November 2010

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This WikiLeaks business is bringing out the stupid on all sides.

Start with all the folks who have been applying the Secret classification to all these diplomatic messages. From what I’m reading, most of latest batch of documents is utterly routine and pretty boring. The U.S. government produces classified documents at an insane rate, and with a few exceptions–ongoing military operations, intelligence sources and methods, the nuclear deterrent–they’re all dull and unimportant. That’s not to say there won’t be a few bombshells when all the documents come out, but rather that the vast majority of these Secret documents don’t really contain any secrets.

Then, of course, there’s the anonymous asshole who was trusted with access to all this stuff and decided to leak it. Leaking this stuff might have been justified if it contained the shocking truth behind the Kennedy assassination, or proof that 9/11 really was an inside job, or the alien autopsy video, but most of this stuff is routine diplomatic traffic.

Look, whoever you are, you took an oath to keep this stuff secret. People trusted you. Then you broke your oath and leaked it anyway. That ain’t cool.

Although, if the Guardian is to be believed, the leak was inevitable, thanks to whoever instituted this policy:

The cables themselves come via the huge Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet. SIPRNet is the worldwide US military internet system, kept separate from the ordinary civilian internet and run by the Department of Defense in Washington. Since the attacks of September 2001, there has been a move in the US to link up archives of government information, in the hope that key intelligence no longer gets trapped in information silos or “stovepipes”. An increasing number of US embassies have become linked to SIPRNet over the past decade, so that military and diplomatic information can be shared…

An embassy dispatch marked SIPDIS is automatically downloaded on to its embassy classified website. From there, it can be accessed not only by anyone in the state department, but also by anyone in the US military who has a security clearance up to the ‘Secret’ level, a password, and a computer connected to SIPRNet – which astonishingly covers over 3m people.

Sharing information is probably a good idea, but with three million people approved for access, there was effectively almost no security. State Department personnel might as well have been posting these dispatches on their Facebook pages.

Then there’s WikiLeaks itself. Their About page professes all kinds of high-sounding motives, promising to reveal truths that evil people want hidden. It includes a list of stories they’ve broken, some of which sound pretty interesting:

  • How German intelligence infiltrated Focus magazine – Illegal spying on German journalists.
  • ACTA trade agreement negotiation lacks transparency – The secret ACTA trade agreement draft, followed by dozens of other publications, presenting the initial leak for the whole ACTA debate happening today.
  • Secret gag on UK Times preventing publication of Minton report into toxic waste dumping, 16 Sep 2009 – Publication of variations of a so-called super-injunction, one of many gag-orders published by WikiLeaks to expose successful attempts to suppress the free press via repressive legal attacks.
  • Climatic Research Unit emails, data, models, 1996-2009 – Over 60MB of emails, documents, code and models from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, written between 1996 and 2009 that lead to a worldwide debate.
  • Stasi still in charge of Stasi files – Suppressed 2007 investigation into infiltration of former Stasi into the Stasi files commission.
  • Eutelsat suppresses independent Chinese-language TV station NTDTV to satisfy Beijing – French sat provider Eutelsat covertly removed an anti-communist TV channel to satisfy Beijing.
  • Report on Shriners raises question of wrongdoing – corruption exposed at 22 U.S. and Canadian children’s hospitals.

The problem is that none of this stuff is currently available on WikiLeaks. The references on the About page are not links, and when you go to the WikiLeaks home page, all you get are the big dumps of U.S. war documents–not even the current document release, which is actually at a subdomain with the hackneyed name Cablegate.

And don’t say it’s my fault if I’ve missed some obscure entry point to the WikiLeaks site. Web designers have known to put important navigation links on the home page for 15 years, you’d think WikiLeaks could figure it out. For that matter, WikiLeaks is not, in any sense, a wiki, and at the moment, it’s not accepting leaks either:

At the moment WikiLeaks is not accepting new submissions due to re-engineering improvements the site to make it both more secure and more user-friendly. Since we are not currently accepting submissions during the re-engineering, we have also temporarily closed our online chat support for how to make a submission. We anticipate reopening the electronic drop box and live chat support in the near future.

Instead of a functioning as a wide-ranging forum for revealing things that governments wish to keep secret, WikiLeaks appears to have adopted a tiresome anti-U.S. agenda. If WikiLeaks really operated in the spirit of a wiki, it would by publishing a lot of different stuff from a lot of different sources in a lot of different countries.

Meanwhile, the reactions from the other side aren’t very encouraging either. For example, right after WikiLeaks‘ previous document dump, people inside the government expressed their wish that WikiLeaks would have cooperated with them to avoid disclosing the most damaging information. Somebody at WikiLeaks apparently offered to do that this time, and the U.S. government turned them down. That might actually make some sense, because there is probably little to gain by telling the folks at WikiLeaks which information you really, really, really don’t want to get out.

Then there’s New York Congressman Peter King:

“This is worse even than a physical attack on Americans, it’s worse than a military attack,” King said.

King has written letters to both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking for swift action to be taken against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

King wants Holder to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act and has also called on Clinton to determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

And don’t forget columnist Jonah Goldberg, who may or may not have advocated assassinating WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange when he wrote:

So again, I ask: Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?

It’s a serious question.

(Of course, since Julian Assange has the name, appearance, and mannerisms of a Euro-trash Bond villain–even if he is Austrailian–I kind of understand the urge.)

I don’t know if anyone at WikiLeaks did anything to directly instigate the breach of security that got them all these documents, but if they didn’t, then I don’t see how this differs from the situation in New York Times Co. v. United States which allowed the Times to publish the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. As I understand it, once a news organization comes into possession of some information–documents, photographs, video, a story–it has a broad First Amendment right to publish that information (except maybe when publication would cause imminent danger, as in revealing troop movements or attack plans). This always made sense to me. Keeping national security information secret is the job of the government, not the New York Times.

Congresscritters who want to do something about this leak should be trying to find out how it happened and how to stop it from happening again, not wasting time going after WikiLeaks for making it public. After all, the real national security problem is not that WikiLeaks published the documents, but that a breach in security allowed them to obtain the documents in the first place.

When Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, he didn’t just give them to the New York Times, and if the Times hadn’t used them, there’s no reason to believe he wouldn’t have given them to other newspapers and organizations. So when it comes to the WikiLeaks documents, why do we believe that the leaker gave this stuff only to WikiLeaks? For all we know, he sent copies to China, Iran, and North Korea. Although, if the Guardian is correct in its description of how this information was mishandled, then foreign intelligence agencies have probably been reading this stuff for years.

I need to beg my legal readers for some information. I’ve been arguing with some guy in another blog’s comments that if the airport passenger checkpoints were operated by private security firms instead of a government agency, we’d have a better chance of suing the screeners when they do something wrong.

My argument is based on the fact that the TSA’s employees benefit from the government’s sovereign immunity. As I understand it, the Federal Tort Claims Act allows us to sue the government or its employees, but with some very strict limitations that don’t apply to private parties. Basically, the government and its employees are immune from a lot of lawsuits.

My opponent refuses to believe that government employees have “magic blanket immunity.” I think he may be a moron (or more likely, a troll) but having read up a little on the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, I’m starting to think he might have a point of sorts. It seems there’s something called the “government contractor defense” which apparently extends some immunities to those doing government work on contract instead of as employees. Also, there’s the SAFETY Act which affects libility for qualified anti-terrorism technology.

This is all way, way, way, way over my head. Does anybody out there (a) know how this stuff really works and (b) feel like answering a legal question for free?

The Transportation Security Agency’s latest plans to abuse passengers have attracted a lot of attention. People aren’t pleased at having to choose between body-imaging that shows all their naughty bits or a pat-down that that feels an awful lot like a sexual assault. Maybe this time the outrage will lead to action, and someone will put a stop to this insulting behavior.

Or maybe not. The social panic after 9/11 still hasn’t died down, and the security theater at the TSA keeps getting more painful. Remember those innocent days when confiscating nail clippers seemed like the dumbest thing the TSA could possibly do? They’ve gone way beyond that on the stupidity front, from making travelers take off their shoes to prohibiting shampoo bottles larger than 3 ounces. Then, just the other day, the TSA agents told a guy that not only couldn’t he get on the airplane without either the nudie pictures or the groping, he wasn’t even allowed to change his mind and leave the airport.

The TSA is like a cancer on our freedom. We’ve been ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away, but it just keeps getting bigger. And it’s time to do something about it, because I think the next step for the TSA is metastasis, when the cancer spreads everywhere. The first symptom will be when some government agency imposes checkpoints and intrusive searches someplace other than an airport and justitifies with reference to the TSA, saying something like, “The TSA has been doing this at airports for years. How can we not protect our children as well as we protect airline passengers?”

If you’ve been paying attention to civil liberties, that’s a familiar refrain. Once we let the security state poke its appendages into one area of our life, they just start pushing everywhere else. Some years ago, in the name of the War On Drugs, we started letting narcotics officers perform surprise armed raids against suspected sites where illegal drugs were being stored and distributed. Today, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is using SWAT teams to raid manufacturers of children’s chemistry sets.

The TSA’s metastasis may already be underway. Last April, the TSA started helping New York City subway cops search passengers. Of course, no terrorist is going to be able to take control of a subway car and crash it into a skyscraper, so the rationale for this invasion of travelers’ privacy is non-existent. (Actually, with the new armored cockpits–not to mention an entire plane full of aware passengers–nobody is going to do that to passenger jets either, but that’s another story.)

Actually, the TSA may not be the source of this particular cancer. Poor people and minorities living in the inner city have been putting up with TSA-style searches by police for years. The legal justification is rather strained, but cops can essentially stop people for reasonable suspicion–a very weak standard–and frisk them for weapons, and it’s not like they’re going to be courteous about it.

The TSA is just the vector by which it’s going to spread to the population at large–folks who are wealthier and/or whiter. Although the TSA searches only apply to air travelers, they are in some ways far more virulent, because police searches on the street require at least the pretext of specific suspicion that something will be found, whereas the TSA’s broad search powers allow them to search everyone, with no need to justify their actions.

Hmm. Somewhere along the way, my metaphor has shifted from metastasizing cancer to infectious plague. Sorry about that. Either way, the TSA is a disease, and we need a cure.

I’ve been following Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog for a few months now. He does a good job of discussing ethical issues in the news, but he also has some rather distasteful attitudes about immigration.

In the past, I’ve been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because his ethical opinion, however wrong-headed I believed it to be, conformed more or less to U.S. law. Marshall can’t really advise his business clients to break the law, so it made sense that he would take the law as a given, and try to build his ethical framework around it.

Yesterday, however, Marshall proved me wrong about taking the law as given, by discussing the ethics of a bill before Congress:

In the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress, Democrats are going to push for passage of the Dream Act, the poison pill Sen. Harry Reid cynically attached to legislation that would have resulted in ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” right before the November elections. The G.O.P. blocked the provision, which was really just Harry’s (successful) effort to stave off defeat in his re-election bid by pandering to the Hispanic vote. The fact that he ensured the perpetuation of DADT with his gambit was, as they say, collateral damage.

The Dream Act, however, should have been defeated, and it should be defeated again. Its most recent Senate version was called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. In the House, it was called the American Dream Act. The versions provided essentially the same path to citizenship for, as the bills euphemistically put it, “certain long-term residents who entered the United States as children.”

The Dream Act would give illegal residents a path to citizenship if their illegal entry into the country occurred when they were children, providing they have lived here at least five years, and providing they either go to college or serve in the military, as long as they stay out of trouble and off public assistance. Basically, it would show a bit of compassion to people whose violation of immigration laws was involuntary, and who would otherwise be deported to a country they may not even remember.

Amazingly, Jack Marshall thinks that’s being too nice:

What’s wrong with this plan? Simple: it rewards law-breaking illegal immigrants by providing a tangible benefit to their offspring. It also encourages deception by the parents, who benefit by doing everything in their power to keep their children in the country for five years.

Illegal immigrants–and that’s what the children of illegal immigrants are–should not be going to public schools. They should not be going to college.  They should not be in the country so as to have an opportunity to join the military.

There’s a great ethical principle for you: Punish the children for their parents’ bad acts as a way of discouraging the parents from committing bad acts.

Perhaps we could do this for other crimes? After all, aren’t the children of thieves and robbers benefitting from the proceeds of their parents’ crimes? Maybe they should be prohibited from attending public schools or receiving welfare benefits. And maybe children should not be eligible for child support payments from a non-custodial parent if the custodial parent was at fault in the divorce, because we wouldn’t want to reward spouses who dishonor their marriage.

Or maybe this just isn’t a very good ethical principle.

The reflex Democratic argument, intellectually dishonest and shamelessly manipulative, is that to deny the “dream” is to cruelly punish innocent children for their parent’s acts. All children, however, must endure the consequences of their parent’s bad decisions.

Here Marshall is the one being intellectually dishonest. He’s talking about deportation as if it was some kind of natural phenomenon. The only natural consequence to children if their parents bring them to the United States illegally is that they are end up living in the United States.

Deportation, on the other hand, is something that the federal government does to them by force. Marshall is essentially arguing that it’s okay to force some children to leave the country they’ve grown up in because we have a policy saying it’s okay to force some children to leave the country they’ve grown up in.

It is in no way “punishing” children to make them return to the life, country and opportunities they would have experienced if their parents hadn’t chosen to “jump ahead in line” and enter the country illegally.

These children have a life here, and now you want to take them away from it, against their will and the will of their parents. Of course that’s punishment. If it weren’t punishment, you wouldn’t have to force them.

Jack Marshall doesn’t even believe his own argument, as he revealed earlier when he said that we should deport illegal immigrants who had been brought here as children so as not to reward the parents for their illegal acts. Now he’s saying that deporting these children is not a punishment. Well, which is it? If it’s not a punishment, how could it possibly discourage the parents? The only thing I can think of is that Marshall wants us to believe that letting them stay is a reward, but making them leave is not a punishment. It doesn’t get much more intellectually dishonest than that.

I fully support immigration reform, including a path for current illegals to legitimize their presence here and stricter measures to keep new illegals out. The Dream Act creates a permanent ongoing endorsement of illegal immigration as parental benefit, and that is intolerable, destructive, and wrong.

So it’s okay to let the current illegal immigrants stay, but no more ever again? Good luck making that work.

Marshall reveals a little more of his ethical thinking in the comments, where someone named Ethics Bob calls him out:

My heart tells me no, and I think my mind does, too. I don’t see how you can argue that it’s not punishing, say, a 16-yr old whose parents brought him to the US illegally when he was-3? to deport him to a place he’s never known.

The sins of the parents shouldn’t be visited on the innocent children. Didn’t somebody worthy say that?

To which Marshall replies:

My mind and heart, if given a choice between no consequence to the child and a penalty, would choose the former. It would choose no consequence to the child over a benefit, too. But there isn’t a neutral choice. A society that endorses a familial benefit to lawbreaking is cutting its own throat. Between the two available options, the only fair and rational choice is to refuse the benefit, which means a default penalty.

(Note that Marshall is now calling it a “penalty,” thus further undermining his earlier statement that it’s not a punishment, unless he’s playing some really silly word games.)

Even if you believe that illegal immigration is as terrible as Marshall does, his argument here only holds water if the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is magically effective. Otherwise, the choice is not between letting them stay or deporting them. The choice is between letting them stay or deporting a few of them while the rest stay in hiding as part of a vast illegal underground that is poor, lawless, and suffering. That has never worked out well.

And then later, Marshall comments:

It is unjust–we don’t agree. But having a law and simultaneously rewarding parents for breaking it is worse. This an ethics conflict, for sure.

These kinds of conflicts arise all the time in law. There’s a lot to be said for not letting people benefit from bad acts because it encourages them, but that doesn’t mean we should pursue retribution forever. Sooner or later, everyone is better off if we give up, get over it, and move on to better things.

When people get so far in debt they can never pay it off, we don’t say “tough luck, you got yourself into that mess, now you’ve got to live with it forever.” Instead, we let them declare bankruptcy. Their creditors don’t get back the money they deserve, but the were never going to get that money anyway. And once bankrupt people get out from under that crushing debt, they have a reason to become productive members of society again. Yes, this option gives people an incentive to borrow and spend recklessly, but it also gives them a way out of a bad situation, so they can begin contributing to the economy again.

More to the point, almost every legal remedy or punishment comes with a time limit. Fail to pay a debt, and after a few years your creditors can no longer sue you to recover it. Breach a contract, and after a certain amount of time you can no longer be sued to enforce it. Injure someone in a car accident, and if they don’t sue for damages within the time limit, you’re free and clear. You can even commit a crime–except for murder and a few other heinous crimes–and when the statute of limitations runs out, you get away with it forever.

These limits exist to serve a number of purposes, but one of them is to give people the peace of mind they need perform as useful members of society. We all do bad things from time to time–especially when we’re young–but our legal system recognizes that there is little to be gained by holding it over our heads forever. So if you smoked some pot, or drove away from a minor car accident, or lied on a loan application, or ran out on a restaurant bill, you don’t have to worry about it forever.

Imagine the alternative: You’ve survived to reach middle age. You have a job, you’re raising a family, you’re a homeowner, a church-goer, and a member of the Rotary club. Then one day the police show up at your door with a warrant to arrest you for assault and battery on a guy you punched in the face at a rock concert twenty-five years ago when you were a 19 year old kid.

That may be justice, but it’s very bad social policy. And it’s pretty much the life of any illegal immigrant, who could be deported at any time. At least with the Dream act, they won’t face deportation for things they did as children.

Why does anybody pay attention to what law enforcement employees think should be a crime? This is from Michele Leonhart’s confirmation hearing as head of the DEA:

“I’m a big fan of the DEA,” said [Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama], before asking Leonhart point blank if she would fight medical marijuana legalization.

“I have seen what marijuana use has done to young people, I have seen the abuse, I have seen what it’s done to families. It’s bad,” Leonhart said. “If confirmed as administrator, we would continue to enforce the federal drug laws.”

Well, that’s sort of the job…

“These legalization efforts sound good to people,” Sessions quipped. “They say, ‘We could just end the problem of drugs if we could just make it legal.’ But any country that’s tried that, Alaska and other places have tried it, have failed. It does not work,” Sessions said.

“We need people who are willing to say that. Are you willing to say that?” Sessions asked Leonhart.

“Yes, I’ve said that, senator. You’re absolutely correct [about] the social costs from drug abuse, especially from marijuana,” Leonhart said. “Legalizers say it will help the Mexican cartel situation; it won’t. It will allow states to balance budgets; it won’t. No one is looking [at] the social costs of legalizing drugs.”

When I was in school, I learned that legislatures made the laws, and executive bodies, such as the DEA, enforced them. So who the hell is Michele Leonhart to tell us what the laws should be? I mean, she has the same right to speak out as anyone else, but why would anyone bother to listen? She’s an expert at law enforcement, but that doesn’t mean she knows anything much about the moral and ethical reasoning needed for good lawmaking.

Jeff Gamso has a terrific post on why we shouldn’t believe the TSA when they claim that their full-nude body scans of passengers are completely secure and won’t be abused or disclosed.

I have my own argument that I’ve used to respond to similar claims about government handling of our sensitive personal information. It goes something like this:

At the height of the cold war, the Soviets paid U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Walker Jr. a few thousand dollars a month for information about Navy encryption, eventually deciphering as many as a milllion messages with his help, some of them related to the submarine nuclear deterrence fleet.

During this same period, TRW  employee Chris Boyce and his friend Andrew Daulton Lee sold classified information about encryption and spy satellites to the Soviets, supposedly because Boyce was angry about CIA interference in the affairs of other nations.

Toward the end of the cold war, CIA counter-intelligence officer Aldrich Ames sold secrets to the Soviet Union in exchange for about $2 million, and FBI agent Robert Hanssen sold secrets to the Soviets and then Russia for 22 years in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds. Several of the people betrayed by Ames and Hanssen were executed.

These are just a few of the most famous examples of people who sold out their country for money, revenge, or other reasons. They were entrusted with extremely important information, the substantial capabilities of our national intelligence agencies were arrayed against them, and they still managed to betray us all.

But there’s no way a TSA agent would share a nude image of a passenger.

I’ve been writing about the un-American and totalitarian horror of civil forfeiture laws for a while, and I’ve been following the issue on and off for two decades, so the latest bit of outrage to make the rounds isn’t really a surprise:

On Monday, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Missouri Highway Patrol and the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a joint complaint in the Eastern District of Missouri asking to seize the 350-acre Zoe Farm, alleging rampant drug dealing and drug use at events.

According to its website, the farm, called Camp Zoe, is located 150 miles southwest of St. Louis near Salem and hosts a popular Grateful Dead festival called Schwagstock every year, as well as biker and pagan rallies and individual concerts. Once a popular summer camp for kids, the property was purchased in 2004 by Jimmy Tebeau, a member of the Schwag, a Grateful Dead tribute band. He opened the grounds to recreational camping and float trips and began hosting the festivals soon after the purchase.

In the complaint, officials said investigators spent four years monitoring and interacting with concertgoers on the farm, witnessing drug use and completing open drug deals with participants during events. Officials allege that the owner and event operators were aware of the activity and “took no immediate action to prevent” the sale and use of cocaine, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms, opium and marijuana-laced food.

This is typical. Fighting crime–even drug crime–is the job of the police. But that requires a criminal trial, which means the cops need to find things like proof and evidence. That’s hard work. It’s far easier just to declare that property owners should be responsible for fighting drugs on their own property and then seizing the property when they turn out to be no better at it than the police. It’s more lucrative too, since law enforcement agencies get to keep some of the loot.

(Of course, if you try to help out the police by reporting drug crimes you believe are occurring on your property, you’re just giving them more reasons to seize the property.)

Tebeau has not been charged with a crime. Nor would he have to be for the court to approve the seizure of the property under a civil asset forfeiture law that enables the federal government to take property that is relied upon by criminals as part of an illegal money-making enterprise.

Yes, this is real. Yes, this is America. It has worked this way for a couple of decades now.

It gets worse:

[Tebeau’s lawyer, Dan] Viets, who is representing his client pro bono, said Tebeau discovered this week that officials had cleaned out his bank account, yet he has not been served legal notice on that forfeiture.

“It’s pretty darn hard to hire legal counsel if you don’t have any money — and the government knows that,” Viets said. “It’s just heavy-handed and mean-spirited, and entirely uncalled for.”

For a guy who’s working for free, Viets is being awfully polite in describing the might-makes-right thuggery of the DEA agents, the Missouri Highway Patrol officers, and the U.S. Attorney. That’s probably wise lawyering, but my way is more satifying to write about.

When I first read about Tebeau’s problems at Scott Greenfield’s Simple Justice blog, I wanted to confirm my understanding that without Viets’s generous help, Tebeau would be unable to afford a lawyer and would have to try to fight a court battle on his own, against the government, if he wanted to keep his farm. I posted this comment:

Let me see if I understand the full horror of this situation. Tebeau is effectively indigent because the feds took his money, however, because forfeiture is a civil proceeding, he’s not entitled to help from the federal defender, right? So if Viets wasn’t willing to help him pro bono, he’d pretty much just lose everything, perhaps after an attempted pro se fight?

Scott’s response blew my mind:

Almost.  The procedural rules for in rem forfeitures are under the Supplemental Maritime Rules, so he would have to know, pro se, how to navigate those instead of the usual Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

That’s “maritime” as in “of or relating to navigation or commerce on the sea.” I actually thought this might be some obscure attempt at lawyer humor on Scott’s part. After a bit of googling, however, it looked like he didn’t make that up. It’s just one more example of how screwed up civil forfeiture is: The goverment is using laws about ships on the sea to seize a farm.

For almost a decade we have had heavy-handed rights abuses all in the name of keeping people safe from threats which kill far fewer people than traffic accidents do each year. We allow the files on your laptop to be perused with no cause. We take for granted that people can be detained indefinitely without being tried or even accused of a crime. The United States now condones tortuous acts, which we ourselves once prosecuted others for, as normal. We think it’s OK to listen in on private conversations of anyone without any judicial review at all. The American public accepts all this, and more, in the name of safety.

But there is something that your average American, bred with a history of puritan ethics, just wont stand for. That is allowing someone else to either see or touch your private parts.
I understand this on an intellectual level, from a sociological perspective, yet am still gravely disappointed by it. Personally, if someone wants to look at me naked before getting on an airplane, I really don’t mind. They won’t enjoy it, but it won’t bother me. If someone would like to fondle my family jewels while waiting at an airport, they can give it a go. In fact, I know people who would pay someone to do that while still in the airport parking lot.
I suppose it does make a difference that I’m not sought out by GQ as a male model, and that when you pay for an “aggressive pat down” you get to chose who does it. But again, these are things that just wouldn’t bother me that much, especially when compared to getting arrested and detained without warrant or trial.
Of course, I’ve never been a particularly good Protestant. I don’t have the ingrained moral outrage at pornography, prostitution, revealing swim wear at the beach, or anything else that reminds us we are humans who, on occasion, have sex.
So let me join the masses of people who are complaining about the new invasive full-body scans and new aggressive pat down policies now being used by the TSA. I’m not complaining about these new systems, though. I’m complaining about all of the Americans who couldn’t be bothered to complain about their freedoms being wrenched away in the name of security, yet can’t overcome their moral outrage at being seen naked in a fuzzy, monochrome image by a bored security worker before getting on an airplane.
The new security scans do, at least, provide one good service to the country. We will finally be able to see (or feel) if the American citizen can grow a set of balls.

I went to see the movie Skyline yesterday.

I should have known better. The distributor has been advertising it like crazy, but as the release date approached, they didn’t preview it for movie critics. That usually means they’re trying to hide how much their movie sucks. And with a Metacritic score of 28 and 10% on the Tomatometer, the signs were not promising. Still, there was something about it…I wanted to see for myself. That turned out to be a mistake.

(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)


Attention, pedophiles! Do you like touching children? Well, if you haven’t been arrested yet, you’ve probably already applied for this job:

God, I hate this kind of crap.

I’ve pointed out before that we have so many laws that allow police departments to seize cars that we’re turning our police forces into auto theft rings with badges. And I’ve commented several times on the police practice of conducting home invasions in the name of the War on Drugs.

Now, it appears that Orleans Parish in Louisiana has graduated to hostage taking:

The man, Tyrone Claiborne, had been mistakenly arrested on a warrant meant for a man with the same birthday named Tyrane Claborne. The wanted man had failed to pay his fines and fees while in the Section C drug court after pleading guilty to attempted heroin possession with the intent to distribute.

Another judge had handled the drug plea before Willard took over the section.

According to [Public Defender Stuart] Weg, Willard asked whether the two men were related. “Upon discovering that the two are brothers, the judge declared that the matter was a ‘family affair’ and that he intended to continue holding Tyrone L. Claiborne until he… could cause his brother to appear before the court,” the lawsuit says. 

Awesome. What a fabulous idea! This was initially unintentional (I assume) but really, why should the Sheriff’s department go through the tedium of tracking down the subject of a bench warrent when it’s so much easier to just grab up a few relatives and use them as leverage?

(Hat tip: Simple Justice)

No-knock warrants are dangerous, lazy, and stupid. The usual excuse for them is they are necessary to protect the arresting officers. Of course, we know this to be a lame excuse. In civilized parts of the world police will often phone the suspect telling him he is surrounded and to come out of the house. In less civilized parts of the world, like Afghanistan, bull horns are used instead of phones. In America the police prefer to just bash the door down while pretending to be special forces troops.

The real reason for the no-knock warrant is, in the case of drug raids, that it takes the place of an investigation. The raid is the investigation and all of the evidence needed for the trial will be gathered as a result of the raid. It’s much easier and more efficient to just act on any tips you get and immediately raid the house to see if there was any truth to the tip. You can’t phone the dangerous criminals asking them to come out since that gives them time to flush the evidence down the toilet. Since there was no investigation other than the raid, you need to go in guns blazing so the suspect doesn’t have time to get rid of the only evidence the police will get. Lazy, because it replaces a complex investigation of allegations, dangerous, because the situation becomes chaotic and unpredictable, and stupid because there are better ways to deal with the situation.

What, however, is the reason for no-knock gambling warrants? Last week, in South Carolina, a raid on a two-bit poker game went bad and two people were shot. From the sound of it, this happens regularly. The reason for the warrent is obvious; the police want to sieze the money (in the case cited the police netted about $2,500! Woo Hoo!). But why the no-knock warrant? Were the suspects going to flush the poker machines and chips down the toilet?

Maybe I need to give this some more thought. Right now the only reason I can think for such an action is that the police just get a kick out of conducting no-knock raids, playing John Rambo, pretending to be a Green Beret. I’m genunily open to other suggestions here. It’s not to keep officers safe, and it’s obviously not to keep suspects safe. If anyone else has some experience here, please do enlighten me.

(Hat tip: Ed Brayton)

I just found this video of Bill Maher’s commentary on Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” It’s a bizarre mix of a few good points and a lot of partisan hackery, so I thought I’d add some commentary. And, really, Bill Maher just makes me feel like ranting.

With all due respect to my friends Jon and Stephen, it seems to me that if you really wanted to come down on the side of restoring sanity and reason, you’d side with the sane and the reasonable, and not try to pretend that the insanity is equally distributed in both parties.

It’s not okay to talk bullshit just because the other side spews even more bullshit. You don’t have to have an opinion on how the bullshit is distributed across the parties to know that you don’t want to get any on you.

But the message of the rally, as I heard it, was that if the media would just stop giving voice to the crazies on both sides then maybe we could restore sanity. It was all non-partisan and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side, forgetting that Obama tried that and found out there are no moderates on the other side.

If by “moderates,” Bill Maher means people who will roll over and give Obama whatever he wants without getting something in return, then that’s probably true. And the other side feels exactly the same way, I’m sure. After all, with the Democrats controlling the White House and both Houses of Congress, I’m sure they haven’t exactly been accomodating to Republican interests.

When Jon announced his rally, he said that the national conversation is dominated by people on the right who believe Obama is a socialist and people on the left who believe 9/11 was an inside job, but I can’t name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11 was an inside job, but Republican leaders who think Obama’s a socialist? All of them: McCain, Boehner, Cantor, Palin. All of them.

The real problem here is that Jon Stewart and Bill Maher are both subject to their own liberal biases. I don’t usually throw around loaded phrases like “liberal bias,” so let me explain.

When I lived with my parents, they used to get into some fierce family arguments, and whenever I happened to think my mother was wrong, she always asked me, accusingly, “Why are you taking his side?”

I never did come up with a good answer, because I thought the question was unfair. I wasn’t taking my dad’s side. I was taking the side that I thought was correct. As far as I was concerned, my dad and I were only on the same side because we were both on the right side. My mother never considered that, because she thought she was on the right side.

Now Bill Maher sees that a lot of Republicans think Obama is a socialist, and he concludes that they’re all insane. He’s making the same assumptions as my mom was. He’s ignoring the possibility that Republican leaders think Obama is a socialist because he is, in fact, a socialist. Bill Maher is a liberal, so to him, that seems wrong. That seems insane.

Jon Stewart also has the same liberal viewpoint, which is probably why thinking Obama is a socialist seems just as crazy as thinking Bush planned the murder of 3000 people on 9/11. But it’s not quite that crazy.

I know, I know. Obama isn’t a Socialist socialist. He’s not a member of a socialist party, and he doesn’t advocate government ownership of the means of production. But if you’re willing to accept that his opponents are bending the definition as a bit of political hyperbole, to attract attention to what they see as Obama’s bad policies, then they’ve got a point.

Obama may not have plans to transfer all corporate capital to the government, but his healthcare reform plan is something of a takeover of the the health insurance industry. The goverment won’t actually become the owner of these insurance companies, but there’s clearly going to be a lot of regulation, and a lot of business decisions that used to be made by the insurance companies will now be made by one of the many regulatory bodies created by the new reform laws.

That’s kind of what American socialism looks like: We keep the private companies around, but we subsidize them, tax them, and regulate them so much that they are essentially owned by the government. Joe Biden’s beloved Amtrak is a prime example, as were Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And don’t forget, Obama did nationalize a couple of automobile manufacturers.

As another example of both sides using overheated rhetoric, Jon cited the right equating Obama with Hitler, and the left calling Bush a war criminal. Except thinking Obama is like Hitler is utterly unfounded, but thinking Bush is a war criminal–that’s the opinion of General Anthony Taguba, who headed the Army’s investigation into Abu Ghraib.

So Maher’s defense of calling Bush a war criminal is that somebody else has also called him a war criminal? I haven’t been following the issue closely and don’t know what Taguba’s report really says, so maybe that’s stronger than it sounds. Some bad things certainly happened, and it’s possible Bush has some kind of direct responsibility for them. After all, he did just admit to approving waterboarding.

But if George Bush is a war criminal, or if there are war criminals in his administration, then Obama seems to be covering up for them. After his election victory, someone on the website asked him if he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate crimes within the Bush administration, and here’s his response:

We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth. And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. … My orientation is going to be moving foward.

Looking forward sounds great, but it also means nobody has been looking into the alleged crimes of the Bush administration–certainly nothing much has come to light so far. Either Bush’s people never got involved in war crimes, or Obama is helping to cover them up. As evidence for the latter, consider that Obama’s administration is using “state secrets” claims to stop lawsuits by Binyam Mohamed and Maher Arar, both of whom claim to have been tortured as a result of U.S. policies under Bush.

Back to Bill Maher:

Republicans… You see, Republicans keep staking out a position that is further and further right, and then demand Democrats meet them in the middle, which is now not the middle anymore. That’s the reason healthcare reform is so watered down. It’s Bob Dole’s old plan from 1994.

This is more than a little disingenuous. When it came to healthcare reform, Republicans would have been happy to leave things the way they were. It’s the Democrats that wanted to make a lot of changes. The resulting healthcare reform act was a compromise that made some changes–not as many as the Democrats wanted, but more than the Republicans would have made if they’d been in charge. Since when is “leave it the way it is” an extreme position?

I can remember hearing the same sort of “why won’t you compromise?” crap about gun control. The anti-gun folks would pick some until-then perfectly legal piece of firearm technology–large magazines, expanding bullets, non-expanding bullets, plastic parts, bayonet mounts, pistol grips–and propose a total ban. When pro-gun opponents objected to this ban, the anti-gun folks accused them of being unwilling to compromise, even though the anti-gun folks offered nothing in return.

Also, since when is it wrong to stand up for what you want? That’s how negotiations work: Everybody tries to get what they want, then they negotiate. Maher’s just sore that the middle turned out not to be what he wanted it to be.

Same thing with Cap and Trade–it was the first President Bush’s plan to deal with carbon emissions. Now the Republican plan for climate change is to claim it’s a hoax. But it’s not. I know that because I’ve lived in L.A. since ’83 and there’s been a change in the city: I can see it now. Yeah. All of us who live out here have had that experience. “Oh, look! There’s a mountain there!”

Bill Maher is being an idiot. Smog consists of low-lying banks of suspended particulates and chemicals in the air. It is created by vehicles and industrial processes in cities, and it is a local problem for the cities that create it. If the L.A. basin has clearer air now, it’s because the people living there did something about it. Climate change–by which I assume Maher means anthropogenic global warming–is a matter of the entire planet’s heat balance, and it has little to do with localized polution (although some gases contribute to both problems).

Government, led by liberal Democrats, passed laws which changed the air I breathe for the better. Okay, I’m for them. And not for the party that is, as we speak, plotting to abolish the EPA.

Just because they got one thing right, doesn’t mean they’re getting everything else right.

That said, I don’t know what the Republicans are really planning to do, but because pollution is a result of market failure, a little government-organized environmental protection seems like a good idea, providing it’s done with some intelligence with respect to how tradeoffs are made. I don’t know if that has anything to do with what the EPA does these days.

And I don’t need to pretend that both sides have a point here, and I don’t care what left or right commentators say about it, I only care what climate scientists say about it.

Global warming–the idea that the Earth has been heating up slowly due to the release of certain man-made chemicals–is a relatively new theory, and because of its broad implications, it was the subject of a lot of controversy among scientists. But the scientists have reached a consensus on the important issues, and unless that begins to shift, global warming seems to be pretty real.

Good for Bill Maher, standing up for the importance of paying attention to client scientists. Too bad, though, that he doesn’t have the same respect for medical scientists such as immunologists and epidemiologists:

MAHER: I’m not into western medicine. That to me is a complete scare tactic. It just shows you, you can…

KING: You mean you don’t get a — you don’t get a flu shot?

MAHER: A flu shot is the worst thing you can do.

KING: Why?

MAHER: Because it’s got — it’s got mercury.

KING: It prevents flu.

MAHER: It doesn’t prevent. First of all, that’s…

KING: I haven’t had the flu in 25 years since I’ve been taking a flu shot.

MAHER: Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there’s ten times the likelihood that you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease.

This is far more insane than calling Obama a socialist, or even being skeptical about global warming. See, Bill?  Insanity is not just for the Republicans.

Back to Maher’s commentary, where I’ll close on one of his better points:

Two opposing sides don’t necessarily have two compelling arguements. MLK spoke on that mall in the capital, and he didn’t say, “Remember folks, those southern sheriffs with the fire hoses and the German Shepherds, they have a point too.”

No, he said, “I have a dream. They have a nightmare.”

Indeed. It’s foolish and misguided to pretend to an inequality you don’t believe in. If you have the courage of your convictions, if you belive that you are right and they are wrong, then it’s alright to stand up and say that you are right and they are wrong.

After reading some of the comments from GW’s recent NBC interview, I understand better the unconstitutional responses to 9/11 America is still suffering under. When questioned about the use of torture Bush’s response was:

“I will tell you this: using those techniques saved lives. My job was to protect America. And I did.”

We really need to make it more clear when we hire a president just what the job description is. Maybe we need to publish it in the want ads of various newspapers around the country before we accept any applications. Right at the top should be the oath they will be expected to take:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

I can understand when the newly hired president recites that oath that maybe they would forget the details. After all, inauguration day is a big event and they have parties to go to all afternoon and evening. You get a little drunk and wake up the next morning unable to remember everything you did or said the previous day.

From now on we should make the job description clear right up front when advertising the opening.