Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A recession recession

What happens when pundits keep swearing the US is in a recession--most significantly characterized by two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth--but the GDP keeps growing, even with the weak dollar?

I wonder what that's called?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Speaking of battles

The Global Climate Change battle rages on.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Nationalized Healthcare...

...Is a divisive subject, of course, so examples like this one are sure to inflame people on both sides of the debate. In summary, a girl with a serious congenital disorder, who was covered as a child under one government health care program, is now being denied coverage as an adult under another government health care program.

Granted, the circumstances of the case are not completely cut-and-dried, but they drive to the heart of my question about nationalized health care: how is the government system going ensure quality care for people?

From my view, so much of the problem in the health care debate is that it has been reduced to numbers, but just as focus on the numbers to not tell the real story of Iraq, the focus on the numbers about health care do not tell the real story of caring for people.

Given government's record of caring for numbers instead of people, I am skeptical that it is possible for it care about people on the scale a nationalized health care system would require. I also concede that something needs to be done to make health care accessible--note that I did not say affordable, which means I oppose government price controls--to people who would not otherwise have access to such care.

How to do so? If the government is to have a role, then its role should be to guarantee a system of accessibility--government insured medical accounts provided by the market--combined with regulating the parts of the existing system that are driving prices up--tort reform, medical research regulation reform.

But even before such reform can begin, it needs to start with a different reform: The government needs to remember that the people in question are people, not numbers or constituents. Being people, each case has to be treated differently keeping in mind its unique circumstances.

If the government can change its attitude about people, then maybe it has a chance with health care.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Jetpack Watch (Part MCXVIII)

"He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
An erring spirit from another hurled;
A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
By choice the perils he by chance escaped;
But 'scaped in vain, for in their memory yet
His mind would half exult and half regret..."
-Lord Byron

As most of you know, I regularly train a jaundiced eye on the unkempt horizons of Tomorrowland in a (Quixotic) quest for my Jetsonian future as embodied by the ever-elusive personal jetpack.

This post has nothing to do with jetpacks.

Come to think of it, the jetpack posts don't either, not really. They're about the stagnation of mechanical technology. Of our pointless navel-gazing that has led to a virtual iceage of technological advancement. A brief glimmer of hope may lie ahead as space travel becomes commercially viable, but at present our needs are too few to play matron to invention of aught more than a more efficient delivery system for junkmail and a higher resolution platform from which to observe a more expensive and divisive political campaign.

Nevertheless, part of that quest - the dark side as I refer to it - has always been comparing the practical realities of today with the cybernetic prophecies dreamt up by dark visionaries from the early socialist morality tales of Fritz Lang (Metropolis) to the advanced 'hard' science fiction and dark futures of Phillip K Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) , William R Gibson (Neuromancer), and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash) which gave rise to the term "Worlwide Web" (Gibson), "Cyberspace" (ibid) and thence "Cyberpunk" (ibid) and the eponymous genre of games and movies that followed.

Recent developments at Cern give me some hope that at least the computer-culture, or rather computers as a virtual co-existent world where digital spirits swirl and interact, where the dangers and possibilities play on the fringes of the lost digital frontier. That at least the 'good' (or perhaps 'less bad') parts of the Cyberpunk pipedream might yet coalesce in the breathing world... for better or for worse.

Assuming Cern doesn't suck us all into a quantum singularity first.


Momma Said Knock You Out...

Earth Day is Rosie Day. And don't you forget it, punk.

Photoshopped by Scott. While his biscuit's flipped by painkillers. (Quite legally, I assure you, officer. All my papers are in order...) With the amateur-level 'Elements' version of Photoshop. It took me longer to type this and I could do better if I pulled out the tablet PC.

So really... there's no excuse for shoddy work from a pro. Purely illustrative of course, but really... how hard is it to be elegant, or at least inoffensive, as well as evocative?


It's all about Personal Responsibility

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Meanwhile, at the Battle of "Contributing Factors"

I previously asked questions about whether or not we can define the current political divide in the United States as a cold civil war. In the mean time, ongoing debate here on Contributing Factor has helped answer, at least in part, some of my questions.

The posts and comments have presented this answer in the form of an idea that we seem to repeat frequently: “Then we are at an impasse,” or “Then we disagree.” As I understand such a comment, once we utter it, we create a barrier through which we can achieve no compromise.

From my understanding, compromise is the fundamental objective of diplomacy. When sides cannot compromise, then diplomacy has failed. If the issues at stake require action by one side or another if they do not achieve compromise, then in my view, the sides have reached some state of conflict beyond that which required diplomacy to begin with.

In a cold civil war, the battlefield is politics and the goal is the ownership of the means by which one side can enforce their ideals on another. This state of affairs differs from normal politics in that the ideals in question are ones the other side is fundamentally, even morally, opposed to and must continue to resist even after those ideals become law and are enforced.

If this definition holds true, then I believe that we find ourselves in the midst of a cold civil war in the United States. Even among the posters and commenters on this site, the lines seem to be clearly drawn beyond which no negotiation can take place. This is not an indictment of either side, but rather an acknowledgement that further changes in views by either side threatens to compromise their fundamentals.

Of course, the definition I present here may still be flawed, but it is my operating hypothesis. What remains for me to define is how such a war is fought and, more importantly, how it is ended.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

In Light of Recent Developments...

"I'd wager good money that 89% of the journalists in the US would rather eat glass than engage in yellow journalism. The 11% that would, work for the papers and media outlets that get off on that sort of thing."


In light of Time Magazine's long-anticipated defection to the join the yellow menace... I raise my assessment to 15%. The bastards.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cold Civil War?

Scott once opined that he believed that the political debate over American ideals had become “a non-shooting civil war of sorts for our own country”. Tim Oren at Winds of Change recently presented a post focused at the same topic, asking the question without providing a conclusion.

At first, I am tempted to dismiss such a conclusion as over dramatization of historically American political debate, but then I look at the facts on the ground and wonder: Are we in the midst of a crisis of definition that looks a lot like a cold war? As I consider those facts, I find myself beginning to believe that maybe we are.

If we are in a cold civil war, as Oren asks, how is it defined? What are the sides? The objectives? The final goal? How does a cold civil war end? Does it go hot, or does some remarkable change or event render the issues underlying the conflict irrelevant?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A biased post about biased review of a biased book about a biased war

Michael Yon, the perennially embedded independent journalist, recently released his latest book, Moment of Truth in Iraq. JR Michaels, Greyhawk of The Mudville Gazette, writes a review for the New York Post. I think Yon’s book should be required reading for everyone who wants to have an informed opinion on Iraq.

Feel free to flame. I couldn’t help myself.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Re: Journalistic Integrity, Media Bias, Objectivity, Professionalism, etc.

So…Time magazine PhotoShops a tree into the famous Iwo Jima flag raising photograph as part of its cover story on climate change. I’m not going to pretend I know how my grandfather, or anyone’s grandfather, would react to the image. But the Marine that I just talked to said, “Oh, my goodness. That’s pretty pathetic.” Anyway, enough about the picture.

More interesting to me is the story behind the story. Or, if not the story, at least the justification for it. In this interview, Time’s managing editor Richard Stengel says some pretty interesting things, not all of which completely jibe with my interpretation of what journalism is supposed to be (but it does, sort of, underscore what I think most journalism actually is). And, I daresay, those things mightn't meet Scott’s lofty journalistic ideals discussed, in part, in this post.

A few thoughts. First, Stengel makes the point that he wanted to stop being descriptive and start being prescriptive. He says, “The cover story, I mean there's been so many stories about the environment and we see them all the time. And they're often just descriptive. And what we decided is we wanted to do something that was prescriptive.” I know what happens when that starts to occur in theology, and I’m guessing it’s equally bad in reporting.

Second, Stengel says this:
“I think since I've been back at the magazine, I have felt that one of the things that's needed in journalism, is that you have to have a point of view about things. You can't always just say ‘on the one hand, on the other’ and you decide. People trust us to make decisions. We're experts in what we do. So I thought, you know what, if we really feel strongly about something let's just say so.”

“People trust us.” That’s true, but in a way it’s sad. But don’t use that as a justification for abusing that trust.

" make decisions." Really? Do we? Decisions about what?

“We’re experts in what we do.” And what is it, exactly, that you do? Inveigh or inform? Report or rabble rouse?

Finally, I didn't think "real" reporters were supposed to worry too much about how they felt about a particular topic. (I know what happens in theology when that starts to happen, too.)

So much for vaunted “unbiased, objective reporting.” To tell the truth, I’m getting kind of sick of people (not necessarily on this blog, but in general) claiming that such a thing exists anywhere ― and, wonder of wonders, that when it does it unfailingly agrees with them.

But I’m a little bitter right now, so maybe I’m just over-reacting to all of this. Maybe I need you guys to adjust my attitude a bit.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Against contempt

This post comes closer that any I have read for a while to summing up the feelings of those, including myself, who have served honorably and with distinction while being vilified by a broad swath of our society, politicians, and media. I think that the post is worth reading simply to glimpse a view of what the people who man and support that thin line of defense think.

We're on the right track

Apparently, quarreling is very American. Go us!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Modest Proposal

Denny has previously made the claim that our democracy works precisely because its flexible nature allows it to withstand temporary threats to its basic principles. He has pointed to our debates here as evidence that the democracy is working because it indicates that there is sufficient transparency to allow the mechanism of our government to work through its problems.

I would argue that a similar trend is in action here at AHOCF. We have, from time to time, strayed from the path of reasoned debate into the more contentious and less civil discourse, only to recover time and again. Cooler heads do prevail and our path is once again set aright. Huzzah indeed.

In recognition and support of this resilience, I'd like to offer up a modest proposal.

Denny and I have concluded a truce of sorts -- to be humorous about it -- over at his Worldview blog. More accurately and more seriously, I think we've come to an understanding. We each took time to calmly clarify our positions about a disagreement we were having about who characterized what statements inaccurately. While we may not have reached a perfect harmony, I think both of us are satisfied with the results. We have concluded that further discussion -- I stress that term, discussion -- of the legality of warrantless surveillance is, um, warranted. It is upon this question -- is warrantless surveillance legal -- that our disagreement seems to rest.

So to my proposal. As a writing teacher, I have often used an approach with my students to attempt to get them to see other sides of an issue they have chosen to write about. We often talk about counter-arguments, but this term seems to denote a "thing" they have to create rather than a natural set of ideas that exist that they must discover. To overcome this misunderstanding as well as to encourage reason over emotion, I'll often ask them to argue the opposite of what they currently believe about an issue. This forces them to take seriously other points of view and, just as importantly, to understand them.

I would like to think we don't need this lesson and that it would merely be an interesting exercise, but our history calls that hope into question. Nevertheless, I think it would be an interesting exercise and might well benefit our discussion.

I think we can reliably, at this point, propose two theses: 1) Warrantless surveillance is legal, and 2) Warrantless surrveillance is illegal. Before we begin to argue, in the best sense of that word, those points, we might want to work together to further clarify or focus those theses. For example, would it be helpful to define warrantless surveillance of whom is legal/illegal? We want our theses to actually represent the core of the current argument, after all.

So, is anyone interested in trying this approach? If so, shall we begin by clarifying those basic theses so we actually spend our time trying to argue precisely what we want to argue? And as we choose up teams, who wants to be shirts and who wants to be skins?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Facts and Opinions

At the risk of stirring the hornets' nest this weblog can sometime be, I want to take a moment to discuss something that is important to debates such as the ones that often rage here. In these debates, as has been true for most of human history, an ongoing confusion of the understanding of fact and opinion has occurred that has served to cloud the debate and make it more vociferous.

Fact and opinion can be hard to define because the difference between the two is often subtle and sometimes imperceptible. An example of where this definition as become extremely difficult is in the use of information in the ongoing warrantless surveillance debate.

Both sides of this debate have reached very clear and opposing conclusions, ones supported by the citation of information from a variety of sources--some reputable, some not--which information itself is also a conclusion based on information gathered from still other sources. This chain of information and supporting conclusion extends back until it, hopefully, reaches facts, such as the citation of specific laws or the Constitution.

The semantics of the above description are important because those semantics represent definitions of logical debate. While conclusions and the information used to support them are powerful and important, they are not facts.

In a way, this is a legal definition as well. Conclusions are opinions, as informed and reasoned as they might be. This is the same definition used by the constitutional courts of the United States (appellate and supreme) in referring to their own conclusions about the law. This terminology is used because the judiciary has always accepted the inevitability that some of their conclusions will be overturned by the conclusions of future courts.

Such conclusions can be deeply held, but ultimately they are still opinion. Such conclusions should be based on facts, but even with a majority of facts, they are still opinions. Because they are opinion, they can still be proved wrong by better conclusions or facts.

Because such conclusions are opinion, how they are used in the course of logical debate is very important. The use of conclusions as a proof of the wrongness of an opposing conclusion is a tricky proposition because of the risk that the conclusion used might yet be proven wrong.

Fact, on the other hand, has none of the potential ambiguity of opinions. Fact is irrefutable and empirical. Semantically, fact is. Fact serves as the basis for everything else including debate.

In the course of logical debate, it is possible for certain opinion to become fact-like, due to agreement or inattention. This conversion does not imply that such opinion is fact; rather, that it is being used as fact in the absence of more obvious fact.

Understanding of these distinctions cannot help but strengthen the nature of logical debate. Conclusions, though opinion, are the inevitable result of the absence of definable fact, but such conclusions must fulfill other requirements before they can be facts. In logical debate, the use of conclusion must be tempered by its nature, or the debate ceases to be anything more that argument.

That’s my opinion. Let the stinging begin...


Balance Unlooked For

Robert Kagan was (I think that's the correct tense) a member of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC). This is the group, a core of which formed an influential cadre within the Bush Administration, whose doctrine helped guide America into its war with Iraq and has helped to set much of its foreign policy in the nearly eight years of Bush's "reign."

As a member of this group, Robert Kagan is one of the last people I would expect to find myself agreeing with. However, if you haven't already read this article, (found at and linked to at you should. I can't vouch for all his facts, but a casual first reading of it didn't set off any real warning bells. He offers a very sober view of American history and behavior, and a very balanced view of the current foreign policy and cultural debates in our country. I found it to be an excellent article that based on my own understanding of our history, flawed as it might be, rings true.

I think all contributors and readers at Contributing Factors will find something of value in it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Free Tibet?

So... off the elections for a bit to let everyone get their thoughts together and on to a new and potentially divisive topic.

Today the Olympic torch had to be extinguished - or at least turned down so far you couldn't see the flame - in order to put it on a bus because it became impossible to get it through Paris for all the protests. Athens, London... chaos. Paris... third verse, same as the first.

On the one hand, no one's been killed or injured really as far as I can tell. It's much in the news and NPR reports that the IOC has been mentioning that if this doesn't stop, they'll abandon the torch relay altogether. On the other hand this is largely peaceful resistance, albeit rather noisy and chaotic peaceful resistance. This isn't the WTO and the 'Battle in Seattle', at least not yet. On yet a third hand we now know that Parisian police wear roller blades while doing crowd control duty. (!?!)

Now it's our turn... so how do you think we're going to handle it? Do you forsee a downward spiral debacle ala the aforementioned WTO riots in my beloved city not all that long ago, where peaceful protest was overcome by radicals looking for an excuse to break windows and burn things? Do you think any of this is doing any good at all?

The torch reaches our shores soon in San Francisco. This morning, during rush hour three climbers scaled the bridge to hang a sign from the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I know a lot of people in San Fran, early on I thought there were frankly alarmingly good odds that I know one of those three, or their crew. I don't recognize any of the names, but I'd bet that I at least know someone who does. (Somehow my separation never seems to reach six degrees, more like two. But I digress...)

It was certainly a bold feat but, I fear, ultimately pointless.

While I see the value of getting your message out when it's being stifled ala Dr. King, I'm not really convinced that's the case here. I can't turn on the radio or the computer without seeing stories about Tibet. It's a tragedy, no doubt. So it goes back to the simple fact that I've never been convinced that you can create a positive impression of your message by creating a negative impression on the people viewing your message. I am intrigued by the fact that NPR reports that they're thinking of calling off the rest of the torch relay if this keeps up.

And what will that prove except to prove that if you act badly enough you can create a two-day news furor that will not equal the value of the coverage that would have been had you been less anarchic with your attempts to get your message across. And the coverage will eventually sour... because that is the way of things. The world has been swayed by the serenity of the Dalai Lama in the face of relentless aggression and misinformation coming out of the PROC. If Tibet just becomes yet another hotbed of unrest... what then?

Positive image from negative actions? It strikes me as singularly un-Buddhist...

An Interesting Anniversary


Well worth the read, im(h)o.


The wages of sin? Well... the oval office anyway.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Words By Which To Live

For all of us would-be writers:

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." - Stephen King

Friday, April 4, 2008

Laugh about it, shout about it...

Keba asked:

"But, as a general rule, wouldn't the opinions expressed (by the editors, not the general public 9n the "speak-up" part) in the opinion/editorial sections be a good indication of the bias of the overall publication?"


Listen, for one thing it occurs to me that there is not now, nor ever has been, nor ever will be, any place of business larger than ten employees where everyone in the place agrees on your choice of subject. Getting more than half to agree on anything is almost as hard. Newspapers are no different.

What is most significant, though, is that most of the people writing or contributing to the editorials actually have very little (if anything) to do with the day-to-day operations of a newspaper. Newspaper operations are overseen by a specific editor, usually the Managing Editor or editor. Each section generally has their own editor and the editors meet regularly as the 'editorial board' much as a company board of directors would meet.

Unless you see an endorsement signed by the "editorial board" (such as the endorsement of a political candidate, for instance) you are most definitely not seeing a consensus opinion. The NYT makes a habit of endorsing a candidate from each of the two major parties during the primary season (I believe they endorsed McCain and Clinton this year) and will often - though not always - endorse a presidential candidate during the general. This does not mean anything about how the hard news editors will guide the coverage of the election. Most op/eds and editorials are submitted by either private citizens who have the credentials to speak with authority on a given topic and/or by contributing editors or columnists.

Beats are assigned based on talent, seniority, and a host other considerations. Most mature (as in mature in their profession) journalists have a great deal of latitude on which stories they cover with the editors choosing from what is brought to them rather than assigning every story in the paper. It is a collaborative process. Most of these news editors are former journalists, so we're talking about stories assigned by journalists to journalists. Some stories are gimmees, some come as press releases, some as tips, some off the wire services that require local followup.

There are definitely kinks in the system and no system is immune from abuse, but the level of malfeasance alleged in most complaints about the media boggles the mind. While I cannot say that every news editor or managing editor out there doesn't have an ax to grind with one thing or another... there are governing boards, professional boards, standards and practices, libel manuals, and a host of safeguards (which don't always work, I'll admit) to keep the news as honest and free of bias as it possibly can.

Is it 100%? No. No system can be. And there are definitely news outlets that I view with a skeptical eye, but the level of accuracy attained is remarkable and a lot of hard work to produce.

That's the American model.

There have been outlets in recent memory who have been taking the British model of delivering a well-understood and tacitly acknowledged slant to their news reporting. In the British papers, as I have noted recently, bias is not only ok, it isn't hidden. My British friends tell me that everyone in the country takes numerous papers, knowing that they're slanted and derives their news by sipping from every cup. Maybe that's a better system, but I don't think it is. But some think so and there are definite interests out there wanting to make that model more American (such as Rupert Murdoch, who just purchased the Wall Street Journal). I find that distressing.

The system isn't perfect. There's a lot of infotainment out there. Go click on my "And now... the News" post to see a distressingly accurate take on cable news et al.

The trouble currently is that broadcast news is leading the charge into the British sensationalist system, no longer delineating a line between editorializing and news reporting. Commentators come on and give their spiel, often 'interviewed' by the talking heads using pre-arranged prompts with no indication to an unwary public that they're blurring an important line. Military experts give their opinion on whatever happened in Iraq without caveat, pundits report statistics and polls as facts without clarification.

The American people have become so numbed and complacent with being spoon-fed news on the 24-hour cycle that print is dying because it cannot keep up. Thank you CNN. I recently heard a media commentator refer to a newspaper's website as the reincarnation of the 'afternoon edition'. And that's pretty accurate. Maybe the internet can save Journalism (with a capital 'J') but that's the full half of the glass talking.

I want it made abundantly clear that while there have been more than a few bad apples in recent memory, either tugging their forelock to the administration or foaming at the mouth and pursuing them with the avid determination of a Zombie mob out trolling for brains. I'd wager good money that 89% of the journalists in the US would rather eat glass than engage in yellow journalism. The 11% that would, work for the papers and media outlets that get off on that sort of thing.

They can't always be right, but they damn well try.

Media consolidation, FCC deregulation of television stations, reduced markets and other forces are driving the publisher into the newsroom, begging for ratings. The TV news (which I never, ever watch) has eroded the confidence the press feels in themselves. The need to play 'gotcha' to get ratings is feeding public dissatisfaction with a press that can't figure how to respond to a readership that decries the sex scandals and death tolls while buying ten times as many copies when those stories are featured.

Journalists are people. No better, no worse than you or I. Except that they are trained, rigorously by the schools that award them degree, to sublimate their own opinions and dwell in the realm of facts no matter how they feel about it. They have their own opinions and their own ideas and are less inclined than most to allow anyone to tell them what to think. Are trained - in fact - to resist editorial pressure. To cling to the truth. They're people, though, right? So not everyone can or is willing to do it.

About the only things they can be said to agree on 100% is that it would be nice to win a Pulitzer, Peabody, Nobel and/or Murrow.

By way of illustration: My last act as a journalist, back in college, was to accept three major awards from the Missouri College Newspaper Association. I beat out reporters and editors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism - the oldest journalism school in the world and still one of the most prestigious.

They were presented to me by a dean that would - within months - be forced out in disgrace because of the news story and editorials I was receiving the awards for. I had known her and her family for my entire life.

Nothing happens for only one reason, but that was the main reason why I walked away from it.
I couldn't do it anymore and changed my major, walked away from a promising career because I had looked in the teeth of what it meant to be that dispassionate, that detached from the story I was reporting.

is the pool journalists are drawn from.

Cuba libre

I had the privilege of seeing the Cuban timba and son band Tiempo Libre perform on 4 April 2008. Their music was engaging, lively, and spirited as one would expect Cubano music to be.

Interestingly, they closed their performance with a song dedicated “to the greatest nation in the world, the United States of America.” Their words, not mine.

This leaves me wondering: What would a bunch of twenty-something natives of Castro’s Cuba think about the assertion of oppression made by some Americans against the Bush administration? What would they think about the political and personal wrangling that has surrounded issues like warrantless surveillance?

Now, I know that the immediate response will be something like “We oppose the Bush administration so that we don’t end up like Cuba.”

Somehow I think the response should be “Yeah, we are the best nation in the world, but we have problems. What can we do about that so that we can be even better?”

Cuba no es libre pero todavía somos. Viva la libertad.

...and you must speak JAVA

This is funny because it's late, and I know lots of Mexicans. It also has a ring of truth to it, in a strange way.

If you read it on the Internet, it must be true.

More examples of “media malpractice,” this time courtesy of The Weekly Standard.

(In case that last wasn’t unambiguous, it’s the Standard that seems to be reporting on the malpractice, rather than necessarily committing it. But maybe there’s media bias in the article about media bias. You never know…)

I Lied About Surveillance and So Did Mike Mukasey

In the comments to another post, I made the statement that I was done commenting about the warrantless surveillance issue. I lied. I really didn't mean to, but here I am talking about it again, so there is only one conclusion to draw. I lied.

And apparently so did Attorney General Michael Mukasey when he commented publicly about a pre-9/11 call the U.S. intercepted from Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Furthermore, to date, the media has failed to pick up the story demonstrating once again that folks on all sides of the issues of the day have cause to doubt the professionalism of our fourth estate.

It also points out a main reason I've been so shrill about the whole warrantless surveillance issue. Denny has argued here that the action of our government and the telecoms was justified for national security reasons. While I disagree with this view and have taken even greater issue with some of the factual and logical inconsistencies in the arguments he has put forth to make this point, the point itself is not completely without merit. We disagree on the degree of the threat facing us and on the relative priority national security, in this instance, and adherence to the law among our leaders must take in our calculations of right action. Despite some of the harsh words I have lobbed at Denny, this is ground upon which reasonable people can rightly disagree.

What makes me unreasonable is the growing mountain of evidence of the government’s dishonest attempts to avoid any accountability for their actions at any cost. I may have overlooked something, but I have heard no one from the government who was in a position of responsibility for the illegal surveillance they conducted come forth and make precisely Denny’s argument – “we broke the law, but the national security need was so great we felt we had to. Please don’t hold the telecoms responsible for responding to our need. We paid them and leaned on them to comply; it’s not their fault."

No. Instead we have been presented with an array of factual inaccuracies about the law as it exists today and spurious claims of the need to protect state secrets, claims that have persisted even in the face of solutions offered by the House of Representatives to all of the supposed problems. Moreover, the administration has consistently used scare tactics to convince us to comply with their wishes, telling us that we're wide open to threat -- that this is a zero sum game: either pass this new legislation with telecom amnesty or be killed by terrorists. The Mukasey performance was just the latest in this long series of parlor tricks.

Here are a couple of mutually referencing links to another discussion of the situation:

Center for Citizen Media

Glenn Greenwald

Thursday, April 3, 2008

I would like to start by saying that I haven’t been following every one of the conversations on this blog recently because of time constraints, and also for the general bloviating that has been occurring. In commenting to posts, people have taken writings by other posters and read them through their own particular biases and beliefs. Nothing wrong with that – we all do it.

However, as a reader, a contributor, and an intelligent person, the veiled and not-so-veiled “he’s a big poo-poo head” comments recently have started to concern me. It seems that contributors have moved away from serious conversation and debate and have descended into mud-slinging and semantics. Seriously, aren’t we a little more mature and confident in our beliefs than that?

Some things in the last several posts/responses that have jumped out at me now follow. I have a lot more, but these in particular stood out. And no, I'm not "picking" on anyone, so don't go there.

“I'm given to wonder what you expected when you decided to create this blog and invited intelligent people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds to have an ongoing and reasoned discussion and/or debate about the issues of the day.”

Here’s what I expected – intelligent people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds to have an ongoing and reasoned discussion and/or debate about the issues of the day. I think we all expected that…maybe not. Is that what is occurring? Not so much anymore. Reading through the comments was more of Laws and Surveillance Redux was more of a playground fight than a debate.

“We can’t stop just because you don’t have the answers to our questions” – ok, fine. Since when has anyone had all the answers to every question that has been asked of them? If there is no answer (and I’ve had questions answered with “I don’t know how to respond to that”), move on. That seems pretty arrogant to assume that every question will be able to be answered – doesn’t happen in life, isn’t going to happen on a blog.

Based on the dominant personalities on this blog, people are not going to change their worldview just because others do not agree with them. Think about what they believe, why they believe it, and how to articulate and defend that belief? Yes. Become more informed about what other people think? Yes. “Convince” people that they are wrong? Not likely.

“Quibbling” is a term that flies around in responses. In many of the contexts I’ve read, it appears that “quibbling” is a snarky way to say “I’m going to ignore what you said because I think you’re wrong and your point isn’t worth it”.

“You don't have to concede that you are wrong. Merely state the truth. Repeat after me, "I believe what I believe because I believe it. My President would never harm me, unless he were a panzy-ass Democrat with no taste for war. Otherwise, any Republican President who agrees with my already held beliefs may do anything he pleases to see that my agenda is made real. By definition, it is good because I say it is."” That is reasoned discussion and debate?!

If we are intelligent people having reasoned discussion and debate, let’s do it. If we are going to stomp our feet when others either a) don’t agree with us, b) don’t answer every single question we ask, or c) ask us questions we don’t like, take that discussion off list. I know every contributor on this list and I certainly know that we are all capable of acting like intelligent adults.

Laws of surveillance

The United States of America faces a difficult and ongoing issue that was brought into dramatic focus on 11 September 2001: agents of foreign enemies are operating on American soil with the intention of killing American citizens, and in great part, the government does not know who they are.

Whether or not the current struggle represents the beginning of a long war against fundamentalist Muslim jihadism or a short-term fight against a flare-up of terrorist activity by the same, the United States has a problem: First, it has enemies on its own soil. Second, its laws are not adequate to deal with the existing threat.

In 2001, President Bush decided to address part of that problem by authorizing warrantless surveillance in order to discover who the enemies were and then pursue lawful actions to stop them. This authority was derived from well-established and historical precedent established by many previous administrations and in is in keeping with the actions of administrations throughout American history in dealing with crises that threaten the Republic.

This authority also represents a temporary and constitutionally difficult solution that is far better resolved by better-crafted laws targeted at dealing with the nature of the issues at hand. If there is any mistake in the administration’s handling of these issues, it has been that it did not aggressively pursue legislative remedies to these issues far sooner.

Now, the administration and Congress have no choice. The methods the administration was using have been compromised and legally challenged. In order to resolve these issues, the administration and Congress must craft laws that simultaneously protect the American people from potential abuse and also grant the intelligence agencies the ability to discover who the enemies are so those enemies can be stopped.

Unfortunately, it seems that the politicians and thinkers responsible for crafting such solutions are too fixated on politics to fulfill their obligations. This fixation seems to be a national infection, which results in no solutions being presented even as the threat continues and, perhaps, even grows.

In an effort to counter that infection and help guide the national discussion in a direction that may lead to solutions, here are presented several ideas that can form the basis of those solutions.

First, any law that is created must ensure that the liberty of the American people is preserved to the greatest extent possible and that the Republic is defended so that this liberty can be enjoyed. Therefore, the intelligence agencies must be granted the ability to establish causal evidence against enemies of the United States, but they must be constrained from using that evidence for any other purpose than cause by continual and practical oversight. The most effective way to accomplish this end is to create a function, probably judicial, that reviews gathered evidence and certifies it for legitimate use as causal evidence against agents working militarily against the United States on behalf of foreign enemies.

Second, any law that is created must protect intelligence sources, methods, and means from disclosure to protect intelligence agents and those cooperating with them. Specifically, this law must exempt those who cooperate from civil liability over the collection of causal intelligence in order to ensure continued cooperation for that purpose.

Third, the law must clearly state that any punitive action requires the securing of warranted surveillance and authority to act as clearly established by the Constitution. Due to the sensitive nature of these warrants and resulting cases, federal jurisdiction must be clearly established over them, the FISA court must be greatly expanded to accommodate the legal function of the intelligence services in this capacity, and a parallel court must be established to handle cases resulting from this activity.

Fourth, any law must be clearly set to expire on a regular basis, forcing the existing administration and Congress to review the law for applicability and flaws.

Finally, any law must specifically and explicitly apply only to the gathering of causal intelligence against agents of foreign enemies acting on American soil; however, this law must apply to the activities of both foreign nationals and natural citizens acting in this capacity.

This list is neither exhaustive nor complete. Such a law is very complex due to the nature of the problems it deals with and must be carefully crafted before it is implemented. This list simply gives a place to start the conversation, one that will hopefully happen quickly and for the benefit of the United States and its citizens.


Cross-posted on Dennis L Hitzeman’s Worldview Weblog

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Laws and surveillance redux

[T]hat government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

-The conclusion to the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln, 1 June 1865

The Civil War was the greatest Constitutional crisis the United States ever faced, not just because of the obvious schism of the Republic, but also because of the things the government of the United States, including President Lincoln, decided to do to weather the conflict. Yet, even in the midst of that crisis, the goal of the Union was always clear: to preserve the Republic against forces that would destroy it from within and from without.

That effort was a difficult, costly, and bloody one. Things were said and done during that effort that still reverberate through American society one hundred forty three years after it ended. Broad wounds left from that effort took decades to heal. Some scars are still visible, and some argue that those scars have not completely healed.

In 2008, new threats loom against the Republic both from within and without. Much like the government of 1861 discovered, the counters to these threats are neither always clear nor always the best. Unfortunately, as with all threats in all times, the government of the United States in 2008 must respond with the resources it has available to it, not the resources it wishes it had.

The chief role of the Executive of the government of the United States is to preserve the Republic. Without the Republic, there is no Constitution, there are no citizens, there are no liberties, there are no laws. In 2001, President George W Bush, seeking to fulfill his role against the threats he and his administration perceived as arrayed against the Republic, authorized the warrantless surveillance of individuals in the United States believed to be operating in a military capacity against the United States in cooperation with foreign enemies.

According to the Congressional Research Service (.pdf, 44 pages), every President since Franklin Roosevelt has asserted the right to and used warrantless surveillance against perceived threats to the Republic. Since the Carter administration, warrantless surveillance has been a regular part of every administration’s actions to counter terrorist threats. Warrantless surveillance against agents of foreign enemies is a well established and well documented method for countering the threat these agents possess.

The matter at hand in the several posts on A Host of Contributing Factors has been whether or not the President violated established law by using warrantless surveillance to gather information on the activities on fundamentalist Muslim jihadis working on behalf of al Qaeda and other similar organizations and--I am speculating--working on behalf of some nations against the United States.

Empirically, I do not believe this violation has occurred, for the very same reasons that Lincoln, Roosevelt, Carter, Clinton, and Bush did not believe they had occurred. I believe these violations have not occurred because there is a well-established and historic body of evidence saying that the current administration has acted in accordance with the actions of many previous administrations in dealing with threats against the Republic in times of crisis.

I believe that the current problem that lies before the administration and Congress is that the current body of law that exists to describe the bounds of this well-established and historic authority of the President did not anticipate the contradictions within that body of law itself. A particular portion of this contradiction is granting immunity to telecommunications providers when this authority is exercised. This immunity is important not just to protect telecoms from liability for cooperating, but also to prevent the disclosure of sources, methods, and means in open court, thereby compromising active intelligence operations and personnel.

I also believe that this method of collecting intelligence against foreign agents is the worst solution to a very complicated and ongoing problem. The administration has made countless decisions in implementing and carrying out this program that would have been far better done through better legislation and its accompanying oversight. I have and continue to advocate for those better solutions even as I grant that the existing solution must be allowed to continue until those better solutions exist.

Further, I believe these solutions are necessary because, like any conflict, the current conflict is not isolated to a single front. Certainly, fighting our enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq has substantially reduced those enemies’ ability to bring the fight to us, but they still have some capacity, and it is that capacity these solutions are designed to protect against. In the same way that Civil Defense was organized to combat the domestic threats posed by America’s enemies during World War Two and the Cold War, so these solutions in conjunction with law enforcement combat the domestic threats posed by our enemies now.

I think the problem that has presented itself in the warrantless surveillance debate and is repeated in so many of the debates surrounding the actions of the current administration since 2001 is that one side in the debate typically demands that the other side concede or agree to some significant point before any further debate can be had. As a result, there is no opportunity to move beyond the point of concession because these are often fundamental points that the other side cannot concede.

I do not and will not concede that warrantless surveillance has violated the law, nor will I ask anyone who believes that such surveillance does violate the law to set aside that belief before I am willing to discuss better ways to solve the problems of collecting intelligence against foreign agents on American soil. I also grant, even with as strongly as I state my position, that I may still be wrong; however, I believe that the case for my being right is compelling and I will stick with it.

If those who believe that I am wrong wish to pursue their conclusion to its logical course, that is their right, even their Constitutional responsibility. I find that such a pursuit is destructive in a time of conflict, but I concede that our nation is capable of enduring even that kind of destructive behavior if it sets its mind to it.

In the mean time, my greatest wish is to move beyond the “Bush lied, broke the law, knows the size of my underwear…” debate to come up with solutions to the problems that remain whether anyone concedes or not. It is clear to me that our government and its supporting appendages in think tanks and like organizations are so fixated on one problem that no one is coming up with solutions. In the same way that the border with Mexico remains unsecured because of the Washingtonian fixation on comprehensive immigration reform, so the United States remains vulnerable to the actions of the agents of foreign enemies because one side of the debate wants someone to go to jail.

If someone going to jail is the solution to this impasse, then fine, I volunteer. In the meantime, let’s concentrate ourselves on finding solutions to this mess before it really does destroy the Republic.