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“We Can’t Get Nothing To Stick”: When Politicians Ponder Optics And Atmosphere, The Red Flag Should Go Up

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) appeared yesterday on “Face the Nation” and seemed wholly unconcerned about the scope of the NSA surveillance programs. Indeed, like many of his congressional colleagues, McCaul expressed far more concern with prosecuting Edward Snowden for leaking the information than scaling back intelligence-gathering operations.

But notice how the Republican Texan chose to use the story to criticize President Obama anyway.

“The optics are terrible in this case when you consider the recent scandals,” said McCaul on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Ah, yes, the “optics.” McCaul has no problem with the NSA’s expansive surveillance programs, and has no intention of criticizing the efforts or voting for new restrictions, but he nevertheless sees a political problem for the White House — because of the “optics.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said something similar last week on “Meet the Press”:

“You know, when you look at the IRS and you look at the Benghazi issue and you look at the AP issue, I think the trouble here isn’t even the individual specific scandals, it’s this broader notion that there’s a pattern of this activity.”

See what he did there? The “individual specific scandals,” according to the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, don’t really matter. Indeed, they can’t really matter since the so-called “scandals” are either unrelated to the White House, deal with actions that are probably legal, or both.

So it becomes necessary to shift attention to “broader notions” and “optics,” since factual details are politically unsatisfying. It turns politicians into pundits, reflecting less on policy and more on perceptions.

Greg Sargent had a sharp take on this last week after hearing Rogers’ comments.

Those who remember the 1990s well … will recall that this is a time tested tactic. The goal is to create an overarching atmosphere of scandal, because this intensifies pressure on news orgs and reporters to hype individual revelations within that framework with little regard to the actual importance or significance of each new piece of information.

It’s worth emphasizing that all of this predates the NSA revelations. But it nevertheless provides a context to McCaul’s quote: “The optics are terrible in this case when you consider the recent scandals.”

Or to put another way, “We couldn’t get any of the scandals to stick, but we created an environment with some vague notion of the White House in crisis, despite the absence of wrongdoing. We can therefore opportunistically complain about NSA activities, even if we endorse them and want them to continue.”

When politicians talk about “optics,” instead of specifics, red flags should immediately go up.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 10, 2013

June 13, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“More Extreme Weather, Decreasing Capabilities”: Sequester Forces NOAA Satellite Cuts To Save Weather Jobs

There has been mounting concern over the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s mandatory furloughs of National Weather Service employees amidst increasingly severe weather. As a result, NOAA has reportedly submitted a plan to Congress that would restore the jobs at the expense of its weather satellites.

This ‘pay one debt to incur another’ plan is the result of budget cuts mandated by sequestration, which severely threaten the agency’s ability to carry out its key mission by slashing $271 million from its 2013 budget, including a $50 million cut in its geostationary weather satellite program.

After the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma and Missouri and in preparation for what’s predicted to be an extremely active hurricane season, NOAA’s acting administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan announced last week that the agency was cancelling its mandatory furloughs, but provided no details on how it would be offset.

On Sunday evening, Politico reported that the agency has proposed draining the funds from the promising COSMIC-2 satellite program in order to save weather jobs on the ground.

A joint initiative with Taiwan, the COSMIC program began with the launch of six satellites in 2006. As the initial fleet nears the end of its life, COSMIC-2 would launch 12 new satellites into orbit with the capacity to collect and transmit an enormous amount of data that enhance weather forecasts and climate models. According to the program’s website, more than 2373 researchers from 71 countries are registered users of COSMIC data, which are freely available to users in all countries, and 90% of COSMIC soundings are available within three hours of collection.

Whereas most satellites point down toward Earth, COSMIC satellites are unique in that they look across the horizon and monitor radio signals from the dozens of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. Since so many soundings are collected continually around the globe — including atmospheric density, pressure, moisture and temperature data from space — COSMIC provides a three-dimensional picture of the diurnal cycle in all types of weather.

This is particularly helpful in collecting data above the oceans, polar regions, and other hard-to-sample areas. According to Nature, COSMIC team members hoped to launch the first six COSMIC-2 satellites in 2016 “to orbit a narrow section of the tropics, gathering data that would reduce uncertainty in measurements of hurricane intensities by 25%, and in those of hurricane tracks by 25–50%”.

As climate change increases the severity of extreme weather across the country, sequester was already jeopardizing NOAA’s ability to provide accurate and advance forecasting of extreme weather events by further delaying the launch of replacements for the agency’s aging geostationary satellites.

While NOAA has yet to make any statement on its plan to avoid furloughs, cutting the COSMIC-2 program to save forecasting jobs does not mean forecasting quality will stay the same — instead, sequester cuts just create more problems elsewhere by undermining the ability to predict and prepare for severe weather in the future.

As Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress explained, “This is not cutting spending to increase efficiency, it’s cutting spending that will decrease capabilities.”


By: Kiley Kroh, Think Progress, June 10, 2013

June 13, 2013 Posted by | Sequester | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Scandal Is In What’s Legal”: Holding Congress Accountable For National Security Agency Excesses

It didn’t generate much attention at the time, but in the closing days of 2012, while most of the political world was focused on the so-called “fiscal cliff,” Congress also had to take the time to reauthorize the government’s warrantless surveillance program. A handful of senators — Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — proposed straightforward amendments to promote NSA disclosure and add layers of accountability, but as Adam Serwer reported at the time, bipartisan majorities rejected each of their ideas.

In effect, every senator was aware of dubious NSA surveillance — some had been briefed on the programs in great detail — but a bipartisan majority was comfortable with an enormous amount of secrecy and minimal oversight. Even the most basic of proposed reforms — having the NSA explain how surveillance works in practice — were seen as overly intrusive. The vast majority of Congress was comfortable with NSA operating under what are effectively secret laws.

With this in mind, Jonathan Bernstein asked a compelling question over the weekend and provided a persuasive answer: “If you don’t like the revelations this week about what the NSA has been up to regarding your phone and Internet data, whom should you blame?”

There is, to be sure, plenty of blame to go around. The NSA has pushed the limits; federal courts approved the surveillance programs; George W. Bush got this ball rolling; President Obama kept this ball rolling; and telecoms have clearly participated in the efforts.

But save plenty of your blame — perhaps most of your blame — for Congress.

Did you notice the word I used in each of the other cases? The key word: law. As far as we know, everything that happened here was fully within the law. So if something was allowed that shouldn’t have been allowed, the problem is, in the first place, the laws. And that means Congress.

It’s worth pausing to note that there is some debate about the legality of the exposed surveillance programs. Based on what we know at this point, most of the legal analyses I’ve seen suggest the NSA’s actions were within the law, though we’re still dealing with an incomplete picture, and there are certainly some legal experts who question whether the NSA crossed legal lines.

But if the preliminary information is accurate, it’s hard to overstate how correct Bernstein is about congressional culpability.

Towards the end of the Bush/Cheney era, there was a two-pronged debate about surveillance. On the one hand, there were questions about warrantless wiretaps and NSA data mining. On the other, there was the issue of the law: the original FISA law approved in 1978 was deemed by the Bush administration to be out of date, so officials chose to circumvent it, on purpose, to meet their perceived counter-terrorism needs.

In time, bipartisan majorities in Congress decided not to hold Bush/Cheney accountable, and ultimately expanded the law to give the executive branch extraordinary and unprecedented surveillance powers.

In theory, Obama could have chosen a different path after taking office in 2009, but the historical pattern is clear: if Congress gives a war-time president vast powers related to national security, that president is going to use those powers. The wiser course of action would be the legislative branch acting to keep those powers in check — limiting how far a White House can go — but our contemporary Congress has chosen to do the opposite.

This is, by the way, a bipartisan phenomenon — lawmakers in both parties gave Bush expansive authority in this area, and lawmakers in both parties agreed to keep these powers in Obama’s hands. What’s more, they not only passed these measures into law, they chose not to do much in the way of oversight as the surveillance programs grew.

OK, but now that the NSA programs are causing national controversies again, perhaps Congress will reconsider these expansive presidential powers? Probably not — on the Sunday shows, we heard from a variety of lawmakers, some of whom expressed concern about the surveillance, but most of whom are prepared to allow the programs continue untouched.

Indeed, for many lawmakers on the right, the intended focus going forward won’t be on scaling back NSA efforts, but rather, will be on targeting the leaks that exposed the NSA efforts.

Conservatives, in particular, seem especially eager to leave these powers in the president’s hands — even though they have nothing but disdain for this particular president. And as Jon Chait explained, support for the NSA programs from the right will matter a great deal: “The Republican response is crucial, because it determines whether the news media treats the story as a ‘scandal’ or as a ‘policy dispute.'”

Michael Kinsley, referencing campaign-finance laws, once argued that in Washington, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal; the scandal is what’s legal. I’ve been thinking a lot about this adage in recent days.

If the reports are accurate and the NSA is acting within the law, but you nevertheless consider the surveillance programs outrageous, there is one remedy: Congress needs to redraw the legal lines. At least for now, the appetite for changes among lawmakers appears limited, which only helps reinforce the thesis about who’s ultimately responsible for this mess.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 10, 2013

June 13, 2013 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Another Kid With An AR-15”: Yet, Washington Has Given Up On Gun Control And Doing Absolutely Nothing

The scene described by eyewitnesses and authorities is one out of a video game: Suspected shooter John Zawahri turned the beachfront Southern California community of Santa Monica into a battle zone for 15 minutes Friday afternoon, cutting a bloody swath through a mile of the city as he shoot at cars and passersby with abandon after killing two family members and burning down their house. NBC News:

As firefighters first arrived at the scene to extinguish the blaze, the gunman carjacked a vehicle being driven by an adult woman and threatened to murder her if she didn’t drive him to the nearby college campus, Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said Saturday.

The gunman demanded the woman stop at various points along the mile-long ride so he could fire indiscriminately at passing cars, police said. He shot at a woman driving past the scene of the carjacking, wounding her, and later sprayed bullets at a public bus, shattering glass and injuring three people.

As they approached the SMC campus, the shooter fired at Carlos Navarro Franco while he sat behind the wheel of his SUV, which spun out of control and careened into a wall…[he] died instantly.

And yet, the scene is all too quotidian and real. It follows a familiar script: A young man — Zawahri’s 24th birthday would have been on Saturday — who suffered from emotional and psychological problems — he was previously hospitalized for mental illness — wielding an AR-15 rifle — the same gun used at Sandy Hook and Aurora and Oregon and countless other shootings — to kill innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, five dead, including the gunman, and at least four others injured.

The parallels with alleged Newtown shooter Adam Lanza go even deeper. Zawahri’s parents were divorced and he lived with his mother, whom neighbors desired as a “lovely woman…with a crazy kid.” “John had a fascination with guns,” a friend told the Los Angeles Times. “We were all worried about it.” And, like Lanza, he shot his parent before launching his rampage.

Maybe it’s because the shooting was overshadowed by blockbuster revelations about government spying, or maybe we’ve finally exhausted our ability to care about these tragedies after so many, but the shooting hasn’t earned anywhere near the attention of other mass sprees. Or maybe it’s just too difficult to dwell on — and no political leaders have an interest in drawing attention to it — since Washington has all but abandoned any attempt to reform gun safety laws.

And this case should show just how badly those laws need reform. Zawahri should have been stopped at least twice over from accumulating his stockpile, thanks to both his mental health problems and California laws that generally prohibit the purchase of assault weapons. Critics will undoubtably say the fact that he wasn’t stopped shows the opposite — strict gun laws don’t stop shootings — but both prohibitions are fraught with glaring loopholes, as this incident and too many others have shown. Guns can be lightly modified to flout legal definitions of assault weapons, or purchased online, or bought through private sales in other states to skirt all regulations. They can even be assembled from parts kits purchased online with zero government oversight, as Bryan Schatz did just a few miles from Santa Monica for a Mother Jones story.

But more importantly, background checks are supposed to stop people with mental illness from purchasing weapons, but problems with coordination between states and the FBI have meant that this often doesn’t happen. And it’s too easy to avoid a background check all together. These are exactly the kinds of loopholes that reforms want to close.

Others will say that armed bystanders could have stopped the shooting, but this argument fails basic tests of logic, history, and science. Armed civillians rarely, if ever, stop gunmen, and occasionally injure other victims in the melee by accident. And if guns laws are worthless because some people won’t follow them, as the NRA and its comrades like to say, then by that logic all laws, from speed limits to prohibitions on rape, should be thrown out because people keep finding ways to break those too.

Maybe guns don’t kill people, as the bumper sticker says, but tell me that Zawahri would have killed as many people with a knife instead of a semi-automatic assault rifle. And if it can happen in restorty Santa Monica, a community best known for being the backdrop for hundreds of movies and the subject of several hit songs (and, disclosure: this hometown of this writer), or white collar Newtown, Connecticut, it can happen anywhere.

We’ll probably never be able to stop all gun crimes, but throwing up our hands and doing nothing to at least try isn’t the answer.


By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, June 10, 2013

June 13, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Memo On IRS Scandal”: Putting A Damper On “Exceptionalism”

To all state and regional IRS managers:

As a result of the critical government report about our agency’s 2010 convention in Anaheim, Calif., the following changes are being implemented immediately.

1. Funds are hereby terminated for all future training videos, including but not limited to “Cupid Shuffle” line-dancing and “Star Trek” parodies.

This rule is retroactive, which means that, sadly, we are cancelling the Game of Thrones parody that is now in production at our Cincinnati office.

(I screened the rough cut of the video and it was impressive. The costuming was authentic, and I thought Herm from our 401(c) Task Force totally nailed it as Tyrion Lannister — especially that British accent! Unfortunately, building a medieval castle on the set cost way more than all those puny Tea Party returns could ever bring in.)

Another casualty of the new spending rules is the multimedia dance video that was to be featured during our coming convention this August. The entire Birmingham office has been working out some smooth moves every afternoon (between audits) for nearly a year.

I’m told the choreography and exotic stagecraft put the Cupid Shufflers to shame. Unfortunately, because of the recent controversy, we won’t get to see “Big Ira and the Itemizers” show off their Gangnam Style groove.

2. Funds are hereby terminated for the hiring of event planners for IRS conferences.

As the inspector general noted, the agency spent more than $133,000 on three outside planners to secure our hotels and catering arrangements in Anaheim. The inspector general’s view is that taxpayer money could be more prudently spent, and I agree.

From now on, all convention planning will be done in-house by IRS personnel utilizing Web sites such as “Google” and “Bing,” which I am told will actually provide current information about hotel pricing in almost any city.

Apparently even the phone numbers of hotels are available online, thereby eliminating the need for our agency to pay an outside contractor to find the numbers and dial them. Who knew?

3. Funds are hereby eliminated for so-called “scouting trips” to IRS conference sites in advance of the event.

Back in 2010, we dispatched 25 employees in the months before the big annual convention, at a cost of about $36,000. The harsh criticism now being heaped upon our agency overlooks the steep logistical challenges in a city as cosmopolitan and confusing as Anaheim.

To simulate the tourist experience, a squad of our designated convention scouts went to Disneyland to navigate the intimidating labyrinths of Mickey’s Toontown and Splash Mountain.

Others ventured to an Angels baseball game, where it’s not uncommon for zestful visitors to become disoriented and require police escorts from the ballpark.

All scouting exercises were conducted in order to steer convention attendees away from local pitfalls. From now on, however, agency guidance will be limited to providing detailed street maps and portable Breathalyzers.

4. Funds are hereby eliminated for hiring outside speakers to address IRS conferences.

In Anaheim the agency paid more than $135,000 in fees to 15 different speakers. The well-meaning effort, meant to motivate and inspire our managers, has become part of the nasty media controversy.

One speaker who received $27,000 got up and told us that “seemingly random combinations of ideas can drive radical innovations.”

Maybe it wasn’t the most penetrating or original idea, but many of our attendees remained totally alert during his presentation.

Another paid guest speed-painted portraits of six famous persons to dramatize the value of creative thinking. For the record, not one of the Kardashians was featured as a portrait subject, yet still the backlash has been intense.

The total cost of the Anaheim shindig was $4.1 million, part of $37.5 million spent by the IRS in 2010 on conferences, meetings and conventions. Those days are over, as you are all aware, because the Obama administration cracked down the following year.

In 2012 the agency spent only $4.8 million on conventions, and we’re committed to reducing our partying budget even more. This year all our speakers will be unpaid.

Linda in our east Portland office has volunteered to present the keynote (“Re-Thinking Form 8949 — Whither Short-Term Capital Assets?”). Afterward she’ll be doing pencil sketches of your favorite family pet, so don’t forget to bring snapshots!

Yours in service,

Acting IRS Commissioner (for now) Danny Werfel

By: Carl Hiaasen, The National Memo, June 11, 2013

June 13, 2013 Posted by | Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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