Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Must Reads from Mayer and Barry


Rick Welts, president of Phoenix Suns, comes out (in The New York Times); Jane Mayer writes a blockbuster about the Obama Administration’s dangerous obsession with leaks

The most important and the most depressing piece of 2011 is by Jane Mayer in the current New Yorker.  When the history of this era is written, Jane’s work about American torture under Bush and “national security” under Obama will stand out as being some of the most courageous and intelligent journalism of our time.

    In stark contrast to many of her national security rivals in the Washington bureau of The New York Times (especially the ones with alliterative names) Mayer never gives the impression that she is merely repeating the official government line.

    Jane’s story this week is a horrifying tale of the persecution through unnecessary federal prosecution of Thomas Drake, a 54-year-old former employee of the National Security Agency, a whistle blower who was disgusted by waste and mismanagement–and the implementation of some of the most intrusive and most illegal surveillance programs in the history of the republic.

    As Yale law professor Jack Balkin told Mayer, “We are witnessing the bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state”–something which comes much closer to George Orwell’s nightmare vision in 1984 than most people realize.  Obama, Balkin says, has “systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration”–although torture is a notable exception to that statement.

    Among the scariest developments is the perversion of a program called ThinThread, developed by Bill Binney, a now-retired NSA analyst.  “Binney estimated that there were some two and a half billion phones in the world and one and a half billion I.P. addresses. Approximately twenty terabytes of unique information passed around the world every minute. Binney started assembling a system that could trap and map all of it.”

    Binney actually believed that if ThinThread had been deployed before 9/11, it would have detected the plans for the attacks before they occurred.  “Those its of conversation they found too late?” Binney said.  “They would never have happened.” 

    But the NSA bureaucracy focused instead on a rival system called Trailblazer, which was abandoned in 2006 after it had become a $1.2 billion flop.

    When ThinThread was finally put to use by the agency, it was stripped of the controls Binney had built into it which would have prevented it from being used to spy on Americans, in direct violation of Federal Law.  Binney says his program was twisted.  “I should apologize to the American people,” Binney said.  “It’s violated everyone’s rights. It can be used to eavesdrop on the whole world.” Binney added that Thomas Drake had taken  his side against the N.S.A.’s management and, as a result, had become a political target–leading to what appears to be a wholly unjustified Federal prosecution that could send him to jail for thirty-five years.

    The single most horrifying fact in Mayer’s story: Binney believes that the NSA now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later.  Binney says that an N.S.A. e-mail database can be searched with “dictionary selection,” in the manner of Google.

    Look for 60 Minutes to take up this story next Sunday.

                                                       ~    .     ~    .    ~

    This week’s other must read story is Dan Barry’s superb account in The New York Times of the coming out of Rick Welts,  the president and chief executive of the Phoenix Suns, who had spent his entire career in the closet because of the neanderthal attitude of professional sports towards every gay man and woman who participates in them.   Barry does a magnificent job of describing Welt’s three-decade long odyssey to honesty, including the extremely supportive role of National Basketball Commissioner David Stern.

    The story notes that when former N.B.A. player John Amaechi announced that he was gay in 2007, that prompted former N.B.A. star Tim Hardaway to say that, as a rule, he hated gay people.  

    Note to Hardaway, and his fellow homophobes everywhere: the only people who ever make statements like that are invariably afraid that they might be gay themselves. 

    People who are certain they are straight are never upset by gay people at all.







Winners & Sinners: from Mary Murphy to Mark Mazzetti


Pulitzer winner David Leonhardt, National Magazine Award winner Scott Horton, Filmmaker Mary Murphy, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti

Winner: Mary Murphy, for her superb documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mocking Bird, which opens today at the Quad Cinema in New York and soon in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, Mobile, Long Beach, Palm Springs and Norfolk, Va.  

Murphy, a veteran journalist, fell in love with Scout as a child and has  fashioned a beautiful love letter to her creator and this great American novel.   Watch the trailer here   or listen to Murphy charm her interviewer on NPR here.  And then get yourself to the theatre as soon as possible, for a treat for the whole family.

Sinner: Mark Mazzetti, whose coverage of American torture will forever live in infamy.  His latest contribution to his torture canon, the day after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated, was a story (with Helene Cooper and Peter Baker) which credulously adopted the line of former Bush administration officials (as Mazzetti has done dozens of times before) who  were desperately trying to convince the world that torture was the main reason that Bin Laden had been located.   The offending paragraphs were these:

The raid was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, including the interrogation of CIA detainees in secret prisons in Eastern Europe, where sometimes what was not said was as useful as what was…

It wasn’t until after 2002, when the agency began rounding up Qaeda operatives  and subjecting them to hours of brutal interrogation sessions in secret overseas prisons  that they finally began filling in the gaps about the foot soldiers, couriers and money men Bin Laden relied on.

Prisoners in American custody told stories of a trusted courier. When the Americans ran the man’s pseudonym past two top-level detainees  the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed; and Al Qaeda’s operational chief, Abu Faraj al-Libi  the men claimed never to have heard his name. That raised suspicions among interrogators that the two detainees were lying and that the courier probably was an important figure.

This prompted FCP to write the following e-mail to Mazzetti, Times executive editor Bill Keller, managing editor Jill Abramson, and Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet:

Everything I’ve read today–from Feinstein’s press conference to Donald Rumsfeld in NewsMax [Rumsfeld reversed himself under neocon pressure the following day] to Jane Mayer to the round-up in Talking Points Memo–suggests that your strong implication on the front page of today’s newspaper that torture played an essential role in developing the information that led to Osama’s killing is flatly false… Judging from what everyone else has said today, once again, for the umpteenth time,  all you are doing is repeating the CIA line to protect the people who tortured their prisoners.
I trust  tomorrow’s newspaper will either
1) retract the implication of those graphs
2) provide some substance to support them?

Keller acknowledged receipt of the e-mail but did not respond to it; Abramson and Mazzetti ignored it.  Baquet wrote, “Good to hear from you again. I’m not sure I read those paragraphs the way you did.”

However, in the following day’s paper, there was indeed a new story on the front page by Scott Shane and Charlie Savage which seemed to take back the implication of Mazzetti’s story:

As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding…But a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out.

Harper’s contributing editor Scott Horton, whose writing about torture always features all of the skepticism and sophistication which Mazzetti’s–and, frequently Shane’s–so often lack–said this to FCP about the first day story in the Times: 

I’m quite sure that this is precisely the way the folks who provided this info from the agency wanted them to be understood, but there is certainly more than a measure of ambiguity in them, planted with care by the NYT writers or their editors.  This episode shows again how easily the Times can be spun by unnamed government sources, the factual premises of whose statements invariably escape any examination.

Winner: the very same Scott Horton, for winning a National Magazine Award for his blockbuster piece in Harper’s which explored the possibility that what had been described as the suicide of three prisoners at Guantanamo may actually have been murders committed by their captors.  FCP first wrote about Horton’s piece in January of last year.

Horton’s reporting directly contradicted an earlier piece in The New York Times magazine and the Times has alternated between ignoring Horton’s story and denigrating it.   Happily, the judges of the National Magazine Awards felt very differently about it.

Sinners: The Pulitzer Board for awarding Joseph Rago a Pulitzer for “for his well-crafted, against-the-grain editorials challenging the health care reform advocated by President Barack Obama.”   As the Nation’s Greg Mitchell pointed out,  the young Rago’s arguments were not only utterly predictable but also frequently “fact-challenged.”

Among the editorials for which Rago was honored was one in which he blasted PolitiFact for identifying the right’s successful branding of Obama’s “government takeover of health care” as its “lie of the year”–which of course, is exactly what it was.

Winner: David Leonhardt, whose Pulitzer Prize for his superb economic analysis in the New York Times was as deserved as Rago’s honor was misguided.   For many years, Leonhardt has done a brilliant job of making the field of economics accessible to his lay readers.   And the fact that FCP has known Leonhardt since birth–and shared the same table at Passover for more than three decades–has absolutely nothing to do with this citation.

Winner: Barack Obama, for his splendid interview with Steve Croft for 60 Minutes in which he explained all of the risks in the operation and all of the very sensible reasons for burying the terrorist at sea–and not releasing any photographs of his corpse afterwards. 

Obama on Osama with Steve Kroft




Triumph & Tragedy


President Obama announcing the Death of Osama Bin Laden; The Terrorist in his prime

 Above the Fold

    There are plenty of reasons to rejoice over the death of Osama Bin Laden, including the sense of closure his killing should bring to the relatives of all the victims of his heinous attacks.

     But one of the most important reasons isn’t being mentioned much at all: the commando raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan is the first truly effective response the United States has managed since the terrorist launched his horrific assault against us almost ten years ago.

    The tragedy of the deaths of thousands of civilians in those four airplanes, and in the three buildings they crashed into, was fearfully compounded by George Bush’s response to it.   

    Instead of staying with a limited operation in Afghanistan–and an all-out effort to hunt down the man responsible for 9/11–the president and his neocons used these events to play perfectly into the hands of the man who perpetrated them.

    George Bush did that by launching a huge, completely unnecessary war in Iraq, where we are still bogged down almost a decade later, a war which killed and maimed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraquis–and has left that country still barely governable today.  It also did as much as anything else to bankrupt the Federal treasury.

    Instead of bringing Bin-Laden to his knees, for a very long time the war in Iraq had exactly the opposite effect.  As the indispensable Juan Cole pointed out today,“aside from the sheer scale of destruction in Iraq set off by Bush’s illegal and ill-considered adventurism,” the worst thing about this war was the way it “clearly gave al-Qaeda an opening to grow and expand and recruit.  I think if Bush had gone after Bin Laden as single-mindedly as Obama has, he would have gotten him, and could have rolled up al-Qaeda in 2002 or 2003. Instead, Bush’s occupation of a major Arab Muslim country kept a hornet’s nest buzzing against the US, Britain and other allies.”

    And as my Hillman colleague Hendrik Hertzberg blogged  today, yesterday’s raid “underlines one of the many weaknesses of the ‘war’ metaphor and mentality that was immediately adopted in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks: the simplistic notion that the key to defeating Al Qaeda was the military conquest and occupation of territory. Not for the first time, that notion has been exposed as tragically misleading.” 

    One of Bin Laden’s principal goals was to rid Saudi Arabia of American troops, and less than two years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, all but 220 of some 5,000 American soldiers had been withdrawn from the Saudi kingdom.  His other mission was to do everything he could to weaken the United States–and by giving the fools in the Bush Administration the pretext they had been praying for to invade Iraq, Bin Laden succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.

    There is something else important that we can all be grateful for today.  By the time Bin Laden was finally hunted down, the extraordinary events of the Arab spring had made it clearer than ever that his ideas have already been relegated to the dustbin of history.    Again, Juan Cole explains:

    Bin Laden was a violent product of the Cold War and the Age of Dictators in the Greater Middle East. He passed from the scene at a time when the dictators are falling or trying to avoid falling in the wake of a startling set of largely peaceful mass movements demanding greater democracy and greater social equity. Bin Laden dismissed parliamentary democracy, for which so many Tunisians and Egyptians yearn, as a man-made and fallible system of government, and advocated a return to the medieval Muslim caliphate (a combination of pope and emperor) instead. Only a tiny fringe of Muslims wants such a theocratic dictatorship. The masses who rose up this spring mainly spoke of “nation,” the “people,” “liberty” and “democracy,” all keywords toward which Bin Laden was utterly dismissive. The notorious terrorist turned to techniques of fear-mongering and mass murder to attain his goals in the belief that these methods were the only means by which the Secret Police States of the greater Middle East could be overturned. 

    As Dr. Wahid Abd-al-Majid, an adviser at the Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies, explained to al-Arabiya a couple of weeks ago, Bin Laden’s number two man, Ayman al-Zawahiri “dreamt of being the one who topples President Husni Mubarak, only for the president to be toppled by the youth in a peaceful and democratic revolution that has absolutely no connection to Al-Qa’ida’s long-held claims.”

      Finally, yesterday’s success will give pause to Barack Obama’s critics, who have long berated him for his supposed incompetence in foreign affairs. The splendid outcome of this daring raid fulfilled a specific promise that candidate Obama made during the presidential campaign in 2007.  Because of it,  Obama is probably more powerfu today than he has been at any other time since he entered the White House.   And the notion that any of the Republican dwarfs now toying with a run for the presidency might offer him a serious challenge seems even more farcical than it did before.




Extremism In Defense of Idiocy

Quick Takes

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says  the only thing left that is holding up a bill that would prevent a government shutdown is the intransigence of Republican extremists in the House, who are demanding the complete defunding of Planned Parenthood.

    How extreme are those extremists?  As the indispensable Steve Benen has reported, Oklahoma neanderthal Senator Tom Coburn, and Minnesota’s maniacal Michelle Bachman–yes, Michelle Bachman!–have both said they are in favor of a bill without the Planned Parenthood rider.   So the Tea Party members in the House are way to the right of Coburn and Bachman–which means they probably think Glenn Beck is a hopeless moderate.

    Meanwhile, Paul Krugman vivisects the “responsible conservatives”–everyone from David Brooks to The Economist–who have been praising Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget.  (The Economist called it “a brave counterproposal” which “puts fiscal responsibility at the centre of his plan”–although even this Republican-friendly publication admits that “Too much of the gain goes to the rich, and too much of the pain is felt by the poor.”)

    Krugman sees things rather differently in today’s Times.
    “…The G.O.P. plan turns out not to be serious at all. Instead, it’s simultaneously ridiculous and heartless. ..Republicans have once again gone all in for voodoo economics — the claim, refuted by experience, that tax cuts pay for themselves. [The Congressional Budget Office] finds that a large part of the supposed savings from spending cuts would go, not to reduce the deficit, but to pay for tax cuts…

    “The point here is that privatizing Medicare does nothing, in itself, to limit health-care costs. In fact, it almost surely raises them by adding a layer of middlemen. Yet the House plan assumes that we can cut health-care spending as a percentage of G.D.P. despite an aging population and rising health care costs.

    “The only way that can happen is if those vouchers are worth much less than the cost of health insurance. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2030 the value of a voucher would cover only a third of the cost of a private insurance policy equivalent to Medicare as we know it. So the plan would deprive many and probably most seniors of adequate health care…

    “In short, this plan isn’t remotely serious; on the contrary, it’s ludicrous.  And it’s also cruel.”




Brian Chokes on The Donald; Fox Bids Beck Good-Bye


Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, Brian Williams

Above the Fold

    Glenn Beck and Fox News have finally parted company–a welcome event which the New York Times chose to bury deep inside the Business Section this morning.  Beck’s contract expires in December, but the Times predicted he would leave the network long before that.

    In yet another ridiculous on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand story, Times reporters Bill Carter and Brian Stelter barely hinted at all of Beck’s on-air felonies, calling his show
“a daily broadcast platform for a libertarian strain of politics that is also evident in the Tea Party, a movement he embraced. Critics loudly condemned him for living with his own facts — but that only seemed to widen the conspiracy that he outlined each night, aided by a growing number of chalkboards in his studio.”

    Yesterday’s announcement came just one month after anonymous Fox officials had leaked their plan to get rid of Beck to New York Times media columnist David Carr, who wrote that Beck’s future was in jeopardy in part because he had lost a million viewers since the peak of his show’s ratings. 

    Carr explained, “The problem with ‘Glenn Beck’ is that it has turned into a serial doomsday machine that’s a bummer to watch.” Then Carr quoted David von Drehle, who had written a pathetically soft profile of Beck for the cover of Time magazine.  “He used to be a lot funnier,” Von Drehle said. 

    This, mind you, is the broadcaster who managed at least 202 mentions of Nazis or Nazism, 147 mentions of Hitler, 193 mentions of fascism or fascist, “and another 24 bonus mentions of Joseph Goebbels,” according to Dana Milbank.  “Most of these were directed in some form at Obama – as were the majority of the 802 mentions of socialist or socialism on Beck’s nightly ‘report.’

    I guess von Drehle thought that was pretty damn funny.

    For the most part “sophisticated” media reporters like Carr refrained from giving their readers any real idea of what Beck was doing, while he was riding high in the ratings.   As a result, the job of sharing Beck’s rantings with a larger public was left almost entirely to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Media Matters, which lists fifty of Beck’s most disgusting statements here. 

    The growing failure of journalists to call things by their proper names was exemplified by the refusal of the news department of The New York Times to call torture “torture” when it was carried out by the Bush administration–simply because the government didn’t want Times reporters to do so.

    A particularly egregious example of the this growing embrace of sloppiness was on display last night  on NBC Nightly News, when Brian Williams used a clip from what he called a “boisterous” interview that Meredith Viera had conducted with Donald Trump for use on Thursday morning’s Today show.

    Williams prefaced the excerpt with this bland statement: “While we have talked with President Obama about his birth in America, that has not stopped the group Trump today called the birthers from stirring up doubts…Trump continued on this issue which has given him some traction.”

    Then Trump was shown spouting various blatant lies–Obama “spent two million dollars in legal fees trying to get way from this issue” and “three weeks ago I thought he was born in America.  Now I have real doubts.”

    Once upon a time, when a bizarre buffoon was allowed to shout such idiocies on NBC News, the network’s anchorman would have had the decency to specify to his viewers that everything they had just heard was false.   But then, that might have discouraged one or two of them from tuning into the Today Show the next morning–and the only purpose of this obscene exercise was to increase the ratings of a sister show on the same network.

    Fortunately, one or two print reporters are still willing to describe things as they actually are, which is what the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart did today.

    In a post headlined Trump’s disgusting, dangerous dance with birthers Capehart did exactly what Williams should have done: he told it like it is:

    In double-barreled interviews on NBC’s “Today Show” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump continued his disgusting and dangerous dabbling in the disproved conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States. This might be good for the ratings of his television show. This might even be good for his business. But it is terrible for the nation and public discourse that someone who claims to be so smart is so willing to perpetuate a lie.

    Then Capehart recited all of the indisputable evidence that Obama was indeed born in Hawaii when he said he was, including the completely authentic birth certificate which he produced long ago.

    Good grief, even Glenn Beck was more sensible about this than Brian Williams, saying that Trump had made Beck feel “a little uncomfortable lately.”  In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Beck said Trump was merely getting attention for attention’s sake–something Beck could achieve by walking in the streets with his pants off.  

    Naturally, O’Reilly thought there was nothing wrong with that: “I understand why [Trump is] doing that–he’s getting a massive amount of attention quickly”–by repeating one of the most discredited lies in the history of American politics. 

    The daunting mystery is why supposedly respectable reporters like Brian Williams are such willing co-conspirators in this despicable fraud.



Quick Takes

Paul Ryan’s budget is being championed by “sensible” conservatives like David Brooks  To read the sober truth about it, don’t miss the great Harold Meyerson in Wednesday’s Washington Post, where he explains what it really is: “the repeal of the 20th Century.”

The cover under which Ryan and other Republicans operate is their concern for the deficit and national debt. But Ryan blows that cover by proposing to reduce the top income tax rate to just 25 percent. He imposes the burden for reducing our debt not on the bankers who forced our government to spend trillions averting a collapse but on seniors and the poor. The reductions in aid to the poor, says the budget blueprint that Ryan released, will be made “to ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” That’s a pretty good description of America’s top bankers, but Ryan’s budget showers them with tax cuts.

And for the most amazing television experience of the 21st Century, don’t miss The Kennedys, which is so much worse than anything you have read about it.  The first challenge will be finding ReelzChannel  on your cable box (131 for Time-Warner subscribers in Manhattan.)

Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker and Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times both gave the miniseries mixed reviews, and praised the acting of Tom Wilkinson–who is not quite as terrible as everyone else in this disaster.   Whatever Franklin and Stanley are smoking, FCP doesn’t want any.

Forget about all the historical inventions: they are overwhelmed by pathetic writing, terrible acting–and the cheesiest wardrobe in cable history.  Whatever else you think about him, Jack Kennedy wore the most beautiful shirts of any modern American president; here, they are all off the rack from Filene’s Basement.  

Spoiler alert: if you can’t Tivo it, you’ll be bombarded by what must be the longest commercial interruptions in television history.



Fortune and ProPublica Attack The New York Times--Without Any Facts

Fortune Magazine and ProPublica humiliated themselves this morning with a story  by Jeff Gerth and Allan Sloan which purports to debunk the story in The New York Times which said that General Electric paid no taxes in 2010.

Fortune and ProPublica say they were also working on the GE tax story.  Apparently they are unhappy because the Times beat them into print.

These are their two complaints about the Times piece:

1. GE will not receive a $3.2 billion tax refund for 2010.
The poblem with that complaint: as even Sloan and Gerth concede,  the Times never said that GE would receive a tax refund.  The Times said GE would receive a “tax benefit.”

2. The Times said GE would pay no American tax on its worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, including the  $5.1 billion of that total which came from its operations in the United States.

Fortune and ProPublica say that is false.  How do they know?

GE chief spokesman Gary Sheffer told the Fortune/ProPublica team,  “We expect to have a small U.S. income tax liability for 2010.’”

Is that liability $10?

Is it $10 million?

Gerth and Sloan have no idea–and their story says they probably never will: “The number is unlikely to ever be disclosed unless GE goes public with it, or is forced to do so. “

Sloan and Gerth write, “We’re certainly not trying to denigrate the Times.” 

The problem with that sentence: there is no other discernible purpose to their story.

The Bottom Line: these reporters have no evidence whatsoever that the thrust of the Times story was wrong–or even any proof that any of the details were wrong,  either.

Isn’t it possible that GE is now recalculating its tax liability so that it has to pay something–“a small U.S. income tax liability for 2010”–just to make the Times look bad?

Gerth and Sloan never ask that question, and their story–headlined “Setting The Record Straight on GE’s Taxes”–does nothing of the kind
Gerth’s best-known previous contribution to journalism was Whitewater–which, of course, turned out to be no story at all.  As Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald wrote in 1996

The first reporter to fall for the tale was The New York Times’ Jeff Gerth, an investigative reporter. He produced an almost incomprehensible report on the Clintons’ Whitewater land investments in early 1992. But incomprehensible or not, the fact that it appeared in so prestigious a paper as The New York Times insinuated that something must have been wrong. And that meant that every other baying hound in the pack had to give chase.
The tale of the resulting journalistic feeding frenzy is artfully told in a new book titled Fools for Scandal, by Gene Lyons and the editors of Harper’s Magazine…

Lyons begins by showing how Gerth was duped by Clinton’s GOP enemies and how Gerth’s original stories were so error-filled, intentionally or otherwise, that one of the key figures, former Arkansas state securities director Lee Thalheimer, called them “unmitigated horseshit.”
…Nonetheless, with The Times’ imprimatur, the parade of reporters from Washington, D.C., to Little Rock began, and most, like Gerth, ended up dining on the table scraps served up by Clinton’s GOP enemies.

Now Gerth and Sloan have used the imprimatur of Fortune and ProPublica to smear The New York Times.

Update: ProPublica CEO Paul Steiger replies:

Charlie, I’m sorry you read it that way. We acknowledge aggressively that the nyt beat us on the story. We make clear that GE uses all kinds of maneuvers to cut its tax bill FAR below the statutory rate. We point out that GE’s statements were confused and confusing. We agree that for reporting to shareholders, GE shows no tax liability. But we say that GE will pay some taxes for its 2010 tax year. And we point out how all this complexity, put back into the code since the last great overhaul in 1986, makes reform in the current environment so difficult. I think that is the opposite of shameful.

The End Game in Libya


Barack Obama, speaking about Libya, and Muammar Gaddafi, the longest-lasting dictator in the world


Above the Fold

    I think it does show a huge amount of decay, distrust, and breakdown at the heart of the
Gaddafi regime.

    –British Prime Minister  David Cameron, speaking Thursday about the defection of Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa in London.   

    Although the Libyan rebels have been pushed back sharply by Gaddafi loyalists during the last forty-eight hours, the defections of Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa and former foreign minister Ali Abdussalam Treki (who only last month was appointed to replace the Libyan mission to the United Nations, after it resigned en masse), strongly suggest that the center around the world’s longest-serving dictator is dissolving so quickly, there may soon be no one left to cling to him except for his own sons.

    Koussa was a Gaddafi intimate (and former Libyan intelligence chief) who should bring the NATO coalition crucial information about 
Gaddafi’s remaining capabilities.  He and Treki were the eighth and ninth senior Libyan officials to flee the regime, following the former Justice and Interior Ministers, a former head of Libya’s national planning council, a Gaddafi cousin who was one of his closest advisors—and the Libyan ambassadors to the United States, the United Nations, the Arab League, India, and Indonesia.

    Timesman David Kirkpatrick, who has led splendid coverage of the uprisings in Egypt and Libya,  reported Thursday night that Tripoli residents were “in shock” over the defections of the two former foreign ministers, and “rumors swirled of a cascade of high-level defections.”

    Meanwhile, the chattering classes on both sides of the aisle in Washington remain furious because the Obama administration refuses to predict how the war in Libya will end.  “What is the end game?” is their constant, ridiculous refrain.

    If only the Obama administration were more like its predecessor, there would never be any uncertainty about the outcome of any military operation.  Thus, in February, 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz were both certain that Gen. Eric K. Shinseki had been crazy to suggest that several hundred thousand troops would be needed to pacify Iraq.  Wolfowitz told Congress he was also sure 100,000 would be plenty—partly because there was “no history” of ethnic conflict in Iraq!

    Wolfowitz was equally certain that the upper estimate of the cost of the war in Iraq—$97 billion—was way too high.  The generally accepted figure today is at least $1 trillion.

    But no one on television in Washington can remember anything that happened earlier than the day before yesterday, so the cable crazies (and the echo chamber of the wackosphere) continue to highlight the keen insights of Republican sages (and of quite a few Democrats) into the alleged dangers of the current operation in Libya.

    Donald Trump is worried that Libya could end up as a pawn of Iran because of the allies’ air operation—even though, as the indispensable Juan Cole has pointed out,  “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei roundly condemned the US action in Libya, accusing Washington of seeking a toehold in that country. In other words, bringing up some sort of alleged link of the Benghazi provisional government, which has reached out to Washington, and Iran is about the stupidest thing anyone could say about the situation.”

    Similarly, the brilliant Michelle Bachman opined that, “We don’t know if this is led by Hamas, Hezbollah, or possibly al Qaeda of North Africa. Are we really better off, are United States, our interests better off, if, let’s say, Al-Qaeda of North Africa now runs Libya?”

    Cole noted that “Hezbollah is a Shiite movement of southern Lebanon. There are no Shiites in North Africa, where almost all Muslims are Sunni. Hamas is a Palestinian movement and does not have a branch franchise in Libya. The people of Benghazi and Misrata, together amounting to 1.3 million, the backbone of the liberation movement, are not al-Qaeda, which is not a mass movement. In fact, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is like a few hundred guys and is an Algerian organization. I know, I know, pointing out that Michelle Bachmann has said something uninformed is like pointing out that Lady Gaga has done something outrageous.”

    And then there is Newt Gingrich, a completely discredited demagogue whose only purpose in life is to enrich himself through dubious get-rich-quick schemes—and yet remains among the most popular of all guests on all the Sunday chat shows.  Newt has the distinction of having been strongly in favor of a no fly zone—until Obama implemented one.  Then, of course, Gingrich was totally against it.

    The truth is, the speech that Obama gave earlier this week about Libya embodied all of the qualities which attracted so many of us to him in the first place: He was rational, he was intelligent, he had an impressive grasp of the issues at hand—and he was persuasive.

    While those same Washington talking heads demanded to know whether our action in Libya represented some kind of new Obama doctrine—and if not, why not—the president was careful to explain exactly why what was appropriate for us to do here would not work elsewhere in the region:

    Much of the debate in Washington has put forward a false choice when it comes to Libya. On the one hand, some question why America should intervene at all — even in limited ways — in this distant land. They argue that there are many places in the world where innocent civilians face brutal violence at the hands of their government, and America should not be expected to police the world, particularly when we have so many pressing needs here at home.

    It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Gaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.

    To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

    While Juan Cole has provided the most intelligent defense of the president’s decision from the left, The Economist has performed the same service from the center right.  Its Libyan leader a week ago was refreshingly sane, and—so far—remarkably prescient:

    One of the skeptics’ complaints “is that the West has entered this campaign without defining the mission,” the magazine wrote.  “That is both unfair and true…because dictators do not work to a diplomatic timetable. Colonel Gaddafi’s rapid advance to Benghazi meant that the outside world had to intervene within days or not at all.”

    It’s clear that one reason Obama finally decided to act was that he became convinced that what is actually an extremely modest military operation—especially in comparison with Iraq and Afghanistan-—has at least the potential of achieving an extremely positive outcome.

    As the Economist pointed out,

     Libya is not Iraq. The West has learned through bitter experience to avoid the grievous mistakes it made from the outset of that venture. For one thing, the current mission is indisputably legal. For another, it has, at least for now, the backing of Libya’s own people and–even allowing for some wobbles from Turkey and the Arab League–of most Arab and Muslim countries.  Libya’s population is a quarter the size of Iraq’s, and the country should be easier to control: almost all its people, a more homogeneous lot albeit with sharp tribal loyalties, live along the Mediterranean coastal strip. If Colonel Gaddafi’s state crumbles, the West should not seek to disband his army or the upper echelons of his administration, as it foolishly did in Iraq. The opposition’s interim national council contains secular liberals, Islamists, Muslim Brothers, tribal figures and recent defectors from the camp of Colonel Gaddafi. The West should recognize the council as a transitional government, provided that it promises to hold multiparty elections. Above all, there must be no military occupation by outsiders. It is tempting to put time-limits on such a venture, but that would be futile.

    The Economist’s conclusion is especially on target:

    Success in Libya is not guaranteed—how could it be? It is a violent country that may well succumb to more violence, and will not become a democracy any time soon. But its people deserve to be spared the dictator’s gun and be given a chance of a better future.

    And if Obama had remained motionless while Gaddafi had carried out his planned massacre of the rebel residents of Benghazi, the reaction of Republicans and everyone else would, of course, have been vastly more violent than any of the criticism the president has endured so far for acting—carefully, and intelligently.






The War on Labor: Required Reading (II)

While the media’s attention has pivoted toward the civil war in Libya and the multiple catastrophes in Japan, the war against labor goes on across America.  Here are some of the best places to keep up with it:

Professor William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin provides crucial historical context in The New York Times: “Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well. “

Abe Sauer has done excellent coverage of Wisconsin since the beginning of the crisis.   His latest, today,  is about the extreme partisanship on display in the run-up to the Wisconsin election coming on April 5

Chris Dykstra’s The Uptake has been another source of consistently first rate, comprehensive coverage.

Wisconsin State Senator Randy Harper, his wife, his mistress, and the governor who loves (two of) them: Keith Olbermann’s take is here.
The Daily Kos and Politicusa have addtional details here and here.

 Nation Washington correspondent John Nichols reports that Governor Walker loved one story in The New York Times–because it was largely wrong.  FCP has also dissected the failings of the same Times piece.

Sarah van Gelder and Brooke Jarvis run down the national reaction  to events in Wisconsin: “From Indiana to Ohio and Tennessee to Texas, workers are demanding to know why corporations and the wealthy get bailouts and tax breaks while teachers and steel workers bear the burdens of budget crises they didn’t cause.”

War On Unions Goes Viral, Wisconsin is Patient Zero:
an overview of anti-union actions in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, as well as Wisconsin; plus the growing number of commentators discussing the need for a general strike.

Columnist Harold Meyerson reminds us of what hasn’t changed in the one hundred years since the Triangle Shirt Factory fire: ” A century after Triangle, greed encased in libertarianism remains a fixture of — and danger to — American life.”



Winners & Sinners: from Remnick to Gupta

Winners: The Security Council of the United Nations. The news that the UN has authorized military force against the Gaddafi regime is the best thing that has happened this year.

FCP first wrote about Libyan terrorism and the assassination of Libyan dissidents  abroad by Qadafi’s thugs more than thirty years ago.  From the downing of the Pan AM jetliner over Scotland, to the fomenting of civil wars all over Africa,  there has been no tyrant worse that Gaddafi for many decades.

For all of my enormous reluctance to see the United States involved in any way in another foreign war (FCP thinks the “Vietnam Syndrome” was the best thing that ever happened to us) it was unthinkable to sit by and do nothing, as Qadafi gradually rolled up the valiant rebellion against him–especially after the Arab League came to the same conclusion.

Winner: David Remnick, for an exceptionally sane and courageous “Comment”  in this week’s New Yorker about Israel’s four-decade long occupation of the West Bank.  The essentials:

*This waiting game is a delusion.

* In the midst of a revolution in the Arab world, Netanyahu seems lost, defensive, and unable or unwilling to recognize the changing circumstances in which he finds himself.

*The occupation—illegal, inhumane, and inconsistent with Jewish values—has lasted forty-four years. Netanyahu thinks that he can keep on going, secure behind a wall. Late last month, he called the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to register his displeasure that Germany had voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Jewish settlements. According to an account in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a German source said that Merkel could hardly contain her outrage. “How dare you?” she said. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

*It is time for President Obama to speak clearly and firmly. Concentrating solely on the settlements, as he has done in the past, is not enough;

*The importance of an Obama plan is not that Netanyahu accept it right away; the Palestinian leadership, which is weak and suffers from its own issues of legitimacy, might not embrace it immediately, either, particularly the limits on refugees. Rather, it is important as a way for the United States to assert that it stands not with the supporters of Greater Israel but with what the writer Bernard Avishai calls “Global Israel,” the constituencies that accept the moral necessity of a Palestinian state and understand the dire cost of Israeli isolation.

*If America is to be a useful friend, it owes clarity to Israel, no less than Israel and the world owe justice—and a nation—to the Palestinian people.

Many readers were shocked by what some mistakenly perceived as an anti-Israeli tone in the piece.   In fact, Remnick’s Comment is the most pro-Israeli article imaginable.   He believes deeply and viscerally in the need for a healthy Jewish state in the Middle East–and he understands better than many of Israel’s most fervent supporters what will be necessary to make that possible.

And there is nothing new at all about his attitude toward the current Israeli prime minister: His profile of Netanyahu way back in 1998 was one of the toughest pieces Remnick has ever written.

Sinner: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, for a perfectly ridiculous piece in the Times magazine.  Keller began  by celebrating his supreme importance according to others: 50th most imortant person in the world (Forbes); 26th most influential (Vanity Fair) and 15th most powerful (The New York Observer “Power 150.”)

 Then he pretended to be offended by all this: “By turning news executives into celebrities, we devalue the institutions that support them, the basics of craft and the authority of editorial judgment.”

 This is a journalistic classic of saying exactly what you want to say–and then feigning embarrassment over what you’ve done.  Keller’s unsuccessful legerdemain reminds FCP of nothing so much as Time magazine’s legendary solution to the Polish joke problem in the 1960’s.   Polish jokes were suddenly sweeping America–and Time was desperate to print all of them.  But the magazine was also terrified of alienating Polish Americans.   The solution was a Warsaw dateline:   Poles are appalled by the Polish jokes now sweeping the United States, the magazine reported.  Among the jokes that are upsetting them the most are…..

Keller then concluded with an entirely gratuitous assault on The Huffington Post:
“Arianna Huffington..has discovered that if you take celebrity gossip, adorable kitten videos, posts from unpaid bloggers and news reports from other publications, array them on your Web site and add a left-wing soundtrack, millions of people will come.”

This in turn earned him an unusually well-deserved rebuke from Arianna, who rightly pointed out that her site actually has much more original content than any of the other aggregators Keller finds so loathsome.

Winners: 60 Minutes producers Robert Anderson, Daniel Ruetenik and Nicole Young and correpondent Scott Pelley for a heartbreaking piece  from Florida about the budget motels which have become the permanent homes for hundreds of children made homeless by the foreclosure crisis.   The piece generated a huge response from viewers asking how they could help  the helpless children portrayed in the report.

Sinners:  60 Minutes Producers  Kyra Darnton, Sam Hornblower and Michael Radutzky and “special” correspondent Sanjay Gupta for one of the worst pieces FCP has ever watched: “a new front in the war on drugs.”  Presented as an expose of the supposedly dangerous drugs flooding America from abroad, this was nothing but an extended advertizement for CBS advertizer Pfizer, designed to scare consumers away from purchasing any of the hundreds of generic drugs which are now available by mail–usually costing 10 percent (or less) than their Pfizer equivalents.  By focusing exclusively on the handful of dangerous counterfeit drugs seized by regulators, the piece completely ignored the real reason these drugs have become so popular: Most of them work very well.   And in every developed country in the world, when a new drug is introduced, the drug company has to negotiate the price with the government.  Every developed country in the world, except one: The United States of America.