American politics has become like a big square dance. When the music stops after an election, people switch to the other side on a number of issues, depending on whether their party remains in power.
That was pretty clear this week, when polls revealed more Democrats than Republicans support tracking of phone traffic by the National Security Agency — the exact opposite of where things stood under President George W. Bush.
A Washington Post-Pew Research Center released Monday showed that 64 percent of Democrats support such efforts, up from just 36 percent in 2006. Republican support, meanwhile, had dropped from 75 percent to 52 percent.
It’s not just a question of whether you trust the current president to carry out data mining in a way that targets terrorists and not innocent Americans. Partisans hold malleable positions in a number of areas — foreign policy, the economy and even who continue to serve under a new administration.
“People change their views depending on which party is in power, and not based on objective conditions on the ground,” says George Washington University political scientist John Sides….
But is “hypocrisy” the right word? You know me; I like to trash partisanship whenever I can. But maybe in this case at least some of the partisans are getting a bum rap.
Here’s what Brooks said, regarding the way Joe Biden has changed his tune on surveillance practices that he once called “very, very intrusive:”
Actually, there’s education, not hypocrisy… You get into office and you learn the threats. You get the daily intelligence brief. Maybe you get sucked in by the National Security apparatus, but I’d like to say you just learn. And so you do things you wouldn’t otherwise do because you learn the truth…
Indeed. And as you know, I have welcomed the Obama administration’s pragmatism on so many points of consideration in the realm of national security.
E.J. also saw something more positive than mere “hyprocrisy,” although he saw it from a different angle:
You know, in only partial defense of Biden, I would say that we have more legal limits now than we did at the time he spoke. But I think there’s been a lot of hypocrisy on this, and oddly enough, I kind of welcome it. On the one hand, you do have some liberals who were critical of Bush and now support Obama, and you have a lot of conservatives who supported Bush but now suddenly say the same things are bad.
But you also have consistency. You have liberals who are mad at Bush, mad at Obama, conservatives who support Bush, support Obama. I think the fact that there is – people have switched sides reflects a deep and intelligent ambivalence. We want to be safe. We also want to be free. And we want to have our privacy protected. And we know it’s complicated to have all of those at the same time.
And I think the fact that the partisan and ideological lines have been scrambled might actually help us have a debate on the merits…
Good points from both. For my part, I take the good breaks we can get. If Obama is able to get the political room to act on these things for the same reason Nixon could go to China, well, more power to him. Pun intended.
By the way, in the realm of putting these surveillance programs into a clearer perspective, I liked this, from Brooks:
As for the point [Biden] made, Charles Krauthammer in a column today said it’s like the outside of an envelope. The government has a right to keep track of what’s on the outside of the envelope.
They do not have to read what’s in the envelope and that’s essentially what they’re doing with the calls. I’m old enough, I can remember getting a phone bill where every single call you made was listed on your phone bill. Is that keeping track? Is that an invasion of privacy? I think a minimal one.
David Brooks’ Monday column in The New York Times (which The State ran today) is the best column of any kind, by anyone, that I have read in years. (People whose thoughtfulness I respect keep bringing it to my attention, and I say, yes, thanks; I saw it — and intend to say something about it.)
Basically, you need to go read the whole thing. And then read it again. I can’t quote everything in it that is awesome without stomping all over the Fair Use standard, but let me describe briefly what the piece does.
It explains exactly what is wrong with Edward Snowden and what he did. Brooks accomplishes this in spite of the fact that we lack the common vocabulary in this country to express such things in a manner that everyone can understand. People who sort of get that what Snowden did is wrong, and that his actions reflect something fundamentally wrong with Snowden himself, don’t know how to explain that wrongness. So they either clam up, ceding the floor to the more simple-minded cheerleaders for Snowden’s brand of “transparency,” or they use a word that gets them dismissed, as John Boehner did when he resorted to “traitor.”
In explaining what is wrong with Snowden, Brooks explained something fundamentally wrong with our society and our politics today — something that is eating away at our ability to be a society governed by representative democracy, because it’s eating away at basic civil. social assumptions that make it possible for free people to live together.
Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.
If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme. You’re more likely to donate to the Ron Paul for president campaign, as Snowden did….
After acknowledging that the procedures Snowden has revealed (or rather, revealed in greater detail than what we knew previously) could be abused at some future time, Brooks continues:
But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
This is not a danger Snowden is addressing. In fact, he is making everything worse.
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures. By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things…
OK, that’s as much as I dare quote. But Brooks goes on to catalog the various personal, social and institutional betrayals of Edward Snowden, and the ways that such betrayals unravel the social fabric that allows a healthy civilization to exist.
One big reason why Americans aren’t that outraged by the revelations that the U.S. government runs a massive online and cellphone spying operation: People already assume they’re being tracked all over the Internet by companies like Google and Facebook.
The numbers aren’t perfectly parallel. But they suggest that the average American is more comfortable with the government’s spying than with Facebook’s control over their personal information…
Well, duh. Of course we trust the NSA more than we do Facebook. The NSA, the hysteria of recent days notwithstanding, works for us, and is constrained by the laws of this country and the elected and appointed representatives who have oversight over it, and who ultimately answer to us. Yes, that’s the way it actually is, contrary to all the “Big Brother” hyperventilating from the likes of Rand Paul.
Whereas Facebook works for Mark Zuckerberg. I didn’t elect Mark Zuckerberg. Nor did I elect anyone who appointed Mark Zuckerberg, or in any way keeps an eye on him and holds him to account in my behalf.
And in fact, after pulling us in with the headline, “People Trust the NSA More Than Facebook. That’s a Shame,” the Slate writer acknowledges some of the reasons why that would be so:
From a selfish perspective, that makes some sense: Most Americans assume they’ll never be the target of a terror investigation—and that the government has little use for their information otherwise. Facebook, in contrast, relies on the personal information of all of its users. It doesn’t intend to prosecute them for crimes, of course—just show them personalized advertisements. But for many people, the fear of having an illicit relationship, a racy photo, or personal communications unintentionally revealed to their friends and colleagues is more visceral—and more realistic—than the fear of being wrongly prosecuted for a crime. And whereas most people can appreciate the NSA’s interest in monitoring their communications, they have a harder time seeing the upside to Facebook’s data collection. It’s not like Mark Zuckerberg is going to use their old status updates to prevent the next terror attack.
And that doesn’t just make sense “from a selfish perspective.” It makes sense, period. As this piece notes, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t going to prevent the next terror attack, nor is he expected to. His job is making money for Facebook. Leave him to it. That’s his business, not ours (unless we’re one of the saps who jumped at his IPO).
If we trusted Facebook more than we did the NSA, now that would be a shame. It would mean that our whole system of representative democracy was failing. Which it isn’t.
WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its “dragnet” collection of logs of domestic phone calls, contending that the once-secret program — whose existence was exposed by a former National Security Agency contractor last week — is illegal and asking a judge to both stop it and order the records purged…
Oh, and for those who don’t think the government is “doing its job” in this case — well, yes it is, by definition.
The issue is not whether bureaurocrats’ believe that data mining Americans’ communications is the most appropriate way to “protect” our country; rather it is whether Americans have decided that such “protection” is in the best interests of our society.
And we have not…
On the contrary, Mark — we have.
We’ve decided it through our elected representatives, which is how it works in a representative democracy. This is not a direct democracy; nor should it be.
We’ve had years and years to decide whether we want to elect people other than the ones who decided to follow this course, and we’ll have more such opportunities in the future.
Again, I stress that the fact that the government was doing these things is not new information. We’ve had this discussion before. It’s just that some new details have brought it back into headlines, and a lot of people who weren’t paying attention before are startled.
The most popular item on the Wall Street Journal’s website at the moment is this morning’s op-ed headlined “Big Brother Really Is Watching Us” by — who else? — Rand Paul. As usual, Sen. Paul is dead serious. An excerpt:
These activities violate the Fourth Amendment, which says warrants must be specific—”particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” And what is the government doing with these records? The president assures us that the government is simply monitoring the origin and length of phone calls, not eavesdropping on their contents. Is this administration seriously asking us to trust the same government that admittedly targets political dissidents through the Internal Revenue Service and journalists through the Justice Department?…
OK, first, there is no evidence that the “government… targets political dissidents through” the IRS. That suggests an actual policy on the part of the whole government. Whereas all that has been granted, or proven by anyone, is that some underlings exercised some lousy judgment. Second, there is a logical fallacy here. If the government “admittedly” does the things you mention, why should you distrust it when it says it’s not doing something else? Make up your mind. If the government is such a big, fat liar, maybe it’s lying to you when it admits the IRS and Justice Department things…
What is objectionable is a system in which government has unlimited and privileged access to the details of our private affairs, and citizens are simply supposed to trust that there won’t be any abuse of power. This is an absurd expectation. Americans should trust the National Security Agency as much as they do the IRS and Justice Department….
First, I’ve seen no indication that the government has access to the “details” of my “private affairs.” That’s not the way I read what’s been reported. Second, I do trust the NSA as much as I do the IRS and the Justice Department. They are institutions that do the jobs we assign them to do, and when they do something wrong, that’s anomalous. I know that’s going to sound weird to someone who believes the collection of taxes is inherently evil, but there it is…
The NSA is collecting “metadata”—logs of calls received and sent, and other types of data about data for credit card transactions and online communications. Americans now generate a staggering amount of such information—about 161 exabytes per year, equal to the information stored in 37,000 Libraries of Congress. Organizing and making sense of this raw material is now possible given advances in information technology, high-performance computing and storage capacity. The field known as “big data” is revolutionizing everything from retail to traffic patterns to epidemiology.
Mr. Obama waved off fears of “Big Brother” but he might have mentioned that the paradox of data-mining is that the more such information the government collects the less of an intrusion it is. These data sets are so large that only algorithms can understand them. The search is for trends, patterns, associations, networks. They are not in that sense invasions of individual privacy at all.
If the NSA isn’t scrubbing vast amounts of data, then it can’t discover who is potentially a threat. The alternative to automated sweeps is more pervasive use of lower-tech methods like wiretaps, tracking and searches—in a word, invasions of persons rather than statistical probabilities. The political attack on data-mining could increase rather than alleviate the risk to individual rights.
My old roommate John peers out from our room in Snowden in 2006, just before the Honeycombs were torn down.
“Snowden” is one of those names that sticks with you. Or with me, anyway. It was technically the name of the particular one of the Honeycombs I lived in that one semester I went to USC in 1971 — although I seem to recall that a lot of people called it by a letter designation. Was it “J”? I don’t know. Maybe. “Snowden” sticks better.
That’s probably because I was so hugely into Catch-22 at the time. I had first read it the summer before my senior year of high school. Then, at the start of the senior year, our English teacher, Mrs. Burchard, let us pick several of the books we would read. I pushed, successfully, for Catch-22. (not just because I’d already read it — I looked forward to discussing it) We also read Cat’s Cradle and Stranger in a Strange Land, at the urging of some of my classmates. Mrs. Burchard did make us read several of Ibsen’s plays, which I enjoyed — especially “An Enemy of the People” (“A majority is always wrong” seemed so true to me at that early age.)
Snowden, of course, was the pivotal character in Heller’s novel. He only appeared in one scene, but that scene was repeated — or rather, portions of it were repeated — over and over in the novel. All he ever had to say was “I’m cold.” But that was enough.
The novel is structured around that incident, until the very end. The plotline keeps looping around back through time, flashback after flashback, and Yossarian’s memory keeps returning to the incident with Snowden. Each time, that memory is unfolded a little more completely, toward the final, full, horrible revelation that changes Yossarian permanently.
“I’m cold,” said Snowden.
“There, there,” said Yossarian, tending the wounded gunner back toward the rear of the plane. Even after Snowden had spilled his terrible secret, that’s all Yossarian could say.
SAN JOSE — As a junior senator with presidential aspirations, Barack Obama built his persona in large part around opposition to Bush administration counterterrorism policies, and he sponsored a bill in 2005 that would have sharply limited the government’s ability to spy on U.S. citizens.
That younger Obama bears little resemblance to the commander in chief who stood on a stage here Friday, justifying broad programs targeting phone records and Internet activities as vital tools to prevent terrorist attacks and protect innocent Americans.
The former constitutional law professor — who rose to prominence in part by attacking what he called the government’s post-Sept. 11 encroachment on civil liberties — has undergone a philosophical evolution, arriving at what he now considers the right balance between national security prerogatives and personal privacy.
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” Obama said in San Jose on Friday. “My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
“On net,” the president added, “it was worth us doing.”…
Smiley’s People – The sequel to Tinker, Tailor. I have both series on DVD at home.
Game, Set and Match – A series cobbled together from the first three novels in a Len Deighton trilogy of trilogies. It took some liberties, and I seem to recall hearing that Deighton hated it. This is possibly because the character that Ian Holm created for the series was quite different — a more tormented, stressed-out character — from the Bernard Samson in the novels. But I enjoyed the series anyway.
The Day After – A huge TV event at the time when it came out. Sort of the Cold War equivalent of “Roots.”
There’s sort of a lack of variety in this list, I’ll admit — the first three are spy series, and two by le Carre with the same chief protagonist. But I have to work with what TV gives me. And I really believe the first two are among the best things ever made for the tube.
The Central Intelligence Agency is expanding its role in the campaign against the Syrian regime by feeding intelligence to select rebel fighters to use against government forces, current and former U.S. officials said.
The move is part of a U.S. effort to stem the rise of Islamist extremists in Syria by aiding secular forces, U.S. officials said, amid fears that the fall of President Bashar al-Assad would enable al Qaeda to flourish in Syria.
The expanded CIA role bolsters an effort by Western intelligence agencies to support the Syrian opposition with training in areas including weapons use, urban combat and countering spying by the regime.
The move comes as the al Nusra Front, the main al Qaeda-linked group operating in Syria, is deepening its ties to the terrorist organization’s central leadership in Pakistan, according to U.S. counterterrorism officials. ..
Maybe we can’t prevent a bad outcome there. The al Qaeda types could win out in the end. But we should be doing something to put our thumb on the scales and try to tip them toward a better outcome.
And this seems like a better role, to me, for the CIA than running our drone program. We haven’t really had a discussion about the proposal to move that to the Pentagon, but I think it’s probably the right thing to do. Y’all?
I had thought that the official GOP position was that “Zero Dark Thirty” was the result of an unholy relationship between the filmmakers and the Obama administration, meant to aggrandize the latter.
I had seen Sen. John McCain’s criticism of that film as overlapping somewhat with that position, although I also saw it as consistent with his principled, and very personal, opposition to torture.
I was vaguely inclined toward emphasizing the latter reason for McCain’s objections over the former, because I had heard that Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin were joining McCain in his criticism of the movie.
You know it’s a bad day in America when Hollywood seems to have a better grip on intelligence issues than the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the top two Members at Armed Services. The film depicts the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, used on the detainees held at the CIA’s so-called black sites, and hints that the interrogations provided at least some of the information that led to bin Laden’s killing.
What Ms. Bigelow intended by depicting the EITs is not for us to explain: This is an action flick, not a Ken Burns documentary. Yet the mere suggestion that such techniques paid crucial intelligence dividends—as attested by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, among many others—has sent Mrs. Feinstein and her colleagues into paroxysms of indignation. They even have a 5,000-plus-page study that purports to prove her case…
One day, perhaps, some of our liberal friends will acknowledge that the real world is stuffed with the kinds of hard moral choices that “Zero Dark Thirty” so effectively depicts. Until then, they can bask in the easy certitudes of a report that, whatever it contains, deserves never to be read.
So, in the never-ending partisan argument, which requires that everyone take one of two (and only two) directly opposing positions, apparently opposition to the movie is officially a Democratic, liberal position, and John McCain’s agreement with that position is designated as just one of his “maverick” positions.
Whatever. I still sympathize with McCain’s objection to our nation embracing torture on any level.
While we here at Killer Apps were enjoying the last day of our Thanksgiving holiday, the Chinese navy was busy conducting its first ever takeoffs and landings from its brand new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, with brand-new J-15 fighter jets.
“We are aware of media reports that the Chinese successfully landed an aircraft on the deck of a carrier,” said Pentagon press secretary George Little during a briefing with reporters this morning. “This would come as no surprise. We’ve been monitoring Chinese military developments for some time…
Which is impressive, until you read this:
The Liaoning was built with the hull of an incomplete Soviet carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998, claiming that it would be turned into a casino or something. Instead, China completely refurbished the ship, installing new engines, modern electronics, and sensor systems, turning the old hulk into a “starter carrier.”…
Really? China is this gigantic economic powerhouse with superpower ambitions, and yet they had to buy their first carrier third-hand, and spend 14 years tinkering with it before the first plane lands on its deck?
This got me to thinking — how many built-from-scratch carriers did little old Japan next door have in during WWII — seven decades ago? Looks like about 25 that were actually commissioned, from various sources I’ve glanced at. (Burl, help me out.)
And when was the first time a pilot landed on a carrier? An American did it in 1911. Of course, the ship wasn’t moving. The first to land on a moving warship was Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning of the Royal Navy, in 1917. The first purpose-built aircraft carrier (as opposed to a repurposed hull) was Japan’s Hōshō in 1922.
It is believed that China will commission its first homemade carrier in 2015 or 2016 — as much as 94 years after the first Japanese flattop. It will be sometime after that before the Chinese navy has worked itself up into having an effective naval air operations force.
Yeah, I know — these new ships will do things that would look like magic from the perspective of 1922. But still. As fast as China is running to catch up, it’s rather stunning to consider how very far that nation is behind in the simple fact of naval aviation.
CIA Director David Petraeus resigned Friday, citing an extramarital affair and “extremely poor judgement.”
In a letter released to the CIA work force on Friday afternoon, Petraeus disclosed the affair, and wrote: “Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”
President Obama “graciously accepted my resignation,” he wrote…
I’m bracing myself for an onslaught of bad jokes playing on the word “surge.”
This is a sad thing for all involved. Petraeus has done a great deal for his country, and it’s terrible for his career to end in such an ignominious manner.
I’ll even refrain from noting that this is the way an honorable man behaves when he has fallen, by contrast with such people as Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford, who stay in office and drag the world through the sordidness with them.
OK, maybe I won’t refrain. But I won’t go on about it…
BENGHAZI—Four people have been arrested in connection with the attack against the American consulate here that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, a Libyan official involved with the manhunt for the militants said.
Libyan security sources have a larger group of people under surveillance, the official said,
The Libyans have organized a multiagency task force, combining all available resources to hunt down the suspected Islamic militants, including intelligence, defense and interior officials, said the official. He declined to say how many suspects that the Libyans were watching, citing sensitivities of the continuing investigation.
“There is a group now that is under our custody, but there is a group we’re following to know who’s connected to them, and they are monitoring their phone calls,” the official said….
OK, guys, we’re right behind you, so remember: Don’t use your phones or anything. We’ll keep putting this out in the media so you’ll know…
Those ex-intel/Special Forces guys who made the anti-Obama video ought to do a Libyan edition, seeing as how they’re all about operational security.
Instead, as we all know full well, they’re invoking charges brought by a group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” which raised questions about John Kerry’s war service. Democrats to this day so deeply resent what that group did that they have turned “Swift Boat” into a verb, one that refers to actions they regard as mean, nasty, unethical, uncalled-for and generally beyond the pale.
I am unable to agree with Democrats on this because, well, that group raised questions I was wondering about myself (such as, where are the scars from those wounds that sent him home?). But as a nonveteran, I felt I had no moral standing to raise them. I mean, maybe he did get to go home quicker than other veterans, but he was still there longer than I was.
So I initially sort of appreciated veterans publicly asking those questions, no matter with whom they were affiliated. But in the end, that discussion got into a lot of petty back-and-forth accusations about exactly what happened when and who did what to whom, and the whole thing wasn’t really helpful, and just left a general sour taste behind. And I’d just as soon not have such things front-and-center in a presidential election.
But I don’t see it the way Democrats do. So I groaned when I saw the words.
But then I read on, and saw what elicited the phrase.
The Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund seems to exist primarily to call into question, as we head into the home stretch of the election, any credit the President might received for killing Osama bin Laden. (That is far from the only question it raises, but that’s the one with the emotional punch.) And that is just beyond cheesy. It’s too petty for words.
This is nursery-school playground-taunt territory. Clearly, whoever was president at the time this happened gets a certain amount of credit for what happens on his watch — just as he gets the blame when it goes wrong. Jimmy Carter didn’t make that Iran rescue mission fail, but he certainly took the rap for it.
Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did. The work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not.
It’s easy to believe, in the moment he says that (at 6:55 into the above video), that this guy has been a Tea Party spokesman. He evinces that certain disdain-that-dare-not-speak-its-name that TPers seem to reserve entirely for this particular president.
But aside from the tone — I mean, come on. Nobody in the country is stupid enough to think the president personally suited up, went along on the mission and shot bin Laden himself, and no one in the country has tried for a second to make anyone think that. The simplest voter in the country would laugh at the proposition. So in what way do you suppose that the president is in any way trying to take anything away from the super-soldiers who carried out this amazing raid? Perhaps the most laudable thing the president is congratulated for having done was choosing to send in the SEALs as opposed to copping out with a bombing raid. And if you don’t think it took political courage to make that decision, you don’t know anything about politics or special ops, whatever your resume says.
I go further than that. My initial reaction was that hey, that Obama is a lucky guy to have been in charge on this particular watch. But as I learned more and more about the decision-making process that preceded the operation, I saw multiple points at which the wrong decisions could have been made, and POTUS made the right calls, even when very experienced smart people in his administration were doubting that was the way to go.
Of course, the fig leaf this group is offering for its pettiness is that it is objecting to the very fact that I know as much about the long-term operation as I do. It’s accusing this administration of leaking government secrets for the purpose of its own political aggrandizement. (Which presents an interesting contradiction: If the administration is leaking actual, true intel, and that information shows the president in a good light, then how do you say the president doesn’t deserve credit for what happened?)
That’s a serious charge. I’ve seen no evidence that national security has in any way been compromised in this instance — but of course, I don’t have enough access to classified information to know for sure.
But I do know this: As I mentioned above, this president has been far more aggressive than any recent predecessor in using deadly force to take out terrorists, making George W. Bush look almost timid by comparison. While I have applauded the president for this, I acknowledge such an unprecedented pattern of aggression calls, in a liberal democracy, for a certain amount of sunshine. We need to know, at least in general, about the way the president makes decisions.
By the way, I’m not outraged at the parties who appear in this group’s video, which is the centerpiece of the campaign. I don’t doubt their sincerity. There is a fundamental cognitive disconnect between people who devote their lives to serving their country in the more sensitive parts of our national security apparatus, and people who are elected and directly accountable to the voters of this country. The national security types live by operational security, and have a tendency to see any kind of public disclosure of what they do as a close cousin to treason, rather than the exercise of political accountability. Political figures can indeed go too far in the service of self-interest. But even legitimate disclosure, the kind of thing a political leader should disclose, will not be acceptable to people who, just as legitimately, define their success in large part by their ability to keep secrets.
My beef is with the people who put this piece of emotionally-charged propaganda together, and released it at such a moment. The release of this video, at this time, would make the charges in the video itself about the president’s timing in announcing bin Laden’s death rather laughable. Except, you know, there’s nothing funny about it. (And I don’t even quite follow the logic that it was somehow politically advantageous to the president to announce the success of the operation immediately. If he’d done it a week later, as they suggest, he’d have gotten just as big a political boost.)
The amount of information that is appropriate for keeping a president accountable will always be debatable, and we should engage in it energetically, to the extent we can do so without damaging the very security we seek to protect (ah, there’s the ironic rub).
Security officials and members of both parties in Congress have sharply criticized leaks about classified operations under Mr. Obama, and some Republicans have complained about news briefings on the Bin Laden raid and assistance to filmmakers making a movie about the operation.
The next sentence reminds us of something else the group pointedly ignores:
But the administration has also overseen an unprecedented number of prosecutions for press disclosures, and in June, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed two United States attorneys to investigate leaks discussed in the Opsec video.
The petty way this group has gone about conducting its political offensive makes me less inclined to take it on faith that they know things that I do, and those things make the president look bad.
Perhaps the verb for this, going forward, should be “Opsecing.” No, that doesn’t look right. “Opsecking?” Nah. Still needs work…
Jonah Lehrer’s new post at The New Yorker details some worrying research on cognition and thinking through biases, indicating that “intelligence seems to make [such] things worse.” This is because, as Richard West and colleagues concluded in their study, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” Being smarter does not make you better at transcending unjustified views and bad beliefs, all of which naturally then play into your life. Smarter people are better able to narrate themselves, internally, out of inconsistencies, blunders and obvious failures at rationality, whereas they would probably be highly critical of others who demonstrated similar blunders.
I am reminded of Michael Shermer’s view, when he’s asked why smart people believe weird things, like creationism, ghosts and (as with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) fairies: “Smart people are very good at rationalizing things they came to believe for non-smart reasons.” If you’ve ever argued with a smart person about an obviously flawed belief, like ghosts or astrology, you’ll recognise this: their justifications often involve obfuscation, deep conjecture into areas you probably haven’t considered (and that probably aren’t) relevant, and are all tied together neatly and eloquently because she’s a smart person…
Here’s how I responded to it…
Well, I think there is little doubt that smart people are better at rationalizing a bad position.
I’ll also agree with the proposition that it is harder to argue a smart person out of a position if he is wrong. But only because it is harder to argue a smart person out of a position whether he is wrong OR right.
I’m going to strain your credulity by using myself as an example, even though that requires you, solely for the sake of argument, to consider me to be a smart person (but hey, I consider this to be a community of smart people — dumb people would be watching TV rather than debating ideas in writing, right?).
People — smart people — on my blog get frustrated sometimes with their inability to talk me out of a position. It’s not that I’m incapable of changing my mind on something. I sometimes do so quite abruptly. But usually not on the kinds of things we talk about on the blog. That’s because I have spent SO much time over the years honing my positions on those issues. And much of that time has been spent thinking about, and one by one knocking down, the arguments that might be offered in an effort to change my mind.
It’s not that I’m smarter than any of y’all. It’s that it was my job, every day for many years, to write my opinions for publication. When you do that, you take much greater care than most people do with their opinions. (I was very surprised to realize, over time, how much more carefully considered my positions on issues were after a couple of years on the editorial board. Before that, my opinions were private, and therefore largely untested. After I joined the board, every opinion I had went through the wringer before and after being expressed, and I took greater care accordingly.) You obsess about everything that could be wrong in your position, and raise every possible objection that you can think of that the hundreds of thousands of folks out there likely to read your opinion — including people more knowledgeable than you about the particular subject under discussion — might raise to knock it down. You work through each and every one of them before you finish writing and editing your opinion piece. Add to that the fact that it won’t get into the paper until it’s been read, and potentially challenged, by other people who do the same thing for a living, and go through the same daily exercises.
It makes for positions that, once fully formed, are hard to shake — whether they are wrong or right. I also believe that the process helps one be right, but whether wrong or right, shaking it takes some doing.
So basically, I admit that I could be wrong. It’s just that the process I went through in arriving at my wrong answer was sufficiently rigorous that even if you’re smarter than I am, you probably aren’t willing to invest the time it would take to dismantle the constructs upon which my position rests.
But I do hope you’ll keep trying. I like to think there’s hope for me…
This morning was one of those moments when several threads came together for me, providing a small insight into the shape of the world in which we live.
It’s related to a moment of revelation I experienced in about 1996. I was attending one of a series of monthly meetings that our then-new publisher, Fred Mott, had instituted to brief employees in general about the state of the business side of the newspaper. I was probably sitting there trying not to let my eyes glaze over too obviously when he said something that cut through. Something that should have been obvious, but was not until that moment.
He observed — I forget exactly how he said it, but this was what I got out of it — that Walmart had shifted the ground upon which the business model of newspapers had been built. The key element was “everyday low prices.” Everyone knew that Walmart was the place to get the lowest prices available locally on anything they sold. And they sold everything. If everyone knows that you have low prices every day — and not now and then, in the form of sales events — you have nothing to communicate, on a regular basis, through advertising.
To show how that affected but one of the newspaper industry’s key advertising constituencies… people were used to reading about all the grocery stores’ specials — which changed if not day to day, then at least week to week — in the newspaper. But what’s the point in that if you can get all those same groceries — same brands and everything — cheaper at Walmart? And every day. So beyond some general branding, which it does mainly through television, reminding people of said everyday low prices, what does Walmart have to communicate? There is no news to pass on. That gives it yet another competitive advantage over those regular advertisers, because it saves the ad costs. To try to compete, those advertisers cut back on their ad budgets, and so forth.
And since Walmart sells practically everything a mass market wants, there is no retailing area unaffected. Department stores, appliance stores, clothing stores — everybody is competing against an adversary that doesn’t have to advertise to the extent that they traditionally had done.
That was just a piece of what was strangling newspapers, but a significant piece. Hence the expense cutbacks and hiring freezes that were already a monotonous part of newspaper life. The next year, Fred made me his editorial page editor, and shortly thereafter, as a measure of his confidence in me and his perception of the importance of the editorial mission, I was able to grow my department by one FTE. That was it. From then on, every budget year was an exercise in doing it with less. And less. And less. Until, two publishers later, it was decided to do without me.
In the postwar years, he pioneered discounting through his chain of stores called E.J. Korvette. This required challenging the “fair trade” price-fixing laws then in place in many states:
Retail price-fixing in the United States—often packaged for popular consumption as “fair-trade” laws—was a Depression-era concoction. Launched in California in 1931, it was quickly copied by state legislatures across the country. These statutes were premised on the idea that manufacturers retain a legal interest in the price of their products even after actual ownership has moved downstream to retailers. The laws were written so that once a single retailer in a fair-trade state agreed to observe the manufacturer’s proposed retail price list, it would in effect impose those prices on all other retailers in the state.
Conceived as a means of protecting small, independent merchants against predatory chains, fair-trade laws were pushed through state houses by legislators beholden to the influential retail chambers of commerce. The big manufacturers, especially appliance makers like GE, Westinghouse, RCA and Motorola, usually lent tacit support. It was easier for them to deal with a multitude of small customers through their wholesalers than to directly confront retailers big enough to muscle them for price concessions and promotional allowances…
I had never heard of E.J. Korvette stores, but I got to thinking, when was the first time I experienced discount store shopping? I realized that it was when we moved to New Orleans in 1965, after having lived in South America since late 1962. One of the elements of modern American culture that made an impression on me that year was the local Woolco store, a short drive from my home.
Anybody remember Woolco? They went out of business for good in the 80s, but this one was thriving in 1965.
Then there was this passage in the oped piece this morning about Ferkauf:
In the end, the demise of fair-trade laws didn’t help E.J. Korvette. Ventures into high-end audio, home furnishings, soft goods and even supermarkets made E.J. Korvette considerably bigger but also shakier financially. In July 1962, Ferkauf was on the cover of Time magazine, hailed as the PiedPiper of the new consumer-centered retailing. Four years later he was ejected from his company, which by 1980 went into final bankruptcy. Ferkauf’s legacy, though, was secure. He had finally killed off legally protected price fixing.
Something about that year. A cusp of sorts. A changing of the guard, as retailing pivoted.
In his awesome book The Catalog of Cool (and if you can lay hands on a copy, you should buy it — although you may want to go the used route, since Amazon prices new copies at $127 and more), Gene Sculatti published an essay titled “The Last Good Year.” An excerpt:
Sixty-two seems, in retrospect, a year when the singular naivete of the spanking new decade was at its guileless height, with only the vaguest, most indistinct hints of the agonies and ecstasies to come marring the fresh-scrubbed, if slightly sallow complexion of the times. On the first day of that year, the Federal Reserve raised the maximum interest on savings accounts to 4 percent while “The Twist” was sweeping the nation. A month later “Duke of Earl” was topping the charts, and John Glenn was orbiting the good, green globe. That spring Wilt Chamberlain set the NBA record by scoring 100 points in a single game and West Side Story won the Oscar for Best Picture. The Seattle World’s Fair opened, followed five weeks later by the deployment of five thousand U.S. troops in Thailand. Dick Van Dyke and The Defenders won Emmys, and Adolph Eichman got his neck stretched. By that summer, the Supreme Court had banned prayer in public school, Algeria went indy, and Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose…
No mention of a major shift in retailing, though, as I recall.
One last tidbit, which you may consider to be unrelated…
Recently, I picked up several old paperbacks for 50 cents each at Heroes and Dragons on Bush River Road. One of them was The Ipcress File, which is what originally turned me on to spy fiction. You may recall the 1965 film, with Michael Caine — who expressed the cooler, hipper side of the 60s, as opposed to the mass-production James Bond.
In it is a passage in which the protagonist has a conversation with an American Army general who points out that the essential difference between the United States and Europe was this: A European develops a ballpoint pen, and sells it for a couple of quid and makes a modest living from it. An American, he said, invents the same thing and sells it for 5 cents a pop and becomes a millionaire.
The Central Intelligence Agency is looking for a few good men and women, and what’s more, it wants the next generation of spies to be more diverse.
The highly secretive organization has reached out to big shops on Madison Avenue to evaluate whether they may be suited for working with the CIA down the road on its recruitment advertising campaigns. According to an unclassified document obtained by Ad Age: “The Central Intelligence Agency seeks to build on its existing brand identity and be positioned as the No. 1 employer of choice for a variety of career paths by reaching and engaging with prospective employees.” The document added, the CIA “seeks to optimize its marketability to this audience by focusing on creative and innovative advertising.”
Responses to what the CIA is calling a “market survey” are due back this week. Depending on the answers the agencies provide, it could lead to an official request for proposal.
One key goal of the CIA’s recruiting messages seems to be attempting to attract a more diverse workforce. The document sent to agencies said the CIA is focused on “increasing the percentage of officers from ethic and minority backgrounds, as well as those with relevant foreign languages.”…
I’ve gotta think that there’s nothing new in the CIA looking for “diversity” in its recruiting. The job requirements have always called for it. Yeah, I think I once read that in the postwar period it was kind of heavy on Irish Catholics (or was that the FBI?), but it seems I’ve also heard that field officers tend to be people who had spent extensive time in their youths in foreign cultures.
Or have I gotten the wrong impression?
There was a time when I might have been a good prospect — but I let my Spanish slide after living in South America in my youth.
At one point when we lived in Guayaquil, Ecuador, my parents considered the possibility of sending me to the local school for German expatriates, at which all classes were taught in that language. I didn’t much like the idea then, but that would have been awesome — a working fluency with German at the same time that my day-to-day life was making Spanish second nature to me. I thought and dreamed in Spanish in those days. No more. (Although I suspect it would come flooding back with total immersion, I don’t know that.)
I’ve wondered what course my life would have taken if I’d seized that opportunity to be trilingual.
Oh, well. Even if I had the languages, they’d really have to embrace diversity to hire me. As in, accept trainees over the age of 55…
The administration has made little secret of its near-total reliance on drone operations to fight the war on terror. The ironies abound. Candidate Obama campaigned on narrowing presidential wartime power, closing Guantanamo Bay, trying terrorists in civilian courts, ending enhanced interrogation, and moving away from a wartime approach to terrorism toward a criminal-justice approach. Mr. Obama has avoided these vexing detention issues simply by depriving terrorists of all of their rights—by killing them…
The P.M. flashes his famous V-for-Victory sign. We can't tell, from this photograph, whether he was flashing an "E" sign with the other hand.
After The Times played down its advance knowledge of the Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy reportedly said he wished we had published what we knew and perhaps prevented a fiasco. Some of the reporting in The Times and elsewhere prior to the war in Iraq was criticized for not being skeptical enough of the Administration’s claims about the Iraqi threat. The question we start with as journalists is not “why publish?” but “why would we withhold information of significance?” We have sometimes done so, holding stories or editing out details that could serve those hostile to the U.S. But we need a compelling reason to do so.
– Bill Keller, then-executive editor The New York Times June 2006
The apology came a bit late for Kennedy, who died in a traffic accident in 1963.
This is not to confuse him with another Kennedy who also died in 1963, and had earlier persuaded The New York Times to back off the Bay of Pigs story for national security reasons. (See Keller quote above.)
The icing on this tale came today, when we learned that the AP knew last week that the United States was closing in on Underwear Bomber II in Yemen — but withheld the news at the request of the government. That’s what the WSJ reported this morning, anyway:
U.S. officials had known about the plot for about a month, and President Barack Obama was briefed on the plot in April. White House officials had persuaded the Associated Press, which had an account of the plot in hand as early as last week, to hold off on publishing because the intelligence operation was still under way.
This is fascinating. It was one thing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with government censors in 1945, when the entire country was united in the all-out effort to win WWII, and cooperation with the censors was reflexive.
But today? When it is fashionable to call the War on Terror the “so-called War on Terror”? When, as Keller mentions above, the leftward side of the political spectrum persists in excoriating the media for not being skeptical enough prior to the Iraq invasion? For a major media entity to respond with a snappy salute to a government request to be discrete is decidedly remarkable.
This will no doubt spark dark rumblings — and probably already has; I’m not bothering to look — among Republicans about whether the AP would have agreed to this request if it had come from the Bush administration.
What do you think about all of this? Oh, you want to know what I think. Well, I don’t know enough to have an opinion yet. I’d like to know what the AP knew, and what it was told before it made the decision to hold back on the story. The default position for a journalist is to report a story when you know it’s true, as Keller reported. But this sounds like it’s one of those rare cases in which lives may have been saved by holding back — which would justify the decision to wait.