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Between the Lines

June 30, 2004

Derailing the free-money gravy train

The Federal Reserve Board raised short-term interest rates by one-quarter of a percentage point today to 1.25 percent. No surprise; everyone knew it was going to happen. And, by itself, no big deal, either.

However, the Fed's action almost certainly signals that the gusher of free money that kept the economy from falling into a deflationary recession after the stock market crash is about to be sopped up. A single quarter-point increase in interest rates means nothing. But it is a harbinger of several additional rate increases in the months ahead. Economists already are predicting that the fed will increase short term rates to between 3.5 percent and 4.5 percent by the middle of next year (or 2.5 to 3.5 percentage points higher than where they were until today).

When short-term rates increase, banks usually raise their so-called "prime rate" in lockstep with the Fed. Consumers will begin to notice this because most credit-card rates and many consumer loans are based on the prime rate plus several percentage points of interest that the banks skim off for themselves. An increase of 2.5 to 3.5 percentage points in these rates will have a noticeable impact on the size of monthly installment payments.

More significantly for the economy here in the Puget Sound area, rising interest rates will equal further increases in mortgage rates, which have already jumped from a low of around 5.25 percent last year to around 6.25 percent now for a conventional 30-year fixed mortgage. Despite the increases, home sales and housing prices have remained hot – downright bubble-like, in fact -- so far. But there is, no doubt, a limit and we're probably approaching it. Wall Street economists think the mortgage rate will rise to around 6.6 percent by the end of the year and inch incrementally higher next year.

If rates rise much more than forecast, the likely bottom line will be, at best, static home prices and at worst another popped bubble. People who have refinanced to drain equity from their homes for other purposes (to take advantage of those 0% auto loans, for example), and those with adjustable-rate mortgages, could be caught in a nasty squeeze if housing prices actually decline.

Of course, we won't know the bottom line on that for, perhaps, a year or more. And it is possible that some modest increases in interest rates now will forestall the need for the more dramatic increases that would be more likely to deflate housing prices.

History, however, shows that once the fed begins to raise interest rates, the level at which they ultimately settle tends to be higher than most people expect. And if the Fed finds it necessary to jack rates up substantially in order to contain inflation another side effect will be a struggling, and probably declining, stock market (it takes more than one or two rate increases to kill off a rising market of the kind we've seen for the last year, but sharp increases generally lead to bear markets).

The Fed – ever concerned about roiling the stock market and, heaven forbid, actually being blamed for it – painted a rosy picture around today's action:

"The [Federal Open Market] Committee believes that, even after this action, the stance of monetary policy remains accommodative and, coupled with robust underlying growth in productivity, is providing ongoing support to economic activity. The evidence … indicates that output is continuing to expand at a solid pace and labor market conditions have improved."

All well and good. However, there also was this observation: "Although incoming inflation data are somewhat elevated, a portion of the increase in recent months appears to have been due to transitory factors." Translation: Inflation may be about to break out, which would require faster, larger rate increases, but we've got our fingers crossed.

There is, in fact, evidence that inflation is rapidly becoming somewhat less benign. Inflation hit its low for the present cycle last fall. Here's what's happened to the annualized rate of inflation since:

Nov. 2003: 1.77%
Dec. 2003: 1.88%
Jan. 2004: 1.93%
Feb. 2004: 1.69%
Mar. 2004: 1.74%
Apr. 2004: 2.29%
May 2004: 3.05%

The pattern is pretty obvious. Inflation is accelerating. It's nowhere near out of control, but it's going up, and interest rates will go up until it appears inflation is settling in at an "acceptable" level.

There is a bright side to the interest rate increases. Certificates of deposit, money-market funds and saving accounts and short- and medium-term bonds will begin to yield more. This encourages saving, which this country desperately needs more of, and helps people on fixed incomes (but only if interest rates are higher than the underlying inflation rate).

Enough for now. We're entering a new phase for the cost of money, and thus for the economy. It will take some time to see how it plays out. But for now, caution would be a virtue in taking on new commitments.

Posted by tbrown at 02:25 PM


June 29, 2004

What it's like on the ground

Veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway ran across a terrific letter home from an Army lieutenant in Iraq.

"Well, I'm here in Iraq, and I've seen it, and done it," the lieutenant begins. "I've seen everything you've ever seen in a war movie. I've seen cowardice; I've seen heroism; I've seen fear; and I've seen relief. I've seen blood and brains all over the back of a vehicle, and I've seen men bleed to death surrounded by their comrades. I've seen people throw up when it's all over, and I've seen the same shell-shocked look in 35-year-old experienced sergeants as in 19-year-old privates."

Read it all. It spells out in gritty detail what we're asking of our troops – and why we owe them either the reinforcements they need or the quickest way out of this mess that we can responsibly manage.

Posted by tbrown at 12:14 PM


What's next in Iraq?

George Packer of The New Yorker sums it up:

"Perhaps the end of the occupation will liberate Americans from their thwarted wish to be appreciated and loved by Iraqis; perhaps it will also force Iraqis to stop blaming the occupying power for every car bomb. Then the other war, the one that really matters, will come back into view—the increasingly desperate fight between those Iraqis who want a decent future under representative government and those who want to destroy it. For better or for worse, it’s a fight in which America continues to have an obligation as well as an interest. In Baghdad the other day, an Iraqi judge who has survived three attempts on his life as he tries to do his job said, “This is a battle, Mister. And we’re all soldiers in this battle. So there are only two choices—either to win the battle or to die. There’s no third choice.”

Many Iraqis seem to be thinking along similar lines. Winds of Change rounds up what Iraqi bloggers are saying here. A sample:

-- Omar at Iraq the Model, the joint blog of three brothers:

"Some of us were celebrating regaining sovereignty, some were celebrating the end of occupation, others were happy because they think the new government will bring safety and order. I was celebrating a new and a great step towards democracy, but we were all joined by true hope for a better future and by the love we have for Iraq."

-- O at Iraqi Spirit:

"What I would like to say is that in the Arab world, I have noticed 2 vociferous camps. The first we can term as the pro-America and the other as the anti-America.

"I'm a bit weary of both camps to be quite honest with you.

"The pro camp for instance is willing to whitewash everything bad the US is doing in Iraq. Something like the end justifies the means, and as long as the end will be 'democracy' then whatever crap is dished out to Iraqis should be palatable. Iraq for them is like a testing lab for US policies, if it works, then hey its a success, if it does not, then what the hell, it is only Iraqi resources that are being wasted, whether in life or assets. …

"On the other hand we have the anti camp, most of them are armchair analysts, whom are willing to sacrifice every single Iraqi in their war against anything to do with the US. They don't get off their butt and do anything apart from talk, even simple things like boycotting American goods, which is a kind of simple gesture...If you open their wardrobes you will probably find Nike trainers, Gap jeans, and Abercrombie t-shirts... Their favourite drinks are either coca-cola or Starbuck's coffee while performing their daily ritual of discussing how bad the US is. Funny that those people forget that their countries are controlled by the US and can't do anything with out the consent of the white house. How about you work on your countries, surely they are more deserving and more of a priority than Iraq for the future of your sons and daughters, if you really believe that US influence is bad.

"To both camps.... Leave us alone...you never helped Iraq, you just sat there and watched while Iraqis were being abused/killed and stripped of their humanity whether under Saddam or the present regime.

"It is our problem and we will sort it out.

"LONG LIVE IRAQ"

Now there's some Iraqi spirit. Let's wish them well. They're going to need courage and perseverance in the months and years ahead. As are we.

Posted by tbrown at 11:55 AM


&^#@ yourself watch

Josh Marshall attributes Dick Cheney's little meltdown to what lies ahead:
"Cheney et al. can see all sorts of bad business coming down the pike in the next few months -- much of it already on the public radar screen, some of it still clogged up no doubt in back channels, newsrooms and new rounds of dirty-tricksterism. It seems clearly to be getting to them."

Posted by tbrown at 11:52 AM


June 28, 2004

Busy, busy, busy …

Big news day. Here are the top items. Comments follow.

1. The U.S. handed the keys to the Iraqi government to the new government this morning, two days early.

"This is a historical day ... a day that all Iraqis have been looking forward to," said Iraqi President Ghazi Al-Yawer. "This is a day we are going to take our country back into the international forum."

2. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that both Americans and foreign nationals detained as suspected terrorists or "illegal combatants" must have some access to U.S. courts.

Ruling in the Yaser Esam Hamdi case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the court has "made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."

3. Like a virus, the Iraq resistance movement is rapidly evolving. Time reports that its goal now is to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was before we invaded: a refuge and breeding ground for an international jihad movement.

4. Was Niger trying to sell "yellowcake" uranium ore to Iraq after all? Possibly. The Financial Times, one of Britain's more reliable newspapers, says that while much-reported forged documents undercut the case, three European intelligence agencies say they picked up information that the African country was trying to sell uranium not only to Iraq, but also to Libya, Iran, North Korea and China. If true, this would be a huge boost for the Bush administration's argument that Saddam Hussein was still actively trying to develop nuclear weapons.

5. And north of the border, Canadians are holding a national election little noticed by us.

Posted by tbrown at 02:12 PM


1. The Iraq handover

The handover of "sovereignty" in Iraq came two days early, and took most everyone by surprise, it appears.

The surprise transfer was, for the U.S., both smart and sad.

Smart because it undercut an almost certain effort by Islamic militants to stage another terror bloodbath to coincide with the handover. Sad because it underscored the utter lack of security in the country. There has been widespread speculation that the new Iraqi government may impose some form of martial law soon.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi delivered a speech urging people not to be afraid of the "outlaws" fighting against "Islam and Muslims," assuring them that "God is with us."

"I warn the forces of terror once again," he said. "We will not forget who stood with us and against us in this crisis."

The sovereignty of the new government will be restricted because of the instability that plagues the country. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority officially went out of business today and its head, Paul Bremer, and some top aides flew home. Bremer's role will, in many respects, be assumed by the new U.S. ambassador, John Negroponte. The American Embassy is expected to be our largest anywhere, with a staff of about 1,000. U.S. troop levels are expected to remain at about 130,000 at least through the end of next year.

Posted by tbrown at 02:06 PM


2. Prisoners and the law

As is often true in major cases, the U.S. Supreme Court's rulings today on how the government must treat prisoners taken in the war on terror – both U.S. citizens and foreigners – were complex. But one thing that seems clear is that the three decisions were bad news for the Bush administration's assertions that it can just make up new law as it goes along and apply it as it sees fit.

For the analysis, we turn to SCOTUSblog, which is written primarily for lawyers.

"In countless courtroom briefs, and in a pile of secret internal memorandum only recently beginning to emerge, administration lawyers have sought to justify a new order in which the president may do whatever is deemed necessary to wage this new style of global conflict," Lyle Denniston writes. "That argument appears to have failed utterly, in the eyes of eight Justices of the Court."

The court's lead opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, said that, "Striking the constitutional balance here is of great importance to the Nation during this period of ongoing combat. But it is equally vital that our calculus not give short shrift to the values that this country holds dear or to the privilege that is American citizenship."

The court, in one of the three decisions, did agree by a 5-4 vote that in authorizing the Iraq war, Congress also authorized detention of suspects for indefinite periods. It indicated, though, that the judicial system might at some point determine what constituted an appropriate "indefinite" period.

"The most important qualification on that now-acknowledged power to detain, however, is the Court's mandate that when a detainee is a U.S. citizen, the detention can continue beyond an initial -- and presumably fairly brief -- period, only if the government can justify prolonging the denial of freedom and legal rights," Denniston says. "And, such justification is to be judged by a 'neutral decisionmaker,' not by the President or the secretary of Defense or a military authority."

Here is his summary of the three rulings:

By a vote of 5-4, the Court found the 2001 congressional declaration did give the President power to detain citizens and foreign nationals, if they are found on a foreign battlefield.

By a vote of 8-1, citizens detained as "enemy combatants" have the right to a fair process under which they can challenge that designation and their continued detention.

By a vote of 6-3, the Court ruled that the foreign nationals detained at the Cuba base have a right to file lawsuits in civilian courts to contest their detention and conditions at the base.

Posted by tbrown at 02:03 PM


3. The Iraqi resistance morphs

A hugely troubling aspect of the Iraqi resistance has been the speed with which it has changed. What initially seemed to be a relatively small movement led primarily by former members of Saddam's Baath party quickly became a broader-based nationalist movement encompassing not only Sunni Muslims, from whom Saddam drew his support, but also the majority Shiites. Now, with the rise of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, who is believed to have orchestrated the bloody terror-bombing campaign of recent weeks and the grotesque beheadings of hostages (a U.S. Marine of Muslim faith is the latest threatened with this ghastly death), it has combined Iraqi nationalism and foreign operational skill.

Time magazine reports that an "investigation of the insurgency today--based on meetings with insurgents, tribal leaders, religious clerics and U.S. intelligence officials--reveals that the militants are turning the resistance into an international jihadist movement. Foreign fighters, once estranged from homegrown guerrilla groups, are now integrated as cells or complete units with Iraqis. …

"Their goal now, say the militants interviewed, is broader than simply forcing the U.S. to leave. They want to transform Iraq into what Afghanistan was in the 1980s: a training ground for young jihadists who will form the next wave of recruits for al-Qaida and like-minded groups. Nearly all the new jihadist groups claim to be receiving inspiration, if not commands, from Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the suspected al-Qaeda operative who the U.S. believes has masterminded the insurgency's embrace of terrorism."

Before the U.S. invasion, Time reminds us, "al-Zarqawi was a fringe player on the global terrorist stage." Now he's achieved an almost mystical status among his followers, Time reports. Other potentially important resistance leaders also are emerging, it says.

In consequence, "U.S. intelligence officials say they now believe Iraq is a magnet for fanatical Muslims around the world. 'It's become the proving ground,' says a senior U.S. intelligence official. The jihadists are convinced they can continue fighting indefinitely. 'Jihad is not made by us,' says a midlevel insurgent leader. 'It is made by the Prophet and will continue to Judgment Day.' "

This outcome was predicted by some Middle East experts and by friendly Arab governments in the region before the war. Now the question is whether we can find a way to deal with reality both in the short term, so that the new Iraqi government has some hope of establishing a stable state, and in the long run – for our own self-defense.

Posted by tbrown at 02:00 PM


4. Yellowcake, yellowcake

Gregory Djerejian at The Belgravia Dispatch parses this Financial Times story and finds much to encourage the Bush administration. (He also gets in some digs at yellowcake whistle-blower Joe Wilson.)

Though the Bush administration was forced to back away from its assertion that Saddam had attempted to buy the partially processed uranium ore know as yellowcake from the African country of Niger after Wilson went public and some documents supporting the claim proved to have been forged, British intelligence stuck by the story. Djerejian says these paragraphs from the Financial Times indicate why:

"However, European intelligence officers have now revealed that three years before the fake documents became public, human and electronic intelligence sources from a number of countries picked up repeated discussion of an illicit trade in uranium from Niger. One of the customers discussed by the traders was Iraq.

"These intelligence officials now say the forged documents appear to have been part of a 'scam', and the actual intelligence showing discussion of uranium supply has been ignored."

This will be big news if it proves true – especially since Libya, Iran, North Korea and China also supposedly were implicated.

However, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo has a very different slant on what's going on here.

"I hear something different," he writes in a post today.

"In fact, I know something different.

"My colleagues and I have reported on this matter extensively, spoken to key players involved in the drama, and put together a detailed picture of what happened. And that picture looks remarkably different from this account which is out today -- specifically on the matter of the origins of those forged documents and who was involved. …

"So read the FT article. But also keep your ears open. It is, I'm quite confident, not the last word you'll hear on this story."

Very interesting. Marshall has been covering the yellowcake issue since it first popped into the news, and now he's saying he has uncovered new, as yet unreported facts about how it came together.

Stay tuned.

Posted by tbrown at 01:56 PM


5. A tip of the toque

Our neighbors to the north are having a national election today, though you'd hardly know it here. Here's a blog where some of the key issues are being discussed (hint: many Canadians don't like NAFTA either).

Posted by tbrown at 01:52 PM


June 25, 2004

Al-Qaida: who and what it is

Foreign Policy has an excellent background piece on Al-Qaida – what it is and is not, the relative importance (or lack of it) of Osama bin Laden and whether we're making any headway in containing the "lunatic fringe" Islamist mayhem it advocates (link via The Belgravia Dispatch).

Author Jason Burke, chief reporter for The Observer (London) poses a number of assertions and gives clear and illuminating replies. For example:

Al Qaeda Is a Global Terrorist Organization

No. It is less an organization than an ideology. … Today, the structure that was built in Afghanistan has been destroyed, and bin Laden and his associates have scattered or been arrested or killed. There is no longer a central hub for Islamic militancy. But the al-Qaida worldview, or 'al Qaidaism,' is growing stronger every day. This radical internationalist ideology—sustained by anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric—has adherents among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely follow his precepts, models, and methods. They act in the style of al-Qaida, but they are only part of al Qaida in the very loosest sense. That's why Israeli intelligence services now prefer the term “jihadi international” instead of “al-Qaida.”

And, sadly, this:

The West Is Winning the War on Terror

Unfortunately, no. The military component of the war on terrorism has had some significant success. A high proportion of those who associated with bin Laden between 1996 and 2001 are now either dead or in prison. … However, if countries are to win the war on terror, they must eradicate enemies without creating new ones. … If Western countries are to succeed, they must marry the hard component of military force to the soft component of cultural appeal. … The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.

You can read it all here.

Posted by tbrown at 12:21 PM


As the vice president says …

Poor Dick Cheney seems to be getting a bit thin-skinned these days. The Washington Post tells all – and we do mean all – in today's editions (free registration may be required).

Posted by tbrown at 12:19 PM


Trickle-down taxation

Tax cuts, unaccompanied by spending cuts, are really tax shifts, as economist and blogger Brad DeLong reminds us. And in the case of President Bush's tax cuts, they're huge shifts of taxation from those who can afford to pay taxes to those less able to do so.

There's a new study by the Tax Policy Center (funded by the Urban League and the Brookings Institution) which DeLong links to, that attempts to quantify these effects. From a summary of the study:

"We consider two scenarios: one in which each household pays an equal dollar amount to finance the tax cuts and one where each household pays the same share of income. In both cases, more than three-quarters of households end up worse off if the tax cuts are made permanent and financed. In addition, there are large aggregate transfers from the majority of low- and middle-income households to an affluent minority. These results show that, far from simply 'giving people their money back,' making the tax cuts permanent would impose significant losses on tens of millions of American households."

If Americans really do vote on pocketbook issues, this one should be high on their list in November.

Posted by tbrown at 12:18 PM


June 24, 2004

And the winner is …

… both Bush and Kerry?

Well, the political barometers that pundits use to forecast the outcomes of presidential elections are pointing in both directions, as this piece in USA Today details.

"Of six measurements for predicting the outcome of presidential contests, all with excellent track records, each signals a clear outcome in November," the paper's Susan Page writes. "The problem is, they're pointing in different directions."

Three of the six indicators favor each candidate, making for one confusing election year. In this case, however, confusion is good. We desperately need a reassessment of our national direction and an uncertain electoral outcome is the best short-term hope we have of generating one. It's beginning to look like it might happen -- in the living rooms of America, if not on the campaign trail.

Posted by tbrown at 12:55 PM


'Anonymous' speaks

He's the spook I mentioned here who thinks the only way out of the mess we've blundered into in the Middle East is to turn the Muslim world into one vast parking lot and kill everyone who stands in the way. Today he talked about why he thinks this is necessary in an interview on NPR.

He's also not quite as Anonymous as he was earlier this week. He now has a first name, "Mike." His full identity no doubt will be disclosed shortly, after he squeezes whatever entertainment juice is left from his Anonymous gig.

Update: NBC's Andrea Mitchell has an interview with Anonymous in which he elaborates on why he believes the U.S. is rapidly losing the war on terrorism. Here's a taste:

" ... I would say that damage that the [U.S.] clandestine service has inflicted on al-Qaida would have wiped out any other terrorist group that we've ever known of in the last 30 years, maybe longer. The point I would make is al-Qaida is not a terrorist group. It's more akin to an insurgent organization. It pays tremendous attention to succession, to leadership succession. Were all of those people that were killed or captured important? Absolutely. Did it hurt the organization? Of course it did. But there were successors waiting in the wings; there were understudies. The organization goes on."

Read the text of the interview. The Nightly News video leaves much to be desired.

Posted by tbrown at 12:53 PM


Saving Jack Ryan

Watching the same people who tried to lynch Bill Clinton for his sexual peccadillos as they try to save Illinois GOP Senate candidate Jack Ryan from his is just too, too funny.

William Saletan at Slate lines up the arguments of Ryan and his supporters here.

Juan Cole, the most consistently readable egghead around, has an excellent post dealing with the more substantive questions, such as: Should we care about Ryan's private life? No – except to the extent that our knowledge of it informs us about what kind of public servant he'd make:

"Bottom line, the question for the good people of Illinois should not be whether Ryan is kinkier than [his Democratic opponent, Barack] Obama, but a) whether Ryan still uses people instrumentally to get his rocks off and b) whether Ryan could accomplish something for their state that Obama cannot."

And Cole gets to the real heart of the old pot-and-kettle problem here:

"The lesson for the Republicans of all this is that the wages of Puritanism are hypocrisy. Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich, and many other Republicans who tried to nail Clinton had also tried to nail women not their spouses and were no better than Clinton morally. In fact, no one is better morally than anyone else as a matter of ontology or being. Some deeds are better than others, and some people achieve better deeds more often than others. Some people are capable of higher ethical standards than others. But human beings are not in the nature of the case morally perfect beings. Since that is so, it is crazy for the American public to want its politicians to be saints (they aren't), and the desire merely produces hypocrisy, which in turn corrodes ideals and the moral order."

Unfortunately, this is too elevated a concept for the people most in need of understanding it.

Posted by tbrown at 12:24 PM


June 23, 2004

Torture update

The administration's decision to release a couple of hundred pages of memos relating to the treatment of prisoners from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has raised as many questions as it answered, for reasons Dan Froomkin details here:

• Does President Bush still believe, as his 2002 memo said, that he has "the authority under the Constitution" to deny protections of the Geneva Conventions to some combatants?

• The memos describe Pentagon prohibitions against torture. But do the distinctions drawn between forceful interrogation tactics and torture meet the common-sense test? And what rules did the White House set for the CIA?

• Did the White House set a tone that led to the abuses at Abu Ghraib?

• What was the president's involvement in the deliberations on torture, beyond putting his name at the bottom of that one memo?

• And the debate within the administration, as illustrated most clearly by memos from the Justice Department, continued to rage long after Bush's memo. So how long did the issue of torture remain in play?

Plus lots of links to follow.

Posted by tbrown at 01:28 PM


'The Senate is a steaming pile of … '

Jeff Jarvis, former TV critic, columnist and prolific blogger, has worked up a real head of steam over legislation – soon to be on its way to President Bush, who's said he'll sign it – that hugely increases fines for violating "decency" standards on radio and TV. He knows just who to blame:

"Religious fundamentalists, organized as a Dumb Mob, just dealt a deadly blow to free speech in America with legislators, cynical hypocrites, as their henchmen and media standing idly by, the short-sighted quislings."

His language is, shall we say, energetic, but well worth reading. This is an important issue that has gotten scant coverage.

Posted by tbrown at 01:26 PM


'I agree with me'

Conservative funnyman (not an oxymoron in this case) P.J. O'Rourke writes at Atlantic Online about why political debate has all but vanished from the American landscape: We're all too busy shouting at people who agree with us.

"Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, seems to have gone out of fashion with everyone. I'm reduced to arguing with the radio. The distaste for political argument certainly hasn't made politics friendlier—or quieter, given the amount of shouting being done by people who think one thing at people who think the same thing.

"But I believe I know why this shouting is popular. Today's Americans are working harder than ever, trying to balance increasing personal, family, and career demands. We just don't have time to make ourselves obnoxious. We need professional help."

A good piece. Read it all here.

Posted by tbrown at 01:25 PM


June 22, 2004

Our only option is total war?

The current Book of the Week is a tome called "Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror," penned by someone who goes by the nom de plume "Anonymous." That's because this person apparently is a senior intelligence official who continues to hold that job while going nuclear on the Bush administration's policies toward the Muslim world, particularly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he thinks are disasters. The book will be in stores next month, but proofs are making the rounds in D.C. and unsurprisingly, given its content, the book is making some waves.

For instance, Anonymous argues in essence that a vote for Bush is a vote for Osama bin Laden, turning on its head the stuff you hear on right-wing radio and TV about a vote for Kerry being a vote for terrorism. His contention is that Bin Laden probably will try a major new terror attack on U.S. soil in hopes of boosting Bush's election prospects. Here's an excerpt from The Guardian's account:

"Anonymous, who published an analysis of al-Qaida last year called 'Through Our Enemies' Eyes,' thinks it quite possible that another devastating strike against the U.S. could come during the election campaign, not with the intention of changing the administration, as was the case in the Madrid bombing, but of keeping the same one in place.

" 'I'm very sure they can't have a better administration for them than the one they have now,' he said.

" 'One way to keep the Republicans in power is to mount an attack that would rally the country around the president.' "

Yeah, well, more speculation. However, Anonymous is supposed to have been deeply involved in the search for Bin Laden, so his guess about this may be better than, say, mine.

But the really stark part of the book is its prescription for what we have to do to get out of the mess we're in (losing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and against terrorists in general, according to Anonymous). The only answer, he says, is total war:

"To secure as much of our way of life as possible, we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden. Progress will be measured by the pace of killing …

"Killing in large numbers is not enough to defeat our Muslim foes. With killing must come a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure. Roads and irrigation systems; bridges, power plants, and crops in the field; fertilizer plants and grain mills--all these and more will need to be destroyed to deny the enemy its support base. … [S]uch actions will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America's only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world."

Spencer Ackerman, who is filling in for vacationing Joshua Marshall at Talking Points Memo, says Anoymous considers our wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq to be abject failures, leaving destruction on a colossal scale our only defense. Well, I'm just a lowly blogger, but I have a hard time seeing how bombing Muslim lands back to the stone age while the world watches is going to make us safer. Ackerman interviewed Anonymous on this point, but got little satisfaction:

ANONYMOUS: The war we need to conduct is simply to protect America. It's to stop the enemy, to have him cease and desist from attacking us. It is not--I hope it's not--to make them democratic, or to make them become libertarians or whatever, whereas the Indian intention in Kashmir is to install Hindu domination. The Chinese intention in western China is genocide: a silent genocide as they're doing in Tibet by inundating the Uighurs with Han Chinese. And the Russians are intent on doing what they tried to do in Afghanistan: to subject the population and eliminate whatever percentage of that population is necessary.

ACKERMAN: But isn’t it enough like those governments, or certainly like Russia in Chechnya, in that you’re calling for scorched-earth tactics? And isn't that at the heart of what the Islamic resistance in Chechnya views as Russia’s attempt to destroy Chechnya--and what in fact fuels the Islamicization of Chechnya?

ANONYMOUS: I think that's a good argument. My argument, I think, taken from the whole book, is that we've left ourselves with no option but the military option, and our application of military force against our foe, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else, has not been particularly intimidating. They've ridden out two wars. They're on the offensive at the moment. What are we left with? If we don't use our military power, we really just sit and take it. …

At Political Animal, Kevin Drum notes that this is truly "a counsel of despair."

Amen.

It's also worth noting that similar dire predictions about our future were in vogue when things went badly in Vietnam. We had to win that war or Communism would sweep victoriously across Southeast Asia. Well, we didn't and it didn't. The Middle East is certainly not Vietnam and there's a case to be made that failure there will have a very high price, hence the necessity to install a more competent administration than the one we've got. But there also has to be a way less devastating than Anonymous' Armageddon to make headway there.

One last thing to keep in mind: Anonymous is an intelligence official. They've been right about so much in the last couple of years, haven't they?

Posted by tbrown at 12:16 PM


June 17, 2004

The 9/11 tapes

The 9/11 commission played tapes from the fateful morning today. They are gripping, even in print, reflecting the confusion and terror of the day. Here are some highlights from a commission summary, which provides a narrative of events and quotes from key tapes (the notes in italics are mine):

After American Airlines Flight 11 was hijacked following departure from Boston:

The controller checked to see if American Airlines could establish communication with American 11. He became even more concerned as its route changed, moving into another sector's airspace. Controllers immediately began to move aircraft out of its path, and searched from aircraft to aircraft in an effort to have another pilot contact American 11. At 8:24:38, the following transmission came from American 11:

AMERICAN 11: We have some planes. Just stay quiet, and you'll be O.K. We are returning to the airport.

The controller only heard something unintelligible; he did not hear the specific words "we have some planes." Then the next transmission came seconds later:

AMERICAN 11: Nobody move. Everything will be O.K. If you try to make any moves, youll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.

Hearing that, the controller told us he then knew it was a hijacking.

Shortly thereafter, the FAA's Boston Center contacted the Air Force:

At 8:37:52 a.m., Boston Center reached NEADS [Northeast Air Defense Sector]. This was the first notification received by the military at any level that American 11 had been hijacked:

FAA: Hi. Boston Center TMU, we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.

NEADS: Is this real-world or exercise?

FAA: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.

The same air-traffic controller who was tracking American 11 also was responsible for United 175, which was hijacked a few mintues later.

At 8:47 a.m., at almost the same time American 11 crashed into the North Tower, United 175's assigned transponder code changed, then changed again. These changes were not noticed for several minutes, because the controller was focused on finding American 11, which had disappeared. At 8:48 a.m., a New York Center manager provided the following report on a Command Center teleconference about American 11, including information that had been relayed by the airline:

MANAGER, NEW YORK CENTER: Okay. This is New York Center. We're watching the airplane. I also had conversation with American Airlines, and they've told us that they believe that one of their stewardesses was stabbed and that there are people in the cockpit that have control of the aircraft, and that's all the information they have right now.

The New York Center controller and manager were unaware that American 11 had already crashed.

At 8:51 a.m., the controller noticed the change in the transponder reading from United 175. The controller asked United 175 to go back to the proper code. There was no response. Beginning at 8:52 a.m., the controller made repeated attempts to reach the crew of United 175. Still no response. The controller checked that his radio equipment was working and kept trying to reach United 175. He contacted another controller at 8:53 a.m., and worried that "we may have a hijack" and that he could not find the aircraft.

Events cascaded quickly.

Between 9:01 a.m. and 9:02 a.m., a manager from New York Center told the Command Center in Herndon:

MANAGER, NEW YORK CENTER: We have several situations going on here. It's escalating big, big time. We need to get the military involved with us . . . . We're, we're involved with something else, we have other aircraft that may have a similar situation going on here. . . .

The "other aircraft" New York Center referred to was United 175. Evidence indicates that this conversation was the only notice received prior to the second crash by either FAA headquarters or the Herndon Command Center that there was a second hijack. While Command Center was told about this "other aircraft" at 9:01 a.m., New York Center contacted New York terminal approach control and asked for help in locating United 175.

TERMINAL: I got somebody who keeps coasting but it looks like he's going into one of the small airports down there.

CENTER: Hold on a second. I'm trying to bring him up here and get you ... there he is right there. Hold on.

TERMINAL: Got him just out of 9,500, 9,000 now.

CENTER: Do you know who he is?

TERMINAL: We're just, we just we don't know who he is. We're just picking him up now.

CENTER (at 9:02 am.): All right. Heads up man, it looks like another one coming in.

The controllers observed the plane in a rapid descent; the radar data terminated over lower Manhattan. At 9:03:02 a.m., United 175 crashed into the South Tower. Meanwhile, a manager from Boston Center reported that they had deciphered what they had heard in one of the first hijacker transmissions from American 11:

BOSTON CENTER: Hey you still there?

NEW ENGLAND REGION: Yes, I am.

BOSTON CENTER: I'm gonna reconfirm with, with downstairs, but the, as far as the tape seemed to think the guy said that "we have planes." Now, I don't know if it was because it was the accent, or if there's more than one, but I'm gonna, I'm gonna reconfirm that for you, and I'll get back to you real quick. Okay?

NEW ENGLAND REGION: Appreciate it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE VOICE: They have what?

BOSTON CENTER: Planes, as in plural.

BOSTON CENTER: It sounds like, we're talking to New York, that there's another one aimed at the World Trade Center.

NEW ENGLAND REGION: There's another aircraft?

BOSTON CENTER: A second one just hit the Trade Center.

NEW ENGLAND REGION: Okay. Yeah, we gotta get ... we gotta alert the military real quick on this.

It was too late for anyone to do anything about the Trade Center towers. Time also proved too short for the military to react to the two planes headed for Washington, D.C., either. The 9/11 commission described the reaction by the FAA and military to the attacks as confused and clumsy. And we know, in retrospect, that government agencies could – and should – have been more alert to the possibilities of such an attack, based on intelligence information that was available during the summer of 2001. However, reaction to surprise attacks is rarely smooth and controlled. That's the "surprise" part.

Posted by tbrown at 01:38 PM


You say liberation, I say occupation

Percent of Iraqis who view coalition forces as liberators: 2.

Percent of Iraqis who say they'd feel safer if coalition forces left: 55.

Posted by tbrown at 01:33 PM


Party on!

It's party time in Baghdad's Green Zone, where several bars have sprung up (bars being uncommon in Muslim countries).

Posted by tbrown at 01:31 PM


June 16, 2004

Seattle and L.A. also were targets of the 9/11 plotters

The 9/11 plot originally included ramming jetliners into the tallest buildings in Washington state (the Bank of America Tower in Seattle) and California (the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles). Attacks on unnamed nuclear power plants also were contemplated.

So says the bipartisan commission investigating the 9/11 disaster. The information comes from Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the high-level al-Qaida planner and paymaster who was arrested in Pakistan 15 months ago and has been interrogated extensively by the U.S. The new 9/11 commission staff report, released today, provides a detailed rundown on the genesis of 9/11 and a previous failed plan to blow up several American jetliners over the Pacific.

Fortunately, organizing an attack large enough to encompass the West Coast as well as New York and Washington, D.C., ultimately proved beyond al-Qaida's ability.

This Washington Post story has the basics (free site registration may be required).

Here's the section of the 9/11 commission staff report dealing with Seattle and L.A.:

"As originally envisioned, the 9/11 plot involved even more extensive attacks than those carried out on September 11. KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammad] maintains that his initial proposal involved hijacking ten planes to attack targets on both the East and West coasts of the United States. He claims that, in addition to the targets actually hit on 9/11, these hijacked planes were to be crashed into CIA and FBI headquarters, unidentified nuclear power plants, and the tallest buildings in California and Washington State. The centerpiece of his original proposal was the tenth plane, which he would have piloted himself. Rather than crashing the plane into a target, he would have killed every adult male passenger, contacted the media from the air, and landed the aircraft at a U.S. airport. He says he then would have made a speech denouncing U.S. policies in the Middle East before releasing all of the women and children passengers."

The text of the 9/11 staff report is here.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was subjected to some of the harsher U.S.-approved interrogation techniques that are now much at issue in the Abu Ghraib scandal and prisoner-abuse allegations in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.

"Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, thought to have helped plan 9/11 terror attacks, was strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown," according to a story abstract on The New York Times Web site (I read the full story when it came out, but no longer have a link).

It seems to have worked on him, judging by the scope of the information in the 9/11 commission report. But does that make it right? There's a clear distinction between this guy -- a planner of the worst foreign attack ever on U.S. soil -- and some no-name jihadi in Baghdad. And it's possible to conceive of circumstances under which the use of torture on someone like Mohammad could be justified. I'll be returning to this moral swamp later. Keep your hip-waders handy.

Posted by tbrown at 11:45 AM


And while we're on the subject, who are you gonna believe?

"He was a patron of terrorism," Cheney said of [Saddam] Hussein during a speech before The James Madison Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Florida. "He had long established ties with al Qaeda."
-- CNN

President Bush yesterday defended Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion this week that Saddam Hussein had longstanding ties with Al Qaeda, even as critics charged that the White House had no new proof of a connection.
-- Boston Globe

The commission investigating the attacks on America of September 11 2001 has found "no credible evidence" of a relevant link between Iraq and al-Qaida, contradicting President George Bush's assertion that such a connection justified the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
-- The Guardian (London)

Why does this adminstration continue to try to make a connection where none seems to exist? Because it's working for them.

An April poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 57 percent of Americans surveyed believed that Iraq was helping Al Qaeda before the war, including 20 percent who believed Iraq was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
-- Boston Globe

And as long as it works, they'll keep flogging it.

Posted by tbrown at 11:30 AM


Meet Shannen Rossmiller, cyperspook

This native of the small town of Conrad, Mont., where she still lives is among a small but growing group of Internet spies who are taking personal roles in trying to track down terrorists. Rossmiller's activities led to the arrest of a Washington National Guardsman, Spc. Ryan Anderson, who offered to pass intelligence information to the enemy.

Mike Carter of The Seattle Times has a full and very deftly told story on Rossmiller and her fellow cyberspies here.

Posted by tbrown at 11:29 AM


June 15, 2004

Toot, toot!

Via Virginia Postrel, I note that the fourth season of "The Simpsons" is now out on DVD. Included is a classic episode in which Marge battles a runaway monorail project – something we Seattleites can savor as the city council settles the route details of our own train to nowhere. This Simpsons episode dates from 1993. As so often, Marge was ahead of her time.

Posted by tbrown at 11:24 AM


Bush and the Pope

Maybe it's time we stopped worrying about Catholic candidates, most of whom go out of their way to avoid an appearance of "divided loyalties" between their church and their country (for JFK's classic answer to this question, visit this page), and started quizzing Protestants about their relationships with the Pontiff. "Hey, Papa, some of your bishops aren't supporting me yet. They're not banning enough Democrats from Communion. What's up with that? And, oh -- here's a Bush/Cheney bumpersticker for the Popemobile."

Well, I made up part of that (but only part). What Bush really said is here (free site registration may be required).

Posted by tbrown at 11:23 AM


Just the bill for the Gipper

Instead of evicting Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill to make room for Ronald Reagan, why don't we create a new $3 bill for the voodoo economist? Just asking.

Posted by tbrown at 11:20 AM


229 and counting

Thanks to blogger (and former Army officer) Phil Carter for the reminder that this is the 229th birthday of the U.S. Army.

"Today, the U.S. Army turns 229 at a pivotal time in its history. Technology has fundamentally changed the nature of warfare in the late 20th and early 21st Century, creating questions about the continued viability, importance and role of large ground forces. … Nonetheless, the great strength of the U.S. Army (in my opinion) is its capacity for change," says Carter.

Posted by tbrown at 11:19 AM


Halliburton watch

"As vice president, I have absolutely no influence of, involvement of, knowledge of in any way, shape or form of contracts let by the [Army] Corps of Engineers or anybody else in the federal government."
-- Vice President Dick Cheney, who still receives more than $100,000 a year from his old employer and holds 433,000 Halliburton stock options

That was an eye-roller well before the latest news, which is that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith – the guy "who put the FU in FUBAR," as Josh Marshall's bon mot has it – advised Cheney's office that Halliburton was going to be getting big bucks in Iraq. I'm sure the veep's staff kept the news from him, though.

Meanwhile, Halliburton's sweeheart cost-plus contract is still all about turnover – at taxpayer expense.

Posted by tbrown at 11:18 AM


But let's not forget Enron …

… that other poster child for contemporary business ethics. The Snohomish County Public Utility District here in Washington, which was had like so many others, estimates from newly released Enron documents that the Houston-based energy scammers made more than $1.1 billion manipulating West Coast markets during the shortages of 2000-2001. Naturally, Enron is now suing for $122 million over a contract the utility district cancelled when it figured out it was probably being defrauded.

Posted by tbrown at 11:15 AM


June 14, 2004

Bigger torture disclosures to come

The prisoner torture scandal is not about a few "bad apples." It's about the tree. So says this piece in The Telegraph in London (via Mark Kleiman).

"The Telegraph understands that four confidential Red Cross documents implicating senior Pentagon civilians in the Abu Ghraib scandal have been passed to an American television network, which is preparing to make them public shortly.

"According to lawyers familiar with the Red Cross reports, they will contradict previous testimony by senior Pentagon officials who have claimed that the abuse in the Abu Ghraib prison was an isolated incident.

" 'There are some extremely damaging documents around, which link senior figures to the abuses,' said Scott Horton, the former chairman of the New York Bar Association, who has been advising Pentagon lawyers unhappy at the administration's approach. 'The biggest bombs in this case have yet to be dropped.' "

We're overdue for some pruning at the top.

Posted by tbrown at 12:27 PM


June 11, 2004

Changing the subject

Security staff at our Club Fedayeen at Guantánamo Bay have been warned not to talk to the defense attorneys for prisoners about how detainees are treated.

The document, obtained by USA TODAY, says that soldiers and interrogators are not required to give defense attorneys statements about the "personal treatment of detainees" or any "failure to report actions of others." It also says that refusing to cooperate with defense attorneys "will not impact your career."

President Bush seems to have gotten similar advice. At a press conference at the Group of 8 conclave, there was this exchange:

Q Mr. President, I wanted to return to the question of torture. What we've learned from these memos this week is that the Department of Justice lawyers and the Pentagon lawyers have essentially worked out a way that U.S. officials can torture detainees without running afoul of the law. So when you say that you want the U.S. to adhere to international and U.S. laws, that's not very comforting. This is a moral question: Is torture ever justified?

THE PRESIDENT: Look, I'm going to say it one more time. If I -- maybe -- maybe I can be more clear. The instructions went out to our people to adhere to law. That ought to comfort you. We're a nation of law. We adhere to laws. We have laws on the books. You might look at those laws, and that might provide comfort for you. And those were the instructions out of -- from me to the government.

So, is torture ever justified? Good question. No answer. And the answer he does give is unsatisfying for precisely the reason the questioner asserted: that administration lawyers "have essentially worked out a way that U.S. officials can torture detainees without running afoul of the law."

But this whole mess may blow up shortly. Blogger and law prof Mark Kleiman notes two interesting developments:

-- The two-star general conducting the Abu Ghraib investigation has asked to be replaced because he lacks authority to question those who outrank him.

-- Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, in a speech at the University of Chicago, who says he's seen all the Abu Ghraib photos and videos, not just those that have been released, said, "You haven't begun to see evil..." then trailed off. He said, "horrible things done to children of women prisoners, as the cameras run."

"Children? That tears it," says Kleiman. "That's going to be too strong even for the stomachs of the Bush-worshippers."

But it's worth noting blogger Matt Yglesias' misgivings, which I sadly confess to sharing:

” … I've been afraid since the first word of this started trickling out that it might be a dead end for American liberalism. The charge that [Bush has] been overzealous -- that he's gone too far, that he's done to much -- to try and defeat America's enemies is, I think, one that George W. Bush can live with. The American people may well feel that he really has gone too far in one or two points, but you'd rather have the guy who does too much to defend America than the guy who does too little. Pressing this line of argument makes it seem as if Democrats are saying that the government needs to be more evenhanded between the terrorists, on the one hand, and American soldiers on the other. Now, of course, I know that that's not the right way to understand all this at all, but I'm afraid it'll come across that way."

Still – children? In front of their mothers? If Hersh is right, I hope to God we haven't become too jaded to be outraged about that.

Posted by tbrown at 01:17 PM


June 10, 2004

The torture onion

As we peel away the layers of the torture scandal in Iraq and Afghanistan we find that we're looking more and more like the Gestapo of the 21st Century. It makes the eyes sting.

Kevin Drum at Political Animal put it this way:

" … put aside the technical analysis and ask yourself: Why has torture been such a hot topic since 9/11? The United States has fought many wars over the past half century, and in each of them our causes were just as important as today's, information from prisoners would have been just as helpful, and we were every bit as determined to win as we are now. But we still didn't authorize torture of prisoners. FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Reagan — all of them knew it wasn't right, and the rest of us knew it as well.

"So what's different this time? Only one thing: the name of the man in the White House. Under this administration, we seem to have lost the simple level of moral clarity that allowed our predecessors to tell right from wrong. It's time to reclaim it."

The administration has made the case that terrorists like those who rammed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon aren't covered by the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. That may be legally correct. But it is simply appalling that we're stooping to legal technicalities of this kind to justify practices that we know are fundamentally wrong. Furthermore, even though al-Qaida suspects may slip through some legal loophole in the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. executive branch is still governed by U.S. law and by international treaties we have ratified. The Constitution says so in clear, plain language that legalistas like White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and the lawyers who drew up the torture memo that became public this week should be able to understand. In fact, one disgusting aspect of all this is that they do understand it—then construct elaborate legal mazes to try to circumvent these simple realities.

Law professor Michael Froomkin has a lengthy, but rewarding, analysis of the legal jujitsu in the memo, which in order to skirt the inconveniences of law and treaties grants the president powers that are nowhere mentioned in the governing documents of this country.

"On pages 22-23 the Walker Working Group Report sets out a view of an unlimited Presidential power to do anything he wants with 'enemy combatants'. The bill of rights is nowhere mentioned. There is no principle suggested which limits this purported authority to non-citizens, or to the battlefield. Under this reasoning, it would be perfectly proper to grab any one of us and torture us if the President determined that the war effort required it. I cannot exaggerate how pernicious this argument is, and how incompatible it is with a free society. The Constitution does not make the President a King. This memo does." [The emphasis is Froomkin's.]

We would have slid far enough down a very slippery slope if the Bush administration had seen fit to limit its use of questionable interrogation techniques strictly to al-Qaida suspects in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay. But it didn't. Instead, it imported them to Iraq, where they seem to have been applied widely to detainee populations that knew little, if anything, about specific threats against coalition troops or our Iraqi allies. In fact even the U.S. agrees that many of the detainees at Abu Ghraib prison were there simply because they had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, too bad for them.

The Pentagon is now investigating the deaths of at least 32 Iraqis and 5 Afghans while in U.S. custody, AP reports:

"WASHINGTON (AP) - The Army has undertaken criminal investigations into the deaths of at least 32 Iraqis and five Afghans held by U.S. forces since August 2002, Pentagon officials revealed Friday. The deaths are from 33 separate cases, two of which involved more than one death. That is eight more cases than the Pentagon had publicly reported two weeks ago.

"Nine are active cases, and eight of those are classified as homicides involving suspected assaults of detainees before or during interrogation sessions. Two have been resolved as homicide cases. Four are called justifiable homicides and 15 have been classified as deaths by natural or undetermined cause, the Pentagon said.

"Of the total of 33 cases, 30 involve detainees who died inside a U.S.-run detention facility. In the three other cases, two Iraqis and one Afghani died while under U.S. control outside a facility."

Prisoner abuse on this scale gives the lie to the line, perpetuated by both Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and President Bush, that these were the acts of a few misguided individuals. This was a policy, and policies are not made by frontline grunts like those being disciplined in the Abu Ghraib mess, they are enacted by frontline grunts.

The news stemming from this disgraceful mess just keep rolling in, though most of it is being lost in the all Reagan all the time coverage of our former president's death, legacy and funeral. I'll limit myself to just a few pertinent items here:

"The disclosure that the Justice Department advised the White House in 2002 that the torture of al Qaeda terrorist suspects might be legally defensible has focused new attention on the role President Bush played in setting the rules for interrogations in the war on terrorism."
-- The Washington Post

"The Bush administration routinely bypassed or overruled Pentagon experts on international law and the Geneva convention to construct a sweeping legal justification for harsh tactics in the war on terror, the Guardian has learnt."
-- The Guardian, London

"WASHINGTON - The head of the interrogation center at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq told an Army investigator in February that he understood some of the information being collected from prisoners there had been requested by 'White House staff,' according to an account of his statement obtained by the Washington Post."
– The Washington Post

"LOUISVILLE, Ky., June 8 — Reversing itself, the Army said Tuesday that a G.I. was discharged partly because of a head injury he suffered while posing as an uncooperative detainee during a training exercise at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The Army had previously said Specialist Sean Baker's medical discharge in April was unrelated to the injury he received last year at the detention center, where the United States holds suspected terrorists."
-- The New York Times

The horrors of Abu Ghraib were not simply the acts of individual soldiers,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Abu Ghraib resulted from decisions made by the Bush administration to cast the rules aside.”
-- Human Rights Watch

"Two U.S. corporations conspired with U.S. officials to humiliate, torture and abuse persons detained by U.S. authorities in Iraq according to a class action lawsuit filed June 9, 2004, by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Philadelphia law firm of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker and Rhoads. The suit, filed in federal court in San Diego, names as defendants the Titan Corporation of San Diego, California and CACI International of Arlington, Virginia and its subsidiaries, and three individuals who work for the companies. It charges them with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and alleges that the companies engaged in a wide range of heinous and illegal acts in order to demonstrate their abilities to obtain intelligence from detainees, and thereby obtain more contracts from the government."
-- Center for Constitutional Rights

Is this still our America?

Posted by tbrown at 02:50 PM


June 09, 2004

Legalizing torture – it's now the American way

Other duties have kept me from giving the scandalous administration justifications for torture the attention they deserve. So instead, read this Washington Post editorial, which succinctly sets out the problem and just as succinctly describes the blot on American traditions and values:

"There is no justification, legal or moral, for the judgments made by Mr. Bush's political appointees at the Justice and Defense departments. Theirs is the logic of criminal regimes, of dictatorships around the world that sanction torture on grounds of 'national security.' For decades the U.S. government has waged diplomatic campaigns against such outlaw governments -- from the military juntas in Argentina and Chile to the current autocracies in Islamic countries such as Algeria and Uzbekistan -- that claim torture is justified when used to combat terrorism. The news that serving U.S. officials have officially endorsed principles once advanced by Augusto Pinochet brings shame on American democracy … "

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, has posted one of the memos that Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday refused to discuss and/or lied about before a congressional committee yesterday. Phil Carter at Intel Dump avoids the "L" word, but makes the point:

"… these statements are directly contradicted by the plain language of the memoranda that have now been made public. The DoD memo, in particular, provides a cookbook approach for illegal conduct," Carter writes "It explains how military personnel can use torture techniques because the U.S. Defense Department and Justice Department has a more narrow definition of 'torture' than our enemies, our allies, or even our own State Department. The memo then explains how customary international law can be ignored by executive fiat — and in self-referential fashion, it cites to an opinion of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel for that proposition. The list goes on and on... The fact of the matter is that the statements from the AG and the White House don't hold water when compared to these memos."

NPR's legal correspondent, Nina Totenberg, has a detailed report on Ashcroft's performance here. It's well worth a listen.

Posted by tbrown at 12:30 PM


Presidential nut outs

Now here's a disturbing little piece. Some White House staffers and outsiders who have contact with the West Wing are becoming increasingly concerned about President Bush's mental state. The story is from Capitol Hill Blue, which claims it's the oldest surviving news site on the Web (née 1994). It also has the reputation of being the Democratic version of Matt Drudge. And, finally, the piece is based exclusively on anonymous sources, so take it with a grain of salt.

Blue proprietor Doug Thompson writes:

"In meetings with top aides and administration officials, the President goes from quoting the Bible in one breath to obscene tantrums against the media, Democrats and others that he classifies as 'enemies of the state.' ”

“It reminds me of the Nixon days,” says a longtime GOP political consultant with contacts in the White House. “Everybody is an enemy; everybody is out to get him. That’s the mood over there.”

A case in point: George Tenet, the CIA chief who abruptly resigned last week. Here's Blue again:

"Tenet wanted to quit last year but the President got his back up and wouldn't hear of it," says an aide. "That would have been the opportune time to make a change, not in the middle of an election campaign, but when the director challenged the President during the meeting Wednesday, the President cut him off by saying 'that's it George. I cannot abide disloyalty. I want your resignation and I want it now."

Later, an aide said, Bush said Tenet's firing was "God's will."

In fact, Bush and his A.G., John Ashcroft, invoke the almighty so frequently to justify their actions that they're becoming known as "the Blues Brothers" because "they're on a mission from God," according to Thompson's account.

Read it all here. We post, you decide.

Posted by tbrown at 12:18 PM


Our friends the Saudis

More than half of them approve of Osama bin Laden's rhetoric and sermons, according to a poll of more than 15,000 Saudis taken last year, but just released publicly this week. Interestingly, however, only 5 percent thought it would be a good idea for him to run their country.

Posted by tbrown at 12:11 PM


June 08, 2004

Here's some free crack for political junkies

The American Museum of the Moving Image now has online an amazing and wonderful archive of televised presidential campaign ads going all the way back to 1952. Be forewarned: "The Living Room Candidate" site is highly addictive. There are dozens of ads, many of which have long since faded from popular memory (for example food—in the sense of what a family could afford to eat—was an issue in the 1952 Eisenhower-Stevenson campaign).

Needless to say, the two most notorious campaign ads in U.S. history are here:

-- Lyndon Johnson's 1964 ad in which a little girl's counting of daisy petals morphs into a countdown to nuclear war while LBJ intones in his Texas twang, "We must either love each other, or we must die." The ad played to public fears that Johnson's opponent, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, was a reckless ideologue who might lead the nation to nuclear war. It ran only once, but it is still being emulated. In 2000, a pro-Bush group produced a look-alike ad that accused President Clinton and Vice President Gore of giving China U.S. nuclear secrets in exchange for campaign contributions. And last year, during the run up to the Iraq invasion, the liberal political-action group MoveOn.org produced yet another daisy-counter that suggested Islamic extremists might take over a country with nuclear weapons because of Bush's foreign policies (my link to this ad is broken).

-- George H.W. Bush's "Willie Horton" ad, which tarred opponent Michael Dukakis by recounting that murderer Horton, who was granted a weekend furlough while serving a life term in Massachusetts during Dukakis' tenure as governor, fled to Maryland, assaulted a man there and raped his wife repeatedly. This was already public knowledge. What the ad injected into the campaign was race: Horton was black, which hadn't been mentioned previously. This Salon piece has some background.

But the real treasures at "The Living Room Candidate" are ones you've probably never seen, or even heard about:

-- Jacqueline Kennedy's utterly assured delivery of an ad in Spanish to court Latino voters for husband John in his 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon and Kennedy's answer to a question about whether his Catholic faith would cause him to have "divided loyalties" if elected. Both are here.

-- A true period piece, in which Nixon assures Americans that the U.S. economy is growing faster than that of the Soviet Union. We forget that until well into the 1970s there was a real question whether capitalism or Communism would become the dominant economic system.

-- Barry Goldwater's prescient call in 1964 (when there were only 275 dead in Vietnam) for abolition of the draft and the creation of a volunteer army, and the spirited defense of Goldwater against Democratic charges of extremism by an over-the-hill B movie actor named Ronald Reagan. That ad put Reagan on the trail that led first to the governorship of California, then the White House. Both are here.

And much, much more. Check it out.

Note: These ads require either Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. Also note that the ads can be run full screen (at least with a broadband connection).

Posted by tbrown at 12:44 PM


Reagan vs. Bush on tax cuts

"President Reagan, confronted with evidence that his tax cuts were fiscally irresponsible, changed course. President Bush, confronted with similar evidence, has pushed for even more tax cuts."
-- Paul Krugman in The New York Times (free site registration may be required)

Posted by tbrown at 12:37 PM


June 07, 2004

Saudi Arabia edging toward chaos?

"These militants want to send a message that the kingdom is not safe for westerners."
-- Jamal Khashoggi, media spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London

And they're sending it loud and clear.

An attack over the weekend, which left a BBC cameraman dead and a correspondent in critical condition, was just the latest in a series of attacks on foreign workers that has left a bloody trail of deaths – and a scared expatriate community. Among al-Qaida's key goals are 1) the destabilization of the Saud regime and 2) its eventual overthrow. They hope to destabilze the monarcy by cutting the kingdom's oil production through terrorizing the foreign workers who keep the oil flowing. Any cut in Saudi Arabian oil flow would have an immediate impact on world oil prices – and on the U.S. economy.

In his last dispatch before he was wounded, BBC correspondent Frank Gardner disclosed that al-Qaida had posted on an Internet site a graphic account of an attack on a western enclave at Khobar that left 22 dead. The terrorists slit the throat of one Swedish worker, killed others in cold blood, then ate breakfast and rested before going back to their gruesome task. Saudi security seems to have been essentially worthless.

After an attack on foreign workers at an oil refinery at Yanbu, John Bradley, who until his departure late last year had been the only accredited resident western newsman in Saudi Arabia, wrote:

"An attack this week on an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia in which five Westerners, two Saudis and four militants were killed, is the kingdom's worst nightmare come true. It was the first terrorist assault on a petrochemical complex in the country. It came just weeks after the first direct targeting of a government building in Riyadh, when five people died.

"Reports of a Westerner's corpse being dragged through the streets of the industrial city of Yanbu, and militants firing in the air to urge others to join the fight, have horrified the Western expatriate community on whom the kingdom still largely depends to keep its vital oil industry working. Four of the Westerners killed were senior managers at the complex. The Swiss-Swedish engineering company ABB, employer of the slain Westerners, immediately announced it was evacuating all international staff and their families from Yanbu."

Despite the viciousness and increasing frequency of the attacks, which were unheard of until the last few months, there so far has been no disruption of oil flow.

"It is important to remember that the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia is heavily, heavily guarded," Kyle Cooper, an energy analyst at CitiGroup Global Markets told the BBC. "Attacks have not been able to affect the infrastructure," he said, adding that even if militants were able to damage a pipeline or refinery, the kingdom could continue to export oil.

"Saudi Arabia has multiple facilities - if one were damaged, it's most likely another one would be able to come on line very quickly and replace the lost production," he said.

Still, the attacks are achieving at least part of their perpetrators goals. The Religious Policeman, the only Saudi blogger I know of, reports that, "I talk to a number of western expats, and they are very very frightened indeed. I cannot blame them. I know of several families who remained here all through the first Gulf war, saw the Scuds flying over and hitting, but have decided that this place is now too dangerous for themselves and their families, and are packing up to go."

Posted by tbrown at 02:11 PM


'Merlin' takes over at the CIA

It says here that CIA No. 2 man John McLaughlin, who will run the agency until a permanent successor to George Tenet is selected, is a magician. Good. We need one.

Posted by tbrown at 02:02 PM


Chalabi charade update

This is too absurd.

Con-man Ahmed Chalabi's intelligence chief, Araz Habib, who is suspected of passing U.S. secrets to Iran, has fled to Teheran where neither we nor the Iraqis can arrest him.

An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant for Chalabi's chief aide, American Francis Brooke, but the Iraqis can't arrest him because he fled back to D.C.

Chalabi himself, who is suspected of having told Iranian intelligence that the U.S. had broken its code, is in Baghdad and presumably could be arrested by either the U.S. or the Iraqis – but he may not have committed any crime (against the U.S. at least) because he's not an American citizen.

Posted by tbrown at 02:01 PM


June 04, 2004

A Marine outside Fallujah makes a point

Here's a Marine major's online diary about events in and around Fallujah. The part about Fallujah, where the U.S. military decided to let a local militia run the city after intense criticism of our military effort there (and high Marine casualties) is particularly interesting.

"Initially, it was confounding. However, a very interesting dynamic has developed," Maj. D.G. Bellon writes. "Since we have stayed out of Falluja and focused elsewhere, the mujahadeen have had their run of the town. As they have had no one to fight, they have turned their criminal instincts on the citizens. The clerics who once were whipping these idiots into a suicidal frenzy are now having to issue Fatwas (holy decrees) admonishing the muj for extortion, rape, murder and kidnapping. It is unfortunate for the "innocent people" of Falluja but the mujahadeen have betrayed themselves as the thugs that they are by brutalizing the civilians. There are, in fact, reports of rape, etc from inside the town.

"While the muj are thugging away inside the town, we are about 1/2 mile away paying claims, entering into dialogue and contracting jobs. The citizens come outside the city for work and money and are treated like human beings. They go back inside and enter a lawless hell. In short, the muj have done more to show the people what hypocrites they are in a few short weeks than we could have hoped for in a year. The result is more and more targetable intelligence. If we are given the green light, we can really go to town on these guys (no pun intended). However, as much as we would like to do just that, the optimal solution is to empower the Iraqis to take care of it themselves. That is precisely what we are doing."

I haven't written much about events in Fallujah because it has been so unclear what our motives were in ceding control to a local militia and what has actually been happening in the city. But if the trends Bellon recounts stand up over time, then taking a less confrontational approach toward local militias might, at least in the short run, prove to our advantage. Looking further out, it still seems essential that the U.S. and the new Iraqi government gain the upper hand over the various armed factions. But, as Bellon suggests, the firsthand experience of ordinary Iraqis with the militants in their midst might make that longer-term goal ultimately more achievable.

Posted by tbrown at 01:46 PM


Behind Tenet's resignation

The New York Times has more information on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on U.S. intelligence failures that may have played a role in George Tenet's resignation as CIA director:

"Government officials and people close to Mr. Tenet said the classified report was a detailed account of mistakes and miscalculations by American intelligence agencies on whether Iraq possessed illicit weapons before the United States invaded last year. An unclassified version of the report is to be made public this month. Some close to Mr. Tenet said the report was among the factors that led him to resign from a post he had considered leaving for several years."

Posted by tbrown at 01:44 PM


The FBI was asleep at the switch, too

A guy named Niaz Kahn, a former waiter at a curry house outside London, claims that in 2000 he was recurited by al-Qaida, trained to hijack passenger planes, then given money and sent to the U.S. with instructions to meet terrorists in this country for an upcoming mission. Instead, he got cold feet, blew the money gambling in Atlantic City and turned himself into the FBI. They quizzed him for three weeks – during which time he passed two lie-detector tests, according to NBC News – but ultimately sent him back to Britain. Nothing ever came of what could have been an invaluable lead to what was planned for 9/11.

Posted by tbrown at 01:43 PM


And elephants will sprout wings

WASHINGTON -- As President Bush begins a week of foreign diplomacy, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice insists that he will one day rank alongside such towering pillars of 20th century statecraft as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
-- Associated Press

Posted by tbrown at 01:40 PM


June 03, 2004

Busy beavers all

I could almost write one of those "you need a lawyer" ads for DC cable TV stations. In fact, I think I will:

"Are you under investigation by a federal agency? Have you lied to FBI agents or Congress? Outed a CIA agent? Did the needles on the polygraph jump all over the place when they asked you about that little secret you let slip to your Iraqi pal Ahmed Chalabi? Friend, you could be looking at 10 to 20 on the Leavenworth rock pile – unless you call Tart, Loose & Blowsy today. Forged in the cauldron of Watergate, shaped on the anvil of Iran/Contra, our lawyers are experts in turning hard time into a golf opportunity at a Club Fed near you. You'll sleep soundly with the knowledge that we fled DC for Bermuda to avoid paying our fair share of onerous U.S. taxes and we contribute every quarter – sometimes more often! – to your friends in Congress."

Well, you did hear, I trust, that our president has been talking to a lawyer in case he needs one in connection with a federal grand jury's investigation of the outing of CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame last year. No indication that he's a "target" of the investigation. It does raise the question, so far unanswered, of whether others at the top of the administration, specifically the president's political operative, Karl Rove, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice have lawyered up.

Meanwhile, FBI agents with polygraph machines have been interviewing the select few officials at the top ranks of the Bush administration who would have had knowledge of the sensitive information Chalabi is supposed to have obtained from a drunk American official and passed on to his friends in the intelligence service of the Iranian Mullahs, who no doubt have our very best interests at heart.

"Officials would not identify who has taken polygraph examinations or even who has been interviewed by F.B.I. counterespionage agents. It could not be determined whether anyone has declined to submit to a polygraph test," The New York Times reports.

"No one has been charged with any wrongdoing or identified as a suspect, but officials familiar with the investigation say that they are working through a list of people and are likely to interview senior Pentagon officials.

"The F.B.I. is looking at officials who both knew of the code-breaking operation and had dealings with Mr. Chalabi, either in Washington or Baghdad, the government officials said. Information about code-breaking work is considered among the most confidential material in the government and is handled under tight security and with very limited access."

Chalabi continues to bluster that he's innocent. Maybe he is. But I don't think arguing his case before Congress (his suggestion) is going to meet the requirements of U.S. law.

Looks like fewer dog days in DC this summer.

Posted by tbrown at 03:45 PM


'Slam dunk' Tenet is going. Who's next?

The CIA director, George Tenet, is resigning "for personal reasons" and "for the well-being of my wonderful family." And for several other reasons, no doubt.

The departure of Tenet is way, way overdue, but ill-timed nonetheless. Because of election-year politics, it is unlikely that the CIA will get a chief with full authority to take the U.S. intelligence establishment in a new direction until next year. Keep in mind that the director of central intelligence does more than run the big spy shop in Langley. He also, at least nominally, oversees the budgets – secret of course – of the entire U.S. spookery operation and helps set priorities and coordinate activities among the CIA, NSA, NRO, DIA and so on through the alphabet soup of spydom. Even in normal times, nine months or so is a very long time to leave this assemblage rudderless under a caretaker administration. In the unstable world we know today, it is an eon.

Tenet is widely viewed as both a consumate bureaucrat and a nice guy, but his record over the last four years is not one you'd want to add to a resume. Though it is unfair to blame all the failings of U.S. intelligence on him alone, he is the responsible official. On Tenet's watch:

-- The U.S. intelligence community was blindsided by al-Qaida's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. Among the problems: the CIA didn’t share information on terror suspects with other agencies.

-- It's been widely reported that the Bush administration cooked intelligence to make the best possible case that Saddam Hussein was harboring stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the Iraq war. But they probably needn't have bothered. Tenet, according to Bob Woodward's new book, told Bush on the eve of war, "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk," that Saddam had the weapons. If he did, they've never been found.

-- Now there's the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse mess and the no doubt significant role intelligence agencies played in creating it.

The 9/11 attacks and the intelligence community's cluelessness on Saddam's WMDs are arguably the worst intelligence failures since Pearl Harbor. The bipartisan commission investigating 9/11 is going to be doing some finger-pointing in the CIA's direction when it releases its final report this summer. So is the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the Abu Ghraib and other investigations of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan no doubt will provide still further bad news for Tenet. So it was time for Tenet to go, even if the timing was, paradoxically, bad.

Who might be next? We have no idea, but let's read some tea leaves:

"He told me he's leaving for personal reasons. I told him I was sorry he was leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people."
-- President Bush, today, on Tenet's resignation

"You are doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."
-- President Bush to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke

Rumsfeld likely will be around through election day, though. But I do have one small question: what does it take to do less than a superb job in this administration?

Note: Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser has been answering Tenet questions online.

The Post also has a collection of video clips of Tenet testimony before congressional committees and the 9/11 commission here.

Posted by tbrown at 01:03 PM


June 02, 2004

Chalabi watch

It's now pretty clear what happened in the Ahmed Chalabi "spying" fiasco. According to a piece in today's New York Times (free site registration may be required), a drunk American official told Chalabi that the U.S. had broken the code used by Iran's intelligence service. Chalabi passed this extremely damaging piece of information on to the chief Iranian spook in Baghdad, who, in turn, advised his superiors in Teheran – inexplicably using the broken code. The U.S. intercepted that message and thus learned that Chalabi – the man the civilian leadership in the Pentagon wanted to seat as the head of the new Iraqi government – had betrayed the U.S.

Or so the story goes.

"The inquiry, still in an early phase, is focused on a very small number of people who were close to Mr. Chalabi and also had access to the highly restricted information about the Iran code," the Times reports. "Some of the people the FBI expects to interview are civilians at the Pentagon who were among Mr. Chalabi's strongest supporters and served as his main point of contact with the government, the officials said."

And here's why the leak was so damaging: "American officials said the leak about the Iranian codes was a serious loss because the Iranian intelligence service's highly encrypted cable traffic was a crucial source of information, supplying Washington with information about Iranian operations inside Iraq, where Tehran's agents have become increasingly active. It also helped the United States keep track of Iranian intelligence operations around the world."

Chalabi maintains he did nothing wrong. When this story first began to emerge, he said, "I have never passed any classified information to Iran or have done anything — participated in any scheme of intelligence against the United States. This charge is false. I have never seen a U.S. classified document, and I have never seen — had a U.S. classified briefing."

But, of course, in this case there was no document and no briefing – just betrayal of an important secret let drop by an intoxicated U.S. official. It's sad. It's also the kind of offense that could involve prison time for that U.S. official (though it's unlikely in this pass-the-buck administration).

And how about Chalabi? He's already been sentenced to a couple of decades in prison in absentia by Jordan for bank fraud. If the evidence in the Iranian case is as ironclad as those in the know seem to think, why don't we prosecute him? Too messy, perhaps?

Posted by tbrown at 09:38 AM


A red state goes blue

Democrat Stephanie Herseth won a special election in South Dakota yesterday to replace U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow, a Republican who was convicted of manslaughter after his auto hit and killed a motorcyclist while Janklow was drunk. If Sen. Tom Daschle is re-elected in November, that will leave South Dakota, a majority Republican state, with an all-Democrat congressional delegation.

Posted by tbrown at 09:35 AM




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Derailing the free-money gravy train
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