Why We Prosecute Leakers

Julian SanchezOver at Mother Jones, Julian Sanchez provided an overview of what’s going on with the most recent case of the Obama administration going after whistleblowers. It is very hard not to accept the most intense critics’ contention that this is not about national security or even embarrassment. This is about creating an environment in which people who see government wrongdoing feel that they can’t go to the press.

One of the best examples of this is former NSA executive Thomas Andrews Drake who blew the whistle on the wasteful and unconstitutional Trailblazer Project. Drake did all that he was supposed to in terms of trying to take care of the matter internally. And then, when that didn’t work, he went to the press. As usual, he was being gone after under the Espionage Act of 1917—clearly an outrageous use of the law. And they didn’t even charge him with distributing classified documents. Instead, they changed him with “Willful Retention of National Defense Information.” That’s right: he held onto documents. In the end, all the government got was a “misdemeanor of misusing the agency’s computer system.”

But the issue there wasn’t to get him. It was to stop people like him in the future. And now the situation has gotten even worse. Now it seems that the administration is going after Fox News reporter James Rosen. Again, I doubt they mean to get him or even prosecute him. But as Sanchez pointed out, “The Rosen case is especially unsettling because the warrant affidavit suggests that Rosen himself could be subject to prosecution under the Espionage Act, on the grounds that his alleged encouragement to a source to provide classified information amounted to ‘conspiracy.'”

Most reporters won’t even risk angering a White House source for fear of losing “access.” So there is no doubt that the threat of a night raid by the FBI, not to mention years in prison, will turn the few remaining investigative journalists into pundits. This all looks very much like a full court press against the Fourth Estate. It is very troubling. And this scandal, really does reach to the president; he’s the one who sets the policies.


Sanchez ended his article arguing that people really should care about this issue because the government isn’t always just trying to protect the national security. I think this came off as rather naive. It is almost never the case that documents are classified for good reasons. I would be shocked if even 5% of all classified documents were justified. It is mostly just a matter of protecting reputations and a blind drive to make everything secret. That way, the power elite know that they’re important: they get access to these files and the rest of us do not. It’s pathetic.

Glenn Curtiss Flying High

Glenn CurtissPoet Alexander Pope was born in 1688. He is best known for not being Pope Alexander. In fact, since Pope burst onto the English literary scene in the earth 18th century, the Vatican has stopped naming popes Alexander. The last such pope was Alexander VIII, who was born in 1610. I have no evidence that this is a direct result of policy. But really, if you became pope, would you want people screwing up your name? Perhaps if you were an evil pope. (Antipope?!) But even then, school children already have enough difficulties with Alexander Pope and all eight of the Pope Alexanders.

Prison reformer Elizabeth Fry was born in 1780. French primitive post-impressionist Henri Rousseau was born in 1844. Great stride pianist Fats Waller was born in 1904. Here he is doing his cowritten song “Ain’t Misbehavin'”:

The first female President of Ireland, Mary Robinson is 69 today. I am constantly amazed at these seriously Catholic countries. Ireland elected its first female president in 1990, where America is still waiting. Maybe “amazed” is not the word; “disappointed.” The man who always makes me feel like dancing, Leo Sayer is 65 today, so we won’t be hearing anymore from him. Comedian and pretty damned good Senator, Al Franken is 62. Judge Reinhold is 56. His name is “Judge”:

The day belongs to aviation pioneer, Glenn Curtiss who was born on this day back in 1878. He was at first a competitor and then a partner with the Wright Brothers, eventually creating the still extant Curtiss-Wright Corporation. He died suddenly at the age of 52 of appendicitis. Here is the summary from Wikipedia:

Curtiss made the first officially witnessed flight in North America, won a race at the world’s first international air meet in France, and made the first long-distance flight in the United States. His contributions in designing and building aircraft led to the formation of the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, now part of Curtiss-Wright Corporation. His company built aircraft for the U.S. Army and Navy, and, during the years leading up to World War I, his experiments with seaplanes led to advances in naval aviation. Curtiss civil and military aircraft were predominant in the inter-war and World War II eras.

Happy birthday Glenn Curtiss!

What Can Republicans Talk About Besides Scandals?

Ramesh PonnuruAfter reading John Dean’s take on the recent scandals, I noticed that another of my favorite conservatives, Ramesh Ponnuru had waded into these waters, ‘Obama Scandals’ Could Actually Hurt Republicans. I love those scare quotes in the title. The truth is that these aren’t really Obama’s scandals, but it would be fair to call them Obama’s troubles.

The argument that Ponnuru made is a common one these days on the left: the Republicans might be overreaching on these issues. Coming from liberals, I’m unimpressed. Just like with the talk that the current scandals might turn out to involve Obama, the Republicans might overplay the scandals. The truth is that the Republicans don’t exactly need these scandals to overplay their hand. Regardless, this wasn’t Ponnuru’s main point.

The big comparison for everyone seems to be 1998. That was Bill Clinton’s sixth year. Clinton had been involved in a scandal regarding lying about an affair. The standard narrative is that the Republicans overplayed the scandal and ended up doing damage to themselves. It is widely believed that the president’s party loses lots of seats in Congress during the president’s sixth year in office (this is a myth). So when the Democrats picked up a couple of seats, everyone said it was because the Republicans angered the voters with all their focus on Cigar-Gate.

But Ponnuru showed that this wasn’t the case. Only 5% of the voters in 1998 were motivated by the sex scandal and most of them voted against Clinton. The real story was that the voters cared about the economy and education (As usual!) and they were very unhappy with where the Republicans were on these issues. Ponnuru argued that the current crop of Republicans is being equally out of touch. And the scandals are just making it worse on them because it is allowing them to focus on scandals that will likely come to nothing rather than pushing for real policy changes. As he put it, “They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes.”

The only place I disagree with Ponnuru (and this is a running disagreement) is his belief that the conservative movement actually has policy ideas. I really don’t see this. They do have some ideas relative to current policy. For example, changes in Medicare will put limits on the few people currently using Medicare Advantage. But if the Republicans suddenly found themselves in charge of the federal government, what policies would they push? They would repeal Obamacare, but not replace it with anything. They would enact regressive tax cuts. And they would try to outlaw abortions. Basically, they would try to destroy the legacy of the New Deal onward. But none of these policies even claim to tackle the problems that our country faces.

So I continue to wonder why someone as smart as Ponnuru can continue to think that his movement has ideas for the future. I’m sure that there are conservative ideas out there. But the movement itself isn’t interested in them. The Republicans could rename their party the Anti-Democratic Party. That would be more honest. But Ponnuru is correct that they aren’t going to succeed as long as they think all they need to do is to destroy Obama. After all, Obama will never again run for office.

John Dean: Not Worse Than Watergate

Worse Than WatergateOver at Bloomberg View, I saw that John Dean had written an article, Obama’s Not Nixon, He’s Harding. I knew immediately what he was talking about: Teapot Dome. Normally, I would not have clicked through. But I really like John Dean, and I couldn’t believe that he was really comparing Obama’s scandals with Harding’s.

Not surprisingly, Dean did not disappoint me. He was making a totally reasonable argument. As usual. Most of the article is an attack on those who are comparing Obama’s troubles with Watergate. In particular, Dean is concerned about statements that have been made by Bob Woodward. Given that Woodward was such an important player in the Watergate scandal, and that he wrote a book about it with Carl Bernstein, one would think that he would have some perspective on it.

Dean was too nice to question Woodward’s motivations. But I’m not. Woodward seems to crave attention. Last year shortly after the Benghazi attack, he claimed that there was no scandal. But more recently, he has been trying to associate the talking point revisions between the State Department and the CIA to Nixon’s hacked tape transcripts. There is no similarity, especially when you consider that Obama was not involved at all. But Wordward really seems to have some kind of hard on for Obama—for now.

Dean’s comparison of Obama with Harding was just the most current chapter in Dean’s efforts to rehabilitate Harding’s reputation. He rightly notes that when Harding found out about Teapot Dome, he was outraged. He asked about it, and was lied to. Then he went on a “get in touch with the people” tour and died. Until fairly recently, he was blamed for the many scandals during his presidency. (They were more common back then.) Dean’s point is that regardless of the scandals going on now, there is no indication that they involve Obama.

What is perhaps ironic is that Dean is the writer of Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. So Dean not only knows Watergate, he isn’t afraid to use it as a comparison. And remember: Dean is a conservative. Of course, at this point, that makes him about as conservative as Obama. Regardless, there really is nothing to these scandals regarding presidential malfeasance. Time will show that to be the case.

Wingnuts and the Power Elite

Cass SunsteinYesterday, Cass R. Sunstein wrote an interesting article, How to Humble a Wing Nut. He reported on some research by Philip Fernbach at the University of Colorado. He found that by asking test subjects to write down everything they know about a controversial policy, he got them to moderate their views and lower their belief in how much they know about the subject. This isn’t a terribly surprising result, but it is nice to see it made concrete.

The problem is that I doubt that it is of much usefulness. Debates are all about not losing face. In the study, there is no face to lose. My experience writing about politics is that a lot of subjects turn into an inconclusive muddle the more you look at them. As a result, I tend to not write about them. That’s not because they aren’t important. It is just that I don’t have much to add to the debate. Similarly, that’s why I write a lot about economics: it is very clear. America has been off the rails, economically speaking, for so long that the major debates are nowhere near the margins where there is actual disagreement in the science.

The problem I have with Sunstein’s article is his position that the crazies are “out there” and the truth is the moderate position in the center. So his list of wingnut views is as follows:

A wing nut might believe that George W. Bush is a fascist, that Barack Obama is a socialist, that big banks run the Department of the Treasury or that the U.S. intervened in Libya because of oil.

I don’t agree with any of these position as stated. However, there is a great deal of fascist thought in the modern Republican Party, even if I have never claimed that the party itself is fascistic. Obama, like every other person in the world, has some socialistic leanings. The big banks don’t run the Department of the Treasury, but they have enormous power, both directly and indirectly. And the United States (like all countries) considers its own interest in all foreign affairs.

The fundamental issue is that the “center” or “moderate position” is not absolute. Bill O’Reilly would undoubtedly call me a “far left wing” writer. But in the context of most European countries, I would be center left, or even just center. The problem I have with the United States is that our politics have been so distorted. It no longer reflects what the people believe; it reflects the interests of the power elite. Sunstein is a reasonable man, but he is part of that elite and so it is natural for him to think that the middle of American politics is just right.

Regardless, I don’t think this study is going to be all that helpful. I’m going to give it a try, though. I like the idea of quizzing my debate partners. Even if it does them no good, it should help me to understand them. And despite my at time flaming rhetoric, I have a great deal of respect for those who will talk politics with me. My problem is with the propagandists and with people who can’t seem to get past that propaganda. But communication is always helpful.

Best Spam Yet!

SpamBotI just got what is probably the best spam comment ever. It is postmodern! It is self referencing! It is gut bustingly funny!

Unfortunately, it is also just spam.

But it deserves attention. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you “ares gratis”:

Hi, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam remarks?

If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you can suggest?
I get so much lately it’s driving me insane so any help is very much appreciated.

He’s right about reading my blog, I get spam from him every day! And it usually asks for help of some kind. What blog software do I use? Well, it’s a secret; that’s why it is printed on every page of this website! But this is the first time that I noticed a spammer asking me about how to deal with spam. But let me answer the questions.

Yes, I do get a lot of spam remarks. The more popular my website gets, the more spam I get. I reduce it through a number of procedures. Surprisingly, the best procedure is just to require 30 seconds on a page before a comment is posted. That weeds out the vast majority of auto-spam. After that there are some other procedures, but I still have to hand filter a lot of spam. This is sad. It means that real people can’t comment right away all because a bunch of assholes are trying to game the search engines.

As for all the spam that is lately driving you crazy: fuck off!

Fluoridation Wars Continue

Fluoridated Drinking WaterAbout five years ago, I was talking to my father’s girlfriend Louise. She was a big Glenn Beck fan who died shortly before his implosion, so she never found out that the revolution would not, in fact, be televised. Obviously, I was used to some strange ideas coming out of her mouth. But one day she blew my mind by ranting about the evils of water fluoridation. Louise, of course, did not get this idea from Beck. He has long maintained that this issue is a joke—even ridiculing callers about it.

Louise had a friend who listened to Coast to Coast AM religiously. Its stock and trade is these kinds of quack theories. Another one I remembered was the idea that we were all being poisoned by aircraft contrails. (In graduate school, I did some work on the gases in these things; there is nothing to it, except that it can release large amounts of water into the high atmosphere.)

Conspiracy theories are not a right-left kind of thing. Most people who are very into them tend to live in a vague political world that is simultaneously left and right. But because most conspiracies depend either directly or indirectly on the government, there is an intense anti-authoritarian aspect to such people. I value that! Unfortunately, most of these people are easily manipulated. Look at the Tea Party groups: in the early days, they were definitely of this type. But over time, they found a very natural place in the Republican Party. Conspiracy theorists on the left don’t find a nice spot in the Democratic Party. Instead, they are socialists or much more commonly anarchists. But regardless of which side, there is a fair amount of crossover. For example, those on the right are often skeptical of corporations; those on the left are often skeptical about government actions like gun background checks.

This all comes to mind because today Portland, Oregon is voting whether to fluoridate their drinking water. Sadly, it is almost certainly going to lose. The Center for Disease Control has named fluoridated drinking water one of the Ten Great Public Health Achievements of the last century. So why is it going to lose? After all, Portland’s a fairly liberal city. Well, the truth is that when fluoridation is on a ballot, it usually loses. The 1990s is considered a great time for fluoridation advocates and they only won a bit more than half their fights then.

I think the problem is that most people don’t really care. They don’t have strongly held opinions on the matter. They don’t even know if their water is fluoridated or not. And they will never have direct knowledge of its benefits. How are they to know that their kids had half as many cavities as they would have had without it? On the other side, things are quite different. The anti-fluoridation folks are almost hysterical. So I think most people look at the situation and think: on the one hand, I don’t care; what’s more, the pro-fluoridation people don’t make major claims for it; on the other hand, the anti-fluoridation people think this is really terrible; so I’ll go along with them because there is a minor upside and potentially a very big downside.

This begs the question of why these anti-fluoridation people are so freaked out. There are actual concerns about fluoridation. There are health risks when it is taken at high levels. It is costly in a direct way (although the cost benefits far outweigh these). But these are primarily post hoc concerns. The anti-fluoridation forces are mostly concerned about the government forcing them to take medicines they don’t want. This is ridiculous, of course. You could as easily claim that the government is forcing you to drink clean water with all its nefarious sewage facilities.

If you look at the history of the anti-fluoridation movement, it is directly linked to the anti-communist movement. Dr. Stangelove lampooned this idea of an obsession with “precious bodily fluids.” But the fact is that there was (And is!) an obsession on the political margins with the idea of purity and the fear that evil forces are trying to pollute us. Interestingly, most of these people are not at all interested in real pollution threats. In Dr. Strangelove, Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper is not worried about nuclear fallout, but he only drinks distilled water:

Sandra Guerard is quoted over at Wonk Blog. She was a school teacher in the 1960s in Connecticut. She writes that, “During that period, opponents of fluoride painted swastikas on the doors of homes of physicians who supported adding fluoride to the water.” That is not rational behavior for what is, after all, just a public health debate.

If there are problems with concentration variation in fluoridated water, people could call for that to be fixed. If the current concentration is too high (it isn’t), people could call for it to be lowered. If fluoridation costs more than it saves, that should be demonstrated. But none of that is going on. Instead, we hear that fluoridation is bad and we just can’t have it. And that leads me to believe that although the public arguments have changed (No more: “Communist plot!”) the real arguments have not. It is still about purity and our “precious bodily fluids.”

But like Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, I have to admit that I’ve never seen a communist drink water.

The Unholy Three