging this spatial mismatch is difficult. ... Employers report that transportation is a major barrier to retaining former welfare recipients, or even hiring them in the first place."Spatial mismatch," that's a good way of putting it. And Waller argues that better public transportation systems won't necessarily solve this problem, partly because even the best bus lines can't go everywhere:

[T]he effect of access to public transit on the likelihood of employment for welfare recipients is mixed at best. One recent study in six metro areas found that better access to public transit had no effect on employment for welfare recipients. Other research suggests that access to better public transit has a small effect on employment outcomes for welfare recipients who do not have access to a car.

By comparison, people with cars are more likely to work, and car ownership is positively associated with higher earnings and more work hours.Car ownership, though, tends to be out of reach for many of these workers, especially since owning a car is usually much more expensive for low-income families than it is for everyone else (the poor need to pay, on average, $500 more to buy a car; they usually pay higher interest rates through subprime financing and the like; and insurance premiums are generally higher). Both President Clinton and, to some extent, Bush, have proposed a few very basic measures to help promote car-ownership—getting rid of rules that make it difficult for low-income car owners to qualify for food stamps, for instance—but Congress hasn't done anything about it yet.

Anyway, the last thing this world probably needs is more cars, but Waller makes a good point, even if this is a Band-Aid approach to urban poverty. About a decade ago, when William Julius Wilson wrote about the flight of jobs from the cities, he suggested that the federal government create large-scale public works programs to turn things around. Handing everyone a car so that they can commute seems to be the low-budget version.

Oh, and there's a flip-side to all of this. A lot of low-income urban workers can obviously still find jobs in the inner city. They could very much benefit from better public transportation, but that's not always available. Urban policymakers these days have become fond of slashing funds for, say, the bus systems that everyone uses in favor of rail services that subsidize the costly commute from the suburbs for middle-class workers. About a decade ago, before being shot down in court, the Los Angeles transit system wanted to spend about 70 percent of its funds on rail services when 94 percent of its riders, mostly at the lower end of the income scale, used the bus system. That's an extreme example but not, as far as I can tell, an aberration.

That Recent Congressional Agreement...

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 3:17 PM EST

This came in over the holidays, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has put out a handful of extremely thorough reports looking at Congress' recent budget legislation, which will likely pass sometime early this year. The first report notes that the agreement would cut Medicaid services and increase fees for low-income families who can't otherwise afford health care by some $16 billion. At a time when the quality of Medicaid care has been slowly eroding for years, these cuts come at the worst possible time. Child-support enforcement and foster care aid also get chopped up.

A second report notes that Congress also imposed stunning new mandates on state welfare programs, and slashed funding for child care. In fact, the new welfare provisions are so strict that states many almost certainly won't be able to comply. But the thing is, Congress knew that many states wouldn't be able to comply. That was the point. Republicans intentionally designed the bill so that states would fail and hence be forced to pay fines to the federal government, which would in turn make it look like they were "trimming" the federal deficit. Clever trick, and the only downside is that, as the non-partisan CBO noted, "the number of children in deep poverty is likely to rise." But that's nothing to get too worked up about, no doubt.

And finally, the Center notes that the budget deficit isn't really going to get any smaller after these cuts, because Congress also allowed two new tax cuts for high-income families to begin taking effect in January 2006. How skewed are these new cuts towards the upper brackets? The chart in the middle of this report is particularly telling: workers making $100,000 to $200,000 will receive an average tax cut of $25. Enough for a movie and popcorn, almost. Workers making $75,000 to $100,000 get a whole buck, on average. On the other hand, those Americans making over $1 million will receive an average tax cut of $19,234, so it's not all bad.