The week (September 8th): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow once again from newspaperman extraordinaire Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

DON’T BLAME THOSE FORMER CLINTON ADMINISTRATION officials who, along with Bill Clinton, remain highly exercised over the scheduled ABC 9/11 docudrama (“The Path to 9/11”) which includes fabricated scenes suggesting that they approached the threat of Osama bin-Laden and al-Queda with less than proper zeal. They are right to pressure Disney, parent company of ABC, for changes in the program prior to its televising, and if Disney/ABC does the right thing, they’ll remove the made-up scenes (the Washington Post reports that ABC plans “minor changes” in reaction to the criticism.)

Inventing dialogue and placing it in the mouth of real people—like former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger—distorts history and misleads viewers (who may think that it’s a reenactment of real events). Veracity matters. Whether or not the “higher truth” is that Clinton and his top aides took a too narrowly legalistic approach to terrorism during his two terms in office, fabricating scenes in an entertainment program is not the way to prove your point.

Disney/ABC can’t have it both ways—advertising the series as being “based on the 9/11 Commission” but then defending the fabrications as needed for dramatic purposes. The last I checked, ABC had a news division: how do news managers there feel about the blurring of fact and fiction in this “alternative universe”? An example of truthiness (to use Stephen Colbert’s phrase)?

One irony: ABC’s flirtation with fabulism comes just as director Oliver Stone has curbed his paranoic fantasies. Stone’s “artistic license” in the movie JFK introduced millions of young moviegoers to multiple bogus Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. But in his new film, World Trade Center, Stone has dealt with the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers without straying too far from the established historical reality of that horrific day.

The shame is that ABC News could have developed a documentary on 9/11 that could have explored unanswered 9/11-related questions? One puzzle involves Sandy Berger. Berger has never given a plausible explanation for why he furtively removed classified documents from the National Archives about the Clinton Administration’s response to terrorism, documents being reviewed by the 9/11 Commission. What was his motive? What was he thinking?

Other questions: what is the real story on Able Danger, the Defense Department team using data mining to track terrorists? Did the team truly identify terrorist ringleader Mohamed Atta prior to 9/11, as Congressman Curt Weldon claims? Why did some government officials tell New Yorkers that the air quality around the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11 was safe to breathe? Who is responsible for those public assurances—now shown to have been wrong?

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER of pop culture: the bronze statute of the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa will be placed on a spot near the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum after a 6-2 vote by the city’s art commission. The statue had been donated by Sylvester Stallone, who played the underdog fighter in a series of films (one more on the way!), in 1982—it had been rejected by the museum and found a home for several decades outside the Spectrum sports arena. Rocky always was persistent.

For traditionalists the best way to swallow this: think of the bronze Rocky Balboa as the Little Mermaid of the City of Brotherly Love—after all a statue of Hans Christian Anderson’s character is a famous tourist attraction in Copenhagen.

WILL ANTI-SEMITES get the point that they are being mocked in British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen’s new movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan”? Or will they revel in the broadcasting of slurs and stereotypes, figuring that airing them is a victory even if they are ridiculed? The New York Times describes it as a “raucous comedy that makes its points by seeming to embrace sexism, racism, homophobia and that most risky of social toxins: anti-Semitism.”

As a First Amendment advocate, I can’t quarrel with Baron Cohen’s right to make the movie, and I haven’t seen the “mockumentary” so I’ll reserve final judgment—after all, the Producers and Bulworth mine some of the same comedic territory without, from what I can tell, encouraging bigotry—yet having the buffoonish protagonist of the movie worry that “the Jews (will) repeat their attack of 9/11” (a line from the movie, according to the New York Times) may be appreciated for its irony by American multiplex cinema audiences but taken literally by some in the Middle East.

The Washington Post‘s bland headline is “Frey and Publisher Settle Lawsuit” but the details of the story are weird. As a disgruntled reader your refund for “A Million Little Pieces” (in hardcover), the memoir by James Frey tainted by falsehoods, will apparently require the following: proof of purchase of the book on or before January 26, 2006; page 163 of the memoir/novel; and a sworn statement that you would not have bought the book if you knew certain facts had been fabricated or embroidered. That will bring you the $23.95 hardcover refund from Random House, not that anyone is copping to anything.

This has to be one of the more bizarre stories of the year: it is the Culture of Litigation writ large, another example of how some lawyers bring discredit upon themselves and their profession. The crowning legalistic touch is the provision that refund seekers have to return page 163 (chosen at random, we are told). While Frey and Random House haven’t covered themselves in glory, is this really a matter for litigation? Are consumer protection statutes meant to include memoirs?

I’m sure some will argue that it’s the principle, blah, blah, blah–—if that is the case, then the lawyers on both sides should have worked pro bono, or for a token amount (how about the minimum wage?)

THREE CHEERS FOR ALLEN WEINSTEIN, head of the National Archives, who now says thousands of government historical documents, withdrawn because of security concerns, will be made accessible to the public again. Weinstein’s announcement proves that he is independent and not the partisan some on the Left have made him out to be.

DON’T EXPECT KATIE COURIC to work wonders with the ratings for the CBS Evening News. And the trends for one-time Big Three—CBS, NBC and ABC—are dismal. The numbers released this summer by the Pew Media Survey tell a grim tale for the nightly network news; American viewership has dropped from 60% in 1993 to 28% in 2006. That decline reflects a more fragmented media world—and that, along with partisan viewing patterns (conservatives trust Fox News; liberals gravitate to PBS and CNN)—makes agreeing on shared facts harder and harder. The civic implications aren’t pretty.


; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

Advertisements

The week (September 1st): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

“THE CHIEF EXECUTIVES OF corporations making big profits from the war on terror are enjoying far bigger pay increases than CEOs of nondefense companies, according to a study by two liberal groups,” reported the Associated Press, and there really is no palatable spin on this one.

What to do about it? The AP quoted a critic of the CEO windfalls who seems to get it right:

“Why not say that if it’s a contract with taxpayer dollars, they can’t go to excessive CEO pay,” said Betsy Leondar-Wright of United for a Fair Economy. “In past wars, there were efforts to limit war profiteering. We’re having the reverse here. We’re having people treating it as their own little bonanza.”

And spare us the baloney about the CEOs only being paid huge sums as a reflection of their market-value—even professors at Harvard Business School don’t buy that old chestnut.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS has been proved right about the Plame Affair, or at least that’s the conclusion a reasonable person would come to have after reading the quite pointed and blunt editorial in the Washington Post on the matter after Richard Armitrage (Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department and an opponent of the Bush Iraq policy) was revealed as the source for Robert Novak’s column “outing” Valerie Plame as a CIA official. The Post editorialized thusly:

Nevertheless, it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.

Hitchins does get the last word in his Slate column: “Plame Out: The ridiculous end to the scandal that distracted Washington.”

THAT SOME SMALL SELECTIVE COLLEGES (Mount Holyoke, Middlebury, Hamilton, Union, Dickinson, George Mason, Providence College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges in addition to Bates and Bowdoin) are dropping their SAT requirement for admissions, or making reporting its results voluntary, is hailed by the anti-testing critics who question the validity of the test (and see it skewed to wealthier students who can afford test-prep). The irony, of course, is that European and Asian countries don’t share American skittishness about high-stake testing. In response to the New York Times story highlighting the trend, College Board president Gaston Caperton tried to make that point, but somehow got sidetracked:

“At a time when the United States is vying internationally for excellence,” Mr. Caperton said, “it’s very contrary to any decision-making process, in business or education, not to use the data that’s available. If I were a parent, applying to a selective school, I would prefer them to use all the data they possibly can.”

Strange. I thought the student was applying, not the parent. Why Caperton felt he had to appeal to parental anxiety about selective schools admissions is anyone’s guess…especially since the vast majority of American colleges and universities will continue to use the SAT (and ACT) for admissions.

MANY JAPANESE WOMEN NOW SEE Korean men as ideal, (or so we are told by the Washington Post) based on the South Korean male movie and pop stars who are the rage in much of Asia. It’s particularly intriguing to find the Japanese open to out-marriage, as the island nation’s clannish is legendary. Another unforeseen consequence of globalization.

SPEAKING OF GLOBALIZATION, the win by Greece over the United States in basketball is tremendously upsetting to American hoops fans (like me). How can a team with three of the best players in the world—Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony—lose? Easy–shoot under 60% from the free throw line and under 40% from beyond the arc, and fail to defend the basic pick-and-roll play (a staple of any YMCA lunchtime pick-up game).

THE AWFUL AWFUL ® ice cream milkshake (“Awful Big, Awful Good) of my childhood remains available only at Newport Creamery restaurants in Rhode Island and Masschusetts—with the same offer if you can drink 3 at one sitting, you can get the fourth free! The Awful Awful was trademarked by Bond’s Ice Cream (in New Jersey) in 1948 and licensed to the Newport Creamery, which bought the name outright in the early 1970s when Bond’s went bankrupt.


; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

9/11 conspiracy theories: time for truth

Two cheers for the University of New Hampshire for affirming the principle of academic freedom and resisting calls to dismiss, discipline, or curb the teaching of psychology professor William Woodward, an academic who believes that the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government.

Woodward’s discussion of those controversial views in his class led some prominent New Hampshire politicians, including the Governor, John Lynch (who termed Woodward’s opinions “crazy”) and U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, to call for his dismissal.

The UNH administration reviewed Woodward’s teaching practices, looked at course materials and student evaluations, and concluded it should not take action. An Iraq war veteran in Woodward’s class told reporters that Woodward had not tried to indoctrinate his students (nor, apparently, was the professor particularly successful in convincing any of students that he was right).

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, defended Woodward (in an email to Inside Higher Ed), making the traditionalists’ case for academic freedom:

“So long as the faculty member teaches within his or her discipline and is careful to teach the truth as set by the highest standards of scholarship within their discipline, they and their universities should not be subjected to political intrusions. This rule applies even in highly charged times like today. Professors outside the classroom should speak truth to power as their conscience dictates and inside the classroom they should speak the truths of their discipline.”

Bowen has it more or less right—although you have to strain a bit to fit 9/11 conspiracy theories into the “truths of their discipline” when that discipline is psychology (unless, perhaps, you are considering the mental health of conspiracy theorists). By all accounts Woodward has made only passing references to his 9/11 opinions in the classroom, noted that they are controversial, and has not let them dominate his teaching. (Woodward has been quoted as saying he hopes to teach a new class that would explore September 11th “in psychological terms.”)

UNH would deserve a third cheer if, at the same time it backs Woodward, it confronted the 9/11 conspiracy question head-on by sponsoring lectures, seminars and teach-ins to provide students with the facts. It’s a process that would expose the entire 9/11 “inside job” argument as baseless. A campus-wide discussion could enhance student’s critical thinking skills—they would learn in short order how flimsy the claims of the conspiracy buffs are and how the evidence doesn’t support them.

An unecessary exercise? Unfortunately, no. A shockingly high number of Americans apparently do not believe the bipartisan 9/11 Commission’s conclusions that Osama bin Laden and al-Quaida bear responsibility for the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll in early August found that “more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.” If the poll is even directionally correct, that would suggest one in three UNH students might harbor the same beliefs.

UNH is not the only college campus where such views are held—the so-called Scholars for 9/11 Truth (of which Woodward is a member) claim some 75 of the group’s 300 members have “academic affiliations.” Kevin Barrett, an adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, caused a similar uproar with his desire to teach the “Truth about 9/11” to his introductory class on Islam.

What will any dispassionate review of the facts about 9/11—on campus or off—show? Rather than a conspiracy, the voluminous record suggests incompetence and miscommunication on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, sloppiness and confusion by the air defense and air traffic control systems, and a false sense of invulnerability to terror attacks held at every level of government.

The notion that the World Trade Center buildings were rigged with explosives, or that the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile, are “theories” that have been throughly discredited—look no further for refutation than the Federal Emergency Management Agency or National Institute of Standards and Technology’s reports on the collapse of the WTC buildings, or the eyewitness testimony of first responders at the Pentagon.

There are, fortunately, resources and documents to help set the record straight. The U.S. State Department has posted web pages refuting most of the common conspiracy theories, and a Popular Mechanics investigation debunking the 16 most persistent conspiracy theories has been expanded into a book, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts, which includes interviews with some 600 experts (and eyewitnesses). Two journalists, David Corn of the Nation, and Salon’s Farhad Manjoo, have been leaders in fact-based reporting on the topic.

Of course this may not matter to Scholars for 9/11 Truth or others promoting the “U.S. government false flag operation” meme—it has become a matter of faith that the attacks were “an inside job,” and any evidence to the contrary is regarded as fabricated by the conspiracists. As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, (a reflection prompted by the Age of McCarthy), those who fabricate convoluted conspiracy theories will not let the facts get in the way; their fantasy world becomes satisfyingly coherent, “since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.”

I would imagine that most American university presidents and deans clearly recognize the intellectual shakiness of the 9/11 conspiracy movement, but figure that it will never take root on college campuses. They may think that engaging in debate legitimizes the conspiracy fringe. That both underestimates the staying power of “the Paranoid Style”—to date there’s been no let-up in the campaign to rewrite the history of 9/11—and cedes the field to those who shown more interest in attacking the Bush administration than in finding the truth.

When a third of American adults question whether their government has been involved in a massive conspiracy and cover-up—a notion unsupported by any credible evidence—it’s clear that dignified silence or ignoring the question isn’t going to work. America’s higher education leadership share in the duty to, in George Orwell’s words, “restate the obvious.” Those in the academy should take every opportunity to capitalize on this “teachable moment” on their campuses and encourage truth-telling about 9/11 sooner rather than later.


; ; ; ; ; ; ;

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!


The week (July 21st): Nobody asked me, but…

Once more, with a tip of the cap to New York’s great newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

APPLE SHOULD RETHINK THE GENIUS BAR branding in their retail outlets. What is a Genius Bar, you ask? It is a computer repair service desk with a New Age name. The technicians carry the title of Mac Genius and wear trendy black tee shirts and serve customers (who can perch on stools) from behind a long, wooden desk (the Genius Bar). You can make an appointment on the web, in advance, to meet with a Mac Genius.

The downside of this? When your Mac Genius isn’t such a genius in handling your complaint, and there’s that temptation to make snide, wise-guy comments (“If you’re a Mac Genius, what are the Mac Dummies like?”) My assigned Mac Genius finally fixed the problem with my son’s iMac after two trips to the store. For what it’s worth, I observed many frustrated iPod owners grousing about batteries and screens on their sleek little music devices, apparently now a common challenge for the Mac Genii to confront.

And lurking in the shadows, the Evil Empire of Microsoft…where plans for an iPod-like device move inexorably ahead.

ONCE AGAIN, CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS offers a brilliantly contrarian read of events in his Slate piece, “The End of the Affair: Novak Exonerates the Bushies in the Plame Case.” Hitchens argues:

Robert Novak’s July 12 column and his appearance on Meet the Press Sunday night have dissolved any remaining doubt about the mad theory that the Bush administration “outed” Ms. Valerie Plame as revenge for her husband’s refusal to confirm the report by British intelligence that Iraqi officials had visited Niger in search of uranium.

Hitchens promises that he will publish “more material” to prove that “that the original British intelligence on the Niger connection was genuine, and that Wilson missed it.”

On this same topic, attorneys Bruce W. Sanford and Bruce D. Brown restated the obvious in the Washington Post: leak investigations are a waste of time. If only the editorial page editors of the Post and New York Times had agreed at the start of the Plame episode on this sensible position and had not called for a leak probe, reporters Matt Cooper and Judith Miller might have avoided jail time.

BLOGS PROMOTE FREE SPEECH in repressive regimes” reads the headline on The Editors Weblog (published by the World Editors Forum). The late June post notes how blogging offers an outlet for social and political criticism in countries like Saudi Arabia and China. It quotes the optimistic assessment of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (“With the Internet, China is developing for the first time in 4,000 years of history a powerful independent institution that offers checks and balances on the emperors.”) and while not characterizing the blogs as journalism suggests that they will eventually help to “bring down repressive regimes.”

I’m not as sanguine. One of Kristof’s points is that in the future China’s 30,000 Web censors/monitors won’t be able to control the millions of Chinese Internet users (currently estimated at 120 million), yet advances in supercomputing and intelligent software may make the monitoring of Web expression much simpler and suppression easier. I think prospects for a more benign form of governance in China rest more on pressure from Western trading partners for the rule of law and free expression, which is why American companies must make clear their support of those values when doing business in the People’s Republic.

The blogosphere’s freedom unsettles even democratic governments. India shut down access for some bloggers in the aftermath of the Mumbai bombings, much to the legitimate dismay of free speech advocates.

THE WEB IS QUITE DEMOCRATIC: where else could fans of former Del Amitri member Justin Currie get a chance to directly “friend” him other than Myspace.com? Currie can be found at http://www.myspace.com/justincurrie (where you can hear some great new Currie songs, including “What is Love For” and “Out of My Control”).

FORMER CIA VETERAN MICHAEL A. SCHEUER, chief of the agency’s Osama bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center, authored a very tough op-ed in the Washington Times in advance of ABC’s mini-series based on former “terrorism czar” Richard Clarke’s memoir, “Against All Enemies.” Scheuer suggests the September 11 Commission whitewashed the failure of American intelligence agencies pre-9/11, reserving his harshest criticism for President Bill Clinton and colleagues.

Mr. Clarke’s book is also a crucial complement to the September 11 panel’s failure to condemn Mr. Clinton’s failure to capture or kill bin Laden on any of the eight to 10 chances afforded by CIA reporting. Mr. Clarke never mentions that President Bush had no chances to kill bin Laden before September 11 and leaves readers with the false impression that he, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, did their best to end the bin Laden threat. That trio, in my view, abetted al Qaeda, and if the September 11 families were smart they would focus on the dereliction of Dick, Bill and Sandy and not the antics of convicted September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

Scheuer closes with even harsher words for Clarke, Clinton, and Berger; he says he fears that “the reality that Bill, Dick and Sandy helped to push Americans out of the windows of the World Trade Center on that September morning will be buried in miles of fantasy-filled celluloid.”

This is clearly transcends the bounds of decency: Scheuer may believe that Clinton Administration dithering played a part in 9/11, it is another thing to personalize the debate in such a nasty and sneering way (referring to his three targets dismissively by their first name). No matter how bitter Scheuer may be about 9/11, to suggest that Clinton or other officials are responsible for Americans jumping out of the WTC windows is quite simply wrong.

A “TRUMAN-KENNEDY-CLINTON DEMOCRAT” is the label Senator Joe Lieberman assigns himself, leads naturally to this question: can a self-described centrist survive in today’s Democratic Party? The New Republic headline “Cuppa Joe: Can Lieberman Survive?” sums it up. It is now looking like Lieberman may lose his August 8th Connecticut primary showndown with anti-war candidate Ned Lamont, as the latest Quinnipiac Poll shows the challenger inching ahead. If Joementum fails in the primary, Lieberman is prepared to run as an independent, and you can count on a bitterly contested three-way general election.

BRUCE ARENA, FORMER US NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM COACH, is taking over the New York Red Bulls (as predicted here last week); it would be great for Major League Soccer if Arena can make the Red Bulls instant winners and recapture some of the magic the fabled New York Cosmos once brought to New Jersey.

FORMER NEW YORK TIMES EDITOR HOWELL RAINES offered up a great quote in an appearance in Aspen, Colorado when asked about media leaks: “Almost all leakers are lawyers. That’s the bottom line.”


; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

The week (May 26th): Nobody asked me, but…

With apologies to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WHAT IS IT ABOUT NEW CIA DIRECTOR Michael V. Hayden that makes me think of the slippery national security advisor (played by Harris Yulin) in the movie Clear and Present Danger. Is it that Hayden always seems to have a handy explanation, even when he is confronted with contradictory statements? Or is it that, despite the uniform, he seems the consummate CYA bureaucrat?

WHILE DISTRICT ATTORNEY MIKE NIFONG's case against the three Duke lacrosse players accused of rape appears shakier and shakier, all of the evidence in the case hasn't been revealed. A motion filed by defense attorneys for David Evans, the third Blue Devils player charged with raping an exotic dancer at an off-campus party in March, claims that the alleged victim did not identify Evans in a first photo lineup eight days after the party (only selecting him in a later lineup); the lawyers are asking for "narrative reports" on the lineups.

While legal journalist Stuart Taylor, Jr. says in the National Journal that based on what is known now, he is "about 85 percent confident that the three members who have been indicted on rape charges are innocent and that the accusation is a lie," it's much too early to put this case in the Tawana Brawley hoax category.

Meanwhile, the local Durham paper, the Herald-Sun, has reported that the state NAACP will seek a gag order in the case. Al McSurely, an attorney who chairs the North Carolina NAACP's Legal Redress Committee, told the Herald-Sun that his organization would "try to intervene in the case to file a 'quiet zone/let's let justice work' motion." McSurely argued that defense lawyers "are violating the State Bar's rules of professional conduct that discourage comments outside court that are likely to prejudice a case" and the alleged victim's rights to a fair trial might be jeopardized.

Forget the gag order. Here's a better solution: an expedited trial. Rather than waiting until spring 2007 for a trial, Nifong should push for the earliest possible court date. If anything, you would think the prosecution would want to move quickly before witnesses' memories grow hazy.

THANKS TO A FRIEND WHO FORWARDED THE CITE, I have a better understanding of why fire spread so quickly in World Trade Center 7, apparently leading to the building's dramatic collapse after the 9/11 attack. In January, a judge threw out a civil suit brought by Con Ed and insurance companies against the City of New York alleging "that the city had improperly designed and installed a fuel system for the backup electrical system that supported its Office of Emergency Management on the Manhattan building's 23rd floor."According to the Associated Press, the plaintiffs argued that "the city maintained large tanks of diesel fuel in the building and…the tanks caused the fires to grow out of control." Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein dismissed the suit on the grounds that the city's actions were "a good faith effort" to "facilitate civil defense.'"

As I recently reported in Neither Red nor Blue, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will release its draft report on the WTC 7 collapse this fall.

ONE OF THE STRANGEST HOME RUNS in memory came the other night when Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees lofted a Tim Wakefield knuckleball pitch into the seats above the Green Monster at Fenway Park. A-Rod had no idea where he had hit the ball–he initially looked straight up and then back over his shoulder, trying to locate the ball. That's one reason why knuckleball pitchers provide such great entertainment; perhaps Major League Baseball should mandate every team has to have one knuckler as a starter (and you could argue that would represent less of a rules change than the designated hitter for the American League).

SO NOW THE FRENCH are preaching about how American women use too much make-up (according to the New York Times). The Times quotes one French social commentator as describing the American "painted doll" look as "vulgaire." To give the story a bit of quantitative backing, the newspaper quoted a 2004 poll that claimed "64 percent of American women said they sometimes use foundation, compared with 47 percent of French women; 81 percent of Americans use lipstick compared with 70 percent of French women."

But aren't there more fresh-faced beauties in the state of California (population of some 36 million) than in all of France (60 million population)? As the Beach Boys once told us:

I been all around this great big world
And I seen all kinds of girls
Yeah, but I couldn't wait to get back in the States
Back to the cutest girls in the world

I wish they all could be California
I wish they all could be California
I wish they all could be California girls

SPEAKING OF EUROPEAN SENSIBILITIES, Christopher Hitchens has another brilliant column in Slate on the shameful treatment by the authorities in Holland of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian ("Dutch Courage: Holland's latest insult to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.") If what Hitchens describes isn't appeasement, this time of Islamo-facism, then what is it? Three cheers for the American Enterprise Institute, which has offered Hirsi Ali a job in the U.S. if she must leave the Netherlands.

MY PICKS for the NCAA Division One lacrosse championship this weekend in Philadelphia: top-seed Virginia will defeat Syracuse and Maryland will beat UMass in Saturday's semifinals, leading to an all-ACC final on Monday. Look for Virginia to remain undefeated, defeating the Terrapins for the third time (a tough feat) and winning the national championship.


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!

Questions of national security: what to believe?

There is a natural tension in a free society between the need for secrecy on matters of national security, and the need for openness and disclosure about what our government is doing.There are legal, and practical, limits to what the media can report about the intelligence community (CIA, NSA, etc.); recently, those limits have been stretched.

Most of what has surfaced publicly (in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today) on the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance program, and on the reasons for recent shake-up at the CIA, has come from leaks.

The problem becomes: what can be believed? And, more importantly, what is the significance of some of what we are learning?

Watching the coverage over the past several weeks has raised a number of questions in my mind–questions that are not being fully addressed, or answered, by the elite media. Partly this is because, I would argue, that reporters on the national security beat are held captive by their sources. The potential for manipulation is greater when reporting on intelligence issues, because there are fewer ways to double check or verify what is being leaked. The result is coverage that is less than complete.

Here are five of those questions:

1). How had the CIA been performing under its recently ousted director Porter Goss?

The initial press reports suggested an Agency in turmoil, paralyzed by partisan in-fighting; those around DNI John Negroponte apparently spread the word that Goss' alleged mismanagement was the cause of his removal. The Washington Post's David Ignatius wrote a column entitled: "How the CIA Came Unglued." Conventional media wisdom was that Goss and his partisan "Gosslings" had damaged the CIA with heavy-handed management and an obsession with loyalty and plugging leaks.

But then a story by Mark Mazzetti appears on the front page of the New York Times (found here) casting some doubt on the Goss-as-hack frame:

For all its dysfunction and recent failures, the CIA that General Michael Hayden stands to inherit is far along a path toward rebuilding its network of foreign stations and replenishing ranks that were eviscerated during the years after the Cold War.

The rocky 19-month tenure of Porter Goss was characterized by turf battles and the bitter departure of many seasoned operatives. Yet it was also a time when a flood of new recruits entered the agency and the CIA opened or reopened more than 20 stations and bases abroad.

Some on the Right, such as Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard ("CIA 1–Bush 0") are arguing that Goss' attempts at reform were blocked by an "intransigent bureaucracy":

Goss arrived at the CIA with at least two goals: stemming the flow of leaks from the Agency and reforming the directorate of operations (DO). They were difficult tasks. The DO has long viewed itself as untouchable, a problem for a bureaucracy that emphasizes recruitment numbers over risk-taking, and budget increases over penetration of the enemy.

What Hayes can't explain is why the Bush Administration would abandon its choice for the CIA role after 18 months.

So what are we to believe?

2). Did the CIA need house-cleaning? Does it need further reform?

The 9/11 Commission concluded that CIA had failed on assessing the threat of Osama Bin Laden. The Senate Intelligence report found the same on the weapons of mass destruction question. Former CIA director George Tenet assured President Bush that Saddam's possession of WMD was a "slam dunk."

But now retired CIA officials and current intelligence operatives are apparently arguing that the CIA had it right in the past but was slighted, or ignored, by the Bush Administration. This revisionist view would maintain that the Goss reforms (firing or retiring Old Guard managers; moving assets into the field from headquarters; clamping down on leaks and CIA-authored books and articles) were unnecessary and damaged the Agency and its morale.

If the revisionists are right, then the massive reorganization of America's intelligence establishment is mistaken–an overreaction to a flawed analysis.

So what are we to believe?

3). Can an intelligence czar–the role now filled by Negroponte–improve American intelligence? Or does it promote groupthink–the very ill it was partially designed to cure?

The theory, as espoused by the 9/11 Commission and its advocates in Congress was that the DNI position would manage the numerous federal intelligence agencies, coordinating efforts and insuring that the President received the best intelligence analysis possible.

And yet the Negroponte record so far has been one of empire-building (twice the number of staffers as budgeted, according to some reports), an appetiite for political in-fighting, and little patience for dissent.

Further, Negroponte and those around him (including CIA director nominee Hayden) seem entranced by technology and Sigint (signals intelligence). While Hayden is paying lip service to the notion of supporting human intelligence collection by the CIA, it's hard to imagine he can overcome an NSA world view fixated on gathering and analyzing emails and cell phone calls.

So what are we to believe?

4). What are we to make of the NSA domestic surveillance program? A lawless threat to privacy? An effective tactic against terrorists? Or "whiz bang" technology in search of an application?

The USA Today story that the National Security Agency had been compiling the phone records of millions of Americans raised fears in Congress among both Republicans and Democrats about possibly illicit domestic spying. That General Hayden was the architect of the program makes it even more troubling to some.

What has been lost in the uproar over the legality of the program is the question of effectiveness. What little reporting on the subject I've seen has suggested that the data mining and phone surveillance has produced little, if any, actionable intelligence, at an unknown cost.

So what are we to believe?

5). Will this new, centralized approach to intelligence safeguard us against terrorist attack? Will the President receive better assessments of other threats, like the Iranian nuclear program?

Jurist Richard A. Posner has argued that the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (the product of the 9/11 Commission's findings) overestimated the benefits of centralized control over intelligence; Posner has further questioned whether such reforms would prevent surprise attacks.

The assumption is that a "fixed" centralized intelligence system will allow the U.S. to thwart planned terrorist attacks, and an intelligence czar will provide accurate strategic intelligence to policy makers–avoiding the "slam dunk" analytical mistakes of the past.

My experience with centralization and the culture of large organizations makes me question this assumption; further, in a networked world, where flexibility and speed are at a premium, it is hard to embrace any solution that involves more bureaucracy and slights the human factor.

So what are we to believe?


Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!


The week (May 12th): Nobody asked me, but…

With another nod to the legendary Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

SORRY, I CAN’T TAKE any pleasure in seeing Barry Bonds close in on Babe Ruth’s second place record of 714 career home runs. Babe Ruth’s granddaughter has refused requests to witness Bonds’ attempt to tie or surpass the Yankee hero saying: “I just don’t want his {Ruth’s} name mixed up in steroids.” She’s right. The numbers put up by Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the other allegedly-juiced sluggers of the late 20th century have to be considered suspect. Blame the Lords of Baseball (the owners and commissioner) for looking the other way as the steroids abuse problem grew worse; as long as fans came to see the long ball and TV ratings soared, nothing was said or done.

DOLPHINS APPARENTLY RECOGNIZE the distinctive whistles of close relatives, suggesting that, like humans, they have a “naming system.” A study of bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida has shown that they have their own signature whistles. Researchers Vincent Janik (St. Andrews University), Laela Sayigh (University of North Carolina at Wilmington) and Randy Wells (Mote Marine Laboratory) deserve credit for expanding our knowledge of these amazing mammals. Wells directs Mote’s marvelous Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, which has been studying bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, for some three decades.

SEVERAL CRUCIAL QUESTIONS LOST in the furor over the ouster of Porter Goss at CIA and the announcement of Air Force General Michael V. Hayden as his possible replacement are these: Did the CIA get it right on terrorism pre-9/11 and on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Did the CIA need reform? Was Goss correct in looking to both restore CIA human intelligence capabilities and to retain the Agency’s analytical mission? Will DNI John Negroponte’s apparent need to centralize control of the “intelligence community” prove to be a positive step (one advocated by the 9/11 Commission), or a recipe for more bureaucracy, group think, and a over-reliance on signal intelligence (sigint)?

If you believe that the CIA’s performance during George “Slam Dunk” Tenet’s tenure was exemplary, as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius apparently does, then you’ll buy the Goss-as-partisan-hack frame being sold by the permanent Agency bureaucracy. If you think a centralized command and control approach to intelligence will work in a networked world, then Negroponte’s consolidating moves make sense. Count me out: both assumptions are flawed in my book.

COLLEGE LACROSSE’S NCAA championship playoffs begin Saturday. In Division 1, look for Virginia (the undefeated top seed and favorite), Johns Hopkins, Cornell and Maryland in the Final Four.

The best team not in the tournament? Duke, whose season was cancelled after the alleged rape of a stripper at a party attended by most of the team. Two Blue Devils players have been charged with sexual assault. Meanwhile, defense attorneys are claiming a second round of DNA tests shows no conclusive match to any team member. District Attorney Mike Nifong’s case is looking shakier and shakier.

BULLY FOR QWEST for balking at the National Security Agency’s request (as part of a anti-terrorist program) for the calling records of their customers without legal back-up. The Washington Post reported that: “A lawyer for Joseph P. Nacchio, Qwest’s former chief executive who left the company in June 2002, said he had refused to give call records to the NSA when no warrant or other legal process was provided to justify the government’s request.” Apparently AT&T Inc., BellSouth Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. rolled over and coughed up the data without a court order or warrant.

Maybe the NSA program is vital to the national security; if so, it should be child’s play to get the necessary court orders. If we are going to trade off some of our privacy to combat terrorist threats, it should be with appropriate legal safeguards.

MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI is backing away from earlier comments that the Democrats might seek impeachment of President Bush if they gained control of the House in November. The problem, of course, is that “putting the toothpaste back in the tube” isn’t the easiest thing to do. Pelosi has given conservative Republicans a rallying cry and GOP direct mail fund raisers great copy for their pitch letters (along with the time-honored technique of mentioning Hillary Clinton in the first sentence of their campaign contribution appeals).

And I am not making any of this stuff up…


; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!