December 24, 2007

The True Nature of Christmas

Two of the biggest embarrassments in infotainment, Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson, claim there is a "War on Christmas" being waged by atheists and secularists designed to denigrate the role of religion and diminish it's role in American life. Mr. O'Reilly, in particular, has gone so far as to claim the crass commercialism that now sees Christmas decorations installed in retail stores prior to Halloween is actually an important part of the holiday, and denounced those who want to make December 25th a more purely religious observance.

While there are unquestionably religious roots in the celebration of Christmas, as the Wall Street Journal points out in an excellent article, there are, in fact, two Christmases; one a celebration of the Christian nativity, the other marking the winter solstice as observed by nearly every faith or cult that preceded the spread of Christendom:
The Christmas of parties and presents is far older than the Nativity. Most ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb once more in the sky. In ancient Rome, this festival was called the Saturnalia and ran from December 17 to December 24. During that week, no work was done, and the time was spent in parties, games, gift giving and decorating the houses with evergreens. (Sound familiar?) It was, needless to say, a very popular holiday.

In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of the full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. So in A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. That's why Easter and its associated days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are "moveable feasts," moving about the calendar at the whim of the moon.

It is a mark of how late Christmas came to the Christian calendar that it is not a moveable feast, but a fixed one, determined by the solar calendar established by Julius Caesar and still in use today (although slightly tweaked in the 16th century).

By the time of the Council of Nicea, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on December 25. It was, frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in.

History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born, but according to the Gospel of St. Luke, "shepherds were abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flocks by night." This would imply a date in the spring or summer when the flocks were up in the hills and needed to be guarded. In winter they were kept safely in corrals.

So December 25 must have been chosen for other reasons. It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also, December 25 was the day of the sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system.
Further, the nature of the Christmas holiday has changed throughout history, with the flavor of observance ranging from wild bacchanalia to sober piety and back again. The idea that Christmas is something that has remained unchanged until recent attacks by the ACLU and the un-religious is clearly unsupported by historical fact or the current rampant commercialism we see today. There are groups that would argue that the Christmas of John Gibson and Bill O'Reilly is the real sham, and individuals who seek to return it to an earlier, more purely religious celebration.

Whatever one's vision of Christmas, however - whether as a time or worship, gathering, gift exchanges or over-indulgence - there remains one common theme: the coming together of families and friends. And while we might not all concur on the significance of the holiday, hopefully we can all agree that bringing together those most important to us is a good thing. May you have a wonderful Christmas, in whatever manner you choose to observe (or not observe) it.

Happy holidays! Sensen No Sen will return in 2008.

December 21, 2007

Who Pulls the F.C.C.'s Strings?

In two recent posts, Kevin Martin's Contempt for the Public He Serves and The Arrogance of Kevin Martin, I described Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) Chairman Martin's headlong rush to relaxed media ownership rules, contrary to both thoroughly expressed public sentiment and the will of Congress. In his latest attempt to serve someone other than the people who pay his salary, on December 18th, Mr. Martin forced the vote he had threatened to allow major media corporations to control more of what the public sees and hears. The new media ownership rules passed the out of the F.C.C. on a 3-2 party-line vote:
Martin pushed the vote through despite intense pressure from House and Senate members on Capitol Hill to delay it. The chairman, however, has the support of the White House, which has pledged to turn back any congressional action that seeks to undo the vote.
[Commission] Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein ... were bitterly opposed to his media ownership rule.

The two men criticized Martin for making changes to his proposal "in the dead of night" and just prior to the meeting that they said created new loopholes in the rule instead of closing them, as Martin pledged during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.

"Anybody who thinks our processes are open, thoughtful or deliberative should think twice in light of these nocturnal escapades," said Adelstein.

Adelstein said Martin's proposal "will allow for waivers for six new newspaper-broadcast combinations and 36 grandfathered stations."

In a lengthy statement, Copps described the commission's action as a "terrible decision."

"In the final analysis, the real winners today are businesses that are in many cases quite healthy, and the real losers are going to be all of us who depend on the news media to learn what's happening in our communities and to keep an eye on local government," he said.
Four days earlier, a bipartisan group of 26 senators sent Chairman Martin a letter making it clear that they believe he not only shortchanged the public comment period prior to the vote, but that they would move immediately to introduce legislation unraveling the new rules if he proceeded. With the precedent of having overturned previous F.C.C. Chair Michael Powell's efforts to loosen media ownership, and it initially appeared that this might happen quickly. That changed, however, when a letter from Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came to light making it clear that the White House opposes any delay on consideration of media ownership rules, "or any other attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means."

A significant political battle appears to be, once again, in the offing, but no matter what happens, Kevin Martin has been duly exposed as a shill for big media. [Hat tip BuzzFlash.] Broadcasting & Cable, a television business trade publication, reported earlier this month that:
It didn't take long for Tribune [Company] to take the Federal Communications Commission to court over its decision to grant temporary waivers for the company's newspaper-broadcast cross-ownerships in five markets.

The company filed suit in the D.C. Court of Appeals Wednesday, saying the decision was "contrary to law, arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and not supported by substantial evidence."

Why would Tribune sue a commission that just saved its buyout deal? Because it still gets the waiver whether it sues or not. And if it wins, the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership ban could get thrown out altogether - a step the chairman has signaled he is unwilling to take. As expected, the filing took aim at the ban in its entirety as well. "[T]he commission's ongoing enforcement of its newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule in its existing form is unconstitutional," Tribune told the court.

Tribune had asked for indefinite waivers. The company said it needed to get the waivers in five markets at least 20 business days before the end of the year so that it could get the deal done by January 1 or risk having it fall apart and having the company sold for parts. The F.C.C.'s Republican majority denied permanent waivers, agreeing only to two-year waivers or six months after the end of any litigation over current or future ownership rules. Commission Democrats opposed the waivers, with commissioner Michael Copps anticipating Tribune's move.

"If the majority simply granted a two-year waiver to Tribune - which would have been the straightforward thing to do - Tribune would have been unable to go to court because a party cannot file an appeal if their waiver request is granted," Copps pointed out in his dissenting statement. "So what does this order do? It denies the waiver request but offers an automatic (and unprecedented) waiver extension as soon as Tribune runs to the courthouse door. Presto! Tribune gets at least a two-year waiver plus the ability to go to court immediately and see if they can get the entire rule thrown out."

Copps also opined that Tribune would be able to appeal to the "more sympathetic" D.C. Circuit, bypassing the Third Circuit, which remanded the general ban back to the commission, although even that court indicated that the F.C.C. could make a case for modifying or lifting the ban.
What all this means is that the Tribune Company colluded with the Federal Communications Commission to bring suit against the F.C.C. The F.C.C. is helping to sue itself in order to assist Tribune in subverting the regulatory process without legal exposure and to keep it's leveraged buyout - which is dependent on looser ownership rules - afloat. On top of permitting Tribune to game the regulatory system, this tactic also allows the company to challenge the entire process of regulating cross-ownership in court. All courtesy of Kevin Martin.

It is hard to argue that consolidation in the media industry would, in many cases, bring both savings and profits to major media corporations. What is apparently lost to both President Bush and our current F.C.C. Chairman however, is that the airwaves belong to the public, and as a public asset the first and overriding consideration when modifying rules for their use is this: Does this change better serve the public? The answer to the this question in regard to the new media ownership rules is a resounding no.

In my December 12th post I wrote:
Rich rewards for his advocacy of industry over public interest and a plum position almost certainly await Mr. Martin when he leaves the F.C.C., public opinion and reaction be damned. While the Senate appears to be making the right moves to counter the chairman, it is clear that, while he is still collecting a U.S. government paycheck, he almost unquestionably serves a master other than the American people...
It appears we now know exactly who is pulling Kevin Martin's strings.

December 18, 2007

Chris Dodd's Act of Genuine Leadership

Yesterday, something extraordinary happened in Washington, DC. A presidential candidate and current senator not only kept a promise, but set aside pursuit of his party's nomination - and personal ambition - to do so. Backed by a groundswell of public support, his efforts - in a very real victory for both the rule of law and popular activism - ensured that a horrendous piece of legislation, which would have swept under the carpet serial law-breaking on the part of some of the nation's biggest corporations, was stopped in its tracks.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, the Bush Administration's national intelligence apparatus has, with the cooperation of some of the nation's largest telecommunications firms, enormously increased warrantless surveillance of American citizens. While White House public relations messaging initially touted this effort as a tool against terrorism, the National Security Agency's (NSA) wiretapping and data collection program was launched long before 9/11, and is used routinely to collect phone records for common drug cases that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda or similar organizations.

Administration reassurances that the program did not gather information on Americans proved empty when it was revealed that the initiative was specifically designed to pick up significant amounts of purely domestic communications. To accomplish this, the NSA requested access to the "most localized communications switches, which primarily carry domestic calls" and through which only "limited international traffic ... passes through ..." Pointedly, one anonymous engineer confirmed that in launching the program to log all calls coming across one company's wires, "There was no discussion of limiting the monitoring to international communications."

Finally, despite all of this, the White House made the claim that the National Security Agency was only collecting the data most crucial to fighting terrorism. New evidence, however, clearly reveals that - rather than performing targeted surveillance - the government is conducting enormous dragnet operations. As the Times reports, "The NSA met with AT&T officials to discuss replicating a network center in Bedminster, NJ, to give the agency access to all the global phone and eMail traffic that ran through it." [Emphasis mine.]

All of this activity violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was signed into law precisely to halt the warrantless domestic spying that had become endemic by the early 1970's. In spite of attempts to create the appearance that there is some debate about whether what the Bush Adminstration is doing is within the rules, this activity is - and let's be perfectly clear - 100% illegal.

Recognizing that examination of the program in the courts will not only mean the end of spying on American citizens without a warrant or probable cause - not to mention grounds for the impeachment of both President Bush and Vice President Cheney - the administration has been lobbying hard for permanent revisions to the FISA law that would grant broad surveillance powers to the president without requiring even the limited judicial review necessitated by FISA. (A temporary granting of those powers is currently in place, but will expire in February.) Further, essentially ackowledging that the program to date has been illicit, the White House has also pressed Congress to provide amnesty for the companies that have helped the NSA break the law.

What all this means is that President Bush knows the program of warrantless surveillance violates the law and that the telecommunications firms are complicit, but he wants Congress to provide something that is never, ever provided to individuals: a Get Out of Jail Free card. If this happens, it would be as if crimes committed by Verizon and AT&T had simply never occurred, and the American public would be denied the opportunity to learn through legal recourse exactly how badly its rights had been violated.

With all of this in mind, two versions of a new FISA bill were produced in the Senate, the first originating in the Intelligence Committee chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller. Constructed in close cooperation with the White House, it provides both the broad powers requested by the Bush Administration and retroactive immunity for the telecoms. An alternate bill also cleared Senator Patrick Leahy's Judiciary Committee that provided some additional streamlining for the surveillance process, but also confirmed that the existing FISA requirements (rather than the current, temporary ones) are the law of the land. Starkly and purposefully, it also made no provision for retroactive immunity.

Either of these versions could be brought to the Senate for a vote, with whichever edition that went unchosen offered as a substitute. Critically however, it takes 60 votes - a threshold that is very difficult to reach in the closely divided upper chamber - to even consider a substitute bill, so the version that was offered first would have a distinct advantage. Given that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had expressed his opposition to retroactive immunity, it might be considered a shock that he brought forth the Rockefeller version. Given his track record of complete capitulation to the Bush White House, however, it is an act of betrayal that should have been expected. Ignoring a hold placed on the Intelligence Committe bill by Senator Dodd, Senator Reid chose to set a free pass to law-breaking violators of the Constitution on the path toward becoming law, all the while attempting to cloke his decision in rules of parliamentary procedure and tradition.

Then, something unexpected took place.

The blogosphere, civil libertarians and pretty much anyone who cares about the rule of law and was paying attention, erupted in a storm of protest, flooding Senator Reid's office with calls and eMails voicing outrage and anger. And Senator Chris Dodd, campaigning for the presidency in Iowa - and running well behind the leaders - fulfilled his promise to filibuster any bill that included retroactive immunity, leaving the campaign trail to return to Washington and keep his word. None of the other Democratic candidates who are also sitting senators - Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Barack Obama - did the same, despite expressing rhetorical support for their colleague's position. Thankfully, Senator Dodd's efforts were enough to force Majority Leader Reid to table the bill until next year.

It is tragic that a politician who appears to genuinely care about the foundational princples of this country is so rare. It is sad that when such a man follows through on his promises - foregoing his own ambitions and doing the right thing - it is so uncommon that it is newsworthy. But it should not detract from the fact that Chris Dodd, Senator from Connecticut and longshot candidate for the presidency, did what no one else has done in a long, long time. He stood up for the rule of law and for the Constitution, and he refused to capitulate to the corrupt thugs who currently occupy both the White House and a good portion of Capitol Hill. In short, he did what we should expect all of our elected leaders and representatives to do. He did what should be the rule, rather than the exception.

While the battle has been won, the war is far from over. Verizon and AT&T will regroup, and the Rockefeller/White House legislation will make another appearance in January or February, but for now, the bill - an utter affront to everything for which this country is supposed to stand - has been defeated. And in this turn of events, it is my personal hope that Chris Dodd begins to get some well-deserved attention as a viable presidential contender.

I don't agree with every position Mr. Dodd's ever taken, but I agree with a lot of them, and I agree with almost all of his current, stated positions. While I would prefer that he not have voted to support the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, he has since become an articulate opponent of the war. Most importantly, he has learned the lessons of failing to stand against the creeping tyranny embodied in the presidency of George W. Bush, stating that he deeply regrets failing to filibuster the Military Commissions Act, and vowing that if such an issue comes before him again, he will not falter. Senator Dodd has made restoration of the Constitution a centerpiece of his campaign, and by his actions on Monday, shown himself to be passionately sincere in his desire to deliver on that promise.

While the right wing will say that everything starts with security and a sound national defense, I emphatically disagree. Everything starts with the Constitution, because unless the rule of law is protected, America is just another surveillance state, another tin pot oligarchy, another dictatorship. If the election were held today, Chris Dodd might very well have my vote.

  • If you would like to learn more about Chris Dodd or contribute to his campaign, his website is can be found here.

  • The always excellent Glenn Greenwald has the details of yesterday's events in a post called, appropriately, Anatomy and Significance of Monday's FISA Victory.

  • Below is an interview with Senator Dodd on MSNBC's Countdown, that nicely summarizes the events of Monday and in which he describes his decision to leave the campaign trail and filibuster the telecom amnesty bill.

  • December 16, 2007

    Kevin Martin's Contempt for the Public He Serves

    As I wrote earlier this week in The Arrogance of Kevin Martin, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) went before the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday. As expected, he was grilled thoroughly by the senators, and as expected, he - for all intents and purposes - gave them the finger in response to their questions about his efforts to relax media ownership rules. What was perhaps at least somewhat unexpected however, was the petulant, and transparently dishonest nature of some of his testimony.

    Senator John Kerry requested that Mr. Martin postpone his vote on media ownership, saying: "You're about to make a decision with no understandable rationale against the interests of Congress. Would you agree today in the face of those realities, to postpone this decision from several days from now?"

    The F.C.C. chief's reply? "No."

    Senator Kerry further queried the F.C.C. chair about working toward a unified view on media ownership within the Commission (of the five commissioners, the two Democrats oppose Martin's plan). Apparently rooting his answer in the "It's my ball and we're going to play my way" school of leadership, the chairman responded, "I am not convinced that we would ever reach a consensus on media ownership. I think it is just too politically divisive."

    Senator Claire McCaskill asked Mr. Martin why, in the face of a recent report that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found the F.C.C. unprepared to manage the coming full switch to digital television, he is focusing his energies on media ownership. Martin, apparently channeling an adolescent in mid-huff, replied "I think without funds, we are doing a very good job of educating consumers."

    Senator Jay Rockefeller - who is championing retroactive amnesty for telecommunications companies that broke the law in allowing the Bush Administration to illicitly spy on Americans - was not above injecting some irony into the proceedings. The F.C.C., he stated, "appears to be more concerned about making sure the policies they advocate serve the needs of the companies they regulate and their bottom lines rather than the public interest." Senator Rockefeller went on to threaten new legislation next year to "addresses the structure of the agency, its mission, the terms of the commissioners, and how to make the agency a better regulator, advocate for consumers and a better resource for Congress." A good idea; were that he were such a passionate advocate for the people in the case of illegal surveillance.

    But perhaps the most telling moment came when the head of the F.C.C. revealed his fundamental mendacity - his craven corruption and utter contempt for the citizenry he is charged with serving - in saying this: "We have an obligation to make sure that local news gathering is robust." Simply expressed, nothing has been of greater detriment to the diversity and health of local news than media consolidation. Kevin Martin knows that, and not only doesn't he care, he has the audacity to trot out his hypocrisy as some sort of justification and demand that we like it.

    In the closing days of the GOP-controlled 109th Congress, the lame duck Senate, in what can only be considered an act of spite in response to the drubbing handed them by voters, confirmed Kevin Martin for a full five-year term. In his George W. Bush-like conviction that he knows best and can do as he pleases - irrespective of the common will or basic facts - he is far too dangerous and far too beholden to interests other than the public's to be allowed to serve it out.

    December 12, 2007

    The Arrogance of Kevin Martin

    [Click on the image above - which graphically portrays media consolidation over the past 25 years - to see it at full size. Click here to visit the article from which it is sourced.]

    Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) Chairman Kevin Martin announced that a vote on his plan to further relax media ownership rules would take place next week, apparently intent on working at cross purposes with the expressed interest of the public at large. Worse, Mr. Martin - mindful of the vast outcry against his predecessor Michael Powell's own efforts to permit expanded ownership by media companies - is pursuing his goal without distributing the proposed regulations for public review, and without providing sufficient time for comment.

    Last year, I documented the F.C.C.'s previous attempt to make it possible for large corporations to more easily control what people see and hear in High-Handedness at the F.C.C., and followed up with a warning in Vigilance Required that another effort was likely to follow. Mr. Martin's newest push to abrogate the legal relationship between the public and broadcasters (under which the latter must serve the public interest in return for licenses granted by the former) makes it depressingly clear that the title of the second post could not have been more apt. For those of you less familiar with this issue however, it is worth revisiting the current state of media ownership (also see graphic above):
    • Presently, six major companies control most of the media in the United States. Disney owns 10 television stations, 50 radio stations, ABC, ESPN, A&E, the History Channel, Discover magazine, Hyperion publishing, Touchstone Pictures, and Miramax Film Corporation. Viacom owns 39 television stations, 184 radio stations, The Movie Channel, BET, Nickelodeon, TV Land, MTV, VH1, Scribner, and Paramount Pictures. (Viacom also owned CBS and Simon & Schuster directly before Viacom split into the CBS Corporation and Viacom in 2005. They are now separate entities, but Sumner Redstone is chairman of both boards of directors.) General Electric owns 13 television stations, NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, and Bravo. News Corporation owns 26 television stations, Fox Broadcasting, FX, Fox News Channel, TV Guide, The Weekly Standard, The New York Post, DirecTV, HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox and MySpace.

    • Since 1995, the number of companies that own commercial television stations has declined by 40 percent, and three media giants own all of the cable news networks. Comcast and Time Warner serve 40% of cable households, and cable television rates have climbed 40 percent since the 1996 Telecom Act.

    • The Telecommunications Act of 1996 removed restrictions on the number of radio stations that can be owned by a single entity, leading to significant consolidation. Where previously, one company could not own more than 40 radio stations nationwide, today, Clear Channel Communications alone now owns almost 1,200 stations across the country.

    • Major corporations, including Time Warner, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News and USA Today dominate the top Internet news sites.
    While mergers and acquisitions are a regular feature of the corporate world and a consistent byproduct of the free market, there still exist rules and regulations designed to ensure that monopolies cannot be established and collusion is not tolerated. In the case of broadcasters, publishers and other media companies, however, something even more precious is at stake than the economic rewards and influence garnered by successfully absorbing or squeezing out competition: information.

    In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, "knowledge is power," but despite public ownership of the airwaves - and the fact that the F.C.C. grants licenses to broadcasters with the express understanding that they will serve the common interest - to their shareholders, media companies exist to make profits, even if doing so runs counter to the collective well-being. And while profits often derive from the economies of scale that can accompany consolidation, it is crucial to remember that media firms don't manufacture goods, they provide the data from which public knowledge is formed. It is no exaggeration to say that if that data is no longer dependable, our republic will cease to function as intended.

    In the case of information - unlike that of manufacturing - the number, variety and divergence of sources for raw material is directly related to quality and success. In real journalism, a single source is deemed insufficient to form the basis of a story (something about which Joe Klein unquestionably needs to be reminded) and the best, most trustworthy information is synthesized from a myriad of origins. Where manufacturing succeeds with economies of scale, knowledge flourishes with economies of diversity. One need only recall the almost universally unquestioning, inaccurate and ineffective reportage devoted to non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) prior to our invasion of that country, to understand why this issue is so vital to the health of our nation.

    Given that the last attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to relax media ownership requirements was harshly rebuffed, that the public is broadly and vocally opposed to further consolidation, and that the Senate Commerce Committee has approved legislation requiring the F.C.C. to delay rule changes for 6 months and is not expected to treat him kindly when he goes before them on Thursday, the arrogance of Kevin Martin - an unelected, bureaucratic appointee - in working to push through new rules out of sight of the people in whose interests he is supposed to serve is truly staggering. Considering the track record of corruption, cronyism and profiteering so characteristic of the Bush Administration, however - as well as Michael Powell's successful transition to the upper echelons of private enterprise - perhaps it should come as no surprise.

    Rich rewards for his advocacy of industry over public interest and a plum position almost certainly await Mr. Martin when he leaves the F.C.C., public opinion and reaction be damned. While the Senate appears to be making the right moves to counter the chairman, it is clear that, while he is still collecting a U.S. government paycheck, he almost unquestionably serves a master other than the American people. Kevin Martin is out of control, and he needs to be removed from office; the sooner the better.

    December 8, 2007

    Lying? Out of the Loop? Both?

    The release on Monday of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the nuclear capabilities of Iran has - deservedly - spawned widespread accusations of both fear- and war-mongering on the part of President George W. Bush. Not only does this NIE directly contradict repeated efforts by the White House and rightwing mouthpieces like William Kristol to portray Iran as a looming nuclear threat, but a careful examination of the president's statements on the matter over time reveals a shift in rhetoric that implies he had knowledge of the document's conclusions far in advance of when he claims to have learned its contents.

    While bloodthirsty shills like former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton are working feverishly to convince America that they somehow have access to other, better intelligence on Iran - and that the latest NIE is nothing short of a betrayal of both U.S. interests and the president - we are left with three stark options, none one of which is the least bit palatable:
    1. President Bush is lying when he claimed in a press conference on Tuesday that "I was made aware of the NIE last week," and continued stoking the fires of public fear in full knowledge that the information he was using to make his case for another war of choice was completely bogus.
    2. President Bush is completely out of the loop on threat intelligence developments within his own administration, and cannot be considered competent to defend the nation.
    3. All of the above

    Keith Olbermann has much, much more:

    December 5, 2007

    Didn't We Have This Conversation Already?

    Last week, it was reported that Chris Comer, the state director of science curriculum for public schools in Texas, was forced to resign. Ms. Comer, who had held her position for nine years, was pushed out because she forwarded an eMail announcing a presentation titled, "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," by Barbara Forrest. Ms. Forrest co-authored a book of the same title detailing the manner in which creationists are working to have so called "Intelligent Design Theory" (I.D) taught in public schools as science. From the Austin American-Statesman:
    Agency officials cited the eMail in a memo recommending her termination. They said forwarding the eMail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, "it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science."

    The memo adds, "Ms. Comer's eMail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."
    Let's be clear: there is no reason whatsoever to be "neutral" with regard to whether or not I.D. should be taught as science, and there is no question at all that those behind the propagation of "Intelligent Design" are motivated by religious fervor rather than a spirit of scientific inquiry. As the excellent Glenn Greenwald notes in a recent post regarding last week's Washington Post hatchet job on Barack Obama that uncritically reported demonstrably false "rumors" about the Illinois Democrat:
    Here again we see an explicit statement of the corrupt view that so many establishment journalists now have of their role: "We pass on factual falsehoods from one side, note that the other side denies them, and call it a day. Then we've done our job."
    With the problem of this esatz neutrality so endemic to reportage in the mainstream media, perhaps it should be no surprise that it has infected other aspects of our lives in general, and socially-charged issues like religion in public schools in particular.

    But isn't the debate about the role of evolution and Intelligent Design a legitimate one? Isn't Darwin's Theory of Evolution "just a theory*"? And with the support of several credentialed scientists like Michael Behe, isn't I.D. a scientifically rigorous approach to explaining the origins of life?

    In a word, the answer to all three questions is emphatically: NO.

    Those of you who have only followed discussions about "Intelligent Design" and Darwinian evolution peripherally may be surprised by the unequivocal nature of that response. The fact of the matter however, is that there is simply no debate at all within the scientific community that the Theory of Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of life and speciation. Evolution has withstood repeated and extensive challenges and new evidence supporting it continues to be unearthed all the time. The only reason that I.D. isn't laughed out of polite conversation is because of the hold maintained by religion on this country through the well-funded public relations efforts of groups like the Discovery Institute. As author (and great-great grandson of Charles Darwin) Matthew Chapman says,
    There is something outrageous about such a huge body of evidence being put together, then being confirmed in all kinds of other scientific disciplines, particularly genetics, and having other people just sort of deny it for reasons that have nothing to do with truth.
    For those of you interested in the details of this argument, I recommend in the strongest possible terms that you watch Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial over at the NOVA portion of PBS's website. Divided into twelve chapters that make good lunchtime viewing (I know everybody is pressed for time!), Judgment Day chronicles the 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania that represented the first direct challenge to the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in public schools. The producers of NOVA do their usual terrific job, presenting a factual and balanced examination of the case, albeit one that is not uncritically stenographic in the style of the Post.

    Judgment Day works extensively from transcripts of the trial, which saw Intelligent Design utterly dismissed as a valid scientific theory and its mandated exclusion from science curricula in Pennsylvania public schools. It is never mean-spirited, but the program is unflinching in its critical examination of the subject matter, and by the end, it is clear why the judge - himself an appointee of George W. Bush - ruled so one-sidedly against the advocates of I.D. Simply put, not only was "Intelligent Design" roundly proven to be scientifically invalid, there was also ample evidence that its advocates, who steadfastly maintain that they are not pushing a religious agenda, have been wholly dishonest in that claim.

    Those who believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans, or that the earth is 6,000 years old are likely to be made very uncomfortable by the clearly presented evidence in Judgment Day, but I urge you to watch it anyway. Denying facts in order to remain safely ensconced in one's preconceptions can only lead to grief - just ask President Bush - and nobody should end up like this:

    * In scientific parlance, the term "theory" does not represent a best guess. Rather, a theory denotes a body of evidence, interpolation and extrapolation that fits known facts and which can be used predictively. Gravitation, for instance, is also a theory, but no one ever claims that Newton's Theory of Gravitation is "just a theory."

    December 1, 2007

    Explaining the Subprime Mortgage Meltdown

    It remains uncertain exactly how bad the things will get in the near term, but it is clear that the weakening dollar, massive deficit spending to fund the Iraq War, and the subprime mortgage crisis are all chewing like termites on the structural integrity of the American economy. Driven largely by a widening gap in wealth between the richest and poorest Americans that has seen credit-worthiness among even the highest earners plummet, the size and extent of the ripples from the greed, irresponsibility and outright foolishness endemic to George W. Bush's America have yet to be fully uncovered.

    So, with that dire statement, it seems like a perfect opportunity to enjoy some humor on the subject, even if it is of the gallows variety. (I promise, it's not the unintentionally hilarious writings of Thomas Sowell!) Below is a clip from the BBC's award-winning program Bremmer, Bird and Fortune, featuring John Bird and John Fortune in a mock interview that is both painful and very funny. While we have bright spots like Stephen Colbert, for my money, no one produces acerbic wit more consistently than the Brits. Enjoy!

    November 28, 2007

    Small Signs of Progress on the Climate Change Front

    Yesterday, NPR's All Things Considered broadcast a story about Roscoe, Texas, a hard-scrabble town in the state's western prairie that is undergoing a minor economic renaissance. Home to just 1,300 people, Roscoe's population has steadily declined since it was bypassed by the interstate and routinely buffeted by the fickle nature of cotton farming, but things are looking up now that residents are licensing their land for a wind farm run by Irish firm Airtricity. While they are mightily enthused about the prospect of new income streams, Roscoe residents are not necessarily green in the environmental sense of the word:
    "Everybody likes crisis-type situations and [climate change] has gotten very popular, particularly with the media and so forth," says Jim Boston, a cotton and pecan farmer. "There are quite a few scientists feel like this is normal oscillations in the weather patterns and so forth, and that's more or less my viewpoint also."
    Whatever their motivation, the fact that townsfolk are helping supply 800 megawatts of renewable, pollution-free electricity is a good thing; that's enough to fully power 265,000 homes.

    In other good news, earlier this month the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sharply rejected the Bush Administration's proposed new pollution standards for most sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans, ordering regulators to draft new plans with tougher restrictions on auto emissions. The court ruled that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to explain why light trucks are allowed to pollute more than passenger cars, and didn't properly assess greenhouse gas emissions when it set new minimum mileage requirements for cars built between 2008 and 2011. The court also took issue with the White House's refusal to include in the new standards trucks weighing more than 8,500 pounds, a class that includes the Hummer H2, Ford F250 and other popular large vehicles used primarily as passenger transportation.

    Even with both of these positive reports, it's worth remembering that climate change sceptics and deniers like Roscoe's Mr. Boston are still out there. Bearing that in mind, it's worth looking over Climate Scepticism: The Top 10 from the BBC. It provides handy rebuttals to ten of the most prevalent sceptics' arguments:

    1. Evidence that the earth's temperature is getting warmer is unclear
    2. If the average temperature was rising, it has now stopped
    3. The earth has been warmer in the recent past
    4. Computer models are not reliable
    5. The atmosphere is not behaving as models would predict
    6. Climate is mainly influenced by the sun
    7. A carbon dioxide rise has always come after a temperature increase not before
    8. Long-term data on hurricanes and Arctic ice is too poor to assess trends
    9. Water vapour is the major greenhouse gas; CO2 is relatively unimportant
    10. Problems such as HIV/AIDS and poverty are more pressing than climate change

    Remember, Christmas is on the way, and family gatherings that go along with that holiday often bring together people of widely divergent viewpoints. Have fun and be polite, but drop by "the Beeb," and arm yourself with the knowledge to silence the blatherings of your least favorite brother in law!

    (For those interested in analysis in greater depth and reliable, reputable explanations of climate change issues, I highly recommend

    November 19, 2007

    Happy Thanksgiving

    No posts this week - we're traveling for the holiday.
    Have a great Thanksgiving !

    November 16, 2007

    Cracks in the Foundation

    It was reported Wednesday that Sergeant Brad Gaskins, an 8-year veteran who served two combat tours in Iraq was arrested for being absent without leave (AWOL) from the Army. Sergeant Gaskins left without permission more than 12 months ago to seek treatment for severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that he was unable to obtain through approved channels. The sergeant couldn't get the therapy he required because, although the Veterans Administration (VA) has reported that more than 100,000 soldiers are being treated for mental health problems - 50% specifically for PTSD - there were only 6 mental health professionals available to the 17,000 men and women where he was stationed.

    While it is unquestionable that stories like those of Sergeant Gaskins and Lance Corporal James Blake Miller (see Whatever Happened to the Marlboro Marine?) are part of any war, another recent report indicates that the volume and severity of mental health disorders in American veterans is at unprecedented levels. According to a 5-month CBS News investigation (videos below), today, veterans are more than twice as likely to commit suidicide as non-veterans, a rate described by various experts as everything from "alarming" to "stunning," and far outpacing earlier estimates from the VA.
    Worse, this may only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A recently-completed Army medical study found that:

    One out of every five active-duty Army soldiers and 42 percent of Army Reservists who have served in Iraq cite mental health concerns months after they return home, according to a new Army medical study.
    Post traumatic stress disorder rates increased among active duty soldiers from 11.8 percent to 16.7 percent. Reservist rates almost doubled from 12.7 percent to 24.5 percent.

    With stop-loss policies and repeat and extended tours now the norm for today's U.S. armed services, it was perhaps inevitable that the foundation of those forces - the men and women, the human beings in uniform - would begin to crack from the unprecedented strain under which they operate. "Supporting the troops," as noted by Keith Olbermann in the third video below, is - or should be - about doing whatever needs to be done to ensure that each and every soldier, airman, sailor and marine who risks his life receives all of the treatment he needs in a timely fashion. It should also mean that families aren't kept apart for unreasonably long periods of time and that servicemen and -women aren't pressed into excessive tours of service so that politicians like George W. Bush can continue to tout our "all volunteer army" while fighting a luxury war.

    (November 13, 2007)

    (November 14, 2007)

    (November 15, 2007)

    November 12, 2007

    Whatever Happened to the Marlboro Marine?

    Back in March, I wrote a post entitled Serially Abusing the American Military that detailed the callousness with which the Bush Administration and the previous, Republican-dominated Congress has treated the men and women in our armed forces. At the top of that post was the same picture you see above, a photograph by Luis Sinco of Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller of Kentucky. It is a photo that has become emblematic of the stress under which U.S. forces in Iraq operate as they work to fulfill a poorly-defined mission without proper equipment and under the pressure of stop loss and multiple tours of duty.

    As we celebrate those who have served our country in uniform this Veterans Day, pausing also to remember those who gave their lives doing so, it is unbelievably sad to me to learn that Lance Corporal Miller - the "Marlboro Marine" as he has become known - is now unemployed, divorced and borderline suicidal since being discharged from the military after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Although he receives a disability check each month, little else in the way of help has been forthcoming from a government that was only too happy to send Miller out to risk his life. In one of the more publicly human gestures of recent years however, but the man who made him famous - Luis Sinco - has offered to help. Part one of Mr. Sinco's story in the Los Angeles Times can be found here, and the second installment is here. It is an important reminder that James Blake Miller - and all of our veterans - deserve far better than they are getting.

    November 10, 2007

    The Unsupportable Arguments Against Plan B

    [Click on the image above to see the original version at full size.]

    In the past couple of weeks, "conscientious objection" to the distribution of certain drugs by pharmacists has again been in the news. As anyone who has read Sensen No Sen from its inception knows - and if both of you are reading this, you have my gratitude - the third post I ever wrote, Personal Belief and Professional Obligation, dealt with this very topic, but I think it's worth re-examining this issue in hope of separating fact from fiction.

    One of the medications most often at the center of the conscientious objector debate is Plan B, an emergency contraceptive approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1999, and commonly referred to as the "morning after pill." Those with objections to it, like Washington pharmacists who successfully sued last week to suspend a state law requiring them to dispense Plan B, claim that the drug's effects are tantamount to abortion.

    Adding fuel to this fire is Pope Benedict XVI, who told a gathering of Catholic pharmacists in October that conscientious objection was a right that must be recognized by their profession, and that "Pharmacists must seek to raise people's awareness so that all human beings are protected from conception to natural death, and so that medicines truly play a therapeutic role." The pope went on to state that conscientious objection would "enable them not to collaborate directly or indirectly in supplying products that have clearly immoral purposes such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia."

    Despite such rhetoric however, Plan B does not cause abortion. From the manufacturer's website:
    Plan B works like a regular birth control pill. It prevents pregnancy mainly by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary, and may also prevent the fertilization of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg). Plan B may also work by preventing it from attaching to the uterus (womb). It is important to know that Plan B will not affect a fertilized egg already attached to the uterus; it will not affect an existing pregnancy.

    Plan B is approved by the FDA and contains the hormone levonorgestrel, the same hormone in the birth control pills that healthcare professionals have been prescribing for more than 35 years. The difference is that Plan B contains a larger dose of levonorgestrel than the amount found in a single birth control pill.

    Remember that Plan B is not RU-486 (the abortion pill). Because Plan B is used to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, it will not work if you’re already pregnant. If you take Plan B and are already pregnant, it will not affect your existing pregnancy.
    (NOTE: The FDA's Plan B webpage contains the same information. I include the manufacturer's language here because it is clearer and easier to read. Emphasis is mine.)

    Essentially, there are two arguments against Plan B. The first is that it causes abortion, and those who believe abortion is immoral should not have to dispense it. The second - which is implicit in Pope Benedict's statements and supported by the positions of the Catholic Church - is that the morning after pill is a contraceptive, and those who believe contraception is against "God's will" should not be forced to fill prescriptions for it. Neither of these positions hold water.

    As documented above, Plan B is not an abortifacient, and while some people may "believe" that it is "tantamount" to abortion, it very simply isn't. While it is certainly valid to object to Plan B for some other philosophical reason - opposition to contraception comes to mind - arguing that it causes abortion is completely invalid; this "debate" has been closed for a long time.

    Further, giving credence to such erroneous beliefs is essentially the same as considering other ideas wholly unsupported by facts - such as Plan B causing sterilization, sex change, or the growth of enormous reptilian scales that transform potential mothers into lizard women - to have merit. Plan B doesn't do any of those things, just like it doesn't cause abortions, and one is left to wonder how in the world court decisions like the recent one in Washington can be made based on what is easily determined to be complete fantasy.

    The anti-contraceptive argument against Plan B is somewhat more opaque, but also readily debunked. To whit, pharmacists dispense numerous forms of birth control, from several versions of The Pill, to spermicides, IUDs and diaphragms. The Catholic Church has been consistent in its position against these and all forms of contraception - however much one might disagree with their tactics, which have included telling African villagers that condoms do not prevent the spread of HIV - but this is beside the point. If Catholic (or other) pharmacists have religious objection to filling prescriptions for Plan B, then they must object to distributing all other contraceptives as well.

    While said consistency might be laudable from a philosophical perspective, it clearly amounts to forcing Catholicism on non-Catholics, and calls into question the viability of pharmacology as a dependable element of society. As I wrote in 2006:
    The role of a pharmacist is to fill legal prescriptions accurately, ensure that harmful drug interactions do not take place, and answer questions about things like side effects and the consequences of missed doses. This is clear from the moment one enters pharmacology school - or at least it should be – and it should be even more clear that the job of pharmacist does not include a requirement that one’s customers be judged morally. If it is otherwise, then pharmacist Tom Cruise could refuse prescription medication to women suffering post-partum depression – which can lead to infanticide in the worst cases – because of his Scientologist beliefs.
    Permitting pharmacists to pick and choose which medicines they want to dispense is plainly unsustainable, and determining court cases based on delusion over established fact ought to be unthinkable. Those with moral perspectives that prevent them from filling certain prescriptions shouldn't be allowed to be pharmacists; judges who issue rulings rooted in fiction should never be allowed on the bench.

    When one considers how easy it is to debunk the claim that Plan B aborts a pregnancy, or spends even a short time considering the untenable nature of "morally selective" prescription fulfillment, it becomes increasingly obvious that the argument about Plan B is - if we're honest - clearly not about abortion at all. Since the morning after pill prevents unwanted fertilization, and anyone who wants to stop the abortion of unwanted children - or claims to - should fully support safe, effective means for avoiding unwelcome pregnancies, the Plan B controversy must be about something else. Likewise, any assertion within this discussion that life begins at fertilization can be disregarded because it is completely irrelevant. With Plan B, fertilization doesn't take place, and without fertilization, there is no baby, branding false the claim that this argument is about the life of a child.

    In fact, opposition to Plan B makes it completely clear that standing against emergency contraception isn't about the sanctity of life in any way, shape or form - it is about regulating female physiology, and more importantly, sex. That's something to keep in mind if your contraceptive method of choice is something other than abstinence.

    November 6, 2007

    Lost and Stumbling

    Senator Russ Feingold, bookended by whores.
    Michael Mukasey's nomination for U.S. Attorney General was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committe today on a vote of 11 to 8, and passed to the full chamber for approval that is expected to come late this week. Because of Judge Mukasey's refusal to define waterboarding as torture (see Americans Torture) Committee members like Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold and Chairman Patrick Leahy took strong positions against his nomination, but were ultimately sabotaged by fellow Democrats Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein. The stated reasons for this betrayal were that the nominee was the best they were likely to get from President Bush, and that he had ensured them he would enforce any laws passed by Congress that specifically outlaw waterboarding.

    Unfortunately, the real reason that Judge Mukasey's nomination succeeded in getting out of commitee was that Mr. Schumer, as the sponsor for the nomination, faced significant embarrassment if the candidate he had suggested was rejected by his own party. Further, assurances that new laws against waterboarding would be enforced are meaningless, since any such legislation would face death on the president's desk unless it passed Congress with a veto-proof majority, which will not happen under current apportionment. Worst of all, waterboarding is already illegal - as detailed in a recent letter (*.pdf) from four retired Navy Judge Advocates General (JAG) - and the acceptance of Judge Mukasey's assurances amounts to tacit approval from Congress for President Bush's refusal to abide by current law.

    From the JAG letter, which could hardly be more clear:
    In the course of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of President Bush’s nominee for the post of Attorney General, there has been much discussion, but little clarity, about the legality of “waterboarding” under United States and international law. We write Because this issue above all demands clarity: Waterboarding is inhumane, it is torture, and it is illegal.
    The Rule of Law is fundamental to our existence as a civilized nation. The Rule of Law is not a goal which we merely aspire to achieve; it is the floor below which we must not sink. For the Rule of Law to function effectively, however, it must provide actual rules yhat can be followed. In this instance, the relevant rule - the law - as long been clear: Waterboarding detainees amounts to illegal torture in all circumstances. To suggest otherwise - or even to give credence to such a suggestion - represents both an affront to the law and to the core values of our nation.
    Likewise, as recently as 2004, senior Department of Justice official Daniel Levin was so disturbed by what he had learned about waterboarding that he subjected himself to it in order to understand its effects. His personal experiment confirmed his belief that waterboarding is torture, but before he could follow up on a memo (*.pdf) he had written previously that aimed to curtail Bush Administration abuses, he was forced out by incoming Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

    So here's where we are today: We have officially joined the ranks of countries that countenance torture. Not only do we think torturing people is the right thing to do, we actually follow up on that belief, despite the fact that we have prosecuted as war criminals men from other nations caught doing the same. Finally, if anyone speaks up about the fact that we are torturing people against international, domestic, and basic human law, they are removed from public view as quickly as possible, or tossed under the wheels of a political machine that values personal image over substantive support for the Constitution.

    These are black, black days in America.

    We have wandered so far from the path of our history and our ideals that, even when someone shines a light to guide us back to it, we prefer to stumble further into the darkness. George W. Bush deserves every ounce of damnation he will suffer in the afterlife in which he so fervently believes, and if there is any justice left in the universe, the men and women who have supported him - from the most active promoters of the neoconservative agenda to the submissive and vain Chuck Schumers of the world - will be right there with him, joined in their corruption, hypocrisy and cowardice as they are today.

    The 2008 elections - and every midterm vote for the next several years - should rightfully come down to a single issue: Will the candidate fulfill his or her oath to uphold the Constitution in all circumstances? A vote for anyone who cannot answer "yes" is a vote for the continued erosion of the United States and the national character of its people. Both the Democratic American Freedom Campaign and the Republican American Freedom Agenda are working to make restoration of the Constitution a centerpiece of the presidential campaign. I urge you to support either or both - links are below - and add your voice to what must become a chorus of discontent too loud to ignore.

  • American Freedom Agenda

  • For further motivation, here's Keith Olbermann's special commentary from November 5th on Daniel Levin and the torture policies of George W. Bush:

    November 2, 2007

    Americans Torture

    Senate confirmation of U.S. Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey has been imperiled - although certainly by no means killed - as the respected former U.S. District Court judge refuses to say unequivocally whether or not the practice of waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding, despite being squeamishly labeled everything from "simulated drowning" to a "CIA-sponsored swim lesson," is neither; as former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School writes, it is torture - period. Far from merely inflicting mental distress, waterboarding is controlled drowning in which fluid enters the lungs, and it carries with it the risk of brain damage, internal trauma and death. The United States has both court martialed American personnel who have engaged in it and prosecuted foreign perpetrators of the technique as war criminals.

    In spite of these facts, President Bush made two extraordinary claims on Thursday. First:
    I believe the questions he's been asked are unfair. He's been asked to give opinions of a program - or techniques of a program - on which he has not been briefed... The American people have got to understand the program is important and the techniques used are within the law... He doesn't know whether we use that technique or not.
    and later:
    If the Senate Judiciary Committee were to block Judge Mukasey on these grounds, they would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general... That would guarantee that America would have no attorney general during this time of war.
    Even a quick reading of these statements by all but the most partisan backers of the president reveals the utter lack of rationality, conscience and respect for the rule of law that is embodied therein. Unfortunately, however, the media continues to support this narrative, focusing on whether or not Judge Mukasey is being asked to retroactively label as a toturer anyone who has interrogated prisoners in the days since 9/11, and/or whether the United States tortures under current interrogation programs. Despite the president's hysteria, he's not being required to do either.

    In point of fact, Mr. Mukasey has not been queried on his opinion of a technique used by the United States government at all, unless the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or military are currently violating the orders of CIA Director Michael Hayden and the Army field manual, both of which explicitly prohibit waterboarding. On the contrary, the judge is being asked to define whether a technique that is roundly considered cruel, inhumane and degrading - and therefore in violation of the Geneva Conventions to which the U.S. is signatory - is "torture." (It should be noted that treaties ratified by Congress - as in the case of the Geneva Conventions - carry the force of domestic law.) This being the case, it flatly doesn't matter whether Judge Mukasey knows whether or not waterboarding is being used by American interrogators, only whether or not waterboarding is torture.

    By contrast, the president's statements essentially amount to an admission that the U.S. - despite claims to the contrary - is (or has been until recently) waterboarding prisoners in violation of its own orders and the law. This assertion is supported by the accounts of CIA officials who told ABC News in 2005 that waterboarding was authorized by agency leadership, and while the president has repeatedly declared that "we do not torture," there can be little question that we have done so in the very recent past, or that we may continue to do so today. Mr. Bush is desperately working to prevent his nominee for Attorney General from defining waterboarding as torture in order to avoid removing any last doubt - purely semantic or not - that, on this topic, he is an unmitigated liar.

    Finally, the idea that requesting Mr. Mukasey's legal opinion on whether or not waterboarding is torture is somehow beyond the pale is patently ludicrous. Judge Mukasey is a former federal prosecutor, private practice attorney, district court judge and professor at Columbia University Law School; it is hard to imagine someone more qualified to have an opinion on matters of jurisprudence. If Mr. Bush is honestly interested in ensuring that the nation has an attorney general "during this time of war" and Mr. Mukasey needs to be briefed by the president in order to answer a question, that briefing should take place. Given that it has not, the only possible explanation for Bush Administration stonewalling an eminently reasonable inquiry is fear that the president and his team will be revealed to have been working beyond the legal limits with respect to interrogation, and again, repeatedly lying about it.

    Pausing for a moment to briefly ignore these impeachable violations of United States law, it is important to understand why all of this posturing and rhetoric continues to be costumed as "debate." The first reason, I believe, is our great national discomfort over what we know - whether we admit it or not - is being done in our names. The second - which is related to the first - is that there remain apologists who claim that even if waterboarding is torture (and it is) it is somehow justified because of the threat we face from al-Qaeda and radical Islam. Such claims, however, grossly and obvioulsy inflate that threat. As Bill Maher notes:
    At the Republican debate this week, Mike Huckabee said, "Islamofascism is the greatest threat we ever faced." Really? More than the Nazis, and the Russians and the Redcoats? In his latest ad, Mitt Romney warns eerily that Muslim jihadists want to establish an Islamic caliphate covering the whole world, including America. Yes, and I want to be adopted by Angelina Jolie.
    Even if one accepts the false premise that we live in circumstances of extreme danger that demand an extreme response, there is no evidence that torture works at all. Stuart Herrington, a 30-year veteran of military intelligence and an interrogator, states that success comes from building rapport with prisoners, not through inflicting pain until they will declare and say anything in order to obtain relief. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, for instance, is acknowledged to have been waterboarded, but as recounted in The One Percent Doctrine, confessed to pretty much every crime or plot he could think of, real, imaginary, past, present or future.

    Of course, the most pernicious defense of torture is usually encapsulated in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, but even here, in the most dramatic of possible set pieces, the reasoning and justification are unsound. The underlying problem is this: in real life, all of the facts that precede the last, crucial piece of knowledge - what is planned, where it is to take place, when, and by whom - are precisely the facts an interrogator works to uncover. It is total fantasy to think that an interrogator will have all the answers except for one, and will be capable of distilling the single piece of good data from the verbal deluge that results when a prisoner breaks. Jack Bauer might be a favorite of G.O.P. pols, but that doesn't make his fictional successes any more realistic.

    Few things have horrified me more since George W. Bush took office than the fact that we are now debating what kinds of torture are acceptable and what might or not be torture; these lines should be clear. Today, our national self-degradation continues with the Mukasey nomination, as, instead of calling the president on the carpet for the rank and ugly stain he continues to work into the fabric of our cultural identity, we treat his declarations and his obstructionism as if they were honorable speech. Just a few years ago, the debate - if there was any debate at all - would have been whether to imprison torturers with the possibility of parole or without. It is a measure of the effectiveness of the fear mongering, the intellectual laziness and the moral bankruptcy of the Bush White House that we have fallen as far as we have.

    As a people, we are judged by how well we live up to the principles we expound and to which we aspire, not just when it is easy to do so, but when it is most difficult. By allowing our government to unjustly imprison and torture on our behalf we fail both our nation and ourselves, and it is high time that we stopped letting cheap thugs elevated to positions of power - for which they have repeatedly demonstrated neither capacity nor ability - ruin our names, our reputations and everything for which the United States once stood.

    The first step toward recovery is the painful one of admitting we have a problem, and it's time to call a spade a spade: Americans torture.