Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Smilin' John Bolton

Most insiders viewed John Bolton's nomination as Ambassador to the U.N. as a move primarily to get him out of the State Department to limit the damage he could do, not as a reward. Still, the idea that an UN Ambassador could or would need to be "handled," as the Bush administration asserted, appalled many Senators such as Voinovich (R-OH). A good diplomat is someone skilled at handling others, not someone who requires it! And who would nominate such an individual? (Hmm…)

While the infamously pugnacious Bolton may have been briefly cowed and humbled by the prospect of losing the nomination process, this article by Mark Leon Goldberg in The American Prospect shows that he quickly regressed to form. In addition to alienating foreign allies, he continues his pattern of undermining colleagues and picking needless, counterproductive fights. Different management styles can prove effective, but it's hard to see Bolton as much more than yet another ideologue woefully unsuited for a position of true importance, uninterested in effectiveness. (Meritocracy remains among the most radical, revolutionary ideas in the world.)

Bolton has always seemed proud of his tactlessness, likely with the affectation that it makes him "blunt" or a "straight-shooter." When he proclaimed that if the UN building lost 10 of its 38 floors, it wouldn’t make a difference, he gave many politicians and career diplomats concern… but gained cheerleaders elsewhere. Colin Powell apparently thought quite poorly of Bolton, and this no doubt won Bolton further favor with Cheney and Rumsfeld. Thus, moving Bolton from State to UN Ambassador was not just a matter of limiting damage as new realism crept back into Bush's foreign policy. Condeleeza Rice wanted to get rid of Bolton, but Cheney strongly backed him for the ambassador position. The stated rationale was that as a fervent critic of the UN, Bolton was just the man to instigate much needed reform. This always smacked a little of the "It took Nixon to go to China" defense (an argument I've always viewed as rather simplistic and silly anyway). In Bolton's case, however, it may prove to be more like sending David Duke to speak to the NAACP. It is one thing to want to reform an institution, but if one despises the institution, the results ain't likely to be pretty.

In truth, Bolton's nomination really seemed like just another assertion of the bullying, arrogant cowboy diplomacy that still dominates in much of the Bush administration. Jeffrey Goldberg's recent major New Yorker article on George H.W. Bush's National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft delivers one of the most incisive portraits of this mindset yet:

Scowcroft suggested that the White House was taking the wrong advice, and listening to a severely limited circle. He singled out the Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who was consulted by Vice-President Cheney and others after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Lewis, Scowcroft said, fed a feeling in the White House that the United States must assert itself. “It’s that idea that we’ve got to hit somebody hard,” Scowcroft said. “And Bernard Lewis says, ‘I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.’ ” Cheney, in particular, Scowcroft thinks, accepted Lewis’s view of Middle East politics.

Macho rhetoric might be impressive to the True Believers as part of a public performance, but it tends not to be effective in the actual diplomacy that occurs in closed rooms. Asking for a favor after you've hit someone in the face never works that well.

I had not known that Bolton worked for Jesse Helms, but it makes a great deal of sense, considering their shared hostility toward the UN. Mark Leon Goldberg reports:

Helms was a key booster of Bolton early in his career: Bolton began his public service as Helms’ aide, and the two share a warm -- some might say eternal -- relationship. During Bolton’s 2001 confirmation hearing as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Helms famously referred to him as “the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon.”

Helms neglected to mention that he and Bolton seek to instigate that same Armageddon. The final paragraph of the article suggests Bolton actively looks for fights:

After listening to a tirade from Bolton against inefficiency, corruption, and supposed anti-Americanism at the UN during a private dinner, a Sunday Telegraph reporter in the audience asked him what he enjoyed most about the UN, to which Bolton replied, “It’s a target-rich environment.”

When Christmas is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Celebrate Christmas

Will it surprise anyone to learn that Fox News, the network which concocted the false "War on Christmas," actually invited its employees to a "holiday party?" What happened to the fight-to-the-last-man ethos that we should all say "Merry Christmas?" Why was happy, er, angry, Christian warrior Bill O'Reilly originally offering "holiday ornaments" before the web site was changed? Why have George and Laura Bush wished folks "Happy Holidays" and "Season's Greetings?" Didn't they get the memo?

I blame the liberal media.

A few stupidity checks are in order. Calling a Christmas tree a "holiday tree" is stupid, unless it's within your own home and you're definitely not Christian but you and your kids enjoy the whole tree thing (even then it's pretty silly). Insisting that "Happy Holidays" is offensive is asinine, since most Christians celebrate Christmas and New Year's and the phrase covers both… as well as Chanukah and Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice for all those, y'know, pagans. Claiming that institutions must call "winter break" "Christmas break" is stupid, offensive, and discriminatory… not to mention, inaccurate. My "winter break" in college lasted six weeks, starting just before Thanksgiving and ending just after New Year's. Many high school kids and college kids have a week or so off before Christmas lasting until just after New Year's (see the "Happy Holidays" discussion). Yes, at one time Christians could claim persecution… back when they were being fed to lions under the Roman Empire. But does any sane, honest person believe that an American cannot find a safe haven to celebrate Christmas in this country? Who is likely to feel more comfortable during the Christmas season, a Christian or a Jew?

I would argue that, far from there being a war against people of faith, there is a concerted movement against empiricism, science, and religious tolerance. You see, atheists as a whole are not a rowdy bunch, other than perhaps the Bolsheviks in 1914, but the majority of Trotskyites now seem to be Republicans anyway (the "neocons").

So here’s the latest salvos about Fox’s faux war.

By far the funniest (but substantial) performance to date comes from Sam Seder on CNN, who starts with the premise that the “War on Christmas” is the same as the Iraq war and quickly moves to Santa’s al-Qaeda connection and elf torture. To say Seder mops the floor with his opponent is to be too kind to the hapless Bob Knight of the Culture and Family Institute. Oh, and it’s become a general principle of the blogosphere (and debate in general) that when you invoke the Nazis, you’re losing (by the way, while Seder doesn’t mention it, having Knight, a proclaimed “Christian” invoke the Nazis to complain about religious persecution to a Jew is the height of bad taste.) Thanks to Crooks and Liars for posting this gem.

But the funnies don’t stop there. Ruth Marcus penned a nice op-ed in The Washington Post. Over at the Poyter Institute, a former Fox News producer reveals the strategy employed by the station. It’s a must-read.

Bill O’Reilly emerges as the uncontested champion of boobs, however. He wins this honor with a hat trick. He scores his first point by proclaiming that he shall “bring horror” upon the “oppressive, totalitarian and anti-Christian forces in this country”... Because nothing captures the spirit of Christmas like intolerance, hatred, and threats. (As long as Bill wants to fight phantoms, can we have him go off and say, protect the Easter Bunny from the commies in an isolated bunker somewhere?)

For his second point, Bill continues to make friends by casually accusing Madison, Wisconsin of Satan-worship. I wish I was making this up. (I would be surprised if O'Reilly's ratings weren’t eroding... unless folks are tuning in out of a Network-esque morbid curiosity to see if his head will finally explode.)

Still, he really outdoes himself for point three when he claims that a school district in Texas has embraced “fascism” by banning students from wearing red and green clothing. My god, and in the liberal bastion of Texas! Could it be that O’Reilly was... absolutely wrong? Nawh! Why bother to fact-check when there are rational people to slur? Poynter’s Jim Romensko posted the school district’s response here. I’m particularly fond of the polite understatment of the paragraph:

Dr. Otto said that our attorney requested of Mr. O'Reilly that, in the future, he ask his fact checkers to do a more thorough job of confirming the facts before he airs them.

Media Matters has the video here.

The Daily Show sums up much of Fox’s absurdity nicely, spotlighting O’Reilly further here and here. The second, longer item nicely captures a deceptive attack by O'Reilly on... The Daily Show.

Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live was actually funny in a Bill O’Reilly sketch that played on his disdain for fact-checking. You can see it if you hit their website, click on videos, and find the Jason Lee episode... the segment is listed as: “White House leak... Political operative... treason... Who cares?!”

(A final, brief anecdote… in my high school, it feel to the art classes to design the annual school Christmas card, but my art teacher understandably got sick of being caught in between the administration's demand that the card must say "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings," not feature a Christmas tree, and so on, while the kids drawing the things didn't really see what the big fuss was about (about 15-20% of the school was Jewish, I'd say, with most kids, regardless of denomination, celebrating Christmas.) One year, my teacher decided to just post all the card designs on a bulletin board and have the school vote for their choice, democratically. I submitted at least one traditional design, but to mix it up, I also drew one featuring a meditating Buddha with the logo, "Enter into the Kingdom of Bliss." (I actually had to redraw it because in my rush I left the "g" out of "kingdom.") Most people got a good laugh out of the Buddha card, but of course it didn't win. As I recall, the winner (by administrative decree versus vote) was something bland and inoffensive... but at least better drawn than mine.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Bizarre Web Ads

Okay, this first one is not that bizarre... just transparent. Hmmm, what might MSNBC be selling here? This ad was all over the web the past few days. Shame on you, porn makers! Shame on you, insidious porn buyers! And, uh... shame on you, viewer, if you miss our titillating, sensationalist (and likely shallow) coverage!

Nothing promises romantic love like a hydrocephalic blonde chick! Everytime I've seen this fairly common ad, all I can focus on is how, through the magic of Photoshop, this woman's head is abnormally large (most likely transplanted onto someone else's body). I mean, I'm sure she's got a great personality and all, and Match.com's apparent policy of accepting folks of all sorts and sizes is cool, but who the hell thought mutant was sexy?

I have dubbed this the "Rasta Grinch" or the "Rasta Home Mortgage Grinch." While this mortgage company runs some weeeeeeird ads in its attempt to be eye-catching, this is the most bizarre. Bah humbug to Christmas, but smoke it up as we gouge your pocketbook with a horrible refinancing deal! Perhaps that's the message... after you're broke, you won't have any money for presents, so to hell with Christmas and toke up so you don't mind so much.

Or maybe he just caught sight of the neon porn silhouette at MSNBC.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Because Jesus Died for My Sins, Not Yours, Ya Damn Hippie!

(Hmm, slow news week. Need to fill the airtime here at Fox News. What to talk about? The burgeoning Republican scandals? Nawh! How about a manufactured crisis? Okay, it’s worked in the past, but what can we talk about? Well, it’s almost Christmas... and we know that liberals are the enemy of all that is good and holy... Hell, this stuff just writes itself!)

Neil Postman wrote in his brilliant essay “Silent Questions” that the questions we ask determine the answers we get. Check out the Fox News topic question here, as submitted to Crooks and Liars by a reader:

If you can’t read it clearly, it says, “ECONOMIC DISASTER IF LIBERALS WIN THE “WAR ON CHRISTMAS”?

I mean, come on. Pretending this question isn’t loaded and biased is like pretending Rush Limbaugh actually does research or Josef Stalin was a humanitarian. The bold shamelessness makes me laugh. “Fair and balanced,” indeed.

As Postman would note, this question is constructed to be answered with a simple yes or no; no complexity or nuance allowed here. Furthermore, the question’s weight is slanted toward a “yes” answer because in classic alarmist fashion, it poses a (fake) crisis. As with manipulative news show teasers, such as “the five signs of cancer that could save your life! The news at eleven!” this is a cheap ploy to create much sound and fury to get people to watch, in this case, idle and vapid chatter about a non-issue.

The question also presupposes several factors. The most glaring and biased idea is that liberals, apparently a monolithic entity, are waging a war on Christmas. They aren’t. (Can one even wage a war on Christmas? Postman would surely ask.)

The second presupposition is that economic disaster looms ahead. Yes, many businesses, most of all toy stores, do the bulk of their business in the Christmas season (I believe 25-30% is fairly common for retail businesses). As I recall, Christmas shopping did fall somewhat in 2001 after 9/11, but all the conservatives crow about how great the economy is now! Has there been some major article plausibly predicting economic disaster I’ve missed?

(Ah. But you see, the liberals want to ruin all that prosperity, because it will make Bush look bad! Liberals hate a strong economy. And they hate Christmas! And we are but their willing slaves unless we throw off their oppressive yoke and reclaim all three branches of government! Er, wait. Let me think of something about those damn hippie atheist teachers. That might play better.)

I know I won’t do any Christmas shopping because of those damn liberals. I’ll stay away from the stores and not even shop online just to spite them for practicing their so-called “religious tolerance," which we all know is nothing more than anti-Christian bigotry! When my mother looks at me with surprised and hurt eyes on Christmas morning, wondering where her gift is, I’ll shout, “Ask Howard Dean about your Christmas present!”

Does anyone truly feel Christmas is threatened? Sure, there may be isolated incidents of politically correct excess on the one hand, or overbearing religious intrusion on the other, but this just ain’t a burning issue. One of my Jewish roommates in college asserted that Chanukah, while celebrating a small miracle chiefly about tradition, cultural identity and not assimilating, was a minor holiday elevated to major status just to compete with Christmas (the big Jewish holidays being Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah instead, or even Passover). Still, most folks will take the care to wish Jewish friends Happy Chanukah versus Merry Christmas (or Happy Kwanzaa if they know one of the comparatively few people who practices it). What’s the big deal? I’ve never known a non-Christian to take offense at being wished a “Merry Christmas,” nor would anyone other than a zealot get outraged at being told, “Happy holidays.” Most devout Christian folks I know object to the crass commercialism of the season more than they fret over a choice of words; getting upset over a “Happy holidays” makes about as much sense as getting angry at someone who wishes you to “Have a nice day.”

(Instead of this focus on a non-issue, how about pressuring the airline companies not to jack up holiday airfare instead?)

But never let the lack of an actual crisis get in the way of hard-hitting news. Even if Fox did the “War on Christmas” story last year too, 'tis the seasonal gift that keeps on giving!

In this Fox News segment (you may have to scroll down a few), Neal Gabler make the point, citing an article by Michelle Goldberg, that the “War on Christmas” goes back at least to 1921 and Henry Ford and is a sham. Notice in this clip how Jane Hall is just yelled over (real gentlemanly behavior, fellas... a great job especially by the host for allowing it, and cutting off Jane Hall from responding to an ad hominem attack from Pinkerton). Pinkerton tries to argue that there is a war on Christmas, between the liberal media elites and the Christian masses; nevermind that you won't find a single major news outlet campaigning against Christmas! Meanwhile, Cal Thomas gets special mention not only for quipping that secularists worship April 1st as their holiday (what an intolerant, dismissive ass), but also for brazenly trying to argue that Jesus was intolerant! (Bravo. Try arguing that at a good seminary.)

The only reason to watch Fox News is those rare moments when the truth breaks through by a guest calling “bullshit” on the Fox crew. Jane Hall and Neal Gabler do just that:

Neal: ...I want to talk about the media angle because we have avoided it-it's the elephant in the room. It's Fox News. Come on-It's Bill O'Reilly, it's Sean Hannity, it's Gibson. They're demogogues who realized that in Christmas time you can-(garbled)- rouse the masses on this issue. They'll do it every Christmas. They did it last Christmas, they'll do it next Christmas.

Neal: We're at war, there's Darfur, there's an AIDS crisis and you're worried about whether people should say Merry Christmas? What world do you live in?

What makes all this hysteria from Fox News so much funnier is that Laura Bush said “Happy holidays” just last week, and the conservative commentators only seem to have caught up with this now, as the White House cards celebrating the “holiday season” arrive. The Washington Post reports:

"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."

Wow! Now that’s Christian! How dare you wish me well in a way that does not proclaim your religion is the same as mine!

Because, let’s face it, what the Christmas season is really about is intolerance. Keith Olbermann picks up on the ludicrousness of "Christian" intolerance as he names Fox News’ intellectual lightweight John Gibson his “worst person in the world” for 12/2/05. Olbermann explains, after discussing the runners-up:

But the winner, and this one comes with great personal pain because we were friends when he worked here and thereafter: John Gibson. Selling his new book about this phony-baloney war on Christmas, John revealed a very ugly side to himself. He is one of those people who think all religions but his are mistaken. You know, the way a lot of these religious nutbag terrorists think. "I would think," Gibbie said on a syndicated radio show, "if somebody is going to be -- have to answer for following the wrong religion, they are not going to have to answer to me. We know who they're going to have to answer to."

I'd tell you which religion John thinks is the only one that's right, but what's the difference? It's not the faith that's the issue; it's the intolerance.

Amen. I also read one blog comment that pointed out that's it rather funny that supposed "Christians" are so up in arms over a "Christmas tree" being called a "holiday tree," when it's just an adopted pagan tradition anyway: "Maybe I need to re-read the Bible, but I don't remember a big evergreen next to the manger."

There will be a lot of heathens burning this winter — Wait! Burning this Christmas! — I can promise you that! (Film at eleven!)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Who's Driving the Car?

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow's latest entry for This Modern World offers an especially pithy and trenchant perspective on Iraq.

Hindsight is not always 20/20. It is possible, and tragically in some cases all too likely, to learn a bad lesson (I will not say wrong) from a momentous occasion, especially a traumatic one. I would argue that one of the essential lessons to learn from 9/11 is the value of human connections and international cooperation, not that a nation should act unilaterally against all advice and invade another country whose threat is already contained. Legitimate arguments existed in favor of invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein. However, those arguments were, by and large, not made (probably because it would raise our country's own spotty history with Iraq). I'm currently reading The Assassin's Gate, which shows, as others have before, that the neoconservatives had long wanted to invade Iraq. One school of thought is that 9/11 was merely an excuse for them to take action. Certainly many if not all of the neocons believed that Saddam Hussein was a genuine threat. Some of them even likely believed he was an imminent threat. However, the sincerity of the belief does not excuse the intellectual poverty of the philosophy, nor the manipulation of the Iraq intelligence, nor the skewing of the public debate, nor the lack of a postwar plan, nor the staggering and deadly incompetence of the actions taken. Finally, the sincerity of the belief does not excuse the inability to learn, adjust, and improve, as the neocons stubbornly stick with the same myopic hubris that got us into this mess to begin with.

Al Franken's offered a version of the following analogy: If someone drives a car into a ditch, throws away the tires, and then sets the car on fire, it doesn't make much sense to turn to the passenger and say, "Oh yeah? What's your bright idea for getting us out of this mess?" First thing you do is get rid of the driver. He's obviously not making good decisions, and time has shown that's just not going to change.

If only hindsight were 20/20.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Original Ending Was Just Too Downbeat

Who's your target audience?

Tone is just so important.

One of the most brilliant internet creations I've come across in a while is the following fake trailer, which sells Stanley Kubrick's The Shining as a quirky family comedy-drama. Cringe, marvel, and cringe again - because as with Network, don't think the powers-that-be in Hollywood haven't thought of it.

(One of the music cues comes from Thomas Newman's score from The Shawshank Redemption, often cribbed for use in trailers… the ending narration and music is based on the Around the Bend trailer... but the chirpy opening is fantastic as well.)

Monday, November 28, 2005

Who Voted for Torture?

Congratulations yet again to John McCain and the vast majority of Republicans in the Senate who voted against torture (every Democrat did). If you're like me, you wondered, who were the nine senators for voted according to Cheney's wishes to allow torture? Here's the list... all Republican, and some heavy hitters.

The bill is of course not out of the woods yet, with the Pentagon, the House, and Cheney all making new moves... all of which really deserves greater scrutiny than this meager and belated post. However, when politicians do the right thing, we need to applaud them, to encourage them to do it again. So bravo. Keep it up, Senate... you give us hope. Maybe next you'll repeal those tax cuts to the rich versus cutting aid to the poor.

Return of the Denver Three

Now the ACLU has rode in on their white horses to represent two of the three! (No word on what the deal is on the third.) The Rocky Mountain News has the latest update here.

I still feel any legal action could easily been avoided if Michael Casper, the man now identified as ejecting the Denver Three, had simply acted like an adult and apologized. Or, alternatively, someone else, such as the Denver police or the FBI, who both knew Casper's identity but refused to reveal it, had persuaded him to act like an adult and apologize. Perhaps not; perhaps identifying himself through an apology would have just opened Casper to be sued. However, that's happening anyway now, and boy does he look bad. Had he apologized, the story would be out of the news long ago, and had he still been sued, public opinion might have been with him.

Casper's actions were silly and stupid, but they was also illegal. I personally don't think trampling anyone's civil rights is a good thing, nor does it comfort me to think that it doesn't seem to trouble the Denver police, nor the FBI. So a partisan guy gets overzealous and abuses his authority - in fact, invents an authority he does not possess. It's not the end of the world; let him apologize, let's return to civility, and move on. However, there can be no return to civility without civil rights. Casper has yet to acknowledge, pubicly or privately, that what he did was wrong. Consequently, instead of owing the Denver Three an apology, he may soon be owing them money as well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


The Los Angeles Times has presented the best, most in-depth tale yet of Curveball, the Iraqi defector who provided most of the false intelligence that justifed the push to war. In its own way, this article gives Stephen King a run for his money.

Many maddening elements emerge. One is the persistent, ridiculous and needless turf battles between groups that are supposed to be on the same side. On 9/11 it was policeman and firemen tragically not communicating; before 9/11 it was the FBI and CIA, among others, who did not share information; here, it was Germany's Federal Intelligence Service (the BND) preventing the American CIA any access to their prize informant, Curveball. The lack of access was exacerbated by mistranslations... LA Times journalists Bob Drogin and John Goetz report:

It got worse, like a children's game of "telephone," in which information gets increasingly distorted. The BND sent German summaries of their English and Arabic interview reports to Munich House and to British intelligence. The DIA team translated the German back to English and prepared its own summaries. Those went to DIA's directorate for human intelligence, at a high-rise office in Clarendon, Va.

Still, for any mistranslations that contributed to the false belief that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his WMD programs, at several points the CIA was told that Curveball was not reliable at best, and a liar at worst. George Tenet claims he never received this information. However, as Director of Central Intelligence at the time, and considering Curveball's accounts played a crucial role in the public case for war, it is inconceivable Tenet did not know the intelligence was suspect.

Hanlon's Razor states that one should "never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity." One could easily add in ignorance and incompetence. If DCI Tenet really did not know that Curveball was unreliable, then the CIA was even more poorly managed than previously reported.

Turf battles apparently occured within the CIA as well. Several sources in the article comment on the CIA's stubborn unwillingness to admit its own mistakes and learn from them. Apparently, those agents who questioned Curveball's veracity were punished for making waves. David Kay, who searched for WMD after the war, observes that the CIA is "very, very vindictive." While the article shows that there were (and no doubt still are) very capable, professional CIA agents, their efforts appear to have been stymied. Something in the culture or the management prevented the accurate view on Curveball to emerge, let alone dominate.

Psychologists have long known that typically, human beings tend to look for evidence to support their views, not for evidence to contradict them. This dynamic makes the thorough vetting of critical intelligence all the more crucial. Consider the following incident:

Soon after U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the discovery of two trucks loaded with lab equipment in northern Iraq brought cheers to the CIA weapons center.

Curveball examined photos relayed to Germany and said that while he hadn't worked on the two trucks, equipment in the pictures looked like components he had installed at Djerf al Nadaf.

Days later, the CIA and DIA rushed to publish a White Paper declaring the trucks part of Hussein's biological warfare program. The report dismissed Iraq's explanation that the equipment generated hydrogen as a "cover story." A day later, Bush told a Polish TV reporter: "We found the weapons of mass destruction."

But bio-weapons experts in the intelligence community were sharply critical. A former senior official of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research called the unclassified report an unprecedented "rush to judgment."

The DIA then ordered a classified review of the evidence. One of 15 analysts held to the initial finding that the trucks were built for germ warfare. The sole believer was the CIA analyst who helped draft the original White Paper.

Hamish Killip, a former British army officer and biological weapons expert, flew to Baghdad in July 2003 as part of the Iraq Survey Group, the CIA-led Iraqi weapons hunt. He inspected the truck trailers and was immediately skeptical.

"The equipment was singularly inappropriate" for biological weapons, he said. "We were in hysterics over this. You'd have better luck putting a couple of dust bins on the back of the truck and brewing it in there."

The trucks were built to generate hydrogen, not germs, he said. But the CIA refused to back down. In March 2004, Killip quit, protesting that the CIA was covering up the truth.

Rod Barton, an Australian intelligence officer and another bio-weapons expert, also quit over what he said was the CIA's refusal to admit error. "Of course the trailers had nothing to do with Curveball," Barton wrote in a recent e-mail.

The Iraq Survey Group ultimately agreed. An "exhaustive investigation" showed the trailers could not "be part of any BW program," it reported in October 2004.

Why the intial rushed and erroneous assessment? Were the CIA and DIA too eager to please? Were they biased toward the idea that Iraq just must have WMD? Why is it that, with sober analysis, 14 of 15 analysts said the trucks couldn't have been used for WMD, but that the wrong view initially prevailed? The Bush administration must take a large share of the blame. Many people forget, as mentioned above, that Bush claimed weapons of mass destruction had in fact been found, and he repeated this claim several times. He later went on to deliberately substitute the argument that "Hussein had WMD" to "Hussein wanted WMD."

On Jan. 20, 2004, Bush lauded Kay and the Iraq Survey Group in his State of the Union Speech for finding "weapons of mass destruction-related program activities…. Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction program would continue to this day."

I still find this deeply insulting. While some media outlets pointed out Bush's craven slight-of-hand, this sort of deceptive skullduggery requires loud trumpets. ("The President is trying to pull a fast one!") No one doubted Hussein wanted WMD. The question was whether he had them, and whether he could actually get them.

Other articles have explored how Bush's White House Iraq Group (WHIG), Feith's special plans group, and related parties "stovepiped" intelligence from the CIA, bypassing the normal (or perhaps not so normal) vetting process. The CIA author of the White Paper mentioned above, whose view was that Hussein had WMD, had his views elevated and hocked while more measured, professional and experienced views were ignored. What does it say that, consistently, the more knowledgeable intelligence experts were shunted aside while Bush excitedly crows publically, 'we found the WMD!'...? This is not good leadership, management, or empiricism. Later on, was Bush ever given the "fourteen out of fifteen" figure? I would love to know exactly when their assessment was known, because I believe Bush repeated that the WMD were found several times... Just as Cheney repeatedly claimed an Iraq-Al Qaedea link, Rice claimed huclear weapons, ans so on. This abuse of intelligence is what still needs to be investigated fully, and what Pat Roberts is still fighting to impede.

Paul O'Neill's greatest lament was that Bush lacked honest brokers, advisors who would tell him the truth even if unpleasant, and who were not pushing their own agenda. Granted, Cheney and Rumsfeld are forceful personalities, but ultimately, it's Bush who chose to value their views over others.

Normally, while politicians may lie to the public, behind closed doors on matters of genuine importance, they don't lie to each other... or at least, career civil servants don't. However, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq was only generated at Congress' insistence, and was deeply flawed and misleading. However, not only Congress, but Colin Powell, a key figure in the Bush administration, appears to have been misled:

More problematic were the three sources the CIA said had corroborated Curveball's story. Two had ties to Chalabi. All three turned out to be frauds.

The most important, a former major in the Iraqi intelligence service, was deemed a liar by the CIA and DIA. In May 2002, a fabricator warning was posted in U.S. intelligence databases.

Powell said he was never warned, during three days of intense briefings at CIA headquarters before his U.N. speech, that he was using material that both the DIA and CIA had determined was false. "As you can imagine, I was not pleased," Powell said. "What really made me not pleased was they had put out a burn notice on this guy, and people who were even present at my briefings knew it."

But BND officials said their U.S. colleagues repeatedly assured them Curveball's story had been corroborated.

"They kept on telling us there were three or four sources," said the senior German intelligence official. "They said it many times."

Powell also claims he really pushed his CIA briefers on Curveball's veracity, but was constantly and consistently told the man was reliable. If Powell's account is accurate, someone in the room knew better and was either lying or gutless.

Whatever Powell is, he's no idiot. And if he was being so misled, as he claims, was Bush getting anything close to an accurate picture? Did he put a premium on demanding one?

When I studied World War I in college, one of the most striking elements was learning that so many countries wanted war. In Germany in particular, the votes to go to war were overwhelming. Not only did many countries possess a nationalistic fervor, war had previously been profitable to some in power, and no modern war had ever devastated the home front before. They simply had no idea what they were in for.

If only folks like Dick "they will greet us as liberators" Cheney has studied history, or reality, rather than their own neocon fantasies. As soon as Bush and his gang started speaking about the threat of Hussein, it was rather obvious he wanted to go to war. Of course the intelligence was cherry-picked. Of course the Bush administration had more information than Congress. Of course, as the Downing Street memo states, intelligence was "being fixed" around the need to go to war. At best the administration was incompetent, but at worse they were liars. Some of them are far too smart not to know they were being deceptive. While I'm sure some of them believed they were lying to achieve a greater good (the liberation of Iraq... and to their minds, the re-election of George Bush), they were still willfully deceptive. To finish:

Other warnings poured in. The CIA Berlin station chief wrote that the BND had "not been able to verify" Curveball's claims. The CIA doctor who met Curveball wrote to his supervisor shortly before Powell's speech questioning "the validity" of the Iraqi's information.

"Keep in mind that this war is going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say and the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about," his supervisor wrote back, Senate investigators found. The supervisor later told them he was only voicing his opinion that war appeared inevitable.

(REVISED somewhat 12/15)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rumsfeld and Iraq

David von Drehle wrote a great account of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's approach to the current war in Iraq in Sunday's Washington Post, 11/13/05. He also hosted a chat on the article here. He provides valuable context for those of us who weren't alive or weren't following politics during the Nixon era, because many of the dynamics of the Bush administration spring from old ideas and clashes between Rumsfeld and Cheney on one side, and Powell on the other. (All of von Drehle's work coheres with George Packer's The Assassin's Gate (which I'm working on now) and the recent accusations of Wilkerson, Powell's former aide.) I've felt that Wolfowitz, not Rumsfeld, was the McNamara figure when it came to Iraq (right down to the World Bank!), the true believer unbound by realities. This article suggest that Rumsfeld, for all his strengths and faults, was not a true believer in the cause per se, but was and is a true believer in his own, that of reshaping the military for a post-Cold War era. While Rumsfeld is to be lauded for seriously looking into this, his seeming staggering imcompetence regarding Iraq overshadows everything. Since my first real acquaintance with Rumsfeld was with his handling of Iraq, I was a bit surprised to read in The Price of Loyalty that at one point Rumsfeld had been highly regarded as an intelligent and effective, if partisan, official. Much as some folks wonder what happened to Dick Cheney, so much more nakedly partisan and ideological than once he was, Rumsfeld (Cheney's onetime boss) seems to have transformed. Doubtless more could be explained by the Rumsfeld war-planning memo he is still not cleared to share. Or maybe, in these times that try men's souls, 9/11 and the Iraq war did not change the personalities of Cheney and Rumsfeld as much as reveal what had been inside all along.

Friday, November 11, 2005

11/11 Armistice Day 2005

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

Amen, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Election Day, Virginia

Many major news outlets have been covering the governor's race in Virgina between Kilgore and Kaine.

From the news stories I've seen and heard, it's seems that the appropriately named Kilgore's main contention against Kaine is that he won't follow through on his promise to kill people (enforcing the state's death penalty despite his own views on it). Kilgore's ads against Kaine on this issue attracted a fair amount of national news.

Is capital punishment really a bigger concern for Virgina voters than jobs, health care, or even concerns about terrorism and the war? I guess we'll see.

Maybe the religious Kaine just had enough after Abel.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Irresponsible Speculation and Predictions

We’ll set thee to school to an ant, to teach thee there’s no laboring i’ th’ winter. All that follow their noses are led by their eyes but blind men, and there’s not a nose among twenty but can smell him that’s stinking. Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following. But the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after.
— The Fool to Kent in the stocks, King Lear, 2.4, 66-72

(The Fool’s words are incredibly ironic, and demand a fuller post, but he’d still make one hell of a political advisor.)

While pundits and commentators exist who clearly embrace their apparent ideology, when it comes to the “chattering class,” their true love is almost always for a good political storyline above all else. Some tale or angle or event that will yield a strong column or some witty bon mots on the talk show circuit, that’s where it’s really at. Don’t you think Jay Leno wept when he had to say goodbye to Clinton and another thousand Lewinsky blow job jokes? (He still tromps them out from time to time.) Reagan might have argued that trees caused pollution and that ketchup and relish should count as vegetables in children’s school lunches, but even his detractors in the press would say he was a colorful character to write about. After George H.W. Bush was elected, Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury announced that political cartoonists were giving Bush a honeymoon week of no negative panels, “to give him a chance to get a handle on that ‘vision thing,’” and “as a way of formally thanking him for Dan Quayle.”

Many liberal bloggers are referring to tomorrow, the latest likely day for Fitzgerald to announce indictments, as Fitzmas. However, the truth is that it’s a bonanza for chatterers everywhere, with juicy material to last many a news cycle, to yield many a column or book, and to allow plenty of opportunity to posture as a sage insider on a news program. Granted, it’s a more fun time for liberals than conservatives (at least until Bush nominates another candidate for The Supreme Court). Consider the situation. Republicans hold power in all three branches of government. However, currently, the top aide to the President and the Vice President are facing possible indictment, the Vice President may face trouble as well, and at the least he appears to have publicly lied yet again. The House Majority Leader, Tom Delay, has been indicted. The Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, is being investigated for impropriety with his not-so-blind trust and has publicly lied. This is not to mention the indictments of Republicans Bob Noe in Ohio, super lobbyist Jack Abramoff (tight with Delay), and David Safavian. Add to this the Harriet Miers debacle and the truly shocking, shameful way Hurricane Katrina was mishandled. Oh yeah, and then there’s Iraq.

Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post aptly observed that the passions about Plamegate run so high because “We're re-fighting the war through this case.” (Slate’s Mickey Kaus agrees somewhat but adds several other reasons). Previous details of the path to war are coming out as a result of Fitzgerald’s inquiry. Normally the real story of an administration takes time to unveil. We know much more about Nixon now than we did even five years ago, and similarly, the full truth of the Bush administration may not come out until a decade or two later. However, we may now get to know much more, much sooner than anyone anticipated. While many of the statements and rationales for the war are currently being re-examined by chatterers, now the general public seems to be taking a greater interest as well.

Kurtz’s column of Thursday, 10/27/05 did a fantastic job of providing a timeline of some key leaks in the Plamegate case, and touches on why many of these leaks likely occurred. As he observes:

...virtually every bit of information, confirmed and alleged, comes from unnamed sources -- ironically, in an investigation of who anonymously outed a CIA operative -- who are trying to shape public understanding of a complicated narrative to someone's advantage.

The result is that after two years of near-total secrecy about the CIA leak investigation, a steady stream of sometimes-conflicting information is now flowing, invariably attributed to "lawyers close to the case" or similarly opaque sources.

As special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald nears a decision on whether to seek indictments of top White House officials, lawyers involved in the inquiry are using the news media to float bits of evidence or interpretations that are favorable to their high-level clients. The maneuvering makes clear that these lawyers are fighting a two-front war, trying simultaneously to avert criminal charges while seeking acquittal in the court of public opinion.

The rush of disclosures in the closing days of an investigation is a time-tested ritual of Washington scandals, and each time the questions are the same: Who leaked and for what reason?

As a mere blogger (and a tardy, intermittent one at that), currently ranked 775,745 by Technorati in terms of influence (sorry, I find it very funny), I can’t yet pretend to full membership in the chattering class. However, I certainly can join in the chatterer tradition of wild speculation and completely off-base predictions. In fact, this is an area where bloggers often outstrip the feeble Mainstream Media (tm), or MSM, as all oh-so-hip bloggers call it. The key word in opinion journalism is not journalism, it’s opinion. Did Novak admit he was wrong about his authoritative yet wildly incorrect statement on the exact date Rehnquist would announce his retirement? No! He came up with a new opinion for a new deadline. With chatterers chaffing at the bit for Fitzgerald’s likely announcement tomorrow, now is the deadline for irresponsible prognostication, and I cannot shirk my duty. (Until, of course, there’s a new deadline and we can all shamelessly offer new opinions.)


Most chatterers think it likely that Libby will be indicted on two to three counts: perjury, obstruction to justice, and possibly conspiracy. I’ll agree. He appears to have lied at least twice, but they are also likely compound lies. If news accounts are to be believed, it appears he lied to the grand jury about divulging Valerie Plame Wilson’s status as a CIA operative to reporters... he spoke about the matter three times with The New York Times’ Judy Miller. Most importantly, he spoke with her on the matter on June 23, 2003, before Novak’s now infamous column. Libby apparently claimed he learned of Plame’s identity from reporters, specifically NBC’s Tim Russert. Russert has publicly stated that there’s no way that could be the case, because he didn’t know Plame’s name until Novak’s column. While this is bad enough, The New York Times reported this week that Libby learned Plame’s identity from none other than Dick Cheney, about a month before Novak’s column. While Libby and Cheney would of course have the security clearance to discuss a CIA agent, they’re both experienced enough to at least say, wait, is she undercover or not? Unless, of course, anger clouded their judgment. Regardless, this would involve a compound lie from Libby... the obvious storyline would be, he tried to cover for his boss and blamed the leak on those irresponsible liberal reporters. If Cheney lied as well, then Libby had a clear motive for such action, and he wasn’t innocently mistaken... not that I find the massive memory lapses that have been claimed by many parties plausible in the first place.

In an online chat, Washington Post national political editor John F. Harris responded to a poster:

On this point, I tend to be more believing of the White House line. It has always seemed clear to me--and the evidence coming out over time has strengthened the point--that the White House motive in talking about Plame was not "to get back at Wilson." This was not about revenge. It was about trying to persuade reporters not to write about Wilson's allegations or take them seriously, because his mission to Niger was a low-level endeavor that had been cooked up lower down in the bureaucracy (with the assistance of his wife) and was not something that was done with White House knowledge. Remember, at the time, Wilson's suggestion was that of course the vice president knew about the results of his trip to Niger, because he had ordered it.

In the course of trying to knock down a damaging story--a routine activity in Washington--they obviously stepped over a line...quite possibly without fully appreciating that they were stepping across.

I think Harris nails one of the key reasons for the leak, but I feel he discounts the revenge angle too quickly. Judy Miller reports Libby as irate about Wilson. The current leaks about Libby also paint him as very upset, even obsessed. Many key members of the Bush administration, notably Rove and Cheney, are very much into the politics of revenge and retribution. If Rove did indeed tell Chris Matthews that Wilson’s wife was “fair game” (and was Matthews even subpoenaed?), then there’s a very different picture (Harris is also a bit imprecise above; Wilson never said that Cheney ordered his trip, he said that Cheney's request for more information was the reason the CIA sent him... but hey, it's a chat).

My take has always been that the Plame leak, in addition to being damage control as usual, was dirty politics as usual from the Bush administration. The problem this time is that, in addition to being unethical, this time their actions were actually illegal as well, and they got caught.

Rove. This one’s trickier. News reports state that on his fourth trip to the grand jury he told them he may well have heard Plame’s name from Libby. While this clearly seems like a move to save his own ass, this may also be a White House strategy... Libby is doomed, so let’s make him the fall guy, and blame everything on him. I would not be surprised if Rove was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. He did in fact reveal Plame’s identity to Time’s Matt Cooper, but I think at least a false statement charge is looming. Some folks feels he’s flipped on everyone, while others say he’s fighting the charges furiously and refused a plea bargain. Some say he won’t be indicted but he will continue to be investigated by Fitzgerald. Rove can claim faulty memory, but I don’t find that plausible... does the grand jury buy it? I feel one indictment at least is likely, but if indictments do not come, I would be surprised if he was not investigated further. I don’t think he sails through this clean legally (not in the short term, at least).

Rove has made many enemies over the years, who have dared not cross him further for fear of not working in the party anymore. If he topples, there will be a lot of buzzards. Large amounts of dirty laundry will come out if he is seen as through, or vulnerable. (And I’m sure I could mix in another overused metaphor if it weren’t so late now.) It sure would be nice to know if Rove was indeed directly involved with events such as the slanderous push-polling in South Carolina against John McCain.

Cheney. Some folks feel Cheney may be named as an unindicted co-conspirator. I find it hard to believe that Libby would undertake anything major without Cheney’s knowledge, but I also find it hard to believe that Cheney, despite his repeated disregard for the truth, would knowingly lie under oath if he knew he could get caught. News sources disagree as to whether his interview with Fitzgerald was under oath or not, and they also disagree about whether he met with Tenet or not. One story, from The New York Times, has Tenet telling Cheney about Plame, which would almost certainly mean Cheney requested the information. But MSNBC reported that Tenet denies he told Cheney this. So, my take is that Cheney’s hands are dirty, but may not be filthy, and he will likely not face any serious legal action. I do think his past misstatements will get some new scrutiny from the press, however.

There are other figures such as John Hannah, Stephen Hadley, Wurmer and the usual gang of Rice, Bolton, and all who also may be indicted, but this is all murkier. If someone flipped and went for a plea, it’s most likely a lower-rung (but perhaps central) person.

I would guess that one or two more people beside Libby and Rove would be indicted, although if reports are to be believed, they will not be in the White House proper, but instead from the Pentagon or even the State Department.

Is there further damning or exonerating evidence we don’t know about? Most definitely. It’ll be interesting to see how everything plays out, but more importantly... what the truth is.

To bring it back to Shakespeare, and fools and knaves... I have no doubt that while Cheney is a knave, Libby will fall on his sword to save him (as folks as Halliburton did for him before when it was discovered they were illegally dealing with America’s sworn enemy Iran). I’m less sure of Rove, and the next days, weeks, and months will be revealing. He’s always seemed like something of a craven bully to me. Supposedly he’s vicious when cornered, but would he go down for Bush? Maybe. But for Libby or Cheney? I don’t know, but I think that’s less likely. And I think Bush especially would want to save Rove, and other folks of course know that.

Regardless, no one seems "foolish" enough to be an "honest broker" with Bush, who accounts depict as increasingly angry and frustrated, blaming everyone around him. No one has said to him what he has so sorely needed, something in the spirit of:

See better Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.
— Kent to Lear, King Lear, 1.1, 161-162

(Wild Miers replacement speculation to follow shortly!)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Behind the Curtain of Bad Government Decisions

A trio of good articles illuminate the process of some really bad decisions and bad government.

First up, from The Wall Street Journal’s free opinion site, John Fund explains why the vetting of Harriet Miers and her subsequent selection by George Bush as his Supreme Court nominee was so very poor. He paints a picture that will be familiar to anyone who read about Paul O’Neill’s stint in the Bush administration in The Price of Loyalty, and other accounts... This is a place where dissent is seen as disloyalty and speaking truth to power is difficult if not outright discouraged. Beyond matters of ideology, the question of competence continually reappears in all in-depth accounts of the Bush administration (in order to make good decisions, one must first set up a system that encourages rather than discourages accurate information).

Meanwhile, The Washington Monthly’s cover story is a fascinating (and chilling) portrait of Patrick McHenry, a young Republican congressman from North Carolina. The article gives great insight into the crucial role the College Republicans play in the GOP as well as offering a rather scathing view of McHenry. Author Benjamin Wallace-Wells notes:

Like most of the post-Gingrich generation, McHenry's ultimate loyalty is less to principle or ideology than to the machine itself.

One of the most striking passages in the article reports that:

McHenry's credit union bill, a high priority for the banking lobby, has received strong backing from DeLay. The Republican leadership awarded McHenry a seat on the House Financial Services Committee upon his arrival in Washington. “Most people would say it's the most plum assignment you can get,” one conservative lobbyist told me, “because you can leverage it to do so much in fundraising.” But first you have to prove yourself. Asking McHenry to author a bill that undermines the interest of half his constituents is the political equivalent of demanding a young Mafia enforcer kill his cousin as a test of loyalty. “It's a bill that a lot of us are watching,” a conservative activist from Mecklenberg County who has been skeptical about McHenry told me. “It's pretty clear that here McHenry is picking Washington over his district, and we're interested to see if he pays any price for it.”

Subsequent paragraphs describe how McHenry lies to his constituents (say “he deliberately misleads them” if you like, but I call it lying). His campaign tactic, twice, consists purely of claiming he’s the more conservative candidate, even when he’s not, while offering no real policy.

The resulting portrait is of a young man who is all slogan and no substance, who views power as a goal unto itself, and who feels his constituents serve him, not the other way around. He is precisely that sort of politician who gives politicians a bad name.

Still, McHenry’s self-serving moves are as nothing compared to the master machinations of The Hammer and his buddies. A long but rewarding article from The Washington Post by Susan Schmidt and James V. Grimaldi explains how fellow “indictees” Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and David Safavian worked to kill an anti-gambling bill in the House in 2000. Essentially they falsely portrayed the bill as pro-gambling to the conservative Christian groups that supported it, and also used intimidation and a series of bribes or “donations” to grease things along. Delay in particular comes off as someone who preaches social conservatism (anti-gambling) while his true loyalty lies with selected businesses (online gambling company eLottery, for one). Abramoff of course was taking money from Indian tribes to lobby for them even as he actually lobbied against them. Tony C. Rudy, a senior aide to Delay who later worked for Abramoff, served as a crucial link, and his actions provide a compelling picture for how Abramoff and Delay were simpatico and how the ol’ boy network works when it comes to money and legislation. Also implicated, of course is:

Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Both kept in close contact with Abramoff about the arrangement, e-mails show. Abramoff also turned to prominent anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist, arranging to route some of eLottery's money for Reed through Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform.

(Norquist, of course, is close friends with Karl Rove, Rove’s secretary used to work for Norquist, and supposedly Norquist advised her as to which phone calls Rove should take. Rove has not been drawn into the Abramoff or Delay scandals as of yet, and has his own glaring problems right now... but I mention him to show this old boy social network is very real.)

Honestly, I find it’s hard to untangle all the stories of Abramoff’s villainy, so I’ve been waiting for the court cases to get under way and the eventual postmortem to make sense of it all. In-depth features like this, though, serve an invaluable function by explaining not only why these men are scoundrels but how they achieve their skullduggery.

Portrait of a Whistleblower

It’s been easy enough to lose track of the story of Bunny Greenhouse, the government employee who blew the whistle on Halliburton’s no-bid contract for reconstruction work in Iraq. Even though she was demoted and transferred, there’s been little coverage in the media, and most shamefully, no investigation or follow-up from the supervising Inspector General, let alone Congress.

Everyone agrees that Bunny Greenhouse is a stickler for detail. She may not be the easiest woman to work with. However, after reading this portrait by Neely Tucker in The Washington Post, I find it hard to question her integrity. Her personal history strongly suggests this is a woman of character. No one has ever accused her of being stupid (she has three master’s degrees), and few people (other than Sherron Watkins at Enron) become whistleblowers to improve their job security. Yet when it came to the Halliburton deals (technically with their subsidiary KBR), Bunny Greenhouse testified to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee:

"I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts awarded to KBR represents the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career."

The contracts were unorthodox. There has been horrendous overbilling by Halliburton. Greenhouse has been punished, yet her supervisors claim this action is not retribution. Wouldn’t these factors necessitate further inquiry? Regarding Greenhouse’s allegations, and her demotion, the Post reports:

A Corps spokesman declined to address the specifics. Instead, the Corps issued a written statement that says the agency followed the law in its dealings with Halliburton. As for Greenhouse's EEOC complaint, the statement said the agency "takes seriously" its employees' right of privacy, and thus could not comment.

Any further investigation appears to be minimal.

This, from another DPC hearing last month, after Greenhouse was demoted:

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.): "Ms. Greenhouse, has the Inspector General's Office made any attempt to interview you?"

Greenhouse: "None whatsoever."

Dorgan: "None?"

Greenhouse: "None whatsoever."

Dorgan: "That's unbelievable to me."

I don’t buy the portrayal of Greenhouse by her supervisors as a petty bureaucrat or an incompetent. A more accurate view of her would come from her peers and her subordinates (if they would talk), not just her current bosses, who have every motive to undermine her. The portrait offered by the man who hired her, her former boss, Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard, strongly contrasts any negative accounts. Additionally, the paper trail of past evaluations point to someone who may be demanding but is dedicated... frankly, exactly the sort of person needed to supervise spending of the taxpayer’s money.

My take is that Bunny Greenhouse ran afoul of the ol’ boy network, spoke truth to power, and is now being punished for it. Perhaps that’s not the case. But why has there been no little to follow-up on her case? Why does there remain little to no cost-tracking and accountability for the billions of dollars that continue to be spent in Iraq?

Sunday, October 23, 2005


In a story worthy of News of the Weird, a man requested more jail time because he’s a fan of Larry Bird. The very short AP item reports:

The lawyers reached a plea agreement Tuesday for a 30-year term for a man accused of shooting with an intent to kill and robbery. But Eric James Torpy wanted his prison term to match Bird's jersey number 33.

``He said if he was going to go down, he was going to go down in Larry Bird's jersey,'' Oklahoma County District Judge Ray Elliott said Wednesday. ``We accommodated his request and he was just as happy as he could be.

``I've never seen anything like this in 26 years in the courthouse. But, I know the DA is happy about it.''

Boy. Good thing for him he wasn’t a Jason Williams fan!

Just the Porn, Ma’am

There are times when governmental action is to be lauded. And then there are those times it should be mocked relentlessly.

In what’s most likely a symbolic move to appease social conservatives, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has asked the FBI to form an anti-porn vice squad. It will be small — eight to ten agents — but doubtless dedicated, as it ferrets out materials of prurient interest made for consenting adults.

Thankfully, FBI agents are treating the vice squad with the gravitas it, uh, demands. On 9/20/05, The Washington Post reported:

"I guess this means we've won the war on terror," said one exasperated FBI agent, speaking on the condition of anonymity because poking fun at headquarters is not regarded as career-enhancing. "We must not need any more resources for espionage."

Among friends and trusted colleagues, an experienced national security analyst said, "it's a running joke for us."

A few of the printable samples:

"Things I Don't Want On My Resume, Volume Four."

"I already gave at home."

"Honestly, most of the guys would have to recuse themselves."

It’s safe to say that social conservatives are still more than a little hung-up on sex. The Bush administration has funded programs promoting marriage (not a bad goal per se, but the cost-value and effectiveness of these programs is questionable). Certainly some in the administration do not approve of sex outside of marriage, although with Ashcroft gone a certain zealotry may have vanished (interesting that this Meese-like push is under Gonzales!). Nor do they apparently want even married couples to use porn... the less sex, the better, it seems. Teenagers should not be taught about birth control, nor should those who live in poor, emerging nations. When a teenager gets pregnant, she should be forced to have the child. However, supporting the child is the new mother’s own damn problem. That’ll teach her.

I just have difficulty making sense of that world view. Continuing on this theme, website Crooked Timber has a fun and insightful dissection of Professor Leon Cass’ laments about the loss of feminine virtue and how, as a result — wait for it — society is going down the tubes. Basically, if young women had less sex and held out for marriage like they did in the good ol’ days, America would be a better place. The Crooked Timber poster, Kieran Healy, keenly pegs Cass’ view as a “desire to return to some kind of Victorian nightmare.” While Cass does not mention Victorian sexual mores (he's only posted part one of his three part series on "The End of Courtship"), it’s painfully apparent that he holds them in high ideal. Of course, I doubt Cass would be aware that the British Victorian prudishness is historically something of an aberration (earlier eras were less uptight), or that he would know of the stunning sexual hypocrisy of the era (prostitution was absolutely rampant in Victorian London). In other words, were the world suddenly to change and become as Cass thinks he wants it to be, I think he would be extremely dismayed. (The tip for the Crooked Timber post came from an Atrios post from Friday 10/21/05).

Frankly, if I want some insight into the destructiveness of contemporary dating rituals, I’ll read Patrick Marber’s Closer yet again.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bill O'Reilly, Philosopher

There are times when little commentary is needed. If I were still teaching philosophy, where we often discussed current events, I might well present the following gem of wisdom from Bill O’Reilly for dissection. I guarantee that nearly all (if not all) of my students would have been able to identify the key flaw in his reasoning. On 10/4/05, a caller to O’Reilly’s radio show posited a theory about the high rate of crime among African-Americans:

CALLER: [It’s] because of slavery. If you take someone's language, someone's history, and someone's culture, and then you just release them out into the world, you think they're going to be successful as a people?

O'REILLY: All right. But let me counter that, [caller], and you can comment on my comment. That's the prevailing wisdom in a lot of the precincts, is that because blacks were in slavery in the United States, they were never able to develop an infrastructure of education and culture to compete with the white majority. That is the prevailing wisdom in lots and lots of places. Let me submit this to you, and then you can comment on it.

My people came from County Cavan in Ireland. All right? And the British Crown marched in there with their henchman, Oliver Cromwell, and they seized all of my ancestors' lands, everything. And they threw them into slavery, pretty much indentured servitude on the land. And then the land collapsed, all right? And everybody was starving in Ireland. They had to leave the country, just as Africans had to leave -- African-Americans had to leave Africa and come over on a boat and try to make in the New World with nothing. Nothing. And succeeded, succeeded. As did Italians, as did -- and I'll submit to you, African-Americans are succeeding as well. So all of these things can be overcome I think, [caller]. Go ahead.

(Media Matters for America has the audio here.)

Wow. The thing that gets me is he’s obviously put some thought into this. He’s come up with this idea, pondered it for a while, and thinks it’s convincing — without ever spotted the glaringly obvious flaw in his argument.

Now, I am part Irish, and I know some of the persecution the Irish have faced over the years. It’s hard to conceive that early Irish immigrants were sometimes faced with employment signs that said, “Whites Only — Irish Need Not Apply.” However, PBS had a good documentary on the Irish immigrant experience, and they attributed their success to two main factors. The first was that almost all of them spoke English. The second is that, unusually for an immigrant group, the women tended to outnumber the men, and thus many Irish immigrant women (most often working as maids) wound up getting married and raising families in America. Nowadays, of course, Irish-Americans outnumber the Irish.

Now, as brutal or inspiring as the American immigrant experience can be, is it analogous to abduction and slavery? Hmmm.

Howard Dean's Way with Words

I sort of enjoyed Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, because he really stirred the pot for the Democrats with brashness, frankness, and a grass-roots appeal (much as McCain tends to do with Republicans). Some Republicans were openly salivating at the prospect of Dean facing off against Bush, thinking he could be easily caricatured, but I suspect that if Dean kept his head he could have given the Bush folks a real headache. Still, I’ve always felt Dean would make a great college professor or activist but just doesn’t have the temperament for national leadership. He’s made an interesting front man for the Democratic National Committee. This year I’ve seen him make some very intelligent, reasoned points on the news shows, yet with alarming frequency he’ll come out with some gaffe. His latest occurred on Hardball on 10/5/05 while discussing Harriet Miers and how she really needs to reveal her true legal views (video here and more fully here):

I think with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, you can’t play, you know, hide the salami, or whatever it’s called.

Now, he does laugh, perhaps because he realizes what the hell he said and the absurdity of it... but I have to wonder, is “hide the salami” ever not sexual innuendo? It’s not like, “hide the Easter eggs” or something. It’s ultimately a silly, harmless gaffe, bearing repetition at the water cooler but not a formal apology by Dean. Still, it doesn’t elevate his credibility. What the hell is on his mind? I suppose it does play into the assumption that liberals have more sex (and better sex) than conservatives, certainly more than the religious right, unless you’re counting the persistent figure of the hypocritical moral crusader (the latest appears to be Lou Beres).

Now, despite my concerns about Dean, I still contend that Dean got a raw deal with the whole “scream” thing. I attribute that to several factors:

1. Video and Audio. The scream made for a quick, memorable clip that could be (and was) played over and over again. In our sound byte culture, it made for a quick teaser for the evening news and something to be dissected endlessly on the weekend news talk shows, not to mention countless sophomoric radio shows. Diane Sawyer showed it about five times to Dean during her subsequent interview with him. Imagine if Cheney’s “go fuck yourself” to Senator Leahy on the Senate floor had been on camera how much more press that would have gotten.

2. The Seductive, Easy Storyline. Most news outlets did not cover the context of “the scream,” that Dean was yelling over a crowd of rowdy young campaign workers, and as he tells it, was trying to buck them up after the disappointment of losing the Iowa caucus. Because Dean had been the frontrunner, the easy storyline was “has Dean lost it?” “Has he blown his chances?” “Is this his Dukakis moment?” “The frontrunner has toppled,” and so on. This was The Moment Dean Blew It, and when the media’s conventional wisdom gels like that, their storyline often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Never mind that the media was much, much more obsessed with the whole incident that the vast majority of the public... as with Jessica Lynch and Scott Peterson, when the media decides the public wants a story, they don’t bother to consult the public. Plus, I also think journalists, more even than most people, like to think they’re smart. It’s similar to the saying that an idea can very dangerous when it’s the only one you have. Especially under the pressure of a deadline, when a theory or decent storyline pops into a journalist’s head, that’s what he or she is liable to push forward with, damn the torpedoes. The idea of a Dukakis Willie Horton moment for Dean (never mind that Dukakis’ flub occurred during a presidential debate, not the primaries) was just too sweet to pass up; many outlets projected into the future Dean’s collapse, proclaiming with barely restrained glee, ‘if Dean fails, this is the moment where it all turned.'

3. The Aesthetic Quality of the Scream. Frankly, as with the salami comment, I thought the scream was cause to laugh at Dean, but not something to disqualify him from the presidency. Wasn’t it good to have a leader with some actual passion? The problem with Dean’s scream was that it sounded like a strangled cat, which made it prime material for replaying over and over, and to raise eyebrows. Imagine if Dean had instead uttered a suitably macho, cheering-on-your-favorite-sports-team sort of “YEAH!” If Schwarzenegger had done something like that, he might have been briefly mocked, but many people wouldn’t even have blinked. Meanwhile, if Kerry had bellowed a “yeah!” like that during the course of the Democratic National Convention, and it sounded authentic and not forced, I imagine his poll numbers would have jumped.

So, Howard Dean — ready for the national spotlight? At times it seems he’s not, but I have to give him credit for being honestly entertaining.

(Based on information given to her by Ahmed Chalabi, Judy Miller wrote a story that Saddam Hussein sought high-yield "redcake" salami only suitable for use in nuclear centrifuges... then decided to push the fraudulent aluminum tubing story instead.)

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Republican Talking Points Network

(You mean Fox News? Well, sure, but besides that.)

It’s no secret that both parties have their talking points, and any news junkies will quickly note recurring phrases, such as New Orleans “dodging a bullet” or hear several pundits make the same ridiculous assertion that Bill Bennett was really decrying abortion when he made his recent thoughtless remarks. Divining the talking points can make for a fun game (of course, it works better with Republicans, as Democrats aren’t as keen on the whole lockstep, keep on message thing).

Still, I’ve been a bit surprised that the Republican’s D.C. Talkers network has not gotten more press, since it suggests a higher level of coordination than might be suspected. On 9/26/05, U.S. News & World Report’s Washington Whispers column reported:

Another Win for 'Friends & Allies'
When John G. Roberts is approved as chief justice of the United States, as expected, he can thank President Bush 's "Friends & Allies" program, which went to work on him immediately after he was nominated. The project, started by the Republican National Committee in the 2004 re-election campaign, is simple and effective: Give opinion makers, media friends, and even cocktail party hosts insider info on the topic of the day. How? Through E-mailed talking points, called D.C. Talkers, and conference calls. For Roberts, it worked this way: A daily conference call to about 80 pundits, GOP-leaning radio and TV hosts, and newsmakers was made around 9 a.m. On the other end were the main Roberts gunslingers like Steve Schmidt at the White House and Ken Mehlman and Brian Jones at the RNC. D.C. Talkers would then be distributed to an even larger list filled with positive info about Roberts and lines of attack on his critics. "The idea," said one of those involved, "is to feed them information and have them invested in us." It has even created addicts, he added. "Now they come to us before going on TV."

Some of those 80 must be ideologues eager for ammunition, but some must also be journalists (or faux journalists) eager for content, motivated by laziness more than ideology. After all, the beast must be fed every day.

Ever since I read about D.C. Talkers, I wanted to see a copy of one of their missives — wouldn’t it be fun to compare it the subsequent conservative chatter? Credit The Raw Story with getting a hold of what certainly looks to be an authentic copy of the D.C. Talkers sheet on Joe Wilson and Plamegate.

Anyone who’s followed Plamegate will recognize many of these lines. What I find particularly interesting is that the actual talking points are not only misleading in places, but inaccurate. Wilson never claimed that Cheney sent him to Niger. He did make a fumbling statement that could be quoted out of context to suggest that, but he quickly clarified that Cheney requested more information from the CIA, and the CIA’s response was to send Wilson.

I find it fascinating that whoever puts the D.C. Talkers together either does not respect their readers enough to tell the truth, or that they just don’t give a damn. I’m sure having a pundit argue a falsehood while certain it’s true makes for more convincing television than telling that same pundit, “this is a lie, but it’ll play well.” Of course, I’m sure many wouldn’t need much convincing... virtually everything Rush Limbaugh says is based on how it will play, not whether it’s true.

And who exactly puts together the Talkers? The report mentions Ken Mehlman, and Raw Story also provides a copy of Mehlman's very similar Plamegate talking points. Still, it would be surprising if Rove was not somehow involved. If so, then the Plamegate sheet would one more attempt to smear Wilson and cover his own ass.

It’s also fun to see how, after one tactic fails, a new set of talking points emerges. Crooks and Liars posts a great video clip showing what appears to be the new Republican talking points on Plamegate. The post also quotes Larry Johnson’s analysis of the talking points. My personal favorite? That Fitzgerald really shouldn’t be hounding poor Rove because, after all, everyone leaks. Yeah. Just too bad in this case of leaking for political retribution it’s both illegal and treason. (Just imagine how bad it would be if this administration hadn’t promised to restore honor and integrity to the White House!)

UPDATE: Currently, with the Miers nomination, it’s been fascinating to watch the Republicans stray from the public groupthink. I personally feel it’s fantastic. If only it were always the case. If you watch the video here, you’ll see Bill Kristol gently scolded for breaking from the herd. Tell me Brit Hume isn’t receiving D.C. Talkers... Kristol all but accuses him of parroting White House talking points, and Hume backpedals.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Appearance of Justice

The always entertaining and occasionally crude blog Wonkette recently sponsored a Harriet Miers look-a-like contest. Like the majority of folks, I picked Amy Sedaris' alter ego Jerri Blank from the show Strangers with Candy (you can see more choices if you follow the links). However, Wonkette (snarkmistress Anne Marie Cox) allowed write-in candidates, and Emperor Palpatine made a spendid showing. Never underestimate the power of The Dark Side of The Force.

I must confess I'm a sucker for that ever popular Star Wars-SCOTUS humor, uniting geeks of divergent tribes... and the end of Wonkette's post, considering write-in candidates ranging from Florence Henderson to Zell Miller, made me laugh:

We'll consider doing a run-off between the poll winner and Palpatine if the Emperor's surge continues, though we will refrain from commmenting on the aptness of the write-ins otherwise. Except to say that there are all just as qualified to serve as Miers is.

Come to think of it, Palpatine and Scalia would make a great team.

On a slightly more serious note, it shouldn't be a shocker that the female Miers' appearance has gotten much more scrunity than that of John Roberts. Emily Messner's Washington Post blog "The Debate"
makes a quick, witty evaluation of the fairness of this double standard.

(Note: The Messner link above screws up the text display on some browsers. If this occurs for you, click here and just look up the 10/6/05 entry, "Appearances Matter - At Least for Female Nominees.")

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Updated Update: Dylan and Clooney

The Washington Post features great online discussions every weekday on a variety of subjects. One of them last week featured the producers of No Direction Home, the great PBS documentary on Bob Dylan directed by Martin Scorsese. The discussion answers the question of why the doc focused so much only on the early years of Dylan’s long career— there’s a ton of footage from then and very little from the 70s and 80s. However, the producers also offer the tantalizing info that they wish to do a follow-up doc (or two) on Dylan’s later work. Count me salivating.

Meawhile, George Clooney, who definitely knows how to work the circuit, has a new interview about his forthcoming film Good Night, and Good Luck. You can also see WP's short video (4:34) of Clooney and Strathairn discussing the film here.

Over at Slate, Jack Shafer takes Clooney to task for historical inaccuracies and suspect artistic choices such as making Murrow a saint and overstating Murrow's importance in bringing down McCarthy. I always appreciate background on historical films. The documentaries I’ve seen on McCarthy (and my father’s account) have always pointed to the Army hearings as the crucial event that effectively killed McCarthy’s crusade - in large part by letting Americans see what McCarthy was really like. This jives with Shafer’s account (which does get a bit cranky, but is quite valuable nonetheless for those of us too young to remember these events). His colleague, film reviewer David Edelstein, acknowledges Shafer’s criticisms, but says that for all that, it’s still a good film.

Finally, Clooney is planning a live broadcast remake of the seminal 70s film Network.

Updated Update: Bennett and Gibson

Back to the Bennett incident. Eugene Robinson offers a good editorial on the subject. He observes,

If he was citing Levitt's work [Freakonomics], Bennett could have said that to lower the crime rate "you could abort every white baby" or "you could abort every Hispanic baby" or "you could abort every Asian baby," since every group has unwanted, poor children being raised by single mothers.

So now that we have Bennett on the couch, shouldn't we conclude that he mentioned only black children because, perhaps on a subconscious level, he associates "black" with "criminal''?

Robinson also hosted a chat online that can be read here.

Meanwhile, Slate’s science writer William Saletan has a fantastic article on Bennett as well, exploring the actual science and research behind all the claims being thrown around about crime, abortion, and race. He also considers and quite authoritatively dismisses all the key claims made in defense of Bennett. It’s a great read. The paragraph that stunned me the most was:

So, where did Bennett get the idea? [Fox News’ John] Gibson blames "all those arguments white liberals have with white conservatives about abortion, in which the white liberal eventually defends his pro-abortion position by saying, 'Well, they'll just grow up poor and be criminals anyway.' " Really? I've heard a lot of white liberals talk about abortion, and I've never heard one of them say that.

Wow. My apologies for running with this slight tangent, as Gibson rears his insensate head again and just spouts inanity. He follows up an ineffective attempt to change the subject with an unconvincing argument. I’d only read some of Gibson’s comments prior to seeing the video I linked to in the earlier Bennett post, so I have a newfound awe for his plummeting intellect. Currently, he’s my leading contender for Idiot News Commentator of the Year (Idiot of the Year is a competitive race this year, however, so it’s unlikely that Gibson can win more than his admittedly distinguished subcategory). With folks like Gibson, I have to wonder if he actually believes what he’s saying or if he’s aware he’s bullshitting. I think he just makes most of it up as he goes along, since he seems to pull one unpersuasive lie after another out of his ass. (I expect a higher caliber of liar from the prestigious Fox News, Mr. Gibson!) Gibson seems fond of an argument pattern often employed by George Bush, the Straw Man argument, where one props up a weak counterargument to pummel, such as the idea that “some people” want to give comfort to terrorists. However, in both their cases they can’t seem to find anyone who actually holds the view they want to deride, so they just make up a Straw Man. We can further call this the Invented Straw Man argument. In a variation of the old news conference axiom that a speaker answers the question he wishes he’d been asked, with the Invented Straw Man the speaker attacks the view he wishes his opponent had. Thus, we are introduced to the mythical liberals who wish to give comfort to terrorists and abort the fetuses of poor couples since it’s inevitable that if born those children will grow up to be criminals... which would mean we might as well lower the social program spending we all know diehard liberals despise... Wait.

Since we’re talking about unfair debate techniques, it must be pointed out that I’m engaging in some ad hominem attacks on Gibson... although of course I’m not just saying he’s an idiot, I’m stating why he’s an idiot. Frankly, I think the political cartoonist approach is the best — when someone offers you hogwash, the best response is to laugh at them, the louder and longer the better.