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FBI, Don’t You Have Anything Better to Do?

February 8, 2013

It appears that the FBI has once again thwarted its own terror plot, in the words of Glenn Greenwald. He’s referring to cases where the FBI “infiltrates” a supposed extremist group, encourages a member or members to plan a terrorist attack against the United States, supplies the “materials”  to execute the attack (i.e., fake explosives), allows the supposed homegrown terrorist go through or almost go through with the attack (which wouldn’t have caused any harm because the materials are fake), and then arrests the perpetrator and makes a to-do about it in the press.

The latest “success” comes today in nearby Oakland, where the FBI arrested suspect Matthew Aaron Llaneza and charged him with attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction. Llaneza pressed a cellphone trigger that was supposed to detonate a fake car bomb built by the FBI outside a Bank of America branch office. In their court filings today, the FBI said Llaneza supported the Taliban and wanted to wage jihad against the United States. His only accomplice was an undercover FBI agent “who had been meeting with him since Nov. 30.”

Now, can I say with certainty that Llaneza would not have attempted to commit a terrorist attack if the FBI wasn’t encouraging him? No. However, it appears to be FBI policy to engage individuals who it thinks for whatever reason (often race, it seems) should be encouraged to plan terrorist attacks. His FBI accomplice had been in touch with him for supplied the supposed weapon. Would he have gone through with it without the accomplice and weapon? It seems much less likely. Greenwald gives a list of other examples:

Last year, the FBI subjected 19-year-old Somali-American Mohamed Osman Mohamud to months of encouragement, support and money and convinced him to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas event in Portland, Oregon, only to arrest him at the last moment and then issue a Press Release boasting of its success. In late 2009, the FBI persuaded and enabled Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, a 19-year old Jordanian citizen, to place a fake bomb at a Dallas skyscraper and separately convinced Farooque Ahmed, a 34-year-old naturalized American citizen born in Pakistan, to bomb the Washington Metro. And now, the FBI has yet again saved us all from its own Terrorist plot by arresting 26-year-old American citizen Rezwan Ferdaus after having spent months providing him with the plans and materials to attack the Pentagon, American troops in Iraq, and possibly the Capitol Building using “remote-controlled” model airplanes carrying explosives.

He continues, addressing the FBI’s method in supporting the plots:

None of these cases entail the FBI’s learning of an actual plot and then infiltrating it to stop it.  They all involve the FBI’s purposely seeking out Muslims (typically young and impressionable ones) whom they think harbor animosity toward the U.S. and who therefore can be induced to launch an attack despite having never taken even a single step toward doing so before the FBI targeted them. (emphasis his)

Beyond being a waste of resources, these schemes go against the concept of rule of law: effectively, once the FBI identifies its mark, the individual is treated as if they’ve already committed a crime. The FBI stops trying to prevent crime and in fact foments it. But there was no trial where the mark was found to be inclined to commit terrorist acts, and with good reason: we base criminal punishment on peoples actions, what they actually, not what they think about doing (unless Tom Cruise is involved).

Greenwald goes on to connect the FBI’s tactics as part of a larger pathology within the American security apparatus that reinforces the idea that we are at war, despite the fact that we do most of the invading these days. Whether or not that’s true, these operations are a waste of FBI resources that ensnare initially innocent young men without making us any safer. It’s a firefighter putting out a fire she started: you deserve no points.

A Not-Less Perfect Union

February 4, 2013

Last we checked, Republicans in swing states were planning to award Electoral College votes based on their gerrymandered Congressional districts and Democrats were failing to reform the filibuster. Unsurprisingly, the Democrats snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by passing a filibuster reform package that was in fact nothing more than cosmetic.  A New York Times editorial rightly called Senate Democrats out for letting their fear of future consequences and individual self-interest. As I’ve said before, Democrats should want a functioning government that responds effectively and efficiently to the needs of its constituents and the accountability cloak that is the filibuster is contributing greatly to the public’s declining faith in the federal government.

In a more surprising development, the Republicans’ Electoral College play is also fizzling after “[k]ey Republican officials” in Florida, Michigan, Virginia and Ohio voiced their opposition to the plan. There was a clear if less obvious downside for those states if they did decide to change their EV allocation procedure: they would no longer be swing states, which would make them less attractive to presidential candidates. I frankly was surprised to see these efforts flop: Republicans have done everything in their power in terms of procedures – the filibuster, Senate holds, voter suppression, reducing voting hours, gerrymandering – in order to amplify their political support. So, in the end, we have both Democrats and Republicans failing to push their procedural advantage – Democrats failing to make the government more democrat; Republicans failing to capitalize on their prior anti-democratic tactics – and we end up just where we were before, a not-less perfect union.

Our Gerrymandered (and Proud of It!) Majority and Other Ploys

January 24, 2013
If you can't beat 'em, gerrymander 'em.

If you can’t beat ’em, gerrymander ’em.

After the Tea Party sweep in 2010, a group of Rust Belt states that voted for Obama in 2008 and then in 2012 were left with state governments completely controlled by Republicans: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. Since then, Republicans in those states have become increasingly brazen in their attempts to sue their (flukey) victories to illegitimately tilt the playing field against Democrats through gerrymandering and tampering with the Electoral College.

In the past week, Virginia dove further into the mud and is now clearly the worst offender. On Inauguration Day, Republicans in the state Senate took advantage of the absence of Democrat Henry Marshall, a civil rights hero who was attending the ceremony, to pass a mid-decade redistricting bill. The Senate is evenly split 20-20 between the parties so they wouldn’t have been able to get the bill through if Marsh was there, and the redrawn districts will allow the Republicans to gain a majority in the Senate in Virginia. Mid-decade redistricting is not the norm: generally, each state redraws its districts once each decade after the Census, which Virginia already done. So, having already drawn themselves districts that allowed them maintain a tie in the Senate, the Republicans are going back to the trough again to finish the deed, and doing it when one of their colleagues, a civil rights hero, is attending the Inauguration. Dirty tricks, indeed.

But it doesn’t stop there: Virginia Republicans are also considering a bill that would change how electoral votes are awarded by the state in Presidential elections. Currently, whoever wins the statewide vote in Virginia wins the state’s electoral votes. Republicans want to change it so that electoral votes are awarded based on – drumroll, please – Congressional districts, which they’ve also gerrymandered to their advantage. Pennsylvania has already considered this move, which would allow state legislators to control the outcome of Presidential elections. Virginia’s proposed plan would take it one step further: instead of awarding the two at-large electoral votes to the candidate that won the statewide vote, Virginia’s plan would award it to whoever won the most districts, further amplifying the effect of the original gerrymandering. In 2012, Obama won Virginia and its 13 EC votes by 3.9%. According to Slate, if the proposed plan had been in place, Romney would have won 9 EC votes to Obama’s 4, despite Obama’s clear advantage in votes. This has already played out in the House, where Republicans won a 33-seat majority despite losing the combined national vote in House races by over 1 million votes – and they’re proud of it.

Gerrymandering and tampering with the Electoral College are both methods to win elections without getting a majority of the electorate on your side. Republicans, it seems, aren’t interested in moderating their policies to attract voters and are instead planning to maintain power by changing the rules to make conservatives’ votes count more than liberals’. That’s not legitimate politics; it’s cheating.

But, still, everything’s fair in love and war, and politics is what we have instead of war these days. Democrats gerrymander as well, though not often in situations as acutely anti-democratic as these. We need to remove these decisions out of partisan hands and return them to the people. Redistricting should be done by nonpartisan commissions, as in California, and Presidential elections should be decide by the national popular vote, rendering the Electoral College and ploys to tamper with it irrelevant.

Filibuster Reform and Our Dispiriting Congress

January 17, 2013

Often, these days, the news from Washington makes me think of Robinson Jeffers’ poem “Shine, Perishing Republic” and its vision of a republic “heavily thickening to empire.” Recent legislative battles – the fiscal cliff, the sequester, the debt ceiling – have all been fought to determine how best to undo problems that Congress itself created, all while unemployment hovers at 7.8% and the economic rebound struggles for gains each month. Instead of addressing actual problems and helping American citizens, Congress spends its time cleaning up after itself. As someone who believes that government can and should solve problems, this spectacle has been exceedingly disheartening.

Filibuster reform was, I thought, something I could get excited about. In the fall, it seemed that Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Democrats had finally recognized how corrosive the filibuster has become to public perception of Congress, beyond its detrimental effect on Democrats’ short-term political goals. When Congress doesn’t react quickly to national challenges, the public gets dispirited and won’t buy in to policy initiatives. As the party that believes the government can fix problems, Democrats should want Congress to be able to react quickly, even if they aren’t in the majority. A responsive Congress would engender confidence in its constituents in its ability to address their needs, and thereby increase public faith in policy initiatives like the Affordable Care Act.

Alas, it appears that any filibuster reform will be purely cosmetic. After extending the Senate’s first “legislative” day to allow further deliberation, Reid is currently supporting a proposal that preserves the minority’s ability to block debate on a bill with 41 votes. And, if they can block debate, they can block a vote. The proposal would prevent filibustering cloture, i.e. the ending of debate, but still, if the minority can filibuster the start of the debate, that amounts to precisely nothing. Democracy will still be thwarted, minorities will still wield majority-like power, accountability will still be nonexistent, and vital legislation will never see the light of day. I suppose, though, “there are left the mountains,” or freshman Senators who know that traditions can lose their worth (even if their reforms lack ambition).

Sidenote: To make the Senate most lowercase-d democratic, Democrats should be allowed to filibuster while Republicans aren’t: when Democrats filibuster, they more often than not represent a majority of the American people. That, obviously, wouldn’t be fair.

Climbing Out of the Budget Cellar

January 10, 2013

Today, Jerry Brown says he followed through on one of his central campaign promises: a no-gimmicks balanced budget adequately funds California education and human services. The proposed budget increases funding for K-12 and higher education and doesn’t further cut human services. Compare that with a $42 billion deficit in 2009 and you’ll see we’ve come quite aways. Brown’s proposal owes much to California voters, who passed Prop. 30 in November, raising over $6 billion for the state’s general fund via increased general sales taxes and incomes taxes on the wealthy. It is an important moment that Californians should be proud of: we did much to solve this problem by passing Prop. 30. Nonetheless, our schools, universities, and human services are still underfunded; addressing those issues in the future will take more hard work. For now, though, cheers to Jerry Brown and a budget without a deficit.

Lessons from ‘Lincoln’

December 20, 2012

lincoln_daniel_day_lewisI saw ‘Lincoln’ last night: it’s a rousing, engaging story of one of the greatest Americans and one of his greatest moments, the end of the Civil War. It felt shorter by a bit then its full two hours and, instead of being a cliché war movie, it traced Lincoln’s maneuverings as he secured the passage of the 13th Amendment and the abolition of slavery.

What message, then, does the film address to political leaders of today who hope to emulate Lincoln’s greatness? Play hardball. Do whatever it takes to do what’s right. Lincoln chuckles about suspending habeas corpus, recognizes the questionable legality of the Emancipation Proclamation, tampers with elections and engages in some good old-fashioned almost-bribery to get the Amendment passed. But we judge it as good and understandable, because he’s doing what’s right. Senate Democrats have the opportunity to make the Senate more democratic, both procedurally and practically, by abolishing the filibuster. Hopefully they see this movie, perhaps as a group with free popcorn. And perhaps Democrats should view Republican hardball tactics more comprehendingly (though they don’t deserve the respect give to Lincoln as they’re working for goals somewhat less laudable than the abolition of slavery).

The movie was also unexpectedly lighthearted at points. Day Lewis’s lighthearted storytelling was amusing and charming. Combined with the questionable moves, this allowed the movie to make Lincoln human, instead of the demigod he is most often made out to be.

Update: Looks like Congress actually did see Lincoln together. President Obama saw it as well and his takeaway, which I neglected above, was the necessity of compromise. The drive to do what’s right must be accompanied by an understanding of the opposition’s interests and a willingness to accommodate some reasonable demands. I’m guessing that’s not what House Republicans saw in the movie.

Notes on the Unthinkable

December 19, 2012

newtownboysNewspapers and radio show that the sickening events of last Friday are still in the forefront of our collective minds and hearts. Families in Newtown still face each day without their beloved children.  The unthinkable, unbelievable, heinous crime has left us asking one question: how (the fuck) could this happen? What is wrong with our country? Below are links that I’ve found insightful and some of my thoughts on what guns and the Second Amendment means, and should mean, in our country and how we can move forward purposefully and productively, so as to honor the lives of those that have passed.

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One coherent and apparently effective policy proposal I’ve read comes from Richard Wright of the New America Foundation and at TheAtlantic.com. Essentially, he proposes that Congress ban all mechanisms that allow guns to fire more than six bullets without reloading bullets individually. That would require banning magazines that hold more than six bullets and guns with detachable magazines as well as speedloaders which can be used to rapidly reload revolvers. Considering the limits placed on gun regulation by the Supreme Court’s incorrect interpretation of the Second Amendment in Heller, this would be a not-obviously-illegal (though it’s difficult to make legal predictions when judges base their decisions on fabricated history – more on that in another post) regulation that could reduce the ability of mass killers to inflict inordinate damage before first responders arrived.

George Skelton echoes this in the LA Times, saying Congress should adopt California’s strictest-in-the-nation gun control laws, including a limit of 10 bullets per magazine.

Another idea comes from Elliot Spitzer, former New York Attorney General, who writes that we should regulate ‘bullet control’ in addition to gun control: “Let’s create a regime that makes sale of bullets to anybody not licensed to carry a gun illegal, makes resale illegal, micro-stamps bullets so they can be traced.” This would go far towards minimizing gun homicides generally, though would have to be paired with limits on total purchases of ammunition and background checks to affect mass killings.

On message boards, I’ve read proposals saying gun owners should be required to carry insurance, which in turn would invest insurance companies in preventing deaths or injuries caused by guns they’ve insured. This appears to be a good idea but may not practical in a way that complies with Heller, i.e. didn’t make gun ownership not financially possible for a significant portion of citizens.

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Considering the countless other people affected by mental illness and the utter saturation of guns in our society, no gun regulation will completely eliminate the threat of mass killings. Nonetheless, reducing access to guns, especially guns that can fire more frequently, can reduce the harm inflicted by mass killers. 22 children were injured in an attack at a school in China on Saturday; none were killed. The attacker was armed with a knife.

And don’t say that nothing can change, or any action is pointless, because there are too many guns already or we can’t change our culture. Australia reacted to a a mass killing in 1996 by implementing stricter gun laws and hasn’t had another mass killing since. Saying something is impossible when it is so obviously and painfully necessary – necessary to fulfill our most fundamental responsibility to our nation’s children – is more un-American than any gun control regulation could be. Each generation in this country has achieved things the previous didn’t think possible.

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Any gun control regulations should be crafted to also reduce the amount of what could be called run-of-the-mill gun homicides where a single person is killed with a handgun, which are a far more frequent cause of death than mass killings. As most know, America has the highest gun homicide rate of any developed country: approximately 33 people are murdered each day. That is just an unacceptable as the 27 people who were killed last Friday.

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 For the memory of the people who died, we have act to change this – we, the people. We have to agree that this is unacceptable and change, together, as Obama insists:

I’ll write more about the legal aspects of these issues in another post.