Political MoJo

More NSA Surveillance...

| Thu May 11, 2006 2:44 PM EDT

About a month ago, Wired interviewed a former AT&T technician who claimed that his company was letting the NSA tap its circuits, something that sounded ominous but was kind of vague. (Link thanks to Kevin Drum.) Today USA Today has more on phone companies collaborating with the NSA:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.Last year the president insisted that the NSA was only focusing on international calls. According to USA Today, that's not entirely true, and the administration is looking at "the communications habits of millions of Americans" making domestic calls. Of course. The man lies. Now granted, gathering info about phone records is different from actually listening into those domestic calls without a warrant, but here's what the paper has to say about the legal issues:

Q: Is this legal?

A: That will be a matter of debate. In the past, law enforcement officials had to obtain a court warrant before getting calling records. Telecommunications law assesses hefty fines on phone companies that violate customer privacy by divulging such records without warrants. But in discussing the eavesdropping program last December, Bush said he has the authority to order the NSA to get information without court warrants.In other words, it's probably against the law, but the president feels like his "wartime powers" take precedence over the law. (Orin Kerr has a more detailed look at the legal issues—he says collecting phone records probably isn't unconstitutional, but could create "statutory problems under… FISA.")

But frankly, at this point, figuring out whether this program is "technically" legal or not seems beside the point. The administration has done this sort of thing way too many times—the government, recall, now claims that it can listen in on phone calls without a warrant, detain citizens indefinitely without trial, and have them tortured if it so desires—to earn the benefit of the doubt for even the smallest of steps. And as Atrios says, once you start entering legal gray areas, even with something as apparently "harmless" as looking at phone records, it's very hard to stop. If the government picks up a "suspect" thanks to information from an illegal wiretapping program, then it can't use that evidence in court, so it can't ever bring the suspect to trial, which means it has to keep the person in an extralegal detention center somewhere, presumably forever. And so on. "It's all one thing. You can't separate them." No kidding.

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Congress set to form sunset commission to review federal programs

| Wed May 10, 2006 9:32 PM EDT

From time to time, we hear about plans to get rid certain federal agencies, such as OSHA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Last month, however, these conversations became more than just ideas floated about; House majority leader John Boehner made a deal with the Republican Study Committee in which the RSC would vote for Bush's budget resolution, and the House would form a sunset commission to review federal agencies. The purpose of the review is to overhaul, consolidate, or eliminate a number of federal agencies. The commission will consist of eight members, to be appointed by George W. Bush or his allies in Congress. They will review federal programs every ten years.

On its face, the commission appears to be a useful entity for cutting waste in government, but given the Bush administration's history, it is reasonable to expect it to function as a tool for the removal of government regulation. There is nothing in the deal, for example, that would prohibit lobbyists from being appointed to the commission.

Bush's long-time friend, Clay Johnson, is the architect of the sunset commission. When Bush was governor of Texas, Johnson got rid of the state environmental protection agency and replaced its members with industry representatives. Critics of the plan are justifiably calling the commission a dream come true for the planners of the Reagan government. Once the commission is formed, officials of various government programs will have to "plead their case" in order to remain operative.

There are currently two bills that would advance the formation of the sunset commission. One, the Brady Bill, exempts the commission from various sunshine laws, and the Tiehrt gives the commission subpoena power.

Genocide Or Not?

| Wed May 10, 2006 8:19 PM EDT

Er, I don't quite get Matt Yglesias' argument about Darfur in the American Prospect. He argues that what's going on in Sudan isn't an "unambiguous" genocide—which would mean, according to him, an "ethnic genocide." Instead, what's going on is "counter-guerilla mass slaughter," which supposedly makes intervention more difficult:

[I]t remains the case that the leaders in Khartoum didn't wake up one morning and just decide to exterminate Darfur's inhabitants. The mass killing was adopted as a strategy in the midst of a war, and at the intersection of counter-guerilla mass killing and ethnic warfare lies the ambiguous genocide.

Does it matter? On one level, no. War crimes are war crimes, brutality is brutality, slaughter is slaughter, and we all have a duty to reduce its incidence. But once ambiguity re-enters the picture, so should common sense. Faced with counter-guerilla mass slaughter, you can't just stop the killing, any intervention necessarily entails taking a side on the basic question of the war. Advocates of intervening have a duty to explain what it is they intend to do -- create an independent Darfur? Controlled by whom? They also have a duty to answer, rather than simply dismiss, questions about the big picture of American foreign policy. How would attacking another Arab country affect America's larger security concerns? Would circumventing the UN merely provoke protests from China and like-minded human rights averse dictators, or will developing world democracies like India, South Africa, and Brazil see it as imperialism run amok? Okay, all fair questions, but we'd have to think about all of this regardless of what "type" of mass killing was going on. Even if Darfur was facing an "unambiguous" genocide, whatever that means, it's not like stopping that would somehow be a simpler matter than stopping "counter-guerilla mass slaughter."

In both cases, we'd have to think about what comes after intervention, what sort of settlement would resolve the conflict, how to enforce the peace, and what the effects of intervening would be. Now perhaps the answers would be different, depending on what was motivating the conflict—mass slaughter fuelled by "pure" ethnic hatred, for instance, might even be harder to resolve than, say, mass slaughter fuelled by a political conflict—but you still ask the same questions. Both situations require "common sense." So unless we're suggesting that the wholesale killing of Darfuris is somehow semi-justifiable because it's part of a counterinsurgency campaign—and no one seems to be saying that—then this seems like a lot of meaningless hair-splitting.

Newsflash: Tax Cuts Benefit Rich

| Wed May 10, 2006 5:34 PM EDT

Naturally, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has everything you need to know about the latest capital gains tax cut passed by the House and Senate. Republicans apparently had to use every trick in the book to try to hide the cost of the bill. And CBPP's graph in the middle is especially striking: Households with incomes of over $1 million will reap an average of $41,977 from the cut, while the bottom 40 percent of taxpayers will receive an average of $10. Hot damn; now I can finally pay off those library fines...

What Can $1 Trillion Buy?

| Wed May 10, 2006 2:45 PM EDT

In the Washington Post today, Cass Sunstein says that complying with the Kyoto Protocol would have cost the U.S. a mere $300 billion—far less than the price we're paying to watch an entirely useless bout of mass slaughter and chaos in Iraq. Indeed, there are a lot of things we could've done for a fraction of the price of war. We could've made sure that some of those 4 million infants dying each year—for want of knit caps and clean scalpels—don't actually die. Or done more to halt the genocide in Darfur. That's why the cost of war has to factor in all those useful things we could have done with those hundreds of billions of dollars but didn't.

McCain's planned speeches at universities met with protest

| Tue May 9, 2006 11:53 PM EDT

Senator John McCain of Arizona is about to show up at a couple of places one wouldn't think to find him: He is the speaker at Columbia College's Class Day on May 16, and he is scheduled to give the commencement address at the New School on May 19. McCain was invited to the New School by New School president Bob Kerrey, who is standing by his decision, despite a lot of protest.

Columbia's class of 2006 has constructed a website, John McCain Does Not Speak For Us, which includes a petition to withdraw the school's invitation to McCain to be its Class Day speaker. At the New School, Gregory Tewksbury, a leader of the anti-McCain protests, is suggesting that McCain would be an appropriate guest if New School faculty and students could debate him, but that he is not an appropriate commencement speaker. Others at the school do not think McCain should be a guest there under any circumstances.

The protests against McCain, as expected, are about the senator's strong voting record against gay rights and women's right to choose, and his support of the war in Iraq. But there is something else that has made the protests perhaps even stronger than they might have been: This Saturday, McCain is delivering the commencement address at Liberty University, the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Mr. Falwell is also opposed to gay rights and women's right to choose, and drew attention to himself after the September 11 attacks for saying that the attacks were caused by the ACLU, feminists, gays, abortionists, and the federal courts.

McCain says he considers it "an honor" to address the students and faculty at Liberty Univeristy.

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Genetic Screening To Expand in UK?

Tue May 9, 2006 10:22 PM EDT

The Guardian reports that the British government may allow women with a family history of breast cancer to use in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in order "to have children free of the disease." Currently, 10 British clinics are allowed to prescreen embryos, but only for genetic diseases with an early onset, such as cystic fibrosis.

Proponents of the measure argue that parents should be able to prevent their children from suffering later in life. "If families would wish to eliminate the threat of serious cancer from their family they should be at liberty to do so," said Simon Fishel, managing director of CARE, a group of fertility clinics. Angela McNab, chief executive of the UK's fertility watchdog, said: "what we are asking people is whether it is appropriate to use embryo screening technology to stop children being born with faulty genes when there is a chance they may never go on to suffer the cancer." The HFEA is slated to review the proposal tomorrow.

Army Recruits Autistic Man

Tue May 9, 2006 7:05 PM EDT

Jared Guinther, 18, was diagnosed at three with moderate to severe autism. He doesn't speak unless spoken to and has been enrolled in special education his entire life. Yet he was recently permitted to enlist in the U.S. Army as a cavalry scout—widely considered the army's most dangerous job because of its frequent engagement with the enemy using "anti-armor weapons and scout vehicles." And despite the fact that he was completely unaware of the war in Iraq until last fall, he enlisted when approached by a military recruiter and offered a "$4,000 signing bonus, $67,000 for college and more buddies than he could count."

His story draws attention to the surge in recruiting improprieties over the last several years. Its possible that recruiters concealed Guinther's disability in hopes of meeting their enlistment targets. According to The Oregonian, Maj. Curt Steinagel, commander of the Military Entrance Processing Station in Portland, said the papers filled out by Jared's recruiters contained no indication of his disability. "I can't speak for Army," he said, "but it's no secret that recruiters stretch and bend the rules because of all the pressure they're under. The problem exists, and we all know it exists."

Bolivia vs. the Corporations

| Tue May 9, 2006 6:55 PM EDT

I've started reading Daniel Cohen's new book, Globalization and its Enemies, which argues that poor countries are poor not because they've been exploited by rich countries and multinational corporations and the IMF and the like, but because they've been unable to enter the global economy, even when they want to.

That may sound like familiar territory, but Cohen actually makes a number of surprising and novel points, and while I'd say that he understates the amount of exploitation going on, there's surely something to his argument that many developing countries suffer not from too much globalization but too little. (I'll try to write more on the book once I'm done; Cohen does put forward a more nuanced account than the usual Economist line that poor countries just need more free trade and everything will be "fine.") So that brings us to Bolivia.

Contraception and Infant Mortality

| Tue May 9, 2006 5:11 PM EDT

Putting the first and last paragraphs of this New York Times story next to each other is rather illuminating:

More than four million newborns worldwide die each year in their first month of life, comparable to the number of babies born in the United States annually, Save the Children reported Monday. …

Another way to reduce deaths is to give women access to modern contraceptives, the group said. Birth control, it said, allows enough time between births to preserve the mother's health and reduce the likelihood that their babies are born with low birth weights.Yet another reason to oppose the right's ongoing war on contraceptives (as if people needed another). The article also notes that many of those 4 million infants die because of a lack of inexpensive medical items—sterile blades, or antibiotics and knit caps to treat pneumonia. Now lots of critics are fond of saying that foreign aid "doesn't work," but it's fairly obvious here that there are extraordinarily simple things that can save a lot of lives very cheaply. Knit caps. Sterile blades. Of course it would work.

But wealthy countries remain stingy. The Bush administration cut USAID's maternal and health programs from $356 million last year to $323 million this year. That's 0.0001 of all federal spending, and it still gets cut. On the other hand, the White House has somehow found hundreds of millions of dollars for abstinence-only programs overseas, which don't work, and, as the quote above shows, are exactly the wrong way to alleviate infant mortality.