Friday, April 23, 2004

In an already much-blogged story, a slaughterhouse in Kansas wants to test all its cattle for mad cow disease, as requested by Japanese customers, but the U.S. government will not allow it:

USDA officials say that they sympathize with Creekstone and similar operations hurt by the bans imposed by Japan and other nations, but that agreeing to the company's request could imply there is a safety issue with American beef ...

Looking at this, Dwight Meredith sees only typical Republican hypocrisy -- in this case, about letting the market decide what consumers actually want (or, in this case, not).

But I see instead a new form of outreach to Dubya's Republican base. The USDA insists that there is no safety issue -- but infected animals can appear totally normal, so how are we to know? It's faith-based food testing!

We're planning to hand over sovereignty in Iraq to, well, somebody on June 30th -- which made it rather remarkable that when Dubya was asked at last week's press conference, he didn't know to who. Well, maybe he's just got no reason to care:

The Bush administration's plans for a new caretaker government in Iraq would place severe limits on its sovereignty, including only partial command over its armed forces and no authority to enact new laws, administration officials said Thursday. ...

Asked whether the new Iraqi government would have a chance to approve military operations led by American commanders, who would be in charge of both foreign and Iraqi forces, a senior official said Americans would have the final say.

"The arrangement would be, I think as we are doing today, that we would do our very best to consult with that interim government and take their views into account," said Marc Grossman, under secretary of state for political affairs. But he added that American commanders will "have the right, and the power, and the obligation" to decide.

Which, as some European diplomats note, may be a bit of a problem:

These diplomats, and some American officials, said that if the American military command ordered a siege of an Iraqi city, for example, and there was no language calling for an Iraqi government to participate in the decision, the government might not be able to survive protests that could follow.

But according to Juan Cole's expert testimony before the Senate this week,

I have to say that I read the Iraqi press in Arabic every day. My firm impression is that this is enormously popular among the Iraqis. That is to say they want a transition on June 30th. There's no faction in Iraq, on any part of the political spectrum, that would be at all happy with any kind of delay in this date.

To which his co-panelist, Toby Dodge, adds:

So, there is a build up of aspiration around June 30th that I suspect, in a pessimistic prediction, will then, when they -- when that popular opinion realizes nothing changes after June 30th, and things may well get a lot worse in the run up and the aftermath of that date, that exactly as you say, Senator, that goodwill or hope will be then frittered away, and the next dates will be even more difficult to move towards.

Is it too much to suggest that this disappointment could drive more people towards the resistance?

But there's one piece of good news in all of this. We don't have to worry about what our enemies in the New Iraq will say about the powerlessness of their nominally sovereign new government. They're already talking:

In the first sermon he has preached in the Kufa mosque since the outbreak of hostilities between his Mahdi Army and Coalition forces, [Muqtada al-Sadr] said that "These events have brought to light dirty tricks, and have made it possible to distinguish between the truth and falsehood. I say that they intend to stay for many long years and are strengthening their positions, and there is no use to truce negotiations with them." He added, "America does not distinguish between small and large [sins?] under the pretext of freedom and democracy, but what democracy is this, and what liberty? Do not let their words seduce you, for they claim that they are going to surrender sovereignty and form an [Iraqi] government . . . Some accuse me of having delayed the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis and the formation of a transitional Iraqi government. I say, yes, I have delayed the sale of Iraq and the planting of a lackey government . . .

If anyone in the Green Zone is wondering why their credibility among Iraqis is so low, compared to even a thug (albeit a bad seed from a good family) like al-Sadr, maybe it's because he's telling the truth and they're not.

Some of this news will come as no surprise to readers of liberal blogs -- more than a month ago, Nathan Newman spotted the clever wording in the "interim constitution" which prevents the interim government from changing whatever laws Bremer has imposed by fiat. But now that officials are testifying in Congress, so that our press doesn't have to go through the awful effort of reading things, it's good to see the New York frigging Times catching up.

See also Cole's reflections on another co-panelist, Richard Perle, still shilling for Chalabi. In the course of which, Cole reports that Chalabi was not only convicted of embezzling from a bank in Jordan -- he's on the lam from a ten-year jail sentence -- but lost support of the American State Department and CIA after being unable to account for several million dollars of their money. I did not know that.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

A lot of civil libertarians have reacted to Richard Clarke's book and experiences, like the foiling of the millenium bombing plots, by suggesting that pre-9/11 legal tools, applied diligently, were adequate to the job, and without diligence, no Patriot Act-style erosion of the Bill of Rights would be adequate. It's worth noting one important dissenter from this line of argument -- Richard Clarke. When asked point-blank about this argument at yesterday's Harvard Institute of Politics forum, he said that he'd read the whole Patriot Act, helped write parts of it, didn't see anything wrong with it, and that the real threat to civil rights in America would be another terrorist act, and the reaction to it.

He wound up by saying that the Patriot Act would have been a real help with the millenium plot. And so far as that goes, it's unquestionably true -- police-state measures always make life easier for the police. At least in the short term.

But I do have to differ about how much civil rights have already been eroded in the current environment. A sort of bellwether can be seen in Ashcroft's recent request for all hotels in Vegas to tell him the name of everyone who stayed there over Christmas -- not on a warrant, but via vaguely defined "national security letters" without even the ghost of a probable cause requirement. What happened in Vegas this Christmas most certainly did not stay in Vegas.

That, in turn, came about because of a recent broadening of Patriot act provisions regarding financial institutions. The Patriot Act as originally passed required "financial institutions" to turn over records without a warrant, on the authority of a senior government official. A more recent bill redefined "financial institution" in the applicable law to mean, in effect, any institution of any kind that exchanges goods or services for money, while allowing field FBI agents to make these requests on their own initiative. The upshot is that just about all commercial activity has been moved outside the scope of fourth amendment protection. Some people might call that erosion of civil liberties in a consequential way.

Nor is this the only attempt by Dubya's crew to reduce the domain of the Fourth Amendment. They've been in court over the past few months, for instance, arguing that there is no longer any reasonable expectation of privacy in doctor-patient relationships because, well, times have changed. And not for any purpose directly related to law enforcement, either -- they just thought that if they trolled through the medical records of every woman who ever had an abortion in New York, they might find something useful in opposing challenges to the so-called "partial birth abortion" ban.

No privilege for financial records -- anyone's, anywhere. No privilege for doctor-patient relations. And I could go on about, say, the DOJ's remarkably expansive interpretation of "pen register" language in the Patriot Act regarding the internet, but these examples are enough to make the point -- the domain of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment has shrunk so far that I'm starting to wonder what's left.

And at least in these instances, it's not obvious what legitimate law enforcement purpose the Las Vegas request could possibly serve. In fact, one of the problems our government seems to have is that it's drowning in information, and unable to process what it has effectively. In the case of 9/11, for instance, some of the terrorists were already on watch lists and known to be in the country, and we had someone actually arrested for planning a similar kind of attack, in addition to clear indications of an upcoming attack. We failed, it seems to me, not because we didn't have enough information, but because we didn't process what we had. And I don't see how the process could have been improved by giving everyone in the FBI unfettered access to hotel records in Las Vegas.

How it could be used for blackmail, now that I can see. But would the men of character at the heart of Dubya's administration stoop to the abuses that we were standard practice for decades under J. Edgar Hoover? Perish the thought.

As I said before, imposing a police state certainly does make things easier for the police -- if they're competent, effective, and diligent in applying what tools they have. If they're not competent, it doesn't matter what you give them. Furthermore, there is no set of measures which will prevent all terrorist acts, no matter how draconian. (They happen against governments far nastier than ours -- the Saudis for instance. And against some, more often.) So if the next terrorist act will knock out the Bill of Rights, then it's only a matter of time. In that sense, the question is one of our national character -- whether we respond to terrorist acts (some of which must happen eventually) by surrendering our rights, or not. Preliminary soundings are not encouraging.

But Clarke is surely right that under some circumstances, Patriot Act style tools could be useful. Whether they are necessary to the job is a different question, which he was not asked and did not address.

Note: Misplaced a paragraph in editing. Fixed. Sigh...

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Merrill Lynch. Bullish on America. Piggish on their female employees...
Late Monday, it looked like things were, for once, looking up in Fallujah, with the announcement of a truce of sorts, negotiated with city civil authorities. Good news on the whole, or at least an improvement, even if it didn't rate a press release. But what a truce:

The parties agreed to a number of things. Coalition forces will allow unfettered access to the Fallujah General Hospital to treat the sick and injured. The parties also agreed to arrange for the removal and burial of the dead and the provision of food and medicine in isolated areas of the city. ...

Measures will also be put in place to facilitate the passage of official ambulances through the city, especially through checkpoints. Steps will also be taken to allow security, medical and technical personnel access to the city so they can work.

This would appear to confirm that U.S. forces, in the fighting, had in fact blockaded (if not bombed) the hospital and interfered with ambulances -- two of the more shocking charges featured in eyewitness accounts of the action there. I'm not enough of an expert to know what forms of assault on civilians constitute a formal war crime, but the people caught up in the fracas, or their fellow countrymen hearing about it from refugees and al-Jazeera, don't much care about formalities.

That said, negotiation with civil authorities is the sort of thing that we need to be doing more of. But damage has been done in all sorts of ways, the situation is still tense, and the latest news as I write is of renewed fighting in Fallujah and elsewhere...

The 3500-year-old blogger is back. In new, higher-class digs -- she's got her own domain,, having made it off blogspot.

Which, of course, gives the curious the opportunity to do a little digging in the whois database. It seems she's using Domains by Proxy. How pedestrian. But hey, maybe they were hired through Isabella's Panamanian maildrop...

Monday, April 19, 2004

Bob Woodward's new book seems to be real popular with folks who judged the last one to be an exercise in mindless propaganda. The criticism then was that Woodward just seems to type up what he hears from the folks he interviews, without giving the reader enough information to judge who they are and what agendas they might have -- and that while he's famous for checking incidental facts, the accounts of closed meetings at the core of any of his recent books really can't be checked. And I've yet to see a reason why that critique doesn't apply just as much to this book as to the last.

Which, in a way, shows the limits of the critique. We're already hearing Condi deny some of the more sensational stories in the book -- among them, that Colin Powell only heard about the Iraq attack plan after Dubya's old family friend, the Saudi ambassador. And Woodward could surely have gotten those denials out of Dubya's crew on the record, had he asked for them. Instead, he printed what everyone assumes to be Powell's charges pretty much unaltered -- and forbade Sixty Minutes to interview anyone else in its double segment on the book, to make sure that the story they broadcast would be his story, with the elements he picked.

So, it's not just that Woodward's books may reflect the bias of his sources. It might also be that Woodward is choosing sources whose bias reflects whatever story he wants to tell.

But Woodward is a reporter, a prominent member of an American press that prides itself on its objectivity, on simply mirroring the truth as they find it. Might he have an agenda of his own? Perish the thought!

Mark Kleiman complains about the treachery of Ahmad Chalabi in refusing to support a crackdown on Shiite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr.

Now, in general, I'm fine with complaints about Chalabi's treachery. This is the guy who fed "senior administration officials" phony information about Saddam's supposed weapons programs, and then sweet-talked them into taking his word, and his cronies', over our actual intelligence agencies. (The apparently sole source for that cock-and-bull story about "mobile biological labs"? The brother of one of his aides). It has also been widely reported that dissolving the Iraqi army, while Bremer's decision, was Chalabi's idea -- he was apparently a bit nervous about there being any rival power structures to the ones he was personally involved with.

But if Chalabi is, in fact, advising us to stand down and try to find a way to live with the Sadrists, then that would mark a change from that pattern -- an acknowledgment that other centers of power in the country can't just be wished away. And it may also be the first good advice Chalabi may have given us -- ever.

The idea behind the arrest warrant seems to be that getting rid of Sadr himself will get his followers off the streets. But as Juan Cole notes, it's not just al-Sadr himself that's opposed to us, it's a Sadrist movement. Making a martyr of the guy at the top won't get rid of the rest of them -- if anything, it's more likely to swell their numbers. Martyrdom's kind of big over there, if you haven't noticed. Muqtdata himself has invited it.

Beyond that, it's been a persistent fantasy of the occupation leadership that we've just got to find the guy that's stirring up the trouble, and get rid of that guy, and everything will simmer down. Remember when Saddam's kids were supposed to be the root of all our trouble? Pity that didn't last -- at the time, we didn't know what trouble was.

The plain fact is that we cannot govern Iraqi cities without at least the grudging consent of the governed. They have guns the way Americans have TV sets, and if they get pissed off enough, they will shoot at us. As the British commander on the scene in Basra is well aware:

Brigadier Carter, of the 20 Armoured Brigade, who has been in Iraq for four months, said that the British forces would stay in Basra with the consent of local Shiite leaders, or not at all.

"A crowd of 150,000 people at the gates of this barracks would be the end of this so far as I'm concerned," he said. "There would be absolutely nothing I could do about that."

Meanwhile, from inside the Green Zone, in splendid isolation from the Iraqi street, the latest news as I write is Bremer getting impatient with diplomacy and suggesting a crackdown may come soon at least in Fallujah. Meanwhile, troops keep piling up around Najaf. Najaf is a holy city to Shiites, and their most prominent clerics have already said that if the Americans assault, they will call for a general uprising. You'd like to think that no one would risk that to preserve the sanctity of the June 30th "handover date" (likely more symbol than substance in any event), and the very latest reports are that the U.S. military is ratcheting down the rhetoric there somewhat. But why move the troops there in the first place unless some asshat in the Green Zone is dumb enough to try it?

How bad could it get? Beats me. I was, after all, worried that our troops might be getting sucked into a trap during the initial invasion, and turned out to be way wrong. And so I've not commented much on the more recent military situation -- but here are some facts. Our supply lines are once again frayed, to the point that the guys in the Green Zone may soon have to fall back on MREs, less-than-delectable army chow. The forces we have in place have a heavy mixture of both regular army who have been there too long, and were scheduled to be rotated out, and reservists who were never meant (or trained) for extended duty in the first place. Between that and the supply problems, it all has to be taking a toll.

And then there's Steve Gilliard. Throughout the fall, he was my sanity check. He was the far-out doomsayer to whom I could turn, and read through his latest, and say "no way it can be this bad. Even I don't think it can be this bad."

Go back and read what he was writing six months ago. It was that bad. The guy has been Cassandra with a blog. And what's he saying now?

We are on the verge of a disaster, a Chosin Resevior-like disaster, in Iraq. The US should be able to keep supply lines open with their forces. Now that they can't, we may have to fight our way out. [The supply-line trouble] is a very serious, extremely serious, development.

Well, the guy's been right a lot, but he's an amateur commentator, and that kind of luck has to end eventually. Now would be good. I'm really kinda hoping for now.