Friday, July 29, 2005

Georgie Anne Geyer and the Saudi Prince

Georgie Anne Geyer is gaga over Saudi Prince Turki bin al-Faisal, who will be the Kingdom's new ambassador to the United States.
From his actions, his words and all indicators, Prince Turki will open a new era in American-Saudi relations and, with any luck at all, it will be marked by reform, and even a transformation, within the kingdom--which is, after all, the spiritual heartland of all Islam.

With any luck at all indeed.

Geyer adds that:
The prince believes that, in the words of the Prophet Mohammad, Muslims are a "people of the middle," neither zealots nor lax morally. He believes that the kingdom always practiced the middle until a few zealots, like Osama bin Laden, came to the fore because of the war of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Russian invaders--and that it must again.

Peculiar view of Saudi history, that. Since the 18th century Wahhabism has been the religious sect of the Saudi royal family and has been imposed on society. Let's hear from Wikipedia:
Wahhabis ban pictures, photographs, musical instruments, singing, video, and celebrating Muhammad's birthday, among many other things, based on their interpretation of the ahadith (classical collections of sayings and traditions of Muhammad). . . . These practices have come to be associated with the more radical Islamist factions, particularly following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the later rise of the Taliban.

For more on this subject, see A. Vasiliev's wonderful, The History of Saudi Arabia.

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Hanson's History Lesson

Victor Davis Hanson, a senior fellow and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, graces today’s Chicago Tribune with a little lecture on how the History gets misused in the political debates of the day. This is how he begins:

History is evoked more and more these days . . .
Wow. I had no idea. That historians have studied the frequency with which History is evoked. And found that it is increasing. That’s the kind of information the general public learns when these classy historians drop in to the op-ed pages of the newspaper.

So let’s get to some examples.

. . . we are now warned that the war against terror is failing because it has lasted as long as World War II– as if the length of the war, not the cost, determines success.

It had never occurred to me that the length of a war determines success. I hadn’t noticed anyone saying this either. Nor for that matter, had I heard the theory, until reading Hanson’s column, that the cost of a war determines success. Not sure how that works– the more expensive the war the more successful? Or is the more expensive the war the less successful? I would probably already know this if I were a professional historian.

Another good one:

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) intoned of the USA Patriot Act he voted for, "We are a nation of laws and liberties, not of a knock in the night." Though, so far, that mild statute pales before exigencies of past liberal wartime presidents who really did jail innocents, night and day, without warning or sometimes even justification.

For instance, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War. Another bit of historical knowledge I wasn’t aware of– Abraham Lincoln was a "liberal." Damn liberals. Always suspending habeus corpus. So take that John Kerry. We are a nation of a knock in the night.

Also, Hanson notes that while some complain about intelligence failures in the war on terror, "they seem almost minor in light of prior blunders in the fog of war."

So any politician or citizen out there who wants the United States to aspire to something better– to be more just or to have more effective intelligence, watch out. Victor Davis Hanson, the brilliant historian, is on the case to tell you that you’re a fool who doesn’t understand History.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Lots of Love for Santorum on Hardball

Yesterday, Senator Rick Santorum visited Chris Matthews to play Hardball on MSNBC. Matthews greeted Santorum by asking him if he was the "anti-Hillary." Santorum's new book It Takes a Family seems to be, in its title anyway, a response to Hillary Clinton's best seller, It Takes a Village. Matthews began his second question like this:
Well, the great thing about you, Senator, is that you are clear. You are a conservative.
Later in the broadcast, Santorum gave an obviously disingenuous answer (the type any politician would give), about how unconcerned he his that he is getting his brains beaten out in the polls for his reelection.
Oh, I don‘t—I don‘t think it really much matters. I mean, what matters—the numbers that matter to me is, you know, how we are organizing the state, the work I am doing as a United States senator. And that is what I am focused on right now.

And so Matthews hit him with this zinger: "I know you have a strong personality and you are the genuine article. You are what you say you are." Yes, clearly Santorum is a public servant who cares nothing for politics, but only lives to serve the people.

Citizen Cain will be watching to see whether the next liberal politician gets the same kind of treatment from Matthews when he or she comes to play Hardball.

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Big Story on the Pakistan-Taliban Connection

Paul Watson has an important story in today's LA Times about how the Pakistani military is increasingly providing support to the Taliban.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf joined the Bush administration's war on terrorism and publicly turned against the Taliban immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. But Afghan officials allege that Taliban and allied fighters who fled to Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 are learning new, more lethal tactics from the Pakistani military at numerous training bases.
Watson also reports that Pakistani journalist and Times stringer Zulfiqar Ali has found evidence that numerous Pakistani training camps that were once closed have reopened starting in the Spring of this year. At the same time, Taliban attacks have intensified.

Over the next few days, we'll monitor whether other major newspapers follow up on this important story.

In related stories, AP reports that the Pakistani government has begun a crackdown on radical madrassas, or religious schools, and other religious zealots who preach violence. This crackdown follows the news that one of the London subway bombers had attended a madrassa. But for some needed context on this story, you need to turn to Pakistan's Daily Times, which quotes Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban:
As to the question if President Musharraf was “doing enough,” Rashid replied, “When crackdowns do occur, they aren’t effective. Three hundred, or even 2,000, people are picked up, they’re held for 90 days and then they are freed as soon as the attention and pressure from the West has stopped. There has never been an organised campaign to combat it. It has never taken place.”
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Christopher Hitchens: Why has such a Smart Guy Written such a Dumb Article?

In Tuesday’s Slate, Christopher Hitchens has a go at a "nutty little law," the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. He attacks it with characteristic verve, arguing that:
  1. The left correctly opposed the IIPA when it was enacted in 1982, but now "a law that scars the First Amendment has become the favorite legislation of the anti-war left." Why? Partly because "senior Republicans . . . regard the CIA with open suspicion."
  2. The CIA draws from the IIPA "a reserve strength. It can and does leak against the Defense Department. But if anyone leaks back at it, there is a nutty little law, passed back in 1982, that can criminalize the leaker."
  3. Karl Rove did not violate the IIPA, because apparently "he did not, and did not intend to, expose Valerie Plame in any way."
  4. The CIA "catastrophically failed the country in respect of defense against suicidal attack." [If it has occurred to Hitchens that anyone in government failed other than the CIA, he doesn’t say so.]
  5. Because of the IIPA, "we cannot even debate this without the risk that those who are seeking the true story will end up before a grand jury, or behind bars!" [And what is it that we can’t debate? Check out Hitchens’s last paragraph. Amazing that Slate puts this stuff in print.]

Hitchens’s points are either appallingly misleading or flatly wrong.

  1. Because of the arguments made by civil libertarians in 1982, the IIPA was watered down from earlier versions so that the version that finally passed applies only to situations in which current and former government officials deliberately expose the identities of covert agents. It does not apply to journalists, nor to inadvertent disclosures. Only one prosecution has occurred under this law. So the law as enacted is hardly a major threat to the First Amendment, and liberals can support enforcement of this law without hypocrisy.
  2. The IIPA prohibits disclosure of the identity of covert agents. It does not give the CIA some special license to leak, nor does it prohibit other agencies from leaking information about the CIA, with the exception of the identities of covert agents. So, to take a purely hypothetical example, if in 2003 the CIA had leaked information about how Ahmed Chalabi had the Pentagon wrapped around his little finger, and the Pentagon leaked information about how the CIA had screwed up pre-war intelligence, the IIPA would have nothing to say about either case.
  3. Rove certainly did expose the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative, at a minimum to Matt Cooper. A question remains as to whether she was a covert agent as defined under the IIPA. Hitchens has no basis for claiming that Rove’s intentions were innocent.
  4. Hitchens hates the CIA in part because CIA analysts were not enthusiastic about the invasion of Iraq, and because they opposed the Wolfowitz/Feith/Chalabi approach to managing post-war Iraq. So he blames the CIA for 9/11. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. For instance, Richard Clarke persuasively showed in Against All Enemies how uninterested was the Bush national security team in terrorism, al Queda, and coordinating intelligence information, and how this lack of interest prevented the sorts of efforts that might have prevented 9/11.
  5. Exactly why can’t we have a debate about this? Who is in danger of ending up behind bars? Hitchens isn’t exactly clear about this, he seems to be saying because the IIPA exists, prosecutors can investigate possible violations of it, and in so doing arrest both leakers and the journalists they leak to, if the latter refuse to cooperate with the investigation. But this is absurd. Administration officials can participate in the debate all they want. They can even leak information all they want without falling foul of the IIPA, as long as they’re not leaking the identity of a covert agent. Hitchens seems to think that Plame’s identity was essential to the debate, but he doesn’t explain why Rove couldn’t have accomplished his role in trashing the CIA in this debate by saying– "Wilson was sent to Niger by those idiotic traitors at the CIA, and he is doing their bidding when he falsely attacks the patriots in the White House who blah blah blah." How, exactly, did exposing Plame contribute to the debate? How would refraining from exposing her inhibit the debate? While the jailing of journalists is a legitimate subject for concern, there’s nothing special about the IIPA that endangers journalists. This concern arises any time a journalist possesses evidence that a law has been violated and refuses to share that information with authorities. Moreover, it isn’t even certain that prosecutor Fitzpatrick is investigating violations of the IIPA; he may be using other statutes, such as the Espionage Act of 1917, whose provisions are less limiting to prosecutors than those of the IIPA.

Hitchens is a smart guy. So why has he written such a dumb article?

(minor edits for clarity since original posting)

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Where is Scarborough Country? Where Ever Vacationing Americans Go Missing

On Monday's Scarborough Country, our host began the show like this:
Now, we've got a big night straight ahead for you, breaking news out of Aruba to a possible murder mystery in the Mediterranean. Plus, we're going to get you up to date on all the latest across SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY, where no passport's required and only common sense is allowed.

So the big night was devoted to a missing persons cases in Aruba and a Mediterranean cruise ship. And night after night, in recent months, it's been the same, with Joe Scarborough leading broadcast after broadcast with the news from Aruba, and increasingly, from other crime scenes as well.

It wasn't always so-- it started out as a show squarely focused on politics, and on bashing liberals in the culture war. It continues to do the latter, but the former is increasingly giving way to sensational crime stories. Now of MSNBC's five major evening programs, two, Scarborough Country and The Abrams Report are focused primarily on such fare. MSNBC is doing a disservice to viewers who expect to get news when they tune into an news channel.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

The Rove/Plame Scandal: Back to Basics

The lefty blogosphere has been up in arms for the last three weeks about Karl Rove’s role in leaking Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative to journalists. Citizen Cain agrees that Rove’s behavior is an outrage, and that it is a scandal that President Bush has not fired him.

But the lefty blogosphere has strayed from hammering home a fairly simple, straightforward case that is backed by overwhelming evidence, and has confused it by pursuing numerous diversions that are of lesser relevance and harder to prove. As a result, right-wing politicians and journalists have been able to do battle on this issue on much more solid ground than they would if we got back to basics on this scandal, and pushed the mainstream media to demand answers on the basics of the scandal. Having swatted away the weaker, more peripheral parts of the case, Rove's defenders can claim that they just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

But before we explain the basics, what are those diversions?

  • Karl Rove committed a crime. Well, perhaps so. But arguing the case in terms of whether a crime has been committed allows Rove’s defenders stronger ground than they deserve, because it is not yet clear whether the evidence will be sufficient to prove violation of criminal statutes beyond a reasonable doubt. Before insisting on this point, let’s wait to see what prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald comes up with.
  • Rove was trying to destroy Valerie Plame’s career to punish her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for challenging the Administration’s case for war. Maybe. But to prove this, we would have to show that Rove knew that Plame had undercover status, and that revealing this status would harm her CIA career. Right now, there are some suggestions that Rove might have seen a State Department memo that indicated that Plame’s status was “secret,” but these are only suggestions.
  • Rove’s actions have done terrible damage to national security, and compromised intelligence sources on weapons of mass destruction. Pure conjecture. Might be true, but there’s no hard evidence to support this position, just speculation on what the consequences might have been.
  • Rove actions were part of a campaign to misuse intelligence to support the Iraq War. I actually agree with this one, but I still don’t think it’s the central part of the scandal. There are better examples of the misuse of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war than the assertion that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. Moreover, Rove’s defenders can plausibly make the case that Rove’s discussions with reporters were legitimately challenging misperceptions about the genesis of Wilson’s trip to Niger (he wasn’t sent by Vice President Cheney), about whether Cheney received a report from Cheney’s trip (he didn’t), and whether Wilson discovered evidence on his trip that refuted the assertion that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium in Africa (he didn’t).

So, what are the basics of the case? What should the lefty blogosphere be hammering on relentlessly? What questions should reporters by asking the White House every day? Start by basing the case on what we already know with reasonable certainty.

  • Rove was reckless with classified information. The record is clear. Rove told Time's Matt Cooper that Ambassador Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent. He may also have confirmed this fact to Robert Novak. So how about we stop asking whether Rove knew that Plame’s identity was secret, and instead ask whether Rove took any steps to find out whether Plame’s identity was secret before revealing it, or confirming it.
  • Rove’s cavalierly disregarded the potential consequences of his actions on national security and the safety of intelligence sources. We don’t know the damage assessment. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that no harm was done, certainly this does not excuse Rove’s actions unless he somehow knew that no harm would be done. A police officer who fires his gun into a crowd of innocent people should be fired, even if his bullets don’t hit anyone.
  • Rove acted irresponsibly for a petty reason. The most plausible interpretation of Rove's motives (and the most generous to him) is that he revealed that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA was a way making more vivid the point that Wilson got his Niger assignment through inside CIA connections, rather than through a commission from the Vice President's office. Surely Rove could have clarified the institutional origins of Wilson's trip without throwing in this detail. Doing so was gratuitous.
  • Absence of proven criminality isn’t a high enough standard for White House staff, especially those who have access to sensitive intelligence information. Rove may or may not be indicted, and if he’s indicted, he may or may not be convicted. But, Rove is clearly someone who has recklessly leaked secret information to reporters in cavalier disregard for the consequences to the careers and safety of U.S. intelligence agents and for the implications to national security.
The question to be asking: Mr. President, given these facts, why is someone like Karl Rove still working for you?
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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Kudos to Mark Danner for Explaining the Importance of the Downing Street Memos

The lack of interest shown in the Downing Street Memos by the mainstream media has been astonishing. Via James Wolcott, Citizen Cain recently came across an exchange between Michael Kinsley and Mark Danner on the meaning of the Downing Street Memos and of the lack of interest that the mainstream media has shown in them. This exchange was published in the New York Review of Books, and TomDispatch has posted or linked to all of the relevant documents in this exchange, and provided helpful context and framing. It is highly recommended, particularly Danner’s evisceration of Kinsley’s assertion that:
the DSM is worthless if it is not a smoking gun [proving that President Bush had made up his mind to go to war by July 2002]-- not because I need a smoking gun to be persuaded . . . but precisely because people who don't require a smoking gun are already persuaded. And the document is just not that smoking gun.

Kinsley has backed up his words with inaction, studiously not addressing the DSM on his Los Angeles Times opinion pages except to discount their significance.

Danner’s full response is worth reading, but let me summarize some key points:

  • the DSM adds to a mountain of evidence that the administration was “fixing the facts around the policy” of going to war against Saddaam Hussein by demonstrating that the highest government officials in our closest ally believed that this was the case;
  • while a summary of a meeting among British officials cannot tell us definitively when the President had decided to go to war, the memo does show that the chief of British intelligence believed, based on recent meetings with CIA director George Tenet and other high officials in the United States, that the President had made up his mind by July 2002;
  • the British government thought that the legal case for war was weak, and discouraged the United States from going to war immediately, but instead to push for the reintroduction of U.N. weapons inspectors into Iraq in the hopes that Saddaam Hussein would reject the inspectors and provide a stronger legal basis for going to war;
  • in the view of top British officials, and almost certainly of President Bush, “the inspectors were introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible.”

Can Kinsley claim that his newspaper has adequately addressed these aspects of the DSM? Can any mainstream American newspaper?

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Orac Knows Good Blogging

Over at Respectful Insolence, Orac hosts the thirteenth Skeptics circle, rounding up all the best skeptical blogging from the last fortnight. He finds much good skepticism about the purported connection between mercury in vaccines and autism. Citizen Cain feels compelled to say that that Orac has shown great wisdom in his selection of posts.
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Brooks Embarrasses Citizen Cain

David Brooks takes as his theme in today’s New York Times column, Judge Roberts, "how do I love thee? Let me count the ways." Oops sorry, that’s not right. It’s "Roberts nomination, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways" (emphasis added).

How do you embarrass me, David Brooks? Let me count the ways. Brooks loves the nomination because it shows the greatness of the Dear Leader, and because the nominee is a conservative who isn’t an ideological warrior, one who lacks the outsider/dissident mentality. How can we tell? Because Roberts lives in DC’s Maryland suburbs, not the Virginia ones. Because Roberts "submitted his wedding notice to the wedding page of The New York Times, which is perceived as alien turf by ideological conservatives." (I'm not kidding! Check the link) Because his wife is active "in the culturally heterodox Feminists for Life."

I’d like to explain how stupid this is, but I’m too embarrassed to go on. So instead I will link to Andrew Sullivan, who provides a brief explanation.
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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Exciting Insider Account of the Selection of Judge Roberts!

The White House, naturally, wants to get the best coverage possible regarding the President’s selection of Judge John G. Roberts for the Supreme Court. Not only do they want to get positive reviews of the nominee himself, but they want coverage that portrays the President as making his choice in a way that is thoughtful, sincere and above politics.

But how to get this kind of coverage? The President and his aides, of course, can tell the press that he considered only the moral and intellectual qualities of the nominee, and that he never considered politics. They can describe the extensive research and interviewing the President did before making his choice. But even if this produces press stories quoting these assertions, who in the cynical public will believe it? Of course they’re going to say that! And besides, a press corps that’s doing its job will also quote the President’s opponents asserting that his choice reflects political calculation, is ill-considered, etc.

The Bush White House has found a better way: throw reporters a few "insider" details on the selection process that they can pass on to their readers as if they were real insights into the President’s thinking. You might even be able to get reporters to build entire stories around these carefully-selected details, leaving out any opinions from non-White House Sources. Offer them "a rare peek into the president's decision-making and his first nomination to the Supreme Court," in the words of Edward Chen in the Los Angeles Times and on the Seattle Times website. Chen reports that this "rare peek" was provided in a briefing to reporters by senior aides counselor Dan Bartlett and press secretary Scott McClellan.

What do we learn in this rare peek? For one, we learn that Bush interrupted a lunch with Australian Prime Minister John Howard to call Roberts and offer him the job. He returned from his call to his lunch immediately after Bush made the offer to Roberts and Roberts accepted, Bush told his lunchtime guest "I just offered the job to a great, smart 50-year-old lawyer who agreed to sit on the bench."

Wow! This isn’t just spin! This is what Bush spontaneously offered up to his buddy the Prime Minister! And what Scott McClellan spoon fed to Chen.

But I shouldn’t pick on Chen, because he at least puts this anecdote near the end of his story. Elizabeth Bumiller, writing in the New York Times, actually leads with this nicely-packaged inanity. If Bumiller didn’t exist, the White House would have to invent her.

Both Chen and Bumiller also quote Barlett enthusing that Roberts’s "credentials just jumped off the page." Bumiller adds this lovely, spoon-fed detail:

By July 5, when Mr. Bush left for a trip to Denmark and an international summit in Scotland, he had with him a thick packet of information of 11 finalists, winnowed from what Mr. Bartlett called an extensive "evergreen" list of potential Supreme Court nominees that the administration has kept and revised since Mr. Bush's first days in the White House.
Our President sure is a hard worker, lugging that "thick packet" all around Europe. And thorough too. Why he studied up on no less than 11 choice finalists!

McClellan and Barlett spins Chen so well that he forgets to offer any opposing views in his 21-paragraph story. In her 18 paragraphs, Bumiller offers only a one sentence summary of the cynical Washington perspective on the timing of the nomination, which she then allows Bartlett to knock down.

Both Republicans and Democrats said that the speeded-up timing - administration officials had at one point told reporters to expect an announcement in the last week of July - would have the effect of pushing news of Karl Rove and the federal investigation into who leaked the name of a C.I.A. officer off the front pages, at least for a time. But in a briefing to reporters shortly before Mr. Bush's announcement, Mr. Bartlett insisted that the president's timing had nothing to do with Mr. Rove and everything to do with giving the Senate adequate time before its recess next week to meet Judge Roberts and deal with the enormous amount of paperwork and logistics such a nomination requires.

"This was driven by that time clock," Mr. Bartlett said.

One other thing that both Chen and Bumiller forget to include in their stories about the President’s selection process– the part where he’s supposed to seek the advice of the Senate. Given that these are stories about the selection process, and given that consultation (or the lack thereof) with the Senate on judicial nominees has been a huge issue of late, you would think that our intrepid reporters might have asked their White House briefers how the opinions of the various Senators Bush consulted with impacted his decision. They might have even called some of these Senators to ask what they thought of Bush’s choice. But why do reporting when you can just write down exciting insider details dictated to you by White House aides?
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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

No One's Perfect

An alert and careful reader kindly points out that Citizen Cain made a slight error in his July 15 post on autism and mercury. The table stated incorrectly that there were 7,389 children with autism aged 6-9 in the California Department of Developmental Services case load. In fact, there were 7,369 such children. This error, which does not impact the conclusions of the post, has been corrected.
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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Tierney gets the Plame Facts Wrong

In today's New York Times, John Tierney explains why it was no big deal for White House operatives to reveal that Joseph Wilson's wife (Valerie Plame) was a CIA operative. Here are a couple of the "facts" that Tierney provides:
The law [forbidding disclosure of an undercover CIA agent's identity] doesn't seem to apply to Ms. Wilson because she apparently hadn't been posted abroad during the five previous years.
Tierney doesn't explain how he knows this "apparent" fact. Whether Plame had been posted abroad in the previous five years has been a subject of speculation, but Citizen Cain is unaware of definitive information either way. Moreover, the fact that the CIA referred this matter to the Justice Department indicates that the CIA believed that a crime had been committed. An anonomous CIA source told Knight-Ridder in 2003, "If she was not undercover, we would have no reason to file a criminal referral."

. . . it turns out she had been working for years at C.I.A. headquarters, not exactly a deep-cover position.

It is true that Plame worked at CIA headquarters. According to former CIA officer Larry Johnson, Plame was among a group of CIA officers who work at headquarters but periodically undertake overseas missions. Such officers must maintain their cover. Furthermore, the revelation that Plame was a CIA operative may jeopardized other operatives as well. Vince Cannistraro, formerly the chief of counterterrorism operations and analysis for the CIA told Knight-Ridder that the work of other CIA officers could be compromised because their cover involved Plame's front company, Brewster-Jennings.
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Friday, July 15, 2005

Kirby Flubs the Autism Data

David Kirby, writer for the New York Times and author of Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic, triumphantly blogs in the Huffington Post that new data from California supports the notion that thimerosal in infant vaccines has been responsible for an increase in the incidence of autism, and that the removal of most of the mercury in childhood vaccines in 1999 and 2000 is correspondingly beginning to cause a decrease in autism incidence. He’s wrong.

First, his argument. Kirby believes that real world rates of autism have increased dramatically in recent decades, and that there is strong evidence implicating exposure to thimerosal as the cause of this increase. Thimerosal is a preservative that contains ethylmercury. The more standard scientific theories hold that actual incidence of autism has not changed appreciably over time, but rather that there has been increased detection of autism as a result of a variety of factors, including loosened diagnostic criteria, increased awareness, and increased availability of social services for autistic children. Reports by the Institutes of Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics have rejected the link between autism and thimerosal. But the theory lives on, most notably in Robert Kennedy’s recent Rolling Stone article, which has been persuasively critiqued here and here and here.

One way to resolve the issue, will be to evaluate whether autism rates go down among the cohort of children born after 1999 who are exposed to greatly reduced levels of thimerosal in vaccines. An appreciable decrease in these rates would provide strong evidence for the theory that mercury in vaccines has contributed to autism. Conversely, no change or an increase in autism incidence among these children would support the idea that mercury in vaccines has nothing or little to do with autism incidence.

Now Kirby claims that new data indicates that "fewer children with full-blown autism entered the system" of California social services provided to autistic persons in 2003 than in 2002, and fewer in 2004 than in 2003. This trend continues, he says, through the middle of 2005. Moreover, this trend corresponds perfectly with what you would expect if mercury in vaccines were an important cause of autism, since autism is most often diagnosed among children aged 3 to 5.

Not so fast. The data that Kirby relies on is not data on new cases. Rather, the California Department of Developmental Services reports on the total number of people with autism registered to receive services. Kirby derives an estimate of children who enter the system in 2004, for instance, by subtracting the total number of cases within the system at end of 2003 from the total number of cases in the system at the end of 2004. Kirby calls the change in total cases "new autism diagnoses," which it is not. The Autism Diva discusses some of the problems with using the California caseload data as a substitute for actual data on incidence.

But let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that we’re going to set aside these concerns, and use the California data to evaluate changes in autism. Has Kirby made the best use of the available California data? Not at all. California reports not only total caseload, but also caseload by age group, including 3-5 year olds and 6-9 year olds. Surely, using this data is better than using the change in total caseload if our objective is to compare autism incidence among children born in 1999 and earlier, who were exposed to high levels of mercury in vaccines, with autism incidence among children born in 2000 and later, who were exposed to much lower levels. So here are the case loads, by quarter, starting in the third quarter of 2002, for 3-5 year olds and 6-9 year olds. At the beginning of this period all children in the 3-5 year old category would have been in 1999 or earlier. By the end, nearly all would have been born after 1999.



Source: Compiled by Citizen Cain from http://www.dds.ca.gov/FactsStats/quarterly.cfm
Note: One incorrect figure in the table was corrected on 7/19/05.

As you can see, caseload in the 3-5 year old group increased during every quarter, at a fairly constant rate, even as exposure to mercury in vaccines was decreasing. Completely the opposite of the picture portrayed by Kirby! Moreover, caseload over this period increased by 38 percent among 3-5 year olds, but by only 34 percent among 6-9 year olds, although even by mid-2005 nearly all of the children in this category were born prior to 1999. If the thimerosal-autism theory were correct, caseloads should have been increasing faster in the 6-9 year old category, in which there has been essentially no change in thimerosal exposure, than among the 3-5 year old category, in which thimerosal exposure has plummeted.

So, if we’re going to trust the California data, it’s pretty clearly telling us that removing thimerosal from infant vaccines isn’t an effective way to reduce autism. Not surprising, because autism rates haven’t decreased in other countries where thimerosal has been removed from vaccines.

I hope Kirby will correct the record.

One final point: even though the evidence of a thimerosal-autism connection is very weak, REMOVING THIMEROSAL FROM VACCINES WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin, and reducing preventable exposures was a prudent public health measure.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Pitts Trashes Eight Supremes

Leonard Pitts loves Sanda Day O'Connor, but can't stand the other eight. In today's Chicago Tribune, Pitts opines that the retiring O'Connor is "the one justice on the U.S. Supreme Court who did not belong body and soul to either the liberal or conservative wings, who could not be considered in the pocket of either extreme." A nice thing to say about O'Connor, but awfully harsh about the other eight. What evidence does Pitts provide to back up his charge against all the Supremes but one? None, zip, zero. It hardly seems fair to brand Souter, Ginsberg and Anthony Kennedy with the extremist label. Hell, without providing evidence, it isn't fair to call Scalia an extremist.

But surely Pitts provides evidence of O'Connor's admirable jurisprudence? Only this-- on the one hand, she "had it right when she sided with the majority this year in ruling that it's unconstitutional to put a framed copy of the 10 Commandments on a courthouse wall." On the other hand, "she could hardly have been more wrong when she joined the majority in rejecting a 1987 challenge to the death penalty on grounds of racial discrimination." You see, the great thing about O'Connor is how balanced she was--sometimes she was right, and sometimes she was wrong. A different definition of balance. The kind a liberal columnist would love.
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Monday, July 11, 2005

A Unique Argument against Secularism

William Raspberry gives over his column in today's Washington Post to uncritical regurgitation of the opinions of Kevin "Seamus" Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Hasson believes that efforts to enforce secularism in government lead inevitably to “government hostility to publicly expressed religion.” In Hasson’s perspective, government neutrality towards religion equals government hostility towards religion. Thus, when the Court prohibits a Kentucky courthouse from exhibiting framed copies of the Ten Commandments, the Court is seeking to “expunge religion from public life” in Raspberry’s approving summary of Hasson’s views. Neither Hasson nor Raspberry seem to have considered that public life has a lot of room for expressions of religion that are not endorsed by government.

But Hasson and Raspberry have another argument up their sleeve, one you probably haven’t come across before. Hasson prefers to say that Constitution requires that the government must be “temporal,” but that it need not be “secular.” What’s the distinction? Hassan says, “Temporal means the here and now, without reference to the hereafter. Our government was designed to be temporal, but you have only to look at the words and actions of the Founders to understand that they had no interest in the sort of secularity the court now seeks to enforce."

So how does the temporal-secular distinction help us decide what religious expressions the government can make, and which it cannot? You won’t find out in Raspberry’s column, which in a non-sequitur proceeds to endorse the individual right of religious self-expression. But you will find the following extraordinary assertion:

But it's not just in impossibly arcane Supreme Court decisions that "secular"
plays us false, says Hasson. "It gets us in needless trouble internationally as
well. The Arabic word for secular is almehni, meaning godless. So when Muslim
fundamentalists hear us talk about secular government, they think we mean, quite
literally, a godless government. Temporal translates into another Arabic word
entirely, dunyawi, or worldly.

Ah. So let’s alter our interpretation of the Bill of Rights so that when our discourse is translated into Arabic, it will be less offensive to Muslim fundamentalists. That’s a slippery slope we don’t want to start down.
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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Bogus Linguistics in the NY Times

William Safire's "On Language" column, as Steven Pinker has argued, may not be sophisticated about linguistics, but at least it's generally inoffensive and, at its best, fun. If only the same could be said of Leslie Savan's effort on "popspeak," substituting for Safire today. She defines popspeak as words and phrases, borrowed from mass media "that pop out of their surround, that have built in applause signs and that, if inflected properly, step into the spotlight as verbal celebrities." Her examples include:
  • I don't think so
  • step up to the plate
  • think outside the box
  • give back to the community
  • you da man!
  • don't even think about it
  • slam dunk (as in it's a slam dunk case)
  • it's show time.

These catch phrases, Savan asserts, give us "a certian fuzzy freedom to barge through any second thoughts" and have an extraordinary, nefarious power. Believe it or not, she argues that such phrases were instrumental in leading to the invasion of Iraq. She gives two examples, taken from Plan of Attack, by Bob Woodward. First, when Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, wasn't convinced that the United States would follow through after invading Iraq and go all the way to Baghdad to depose Sadaam Hussein, Dick Cheney managed to persuade him by saying that "once we start [the war], Sadaam is toast." Second, when President Bush was concerned that the public would not be persuaded by pre-war evidence that Sadaam Hussein was actively seeking weaspons of mass destruction, CIA director George Tenet asserted that the administration had a "slam dunk case." As the result of his use of this phrase "the mood in the White House shifted from doubt to confidence."

I would argue that this is lousy history, particularly the notion that Tenet used a special vodoo to turn the President's brain and make him act against his better judgement. But more to the point, it's lousy linguistics. What reason is there to believe that such phrases have special power to "barge through any second thoughts?" If Cheney had said, "Mr. Ambassador, we are absolutely committed to following through and ensuring that Sadaam regime is destroyed," would Bandar have remained unconvinced? After all, on this particular point Cheney was telling the truth, so it's hard to see why Bandar should have remained unconvinced. If Tenet had said, "Mr. President, it's absolutely certain that Sadaam is pursing WMD, and we will have no trouble persuading the public when we marshall all of the facts," would the outcome have been any different?

But Savan seems to believe that these phrases turn somehow banish thought in both the user and the listener. In fact, using one of these phrases is "in more ways than one, a no-brainer" and (humorously) "you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that too much pop talk could prevent you from becoming a brain surgeon" or from thinking outside the box.

So using "popspeak" is a great way to persuade people against their better judgement, and also a way to become stupid yourself. People whose speech is influenced by popular culture are idiots, but idiots with awesome persuasive power. Does anyone really believe this elitist nonsense? Why would the New York Times print it?

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Dean Feels the White House's Pain

David Broder has been talking to White House operatives, and he feels their pain. Today's Washington Post column spends five paragraphs covering "the president's own deep sense of grievance about the Democrats' past treatment of his judicial nominees." Movingly, the Dean portrays the "emotional tone" of White House aides as "they recount their frustration" over nominees who have had their appointments delayed for years because of "obstinate" Democrats.

After drying his eyes, Broder devotes a sentence to explaining that "many Democratic senators feel passionately that Bush has abused the system" by nominating judges who are outside the mainstream. Then he goes on, as one would expect from the Dean, to call wistfully for a "compromise choice," a "politician" who will have "bipartisan support."

But instead of describing the hurt feelings of the President and his men, mightn't it have been more useful to provide an evaluation of whether their grievances are justified? After all, it's hard to know when feelings are genuine, and false outrage is a useful political tool. But some context would be appreciated. How about evaluating of whether there is anything unusual about how the President's judicial nominees have been treated?

Kevin Drum did just that in a superb Post column back in January, and found that Democrats used the filibuster to block Bush nominees 10 times-- more by far than in previous presidential terms. However, Drum noted, the Democrats utilized the filibuster because the Republican Senate majority removed every other option that the minority party has traditionally been able to use to block nominees that they found unacceptable. First, the ability of one senator from a nominee's home state to block his confirmation was eliminated. Then the Republicans prevented even both home state senators from blocking a nominee. Finally, they eliminated a rule that stated that at least one minority member of the judiciary committee had to agree before a nomination could be sent to the floor.

By making full use of these tools during the Clinton era, the Republican Senate blocked far more of President Clinton's nominees than Democrats have filibustered Bush nominees. The Christian Science monitor noted back in 2003 that 60 of Clinton's judicial nominees never even got a hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee as a result of various blocking strategies. So genuine or not, is Republican anger justified? Have the Democrats been obstinate and unfair? You won't find out by reading David Broder.
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The Republicans Have Really Degenerated. To Richard Cohen, They're Almost as Bad as Democrats

In today's Washington Post, "liberal" lion Richard Cohen describes how the White House is trying to signal to the Republican right-wing to back off its criticism of the potential appointment of Alberto Gonzalez and let the President make his own choice. Then he serves up this bit of wisdom:
Clearly, Karl Rove and others were sensing that the GOP was beginning to look like the Democratic Party -- obligated to one special-interest group after another and to hell with the general public.

Wow. I guess we can be thankful that the Republicans are only "beginning" to look like the Democrats. Just imagine how terrible it would be if they were as bad as those nasty Dems. I wonder what the GOP would have to do before a liberal columnist could say that they actually as bad as or worse that the Democrats. Citizen Cain would have thought that it might be enough to give oil, coal, gas, and nuclear interests a dominant role in developing the administration's energy plan, to put the interests of pharmaceutical companies and HMOs above the interests of seniors and taxpayers in the prescription drug bill, to abandon free trade principles when it's politically advantageous or when industry supporters want you to, and to let a former oil industry lobbyist re-write scientific reports on global warming.

But hey, at least they aren't giving away the store to minorities and labor unions. If Richard Cohen weren't around as a liberal columnist, the Right would have to invent him.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Global Warming Skeptic Departs from His Script

In today's Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins has some fun with global warming. But in doing so, he only half-heartedly recites the standard script of the global warming sceptic-- that his scepticism is motivated by a disintersted look at the science. As he departs from this script, he reveals another side of the global warming sceptic-- someone who thinks that science is just a game used to justify preconceptions and pursue self-interest.

A global warming sceptic such as the President, Jenkins asserts, is like a child who assertively questions the existence of Santa Claus. But instead of praising the child's "reason and practicality," the "grown-ups in the room mutter about his poor social skills." Ha! Get it? Bush is like a child who doubts the existence of Santa Claus! The "grown-ups in the room" seem to be the other leaders of the G-8 countries, who apparently go along with the fiction of global warming just because it would be socially awkward not to.

This appears to be a new argument against global warming; Citizen Cain has not before encountered the idea that mature person don't really believes in global warming, but just go along with the idea so as not to spoil the mood. But that's just what Jenkins argues, with respect to business leaders who have embraced the need to address global warming, such as John Browne of British Petroleum. If you "listen between the lines" of the statements of these businessmen (with the exception of Shell's chairman, Lord Oxburgh), they're going along with the consensus not because they accept "the inevitability of carbon-driven global warming." Rather, these tycoons "see a cornucopia of tax breaks flowing from emerging Western consensus to treat carbon as a problem."

Maybe so. But the natural function of a businessman is, after all, to seek opportunities for profit, not to opine on climate science. Shouldn't we turn to scientists rather than businessmen for the grown-up opinion on the existence or non-existence of global warming? Jenkins recites the usual sceptical words about how the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and climate is a "conundrum" and a "puzzle," and how predictions of disaster are based on a "dismayingly large speculative element." But when Jenkins gets around to citing an actual scientist, he starts to get very interesting and, perhaps unintentially revealing.

Jenkins cites only one climate scientist in support of his view-- the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels. But strangely, Jenkins doesn't call him a climate scientist, but rather an "opponent of mandatory carbon restraints." Michaels, says Jenkins, "readily concede(s) the claim that CO2 is raising the earth's temperature." Say what? The grown up in the room seems to believe in Santa Claus! What's going on here? Jenkins explains that Michaels makes this concession "because all the evidence points to the effect being small and innocuous."

So let's be clear. Jenkins is saying that Michaels concedes the reality of global warming only because he also has evidence that the effect with be "small and innocuous." Not because the evidence says that global warming is real, but because he can concede the point and still get away with being an "opponent of mandatory carbon restrictions." Competing theories which argue that even small changes in average temperature could have very serious consequences are similarly not motivated by scientific work, but rather have been "forced" by the desire to maintain "dire climate scenarios."

Surely Michaels would not agree with Jenkins' description of his scientific process. When Michaels has been assailed because his research is funded by energy interests, he has defended himself as a disinterested scientist who justs needs to get his funding where he can find it, and who conducts his work without regard to what his funders want. And I'm not saying he isn't. But the idea of disinterested science sure doesn't seem to exist in Jenkins' world.

A final word about Michaels. While Jenkins portrays a situation where the weakness of global warming theories has been revealed, Michaels could be used as an example of how the reality of global warming has been confirmed. Michaels is a leading propent of the view that global warming isn't a dire problem. But even he has opined that "It's easy to establish that the warming that began around 1970 is indeed largely from human influence." He further argues that if the warming proceeds at a constant rate, the average global temperature will rise about 1.2°F over the next half-century, which is at the lowest end of the range predicted by most climatological models. Michaels believes that warming will proceed at a constant rate, but other scientists, disagree. Other scientists also argue that even a small average rise in temperature could be accompanied by more drastic changes in climate on a local level.
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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Kristof, Friend of the Bush Administration

The incomparable Bob Somerby points out the foolishness of today's New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof, in which the "liberal" pundit spends nine paragraphs praising the Bush administration's Africa aid policy and denigrating the Clinton administration and liberals generally, before admitting that he has created a "caricature." Kristof concludes his column with a quick on-the-other-hand -- because some conservatives "go nuts" over anything with "a whiff of sex," Bush has cut funds for the U.N. Population Fund and has blindly opposed condoms as an AIDS prevention strategy, resulting in the needless deaths of Africans. Oh yes, and Bush is also "stingy" with aid funds, resisting the call of the G-8 for additional funds, because "he thinks the sums are better spent on cutting the taxes of the richest people on earth than on saving the lives of the poorest."

But needless deaths of the poorest are mere trifles apparently, because Kristof still sees fit to call this stingy man "A Friend of Africa" who has "done much more for Africa than Bill Clinton ever did." Not only that, but "conservatives generally, have in many ways been great for the developing world." Why these surprising conclusions? It's worth taking a closer look.

Kristof provides two arguments for Bush/conservative superiority on aid to Africa. First, he has increased aid spending; second, he has spent aid money more wisely.

Regarding the level of aid spending, Kristof asserts that Bush has increased "the money actually spent for aid there by two-thirds so far, and setting in motion an eventual tripling of aid for Africa." Strange construction that-- "setting in motion an eventual tripling." This seems to refer to the Bush administration's pledge to double aid by 2010 (after it is out of office, incidentally); combined with the increase to date, this would represent a tripling. The Brookings Institution recently published a report that, among other criticisms, takes the Bush administration to task for deceptively claiming to have already tripled aid, when in fact it has increased aid by only 56 percent in real terms-- or 67 percent in nominal dollars. Kristof ignores inflation in giving Bush credit for 67 percent.

Kristof also accuses liberals of "putting too much faith in aid itself." Then he concludes by calling Bush stingy on African aid. Is that clear? Bush is great because he's increased aid for African countries. But liberals are bad because they focus too much on "aid itself." But Bush is bad too because he's too stingy with aid.

Obviously, this "argument" is a mess, but the point remains that Bush has increased aid above what it was during the Clinton administration. So if Bush is stingy, then Clinton must have been stingier, right? Not necessarily, because this line of thought ignores the role of Congress. In 2003, the Center for Global Development published a report showing that the amount of aid to Africa has been roughly similar during Republican and Democratic presidencies, but that aid is "unambiguously lower" when the president and both houses of Congress are from opposing parties. The reason seems to be that while presidents favor higher aid levels to further their foreign policy goals, Congress is more suspicious of aid, especially if the president is from the other party. The lowest aid levels of all occur when a Democratic president faces a Republican congress, as Clinton did for six of his eight years. The report offers speculation on why this combination produces lower aid levels-- perhaps it is because the public, and by extension Congress, have greater trust in Republican foreign policy; perhaps the diverse and fragmented Democratic constituency for aid makes it more difficult for Democratatic presidents to marshall support for aid in the face of a hostile congress; and perhaps "Republican Congresses are more partisan than Democratic ones with respect to African aid."

As for the argument that conservatives spend aid money more wisely; obviously this is a judgment call. But couldn't Kristof find an aid expert, or an African aid recipient, that he could cite in support of his judgment? Apparently not. Nor could he marshal evidence to make a coherent argument about the differences in aid policy between liberals and conservatives:
The liberal approach to helping the poor is sometimes to sponsor a U.N. conference and give ringing speeches calling for changed laws and more international assistance.
Boy, those liberals sure are idiots! Sometimes. All they do (sometimes) is sponsor U.N. conferences. But he sure likes the conservative approach:
In contrast, a standard conservative approach is to sponsor a missionary hospital or school. One magnificent example is the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, where missionary doctors repair obstetric injuries that have left Ethiopian women incontinent.
Wow. That sounds great. And in all sincerity, I recommend Kristof's accompanying "op-ed special report" on this hospital, which seems to be doing wonderful work. But surely Kristof isn't claiming that the Clinton administration squandered the Africa development aid budget on U.N. conferences! What then, is the complaint? Did the Clinton administration fail to spend money on missionary hospitals? If so, what did they spend development on? Kristof doesn't say. He just provides a meaningless apples-to-oranges "contrast."

Kristof might have written a fine column on the work that Christian aid groups are doing in Africa, or on the negative impacts on Africans of Bush administration policies towards family planning and AIDS, or on the positive aspects of Bush's Africa policies. He might even have composed a measured assessment of the differing philosophies of conservatives and liberals towards development aid. But instead he choose to flatter the Bush administration and draw a ridiculous caricature of liberals. All in a day's work for a liberal pundit.
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Manifesto

While the American press produces much valuable journalism, and while some reporters are hardworking, intelligent and fearless, Citizen Cain believes that mainstream media outlets produce a large amount of weak, biased and sloppy journalism. Citizen Cain further believes that the right-wing in this country has successfully created a climate in which a journalist will face less criticism for attacking liberals than conservatives, and more ridicule for accepting uncritically the talking points of liberals than conservatives. Since the average journalist is as conformist and fearful of power as the average waitress or banker, and his employers probably more so, the state of discourse in this country has degenerated, distorted by an eagerness to diminish progressive voices and to flatter conservatives.

The current state of journalism in this country is so poor that an ordinary citizen, armed only with the ability to read carefully and to reason logically, can spot conservative bias in much journalistic product. Citizen Cain is such a citizen, and hereby pledges to make a humble contribution to the political conversation in this country by scrutinizing mainstream media for bias and for poor reasoning in the service of conformity to power. Citizen Cain expects to find a lot of conservative bias, but where liberal bias appears, Citizen Cain will expose that too.

Since Citizen Cain must work for a living, this blog will not attempt a comprehensive review of daily journalism, but rather will focus (but not exclusively) on punditry in mainstream media outlets. While the conservative media have grown in power, it is still the mainstream media (incorrectly called the "liberal media") that has the most influence. Accordingly, Citizen Cain will pay closer attention to the New York Times and MSNBC than to the Washington Times and Fox News. Also, this blog will focus on punditry that touches on areas where Citizen Cain has a little bit more knowledge than the average citizen-- foreign policy, federal budgets, and environmental policy.

I hope you enjoy this blog.
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