Monday, February 27, 2006

THE BACKLASH BACKLASH Over the last several days, a conventional wisdom seems to have congealed:
The UAE port deal doesn't implicate questions of port security--the misleading rhetoric of administration critics notwithstanding--because the UAE company won't be responsible for security at the ports it operates.
To my mind, this argument has things almost exactly backwards.

Let's stipulate that the nation's spectacularly inadequate port security infrastructure can only be fixed, once and for all, through drastic increases in security capability and funding. (For past discussion of this topic, see here.)

Let's stipulate, further, that the UAE-owned company is an upstanding corporate citizen. And that the takeover of port operations by a country with past ties to Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban--while unseemly--raises only run-of-the-mill security questions.

You can accept both of these points without believing that the UAE port deal should go through.

It's really not that hard to understand: The proposition that preventing a UAE-owned company from operating US ports won't solve our port security problem isn't, by itself, an argument for approving the deal. It's an argument for a wider security overhaul.

But in the absence of such an overhaul, doesn't it makes sense to grill foreign operators about their operations? Shouldn't the burden be on them to show why their presence won't further compromise an already dodgy port security environment?

And doesn't this hold true even if we face other, more worrisome, threats to our ports?

So far, the administration doesn't seem interested in engaging these questions--beyond imputing cynical (and worse) motives to critics of the deal.

Now, maybe the Bushies are correct--maybe the controversy has been blown out of proportion.

But that doesn't mean they're on the right side of the issue.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

PORTS REBELLION ROUNDUP Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), The Daily News and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) don't agree on much. But they're united in refusing to take "trust us" for an answer from the White House when it comes to port security.

You heard it here first: Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall.

Josh Marshall has some thoughts. The New York Times weighs in here:

The Bush administration has followed a disturbing pattern in its approach to the war on terror. It has been perpetually willing to sacrifice individual rights in favor of security. But it has been loath to do the same thing when it comes to business interests. It has not imposed reasonable safety requirements on chemical plants, one of the nation's greatest points of vulnerability, or on the transport of toxic materials. The ports deal is another decision that has made the corporations involved happy, and has made ordinary Americans worry about whether they are being adequately protected.
UPDATE: From today's press briefing:
Q Scott, top Republicans turned on the administration faster than Nancy Pelosi. What do you make of that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you have to ask people their reason for opposing this transaction. It's up to them to explain their reason for it. The President does not think we should be holding this company to a different standard from the British company that currently manages these terminals.

Q Politically, your own party turned on this White House aggressively--

MR. McCLELLAN: I wouldn't look at it that way. You're looking at it in the political context. The President is not looking at it in the political context. I understand and appreciate you looking at it in that context, but the President is looking at this as what I said it is--this was the right principle, and it's the right policy.

Q Scott, it sounds like the President has lost control of the party on the Hill. It sounds like they're campaigning against George Bush.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't think that's accurate. You're talking about this specific issue? This specific issue--let's clarify that--no, I think--the President just came back from a House Republican conference just a short time ago, and they talked about important national security priorities, and they talked about the tools we're using to protect the American people like the terrorist surveillance program. And at the end of that comment--end of those remarks, he received a standing ovation. So I think there is strong, united support for the policies that we are putting in place and that we are pursuing to make America more prosperous and to make America safer.

Monday, February 20, 2006

OLYMPICS KVETCHING There's a lot I don't understand about the winter Olympics. But I thought I had a good handle on ski jumping.

And then I learned about the style points.

Style points?

Clearly, aesthetic judgments are necessary in events like skating and gymnastics. But in ski jumping?

We don't care--it seems superfluous even to ask--whether a 100 meter sprint winner has exhibited more grace than her competitors.

The same is true of discus throwers, speed skaters and high jumpers. And, for that matter, tennis players.

I mean, can you picture Roger Federer winning a closely-fought Wimbledon final, and then losing the championship because Andy Roddick demonstrated more poise?

It's preposterous. But that's the road the sport of ski jumping has gone down.

My advice to the International Ski Federation:

1. Let women compete at the Olympics. Seriously: You're making yourselves look bad.

2. Let the jumpers jump. Send the judges on holiday. Can't resist wondering which jumper had the superior stylistic approach? Take another look at the the results: The jumper who jumped furthest--his style's the one the rest of the jumpers should think about emulating.

Friday, February 17, 2006

THE SURREAL LIFE Josh Marshall is onto something.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

DRAMA IN JERSEY With a rematch now taking shape in Newark, it's a good opportunity to recommend STREET FIGHT, Marshall Curry's remarkable documentary about the city's 2002 mayoral election.

In that race, Cory Booker, a young Yale Law School graduate and Rhodes Scholar, took on entrenched four-term incumbent Sharpe James. Curry takes viewers through the entire sordid race--an example of machine politics at its worst--as James intimidates and connives his way to re-election.

The film is not yet available at Netflix. But it's on its way.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

MICROSOFT REFORMS? At today's internet censorship hearings, Microsoft made three commitments:
First, explicit standards for protecting content access: Microsoft will remove access to blog content only when it receives a legally binding notice from the government indicating that the material violates local laws, or if the content violates MSN's terms of use.

Second, maintaining global access: Microsoft will remove access to content only in the country issuing the order. When blog content is blocked due to restrictions based on local laws, the rest of the world will continue to have access. This is a new capability Microsoft is implementing in the MSN Spaces infrastructure.

Third, transparent user notification: When local laws require the company to block access to certain content, Microsoft will ensure that users know why that content was blocked, by notifying them that access has been limited due to a government restriction.
Not perfect--not nearly. But it's progress.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

When the gubernatorial candidate accidentally killed a protected killdeer during a dove shoot, he wrote that he reacted this way: "Karen [Hughes] and I looked at each other. What now? 'We confess,' we both said, almost simultaneously. Bush then called every reporter who had been on his hunting trip. He then announced it at a press conference. The lesson of the shooting, Bush wrote in his biography, is that "people watch the way you handle things; they get a feeling they like and trust you, or they don't."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

SUNDAY IN THE CITY In the distance, the profile of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As seen from the western edge of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park.

Photo by Willow Lawson.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A BIT BETTER That's more like it:
President Bush has called Denmark's prime minister to express "our support and solidarity" in the wake of violence over the publication of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, the White House said Tuesday.


At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said American diplomats around the world had been directed to offer Denmark whatever assistance it might need to maintain its embassies.

ISN'T IT PART OF YOUR JOB? Hate to beat a dead horse here, but I still can't get over the Attorney General's approach to yesterday's hearings.

The core mission of the Department of Justice is to enforce the law and to "ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans."

And yet Gonzales--who runs DOJ--refuses to characterize the legal landscape in the area of domestic surveillance.

How can you enforce the law fairly if you're unwilling to tell the country what you think the law means?

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) hits the nail on the head:

SCHUMER: So you won't answer whether it is allowed and you won't answer whether it's been done.

I mean, isn't part of your -- in all due respect, as somebody who genuinely likes you, but isn't this part of your job, to answer a question like this?

GONZALES: Of course it is, Senator.

SCHUMER: But you're not answering it.

GONZALES: Well, I'm not saying that I will not answer the question.


GONZALES: I'm just not prepared to give you an answer at this time.
These people want to reserve the right to make up the rules as they go along. There's a name for that approach to government.

Monday, February 06, 2006

FACTS AND LAW A couple thoughts about today’s domestic surveillance hearings:
1) Attorney General Alberto Gonzales declined to describe the NSA’s domestic surveillance program at any level of detail, and dismissed as “wild speculation” news reports about the program.

2) Gonzales repeatedly refused to describe the scope of the President’s authority under current law to engage in domestic surveillance. He would say only that the NSA’s current program is operating within legal parameters.
So here we have the chief law enforcement officer in the land explicitly refusing to explain his reading of the facts or the law in the area of domestic surveillance.

He is flatly--and ostentatiously--refusing to give the American people the tools to make independent judgments about the legality of their government's actions.

MORE GONZALES Also worth reading:
SCHUMER: Now, here's the next question I have: Has the government done this? Has the government searched someone's home, an American citizen, or office, without a warrant since 9/11, let's say?

GONZALES: To my knowledge, that has not happened under the terrorist surveillance program, and I'm not going to go beyond that.

SCHUMER: I don't know what that -- what does that mean, under the terrorist surveillance program? The terrorist surveillance program is about wiretaps. This is about searching someone's home. It's different.

So it wouldn't be done under the surveillance program. I'm asking you if it has been done, period.

GONZALES: But now you're asking me questions about operations or possible operations, and I'm not going to get into that, Senator.

SCHUMER: I'm not asking you about any operation. I'm not asking you how many times. I'm not asking you where...

GONZALES: You asked me has that been done.


GONZALES: Have we done something?


GONZALES: That is an operational question, in terms of how we're using capabilities.

SCHUMER: So you won't answer whether it is allowed and you won't answer whether it's been done.

I mean, isn't part of your -- in all due respect, as somebody who genuinely likes you, but isn't this part of your job, to answer a question like this?

GONZALES: Of course it is, Senator.

SCHUMER: But you're not answering it.

GONZALES: Well, I'm not saying that I will not answer the question.


GONZALES: I'm just not prepared to give you an answer at this time.

THE GONZALES HEARINGS Here's a representative snippet:
LEAHY: Your testimony is that, virtually immediately, you determined you had the power to do this warrantless wiretapping because of AUMF.

You didn't ask anybody up here. Did you tell anybody that you needed something more than FISA?

GONZALES: Sir, I don't recall. Did I tell anyone in Congress or tell...

LEAHY: Congress. I said Congress first.

GONZALES: Sir, I don't recall having conversations with anyone in Congress about it.

LEAHY: Do you recall that anybody on this committee, which actually is the one that would be amending FISA, was told?

GONZALES: Sir, I have no personal knowledge that anyone on this committee was told.

LEAHY: Apparently then, according to your interpretation, Congress -- and a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats disagree with you on this when we voted for the authorization for military force -- that we were authorizing warrantless wiretapping.

Did we -- were we authorizing you to go into people's medical records here in the United States by your interpretation?

GONZALES: Senator, whatever the limits of the president's authority given under the authorization of the use of military force and his inherent authority as commander in chief in a time of war, it clearly includes the electronic surveillance of the enemy.

LEAHY: Well, just let it be noted that you did not answer my question. But here you also said, "We've had discussions with the Congress in the past, certain members of Congress, as to whether or not FISA could be amended to allow us to adequately deal with this kind of threat. We were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible."

That's your statement. All right. Who told you that?

GONZALES: Senator, there was discussion with a bipartisan group of leaders in Congress, leaders of the Intel Committee, to talk about legislation. And the consensus was that obtaining such legislation -- the legislative process is such that it could not be successfully accomplished without compromising...

LEAHY: When did they give you that advice?

GONZALES: Sir, that was some time in 2004.

LEAHY: Oh, three years later. You mean you've been doing this wiretapping for three years and then suddenly you come up here and say, "Oh, by the way, guys, could we have a little bit of authorization for this"? Is that what you're saying?

GONZALES: Sir, it's always been our position that the president has the authority, under the authorization to use military force and under the Constitution.

LEAHY: It's always been your position but, frankly, it flies in the face of the statute, Mr. Attorney General. And I doubt very much if one single person of Congress would have known that was your position, had you not known the newspapers were going to print what you were doing -- not that anybody up here knew it.

When you found out the newspapers were going to bring it, you came up here.

Did you talk to any member of the Judiciary Committee that would actually write it?

And let me ask you this: Did any member of this committee, this Judiciary Committee which has to write the law, did anybody here tell you we couldn't write a law that would allow you to go after Al Qaida in the way you're talking about?

GONZALES: Sir, I don't believe there were any discussions with any members of the Judiciary Committee...

LEAHY: Even though we're the ones that have to write the law, and you're saying that you were told by members of Congress we couldn't write a law that would fit it, and now you tell us that the committee that has to write the law never was asked.

GONZALES: We had...

LEAHY: Does this sound like a CYA on your part? It does to me.

GONZALES: We had discussions with a bipartisan leadership of the Congress about this program.

LEAHY: But not from this committee. We have both Republicans and Democrats on this committee, you know?

GONZALES: Yes, sir, I do know that.

LEAHY: And this committee has given you, twice under my chairmanship, we have given you five amendments to FISA because you requested it.

But this, you never came to us.

Mr. Attorney General, can you see why I have every reason to believe we never would have found out about this if the press hadn't?

LEAHY: Now, there's been talk about, "Well, let's go prosecute the press." Heavens, thank God we have a press that at least tells us what the heck you guys are doing because you're obviously not telling us.

GONZALES: Sir, we have advised bipartisan leadership of the Congress and the Intel Committees about this program.

LEAHY: Well, did you tell them that before the passage of the USA Patriot Act?

GONZALES: Sir, I don't recall when the first briefing occurred. But my recollection is that it was shortly after the program was initiated.

LEAHY: OK, well, let me ask you this, then.

You say, several years after it started, you came up here and talked to some group of members of Congress. The press reports said that the president's program of spying on Americans without warrants was shut down for some time in 2004. That sounds like the time you were up here.

If the president believed the program was necessary and legally justified, why did he shut it down?

GONZALES: Sir, you're asking me about the operations of the program.

LEAHY: Of course, I'm sorry, Mr. Attorney General, I forgot you can't answer any questions that might be relevant to this.


Well, if the president has that authority, does he also have the authority to wiretap Americans' domestic calls and e-mails under this authority if he feels it involves Al Qaida activity?

I'm talking about within this country, under this authority you have talked about. Does he have the power under your authority to wiretap Americans within the United States if they're involved in Al Qaida activity?

GONZALES: Sir, I've been asked this question several times.

LEAHY: I know. And you've had somewhat of a vague answer, so I'm asking again.

GONZALES: And I've said that that presents a different legal question, a possibly tough constitutional question. And I am not comfortable, just off the cuff, talking about whether or not such activity would, in fact, be constitutional.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

PLAME WATCH Was Valerie Plame a covert agent in July 2003? Patrick Fitzgerald says yes.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A RESPONSIBLE PRESS I'm with Sullivan.

And while I can understand the impulse behind the State Department's condemnation of European cartoons depicting Mohammed, it's not encouraging to read nuggets like this one from State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper:

We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility.
Just what role is the word "must" meant to play in this sentence? And since when is the State Department in the business of crafting standards of "press responsibility"?

I was under the impression that we're engaged in a global war against a particular strain of religious fanaticism. And that the defining characteristic of the fanatics in question is that they, in the words of our Fearless Leader, "hate freedom."

So why is Kurtis Cooper allowing himself to sound sympathetic to those calling for the killing of editorial cartoonists? Why is the State Department mollifying the freedom-haters instead of challenging them?

UPDATE: The Danish embassy in Lebanon was torched on Sunday, one day after the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria were set on fire.

This isn't about "press responsibility." It's about an ideology that condones the burning of buildings in response to a cartoon's publication. Plain and simple.

If we're truly serious about the future of freedom, we need to resist that ideology with everything we've got.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

CHEATING? IN THE GOP? Obviously I'm shocked and appalled:
House Republicans are taking a mulligan on the first ballot for Majority Leader. The first count showed more votes cast than Republicans present at the Conference meeting.

BEEN READING AGAIN A dangerous habit, I know.

A pair of sentences from Peter Spufford's excellent POWER AND PROFIT: THE MERCHANT IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE that seem worth passing along:

The earliest surviving references to pasta in Italy come only from the thirteenth century, but by the fourteenth many different kinds were being made. Marchionne di Coppo Stefani, in his Cronaca Fiorentina, which covers the years 1362 to 1385, uses a vivid simile when he reports that the burial of the dead in a mass grave during a visitation of the plague, first a layer of earth, then a layer of bodies, then another layer of earth, then another was 'just like lasagne'.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.