Friday, May 24, 2002

A brief note on Kashmir... while worrying yourself sick about the likelihood that an ill-timed bullet from some latter-day Gavrilo Princip will loose the nukes of June, consider the China angle.

It doesn't get a whole lot of mention in the press, even in the midst of the current controversy, but there are actually three nuclear powers with territorial claims on Kashmir; China grabbed a piece of it in 1962, and Pakistan ceded another sliver of territory the next year.

I'm honestly not sure what the Chinese interest is in all this. On the one hand, they have been partners with the Pakistani nuclear program --- it's even rumored that they gave them the design of for a working warhead. The Chinese also have plenty of reasons to be annoyed at India, with which they have several disputed stretches of border; India has also annoyed the Chinese by, for instance, playing host to the Dalai Lama, a perpetual thorn in their side. So, the Chinese have plenty of reasons to want to see India taken down a notch, which may well have been the idea behind aid to Pakistan.

On the other hand, China can't be thrilled with the Pakistani-sponsored Muslim separatists in Kashmir, given that they have a Muslim separatist problem of their own. To have that appear to succeed would set a precedent that the Chinese would not like to deal with within their own borders.

On the third hand, it could be that some within China see not one, but two potential regional rivals in this conflict, and would not be displeased to see a plague on both their houses, radiation sickness working as well as anything else. (Which would also be a line to use against the separatists --- "See? See what this leads to?"). But then, of course, there might be a refugee problem.

So what's really going on? I don't know. I don't pretend to know. But it's obvious that they're involved, if only by virtue of common borders and their history of aid to Pakistan --- and they're quiet. Too quiet.

So, on the one hand, Microsoft claims their software has flaws so deeply rooted that revealing them could endanger national security.

And on the other hand, they've been lobbying for use of their software by...

... the Department of Defense.

Well, at least the DOD has some experience dealing with the flaws in Microsoft software. A few years ago, a "smart ship" in which just about everything was run by Windows NT had to be towed into port after the propulsion system bluescreened.

Thursday, May 23, 2002

Fareed Zakaria thinks that the lack of response to the various warnings about Sept. 11th is the creation of a domestic intelligence agency. His choice: the FBI. The FBI having done so well at its current main missions that it's clearly ready for one more.

The FBI's main mission, let's recall, is to fight crime. But its first, and formative, leader, J. Edgar Hoover, hobnobbed with mafia leaders in private, while publicly denying that the mafia existed --- instead using the immense powers of his agency to accumulate dirt on high officials in all branches of government for blackmail, while at the same time illegally harrassing such threats to the republic as Martin Luther King.

Operations against organized crime, when they finally began, only deepened the scandal, as we're particularly aware of here in Boston, home of the Connolly trial, in which the agent running local thugs Whitey Bulger and Steven Flemmi as informants is accused of tipping them off to the identities of opponents, who they killed, and to their own impending indictment. The same office let an innocent man serve thirty years in prison for a murder he didn't commit in order to protect yet another informant, Joe "the Animal" Barboza --- like both Bulger and Flemmi, a multiple murderer, with cold blood and no conscience.

And the pattern continues --- in more recent history, we have the Ruby Ridge affair, and more disturbingly the subsequent treatment of the commanding officer, Larry Potts, who effectively escaped censure due to his status as a "Friend of Louie" --- FBI directory Louis Freeh (who even tried to promote him). At the same time, Freeh was heavily involved in trying to undermine President Clinton politically. And the FBI is still notoriously reluctant to share information with any other agency, whether the federal government or local law enforcement.

And at this point, it's been widely reported how the FBI botched its standing counterintelligence responsibilities when it came to al-Qaeda, due in part to turf wars with the CIA, and in part to pure neglect. (The agency's top man on al-Qaeda resigned a few months before Sept. 11th, apparently dismayed by the lack of interest in actually doing something about the problem).

Which brings me back to the FBI's response to September 11th, much of which was, as I've already written, useless and counterproductive.

Before handing the FBI new responsibilities, I'd like to see it take better charge of the old ones.

But while counterintelligence is a dirty job, someone's got to do it, and I'm not exactly a huge fan of the CIA either --- what with MK-Ultra, and its nasty habit of getting into cowboy operations and funding them with drug money.

I wish I had a better idea. A homeland security branch of the special forces, perhaps? I can't think off the top of my head of a major scandal they've been involved with, but I'm sure someone will write in to tell me what I've missed...

Wednesday, May 22, 2002

How bad is Microsoft software?

They could tell you, but then they'd have to kill you.

Seriously, Microsoft bigwig Jim Allchin is answering proposed antitrust remedies which involve the release of their source code by arguing that that release would reveal flaws in the software which would compromise national security. Which would be laughable, except for the alleged billions of dollars worth of damage already done by worms and viruses exploiting holes in Internet Explorer, and particularly Outlook.

So, is this the desperate cry of an engineer with a guilty conscience, or the last-ditch gambit of a lawyer with none?

Merrill Lynch's press release about their $100 million dollar settlement with the New York Attorney General's office is interesting for what it doesn't say. While they eventually acknowledge that

we are taking steps to reinforce the firewalls that separate our research department from investment banking

they never actually say the walls were ever breached. Instead, we find weasel wording like this:

We sincerely regret that there were instances in which certain of our Internet sector research analysts expressed views that at certain points may have appeared inconsistent with Merrill Lynch's published recommendations.

We view this situation as a very serious matter and have informed our research Department personnel that such communications, some of which violated internal policies, failed to meet the high standards that are our tradition and will not be tolerated.

"Our employees didn't do anything wrong... but damn them for talking about it!"

The New York Times opines on yet another sterling Bush nominee, this one for a judicial post:

As a trial judge, Judge Smith has been reversed by the Third Circuit, the court he now seeks to join, more than 50 times. Too often it has been for wrongly dismissing the claims of workers and consumers. In one overturned ruling, he threw out an age discrimination case filed by a factory worker on timeliness grounds. Although the worker had made the 300-day deadline from the time he was dismissed, Judge Smith counted back from the day he had received a poor performance evaluation. In another case in which he was reversed, Judge Smith was too quick to throw out a suit by the parents of a 15-month-old child who choked to death on what the parents alleged was a dangerous toy.


Judge Smith's record also contains significant ethical lapses. One case that he presided over for a time, and issued orders in, involved a bank in which his wife was an officer and in which he and his wife had $100,000 or more in stock. Under federal law he had an obligation to recuse himself, since his impartiality "might reasonably be questioned."

The Times also cites an amazingly narrow view of the commerce clause, a stunningly broad view of the takings clause, and a broken promise to vacate membership in a discriminatory club.

Republicans are right --- Democrats should not emulate Republican bad habits by letting nominations like this linger in committee. They should be killed out of hand.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

The New York Times reports on "megachurches":

Southeast Christian is an example of a new breed of megachurch — a full-service "24/7" sprawling village, which offers many of the conveniences and trappings of secular life wrapped around a spiritual core. It is possible to eat, shop, go to school, bank, work out, scale a rock-climbing wall and pray there, all without leaving the grounds.

The article doesn't discuss whether banking services are limited to checking deposits and the like, or whether credit card cash advances and other moneylending services are also available.

You know that income inequality in America is getting out of hand when Andrew Sullivan is complaining about it. But, he says, there's nothing to be done; it's just the inevitable workings of the market. Just like it was during the last Gilded Age, figures from which (like Carnegie) Sulli helpfully cites, in case you were thinking he hadn't heard of them. (Well, at least according to contemporary defenders of that "overclass". Funny how the workings of the market weren't quite so inevitable in the 1950s and '60s, though).

The upshot, in Sullivan's words? The rich, rather than disposing of their boodle in some reasonably productive way, instead pass it on to progeny who, born with all the money they will ever need, become (in Sullivan's words) "the overclass --- a socially excluded (to use the Blairite term), drug-addled, family-free, work-shy, unreachable population". What he suggests in response: increased attention to philanthropy; he approvingly cites Carnegie's maxim that "a man who dies rich dies disgraced".

Hey, I've got an idea! To try to keep these rich folks from setting up their progeny in unproductive, idle decadence, we can force the issue by arranging that they can't just pass all their boodle along without interference. If nothing else, we could use some of it to reduce the once again burgeoning national debt. And that could be accomplished by a simple tax on inheritances --- not all of them, to be sure, but very sizable ones. I wouldn't even touch an inheritance of, say, less than half a million dollars.

Remember, the purpose here isn't so much to raise tax revenue (although given the sheer amount of money the rich are passing along --- a startlingly increasing portion of the total economy --- it sure can't hurt), but to create incentives for socially productive behavior, and discourage the creation of an isolated "overclass". And even if the government isn't your idea of the best possible charity, remember, we're only using it here as the charity of last resort --- wealthy people who would prefer some more charitable purpose for their cash need only donate while they can, before the taxman cometh.

I've even got a name for it: "Estate tax".

Hey, could someone tell Bush about this?

(Kevin Phillips has also written on the topic, no doubt more sensibly than Sullivan --- an entire book, which I haven't had the chance to read yet, though some of the figures cited in this review by themselves make it clear how much of the total economy a small number of folks have managed to grab. Review found via Arts and Letters Daily).

(Update: I didn't really discuss the economic case for income inequality, but Chris Bertram did).

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman believes that Bush shouldn't be blamed for failing to anticipate the Sept. 11th attacks because

I'm convinced that there was no one there who would have put [the clues] together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did.

He could profit by reading more of his own paper --- like the story yesterday which reported that

The F.B.I. knew by 1996 of a specific threat that terrorists in Al Qaeda, Mr. bin Laden's network, might use a plane in a suicide attack against the headquarters of the C.I.A. or another large federal building in the Washington area

and that there had been at least one prior attempt on a civilian target --- a hijacking of a French airliner whose hijackers intended to crash it into the Eiffel Tower, this one in 1994. The same Times article reports that Zac Moussaoui first came under suspicion in 1998, when a friend of his was found to be involved in the African embassy bombings. One of Moussaoui's flight instructors, not only warned the FBI about him, but made a point of telling them that "This man wants training on a 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!" And the same school had earlier alerted the FAA about another student, now believed to be the pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon.

The line taken by the current administration's defenders is basically Friedman's --- that the facts were known, but no one could have put them together.

If you buy that argument, it only clarifies the spectacular inappropriateness of the administration's response to the attack after the fact, the ill-named PATRIOT act. They claimed that the attack showed that intelligence and law enforcement agencies needed to be able to gather more information, with far less interference from the courts --- eventually floating an omnibus bill with provisions including, among other things, nationwide judge-shopping for wiretaps, and requiring ISPs to turn over billing records without a warrant. When the Senate balked, the administration publicly threatened to blame them for the next attack.

The rationale for all this was that the government didn't have enough information. Now, they explain their failure to heed specific warnings, like the report by that guy out in Phoenix, by saying they had too much information, and no way to sort the wheat from the chaff. You can't solve that problem by adding more chaff.

And yet adding more chaff is what they have done, not just with the PATRIOT act, which had as one of its overarching themes Government Access to More, but in the subsequent fishing expedition which amounted to asking every Arab-American immigrant whether they were a terrorist --- questions which real terrorists will not answer honestly, and which loyal Arab-Americans whose cooperation the FBI may need will remember as an insult. Yet, every available FBI agent was diverted to this task, and when their numbers proved insufficient, they tried to enlist local law enforcement as well --- though they were stymied in jurisdictions where ethnically based roundups by local police are actually against the law.

Those agents could have been instead asking about suspicious activity around cropdusters, or investigating security around water mains and works --- means of attack that we know that al-Qaeda has considered --- or even combed the dusty shelves of the FBI itself looking for a neglected report on attack modalities we haven't known about yet. Instead, to plagiarize myself, they were out asking immigrant Muslim housewives what they knew about Semtex.

So, I'll say it again: You could make an argument for strict adherence to probable cause requirements, on the purely pragmatic grounds that the FBI's inevitably limited resources are best spent on information that is likely to actually matter.

Two footnotes:

First, Gary Farber attacks unspecified "leftist blogs" for partisanship in criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the issue, and dares them to predict the location and date of the next attack. I don't know who he's talking about, since he doesn't say --- but speaking only for myself, I'm criticizing them not because they're Republican, but because they're in power and screwing up. And the line about predictions is inane. It suggests that since al-Qaeda operatives themselves don't seem to know targets and dates until as soon as possible before the attack, we're helpless. Wrong. That only means that an effective response can't concentrate on guarding the targets, but should instead focus on something else --- like the methods and means of attack. A detailed sweep of flight schools and their students in 1998, when Zac Moussaoui first came under suspiction (yes, under Clinton) might have saved us all a lot of trouble. Ashcroft's program of interrogating every Arab in the country as a possible suspect would not.

Farber's complaint about partisan responses might be better directed at the Bush administration officials who are ludicrously trying to blame Clinton's supposedly inadequate antiterror programs, even though their own administration apparently cut back on them when it entered office.

Second, the Friedman column I started off quoting is full of howlers. My favorite: "Imagining evil of this magnitude simply does not come naturally to the American character". So Tom, seen any summer movies lately? Read a Tom Clancy novel? A comic book? We dote on this stuff.

He also seems to have forgotten that the Manhattan project was a military secret until after the bomb was dropped. I think he meant to cite Apollo, but who can tell?