A Miscellany

Forthwith, some semi-random thoughts about some big stories in the news this weekend.
Drudge is yakking about former Treasury Secretary O’Neill’s tell all book, in which O’Neill calls Bush a blind man, talks about how removing Saddam and the post-war planning was in in place from early 2001, and how Bush doesn’t say a whole lot when his cabinet officials brief him.
I don’t know about any of you, but none of these revelations particularly shocked me. What did shock me, is the Bush would have the bad judgement to hire somebody as disloyal and indiscreet as O’Neill to fill a cabinet position. Now that reflects badly on Bush.
Moving right along…


There’s a lot of good stuff in the Wash Post’s “Outlook” section today. For the uninitiated, Outlook combines the usual Op-Ed page, with expanded reader letters and several more pages of punditry, pontificating and blow-hardiness.
David Broder spends some time nosing around the Iowa caucuses. He notes that one of the Iowa Dem party activist leaders is thrilled with Dean. His way of making people less cynical about politics, and the possibilities for change, has made her feel that maybe we can remake the world. She states that she hasn’t been so excited about politics in 35 years. I found the 35 years figure kind of interesting, and so did Broder, so he asked about it. She said

“Since SDS,” referring to the Students for a Democratic Society, the New Left campus organization of the 1960s.

That means the SDS of 1968. SDS had started out lefty-peacefreaky, but by 1968 it was well into its metamorphosis into the Weather Underground, a leftist terrorist group aimed at overthrowing the U.S. government. Not all SDS members were terrorist supporters, but a lot provided hard and soft core support to the Weathermen. David Horowitz was involved in this far left fringe movement, and eventually recoiled in horror to become the arch conservative he is today.
Well, I will say this about Howard Dean – he sure does inspire people.
Then there’s this nice discussion of the new U.S. Visit program that Homeland Security launched this week. If you are travelling to the U.S. on a visa, you have to place your index fingers on an electronic touchpad, and a digital camera embedded in the kiosk takes your picture. It adds about 10 – 15 seconds to the minute-long ‘forms & questions’ process that has been in place for some years. Your prints and picture are checked against the 15 or so terrorism, immigration and crime watchlists that the government maintains. Before you’ve finished answering questions, the border agent knows whether you are a wanted person, or not.
The records of your visit will be maintained 3-4 years, depending on where you are traveling from. If you are from a visa waiver country – like Britain or Oz – and you are not traveling on a visa, you don’t have to do it. It’s been implemented at the 15 or 20 largest air and seaports, and will eventually be in all airports. Right now, it just checks you coming in; eventually it will register you leaving as well.
While I have some apprehensions about this system – or any government system that collects information – it strikes me as a common sense, least-intrusive-means of policing our borders. On the first day it was in action, it caught around 20 people who are inadmissible to the U.S. on criminal or immigration grounds, including one major gangster who is wanted in several states for orchestrating large financial fraud schemes. He fessed up to entering the U.S. 60 times in the last year, under 60 different names. In fact, his true name is not yet known…
In the larger scheme of things, this is a step towards an automated immigration process. Currently, your immigration status changes if you leave the country, even if you are a visa or visa waiver holder. This system will function as an important check on people who can currently get away with defrauding the immigration system.
It will also help the government track people who are admitted into the country, but who are terrorism suspects. Why admit people like that? Because intelligence information, and watchlists, aren’t always precise. Besides, sometimes it pays to keep your friends close, and enemies closer. The FBI can watch a suspect in New York, and detect the sleepers in his support network; wherease turning him away at the border just means another operative will be sent to do his mission.
What it boils down to is this will help us tighten up the borders and better police who is coming in, with minimal intrusion into people’s lives.
Author Joshua Kurlantzick of the New Republic thinks this is a ‘orrible idea, and it will destroy the reputation of the U.S. as a free country. Well, yes it will, if two things happen. One, if the gubmint fails to articulate to foreign nationals why we track such things, yes, it will spoil our image. Second, if people in the press write dozens of articles saying that the U.S. is a police state because it takes steps to ascertain the true identity of people entering the country – well then, yes, it will hurt our image. You know, perhaps the two are related?
I don’t want to disregard the threat to our personal liberty posed by vast government information gathering programs. The threat is real, it exists. But the way to deal with problems like this is to think through them in a measured fashion, and work out smart responses, like a privacy act modeled on the German DatenSchutz. Hysterial reactions, followed by hysterical overreactions, are usually the precursors to bad policies.

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11 comments

  1. Michael Jennings

    Yes, O´Neil was a terrible appointment. It does reflect badly on Bush that he made a bad choice. (Treasury Secretary was one job that Clinton managed to get right – three times). However, given that Bush sacked him, one wouldn´t expect O´Neil to be very kindly inclined towards Bush.

  2. Al Maviva

    Oh dear, was I being defensive about Bush? I was trying to be somewhat glib. I’m not waving the pom-poms here.
    O’Neill’s charges aren’t exactly dynamite, especially since former Clinton Administration members have stated that they had the same plans and materials in place, and it would have been irresponsible not to do so.
    Without leaping to Bush’s defense here, would it be tetchy to point out that O’Neill’s understanding of economics was called into question from the start of his tenure by many on the right and many libertarians? Check out the archives of National Review Online and the Weekly Standard for more on that. I’m not going to bother because I’m pretty sure it is common knowledge among conservatives who follow economic policy that he wasn’t well thought of, while his deputy, Mr. Lindsay, was.
    Furthermore, his disloyalty marks him as a man of fairly poor character.
    What is loyalty in politics?
    In D.C., you don’t have to spring to your friends’ defense at all times, but you are expected to be unstintingly loyal to those who presently employ or formerly employed you. No, you don’t have to follow them off a bridge, hire some Cuban burglars, or go to prison to avoid talking to congressional investigators for them.
    But you do have the duty of not volunteering things to the media with the apparent aim of embarrassing them. Doing so is considered extremely bad form. It’s not unheard of, but it is one of those “you’ll never work in this town again” type offenses.

  3. David Sucher

    Loyalty is a two-way street.
    The manner in which Bush fired O’Neill offers further proof that Bush is not a wise leader. No one in their right mind would fire a man so brutally.
    Ans as to criticisms of O’Neill from the right being conclusive — thanks! you have offered me my morning’s humor!
    I honestly have no opinion of O’Neill but I am struck by the defensiveness with which so many so-called and loudly self-proclaiming conservatives feel the need to defend Bush. The very speed with which they leap into the issue offers ample proof they too have little confidence in Bush.

  4. Al Maviva

    Okay David. Let me clarify my position.
    Fuck Bush, fuck O’Neill, fuck Paul Krugman, and fuck Larry Kudlow. Fuck the whole bloody lot of them. I don’t give a shit for them.
    My two points are (1) conservative and free-marketer criticism of O’Neill is longstanding and consistent, and wont be abated, but will rather be revived by this episode; and (2) any bloody asshole who kisses and tells the way O’Neill did will never hold a job in Washington again, save as some kind of pundit.
    As for the first part, I’m not jumping to Bush’s defense here. I don’t give a shit if Bush is the worst bastard ever. What matters, as far as I’m concerned, is that the hitjobs on O’Neill today are consistent with the ones that I read some yesterdays ago. In the law, we call this “prior consistent statement”, and such evidence bolsters the credibility of the speaker. In other words, if you said O’Neill was a disloyal prick two years ago, and then said it again today, well, then a court would find this highly probative evidence that your true opinion, the one you always believed and still hold dear, is that O’Neill is a prick. The inference would be that your opinion was not changed by his book; your credibility as against people alleging pro-Bush spin would be enhanced.
    If pointing out this fact makes me a bitch boy for Bush, so be it. But how this observation about the function of consistency among pundits is a defense of Bush is beyond me. It is simply a comment on the consistency of widely held conservative and free market wonk beliefs about O’Neill.
    As for the second point, I’ve worked in Washington for a while, in and out of government. One thing that politicians and bureaucrats at all levels demand is loyalty. You don’t have to jump of a bridge, or swallow cyanide rather than tell investigators about the 5 year old land fraud deal, all the 12 year-old scotch, or the 21 year-old intern. What you are expected to do, however, is to accept the indignities of life in Washington with grace, and not go blabbing (or worse propagandizing) against your current or former boss. One of those indignities is being shitcanned in an open and public way, for things that aren’t necessarily your fault. Some years ago, I was asked in an interview, “You realize, of course, that if you screw this job up, or leave that perception, that I will have to fire you noisily – that’s if you aren’t smart enough to publicly throw yourself on your own sword.” And I was a low level peon-type staffer. Higher level gubmint employees, especially cabinet officials, are (or at least should be) keenly aware of this code of conduct. It’s the bureaucratic Bushido, and you ignore it at your own risk.
    By way of example, have you ever asked yourself why Dick Morris is now a columnist, and not fully employed as a political consultant? It’s because he wrote a kiss-and-tell about the Clintons, and kiss-and-tells are the kiss of death in this town. If it was just about partisanship, you’d think he would still have lots of business from Republicans. But he doesn’t. He broke the code.
    O’Neill has done the same thing to himself.
    And sure, I’m glad he doesn’t want to play the game. Maybe Howard Dean is right – we need some outsider bastard who wont play by the rules, who spits on Washington conventions, and who screams bloody murder when he thinks things are amiss.
    The quaint custom is simple: loyalty in office, silence out of office. If that is destroyed, politicians’ very limited desire to hire independent thinkers would be further constricted; each job candidate would be scrutinized as a potential adverse biographer, rather than for their talents. As bad as government is, I’m not sure I’m ready to go there yet.

  5. David Sucher

    Oh I imagine that you are accurate, Al, about how the game is played.
    But as i said, loyalty goes two ways. The general who is more concerned about his own warm bed cannot expect to get much loyalty from a trooper. Likewise, one feeds the horse before oneself.
    Bush got what he cultivated. No?
    And I am not sure that the loyalty you seem to admire in fact serves the nation well for it keeps all those dirty secrets under wraps.

  6. Al Maviva

    In a perfect world I’d be all in favor of total transparency in government. The world isn’t perfect, however, and the business of government isn’t making good government activists happy, it’s getting the best deal for the greatest number of constitutuents.
    This involves a lot of nasty debates, political infighting that often becomes personal and vicious, and sometimes bad or stupid acts that are barely averted when somebody in a position of responsibility comes to and stops it.
    It’s a sausage factory. If you distrust government now, I suggest you go join it for a while and get an up close view. Get a look at the dirty secrets, most of which aren’t really dirty or secret, and you’ll develop a healthy disgust for central government.
    Personally, I don’t think the problems in government come from the people. Most of the people I know in government are very good people indeed – talented, smart, concerned about improving things. The problems arise, I believe, because our federal government is just too damn big and clumsy to function effectively. It hurts a lot of people unintentionally.
    What makes it work at all, IMHO, are the quality of the people governed, and the quality of the persons governing. Most governmental activities aren’t closely legislated. Congress doesn’t have the time to do all the legislating it would take to control every act of around 2 million employees. Instead, it issues broad directives, which individual workers fill in by exercising discretion, and just going to work every day cranking out work. Personal loyalty to one’s boss and one’s colleagues is part of what drives the bus. A sense of duty, a sense of pride in one’s work, also seem instrumental. Start taking steps to eradicate the human from government, and I think you’ll eventually wind up with inhumane government.

  7. Sasha Castel

    David, I don’t think that loyalty from Bush is the issue. He is, after all the President, and O’Neil was a member of his cabinet. O’Neil effectively worked for Bush: he was a subordinate. If Bush didn’t think that O’Neil was doing a good job, he had every right to fire him if he thought it best for the country. Presumably this did not come as a complete surprise to O’Neil. I don’t know if there was a prior friendship involved, but did you really expect Bush to keep the man aboard if he was doing a bad job? If he’d put a personal friendship above the financial health of the country, we’d be hearing cries of “cronyism” from all the usual camps.
    Incidentally, every time I hear Paul O’Neil’s name, I think of the hunky ex-second baseman for the Yankees first, then the ex-TS.