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Hold that story

Hold that story

June 23, 2006 | 3:01 PM ET |

Guest blogging for Eric today is Jeralyn Merritt of

Welcome, everyone.  here, filling in again for the traveling Eric.  While for some, the big story today is the in Florida, I think the government’s from publishing articles about the Administration’s use of an international financial cooperative’s database to is more compelling.

SWIFT is the acronym for the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, a cooperative in Brussels that includes almost 8,000 banks and brokerage firms world-wide and maintains records of billions of international transactions a year.  reports today that U.S. terror investigators have wanted access to their records since the 1990’s, but it was only after 9/11 that President Bush insisted he had the authority to compel them.

Terrorism investigators had sought access to SWIFT's database since the 1990s, but other government and industry authorities balked at the potential blow to confidence in the banking system. After the 2001 attacks, President Bush overrode those objections and invoked his powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to "investigate, regulate or prohibit" any foreign financial transaction linked to "an unusual and extraordinary threat."

U.S. Treasury officials asked the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times not to report on the classified program.  They refused.  Times publisher Bill Keller said:

"We have listened closely to the administration's arguments for withholding this information, and given them the most serious and respectful consideration. We remain convinced that the administration's extraordinary access to this vast repository of international financial data, however carefully targeted use of it may be, is a matter of public interest."

The LA Times also reported on the program despite secrecy requests:

Dean Baquet, editor of The Times, said: "We weighed the government's arguments carefully, but in the end we determined that it was in the public interest to publish information about the extraordinary reach of this program. It is part of the continuing national debate over the aggressive measures employed by the government."

Among the privacy concerns raised in the LA Times’ report:

Privacy advocates have questioned "link analysis" because it can drag in innocent people who have routine financial dealings with terrorist suspects.  And no outside governmental oversight body, such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or a grand jury, monitors the subpoenas served on SWIFT.

After the New York Times published its report, the Treasury Department issued an official statement declaring the program to be perfectly legal and expressing concern that media reports would compromise it.  The Post reports Stuart Levey, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said the program “is on rock solid ground.”  The White House added, through spokeswoman Dana Perino, “We are disappointed that once again the New York Times has chosen to expose a classified program that is working to protect Americans."

Levey stresses that the program is not data-mining but requires a specific name to be typed into the database request.  Yet, as the Washington Post reports,

That was not the case when the program began in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush signed Executive Order 13224 going after al-Qaeda's finances. Officials said far more information was collected early on, often on people who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda but whose Muslim names or businesses were similar to those used by suspected members of al-Qaeda. That method flooded the intelligence community with reams of material that was laborious to go through and repeatedly misled investigators.

Among the first Congresspersons to is Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.):

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. and co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, said today that there were disturbing similarities between the bank-monitoring program and the secret surveillance program for telephone calls that was revealed last year. "Like the domestic surveillance program exposed last December, the Bush administration's efforts to tap into the financial records of thousands of Americans appear to rely on justifications concocted without regard to current law," Markey said in a statement."If the administration wants to fight terrorism legally, then it should ask for the authority it needs and then follow the law that Congress passes," Markey said. "Don't claim 'temporary emergency' and then operate in secret for five years."

It appears the information was obtained from national security letters, also called administrative subpoenas.  No judge approved them.  The Washington Post has on their problematic use.

The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms. The letters -- one of which can be used to sweep up the records of many people -- are extending the bureau's reach as never before into the telephone calls, correspondence and financial lives of ordinary Americans.Issued by FBI field supervisors, national security letters do not need the imprimatur of a prosecutor, grand jury or judge. They receive no review after the fact by the Justice Department or Congress. The executive branch maintains only statistics, which are incomplete and confined to classified reports. The Bush administration defeated legislation and a lawsuit to require a public accounting, and has offered no example in which the use of a national security letter helped disrupt a terrorist plot.

SWIFT has issued about its cooperation in the U.S. program.  Can you spell C-Y-A?

The newspapers were right to publish reports on the program.  We have an Administration that operates in incredible secrecy and a President who believes he can trump the will of Congress and bypass the Courts.  Given the NSA warrantless electronic surveillance program and the huge surge in the use of national security letters to obtain our phone records and more, we cannot just take them at their word.


opens in select cities today.  It tells the story of the “Tipton Three” -- three young British men of Pakistani descent who travel to Pakistan where the mother of one of them has set up an arranged marriage.  They end up being captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, turned over to the U.S. and sent to Guantanamo. They are beaten, interrogated and confined in disgusting conditions. Interrogators repeatedly tell them they are Taliban and al-Qaeda. After being held for two years without charges, they are sent back to England and freed.  I highly recommend it.  It’s fast-paced, and scary as hell. The plot is and Dana Stevens of Slate writes .  If you have time, you can read their stories in their own words in statement from the Center for Constitutional Rights.  I read every word.


Via , here’s a on CNN discussing cable news and Ann Coulter.

Now,  on to Slacker Friday and your letters.

Name: Stupid
Hometown: Chicago
Hey Smoky Burgess(*), it's Stupid to moan.  For years I've wished the Democrats would come up with a "Contract with America”-like platform to unify behind.  Last week Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid announced that they finally had, saying Congressional Dems stood for raising the minimum wage, cutting interest rates on student loans, blocking privatization of social security, and "discourag[ing]" oil companies and prescription drug manufacturers from further raising their prices.

Ugh!  Compare the timidity of that platform to what Newt proposed in 1994: A balanced budget amendment, term limits, eliminating welfare and a "loser pays attorney fees" legal reform.  No wonder the Dems can't win an election. The only good thing about the Pelosi/Reid platform is that it's focused on individual finances, which I still think is what turns elections.  With that in mind, allow me to revise the Dem plan:

  1. Forget the minimum wage and focus on overtime and vacation/leave time.  One of the few Dem legislative successes under Dubya was blocking his attempt to revise overtime pay rules.  You'd think they'd talk that up more.  Dems should recognize employers have been squeezing workers to sacrifice their vacation time.  Businesses who carp that guaranteed vacation will cost jobs can be reminded they said the same thing about the Family Leave Act, a Dem success.

  2. Forget student loans, propose universal college/trade school tuition.  It's a little known fact that only a fraction of most college revenues come from tuition.  A universal tuition initiative could be part of a populist package which champions meritocracy in college admissions over family alumni ties and ability to pay.  (I know you're thinking how do we pay for that – for now trust me it’s doable).

  3. Trust voters with the truth on energy.  If Dems don't have the willpower to push a gas tax, at least force oil companies, by law, to increase refining capacity (either here or abroad).

  4. Social Security Reform: Blocking privatization is good, but what about when the GOP/press asks “do you guys have a better plan?"  Here's a thought: let's give up the ghost on internet gambling.  It's rampant (like drug use), so let's tax it and rake in the millions. It's a regressive tax on the poor, but social security is progressive, so it kinda balances out.

(*) Smoky Burgess: The greatest pinch hitter in the history of baseball, making him a fitting substitute for your collective names -- thanks to all.

Name: Edward Hanson
Hometown: Commerce City, CO

Brad from Arlington says, "Russia would not have rolled into Berlin and swept through Europe. Rather, the Germans would likely have rolled into Red Square."  Wrong.  Germany, in World War II, was defeated on the Russian front by the same factors that defeated Napoleon: overextended supply lines, fierce and determined Russian resistance, and the rigors of Russian winter (which German equipment wasn't designed to withstand).  In spite of all the weaknesses of the communist system, the Soviets prevailed due to geography, climate, and sheer stubbornness.  It helped that the Allies were harassing Hitler on the western front, but it wasn't necessary.  On the contrary, if it hadn't been for the Russians, we would have had a lot harder time defeating Germany.

Name: Hal
Hometown: Indianapolis, IN
Usually, I enjoy Brad and his pot-stirring, it makes for an entertaining read.  However, his knowledge of WWII is sorely lacking, makes me even more concerned about our education system, sounds like he attended the Lynn Cheney school of history.  A few facts for Brad...

  1. Sanctions against Japan are what led to their declaration of war against us, they lacked steel primarily, but many other things as well, their prosecution of any war (China, perhaps Russia later) depended on steel imports.  It was important enough for them to go to war over it, so much for "no effect on that country".

  2. Russia was soundly beating the Germans long before we started bombing on any scale, and the troops diverted to defend against a western invasion were of low quality, poorly equipped, and of little use on the eastern front.  It's not revisionism to believe Russia would have won on its own, military experts at the time believed so as well, thus the willingness to delay the invasion until we were able to do it with minimal losses.

  3. As an ex-Canadian, to read "The American presence caused both Germany and Japan to fight a war on two fronts", a statement entirely ignoring the fact that Britain, Canada, Australia, etc. were doing quite well on their own before the American entry (flushing Germany from the continent might have been less feasible, and lend-lease certainly helped, no doubt), North Africa being a prime example of what those nonexistent combatants accomplished without the US (forget the North African invasion, US troops faced only Vichy French forces, and still they turned and ran, look it up).  I am proud of my new country's accomplishments in WWII, but I detest American revisionism that credits us with far more importance in the conflict (militarily) than is due.  Remember, a full half of forces on D-Day were Brits and Canadians, in Brad's (and Mrs. Cheney's) world, Sgt. Rock defeated the Nazis single-handedly... very sad and ill-informed. 

One question for Brad, what two fronts did Japan fight on?  Is geography also one of his weak points?

Name: Beth Harrison
Hometown: Arlington, VA
Once again, I need to respond to my neighbor Brad.  I strongly advise Brad to read two books, "Stalingrad" and "Berlin 1945" by Antony Beevor.  They are enlightening on what and why things went wrong during Operation Barbarossa, and the horrors of the collapse of Nazi Germany.  Hitler was micromanaging the Russian campaign from the start, and he allowed the Sixth Army to die around Stalingrad rather than retreat (because retreat is defeat).  The Russians had no problems with supplies, because we were supplying them, along with invading France at the same time.  And, in the long run (the Cold War), Russian technology just couldn't keep up with the West.  The USSR was NEVER an economic threat.  Its collapse was inevitable.  And Germany's overtures to Mexico were in the end fruitless.  Mexico knew that in the long run it had to keep peace with its northern neighbor.  And while most South American countries may have had Axis sympathies, they wanted no part of WWII.  (And the thought that the various governments down there would allow a German army to begin invading North America from there is to laugh.)  And what protected Western Europe from an internal Communist takeover was the Marshall Plan (hearts and minds with bread and butter, rather than bullets).  Stop watching your Betamax copy of "Red Dawn" and do some real research on the collapse of communism.

Name: Thomas Heiden
Hometown: Stratfrod, CT
John Gray misrepresents the Enlightenment and its role in history, even as he acknowledges the worst results some of its philosophers' ideas have produced.  The Enlightenment was characterized by three basic features: skepticism (which he has minimized in his piece), a belief that individual humans have value and are not merely sinners beyond redemption, and a belief that Reason, AS DISTINCTLY OPPOSED TO FAITH, was the best guide we would find in trying to determine how we can best live together.  To be sure, it was a diverse movement. All political systems have at their hearts a conception of human nature; Hobbes found humans so consistently vicious and selfish that only an absolute tyrant could provide adequate government, while Rousseau felt that humans are at their best when they are in their most free condition. Locke and others fell somewhere in between those sort of end-points. What I found most misleading was Gray's failure to position the Enlightenment in history - it was a response to more than a millennium of Dark and Middles ages in which Augustine and Aquinas constituted human knowledge, and in which the Church and State combined to tyrannize all but a tiny few. The founders of this nation are most correctly seen as philosophers of the Enlightenment. By trying to learn from the lessons of history (carefully debating the causes of failure in previous attempts at republican government and thoroughly articulating the ills of "the divine right of kings"), they showed skepticism. By stating "...all men are created equal" they avowed the value of individual human beings. By basing all of their debates on Reason - NOT Faith, NOT what they liked and didn't like (passion, as they would have called it), REASON. One of their great accomplishments was to pry apart the power of Church and State and found a nation of laws derived from reason, not from some fallible human's notion of God's will (hear that, Shrubya?). Gray's depiction of the Enlightenment as something conservatives turn to fondly is unlikely; our founders were the first, and greatest, secular humanists in history - where is there comfort in secular humanism for the current unholy mix of theocrats, fundamentalists, and imperial corporatists that run this country now? They regularly characterize it as the basic threat to our nation!

June 22, 2006 | 11:10 AM ET |

Greetings, Eric Rauchway altercating for you today.  Yesterday, Siva kindly mentioned that I have out.  He likes it!  Maybe you will too.  If you pick up a copy, you'll see on the jacket that Niall Ferguson thinks it's "brilliant and convincing."  Which is a fine segue into my point for today.

I have at least a little sympathy for the Niall Ferguson thesis —that what the world needs now is a proper Victorian empire.  I just know that the US —probably not ever and certainly not under the present administration— cannot be that kind of empire.  Just listen, will you, to :  "[man] of substance.... 'Protestant work ethic'.... rises at six each day.... 'don't feel happy if I haven't done at least 10 hours' work a day'...."  Niall, you're right, if guys like you were running the American empire it might work.  And, you know, we had around for a while.  But we hired the other fellas, and that's not how they work.

What do the other fellas do?  Well, we know what they say.  , "I just do what I think is right," and they say, "I believe in the universality of freedom.  Some don't."  If you listen hard to this and think hard about it, it might sound as though we're running an empire that's :  we know what's right, we know what the proper use of freedom is, and if you disagree with us, you're mistaken.  And if you disagree a lot with us, we might have to shoot you.  Which would be a to be running.

But maybe we're not organized or thoughtful enough to be wicked in that way.  Maybe the kind of empire we're running looks more :

  • Al-Qaedist Abu Zubaydah was captured in March 2002.
  • Zubaydah's captors discovered he was mentally ill and charged with minor logistical matters, such as arranging travel for wives and children.
  • The President was informed of that judgment by the CIA.
  • Two weeks later, the President described Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States."
  • Later, Bush told George Tenet, "I said he was important.  You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" and asked Tenet if "some of these harsh methods really work?"
  • The methods -- torture -- were applied.
  • Then, according to Gellman, "Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty."
  • At which point, according to Suskind, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each ... target."

Which is a much, much more careless and lazy way to be wicked, and no way to run an empire at all.  That's not empire by Rudyard Kipling, that's empire by Daisy Buchanan.

There's a reason iconoclastic lefties like George Orwell had a soft spot for Kipling, the previous pure exponent of Victorian imperialism: ".  He was further from being one than the most humane or the most 'progressive' person is able to be nowadays."  Why?  Because he thought empire was about law.  "Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing.  You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed 'natives,' and then you establish 'the Law,' which includes roads, railways and a court-house."  There's something a little touching in that.  Because nowadays, as Orwell also pointed out, nobody believes in Law.  "No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force.  There is no 'Law,' there is only power."

So what if you're not a Kipling imperialist?  What if you're just doing what you think is right, irrespective of the Law?  What if, time after time, your law enforcement officials explain that they've avoided following the law because it's "" that way?  What does that make you?  What does that make us?

Well, I know what Kipling would say on our behalf, were all that true:  "."

Program note

Bill Moyers is back on PBS this Friday, with people talking "in compound sentences instead of sound bites" about .  (One of his guests is Salman Rushdie, who also has a soft spot for Kipling.)

Jeralyn's back tomorrow.  Have a good weekend.

Send us letters!

Name: Chris
Hometown: Seattle, WA
It sounds like Rob from Visalia is still wrestling with some very important moral and ethical questions regarding war and torture.  I encourage him to continue this line of thought to its logical conclusions rather than stop now and resolve that there are no satisfactory answers.  Having been seduced by the TV show-friendly straw-man question myself once, I answer him now with the results of my own hard-won battle: Would I hesitate to torture someone if by doing so my actions would, with certainty, save the lives of thousands?  No, of course not, and I'd willingly face the consequences afterward.  But that 'certainty' thing is the tricky part.  In order for torture to work, you must know for a FACT that the torturee has the information you need.  Without that certainty, you only make things worse by chasing every fevered fantasy the person uses to try to make the pain stop (just as Jeralyn described the U.S. intelligence agencies doing).  How do you get that certainty?  Through good, old-fashioned police work -- and from there, it's a short step to realize that, nine times out of ten, that same police work gets you the answers you need anyway.  Suddenly, nothing remains of the original justification.  Torture.  Does.  Not.  Work.

Name: Jeff
Hometown: Baltimore
Rob Nelson writes "Regrettably we cannot claim the moral high ground, but is there moral high ground in war?  War seems to be the result of an inability for one or both sides from being able to work out things from the moral high ground."  Were we on equal moral footing with the Nazis?  With Milosevic?  With Hussein in the first war in Iraq?  Could Pol Pot claim the high ground?  Nathan Bedford Forrest at Fort Pillow?  Is there a moral grey area in Sudan right now?  If war is always immoral, then all revolutions, including our own, are immoral.  Is it immoral for an oppressed people to revolt?  Any time a country comes to the aid of its neighbors or allies, as we did in both world wars, this is immoral?

Name: Brad
Hometown: Arlington,VA
Dr. Alterman-du-jour,
I must take exception to Steve from Philly's characterization of the strategic and historical impact of the American involvement in World War II.  While indeed we may not be speaking German or Japanese, the United States and the world in general would be a vastly different place.  To start with, had Germany been freed from any concerns on its Eastern front (and incessant bombing of its infrastructure by American planes), Russia would not have rolled into Berlin and swept through Europe.  Rather, the Germans would likely have rolled into Red Square.  Furthermore, an American blockade of Japan would have had virtually no effect on that country.  What exactly would we be depriving them of?  American and Australian imports? Instead, Japan would have simply tightened its grip on Eastern Asia and probably met Germany somewhere in the middle of Russia.  The American presence caused both Germany and Japan to fight a war on two fronts.  To suggest that there was no deleterious effects on the Axis because of this fact is to ignore logic and basic military strategy.  Furthermore, Steve's assertion that "there's no way in hell either country would have shipped an army across thousands of miles of ocean to conquer us" disregards that fact that Germany had many ties with South American countries and actually pursued relations with Mexico.  It is not outside the realm of possibility that had the Axis successfully co-opted the majority of the European and Asian continents (not to mention Africa), it would have turned its greedy eyes to South America (and its natural progression).  Even assuming Steve is correct about Russia and the Iron Curtain becoming the English Channel instead of Central Europe, does he assume the Cold War would have progressed in the same manner?  Would a three nation NATO with no continental European presence (not mention the lack of the United Nations) really provide a counterbalance to a larger and more economically viable Soviet Union?  Indeed, in either case, the post war situation would have been horrible for the USA.  The quaint American ideals of liberty and capitalism probably would have become the repugnant anomalies that fascism and totalitarianism are now.

Name: Todd
Hometown: Florence, Alabama
Hi Siva,
Of all the interesting and critical issues you brought up in today's Altercation, I guess it's shallow of me to chime in on this one, but I also am sick of Frank Gehry.  I'll admit up front that I'm more of a Frank Lloyd-Wright organic architecture fan, but even if I weren't I'd have to say "enough!" to the Gehry worship that goes on these days.  I wonder how many enthusiasts of Gehry's buildings, which always strike me as architecture designed during a high fever, have actually had to live with one of his designs for year after year...

Name: Toni Bourlon
Hometown: Warr Acres, OK
Well everyone else has moved on and I suppose I should, too, but I feel the need to make one more comment.  When I wrote my letter, I was responding to one Kirsten from Berkley, who wrote the following:

"I would vote for civil unions for everyone and leave marriage to the churches.  That would require religious people to marry in a church and then go to the courthouse to legalize it in a civil union, but that doesn't seem like much different than already happens.  The added complexity here is why stop at same sex couples?  If we are simply talking about the rights and responsibilities of family, what if two elderly unmarried sisters wanted to form a civil union to define and legalize their bond in the same definition?"

I was talking about the idea of turning all marriages into civil unions, in order to give everyone, regardless of their situation, the same "benefits" as a married person.  As if two unmarried sisters weren't already a family, how ridiculous.  However, people who read the letter apparently assumed that I was talking about gay marriage, and not a civil union between unmarried sisters, even though my letter CLEARLY referred to Kirsten's concern about these two unmarried sisters.  So, in response to all those hostile people who got angry BEFORE they read my letter, I've just got two more things to say.

First, I could care less about gay marriage, one way or another.  I just don't want MY MARRIAGE diluted into some kind of "civil union" by the likes of Kirsten. 

Second, and this is really important, I VOTED AGAINST THE GAY MARRIAGE BAN IN OKLAHOMA!!!  So maybe all you angry people out there should carefully read letters before you post angry responses to them - just a thought!!

June 21, 2006 | 10:53 AM ET |

Dear Senator Clinton:

I am one of your .  I voted for you last time you ran for Senate.  Now you are asking for my vote again this year.  Last time you offered the potential of leadership and competence as you stepped up to replace Senator Moynihan.  This time you have your own record to run on.

Let's pretend for a moment that you are not the default leader for the Democratic nomination for president in two years.  Let's just talk about your duties as a senator for now.

As my senator, I think you owe me answers to these two questions:

  • What are you going to do to get our troops out of Iraq?  You have come out against the Murtha proposals for redeployment of our troops to the edges of the theatre, thus forcing the Iraqi government to push harder for self-sufficiency and removing the chief targets of insurgent wrath.  But what's your plan?  Surely it falls between Murtha's informed and responsible plan and Bush's reckless lack of a plan.  But what is it?

  • What are you going to do to get Wal-Mart to stop blocking port security measures?  You served on the company's board of directors.  Don't you have enough juice there to convince Wal-Mart that the safety of millions of New Yorkers is kind of important?  If something very bad happens because Wal-Mart blocked efforts to inspect cargo coming into New York Harbor, we will certainly hold the company accountable.  And we will hold you accountable as well.  Well, those of us left alive would hold you accountable.

I look forward to your responses.


On the Reading Table

Yesterday Jeralyn told y'all to read of Eric Boehlert's book, .

Today I want to point you to another great book that just arrived in my mailbox (and will be on sale soon): Eric Rauchway's new book, .

Eric Rauchway will be your host here on Altercation tomorrow.  You might have noticed that he has a lot to say about the movements of people and capital across borders and around the world.  As a historian, he understands that today's anxieties are echoes of those from about a century ago, when the United States was more globalized and its labor markets in more transition than anything we are experiencing today.  His research for this book is just astounding.  His insights are powerful.  I could go on, but I have only just started reading the thing.  For now, just trust me that it's an impressive work and you will never think about the development of the United States the same after reading it.  Here is the basic question: How did the United States grow into such a unique political culture and economic state?  By all measures, the rise to power of the United States was sui generis.  This country did not mimic the United Kingdom.  It did not sway with postcolonial tides the way Mexico and Brazil did.  Its welfare state differs from every other developed nation.  Its military might is unrivaled in human history.  Its people are more diverse and more connected with the rest of the world than anyone could have imagined at its founding.  Ever wonder how we got this way?  Eric Rauchway will guide you through it.

Odds and Ends

Isn't it time for Bruce Springsteen to take a stand against his record label placing on his CDs?  What would Pete Seeger (let alone Woody Guthrie) think?

Is anyone else out there ?

When are we going to learn not to support in unstable political situations?

Jeralyn told you yesterday about how dehumanizing and corrupting torture is to those who torture (as well as those tortured).  I only want to add that as an interrogation technique, .  Ask Israel.

Oh, and , either.

Isn't it time that this country's religious leaders mounted a fervent public campaign against the that our government perpetrates?  Where is the moral leadership when we really need it?

Still wondering what's at stake in the Network Neutrality debate?  .

All of Washington's political reporters read ABC's The Note.  That's why .

While everyone is getting all worked up about the abandoned Al Qaeda plot to release chemical weapons in the New York City subway system, this might be a good time to remind ourselves that there is a very good reason that terrorists prefer guns, bombs, and fuel-filled airplanes to chemical weapons: they rarely work and the never work well.  Chemical and biological weapons have killed maybe dozens of people in the past 10 years.  While bombs and guns have killed millions.  Bombs and guns are cheap and easy to get.  They are easy to hide.  They kill very efficiently and effectively.  And they terrify just fine, thank you.  Let's get something clear here, chemical weapons are in fact "weapons of minor destruction."  To group them in with nuclear or even conventional weapons as a real threat to crowds of people is just plain dishonest.  At best, it's overly influenced by science fiction.

Nice visiting with y'all this week.

And now, the letters:

Name: Rob Nelson
Hometown: Visalia, CA
Regrettably we cannot claim the moral high ground, but is there moral high ground in war?  War seems to be the result of an inability for one or both sides from being able to work out things from the moral high ground.  War is ugly.  I, like so many other Americans, am torn when it comes to feelings about whether torture is ever acceptable.  In the war on terror it almost seems like there might be an instance when the ends justify the means.  Would any of us hesitate to torture a terrorist when it might prevent another 9/11?  Our military is trained to resist torture.  That simple fact makes me wonder if the Geneva Conventions really mean anything.  Are they just a bunch of fluff spelled out by career politicians to make their constituents feel all warm and fuzzy while they plan atrocities they hope we'll never find out about?  The sad reality is that war and terrorism are forcing us to face these difficult questions.  I'm sure it's been said a million times before but these are times we always hoped we'd never see.  It is times like this when it is never more true that "courage is fear holding on a minute longer." (George S. Patton)

Name: Larry Howe
Hometown: Oak Park, IL
Jeralyn's report on the Bush administration's ongoing torture program was grimly demoralizing.  The "unsuspecting American taxpayer" can no longer be unsuspecting.  But what can we do about it?  The electorate returned this criminal regime to office, though some dispute this; the Republican controlled congress shows no inclination to call the administration on its actions--allowing the president to sign an anti-torture bill followed by a signing statement that nullifies the ban on torture whenever he sees fit.  So if there is no power within the U.S. to bring the administration to justice, how about the world community: when and how can charges be filed in the Hague against the Bush administration's chief officials for these crimes against humanity?  No doubt, the Bush administration will not recognize that international body's authority, but in doing so, the world will then know, and perhaps some fence-sitting Americans, that this is a rogue regime ripe for change.

Name: Steve
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
While I agree with your plea to stop the torture, I contest your statement that violence begets violence.  You went through so much trouble to state and document your case for a worthwhile ideal, then at the very end drop a cliche.  Torture should be condemned not only for the sake of its victims, but for its practitioners.  There will be violence in this world whether we practice torture or not.  When we accept the use of torture, it distracts us from making our nation and our world a better place.  I would certainly take issue with anybody who thinks that our country is good enough, and we can stop trying now.  To borrow a sports cliche, if you are standing still, you're losing.  Every generation of our ancestors tried to make the world a better place for their children.  They worked for and fought for and died for our way of life. 

Anybody who thinks we would be speaking German or Japanese if we didn't press the wars against Japan and Germany is a fool.  There's no way in hell either country would have shipped an army across thousands of miles of ocean to conquer us.  The Russians would have beaten Germany whether we were on the continent or not.  We could have blockaded Japan and starved them into submission by 1946 or 47.  In either case, the post war situation would have been horrible for the USA.  The recovery of the Pacific rim, even though we gripe about all of the outsourcing, has been very good for us, especially during the course of the Cold War.  The Iron Curtain would have been on the English Channel instead of Central Europe.  Our enemies don't hate us because of our freedoms.  They hate everybody, free or not.  When we stray from our ideals, when we accept the criminal behavior, when we turn back the clock, when we turn our back on our own people, even when we deny rights to people we don't think should have them, we weaken ourselves far more than any 9/11 attack or Pearl Harbor ever could.

Name: Robert P. Ewing
Hometown: Paoli, PA
I wonder if anyone in the press will question those Republican senators who unequivocally endorsed the Iraqi government's floating of an amnesty plan (i.e., the one which would encompass those who killed American troops) as to whether such an amnesty should extend to those responsible for deaths of the two kidnapped American soldiers.

| 12:59 PM ET |

Guest blogging for Eric today is Jeralyn Merritt of .

Torture edition

Hi, everyone, this is , filling in for the globe-trotting Eric who gets all the plum assignments.  will be back tomorrow, Eric Rauchway will host on Thursday and Monday, and I’ll be back for Slacker Friday.

There is horrible news today from Iraq.  The beheaded and tortured bodies of the two soldiers kidnapped on Friday at a checkpoint in Yusifiyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad   on a street near the checkpoint.  Pending official confirmation by DNA testing, they have been identified as Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, left, 25, of Madras, Ore., and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston.

Mario Vasquez, Menchaca's uncle, said Army officials had told the family early this morning that the bodies of two uniformed soldiers had been found, both of them beheaded. He said the Army would be conducting DNA tests, but the family believes the men were Menchaca and Tucker.

reports that an Islamic website has posted that the killings were carried out by the successor to al-Zarqawi.

"We give the good news … to the Islamic nation that we have carried God’s verdict by slaughtering the two captured crusaders,” said a statement in the name of the Mujahedeen Shura Council, which groups seven insurgent organisations including al Qaida in Iraq. “With God Almighty’s blessing, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer carried out the verdict of the Islamic court for the soldiers’ killing,” the statement said.

It’s hard to express the sinking feeling this news brings.  What can you say to the families of these young men to help reduce their grief?

When does it end?  Torture is disgraceful.  But the United States does not have clean hands.

Our President says the U.S. does not engage in torture.  launched a new campaign today, .  

Air Torture: flying to select torture chambers around the world.  No fares, no paperwork.

Very catchy and clever, but when you read the details, it’s anything but light-hearted.

Air Torture is the airline transporting detainees to select torture chambers around the world. Organizations such as Amnesty International like to call the practice "outsourcing torture" because we deliver all our customers to countries where torture is routinely practiced - but our partners at the U.S. government have come up with a much better name: "extraordinary rendition."Thanks to the Bush Administration, the "war on terror" has been a big boon to our business. All flights are fully funded by unsuspecting taxpayers in the United States.

There may be hundreds of these prisoners.  No one knows.  The three cases Amnesty presents in the campaign are those of Maher Arar, Salah ‘Ali Qaru and Mohammed Haydar Zammar.

Moving on to Guantanamo, the ACLU has 1,000 new documents relating to the treatment of detainees, including reports of attempted and intended suicides. You can read the documents .

“It is astounding that the government continues to paint the suicides as acts of warfare instead of taking responsibility for having driven individuals in its custody to such acts of desperation,” said Amrit Singh of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The government may wish to hide Guantánamo Bay behind a shroud of secrecy, but its own documents reveal the hopelessness and despair faced by the detainees who are being held without charge and with no end in sight.”

On Friday, the Defense Department released a report of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In an editorial today, the calls upon the Bush Administration to abide by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture and our own Constitution by establishing one set of rules for interrogation and banning cruelty to prisoners once and for all.

The Convention Against Torture has been ratified by the Senate and should also bind the United States. In a report last month, the U.N. Committee Against Torture, which oversees the convention, spelled out what that would mean. Secret detention of prisoners in CIA facilities, it said, "constitutes, per se, a violation of the Convention"; so does the "rendition" of suspects to other countries where they might be tortured "without any judicial procedure." To come into compliance, the United States must disclose to the International Committee of the Red Cross the identities of all detainees it is holding and allow monitoring of their treatment. It must also give them access to a judicial process or release them as soon as possible.All of this the United States should in any case want to do, in its own interest. It should establish one set of rules for questioning all prisoners. Those rules should conform with international treaties and the U.S. Constitution, so that inhumane treatment is at all times forbidden. And the rules should be public, so that the world can see that the United States has returned to its fundamental values.

Violence begets violence.  Inhumanity and cruelty bring more of the same.  The whole world is watching and we don’t have the right to claim the moral high ground so long as those responsible for the abuses at Guantanamo and detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan go unpunished, the policies stand uncorrected and the Pentagon continues to prevent the media from learning the facts first-hand.


Check out Todd Gitlin’s of Eric Boehlert’s Lapdogs in the American Prospect. “If you still doubt that the media game is rigged after reading Eric Boehlert, then there's no evidence on the planet that would convince you that it is. But it is.


Name: Michael Kropp
Hometown: Mahwah, NJ
While not an attorney, I find it necessary to respond to Toni Bourlon's uninformed rant about "marriage benefits."  While it is technically true that anyone can draft a will leaving their property to anyone else, if that transfer of property occurs outside of the immediate family, it is subject to federal and state inheritance tax, regardless of the value of the estate.  Additionally, wills can be contested, and courts have shown a willingness to override the wishes of the deceased and reward estates, or a portion thereof, to family members.  While, of course, "anyone can buy a house," transfer of that property to a partner upon death is far from automatic.  Ms. Bourlon also neglects to mention other benefits of marriage, such as visitation rights in emergency care areas of hospitals, the ability to make medical decisions for a partner, the capacity to make funeral arrangements for a loved one, and the option to cohabitate in senior care facilities.  So, yes, Ms. Bourlon, marriage does have real and tangible benefits.  I am a happily married man, and the rights of gays to marry has absolutely no impact on my marriage.  I would like to hear from Ms. Bourlon, why she feels that gay marriage has any effect on hers?  Your move, Ms. Bourlon.

Name: Anne Sharp
Hometown: Livonia, MI

Here's why I support gay marriage:

  1. My late Uncle Ziggy, who, with the man I used to call "Uncle Bob," had a union that was more lasting, loving and honorable than either of my parents' marriages (or my own.)

  2. After a long and disappointing search for the right guy, a friend of mine finally found the perfect mate for him: a sweet, cute, intelligent, and very loving young man who, for lack of money, was forced to stay behind and care for his invalid mother when my friend got a job and had to move halfway across the country.  Several years later, my friend's sweetheart (whom I doubt had health insurance) died from a heart condition.  I guess it would be sentimental to say he died from a broken heart.  But I am positive that if my friend had been able to marry him, get him and his mother on his health insurance, and bring them to live with him, the man he loved WOULDN'T HAVE DIED.

So I call bullcrap on all those who think gay marriage just isn't that big a deal.  It's a very big deal to those gays who are prevented from being able to love and care for each other in the way that straights take for granted.

Name: Chuck Sweedler
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Toni Bourlon falsely claims that there are no benefits to which married people are entitled that unmarried people cannot also claim. She claims that everyone can pass their property to whomever they choose through their will.  In fact, however, when a married person dies, their primary residence will pass to the surviving spouse without any potential tax consequences -- it does not even pass through probate.  By contrast, leaving the house to a non-spouse in your will is a taxable event, and your estate will likely have to pay probate fees.  When a couple has a child through surrogacy/artificial insemination and the biological parent dies (or the couple divorces (married) or splits up (non-married), a non-biological spouse has all the custody rights of full parentship, while a non-biological non-spouse will often have fewer custodial rights than the biological parent's parents, siblings, etc. 

Ms. Bourlon also appears to be unaware that insurance companies have far less latitude to deny benefits to legal spouses than they do to deny benefits to non-spouses. 

Finally, her plea to shut up and leave her marriage alone is absurd.  First, why should anybody shut up when she flatly misrepresents the basic facts upon which her argument relies?  And, more fundamentally, what difference does it make to her marriage if more people are allowed to share the benefits of marriage (unless Oklahoma's ban on gay marriage is only thing keeping her husband around)?  The only person seeking to deny anybody their rights is Ms. Bourlon.

June 19, 2006 | 11:43 AM ET |

Happy Juneteenth!

Hey there.  I'm and I will be your host today and Wednesday.  Jeralyn Merritt of will take over on Tuesday and Friday.  And Eric Rauchway will play the role of "Eric" (like Tony Danza always seems to play a character named "Tony") on Thursday and next Monday.  Eric Alterman is hopping around the globe gathering more material for future Altercations.  Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy this week.

A couple of weeks ago, in response to the growing call among academics in the United Kingdom to boycott Israeli academics for not doing enough to change their country's policies, I called for .  That's right.  We should all stop talking to each other.  We clearly have not done enough to fix this country and many of us even fail to agree about everything and think with one mind!


Please boycott me.While you are at it, boycott all other American professors.  Do not invite us to conferences.  Do not publish our work.  Do not read our blogs (after this post, of course).  We have a lot to answer for.I am an American academic who has not done enough to prevent my government from launching an illegal and counterproductive invasion of a sovereign country.  On my watch, my country has also imprisoned thousands of innocent people without charge and without instigating a process for demonstrating their harmlessness.  It has engaged in massive surveillance of communication both overseas and domestic without regard for domestic laws or the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.Many of my fellow American academics have failed to prevent our government from doing these and many other bad things. So we deserve to be punished. Clearly, we are craven collaborators.If only we understood the massive power that we have as professors. We can twist and mold an entire generation of voters to parrot everything we believe. We can manipulate the tenor of public deliberation through our bold voices and electric prose. And with all of the media outlets and voting machines that we control, it's a shame that we can't ensure that our government reflects our views. I don't know what we have been doing with our time. But we really should have been executing our will better.One thing we can be sure of is that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney lose sleep every night wondering what the professoriate thinks of them. We just have not taken advantage of our awesome power.What's worse, it turns out that not every professor in America has expertise or influence in matters of global politics. Some are engineers, mathematicians, poets, or psychologists. Others -- get this -- actually support the current administration and its current policies. I know, it's hard to believe. But it's true. There are thousands of Republican and conservative professors in America -- all the more reason to boycott us all! We have not purged our ranks sufficiently!So to make sure that the United States changes its ways, we must not talk to each other any more. We must avoid all contact. We should not exchange information or opinions. If we continue to do research, we should keep it to ourselves until everything around here gets better. From now on, when I enter or leave my office I will do so with my eyes averted so that I do not have to engage any American academics in casual conversation.I expect the rest of global academia to respect our self-boycott. Please do not post comments to this call for a boycott. Please do not write e-mail to me. Please do not invite me or any other American to a conference. Please do not read my work. We are not worthy.I'll let y'all know when the boycott is over. Wait. No. I can't. You won't be reading me.Uh. Ok. The boycott should end when the United States operates purely as a force for justice in the world. You will know when that happens.When it does, let's talk. Later.

Well, the boycott has already failed.  I continued to receive e-mail and people kept calling my office and inviting me to speak and write.  My wife, another American academic, did not respect the boycott at all.  So I guess I have to call it off.

I have received many cards and letters asking me why I call my blog ""  Ok.  I have never received a card nor a letter to that effect.  I have never even been asked via e-mail.  Nobody cares.  But still, I want to tell you.  Sivacracy means "government by me, for me, and of me."  It's based on something a friend said to me in college back in the day when I was complaining about Reagan or something: "You don't want a democracy.  You want a Sivacracy!"  So it's basically about how I would run things if I were in charge.

If I were president of the United States, I would push for many quality of life provisions that many people would consider silly and trivial:

  • I don't think people should dress identical twins identically.
  • Fat men should not wear ponytails.
  • I am against inter-league play in Major League Baseball.
  • I would issue a "Proclamation of Stupidity and Redundancy" every time one political party dismissed another political party's criticisms as "political."
  • Those who declare that we must display the Ten Commandments on public property must demonstrate that
  • Colleges and universities in really cold places should invert their school years so that they give students a three-month break in December, January, and February.  This would not only make July campus life at places like the University at Buffalo (the coldest, windiest place in the world) just about heavenly, it would let those students get WINTER internships instead of competing against thousands of others for the select summer internships.
  • I would launch a massive

There would be many more.  Here's one we really should take seriously:

  • should be a national holiday.  Why don't we celebrate "Emancipation Day?"  Slavery was our greatest crime and our most burdensome legacy.  We could use the holiday to examine its causes and effects and reflect on how such a wise and principled country could be so very wrong.  And we could reflect with pride on efforts to redress the grievances and strive toward universal justice.  Every June 19th, we could discuss with our children how far we have to go yet.  Texans have it right.  They celebrate it every year and it's a state holiday.  Let's take it national.

A Hero

Today is not just Juneteenth.  It's also the 61st birthday of one of my heroes, Burmese democratic activist .  She once said these words:

"It is not power that corrupts but fear.  Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it."

We could use a few brave and visionary people like her in this country.

A Great Loss

Over the weekend we lost someone who has had a profound influence on American intellectual culture, .

I never had the pleasure of knowing Ms. Epstein, but I know many people who knew and loved her.  We all benefited from her work as founding editor of The New York Review of Books.  I shudder to think of what our country would be like without her work.  By all accounts she was a dream editor.  She would work over copy as many times as it took, without regard for haste or length, ensuring the highest standards of clarity, evidence, and logic.  Only in The New York Review of Books can we find long, in-depth articles examining the variety of AIDS treatment and prevention programs in Africa (most likely written by Barbara Epstein's brilliant daughter, Helen), Charles Rosen's classical music criticism, Amartya Sen's accounts of the massive changes occurring in India, Ian Buruma's perspectives on China, or the definitive indictment of the malpractice that passed for journalism in the days leading to the Iraqi civil war (most often written by Michael Massing).  The Review will continue under its other founding voice and guiding visionary, Robert Silver.  But Ms. Epstein will be dearly missed.

And now, the letters:

Name: Michael Rapoport
Regarding Al Gore's poll numbers, I think a little perspective is in order.  Yes, he's gotten great publicity and much-increased respect with the release of "An Inconvenient Truth."  But let's remember, this is still a documentary we're talking about, small-scale as movie releases go.  As of last weekend, it had grossed $3.95 million.  According to the National Association of Theater Owners, the average movie ticket price in the U.S. was $6.41 last year, so let's estimate that maybe 600,000 Americans have seen the movie - and those, I'll bet, are disproportionately blue-staters who are more favorably inclined toward Gore in the first place.  By itself, in a country of nearly 300 million people, that's not going to be enough to turn around a negative public perception of Gore that's persisted for most of the past six years.  Particularly when many of the people turned off by Gore have closed their minds and won't go see the movie or listen to any arguments about how he was right all along anyway.  It's not fair, of course.  Gore is a good, thoughtful man who didn't deserve the trashing he got.  But that's reality.

Name: Mike Sinclair
Hometown: Kalamazoo, MI
In reply to Stupid's comments on teaching... I have 22 years of teaching experience in high school with more than a few regional, state, and national awards.  Having a degree in engineering and law or any other field from a major university or two has NOTHING to do with quality teaching.  The best teachers are those who connect with kids, who can think at their level communicate with them at that level, and bring the excitement and passion of teaching into the classroom... and grades in college have very little to do with those skills.  I have seen more than my fair share of "high achieving uber-smart" grads from all fields wandering into education with the intention of "changing the world" and discovering that they don't know jack about real teaching.  That's another reason they don't stick it out (the dropout rate from teaching runs about 30% in the first 5 years).  I don't consider myself pro- or anti-union, so I don't toe the party line, but I can tell you why the NEA and AFT fight for teacher education; it's not just the degree that counts.  I do know good teaching from bad.  And high achieving graduates in the classroom is not the same as high quality teachers.

Name: Mark Richard
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Dear Altercation:
Kirsten from Berkeley doesn't get the point that heterosexuality has social value and utility to the community is a way that homosexuality does not.  This is the reason the state gets involved in these matters.  It is not really about 'sex' in the sense of sexual activity.  It's about what works best in assuring an orderly transmission of property and values from one generation to the next, ensuring the continuity important to a successful community and to our species.  She is correct in identifying the problem for same-sex marriage proponents, which is that legalization of same-sex marriage raises the question of why other, equally unorthodox relationships should be discriminated against.  Or for that matter, completely orthodox relationships; I love my adult sons very much, but it's not marriage, and I can't put them on my medical insurance plan.  The present definition of marriage is a utilitarian model, it does not cover (sigh) every single case, but it is a lot more coherent and pragmatic than the changes being proposed.  Progressives have a good quality of mind when it comes to asking the right questions.  The problem is - maybe it's generational turnover - they really seem not to have learned the answers.

Siva replies:  "We're here. We're queer. We undermine the orderly transmission of property from one generation to the next!"

Name: Toni Bourlon
Hometown: Warr Acres, OK
I really want to know what "benefits" people who can't get married think they're missing out on.  Kirsten from Berkeley worries about two unmarried sisters who might want to "form a union" for those alleged benefits.  What are they, exactly?  Anyone, single or married, can make out a will leaving their property to anyone they want, and designating the caregiver of their children.  When you're talking about divorced parents, the biological father will always have priority over a stepdad, whether the couple is gay or straight.  Being married doesn't help the stepdad one bit.  Anyone, single or married, can buy a house, and therefore file their taxes with itemized deductions.  Anyone, gay or straight, married or single, can claim their biological children as dependants.  Heck, you can even claim your stepkids under the right circumstances.  So what does that leave?  Insurance.  Well, if people are "free" to form their own unions as they see fit, then insurance companies would also be "free" to completely disregard those unions & deny family coverage to this particular "unit."  So tell me again, what benefit am I gaining as a married woman that the two unmarried sisters aren't getting?  Shut up and leave my marriage alone!!!