Saturday, January 28, 2006

Have you ever read something that just made you ponder your own intelligence to have missed it?

In Bush's defense of warrantless wiretapping US citizens in direct violation of FISA, people have suggested that FISA has some unconstitutional components, limiting the President's inherent powers as commander-in-chief.

I have to admit, that does sound like it at least makes the question a bit murky (to quote the link I'm about to send you to). But there is an answer, as suggested here.

If the President feels that a law unconstitutionally limits his power, he can sue to have the law overturned.

He could have gone to the courts, said that complicated demands for FISA would place an unconstitutional burden on his ability to wage the war, and have the relevant sections declared unconstitutional. Then he could have set up his program. Note that he wouldn't have to give specifics of any program in order to assert that he was being unconstitutionally burdened; his inherent authority to gather intelligence should be sufficient to carry the day... if his lawyers are correct in their assertions about the program and his authority.

He didn't. Instead, he violated the law in secret, depending on national security to prevent his lawbreaking from coming to light.

I'll say this again, to make sure it's clear: the issue is not that he is seeking intelligence; the issue is that he is breaking the law.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Excuse me? MBA?

Bush's defense of his domestic spying program is starting to annoy me.

Gonzales pulled out the old canard about Congress explicitly authorizing domestic spying with its authorization to use military force. This is complete nonsense; listening to phone conversations is not the use of military force. The authorization to use force does allow the President to do certain things (for example, the courts agreed that the ability to use force includes the ability to take captives) that are obvious requirements for the use of force, but methods of spying are not part and parcel of use of force.

That the President would conduct spying is a given; the techniques, however, still have to follow the law.

But then Gonzales made a claim that just made me want to (metaphorically) smack him upside the head. (For a transcript of the interview, you can go to Power Line.)

GONZALES: Larry, whenever you involve another branch of government in an activity regarding electronic surveillance, inherently it's going to result in some cases in delay. Perhaps in straightforward cases we can get authority relatively quickly but not all of these cases are straightforward and it's very, very important that the president has the agility and the speed to gather up electronic surveillance of individuals that may be in contact with the enemy.

Well, see, George W. Bush has an MBA from Harvard Business School. We're supposed to believe he hasn't been able to find a way to eliminate that delay in over four years? And if a Harvard MBA graduate can't figure out how to do this, he couldn't build a solid case for Congress to request a change in the law?

I mean, think about how valuable this program is, at least according to his current hype. If it was truly this necessary, and had so many safeguards for civil liberties, it should have been a cinch to get Congress to authorize it, when he's had four years to build a case for it.

I mean, he's got his MBA, right? From Harvard Business School, right? He's not the idiot that some folks like to portray him as. This is not only something a President ought to be able to do, it's something he's been specifically taught to do, something he should be able to do better than 90+% of the people in this nation.

No... re-read Gonzales' quote, and let just a touch of cynicism color your thinking. What Gonzales is saying is that sometimes, going to the court would result in a refusal, because the government doesn't want to wait - emphasize that word, that's how they make it an issue of "speed" and "agility" - until they have probable cause that would stand up in court.

Which means that the Bush administration is spying on people without having probable cause for a tap. If all they're doing is tracking people who are speaking to known members of Al Qaeda, well, that's probable cause right there. They could get the court to authorize that. That's the whole point of roving wiretaps, as written into the mis-named "Patriot" act. You can tap someone who is a known affiliate of Al Qaeda, no matter who they're talking to, what phone they're using, etc.. That wouldn't cause a delay with the FISA courts

Since they acknowledge there would be a delay, it means that there's problems that they're not telling us about... and I hope the Congressional hearings find out what those problems are.

For the record, before the Bushies try to make this something it isn't: I support the President's right to conduct surveillance, within the law, with proper oversight and authorization. He should act within the law, not claim a tenuous Constitutional right to ignore it.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Time for a rant...

There's been a bit of news about the Bruin Alumni Association at UCLA offering a bounty for the most radical professors at UCLA.

I have a message for them.

Grow the hell up.

I've been to their site, here , and gone through six of the profiles. I must admit, I'm skimming, looking for substance... but so far, skimming six profiles, I've found one report of one complaint by one student about grading practices.

It could well be that I've picked the worst examples. Who knows? The fact of the matter is, the site is listing the "radical" ideas, actions, writings, and petition signings of professors. It's supposed to tell us that there are wild-eyed professors teaching crazy things at UCLA. Let's just assume that's correct. I have a one word response: good.

What on earth do these people think is the purpose of a university? To dictate ideas and have them blandly accepted by unthinking students? No! It's to teach students to think, to reason, to grow, and to take an intellectual stand and learn to defend it with rigor. The presense of people with wild, perhaps even dangerous, ideas, is a blessing for that purpose. If you go to a university and don't have the guts to stake out a position and defend it, then don't blame the university for your own failing. If you want to be spoon-fed feel-good conservativism, turn on Rush Limbaugh; he's an entertainer, not a thinker; it's his job to preach to the choir. If you go to a college or university, you have a right to expect some wild, radical ideas to knock you out of your comfort zone. If there are more liberal professors in academia, it's liberals who have more right to be upset than conservatives.

Now, if you want to impress me with worries about academic freedom and possible grading or resarch bias, show me some. Show me a professor who downgrades a student for coming to a conclusion the professor dislikes, or who engages in unfair debate tactics in class, and I'll agree that's unacceptable.

Show me a professor teaching a class in a one-sided manner who doesn't allow opposing viewpoints, and I'll agree that's unacceptable.

In fact, I'll even worry just a bit if you show me a radical professor who is teaching a gateway class, a class that's a core prerequisite. Such classes should help students start to recognize their own potential, rather than scare them off. Nevertheless, I'll only worry, and that, just a bit, until you show me real bias. I'll grant that some students can be intimidated, but timidity is the bane of a good scholar.

Those are things that can make me concerned.

But complaints that there are radical professors? Please. That's whining.

I grant you, there are many claims of bias out there... I'm sure many students think they've put together solid arguments and been downgraded for not agreeing with the professor. Some of those complaints might well be valid. At the same time, I've seen what conservatives consider to be political debate for the past several years. Richard Clarke can't be trusted, though he was trusted to coordinate the 9/11 response as the attacks occurred. The war is going to be fast, and cheap. We had solid evidence of WMDs in Iraq. Joseph Wilson is a liar.

None of this small sampling of issues can be supported with academic rigor... and while I hate to paint the Bruin Alumni Association as being guilty by association, a page full of reports about how radical the professors are suggest that they're falling prey to the same lack of careful thought we see on the national stage.

If they want to claim there's a serious problem, and real bias, they need to point to the problems, and demonstrate the bias. They can't just whine that a bunch of professors have liberal political views. They have to show that it has a real effect on education.

Otherwise, all they'll demonstrate is a lack of understanding about the very nature of the academic environment... a funny thing for graduates who wish to make changes to the university.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

It's interesting, the way things shake out. Recently, I was involved in yet another discussion about Bush's famous 16 words during his 2003 State of the Union.

The person I was talking to was insisting that Bush did not lie. The Iraqis were seeking uranium.

Well... let's dig a bit deeper.

President Bush was making a case for a war that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars, the lives of over 2000 US soldiers, the wholeness of many thousands more, and the lives of scores of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Of course, we didn't know then that the cost would be so high, but we did know he was pushing for war, and war is always a terrible thing. It would be terrible to invade Iraq, if there was any other rational choice.

So, Bush said that British intelligence "learned" that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

What we knew, at the time, was that there was a foreign intelligence report regarding a possible uranium sale from Niger. Joseph Wilson had investigated, and found that the controls and accounting on the uranium produced were tight, so it would be very difficult for such a sale to have taken place. It would have been so difficult that he decided the matter must have been settled by his report.

The CIA wasn't willing to dismiss the report yet. Part of Wilson's report included a trade minister saying that an Iraqi trade delegation came to speak about expanding trade relations. "Expanding trade relations" was clearly a code phrase for "selling us uranium". Niger had no interest in violating UN sanctions, and closed off the discussion.

Of course, the CIA is suspicious about stuff like that. Would the Niger trade officials tell Wilson (who admitted upfront that he was working on behalf of the US government) that, sure, they'd discussed selling uranium? No. So they continued to consider a uranium sale possible.

That's what we knew: the Iraqis were asking questions, getting a solid "no" (at least publicly) and the CIA wasn't willing to state that uranium sales were impossible. British intelligence had similar, slightly stronger suspicions, but they had no more proof than the CIA had.

Were the sixteen words a lie?

I don't care, because it doesn't matter.

If Bush had shaken the CIA down, and gotten the whole story, then using those sixteen words in his speech would have been dishonest. Even if you wouldn't call it a lie, it certainly would leave Congress and the American people with a misleading picture.

But what if he hadn't? What if he'd been a little too trusting, a little too naive, to order the full shakedown that he'd need to get all of the facts?

Well, then he was willing to build a case for war without having all the facts. While this would leave him innocent of lying, it would mean he made a terrible mistake about a vitally important issue. A mistake that played into a decision to invade Iraq, at terrible cost to both Iraq and the United States.

It's not the kind of mistake that we can afford to make.

These days, President Bush is calling for a civil discourse, and respectful disagreement, saying that we shouldn't accuse his administration of "misleading" the nation into war. He might be correct, in one narrow sense.

It wouldn't be right to say that his administration deliberately deceived the country in building the case for war. We can't be completely sure that it was deliberate.

We only know that his administration led us to war, based upon misleading information that they could have corrected, if they'd dug deeply enough. Mistake or malice, it's long past time we start holding people to account.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Getting government "off your back"...

One of the things that the Republican Party will champion is the removal of government interference in one's personal life (except learning about sex, obtaining an abortion, deciding if marijuana is better than puking your guts out and risking additional complications from malnourishment during chemotherapy, etc.) and in business decisions.

Well, that's not always a good thing.

In the above-referenced story, we discover that the West Virginian mine that collapsed had many violations of regulations regarding mine safety, including many that were considered quite serious.

Now, it might be that none of these violations caused the collapse. It might be that no government regulation on the planet could have prevented that tragedy. The exact cause of the explosion and collapse probably won't be known for a while, and it's risky to speculate too much about the cause. Nevertheless, this is the kind of thing that shows what's at stake.

When the Republicans complain about government regulations, sure, they have a point. There are regulations that do nothing more than waste time and money. They don't accomplish their intended purpose.

But a wholesale hostility to government regulations, well, that's not so good. Real people's lives are at stake.

I've seen some Republicans claim (in the spirit of vicious partisanship) that Democrats are always willing to over-regulate. I'll grant that, yes, if the Democrats are going to be guilty of a crime, it will be over-regulation instead of under-regulation.

But under-regulation is not any better. And while regulations should be business-friendly where practical, we can't help but wonder, after a tragedy like this, if the mine safety officials were so friendly to business that they allowed miners to die.

Spotting the lie...

When the Bush administration started spying on US citizens without a warrant, an issue was raised in another discussion forum I frequent. "The problem," one person insisted, "is that FISA has not kept pace with technology".

Now, that's a ridiculous statement on its face. However, that this issue was brought up means that there was a lie behind it.

This is a common tactic of a politician in trouble. Tell lies about what the issue "really" is. If enough people think it's stupid, there won't be any political will to investigate. The matter can be swept under the rug.

So what was the lie?

Well, just to review, the issue was not about technology. The issue is the lack of a warrant. Further, if the issue was one that could be addressed legislatively (i.e., if FISA hadn't kept up with technology), then Congress should change the legislation.

It's important to understand that warrants protect people in a variety of ways. They provide oversight, and help prevent the chasing of false leads. They prevent prosecutors from going on fishing expeditions for malicious prosecution, and they prevent corrupt government officials from ordering surveillance for personal, political, or other gain.

Let Bush listen in all he wants... with a properly obtained warrant. If he can't obtain the warrant for domestic surveillance, well, he's not supposed to be listening. He's sworn to uphold the Constitution.

There were multiple lies told to defend this. The first lie that's told is that people are complaining about the program itself. Of course, everyone wants the NSA to be able to scan for information, in accordance with the law. That means obtaining a warrant for domestic surveillance.

The second lie is the more subtle one, and that's the one I already mentioned: that FISA hasn't kept up with technology.

Is there a factual basis for this? Well, yes... but it's still a lie. If a call from, say Afghanistan to Iraq goes through a switch on US soil (or in a US controlled territory) is that domestic or foreign surveillance? The surveillance is occurring in a place controlled by the US, but it's regarding an entirely foreign event. FISA separates out domestic and foreign surveillance. In this particular instance, FISA is not current with technology. It's not clear whether this is domestic or foreign surveillance.

That is an issue that should be addressed. And, if the only issue was that Bush said he was scanning calls that originated and terminated in foreign countries, and felt they were "foreign surveillance", he'd be okay. I grant that he might be guilty on a technicality of violating "domestic surveillance" rules by scanning a switch owned by a US corporation, on US controlled land, but I'm not concerned about that kind of technicality.

The real issue is that he's admitted he is ordering tracking of calls where one party is in the US. That's domestic surveillance, no matter how you look at the technology. That is where he might have (in fact, probably did) violate the law requiring obtaining a warrant.

That's why people are complaining.

Now, I can't complain for everyone, but I can tell you what my complaints are.

I don't complain that he started the program; had he run it for a brief time before going to Congress, I could excuse that, in the post 9/11 emergency. He's continued it for four years.

I might not complain if he'd started the program while lobbying to change the law; again, emergency actions can be excused to some degree. He hasn't asked for a change in the law, and has no intention of doing so.

I certainly wouldn't complain at all if he were going to the FISA court for warrants... but he refuses to do so, even though the FISA court is generous with granting warrants.

My complaint is that the President, who is charged with upholding the law, and the Constitution, has been violating the law. Further, we can only assume that he knows that Congress would not approve (because otherwise he could have asked for changes to the law) and that the courts would declare his actions illegal (or he would have obtained warrants from the FISA court).

My complaint is that the President went outside the law under the cloak of secrecy. Good intentions or not, he was blazing a trail that could be illegal, harmful to US interests (terrorisms suspects are already challenging evidence claiming it was obtained illegally), and opens the door to abuse.

That's a complaint that has merit. That is a complaint that should be addressed.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The power of love

I've just watched the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; it is a wonderful movie, and it solidified something that had been stirring in my brain for a while.

In reading about the movie, I saw a quote that was purportedly from the book that the movie was based on. It was about the Christ-like figure of the series, a lion named Aslan: "He's not safe... but he's good." That was what was stirring in my brain, you see, because it's how I think about love.

Love is powerful; love is more powerful than anything.

Those of you who know how I think know that you could substitute the word "good" or "goodness" or "righteousness" in for "love", because I consider them to be equivalent. It's an article of faith for me; and it is the type of faith that I feel Jesus was talking about when he told his followers that faith could move mountains.

Do what's right... and don't worry about what happens next. Do what's right, and have faith that righteousness will carry the day.

Now, it just so happens that I think that doing what's right depends on the circumstances of a situation. If a person needs help carrying a heavy load, I might lend a hand... but not if they're trying to hide the body of a murder victim. If a person is trying to hurt someone else, my desire not to fight will be overcome by my desire to protect an innocent victim. If telling the truth might cause a hostage taker to kill hostages, a lie might be the right thing to do. I claim that making war is the penultimate evil, and should be reserved to prevent the ultimate evil. I am kidding, of course; there are many evils that might need to be stopped through warfare, but the point still remains: one should only commit to something as terrible as warfare, if it is the only way that will stop something worse.

Love isn't stupid; in fact, love is best served by careful thinking and a great deal of wisdom. Keeping that in mind, I say one should always do right, and one should always be loving. The power of love, or of righteousness, will be all that you need.

But then the objections come out. Aren't good people harmed by evil people? Don't thieves steal and rapists rape and murderers murder? Is there true justice in this world? How could I say that love is so powerful?

And that's where faith comes in. I don't know... I can't prove it. I can support it, but support isn't proof.

Love can protect you; though a military unit might not call it love, the mutual trust they hold in each other makes them all safer and stronger, and "greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another".

People who are loving in thought, word, and deed, will not make enemies as frequently as those who are not, and those enemies will be those who can sustain enmity in the face of love. As love binds people together, its lack will weaken those who would attack those who stand their ground with love in their hearts.

Sincere love will inspire awe in others, and those others are more likely to help when good, loving people need help.

There are a lot of good reasons why love might be more powerful than indifference. One of the biggest reasons is that, if you act without love in your heart, you've lost the joy that love can bring. What would you sacrifice for the joy that loving others can bring? What would it take for you to make up for that joy, if it was lost?

But none of that is proof, and the fact of the matter is, the world can be a scary, uncertain, and sometimes, very painful place, and love can have it's price.

Love does not mean being foolish, and trusting a person who has proven to be untrustworthy... but it does leave you more open to betrayal.

Love does not mean giving until you have nothing left to give; wisdom dictates that you love and nourish yourself, as well as others.

Love can mean people who will watch your back, and lay down their lives to save yours... but it can also mean that your life is the one that must be laid down for others.

And love can mean accepting a risk, because the love in your heart denies you the ability to do what it would take to eliminate that risk.

Love means trying to understand those who hate you, hoping you can erase the differences; if not, love can help you stand your ground and fight back, knowing you will fight only when absolutely necessary.

Love means refusing to torture, even if torture might yield intelligence to protect you and others.

Love means refusing to let innocent people suffer, unless there is truly no choice, even if an unnecessary war might potentially yield many important benefits to your nation.

Love means, if we must choose, we would rather die ourselves, than visit suffering and death on those who do not deserve it. Better not to die at all, to fight evildoers when needed, with minimal harm to others, but if there is going to be a choice, better to suffer ourselves, than to force innocent people to suffer in our place.

And love might mean that someday, I will die in the name of love, rather than live on, having loved less.

But I ask myself, would I have more joy, if I lived longer and loved less?

And if I turned from love because of my fear of suffering or death, would I not always have to question if love and righteousness might have won the day?

Might I not still suffer, and die, with less love in my heart?

And might I still win, and survive, and thrive, because of the love in my heart?

I'll never know what course is right for another. I can't even promise that I am strong enough to stay on the course I've pledged for myself.

But I know this: so long as my courage holds firm, and my faith remains strong, I will always choose love... no matter what the cost.

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