The Surprising Lack Of Scandals In The Obama Administration

The recent scandals released about Chris Christie remind us of how often we expect to find scandals in government. Power does corrupt. We have become so accustomed to scandals at the top levels of government that it almost comes as a surprise that the Obama administration has been so free of scandal. Some observers almost take it for granted that a scandal must happen sooner or later. For example, back in 2011 Brendan Nyhan described this as an aberration, waiting for an inevitable scandal to occur:

Obama has been extremely fortunate: My research (PDF) on presidential scandals shows that few presidents avoid scandal for as long as he has. In the 1977-2008 period, the longest that a president has gone without having a scandal featured in a front-page Washington Post article is 34 months – the period between when President Bush took office in January 2001 and the Valerie Plame scandal in October 2003. Obama has already made it almost as long despite the lack of a comparable event to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Of course when speaking of the Obama administration as being free of scandal, I am speaking of real world facts, not the fantasy world of Fox and the right wing noise machine. They have invented plenty of scandals, but in every case their claims were contradicted by the facts. Just this week we had the Senate Intelligence Committee report which debunked the Republican conspiracy theories regarding Benghazi.

When Paul Waldman wrote about how the Republican claims about Solyndra didn’t hold up, he entitled his post Obama Administration Oddly Scandal-Free, again suggesting how the presence of scandals has become what is expected. Paul Waldman recently reviewed this topic again in a post entitled The Scandalous Lack of Obama Administration Scandals. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan, who also provides many of the earlier links in this post). He set up these reasonable conditions for what constitutes a scandal:

So let’s take a look back and see what happened to all these affairs that never turned out to be the scandals conservatives hoped they would be. Just to be clear, when I use the word “scandalous” in this list, I don’t mean “bad.” When you say, for instance, that there has been little evidence of anything scandalous occurring in Benghazi, conservatives often reply, “Four people died!” Indeed they did, and that was terribly tragic, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a scandal. Two hundred and forty-one Americans died in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, but it wouldn’t be accurate to call that a “Reagan administration scandal,” because while there were some bad decisions made with awful results, there wasn’t any criminality or corruption or cover-up, the things we usually associate with scandals.

To make a truly meaningful administration scandal, you need two things. First, there has to be some kind of criminal or morally atrocious behavior somewhere, which we can put under the general heading of “malfeasance.” People doing their jobs poorly isn’t enough to make it a scandal. Second, you need the involvement of highly-placed administration officials. Only an affair with both features is a scandal. If a ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska is found to be running a moose-based prostitution ring, that’s only an administration scandal if people high up in the administration knew about it.

Waldman looked at all those scandals which truly dishonest politicians such as Darrel Issa are wasting tax-payers money with faux investigations on. (I am linking to this in case anyone doubts that this attitude really comes from the Republican Party, and not just the clowns in the right wing media who are making these bogus claims.) Waldman looked at Solyndra, Fast and Furious, Benghazi, the IRS, and aggressive leak investigations. In each case, the conservative claims have not held up. He concluded:

So what can we conclude from all this? There are three possible explanations for the lack of a major scandal in the Obama administration. The first is that something truly horrific has gone on, but as of yet it hasn’t been discovered. The second is that the scandals we know about haven’t been fully investigated, and will eventually yield more wrongdoing than we currently understand. And the third is that the administration has not, in fact, committed any horrible crimes. Which seems most likely?

That isn’t to say that they haven’t made plenty of mistakes, because they have. And there are three years left in Obama’s term, so you never know—maybe someone will discover that he’s having an affair with Jennifer Lawrence, or that Valerie Jarrett is a mole for the Yakuza, or that those FEMA concentration camps are real. But there’s also the chance that he’ll end his term without any major scandal, which would be quite something.

A final note: The question of whether we should think of NSA spying as a scandal in these terms is a complicated one that I’m going to have to leave for another day.

And he didn’t even mention the widely held conservative belief of a conspiracy to pass off a foreign-born Muslim Socialist as an American citizen.  Claims of an affair with Jennifer Lawrence from the right are not that far-fetched in light of this. As for NSA spying, I think this falls in the category of policies we disagree with, but not a political scandal.

Regarding the lack of scandal in the Obama administration, the simple explanation might be what Andrew Sullivan previously suggested–that he is not corrupt. I suspect that the explanation might also come down to a difference in how different people see government and where they have come from. Scandals may have become more prevalent in Republican administrations because many on the right oppose the American system of government and do not see it as a force which can be used for good. To them, government is evil and they see nothing wrong for using it for their own ends when in power. In contrast Obama sees the actual functions of government as something worthy of pursuing as an end in itself. Many top government leaders come from positions of wealth and power and seek to increase this as much as possible. Even top positions in government are not necessarily enough for their lust for power. For a former community organizer and someone who not long ago was no more powerful than a member of the Illinois State Senate, the presidency is enough.

This is all quite frustrating for those on the right who seek to attack Obama as corrupt, forcing them to make up a long list of fallacious attacks.

SciFi Weekend: Arrow; Agents of SHIELD; Daredevil; Terminator And Other Dangers of Artificial Intelligence; Orphan Black; Continuum; Doctor Who; Veronica Mars; Superman; Batman; Wonder Woman and More

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Arrow is in the middle of a two-part story which introduces Barry Allen, who will later become The Flash. The steady introduction of new characters, who then leave before they have overstayed their welcome, has been a strong point of the series. There is also a potential reversal in Oliver’s relationship with Felicity. I just hope they don’t turn this into another Laurel storyline. There are some pictures and minor spoilers from next week’s episode posted here.

While the show is far from perfect, and sometimes lapses into CW-style soap opera, it has been an admirable attempt to portray a super hero story in live action. The show has received considerable notice this season, including a recent article in The New York Times which refers back to another excellent review which I mentioned in a previous post:

There is a consensus, among fans, critics and network executives that with “Arrow,” Mr. Berlanti seems to have found the right formula for making a comic book hero work as a television protagonist. (A headline in The Hollywood Reporter asked, “Is Arrow the Best Live-Action Superhero Show Ever?”) The episodes are peppered with references from the comic books — adversaries with names like Deathstroke and Count Vertigo — but not so many as to confuse viewers who might not know the source material.

“Greg does not tend to do projects he does not really believe in,” said the CW president, Mark Pedowitz. “‘Arrow,’ in a way, was contrary. It’s not ‘Smallville.’ It’s a much darker, grittier version of a comic book character. That was not normal CW programming.”

When he pitched “Arrow” two years ago, Mr. Berlanti, who got involved with DC in 2007, when he wrote the original draft of the “Green Lantern” feature film, said he envisioned the series less as a superhero tale than a “Bourne Identity” type thriller: a continuing story of a privileged playboy who finds himself shipwrecked, held captive and tortured on a remote island, where he must acquire new skills — and a new sense of himself — to survive. That playboy, Oliver Queen (played by Stephen Amell) returns to Starling City five years later a different, better but still in some ways tortured man. And he’s become really good with a bow and arrow.

“The story of that transformation” — told through flashbacks to the island — “will continue through the whole series,” Mr. Berlanti said. “The beginning of the show (Oliver being rescued and returning to civilization) will be the end of the show as well. That was always the pitch.”

The article also compares the show to Agents of SHIELD, with The Guardian being clearer in the difference between the two with an article under the headline: Superhero TV: Agents of SHIELD could learn a lot from Arrow.

Agents of SHIELD will be introducing two new characters:

Episode 14 will introduce two recurring characters: an African-American agent who specializes in combat/weapons, and a high-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent/munitions expert who has past ties to both Coulson and Ward.

Any hope that this means they will be eliminating two (or more) of the current weak characters?

While the Daredevil movie had terrible reviews, Blastr provides considerable hope that the Daredevil television show will be far better:

The pattern of Whedon-adjacent creators taking on Marvel properties continues. Not that we’re complaining.

Daredevil is slated to be the first Marvel character that Netflix will be releasing into the wild world of instant streaming sometime in 2015. If you were wondering who the boss is going to be, wonder no more — it’s Drew Goddard.

Just in case the name doesn’t immediately fire off all your geeky synapses, let’s run through his credits — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, Lost, Cabin in the Woods, World War Z, and the list goes on. Goddard is the one-man link between the two most powerful men in sci-fi — Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams. And now he’ll be writing and directing the Daredevil pilot in addition to executive-producing it.

As choices go, that’s about as good as both Netflix and we can hope for. What his vision is? That remains to be seen.

Based on his body of work, though, we’d say Daredevil is in good hands.

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Not only is there planned reboot of the Terminator movies. The Hollywood Reporter has a story on a planned television series based upon the upcoming movie:

The producers behind the upcoming fifth installment have tapped Thor and X-Men: First Class writers Zack Stentz and Ashley Miller to write and executive produce a new Terminator television series that will be a companion piece to the rebooted trilogy.

The TV series will follow a critical moment from the first Terminator film (1984), and where the film’s story goes one way, the upcoming series will take the same moment in a completely different direction. As the rebooted film trilogy and the new TV series progress, the two narratives will intersect with each other in surprising and dramatic ways.

I wish they would have produced a conclusion for the cliffhanger which ended The Sarah Connor Chronicles before going on to a new series. Still, the idea of following different time lines in the continuation of the series does sound intriguing if done well.

The Drudge Retort has an interesting discussion on the potential risk of artificial intelligence:

Documentarian James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era, is worried about robots too. Only he’s not worried about them taking our jobs. He’s worried about them exterminating the human race. In Barrat’s telling, we are on the brink of creating machines that will be as intelligent as humans. Specific timelines vary, but the broad-brush estimates place the emergence of human-level AI at between 2020 and 2050. “intelligence explosion” — an onrushing feedback loop where an intelligence makes itself smarter thereby getting even better at making itself smarter. This is, to be sure, a theoretical concept, but it is one that many AI researchers see as plausible, if not inevitable. Through a relentless process of debugging and rewriting its code, our self-learning, self-programming AGI experiences a “hard take off” and rockets past what mere flesh and blood brains are capable of.

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The first new picture from season 2 of Orphan Black teases us with some girl on girl action, with Tatiana Maslany in both positions. Entertainment Weekly spoke with show’s creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson about the second season and the pictured conflict between Sarah Manning and Rachel Duncan, the clone seen at the end of season one who was working with the Neolutionists:

EW: What else, if anything, can you tell us about this image here and what it means for season 2?
MANSON: Probably that if Rachel launched the first volley in this war, this is one of Sarah’s steps in this war.

FAWCETT: Our launching framework for season 2 is really the war between Sarah and Rachel.

EW: You guys just scratched the surface with what we saw with Rachel last season. She’s clearly not a clone we’re not rooting for at this point, nor are we really sympathetic toward her, as we became somewhat sympathetic to Helena over the course of season 1. Where are you planning to go with her in season 2?
FAWCETT: For us, using Helena as an example, it was very interesting to draw a character that began really as one thing — for example, a serial killer — and then through the course of a few episodes become able to add layers and add flesh to the point where you could understand her and be sympathetic to her. So, to me, that was about creating a really dynamic deep interesting character that wasn’t just a cartoon. And I think we feel the same about Rachel. I think you could probably tell from the end of season 1 that Rachel’s got a little bit of heavy to her. And I think what’s interesting to us is that we’re having fun creating a new character this season who isn’t just a heavy. There’s other aspects to her. And that’s been a really fun developing a new girl.

MANSON: No one is just who they seem on Orphan Black. That’s the most important thing. Maybe things get set up as kind of a cliché or as one thing, but we’re always trying to bend it and find the layers to keep it fresh and original.

FAWCETT: Even as a villain, Rachel is going to hold a lot of surprises for us. She’s been a really fun nemesis for Sarah.

EW: Season 1 on any show is all about introducing the story and the characters, and it’s essentially setting the table. And if you do it right, a lot people want to come sit down at that table. But now, in season 2 what do you do to keep them sitting there?
MANSON: Right off the bat we’ve really hit the ground running. We left a lot up in the air, so it’s been a lot of fun figuring out how and when and where those balls land and how they land in unexpected ways. As for Rachel, we did leave last season knowing that Rachel was a child of Neolution, therefore much connected to the origins of the experiment. So I think Rachel is going to help to open a window for us and we ’re going to begin to understand a lot more about the conspiracy.

FAWCETT: Plus, I also think one of the big things we’re going to have to deal with in season 2, which is finding its own twists and turns, is Cosima’s illness. And that is a very pressing bit of drama that is not just straight ahead. It’s got a lot of mystery to it. It’s got a lot of twists and turns to it and it is thematically a big part of season 2 also.

MANSON: It’s a genetic mystery. It’s a genetic biological mystery and it feeds into some of our body horror and it feeds into our science mystery.

Season two of Orphan Black returns on BBC America and on Space on April 19, 2014.

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Showcase has announced that filming has begun and they will air the third season of Contiuum starting in March, 2014. More from their press release:

In season three of Continuum, Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols; Criminal Minds, Alias) faces the immediate consequences of Alec Sadler’s (Erik Knudsen; Jericho, Scream 4) betrayal at the end of season two – when he disappeared in a flash of light with the time travel device Kiera hoped might send her home. Alec’s impulsive decision sets in motion a chain of events, which pushes Kiera into a shocking alliance with a former enemy.

Kiera must also contend with a newly strategic Liber8 organization, and a growing darkness in her police partner, Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster; Castle, MelrosePlace). Ultimately, all roads lead through young Alec Sadler, and with his genius never having been more tested, his choices force Kiera – and everyone – to examine all they hold dear.

“Season three of Continuum will raise the stakes and expand the universe of our show in ways that will surprise and engage our fans,” said creator/executive producer Simon Barry. “Kiera’s journey brings her experiences that test her beliefs and challenge her resolve. The future is not what it used to be.”

“We could not be happier about the phenomenal success of the show over the first two seasons, with a very loyal and enthusiastic fan base that continues to expand worldwide,” said Reunion Pictures’ Tom Rowe.  “The third season, under the creative direction of Simon Barry, along with fellow Executive Producer/Director Patrick Williams, the first-rate writing team and our exceptional cast, again promises to exceed all expectations.”

New to the cast this season is Rachael Crawford (Alphas,The Firm) who joins as a guest star in a multiple episode arc. Returning cast include Stephen Lobo (Smallville, Little Mosque On The Prairie), Lexa Doig (V, Stargate SG-I), Omari Newton (Blue Mountain State, Sophie), Luvia Petersen (The L Word) and Terry Chen (Bates Motel, Combat Hospital).

SyFy has the rights to air the show in the United States. An air date has not been announced. I hope that they start when Showcase does in Canada. However, SyFy has several shows starting in mid-January and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wait until their thirteen-week runs end before starting another series. Such delays cause a real problem with blogging about shows after downloading upon airing when most US fans have not viewed the show yet.

Disney has bought the rights to Indiana Jones, with a fifth movie now planned. Disney has already been using Indiana Jones themed exhibits in their theme parks and we can assume there will be far more synergistic use of the characters with other Disney marketing.

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Jenna Coleman seen above as Lydia Wickham in Death Comes to Pemberley  “BBC One’s Pride and Prejudice follow-up – based on the novel by PD James – is a murder mystery set six years after the events of Jane Austen’s classic.” It will air in the UK later this month with US air date not set yet.

Moffat and Gatiss plan to release a mini-episode of Sherlock on December 25, taking place two years after Sherlock’s “death” in The Reichenbach Fall. The series returns in the UK on New Year’s Day and later in January in the US.

The BBC has announced the air time for the Doctor Who Christmas Special–The Time of the Doctor. It will be on at 7:30 pm. BBC America won’t be airing it until 9 pm in the US, meaning that with the difference in time zones it will be available for download several hours before it airs in the US.

Rebecca Mader, Charlotte on Lost, will join other former actors from Lost as the new villain on Once Upon A Time. Unfortunately they dragged on the Peter Pan plot line for too long. Meanwhile, there sure were a lot of daddy issues this week on Once Upon A Time in Wonderland (which I currently find to be the better of the two).


The Veronica Mars movie will be released on March 14, 2014, about a year after the Kickstart campaign made it a reality. The above video shows the ten-year reunion at Neptune High.

NBC has renewed The Blacklist for a second season.

Netflix has announced that they will be releasing season two of House of Cards on February 14.

Three Breasted Woman Total Recall

ComicBookMovie.com looks at various designs for the three-breasted hooker from Total Recall.

Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, will be appearing in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, scheduled for release in 2015.

I have questioned whether there was any point in having a show about Gotham City before Batman but Fox apparently is interested in airing Gotham, a show about “the origin stories of Commissioner James Gordon and the villains that made Gotham famous.” Now there are reports that Bruce Wayne will appear–but as a ten-year-old.

Is Superman a Fascist? Andrew Sullivan posted all sides of the debate.

***STRICTLY EMBARGOED FOR ALL USAGE IN PRINT AND ONLINE UNTIL 00.01 ON 5 DECEMBER, 2013, GMT*** DOCTOR WHO XMAS 2013

And, finally, another tease for the upcoming Christmas Special, The Time of the Doctor

Turning Around The Media’s Recent Obama As Loser Narrative

Pack journalism resulted in a misleading stream of newspaper articles which would make readers think that the Obama presidency had collapsed. Real problems have been exaggerated greatly out of proportion, with a temporary computer problem compared to Katrina and the desirable transfer of people from insurance plans designed to avoid payouts to real insurance plans presented as a disaster. As Reagan, Clinton, and Bush all had problems in their second term, the media  narrative has been that the same must happen with Obama. Fortunately there is hope that another feature of the news media, a desire to periodically change story lines, might lead to improved coverage once the web site is fixed and most Americans find out that they are better off, or at least doing the same, under the Affordable Care Act.

The New Republic is hardly a bell weather as to where the media will be going, but an article posted yesterday does present a hopeful sign of where coverage, if accurate, might change to:

It’s been a pretty good week for the Obama administration. The bungled healthcare.gov Web site emerged vastly improved following an intensive fix-it push, allowing some 25,000 to sign up per day, as many as signed up in all of October. Paul Ryan and Patty Murray inched toward a modest budget agreement. This morning came a remarkably solid jobs report, showing 203,000 new positions created in November, the unemployment rate falling to 7 percent for the first time in five years, and the labor force participation rate ticking back upward. Meanwhile, the administration’s push for a historic nuclear settlement with Iran continued apace.

All of these developments are tenuous. The Web site’s back-end troubles could still pose big problems (though word is they are rapidly improving, too) and the delay in getting the site up working leaves little time to meet enrollment goals. Job growth could easily stutter out again. The Iran deal could founder amid resistance from Congress or our allies.

After giving  examples, Alec MacGillis described some of the factors which led to such misleading coverage the last few weeks:

What explains for this even-worse-than-usual excitability? Much of it has to do with the age-old who’s-up-who’s down, permanent-campaign tendencies of the political media, exacerbated by a profusion of polling, daily tipsheets and Twitter. Overlaid on this is our obsession with the presidency, which leads us both to inflate the aura of the office and to view periods of tribulation as some sort of existential collapse. Add in the tendencies of even more serious reporters to get into a chew-toy mode with tales of scandal or policy dysfunction, as happened with the healthcare.gov debacle – the media has been so busy hyping every last aspect of the rollout’s woes that it did indeed start to seem inconceivable that things might get better soon.

Andrew Sullivan reviewed similar stories of gloom and doom for the Obama administration: “The Healthcare.gov fiasco was Katrina; the Syrian pivot was a disastrous wobble; the Iran negotiations were abject surrender; the economy was going nowhere.” Then he gave further examples of how reality looks far better than recent headlines:

But it’s worth digesting how all these alleged disasters have settled down. Obama’s alleged surrender to Putin on Syria … has led to something no one really believed possible: a potential shut-down of Syria’s WMD potential. What Bush failed to do in Iraq (because Saddam’s WMDs were a fantasy), Obama has almost succeeded in doing in Syria – with Putin’s help. The Iran negotiations – far from being a surrender – have set the stage for a real rapprochement. Les Gelb notes:

The Obama team has won the first round on the six-month agreement with Iran by a knockout. The phony, misleading, and dishonest arguments against the pact just didn’t hold up to the reality of the text. As night follows day, the mob of opponents didn’t consider surrender, not for a second. Instead, they trained their media howitzers on the future, the next and more permanent agreement, you know, the one that has yet to be negotiated.

Even George Will has conceded as much.

The media might stick with the current storyline and highlight every problem which is likely to occur with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the economy, and in unstable parts of the world. Or they might present the full story where Obama has been imperfect, has made mistakes, but has in reality done a lot to improve the economy, improve health care, and is showing promise regarding potentially major achievements in foreign policy.

Quick Guide To The New Climate Report: Five Minutes Before Midnight

The Atlantic gave a quick summary of the climate report with a post on What Leading Scientists Want You to Know About Today’s Frightening Climate Report. For those who don’t want to read even this much, here are the key points:

The polar icecaps are melting faster than we thought they would; seas are rising faster than we thought they would; extreme weather events are increasing. Have a nice day! That’s a less than scientifically rigorous summary of the findings of the Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released this morning in Stockholm.

Appearing exhausted after a nearly two sleepless days fine-tuning the language of the report, co-chair Thomas Stocker called climate change “the greatest challenge of our time,” adding that “each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than the past,” and that this trend is likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Pledging further action to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “This isn’t a run of the mill report to be dumped in a filing cabinet. This isn’t a political document produced by politicians… It’s science.”

When I asked him for his headline, Michael Mann, the Director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State (a former IPCC author himself) suggested: “Jury In: Climate Change Real, Caused by Us, and a Threat We Must Deal With.”

It is now 95 percent likely that human spewed heat-trapping gases — rather than natural variability — are the main cause of climate change, according to today’s report. In 2007 the IPCC’s confidence level was 90 percent, and in 2001 it was 66 percent, and just over 50 percent in 1995.

What’s more, things are getting worse more quickly than almost anyone thought would happen a few years back.

“If you look at the early IPCC predictions back from 1990 and what has taken place since, climate change is proceeding faster than we expected,” Mann told me by email. Mann helped develop the famous hockey-stick graph, which Al Gore used in his film “An Inconvenient Truth” to dramatize the sharp rise in temperatures in recent times.

Mann cites the decline of Arctic sea ice to explain : “Given the current trajectory, we’re on track for ice-free summer conditions in the Arctic in a matter of a decade or two… There is a similar story with the continental ice sheets, which are losing ice — and contributing to sea level rise — at a faster rate than the [earlier IPCC] models had predicted.”

But there is a lot that we still don’t understand. Reuters noted in a sneak preview of IPCC draft which was leaked in August that, while the broad global trends are clear, climate scientists were “finding it harder than expected to predict the impact in specific regions in coming decades.”

There are some possibilities that are deliberately left out of the IPCC projections, because we simply don’t have enough data yet to model them. Jason Box, a visiting scholar at the Byrd Polar Research Center told me in an email interview that: “The scary elephant in the closet is terrestrial and oceanic methane release triggered by warming.” The IPCC projections don’t include the possibility — some scientists say likelihood — that huge quantities of methane (a greenhouse gas thirty times as potent as CO2) will eventually be released from thawing permafrost and undersea methane hydrate reserves. Box said that the threshhold “when humans lose control of potential management of the problem, may be sooner than expected.”

Box, whose work has been instrumental in documenting the rapid deterioration of the Greenland ice sheet, also believes that the latest IPCC predictions (of a maximum just under three foot ocean rise by the end of the century) may turn out to be wildly optimistic, if the Greenland ice sheet breaks up. “We are heading into uncharted territory” he said. “We are creating a different climate than the Earth has ever seen.”

The head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, speaks for the scientific consensus when he says that time is fast running out to avoid the catastrophic collapse of the natural systems on which human life depends. What he recently told a group of climate scientist could be the most chilling headline of all for the U.N. report:

“We have five minutes before midnight.”

Andrew Sullivan has further reactions to the report.

Detention of Glenn Greenwald’s Parter Results In Further Questions Of Government Secrecy

Airports have become a zone where we have less rights and are more at the mercy of government intrusion. Over the weekend, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours (the maximum allowed under British law). For Andrew Sullivan, this tipped the balance:

Readers know I have been grappling for a while with the vexing question of the balance between the surveillance state and the threat of Jihadist terrorism. When the NSA leaks burst onto the scene, I was skeptical of many of the large claims made by civil libertarians and queasily sympathetic to a program that relied on meta-data alone, as long as it was transparent, had Congressional buy-in, did not accidentally expose innocent civilians to grotesque privacy loss, and was watched by a strong FISA court.

Since then, I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.

What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when. So it is a strange and awful irony that the Coalition government in Britain has today clinched the case for Glenn.

A disclosure upfront: I have met David Miranda as part of a my friendship with Glenn Greenwald. The thought of his being detained by the British police for nine hours because his partner embarrassed the American government really sickens me at a gut level. I immediately think of my husband, Aaron, being detained in connection to work I have done – something that would horrify and frighten me. We should, of course, feel this empathy with people we have never known – but the realization is all the more gob-smacking when it comes so close to home. So of course my instinct is to see this exactly as Glenn has today.

This was more of an emotional response than a fact-based one, yet it is a response which many feel sympathy with, along with many in the news media. Technically the use of a law in the U.K. (which many there agree needs to be reformed) says nothing about NSA abuses by the United States. Looking at just the law, and not questions as to whether Snowden did the right thing in releasing this specific classified information, there does appear to be some justification for investigating Miranda (even if handled in an excessive and abusive manner). The New York Times reports:

Mr. Miranda was in Berlin to deliver documents related to Mr. Greenwald’s investigation into government surveillance to Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald said. Ms. Poitras, in turn, gave Mr. Miranda different documents to pass to Mr. Greenwald. Those documents, which were stored on encrypted thumb drives, were confiscated by airport security, Mr. Greenwald said. All of the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden. The British authorities seized all of his electronic media — including video games, DVDs and data storage devices — and did not return them, Mr. Greenwald said.

Despite the attention this detention has received, the real issue remains the abuses by the United States government regarding surveillance, and the failure of those bodies entrusted to provide oversight. The detention of Miranda is a side issue. However on an emotional level seeing someone detained for nine hours and having their property seized is a more tangible warning of the dangers of government abusing its power, for many easier to understand than the evidence released to date.

Updates: The White House had advanced notification but denies having any role in the detention. Glenn Greenwald is threatening to release UK secrets in retaliation.

Update II: It looks like Reuter’s took Greenwald’s statement out of context in their interview and a better summation might be that Greenwald said he would not let this deter him from continuing to release documents.

CNN Finds That Someone Altered The “Incriminating” Benghazi Email

There was very little to the Benghazi scandal which the Republicans were trying to promote when I wrote about it yesterday. They have even less today now that it has been exposed that the email the Republicans have been so excited about had been altered according to a report from Jake Tapper.

CNN has obtained an e-mail sent by a top aide to President Barack Obama about White House reaction to the deadly attack last September 11 on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that apparently differs from how sources characterized it to two different media organizations.

The actual e-mail from then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes appears to show that whomever leaked it did so in a way that made it appear that the White House was primarily concerned with the State Department’s desire to remove references and warnings about specific terrorist groups so as to not bring criticism to the department…

Steve Benen commented:

So, let me get this straight. Someone — we don’t know who — leaked misleading information to ABC and the Weekly Standard, they ran it, other news organizations embraced it, we’ve had several days of “scandal” based on it, and the information wasn’t true?

Tapper put it this way: “Whoever provided those quotes seemingly invented the notion that Rhodes wanted the concerns of the State Department specifically addressed.”

In other words, we’re not dealing with a mistake, so much as we’re dealing with a political actor deliberately misrepresenting key details to journalists, who in turn misled other journalists, who in turn created a controversy where none existed.

Greg Sargent’s take on this rings true.

This would seem to do still more damage to the notion that there was any kind of cover up here…. It’s increasingly clear that this was merely a bureaucratic turf war at work, in which State wanted to get rid of the CIA’s efforts to insert into the talking points stuff that preempts blame against the agency. This new revelation from Tapper takes this even further — it suggests the administration didn’t even prioritize State’s demands and was simply looking to get agencies on the same page to prevent the spreading of misinformation.

Indeed, the email explicitly cites worry about the “significant policy and messaging ramifications that would flow from a hardened mis-impression.” That suggests, again, that this internal debate was mainly about not getting out too far ahead of what was actually known — which could actually be a desirable thing under such circumstances.

Indeed, if this report bears out, it weakens the underpinning of this supposed scandal considerably.

Andrew Sullivan concluded:  “Just an early, failing attempt to smear Hillary for 2016. Because the GOP has no relevant policies for our times, just politics.”

We finally might have a real scandal here, but the scandal is over who is altering email to fabricate right wing attacks.

Senate Support For On-Line Privacy Rights

There has been some good news in the Senate regarding on-line privacy rights this week. First, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure to require a warrant for information on line. Current law allows the government to view information held on line for over six months, but it has become far more common to store information on line for extended periods of time since the current law was written. From Wired:

The legislation, (.pdf) sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the committee’s chair, and Michael S. Lee (R-Utah) nullifies a provision of federal law allowing the authorities to acquire a suspect’s e-mail or other stored content from an internet service provider without showing probable cause that a crime was committed if the content is 180 days or older.

Under the current law, the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government can obtain e-mail without a warrant as long as the data has been stored on a third-party server — the cloud — for 180 days or more. The government only needs to show, often via an administrative subpoena, that it has “reasonable grounds to believe” the information would be useful to an investigation.

Initially, ECPA provided privacy to users, but that privacy protection eroded as technology advanced and people began storing e-mail and documents on servers for longer periods, sometimes indefinitely. The act was adopted at a time when e-mail wasn’t stored on servers for a long time, but instead was held briefly on its way to the recipient’s inbox. E-mail more than 6 months old was assumed abandoned.

“I think Americans are very concerned about unwarranted intrusions into our cyber lives,” Leahy said ahead of the vote.

The bill enjoys backing from a wide range of lobbying interests, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Daily Dot reports that CISPA is probably dead in the Senate, after passing the Republican-controlled House which is less concerned about matters such as civil liberties:

Experts and sources with knowledge of the situation say the most controversial Internet bill of the year, the Cyber Information Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), is already dead in the water.

That’s good news for the millions worldwide who have formally registered their opposition to the bill. Designed to help the U.S. fight online attacks, CISPA would make it easier for corporations that are hacked to pass what they know to government agencies—including, critics say, swaths of your private information that would otherwise be protected by law.

But though CISPA resoundingly passed the House of Representatives April 18, “it is extremely unlikely for the Senate” to vote on the bill,” the ACLU’s Michelle Richardson told the Daily Dot.

Finally, I cannot resist giving Andrew Sullivan a link for this post about on-line privacy just because I love the title: If You Give A Browser A Cookie… (For the benefit of readers who have not had small children, it is a play on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. I also recommend her book If You Give a Moose a Muffin.)

A Conservative Wish For A New GOP

As I last pointed out a couple days ago, this is not a good time for serious conservatives. Despite constantly repeating his name in speeches, the Republican Party has become so extreme, and so unwilling to engage in the type of negotiations and compromises necessary for government, that there would be no place for Ronald Reagan in the party today. In that post I quoted Andrew Sullivan. Many other conservatives, such as Bruce Bartlett, have the same complaints. Moderate political scientists such as Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have discussed the problems to the nation caused by the extremism of the current leaders of the Republican Party. Today Mark McKinnon writes that all he wants for Christmas is a New GOP:

What I want for Christmas is a new Republican Party. Or I’ll take the old Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, or George W. Bush. What I don’t want is the Republican Party we have today. As former George W. Bush and John McCain adviser Nicolle Wallace said, “I’m just tired of the Republican Party being the Stupid Party.”

All sanity seems to have left the ranks of those in charge of the GOP—or, more accurately, those who want to be in charge. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) demonstrated in a jaw-dropping performance Thursday on Morning Joethe depth of the problem and why we are bound to go over the fiscal cliff. He made it clear he won’t vote for a tax increase on anyone, no matter how much they make. So, by his logic, we will end up going over the cliff, and raise taxes on everybody, because he and too many others like him in the party are unwilling to raise taxes on anyone. This intransigence will also make a core Republican tenet of broader tax reform more difficult to pursue because the new Congress will then be fixated on smaller bore issues like fixing the rates.

But there’s more. Huelskamp’s response to the Newtown tragedy? No need to change any gun laws. (Not even better enforcement of the laws we have?) And those who suggest any changes are simply “politicizing” the situation to fit their political agenda. Was George W. Bush “politicizing” 9/11 when he created the Department of Homeland Security? If so, then by all means shouldn’t we “politicize” in the wake of a national tragedy?

Other Republican elected officials said they wanted to wait to see what the National Rifle Association had to say. On Friday, Wayne LaPierre delivered. No new gun laws, but how about an armed guard in every school, because “the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Then LaPierre went on to blame every other facet of our culture for the problem. Now, I don’t disagree that much goes into the cultural equation causing violence, and much needs to be considered to address the root causes, like mental health and violent media. But in 2008, the U.S. reportedly recorded 11,000 gun-related deaths, and Japan recorded 11—and I believe the Japanese play video games. So maybe we should at least include guns in the discussion.

Now, I don’t think more security in our schools is necessarily a bad idea. But it begs the question of funding and federalizing local control of schools, two concepts deeply out of vogue with Republican orthodoxy. And reality.

But here’s the deeper point and the bigger problem for the GOP. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the party is against everything and for nothing.

Nothing on taxes. Nothing on gun control. Nothing on climate change. Nothing on gay marriage. Nothing on immigration reform (or an incremental, piece-by-piece approach, which will result in nothing). It’s a very odd situation when the losing party is the party refusing to negotiate. It may be how you disrupt, but it is not how you govern, or how you ever hope to regain a majority.

And so, we have a Republican Party today willing to eliminate any prospect for a decent future for anyone, including itself, if it cannot be a future that is 100 percent in accordance with its core beliefs and principles. That’s not governing. That’s just lobbing hand grenades. If you’re only standing on principle to appear taller, then you appear smaller. And the GOP is shrinking daily before our eyes.

Ronald Reagan was long thought to be the most conservative of Republicans. And by any standard today he is the most popular Republican in modern history. Yet he raised taxes 11 times, supported a ban on assault rifles and the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks, and established amnesty for 3 million undocumented workers.

No one questioned Reagan’s principles or values. But he was seen as great because he had the ability to maintain his principles while adapting, evolving, and negotiating as the world around him changed. When I raise these issues, many of my Republican friends respond, “We will not become a stronger Republican Party by acting more like the Democratic Party.” And I say, “No, we become a stronger Republican Party by acting like reasonable human beings who acknowledge reality.”

The world is still changing. Faster than ever. And so should the Republican Party. Or condemn itself to a smaller and smaller base of core supporters and permanent minority status.

The Day The Republicans Jumped The Shark

The week ended very badly for the Republicans, hopefully showing those who do not realize it yet that the Republican Party is now run by extremists who are incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities of those elected to positions of power. Two extreme elements of the Republican Party were on display this week. We say the influence of the Tea Party (i.e. unthinking pawns of the ultra-wealthy) as John Boehner could not pass a plan which would preserve tax cuts for all except those making over one million dollars per year. The Republican insanity regarding guns was highlighted by the NRA’s proposal to put armed guards in schools, apparently ignorant of the fact that there had been an armed guard at Columbine. There is now the possibility that a conservative effort to unseat Boehner might work.

The disarray in the Republican Party, besides interfering with plans for economic recovery, is an especially unsatisfactory situation for serious conservatives. Andrew Sullivan, who has long been unhappy with the insanity of the Republican Party, says Enough!

Between the humiliating and chaotic collapse of Speaker Boehner’s already ludicrously extreme Plan B and Wayne La Pierre’s deranged proposal to put government agents in schools with guns, the Republican slide into total epistemic closure and political marginalization has now become a free-fall. This party, not to mince words, is unfit for government. There is no conservative party in the West – except for minor anti-immigrant neo-fascist ones in Europe – anywhere close to this level of far right extremism. And now the damage these fanatics can do is not just to their own country – was the debt ceiling debacle of 2011 not enough for them? – but to the entire world.

Those of us who have warned for years about this disturbing trend toward ever more extreme measures – backing torture, pre-emptive un-budgeted wars, out-of-control spending followed, like a frantic mood swing, by anti-spending absolutism of the most insane variety in a steep recession, vicious hostility to illegal immigrants, contempt for gay couples, hostility even to contraception, let alone a middle ground on abortion … well, you know it all by now.

But the current constitutional and economic vandalism removes any shred of doubt that this party and its lucrative media bubble is in any way conservative. They aren’t. They’re ideological zealots, indifferent to the consequences of their actions, contemptuous of the very to-and-fro essential for the American system to work, gerry-mandering to thwart the popular will, filibustering in a way that all but wrecks the core mechanics of American democracy, and now willing to acquiesce to the biggest tax increase imaginable because they cannot even accept Obama’s compromise from his clear campaign promise to raise rates for those earning over $250,000 to $400,000 a year…

Enough. This faction and its unhinged fanaticism has no place in any advanced democracy. They must be broken. But the current irony is that no one has managed to expose their extremism more clearly than their own Speaker. His career is over. As is the current Republican party. We need a new governing coalition in the House – Democrats and those few sane Republicans willing to put country before ideology. But even that may be impossible.

Bruce Bartlett on Reality vs. The Conservative Movement

The conservative movement suffers from being dominated by extremists who drive out anyone who does not agree with all the counter-to-fact and irrational views which they now hold (which are very similar to the extremist views which William F. Buckley, Jr. purged from the conservative movement in the 1960’s.) Bruce Bartlett, who worked in the Reagan Administration, has found that it is not possible to simultaneously look at reality and be welcomed by other conservatives:

I’m not going to beat around the bush and pretend I don’t have a vested interest here. Frankly, I think I’m at ground zero in the saga of Republicans closing their eyes to any facts or evidence that conflict with their dogma. Rather than listen to me, they threw me under a bus. To this day, I don’t think they understand that my motives were to help them avoid the permanent decline that now seems inevitable.

Bartlett described his days in the conservative movement. His earliest disagreements were criticism of the second Bush administration, along with Congressional Republicans, from the right for their fiscal irresponsibility. This led to him writing the book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.  While MSNBC sometimes criticizes Obama from the left, the right wing noise machine didn’t have room for dissident views on the right:

Among the interesting reactions to my book is that I was banned from Fox News. My publicist was told that orders had come down from on high that it was to receive no publicity whatsoever, not even attacks. Whoever gave that order was smart; attacks from the right would have sold books. Being ignored was poison for sales.

I later learned that the order to ignore me extended throughout Rupert Murdoch’s empire. For example, I stopped being quoted in the Wall Street Journal.* Awhile back, a reporter who left the Journal confirmed to me that the paper had given her orders not to mention me. Other dissident conservatives, such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan, have told me that they are banned from Fox as well. More epistemic closure.

Bartlett’s analysis of the economy after the economic crash found him agreeing with Paul Krugman, and disagreeing with the right’s mischaracterization of Obama as a socialist:

Annoyingly, however, I found myself joined at the hip to Paul Krugman, whose analysis was identical to my own. I had previously viewed Krugman as an intellectual enemy and attacked him rather colorfully in an old column that he still remembers.

For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman. The blind hatred for him on the right simply pushed me further away from my old allies and comrades.

The final line for me to cross in complete alienation from the right was my recognition that Obama is not a leftist. In fact, he’s barely a liberal—and only because the political spectrum has moved so far to the right that moderate Republicans from the past are now considered hardcore leftists by right-wing standards today. Viewed in historical context, I see Obama as actually being on the center-right.

He understands that the conservative echo chamber is largely responsible for Romney’s loss:

At least a few conservatives now recognize that Republicans suffer for epistemic closure. They were genuinely shocked at Romney’s loss because they ignored every poll not produced by a right-wing pollster such as Rasmussen or approved by right-wing pundits such as the perpetually wrong Dick Morris. Living in the Fox News cocoon, most Republicans had no clue that they were losing or that their ideas were both stupid and politically unpopular.

I am disinclined to think that Republicans are yet ready for a serious questioning of their philosophy or strategy. They comfort themselves with the fact that they held the House (due to gerrymandering) and think that just improving their get-out-the-vote system and throwing a few bones to the Latino community will fix their problem. There appears to be no recognition that their defects are far, far deeper and will require serious introspection and rethinking of how Republicans can win going forward. The alternative is permanent loss of the White House and probably the Senate as well, which means they can only temporarily block Democratic initiatives and never advance their own.

I’ve paid a heavy price, both personal and financial, for my evolution from comfortably within the Republican Party and conservative movement to a less than comfortable position somewhere on the center-left. Honest to God, I am not a liberal or a Democrat. But these days, they are the only people who will listen to me. When Republicans and conservatives once again start asking my opinion, I will know they are on the road to recovery.