Saturday, December 31, 2005

TommyWonk Year in Review: No Shelter from the Storm

The disaster in New Orleans was the source of much human suffering, and some compelling photojournalism. James Nielsen of AFP Getty Images snapped this unforgettable picture of a refugee and her dog with an unattended corpse nearby. The New York Times published this photo by Tyler Hicks of refugees gathered in the the sweltering Superdome. Sidney Blumenthal, writing in the Guardian, described the disaster as "Biblical in its uncontrolled rage and scope," while noting that the disaster was not entirely an act of God. Eric Gay produced a compelling series of photos for the AP. This firestorm raged out of control as firefighters were overwhelmed by the disaster. Gay took this gruesome photo of an old man who died waiting to be rescued. One survivor summed up the tragedy, saying, "They died right here in America, waiting for food."

Friday, December 30, 2005

TommyWonk Year in Review: Science Images

The world of science gave us some spectacular images this year. The ESA gave us this image of water ice in a Martian crater that looks like an otherworldly desert: a creme brulee or the pumpkin pie my nephew made for Thanksgiving.
The NASA space probe Deep Impact probe collided with comet Tempel 1, creating an interplanetary fireworks show early in the morning on July 4. Scientists are reviewing the images of the crater created by the collision and analyzing the spectrum from the impact to determine the chemical composition of the asteroid.

Two Japanese researchers, Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori, did what explorers have tried and failed to do for centuries; they photographed a live Architeuthis, the elusive giant squid.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

NSA Handed Out Cookies to Visitors

Just last week, I revealed that the once-secretive NSA has a website that included a kids section with puzzles and other diversions for budding spies. Now, it turns out the gamesmanship ran deeper than previously known. The AP reports that the NSA was handing out cookies to visitors:
The National Security Agency's Internet site has been placing files on visitors' computers that can track their Web surfing activity despite strict federal rules banning most files of that type.
The files, known as cookies, disappeared after a privacy activist complained and The Associated Press made inquiries this week. Agency officials acknowledged yesterday that they had made a mistake.
Website cookies hardly top the paranoia charts these days, but then who knows?
"Considering the surveillance power the N.S.A. has, cookies are not exactly a major concern," said Ari Schwartz, associate director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy advocacy group in Washington. "But it does show a general lack of understanding about privacy rules when they are not even following the government's very basic rules for Web privacy."
Until Tuesday, the N.S.A. site created two cookie files that do not expire until 2035.

In other words, these cookies have the shelf life of your average Christmas fruitcake.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Bad News for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling

Rick Causey won't stand up for Ken Lay, and he won't stand in the docket with him either.
As former chief accounting officer of Enron, Rick Causey was in the loop for structuring the notorious special purpose entities (LJM I, LJM II, the Raptors) used to hide billions of off balance sheet debt. He prepared the quarterly reports that kept Enron's stock elevated despite the hidden losses. He was the guy who browbeat the accountants at Arthur Andersen into submission. He prepped Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling for board meetings and conference calls with the Wall Street analysts. He was scheduled to go on trial with Lay and Skilling on January 17.

Today, Kurt Eichenwald reports in the New York Times that Causey has agreed to plead guilty in a deal that will likely mean his testimony against Lay and Skilling:
Corporate records and other documents establish that Mr. Causey engaged in frequent conversations with Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling about accounting decisions at Enron, the former energy giant. Indeed, Mr. Causey was one of two participants in an Oct. 12, 2001, meeting with Mr. Lay that forms the basis for one charge against the former Enron chairman. With his legal liability established through a plea agreement, Mr. Causey could now be compelled to testify about his recollection of that meeting and other events.
If, as expected, Lay and Skilling plan to argue that Enron was a sound business that suffered a "run on the bank" crisis in investor confidence, then Causey will be able to set the record straight. As Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind write in The Smartest Guys in the Room, Lay has little basis for saying he was kept in the dark:
In truth, none of what [Sherron] Watkins told him [Key Lay] should have come as a surprise. He had personally approved the waiver on [CFO Andrew] Fastow's conflicts to let him run the LJMs; the Raptors had gone before both Lay and the entire board; their growing credit deficiencies were reported on daily position reports, distributed to scores of executives at Enron, and the restructuring had disclosed in Enron's SEC filings.
Kurt Eichenwald himself has written an exhaustive account of the Enron debacle, Conspiracy of Fools; the index has more than 100 citations under Causey's name.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Who Won the War on Christmas?

One friend's comment on the above question was, "Even to ask this silly question is to concede the answer." But I'm conceding nothing. I am convinced that liberals can step into the cultural debate, stand our ground and even find common ground at times. I agree with Jim Wallis, who writes in The Soul of Politics, "Again, the best way to common ground, is the path to higher ground."
We discussed the so-called war on Christmas on WDEL for two hours yesterday. Liberals as well as conservatives called in, and guess what? Liberals have values too, and we shouldn't hesitate to talk about them.
I didn't hold back in calling the war on Christmas a phony war. But neither did I dismiss the importance of religion in people's lives. When someone called in saying he didn't like it that kids in a local school couldn't celebrate Christmas by name, I listened, appreciated his point of view, asked what he thought about Jewish and Muslim students in the school and pointed out that there is still a creche in Rodney Square after all these years. Somehow, for two hours we had a civil discussion on Christmas and the role of religion in our lives. At one point, I found myself wondering if I wan't getting people riled up enough. This is talk radio, after all.
One theme that I heard from a number of callers is that in our society we all can live out our beliefs in our homes and places of worship, and that we don't need others to observe our religious holidays on our behalf.
Thanks to everyone who listened and called in, and thanks to Rick Jensen for giving me run of his studio for two hours. Merry Christmas, or whatever.

Monday, December 26, 2005

TommyWonk on WDEL 1150 AM Today from 1:00 to 3:00!

That's right! TommyWonk is filling in on the Rick Jensen show on WDEL, this afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00. You can listen at 1150 AM and call in at 302 478 9335.
Topic A will be: "The war on Christmas: Who won?" We'll also be asking who got coal in their stockings and what you'd like to return to the exchange counter.
WDEL is found at 1150 AM on your dial and at on the web.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Happy Hannukah

Hannukah starts at sunset this evening, the first time since 1959 that the holiday has started on Christmas. Which brings to mind one reason people say "Happy holidays" this time of year; several holidays are celebrated in a short period of time. Blessings to all.

Merry Christmas, or Whatever

Hopefully, the combatants in the so-called war on Christmas will take the day off.
But if, after a day of blessed peace and joy, you're still worked up over the issue, we'll be talking about it on WDEL 1150 AM tomorrow afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00, when I will once again be guest host. So tomorrow you can call in at (302) 478-9335 with your rants. But for today, at least, peace.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The NSA and Data Mining

The New York Times reports that the National Security Agency has employed data mining to spot potential threats:
What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.
This so-called "pattern analysis" on calls within the United States would, in many circumstances, require a court warrant if the government wanted to trace who calls whom.
In the Washington Post, national security blogger William M. Arkin looks at Section 126 of the Patriot Act Reauthorization, which would require the Attorney General to submit reports to Congress on data mining surveilance programs. Arkin points out that data mining is very different than selecting specific targets for electronic surveilance; instead the entire global commnications network is the subject:
My guess is the government decided after 9/11 to monitor everyone.
By the way, the NSA, which was long said to stand for "No Such Agency," has a website that includes a kids' section featuring the NSA/CSS CryptoKids (America's Future Codemakers and Codebreakers) with names like Crypto Cat and Decipher Dog. The site includes games, teacher resources and guides for kids who want to learn to make their own codes. At least one government agency is doing its part to encourage our young people to pursue math and science careers.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle Sets the Record Straight

Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, writing in the Washington Post, refutes the argument that that Congress gave Bush the authority to wiretap U.S. citizens without court order:
On Tuesday, Vice President Cheney said the president "was granted authority by the Congress to use all means necessary to take on the terrorists, and that's what we've done."
Congress chose instead, on Sept. 14, to authorize "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed or aided" the attacks of Sept. 11. With this language, Congress denied the president the more expansive authority he sought and insisted that his authority be used specifically against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Just before the Senate acted on this compromise resolution, the White House sought one last change. Literally minutes before the Senate cast its vote, the administration sought to add the words "in the United States and" after "appropriate force" in the agreed-upon text. This last-minute change would have given the president broad authority to exercise expansive powers not just overseas -- where we all understood he wanted authority to act -- but right here in the United States, potentially against American citizens.
The last-minute request was not included in the resolution that was adopted on September 14, 2001. If you asked and the answer it no, then that's that.
Not only does Daschle's account contradict Cheney's claim, it also effectively refutes any argument that the administration didn't need any authorization to conduct secret, warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens here at home. For if no such authorization was needed, then why did Bush try to have it inserted in the resolution?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Senate Bucks Bush on the Patriot Act and ANWR

Dick Cheney was on hand to break a tie vote, as was the case of the deficit reduction package. But even his charm couldn't prevent the U.S. Senate yesterday dealt two setbacks to the Bush administration. First, as reported in the Washington Post, it approved a six month extension of the Patriot Act, a move Bush and majority leader Bill Frist had previously said they would not accept:
President Bush, who had repeatedly said he would not accept a short-term extension of the Patriot Act, embraced the Senate's action last night. "I appreciate the Senate for working to keep the existing Patriot Act in law through next July, despite boasts last week by the Democratic leader that he had blocked the Act," Bush said in a statement. "No one should be allowed to block the Patriot Act to score political points, and I am grateful the Senate rejected that approach."
Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, said a six-month extension is not "short-term."
I'm glad he cleared that up.
Things have changed since Russell Feingold provided the lone dissenting vote in the Senate four years ago. The passage of the six month extension will force the Bush administration to negotiate some of the more objectionable measures in the Patriot Act and will keep the debate over domestic spying going well into next year.
Second, the Senate failed to ovecome objections to the inclusion of a provision to open drilling in ANWR in the defense spending bill. As the Post reports, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was beside himself:
"I'm going to go to every one of your states, and I'm going to tell them what you've done," said Stevens, the leading advocate of drilling in Alaska.
At one point Stevens was reduced to arguing that if drilling opponents would relent, everyone could go home for the holidays, hardly a compelling argument in a battle that has gone on for 25 years.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Judge Resigns over Spying

You've never heard of U.S. District Judge James Robertson? Neither had I. Judge Robertson served as a member of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The Washington Post reports he resigned yesterday:
Two associates familiar with his decision said yesterday that Robertson privately expressed deep concern that the warrantless surveillance program authorized by the president in 2001 was legally questionable and may have tainted the FISA court's work.
Robertson, who was appointed to the federal bench in Washington by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and was later selected by then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to serve on the FISA court, declined to comment when reached at his office late yesterday.
Clearly the issue isn't going away:
Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) echoed concerns raised by Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has promised hearings in the new year.
Hagel and Snowe joined Democrats Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) in calling for a joint investigation by the Senate judiciary and intelligence panels into the classified program.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

TommyWonk Year in Review: Art & Architecture

TommyWonk debuted in February by highlighting this example of conceptual art in Central Park called "The Crackers."
The Scraphouse was built with recycled materials by a "rockstar team of San Francisco architects, artists, contractors, city officials, and engineers" to celebrate World Environment Day.The New York Times ran a feature about an artist called Ellis G. who sketches chalk outlines of the shadows of street objects in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. (Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Is the Democratic Party the Political Equivalent of GM?

In the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai writes that the Democratic Party is as outdated as General Motors:
Just as G.M. has protected its outdated products at the expense of its larger mission, so, too, have Democrats become more attached to their programs than to the principles that made them vibrant in the first place. So what if Social Security and Medicaid functioned best in a world where most workers had company pensions and health insurance and spent their entire careers with one employer? The mere suggestion that these programs might be updated for a new, more consumer-driven economy sends Democratic leaders into fits of apoplexy.
If by updating Social Security, you mean diverting payroll taxes to private accounts, then I want nothing of it. It doesn't make economic sense to subject our one guaranteed retirement benefit to market forces. Modern portfolio theory demonstrates that having a low risk component of one's investment potfolio makes it easier to take on higher risk (and higher return) investments. This guaranteed benefit is even more important as defined benefit plans are being replaced by defined contribution plans such as 401(k) programs.
What bothers me, even more than attempts to resurrect BushCo's failed Social Security privatization, is the notion that Democrats are economically backward compared to Republicans, as Bai suggests:
Republicans have embraced the future of the global marketplace, but to them the future looks a lot like "Road Warrior."
In other words, Republicans are more forward thinking because they are willing to reward a few winners at the expense of everyone else. How forward looking is that? It sound more like a rerun of the late 19th Century than a prescription for prosperity in the 21st Century.
Now I like to think of myself as fairly sophisticated and forward-looking when it comes to economics. I spent eight years in city government working to attract business to Wilmington and find ways to balance the city's budget. Cities across the country prospered during the 1990s, thanks to economic policies that enabled all income segments to increase their earnings.

The U.S. prospered in the 1990s thanks in no small measure to the sound economic policies of Bill Clinton and his economic team, notably Robert Rubin. A few short years ago, our president could confidently speak of budget surpluses as far as the eye can see. Robert Rubin demonstrated that
these surpluses reduced the cost of capital for the public and private sector. But "Rubinomics" became a pejorative when BushCo took over. The result is that we squandered these surpluses and replaced them with deficits as deep as we can dig.

In New York, the Governor's Race Offers a Parable on Integrity and Leadership

New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the expected Democratic nominee, has been in the forefront of efforts to root out corporate corruption and mismanagement.
Former Massachusetts governor William Weld, the leading GOP candidate, is being dogged by a scandal at Decker College, where he was CEO. As the New York Times reports, Decker has lost its accreditation, been barred from accessing federal student loans and is now in bankruptcy:
The college spun into crisis after the federal Department of Education restricted its access to student loan funds in June. The department went further and terminated Decker's participation in federal programs on Sept. 30.
In October, the school was raided by 40 federal agents conducting a fraud investigation, and last month it collapsed into bankruptcy, leaving 3,700 students burdened with debts, some as high as $30,000. This week the Education Department said students could apply to have their loans forgiven.
Weld's explanation for this collapse?
Mr. Weld blames the federal government and a regional accreditation council for Decker's fall, and continues to praise the college's programs.
As for the litany of horror stories including a boiler room recruiting operation, illiterate students, students without computers enrolled in Internet classes and falsified attendance records, Weld offered the classic defense of embattled CEOs: He didn't know anything was wrong, despite having signed non-disclosure agreements with departing managers who tried to bring the school's problems to his attention.

Saturday, December 17, 2005


The New York Times did what would have been unthinkable not long ago; it held off publication of the story that the Bush administration was spying on U.S. citizens without requesting the court order required by the law. In response to the story, the Senate did what would have been unthinkable four years ago; it failed to pass the reathorization of the Patriot Act.
The Washington Post has the story on why the Times was so reluctant to publish:
In a statement yesterday, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller ... wrote that when the Times became aware that the NSA was conducting domestic wiretaps without warrants, "the Administration argued strongly that writing about this eavesdropping program would give terrorists clues about the vulnerability of their communications and would deprive the government of an effective tool for the protection of the country's security."
"Officials also assured senior editors of the Times that a variety of legal checks had been imposed that satisfied everyone involved that the program raised no legal questions," Keller continued. "As we have done before in rare instances when faced with a convincing national security argument, we agreed not to publish at that time."
Arlen Specter was quicker in his analysis of the legal questions raised by the secret domestic surveilance:
"There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who favored the Patriot Act renewal but said the NSA issue provided valuable ammunition for its opponents.
As for the legal checks, it seems that the safeguards that have been mentioned are those that were circumvented by the secret executive order. Under existing law, the FBI, not the NSA, is authorized to conduct domestic surveilance with a court order from a special court housed in the Justice Department. Warrants can even be issued up to 48 hours after the surveilance has begun.
It is hard to understand how this kind of timely, secret review could be an impediment in tracking down spies and terrorists. Likewise, it is hard to understand why we need a Patriot Act if the Bush administration will simply do what it wants anyway.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Disagreeing on Iraq

Nancy Pelosi yesterday told the Washington Post that it's OK for Democrats to disagree about getting out of Iraq:
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said yesterday that Democrats should not seek a unified position on an exit strategy in Iraq, calling the war a matter of individual conscience and saying differing positions within the caucus are a source of strength for the party.
Pelosi said Democrats will produce an issue agenda for the 2006 elections but it will not include a position on Iraq. There is consensus within the party that President Bush has mismanaged the war and that a new course is needed, but House Democrats should be free to take individual positions, she said.
The differing positions on withdrawal from Iraq are part of an open discussion, something the country should have had three years ago using all of the intelligence available. Unfortunately, the intelligence we did hear about was either cherry-picked, doctored or simply made up. The Washington Post also reports what we all know -- that Bush knew more about Iraq than he told Congress:
A congressional report made public yesterday concluded that President Bush and his inner circle had access to more intelligence and reviewed more sensitive material than what was shared with Congress when it gave Bush the authority to wage war against Iraq.
The report, done by the Congressional Research Service at the request of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), comes amid allegations by Democrats that administration officials exaggerated Iraq's weapons capabilities and terrorism ties and then resisted inquiries into the intelligence failures.
Bush has fiercely rejected those claims. "Some of the most irresponsible comments -- about manipulating intelligence -- have come from politicians who saw the same intelligence I saw and then voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein," he said this week.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Congress Leaps to the Defense of Christmas

Before adjourning for the year, the House of Representatives took up an urgent piece of legislation:
Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected.
Yes, the U.S. House of Representatives, having been alerted that Christmas is under attack, has leapt to it's defense. In keeping with the seriousness of the proceedings, Congressman John D. Dingell (D-MI) marked the occassion in verse:
'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the House
No bills were passed 'bout which Fox News could grouse;
Tax cuts for the wealthy were passed with great cheer,
So vacations in St. Barts soon would be near;
Katrina kids were nestled all snug in motel beds,
While visions of school and home danced in their heads;
In Iraq our soldiers needed supplies and a plan,
Plus nuclear weapons were being built in Iran;
Gas prices shot up, consumer confidence fell;
Americans feared we were on a fast track to -- well�
Wait -- we need a distraction -- something divisive and wily;
A fabrication straight from the mouth of O'Reilly;
We can pretend that Christmas is under attack
Hold a vote to save it -- then pat ourselves on the back;
Silent Night, First Noel, Away in the Manger;
Wake up Congress, they're in no danger!
This time of year we see Christmas every where we go,
From churches, to homes, to schools, and yes -- even Costco;
What we have is an attempt to divide and destroy,
When this is the season to unite us with joy;
At Christmas time we're taught to unite,
We don't need a made-up reason to fight;
So on O'Reilly, on Hannity, on Coulter, and those right wing blogs;
You should just sit back, relax -- have a few egg nogs!
'Tis the holiday season: enjoy it a pinch;
With all our real problems, do we honestly need another Grinch?
So to my friends and my colleagues I say with delight,
A merry Christmas to all, and to Bill O'Reilly -- Happy Holidays.

Oh No! Mr.Bill! President Sluggo Exonerates Tom DeLay!

That's right, Mr. Bill. The Washington Post has the story:
President Bush said yesterday he is confident that former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is innocent of money-laundering charges, as he offered strong support for several top Republicans who have been battered by investigations or by rumors of fading clout inside the White House.
Not only does POTUS believe DeLay to be innocent, he wants him back on the job, according to the NYT:
The president declined to comment on Mr. Earle. He said he wanted any trial "to be conducted as fairly as possible," but, pressed by Brit Hume of Fox News on whether he believed Mr. DeLay to be innocent, he replied, "Yes, I do."
Mr. Bush said he did not know whether to expect that Mr. DeLay, who has retained his House seat, would regain his position as majority leader.
"I hope that he will," the president said, "because I like him, and plus, when he's over there we get our votes through the House."
The NYT reports that President Sluggo also had kind words for his own Mr. Hands:
In Wednesday's interview, Mr. Bush also had praise for Karl Rove, his deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, who is under investigation in the C.I.A. leak case.
"We're still as close as we've ever been," Mr. Bush said. "We've been through a lot."

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Good Delaware Blogging

It's time to offer some words of praise for some fellow Delaware bloggers.
The most recent addition to the growing ranks of worthwhile left-side-of-the-aisle bloggers is Jason at Delawareliberal, which went live last month. Jason isn't afraid to be partisan, which makes for some bracing reading. For instance, he has taken Mike Castle to task for his support of the Republican regime in Washington.
Dana has turned Delaware Watch into a must-read for the progressive community. Dana is the hardest-working blogger in Delaware; not content to dash off a quick comment, he does his homework and writes thorough, well-researched posts.
Mike of Mike's Musings offers a quiet glimpse of life in Delaware. No detail is too small to escape his notice or his appreciation. His photos are sometimes striking and his writing is utterly without guile, as in this post about an evening walk in Rehobeth:
I took a brief stroll down the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk this evening. I had dropped Christina at the Methodist Church for Children's Bell Choir practice and had a short while to myself. I thought it would be pleasant to have a look at the ocean. It was a lovely evening.
I feel more relaxed already.

The Persecution of Ken Lay

Ken Lay, former CEO of Enron, goes on trial next month for fraud and conspiracy relating to the collapse of the one-time energy giant. Yesterday, he previewed his defense strategy in front of a crowd of 500 of Houston's business leaders. The Houston Chronicle reports that his defense strategy is to excoriate the prosecutors, blame Andy Fastow and rally the dispossessed to his side:
Just a month before his Jan. 17 federal trial on seven conspiracy and fraud charges, the former Enron chairman drew polite applause with his address titled "Guilty, Until Proven Innocent," in part a call to arms to Enron employees to defend the honor of the company and Lay himself.
That's right. Ken Lay is calling on his former employees to rally to his side. Lay's speech prompted a sarcastic review from Houston Chronicle columnist Loren Steffy:
"It will only take a few brave individuals who are willing to stand up and say it's time for the truth to come out. Either we proclaim the truth about Enron and its employees in this trial, or our friends, neighbors, potential employers and others will continue to believe that Enron was a criminal enterprise. ... If we don't speak out, don't testify to the truth, don't let the light shine in, we will live the rest of our lives under this cloud — a cloud that covers all the good works and deeds that each of us accomplished."
Cue the patriotic music.
"Either we stand up now and prove that Enron was a real company, a substantial company, an honest company ... or we will leave this horrific legacy shaped by others for someone else to sort out."
Actually Kenny Boy, you were in charge. Your legacy includes the $60 billion in market value that evaporated in sixteen months, the 5,000 employees put out on the street and the $800 million in pensions that they lost.
But in case those former employees don't heed his call to rise up against the U.S. Justice Department, the
Washington Post reports that Lay and his fellow defendants have one more argument straight out of the former energy exec excuse file: 9/11 changed everything:
Lay, Skilling and Causey are preparing to argue that the Houston energy company was a fundamentally sound business. The firm, they say, was felled by a crisis of liquidity after trading partners lost confidence after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the bursting of the technology bubble.
(Photo: AP)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

No Room at the Inn

The Holy Land, 2,000 years ago:
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
The United States of America, today:
"We got a serious situation in St. Bernard Parish," its president, Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, told CNN on Tuesday.
"We got people living in tents and automobiles. We got people living in barns. We got people living in their houses -- in tents," he said on "American Morning."

Bush in Philadelphia

President Bush spoke before the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia yesterday. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, it was not a hand-picked audience:
Faeze Woodville, an Iranian American from Strafford, Chester County, won scattered applause when she asked Bush why he and other administration officials "keep linking 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq."
Bush has acknowledged that there is no direct link between Iraq and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but he and other top officials often spoke about 9/11 in presenting the case for war with Iraq.
Eighteen months ago, Joe Biden, the commencement speaker at the University of Delaware, was booed for making the same point; Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
News Journal story on Bush's speech features the puzzling headline, "Bush defends new Iraq plan in Phila." Meet the new plan; same as the old plan. Rep. John Murtha disagrees with the premise of the story:
"I still don't see a plan that will prevail," Rep. John Murtha told reporters. "It's more of a hope that everything will turn out right."
(Photo: The News Journal/Bob Herbert)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

"Shadow Art" in Brooklyn

The New York Times today has a cool piece about an artist who sketches chalk outlines of the shadows of street objects in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.
The artist, Ellis G. (for Gallagher), started after he was mugged one night:
Earlier this year, Mr. Gallagher was mugged on his way home from a shift at Bar Tabac on Smith Street, where he worked as a waiter. "I turn around and this guy's got a two-foot machete in my face," he said.
Mr. Gallagher was unhurt and the mugger was later caught by the police, but one night soon after the mugging, with the image of his attacker's dark silhouette still burned into his memory, Mr. Gallagher was mesmerized by a shadow on the sidewalk. He reached into his pocket and felt the chalk he had used to write the outdoor menu at Bar Tabac, and he dropped to his knees to outline it.
Shadow art was born.
(Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Friday, December 09, 2005

An Example of the Dubious Value of Coerced Intelligence

In the debate over torture, those who would know often point out that information resulting from coercion is of suspect value. Case in point: In the New York Times today, we read that an Al Qaeda suspect recanted what he said to his interrogators about the terror organization having ties to Iraq:
The officials said the captive, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, provided his most specific and elaborate accounts about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda only after he was secretly handed over to Egypt by the United States in January 2002, in a process known as rendition.
The new disclosure provides the first public evidence that bad intelligence on Iraq may have resulted partly from the administration's heavy reliance on third countries to carry out interrogations of Qaeda members and others detained as part of American counterterrorism efforts. The Bush administration used Mr. Libi's accounts as the basis for its prewar claims, now discredited, that ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda included training in explosives and chemical weapons.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Economics and the Environment, Part 1

Sometimes the ways in which we describe economic activities do not provide a clear understanding of what it is we're doing. For instance, if we wish to be precise, we wouldn't use the phrase "energy production." Most of what we call "energy production" involves burning something. A ton of coal is an asset. Smoke coming out a smokestack is not an asset. Setting fire to an asset is not production. It can be economically useful by keeping us warm or converting iron ore to steel, but it is not, strictly speaking, production, defined as the creation of an asset.
This simple rephrasing of what happens when we light a fire leads to useful insights into economics and the environment. Consider the similar phrase, "timber production." A tree standing in a forest may not be considered to have any economic value. But when a logger cuts down the tree, it becomes an asset as soon as it hits the ground and is hauled off to the lumber mill.
Understanding that it is a fallacy to say that an asset can be created when something is destroyed suggests that we need to look more closely at the assumptions underlying the way we think about economics and the environment.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cheney's Non Sequitur

The Washington Post reports this non sequitur delivered by Dick Cheney to a gathering of soldiers at Fort Drum in New York:
"Some have suggested by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein we simply stirred up a hornet's nest. They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq in September 2001 and the terrorists hit us anyway."
Nor were we in Iraq in December 1941, but Japan struck us anyway. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, despite Cheney's continuing to insinuate a connection.
It is 64 years since the Japanese navy attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. On this anniversary, let us return to the comparative timelines of WWII and TWoT:
World War II
The Allies landed in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944 -- 912 days after Pearl Harbor. Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945. Japan signed the surrender agreement with the U.S. on Sept 2, 1945 -- 1,365 days after the U.S. was attacked.
The U.S., which ended WWII as the strongest nation in the world, led the creation of the alliances that shaped the world for 60 years.
The War on Terror
On September 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden directed the attacks that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Iraq War began on March 20, 2003 -- 555 days later. On May 1, 2003 -- 597 days after the U.S. was attacked -- President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
Today is December 7, 2005. 1,549 days have passed since the U.S. was attacked. Bin Laden is still at large; Bush and Cheney are resisting calls for withdrawal; and assertions that the insurgency is "in its last throes" ring hollow.

The Commander in Chief on the Wrong Side in the War on Christmas?

The Washington Post reports that those manning the barricades in a last ditch defense of Christmas have a new atrocity to report in the fight against the secular humanists. Is it the souless retail industry this time? No, to the dismay of the those standing between Christmas and the outer darkness, President Bush himself has sent out cards wishing a happy holiday season:
"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."
Religious conservatives are miffed because they have been pressuring stores to advertise Christmas sales rather than "holiday specials" and urging schools to let students out for Christmas vacation rather than for "winter break."
Unlike the heathen retailers, Bush is getting the benefit of the doubt from some Christmas zealots:
One of the generals on the pro-Christmas side is Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss. "Sometimes it's hard to tell whether this is sinister -- it's the purging of Christ from Christmas -- or whether it's just political correctness run amok," he said. "I think in the case of the White House, it's just political correctness."
William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is less forgiving:
At the Catholic League, Donohue had just announced a boycott of the Lands' End catalogue when he received his White House holiday card. True, he said, the Bushes included a verse from Psalm 28, but Psalms are in the Old Testament and do not mention Jesus' birth.
Mr. Donohue may have forgotten that Jesus was born into a Jewish family. The NYT reports that Christmas is being injected into the debate over Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito:
Fidelis, a conservative Roman Catholic group, has begun an Internet advertisement and plans to buy radio commercials with a similar theme as early as next week. "Judge Alito ruled against the A.C.L.U.'s attempt to scrub away our religious heritage," a narrator says, recalling an opinion Judge Alito wrote upholding a Jersey City display including a Nativity scene and a menorah.
Hey guys, relax. It's Christmas we're talking about. Remember, "On earth, peace, good will toward men"? Remember Charlie Brown and his little tree? Why do some Christians insist on fighting over Christmas?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wes Clark on Iraq

It seems like yesterday that I mentioned Wes Clark as someone whose judgment I respect when it comes to considering what we should do next in Iraq. General Clark was right on cue, publishing an op-ed piece in the New York Times:
While American troops have been fighting, and dying, against the Sunni rebels and foreign jihadists, the Shiite clerics in Iraq have achieved fundamental political goals: capturing oil revenues, strengthening the role of Islam in the state, and building up formidable militias that will defend their gains and advance their causes as the Americans draw down and leave. Iraq's neighbors, then, see it evolving into a Shiite-dominated, Iranian buffer state that will strengthen Tehran's power in the Persian Gulf just as it is seeks nuclear weapons and intensifies its rhetoric against Israel.
This is the outcome Clark most fears. I heard him use the same phrase -- buffer state for Iran -- last summer:
What a disaster it would be if the real winner in Iraq turned out to be Iran, a country that supports terrorism and opposes most of what we stand for.
In Clark's view the pace of withdrawal is not the central issue. He believes that a sharp change in strategic focus is essential to protecting America's interests in the region. Patroling the borders, focusing on insurgent strongholds and enforcing the prohibition against private militias are part of his prescription. But he sees the central issue as working towards a political accomodation by reaching out to include alienated factions in the political process.
Is he right? I don't know. But I do know that we need a national conversation that considers all of the factors if we wish to avoid leaving things worse than when we went in.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Iraq: Now What Do We Do?

A friend asked me a couple of days ago what we should do about Iraq, and I answered, "I don't know." Sounds like it's time for me to start doing my homework.
Where to start? One thing I've learned is, when it comes to analyzing difficult policy questions, one shouldn't start at the conclusion. So I don't want to start with simply considering who's for immediate withdrawal and who's for a phase out. The Washington Post today highlights some of the differences within the Democratic Party on how to extract ourselves from the mess in Iraq. It's natural that Democrats don't agree; after all the country as a whole is divided and unsure. So why shouldn't we have an open discussion? It's what we should have had three years ago.
Next, my inclination is to start identifying criteria for evaluating alternatives. What's in our national interest? What obligation do we have to the people of Iraq? What are our forces accomplishing? To what extent are our troops simply struggling to keep themselves safe? How much of the violence is targeted at U.S. forces and how much is internal Iraqi conflict?
Another thing I've learned is to turn to people who have earned my respect for thinking things through. Even when I don't agree with them, I can learn from their deliberations. For instance, Steve Clemons at The Washington Note has three recommendations of "must read" pieces.
I respect Joe Biden, even though I think his timeline is too open-ended. Still, I find him thoughtful and open in terms of running through the criteria underlying his recommended course of action.
I respect Wes Clark. What's he thinking about in terms of troop withdrawal? I trust his judgment of Iraqi security forces more than I do say, Donald Rumsfeld's.
In summary, we in the loyal opposition have the opportunity to do what our president should have done three years ago: Have an sober, open discussion of our alternatives.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The FBI Is Back on the Case of the Forged Niger Documents

The LA Times reports that the FBI has reopened the investigation into the forged documents that led to claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger:
The FBI's decision to reopen the investigation reverses the agency's announcement last month that it had finished a two-year inquiry and concluded that the forgeries were part of a moneymaking scheme — and not an effort to manipulate U.S. foreign policy.
Those findings concerned some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee after published reports that the FBI had not interviewed a former Italian spy named Rocco Martino, who was identified as the original source of the documents. The committee had requested the initial investigation.
Who is Rocco Martino?
Recent accounts in the Italian press said that Martino, a businessman and former freelance spy who was fired from the Italian military intelligence agency, obtained the documents from a female friend who worked at Niger's embassy in Rome. Martino has said he was working with a more senior Italian intelligence agent, Col. Antonio Nucero, and peddled the documents to French intelligence and eventually, in 2002, to Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba.
One wonders how diligent the investigation was before, if the guy identified as the forger wasn't even interviewed. The key question is whether Martino acted on his own, perhaps to make a buck, or whether he worked with others, such as members of the Iraqi National Congress.
The image and the translation of one of the forged documents come from the
Standard Time Tribune.



Council of National Reconciliation


Minister of Foreign Affairs
And African Integration


Niamey, July 30 1999

Would you be so kind as to contact the Iraqi Ambassador, Mr Wissah Al Zahawye, and learn his country's response to the proposed supply of uranium on the terms last agreed upon at Niamey on June 27 2000.

Please treat this highly confidential matter with all appropriate discretion and diligence.

Friday, December 02, 2005

O'Reilly and Coulter: Lefty Websites Fomenting Violence

Sometimes a blogger doesn't have the time and attention for complex policy analysis. For those times there's Bill O'Reilly. Yes, Bill makes it easy to look smart with a minimum of effort. Take his rant about being intimidated from his show last night with Ann Coulter as guest, transcribed by Media Matters for America:
O'REILLY: Yeah, but on a policy basis, what they're trying to do on these far-left smear sites is intimidate people with whom they disagree, and then choke off their ability to get their message out. I mean, freedom of speech means nothing to these people. They really want to just bludgeon anybody with whom they disagree, or am I wrong?
What I find remarkable is ease with which O'Reilly and Coulter assume the role of victim. We've had five years of conservative Republican rule in Washington. These two media stars command big speaking fees and publish books that regularly appear on the bestseller lists, but there is nothing they enjoy so much as crying in their beer. Here's more from last night:
COULTER: If you go speak at a college campus, I promise you, if you don't have a security detail, they will physically attack you, because they are the party of ideas, and they're so intellectual their ideas just can't fit on a bumper sticker. You know, everything else they're always saying about themselves. But when it actually comes time to formulate a counterargument, all they can do is throw food.
O'REILLY: All right. But it gets to be frightening. And I -- look, in my own case, I have to have security, and obviously --
COULTER: Any conservative does.
O'REILLY: Yeah, but I think liberals, some -- well, I don't know. Look, there's no question --
COULTER: No liberal has to have security. Though I'd like to change that.
O'REILLY: Well, there's no -- let me just ask you this. Do you believe that these smear sites on the Internet are encouraging violence against you and others?
COULTER: They may be intended to. I think what mostly encourages violence is their incapacity to formulate an argument.
Cheap laughs? Easy pickings? Perhaps. Next week, we'll get back to the typically trenchant tommywonk treatment of the news you all have come to know and love. After all, we have to do our part to raise the level of political discourse in this country.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bill O'Reilly's Christmas Tirade: Fox News, Are You Listening?

I hate to pick on Bill O'Reilly, especially since he has a prime-time network media show and I have a blog with a rather modest (though tasteful) readership. But his tiresome tirade about being the last man standing willing to speak up for Christmas cannot go unchallenged. Media Matter for America has the transcript from O'Reilly's appearance yesterday on the Fox News program, Your World with Neil Cavuto:
Then the business community says we don't want to offend anybody, so we're not going to say "Merry Christmas." We're going to say "Happy Holidays, all right? That offends millions of Christians, see?
O'Reilly continues, in his customary measured tone:
This is America. This is the big commercial holiday. You're not going to acknowledge the holiday? Then I'm not shopping there.
Having been aroused to the danger facing our heritage as a Christian nation, I began looking into the matter, starting with Fox News, which is promoting its "Christmas and Chanukah Collection" on its website.
The collection includes this O'Reilly Factor Christmas Ornament for $9.95, which fails to reveal any evidence of religious sentiment. The set of three Fox News Christmas ornaments (one of which features the slogan "Fair & Balanced") likewise fails to mention Christmas. Not one of the 32 items for sale on the Fox News website offers any mention of Christmas, Chanukah or any religious holiday.

Oil Execs: We Can Explain

It depends on what you mean by "participate." Last month, the CEOs of the biggest US oil companies appeared before the Senate Energy and Commerce Committees. When asked, the executives answered that they either did not participate in Dick Cheney's energy task force or didn't know the answer to the question. A White House document subsequently released showed that representatives from four of those oil companies did meet with Cheney's staff. Were the executives lying? The Washington Post, which uncovered the White House memo, reports that the Senate staffers got right on it:
Last week, the Republican staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee suggested that the executives did not mislead the committee because whatever they did with the task force did not meet the legal definition of "participate."
OK then, what did happen?
After the Post report, the energy panel asked the executives to clarify their testimony. The committee released the carefully crafted responses yesterday.
Ross Pillari, chief executive of BP America, said in his letter that company representatives met with task force staff "and provided them with comments on a range of energy policy matters." He said his response at the hearing -- that he did not know -- was truthful.
John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil, said that to his knowledge the company did not meet with the task force. However, he said, Shell representatives "did meet with the administration -- including the Vice President and his staff -- on a broad range of energy policy issues."
James J. Mulva, chairman of ConocoPhillips, said that he answered the question "based upon my knowledge of Phillips' conduct prior to the merger with Conoco and on my knowledge of ConocoPhillips' conduct subsequent to the merger." Officials of Conoco met with task force staff before the merger.
Chevron, whose statement was previously released, said the company provided written recommendations on energy policy to President Bush but did not participate in task force meetings. Exxon Mobil, which also previously made its statement public, said the company did not participate in the task force; but the company said it presented information on global energy supply and demand to an administration official.
As previously noted in this space, the executives don't have to worry about perjury since Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens saw to it that they were excused from the standard ritual of being sworn in.
Washington is a tough town. It helps to have friends.