June 26, 2010

The Long-Term Dangers of Obama's Failure on Civil Liberties

In the long list of things that troubled me about the presidency of George W. Bush, his seemingly insatiable accrual of power to the executive branch and his abuse of the rule of law were easily the most worrisome.  Enabled by a Congress composed of rubber stamp Republicans and spineless Democrats, President Bush simply rolled over or ignored the bounds of precendent and the requirements of legal strictures.

In a long litany of presidential sins, in my opinion, this was Mr. Bush's worst, for power granted to the executive is almost impossible to get back. And this is serious power; not the essentially bureaucratic requirement that an industry provide services like health care, or temporary loans to failing industries crucial to the economy; but the power to imprison, to torture, to invade homes - even to kill Americans without judicial review.

So, during the 2008 presidential campaign, I was glad that then-Senator Barack Obama confronted those issues directly and issued clear, definitive statements about the way he would address restoring the checks and balances so critical to the success - to the very existence - of the United States. As President Obama, unfortunately, he has diluted his promises, dodged his commitments, failed to act, and in the worst cases, actually gone beyond his predecessor's excesses.

This would be bad enough in the short term, but in the longer view, it is worse. Not only is a precedent of lawlessness and rule by fiat being reinforced during Mr Obama's administration, prospects for reversal dim with each passing day. For if a man elected in a tidal wave of electoral desire for change won't walk back the abuses of one president, it is even less likely that a future chief executive will do so for the abuses of two.

For some time now, I have been pondering a post on President Obama and executive power. Last week, however, Jon Stewart devoted much of The Daily Show to a segment entitled "Respect My Authoritah" that focused on exactly that topic, and I'm not sure there is much more I can add at the moment.  Mr. Obama remains the superior choice in the 2008 election, but unless he changes direction, he will have entrenched some of the worst changes to American govenment in moden history.  Rather than be remembered as a transformational leader, he will instead be damned with the faint praise that at least he was better than McCain/Palin.

June 21, 2010

UPDATED - (With Apologies to SNL) This Just In: Fox Is Still a Terrible Source for News

NOTE: The reference to "four months" was originally attributed to the Fox News host; that has been corrected to reflect that it comes from the interviewee.  Additionally, language clarifying how to view the source of the Fox News headline - and a screen capture of same - have been added.

Back in October, I wrote a post called Not Necessarily the News.  In it, I documented how, irrespective of whether or not the Fox News Channel has a "conservative point of view" (as its devotees like to say), it is - objectivelty - a failure as a news organization.  Data from a 2003 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), for instance, as well as 2007 research conducted by the Pew Research Center and a 2009 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, all clearly demonstrated that Fox News viewers are among the worst-informed people in the country.

So, has anything changed? Has Fox News gotten any better at informing its audience?  While no new polls or research have been published in the intervening months, a broadcast story that also appeared on Fox News'  FoxNation.com website provides some strong indicators that if anything, factual reporting at Rupert Murdoch's network has only gotten worse.

The article, which appeared in the middle of last week, has since been mysteriously scrubbed from the site - not updated or corrected or archived, mind you; simply erased - but the wonders of Google caching provide a snapshot of what appeared and what was the topic of outraged conversation for several days among the Fox audience.  Specifically, the article was entitled Obama Gives Back Major Strip of AZ to Mexico (after visiting the preceding link, click on "cached" in the second search result shown to view the original - a screen capture of the page is also provided below), and along with a few paragraphs of text, featured a video clip with the following lede:
A massive stretch of Arizona now off limits - to Americans. Critics say the administration is, in effect, giving a major strip of the Southwest back to Mexico.
Take a look:

 [Click image to view at full size]

One can almost hear Fox fans thinking to themselves "Wow!  Only Fox News is brave enough to battle pervasive liberal bias within the Fourth Estate and report a hard-hitting story about a president who gets a free pass from the rest of the press corps."  Unfortunately for them, the major strip of the Southwest that "critics" say President Obama is giving to Mexico is actually an area that was declared off-limits to the public by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service because of safety concerns.  Back in 2006.  When George W. Bush was in the White House

The nearly-four-year-old closure notice (right click on the PDF file at the link and select "document properties" to view creation date) reads as follows:
The situation in this zone has reached a point where continued public use of the area is not prudent.  The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge has been adversely affected by border-related activities. The international border with Mexico has also become increasingly violent.  Assaults on law enforcement officers and violence against migrants have escalated. Violence on the Refuge associated with smugglers and border bandits has been welldocumented.  Many of these activities are concentrated at, or near, the border. The concentration of illegal activity, surveillance and law enforcement interdictions make these zones dangerous.
One can certainly argue that the border needs to be secured, that federal troops are the right solution to that problem, and even that things are getting worse.  What one can't legitimately do, however, is lay that at the feet of the current president, when current policy clearly originated with his predecessor, and there is a paper trail to prove it.  Further, a headline declaring that President Obama has unilaterally given U.S. territory to another country is, simply put, a lie.

Viewers of this story are never given the information that the Buenos Aires Refuge was closed almost four years ago by the Bush Adminstration - in fact, the sheriff mentions "four months ago" and the hosts doesn't clarify that the closure isn't recent - and while the words "in effect" are used in the reportage to qualify Mr. Obama's alleged ceding of American soil to Mexico, the headline is blatantly false.  In other words, anyone whose only information about the current situation within the Refuge came from this Fox News story would come away grossly misinformed.

This isn't a minor error, and it didn't occur on an opinion program, but on America Live with Megyn Kelly, ostensibly a hard news show.  Likewise, it is not an isolated incident (as the graphic below makes clear), and it really leaves us with just a few possible reasons for the publication and broadcast of the Obama Gives Back Major Strip of AZ to Mexico story: 1) Fox News failed to perform basic fact checking, and is therefore incompetent; 2) Fox News was aware that the story, as reported, was patently misleading, and is therefore unethically engaged in a propaganda-driven smear of President Obama; or 3) some combination of the two. Unless outright lies and gross professional negligence constitute "speaking from a conservative point of view," Fox News continues to be a terrible source for reliable informatior or quality journalism.

[Click image to view at full size]

June 16, 2010

The Casual Bloodthirst of a Delusional War Fetishist

In the June 21st issue of The Weekly Standard, editor William Kristol and Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative, make an especially powerful effort to lock down as unassailable Mr. Kristol's well-deserved reputation as one of the stupidest people working in media today.  If that sounds harsh or inaccurate, I promise you it isn't; every quote in the cartoon above, for instance, is genuine, and his most recent oeuvre clearly illustrates that Mr. Kristol has learned nothing from his repeated ineptitude.

One of the biggest cheerleaders in recent years for the use of U.S. military force abroad - particularly in the Persian Gulf - William Kristol has repeatedly demonstrated both a casual bloodlust and a deep callousness for the civilian populations of the nations he wishes to invade, the American military personnel tasked with his fantasy missions, and their families.  This self-styled thinker of big ideas owes his entire career to the fact that he is the scion of Irving Kristol, the "godfather of neoconservatism", and Gertrude Himmelfarb, a noted social conservative.  The Standard has a tiny circulation - under 90,000 - and has been a consistently weak financial performer that has survived only because of charitable support from the right wing for which it serves as a vocal figurehead.  Worst of all, however, is the fact that Mr. Kristol has been - without exaggeration - almost universally wrong about just about everything on which he has pontificated.

The latest effort in this record of tragically consistent failure is a column entitled - apparently without irony - A Period Of Consequences.  In it, Messrs. Kristol and Fly argue that not only should the United States be gearing up to invade Iran, but that we really ought to be ignoring both recent experience in the Middle East, as well as obvious realities:
And one routinely hears how very, very dangerous any use of military force against Iran would be.

Would it be so dangerous? That is a debate the country needs to have, publicly and frankly, before it’s too late

Critics of military action against Iran argue that it would open up a third front for American forces in the Middle East. Our troops would be at risk from Iranian missiles. Iran would block the Strait of Hormuz (causing oil prices to skyrocket) and use its terrorist proxies Hamas and Hezbollah to carry out attacks well beyond the Middle East, including perhaps on the U.S. homeland

Yet if we carried out a targeted campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities, against sites used to train and equip militants killing American soldiers, and against certain targeted terror-supporting and nuclear-enabling regime elements, the effects are just as likely to be limited.

It’s unclear, for example, that Iran would want to risk broadening the conflict and creating the prospect of regime decapitation. Iran’s rulers have shown that their preeminent concern is maintaining their grip on power. If U.S. military action is narrowly targeted, and declared to be such, why would Iran’s leaders, already under pressure at home, want to escalate the conflict, as even one missile attack on a U.S. facility or ally or a blockade of the Strait would obviously do?

Some in Washington seem resigned to letting Israel take action. But a U.S. failure to act in response to what is perhaps the greatest threat to American interests in decades would be irresponsible. Israel, moreover, lacks our full capabilities to do the job.
Even a cursory read of these statements reveals them to be wishful thinking rather than anything approaching serious, empirical analysis.  The only way, for example, the regime in Teheran would fail to respond strongly to a U.S. attack is if it believes that exhibiting weakness to other nations and its citizenry would be beneficial.  Given the recent willingness and success the country's rulers have had in putting down protests and uprisings using repressive force, it's pretty hard to take this line of "reasoning" seriously, although for William Kristol, it's at least consistent with his track record.

Secondly, while last year's post-election protests confirmed that there is a significant level of distrust and dissatisfaction directed at the government in Teheran, that fact is a far, far cry from the people of Iran favoring an attack or invasion by a foreign power in order to provide "regime decapitation."  Imagine for a moment, if the Chinese, the French, the U.N. or any other conservative political boogie man had invaded the U.S. in 2000, having judged turmoil over presidential election results as a signal that a change in leadership would be not only beneficial, but welcomed by Americans.  The idea that citizens of the United States woudln't drop their domestic differences to focus on such an external threat is ludicrous, and it is even more ludicrous when applied to Iran in light of the U.S.'s terrible history of involvement in that country, as well as our ongoing problems in neighboring Iraq.

Even if one finds these counterpoints about Iran's reaction unconvincing, there remain significant inconvenient truths on the American side of the equation.   For one, U.S. forces are stretched perilously thin by years of war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, so much so that stop-loss policies were introduced and recruiting standards have been lowered repeatedly.  On top of that, until 2009, the fiscal impact of those wars was hidden by the fact that they were funded off-budgetPresident Obama (largely) ended that practice early in his administration, and with the effect of these conflicts on the health of America's balance sheet within easy view, it is pretty hard to imagine deficit-sensitive Americans supporting Mr. Kristol's adventurism, even if they weren't increasingly fed up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Simply put, unless a military draft is instituted in concert with a massive, national financial windfall and widespread collective amnesia about not just the false pretenses under which people like William Kristol argued for the invasion of Iraq, but the actual experiences of our forces there and in Afghanistan, the idea that the U.S. could, or would, attack Iran in any but the direst of circumstances is wholly untethered from reality.  (And despite what Mr. Kristol might like to pretend, the current situation regarding Iran's nuclear program doesn't meet that criterion.)

Of course, none of this matters if you're a neoconservative military fetishist like William Kristol, let alone one who has made a very comfortable living being repeatedly and glaringly wrong.  His career is sustained not by the quality of his work but by the largesse of the political interests he serves, and he gives voice to his factually vacant bloodthirst only because he is secure in the knowledge that someone else will always bear the cost and the injury of the policies he advocates.  Mr. Kristol has yet to meet a war for which he won't cheerlead, no matter the shameful cost to the United States or the people of other nations, and he should be not only studiously ignored, but scorned.

June 11, 2010

The Oil Spill at Your House

As progress is slowly made in addressing the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, estimates of the uncounted barrels of petroleum that have poured into the ocean from the former Deepwater Horizon well have begun to come in:

Pick a number: 12,600 barrels ... 20,000 ... 21,500 ... 25,000 ... 30,000 ... 40,000 ... 50,000. Scientists put every one of those numbers in play Thursday as they struggled to come up with a solid estimate of how much oil is gushing each day from the black geyser at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

The one scientific certainty: It's a lot - and more than some of the same scientists thought just a couple of weeks ago. It's so much that the crews trying to siphon it to the surface are going to need a bigger boat.

Early in the crisis, BP and the federal government repeatedly said that the
Deepwater Horizon well was spewing about 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) a day into the gulf. But the new estimates, released Thursday by government-appointed scientists, show that the well most likely produces 5,000 barrels before breakfast.

Meanwhile, British Petroleum - author of the original 5,000-barrel-a-day claim - has doubled down on its questionable credibility by denying there are underwater oil plumes as a result of the spill, despite readings from scientific surveys.  On Wednesday, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles said "we haven't found any large concentrations of oil under the sea, and to my knowledge no one has."  University of Georgia oceanographer Samantha Joye disagrees:
Joye's instruments, deployed from a University of Miami research vessel, the Walton Smith, detected both the presence of oil and the depletion of oxygen in very deep water - 900 to 1200 meters below the surface - in a plume five to eight miles away from the leak site. As she explained in an interview: "All of the sensors we have to pick up oil and its various components go crazy in the plume."

Lab results from one of the first research vessels doing subsurface tests found only minor concentrations of oil, but Joye, who is expecting test results back shortly, said her samples will inevitably show more than that. "These stank to high heaven," she said. "They smelled like creosote, asphalt and diesel."

"These plumes are real," she said, "and it's not just oil." Joye, who blogged her research, said she is also very concerned about the concentrations of methane and other gases, such as ethane, propane, butane and pentane, in the water.
What all of this brings into focus is how difficult it is to fully understand the size and impact of this catastrophe.  To get a handle on the magnitude of the damage being done by the BP well, visit If It Was My Home,a new site that uses a Google mashup to allow users to better visualize what the BP oil disaster would look like if it took place where they live.  A snapshot of the area (as of June 11th) covered if the spill took place in Saint Louis is above.  The kindest word for it is "sobering", and it's only going to get worse until a relief well is completed in August.

June 5, 2010

A Global 500 Criminal Enterprise

As the worst environmental disaster in United States history entered its 45th day, some progress was at last made in capturing a portion of the thousands of barrels of oil gushing from the former Deepwater Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico.  The containment cap that is now in place is not, however, a permanent solution, and a long term answer to the stream of poison fouling U.S. southern coastal waters remains to be found.

Meanwhile, as required by law, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that well owner British Petroleum (BP) would face both civil and criminal probes into the events surrounding the blowout.  The truth of the matter is, however, that not only does BP have a record of outright criminal behavior involving the price manipulation of propane and oil, but a long history of serious environmental and safety problems:
After BP’s Texas City, Texas refinery blew up in 2005, killing 15 workers, the company vowed to address the safety shortfalls that caused the blast.

The next year, when a badly maintained oil pipeline ruptured and spilled 200,000 gallons of crude oil over Alaska’s North Slope, the oil giant once again promised to clean up its act.

In 2007, when Tony Hayward took over as chief executive, BP settled a series of criminal charges, including some related to Texas City, and agreed to pay $370 million in fines. “Our operations failed to meet our own standards and the requirements of the law,” the company said then, pledging to improve its “risk management.”

Despite those repeated promises to reform, BP continues to lag other oil companies when it comes to safety, according to federal officials and industry analysts. Many problems still afflict its operations in Texas and Alaska, they say. Regulators are investigating a whistle-blower’s allegations of safety violations at the
Atlantis, one of BP’s newest offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, 97% of the worst cases of oil industry regulation non-compliance are found at British Petroleum refineries, and BP's transgressions far outstrip those of its peers.  In the last three years alone, BP had 760 egregious, willful violations, while during the same period, Sunoco and ConocoPhillips each 8, Citgo had two, and Exxon - the company responsible for the Exxon Valdez disaster - had only one.  As Jon Stewart noted on the June 1st edition of The Daily Show, "Exxon could get seventy times the egregious, willful, safety violations [it had] and still be 90% safer than BP."

As a company that averaged $65 million in profit - not revenue, PROFIT - every day in the first quarter of 2010, it's clear that British Petroleum has simply decided that the $730 million in fines and settlements it has paid over the past few years is nothing more than an administrative expense, essentially no more alarming or reprehensible when it comes to its financial statements than salaries, pensions or depreciation. BP is - literally - a Fortune Global 500 criminal enterprise; one that breaks laws in the course of a daily business that generates billions of dollars each year.  Perhaps in addition to discretionary debarment, the government should consider prosecuting the company under the RICO Act

Click on the image at left to visit The Boston Globe's The Big Picture photo essay on the effects of the spill on Gulf wildlife.  It is deeply sad, but important to see.