Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, June 29, 2009

  Questions about the Ricci ruling

Does anybody seriously believe that New Haven's mayor, or the CSB he appointed, would have taken a stand against certifying the firefighter exam results if minorities had performed disproportionately well on it? That New Haven politicians would have argued, for example, that oral examination boards constituted so as ensure that minorities made up 2/3 of each board created a disparate impact against white applicants?

If not, then it makes a mockery of the city's professed concern that Title VII's provision on disparate impact required it to throw out the results.

The judgment handed down today by SCOTUS' conservative bloc in Ricci v. DeStefano actually was a remarkably liberal ruling. It's altogether too rare for the Scalia wing to stand up for the common man who's been kicked in the teeth arbitrarily by the powerful.

In this case, it was the Ginsburg wing of the Court that proved to be reactionary. The firefighters who did well on the exam, she said, "understandably attract the court's sympathy"... but nevertheless the Court ought to tell them to bend over again just because it can. The reason it can is that the grandiosely flawed (and unevenly enforced) law on disparate impact permits the Court, if it chooses, to join in treating job applicants as fodder in ideological jousts.

For what it's worth, I suspect that if New Haven had tossed out exam results in which minorities performed disproportionately well, the two blocs of the Supreme Court would have taken the opposite views of Title VII than the ones they adopted here.

crossposted from unbossed.com

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

  WaPo on health-care reform 'centrism'

The Post publishes a typically silly look at Democratic activists who are pushing their party's conservative Senators to stop undermining the 'public option' (the very mildest reform proposal that has any chance of substantially improving America's health-care disaster). But in the Post's view, the Democratic obstructionists are 'centrists' and the liberal activists are, well, pointy-headed fools of course.

The rising tensions between Democratic legislators and constituencies that would typically be their natural allies underscore the high hurdles for Obama as he tries to hold together a diverse, fragile coalition. Activists say they are simply pressing for quick delivery of "true health reform," but the intraparty rift runs the risk of alienating centrist Democrats who will be needed to pass a bill.


Pity the poor 'centrists', who almost alone in Washington it seems must submit to listening to constituents' views. What makes these Senators' views 'centrist'? Evidently it's because they oppose reform that 76% of the public strongly backs (PDF), and side instead with the tiny minority of Americans who oppose a public plan.

The Post eventually gets around to acknowledging this inconvenient fact - however in a fashion utterly characteristic of this Tory paper.

"Democratic senators are taking millions of dollars from insurance and health-care interests and getting lobbied by those donors and coming out against a position that 76 percent of Americans agree on," said Adam Green, interim chief executive of Change Congress.

While recent polls show high initial support for a government option, the number declines if told the insurance industry could fold as a result.


In other news today, the Post reports that a large majority of the American public supports the safe disposal of used batteries but support falls away when people are told that as many as 23 states may need to be evacuated and turned into colossal landfills.

I don't know which polls the Post is referring to, but the recent NBC/WSJ poll (linked above) does not posit such a dire consequence as: 'The insurance industry could fold if you get your pesky public plan, so what do you think of it now?' It did ask people whether they thought employers might drop their health care plan if a public plan were created; and whether a public plan might limit access to doctors and medical treatment options. But that's very different from the dire scenario that the Post claims pollsters are putting to the public. Maybe it's only those damned elusive 'centrist' pollsters who are asking such questions.

The rising tensions between Democratic legislators and constituencies that would typically be their natural allies underscore the high hurdles for Obama as he tries to hold together a diverse, fragile coalition. Activists say they are simply pressing for quick delivery of "true health reform," but the intraparty rift runs the risk of alienating centrist Democrats who will be needed to pass a bill.


Pity the poor 'centrists', who almost alone in Washington it seems must submit to listening to constituents' views. What makes these Senators' views 'centrist'? Evidently it's because they oppose reform that 76% of the public strongly backs (PDF), and side instead with the tiny minority of Americans who oppose a public plan.

The Post eventually gets around to acknowledging this inconvenient fact - however in a fashion utterly characteristic of this Tory paper.

"Democratic senators are taking millions of dollars from insurance and health-care interests and getting lobbied by those donors and coming out against a position that 76 percent of Americans agree on," said Adam Green, interim chief executive of Change Congress.

While recent polls show high initial support for a government option, the number declines if told the insurance industry could fold as a result.


In other news today, the Post reports that a large majority of the American public supports the safe disposal of used batteries but support falls away when people are told that as many as 23 states may need to be evacuated and turned into colossal landfills.

I don't know which polls the Post is referring to, but the recent NBC/WSJ poll (linked above) does not posit such a dire consequence as: 'The insurance industry could fold if you get your pesky public plan, so what do you think of it now?' It did ask people whether they thought employers might drop their health care plan if a public plan were created; and whether a public plan might limit access to doctors and medical treatment options. But that's very different from the dire scenario that the Post claims pollsters are putting to the public. Maybe it's only those damned elusive 'centrist' pollsters who are asking such questions.

Update: Ok, the Post itself did conduct a (single) poll in which it posited this silly question:

What if having the government create a new health insurance plan made many private health insurers go out of business because they could not compete? In that case would you support or oppose creating a government-run health insurance plan?


As the Post's own blogger Ezra Klein pointed out, that question is arbitrarily alarmist.

Meanwhile at Open Left Adam Green describes the foolishness of the line of questioning he endured from the Post reporter, Ceci Connolly.

crossposted from unbossed.com

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Friday, June 26, 2009

  NPR: It's 'liberals' who think imprisonment without trial is unAmerican

From NPR's report this morning on a radical proposal to give the government the power to lock people up indefinitely without trial, we learn that it is only 'some liberals' who object:

Some conservatives say it will turn the battlefield into CSI: Afghanistan, requiring soldiers to collect evidence as they're being shot at. Some liberals say holding people without trial is fundamentally un-American.


Evidently conservatism has no view at all about upholding the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution:

No person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law [...].


Nor the Sixth Amendment:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial...


The proponent of this legislation, Benjamin Wittes, a faux-liberal pundit now lodged at Brookings, has been pushing all manner of national security 'reforms' that undercut fundamental American liberties. Wittes wants to see a parallel system of justice created, 'national security courts', to make it easier to convict people by stripping away rights and due process protections.

His current proposal, what purports to be a draft of legislation to create a 'system' of 'preventive detention' (i.e. indefinite imprisonment without trial), tries to help Barack Obama dig himself out of the ditch he drove into with his pronouncement last month that he wishes to have the power to pick and choose from a variety of courts and military tribunals in which to put certain terrorism suspects on trial. The venue will be chosen to favor conviction, and if conviction is insufficiently certain then any prisoner deemed dangerous will continue to be held without trial indefinitely. In other words, the Obama proposal is to create a specious facsimile of due process for terrorism suspects.

Wittes is happy to pitch in to help foist a law for imprisonment without trial upon the US because, as he helpfully explained to NPR, it's effectively what George W. Bush had been doing as president.

Those concerns lead many to ask why Wittes is pushing for indefinite detention at all. We already have it, he says. Detainees have been held at Guantanamo for years. Thousands more are imprisoned in Afghanistan. The Supreme Court has said the United States can detain some terrorists for the duration of hostilities against al-Qaida and the Taliban. So, Wittes says, "There's no question that we're detaining people outside of the criminal justice system. The question is what the rules are for that detention and who makes those rules."


Next month, perhaps Wittes will also get around to drafting helpful legislation to legalize the forms of torture that the Bush administration inflicted on terrorist suspects.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

  America, here is your neoconservative

Neocon Gary Schmitt is in a snit over the US soccer team's unprecedented victory in the FIFA confederations cup semifinals against Spain. His rant at the American Enterprise blog perfectly embodies the neoconservative philosophy that knowledge is an impediment to understanding.

Schmitt formerly devoted his vast abilities to cheerleading for an invasion of Iraq at the Project for a New American Century. Fresh off that resounding success, he's now taking on the threat posed by the rise in popularity of soccer inside the US. A veritable dagger aimed at the soft underbelly of the American heartland.

He denounces the US victory because the Spaniards had more shots on goal but still lost the match.

As someone who didn’t play soccer growing up, but had a dad who did and whose own kids played as well, I can say unquestionably that it is the sport in which the team that dominates loses more often than any other major sport I know of. Or, to put it more bluntly, the team that deserves to win doesn’t. For some soccer-loving friends, this is perfectly okay. Indeed, they will argue that it’s a healthy, conservative reminder of how justice does not always prevail in life.

Well, hooey on that. And, thankfully, Americans are not buying it. In spite of the fact that one can drive by an open field on Saturdays and usually see it filled with young boys and girls playing soccer, the game’s popularity has not moved anywhere toward being a major sport here in the United States.


Had this super patriot ever bothered to learn how to play soccer (as I once did), he might have figured out that the whole point of the game is to shoot the ball into the back, not just the front, of the net.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

  Fouad Ajami, tutor to presidents

Almost everything that neocon Fouad Ajami writes is good for a laugh. Typically he serves up a preposterously incoherent mix of half-digested stray facts, heavily larded with a peculiar kind of incomprehension and preening about his own brilliance. His op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal is no exception. Perhaps I've already said too much about this once influential ninny, but it's hard to resist taking a stick to Ajami's latest excretion.

The central point, if there is one, appears to be that Ajami is smarter than Barack Obama, whose Iranian policy he considers to be weak and naive. He wants the President to be confrontational with the Iranian leadership. Ajami holds up Ronald Reagan as the model for clear-minded and hard-nosed foreign policy in the Middle East. Apparently Ajami forgets that Reagan sent that Bible and cake to the mullahs in Iran – oh, yeah, and a whole bunch of arms too. Hmmm...maybe it was Reagan's support of Saddam Hussein's attack on Iran, or perhaps his alleged October Surprise, or the Lebanon debacle, that impressed Ajami so much.

But that's just one of the many inconsistencies that render his 'argument' incoherent. Ajami can't decide whether Mousavi actually won the election, or was defeated by a popular Ahmadinejad. Even so, though he can't quite bring himself to say so explicitly, Ajami seems to think that Obama needs to take a strong stance against the Iranian regime and support the street protesters. Obama, he thinks, is subject to delusions about the possibility of a new detente with Iran.

But in truth Iran had never wanted an opening to the U.S. For the length of three decades, the custodians of the theocracy have had precisely the level of enmity toward the U.S. they have wanted -- just enough to be an ideological glue for the regime but not enough to be a threat to their power.


I wonder how many people in Washington are unaware that Iranian hardliners employ anti-Americanism to their own advantage? Anyway, try to reconcile the foregoing with this:

We must rein in the modernist conceit that the bloggers, and the force of Twitter and Facebook, could win in the streets against the squads of the regime. That fight would be an Iranian drama, all outsiders mere spectators.


If the struggle in Iran will be decided by the Iranians themselves, as of course it will be, then how could supportive rhetoric from an American president be of much assistance to the demonstrators? What's more, since Ajami admits that whipping up anti-Americanism helps the hard-liners to hold onto power, wouldn't it be counter-productive for Obama to declare that the demonstrators have US backing?

Yet Ajami dares to complain about "the administration's incoherence".

A final point: Ajami descibes President Carter as having "lost" Iran, as if that country ever belonged to the US. It's the same arrogance he displayed in the spring of 2003 when Ajami declared that "We are now coming into acquisition of Iraq". Ajami is so damned confused that he can't even distinguish between "ours" and "theirs".

crossposted from unbossed.com

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

  Spot the omission: WaPo on Iranian allegations

The Washington Post has a report on the official Iranian media's demonization of Mousavi and its allegations that the protesters are "terrorists". Buried deep in the article are a few details about the terrorism allegation. These are curiously circumscribed, however. The Post evidently didn't think it worthwhile to tell its readers that the Iranians were in effect accusing the US of orchestrating the street protests.

Here's what the Post did have to say:

Scenes from Saturday's violent protests were shown frequently on Iranian state television and in a special broadcast the rioters were said to be members of the Paris-based Mujaheddin-e Khalq, an Islamist Marxist group that the United States has labeled a terrorist organization. The group, which sided with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and conducted a series of terrorist attacks, has little support among most Iranians.

Audio clips were played of alleged recordings of telephone calls in which people said to be members of the organization urged others to pass on information about the protests to Western news organizations. But the group's involvement seems highly unlikely because its supporters are rare in Iran.


The MEK's supporters are not however so rare in Iraq, where for years they've been protected by the US military in their massive headquarters outside Baghdad. The Bush administration decided that the MEK, weird and violent and mad and repulsive though they are, were assets to promote in Iraq in order to undermine Iran. The Mujaheddin-e Khalq are loathed by both the Iranians and by the Iraqi government, and US support for these terrorists is highly resented throughout the region. The US media, generally, has ignored the US sponsorship of MEK terrorists; the rare American news report on the MEK has tended to downplay the scandalous nature of the US relationship with this group, and if anything play up the fact that the State Department (ineffectually) put the MEK down on its list of terrorists.

I described the American media's blind-spot toward US relations with the MEK here two years ago. In the comments on a crosspost at unbossed, I remarked that the MEK are "absolutely notorious in Iraq and Iran, but virtually unknown to the American public."

So, back to the Washington Post and its failure to mention the US backing for the MEK. A critical omission, given that the Iranian media is trying to tar the street protesters as pawns of US-backed terrorists. What's the likelihood that the Post simply assumed that its readers could figure that out on their own? Because the alternative seems to be that the Post's coverage of Iran is obtuse in the extreme, perhaps intentionally.

crossposted at unbossed.com

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

  Election fraud by the numbers

Two graduate students at Columbia University, Bernd Beber and Alexandra Scacco, have published a compelling statistical demonstration that the disputed Iranian vote counts are fraudulent. For example, focusing on the final digits in the vote tallies reported province by province for each of the four presidential candidates, they point out that some numerals are significantly over- or under-represented. The numeral 7 appears 17% of the time as the final digit, whereas the numeral 5 appears only 4% of the time (when on average a numeral should appear 10% of the time). Since the final digit in a large vote tally can be treated as a random occurrence, it's possible to calculate the probability that such large divergences in final-digit frequencies would arise in authentic vote tallies. The authors put that probability at just under 4%. A professional statistician once remarked to me that when an occurrence has a calculated probability of no more than 3 to 4%, it's pretty safe to conclude that the event in question was not random.

The authors also describe a second (unrelated) test of probability, which makes it that much less likely that the reported Iranian vote tallies are authentic (random) rather than generated through fraud.

I'll simply note that that authors could have performed a third test, with similar results: Some numerals are significantly over- or under-represented when you look at the second-to-last digit in the vote tallies (i.e. the "tens-column"). The numerals in this column as well ought to be randomly generated in an authentic election. But the numeral 7 once again is greatly over-represented (16%), while the numeral 3 is significantly under-represented (5%). I won't bother to crunch the numbers to demonstrate that this result, too, is rather improbable. To quote Beber and Scacco:
As a point of comparison, we can analyze the state-by-state vote counts for John McCain and Barack Obama in last year's U.S. presidential election. The frequencies of last digits in these election returns never rise above 14 percent or fall below 6 percent, a pattern we would expect to see in seventy out of a hundred fair elections.


Thus the frequencies with which the numerals 7 and 3 appear as the penultimate digits of the Iranian vote tallies further reduce the already slim probability that those results are authentic.

crossposted at unbossed.com

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

  Instant torture

As I've noted from time to time here and elsewhere during the last few years, under George Bush the US began torturing prisoners almost immediately after September 11, 2001. Although the history of this early period in the Bush torture regime remains largely shrouded in secrecy, several clear bits of evidence have been made public. Today's Guardian newspaper adds another piece of evidence – a British government document from January 2002 that discusses what to do about US torture.

This information matters because the early descent into barbarity occurred before the earliest torture memos were produced by the Bush administration. By arguing, preposterously, that international conventions are not binding on the US and that common forms of torture are not indeed torture, these 'legal' opinions were supposed to protect from prosecution anyone who ordered, facilitated, or inflicted torture under Bush. But even the most absurd legal opinion cannot inoculate you retroactively for practices you've already implemented.

The earliest of these Office of Legal Counsel memos, dating from January 2002, argue that the Geneva conventions do not apply to prisoners (PDF) in Bush's self-proclaimed "war on terror". More than six months later, in the summer and fall of 2002, Bush's OLC lawyers finally got around to producing the infamous memos that tried to rewrite the laws on torture and put a stamp of approval on several favored torture techniques (PDFs). Since then, torture's apologists have tried to misdirect public attention toward the implementation of these "enhanced" techniques late in 2002, even going so far as to claim (falsely) that they were approved only because interrogators at Guantanamo prison asked for permission to use them.

In other words we're supposed to believe that everybody from President Bush on down the chain of command were simply relying on the advice of the OLC lawyers, as all administrations do. And just you try to prove that the OLC memos produced spurious rather than genuine advice!

The smirk begins to slip, however, as evidence mounts that the OLC opinions were generated long after torture became the official policy of the US government.

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The document newly revealed by the Guardian seems pretty decisive in that regard:

The [British interrogation] policy, devised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, offered guidance to MI5 and MI6 officers questioning detainees in Afghanistan whom they knew were being mistreated by the US military.

British intelligence officers were given written instructions that they could not "be seen to condone" torture and that they must not "engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners".

But they were also told they were not under any obligation to intervene to prevent detainees from being mistreated.

"Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this," the policy said.

[...]

The policy was set out in written instructions sent to MI5 and MI6 officers in January 2002, which told them they might consider complaining to US officials about the mistreatment of detainees "if circumstances allow".


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The document appears to confirm what other available evidence implies, that the US had a well established policy of torturing prisoners overseas even before Guantanamo prison was opened in January of 2002. Only a "few weeks" after 9/11, German agents at Tulza air base in Bosnia documented the abuse of terrorist suspects by the US military. The Germans refused to assist in such illegal interrogations, which they reported back to their own government.

In January 2002, the Bush administration coerced the Bosnian government to hand over several prisoners, including Lakhdar Boumediene, whom the Bosnian Supreme Court had ordered released for lack of evidence. Only recently released by the US – for lack of evidence - Boumediene has confirmed that he was tortured in captivity. Just as with other prisoners transported to Guantanamo, the torture of Boumediene began immediately with abusive conditions during his flight to the island between January 18 and 20th, 2002 (with beatings, sensory deprivation, painful "stress" positions). The opening of Guantanamo prison in January 2002, with the highly scripted and notoriously abusive and degrading transport flights (PDF), provides us with a firm terminus ante quem for the Bush administration's introduction of its torture regime.

In fact, an Air Force colonel who was in charge of SERE training has testified to the Senate Armed Service Committee (PDF) that he was asked already in December 2001 to describe to top Pentagon lawyers the full range of abusive interrogation techniques that are inflicted in SERE training courses. SERE training is designed to prepare military personnel in case they're captured by an abusive regime. SERE trainers are experts in the techniques inflicted on American captives during the Korean War. Thus by December 2001, at the latest, the Pentagon was considering how to reverse-engineer SERE training in order inflict abuse that was modeled on the abominable practices of North Korea.

Furthermore, by October 2002 at the latest it was an open secret in the US military that the torture of prisoners had been systematized in Afghanistan. A thorough investigation by McClatchy confirmed that foreign-born prisoners held at Bagram prison routinely were tortured by the US, beginning already in 2001.

Former guards and detainees whom McClatchy interviewed said Bagram was a center of systematic brutality for at least 20 months, starting in late 2001.


Indeed an American citizen held in Afghanistan in December 2001, John Walker Lindh, was blindfolded and held in isolation, naked, in freezing conditions for days (PDF). In other words, Lindh in 2001 was subjected to the same variety of torture that was practiced routinely on foreign-born prisoners in Bush's "war on terror".

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that already in January of 2002, the British equivalent of the CIA wanted or needed to be told what to do whenever its agents found themselves witnessing torture committed by the US. Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners are outlawed under the UN Convention against Torture, which both the US and UK have ratified.

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On the morning of September 11, 2001 I left my office to take a long hike on Hawk Mountain. I could sense that it would be the last respite for a long time to come, that we were going to be in for several godawful years of civil rights abuses by a government that had been caught totally off guard. I imagined that it might well turn out to be worse than Woodrow Wilson's war years, horrific as they were. However I did not dream that the Bush administration would resort to torture - which General George Washington himself had declared to be unAmerican - much less that the descent into torture would be almost instantaneous.

crossposted at unbossed.com

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