Watchlist Is Government Wishlist

Watchlisting GuidanceJeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux have just written a very scary article, Blacklisted: the Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist. Basically, it documents that it doesn’t take much of anything for the government to label you a terrorist. Being associated with someone who the government suspects of being a terrorist can be enough. But the problem really isn’t how broad a net the government is casting. It is how vague a net it is casting.

The problem here is that this is how the Soviet Union worked. Basically everyone there was guilty of multiple crimes against the state. You couldn’t really get through life without doing things that were technically wrong but which everyone did. And it was just fine—as long as you didn’t bother anyone in power. Once you did that, then you were screwed. The law came down on you hard. I’m not suggesting that this is the case in the United States, but it is certain that we are moving in that direction, and have been for at least a century.

One line from the article really got to me, “They also define as terrorism any act that is ‘dangerous’ to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.” It is the second part of that sentence that really bothers me. The reason is that I kind of agree that intimidation is a form of terrorism. Remember when Sharron Angle said, “I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” That was intimidation: elect me or there will be armed revolt. Remember when Ted Nugent said, “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will be either be dead or in jail by this time next year.” That was intimidation: if Obama wins re-election, I will try to kill him. Remember when Sarah Palin tweeted, “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!”? That was intimidation. Do you want more? Media Matters provided a small list in, Conservative Media Figures Have History of Violent Rhetoric.

But you know you will never see Sharron Angle or Ted Nugent or Sarah Palin labeled a terrorist. The biggest reason is that they are part of the power elite and so are effectively untouchable. But it is also that they are on the right wing. The government has a history of being more worried about non-violent peace protesters than the Second Amendment brigade. (And maybe they should be; I think most of the Second Amendment shouters are actually cowards.) So you can depend upon whatever rules the government comes up with to be used against anyone working for change that the power elite doesn’t want.

Consider this wonderful sentence from the rule book, “Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.” In a strictly legal sense, I think this means that someone can be reasonably suspected of being a terrorist just because someone wants them to be. Given that I am not only not a terrorist, but a person committed to nonviolence, the circumstances would not permit any evidence being obtained to suspect me of terrorism. Therefore, the government ought to be able to label me as a suspected terrorist with no evidence at all. They won’t, of course; I’m no threat to the power elite. But this kind of wide open legalistic rule book for labeling terrorists is already being misused and will only be misused more in the future.

You question me? Read:

The system has been criticized for years. In 2004, [Senator] Ted Kennedy complained that he was barred from boarding flights on five separate occasions because his name resembled the alias of a suspected terrorist. Two years later, CBS News obtained a copy of the no fly list and reported that it included Bolivian president Evo Morales and Lebanese parliament head Nabih Berri.

Evo Morales is not terrorist, but he is a leftist, which appears to be close enough. And while Nabih Berri is a conservative, he’s also Lebanese. Need I say more?

If this all sounds like I’ve lost my mind, go read the whole article. It’s even worse than I’m making it out. The “Watchlisting Guidance” document should be called the “Wishlisting Guidance” document, because it pretty much allows the government to target anyone they want for any reason they want. But I don’t suppose that comes as a shock to any of my readers. To give you an idea, let me quote from the end of the article at length. While you’re reading it, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound like something out of a Kafka novel:

The government has been widely criticized for making it impossible for people to know why they have been placed on a watchlist, and for making it nearly impossible to get off. The guidelines bluntly state that “the general policy of the US Government is to neither confirm nor deny an individual’s watchlist status.” But the courts have taken exception to the official silence and footdragging: In June, a federal judge described the government’s secretive removal process as unconstitutional and “wholly ineffective.”

The difficulty of getting off the list is highlighted by a passage in the guidelines stating that an individual can be kept on the watchlist, or even placed onto the watchlist, despite being acquitted of a terrorism-related crime. The rulebook justifies this by noting that conviction in US courts requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas watchlisting requires only a reasonable suspicion. Once suspicion is raised, even a jury’s verdict cannot erase it.

Not even death provides a guarantee of getting off the list. The guidelines say the names of dead people will stay on the list if there is reason to believe the deceased’s identity may be used by a suspected terrorist—which the National Counterterrorism Center calls a “demonstrated terrorist tactic.” In fact, for the same reason, the rules permit the deceased spouses of suspected terrorists to be placed onto the list after they have died.

For the living, the process of getting off the watchlist is simple yet opaque. A complaint can be filed through the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, which launches an internal review that is not subject to oversight by any court or entity outside the counterterrorism community. The review can result in removal from a watchlist or an adjustment of watchlist status, but the individual will not be told if he or she prevails. The guidelines highlight one of the reasons why it has been difficult to get off the list—if multiple agencies have contributed information on a watchlisted individual, all of them must agree to removing him or her.

If a US citizen is placed on the no fly list while abroad and is turned away from a flight bound for the US, the guidelines say they should be referred to the nearest US embassy or consulate, which is prohibited from informing them why they were blocked from flying. According to the rules, these individuals can be granted a “One-Time Waiver” to fly, though they will not be told that they are traveling on a waiver. Back in the United States, they will be unable to board another flight.

The document states that nominating agencies are “under a continuing obligation” to provide exculpatory information when it emerges. It adds that the agencies are expected to conduct annual reviews of watchlisted American citizens and green card holders. It is unclear whether foreigners—or the dead—are reviewed at the same pace. As the rulebook notes, “watchlisting is not an exact science.”

Remember: when they hand you the knife, you are expected to kill yourself; but you don’t have to; if forced, they will do it for you.

Can the Democrats Hold Senate?

The UpshotOne of my many minor addictions is checking The Upshot‘s Senate Forecast every day. And it is not the simple thrill of seeing what “today’s number” is. For the record, today’s number is 53%—the Republicans have a 53% chance of retaking the Senate, which The Upshot classifies as a “toss up.”

There is much more, though! They also provide up to date forecasts from five other organizations that do this kind of work. These include the Cook Political Report, which does old fashioned analysis and is never, it would seem, willing to go out on a limb. For example, it says that Montana leans toward Republican Steve Daines and against Democrat John Walsh, even though Walsh’s own mother wouldn’t think he has a shot—barring Daines having a fatal heart attack.

Also on the list is Five Thirty Eight, which is what The Upshot replaced at The New York Times. They tend to agree rather well with The Upshot, but it seems that Nate Silver just isn’t that interested in politics anymore. They don’t run their model all that often.

But the real outlier is The Monkey Cage model, now sadly supported by the Washington Post. It is a political science driven model and it does not paint a rosy picture of the Senate come next year. They currently give the Republicans an 87% chance of taking the Senate.

For a long time, I’ve said that the Democrats have a 50-50 change of keeping the Senate. But I am also a “fundamentals” guy. And political scientists have gotten really good at predicting elections—especially from a long way out. And I have to say that I go along with the fundamentals. It is looking more and more like the Republicans will take the Senate in November. But it is important to remember a two things.

First, if they take it, it isn’t going to be a “wave” election. They will have 51 or 52 seats. So it isn’t going to be that big a deal, and they are going to lose the Senate come 2016. Barring a Supreme Court opening, there isn’t likely to be much in the way of change, regardless.

Second, it does not mean that “the people” have turned against Obama or the Democrats or liberalism or anything else. It means that there were roughly twice as many Democrats running for re-election as Republicans. And it also means that angry old rich white people show up to the polls for midterm elections a lot more than calm young poor multi-ethnic people do. Forgive me while I rant for a paragraph.

I am so tired of this idea that Americans are constantly changing their minds about politics. This year they like the Democrats! Next year they like the Republicans! No, no, no! Pretty much year after year, people are the same. They don’t change. All that really changes is who is willing to make the effort to vote. And in this country, we have decided that we don’t believe in a fair democracy. So we make it far easier for rich people to vote than for poor people. So it isn’t even that liberal voters are less inclined to vote, it is just that in general, it is harder for them: they have less time and their polling places are poorly staffed. Regardless, whatever the election result, it doesn’t mean that anything has changed in the mind of the typical American from 2012.

Having ranted that, there is one thing that gives me hope. The Democrats are spending a lot more money this election on efforts to get out the vote. If this works and the electorate looks more like it does during a presidential election, then all the models will be wrong and the Democrats will do much better—almost certainly holding onto the Senate. We will have to see. I’ve been arguing for this for a long time. All this business about attracting the “swing” voter is just madness. You want to know my definition of a swing voter: a Democrat (Republican) who just isn’t yet willing to say he is going to vote for the Democrat (Republican). So the new Democratic approach is a good one. We will have to see how effective they are at it.

Cause of Every Israel-Palestine War

Gershom GorenbergThe war isn’t a hurricane; it didn’t happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.

Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What’s wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don’t have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational.

In a 2007 article that now reads as if written to explain the 2014 Gaza war, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and fellow psychologist Jonathan Renshon succinctly gave some answers. Human minds, they said, have hard-wired biases that favor hawks. People are too optimistic about their own strengths, including the strength of their armies. They prefer to double down rather than to cut their losses. They’re sure that other people can read their thoughts and understand their good intentions—even while they misread their opponents’ intent.

You can go down this list and find painful proofs in the events of recent weeks: Hamas appeared absurdly overconfident that rocket fire would force Israel to stop air attacks and loosen its siege on Gaza. When that didn’t work, rather than accept a ceasefire, it upped the ante by sending gunmen through tunnels to surface in Israeli territory. Israel thought Hamas would surely fold in the face of air strikes. When that didn’t happen, it quintupled its bet with the ground invasion. The Israeli government thinks the world has to understand that it’s acting in self-defense, even as whole families die in Gaza. This isn’t just a PR ploy Or rather, the PR is sincere, which doesn’t make it more convincing outside Israel.

—Gershom Gorenberg
This Is Your Brain on War: A Dispatch From Jerusalem (I recommend reading the whole article.)

H/T: Ed Kilgore

Obamacare, Republicans, and Rich People’s Money

Jonathan CohnSometimes, I think I’m too hard on myself. There really is a big difference between being cynical and simply seeing reality clearly. This came to mind this morning reading Dean Baker, Why Would Anyone Think Republican Opposition to Obamacare Is Based on Ideology as Opposed to Just Money. It is in reference to an article by Jonathan Cohn. Now, as regular readers know, I think Jonathan Cohn is absolutely essential reading on healthcare issues. But he made the mistake of claiming, “[Republicans] simply don’t believe in universal health care.”

The truth is that no one knows for certain why Republicans absolutely, positively think Obamacare is the end of freedom in America, when it was their idea in the first place and they were all for it before the Democrats agreed to it. There are actually two parts to this, that I have discussed at various times in various ways. The main thing is that the whole Heritage Foundation plan that Obamacare is based on was never meant to be actual policy. It was only used to shoot down any more liberal policy like single-payer healthcare. This is what Jonathan Chait labeled, The Heritage Uncertainty Principle. The idea is that conservative healthcare reform only exists as long as it has no hope of implementation. The moment it becomes plausible, it is denounced by the very same conservatives as, “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!”

Dean BakerBaker takes on the other half of the issue. But I’ve been talking about the same thing for years: the reason that Republicans hate Obamacare has nothing to do with the individual mandate or “freedom” or any of the dozens of other reasons they claim the law is Satan’s spawn. The reason they hate it is the one reason they never talk about explicitly: it raised taxes on the rich. Now it is true, that occasionally, a Republican will talk about how it raised taxes, but they will imply that it raised taxes on everyone and it didn’t. It didn’t raise taxes on a single person I know, and one of them is a millionaire.

Baker provides the scenario:

Suppose they don’t have deep convictions about universal health care insurance, but do have deep convictions about money leaving the pockets of rich people. Of course taxes were raised on the rich to cover part of the cost of subsidies in the exchanges.Suppose also they like a cheap docile labor force. The type that fears unemployment and also needs a full-time job just to get health care insurance. (This makes it easier to get good help.)

In this respect it is worth noting that the number of people working part-time by choice has increased by 800,000 over the last year. This is consistent with a story where people who don’t need to work full-time to get health care insurance will work less. This is great news for workers and bad news for “it’s hard to get good help” crowd.

If my suppositions are true then the Republican leaders would hate Obamacare even if they never gave a thought to universal health care and the government’s obligations to individuals. It’s a question of taking money from rich people, end of story.

Is this cynical? Actually, no. Political parties have constituencies. The Republican Party’s main constituency is the rich. They also pander to social conservatives and racists, but this is just out of necessity. There aren’t many rich people. And the social conservative and racist appeals don’t bother the interests of the rich, and (as with welfare “reform”) can often be used to further the interests of the rich.

I’ll admit: looking at the the world this way is Machiavellian. But the point of The Prince is to show a young ruler how to stay in power. It’s not like I think that all people would kill you as soon as look at you, if they thought they could get away with it. I actually believe in altruism and that it is a big part of how our species has managed to make it this far. But political parties survive by serving constituencies. This is how they are supposed to work. The only reason the Democratic Party is better than the Republican Party is that it serves a much bigger and more diverse constituency.

Rick SantelliSo yeah, Republican opposition to Obamacare is all about money. Most of the people who vote for Republicans don’t realize this of course. But all you have to do is look at the Tea Party to understand. A lot of the Republican base was very unhappy about the TARP bank bailout. (So were a lot of the Democratic base!) They grumbled but nothing happened. Then, when a Democrat was in the White House and actual homeowners were going to be helped, the group sprouted. It didn’t sprout because Rick Santelli ranted—he does that five days per week. It sprouted because the conservative elite took that same grumbling and pushed it via Fox News, hate radio, and well funded events!

But it’s all about what the rich want. And maybe someday, the people in the poorer classes who vote Republican will realize that the party doesn’t actually represent them. But that’s a different issue. In terms of looking at actual Republican Party policy, all you have to do is look at what the super rich want.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Raw Emotion

Philip Seymour HoffmanThere are a lot of good birthdays today. Last year, my way of doing the birthday posts was to do a whole bunch of people, but to “give” the day to a certain person. Last year today, it was Raymond Chandler. It’s kind of interesting, because a couple of night ago, I was going back over as much of my second novel as I have written. I was trying to convince myself to burn it. And reading it, I realized that much of it is straight out of Chandler. Of course, the whole point is that the novel pretends to be one of those kind of books without actually being one of those kind of books. And it also tries to be Moby-Dick. And this may, in the end, be the problem. I should probably aim lower. I am neither a Chandler nor a Melville—even a pretend one.

On this day in 1967 the fine American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was born. Normally, I wouldn’t pick him, but he just died. I was never an especially big fan, but he was a good actor. And unlike a lot of actors, I actually saw him get better over time. But this is probably just because I saw him act from a pretty young age. A lot of actors are very serious. However, it is hard to look at Joseph Gordon-Levitt and think anything but that he doesn’t have any depth. Hoffman, even from his earliest roles seemed like he was on the edge, emotionally.

I first saw him in Scent of a Woman, where he perfectly captured the fear and silliness of the privileged class. Next I saw him in Twister, doing a role that he could easily have become type cast into. It was his portrayal of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous that really made me take notice of him. For one thing, I had been a huge fan of Bangs since I was a teenager. But Hoffman added an emotional layer that I never got from Bangs’ writing. But I think it was right. I think that’s how Bangs probably was. I think people make the same mistake reading me. On the page, I’m downright bombastic, but in person I’m shy with a dread of conflict. (Admittedly, Cameron Crowe actually knew Bangs and so that is in the script.)

The high point of Hoffman’s career was undoubtedly Capote, even though I think that Toby Jones was better in Infamous. It was, however, interesting to see Hoffman play a part that I would have thought him completely unsuitable for. But any time an American actor can hold his own against a well trained British actor, you know you are dealing with a great talent.

But what I liked most about Hoffman was his raw and honest emotionalism. I’ve never seen him better than in A Late Quartet, a film I only managed to see a week before he died. Another good one is The Savages.

When he died recently, I was very upset with the coverage and wrote, Leave Philip Seymour Hoffman Alone! Perhaps the worst thing that people do to drug users is to define them by that one activity. Even though Hoffman’s fame pushed against that narrative, that didn’t stop all kinds of people from trying to define him as a drug addict. It’s no less ridiculous than had he been hit by a train, creating a narrative where being hit by a train explained the arc of his life. It is sad that he’s dead, because he did good work. Of course, we aren’t exactly suffering from a lack of fine actors. But Hoffman was special in that he was overweight and not terribly attractive. And we do have far too few ugly and fat people in the movies.

Happy birthday Philip Seymour Hoffman!

Frank and Drum View of Obama

Kevin DrumOver the weekend, Thomas Frank wrote, Right-Wing Obstruction Could Have Been Fought: an Ineffective and Gutless Presidency’s Legacy Is Failure. Nothing that Frank ever writes should be dismissed, but sadly, the article doesn’t live up to its title. It is actually about what Obama’s legacy will be, and he takes what I think is a rather naive view. Reading it, one would get the impression that Frank actually believed all Obama’s wonderful rhetoric during the 2008 campaign. And I don’t think that’s true; Frank is far too clearheaded a political observer.

In 2008, I was far too involved in creating devices to hung on airplanes to stream realtime video to a computer on the ground 15 km away to be paying too much attention to politics. Maybe it was because I wasn’t terribly involved that I could see that Obama was just another New Democrat—a centrist who was as revolutionary are George III. It was only in 2010 that we found out that Obama actually thought of himself as a “blue dog” Democrat—a conservative democrat, and given how conservative the Democratic Party has become over the last 25 years, that’s pretty conservative.

Thomas FrankWhat’s sad—tragic really—about Obama, is that in his mind, he probably really did think he could bring the parties together. After all, he truly was a centrist! Unlike with Frank who can’t be as naive as he implies, I do think Obama was that naive. But I could have told him before he got into office. During the Clinton years, I was a libertarian. And I was shocked, but amused, that conservatives ranted about how he was a socialist. It didn’t matter that Clinton was the most conservative Democratic President since Woodrow Wilson, the Republicans were going to pretend that he was Joseph Stalin, even as they would have embraced him had he been a Republican.

So I know just how Obama’s presidential library is going to talk about him. It will focus on Obamacare. It will focus on the huge deficit when he came in and how much lower it was when he got out. It will talk about how the economy improved. And there will be the other minor accomplishments like Dodd-Frank. What there won’t be is a lot of talk about fundamentally transforming Washington. And there won’t be that for two reasons. First, Obama never meant by that what the people who voted for him thought it meant. To him, the two parties were going to meet in between Obama who was already in the middle and the far right; no one voted for that, but that was what was in Obama’s mind. Second, Obama didn’t even manage to accomplish that because however lowly I may think of Obama, the Republicans really are just a crazy, power for power’s sake party.

Unfortunately, Kevin Drum responded to Frank’s article with his own, If the Left Wants Scapegoats, Just Look in the Mirror. Drum is a very good and insightful writer; I like him a lot. But as wrong as Frank is, Drum is even wronger. He argues that Obama did only what he could because America just isn’t that liberal, and the fault goes to people like Drum and Frank who couldn’t convince them of the rightness of our cause. Well, that’s an argument I hear a lot. And it just isn’t true. I care about economics, but let’s look at a social issue: same sex marriage. That’s an area where Obama just followed along behind public opinion. Thomas Frank is right to characterize the last six years as “an ineffective and gutless presidency.”

Then, after the 2010 election, Obama acted as though it were an indication of what “America” wanted. What it was, was what the conservative base wanted. Obama’s young and diverse base didn’t show up at the polls in high enough numbers. This is Political Science 101 stuff. But he at least pretended that he didn’t know this. He pretended that the nation had sent him a message. And he allowed the catastrophic Budget Control Act of 2011, which is a big reason our economic recovery is so anemic to this day.

Ultimately, by 2011, I don’t think that Obama was naive. He really did want a Grand Bargain. He really was a Blue Dog Democrat all along. He really was more concerned about the budget deficit in 2011 than he was 9% unemployment. But I think he did about as well as could be expected. And on bad days, I think he is about the best we can expect from a president in a time of billion dollar campaigns.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Obama will get his library and it will say he was great, just like all the other ones say that their presidents were great. And none of it matters. Because after he leaves office, Obama will have a great life. Why shouldn’t he? They all do. Bush the Younger had a catastrophic presidency, but he is still admired by huge numbers of people, he’s still invited to all the best parties, he’s still rich and powerful. All the same will be true of Obama. It won’t matter to him.

As for how “the people” will remember Obama? I wrote about this last year, Obama and Buono and Christie:

Obama’s lack of a Buono endorsement is unforgivable. And the funny thing is that he seems to do all of his work to shore up his reputation as a bipartisan leader who is the “adult in the room.” He wants people to look back on him like they now look back on Clinton and Reagan. But it ain’t gonna happen. People look back fondly on those presidents because the economies were really good when they left office. When Obama leaves office the economy will at best be continuing to struggle ahead. When most people look back on him, they will think, “Meh.” When people like me look back on him, we will think of him as a guy who talked pretty but wasn’t nearly as liberal as he claimed. We will regret the great opportunity cost of his presidency. And we will despise him for not giving a shit about the party that he ostensibly led.

And it’s because of that that Thomas Frank is mostly right about Obama and Kevin Drum is totally wrong.