Archive for July, 2010

Richard Posner has a new piece in the New Republic complaining about WaPo’s Dana Priest’s excellent Top Secret America series (seriously, if you haven’t read it, read it already). He mostly kvetches that the series doesn’t analyze in detail the shortcomings of the intelligence community and that the series is almost entirely a complaint about size. But, of course, size does matter; and money does matter, too.

Posner asks a rhetorical question:

Although the national security state has about 100,000 employees and annual expenditures of $75 billion, IBM has four times as many employees and yearly costs approaching the same amount. Is IBM too large? Is $75 billion, which is roughly one-half of one percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, too much to spend on the full range of intelligence activities in which the world’s most powerful and globally committed nation—a nation at war and struggling against terrorism on many fronts, including the home front—is compelled to engage?

The answer, of course, is YES. If we’re talking about perspective, Race to the Top — an education grant for which states fundamentally reorganized their education systems — totaled 4.3 billion dollars. NASA (you know, those guys that put things in space) has a budget of 18 billion dollars (and never has enough money to stay afloat). In combined humanitarian and military foreign aid (minus Afghanistan and Iraq), the U.S. spends about 50 billion dollars. The entire State Department budget is only 16 billion dollars.

Besides, Posner misses the point of the articles themselves. The solution to all of America’s intelligence problems since 9/11 has been to simply throw money at the failure. This has ballooned the size of the National Security State, but it has done little to actually improve security. I would argue that better trained diplomats with actual knowledge of the languages and cultures of the areas they serve would be a much better use of our money.

Just as the growth of the military-industrial complex prompted Eisenhower to give his fateful warning, so should we be vigilant of the growth of the security-industrial complex. As we pile more and more money into our security and intelligence networks, we should probably ask how and why our money is being spent.

No matter what Posner says, size and complexity do matter.

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TIME has an extremely disingenous and manipulative cover for their newest edition:

Editor Richard Stengel explains his decision. The photo is of Aisha, an 18-year-old whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban. Despite what the title implies, what Stengel doesn’t tell you is that this happened to her during our war with Afghanistan, while tens of thousands of US soldiers were in the country. If we couldn’t stop it then, what will? The war cheerleaders, apologists, and profiteers often like to use rhetoric that makes it seem like they have a monopoly on, well, take your pick: seriousness, patriotism, understanding of what’s at stake, etc. But Sengel is mostly flogging a straw-man here. He sums it up:

“In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening.”

We all – or at least more of us than Stengel acknowledges – know and understand that the Taliban are bad for women. But if Stengel were so damn committed to showing us “windows into reality,” then why is TIME not running a cover photo of dozens of civilians killed in a strike, or of dead or wounded soldiers? The answer, which Stengel says up front, is that,

“The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war.”

Well, we can’t have that, can we? The Afghanistan war is already the longest war in US history. But it’s always just a few more tens of thousands of soldiers, or a few more hundred deaths, or a few more billion dollars, or a few more months or years.

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Look! Amish!

A new study indicates that the Amish population is growing quickly (5% a year), particularly compared with many mainstream religious groups, which have seen attendance and participation fall off.

This may seem strange, since being Amish is a fairly restrictive lifestyle. The study suggests that large family size and high retention rate help the Amish community maintain its growth rate, but one wonders, what keeps the retention rate high? After all, it’s not as if the Amish are isolated from their technology-using, polyester-wearing kin.

One thing, incidentally, that may keep the Amish together is the fairly heterodox, locally-controlled way in which the religion is administered. When compared with, say, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism/Episcopalianism, or Mormonism, the Amish community is locally administered, because it is based on territory, not creed. This allows for a flexible code of rules, even though it may appear to outsiders to be quite strict. The nature of the organization makes it more nimble. It should be unsurprising that the religious groups in the US with the highest retention rate are Hindus and Jews, both of which have occasionally strict guidelines, but which also have a more loose central structure.

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The new conventional wisdom on WikiLeaks’ massive Afghanistan document leak — to which I mostly subscribe — is that there is not too much new in the documents that we didn’t already know. (James Fallows has the most useful criticism of this position here.) There is a decided difference between the primary document history provided in the WikiLeaks leak and the public speeches and rhetoric of the Obama and Bush Administrations. Some specific discrepancies stand out — such as those that disagree with the United Nations or Pentagon public statements about civilian casualties, as well as the smoking gun of Task Force 373 (the secret assassination squad for top Taliban officials).

Nevertheless, one thing this massive document dump shows is that most of it doesn’t have to be secret at all! I mean, just because you stamp TOP SECRET on it doesn’t mean it will remain unknown. Task Force 373 has been rumored for quite some time, while the huge number of civilian casualties is well-known as an impediment to defeating the Taliban. What in the documents really needed to stay secret? If the Pentagon, rather than Wikileaks, had released the War Logs on a Friday afternoon as a declassification dump, would there be quite so much hubbub? The need for secrecy makes these documents seem more valuable than, say, the unclassified reports that the Defense Department puts out (PDF).

The proliferation of the “secret” world may not seem that dramatic over the last 10 years, but Dana Priest and William Arkin’s excellent WaPo series on the secret-industrial complex illustrates the explosion of people, businesses and money now involved in secret intelligence. And what do all these secrets get us? Well, not a whole lot. The secrets just require more money to protect them and more people to sift through them.

What is the danger of making most of these documents public? If “everyone” knew the information already, why not just have a more transparent system?

The danger in secrets is that they say to the public “some things are too dangerous for you to know.” This both elevates the power of the people who have access to the secrets and diminishes the power of the people who don’t. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily make the people in charge any better informed; it just changes the power equation. What WikiLeaks and other leakers do is attempt to change that power equation. The only way to diminish the power of secrets is to make them well-known.

Kevin Drum once excerpted a bit of Daniel Ellsberg (the leaker of the Pentagon Papers), which I find particularly relevant during this discussion of secrets. In 1968, Henry Kissinger, an academic new to the federal government, asked Ellsberg for advice. Ellsberg recalls:

“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something I wish I had been told years ago. You’ve been a consultant for a long time, and you’ve dealt a great deal with top secret information. But you’re about to receive a whole slew of special clearances, maybe fifteen or twenty of them, that are higher than top secret.

“I’ve had a number of these myself, and I’ve known other people who have just acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed. And the effects of reading the information that they will make available to you.

“First, you’ll be exhilarated by some of this new information, and by having it all — so much! incredible! — suddenly available to you. But second, almost as fast, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having literally rubbed shoulders for over a decade with some officials and consultants who did have access to all this information you didn’t know about and didn’t know they had, and you’ll be stunned that they kept that secret from you so well.

“You will feel like a fool, and that will last for about two weeks. Then, after you’ve started reading all this daily intelligence input and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information, which is much more closely held than mere top secret data, you will forget there ever was a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and most others don’t….and that all those other people are fools.

“Over a longer period of time — not too long, but a matter of two or three years — you’ll eventually become aware of the limitations of this information. There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it’s often inaccurate, and it can lead you astray just as much as the New York Times can. But that takes a while to learn.

“In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues….and with myself.

“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances only from the point of view of what you want him to believe and what impression you want him to go away with, since you’ll have to lie carefully to him about what you know. In effect, you will have to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.”

….Kissinger hadn’t interrupted this long warning. As I’ve said, he could be a good listener, and he listened soberly. He seemed to understand that it was heartfelt, and he didn’t take it as patronizing, as I’d feared. But I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.

No one says with more candor what Ellsberg reveals here — keeping too many secrets is bad for the people making decisions and the people who need to be informed about those decisions. Those in power will be too busy deciding what to say and what not to say in order to manipulate public opinion, that they will lose sight of the fact that they are beholden to the public they want to manipulate.

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What do you do when you discover a new song that you really, really like? Some people might go out and buy the album, or maybe scout for concert tickets. Or, maybe you rip a torrent or buy it off iTunes and add it to a playlist. I, on the other hand, almost always do the same thing: I listen to it like 20 times in a row on Youtube. I won’t add much further comment to this besides posting the video (thus the “Useless Bullshit” tag), but still, something about this song hits all my awesomesauce cylinders.

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Oh yeah, I’m back from vacation.

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A black woman’s father is murdered by a white man. He doesn’t go to jail.

The KKK burned a cross into her yard.

The black woman gets a job helping farmers. She discusses her original difficulty in helping a white farmer, but ultimately triumphs and helps save his farm.

The white farmer and his wife say to this day that this woman helped save their farm.

The black woman, decades after the incident she described, gets fired for being racist against white people.

The media spins this bullshit story, beats it to death, and knocks out of place any other news.

Like John Cole says, the reason the right wing hate machine does this shit is because this shit works. I’m sure NYT public editor Clark Hoyt will reaffirm that he is very sorry that the media aren’t paying enough attention to right-wing news and are overlooking these important stories. To compensate, they’ll all go along for the ride the next time Andrew Breitbart or whomever does this.

And while I apologize for not updating the blog much recently, it’s mostly because I’ve traditionally written mostly on politics, and stuff like this disgusts me to the point that I tune it out and have nothing to say. I’ll pick some new, better topics.

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