November 14, 2007

I want to ride my bicycle

Megan McArdle asks, Why is it that in Vietnam girls wear the traditional ao dai as part of their school uniform, and boys just wear a shirt and pants and a tie? "Surely," she wonders, "the men would look equally fetching in whatever the Vietnamese elite males wore 200 years ago?"

In response, I submit the above photo from the Apec summit in Hanoi. Obviously, your average Vietnamese man would make this look work much better than George W. or Putin do. Still, I think it's fair to surmise that the ao dai just looks better on women than it does on men:

Incidentally, one of the things I really came to appreciate when I lived in Vietnam and saw schoolgirls riding their bikes around town in their pristine white ao dai is how egalitarian a costume the ao dai is. You get all the flattering and graceful benefits of wearing a dress without any of the annoying physical restrictions, because the silk shift has a split down the side and you're wearing silk trousers underneath. The public schools in New Zealand, where I grew up, all require students to wear uniforms, and I remember riding my bike to school in a skirt on windy days and being very grumpy about the impracticality of the whole thing.

Photo of cyclists from Flickr user thaths used under a Creative Commons license.

October 30, 2007

New soldiers

Head over to the Washington City Paper and take a look at this photo essay by Darrow Montgomery featuring new recruits to the armed forces. The implied question is, Who is signing up for the military in the middle of the Iraq War? Here are a few answers from the accompanying text by Jason Cherkis (but follow the link and listen to the subjects speak for themselves in the audio-visual slide show):

* From a 21-year-old Navy recruit: “'I can’t swim...That might be a challenge.…I know it’s awkward. I didn’t want to go in the Air Force. I figured, ‘Hey, I’ll learn how to swim."
* From a 17-year-old who one day hopes to be a broadcast journalist: “Don’t know what to expect. But after basic training, it looks like smooth sailing.”
* A 23-year-old antiwar Duke graduate with a degree in Middle Eastern history and a minor in Arabic is shipping out with a copy of Tom Ricks's Fiasco in his luggage.
* And an 18-year-old whose job will include interrogrations and who knows she might be asked to use torture: "I’m not really concerned with it... If I have to do it, I will. Hopefully I won’t have to do anything like torturing anybody. If I have to do that to do my job, it will just come along. If it’s to help protect someone else, then yeah."

October 29, 2007

Jenna v. Chelsea!

My esteemed colleague T.A. Frank is backing Jenna. Why? Well, while Jenna has been assiduously working to erase our memories of her hard-drinking, thong-baring youth with a Unicef internship and a new book, what has Chelsea been up to?

"Chelsea's post-9/11 resume has consisted of stints as a McKinsey consultant and as an investment analyst at Avenue Capital, a hedge fund run by the nuns of Calcutta. Oh, sorry-- make that Clinton donor Marc Lasry... Quoth the Times: 'Friends say financial independence is important to Ms. Clinton; she may improve on her low- six-figure McKinsey salary by hundreds of thousands of dollars.'
Chelsea didn't exactly spend her Oxford days tending to the world's unfortunates, either: Among the events she attended were a Versace couture show in Paris (sitting next to Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow), a ball thrown by Sir Elton John, and a film premiere with Paul McCartney. Nor did she join her British celebrity friends in visiting landmine amputees, unless the amputees happened to be holed up at Oscar de la Renta's Dominican villa. In New York, Chelsea has befriended celebrities like Tara Reid (who, to be fair, may actually qualify as a public service cause) and become a regular at establishments like Schiller's and Bungalow 8. In short, while Jenna has used her celebrity--at least in part--to help impoverished children, Chelsea has used her celebrity to get herself good tables at Nobu."

Read the rest here.

Publish and Perish

We have a new piece by Avi Klein in the Washington Monthly that I think is well worth a read. It begins with the mysterious suicide of a man named Ken Kronberg, who ran the printing operation for the notorious Lyndon LaRouche. As Avi notes, there is some indication that Kronberg may have been goaded to commit suicide by an internal memo from the LaRouche leadership that Kronberg read the morning that he died.

As Avi investigated this incident and learned more about Kronberg, he figured out an essential truth about the LaRouche movement: more than a cult of personality or a political movement, what it really resembles is a "vast and bizarre vanity press." LaRouche's MO for changing the world was to bombard its citizens with printed disquisitions on esoteric subjects (see above). He also depended on his printer financially, using his various magazines and dubious intelligence reports to raise cash (although the movement always seemed to be on the run from its creditors.) As the owner of the printing operation, Kronberg was at the center of all this. And as the movement's finances became increasingly shaky (a development brought on, in part, by LaRouche's obsession with the printed word in the face of the rise of the Internet), Kronberg came under increasing strain. The demise of Kronberg and his printing company tells a fascinating story about the decline of the LaRouche movement itself, a strange and unique presence in American politics for the past thirty years. Check it out.

Bonus reading: via Kevin, this piece in Inside Higher Ed takes a look at some of LaRouche's more quixotic causes (although, to tell you the truth, his causes all tend to be incredibly quixotic.) For instance:

"LaRouche has also determined the correct pitch for tuning musical instruments. Any other tuning bothers him, besides being incompatible with the structure of the universe. In the best of all possible worlds, people found in possession of “incorrect” tuning forks and pitch-pipes would be fined. His followers in Italy once proposed legislation to that effect. It failed. That campaign seems to be at a standstill, but it once drew close attention in the pages of Opera Fanatic magazine."

Ah, Opera Fanatic magazine --almost certainly the only opera publication whose cover once promised nude centerfolds and “For the First Time: Photos of Castrati.” But that's another story.

LaRouche pamphlet image from Flickr user whitbackup81 under a Creative Commons license.

October 25, 2007

The Distant Future

" 10,000 years time humans may have paid a genetic price for relying on technology. Spoiled by gadgets designed to meet their every need, they could come to resemble domesticated animals.

Social skills, such as communicating and interacting with others, could be lost, along with emotions such as love, sympathy, trust and respect. People would become less able to care for others, or perform in teams.

Physically, they would start to appear more juvenile. Chins would recede, as a result of having to chew less on processed food."

Two Districts

A new study of the Washington DC economy finds that the capital has the third-greatest level of income inequality of any American city. Plus:

-- The gap between high-wage and low-wage workers in the District is at an all-time high.
-- Between the early 1980s and early 2000s, the average income of the poorest fifth of DC households rose three percent. The average income of the wealthiest fifth rose 81 percent.
-- African-American median income is no higher than in 1980.
-- African-American residents are five times more likely than white residents to be unemployed.

The conclusion? -- "These findings show that the District has two different economies: one represented by construction cranes, new jobs, and growing incomes—-and another represented by people who work but earn very little, who are not moving into better jobs or higher wages, and who may not be working at all. The gleaming side of DC’s economy could continue to grow and prosper, but there is little evidence to suggest it would lead to any improvements for the thousands of residents who live on the other side."

Rudy and torture

In my Washington Monthly piece I note that Rudy Giuliani has already indicated his support for quite a few of the Bush administration's most disturbing policies in the area of detention and interrogration:

"In 2006, Giuliani told the Wall Street Journal that he would probably keep the detention center at Guantanamo Bay open, saying that its conditions had been "grossly exaggerated." This year, at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, he refused to say whether the Bush administration had gone too far in denying the protection of the Geneva Conventions to terrorist suspects. Giuliani has also indicated that presidents have the power to indefinitely detain American citizens without trial. At a debate, he declared himself opposed to torture but refused to say whether he would outlaw waterboarding, instead offering that interrogators should perform "any method they can think of."

For most of those comments it's possible for Giuliani's supporters to argue that he was just speaking off the cuff to a reporter or voter, and that these statements don't necessarily reflect deeply held positions. I don't think that's true. Witness this exchange from at a campaign event in Iowa yesterday, in which Giuliani explicitly lays out a policy of officially sanctioned torture (emphases mine).

Questioner: "He [AG nominee Mukasey] said he didn't know if waterboarding is torture."

Giuliani: "Well, I'm not sure it is either. I'm not sure it is either. It depends on how it's done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it's been defined in the media, it shouldn't be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that's the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn't be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is. Because I've learned something being in public life as long as I have. And I hate to shock anybody with this, but the newspapers don't always describe it accurately."
“Now, on the question of torture. We should not torture. America should not stand for torture, America should not allow torture. But America should engage in aggressive questioning of Islamic terrorists who are arrested or who are apprehended. Because if we don’t we leave ourselves open to significant attack.”

“And the line between the two is very delicate and very difficult. But we can’t abandon aggressive questioning of people who are intent on coming here to kill us. Or killing us overseas. I think that that’s the point that the attorney general designate was trying to make.”

“And the powers of the president are pretty significant in protecting the national security of the United States. They always have been. So I think what he was also trying to do was protect the powers of the United States to deal with unforeseen circumstances like the hypothetical we were asked during one debate – I’ve forgotten which one: If there was a terrorist attack on an American city, and it was clear that there were all going to be additional attacks, some of them were going to be nuclear, and they were planned for the next couple of days and one of the people involved in it was arrested, and the head of the C.I.A. came to you and said we have to do certain things to get the information from him, would you authorize it? And I think most of us answered it, yes we would, we would authorize doing whatever we thought was the most effective to get that information.

The president has to have that kind of leeway. We’ve got to trust our president well enough to allow that. If we surround this so much with procedure, we’re going to have some unforeseen circumstance in which a president’s not going to feel comfortable making the right decision, particularly if you have the wrong person there. “

“So I think America should never be for torture. America should be against torture. It violates the Geneva Convention. [sic] Certainly when we’re dealing with armed combatants, we shouldn’t get near anything like that. There is a distinction, sometimes, when you’re dealing with terrorists. You may have to use means that are a little tougher.

October 24, 2007

Rudy and executive power

I have a cover story in the new issue of the Washington Monthly. It takes a close look at Giuliani's mayoralty to argue that he would be even more aggressive in his use of presidential power than Bush and Cheney have been. Like most of you, I knew when I started reporting the piece that Giuliani favors many of Bush's policies on interrogation and detention, and that he's temperamentally inclined to be a bit of a bully who threw his weight around a lot as mayor. What I didn't realize was how adept he was at using the same tactics that have become hallmarks of the Bush-Cheney presidency: circumventing the law, obstructing oversight, obsessive secrecy, and above all a canny exploitation of the weak points in the system of checks and balances. I'll have more to say on all of this later, but for now, here's the link.

October 23, 2007

Hillary and executive power

Michael Tomasky has an interview with Hillary Clinton up at the brand new Guardian America site, which includes this nugget:

MT: If you become president you'll enter the White House with far more power than, say, your husband had. What is your view of this? And what specific powers might you relinquish as president, or renegotiate with Congress - for example the power to declare a US citizen an enemy combatant?
HC: Well, I think it is clear that the power grab undertaken by the Bush-Cheney administration has gone much further than any other president and has been sustained for longer. Other presidents, like Lincoln, have had to take on extraordinary powers but would later go to the Congress for either ratification or rejection. But when you take the view that they're not extraordinary powers, but they're inherent powers that reside in the office and therefore you have neither obligation to request permission nor to ask for ratification, we're in a new territory here. And I think that I'm gonna have to review everything they've done because I've been on the receiving end of that.
MT: I guess I'm asking, can a president, once in the White House, actually give up some of this power in the name of constitutional principle?
HC: Oh, absolutely, Michael. I mean that has to be part of the review that I undertake when I get to the White House, and I intend to do that.

It's a very careful answer that doesn't promise anything specific, (note that what's she's promising is the review of Bush's power grab, not the relinquishment of powers). But I'm very glad that Tomasky asked the question.

October 19, 2007


Matt Yglesias writes today that Michael Mukasey initially seemed "an admirably non-terrible choice for the job of attorney general" but "the hearings process has revealed him to be completely unacceptable." This makes my head hurt. Sure, Mukasey is not a hack like Alberto Gonzales -- he's a serious man who's had a serious career in the law. (So, by the way, are John Roberts and Samuel Alito.) I expect that the DoJ will be better run, I don't expect Mukasey to continue the rampantly politicized hiring practices that existed under Gonzales (although how far he'll go to clean out the ranks of political hires who are still there is another question entirely.)

But... we've known for several years now that practically every decision the Bush administration makes is shaped by a view of presidential authority on steroids. The Mukasey nomination never seemed like a compromise to me, but just a rerun of the same brilliant tactic the administration used with its judicial nominations. When the administration nominated Roberts in particular, but also Alito, many in the legal establishment seemed almost flattered by their impeccable credentials and courtly manners. Unlike, say, a Harriet Miers, these guys seemed respectable, part of the club, and so many in the world of elite opinion murmured their gratified approval; the Senate got a lot of non-answers from both men, but because they were given politely, it confirmed them all the same. As Charlie Savage explains in his indispensable book, though, Roberts and Alito happened to share the administration's vision of executive power (as their records inside the Reagan administration clearly demonstrated). That is why they were nominated.

Over the last week or so, we've seen Washington making a very similar mistake. Even Andrew Sullivan, normally outstanding on the issues of torture and abuse of executive power, initially took the bait, although he has since changed his mind. In the Senate, Patrick Leahy has realized that there is "a loophole big enough to drive a truck through” in Mukasey's position on whether the president needs to obey the law. Mukasey has also refused to call waterboarding torture -- despite the fact that the U.S. has, historically, successfully prosecuted the practice as a war crime under international law. But so far the Senate appears set to confirm Mukasey, because he is at least answering their questions, even though the answers he is giving are unacceptable.

Here is the issue: despite the Bush administration's declining fortunes, its attitude towards the power of the presidency remains unchanged. It is detaining people on the basis of secret evidence and then claiming that it has lost the evidence. It is successfully strong-arming a weak-willed Congress into legalizing its illegal wiretapping. Despite the disclosure of its torture policy, that policy remains unchanged. Given the centrality of the DoJ to the administration's exercise of unfettered power, was there ever any doubt that Bush and Cheney would nominate someone for Attorney General who didn't share their basic beliefs about presidential authority? Sure, they might have preferred Ted Olson. But there's no way they would have nominated Mukasey if they thought he would jeopardize their seven-year mission to remake the presidency. And that's why he shouldn't be confirmed, no matter how serious and independent and impressive he seems in contrast to Alberto Gonzales.

October 14, 2007

Lonely Isles

After I came to the U.S., I developed a habit of checking in secondhand bookstores for titles by New Zealanders or about New Zealand. It's interesting to see what bits of flotsam and jetsam from your home country make their way here. For instance, in Fredericksburg, Maryland, I bought New Zealand by William Cameron, a history of the country's attempt to "lead the islands of the South Pacific in the creation of a new Anglo-Polynesian civilization." It was published in 1965 in Englewood Cliffs, NJ (where, incidentally, I once spent a miserable five weeks as a freelance fact checker for Life&Style magazine.) I was leafing through it today and found an interesting passage in a chapter titled "From Bonanza to Export Drive." (For the record, I'm not one of the many New Zealanders who disparage the country's history as boring and not worth reading about, but I must say that titles like that don't help.) Anyway, over the years I've heard many explanations for the solitary strain that runs thought a lot of New Zealand art and writing and culture, but Cameron's take was new to me:

"There can be no doubt that the peculiar form of isolationism that prevails in New Zealand is produced by the occupational habits of her farmers. Preoccupation with producing wool, butter, cheese, and meat for a seemingly inexhaustible market created by a continuation of Great Britain's nineteenth-century concentration upon industrialization has tended to make New Zealanders think that all one needs to worry about is producing the goods and they will sell themselves. This attitude was probably engendered in the pioneers very early by bonanza conditions. No one needed to worry about a market for gold; all one had to do was find it and mine it. No one needed to worry about a market for wool; all one had to worry about was the price offering.... The consequences of having one's main market on the other side of the world induced the feeling that one could not really manipulate that market.. The New Zealander soon learned to keep his eyes on his own garden."

I'm not sure about explaining the national character through the vagaries of the export market, but I do think that, as with most places, the way New Zealand was settled had a lot to do with the kind of culture that developed there. I remember my grandmother telling me about how her mother came to New Zealand from the island of Jersey in the English Channel. She had only known her husband for a few months before she decided to take a three-month sea voyage to the other side of the world with him. She spoke only French, no English, and couldn't read or write, so at first it was hard for her to communicate with her family at home, at least until her children grew old enough to help her write letters. They lived on a farm several miles from the nearest road and even further from the nearest town, which was the small settlement of Eketahuna, a Maori word which means "to run aground on a sandbank."

Being a pioneer in New Zealand wasn't like being a pioneer in the American West. Unlike the wide plains that you find in the Western states of the U.S., New Zealand is all hills and gullies, mountain ranges and valleys. Today, the landscape is mostly settled farmland, but back then it was covered in dense, tenacious bush. You couldn't see past the next hill or the bush that hemmed in your house or your town. Driving in New Zealand, you very rarely get that sense of unimpeded possibility that is a common experience in the American West--and nor did you get the optimism and recklesseness that those limitless horizons inspired. Instead, you got caution and pessimism, a sense that if things were bearable where you were, you'd better stay put, because they might be worse if you moved on. And a pragmatic self-sufficiency and an ability to cope without other people that later became a culture which put less value on community, and had a kind of loneliness soaked into its bones.

I think I mention this because I was thinking about my grandmothers today. Both are over 90 (the older one is 96). Both of them are extremely resourceful and independent and, until very recently, lived for quite a long time on their own. My Nana is cheerful and practical; my Grandma is curious and inquisitive. I've always thought that in their different ways, they embody some of the more admirable aspects of that older New Zealand culture, which has changed a lot in my lifetime, mostly for the better, and looks likely to keep on changing.

October 13, 2007

My eyes!

OK, I take back everything I said about New York magazine's cover last week being creepy. If you have had your morning coffee, and are not hungover or otherwise prone to retching, check out Radar's parody of Vanity Fair.

Obama and black voters

Andrew Sullivan has been doing some interesting posts this week exploring why black voters aren't rallying behind Obama to the degree you might expect. A few of his readers have mentioned that they don't feel obliged to vote for him simply because he's black. Fair enough -- I can't vote myself, but if I could I wouldn't pull the lever for Hillary just because she's a woman. Some of the reasons, though, were sobering:

"You would gain tremendous insight by talking to some Black, middle age folks. You will gain insight as to why this group favors (rightly or wrongly, Hillary. And they will tell you that (1) Obama is not ready; (2) He will be assassinated if he gets within striking distance of the White House. Middle-age Blacks know a thing or two about how America really is. One does not hear these insights from younger white folks."

And in today's Times, Katherine Seeyle takes the temperature at some beauty parlors in South Carolina and finds "an almost maternal concern for Obama's safety" was a common theme:

“'I fear that they just would kill him, that he wouldn’t even have a chance,' she said as she styled a customer’s hair with a curling iron. One way to protect him, she suggested, would be not to vote for him."

Obama's rise has been so swift that it's easy to forget how unlikely his candidacy is and how slowly America changes. A country that has never elected anyone but white men is finally considering not only an African American but a woman too (albeit one who owes her momentum to her husband's presidency). Still, there are many currents that will tug voters of all kinds to retreat from the audacious choice and revert to something safer. A dark view of the fate of prominent black men is just one of those currents. This election may seem like a historic one, but it's really only a beginning.

October 6, 2007

One small Hitch

Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to a piece by Christopher Hitchens about his experience meeting the family of a young soldier who recently died in Iraq, having been inspired to enlist in part by Hitchens. Hitchens' article is honest and moving, and he is obviously stricken by his role in the death of Mark Jennings Daily, by all accounts a remarkable man from a remarkable family. But I was struck by Hitchens's response when he first read in the LA Times that "writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced" Daily to go to Iraq.

"I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.?" (emphasis mine.)

When I read this, I froze. Could it be true that this possibility had never occurred to Hitchens before? He is a columnist and an opinion-writer; persuading people he has never met is his trade. By arguing forcefully in prominent venues for the war in Iraq, surely he must have realized that his words could have at least two potential consequences. One, his forceful arguments might influence the thinking of the policymakers and opinion-shapers whose support is vital for the launch of any war--and war will almost certainly lead to the deaths of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers. Two, an idealistic person might read Hitchens' writing and be so inspired by its moral arguments that he decides to participate in the struggle for democracy in the Middle East. Perhaps opinion writers tend not to consider that their words might have the direct impact of the latter example, and are more comfortable with exerting their influence at the safe remove offered by the former. The consequences, however, are ultimately the same.

October 3, 2007

The other torture memos

We knew there were more disturbing memos floating around somewhere in the Office of Legal Counsel, and they're finally starting to come out. The Times has pieced together a large part of the story of how the OLC authorized the CIA to perform torture on the fly:

"With virtually no experience in interrogations, the C.I.A. had constructed its program in a few harried months by consulting Egyptian and Saudi intelligence officials and copying Soviet interrogation methods long used in training American servicemen to withstand capture. The agency officers questioning prisoners constantly sought advice from lawyers thousands of miles away... [such as] “These approved techniques, say, withholding food, and 50-degree temperature — can they be combined?” Or “Do I have to do the less extreme before the more extreme?”

The piece also introduces us to Steven Bradbury, who took over the OLC after the resignation of Jack Goldsmith. He seems to have become the OLC's chief enabler of the administration's torture policy after the departure of John Yoo (nicknamed "Dr. Yes" by John Ashcroft because of his apparent willingness to find a legal rationale for any interrogation technique that the administration could think up.)

One theme that runs throughout the piece is the politicization of the OLC--a once highly respected office whose role is to provide a sound interpretation of the law for the executive branch--not to offer creative suggestions for how the government can get away with what it wants to do. The politicization had already begun before Bradbury's arrival, but the Times points out that the administration “decided to watch Bradbury for a month or two" and put him on probation, making it difficult for him to disagree with the White House if he wanted to make the job a permanent one. I couldn't help but think of the disturbing revelation that the White House was secretly interviewing John Roberts about a Supreme Court vacancy while he was deciding Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld on the D.C. Court of Appeals--effectively turning the case into an audition. (Roberts, of course, passed with honors.)

And here's the thing that tends to get lost in the dramatic stories of the departures of Gonzales and Yoo, the revolt by principled lawyers like Jack Goldsmith and James Comey, and the withdrawal of Yoo's infamous 2002 memo:

"The 2005 Justice Department opinions remain in effect, and their legal conclusions have been confirmed by several more recent memorandums, officials said. They show how the White House has succeeded in preserving the broadest possible legal latitude for harsh tactics."

It will take a new administration and a new Congress to repair the damage.

October 1, 2007

Michael Crowley thinks that this week's cover of New York magazine is hilarious. Personally, I think it is creepy. You really have to look twice to tell that it's Bill under that bouffant.

The piece itself--by Jennifer Senior--has some interesting thoughts about how the Clintons might manage reversed roles in a second presidency. (It's only when you write a sentence like that that you realize how weird the prospect is in the first place.) What really unnerves me, though, is that lately I've heard the odd Democrat with fond memories of the Clinton I era admit that their sympathies are drifting Hillarywards because they'd "get Bill back." I wouldn't be so sure about that. I imagine that Hillary will be very anxious to distinguish herself from her husband. And--as Senior also points out--although Bill and Hillary have similar goals, they have very different instincts. If Hillary becomes president, it's her instincts that we'll get.

Dollars and Cents

Radiohead announced today that not only do they have a new album coming out in ten days that nobody knew about, but that you can decide how much you want to pay to download it. The band is able to pull off this nifty trick because it's no longer signed with a label, and now releases all its music through its own website. If you go there to pre-order a download of In Rainbows, you name your price, in British pounds, no less. (Incidentally, I hadn't realized until utilizing the site's helpful currency converter that the dollar was doing quite so badly against the pound.)

As others have noted, this seems like rather a big deal, in terms of the future of the music industry and all that. I have been, in my time, an energetic user of, um, certain informal forums in which music can be acquired without payment of money. But there are a number of artists that I will always pay to support, and Radiohead is among them. For that reason, I'm probably not the best test of how this bold experiment will work. For the record, I paid $11 (an awfully stingy-sounding 5 pounds) to pre-order In Rainbows. I'll let you know if it's any good.

P.S: An update from the Village Voice:

"Rather than putting their audience through months of traditional hype-cycle tedium, they've compressed the prerelease anticipation period into a week and a half and made it more intense in the process. They've figured out a way to exploit the devotion of their cult without insulting that devotion. And they've cut themselves loose from a sick, dying, hostile industry by selling direct to the people who want to hear them. So far, it's working; the In Rainbows website is taking forever to load because too many people are clambering over each other to give this band their money."

September 25, 2007

Stevens goes courting

Jeffrey Rosen had a not-half-bad profile of Justice John Paul Stevens in this weekend's NYT magazine. As always, it's fascinating to get a rare peek into the inner workings of the Supreme Court--including this tidbit on how Stevens entices Anthony Kennedy to join the court's liberal voting bloc:

"When he is in the majority, Stevens is careful not to lose votes that start off on his side, often assigning the opinion to Kennedy when Kennedy seems to be on the fence. “Sometimes,” he told me, “in all candor, if you think somebody might not be solid” after casting a vote in conference, “it might be wiser to let that person write the opinion,” because after defending a position at length, people “tend to become even more convinced” than when they started... In other cases, Stevens has written the majority opinion himself in an effort to shore up Kennedy’s vote. [In one case]... by citing several of Kennedy’s previous opinions in his own opinion, Stevens persuaded Kennedy to stay in the liberal camp. "

All very shrewd, but is it really wise of Stevens to explain this to the Times? I imagine Kennedy is aware of Stevens's wily ways, but I can't imagine he'd take kindly to the fact that Stevens basically told the paper of record that he's been playing Kennedy like a piano.

Another nugget:

"[When he is in Florida, Stevens] swims every day in the ocean, plays tennis at least three times a week and plays golf two or three times a week...He tries to maintain this vigorous exercise schedule when he is in Washington, playing tennis two or three times a week... He is in such good physical shape that, in 2005, at age 85, he threw the first pitch at a Cubs-Reds game at Wrigley Field and got it right over the plate."

Every time I remember that Stevens is 89, I get anxious just thinking about some of the things that would happen if he were no longer on the court. Reading Rosen's piece, however, I feel quite relieved to think that Stevens gets a lot more more exercise than I do.

September 21, 2007

George W. Bush: "scared of horses"

From the UK's Daily Telegraph:

"President Bush may like to be seen as a swaggering tough guy with a penchant for manly outdoor pursuits, but in a new book one of his closest allies has said he is afraid of horses.
Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, derided his political friend as a "windshield cowboy" – a cowboy who prefers to drive – and "the cockiest guy I have ever met in my life". He recalled a meeting in Mexico shortly after both men had been elected when Mr Fox offered Mr Bush a ride on a "big palomino" horse. Mr Fox, who left office in December, recalled Mr Bush "backing away" from the animal. "A horse lover can always tell when others don't share our passion," he said. "
(via TPM)

Will Ferrell, though, called this one all the way back in 2004.

September 20, 2007

Excellent questions

... from George Will to Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey. They include, just for starters:

"The Bush administration says "the long war" -- the war on terrorism -- is a perpetual emergency that will last for generations. Waged against us largely by non-state actors, it will not end with a legally clarifying and definitive surrender. The administration regards America as a battlefield, on which even an American citizen can be seized as an "enemy combatant" and detained indefinitely. You ruled that presidents have this power, but you were reversed on appeal. What do you think was the flaw in the reasoning of the court that reversed you?"

September 19, 2007

Why Is Bob Herbert Boring?

This piece, by my friend and colleague T.A. Frank, addresses the above question. Despite the provocative title, it's a very thoughtful essay about the numerous difficulties of writing about poverty and the disadvantaged.

September 13, 2007

Fact checking Bill Murray

I remember being horrified watching the movie Shattered Glass in which the New Republic's fact checkers got suckered by a serial fabricator because they confirmed the details of his reporting by looking at his notes, instead of, say, making a few phone calls. Thankfully, these fellows appear to be far more thorough.
(thanks, Nick.)

September 12, 2007

Zbigniew's zingers

"...I asked Brzezinski, who knows from experience, how he responds to the Clinton line that as First Lady Hillary participated in numerous important foreign policy debates and, especially, the oft-repeated fact that she has visited 82 foreign nations. "I would say my travel agent has probably been to more than 82 countries," Brezezinski said with a smile, "but that doesn't qualify my travel agent to be secretary of state or president." Moreover, he added, "Being First Lady is not the same thing as showing, on her own, that she understands what is really at stake in a situation, and to understand it early on, and not to understand it when a lot of other people have belatedly reached the same conclusion."
(via Michael Crowley at The Plank.)

I agree with Brzezinski, but he certainly has a way of putting it.

This also allows me to air a long-standing gripe I've had about the coverage of the Democratic candidates, which is: if Obama weren't in the race, both Hillary and Edwards would have to answer some hard questions about their own experience. Edwards's claim to experience is almost as slender as Obama's (and he failed the major test of his term in the Senate, the Iraq war vote). Hillary has been an witness to executive leadership, but not a participant accountable to the public--and when she was given an opportunity to acquire this type of experience (her healthcare plan) she failed too. But because Barack Obama's only previous experience in government has been as a state senator, Hillary and Edwards rarely have to answer tough questions about their rather thin resumes. This should give Democratic primary voters some pause about rejecting Obama on the grounds of his inexperience alone, because the alternatives aren't exactly FDR.

September 11, 2007

Two books

Two books getting a lot of press this week are Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency--an account of his time as the head of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel--and Charlie Savage's Takeover, a legal history of Dick Cheney's project to expand the powers of the presidency. Goldsmith's book is illuminating for its insider's insights, and Savage's is essential.

A couple of things struck me about Goldsmith's book. Goldsmith was the brave bureaucrat who withdrew the infamous "torture" memo (and a number of others) after he came to the conclusion that they were riddled with erroneous legal reasoning. I hadn't realized that withdrawing memos was basically unheard of for the OLC--and Goldsmith wound up withdrawing not just one but a "short stack." We still only know about the contents of a couple of these.

Goldsmith's book is also interesting because Goldsmith is a conservative, and so he arrives at his destination from a different direction than most liberal critics of Cheney's excesses. For instance:

"On issue after issue, the administration had powerful legal arguments but ultimately made mistakes on important questions of policy. It got policies wrong, ironically, because it was excessively legalistic, because it often substituted legal analysis for policy judgment, and because it was too committed to expanding the President's constitutional powers."

Basically, Goldsmith's point is that the administration acted as it did because there are now more international and domestic laws relating to war and national security than there were a few decades ago. However, the president was unwilling to go to Congress to ask for new authorities because of Cheney and Addington's ideological opposition to granting Congress any voice at all in the realm of national security. Instead, they opted for legal positions which were not just contorted but actually wrong.

As for Savage's book, I would urge you to read it. Although this subject has become almost a fetish in the elite media over the past year or so, it's amazing how much new information he's unearthed -- including details about Cheney's views on presidential power from the Ford administration, and about John Robert's and Samuel Alito's worrisome views on executive power, as gleaned from their careers at the Reagan DOJ.

The other thing that's laudable about the book is its tone. There are no rhetorical or partisan indulgences here, which I hope will make it easier for Savage to convinced the unconvinced or unaware that for the past eight years, Dick Cheney really has been engaged in a radical endeavor to remake the American presidency for the foreseeable future.

September 10, 2007

September 7, 2007

The trouble with columnists

Last week a colleague and I were having a conversation about columnists and I was trying to explain why I'm not a huge fan of that form of writing. Over at the Atlantic, James Fallows mentions a conversation he once had with Tom Friedman about The World is Flat that captures some of what I was trying to say:

"When I asked Friedman... why he said on virtually every page of the book that the world was "flat," when he knew very well all the reasons it wasn't, he disarmingly said: In the columnist game, you don't sell things 51-49. You decide what you think is right, and you push that all the way. So, he could have more accurately said that the world is "flattening," but that wouldn't have had the ooomph. "

Now, I'm not saying that all opinion writing is bad, but I think that Friedman's right about how the "columnist game" works. Another thing, of course, that Friedman once gave considerable oomph to was the Iraq war. On those sorts of questions, I get very nervous about the influence of a super-columnist like Friedman, combined with the career imperatives of being a professional opinion shaper.

Photo from Flickr user keso under a Creative Commons license.

A sign of the times

The American Constitution Society has posted a link to a useful document compiled by Neil Kinkopf, associate professor of law at Georgia State University, cataloguing every single signing statement President Bush has issued, along with the legislative clause he objected to, and the specific objection given. In case you don't have time to read all 229 pages, we're up to 1,047 parts of law that the President has decided that he doesn't have to follow.

September 6, 2007

Dorms like Palaces

The Washington City Paper has a pretty good story about the various extravagences of George Washington University, where tuition (including accommodation) just passed the $50,000 mark, although the school's U.S News ranking has been on the decline. The extravagences include:

* Engraved chocolates deposited on the pillows of incoming freshmen at inauguration.
* "GW ranks well on at least one list—Princeton Review’s “Dorms Like Palaces.”
* "A lighted model of the Washington Monument... soars from the basement through an atrium. (The actual monument is a short walk away.)... Changes have also come to Duques Hall, GW’s new business school building, which now features a classroom built to resemble a stock exchange, with a multitude of screens on which students can play stockbroker."

The piece also contains one of the least comprehensible responses to a journalist that I have ever read; to wit:
“But you see, all our students aren’t identical. And so what we try to do is treat each student as justly and as equitably as we can. And so it’s a little like a Procrustean bed. You know you have a 6-foot person, and you have a 4-foot bed. The choices, it seems to me, are extend the bed by 2 feet or cut 2 feet off the person...Well, what we try to extend the bed. And so we have some students who are paying—what you would call if you’re buying a car—the list price. And we have other students who are getting the car for free. And most students are in between A and Z, between Alpha and Omega.”

The Democrats and the troops

From Matthew Iglesias:
"Chris Bowers notes that 59 percent of Democrats believe that John Edwards is proposing to withdraw all US forces from Iraq within nine months. 71 percent believe that Barack Obama is proposing to do this. And 76 (!) percent believe Hillary Clinton is proposing to do so. Needless to say, none of them are, in fact, proposing anything of the sort--though I wish they would."

So, if all three candidates are wary of calling for troop withdrawal because they fear public disapproval, but the public believes that they are calling for troop withdrawal -- then the candidates might as well call for troop withdrawal. Especially as this is what voters actually want, and, even more importantly in this particular case, because there really are no good reasons to stay in Iraq, not even reasons prompted by the best possible intentions.

September 5, 2007

The Dear Leader has notes

"It turns out Mr. Kim has issued an incredible total of 11,890 instructions to North Korean filmmakers since the 1960s. For most of this period... he was issuing instructions at a rate of one a day. For one film alone, Sea of Blood, he issued 124 detailed instructions. On another film, Flower Girl, he gave "on-the-spot guidance" on 116 instances... [For example,] Mr. Kim told his filmmakers to use three cameras, instead of one, for the making of Sea of Blood. This apparently had never occurred to any of his directors."
The rest is here, via ArtsJournal.

Photo from Flickr user ManilaRyce under a Creative Commons license.

September 2, 2007

What I'm reading

I find that working in a job where I'm up to my elbows in words all day doesn't always make for good reading habits. Sometimes I read nothing at all for long stretches and get very disgruntled about it. Other times, I find myself binging on books like you wouldn't believe. Over the last month or so, I've been on a bit of a bender, reading-wise -- partly for work and partly for fun. I'll have more to say about a few of these books soon, but in the meantime, if anyone is looking for recommendations, here are some from me:
* The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross -- a history of the twentieth century through its classical music. I'm in the middle of this right now (a review copy, it's not out until September).
* Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, by Charlie Savage. Basically a legal history of the Bush administration. If you read just one book on this subject, etc.
* The Imperial Presidency, by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
* Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which is exquisite.

August 31, 2007

People who get it, Part II

"The government's legal arguments justifying the detention of hundreds of people at the Guantánamo Bay naval base have been repudiated three times by the U.S. Supreme Court. But it's not just outsiders who take issue with the U.S. Justice Department strategy: Up to one fourth of the department's own civil appellate staff has recently opted out of handling the government's cases against detainee appeals, two sources familiar with the matter tell U.S. News."

Where am I?

Sorry for the extended silence here. I've been buried in a long reporting project. Regular posting will resume soon.

August 13, 2007

Strict destructionism

Constitutional question of the day, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor:

"Padilla's treatment in the brig raises another issue, these scholars say: whether the Constitution ever permits the government to force a man to confess to involvement in terrorist plots and, in doing so, risk destruction of a portion of his mind."

August 12, 2007

They don't write Supreme Court opinions like they used to

Today I had occasion to read a couple of famous Supreme Court opinions by Justice Robert Jackson for a story that I'm working on. One is his concurring opinion in Youngstown, in which the Court found that President Truman couldn't invoke war powers to seize control of the nation's steel mills. The other is his dissent in Korematsu, in which the Court sanctioned the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Both opinions contain lucid contemplations on the nature of executive power, and argue eloquently for such power to be restrained even--or perhaps especially--in times of emergency. For instance, this passage from Korematsu, in which Jackson warns of the consequences that will flow from this dangerous precedent:

"...once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens. The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of an urgent need. Every repetition imbeds that principle more deeply in our law and thinking and expands it to new purposes. All who observe the work of courts are familiar with what Judge Cardozo described as "the tendency of a principle to expand itself to the limit of its logic." A military commander may overstep the bounds of constitutionality, and it is an incident. But if we review and approve, that passing incident becomes the doctrine of the Constitution. There it has a generative power of its own, and all that it creates will be in its own image."

And in Youngstown, this passage seemed particularly pertinent, given--to name only the most recent example-- Congress's shameful capitulation over the wiretapping bill last week:

"I have no illusion that any decision by this Court can keep power in the hands of Congress if it is not wise and timely in meeting its problems. A crisis that challenges the President equally, or perhaps primarily, challenges Congress. If not good law, there was worldly wisdom in the maxim attributed to Napoleon that "The tools belong to the man who can use them." We may say that power to legislate for emergencies belongs in the hands of Congress, but only Congress itself can prevent power from slipping through its fingers."

August 11, 2007

What next?

Senator Russ Feingold: "The White House...has identified the one major remaining weakness in the Democratic Party, and that’s its unwillingness to stand up to the administration when it’s making a power grab regarding terrorism and national security. They have figured out that all they have to do is start talking about an imminent terrorist threat, back it up against a Congressional recess, and they know the Democrats will cave.”

He's right: Despite almost non-existent support for the president, and a set of hearings exposing Alberto Gonzales's incompetence and dishonesty, Democrats have now handed more power to the president and Gonzales. The Times has a useful, if depressing, account of how this happened here.

What I am wondering more and more these days is, what happens next? After 2008, will a new administration (from either party) diligently repair the various breaches in the walls that have traditionally limited the power of the presidency? Or will they discover that once you're in the White House, it's hard to bring yourself to shrink the scope of the office? This question is not getting very much attention so far in the presidential debate, but it really should.

August 9, 2007

Good question

from Brian Beutler:
"The relevant question to my mind is whether the administration is hampering the process [of releasing Guantanamo detainees] so that some of these guys don't someday describe the torture techniques used against them to a lawyer or a judge or the media. If that's the case, then you can be sure the administration will do anything in its power to keep these guys in military custody for as long as possible."

Actually, the government has already made this very argument in court:

"The Justice Department argued this point explicitly last November, in the case of a Baltimore-area resident named Majid Khan, who was held for more than three years by the C.I.A. Khan, the government said, had to be prohibited from access to a lawyer specifically because he might describe the “alternative interrogation methods” that the agency had used when questioning him. These methods amounted to a state secret, the government argued, and disclosure of them could “reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage.” (The case has not yet been decided.)"

In the tank

An interesting memo written by the impressive Samantha Power for the Barack Obama campaign (which she advises), on the subject of foreign policy and conventional wisdom. The memo defends Obama's much-criticized remark that he would not use nukes to take out Osama bin Laden, but then goes on to make a much broader point about the type of thinking that has dominated American foreign policy circles for many years (on the left and the right) and which has got the country into an awful lot of trouble since 9/11. Matthew Iglesias points out the careerist dimension to the caution exhibited by foreign policy Serious People here. Glenn Greenwald lays into their shallow, narrow ways of thinking here. Last week, Steve Clemons summed up the mindset among those members of the foreign policy community who opposed the Iraq War, but didn't say anything about it.

August 8, 2007


"A pencil lodged in your brain has got to hurt. A German woman who fell on a pencil 55 years ago has just had most of it removed from her head in a complex operation. But the tip will remain in her brain for ever."


1001 contractors have died in Iraq since the war began (as of June 30.) Here is a partial list of their names and very varied nationalities.

August 6, 2007

"the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process"

A stunning piece by Jane Mayer in this week's New Yorker about the detention of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the inner workings of secret interrogations. There are some extraordinary details that I'll try to write more about later, but here's the big picture thought:

"The C.I.A.’s interrogation program is remarkable for its mechanistic aura. “It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever,” an outside expert familiar with the protocol said. “At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.”
"The former officer said that the C.I.A. kept a doctor standing by during interrogations. He insisted that the method was safe and effective, but said that it could cause lasting psychic damage to the interrogators. During interrogations, the former agency official said, officers worked in teams, watching each other behind two-way mirrors. Even with this group support, the friend said, Mohammed’s interrogator “has horrible nightmares.” He went on, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.” He said of his friend, “He’s a good guy. It really haunts him. You are inflicting something really evil and horrible on somebody.”

July 30, 2007


I don't have anything particularly intelligent to say about the fact that Ingmar Bergman is dead (and if even if I did, I wouldn't have time to write about it here anyway). If you're feeling glum about the news, though, you could watch the chess match from the Seventh Seal here.

July 29, 2007

Dept. of shameless self-promotion

I talked to NPR's On the Media this week about my story for the Columbia Journalism Review.

July 27, 2007

Speaking of detained journalists...

... the American Journalism Review's Charles Layton has a piece reminding readers that Bilal Hussein, a photographer who has taken Pulitzer Prize-winning images for the Associated Press, is still being held without charge in Iraq after 15 months. (AJR did a longer piece about Hussein here.)

Photo by Flickr user SGT Butler under a Creative Common License.

July 26, 2007

A "potential threat"

The Pentagon has released a study asserting that many Guantanamo detainees are indeed dangerous individuals--and, more specifically, that 95 percent of them were at least a “potential threat” to U.S. interests. The military spokesperson quoted in the piece more or less admits that the study was intended to rebut the much-quoted analysis of Defense Department documents by the Seton Hall University School of Law, which found that only 8 percent of detainees were accused of fighting for Al Qaeda, and only 55 percent were said to have committed a hostile act against the U.S. (“They had been getting a lot of inquiries related to this previous study,” the spokesman explained. “They had a lot of concerns with the conclusions, but they did not have another study.”)

I haven't had a chance to read the study yet, but in the meantime, it's worth keeping in mind that the Seton Hall scholars are far from the only people to note that many Guantanamo residents aren't as dangerous as we were initially led to believe. For instance:

* In September 2002, a CIA study found that many of the accused terrorists were low-level recruits who went to Afghanistan to support the Taliban or innocent men caught up in the fighting.
* Another U.S. intelligence official who visited the camp said in 2002 that there were "no big fish there" and that "some of these guys literally don't know the world is round."
* Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, who initially led the intelligence effort at Guantanamo, discovered after his arrival in February 2002 that up to half of the first group of detainees had little or no intelligence value. These included one mentally impaired detainee with a serious headwound nicknamed "half-head Bob," and another dubbed "Al Qaeda Claus" because he told his interrogators that he was 105 years old. Dunleavey later went to Afghanistan to ask military commanders there to stop sending him so many "Mickey Mouse" detainees, to no avail.
* Or, as Lt. Col. Thomas S. Berg, a member of the original military legal team set up to handle the prosecutions put it: "It became obvious to us as we reviewed the evidence that, in many cases, we had simply gotten the slowest guys on the battlefield... We literally found guys who had been shot in the butt.''

July 25, 2007

What do editors do?

The mystery revealed:

"When an editor's lucky, the piece comes in chiseled in immortal Carrara marble, every semicolon in place, ready to be wheeled into the Uffizi Gallery -- that is, straight to publication. (A very rare event.) A good editor knows when to leave a piece alone. Practically every writer has had the unfortunate experience of crossing paths with editors -- often inexperienced ones -- who feel the need to do something, just to show they're doing their job. This is almost as frustrating as the too-many-editors problem, in which a piece bounces from a senior editor to the managing editor to the executive editor, each of whom gives contradictory instructions, and finally ends up in the hands of the editor in chief, who after Olympian reflection pronounces that it was better the way it was when it started. It is experiences like these that lead writers to engage in one of their favorite pastimes: bitching and moaning about the lameness of editors.

Good editors work with and not against a writer. They calibrate how aggressively they edit according to how good the writer is, how good the piece is, the type of piece it is, the kind of relationship they have with the writer, how tight the deadline is, and what mood they're in. But an editor's primary responsibility is not to the writer but to the reader. He or she must be ruthlessly dedicated to making the piece stronger."

July 24, 2007

Question of the day

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse questions Alberto Gonzales about a memo he signed giving staffers in Cheney's office access to information about ongoing cases at the Department of Justice:

Whitehouse: "What-on-earth business does the Office of the Vice President have in the internal workings of the Department of Justice with respect to criminal investigations, civil investigations, and ongoing matters?"

Gonzales: "As a general matter, I would say that's a good question."

Whitehouse: "Why is it here, then?"

Gonzales: “I’d have to go back and look at this.”

(thanks to TPM.)

July 21, 2007

Posting might be a bit light over the next couple of days, owing to a certain pressing appointment that I have with my inner nerd.

July 20, 2007


"The Federal Emergency Management Agency since early 2006 has suppressed warnings from its own field workers about health problems experienced by hurricane victims living in government-provided trailers with levels of a toxic chemical 75 times the recommended maximum for U.S. workers, congressional lawmakers said yesterday... As many as 120,000 families displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita lived in the suspect trailers, and hundreds have complained of ill effects.
"On June 16, 2006, three months after reports of the hazards surfaced... a FEMA logistics expert wrote that the agency's Office of General Counsel "has advised that we do not do testing, which would imply FEMA's ownership of this issue." A FEMA lawyer, Patrick Preston, wrote on June 15: "Do not initiate any testing until we give the OK. . . . Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them."

The rest is here.

July 19, 2007

Iraq's intellectuals

“The Iraq situation is the closest we’ve come to the Holocaust” in terms of systematic attacks on professors, Goodman said. “The terrorist groups seem to be trying to wipe out the intellectual capital of what was once Iraq.”
-- from Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education. IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund is preparing to evacuate hundreds of Iraqi professors to neighboring countries in the Middle East, the largest such effort since the 1930s. Read about it here.

July 18, 2007

"This is not a legal proceeding"

A facility at Guantanamo where some review tribunals are held. U.S. Navy photo July 2004

In my piece for the Columbia Journalism Review about Sami Al Haj, the Al Jazeera cameraman detained in Guantanamo, I included a brief scene describing his Administrative Review Board hearing, the annual tribunal held to determine whether a detainee should continue to be held in Cuba. There was a lot of material that I couldn't include in the piece due to space constraints. The Department of Defense has released hundreds of the hearing transcripts, and only by reading through some of them do you get a sense of how farcical these proceedings are. A lot of them read like bad Samuel Beckett. The panels operate on the assumption that a person has already been correctly identified as an enemy combatant. Detainees aren't presented with charges, but with a "summary of evidence." Neither he nor his lawyer (if he has one), is allowed to see the evidence being summarized. Lawyers can't attend the hearings. Instead, each detainee is assigned a military representative who is obliged to tell the review board anything he learns about the detainee. Al Haj's lawyer told me that once Al Haj attended his hearing and noticed that one of the presiding officials was his military representative from a previous year.

Sometimes, a detainee is presented with a serious charge, like attending an Al Qaeda training camp. Sometimes, the allegation will be something more circumstantial. For instance, at least eight detainees have been accused of owning a model of Casio watch “that has been used in bombing linked to radical terrorist improvised explosive devices.” Often, the line of questioning seems rather irrelevant to the acts the detainee is said to have committed. Here's an excerpt from one of Al Haj's hearings (his lawyer had instructed him not to answer questions):

Presiding Officer: Thank you very much. Your English is very good. Before we get started I just want to make sure that you understand that this is not a legal proceeding today. This is strictly an administrative procedure to determine whether or not you'll be detained, transfered or released. This is not a legal proceeding, which is why we don't have lawyers or etc. None of us are lawyers; we are not here to present ourselves as attorneys. That's not what this proceeding is about; it is an administrative proceeding for you. So the more questions you answer will help us make a decision. Do you understand?
Al Haj: Yes, I understand, but I'm sorry, because I'm supposed to follow my attorney.
PO: Okay, unfortunate for the purpose of this proceeding.
Designated Military Officer: Sir, have you gotten any communications from your wife, since you've been here?
AH: I'm supposed to follow the advice of my...
PO: This question is not relevant to any of the charges. He just asked if you've been hearing from your wife. In fact, you talked in your statement about how much you missed your wife. He's just asking if you gotten communication from your wife?
AH: Surely, I've received some letters from my wife, but unfortunately it is not continuous communication, that means one year I missed the news, after that five months or six months, I can get one letter.
Board Member: Sir, I don't know if you'll be able to answer any of these questions... if you prefer not to answer them, but I will ask you anyway.
AH: If you ask me some questions, do I have the right to answer them or not?
PO: Yes, you do. You're not compelled to answer. He'll ask them and if you can answer none of these, it doesn't help us, but if that's what your attorney advises... that's unfortunate. You can only answer what you can answer. At this proceeding, you're not required to answer any questions.
[a number of questions about various Islamic charities; Al Haj indicates that he can't answer.]
PO: Your son you said was 15 months old, one year and three months, last time you saw him.
... Yes.
PO: How many countries did you travel to when you worked for Al Jazeera? Did you travel to many countries?
AH: Detainee nods negatively and speaks almost in a whisper saying "I cannot answer."
PO: You can't answer that.
AH: Detainee nods affirmatively.
PO: You say your wife is currently in Doha, Qatar? Is that where she is right now?
AH: I don't know. According to her last letter she [wrote it] from Azerbaijian.
PO: ... How long did you work for Al Jazeera?
I can't.
What do you think of Usama bin Laden? Do you have any thoughts at all of Usama bin Laden?
Can't answer that.
: What about the Taliban? You've had an opportunity to view them as a journalist? Did you... what did you think of the way the Taliban ran Afghanistan?
AH: Actually I have the answers to all [these] questions, but I'm sorry, I'm supposed to follow the advice of my lawyer.
PO. Thank you. Again, just so you know this is not a legal proceeding, this is just strictly an administrative proceedings. These kinds of answers are very important to us. Our job is to determine...
AH: If my lawyer were here, I would answer all these questions. It is very easy for me. My life is very clear. I didn't hide anything in my life.
Board Member: I have one final question. If you had answered questions, perhaps our decision would have been different. Would you now be disappointed that you didn't answer those questions?
AH: I told you in the beginning, I don't have any bad grounds. I didn't went... go to or admit any legal case before in my life and I didn't went to jail in all my past. I don't have any experience. So what I know, because of [my] University degree and from my experience, I'm supposed to follow my lawyer. That's why.
PO: Mr. Al Hajj, thank you for the answers you have given us. Again, I just advise you that this is an administrative, not a legal proceeding. Any information that you give us helps us to make a better... make a better recommendation. All we do is we recommend and I'll go through that in a moment on how this process concludes, but any information you give us would have been helpful. We understand the advice of an attorney that's not our decision to make whether or not that's good advice or bad advice. We have no opinion on that. We only know that we make a decision based on the information you give us. More information is better information, but if choose not to. You choose not to. Just so you know that could affect the decision, because more information allows us to make a better decision. Thank you.

People who get it

For instance, these two military lawyers assigned to Guantanamo detainees:

“I hated the fact, still hate the fact, that we were making up a trial system to convict people after we’d already decided they’re guilty,” Fleener says. “I hated that as a country, we were doing that. I didn’t like the fact that we were violating the rule of law, and that what we were doing as a country was just…wrong.... What we’re saying is, ‘You are guilty of something—we just don’t know exactly what. So we’ll gather as much incriminating evidence as we can, using methods that we aren’t going to talk about, and then we’ll make up a law that criminalizes the conduct.’ ”

“Over time,” Kuebler says, “we figured out we’re the linchpin in this process. They want to have these bizarre trials, they don’t want to let the defendant see secret evidence—so the one thing they need is us. The government wanted this attorney-client thing to work. They really did. It’s an important part of the show.”

“The administration believes the commission process will ultimately justify the detentions." [Fleener says. ] "They know they can’t just hold people; they don’t want to take the political heat. So they rigged the rule of law. And because it’s rigged, the only thing that’s in play is the appearance.... At the end of the day... that’s how [the detainees] look at it: ‘If I’m going to get a life sentence—or a death sentence—I’d rather get one in this weird, disgusting system that everyone knows is a weird, disgusting system than have some military lawyer up there dancing and juicing it up and making it look like it’s not rigged.’ ”

“I think more war crimes have been committed in the detention and interrogation and fake trials of people in Guantánamo than people in Guantánamo have committed,” [Feener] says. “And I don’t think the question is whether they’ve tortured people.”

Read all of the story here. (via Andrew Sullivan.)

July 17, 2007

And now for something completely different...

In a rare burst of patriotism, I feel like I should put in a plug for Flight of the Conchords, a very funny show on HBO starring two of my countrymen. It depicts the travails of a New Zealand "digi-folk band" (also called Flight of the Conchords) which is trying to make it big in New York. The awkward silences and deadpan delivery will be familiar to anyone who has watched the British version of The Office, although the musical parodies of everything from David Bowie to Isaac Hayes to Kraftwerk are the real highlight. You can watch the whole thing on the HBO website or see videos of their comedy-club act on YouTube using the links above.

ALSO: if you actually happen to have HBO, it's on Sunday nights at 10.30 p.m.


The Swiss legislator who oversaw the Council of Europe's report on the "extraordinary rendition" and secret detention of terrorist suspects says he was fed information by "dissident CIA officers" upset about the practice. He anticipates more revelations to come.

On that note: one thing we haven't heard much about here is how the participation by various European governments in the CIA's secret detentions and renditions has affected the domestic politics of those countries. (According to this useful interactive map produced by the Guardian, the nations known to be involved include the UK, Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Turkey.) As the Council of Europe report puts it: "While the strategy in question was devised and put in place by the current United States administration to deal with the threat of global terrorism, it has only been made possible by the collaboration at various institutional levels of America’s many partner countries." Leaders in many of these nations have, for instance, publicly criticized Guantanamo. Now those countries are implicated in the same disgrace.

Tortured logic

Big Vanity Fair piece reveals new details about the role that psychologists have played in creating and enabling illegal and ineffective interrogation techniques. Two nuggets:

"...psychologists weren't merely complicit in America's aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A."

"In late 2005, as Senator John McCain was pressing the Bush administration to ban torture techniques, one of the nation's top researchers of stress in SERE trainees claims to have received a call from Samantha Ravitch, the deputy assistant for national security in Vice President Dick Cheney's office. She wanted to know if the researcher had found any evidence that uncontrollable stress would make people more likely to talk."

Photo from Flickr user lapata under a Creative Commons license.


Glenn Greenwald over at Salon has a very long and thoughtful post about my CJR piece.

Elizabeth Edwards on Hillary Clinton

"When she announced her candidacy she said, "I'm in it to win it." What is that? That's not a rationale."

I consistently find Elizabeth Edwards to be about ten times more impressive than her husband. More here.

July 16, 2007

A different kind of progress report

The State Department now requires its workers to wear flak jackets and Kevlar helmets inside the Green Zone. (From the indispensable McClatchy News Service.)

July 15, 2007

Scraps from Guantanamo

* An exemplary AP piece about "at least nine" Guantanamo inmates who were apparently prisoners and torture victims of the Taliban or Al Qaeda, but were mistaken by U.S forces for actual members of the Taliban or Al Qaeda and sent to Cuba in 2001. The reporter interviews a few who have since been released, including one who observed delicately: “The bitterness of Guantanamo overshadowed the bitterness of being jailed by al-Qaeda.”(via Eric Umansky.)

* Meanwhile, for some time numerous detainees have been approved for release, but unable to leave Cuba because the State Department is unable to guarantee that they will not be tortured upon their return to their home country. (One wishes this kind of fastidiousness about torture had been employed more consistently over the last six years.) Clive Stafford Smith, a UK-based human rights lawyer who represents Sami Al Haj , the detained Al Jazeera cameraman I write about here , reports that Clint Williamson, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, has been quietly meeting with officials in North Africa to negotiate repatriation of detainees.

* Some very interesting numbers that didn't get much attention: officially, the Defense department intends to try 75-80 detainees in military tribunals, keep about 50 "for the duration of the conflict" and free the rest when it can figure out how to do that/where to send them. (More than 380 have been released already).

* 50 recent high-school grads who were part of this year's class of Presidential Scholars handed President Bush a letter asking him to "cease illegal renditions and to apply the Geneva Convention to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants." Awkward conversation followed.

Manufactured Landscapes

This weekend I went to see a documentary about the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky specializes in large, stunning images of industrial excess and environmental degradation -- his underlying preoccupation is the way in which humans have irreperably altered the natural world. He's done series on quarries, mines, and oil fields; in the film, the director, Jennifer Baichwal, follows Burtynsky on a shoot in China, where he composes meticulous images of factory floors, manufacturing plants and dense urban neighborhoods. The film somehow manages to combine an admiration of Burtynsky's work with a certain discomfort at his habit of finding beautiful forms and patterns in a crowded factory or a pile of industrial waste without acknowledging the resulting human misery. In fact, humans don't figure very prominently in Burtynsky's work at all, but Baichwal's interviews with people who live or work by the locations that he is photographing make the consequences of China's unrestrained capitalism painfully clear. A friend who saw the movie with me thought that Baichwal's photography and point of view eclipsed Burtynsky's, and I think she might be right. The movie is still playing in DC and is definitely worth checking out.