Friday, August 09, 2002

Brad DeLong is disturbed that the FBI was caught inducing a false confession.

The case concerns an aviation radio which was found near the scene of the Sept. 11th attacks. A hotel guard claimed, falsely, that it belonged to an an Egyptian student, Abdullah Higazy. The student found himself accused of perjury when he claimed, correctly, to have nothing to do with the radio. He then requested a polygraph test to verify his claims. An FBI agent stopped the test, and with Higazy's lawyer not present, browbeat him into a confession --- revealed as false a month later, when the guard admitted making the whole thing up.

Fortunately, the Bush administration is working hard to make sure that he will no longer be troubled by these sorts of reports. They are trying to insert provisions into the law governing the new Homeland Security department which exempt it from FOIA and sunshine laws, deny whistleblower protection to its employees, and make them subject to arbitrary dismissal for any reason, including troubling the public with matters that need not concern it.

And to make sure that the investigation of accused terrorists such as the unfortunate Mr. Higazy are handled with all due discretion, they are also working hard to keep unreliable people like Federal judges from even looking at the evidence supporting accusations that someone is an "enemy combatant". The guy in this case is an American citizen who is being held without charges being filed, and with no access to legal representation. As is proper --- nobody trusts a lawyer, and though the fact is little known, most judges are also lawyers. Obviously, we can't trust them either --- certainly not with confidential information.

That's your government folks --- worrying about all sorts of wild, dangerous things so you don't have to.

Thursday, August 08, 2002

Glenn Reynolds opines:

On the Left... we find all these pseudonymous name-calling bloggers whose specialty seems to be abuse aimed at those deviating from the party line.

This differs markedly from the situation on the Right. Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter, and the sports radio wingnuts here who recently spent ten minutes of morning drive time expounding their disgust at a picture of Bill Clinton playing golf, are not pseudonymous.

It's a shame we pseudonymous liberals can't hold ourselves to the same standard of calm, reasoned discourse which prevails in conservative forums like Free Republic...

Bill Quick opines:

But even terrorists don't exist in limbo. They must have money, communications, weapons, places to train, places to hide, places to store up supplies and otherwise create the infrastructure that even a non-territorial organization needs to maintain effectiveness. And that is where real states come in. For various reasons, (usually of deniability or unpredictability), certain states find the ability to make use of terrorist organizations not directly controlled by themselves to be highly useful. And in order to make use of such groups, they offer to trade the things the terrorists need in return for the right to task the terrorists with missions favorable to their own goals and interests.

Like, for instance, Saudi Arabia, which conducts telethons on government-sponsored TV for the families of suicide bombers, in which government-connected clerics exhort the Palestinians to enslave Jewish women.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq is such a nation.


Quick goes on to make a few more points which fail to distinguish between the two:

The documented connections between Hussein's regime and innumerable terror groups are legion. Even today, it is Iraqi and Saudi money that principally bankrolled the various Palestinian Arab terror groups - even to subsidizing the families of the suicide bombers.

But I exaggerate --- there are distinctions. The Saudis live in idle luxury and still have money to burn on terrorists elsewhere; Saddam is starving his civilian population to keep his own army together, and doesn't have a whole lot of cash these days to blow on anyone else's. And as for his connections for terrorism, they aren't numerous enough to keep the Iraq hawks from trying to invent more, such as the supposed meeting of an Iraqi agent with Mohammed Atta, whose significance would be far from clear if it even happened in the first place.

Other people as well see Saudi Arabia as the more active threat. A briefing at the Pentagon the other day by Rand Corporation analyst Laurent Muraweic, has this to say about the Saudis on just one slide:

The House of Saud today

  • Saudi Arabia is central to the self-destruction of the Arab world and the chief vector of the Arab crisis and its outwardly-directed aggression
  • The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader
  • Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies
  • A daily outpouring of virulent hatred against the U.S. from Saudi media, "educational" institutions, clerics, officials -- Saudis tell us one thing in private, do the contrary in reality

It further describes the Wahhabi muslim sect, Saudi Arabia's official religion, as Islam's "lunatic fringe", strongly and violently opposed to democratic government and Western values. It credits the sect and Saudi oil money for creating the Taliban, and describes a state strategy of creating Wahhabi-aligned Muslim regimes "throughout the Moslem world and beyond", the goal being to establish Saudi Arabia as "the indispensible state" for wild-eyed Muslim lunatics everywhere.

Long-time readers may sense, in my citing this briefing, a different level of confidence in Dubya's advisors than I've heretofore displayed. But then again, its point of view is hardly unanimous in the administration. Other officials, including prominent hawks like Donald Rumsfeld, are scrambling to dissociate themselves from it, explaining that we would never do anything to offend our dear, dear friends the Saudis. Even Richard Perle is ducking questions. Perle is the guy who invited Muraweic to the Pentagon (though he is still apparently trying to pretend he doesn't work there himself).

As for the briefing, Muraweic (a former disciple of Lyndoan Larouche) concludes with a cryptic slide labeled "Grand Strategy" which explains that Iraq is the "tactical pivot" in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia the "strategic pivot", but concludes that Egypt, which Muraweic doesn't otherwise mention, is "the prize". This has Slate's Jack Shafer baffled. But unlike me, he hasn't seen the "Yes, Prime Minister" episode in which Sir Humphrey Appleby, prince of bureaucrats, persuades his befuddled boss that British nuclear strategy not only is, but ought to be guided by the same unwavering principle which has steered English foreign policy for hundreds of years --- containing the threat from France. Muraweic is simply casting his keen eyes even farther back, to when Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. My faith in the wisdom of Dubya's advisors is restored. And remember --- Dubya's own inexperience, particularly in matters of foreign policy, doesn't matter much because he knows how to pick good advisors.

In the meantime, we may note that there are other potentially threatening states with which Dubya's administration has managed varying degrees of constructive engagement, or even alliances:

  • North Korea, a slave state run by a madman and his sycophants, which starves its population and sells advanced missile technology to all comers, with which the administration is cautiously resuming dialog.
  • Pakistan, an unstable state with nuclear arms, whose leader claims now to be restraining Kashmiri terrorists but who has been their ally in the past, and whose intelligence service, a likely source for a coup d'etat, built the Taliban.
  • Saudi Arabia, which more or less spawned al-Qaeda.
  • China, whose growing embrace of the market economy has led it to butcher its citizens and sell them for spare parts. China has massacres in its recent past, and lent crucial technical assistance to both the North Korean missile program and Pakistani nuclear weapons development.

As for Saddam, as Jim Henley has noted, he was America's creature for years (during which the governments of the day, mostly Republican, turned a blind eye towards his unseemly domestic activities). He even tried to clear his invasion of Kuwait with the United States --- receiving an answer from George H.W. Bush's ambassador, April Glaspie, which may not have exactly said "yes", but which even she has admitted was hardly a firm "no". On one occasion, asked what she was thinking, when she told Saddam, face-to-face, "We have no opinions on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.", she replied, "I didn't think . . . the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait;" on another, she told the Senate that "we foolishly did not realize [Saddam] was stupid." (And note well that her veracity on other matters has been questioned).

It's not support for terrorists which make Saddam Hussein unique, nor the occasional foreign adventure; plenty of tinpot dictators have done as much. Even his yen for weapons of mass destruction is hardly unique. But Saddam Hussein has done the one thing that the current occupant of the White House can never forgive. He embarrassed daddy.

(Quick quote via Meryl Yourish, who won't much like what I've done with it).

More news from Boston: The California Angels are tearing up the American League West, and one of the key factors is the scrappy play of their shortstop, a rising star named David Eckstein.

If that doesn't strike you as news from Boston, well, it ought to be. Eckstein was a Red Sox prospect for years, languishing in the minor leagues while the major league team had a gaping hole in the middle infield, at second base. Letting him go to Anaheim is already starting to look as bad as the deal that sent Jamie Moyer to Seattle, and it may yet loom as large as the deadline deal in which the Sox traded away Jeff Bagwell --- one of ESPN's ten worst trades ever.

But in this case, Red Sox management gets off on a technicality. They didn't trade Eckstein. They let him go on waivers.

Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Libertarians like to reduce the size of government. So, even though the Clinton administration had an eight-year record of reducing the size of government, and even though the guy in charge of that effort was running for the top job himself in the last election, a lot of them voted Republican --- ignoring the Republicans' positions on many social issues, which are anything but libertarian.

So, now the Republicans are in power. And the Republicans in power are reducing the size of government --- but only those portions of it which benefit the partisan interest of Democrats. When it comes to largesse for their own, says Dick Armey, "To the victor go the spoils".

Nice work.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

The New York Times Magazine had an interesting story last Sunday about the way the music industry is coping with the decline in sales from highly touted teen sensations like Britney Spears. They're looking for the next big thing, and they think they've found her in Amanda Latona. She meets all their basic needs:

Latona wasn't signed because she was an original artist. Like Britney, she was an attractive package: poised and pretty, Latona could be poured into various molds and carefully shaped to fit the marketplace. ''If her material is right,'' says Clive Davis, the C.E.O. of J Records, ''Amanda could do anything.''

And that gives the people who actually decide what will be on Latona's record (or the record that she sings on, or something) the flexibility to make their own choices:

''In the record business, today is over,'' says James Diener, Latona's artists-and-repertoire director at J. ''We have to figure out what they want to hear tomorrow.'' Diener, who is sitting on a worn couch in the studio, is the arbiter of all things Amanda. Latona is not a songwriter and doesn't play any instruments, which means that Diener's job is to create a persona for her through the vision of others who do write songs and play instruments. ... ''Some artists are resistant to ideas,'' Diener adds, checking the number of the incoming call. ''Amanda is not resistant.''

Not that that makes the job easy:

Taking his cues from [Clive] Davis, Diener is searching for ''the right spot for Amanda.'' It won't be easy; with Britney losing appeal, Diener has to predict what sound will be popular seven months from now -- and these days, that seems harder than ever. In Latona, he has a singer who wants to be a star. The question is, which star?

''I'm thinking there might be room now for a cool, young, beautiful girl in the spirit of Shania Twain,'' Diener says, as Latona leaves the studio to get some water. ''Or even more rock, like Pat Benatar from the 80's. Will it help that Amanda's stunning? Absolutely. So will the right marketing campaign. ...

But it's just so much easier when the product artist that you're trying to promote has no ideas of her own:

After Latona was signed to J, [his record label,] Clive Davis set up a showcase for a group of top songwriters to hear her sing. This event took place the day after the Grammys, in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel. These songwriters were not just searching for inspiration; they were trying to define Latona as an artist. If they wrote crossover country, she'd be the new Shania. If they wrote teen pop, Latona would mutate in that direction.

In Latona's case, what they've settled on is a slightly butch, tough-chick "fed-up independant woman" attitude --- largely because Latona can be easily made up to look the part. In fact, she's a peppy beauty-pageant winner (Miss Junior Florida) who doesn't even drink, but she's hip to the program. "I want this album to be right," she says, "and if that means six different looks that look nothing like me, I'll still give it a shot." And she's a good enough mimic that given a dozen songs to ape, she quickly learns to sound tough as nails:

''One-take Amanda,'' Diener says with admiration. ''The lyric to the song is so Amanda, don't you think? It's very uncompromising.'' He pauses. ''Some artists walk in and they won't budge. Amanda is open to direction.''

Uncompromising and open to direction. What could go wrong?

The nightmare scenario for this sort of music marketing is that what is actually turning people off isn't the dressing du jour on the industry's plastic puppets, but just that they are in fact plastic puppets, poured into a commercial mold formed entirely by record executives who are completely out of touch with their audience.

On a few occasions, in the history of the industry, some producers have taken a different approach. In the early 1960s, for instance, the producer in charge of a novelty label for EMI was introduced to a bar band from Liverpool, and took the radical step of not trying to remake them into something more commercial. Most of the songs they released as singles were songs they themselves wrote (a rarity at the time); their first album, in fact, was basically their standard stage set, recorded live in the studio, featuring several original songs, including the title track, and culminating in a wild, shreiking cover of an Isley Brothers tune, "Twist and Shout". It was a smash, and the Beatles went on to make quite a bit of money for EMI.

That couldn't work nowadays of course. The world has moved on, and if they can't sell records nowadays from the talent that the marketers are trying to push, it's got to be the fault of those evil file swappers on the Innernut.

More news from Boston: the Patriots' new state-of-the-art stadium was originally supposed to come with a new state-of-the-art name: CMGI Field, named for a dynamic titan of local Internet business.

CMGI started out as the College Marketing Group, Inc., a fairly small direct marketing firm, which was spun up by its majordomo, David Wetherell, into a holding company of Internet businesses, many highly touted even before their products or, well, stuff was available to the public. CMGI stock became known to entusiastic investors as "the monster"; some put their whole lifes savings into the stock. The stadium naming deal might have been seen as a poor investment for a holding company that didn't deal at all with the public directly, but it was only $114 million --- a trifle for a company with a market capitalization in the tens of billions, which was accustomed to buying things with stock swaps.

The stock price at that peak, after several splits, was around $150 per share. CMGI closed yesterday at 40 cents. The Patriots' showpiece will be known, for the next fifteen years, as Gillette Stadium. So much for the New Economy.