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Mogadishu, Iraq

Brad @ Burning Man
The subject of Clinton's acquiescence to Madeleine Albright's ill-thought-out misadventure in Somalia has come up a couple of times in the news this week, because it does provide a template for how Congress could, in fact, get away with ending the war in Iraq. It's one that I'd not thought of on my own, I'm embarrassed to say. What I had to be reminded was that after invading Somalia for no well thought out reasons, with insufficient troops who were not provided the armor they needed to survive, Bill Clinton was also determined to "stay the course" rather than let Somalia be turned into a haven for Islamist terrorists. The Republican Congress, responding to the war in Somalia's incredible unpopularity in the US in the face of weak justification going in, a purely hypothetical justification for staying in, rising American casualty counts, and lack of a strategy for victory, cut off his funding. Importantly, what they specifically did is that they gave him until a specific date, a couple of months out, after which no US money could be spent on maintaining troops in Somalia.

The specific plan was to give him just enough time to withdraw the troops in a safe and orderly fashion, and not one day longer. Clinton caved; if he had left the troops in Mogadishu, Somalia with no resupply of food or ammunition or fuel after several months of warning, he correctly estimated that the American people would blame him, not the Republicans in Congress, for the resulting blood bath. And he estimated, almost certainly correctly, that even his still remaining 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court wouldn't protect him from the clear precedent that Congress has absolute control over all expenditures.

What's interesting to me about this comparison is that I was already thinking about Somalia, but for another reason.

Allowing Mogadishu to fall did, in fact, result in the country becoming a haven for Islamist terrorists. It also emboldened Osama bin Laden who was in Somalia at the time to believe (wrongly) that the US would fold on any foreign policy position if we took a few really visible, widely televised casualties. Bin Laden himself chose to operate out of Afghanistan, which gave him more resources and more protection than Somalia could, but yes, the net result of the Republicans cutting the money for Clinton's war in Somalia was that the US came under terrorist attack. Once, mind you, and with so few casualties that it barely made a blip in 2001's murder rate in the US, but admittedly in a very visible and famous way.

But the attack on us wasn't launched from Somalia. And after that attack we were busy screwing up our invasion of the country that did attack us, because of the President's determination to rush through that so he could get on to the (to him much more interesting) war of choice that he wanted to use his political capital to start in Iraq. And, well, between Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody in the US has thought a whole lot about Somalia. We forgot all about it, despite the fact that in the intervening years the country was completely taken over by radical Islamists, who provided permanent haven to at least three of the upper-mid-level operatives in al Qaeda who had masterminded what had been the biggest terrorist attack on the US before 9/11, the African embassy bombings. But we had no attention to spare to deal with this, nor any money or troops.

Except that, oddly enough, Ethiopia of all peoples did do something about Somali Islamist terrorism. Starting a little over a week ago, they got sick and tired of having one of their neighboring countries be a haven for radical Islamist terrorists determined to spread their particular form of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy throughout Africa. So they succeeded, in no more than four days, in doing what the US failed at: they conquered Somalia from one end to the other and slaughtered pretty much all of the Islamist militias that were backing al Qaeda in Somalia, leaving only a token few in a coastal hideout whose location they called in to the US Navy so that we could have our symbolic one shot at them, too. Better knock off all the Ethiopian famine jokes that are still rattling around; we're talking about a country that just defeated an enemy we couldn't even budge. So we better not tick them off at us, hmm?

Bush says that if the Democrats force him to abandon Iraq, it'll become a haven for Islamist terrorists. He might be right. History does show that when it was Republicans cutting off support for an unpopular Democrat-run war, that is exactly what happens. But it doesn't prove that it's Iraq we'll need to watch to prevent future attacks; after all, as the Bush administration just admitted today again, bin Laden and his top officials are still sitting comfortably in their little state-within-a-state in Pakistan right now, not Iraq. Nor does it prove that if Iraq does become a haven for terrorism that nothing will be done about it then, even if we're powerless to intervene, now, does it?

Will We Win by Losing?

Voted for Dean
I've been trying to save this thought until I could check my primary reference again, but it's still out on loan. And with the argument between Bush and the entire rest of the country about escalation in Iraq coming to a head, I figure it's time for me to just go with it, to try to be as faithful to the original authors' point as I can be from memory. Because where I'm going is this: I can't shake the suspicion that every salient feature of the Iraq War was predicted in 1991, ten years before 9/11, including the fact that we were going to lose it. Oh, the authors of the book I'm thinking of weren't certain it was going to be a war in the Middle East or that it would start as early as 2003. But they did list a major war or similar international crisis with US leadership as something that was going to happen between 2000 and 2020, that the most likely war/crisis from a list of foreseeable options in 1991 was a major war between the secular/Christian West and militant Islam fought in the Middle East, and (particularly relevantly) that the earlier in that time period the war started, the more likely we were to lose it ... but that losing that early war wasn't necessarily the bad news.

The book in question, which is one that I continue to rave about, is Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe. And having raved about it at great length, I'll simplify their main thesis even farther than I usually do: that there is a pendulum swing between permissive and protective parenting, that that swing produces four different recurring personality types, and that the "generational constellation" (which type are the elder statesmen, which type the adults in charge, which type the young adults, and which type the children) has a strong effect on which issues get escalated in importance in any given couple of years span and how those issues are worked out. In particular, they identify a particular generational constellation as one that tends to escalate some national conflict into what they call a Great Civic Crisis: idealists as elder statesmen, cynics as adults in charge, young adults who were raised to be cooperative and responsible, and over-protected cherished children who'll be told it was all done for them. What makes this a great wartime configuration is that you want your conflict to mean something, but you don't want people capable of being blinded by ideology to be making the tactical decisions. You want hard-bitten self-raised cynics to be making the tactical decisions, but you can't be counting on them to sacrifice their own lives for a matter of principle. That's why you need a generation of recruit-aged Americans who were raised to trust the government and to work cooperatively.

They identify at least two times in American history where this went just slightly wrong: for example, in 1861 and 1917. In their analysis, the ideologues had not yet retired into elder statesmen; they were bridging the gap making up both a good chunk of the elder statesmen and the adults in charge. But that left some of the elder statesmen being from a compromising younger generation, unwilling to commit blood and treasure while they thought there was still some talking left to do, undermining the perceived moral authority of those who insisted that there was a matter of principle worth fighting for. In those conflicts between two generations of elder statesmen, in both cases the war party won, but only after a bitter and divisive political struggle that left the country uncommitted to follow them. Your grown adults in both 1861 and 1917 were a mix of ideologues who thought they knew how the war should be fought based on their theories and practical realists who were studying the facts on the ground to decide, and the shifting strategies as the two generations of military officers fought each other for control of the military wasted thousands of lives, fed into a meat-grinder with no hope of winning because there was no clear strategy. And your troops in the field, in both 1861 and 1917, were a mix of prematurely weary cynics and young people infused with can-do spirit; what ended up happening was that the weary cynics dragged the morale of the would-be world-savers down to their own level. The 1861-1865 Civil War was won and the 1917-1918 World War was won, but both of them so incompletely and at such horrendous costs that they had to be fought all over again, in 1964 and 1941 respectively. Because they started too early, both conflicts resulted in a hollow "victory" that actually settled nothing. They make a vaguely similar case for the Vietnam War, although I remember the details of their analysis of that war less clearly.

And what I remember was that Strauss and Howe warned that some time right after the year 2000, the Baby Boomers would have just achieved a political majority in the top levels of government, just when their earliest leaders were retiring from active public life. They warned that they would be tempted to start the next Great Civic Crisis way too early. And based on their analysis of similar conflicts in similar generational constellations, they predicted either a hollow victory at best or a terrible loss at worst.

But what if that's the good news?

The 1918 Treaty of Versailles was a disaster of Biblical proportions, one that left our veterans reviled when they came home, left America even more determinedly isolationist, left the rest of the world simmering in resentments that guaranteed that when the conflict at the heart of World War I boiled back over, it would be even worse the second time around. But on the other hand, it turned out that having stayed home, having stayed out the mess for 20 years, made America stronger. And it gave us time to rebuild a new military, not one tainted by the failures of the previous military, and with the new weapons of the famous Arsenal of Democracy, not a huge stockpile of obsolete equipment that we would have spent another generation training our troops to build their strategies around while the real world leap-frogged us. What if what really need to do is to lose the war in Iraq as fast as possible? It's already too late to get it over with as fast as World War I was. But maybe it's not too late to get it behind us in time for the next war, if we hurry up and lose it quickly enough instead of dragging it out to 2009 or later.

Because one thing that George Bush is not wrong about is this: there are an awful lot of militant Muslims out there who are determined to not merely restore Islamic rule everywhere it has ever been before, from Gibraltar to Indonesia, but to go on from there to conquer the world. And this is no longer just a coffeehouse conversation by a bunch of Egyptian intellectuals, this is a movement that is growing in numbers, in financial strength, in allies, and in the size of its arsenal every year. There is a very real chance that some time in the next 10 to 20 years, we will have to fight for our very survival against a new generation of holy warriors determined to spread Islam the way all major world religions have ever been spread, by force. And the sooner we disentangle ourselves from this fight that we're clearly losing? The sooner we stop spending money on it? The sooner we start encouraging the Baby Boomers to retire early and spend their years writing books and making speeches instead? The sooner we turn our military over to the generation born between 1961 and 1979, so they can go about the job they'd be good at of planning a future military that will really kick ass? And the more time we have to fill the recruit level positions with the DARE generation? Maybe then, the more prepared we'll be for the day that we recognize 9/11 as what it might well turn out to have been: a mere warning shot.

Little War Stories

Voted for Dean
I don't have anything big or meaningful or profound to say about Alyssa Peterson, Cyrus Kar, or Majid Khan. Most of what there is to say is just too painfully obvious, really, not very profound at all. But their separate stories are sticking with me, and I feel an urge to speak out, to express what their stories mean to me.

When I started talking about Forbidden Lore, I made a big deal out of the fact that it's almost impossible to un-know something. If you would be better off not knowing, once you break that seal, once you cross that barrier and you do know, it's pretty nearly irreversible. All the saying, "Oh, god, I wish I didn't know that," won't make it go away. The best you can hope for, usually, is to either learn to live with the knowledge or hope that it fades from your active awareness. But there is a third option, one that I don't think about much myself. I'm pretty immune to the "didn't want to know that" feeling, so I never spent a lot of time trying to figure out strategies to do so. But then, I'm not Alyssa Peterson.

Alyssa Peterson volunteered enthusiastically to be part of the invasion of Iraq. A military intelligence specialist who spoke Arabic, she was assigned as an interrogator, and a translator for other interrogators, of captured Iraqi resistance suspects. She did it for two days. And the third day, rather than live with what she now knew, she shot herself in the head and died. I don't know what she learned. Maybe she learned something about the Iraqi resistance. Maybe she learned something about the Iraqi people. Maybe she learned something about the US Army. Maybe she learned something about herself, about what she was capable of doing when ordered to do so. Maybe she learned something about human nature. But she was so desperate to un-learn what she'd learned that she used her service-issued rifle to do so. I don't know how she thought that would help, but she may have been right to hope. The few eyewitnesses we have who, thousands of years ago, came back from visiting the land of the dead say that the dead do eventually find forgetfulness there. They also find suffering, and misery, there and by so doing she inflicted great suffering on her family, but maybe if she can unlearn whatever it was she saw in two days in "the Cage" in an American military prison in Iraq, it's worth it to her.

Cyrus Kar and Majid Khan have probably never met, but they ironically both made the same mistake. They both thought that the sentence, "I am an American citizen," was still a magic word, an incantation that would entitle them to legal rights. Perhaps they'd never heard of Manzanar, or didn't see the significance that it had to them. Cyrus Kar is a Los Angeles native and wanna-be historical filmmaker, of Persian descent, who was traveling in the Middle East to shoot footage for a film project on Persian history. Ironically, the documentary was going to be about a Persian king who, the Persians claim, wrote the world's first charter of human rights. I say "ironically" because when the taxicab he was riding in was stopped in Iraq under US occupation, the military says that somewhere in the cab they found "potential bomb parts." What that means, they're not saying, but given the standard design of Iraqi resistance improvised explosive devices what it probably means is "his cell phone." They locked him up without filing charges for two months, bullied and severely beat him, and then let him go. He's suing. The government is, of course, trying to claim that US courts have no jurisdiction over what our troops do while in a war zone, trying to get the lawsuit dismissed. Poor Kar, I guess he's still waiting for the magic phrase, "I am an American citizen," to convey rights upon him.

Majid Khan's story is even more tragic than Kar's. He was a native Pakistani who emigrated legally to America. While visiting family back in Pakistan, he was swept up by the CIA as a suspected terrorist, held in one of the secret CIA prisons that some of you were denying the existence of back when I started writing about them, and tortured for at least two years. Now that those prisons are closed and the torture is over, now that he's in legal limbo in Gitmo, he wants a chance to win his freedom in court, and the administration's latest legal brief is literally breath-taking. They say that he must not ever be allowed to talk to anyone, not even a lawyer of his own, because he's in possession of very important US secrets. What secrets? The specifics of the torture the CIA used on him, which the administration is admitting to by saying that if any future captives were to find out what torture techniques were used on Khan, they'd be better prepared for them.

Keith Olbermann's Forbidden Lore

Forbidden Lore
Keith Olbermann did a big story last night about ... Keith Olbermann.

Here's the deal. On Tuesday the 26th, Keith was the target of what turned out to be a hoax terror attack: some person or persons unknown mailed him fake anthrax spores. He says that when he got them, he decided to err on the side of caution in case this time it was real, and in case the cops needed to know in time to warn other journalists not to open their mail. So he calmly dialed 911, and the cops and the FBI took over. They put him through full decontam twice, once on scene and again at the hospital they took him to. While waiting for the lab results, to again err on the side of safety, the FBI instructed the hospital to dump his clothes (including wallet and car keys) in the medical incinerator. The preliminary tests came back ... as what he had previously suspected, laundry detergent. However, on the off chance that there had been anthrax spores that were missed they sent him home with medical orders to start taking Cipro. The FBI and the NYPD also asked him to keep his mouth shut about this ... which is the point I'll come back to.

Apparently somebody at the hospital or somebody at the NYPD talked to a gossip columnist, because the New York Post ran a (largely inaccurate) version of the story in their "page 6" gossip columns on Wednesday: Paula Froelich with Bill Hoffman, "Page Six: Powder Puff Spooks Keith" (New York Post, September 27th, 2006). Keith was a little cranky about that on the air Wednesday night, and not just because they mischaracterized him as a coward and a crybaby. No, the other reason he's cranky about this is that he was told by the NYPD and the FBI that it would be easier for them to catch and prosecute the person or persons who mailed this hoax terrorist attack if the perpetrator didn't know yet that the letter had arrived, had been opened, and was being looked into by law enforcement. They instructed him to treat this as Forbidden Lore, as a Secret Man Was Not Meant to Know, and he was (at least in this case, and as he documented, in other cases involving attacks on journalists where secrecy might protect journalists' lives) inclined to obey.

Were they right? Was he right to believe them this time?

First, let's examine the question of whether or not what the cops asked for was even possible. The Mafia, which had the power to kill its own members with impunity for even the most minor offenses, were the ones who coined the famous saying, "Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead." The cops were hoping that the perpetrator wouldn't receive any word that he was under investigation. Was a secret that big keepable? It turned out not to be this time, and that's what Keith's complaining about. But has it ever? From the Black Dahlia to Jon-Benet Ramsey, from Sharon Tate to the BTK killings, the cops have always tried to keep some or even most of the details of a major crime scene secret, for reasons I'll come back to in a minute. But human beings spread gossip, especially juicy gossip, at something rather remarkably close to speech speed. They have never yet been successful in keeping those secrets.

Second, let's look at the reason they want to keep these secrets. It is standard doctrine that keeping crime scene details secret serves two purposes. For one thing, it helps you rule out false confessions; if the cops know more about the crime scene than the person confessing does, especially if the person who's confessing gets the details wrong, then obviously they've got the wrong guy. That same standard doctrine also teaches that if somebody knows details of the crime scene that only the killer and the cops would know, that's an important clue, enough to elevate that person to the status of a suspect. I say that it's standard doctrine, though, even though recent studies have shown that it's not true, and one by one cops and prosecutors are abandoning it. Those same leaks and gossip that I already mentioned are so ubiquitous as to render these tools too blunt, to useless, to get any good out of. No, what the schools and the police academies are starting to teach now is that it's only evidence if the person being questioned knows things about the crime that even the cops didn't know, such as if they lead them to evidence that the cops hadn't found yet.

Finally, let's look at what trying to keep those secrets costs the public. The cops make a lot of noise about their forensic abilities, but full forensic workups cost a fortune and the backlog at every crime lab is, figuratively speaking, out the door and around the block. The cops go out and question everybody they can think of just so that it looks like they're investigating the crime, to keep the taxpayers off of their backs, but that beating the bushes almost never turns up any useful leads. The cops make extensive use of informants, but informants have a bad history in this country of making stuff up if they don't have the answer, so the cops will keep coming back and so the cops will keep protecting them as important sources. So how, then, do the vast majority of crimes get solved? Criminals gossip, too. Somebody hears something on the news, puts it together with gossip they heard or something they noticed, realizes that something doesn't seem quite right, and calls the cops. So when cops at any level try to keep crime scene details secret, because of outdated and misguided theories of criminal investigation, they're cutting themselves off from the help of the people most likely to solve the crime -- the people who know or live near the criminal and who don't know enough to realize why what they know, heard, or saw is suspicious.

The Shoe Drops: The Compromise "Torture" Bill

Voted for Dean
When the Supreme Court ruled, in Hamdan v Rumsfeld, that George Bush didn't have the constitutional authority to make up whole new laws regarding who's a terrorist, how terrorists can be questioned, how long they can be held and under what conditions, and in what kinds of courts they should be tried and when, they left it open to Congress to make any rules they liked on the subject. So the President went to Congress and basically threatened to surrender, to let al Qaeda operate freely in the US and attack us at will, if Congress didn't give him everything he wanted. The House Armed Services Committee caved in and gave him everything he asked for, including retroactive immunity from the War Crimes Act for himself and his friends. The Senate Armed Services Committee, most notably including the only sitting member of Congress to ever be the victim of a war crime, said in essence, "Oh, hell no, I don't think so."

Late last week we got word that a compromise between the two positions had been reached. Since nobody would say in public what the compromise was, I held off commenting. But now the shoe has dropped, and you can read it for yourself. I just did. And in one respect it's not as reprehensible as the original bill, in that it strips away the President's "I thought it was legal at the time" defense. But it's still pretty awful.

Most of Left Blogistan is up in arms, predictably, on the torture issue. The bill defines torture very narrowly, allowing an awful lot of things that you or I would call torture to be used in questioning any suspect. In fact, it draws two lines, dividing all coercion of prisoners into three categories: what I'll call category 1 stuff that even the administration admits is torture (basically maiming and up; no permanent injury, no foul), category 2 stuff that leaves no permanent crippling injury but that the US courts won't let you do to a civilian in a US jail, and in category 3 the random and/or clever sadism we've come to expect of prison guards in Texas and across Dixie that the courts have so far mostly looked the other way on. The bill says nothing about us torturing prisoners (category 1), thereby leaving the terms of the War Crimes Act in place ... except it doesn't, because section 6(a)(3) of the bill says that the President, and only the President, gets to decide where that line gets drawn, and the President, and only the President, has the authority to set penalties for anything in category 2. In a particularly pernicious piece of propaganda, the bill goes slightly further than that and asserts that the President has always had this authority "as provided by the Constitution." The bill also allows anything extracted from a prisoner by means in categories 2 and 3 to be used as evidence against them (if the judge feels like it) -- unless the coerced testimony was extracted after last December's Detainee Treatment Act, in which "only" confessions extracted using category 3 techniques is admissible evidence.

There's a semantically empty paragraph in the bill that exists for purely propaganda reasons. In section 3(a)(1), proposed section 948(d)(a): "A military commission under this chapter shall have jurisdiction to try any offense made punishable by this chapter or the law of war when committed by an alien unlawful enemy combatant before, on, or after September 11, 2001." Hmm, "before, on, or after" 9/11. In other words, "ever." So why does the jurisdiction section include this phrase? Just because they needed some place to gratuitously mention 9/11, just to push your emotional buttons.

There's also a lot to be said by way of snarkiness about the definition of "Lawful Combatant." Aside from giving the President and the Secretary of Defense literally unlimited authority to declare any foreigner an unlawful combatant at their discretion, the bill does provide some guidance by narrowly defining what is a "lawful combatant;" one could therefore not unreasonably assume that anybody who doesn't fit in that definition is an "unlawful combatant." On the face of it, it's not that bad looking ... until you start thinking about historical examples. For example, the definition specifically says that even a native force resisting an occupying army are "unlawful combatants" unless they wear military uniforms that are recognizable at a distance and openly carry weapons whenever they're engaged in, or assisting, any military operation. By that definition, the French Resistance during World War II would have been unlawful combatants. Heck, by that definition, so would about a third of the US forces in our War for Independence.

Then go on to the rest of the definition, and it says that you're also an unlawful combatant if you target civilians, and in particular if you attack religious or medical personnel. By which definition the Somocista Contras that the Reagan administration were supporting in Nicaragua were clearly unlawful combatants, and in fact by the definitions in this bill they could clearly be labeled as terrorists, and I don't have a problem with that. No more of that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" crap that Republicans tried to use as an excuse during the 1980s. So under the definitions in this bill, John Poindexter, Oliver North, and others in the US government should be accused of being unlawful combatants for providing material support to terrorists, held in military custody without right of habeas corpus, coerced into testifying against themselves, and sentenced to death, as should Ronald Reagan and William Casey if they were still alive. Oh, but wait, no, they wouldn't be, and here's the part that I have to roll my eyes over: the bill specifically says that you're only an unlawful combatant if you do these things while attacking the US or its allies. Do any of these things while attacking a US enemy (or a non-ally, same thing under this bill), apparently, and you're perfectly lawful. It is so obvious to the Bush administration that "everybody" knows that the USA are the good guys and everybody else are the bad guys, so obviously we and our hand-picked allies are the only ones who should get the benefit of the doubt. Not only are we the world's policemen (something Republicans used to be against), but now we're going to suggest that the whole rest of the world treat attacking an American (and only an American) as an attack on a policeman.

Yes, I mentioned habeas corpus in passing just now. That is the one part of this bill that I think is the most morally reprehensible. Habeas corpus isn't just any old right. Nor is it a right of only US citizens. Heck, that the Founders were accusing the British crown of violating the right of habeas corpus was high on the list of grievances that they used to justify rising up in arms against and overthrowing their own government. Habeas corpus is so universal a human right that only one country on the planet is so evil as to deny it: North Korea. Is that who we want to declare ourselves morally equivalent to? Habeas corpus isn't a technicality, it's the fundamental right that protects against indefinite arbitrary detention. Every decent civilization in the world pays at least lip service to the principle that no cop, no soldier, no government can lock somebody up without standing that person up in front of a judge and saying, "this is what we're accusing them of, and here's at least some of the evidence." Basic human decency, even in awful hell-holes like Cuba and Red China and Iran, says that this has to be done not just in front of the accused but in open court and on the record. It is absolutely essential to human liberty that no government with any claim to legitimacy may ever, ever, ever lock someone up without telling the rest of us who they locked up and why. But section 7 of this bill completely and permanently suspends the right of habeus corpus for anybody except US citizens, if the President or anybody he designates thinks that they might be an unlawful combatant. That is just flatly not acceptable, and I can only suspect that John McCain and the other decent people on the committee signed off on it only because they're counting on the Supreme Court striking that particularly contemptible clause down. But it speaks very poorly of this government that they want it at all. You should fear the government that wants to restrict habeas corpus in even the slightest way, because they're claiming a "right" only sought by the worst of dictators: the right to throw inconvenient people into a deep dark hole and never have to answer for having done so.

QuickTakes

Brad @ Burning Man
Did I say al Qaeda 14? Make That 14,000. While we're all having such interesting debates over what the Bush administration is thinking or planning or worried about with regard to the 14 "high value" al Qaeda targets that the CIA has been detaining without charge for years, abusing, and denying that those 14 people are entitled to be treated as either prisoners or prisoners of war? The Associated Press's Patrick Quinn just made the interesting point that the debate leaves out the other fourteen thousand people that the US also denies are either criminal prisoners or prisoners of war. Ever since our counter-attack against Afghanistan began, and from day one in the Iraq War, the US has been rounding up anybody suspected of even knowing anything about, let alone being in, the Afghan Taliban, Iraqi Baathist, or Arab al Qaeda resistance cells in those countries. The US is invoking (and in the opinion of the UN, abusing) the concept of "security detainees" where, during specific security operations, you're allowed to briefly hold someone for long enough to determine if a crime has taken place. The US has been "briefly" holding these people for, on average, between 18 months and 3 years before grudgingly admitting, one prisoner at a time, that they if they ever knew anything we want to know they sure don't now. In its own defense, the Bush administration points out that a suspicious number of the people they've let out have gone on to join the Taliban, the Iraqi resistance, or al Qaeda -- but after, for example, being held in Abu Ghraib and then still not released for months after it got closed, without your family knowing where or why you were held or even if you were being held for years at a time, wouldn't you? ("U.S. war prisons legal vacuum for 14,000," September 18th, 2006.)

Tentative Good News: Lower Court Struck Down Missouri's Poll Tax. The Republican governor is leaning hard on his presumed 2008 Democratic rival the Secretary of State to appeal the decision to a higher court, but at least for now a state judge has stepped in and ruled that the cost to the voters of complying with the state's mandatory official photo ID requirement for voting in November and beyond. The state argued, "oh, come on, most people have one and the rest are only out $15 for a birth certificate." Ah, but that's only for people who have never changed their name for any reason (including marriage) and who currently live in the same general area they were born. I know people personally who've been fighting to prove their identity to the state for months now, at costs that keep going up; at least one of them it looks like is going to need a lawyer. So yes, it's a poll tax, one that singles out people who haven't had to get driver's licenses because they can't afford a car and people who moved in from other states for disproportionate impact, and at least one court has pointed out that none of that is even vaguely legal. I probably shouldn't risk governor "Baby" Blunt winning on appeal though; now that the new rail line to the county government offices is open, I should quit putting it off and go pay the poll tax whether I'm going to have to or not. (See Virginia Young, "Voter ID law rejected," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 15th, 2006.)

I'm a Failure as a Pirate. It's a major blow to my self-image that I didn't make it out to the St. Louis Pirate Festival on Saturday. (Obviously less so on Sunday; I assume they got completely rained out.) (There was a good article about it in the newspaper: Jessica Bock, "Pirate Festival is a spinoff of successful Renaissance Faire," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 12th, 2006.) For someone who once said that he wanted to be a professional pirate (actor/educator), I'm rather disappointed with myself that I didn't try harder to get out to Wentzville. OK, it's not on the bus lines, but if I'd put the call out in time I could have gotten a ride, I'll bet. Some reluctance may be coming from the miserable state of my wardrobe; I really need more pirate costume pieces than I own. But if I'd wanted it badly enough, the stuff I have is just barely good enough and frankly, there's no requirement for attendees to be garbed at a RenFaire or RenFaire spinoff. But the sad truth is, for all that Caribbean pirates haven't been more popular in a generation, and for all that here in St. Louis we've practically expanded International Talk Like a Pirate Day to a whole 9-day week this year ... I just don't feel very piratical lately. It's odd, and unpleasant.
V for Vendetta
Like a lot of "dry alcoholics," President Bush almost never lets himself show any anger. And to keep that anger out of his voice, he talks very slowly, with an almost sing-song pitch. Frankly, even when I want to know what he's saying, I usually find this self-enforced blandness in his speech sleep-inducing; I literally can not stay awake while listening to the man's voice for more than a minute or two. I end up, usually, having to read the text off the White House web site the next day. But that hasn't been a problem for me in the last couple of days. The blandness is gone. The President has thrown emotional self-censorship out the window. He's royally pissed off. It's probably not the first time in the last six years that he's been made angry, but this time it's over the top. This time it's a bridge too far. No, this time he's pissed off and he doesn't care if we know about it. I got my first view of this watching a stand-up interview with Matt Lauer in the White House. It went perfectly normally, and I might have slipped off to sleep again ... until Matt Lauer started asking follow-up questions, trying to put the President on the record about one particular issue. The President lost his temper, and started yelling, and leaned in on Matt Lauer like a drill sergeant berating a substandard recruit. He then went on to give a couple of angry speeches on the same subject over the next couple of days. But then, during Friday's press conference, another NBC reporter David Gregory asked an extremely well-crafted question back on that subject, and this time the President went truly ballistic.

The subject in question is that over the last weekend, the White House complied with the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan v Rumsfeld and shut down the secret prisons where, in former Soviet gulags all over eastern Europe, the CIA was using what the President euphemistically calls "harsh questioning" on 14 "high value" al Qaeda prisoners in an attempt to torture them into betraying al Qaeda operatives and plans. Per Supreme Court order, those 14 prisoners have been transferred to our more permanent detainment camp in the US-occupied legal limbo of the eastern tip of Cuba, Guantanamo Bay. And it is against this backdrop that the White House attempted to get the Armed Forces Subcommittees of both houses of Congress to pass yet another "clarification" of the rules for interrogating accused terrorists. The White House version sailed right through the House committee (something I haven't seen reported on enough). But in the Senate, 4 of the Republicans on the evenly divided committee said flatly "NO," sided with the unanimous Democratic members of the committee, and passed their own version of the bill that 100% flatly contradicts the White House bill. Among those leading the revolt were the only member of the US Senate to have himself been tortured in violation of the Geneva Conventions while being held as a prisoner of war, John McCain, and the most ardently pro-military senator in the whole US congress, John Warner.

It took David Gregory to do the best job of explaining why the revolt happened, with a hypothetical question during Friday's press conference: what if North Korea were to capture a CIA operative, one of our people who might meet the same definition of non-uniformed non-regular combatant -- would we want the North Koreans to feel that they had the right to re-interpret the Geneva Conventions according to their own standards and their own needs when they were questioning that guy? I wonder if Gregory realizes that this isn't, exactly, a hypothetical -- it actually happened in one famous case. When Iranian radicals seized the US embassy in Tehran, Iran back in 1979, one of the people they caught inside was the CIA's top agent in the region. They tortured that man to death over several days. They videotaped the whole thing, and distributed that tape pretty widely throughout the Middle East because using torture, they managed to extract from him a complete confession of the CIA's role in the torture and murder of thousands of suspected anti-Shah-of-Iran dissidents and their families and friends. Considering how essential it was to the (now) Iranian government that they obtain that information, and considering that (since what they did to him was nothing more or less than what his agents had done to them and their families) it rather obviously didn't "shock the conscience" of the interrogators, would the President or his ever-fewer remaining backers like to extend, retroactively, to the barbarians who seized our embassy back then the "right" under the Geneva Conventions to "clarify" and "re-interpret" the Third Geneva Convention? Or was that, in fact, like virtually every other step the Iranians took during that crisis, a festering war crime for which we're entitled to still be angry and to still hope, some day, for convictions and reparations?

In response to this, the White House has posted to their web site a rather interesting rebuttal. In "Now and Then: Editorials on the McCain Amendment," the White House points out that their version of the bill cites the 2005 McCain Amendment as being included in the definition of what is torture, and that the same people who're going ballistic over their new bill claimed at the time that the McCain Amendment was more than sufficient, went beyond what was needed, to keep the US in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. But, I argue, this is not a point they ought to want to be winning. Because if what the President so angrily yelled at Matt Lauer and David Gregory and others is true, then what is the President so angry about? I wonder if I know what it is that they're not saying. I don't think it's the murkiness of the "clarification" of the definition of torture that is the part of the White House version of the bill that is so important to them. I think it's something else, something much more interesting to speculate about why they need it so badly that the President is losing his last vestige of self control at the thought he won't get it.

I wish I could still find a copy of their version online to show you. I can't tonight for some reason, but I remember that buried underneath the murky prose about torture is a small chunk of text regarding what should happen if any American is accused, under the War Crimes Act, of violating the Third Geneva Convention. The White House asked Congress to declare that it would be a sufficient legal defense if the person accused of a war crime "reasonably believed" that what they were doing was legal. Why is that important? Well, let's see. Let's go back and look and see who "reasonably believed" that it was perfectly legal to use things that the Third Geneva Convention, and all laws on torture, prohibit while questioning people like Khalid Sheik Mohammad. That'd be ... US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush.

You see, if they haven't already done so, any day now those 14 torture victims are going to get their first meeting with the famously neutral and professional prisoner-treatment experts of the International Committee of the Red Cross. When they do, we're all going to hear the details of how the CIA questioned those 14 prisoners. I strongly suspect that when we do, we're going to wish for the "good old days" when we thought the casual depredations and random sexual sadism of Georgia, Texas, and Alabama prison guards at Abu Ghraib was as bad as it got. And when it comes out, as it frankly already has in every way but the grotesque details, that George W. Bush signed an executive order approving that treatment, he's going to have a big, big problem. Violating the War Crimes Act isn't just any old "high crimes and misdemeanors" -- it's a death penalty offense. While in office, the President enjoys a tiny slice of limited immunity, but his close friends don't. And even if the Democrats don't get enough numbers in November to pursue impeachment next spring, even if they do get the numbers and decide not to, come January 2009 he could easily be facing a death penalty war crimes trial here in the US.

So it is very important to him to try to get Congress to sign off on the following argument. The Albert Gonzalez "torture memo" outlined a new, never tested before, novel legal theory as to why the Geneva Convention didn't apply while interrogating members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. George Bush really, really wants to be able to say with a straight face that he believed what his lawyer told him when he said that this was legal. That because this theory hadn't been tried yet in the Supreme Court, it was reasonable for him to believe his lawyer. That as soon as the theory was proven false when it didn't hold up in front of the Supreme Court, he stopped. And that therefore, he should be let off the hook. Now, I suggest that you ask any criminal defense attorney if, "I thought what I was doing was legal" is sufficient defense in any criminal trial? No, it's not. And that, not any "confusion" about what the Third Geneva Convention defines as torture, may well be what's cost the President his usual self-control this week.

Postscript: I've gone on at too much length for one day already. But if you agree with the administration that whether it was legal or not, this was something we had to do to prevent another 9/11? You're wrong about that, too, say the government's own experts on stopping terrorism. I really, really, really recommend that you read Ron Suskind's analysis piece from the September 10th, 2006's Time magazine: "The Unofficial Story of the al-Qaeda 14."
Voted for Dean
On December 7th, 1946, the 5th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the war had been over for four hundred and eighty days. By the fifth anniversary of the December 7th attack, the war against those who attacked us had been over for so long that reconstruction was well underway, and the Japanese people themselves were already almost entirely won over, emotionally, to our side because they'd seen how generous we were to them in their defeat. By the 5th anniversary of December 7th, Adolf Hitler who had declared war on us in defense of his allies who had attacked us, had long ago committed suicide in the bunker we'd trapped him in, was long dead and buried.

Democrats lead that war. More importantly, history tells us, it was Democrats who won that war for us before the first shot was fired. When New York governor Frank Roosevelt was sworn in the January before the attack, Republican looters had so wrecked the country's economy that hundreds of thousands of our teenage boys had been thrown out onto the road, by their starving parents who could not feed them and who hoped that some of those teenage boys might find enough day labor to survive. When Republican looters were still in power, those teenage boys lived in homeless camps and illegally hitched rides on boxcars and begged for food. Had they still been so weak, so hungry, and so disheartened with America on December 7th, 1941, they probably would have let the country, and the world, go down the drain with them. Japan's militarists would have swept east and southeast Asia, and Hitler's Nazis would have conquered Europe and most of Russia. Militant fascists, having outraced us to the atomic bomb, would have controlled virtually every thing outside of the continental US. And the continental US would have been so weak and helpless by comparison we would have had no choice but to conform our politics, and our economics, to them.

And the reason you don't live in a fascist-conforming state now (and you don't, alarmists to the contrary; I see the same warning signs they do, but the danger is not imminent yet) is not because Governor Roosevelt knew that war was coming. Nor is it because he felt determined to make America militarily strong. On the contrary, on December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked an America whose whole military could almost have comfortably sat in the same high school auditorium. We won, not because Franklin Delano Roosevelt made our army strong, but because he made our people strong. For really historically interesting reasons that I intend to write about tomorrow, he woke up to the fact that he had inherited a country so weakened and so disillusioned that even without any enemies without, we might well have toppled to an anti-American revolution within any day. So he adopted an awful lot of the would-be revolutionaries' most reasonable proposals, enough of them to sooth the American people's anger and restore their faith in American democracy and the American Dream. Republicans, and right wing Democrats, fought him tooth and nail every step of the way. Then as now, their economic theories told them that government interference in the economy was bad, was evil, was Communism, and could only ruin more lives in the long run.

But because he saw revolution breathing down his neck and knew that wealthy guys like himself would be the first up against the wall, Franklin Roosevelt bullied Congress into helping him get all of those starving teenage kids, and their almost equally hungry unemployed and underemployed fathers, back to work. ANY kind of work. The Civilian Conservation Corps put teenagers to work on jobs that anybody in their right mind would have said a country in the midst of a recession couldn't afford: beautifying national parks by clearing trails, building picnic shelters and park buildings, and planting trees. The Works Progress Administration promised every American enough to afford 3 hots and a cot doing whatever it was that they were trained to do. If you couldn't do anything, they put you to work building bridges, building roads, and perhaps most importantly building "useless" National Guard armories in every dinky little town in America -- in some of those towns, the first really solid building ever built there. On December 8th, 1941, those people who had been thrown away as useless by the Republicans swarmed the recruiting offices. And well they might have. What they couldn't have said on January 19th, 1941, they absolutely could say on December 8th: that's my America that got attacked. And after being in government service already and seeing that they could, if they all pulled together, get things done even if they had never done so before, they were emotionally ready to learn to fight the forces of fascism. They saved the world, because by treating them as people we needed, Franklin D. Roosevelt made them strong enough, willing enough, and brave enough to fight for America.

Unfortunately for us, no Franklin Roosevelt was sworn into office in the January before September 11th, 2005. Instead we got a Herbert Hoover, a supporter of the looters, another man who surrounds himself with those who tell him that a quarter of us are disposable and deserve to be treated as if we are disposable. Those who rushed to defend America after we were attacked by the private army of the Deputy Defense Minister of Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, were mostly told to go home and do some shopping at the mall. Those already in service were pulled back just at the moment when they might have caught bin Laden, and might have caught this war's Hitler, then-Afghan president the Mullah Omar, told "Mission Accomplished!" with much hooplah and militarist fanfare, and then instead sent to act as private mercenaries for the Bush family, lied to about why they were fighting so they could avenge a family grudge against a former ally who'd once tried to have the President's father killed. So unsurprisingly, still no victory. Indeed, by managing to move what's left of their army to a nuclear-equipped nation, whose nuclear forces, military, and intelligence services are enthusiastically on bin Laden and Mullah Omar's side, they're stronger than they were on 9/11 itself. Not only have the Republican looters and greedy robbers not won this war, they're losing it pretty badly. They've done an amazing job of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Oh, and they'd like your permission to keep doing more of the same. They'll be asking for it again in 57 days, and again two years after that. So if you're satisfied with their competence, with the way they've conducted themselves, make sure you vote for more of the same. Otherwise, you may want to consider turning some or all of the country back over the the party where at least some of us don't think that a quarter of the American people are disposable and who don't think that it's more important to make sure that corporate executive officer salaries keep skyrocketing than it is to actually save the country.

A couple of follow-ups

Brad @ Burning Man
A Thought about the Failure of Scam Education: It occurred to me, well after I put that article "to bed," that there may be a really plausible reason why there is no confidence scam so old, hackneyed, and widely exposed that thousands of people don't fall for it. The thing to compare it to, as cheesy as the comparison is, is trying to teach kids not to be vulnerable to kidnapping by strangers. Now, thank God that kidnapping by strangers is so rare ... because it turns out to be basically impossible to educate most kids out of vulnerability to it. I remember seeing something on TV about a year ago where they got permission from parents and cops to stage an attempted hijacking on various grade school kids who'd just, literally just, been through a class on how not to fall for kidnapper's scams, how not to end up so close that it's easy for them to grab you before you can get away, how to tell if a stranger who says they're from your folks really is. Without a single exception, every kid they tested fell for the "look at the puppy in the trunk of my car" scam every time. Was it because the scam is so irresistible? No. It's because the kids had been warned to protect themselves from strangers, and the nice man didn't seem like a stranger at all. No matter how often you tell the kids that anybody they don't know is a stranger, they have it in their heads at some deep level that strangers are people who look scary somehow, that they can't possibly be in any danger from anybody who looks normal and seems nice. Which, unfortunately, is step one also in every pyramid scheme, Ponzi scheme, and confidence trick -- look normal and seem nice.

Burning the non-wicker Man: I don't know if I got around to mentioning Current TV's "TV Free Burning Man" podcasts, even though the only thinly tolerable remake of The Wicker Man came out right before the Burning Man festival. Current TV is a tiny little cable station, only shown in a handful of places, that specializes in podcasts, and they sent a team out to Black Rock City to do a daily 6 to 8 minute podcast from this year's Burning Man festival. They finally got the last of the episodes up on their website, and you know what? If you have ever wondered what Burning Man is? Or more importantly, if you think you "get" Burning Man but you're not sure? What you've got up on that site is roughly an hour's worth of broadcast, and if you watch it, then you will truly "get" Burning Man, because they do get it. As someone who Burned about 7 years ago, and who had massive nostalgia attacks watching their podcasts, let me tell you flat out that no broadcast journalists I've seen yet have understood the point of Burning Man as much as this team does, nor have the few print journalists who've tried done it as much justice.

Told You So about the Secret CIA Prisons: When the White House went after the whistleblowers on the CIA's very illegal secret torture facilities all over the former Warsaw Pact, I told you that the fact that they were going after somebody for leaking it was, in fact, itself a leak. Now, it wasn't much of a leak. Amateur plane-spotters had long, long ago used their worldwide-web databases to track the tailfin numbers of the CIA's front-company planes, and we knew where those planes were leaving from, when, with whom, and where they were ending up. But I argued at the time that the minute that George Bush complained that the whistleblowers had endangered national security by exposing a secret program, that was the secret program's first official acknowledgement. When I said this, several people claimed that no, it was nothing of the sort: he could have meant that it was endangering national security to claim this whether it was true or not. I said that was incompatible with the way he was saying it. Doubtless some of you thought that was "part of the coverup" or somehow proof of his competence or subtlety. Do you still think so now, that, this week, he's announced that they shut down the secret prisons in the Warsaw Pact countries that the CIA was running, praised the CIA for using "rough questioning" techniques on those prisoners, and that he's now transfered them all to our gulag at Guantanamo Bay?

A Good Weekend to Play Auto Assault: Since I hear that City of Heroes/City of Villains' "double-XP" weekend was a huge successful "draw them back in" event, the team on Auto Assault have decided to do their own loyalty-reward event. They're not doubling XP gain, though. Frankly, that would be silly. Especially after Update 2, which simplified the heck out of the first roughly 8 or 9 levels of the game and gives out about 4 or 5 levels' worth of free XP; if you ever thought leveling was hard in Auto Assault, well, for one thing you blow my mind, but for another, try it again. So what are they doing instead of doubling the XP? Doubling the "loot" dropped by NPCs. So not only will everybody who plays between noon Friday and noon Monday (US Central time) make in-game money like a bandit, your odds of getting an "uber" weapon or chassis or whatever to help you level up with or to help you in tournaments just doubled.

No Shame

Voted for Dean
White House officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Snow have been saying, for more than a week now, that anybody who so much asks the Bush administration any critical questions, let alone opposes giving them everything they ask for, is guilty of appeasing Osama bin Laden. President Bush joined in the "discussion" in person, this week, going further and saying that not only is anybody who shows the least skepticism about the White House's competence or about which side of their law they're on is guilty of appeasement of bin Laden -- a villain that he insists is more dangerous to the United States than either Hitler or Lenin were. So, let's talk about appeasement, shall we?

As recently as a week ago, comparing Osama bin Laden or any other Islamist fanatic to Hitler or Lenin not only should have invoked Godwin's Law, it was silly on the face of it. It would say something genuinely dangerous about the competence of the Department of Homeland Shampoo-Confiscation if an elderly, moderately poor, increasingly ineffective diabetic holed up in a cave in some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet was as big a danger to the US as the heads of state of vast, wealthy, industrialized nations used to be. It would also be worth noting that having the full power and wealth of the state behind them didn't save Hitler from us, and didn't save Lenin's heirs from the Russian people; both "threats" ended up in the trashcan of history. Only the most craven of cowards and the most ignorant of fools would suggest that a couple of thousand widely scattered, mostly unorganized, poorly funded criminals could do, now, what the Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army couldn't. Even bin Laden was only able to pose a serious threat to us when he had state sanction, when he had access to the wealth and power and protection that came from being the deputy defense minister of Afghanistan. So who, exactly, are we supposedly "appeasing" when we ask if the Bush administration has suddenly miraculously become competent or if they're going to keep screwing up both the War on Terror and the Iraq War as much as they've screwed up on Bush's promise, five years ago next week, to bring down bin Laden "dead or alive."

Now, to be fair, even this "gang who couldn't shoot straight" could have brought down bin Laden any time they wanted to in the last two, maybe three years. Journalists from all over the world have been reporting, for at least that long, that al Qaeda has been operating openly in several states inside Pakistan, and that bin Laden commutes along known routes from there to the plainly-labeled, ask anybody where they are recruiting offices for al Qaeda in Karachi and Islamabad. So the Bush administration, and not a few of the American press, have looked the other way for a long time now, and pretended not to know where bin Laden was. They've repeatedly flip-flopped on whether or not they even wanted to arrest him, any more, and instead have concentrated on eavesdropping on his communications and his financial flows whenever they could. In other words, they've done exactly what they still criticize anybody else for suggesting we might do, they've downgraded it from a military matter to a law enforcement matter ... for the one terrorist that it's most important that we not do that with, the one who's already killed almost 3,000 American civilians.

But if you read the policy journals, or even the newspapers of record, Republican and right-leaning policy makers and opinion leaders are quite open among themselves as to exactly why we don't give Pakistan the same ultimatum we gave Afghanistan when they were the ones who were sheltering bin Laden. Some years ago, responding to widespread allegations (probably false) of corruption in the elected government and (more importantly) to head off fears of an Islamist revolution fueled by anger over how fast President Bhutto was secularizing and modernizing the country, General Musharraf of the Pakistani army invoked the traditional right of the army, in Ataturk-modeled societies, to step in, eliminate the incompetence or treason or corruption that's threatening the survival of the state, try the offenders in independent military courts, and soon thereafter call new elections -- basically the modern Islamic version of impeachment. But that was a long, long time ago, and the Pakistani people have been waiting for a long time for those elections. But Musharraf doesn't dare allow wide-open elections any time soon. He knows that the Islamists would win. He knows that they'd ally themselves with bin Laden, and that they'd turn over the Islamic world's first (official) nukes to terrorists. He knows that what we'd do in retaliation for that would make what we did (or at least tried to do) to the Taliban in Afghanistan look kind and gentle. And we know that if we bagged bin Laden inside Pakistan, either because he helped us or even just because he failed to stop us, he'd be dead by the end of the week and his worst fear, an officially government-sanctioned nuclear terrorist group operating out of Islamabad with the approval of a popular Islamist government ... followed shortly thereafter by the US and NATO (and probably India, too) nuking of Islamabad into a glowing green crater after that first nuke went off. So we haven't twisted his arm, because we wouldn't like what came next if we did.

But that was last week. And what did we find out over the weekend, and get confirmed today? Musharraf surrendered at least one state, and probably a whole region, to al Qaeda control. He granted bin Laden a blanked safe-conduct pass. He agreed to funnel buckets and buckets of Pakistani government money directly to al Qaeda officers -- ostensibly to fund social programs, but we know how that money's going to be used, don't we? He probably felt that he had no choice. The army lost control over that part of Pakistan years ago, and al Qaeda's been using that terrain to organize the locals to attack towards the rest of Pakistan just as often as they attack across the border into Afghanistan. His only alternative to surrender was a civil war that he might well doubt if, even with whatever aid the US would hold its nose and give him, he could win. After all, we couldn't keep Diem in power in South Vietnam, and Diem probably had a bigger power base at home than Musharraf does now.

But if the Bush administration continues to lie that Iraq is the central front against al Qaeda, and turns the other way rather than confront the country that's really sponsoring al Qaeda, the one that created the Taliban in the first place, who's the appeaser? You tell me.

The state of the art in insane paranoia.

Voted for Dean
Robert Anton Wilson, perhaps the greatest expert on conspiracy theory who ever lived, defined paranoia as "the delusion that your enemies are competent." Apparently, when they feel like they're under constant unfair attack, like everybody is piling on, the leaders of both parties are vulnerable to the delusion that it's all part of a single, unified scheme -- that everybody who's attacking them is following orders from some shadowy cabal. But at least when the Clintons went all bug-eyed nuts about a glorified zine-hack named Richard Mellon Skaife and (as Hillary openly called it) his "vast right-wing conspiracy"? They didn't spend vast sums of money and tie up hundreds of security experts wargaming it.

Back in February, there was a brief headline buried in most newspapers that the US government's Department of Homeland Security had just completed a wargaming exercise called Cyber Storm. They told us that they had hired experts to walk everybody through a simulated campaign of attacks aimed at collapsing the US economy through cyber-terrorism, a vast and organized group of hackers. Having attended an invitation-only hacker convention once, I had a good laugh at the idea of "organized hackers." Heck, until I lost it I was one of the hundreds of people who used to carry a "Legion of Doom" membership card in my wallet, just for amusement's sake. The actual Legion of Doom, one of the biggest and most successful hacker collectives in history, probably numbered fewer than six real members -- not one of whom would have coordinated anything with any of the others for a single second, nor any one of which could have given an actual order and expected it to be obeyed by anyone, let alone a whole army. But, I admit, that was then. Here in 2006, mafiosi from at least two continents are paying organized networks of world-wide "hackers" (a few programmers and hundreds of "script-kiddies") tens of thousands of dollars each to maintain the "zombie bot-nets" that provide the horsepower to run the unsolicited commercial email (spam) industry. The expenses involved are low enough that I could more or less imagine some government being able to hire a few programmers and a similarly large number of script kiddies. So, although they didn't say who the enemy was supposed to have been in the Cyber Storm exercise, I took it for granted that they were wargaming a multi-stage cyber-terrorist attack by North Korea, or maybe Iran or China. So imagine my surprise when somebody sued under the Freedom of Information Act to get more details and we found out who the government is really terrified of:

Liberals.

I kid thee not. According to a PowerPoint presentation that's working its way around the web, they assume that the same anarchists who disrupted the Seattle anti-globalization protests are actually in a position to give orders to, and be obeyed by, virtually everybody on the Left. The scenario assumed that on orders from the ex-Earth-First!er "black block" of the anti-globalization activist community (a group that hasn't actually existed, in any kind of coherent form, for almost five years), every liberal activist group from pacifists like Food Not Bombs to arsonists for the Earth Liberation Front to anarcho-hippy hackers like the Deceptive Duo would drop everything and each carry out their assigned attacks, ranging from denial of service hacks to massive riots to disruption of the Internet's main address servers to barricades of important government facilities to mass arson to publication of stolen government secrets, and that they could all be coordinated so that 800 distinct attacks would happen in the most efficient possible sequence in the same five-day span.

That's right, the Department of Homeland Security actually thinks that this could happen. Not only that, they think that the risk of this happening is so great that it deserves the same kind of international coordination of law enforcement, and the same resources to simulate and train for, that they put into preventing nuclear, chemical, biological, or explosive attacks on civilians, aircraft, and government facilities. That's why they spent who knows how many dollars (certainly tens of thousands, perhaps much more) to bring together 300 experts and managers representing 115 agencies or companies from 5 countries on 3 continents that they considered "likely" to come under attack by liberals, to make sure they were prepared to deal with it when it happens. (We will let it pass that the deadliest terrorist attack on a government building in the history of the country was by a conservative, associated with right-wing militias.)

On the eve of the 2004 elections, predicting the Republican rout that happened the next day, I said, "the next local Republican who whines to me about how oppressed they are by liberals will get called a simpering idiotic crybaby to his face." I rattled off the whole list, showing that there isn't a single remaining important part of the government that Democrats, even conservative Democrats let alone actual liberals, would have majority control over, and asked, "Conservatives, how badly do we have to lose, by what whopping margin do you have to win, before you no longer feel threatened by liberals?" I suppose, given how the Department of Homeland Security allocates its money and manpower during a foreign war, we now know the answer: 100.00%. If there is even one person left in the whole world who disagrees with them, they can never feel safe until that person is incarcerated or killed. That somehow combines the worst features of paranoid psychosis with the most gutless, spineless cowardice in the history of the planet. The resulting spectacle is nothing less than breathtaking.

The President and the Polyamorists

V for Vendetta
George Bush is strongly outraged by a federal district court judge's finding that his bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Supervisory Court when wiretapping the international long-distance calls of suspected al Qaeda contacts in the US is unconstitutional and, unless he prevails at an appeal hearing on the 7th, it must end no later than that date. How strongly? In his Friday official statement from Camp David on the subject, almost every sentence had the phrase "strongly disagree" in it -- that is to say, almost every sentence he was able to finish. The rest of his sentences, despite his usually bland face, were being choked off by paroxysms of rage.

I understand his rage. Wiretapping enemy agents' calls to home, and even enemy diplomats' calls to home, is something that every President since Lincoln has done during wartime. When FDR was authorizing wiretaps on suspected Nazi saboteurs, can you imagine AT&T technicians going to the press about this? If they did, can you imagine the press publishing the story? And in the profoundly unlikely event that both of those things occurred, can you imagine the federal courts not making excuses not to hear the case, no matter how hard the ACLU tried? So of course he's feeling angry. He's feeling unfairly singled out. We know that Lincoln did it, and nobody gave him grief about it. We know that Wilson, FD Roosevelt, and Kennedy did it, and nobody gave them grief about it. We may not unreasonably assume that Ike and the Gipper did it during their more limited wars, and if so, nobody gave them grief about it. But when GW Bush does it, all of a sudden it's a huge national crisis. When you put it that way, it's not fair, is it?

So why did the telco techs snitch to the press this time? Why did the press run with it? And why, to my surprise as much as his, were the courts willing to actually hear lawsuits over it? George Bush says he thinks it's because they don't realize, deep down, that the US is at war. What he clearly also thinks, from his tone, is that it's because there are still a few judges left who were appointed by Democrats and they don't like him personally. But it dawned on me this evening why this is happening, and it has nothing to do with either of those things. But then, I'm in a unique position to understand this. You see, I have many friends who keep making the same argument that Bush is making, only about their personal lives. And it's just as hard to explain to them why they're being singled out for public outrage and Department of Family Services invasions when other people who do the same things are at most the subject of minor grumbling and, at most, brief social ostracism.

You see, I'm a polyamorist, and have known this about myself since at least the age of 14, back in 1974. For those (few) of you unfamiliar with the term, polyamory is the belief that at least some people are not only capable of genuinely and truly loving more than one person at the same time, but also incapable of feeling jealousy when they find out that those who love them also love other people too. (Before any self-identified polyamorist nitpicks, yes I'm aware that there are newcomers to the "movement" who insist that "incapable" is unfair, and would extend the label of polyamorous to people who are capable of feeling jealousy, even those who are inclined to do so, as long as they agree that jealousy is unfair and try to fight it. I blame these people for the wreck of countless thousands of lives.) There's more to polyamory than sex, but to put it bluntly, polyamorists don't have a problem with themselves or other polyamorists having multiple romantic sexual partners at the same time.

And whenever any significant number of polyamorists gather, one of the guaranteed, inevitable topics of conversation is to contrast public attitudes towards polyamory with those towards either adultery, that is to say having romantic or sexual relationships with more than one person at a time but lying about it, or swinging, that is to say having "sport sex" with other women and/or couples and denying that there's anything emotional about it. Swingers, when outed, are social pariahs ... but widely envied, as well, and they seldom face any major consequences for their hobby. (Yes, I know, not "never." But seldom.) Adulterers face the threat of divorce, and perhaps ostracism at church, but not even consistently either or both of those consequences, and certainly it's never taken as prima facie evidence that they're bad parents. But let a social worker or a family court judge find out that the parents are polyamorists, and it's a near certainty that they'll be ruled unfit parents, and the resulting publicity will almost always wreck their relationships with their families, guarantee them social pariah status not just at church but in their whole town, and not improbably cost them their jobs or even whole careers. This gives them the same angry, peevish sense of being singled out that's evident in George Bush's reactions to the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld or Judge Taylor's ruling in ACLU v. NSA. The most commonly heard version of this complaint when voiced by polyamorists is that they're not doing anything that tens of millions of adulterers don't do every year, except that unlike the adulterers, they don't lie about it. How does lying about it make it better?

Now, I have an answer for that question, but before I give it, let me say this. It occurred to me tonight that it's the same reason why George W. Bush is being singled out, among all Presidents, for his abuses of the Constitution. What I tell my fellow polyamorists is that they excite more anger among the naturally monogamous, and more importantly among those inclined to struggle to stay monogamous, because adulterers don't challenge society's values. Adulterers don't claim that what they're doing is right. And neither Lincoln, nor Wilson, nor Roosevelt, nor Kennedy, nor even Nixon and Reagan, claimed that they had the right to wiretap without warrants, in total secrecy, on their own opinion that someone was a possible enemy agent. They only claimed, quietly to those to whom it was necessary, that while it was clearly illegal it was in this particular case necessary. It wasn't until this President Bush that we heard the claim from his spokesmen that the President has an actual inherent legal right to violate the Bill of Rights from the US Constitution when he thinks the job makes it necessary. It wasn't until this President Bush that we heard the claim that a congressional declaration of war or a war powers authorization resolution gives him the automatic right to suspend the constitution at will. It's not his actions that are exciting such rage among the press and the courts. It's his refusal to admit that it's wrong or illegal that they recognize as a threat to our values.

Purely Hypothetical

Voted for Dean
OK, whether or not they'd taken any actual steps towards implementing their attack plan, we now know pretty much all of what the London terrorist cell were at least trying to psych themselves up towards. 9 teams of 2 were going to board 9 separate planes, all of which would be out over the Atlantic at the same time. On each team, one member would be carrying a toxic but inert liquid, probably toluene. The other would be carrying an even more mildly hazardous liquid, probably hydrogen peroxide, and some kind of electronic device as an excuse to carrying something containing wires and a battery. Each team would meet on their assigned plane, mix the two chemicals in private (probably in one of the lavatories) to form a fairly powerful explosive, probably one that's been used in terror attacks before, TATP. And if the explosive didn't detonate on its own, they'd improvise a detonator out of the battery and wires from the electronic device.

This turns out to not be a new idea, any more than 9/11 was. Here in the US, the expensive and mostly useless Transportation Security Agency had already thought of this themselves, and tried smuggling the necessary chemicals and detonator through their own screeners. They succeeded all 21 out of 21 tries. So they sent out bulletins warning screeners (again) that this was possible and telling their people that if you see someone carrying liquid onto a plane and you suspect them, make them take a sip of it in front of you. Toluene and peroxide won't exactly kill them, but hardly anybody will be able to keep the nasty look of of their faces because the stuff tastes awful. And even going up against glorified rent-a-cops, the London terror cell was worried enough about getting caught this way that they came up with a counter-measure. It's one that ought to give you pause, because the current (laughably named) "air safety" rules wouldn't catch it. They were going to modify the containers to have a "false bottom" with just enough room on top for a sip of whatever it was the container was supposed to contain, freeing up the rest of it for the ingredient for the explosive mix.

But it occurred to me that even this was an unnecessarily high-tech solution. Truthfully, back before they stopped letting people carry almost any liquids onto planes, they could have brought their ingredients in in almost any water-tight container. Then all they would have had to do was buy some kind of a beverage from an airport snack bar or restaurant: anything that was sufficiently opaque and thick that you could push the container down into it and it would be invisible. And if they had, then when their plot sprung, Samuel L. Jackson would have yelled, "Who let all these motherf--king shakes onto a motherf--king plane?"

Belyaev and the Islamists?

Brad @ Burning Man
I still can't get Belyaev's rats out of my head, can't stop thinking about them. At least, as we approach the 3 weeks since I first heard of them, I'm learning to think about them more calmly and rationally, with less deep-seated fear, and the improved concentration is making it easier for me to discard some of the most outrageous thoughts that went through my mind after finding out that (for those of you coming in late) a scientist proved that, with at least two species he studied, that 40 generations of breeding only the least-aggressive members of a mammal species with each other is sufficient to produce not merely a new domesticated species, one that is not only tamer and easier for humans to handle, not only more open to contact with and to cues from other species, but physically different looking in all the ways we associated with domesticated species. That doing the opposite, at least with rats, bred an entirely new species of rat that is so psychotic that each time they see a human being (or presumably a new member of another species) they go into such a frenzied rage that they will physically injure themselves trying to attack it. And Belyaev's last conjecture, now being tested via gene sequencing, that the gene for domestication explains the speciation of human beings from our primate ancestors.

I was talking this over with some friends over dinner, and one of them made an off-hand conjecture about this that's caught my fancy. Let me elaborate on their idea -- with the clear point, in your head, that nearly all of this is my own, that if you find any of this repulsive you should blame me, not the person who first started me down this path. Because all they said was a snarky, probably not meant to be taken literally, sarcastic question: "Does this explain the Middle East?" After thinking about that for 24 hours, I can actually see that, gods help us, it might. As my friend pointed out, it has been more than 40 generations since the Hejira. And while it's less true the farther you get from the Arabian penninsula, from its very beginning the prophet and his followers have taught that he most heroic, most desirable, most rewarded men are those that are the greatest warriors -- although you can find similar cultures of fawning over the most aggressive warriors in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan/Pakistan border and in Somalia. By heaping the greatest rewards on those showing the most aggression, especially towards outsiders, is it entirely possible that Arabs, Pashtuns, and Somalis have bred themselves for psychotic levels of aggression, for inability to show empathy towards others? When Belyaev's aggressive species of rats showed an overwhelming willingness to injure themselves in even plainly futile attempts to injure another, were they prefiguring the suicide bomber?

The cult of the suicide bomber, particular one that strikes not at hardened military and political targets but just at the other side's random civilians, evokes a special note of disgust in the rest of the human race. It is incomprehensible to us that Islamists are able to find such a steady stream of people for whom its less important that their attack actually succeed than that they try. Remember, a "martyrdom operation" (and what a sick lie that is, even by the standards of the Koran) is scored as a success if the suicide bomber just manages to detonate his explosives, regardless of whether or not he (or even she) reaches the intended target zone, even though the Koran condemns suicide in the strongest terms of any religion on Earth. We've been struggling to understand this for a very long time, and every time we think we understand what it is that makes this kind of attack possible, we get proven wrong. That is, after all, how the September 11th, 2001 attacks succeeded. We knew that al Qaeda allies had tried to fly a long-distance jetliner into a national landmark before, when Algerian terrorists tried to force the pilot of a commercial airliner on the Algeria to England route to crash the plane into the Eiffel Tower. But we weren't worried about them trying it again. We had concluded that suicidal attackers could only be those who placed no value on their own lives because their lives were so awful, and had so few prospects for improvement, that they were so depressed that they felt they had nothing to lose. And by definition, anybody capable of living a better life, like anyone capable of flying a commercial jetliner, obviously had too much to lose to be a suicide attacker. It wasn't true, as we all saw on that day, but we still don't have a better theory. Bush's hypothesis that it's just because they "hate our freedom" that much is moronic, but it has one virtue -- at least he's still trying to form a hypothesis, rather than just throwing up his hands and declaring it unknowable.

So I can't help but wondering if slavish, cultic devotion to the "ideals" of warrior "virtues" has, in roughly 40 generations, bred up several Arab, Pashtun, and Somali tribes that are no longer the same species that us? Did Belyaev and his rats, way back in 1985, explain the cult of the suicide bomber?

Just a quick note

Voted for Dean
Not even quicktakes right now. I say, with some consternation, that sometimes my neurochemistry baffles and surprises even me. I went to bed at a reasonable time (by my standards) this morning, the same time I usually do. I had a couple of odd dreams, woke up completely exhausted, and looked at the clock and said, "Well, of course I'm still exhausted, I've only slept for about 2-1/2 hours." And only then did I notice that the sun had gone down. Try fourteen and a half hours, and I feel as if I haven't slept a wink.

I haven't even had time to do any detailed reading of the news, but thanks to BoingBoing I did see one thing that made me feel a little bit vindicated. If you go back through the stuff I've written over the last five years about the so-called "War on Terror," you'll see one recurring refrain, which is that we won the War on Terror almost five years ago, on December 7th, 2001, when the Taliban surrendered Kandahar and fled to the mountains, when their terrorist allies al Qaeda lost their state sponsorship. What I've said all along, ever since then, is that everything we've done since then has been a gigantic waste of time and money better spent elsewhere -- and since the war criminals currently occupying the White House invaded Iraq, a waste of over 2,000 American soldiers' lives, as well.

To this very day, George Bush and nearly every mainstream politician in America or Europe has said that our number one priority has to be preventing terrorist attacks. We've been constantly assured that the single most important thing that they think about isn't stem cell hair-splitting, or how to slide money to their war profiteering campaign contributors, or gay marriage, or creating a huge permanent tax break for the heirs of multi-millionaire stock manipulators; no, we've been assured that every single dollar of the hundreds of billions of dollars they've spent on it and every life we've lost and the all the liberties we sacrificed were to protect us from another 9-11 type attack. They keep assuring us that even though only two such terror plots have been taken to trial, and the government lost on all the terror charges on those their two "best" cases, that they've prevented thousands of attacks. Even in the absence of that minimal standard of proof of a criminal conspiracy charge (an overt act to further the conspiracy, as opposed to so much blowing hot air or batting the breeze), they keep reassuring us that it's so important that we continue to fight and win a War on Terror that anybody who takes it less seriously than they do is obviously unqualified to so much as have an opinion in public, let alone run for office.

I call bullsh_t. And so, thank prime, is a policy journal published by the think tank wing of the Libertarian Party (and darling of the Republicans), the Cato Institute. It was published in their journal Regulation back in the fall of 2004; I just hadn't seen it until now. It's by professor John Mueller of Ohio State University, and it's entitled "A False Sense of Insecurity?" (PDF link, sorry, it's what I have.) If you won't believe my case, please, take a good look at this short, 5-page article. Check his facts, verify his math. And then do some good, hard thinking and see if you don't come to the same conclusion that BoingBoing did, in the title of their article referring to it: "Only traitors try to make us afraid of terrorists." Or, for that matter, my opinion which is that the only reason we're having this discussion is that ever since 9-11, America has been a nation infected with a horrific disease, the same disease that killed dozens after Hurricane Katrina: gutless cowardice.
V for Vendetta
Where was I, before a heat wave with its resulting disrupted sleep and constant 35dB humming started rotting my brain? Oh yeah ... A Scanner Darkly. I went to see it for the first time a couple of nights ago, and I love it. That's why I say "for the first time," because I guarantee you I'm going to want to see this one a couple of more times. One one level, I'm having exactly the same reaction to this movie that I had to the Sin City movie. In that case, what we had was what producer/director Rodriguez called an entirely faithful frame-by-frame adaptation of a series of books that I just couldn't get into. It turned out not to be frame-by-frame line-by-line faithful; Rodriguez had shown an almost eerie skill at cutting out the redundant, boring parts that I kept bogging down in in the Miller originals. In this case, what we have is a movie based on (to my taste) the least interesting, least readable book by an author that I'm more than a little fond of. It's being pitched as the most faithful adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel that's ever been made, and that's just as true of this movie as it was of Sin City. And just like in that movie, what Richard Linklater has done is trimmed out the more redundant, self-pitying, and/or boring of the endless internal monologues of that book. Not all of them, thank Prime. It wouldn't be worth reading (or watching) Dick if it weren't for the ruminations about the relationships between reality, identity, consciousness, society, and repressive government. But no, Linklater's genius here in his best movie since Slackers is that he has managed to keep exactly the right ones.

The result is a movie of almost Zen-like perfect contradiction. The greatest "drug movie" of all time is also the greatest anti-drug movie ever made. The movie, even more than the book, manages to capture a specific long-ago time, best summed up by a throw-away remark of the late Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson thought of himself as a sports, political, and features journalist who wasn't afraid to admit that he was on drugs during the events he was chronicling; this lead to intense pressure from his editors and readers to report more and more about his own drug experiences, for him to become something he never wanted to be, namely America's primary reporter on the internals of the Drug Scene. When he'd finally had enough of that and announced he wouldn't be doing it any more, he gave an interview to a national magazine (I forget which one) where the reporter's first, clueless question was, "What's new in the drug culture?" Thompson's pitch-perfect answer was, "There is no drug culture any more. It's just an increasingly big, increasingly dirty business."

From when white hipsters first began to discover marijuana through the Jazz clubs of the 1920s, through the informal distribution of LSD among the extended friends network of east cost intellectuals and west coast writers in the 1960s, there were no real "drug kingpins." The wealthiest drug dealers in America were barely making enough money to pay the mortgage and utilities on a small house in a declining neighborhood, with barely enough money left over for groceries for themselves and one or two friends. How could it be otherwise? Supply was ubiquitous, and demand low because drugs really were, back then, only something used by a fairly small number of bohemians and drop-outs. Even when the Mafia stepped into the heroin trade during the 1950s (over the corpses of the older generation of mafiosi who wouldn't touch the business) in hopes of regaining the wealth their parents had made during alcohol Prohibition, the wealthiest "drug kingpins" in the world were barely living a comfortable middle class lifestyle. No, it wasn't until marijuana, then cocaine, became fashionable in the 1970s that the market for illegal drugs had enough money in it to make anybody rich. Before that, there was no reason for anybody to become a drug dealer except for the same reason that some people start model railroad shops, or comic book shops, or independent book stores or coffee houses -- to make a bare minimum living doing something that doesn't involve working for other people, where you get to work with stuff that you like and sell to customers who you mostly like because they're just like you.

But as the market expanded beyond the initial core of creative drop-outs, upper middle class dilettantes, and their loser friends, the government became obsessed with finding the "wealthy drug kingpins" who they reasoned (based on their experience with alcohol Prohibition) must be somewhere out there, at the top of things. They set out to do this the way they still do, to this day -- by surveilling, then blackmailing users to find their friends who have a connection that can get them the drugs, hoping to work their way up the chain to the ultimate sources. And Dick was not the first, nor the last, author to write about the specific paranoia that comes from living in a subculture that's under heavy government surveillance and wondering who among your friends is really secret police in disguise. The life and fragile sanity of the narc, of the man or woman who has to live a double life and who makes a living making friends and then betraying them, is sufficiently compelling that it's been an inspiration for hundreds of books and movies.

A Scanner Darkly, like virtually all of Dick's books, takes that experience and makes it science fiction by taking early 1970s politics, whether the Cold War or Watergate or organized crime or the War on Drugs, and taking it to the reductio ad absurdam level. But that makes this the perfect time to make A Scanner Darkly into a movie. Because right now, the overlapping nature of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, and the culture of corporate corruption most famously reflected in the Enron, Worldcom, and Arthur Andersen scandals (not to mention ongoing corrupt war profiteering from the war in Iraq), manage to make Dick's paranoid vision of a world where guys like Dick Nixon were given every power they fantasized about and it tore the country apart are suddenly not so hard to imagine. When East Germany fell, we got a look into the records of a society where half of the population was living double lives, on the payroll of the secret police and reporting on each other and the other half of the population. Networks of sensors and cameras set up by private individuals and businesses for their own purposes aren't quite networkable to the point where the police can track somebody all the way across town by switching in real time from traffic signal camera to ATM camera to police surveillance camera to the webcams on their computers and secretly planted government microphones and cameras placed under secret "War on Terror" sealed warrants and secret courts. Not in real time, anyway -- but the NSA spying scandals suggest that the technology for this isn't that far off, certainly not any farther out than the "7 years in the future" that Linklater (unlike Dick) specifies. So for both historical and current political reasons, there couldn't be a better movie to make right now, and Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly perfectly fulfills both needs.

The movie itself is a work of art. I'm not even vaguely a fan of Keanu Reeves, but I have to agree with the critics that he is the perfect actor to voice the lead in this movie; no matter what role he's played, Reeves has always sounded like he was vaguely disconnected from the reality around him, like he wasn't really all there and wasn't really firing on all cylinders, and that's exactly what was needed for a character whose brain is literally falling apart under the weight of the drugs he has to take to do his job. Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, and Woody Harrelson have all had their own famous breakdowns, which makes them the ideal actors to voice the mentally-fragile slackers who all hang out with and do drugs with our lead character. Rory Cochrane does a great job of playing a guy that, you sense, they let hang around them even though he's as dumb as a post and way, way too far gone into personality disintegration and insanity, because he used to be a friend of theirs and used to be cool. And in fact, if you've ever had any friends who were really into drugs, you've known all five of these characters. (I'm mightily resisting the urge to tease an old friend of mine the way his wife teased me about Marv in Sin City, by pointing to Downey's character and saying, "Look, they made a movie about you!") I'm never crazy about rotoscoping as an animation technology, but here it exactly captures the right mood for the movie. Everything looks real, and unreal, at the same time, with perceptible flickering as if you were seeing tracers or having trouble focusing your burnt-out eyes.

No, I'm definitely going to be seeing this one again, and I'll be first in line for the DVD.
Forbidden Lore
I've been reading greg_palast's blog lately. He's the author of a mildly famous book about election fraud in the 2000 general election, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. The revelations in his own book scared him so much he literally fled the country, and now reports on the US for a London newspaper, and he's currently promoting an even more extravagant conspiracy theory tying together the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, No Child Left Behind, and free trade with China with supposed even more elaborate Republican plans to outright steal the 2008 election, Armed Madhouse.

In some respects, Greg Palast could be the latest poster child for something I observed a long, long time ago, one of my first major observations about the field of Forbidden Lore. Once you discover that "They" have lied to you, you start wondering what else "They" lied about. You could take the path of relative sanity by concluding that the fact that they didn't get away with the lie you caught "Them" in means they're probably not competent enough to try anything more elaborate. Or you could fall into the classic trap of conspiracy theory thinking, where you wonder if this one time they weren't sloppy, and obsess over what else you could catch them at if you work at it hard enough. With each new (even if increasingly dubious) lie that you catch "Them" at, the rush becomes more intense. Eventually you fall into the same trap that Robert Anton Wilson so neatly summed up when he told the editors of Conspiracy Digest that conspiracy freaks are adrenaline junkies -- they know that their newest theory is more true than their previous theory because it scares them more.

But the funny thing about conspiracy theorists is that you can be a stone-cold crazy full-time off-your-meds professional paranoid and still be right some of the time. For example, as someone he singled out during one of his paranoid episodes, and as someone who knows personally several of the people who scare him to death, I can assure you with great confidence that most of Lyndon LaRouche's conspiracy theories are so false as to qualify as literally insane. And yet, when he documented the fact that every single researcher who was able to duplicate, in the lab, the finding that freon breaks down ozone under stratospheric conditions did so upon receiving a grant from DuPont, I thought that he was asking an interesting question. After all, DuPont's patent on freon was about to expire; if people kept using freon as a refrigerant, instead of something new and patentable by DuPont, DuPont stood to lose a lot of money. Now, you don't have to believe that DuPont is part of a Rockefeller/Queen Elizabeth conspiracy to exterminate millions of people in Africa for the benefit of the white race to ask if there were any researchers who weren't on DuPont's payroll who duplicated those results before we instituted a very-expensive planet-wide ban on freon. In fact, framing his question in terms of some vast, intergenerational and international Anglo-supremacist conspiracy would have been enough to guarantee that Lyndon LaRouche's question wasn't listened to, let alone independently investigated by journalists, even if he hadn't already blown his credibility with conspiracy theories about the British royal family's personal involvement in the heroin trade or a US-wide cult of demon-worshiping, baby-sacrificing cops and judges.

The reason I make this point is that Greg Palast has actually come up with a conspiracy theory with regard to Iraq that, unlike many over-reaching liberal critiques of the Iraq War, I can't dismiss out of hand. Whenever anybody, whether some Islamist nut or some socialist nut or some pacifist nut or some conspiracy-theory nut, has tried to argue to me that we invaded Iraq in order to get access to their oil, I have relentlessly mocked them. That's the stupidest thing I've heard in over a decade. Why? Well, for one thing, if all we'd cared about was access to Iraqi oil, all we had to do was let Saddam invade Kuwait. We could have done so, by simply agreeing with him that cross-border oil theft by the Kuwaitis, sanctioned by the Kuwaiti royal family, was an act of war. And Saddam, having been our client all through his war with Iran, would have very eagerly let our companies be the ones who did the engineering. But even then, it wouldn't have done much for us as a nation, any more than it would do any good for us as a nation to seize Iraq's oil fields now. Why? Because oil is sold on international exhanges now. All of it. The days when governments handed out privileged contracts to companies or countries to sell them oil at below-market prices ended more than 30 years ago. No matter who rules Iraq, whether it's the CIA-front Iraqi National Congress or Saddam or Hezbollah-backed Shiite Islamists, they're going to sell the same oil, at the same prices, on the same exchanges. No administration with this many oil men in it would have done anything so dumb as to blow billions of tax dollars on a "war for oil" that wouldn't have saved us a nickel.

In Armed Madhouse, however, Greg Palast is pushing the exact opposite theory, and this is one I can't dismiss out of hand. It might be true, it might not be true, but it merits investigation because unlike the theory I've been relentlessly mocking for several years now, this one could, at least, theoretically work. Greg Palast claims to be able to prove that we invaded Iraq not to steal their oil, but to make sure that nobody gets it. That we invaded Iraq to take Iraqi oil off the market. Why would we do that? Well, while it sucks for the American consumer to have oil at $70 a barrel, if we can guarantee that oil stays at $70 a barrel, that's a very good thing for a lot of people that this administration cares greatly about. For one, at $70 a barrel, it's actually possible to make good money exploring for oil in Texas and Oklahoma again. What led to the famous collapse of the Houston economy, after all, was when OPEC lost control over oil quotas briefly and oil dropped to $15 a barrel. At $15 a barrel, the Saudis can still make money, because Arabian oil is near the surface and mostly only covered with sand. At anything below about $40 or $50 a barrel, there's no money to be made drilling for oil in the US, because we have to go deep, and through layer after layer of solid granite. Who else benefits? The Mexican government oil monopoly. Mexico very nearly went nationally bankrupt when oil hit $15 a barrel, because they can't possibly get oil out of the ground for any less than around $18 or $20 a barrel. And Mexico's government owes a lot of money to a lot of American banks and other investors, who will only get paid back if oil prices stay high. US firms have also invested a bundle in Russian oil exploration, all of which money would become completely useless if oil prices dropped below whatever it's going to cost to drill for oil in Russia.

Remember that if the US had done what I advocated doing, namely simply given up on the sanctions and turned Saddam loose when our Gulf War coalition allies refused to back an invasion to enforce the sanctions, Saddam would have been finally free of the Oil for Food program and all other constraints on his national oil production, and OPEC quotas or no OPEC quotas, the valves would have opened wide. He had a country to repair, and a destroyed army to replace, and Palestinian terrorists on retainer who were coming to thiink of him as mostly irrelevant because he could no longer adequately fund them. He would have needed the short-term revenues badly enough to ignore the reduced profit margins from globally falling oil prices. And a lot of American and Mexican and Russian banks and oil exploration companies would have gone bankrupt all over again.

Has Greg Palast actually proven that there was a Bush-Cheney conspiracy to keep Iraq's oil off the market? I have no idea, I haven't read the book. And keep in mind that he hasn't even proven to widespread satisfaction the allegations in his first book. He might well be wrong. But I'll give him this -- his is a more interesting theory than any other I've heard yet, because at least his isn't prima facie ridiculous.
Regime Change Begins at Home
Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Since the CIA had already long since totally dropped the ball on the Pakistani and Indian nuclear weapons programs, there wouldn't have been a single thing that Gore could have done. Would he have imposed sanctions on both India and Pakistan for having snuck around the non-proliferation treaties, as US law requires? Or would he have done what Bush has done, namely waived those penalties, invoking the "national security" clause of those laws? Since we woudln't have needed Pakistan as an "ally" so badly, he might have -- but I doubt it. A hard core "free trader" like Gore probably wouldn't have wanted to get into a sanctions tiff with India, and would have waived the penalties against Pakistan rather than pour gasoline on that conflict by only imposing sanctions on one side. Gore might have made a difference on North Korea, but honest people can honestly disagree about this. He almost certainly would have continued the two-party talks and almost certainly would have given Kim Jong Il yet more concessions to bribe him out of developing nukes, same as Clinton, the elder Bush, Reagan, Carter, and if memory serves even Ford and Nixon. Would Kim have cheated and developed the bomb anyway? We'll never know. Bush thought he would, and I'm not sure he was wrong. Which leaves ...

Iraq: Gore would almost certainly have taken the CIA's word and the UN's word that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was no more. But that still would have left him in the awkward position that we were in in January of 2001 with regards to Iraq. Iraq was in no way in compliance with the terms of the Gulf War cease fire. None of the rest of our Gulf War partners were willing to go back to war over that; most of them were, in fact, rather blatantly disregarding those terms and trading with Iraq themselves. The US had basically three choices: declare peace and let Saddam go back to business as usual, declare a cease fire violation (or manufacture a sufficiently scary-looking one) and go to war without our former partners, or try to continue the sanctions and the no-fly zones. Bush believed that that last option was untenable, and manufactured a pretext for war, which I flatly do not believe that Gore would have done, and this is now at or near the top of the list of reasons I wish he'd won. But by now the pressure to withdraw the troops that were enforcing the no-fly zones and commit them to the Afghan War (see yesterday) would have been immense, and the cheating on the sanctions by France and the UK and Russia blatant and out of control, so the smart thing and the honest thing to have done would have been to declare the Gulf War coalition dissolved and give up on sanctions, with some indignant speech to the rest of the world about how if Saddam does this again, or worse, it'll be their fault for making the US withdraw sanctions. But no, I can't see Gore having either the political courage or the good sense to do that; I'm pretty sure that he would have still been trying to keep up the sanctions, even with the US economy in the toilet, the US military bogged down occupying Afghanistan in huge numbers, and all our allies openly defying us.

Judges: Here's the real reason I campaigned for Gore despite his close affiliation with the Democrats for the Leisure Class -- he wouldn't have packed the Supreme Court or the rest of the federal courts with religious conservatives. We as a nation are going to really regret the Bush presidency over that, some day, because I truly believe that future generations will look at what I predict will be the Roberts Court's tendency to endorse theocratic dictatorship with the same disgust that the Taney court arouses on the subject of slavery, and because if the Roberts Court overturns Roe and Griswold, it may well put the US on a downward spiral towards another civil war.

Katrina: Hurricane Katrina was still going to slam into the Gulf Coast. The President is not some kind of departmental god of nature who can make the rains come and go. But under Gore, things would have been very different for one important reason: James Lee Witt instead of Michael Brown. Before James Lee Witt, FEMA was a dumping ground for political hacks. After James Lee Witt, FEMA went back to being a dumping ground for political hacks. But during the Clinton administration, FEMA's first truly professional manager of disaster preparedness turned that agency into a model for the rest of the world, a thing of beauty to behold -- and Gore wouldn't have fired him. I truly believe that James Lee Witt would have found a way, given 60 hours notice, to get everybody out of New Orleans that was willing to leave. The poor of New Orleans would not have been left behind to drown for the sin of not owning a car or of not being able to afford a tank of gasoline. So the crowd at the Superdome would have been 1/4th the size, and there wouldn't have been overflow to the convention center. And I flatly guarantee you that neither Gore nor Witt would have turned back the aid trucks, and left those people without drinking water or food or essential medical supplies for six days. As a result, Katrina would have been downgraded from a massive, irreparable and indefensible stain on America's conscience to merely an awful (and expensive) natural disaster on the order of Hurricane Andrew.

Am I missing anything?

If Al Gore Had Run the War on Terror

Voted for Dean
If Al Gore had been sworn in on January 20th, 2001, then a few things would have been different right away, not least of which is that the Clinton-era anti-al-Qaeda task force wouldn't have been dismissed out of hand. And if Al Gore had gotten the same Presidential Daily Briefings that Bush got, he would unmistakably have cared more. What you can't prove to me, though, is that it would have done the slightest bit of good, and I'll tell you why. Even if the task force had pin-pointed bin Laden's location yet again, it would hardly have been the first time. The Clinton administration knew where bin Laden was three times, and tried elaborate measures to capture him once and to kill him the other two times. Obviously, none of those attempts succeeded, and the same reasons would still have applied in the first few months of 2001 -- not enough turncoats inside al Qaeda, too much diplomatic weirdness about using covert ops to assassinate a government official of a country we weren't at war with. Yeah, there were people in the FBI who had figured out most of the plot and even ID'ed at least one of the pilots -- but those leads were still buried in a pile of bogus or distracting leads, and I know of no reason to think that the Gore administration would have miraculously found the right thread to pull in time. No, the decisions that made 9-11 possible were made over 40 years ago, when civil aviation officials everywhere in the world (except Israel) issued regulations requiring air crews to cooperate with hijackers until the plane is on the ground, and that wasn't going to change, period. Why not? Because as we "knew" with total certainty, because al Qaeda had tried this trick once already and failed, suicide bombers by definition are people with nothing to lose, and therefore Gore would have "known" the same thing the Bush administration "knew," which is that suicide-attack terrorists can't fly commercial airplanes.

So on September 11th, 2001 in a hypothetical Gore administration, three planes still crash into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and the fourth plane's suicide attack gets aborted by the heroism of the passengers. Presumably Gore wouldn't be struggling to sound out the words in My Pet Goat with his intellectual peers, and presumably his reaction time would have been faster ... and it still would have made no difference. It's easy to mock George Bush for his cowardice that day, in a way that would have been harder to pin on a guy who actually volunteered to go to Vietnam and went and didn't go AWOL halfway through his stateside service, but truth be told no matter how badly Gore would have wanted to be in NYC or DC, the Secret Service would still have routed him to Strategic Air Command in Nebraska until things settled down. It would have still been Rudy Giuliani who got all the credit for being sane and rational under attack -- or at least most of it. One of the big positive differences of a Gore administration would have been that James Lee Witt would still have been director of FEMA (more about that, tomorrow), and while there wouldn't have been much that FEMA could have helped with under the circumstances, his quiet confidence and competence were sorely missed on 9-11.

Which leaves President Gore facing the same situation that Bush faced -- how to negotiate the Afghan government into turning over their deputy defense minister without burning every covert operative we have by giving them the evidence. I strongly suspect that Gore would have negotiated longer -- but not for the reason you'd think. No, he would have negotiated longer because Wesley Clark would have been designing the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Gore administration's Afghan War wouldn't have looked anything like Bush's. Al Gore would almost certainly not have chosen the Northern Alliance solution, knowing that the Afghan people turned to the Taliban to rescue them from those warlords and opium lords, and that allying with them would make the country ungovernable afterward. He would also have followed standard Army doctrine for attacking cities and insisted on a huge NATO force and an extensive bombing campaign before the first troops crossed the border. If that sounds familiar, you're right. I'm assuming the battle plan would have been adapted from the previously successful invasion of Iraq in what the US calls the Gulf War. That might have worked to our advantage in a way that avoided war altogether. More months of time could have turned up that copy of that bin Laden home video from the day of the attack; with that smoking gun, it would have been harder for Mullah Omar to justify protecting bin Laden. On the other hand, he might have been reasoning (unwisely) that since the Taliban was able to defeat the Soviet Union, which had much shorter supply lines, surely they could defeat the hated infidel US.

So I'm assuming that under a Gore administration, some time in spring of 2002 (after much sniping from the press and from the families of the victims about why it was taking so long), pretty much all of NATO crosses the border into Afghanistan and starts rolling south. And frankly, finds pretty easy going. There's this myth of Afghan military superiority, but it ignores a few things. First of all, nobody who has ever tried to conquer Afghanistan, from the Macedonians to the Soviets, has found it to be particularly difficult. Actually conquering the country is pretty easy. It's holding it that's hard. Second of all, the Soviets were well on their way to proving that the country could be held, too, by 20th century air cavalry, and that was before Hellfire missile equipped Predator drones. The only reason that the Taliban was able to resist the Soviet invasion was that we equipped them with state of the art radar-guided shoulder-launched surface to air missiles -- which, thanks to their defective battery packs, no longer work. I can't prove that I'm right about this next part, but my take on the personalities involved is that both bin Laden and Omar would have been so overconfident that they wouldn't have tried to escape from Kandahar until too late, until the same point in the invasion they made their break for it in the real world. But against a much larger NATO force, bin Laden would never have made it to Tora Bora, let alone across the border into Pakistan. So by fall of 2002, conveniently in time for the fall congressional elections, Gore announces that bin Laden's body has been found, and declares victory in the War on Terror.

He would have declared victory from the Oval Office, or maybe from Kabul airport, not from the deck of an aircraft carrier ... but he would have had those words thrown in his face just as hard, and by 2006 his popularity would be in the low 30% range. Because having captured Kabul and Kandahar, who would we have found to turn it over to? The choices are the same Islamist fanatics who provided the support for the last attack, or the opium-funded warlords whose private militias plunged the country into a particularly vicious civil war, with levels of rapine and pillage seldom seen outside of diamond country in Africa, after the Soviet Union's loss in Afghanistan. So we would have had every soldier we could spare and then some stuck in an increasingly ticked off country, trying to civilize the place. We would have been right where Britain was after they conquered Afghanistan a hundred years ago, and no luckier or smarter. So by now, people would be asking what we were getting for all the billions of dollars we'd poured into that rat-hole, and if it was worth the over 2000 American casualties it had cost us already?

For all that I make this sound pretty bleak, it would have been better than what really happened. For one thing, unlike what we're doing in Iraq, it would have been honest and legal, a war against a country that had attacked us. Even more importantly than that, it would have preserved the sympathy that Europe and much of the rest of the world had for us after 9-11, and that's diplomatic power that we completely lost when the Bush Administration threw away America's sympathy and credibility in Iraq. But it wouldn't have been all sugar and roses. And we wouldn't have known how much worse things were going to have been if Bush had won, so Gore would have been taking huge flack. Republicans and swing voters would have been all over him for not taking more advantage of force modernization and not having sought allies inside Afghanistan before invading, and Democrats would have been asking what our exit strategy was.

Although if you're thinking that a Gore administration wouldn't have passed the PATRIOT acts, you're sadly misguided. Gore would have faced the same pressure to find the remaining (non-existent) al Qaeda terror cells in the US before they could attack again. He would have asked the same career Justice Department people what powers they needed. They still would have given him the same laundry list of snooping powers that they'd been asking for for the last several decades, and I know that because there isn't a single thing in either of the PATRIOT acts that the Justice Department hadn't already asked Congress for in the War on Drugs. Why should I think that Gore would have scrupled over it, considering that he served for 8 years under Bill Clinton? If you think that Bill Clinton was a friend of civil liberties, you should ask the ACLU about that -- they rated him worse than Nixon on the subject. Gore would have been no better.
Voted for Dean
((Editorial note: I made a conscious decision not to write this on Memorial Day.))

For some reason I seem to have missed, the US Marine Corps massacre of civilians at Haditha in Iraq, in retaliation for the loss of one of their number to the insurgents, is back in the news. Until I hear some actual news, something that wasn't said and written months ago when the actual massacre happened, it can't distract me from something much more interesting and disturbing that hit the news last week. (Although that being said, finding out how high the orders behind the cover-up of Haditha would be interesting ... not that I have any confidence that we will, since officially we still haven't found out who ordered the massacre at My Lai, Vietnam, or who ordered its cover-up, and that was almost 40 years ago.)

You see, there are new and very very sickening details about the massacre of civilians at No Gun Ri, Korea, during the American retreat from the Chinese during their counter-attack. Korean survivors and their relatives have been insisting for almost 60 years that American soldiers routinely shot and killed civilians during that retreat. No proof emerged, and the Army (and the soldiers accused) denied everything. Many years later, journalists were able to prove that one such massacre did happen, at the famous "bridge at No Gun Ri." American soldiers believed that the approaching refugees were Chinese or North Korean spies or soldiers out of uniform. So when shots fired over the refugees' heads failed to stop them (unsurprisingly since the whole Red Army was on their heels), they gunned them down. And until last week, that's all we knew ... until last week. Two Associated Press reporters have managed to unearth the actual orders, which came all the way down from the White House. The proof? A letter to the US ambassador to Korea from the Assistant Secretary of State, informing him that the Army had been given the order to shoot any civilians who wouldn't turn back after warning shots. We violated the rules of war because we assumed the other side was doing so, too. Oddly enough, no plain-clothes Chinese or North Korean soldiers were found in the process. It was, in fact, only us who committed the war crime.

This isn't any random war crime. This is a war crimes policy, exactly the kind of thing that the United States has always stood against. Or have we? We gave "free fire zone" orders in Vietnam, too, authorizing the military in several heavily populated areas to kill anybody on sight, to assume that anybody (including children and the elderly) who was still in those areas after the warning to evacuate into refugee camps was a Vietcong soldier and kill them. Now put the blatantly illegal detention of civilians from our war in Afghanistan, and the recurring use of near-free-fire zones in Fallujah in this war, and first hand accounts of American soldiers firing freely into civilian areas in both Panama and Grenada, into that context. It's not entirely meaningful to talk about "war crimes law" prior to the 20th century, but Native Americans might tell you a thing or two about the lawfulness of Americans' behavior in wartime, from the the French and Indian Wars to the attacks on the American Indian Movement. The United States is the only nuclear power that's flatly refused to join the negotiations over a "no first use" treaty with respect to nuclear weapons; America believes that we and only we are allowed to initiate nuclear war, and anybody else who does so is barbaric. And rather obviously the Reagan Administration had a different opinion about state-sponsored terrorism (from one end of Central America to the other) than the Bush Administration has now that Afghanistan has (once) used state sponsored terrorism against us.

The latest word about No Gun Ri is finally the last straw that breaks the camel's back -- I am no longer ashamed of individual Americans. I am now officially ashamed of my country, and I'll tell you why. At this point, there simply are no remaining exceptions to the following generalization: to an American, the rules of war are something that both sides should obey when we're winning, and that only the other side should obey when we're losing. And that's madness. The world just doesn't work that way. If we reserve the right to barbaric behavior when we're losing, then we have to expect barbaric behavior towards us and our soldiers. The whole point of the laws of war is that these are barbaric acts that, if everybody does them, won't change the outcome of the war. If both sides use poison gas, the results are no different than if neither side does. If both sides torture prisoners, the results are no different than if neither side tortures prisoners. If both sides indiscriminately slaughter civilians, the results are no different than if both sides try to target only soldiers. In the latter side of each of those equations, the same side wins and the same side loses; the only meaningful difference is that civilization itself pays a much higher toll. And rather obviously, at this point, I have to say that Americans have never really understood this. They just lie, and say that they do. Truth be told, when America starts losing a battle or a war we really conclude that the world needs us to win more than it needs us to obey the rules of war -- as if everybody didn't think that. And I'm truly ashamed of that.
V for Vendetta
A smidgen over 3 months ago I predicted that President Bush would be exonerated over the NSA spying scandal. Let me recap to that point. What those of us who think this stuff is interesting had known for longer than one generation was that there was a government agency, the NSA, which used a variety of clever wiretapping capabilities to listen in on phone calls leaving the US via the few undersea cables that link the US to the rest of the world, to any country that was our enemy, and had been doing so since World War II at the latest (and arguably as far back as the late 1800s, with their predecessors intercepting the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cables). Back in the mid 1970s, Congress freaked out at the thought that any phone in the USA might be listened in on, no matter who was calling or where they were calling to, without a warrant. They didn't so much make it illegal to do so -- by any sane reading of the law, it was already illegal to do so, under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. But they created a process by which the NSA could legally do so, using their own tame court to approve warrants, even up to 72 hours after the wiretap began.

If you ever seriously thought, for even a minute, that everything the CIA and the NSA do while pursuing foreign spies was legal, I have to also assume that you were still young enough or naive enough to also believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Those of us who cared always assumed, without any evidence necessary, that any time they wanted to do so the NSA and the CIA grimly ignored that law just as thoroughly as they ignored the 4th Amendment before that. But the 1970s reforms hammered out the shape of the compromise, which was that if they weren't willing to make a rock-solid case to their own tame, captive judge that this really was probable cause, then by the God and sunny Jesus anybody outside the intelligence community had better never find out about it, including finding out anything that was so discovered.

When US forces rolled into Kandahar in retaliation for the Afghan government's backing of Osama bin Laden in his private war against us, we lucked into one of those intelligence finds of the centuries: an intact hard disk from an al Qaeda office computer. This included years' worth of inter-office memos, but even better than that, it included their phone list. Now, here's a fact widely known in the telecommunications industry but little known outside of it. Phone companies keep anywhere from 2 months' worth to 2 years' worth of your billing statements on file, for their own fraud control purposes. So if the CIA and the NSA had a list of phone numbers that previously belonged to al Qaeda big-wigs, it would have been the work of at most a day or two for programmers inside each of the long-distance carriers to write a query that would search those old billing statements and give them a list of everybody who had called those numbers. I think you'd have to be crazy to think that they didn't do that. That gives them a list of US suspects with known close associations with al Qaeda, so I guarantee you that whenever those people called overseas, they were eavesdropped on ... and thereafter, so were the people they called. Why do you think so many Islamic charities ended up being investigated? They had business relationships with some of the same overseas individuals and groups that were also funding al Qaeda, whether they knew this or not.

And legal or illegal, I knew that no court was going to do anything about it. And sure as heck, when the ACLU filed suit over this, I started watching procedural hurdles going up over and over again, with very little complaint from either party. Why? Because truth be told, this really is what the NSA is supposed to do, and pretty much all the grownups know it. Ah, but why trust them with this extra-judicial authority? Why was I so confident that it would never be abused, and that it had gone no further than it has always gone for the last 60 years without a single documented abuse? Because I knew that there was no way that they could go any further than that without a whole lot of technicians and managers inside those phone companies knowing about it. And techies gossip. If they went any further than that, or abused what they had for political purposes, then certainly within at most a year or two we'd all know about it, for the same reason that five people in John Poindexter's office couldn't keep Iran/Contra a secret, for the same reason that the 9 or 10 "plumbers" in the Nixon White House couldn't keep Watergate a secret, for the same reason that all of the various bribery scandals are going down right now. Because, as the old mafia saying goes, three people can keep a secret ... if two of them are dead. Spies like to inflate their importance, but none of the world's spy agencies has ever found out anything that reporters hadn't put into print months or years before them. A spy is just an investigative journalist with a lower budget, fewer incentives, and more bureaucratic meddling in his job.

I appear to have been optimistic. Not about their inability to keep secrets, not about the fact that sooner or later everybody talks, but about how fast. Because, as by now you've surely heard, USA Today had very little trouble finding techies inside the phone companies who were eager to talk, as long as they could do it as gossip, as off-the-record. So now we know, just as I said we would know, if they went over the top and completely out of bounds. And they're going to have a very hard time wiggling out of this one, because this is much, much bigger. And even if they play the "trust us" card, even if they challenge us to find one example of them abusing the massive stockpile of data they collected on ordinary Americans, the fact of the matter is that that database is an insanely dangerous thing to exist, unless everybody has access to it. Because it would be trivially easy to cross-reference that database with other, public databases like reverse directory lookups and do all kinds of surveillance on your political enemies with it. And even if the Bush Administration hasn't succumbed to that temptation, given their history of retaliating against critics every chance they've had, who wants to bet that they won't? And if they don't, who has any confidence that some future administration won't?

No, I was wrong. Which means that George W. Bush is in huge trouble now, bigger trouble than he's ever known.
Voted for Dean
A couple of days ago, on Thursday, the CIA announced that they had found the person inside the Agency who had provided the Washington Post's Dana Priest with much of the initial information for the series of articles for which she won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting, about the CIA's use of secret CIA front companies' private planes to smuggle terrorism suspects out of their home countries, including America, to former-Soviet secret CIA prisons in eastern Europe, presumably so that they could do things with those suspects that would be not only illegal, but hard to conceal, if they did them here in America. It turns out that Priest got much of her information from someone inside the CIA, from an officer in the CIA's Office of Inspectors General named Mary McCarthy. There are so many interesting things about this that I don't even know where to start. For one thing, it's absolutely amazing, as John Dean said himself the other night in an interview, that they actually caught her. Remember that Richard Nixon lost the White House, resigning only days ahead of probable impeachment, over his use of every legal and illegal tactic at his disposal to try to find out who had leaked the Pentagon Papers and then again to find out who leaked that leak-plugging operation to Bob Woodward ... and that despite all that, his "plumbers" failed at both. But that's not even one of the really interesting parts.

For one thing, consider this. Only a week ago, a major independent investigative commission reporting to the European Union in Brussels concluded that the story was a crock of excrement, that there were no secret CIA prisons in Europe. So by calling what Mary McCarthy did a major leak of secret information, they've confirmed the existence of a covert operation that they were well on their way to covering back up. On Wednesday, they could have continued to point to the various denials, and to the recent investigation, to show that Dana Priest was blowing smoke up our collective rectums, that there was no extraordinary rendition program to smuggle torture victims into secretive CIA prisons. Then on Thursday they all but confirmed that such prisons existed, by charging the person who said so with illegal release of classified information. Was it worth that to them to make an example out of this leaker? Remember what they're giving up by admitting this. One of the reasons why they said that this series of articles was such a big deal was that it seriously endangered American diplomacy in Europe, that it turned a whole bunch of our allies against us. Was it worth it, right when they could plausibly have quieted down that furor, to stir it back up again if that was what it cost to make an example out of a leaker? Is it more important to them to prosecute Mary McCarthy than it is to keep, say, Poland or the Czech Republic (or for that matter, offended countries like Spain and the UK) as allies?

But the even more interesting part of this is who, exactly, Mary McCarthy is. This didn't just come from anybody at random, this came from possibly one of the most interesting people it could have come from. You see, Mary McCarthy is a former top CIA analyst who, until her recent firing, had recently been working in the CIA's Office of Inspectors General. And the implications of that are fascinating ... and important. For one thing, consider the fact that she was, for almost her entire career, an analyst. Not a covert operative, not anybody in the operations division of the CIA, but someone who worked her way up the chain of command in the analysis division. What this means is that she didn't know about the prisons from her own work. She almost certainly didn't find out about them from people she'd worked with, either. So what that means is that somebody from inside the operations division brought it to her attention as an inspector general.

Let me quickly review for you what an Inspector General is in the US federal government's executive branch. The idea was copied from the military services, and how it works in the civilian part of the executive branch is that every government agency (including the CIA) now has an Office of Inspectors General. The people who work in that office are all former members of the agency that they're inspecting. They're chosen from among those who are in good standing, and have impeccable reputations, inside that agency; no axe-grinders or disgruntled former employees. Then they're taken out of their former chain of command and given full independence. They may work in the same building as, and alongside, and with the same people they worked with before, yes. But their job security, pay, and promotions all depend on an entirely external, entirely separate bureaucracy, so that they have neither anything to gain or lose from what somebody in the agency they're inspecting thinks of them. And the last relevant detail is that what they are hired to do is to take referrals from inside the agency they inspect, from people who have questions about whether or not somebody in the agency is up to no good, and advise them. They perform their own investigations, bring in auditors as needed, seek subpoenas if (as rarely happens) necessary, and generally get to the bottom of any accusation, suspicion, or appearance of illegality in their former employer. Mostly they concentrate on financial matters, on enrichment scandals like bribery or kickbacks. They are trusted to do this, despite their former ties to the same agency, because they're chosen on the basis of their loyalty to the work of the agency itself, for their reputations as people who really resent it when people steal from the agency or divert funds because that impairs the work of the agency. So to have gotten where she was, Mary McCarthy had to have spent many years showing that she was a loyal CIA employee, someone who believed whole-heartedly in what the CIA does for a living, somebody who was totally committed to making sure the CIA's mission was protected from internal corruption. She would have had to have demonstrated, to some very nervous suspicious individuals both inside the CIA and inside the Offices of Inspectors General, that she was incorruptible and beyond reproach.

What that tells me is that somebody inside the extraordinary rendition process or secret prison operations, in the operations side of the CIA, took the question of the legality of what they were doing to the CIA Office of Inspectors General. It's the only way she would have heard of it in the first place. Furthermore, remember that to have gotten that job at all, she would have had to have shown that she could be trusted to use that information in the right way. If she thought it was illegal, it was her job to take it to the chain of command responsible for it and tell them what her opinion of it was as an inspector general. If she didn't get satisfaction out of her investigation and her own intervention, it was her responsibility to take it up her own chain of command inside the Offices of Inspectors General, a very short very flat hierarchy that ends up, very fast, in the Oval Office. Now consider that multiple people who've worked with her before have come forward and said that it was their experience that in the past, when Mary McCarthy had doubts about an analysis, that is exactly what she did. What that tells me is that she almost certainly did exactly what she was supposed to. She looked into it, concluded based on her own expertise that it was an illegal operation (or else she would have left it alone), followed the chain of command all the way up to President Bush or as close to there as the bureaucracy would let her get, and was told no.

So if we're being told that it was Mary McCarthy who talked to Dana Priest, that all but amounts to an admission by the White House that all of the following is true:
  1. Contrary to all prior denials, the CIA now admits that they are operating secret prisons in Europe.
  2. In the opinion of someone with an impeccable reputation and top-flight professional skills whose job at the CIA it was to analyze the legality of CIA operations, either those prisons themselves or something being done there is illegal.
  3. The Director of the CIA must have been told this, and didn't stop the operation.
  4. The President of the United States must have been told this, and didn't order it stopped.
That's an amazing series of implicit admissions.

I Think I Was Talking about This Very Image

Brad @ Burning Man
For the first time since Coretta Scott King's funeral, somebody got away with criticizing Bush's conduct of the "war on terror" to his face without the Secret Service hauling him off to some designated "free speech zone" several blocks away. That was because, for the first time in ages, it wasn't the Republican Party that organized the event (and vetted the guest list), but a local nonpartisan (?) group called the World Affairs Council of Charlotte (North Carolina) which did so, and which gave a guy named Harry Taylor a ticket to attend the event. It's something that the Secret Service would never have permitted if they'd had control over, or even access to, the guest list, because Harry Taylor's got a history of protesting outside events that Bush has appeared at, and at the moment our sometimes-all-too-aptly-acronymed Secret Service considers it an unacceptable assassination or terrorism threat to let someone who disagrees with the President be in the same room.

Because he got away with something that tens of millions of people would like to do, Harry Taylor has become something of a liberal celebrity, with his own enthusiastic fan club. Me, I think he did barely OK. Frankly, I think he let himself run on way too long. Bush wisely gave him enough rope to hang himself with, and I think that Taylor would have come off to most Americans, even those who are nervous about the "war on terror" themselves, as at best rude and at worst stone cold paranoid. He also gave Bush a perfect opening to dismiss what he'd said, politely and while sounding sane and reasonable. At the very top of the things that Taylor said made him "frightened by my leadership in Washington, including the President" was that, "while I listen to you talk about freedom, I see you assert your right to tap my telephone." Which gave Bush an opportunity to answer with a speechlet that he's given so many times that even he has it polished down to utter perfection.

First, he responded with a near-smirk, right on the ragged edge between politeness and a snub, by emphasizing the word "your" when he paraphrased the question back, saying "you said that I tap your phones." The meat of his answer was, "Out of [the] NSA came the recommendation that it would make sense for us to listen to a call outside the country, inside the country from al Qaeda or suspected al Qaeda in order to have real-time information from which to possibly prevent an attack. I thought that made sense, so long as it was constitutional. Now, you may not agree with the constitutional assessment given to me by lawyers — and we’ve got plenty of them in Washington — but they made this assessment that it was constitutional for me to make that decision." In other words, if your name isn't on the al Qaeda phone lists we seized in Kandahar, you should take our word for it that it's not you we were listening to, and nobody is going to stop me in wartime from eavesdropping on them whether it's technically legal or not, and unsurprisingly (in an almost entirely pro-Bush audience) he got a long ovation for that answer. There are an awful lot of people in both parties who want the government to be eavesdropping on al Qaeda members, operatives, financiers, and supporters whether it's legal or not. I'm not one of them; I think it's a waste of time and effort that ought to be spent on rooting Osama bin Laden out of western Pakistan. But the vast majority of political opinion on this topic, informed or otherwise, now mostly only spans the gap from "he should have done it differently" to "he should have done what he did."

But one of the most odd coincidences in the way this came off was that the cameras filming the event were in exactly the right position to frame Harry Taylor, and the audience around him, in almost exactly the same poses and so forth as one of Norman Rockwell's most famous paintings, "Freedom of Speech" from his "The Four Freedoms" series. I'm borrowing the images from a Columbia Law School student blogger, Sauntering, because he got them scaled exactly right:



And Harry Taylor, like that painting, does represent exactly what's right with America. It frankly helps Bush, I think, for even his opponents to see that one guy can stand up, in the middle of a crowd of people unlike himself, and express a different opinion than that of nearly everybody there ... and still be entitled to be listened to respectfully. In fact, it's something the crowd was disinclined to give him, a respectful listening ... it was Bush that insisted that they do so, who shushed them when they booed and who stopped them from interrupting and who encouraged Harry Taylor to finish his speech. Which, in all honestly, probably did more to reassure people that it's not time to fear the government, that Harry Taylor was wrong to do so, than anything that Bush actually said in his reply.
Voted for Dean
This morning's info graphic is something I meant to comment on, and I threw it out as a placeholder. You get one more short item today, because I was waiting for the transcript from last night's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to be posted. As part of this week's "blame the media" campaign out of the White House, right wing talk radio reporter Laura Ingraham had this to say, in part, yesterday:

On the Today show: "The “TODAY” show spends all this money to send people to the Olympics, which is great, it was great programming. All this money for “Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?” Bring the “TODAY” show to Iraq. Bring the “TODAY” show to Tal Afar. Do the show from the 4th ID at Camp Victory. And then, when you talk to those soldiers on the ground, when you go out with the Iraqi military, when you talk to the villagers when you see the children, then I want NBC to report on only the IEDs, only the killings, only the reprisals. To do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people, instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off." And then later on The O'Reilly Factor: "I think that the coverage of the war by NBC that I‘ve really focused on, especially since I was in Iraq last month, to me, it seems bizarrely focused only on the IEDs, only on the latest reprisal killings that are taking place. ... I think the media obviously has an element underneath this that really despises Bush, and it‘s blinding them."

Keith Olbermann put that miserable sniveling Administration mouthpiece in her place:

"... a note about Laura Ingraham‘s comments. I‘ve known her a long time. I‘ll in fact give you the caveat that I‘ve known her socially.

But that hotel balcony crack was unforgivable. It was unforgivable to the memory of David Bloom, it was unforgivable in consideration of Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt, it was unforgivable in the light of what happened to Michael Kelly and what happened to Michael Weiskopf. It was unforgivable with Jill Carroll still a hostage in Iraq.

And it‘s not only unforgivable of her, it was desperate, and it was stupid."

V for Very Smart "Mindless Terrorism"

V for Vendetta
There have been a few very bitter reviews of the movie V for Vendetta. The most vitriolic I've seen, by right-wing website TownHall.com's Megan Basham ("V for vendetta, T for terrorism, A for 'that's a-okay'"), sums up the argument the best: Why are we supposed to cheer for V when he's using the same tactics that Al Qaeda uses, and when he uses them against the same targets? ) ( obviously contains spoilersCollapse )

The Wachowskis are not Michael Moore. This is not a movie about George W. Bush and the War on Terror. This is a movie about a lot of scary leaders throughout history, almost all of whom have made that same Faustian offer, which is "let us rule you with an iron fist, and we'll give you what you want." Those who only see the parallels to George Bush and to Bill O'Reilly aren't telling you anything about the movie, they're telling you how little they know about historical scary government officials, weaselly mouth-pieces, and potentially fascist bargains with the public.

more spoilersCollapse )

Bush Finally Got the Memo

Brad @ Burning Man
Yesterday, the President gave the "why we're in Iraq" speech yet again, this time in front of the National Endowment for Democracy. It was pretty much the same speech that he's given several times a year for the last three years. But this time, there was one important change. As far as the mainstream media are concerned, it came completely out of the blue. It left them scratching their heads and going, "What?" Which says something about the times we live in; when the President finally tells the truth, he's not believed. Here's the relevant quote from Bush's speech, abridged for clarity:
Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant Jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism. Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam. This form of radicalism exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of ... a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.
Since this is the first time most reporters have heard this argument, it left them scratching their heads and asking, "Where in the heck did that come from?" The answer: from Osama bin Laden, and other Islamist thinkers. Up until now, Bush has kept repeating a stupid idea of his own, that we're fighting the Islamists (to the extent that we're, you know, actually fighting them) because "they hate our freedoms." There was nothing you could find from any Islamist source to suggest that any of them give a rat's hindquarters about our freedoms. What they want, what they've always wanted, is the Ummah back.

In the Koran, the word ummah, meaning community, is used to mean "all Muslims," roughly the same way that Christians say that the church, the collective membership of all branches of Christianity, make up "the body of Christ." Later, through linguistic drift and sloppy usage, the phrase "the Ummah" (as opposed to any old ummah or community) came to mean something else: the extent of the territory ruled by Muslims, the boundary of the Islamic conquest. Using the term ummah to mean this lets them link imperial geographic boundaries with the pre-existing idea that when anybody (or presumably, any territory) leaves the ummah, it's an offense against Allah. So when Osama bin Laden came back from the successful US-backed jihad against the Marxist government of Afghanistan and found that he still wasn't happy, he went looking to form a philosophy to justify continuing the war, and this is what he found. The idea pre-dates him, of course. That's what the Arab League was founded for, the hope that a unified front of Islamic nations could reunite the former Islamic empire sort of the way that the European Union more-or-less unites Europe.

What happened to that vast pan-Islamic empire, and why isn't it around any more? The short answer is that they sided with the losing side both in World War I and in World War II. The conquering allied powers used this as an opportunity to play "divide and conquer." You see, when it comes to re-uniting the Ummah, the elephant in the living room that everybody is too polite to mention is that over the centuries, the Ummah has been ruled from Medina, from Baghdad, from Islamabad, and from Damascus. There never was an imperial caliph in Cairo, but for a lot of years, you could have made the case that Cairo was the center of the Islamic world. There were even a couple of years where you could have said the same thing about Toledo, Spain! So if we're going to re-unite the Islamic world, the issue of which city would be the capital is hardly a settled question. And the allied powers took advantage of that, by making sure that every past capital of the Islamic Ummah was in a separate country with its own economic interests, its own royal family, and its own army. That way the western powers could play them off against each other. It's worked, too, for the most part. Which has left them understandably annoyed, and even a little humiliated.

(Here's a good article on the philosophical/political argument to reunite the Ummah, that went around several years ago: "A Blueprint for the Ummah's Revival," which is itself a lengthy book review of what I gather to be the most popular English-language book on the subject, Ishtiyaque Danish's The Ummah, Pan-Islamism and Muslim Nation-States.)

Never mind the morality of "negotiating with terrorists." Every war ends in some kind of negotiation. Even in the case of unconditional surrenders, like Germany at the end of WWII, there still ends up being a treaty that, yes, is negotiated. The Islamists seek to unite the Ummah under some kind of overt theocracy; whether an "elected" theocracy like Iran or a monarchical theocracy like Saudi Arabia is a detail that their apologists have conveniently left to be settled at a later date, after the victory has been won. Now, even assuming that we were negotiating from a position of strength, assuming that we could feel confident that we'd ended the Islamist threat outside of the Ummah, that we could have peace between the Ummah and the rest of us (and that's a pretty big and pretty dubious assumption) ... what countries do they want? What boundary are they actually fighting for? Take a look at these standard reference maps: "The Arab-Muslim Empire," which shows the boundaries of the caliphate as of 750 CE, and "Expansion of the Ottoman Empire," which shows the extent of the Ummah at its greatest extent, in 1683 CE. What do they want? In addition to the states that you'd expect (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Tunisa, Algeria, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), there are a few in there that might startle you. The whole Balkans. Greece. Georgia and much of southern Russia. Armenia. And if you hadn't found a deal-breaker in there yet, try this one on for size: Spain.

We can almost certainly negotiate peace with individual Arab and Islamic states; for the most part, we already have. Although the US (and more so the UK and France) have profited greatly from the game of divide and conquer, we could probably even stand to see a reunited Islamic Caliphate, especially if that united Islamic/Arabic empire chose the Turkish/Pakistani model of government instead of Wahabbist (Saudi Arabia, etc.), Hezbollah (Iran), or Baathist (Syria) paradigms. (Although frankly, we got along just fine with the Baath Socialist Party states for quite a few years until the Bush family found themselves locked in a personal death struggle with Saddam Hussein and his family.) But if any nation advocates as a non-negotiable demand that we have to surrender Israel, the whole Balkans, and Spain to them, and that demand really is non-negotiable, and they either declare war or sponsor terrorist attacks on any of those states or their defenders with the intent of drawing them back into the Ummah, well, then, sooner or later there's going to be a war. (Although frankly, if they went with the Turkish model, and guaranteed freedom of worship and of conscience to all of the People of the Book, I wouldn't have any personal problem with negotiating away Israel, myself.)

I still say Iraq is the wrong war, the wrong enemy, the wrong time; that we overthrew a secular regime that wasn't sponsoring terrorist attacks against us (although the Israelis had a valid beef with them), while calling an increasingly Wahabbist state next door that's more-or-less openly defending Osama bin Laden our close ally in the War on Terror. But hey, at least Bush has finally figured out what the war is about. That's progress of a sort.
Voted for Dean
Hugo Chavez was elected President of Venezuela in 1998. In 2000, he and his party scheduled new elections, and he easily won a new, six year presidential term. In 2002, the Bush administration got caught encouraging Venezuelan generals to overthrow Chavez, and rushed to announce support for their coup d'etat as soon as they seized the palace, but the coup collapsed under a wave of pro-Chavez protests in a matter of days. In 2004, the Bush administration funded anti-Chavez groups' attempts to have him recalled by voter initiative, something that the Columbia constitution permits. He won the 2004 election, under international election monitoring, by a wider margin and with fewer voter irregularities than George Bush's re-election the same year.

What the heck has this been all about? Well, Hugo Chavez is a socialist. In Latin America, as I've explained before in other articles, what this means is that he's (a) not white, (b) supports reforms aimed at taking some of the country's most valuable land and assets away from the wealthy Spanish families that have controlled them since 16th century in order to give something to the descendants of the surviving natives and imported African slaves, and more importantly (c) wants to get elected to anything above being dog-catcher in a small town despite not being white, something that neither of the other main parties in Venezuela (or any other Latin American country), the rich white neo-royalist party nor the middle-class white technocratic party, have any interest in permitting. Also, being a socialist, he really doesn't give a rat's hindquarters about the US embargo of Cuba, and does business with Cuba rather openly, loudly, and colorfully -- unlike our allies in this hemisphere like Canada, who also ignore the embargo and do business in Cuba, but do so quietly and without open diplomatic support for the Castro government.

And he hates George Bush and holds him in total, utter contempt. Imagine someone with the same opinions as Michael Moore, in fact with almost exactly the same opinions as Michael Moore. Now imagine Michael Moore as a mestizo oil billionaire with his own political party, a seat in the UN, and a small army. Yes, oil. Venezuela is OPEC's most important member in the western hemisphere. The Bush administration may hate him, may have tried twice to overthrow him, and denounces him as another Fidel Castro -- but unlike Castro, we're not going to declare an embargo against him. On the contrary, he has at least once threatened to impose an embargo on us, to stop Venezuelan oil exports to punish the US for the coup attempt. As the president of an OPEC member nation and an important one at that, he knows who's got the upper hand in any contest of economic sanctions, so even the Bush administration knows better to than to even hint at threatening sanctions.

Pat Robertson, on the other hand, is one of the most senior leaders of what I call fake Christianity, the Christianity that stands in total opposition to almost everything in the Christian scriptures, let alone the preaching of Jesus Christ. He's one of the fake Christian leaders who sold their souls to the devil because they believed that only the Republicans could save them from being murdered by the world-wide communist conspiracy. Pat Robertson is a man who still fears, deep down in his heart, that some day there will be a Communist takeover of the United States, and that just as happened in China and North Korea after their communist takeovers 50 years ago, he believes that when that day comes every Christian in America will be tortured to death. And nothing will ever make him feel safe until the last communist, in fact until the last socialist, on earth is dead.

Anyway, because he has faithfully kept his side of his deal with the devil, we can very explicitly thank Pat Robertson for the presidency of George W. Bush. In the early 2000 Republican party primaries, John McCain was hammering Bush. Going into the South Carolina primaries, if Bush had lost one more time, his candidacy was through, and in the early polls, McCain had the state locked up. So Robertson extracted certain promises from Bush, including forcing him to shift his policies on social issues much farther to the right, and delivered the endorsement that tipped the polls and handed South Carolina's Republican vote to George Bush. He also participated in a very ugly, very slanderous smear campaign against John McCain, who never recovered from it politically. And at every opportunity since then, Robertson has echoed the Bush administration's line, declaring Bush's policies to be the only possible policies compatible with the word of God. Therefore you may reasonably assume that any enemy of George W. Bush is an enemy of Pat Robertson's. And if that enemy of George Bush also happens to be a friend of Fidel Castro and the head of a major oil-exporting nation, you may reasonably assume that he scares Pat Robertson beyond all rational thought.

Pat Robertson made his remarks in the context of a discussion of the War on Terror. Robertson believes that since Chavez opposes George Bush and doesn't give a crap about American efforts to reign him in, that sooner or later Chavez, despite being a staunch Catholic, will eventually cut a deal with al Qaeda just to strike back at Bush. At that point, Robertson believes that God's enemies will have yet another country to plan their attacks from, and this time a wealthy oil state in our own hemipshere, at that. Which means an even more dangerous, even more expensive war than our current war in Iraq, or our next war in Syria, or the war after that in Iran, or the war after that in North Korea. And that is why, in violation of every principle of US law and every principle of God's word, he advocated having the CIA assassinate Hugo Chavez. Because even Pat Robertson, as nuts as he is, knows that the United States can't afford five simultaneous wars of regime change.
Necronom-Icon
Wow, did it take me this long to set up my point? I'm terribly sorry about that, so I'll get right to it. Like I said, that fight between a dead soldier's family and his Internet email service for access to his email reminded me, indirectly, of a trap question that I asked one of my theology teachers back in high school about understanding phenomena like ghouls, self-resurrecting dead magic users, the use of soul projection to take over a fresh body while dying, the use of biochemical means to reanimate corpses, and the combined occult/biochemical resurrection technology popularly called the Curwen Effect, from a specifically biblical perspective.

What still amuses me about his weak, inadequate answer is that here it is, 70 to 75 years after journalists dragged this stuff out into the public view where 20th century society had to deal with it, and Christian biblical literalist fundamentalism still has no coherent, cohesive answer to this stuff. Why that amuses me so much is that, had it not been for when and how this stuff and other Forbidden Lore became political issues back in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Christian fundamentalism wouldn't be the political powerhouse that it is today. Guys like John Stormer, or to pick more contemporary examples like James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, owe their best-selling books, their unusual influence over political figures, their adoring legions, and their very lucrative careers to the public horror and outrage of that time period. People were suddenly confronted by such "hideous" truths as that human beings were not the first intelligent species on this planet, we were (depending on how you count) the fourth or fifth. That we are not currently alone in the universe. That the universe contains sapient beings of unimaginable scale, nature, and godlike power -- and more to the point, none of the ones that have been observed to actually exist are benevolent towards human beings. At best, their motives are inscrutable to us just as our ways of thinking are inscrutable to them, and they might squash us without even noticing. At worst, in cases such as Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth, they're overtly hostile to our species and destined to inevitably win. And that previous species on Earth (and perhaps future species, via time travel) left behind a "toxic waste dump" of actual functioning magic spells that are so ill-suited to our species that while they work, they all have horrific side effects -- and yet there are humans who accept those monstrous side effects in order to wield that power, if they can escape the law long enough to do so.

75 years later, most educated adults take these things for granted, although sane and healthy people hardly ever think about them. But 75 years ago, when the scientific and historical and astronomical and mathematical and archaeological revelations accumulated to the point where the searing black ocean of knowledge swamped and overflowed our snug little island of ignorance, the American public was clear and unambiguous about what they wanted. They wanted two (contradictory?) things: "Make it go away!" and "Tell me it's not true!" They turned to their congressmen and senators and governors and the President to make it go away, and for the most part that part has been successful; actual documented abusers of Forbidden Lore come only once every few years, making them rarer than spree killers or serial killers. To make it go away, they flocked, gradually at first but more and more over time, out of the mainline Christian denominations that were willing to acknowledge scientific truths, like the Episcopalians and the Lutherans and the Mennonites and Reformed Judaism, and into frankly anti-scientific, stridently conservative faiths like Pentacostalism and Fundamentalism and Orthodox Judaism, and eventually even the Catholics picked a stridently conservative pope, the recently deceased John Paul II. They wanted to be told that "the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!" Because then they didn't have to confront the implications of the truth.

Now, it is true that the fundamentalists themselves don't acknowledge this as being where the energy for their movement came from. They talk about thundering evangelists and religious puritans in America in a continuous historical line back through William Jennings Bryant, back through Jonathan Edwards, all the way back to the Puritan Migration of 1620 to 1640 that established the first large-scale white colonies on this continent. But that's just the history of the idea, not of the movement, and let's face it, by the end of Prohibition the movement was pretty much dead and discredited. Then public revulsion over Forbidden Lore became news ... and I don't think that it's a coincidence that that's when the American historical trend away from puritanism reversed course and began to move the other direction.

If you want another example, look at Saudi Arabia ... and in particular, why we call it Saudi Arabia instead of just Arabia. The House of Saud traces their ancestral rule back hundreds of years. But at their strongest, those historical Saudi sheiks were no big deal, no bigger deal than any other of several hundred tribal sheiks rattling around the Arabian desert. For most of that time, the Arabian peninsula was under unified Islamic rule, yes -- under the Turkish throne of the Ottoman Empire, who quite justly considered Arabia an empty, ignorant, irrelevant chunk of the middle of nowhere that just happened to have two sacred cities in it. But the rise of the House of Saud over all the other Arabian sheiks was tied to the sudden popularity of a previously unpopular sect of Islam, usually called Wahabbism. Prior to the 1930s, pretty much the entire Islamic world was dominated politically by Sufism, a strand of Islam so moderate and tolerant that it could fairly be compared to the Anglican Church, and in fact, that was roughly the role that Sufism played under several consecutive Islamic empires. But then in the years between roughly 1925 and 1930, treasure hunters and archaeologists began digging around the edges of pre-human cities, and long-ago-destroyed cult centers for worship of the Great Old Ones, and turning up the same evidence that universities and archaeologists and geologists and treasure hunters were turning up in places like Antarctica, Australia, Tibet, the South Pacific, and even mountain tops in Vermont and western Massachusetts. And the revelation that evidence of such monstrosity lay beneath the sands of the same sacred land that also held Mecca and Medina aroused the same revulsion, the same demands to make it go away and then tell us it never happened, in Arabia that they did here at home.

Now, again, people tell me that oil wealth would have spurred a puritan backlash in Islam, a return to puritanical values as a control on a suddenly wealthy society. And they tell me that militant puritanical Islam was a historical inevitability once the West, out of guilt over failing to prevent the Holocaust, permitted the Jews to carve an ethnic and theocratic homeland out of the Muslim Ummah. But both of those things happened after the rise of the House of Saud and their unification of Saudi Arabia under joint Saudi/Wahabbi rule. No, I think that the only logical way to interpret the historical record is that Wahabbism would have remained an obscure bedouin sect unheard of except among nomadic camel herders in the Arabian desert, and the House of Saud would still be yet another medium-poor family of camel herders in some other Islamic (or even westernized!) kingdom or empire, perhaps ruled from one of the more traditional Islamic capitals like Istanbul or Baghdad or maybe even Cairo, if it hadn't been for the widespread backlash to the shocking revelation of Forbidden Lore.

So there you have it. The Necronomicon (and related works, and corroborating scientific evidence to be sure) caused the rise of both sides, the fundamentalist "Crusader" side here in America and the fundamentalist "militant Islamist" side in Arabia, of the current "War on Terror."

Pant, pant. OK, I'm tired and a little headachy (and my dogs are barking) as much or more from working hard for Tricia's Treasure Chest's performance Friday night as from this, but wow has this gone on longer than I expected to take it. Thanks to everybody who contributed to the followups and replies, you really amused me as much as I hope this amused you. For those of you who came to this (against all odds) only in this last, most recent essay, click on the "cthulhu" topic tag above to see my explanations and prior columns in this role-playing exercise about an alternate universe which came to terms with the Cthulhu mythos when my grandparents were young, the world didn't end because of it, and we just cope; where, in fact, the world isn't very much different from ours. This was the part of the role-playing exercise that I was really looking forward to, because to me some of the most fun comes when your character argues convincingly, from the facts available to him or her, with all reasonable logic, to a conclusion that we, having the benefit of facts they don't have, know otherwise. You and I both know that fundamentalism both here and in Arabia did just fine without the impetus of fear of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, revulsion over ghoulish magic, and the need for law enforcement and the military to control access to the most dangerous magics. But the other me, the one who group up in that world, wouldn't know that. Discuss.
Necronom-Icon
A couple of months ago, there was an interesting 3-way dispute between the Army, a grieving mother, and one of the Internet email services, I forget if it was AOL or Yahoo or whatever. What it basically came down to was that her son had died in Iraq. The family wanted to be able to read his email, because it was all that they had left of him. As far as the online service was concerned, their terms of service did not allow this; without the permission of the deceased, they could not give anybody access to his private files. The family tried to claim that as his next of kin, they were now the legal owners of the files, and tried to drag the Army into it (if I remember correctly, which I might not) and the courts to try to make the online service bend.

So I've been wondering since then, off and on, why they didn't just ask the deceased? We know that there are well-documented spells and/or technologies for communicating with the dead. There are probably dozens of them, judging by the the long list of ones that we know about: the Curwen Effect, Re-Animation, the Ghoul effect, and the documented ability of many Necronomicon-trained sorcerors to possess the grave worms that have eaten their body and use them to reanimate the skin, just to name four that I can think of right off the top of my head. Sure, those techniques are all very much Forbidden Lore. And yes, the US is signatory to the International Occult Non-Proliferation Treaty; heck, President Coolidge authored the thing. But while US law forbids the use of occult lore derived from pre-human sources by unlicensed individuals, and while the treaty forbids its use by the US military as a weapon of war, as far as I know there's no reason why some licensed thaumaturge inside the US army couldn't have asked the late soldier if his mother could read his email.

Except, of course, that there's a perfectly good 1947 Supreme Court ruling that suggests that the online service wouldn't have to honor that answer: John Doe aka "Henry J. Ford" versus the Estate of Henry J. Ford, or as it's commonly known, "Ford" v Ford. When the reanimated corpse of Henry Ford showed up to contest the reading of the will, the estate counter-sued, asking the probate court to rule that Ford's death certificate was final. "Ford" argued that the law permits withdrawing death certificates in the event that the subject turned out not to be dead after all, such as when the attending physician mistakenly declares the subject legally dead and then they wake up. The probate court demurred, saying it didn't have authority to define death, so the case got kicked all the way up to the US Supreme Court.

By the time of Ford's death in 1947, worries about forbidden occult lore were really big news. (Of course, all the while Project Paperclip was still sneaking Nazi SS occult scientists into the US and providing them with new identities or white-washing their records inside US-occupied Germany. I don't care how badly the US needed to know what occult capabilities the Soviet Union might theoretically have had, the ends don't justify the means. Those guys inculcated into the US military thaumaturgical culture a tolerance for morally disgusting research on involuntary human subjects that lasted well into the 1960s. Even just talking about Sydney Gottlieb's MK-ULTRA project, the enemy within was more dangerous to Americans on American soil than the entire Communist bloc was. Is it fair to blame the CIA's coddling of Nazi occultists for MK-ULTRA? I think so. But anyway, I digress.) Because fears of foreign occult attacks and sneaky subversive occult subcultures was riding high (and, admittedly, because it was a fascinating legal topic I think), the US Supreme Court certified the case.

Anyway, the Supreme Court wisely turned down "Ford's" contention that a human being isn't really legally dead until both soul and memory are irretrievable, because it would require probate courts to prove a negative before even the simplest will could be executed. In the end, they left it to the state and local courts to establish the facts of death "in accordance with the commonly accepted usage of the term" (Justice Frankfurter, writing for the majority). Of course, that definition was so vague that it's lead to a huge number of subsequent court cases, challenging "re-animation" by every means from mouth-to-mouth to recovery from a coma after artificial life support to several occult technologies. The way the case law looks to me, by and large, if a technology derives from pre-human magical technology in any way instead of from post-Enlightenment technology, if there's even the faintest whiff of the Necronomicon or Cultes de Ghoules about how the person came to be disputing their own time of death, the courts have ruled against the deceased.

So even had some military or law enforcement spell caster been willing to step in to ask the dead soldier if his mom could read his email, I think the case law says that the online service provider wouldn't have been bound to accept that opinion. (Of course, for all I know the real reason that no licensed thaumaturge stepped in is that some of our so-called allies in the War on Terror, like Saudi Arabia, are even twitchier than we are about forbidden lore, so the US military is going out of their way not to remind our Arab partners that we maintain access to that technology.) Of course, I'm just a guy who follows the Supreme Court cases as a hobby, not an actual lawyer, so what do I know? In the meantime, it turned out to be a moot point; the family eventually did what everybody does when they need to retrieve information that a dead person password-locked, including Cantor-Fitzgerald after 9/11: they got together a bunch of friends and family of the deceased and kept making informed guesses until they cracked the password, safe in the knowledge that under the same "Ford" v Ford precedent, nobody was going to be able to come back from the grave to sue them for invasion of privacy.

P.S. Unless I lose count, this is the seventh of my faux essays from an alternate universe where H.P. Lovecraft's stories were all part of the true history of the 1920s and the 1930s, and as a species the human race learned to deal with them as just one more thing that could go wrong, just like all of the other threats to human existence that we know of in the real world. You can use the "cthulhu" tag to to find the earlier ones, including my out-of-character explanations. Feel free to "play along" in character in the comments to any of these!
Regime Change Begins at Home
On December 6th, 1941, the United States military had a total of 6 divisions on active duty, poorly equipped, unable to be sent abroad. Two and a half years later, we had about 96 active duty divisions in the field, in theaters all around the world. Virtually every American adult male was overseas fighting, and the remaining few physically unfit American adult males and nearly all the adult women were working with an efficiency never rivaled, before or since, to produce the famous Arsenal of Democracy. And all of this was because one American city, on an island that wasn't even in an American state yet, was attacked by a foreign enemy once. But still, for the generation who were adults on December 7th, 1941, they knew that that one attack was not the end of it. They knew that if the enemy was not thoroughly and completely deprived of their ability to wage war, then occupied and pacified all the way down to the civilian level, then sooner or later no American would be safe, anywhere.

And that, my friends, is what a real war on terror looks like. Not this phony war. It's now not two and a half, but three and a half years since September 11th, 2001. Where are our 96 divisions of enthusiastic volunteers? Where are our factories supplying our troops and the armies of our every ally with the Arsenal of Democracy? My parents' generation did all of that without interstate highways, without jet airliners, without direct-dial long distance telephone, without the Internet, and they did it with, what, one third of the population we have now? If we can't do it in less than two and a half years with all of our advantages, we're done as a nation, and we will be destroyed because we deserve it. But before some of you chime in in agreement, let me say this right now: We don't deserve it. The American people can rise up to their own defense, and when the country is attacked, they are eager to do so. In the days and weeks after 9/11, I remember every American of every political and religious and ethnic persuasion yelling in unison, "We're ready! Tell us what you need us to do!"

What were we told? Buy a flat screen TV. Go to Disneyland.

Once per generation, in any free nation,
Thus be it ever
When free men shall stand
Between their loved homes
And war's desolation!
Every American hears those words at least once. We sing the first verse of that song so often that foreigners scratch their heads and go WTF? We rise from our seats for that song (if we were well brought up) the way people in other nations rise for the sovereign. We insist that foreigners applying for citizenship learn that song, so that none may say that they accepted our citizenship without knowing the price they may be called upon to pay for it. But the really interesting thing about that song is that it was written while America was under attack on its own soil, the very first time that foreign soldiers put our cities to the torch. By the time Francis Scott Key watched the American soldiers raise the morning battle ensign that signaled that the British had failed in their attempt to bombard Charleston, South Carolina by sea, Baltimore and Washington had already been burned. And yet, as a fledgling nation deep in debt, fighting against the mightiest empire in the world of their day, our ancestors kept on fighting and they prevailed. If the current residents of Baltimore, or Washington, or Charleston would like America to lay down arms, to give our enemies a nuclear-equipped state in which to regroup and rearm for fear that their cities might be burned again, then they are not worthy to live in the cities that their ancestors left to them. Nor shall their inaction save them from that burning; if anything, it makes it more likely, not less.

But we have not asked the American people to mobilize en masse, both on the home front and overseas. The current American president believes that America does not have to choose between a peacetime economy and a wartime mobilization, that even though our homeland is under attack, we can have both. And it absolutely blows my mind that he doesn't know better, because he was a young man the last time an American president told us that, a Democrat: good old Lyndon "Guns and Butter" Johnson. Do I have to remind you that we lost that war in a defeat so humiliating that our enemies on every side had us in full retreat all over the world for the next eight years? We're lucky we didn't lose more than we did.

So I, for one, refuse to accept that the fact that we might need a mass mobilization of the American people to conquer his current host country, or the possibility that doing so might provoke a nuclear attack on an American city, is sufficient reason to allow Osama bin Laden, a man who has long since declared war on the United States, to live, work, recruit, and train freely with the protection and almost certain assistance of the same Pakistani intelligence service that has already transferred nuclear weapons technology to two other enemies of America. Because refusing to face that price, and willingly pay it, will not save us.

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