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December 18th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Senate Asks C.I.A. to Share Study on Detentions,” once again looks back at the controversial actions during the Bush administration when harsh techniques such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation were used to get information from terrorists in custody.
The Senate produced a 6,000-page report noting that little valuable intelligence was garnered using these techniques. At the time, the C.I.A. officially protested in a 22-page reply. But now comes word of another internal C.I.A. study that apparently reached the same conclusion.
Meanwhile, President Obama continues to show reluctance to prosecute any Bush administration officials for these actions, neither the Justice Department lawyers who produced legal justifications for them or the executives who carried them out.
Despite his campaign positions, President Obama also continues to use robust executive branch actions such as drone strikes and even killing an American citizen living overseas. The Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee has tried to peel back the situation by gaining access to these lawyers’ justifications. But, in this case, the executive branch is correct in refusing the documents because a lawyer’s advice to their client is confidential and that policy is central to our criminal justice system.
In any aspect, it is comforting to know that these techniques are no longer being used, and everything else is just Monday morning quarterbacking.
December 17th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Judge Questions Legality of N.S.A. Phone Records,” represents, at last, a comeuppance for the government regarding its collection of meta data from phone calls for every single American.
The judge, Richard J. Leon of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, describes the N.S.A. program as almost “Orwellian” in its scope and questioned the only legal precedent on the government’s behalf, Smith vs. Maryland, as a 34-year-old case no longer applicable to today’s technology.
Indeed, in 1979, phones did not play such a central role in our everyday lives, and the cell phone did not even exist. And as Judge Leon correctly noted, we did not then have the ability to collect meta data for every single American conversation.
The Judge also questioned the efficacy of the program and said there was no evidence of it making the difference in a single terrorist action. And it is also true that previous rulings affirming the collection of meta data were made by a secret court with no one present to provide an opposing opinion.
The ACLU and Edward Snowden, who was the first to reveal this program and now sits stranded in Russia as a result, both praised Leon’s ruling. And it also gives some hope to all of us who are relying on the checks and balances in our system to check executive power.
President Obama’s base also stands firmly behind the decision, and it would be a great turnaround from business as usual if he should change his mind and provide legislative suggestions to Congress to stop the meta data collection in a responsible way.
December 16th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “China Focusing Graft Inquiry on Ex-Official,” illustrates the extent to which the Chinese ruler, President Xi Jinping, is willing to go to root out corruption in the ruling class. A higher level official than ever before, Zhou Yongkang, the retired head of domestic security, is being investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
While no criminal charges have yet been filed — at this level, investigations occur within the party apparatus first — Mr. Yongkang had amassed significant power during his tenure, including deep connections with the China National Petroleum Corporation. This sector was growing rapidly as the Chinese economy boomed, and continues to do so.
Mr. Yongkang was a member of the Party’s Standing Committee, a rung higher than any previous investigation since the start of the Chinese communist regime. His investigation represents a commitment to the rule of law previously only seen in Western democracies. Only the pending impeachment and resignation of President Nixon can be compared in its severity to the accusations against Yongkang.
Of course, the actual denouement of the case remains to be seen. The leak about the investigation does not appear to have been sanctioned by the ruling authorities. They may have wanted to keep it secret and just give Yongkang a figurative slap on the wrists. With this publicity, that may no longer be the case.
December 14th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Boehner’s Jabs at Activist Right Show G.O.P. Shift,” provides some hope that at last the Republicans in Congress may be willing to re-engage with Democrats in order to get something done.
Realizing that the perfect is the enemy of the good, Boehner blasted outside conservative groups for, in a word, their selfishness. He claimed convincingly that these groups were all about raising money and growing their followers list; that, in effect, it was all about money.
He blamed the outside groups for pushing for the government shutdown despite the more experienced wisdom of Republican leaders, and also observed the Republicans could have the majority in the Senate if it hadn’t been for inexperienced conservative candidates winning their primaries but then being unelectable in the general election.
Some suggested a more tactical reason for Boehner’s stance; namely, that a government shutdown and more fiscal debate would take the public’s focus away from Obamacare and the Republicans’ all healthcare, all the time, focus.
In this respect, the Republicans are making a mistake. You can’t force the news cycle to stay on one topic if other events are more pressing. And any attempt to do so looks unnatural and forced. The American people will make their own judgement about the Affordable Care Act after observing it in action for several more months. And if the Republicans are caught on the wrong side of this issue, they will pay for years to come.
December 12th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Long Wait for a Last Moment with Mandela,” gives the proper prominence to the people’s tribute to the life of this kind-hearted and unifying man rather than the stadium event the day before where all the celebrities gathered.
Because Nelson Mandela, if nothing else, was a man of the people, someone who understand the nobility and humility of public service. His rise from 27 years of hard labor in prison and his transformative impact on South Africa show that one man can make a difference, and the number of lives he saved by preventing a bloody end to apartheid will never be known.
Those on the right who decry Mr. Mandela’s socialist and even Communist affiliations during his early career as a leader of the African National Congress miss the main point. What made Nelson Mandela great was his forgiveness of his jailers after he was released from prison and his inclusion of all people when South Africa transitioned to a democracy.
The genius of Nelson Mandela can be seen when he embraced South Africa’s rugby team during their unlikely ascent to win the Rugby World Cup. This formerly all-white sport provided the perfect venue as Mandela ascended to the Presidency to show how whites would be treated in the new South Africa. And now the whole nation is coming to pay tribute to his life.
December 11th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Capitol Leaders Agree to a Deal on the Budget,” describes a rare ceasefire between Democrats and Republicans to accomplish a two-year budget agreement that will avoid some of the fiscal brinkmanship that has plagued our government since the Republicans achieved control of the House.
Instead of blunt across-the-board cuts from sequestration, the two parties agreed to more targeted savings and spared the military from many of the cuts it would have otherwise had to endure. The agreement, negotiated between Senator Patty Murray and Representative Paul Ryan, reconciled the Senate and House versions of the legislation.
The agreement, praised by senior House Republicans, was nevertheless opposed by right-wing conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the Koch brothers. It may pass the House with the help of Democratic votes, another indication of the fissures in the Republican Party and its inability to govern through compromise and reconciliation.
Nevertheless, there may be another debt ceiling debate coming up in March and the threat of a government shutdown then. But at least there is this one small beacon of hope, showing that polarization has not completely paralyzed the Congress, and it can still go on doing the people’s business. Final passage, however, is not guaranteed.
December 7th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Jobless Rate Dips to Five-Year Low on Steady Gains,” shows progress at last in the nation’s economy. Employers have added more than 200,000 jobs, and moreover, it looks like a trend.
Other indicators such as the length of the work week and the average wage have also increased with surges in fields such as the housing sector and construction.
There is still a problem with the long-term unemployed, and it will need to be resolved before we reach the ideal for a growing economy — an unemployment rate of five percent.
Still, at 7.0 percent, we have reached the lowest rate since 2008, and it wasn’t that long ago that President Obama was hoping for a rate below 8.0 to ensure his reelection.
The statistics for the third quarter of this year were also revised upward and, barring any new Republican shenanigans, we seem to be on our way to an improved, more prosperous situation.
Of course, there is still the phenomenon of a growing gap between the very rich, the top one percent, and the rest of us. But with President Obama at the helm, I feel confident we can pursue policies, by executive order if necessary, to address the inequality, or at least not make it worse.
December 6th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Bratton to Lead New York Police for Second Time,” describes the reappointment of William Bratton after his initial stint from 1994 to 1996 when he drastically reduced the crime rate.
The appointment by Mayor Elect Bill de Blasio gives us a window into his thought process and method of governing. He was not afraid to appoint a strong personality, someone who only lasted two years under Giuliani, if that person is one of the best in his field. We can anticipate a government led by highly talent people, perhaps a Camelot for New York City.
Of course, the situation in the city today is much better than when Bratton initially took command. The crime rate is much lower, and the problem, if any, revolves around a too active police force. It will be interesting to see how Bratton handles the stop and frisk policies decried by his boss.
Bratton also served as the head of the Los Angeles police department for seven years, so he is rejoining the city administration with much more expertise than he originally offered. Even the British Prime Minister at one point was considering hiring Bratton to deal with a lawless situation.
Mayor de Blasio will be tested to see if a liberal Democrat can handle the reins of power, and the results will impact other governmental bodies at all levels. The appointment of Bratton is a good start.
December 5th, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Large Companies Prepared to Pay Price on Carbon,” provides some welcome news for environmental groups in its assumption of a carbon-constrained future for long-term planning.
The top five oil companies as well as diverse organizations such as Microsoft, General Electric and Disney are all assuming the passage of legislation designed to combat climate change. That assumption makes it more likely the policy will be adopted in a future Congress even if it seems impossible right now.
The evidence of climate change continues to mount with more frequent and more powerful storms, the disappearance of glaciers and higher average world temperatures than ever experienced before. The rise of the seas may soon overwhelm island nations and other vulnerable population centers.
Not all business organizations are yielding to the inevitability of carbon regulation, however. Allies of the Koch brothers and lobbyists such as Americans for Prosperity continue to fight tooth and nail against any attempts to regulate carbon emissions.
The planning efforts of business groups seems to mirror the rift between the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the Tea Party, where denial of climate science has become an ideological position.
One can only hope that realistic business organizations will lead the shift away from carbon fuels to more renewable resources. The planning reported by The New York Times gives hope of a better future.
December 3rd, 2013
The lead article in today’s New York Times, “Train Racing 82 MPH before Fatal Derailment,” provides additional facts about one of the worst train accidents in area history. Apparently, there were no problems with the brakes, equipment or tracks, and it is looking more and more like human error was involved.
The engineer, William Rockefeller, was an experienced career professional who had moved his way up the ranks from a custodian to his current more illustrious profile. The most likely cause from the preliminary evidence seems to be that he fell asleep on the early morning train.
There are sophisticated ways of technologically protecting trains from these kind of accidents, but it isn’t being installed anywhere except California. Meanwhile, barring any use of alcohol or drugs, it is hard to see prosecuting the engineer because he fell asleep. He has no record of wrongdoing and, if anything, the arc of his career could be portrayed as an American success story.
Metro North is recovering quickly from the accident, having opened one line and lifted all the cars from the crash site. The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its investigation, and the Bronx district attorney is looking into the matter as well.
Trains are still much safer than cars, and the convenience of train travel should not be negatively affected by the incident.
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