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February 2, 2013, at 8:01 PM

So you might not be a newspaper who plans to run an expose on the finances of the Chinese central committee. But if you're a journalist, an academic, or a national security professional, there's a startlingly decent chance that the Chinese intelligence apparatus wants to get inside your brain.

There's an information asymmetry, though. Us regular folks know only as much as our government tells us about the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by foreign governments to spy on us. Investigative journalism helps fill in part of the picture, but huge gaps remain....  More»

 
February 4, 2013, at 1:01 AM

Like everyone else, I was eager to see Argo, Ben Affleck's adaption of a real-life CIA operation to free American hostages in Iran. The movie delivered the trailer's promise of a great film. It was great. 

But I did not anticipate how much Hollywood itself would love the film.

Today, Argo is the leading contender for the best picture Oscar. It's won virtually every major award that this industry's guilds can bestow. Affleck's directing has been similarly lauded. 

Yes, Hollywood enjoys a movie where Hollywood is the hero. Hollywood likes movies about Hollywood....  More»

 
February 4, 2013, at 9:41 PM

A Justice Department memorandum apparently prepared for Congress lays out for the first time the criteria that the national security establishment uses to decide whether to kill an American who is a senior al Qaeda leader or the the leader of one of its operational arms. Honors go to NBC's Mike Isikoff for the score. The memo has no classification markings on it, which tells me that it is a distillation from a larger, probably classified document prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice. Generally, the executive branch keeps secrets in one of two of ways. They classify something formally, or they claim that something not classified is tantamount to internal work product or private legal advice intended for the president and his advisers only....  More»

 
February 5, 2013, at 12:02 PM

So Hillary Clinton is now a citizen in repose. The brief frenzy of 2016 speculation that accompanied the inauguration has died down, and thank goodness, because we're all supposed to hate presidential politics, and we're supposed to let the current president govern. The Invisible Primary refers to the period before the formal party primaries. During this period, candidates figure out if they want to run, recruit staff, decide how they want to run, recruit donors, and plan their campaign. It takes place behind closed doors, usually, with brief flashes of publicity only to ensure that the political reporting class dutifully begins to assess the candidate's...  More»

 
February 5, 2013, at 5:08 PM

Thomas Frank does not like Stephen Spielberg's Lincoln. Not one bit. The heroes are not pure in motive; the 13th amendment was not born from a virginal doctrine of racial equality. The President and his team had to bribe their way to victory, forcing men of conviction like Thadddeus Stevens to disclaim their own core beliefs in order to assure the amendment's passage in Congress.  Well, never. Frank's specific beef is with historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, who seem to celebrate corruption and pass on to future generations the idea that Great Ends are indeed justified by their unclean means.

But when has American politics ever been clean?  Not in 1800, after the death of George Washington, when every faction Washington worried about was let loose, and when such grand men as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson cut deals to...  More»

 

I think the answer is clear: no. I also think the question deserved to be asked.

My own history with obesity is here, in all its gory glory. Fat stigma is an anathema to me, and I wish that we could ignore the issue entirely. We can't. And that means that the fat of Christie's will inevitably bleed over into the zone that perpetuates stigma and stereotypes. We have to find a way to judge Christie's weight in the context of what the job of being presidential entails, and then, at the same time rigorously segregate it from any other type of judgment. If we can answer the question, then we ought to accept that answer and move on.

Christie himself has acknowledged that his weight raises the probability that he will acquire debilitating medical conditions, and has thus admitted to the public square a fact about his body that requires communal judgment....  More»

 

On the question of executive power and drone strikes, my mind splits. One the one hand, the government's position is not reassuring. It dismisses what it ought to take seriously, which is the question of due process. The government admits that it cannot really know for a fact whether its target is imminently intending to harm the United States, or even if the target is of sound mind and body to make the threats. Instead it asserts, basically, that any U.S. citizen who verbally associates with al Qaeda overseas deserves less due process than a confirmed enemy belligerent captured on the battlefield and detained....  More»

 
February 8, 2013, at 12:38 AM

More than 10 years after the United States first used an unmanned aerial device to kill an al Qaeda militant, a discussion about the wisdom and applications of drone use is finally upon us. Actually, it's been about 10 years since the first senior American official bragged about such lethal strikes. The proximate cause, of course, is John Brennan's nomination to direct the Central Intelligence Agency. But the functional cause is years of work by the ACLU, civil libertarians, and the media. Even though the drone programs have been SILOs — Secrets In Law Only — the executive branch has fiercely and without rest resisted a debate. The executive branch has used the pretext of official secrecy to squash any informed discussion of the subject, even though another form of secrecy, the habitual unofficial custom that protects internal policy...  More»

 
February 8, 2013, at 1:26 PM

Here's a bit of news I found fascinating: Even though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta all backed the idea of arming rebels in Syria, President Obama decided against this course of action.

I had assumed that the U.S. was covertly arming the rebels, either directly or through another country. (The president could issue a "Finding" allowing the CIA to do this, or instruct the Pentagon to supply the rebels using a Presidential Decision Directive.) I had assumed that President Obama had authorized such a program because that's what the U.S. has done historically even when it says it is staying out of conflicts.

Covertly arming rebels is a way for presidents to feel like they are doing something to bring a humanitarian crisis to an end without risking American lives....  More»

 
February 11, 2013, at 3:30 AM

A small quiz, or quiz-ling, to start the week.

1. On Tuesday, President Obama will tell Congress that the state of our union is:

(a) Strong. As strong as a master of a Thigh-master.

(b) Strong. Not red hot-sauce strong, but strong enough.

(c) Delaware.

(d) Pretty much whatever speechwriter Jon Favreau feels like it ought to be. Probably: optimistic, since Favreau is going to Hollywood.

2. The sequester:

(a) Will turn out to be the worst double-bluff ever, with Republican leaders unable to muster any support for any deal that contains revenue, and the White House credulously assuming that Republicans aren't willing to actually call their, uh, bluff.

(b) A fan of a non-very-well-made NBC science fiction drama in the 90s.

(c) Is a word that only juries used to learn....  More»

 
February 11, 2013, at 6:54 AM

This is why sleep is overrated. You'll miss news like, say, the resignation of a Pope! When the shock of the news wears off, we're left to wonder what this means. The last time a Pope resigned was all the way back in 1415.

Generally, when American political officials resign, a scandal is in the offing. But the former John Cardinal Ratzinger genuinely seems to be stepping down as Pontifex because he no longer believes he can do the job that he believes God has called him to do. 

There is something profound and endearing about someone elected (anointed?...  More»

 

President Obama is expected to sign an executive order that would require private companies that operate critical infrastructure to get their cyber defenses in order. Congress has tried, and failed, to pass legislation aimed at voluntarily creating a system of national standards, and all manner of cyber exploitation and attacks keep coming.  Though virtually every actor in the debate believes that some sort of legislation is necessary, corporate America is split in two about how much risk they ought to be required to assume. Within most companies, IT teams push for more elaborate defenses and for disclosure of problems; general counsels counsel silence, and customer service executives complain about cyber architecture that is too costly and would put them at a competitive disadvantage....  More»

 

At about 3:30 zulu time, radio hobbyists monitoring a U.S. military frequency (4724z) noted a 249 character emergency action message emanating from Yokota Air Base. At about the same time, seismic stations across the world picked up an earthquake of magnitude 5.1. The point of origin seemed to be a swath of land on the Korean peninsula where North Korea has previously tested nuclear weapons. A few hours later, the North Korean official news agency confirmed what the electromagnetic spectrum (and numerous U.S. spy satellites and sensors) already reported: It had set off a controlled underground explosion of nuclear material. 

A test has been rumored for months; the U.S. and South Korean intelligence apparatuses seem to have gotten good at projecting these things....  More»

 
February 12, 2013, at 4:34 PM

Who's better for the future of the Republican Party? Marco Rubio? Or Jeb Bush? BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins uses the microscopic world of wealthy Republican donors in South Florida to make a series of macroscopic points about the choice Republican mandarins will face very soon. For many, it will come down to whether their choice of Rubio or Bush would offset the ramifications for their private and personal concerns if a Republican doesn't win in 2016. Here is the way it looks from the Sunshine State:...  More»

 

A speed-read analysis of the president's State of the Union address:

The good:

The president mentioned Republicans 10 times, almost all in a positive context. He emphasized areas of agreement.

A voting commission led by Bob Bauer, the president's personal lawyer, and Ben Ginsberg, the Republican uber-lawyer, is bound to produce some good reforms. Both men are serious; they are friends, and they won't let the chance to change voting laws go without making a change.

His call for comprehensive immigration reform noted progress in both chambers, and did nothing to upset the tricky balancing act that's required to pass legislation this year. 

The curious:

The president put Congress on notice: Pass climate change legislation or yield to more regulation on carbon by the Environmental Protection Agency....  More»

 

One of the most perceptive and persistent critics of the president's use of drones for covert operations outside war-zones is Conor Freidersdorf, a conservative and former colleague at the Atlantic

Friedersdorf's primary objection is, and has always been, the lack of due process for the targets. By "due process," he means the procedural rules of justice inherent in law as understood by reasonable people and manifested primarily in the form of independent checks on the president's power. 

Here is his criticism of my proposal for a post-facto accountability court for such actions:...  More»

 
February 14, 2013, at 11:24 PM

Thinking about of Matt Lewis' musings about our obsession with sex over real scandal, I came across an interesting example of how it is often hard for history to disentangle the two. When Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, I was a sophomore in college. So when I took the Advanced Placement U.S. History test and SAT subject tests two years earlier, I hadn't ever heard of Monica Lewinsky.

Sixteen years later, and the Lewinsky affair is to high school students what the Reagan recession was to me. Here is a question that the Barron's Test Prep company asks:

80....  More»

 
February 15, 2013, at 12:07 AM

As an Angeleno, I find the Christopher Dorner hero worship is obnoxious and predictable. Whatever your opinions on the subject of a police state, on the LAPD in general, on harassment of minorities by the cops — you do yourself no favors when you conflate mad murderers with moral martyrs. The guy killed the daughter of someone he didn't like. I'm not sure his admirers deal with that cognitive dissonance. Dorner's manifesto is at best a conflation of legitimate complaints with an unfocused call to rebellion; at worst, it is a post-facto self-rationalization for his own inability to keep his job....  More»

 
February 15, 2013, at 6:52 PM

I don't think Bill Clinton actually told a Greek tycoon no one has ever heard of that he knows that Hillary Clinton is running for president in 2016. That's because Clinton generally tells people we do know about that he really does want her to run and he knows nothing about her making a final or even preliminary decision to do so.

I've written in this space that Clinton can pause the entire Democratic presidential field until fairly late, perhaps even until the first few months of 2015. But something is nagging me a little. 

In 2014, Democrats will be 17 seats away from retaking the House of Representatives. This would be a tough ask in any environment: The president's party generally loses about two dozen seats in midterm elections, and tends to lose more after strong general election wins....  More»

 
February 15, 2013, at 7:10 PM

About 5 pm ET every day, the Department of Defense releases its list of contracts awarded during the past 24 hours. A lot of them are for basic necessities: food service concessions, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, trucks. You'll occasionally see a big cyber-security contract. A lot of the juicer secret stuff gets kept a secret. Watchdogs use the releases to tally up the amount of money that major defense contractors get each year, at least from the portion of the Pentagon's budget that is public.

Stipulate: The Department of Defense needs to test and evaluate its programs. However, given the projections of doom and gloom offered by all the service chiefs and commanders everywhere, a contract worth as much as $5 billion over 5 years cannot slip by without some notice....  More»

 
February 17, 2013, at 11:34 PM

When I was growing up in Florida, and when Andrew Sullivan was growing up in England, those interests dedicated to the empowerment of young gays insisted that, as a matter of rule, about 10 percent of the population in modern countries was gay. That included those who openly identified as gay — a small percentage of the 10 percent — and those who did not, either because of the pressures of the closet or because their sexual identity was in a state of flux.  

Before I came out, I remember feeling skeptical. I knew what I was going through, and I was pretty certain that I was, ah, more special than that. I thought the 10 percent figure was a talking point for gay activists, a way to make the community feel bigger than it was....  More»

 
February 18, 2013, at 12:07 AM

The history of spying is in many ways a history of broken allegiances, of long-distance betrayals that lead to murder, of fractured families, of fakers, of individuals caught up in unbelievably difficult circumstances with no way out. Many spying successes are based on discovering traitors elsewhere. Rarely does a significant secret get stolen without someone, eventually, dying because of it, or from it. Argos are few and far between. If you find a story like that, buy the rights to it, and sell it, and Hollywood will turn it into a movie.

The story of "Prisoner X" ought to be placed in this context. It's fascinating and horrible. A young Australian named Ben Zygier became a spy for Israeli's Mossad. The Australian intelligence service found out and doubled him, getting him to report on what the Mossad was trying to get from Australia....  More»

 
February 19, 2013, at 12:23 AM

I'm skeptical of monocausal explanations for almost anything. 

So I was not prepared to be impressed after reading an essay, "America's Criminal Element: Lead", from Mother Jones' Kevin Drum. He posits that a growing mountain of evidence suggests that one factor, and one factor alone, might well account for crime patterns in the United States since the middle of the last century. For incarceration rates. For abortion rates. For lots of bad things. It accounts even for variation of said patterns within neighborhoods, among races and genders and between classes....  More»

 
February 19, 2013, at 3:57 PM

The world's newest spy agency is now open for business. The Defense Clandestine Service now has its own website, a motto, and, finally, money from Congress to operate. The DCS, in its own words, "conducts human intelligence (HUMINT) operations to answer national-level defense objectives for the President, the Secretary of Defense, and senior policy-makers." DCS case officers "conduct source operations in every region of the world, alone or in teams. They use their innate intellect, flexibility and creativity — augmented by knowledge of the culture and comprehensive training — to recruit and manage HUMINT sources whose information answers national-level defense objectives."

Sounds like boilerplate, but let's unpack it.

The DCS has a simple goal: steal secrets to help warfighters fight....  More»

 
February 19, 2013, at 9:08 PM

Since then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel convinced House Democrats to bite down hard and vote for a climate change bill that the Senate could never pass, a legislative effort to induce a carbon payment scheme has been a no-go, even for the party of the president. But in his inauguration, Barack Obama promised that he'd make progress. He feels guilty that he promised to pass legislation in his first term and did not. There are a bunch of things he could do.

The Environmental Protection Agency can regulate carbon dioxide emissions. All the EPA has to do is show that CO2 emissions cause harm. Once duly shown, the EPA can impose limits on emissions. In 2012, the EPA found that CO2 emissions were sufficiently harmful, and it has since been working on a slew of new regulations....  More»

 
February 20, 2013, at 9:59 PM

A criticism of journalism I find persuasive: Something that is not a story becomes a story when a news organization with implied credibility decides to cover it as a story. A criticism of politics I find persuasive: You can be disqualified from serving in a position not because you are not qualified, but because you haven't edited yourself the way that self-serving politicians tend to do. 

From browsing the headlines today, you would be surprised to learn that an entire line of ammunition used against Chuck Hagel came from the whimsical mind of a New York Daily News reporter, speaking to a credulous and rather stubborn writer for the Daily ...  More»

 

I was wrong. I thought that the GOP's financial mandarins would put enough pressure on the leadership to force another compromise with the White House to avoid the dreaded financial sequester, the series of automatic defense and non-defense cuts that kick in on March 1. But there is no one Republican Party today, and no one seems to speak for the majority of the party. Speaker of the House John Boehner wants a deal and knows he can't get one and is frustrated that the White House won't negotiate with him like it used to. Eric Cantor, his deputy, seems to be waiting to figure out what everyone else thinks....  More»

 

President Obama has talked about the sequester often enough, and his press secretary, Jay Carney, is clear about the consequences during the daily White House briefings.

But where's the urgency? The situation seems more dire than the previous economic cliff crises because Republicans genuinely believe that they will win by holding out, and because they're angry about having to yield to more revenue increases than the deal that created the sequester implied. But Obama has not resorted to full finger-shaking, red-faced exhorting. Why not? Here are three reasons in order of significance:

1. Any deal that comes from the White House will not pass muster with House Republicans. So every effort must start and end in Congress. That is an incontrovertible political truth....  More»

 
February 24, 2013, at 12:02 PM

Remember the good old days when professional wrestlers "injured" in the ring would pretend to be injured in public just in case a fan saw them?

No? Ok. Well, take my word for it. The term of art is "kayfabe." It's the wrestling equivalent of a blue wall of silence. Omerta. That wall is very thin these days, and WWE proudly calls itself an entertainment company. No one is fooled, but the wrestlers try to keep in character most of the time, and the fans generally pretend to accept the real fakeness of wrestling. It is a confusing mental feat, but WWE makes a lot of money every year, so they're doing something right....  More»

 

The problem with the Tea Party, Sen. Lindsey Graham was saying, is that it's "just unsustainable." They will "never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country." The shelf life of this new movement: "It will die out." Graham was talking in 2010 to (egads!) The New York Times about the type of candidate he wanted to run for president in 2012. "We don't have a lot of Reagan-type leaders in our party. Remember Ronald Reagan Democrats? I want a Republican that can attract Democrats."

And that is why Lindsey Graham is everywhere President Obama isn't these days. Graham, personally popular but politically mistrusted in his conference because of his deep association with Sen. John McCain and his willingness to secretly negotiate with Democrats, is now the face of opposition to Sen....  More»

 
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