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The thoughts and theories of a guy who basically should have gone to bed hours ago.

I know, I know - what's the point? But look at it this way - I stayed up late writing it, but you're reading it...

Let's call ourselves even & move on, OK?

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Lileks on rites and rights

Today's Screedblog entry from James Lileks covers two topics: faith and George W. Bush. He better watch it - this kind of thing could catch on...

On faith, he quotes a Sunday Strib editorial (not available online) which suggests that:

Regular formal worship really does seem to improve a family's economic outcomes, increased children's chances of graduating from high school and reduce the likelihood of getting divorced or going on welfare.

I think the most useful thing I learned in my freshman year's Statistics 101 class was the difference between causation and causality. Comes up all the time. To wit: Has this study proven that religious people are richer, smarter and more happily married? Or has it proven that rich, smart and happily married people are more likely to be religious? Or, perhaps, it proves that folks who meet certain other criteria (not studied here) are richer, smarter, more happily married and more religious as a result.

None of which matters, of course, unless someone is trying to suggest that becoming more religious will make you richer or smarter or solve your marital problems. There's no control group for that kind of statement.

On Bush, Lileks flames those who worry more about the government trying to spy on us than the terrorists trying to kill us:

If President Clinton had used the same tools as President Bush, intercepted communications between McVeigh's associate and, say, Philippine Islamist cells, and this nifty intel operation thwarted the OKC bombing, most Americans of all political stripes would have nodded approval, turned the page and forgotten about it. (Just as most forgot about the 1993 WTC attack.) That's what we pay you guys for! Nice job.

First of all, as an unwilling participant in the 1993 WTC attack, I'm not sure what he means by "most forgot about" it. That certainly doesn't go for folks around here, but maybe things are different in Minnesota.

As for government spying, I think most people would have been fine with them catching McVeigh talking to Terry Nichols, even if he wasn't a Philippine Islamist. It's not much of a leap to point out that folks are in favor of actions that prevent terrorist attacks.

On the other hand, this isn't an either-or proposition. When successful spying operations raise questions about constitutional freedoms, the system is working. We're having (or should be having) a healthy discussion about the pros and cons of an approach, and finding a way to maintain effectiveness while retaining our civil liberties.

I can't help but feel that this is exactly what would be happening, if not for hysterics on both sides. The political left and the MSM have jumped all over the costs of this program, completely ignoring the benefits. Folks like Lileks, in turn, react by focusing on the benefits and minimizing the costs. Much to everyone's chagrin, both exist and both need to be weighed.

Oh, and in case anyone thinks this is new, here's something I wrote almost four years ago that hits on the same themes.

posted by Brian at 1:07 PM


  • "When successful spying operations raise questions about constitutional freedoms, the system is working."

    So what does it say when the president keeps it secret for years and then blames the press for letting people know and ask questions?

    Question 2: define "successful".

    By Anonymous jeff Porten, at 7:05 PM, January 25, 2006  

  • The day I read about this, I knew Jeff and I would wind up discussing it, so here goes:

    The fact that something isn't in the media doesn't mean it's a secret. It's been widely publicized that he briefed congressional members of both parties about this as it was happening. Those congress(wo)men are now claiming that they were briefed, but strongarmed into not complaining or speaking about it, so a whole lotta good the briefing did...

    What isn't as well publicized is that they also briefed the FISA judge. This guy didn't say, "Hey - that's against the law. You need a warrant from me before you do that." Instead, he made suggestions for modifying the program, all of which were implemented. So I ask you two questions: 1) if someone were trying to keep an action secret, would they tell the one person in all the world who's job it is to police that action? and 2) Why, when presented with this program, did the FISA judge not just say, "forget it - I'll just issue you the warrants after the fact, as I'm permitted to do by the law?"

    As to your question about "successful," I believe I read that the program actually did result in the capture of one or more Al Qaeda operatives on foreign soil. If you haven't read the same thing, I'll go looking for the link...

    By Blogger Brian, at 11:13 PM, January 25, 2006  

  • Once again, I wonder if I'm taking Amtrak through a hyperdimensional warp when I visit you, because our newspapers are from different planets.

    1) If members of Congress are briefed on secret activities, then if they tell other people, that's not "strong-arming", that's treason. I.e., the equivalent of blowing a CIA agent for partisan gain.

    2) The media I'm consuming does NOT say that many members of Congress were briefed, and so yes, I'd very much like to see that link.

    3) The media I'm consuming DOES say that the actions the administration took were specifically requested in the original legislation and turned down by Congress, clearly indicating their intent not to allow this.

    4) The communications with the FISA court indicated that tapping without warrants were illegal. I don't know what "modifications" he suggested, so send me those links too. In any case, by definition the Bush actions were extrajudicial, so a judge can't say that "such-and-such is okay" since it never got before his court.

    5) The administration did not say to the FISA court, "we're doing this." The administration asked about doing it. The court said no. The administration did it anyway in a way that bypassed the court.

    6) I'm pretty sure that a judge saying, "don't worry, such-and-such would always be okay in my court" is illegal. Prejudging a case before it's in motion.

    7) I remind you that "capture" is a very low bar for success, since we have had a very wide definition of "operative". In most cases, captivity led to "release without charges after no evidence was found". Or the lack thereof, but still without evidence. I would argue that you're using incarceration metrics that are pretty highly divorced from whether such actions actually promote our security.

    By the way, if you've got an hour to kill, go watch the Gore speech at Liberty Speeches dot org. One point he raises: if the president can spy on people, jail people, hold secret proceedings and issue secret orders beyond Congress, and it's all legal -- what *can't* he do?

    By Anonymous jeff Porten, at 2:11 PM, January 26, 2006  

  • OK, the link I had was a New York Times article, which now requires a paid subscription to read (damn that TimesSelect service), but here's a link to Michelle Malkin's blog entry about the article.

    To summarize, the program led to the capture of Iyman Faris, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for plotting to blow up New York bridges and Washington, DC trains. Michelle's piece has a link to a DOJ press release that goes into detail about what Faris admitted to.

    As to briefing Congress, the Times article says that "Vice President Dick Cheney, then-NSA director Gen. Michael V. Hayden of the Air Force, and then-CIA director George Tenet called a meeting with Congressional leaders from both parties to brief them on the program." (quote from Michelle, not the NYT, since I'm too cheap to buy the article).

    I've seen Nancy Pelosi on television admitting that congressional leaders were briefed, but claiming that she wrote a "strongly worded letter" complaining that the briefing was useless because she was barred from telling anyone about the program.

    As to FISA, Michelle quotes the Times directly, so I can re-quote it for you:

    In mid-2004, concerns about the program expressed by national security officials, government lawyers and a judge prompted the Bush administration to suspend elements of the program and revamp it.

    For the first time, the Justice Department audited the N.S.A. program, several officials said. And to provide more guidance, the Justice Department and the agency expanded and refined a checklist to follow in deciding whether probable cause existed to start monitoring someone's communications, several officials said.

    A complaint from Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the federal judge who oversees the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, helped spur the suspension, officials said. The judge questioned whether information obtained under the N.S.A. program was being improperly used as the basis for F.I.S.A. wiretap warrant requests from the Justice Department, according to senior government officials.

    Admittedly, I had some of the facts wrong here: The Justice Department made the recommendations which were implemented, not FISA. They made them, though, based on concerns from the FISA judge. The Times contradicts itself by saying both that the judge expressed concerns about the program, and that Justice was trying to hide the program from FISA. So who knows how much this judge knew & how much she didn't...

    By Blogger Brian, at 10:39 AM, January 27, 2006  

  • Malkin is not a reliable source for me. She makes stuff up. She misquotes. All well-documented.

    Poking around the web, I note that the capture of Faris was previously attributed to the posting of unmarked police cars on NYC bridges, and to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Presumably the investigation of Faris was substantially aided by Mr. Coffee machine that helped fuel the late-night research. The point being that it's extremely easy to justify damn near anything in retrospect by picking out a past case where data was used -- even when not crucial. And of course, you and I are not allowed to judge this.

    Pelosi's letter to the NSA is here, and seems to indicate that she wanted information she did not have about what NSA was doing:

    She didn't "admit" to knowing, implying guilt. She's in Congress. Oversight is not only her job, it's her Constitutional duty.

    Your belief that the Justice department provides effective oversight to the Bush administration is somewhere between a misunderstanding of the implementation of separation of powers (Justice and the White House are both executive), and a touching faith in the department headed by Ashcroft and Gonzales. Sorry, this is the group that's actively promoting legal torture. They don't get the benefit of the doubt.

    By Anonymous jeff Porten, at 12:03 PM, January 28, 2006  

  • Jeff:
    the capture of Faris was previously attributed to the posting of unmarked police cars on NYC bridges, and to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

    KSM was captured in 2002, Faris was captured in 2004, so that doesn't sound like it holds water.

    I don't know if Malkan is misquoting the New York Times (except where she quotes them word for word, which I assume she's doing properly), so you may be right. I'd made the assumption, given the context, that Faris was one of the folks who's phone they had traced based on data from an Al Qaeda cellphone (hence, the reference to the program).

    By Blogger Brian, at 2:09 AM, January 29, 2006  

  • Allow me to clarify: the capture of Faris was previously attributed *by the government* to the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. At least, according to the stories I found yesterday. First page of Google search of Faris.

    By Anonymous jeff Porten, at 11:57 AM, January 29, 2006  

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