July 13, 2005 | 10:10 AM ET

Hugh Hewitt and Ana Marie Cox were talking about the press's reaction to efforts to tie Karl Rove to the Valerie Plame scandal.  What's interesting is that both of them agree that Rove didn't break the law.  But where they disagree is on whether that matters, politically.

Video: Rove's Role The best part was Hugh Hewitt's attack on the White House press corps as "empty-headed television people," while Ana Marie Cox explains that the nature of cable news makes sure that people won't understand what's really going on, which is bad for the White House.  All on cable news.  Things are getting even more postmodern than usual!

Lorie Byrd thinks this is about press ego, while others think it's about misplaced priorities.  On the other hand, some people think it's a brilliant distraction by Rove.

I kind of doubt that last part.  All I know is that the same people who are sure they know what's going on now were sure they knew what was going on when they claimed that the leaker was Scooter Libby.  I suspect that the special prosecutor will let us know what's really going on soon enough, and that when that happens some people will be surprised.

July 12, 2005 | 4:19 PM ET

Security, real and imaginary

Earlier this week, I was pretty critical of the London security cameras, and I have a column out today over at TechCentralStation making the same point at much greater length:  The vaunted network of security cameras in London didn't deter terrorists from setting off bombs.  When it comes to preventing terrorism, I suggested, we'd be better off relying on voluntary cooperation from citizens than spending millions (billions?) on cameras and doughnut-eating cops sitting in front of monitors instead of pounding the pavement out in the real world.

While this led some jokers to suggest that I was overlooking a couple of key benefits of security cameras, there's a more serious question here, on top-down versus bottom-up approaches to security.

Top-down approaches, like security cameras with central monitoring, rely on a few people to keep the rest of us safe.  Bottom-up approaches rely on the rest of us to keep the rest of us safe.

There's room for both, of course.  But there's no question that bureaucrats seem more interested in systems that steer money and power to bureaucrats than in systems that don't.  There's also little question that many of those systems -- like the intrusive yet porous security at American airports -- don't do much to actually protect us.  As Anne Applebaum writes about the uselessness of airport security:

Yet this mass ceremonial sacrifice of toenail clippers on the altar of security comes at an extraordinarily high price.  The annual budget of the federal Transportation Security Administration hovers around $5.5 billion -- just about the same price as the entire FBI -- a figure that doesn't include the cost of wasted time.  De Rugy reckons that if
624 million passengers each spend two hours every year waiting in line, the annual loss to the economy comes to $32 billion.  There has also been a price to pay in waste, since when that much money is rubbed into a problem with that kind of speed -- remember, the TSA had only 13 employees in January 2002 -- a lot of it gets misspent.  In the case of the TSA, that waste includes $350,000 for a gym, $500,000 for artwork and silk plants at the agency's new operations center, and $461,000 for its first-birthday party.  More to the point, the agency has spent millions, even billions, on technology that is inappropriate or outdated.

Bottom-up security, on the other hand, was the response of the passengers on Flight 93, stopping the hijackers from completing their mission.  It's worth noting that the only successful response to the 9/11 attacks came from ordinary Americans with cellphones, not from big bureaucracies.

Big bureaucracies have their place, but it's a lot smaller place than they'd have us believe, and they do a worse job of occupying it than they let on.  Just something to remember, as these topics come up again.

July 10, 2005 | 6:11 PM ET

Millions of eyes and ears

Last week I mentioned the role of ordinary people in sending video from the scenes of the London bombings.  That phenomenon produced an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times:

Because tight security prevented news crews from quickly reaching the bombing sites, the cellphone footage was all that was immediately available from underground.  Its instant embrace by traditional news networks underscored how an evolving technology can take on new and unexpected roles.
"You forget how many people have these phones now and how much more of the first minutes of an event you're going to see," said Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news coverage for ABC.

British television network ITN received dozens of video clips, some by e-mail and others from survivors of the blasts who brought their phones directly to the London newsroom. Some of the video clips were too gruesome too air, according to one senior editor.

This led to an interesting conclusion:

Neil Strother, a Seattle-based analyst who tracks the use of mobile devices for the research firm In-Stat, said the number of cellphones in the U.S. with camera or video capability was expected to grow significantly in the next year as developing technology allowed for higher-quality images and wireless carriers expanded their broadband networks.

"With more and more people carrying cellphones with that kind of function, you're probably going to see a lot more of that amateur news video," Strother said. "It potentially makes everybody a ... journalist."

Yes it does, which is why the notion of special legal privileges for journalists is a silly one.  But there's another angle here.  Not only news media, but authorities responding to a disaster can benefit from this sort of stuff.  London is ringed with police-run security cameras (which notably failed to prevent last week's attacks) but no matter how many cameras you've got there's a lot to be said for having cameras on the scene, wielded by an actual human being.  I hope that disaster planners are thinking about how to make use of this capability in the event of future attacks.  Having that many eyes at the scene before responders even get there seems as if it would be highly useful, but to take proper advantage it needs to be planned out in advance.

July 7, 2005 | 11:26 PM ET

Blurring the lines in London

By now you've heard all the news, so I won't recount the details.  It's a familiar story anyway.  But Patrick Belton observed today:

I'm quite struck by the strategic cynicism of attacking public transportation, and then after an interval, the crowded bus lines once commuters had been diverted to them.  But several friends I spoke with this morning who have lived in Israel say that this pattern - an initial attack, followed by a staggered attack on emergency services once they'd arrived - isn't at all uncommon.  (My friends living abroad are kindly texting to see if I have all of my relevant body parts, attached in the appropriate fashion.)  I find that such an attack on commuting civilians completely unengaged with the machinery of government, war, or administration is striking me as stomach-turning and revolting in a way I could not have previously imagined.

Well, that's the enemy in this war, and we do well to remember it.  There's some useful analysis of what it's about at The Belmont Club, and you may want to check out the Law and Terrorism Page and the Counterterorism Blog

One interesting observation is the growing role of citizens' media in responding quickly to the attacks.  An article (it's free even to non-subscribers) in the Wall Street Journal links to many of those examples.  And TV news-blogger Terry Heaton offers an e-mail from an American media executive in London who reported:  "Some of the most profoundly memorable pictures of this tragic event were not shot by professionals, but rather by folks with cell phone cameras."  Blogger Tim Porter noticed the same thing:  "The participatory nature of the news coverage of the London bombings - from photos on the BBC to Flickr, from blogger Norm Geras and to David Carr in London (posting in Samizdata) - erases the line between those affected by the news and those who cover the news."

Just as terrorism erases the line between civilians and combatants, things are blurring all over.  But at least the photographs are sharp.

July 6, 2005 | 2:20 AM ET

Deeper impact

NASA managed to hit its comet perfectly, inspiring oohs and ahs from both scientists and ordinary people.  In fact, the impact seems to have been deeper than anticipaged:

Hours after the Deep Impact mission's refrigerator-sized Impactor probe collided with Comet Tempel 1, the Flyby mothership still spotted plumes of gas and dust flying out from the impact crater.

We'll just have to hope that the comet isn't home to all-powerful aliens of the sort who figure in Ken MacLeod's science fiction stories -- though there'a already one spoof involving a fictional lawsuit by aliens, and one apparently genuine lawsuit by someone who's just plain weird.

But the best comment I heard came in an e-mail from British planetary scientist Benny Peiser:  "We used to be afraid of comets.  Now it's their turn to be afraid of us!"

That's right.  The Deep Impact probe was far too small to harm a comet -- even if it had contained a thermonuclear warhead, it wouldn't have been enough to deflect a killer comet headed toward Earth -- but the experience would certainly come in handy in planning a response to an Earth-threatening comet or asteroid.  I hope we never need that, but the more we learn about major impact events, the less extraordinary they seem to be.  It's nice that we're learning more while we can.  If you're interested in this topic, I've written about it in the past, here and here.

The bottom line:  If we can avoid a run-in with a killer asteroid or comet for a few more decades, we probably won't have anything to worry about.  Let's hope that luck continues to go our way.

July 4, 2005 | 9:37 AM ET

Independence Day
Remember what we're celebrating

We usually call it the "Fourth of July," but it's worth mentioning that what we celebrate on the Fourth of July is America's independence.  Not America's membership in the family of nations, not America's connectedness with the rest of the world, not the many ways in which America is like other countries, but American independence.

That's an unfashionable thing to celebrate in these days of overarching international institutions, globalized trade, and global media villages.  But although there are plenty of positives to globalization, there are plenty of positives to independence, too.

It's no accident that the biggest enthusiasts for increasing the power of international institutions, after all, are usually the people who are losing the political battle at home.  Independence means we get to decide whether to go along.  Being independent means that you may choose to demonstrate -- as America did in the Declaration of Independence -- a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind."

But the Declaration showed that respect by explaining why Americans were doing something that, if the opinions of other countries were determinative, we never would have done.  America's revolution horrified all right-thinking people, who knew that a monarchy was the only way to rule a modern nation, and that democracy and republicanism could only lead to mob rule and disaster.

They were wrong, and it was the monarchs who wound up in the dustbin of history.  And these words from the Declaration remain radical:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Power to the people.  It's an American idea, and it's one that elites, abroad and at home, have always found threatening.

July 1, 2005 | 10:01 AM ET

Reporters as a privileged class?

Lawyers for Time Magazine and the New York Times have pretty much lost their case to keep reporters Matt Cooper and Judith Miller from having to answer subpoenas in the Plame case.  Time, in fact, has basically surrendered to the feds, in no small part because parent corporation Time Warner has so many interests involving the federal government.  (This is, perhaps, an argument against huge media-owning conglomerates).

The Plame story is a strange one.  Somebody may or may not have revealed that Valerie Plame, wife of flamboyant Bush critic Joseph Wilson, may or may not have held a covert position with the CIA, which may or may not be a crime.  (For lots more background, see this timeline by Tom Maguire.)  I don't pretend to understand the story, but I notice that the Times and Time, which were all for a criminal investigation when the affair first started, are now arguing that no crime was ever committed.  Since they presumably know the leaker, and the leak, that may well be true.

But the bigger story is the debate over whether reporters should have some sort of constitutional privilege against revealing a source.  That's a pretty iffy assertion, and the courts have never recognized such a privilege as being created by the First Amendment, though many states have created such a privilege by statute.  But such privileges raise questions of their own:  These days, when anyone can be a reporter or a publisher via the Internet, what does it mean to have a "reporter's privilege?"  And this is no hypothetical:  The Department of Justice jailed freelance writer Vanessa Leggett in a somewhat shady episode, and opined that it was entitled to do so because she wasn't a "real" journalist.

My own sense (I had a column to this effect in USA Today Wednesday) is that journalists should get the same privileges the rest of us get:  No more, no less.  If there's to be such a privilege at all, it should be for anyone who is doing journalism, regardless of whether they get a paycheck from MSNBC or the New York Times.  "Freedom of the press" in the First Amendment refers to, in James Madison's words, "freedom in the use of the press" -- that is, freedom to publish -- not freedom for some institution called "the press."  (Indeed that usage of "the press" to refer to newspapermen didn't become common until well after the Constitution was ratified.)  Let the press be free for all of us and let us all enjoy freedom of the press.  Otherwise it's just a special privilege for a privileged guild.

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