Category Archives: Politics

Inside the meme factory: GOP discovers “imperial presidency”

By Christopher B. Daly

In today’s NYTimes, a story purports to have discovered a trend among Republican congressmen, who are depicted as suddenly deciding to accuse President Obama of creating an “imperial presidency.”

Hmmm. . .

Whenever Republicans start using the same phrase for the same purpose, it behooves political journalists to dig a little deeper and figure out where the new phrase/slogan/soundbite is coming from. Usually, it has been hatched deep in the bowels of the conservative “meme factory” — that set of interlocking think tanks, consultants, and media that serves the conservative movement by providing it with a constant supply of talking points, slogans, and rallying cries.

Today’s story, by Ashley Parker, traced the new “meme” as far upstream as a recent report from the office of Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican majority leader in the House, but that’s as far as she got. I suspect there are more tributaries to explore, even further upstream.

An excerpt:

Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader, recently released an addendum to a 33-page report his office had already put out on the “imperial presidency.” And both Mr. Broun and Mr. Loudermilk used similar phrases when talking about the role they believe government should play.

“Our founding fathers truly believed that government should be a government of the people, by the people and for the people — not a government over the people,” Mr. Broun told a gathering of supporters recently.The day before, Mr. Loudermilk offered a nearly identical refrain: “This is a government that is of the people, not a government over the people,” he told supporters. “That’s the mentality that a lot of Washington has.”

The day before, Mr. Loudermilk offered a nearly identical refrain: “This is a government that is of the people, not a government over the people,” he told supporters. “That’s the mentality that a lot of Washington has.”

Imagine that — Loudermilk “offered a nearly identical refrain.” What a coincidence!

 

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Math for journalists (Koch edition): Free spending is not free speech

By Christopher B. Daly 

Kudos to The New Republic for this takedown of a recent Wall Street Journal editorial. The Murdoch newspaper was trying to gin up sympathy for the Koch brothers, the fossil-fuel billionaires who pour big money into the conservative Meme Factory and into political campaigns. The Journal tried to make the case that the Kochs have actually been outspent by organized labor — without noting that there are two Koch brothers and 14.5 million labor union members. When the Kochs are treated as individuals (as the Constitution would indicate), the TNR piece calculates that each Koch brother is exercising the same level of “political speech” as about half a million union members.

Can anyone really argue that amplifying those two voices by the millions of dollars they have to spend makes the country a better place? Does their wealth make their ideas more worth listening to? Does their wealth make them wiser? Does it mean they love their country more than others? Why should they have a megaphone that their neighbors do not have? If they want to speak, let them speak. If they want to publish, let them publish. And let them do so without limitation. But spending money is not protected by the First Amendment (and nor should it be).

As a First Amendment militant, I believe speech should be free. It shouldn’t be paid for.

[Note: the following graphic is merely suggestive. For it to be accurate, it would have to include hundreds of thousands of separate tiny images for union members.]

koch2-article

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Surveillance state (cont): FISA courts fail to check Executive

by Christopher B. Daly 

“Experience has shown, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.”
― Thomas Jefferson

So it goes. As Jefferson warned us, the nature of power is to be aggressive, to try always to expand rather than to contract or even to abide. Today brings a fresh revelation about the FISA Courts and the Executive Branch. Thanks to Charlie Savage and Laura Poitras of the New York Times, we now know what some of us have long assumed — that U.S.  intelligence agencies have steadily expanded their powers to spy on Americans and have run through, around, top-secret-stampand over the few legal restraints put on them by Congress. Working with a new batch of documents leaked by Edward Snowden from the NSA, the journalists focus on steps taken in secret by the George W. Bush administration, with the compliance of the secret(ive) FISA Court, to respond to the attacks of 9/11 by expanding the powers of the surveillance agencies. From the Times:

Previously, with narrow exceptions, an intelligence agency was permitted to disseminate information gathered from court-approved wiretaps only after deleting irrelevant private details and masking the names of innocent Americans who came into contact with a terrorism suspect. The Raw Take order significantly changed that system, documents show, allowing counterterrorism analysts at the N.S.A., the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. to share unfiltered personal information.

Obviously, there is a challenge here to the Congress: since the executive and judicial branches won’t stop this, the legislative branch must do something to rein in the surveillance state.

I would feel more optimistic about the chances of that happening if it weren’t for the “Spy v. Spy” drama playing out right now between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA. Briefly, the committee thought it would be a good idea to look into the years of torture carried out by the CIA. The agency would have none of that, so it set up an operation that not only spied on the congressional committee’s staffers but engaged in a bit of cyberwarfare by hacking into the committee’s computers and deleting material. Has there ever been a more rogue operation? [Not only that: the CIA, which shows no respect for the rule of law, then had the chutzpah to refer the matter to the Justice Dept. to prosecute the Senate staffers involved. Now, that shows that someone at the agency at least has a sense of humor. Sheesh.]

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Surveillance State (cont): Snowden: Why build a big haystack?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who divulged the secret surveillance that the agency conducts on innocent American civilians, made a good point in his recent “public appearance.” Still stuck in Russia, Snowden imgres3spoke to the SxSW conference, via teleconference, thanks to multiple encrypted relays to disguise his actual location.

The Times chose to put its story in the Business section (which was unfortunate, I think) on the apparent grounds that Snowden’s big pitch was aimed at U.S. tech and social-media companies, telling them that they need to step up their privacy. They already knew that, so I am not sure what the news value was there.

Of greater interest was the theme developed by the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima. She emphasized Snowden’s view that the NSA is so swamped with big data from its indiscriminate surveillance that it is not doing a very good job of tracking individual bad guys (which is, after all, what we want them to do).

‘‘We’ve actually had a tremendous intelligence failure because . . . we’re monitoring everybody’s communications instead of suspects’ communications’’ — a situation, he asserts, that has ‘‘caused us to miss’’ intelligence.

Come to think of it, for all the money that we spend on the intelligence community as a whole, and for all the compromises we make with the Constitution and our liberties, how great is the return? Where are the answers to these questions:

–Did anyone know that Putin would seize Crimea? Did anyone tell President Obama?

–Did anyone predict the Boston Marathon bombing?

–Did anyone predict the uprising that toppled Mubarak in Egypt?

–Can anyone tell us how to get rid of Assad in Syria?

–Did anyone know what was coming in Benghazi?

–What about 9/11? What about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Basically, we need to ask: why do all the big, important things seem to come as such a surprise (to our presidents as well as to the average informed citizen)?

Whenever you don’t find something, doesn’t that tell you that you’re looking in the wrong places?

 

 

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Why DO we spend so much on defense? (check the map)

By Christopher B. Daly

According to recent news accounts, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has plans to reduce U.S. defense spending dramatically — even to what used to be considered peacetime levels. There are reasons to wish him success, and there are reasons to doubt he’ll be able to make much change.

One of the drivers of defense spending is the extent of our commitments worldwide. Like many a great power before us. . . Check that: Like every great power before us, we are over-extending our military. Here’s a map that makes that clear. This is an official map from the Pentagon, showing that every inch of the Earth is the “responsibility” of one U.S. military commander or another.

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

u-s-_unified_command_plan_map_2011-04-06

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Death penalty for Marathon bomber: A reluctant “NO”

By Christopher B. Daly 

[Update, 2.4.14: A new study shows a surge in exonerations.]

I was opposed to the death penalty last April 14, the day before two immigrant brothers allegedly set off two homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, causing death, grievous wounds, maiming,and mayhem. It was a despicable act, and it made me furious (not terrified, by the way).

In the heat of the moment, I wanted to find the perpetrators and punish them. I thought maybe they should be put into stocks on Boston Common and subject to whatever vengeance the public wanted to wreak. I think they would not have lasted long.

The Boston case – in which Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Thursday that federal prosecutors would seek the death penalty – illustrates exactly why we have laws. It strikes me that we make these laws as much for ourselves as we do for the criminals. When we are not furious, we have the chance to deliberate and to make wise laws that we agree to abide by even when all hell is breaking loose.

Before the Marathon Bombing, I thought the death penalty was a bad idea, for several reasons. It has become so rare in the United States — especially in Massachusetts, where the first execution took place in 1630 and the last execution took place in 1947 — that it could be seen as so “unusual” that it is unconstitutional on those grounds alone.

What I find even more compelling is the experience of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University and similar efforts carried out by journalists and journalism students. For lots of reasons — racism, inadequate public defenders, bogus confessions, and more — there are a horrifying number of people in America who have been placed on Death Row only to be exonerated before execution. (As of today, the Innocence Project tallies 312 cases of exoneration of prisoners slated to be put to death.) And of course, some innocent people have certainly been wrongfully killed by the state — which is to say, by all of us, through our laws and our taxes.

Ultimately, the problem is this: the death penalty is an irreversible climax to an imperfect system of justice. If we could be absolutely sure that our courts never made a mistake, then the death penalty might be worth considering. But the fact is that we know that our courts (and our cops and our prosecutors) sometime make mistakes. So, it is illogical and immoral to cap off such a system with a penalty that has no remedy.

For these reasons, as someone who was born in Boston and works here I am pleased that the Massachusetts Legislature has repeatedly refused to reinstate the death penalty. The last time the issue came up for a vote, in 2001, the Legislature rejected it by a vote of 94-60. Even in the aftermath of the Marathon Bombing, a large majority of Bostonians said they opposed capital punishment. And I am glad that in a time of peaceful deliberation, the people of Massachusetts were able to listen to the angels of our better nature and put in place restraints on ourselves.

In the Marathon bombing, the would-be terrorists used death as the instrument of their purpose. Let us not sink to their level.

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Surveillance state: NSA chief sees threats everywhere

By Christopher B. Daly 

In what universe does it make sense that DNI James Clapper still has his job?

He should have been charged with contempt of Congress for lying under oath and sacked by his boss, President Obama. Instead, there he was yesterday testifying to Congress.

He used the platform Congress gave him to denounce Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who spilled the beans on the illegal and questionable programs and tactics run by imgres3our intelligence agencies. Of course, he blamed Snowden for serious but vague damage done to America. On examination, what he really means is that Snowden made life difficult for our spy agencies. Whether he caused any other kind of damage is unclear. (transcript, anyone?)

To quote the Times:

Mr. Clapper did not give specific examples to bolster his assessment about the damage Mr. Snowden had done. He also did not say whom he believed Mr. Snowden’s accomplices to be.

But he wasn’t finished. Turns out, he sees “threats” everywhere. There are bogeymen all over Asia, the Mideast and Africa. Everywhere he looks, he sees nukes, bio-chem weapons, conspiracies, and an ever-mutating array of threats. Most of these threats are either hypothetical, localized in some faraway place, or intramural disputes between people who are no friends of ours. At the risk of sounding like some kind of neo-isolationist (which I am not), I have to observe that almost none of the threats hinted at by Clapper involve real, credible, imminent attacks on the territory of the United States.

But that’s not the standard for our military-intelligence complex. There, the issue is whether someone presents a threat (of any kind) to something known as “American interests” — a term that has no specific definition. It is so vague and all-encompassing that it could mean almost anything — a kidnapping threat against a U.S. citizen anywhere in the world, for example, or an apolitical piracy operation that menaces U.S. shipping anywhere in the world.

The fact is, not every problem in the world is an American problem, and not every problem in the world has an American solution. But if you are seeking to justify the existence of your agency and get more money for your budget, it behooves you to play up all these “threats.”

Thanks to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who has emerged as the great skeptic in Congress. (He’s the one Clapper lied to, face to face, last year.) At this week’s hearing, Wyden

said that the dealings between spy agencies and their congressional overseers were crippled by a “culture of misinformation.”

Speaking of executive actions, this is one problem Obama could solve today, without needing an act of Congress. Fire Clapper.

 

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Surveillance state: What Obama should have said about NSA

By Christopher B. Daly

President Obama had an opportunity today to say (and thereby do) something meaningful about reining in the surveillance state and re-asserting the Constitution. Disappointingly, he whiffed. 

Here’s what I think he should have said:

1. First and foremost, he should have said, I’m sorry. He should have expressed regret that since taking office, he has fallen under the spell of all the people in the Pentagon and White House whose job it is to tell goblin stories every day to the president. He showed far more common sense when he was a private citizen and even as a U.S. senator than he has been showing since he began starting each day listening to the presidential Daily Briefing, which is basically a  serial horror story told by the surveillance/security apparatus.

2. He should have made a pledge. He should have said that if you are a U.S. citizen living in the United States and you are not a suspect in a crime, then you have an absolute right to be left alone. The government has no business spying on you. He could have quoted the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which says, in part:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, 

He could have explained that in a modern context, your house means not only your literal house but also your apartment and your office and your motor vehicle. Cops and spies cannot enter those places without your leave. Extracting information from me without my permission outside of a criminal investigation is, on the face of it, an unreasonable search.

3. He should have added, If you are a U.S. citizen who is not suspected in a crime, then you have the right to be left alone not just by the NSA but by the whole government — the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS, the DOJ, the DEA, your state police, everybody.

4. He should have announced a policy that needs no Congressional approval: No more secret policies about secrets. He should have handed out copies of his administration’s legal memorandum laying out its constitutional rationale for its current practices. He should have said (as he did) that we cannot just get out of the spy business. We have legitimate reasons for spying on other countries and on terrorists. And we will need to keep the operational details of those operations secret. That’s obvious, and I know of no one who disagrees. But the president should have gone further and said, Under the Constitution, any president needs to go to Congress and say, in a general way, Here’s what we need to do … here’s why … here’s how much it will cost. Please vote for it.

5. He should have said that if you are a U.S. citizen who is suspected of a crime, you have an array of legal protections under the Constitution, under state and federal laws, and under case law, and we have no intention of messing with those.

6. If you are not a U.S. citizen, you’re on your own.

7. If you are a terrorist, watch your back.

In short, he should have said: Under our precious Constitution, the government should be transparent to the people, and the people should be opaque to the government.

Instead, he cherry-picked incidents from U.S. history to try to establish the idea that massive secret spying on law-abiding Americans in peacetime is somehow normal. He made it clear that he thinks no one did anything wrong (including Clapper, who blatantly lied to Congress under oath) except for Edward Snowden. And he offered some half-measures and said on anything difficult I am either going to punt or send it to a committee. Disappointing.

Here are other takes, by Jeffrey Rosen and Geoffrey Stone and John Cassidy.

Here’s the president’s text. You decide.

 

 

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Roger Ailes revisited

By Christopher B. Daly 

With the release of Gabriel Sherman’s new book about Fox News boss Roger Ailes, there is a lot of commentary about Ailes.

Here’s David Carr. Here’s TNR.

Amid all the commentary and analysis, it’s important to keep some sense of perspective. Fox News reaches a maximum of about 3 million different Americans in a typical day. That’s less than 1% of the population. And the ratings for Fox News are no longer climbing; they appear to have topped out. Not only that, but the Fox News audience is considerably older than the ideal “demographic” for television viewing. (Not to mention that the Fox News audience is whiter than average and much more conservative.)

In other words, it’s unlikely that Roger Ailes is the king-maker in national politics that he would like to be (and to be seen as). More and more, it appears that his television channel preaches to the (aging) choir.

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Jacob Riis showed “How the Other Half Lives”

By Christopher B. Daly 

A hat-tip to journalist and educator Ted Gup for a terrific story about his discovery of a classic work of journalism history — the copy of How the Other Half Lives that was owned and annotated by the author himself, Jacob Riis. As I described him in my book, Covering America, Riis (pronounced rees) was a Danish immigrant to New York City who was shocked and outraged by the conditions he found in the city’s many tenements in the late 19th century. Picking up his notebook and a camera (equipped with a then-new technology — the portable flash), he explored the warrens of tiny, windowless rooms where New York’s newest and most miserable found cheap housing. In buildings lacking heat, ventilation and plumbing, the masses huddled while the wealthy were building ever grander pleasure domes uptown on Fifth Avenue and the rest of the Upper East Side. His work also provided a template for the journalists of the classic “muckraking” movement in the first decade of the 20th Century. 

An important thing to know about Riis’ expose, published in 1890, is that it had an impact. His photos and writing contributed to a political demand for improvements in New York City housing codes, which resulted in concrete improvements in the tenements. The city adopted new building codes that required more light, less crowding and, eventually, heat and plumbing.

In his piece in today’s Times, Gup — an investigative journalist himself who now chairs the Journalism Dept at crosstown Emerson College — describes how he stumbled upon a first edition of How the Other Half Lives that contains Riis’ own handwritten comments and marginalia. He also rightly commends Riis as a “multimedia” journalist for his combining of text and photos (and his use of a flash to light up those dark inner rooms of the tenements).

As many have observed (including the city’s new mayor, Bill DeBlasio), Riis is as relevant as ever, now that New York City is living through another Gilded Age in which wealth is as unevenly distributed as it was in the days of Rockefeller, Morgan, and Hearst.

"The Italian Rag-picker," by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.  Photo from Museum of the City of New York.

“The Italian Rag-picker,” by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.
Photo from Museum of the City of New York.

 

 

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