Wednesday, February 22, 2006

I Take That Back

I wrote yesterday that President Bush would profit in the long run from the kerfuffle over the ports deal. I take that back. Since yesterday it has been revealed:
  1. That Bush did not know that his administration approved the sale.
  2. That the approval was contingent on a 'secret' agreement.
The fine print of the scare headlines on the 'secret agreement' is that this is business as usual. If anything, the U.S. was relatively lenient, not requiring some things typically required in such arrangements. And the documents were labeled "Confidential", per normal with something considered a trade secret.

Bush not knowing is the big problem. Obviously, politicians at all levels are very worried by this deal. For Homeland Security not to figure out that this was worth elevating - if only for public relations concerns - shows how out of touch they are with political realities.

This is snowballing into a PR disaster, and - all spin aside - it reflects poorly on Bush's flagship Department and the channels of communication within his administration.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

So is the Queen

On the front page of the Washington Post website:

The famous Tower of London ravens, a sign of the monarchy's vitality, are now in indoor aviaries. (Reuters)

Lose the battles, win the war

President Bush is doing the right thing in vocally sticking to his guns on honoring the ports sale. While having a UAE-owned company run our ports obviously isn't America's top choice (why not an American company?), it's against the ethics of both business and government policy to discriminate against a company based solely on its nation of origin.

It is unlikely that anything will change at the ports. The workers will continue to be Americans, the managers will continue to be Brits at a certain level. That terrorists will be better able to exploit our ports is doubtful.

Having good relations with peaceful Arab countries is vital for Bush's agenda of bringing democracy to that region. He needs to show Arabs that he - and America - will give them a fair deal. It's disingenuous to tell them they need to reform, but then shun their businessmen.

Bush will lose this battle politically. It's ready-made for local politicians to Stand Up To Washington and show how they care about their local communities. And Bush can't make this into a public show of rhetoric. It has to be plain and simple: the Emirati's are our allies, we trust them, and so we do business fairly. And that line of reasoning doesn't resonate well enough on the Panic Box television to have an impact.

In retrospect, however, this kind of thing is necessary to salvage Bush's Legacy and the Meaning of his presidency. If history looks kindly on him, it will be because he is the president who first engaged us in the Middle East, however sloppily, and he was the first president to believe that Arabs and Muslims could be 'good folks' and responsible world citizens. That's valuable, and as many mistakes as Bush makes, he's a visionary in changing the way the U.S. thinks about distant parts of the world.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Happy People

Congrats to Ali Baba and the future Mrs. Baba on their engagement! This weekend Ali surprised the future Mrs. with a ring which reportedly cost $9,000. I must confess that this was one prediction I got wrong: when I found out last year that the two had begun dating, I went on the record as predicting it wouldn't work.

One order of crow, table 6.

I don't have pictures of the ring (yet), but here are photos from all of our recent trip to St. Louis.

Blogging Against Pork

The Truth Laid Bear Porkbusters aren't the only ones who think that bloggers can deal a blow to federal pork. Newt Gingrich in today's Opinion Journal:
"They should change the House rules so that any conference report that comes back is automatically filed on the Thomas system [the Web site where congressional actions are logged and made publicly available] and is not voted on for 72 hours so that every blogger in the country can go in and read it. That would immediately cut down on the most outrageous stuff because you wouldn't be able to pass it."

Free David Irving

British "historian" David Irving has been sentenced to three years in jail in Austria for Holocaust denial. The perverse belief that governmental force is the appropriate way to challenge bad or wrong ideas is as silly as Irving's "history", which he has since amended, after seeing Adolf Eichmann's personal files in 1991.

The appropriate way to combat ideas is with better ideas. The worse an idea is, the more the light of day will destroy it. Read Steven Levitt's chapter about the Ku Klux Klan in Freakonomics: the Klan's 1920's revival was mortally wounded by a cartoonist who put the secretive rituals of the Klan in the morning papers and revealed the silliness and corruption at the core of the organization.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Desperate for a Homosexual?

Were New Hampshire's Episcopals desperate to appoint a homosexual bishop? Did the winning candidate's homosexuality outweigh other considerations? It seems the electors may have overlooked at least one serious flaw in choosing V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. The Bishop now says he is an alcoholic, and has been "for years". (In other words, it wasn't the pressure put on him by "fundamentalists" that drove him to drink.)

Now, I'm not saying that all homosexuals are alcoholics or anything like that, but we should not be surprised that someone who rejects the Bible's statutes in one area of his life does so in another area as well. Neither of these sins is "easy" to mortify, and for that precise reason, if Robinson followed his scripture, he would have eschewed leadership, knowing that those who are in pastoring positions will be held to a higher standard.

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Calibrated Response

Kudos to an Iranian daily, Hamshahri, for responding with an appropriately cunning response to the Danish cartoon kerfuffle. Hamshahri is holding its own cartoon competition, and chose the most inflammatory subject they could: the Holocaust.

Of course it's insensitive, and it remains to be seen if most of the cartoons will be sympathetic to the Jews, as most of the Danish cartoons were sympathetic to Muhammad. And plenty of religious leaders are condemning the new competition, but they also condemned the Danish cartoons, so no hypocrisy done.

Global Review looks forward to seeing the results of the Iranian rebuttal. Hat tip to Drudge.

Monday, February 6, 2006

This Call May Be Monitored For Quality Assurance

Twice recently, I've had to admit to liberal friends that I know too little about the wire-tapping controversy to register an informed opinion. I don't want to believe scare-mongers, but nor do I give credence to the view that if Bush says it's necessary, it must necessarily be so. So here's my research.

First of all, let me distinguish between two key questions: is it legal? and is it right? The government may legally do many things that I consider wrong; it might also do something right that is illegal, which is what John McCain brilliantly said he would do if, as president, he was confronted with a situation where torturing a suspect would save thousands of lives immediately. He also said he would face the consequences of having broken the law.

The facts: in 2002 the President decided to begin wiretapping without warrant the international phone calls of citizens and residents suspected of involvement with al-Qaeda. The executive briefed the chairs and vice-chairs of both Intelligence Committees a number of times, but not the entire committee. Some, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, registered concern. A New York Times article, which was delayed for a year at the administration's request, publicized the Order.

The real facts - who the NSA is monitoring and how - are still unknown. This is vital; it may include traditional wiretaps of identified individuals. It may also include automated email filtering, which scans millions of emails for keywords, etc, and then delivers suspicious ones to NSA employees. I think this latter case is more likely, but perhaps it is significantly more sophisticated than I can conceive.

I. The case for legality. I will rely on the Justice Department for this. Attorney General Gonzalez' editorial in the Wall Street Journal today outlines the government's case; his speech today to the Judiciary Committee and the Moschella Memo to Congress are detailed legal defenses. The fundamental bases are:
  • The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress gave the president on Sept. 18, 2001. The administration argues that it is a "fundamental incident of waging war", and looks to extend Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which legitimated the holding of enemy combatants.
  • The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is the lynchpin of any illegality claims. FISA prohibits wiretapping "except as authorized by statute", which the administration interprets as either FISA itself or another statute. They again seek to extend the interpretation of the AUMF in Hamdi.
  • Precedent. In every major war since the Revolution, intercepting enemy communications, including that of American traitors, has been standard. During World War II every international telegram was monitored, a far broader measure. Some of the older precedents are moot: clearly, they were what FISA was written to address.
  • Other exceptions to the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has allowed that warrantless searches may be conducted in cases where the purpose is "distinguishable from ordinary general crime control"; e.g. border searches and drunk driver checkpoints.
This is not an ironclad case, but it does give a reasonable explanation. I do not think that the administration believes it is breaking the law. However, it should be forced to stop - or to seek an amendment to FISA - if the law is in fact being broken.

II. The case for illegality. As with the above, I consider the source. The opinions of centrists like Arlen Specter, who says the surveillance program is illegal, are much more weighty than, say, what DailyKos or Maureen Dowd think.

My sources are: a memorandum (.pdf) by Morton Halperin of the left-wing Center for American Progress and a helpful Wikipedia article. The case against the administration is based in the following:
  • FISA required warrants. The text of FISA is here.
  • FISA provides for wartime with a 15-day "grace period" following a Congressional declaration of war. Thus, it is reasonable to argue that this section (1811) implicitly prohibits expansion of surveillance power during wartime.
  • The Electronics Communication Privacy Act contains the text: "The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 shall be the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance...may be conducted." The full text is here. This requires that any exception be specifically allowed in FISA.
  • The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitition reads: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.... This is the bedrock of American law on this issue, and places the prerogative of individuals above that of the government or collective security.

The case against the administration is strong, and the folks who passed FISA in 1978 wouldn't approve of Bush or anything he does. There are a few people arguing that the spying violates the Constitution; this is malarky: before FISA, circuit courts approved such spying four times. Unless the administration can convince a court that the AUMF meets the statutory requirement, the program is illegal.

III. The case for propreity. Conspiracy-theorists say that this program is a slippery slope or the tip of the iceberg on NSA spying. Personally, I find it comforting. Bush had to issue an Executive Order to peek at the email of those suspected of ties to al-Qaeda or to initiate automated email monitoring (if that's taking place) - fantastic! I always assumed they just did that without anyone's permission. I'll sleep easier tonight knowing that the government is so constrained that this is on the frontiers of their activities.

Of course, that doesn't make the measure right, but it does bring up my main argument in favor of it: I'd rather have them doing something slightly problematic that I know about than force them underground, where the fig leaf of legality will be forgotten. So I think FISA should be modified to allow the executive to search communications "reasonably" - per the Fourth Amendment - and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillence Court (FISC) should be given a measure of oversight. For instance, email filters should be allowed, but they must first be approved by FISC. That way, for instance, the government can search for words like "uranium" but not words like "Islam". Of course, FISC is basically a rubber-stamp; it approved all 1228 applications requested in 2002, asking for modifications to only 2 before approving. Which makes the Order all the more curious: why make a new route if the FISC is so accommodating?

IV. The case against propriety. This depends principally on unknowns. The administration is stepping into murky water if some of the practices being undertaken are beyond the pale or if the scope of the prorgram is getting out of hand. Like most Americans, however, I don't equate the civil rights of those who make common cause with America's enemies to 'normal' civil rights, nor do I equate the right to privacy with other, more basic, rights.

Concluding thoughts. The Bush Administration has probably broken the law. A lot more needs to be known before passing judgment, however. If, as Attorney General Gonzalez claims, urgency is a major factor in the need for this program and the 72-hour window (expanded from 24 in 2001) is insufficient, then the window should be lengthened, or extensions of warrantless wiretapping obtained from the FISC in the cases that do take longer. This is a procedural problem, and shouldn't trip us up. However, I doubt that is the raison d'etre of this measure. Instead, it would more naturally be initiated to account for (a) those whom the administration has a hunch about, but no proof, or (b) a desire for massive automated filters.

If it's (a), then tough luck. FISC is obviously not hard to pursuade, and the onus is on the government to provide reasonable cause to spy on an American. If it's (b), then those who say that FISA needs to be overhauled are correct, and FISA should be overhauled while the president still has friends in Congress. Of course, that doesn't change the probable illegality of what he's doing now.

Having researched this controversy to a satisfactory extent, I am not worried. While it is technically an impeachable offense (assuming a court finds that the administration broke the law), it was committed by all appearances in good faith and wrongly gathered information was not misused, as far as we know. I think the government should probably have more leeway than granted by FISA, but not as much as they naturally desire. The rule of law is the key here. I always want to have an executive that is zealous to protect Americans, but it must always do so within the bounds set by Congress. Otherwise, as is seen in so many examples, the very freedoms they set out to protect are eroded.

Note: purely domestic wiretaps are out of the question due to a pre-FISA ruling by the Supreme Court that a warrant is required in all domestic cases (Keith, 1972).

Friday, February 3, 2006

Free-For-All-2008: Iowa Blues

The Sacramento Bee takes a look at Iowa, which already has more candidate action than most states will see throughout the entire race. Unlike New Hampshire - a bellwether state which went for Bush in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 - Iowa really has no business as an indicator of American opinion. And more and more people are realizing this.

John McCain stayed out of the Iowa Caucuses altogether in 2000. Of course, as Iowans point out, he then lost to Bush handily. He hasn't visited recently either, but fourteen other non-candidates have. Most telling is that the most active visitors are those with low or non-qualifying Chatter Rankings.

For Democrats, the race is even less meaningful. With no black or urban vote to speak of, Iowa is unlikely to propel a little-known Democrat to victory in the big cities. Furthermore, Governor Tom Vilsack may try to parlay his governorship in Des Moines into a national candidacy by taking advantage of the Caucuses, which would make them all the more meaningless for other Dems.

Candidates, of course, have to use whatever they have. Northeastern politicians take aim at New Hampshire; moderate Democrats try to leverage Iowa into "electability". Mitt Romney - tied for second place with four visits to Iowa - will try to duplicate the Kerry Strategy: use the hometown advantage to take New Hampshire and his mainline party creds to take Iowa. Two early wins put Kerry ahead for good, so it's not a bad strategy for the primaries.

Politicians who have little play in either state scrounge around for other methods. McCain, for instance, is stumping Michigan (but so are Romney and others). Lefty Democrats are trying to reorganize the primary process to give their boys a chance.

And in keeping with the new year, I'll introduce a new feature: the monthly prediction:

Feb '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Rice.

Please post your predictions in the comments!

Rank Candidate ChatterRank Change
R.1 Sen. John McCain 9030
R.2 Secy. Condoleezza Rice 891+2
R.3 Sen. Bill Frist 6400
R.4 Gov. Mitt Romney 596-2
R.5 Gov. George Pataki 489+1
R.6 Sen. George Allen 293+3
R.7 Sen. Sam Brownback 268+4
R.8 Rudy Giuliani 229-3
R.9 Gov. Jeb Bush 139-2
R.10 Newt Gingrich 1210
R.11 Gov. Mike Huckabee 92+1
R.12 Sen. Chuck Hagel 40-4
D.1 Sen. Hillary Clinton 2,3200
D.2 Gov. Mark Warner 1,080+2
D.3 Sen. John Kerry 841-1
D.4 Sen. John Edwards 396+1
D.5 Sen. Harry Reid 378+4
D.6 Sen. Joseph Biden 2500
D.7 Sen. Russ Feingold 195-4
D.8 Howard Dean 191-1
D.9 Sen. Evan Bayh 179+3
D.10 Sen. Barack Obama 1630
D.11 Gov. Tom Vilsack 1530
D.12 Gov. Bill Richardson 139-4

Notes: The Chatter Rankings are created by searching each candidate's name plus "2008" in the Google News database. This month's tested-but-not-qualifying list is Tom Daschle, Haley Barbour, Wesley Clark and Tom Tancredo. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dick Cheney continued to qualify, but as cannot and will not (respectively) run in 2008, and tend to make news for largely non-election reasons, they were left out.

See the Chatter Rankings from December, August, July, June, and May.

Good News (but you wouldn't know it)

I realized when speaking to a housemate last night about the economy just how divorced public perception is from reality. To me, this is the most insidious form of media bias: the public still thinks the economy is bad after three years of strong growth. More good news: the unemployment rate dropped to 4.7%, the lowest since July 2001. And factory orders have risen 8.1 and 9.7 percent in the past two years, respectively. Even if you read the AP article containing this data, you come away feeling iffy about the economy. Maybe that's good: the frothy optimism of the 1990's is not a good model. But the reality is that productivity, wages, and employment have all been rising strongly the past couple years - but most people have no idea.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Support Free Press: Eat a Breakfast Pastry!

The little Jutlandic nation of Denmark is under attack from handicapped* Muslims eager to prove that the Jyllands-Posten newspaper cartoonists were correct in depicting Islam as a violent and intolerant religion. Those of us in favor of both religious and press freedom need to step in and stop the madness.

I'm doing my part: in solidarity republishing the most offensive of the cartoons (see all twelve at Michelle Malkin's blog) and following the advice of the Brussels Journal, which urges us to Buy Danish. So buy one - they're delicious. (Don't get me started on Cubans).

* Handicapped in that they have no sense of irony.