Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009

Wishing a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. What does the new year have in store for us? Hope it is filled with good health and good fortune.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Report: Bush Admin Raised Terror Alert Based On Con Man's Al Jazeera 'Decoding' Scam


A self-styled Nevada codebreaker convinced the CIA he could decode secret terrorist targeting information sent through Al Jazeera broadcasts, prompting the Bush White House to raise the terror alert level to Orange (high) in December 2003, with Tom Ridge warning of "near-term attacks that could either rival or exceed what we experience on September 11," according to a new report in Playboy.
The report deals another blow to the credibility of the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded terror alert system, and comes after Ridge's claim that the system was used as a political tool when he was DHS secretary.
The man who prompted the December 2003 Orange alert was Dennis Montgomery, who has since been embroiled in various lawsuits, including one for allegedly bouncing $1 million in checks during a Caesars Palace spree. His former lawyer calls him a "habitual liar engaged in fraud."
Working out of a Reno, Nevada, software firm called eTreppid Technologies, Montgomery took in officials in the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology and convinced them that technology he invented -- but could not explain -- was pulling terrorist-produced "bar codes" from Al Jazeera television broadcasts. Using his proprietary technology, those bar codes could be translated into longitudes and latitudes and flight numbers. Terrorist leaders were using that data to direct their compatriots about the next target.
But Montgomery's "technology" could not be reproduced, and the Playboy piece explains how he fell out of favor after word of what was going on spread in the CIA:
The federal government was acting on the Al Jazeera claims without even understanding how Montgomery found his coordinates. "I said, 'Give us the algorithms that allowed you to come up with this stuff.' They wouldn't even do that," says the first officer. "And I was screaming, 'You gave these people fucking money?'" ...
A former CIA official went through the scenario with me and explained why sanity finally won out. First, Montgomery never explained how he was finding and interpreting the bar codes. How could one scientist find the codes when no one else could? More implausibly, the scheme required Al Jazeera's complicity. At the very least, a technician at the network would have to inject the codes into video broadcasts, and every terrorist operative would need some sort of decoding device. What would be the advantage of this method of transmission?
A branch of the French intelligence services helped convince the Americans that the bar codes were fake. The CIA and the French commissioned a technology company to locate or re-create codes in the Al Jazeera transmission. They found definitively that what Montgomery claimed was there was not. Quietly, as far as the CIA was concerned, the case was closed. The agency turned the matter over to the counterintelligence side to see where it had gone wrong.

Former Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend defended the use of Montgomery's "intelligence" in an interview with Playboy, telling the magazine, "It didn't seem beyond the realm of possibility. We were relying on technical people to tell us whether or not it was feasible. I don't regret having acted on it."
Check out this New York Times article from the time, which reported that the decision to raise the threat level "came after intense consultations over the weekend among intelligence agencies, which had picked up recent talk among extremists about some unspecified but spectacular attack."
But even after the CIA abandoned Montgomery, he appears to have convinced other agencies that his decoding technology was legit. He inked a $3 million research contract with the Air Force in January of this year. An official explained to Playboy, "We were just looking at [software] to see if there was anything there."
TPMmuckraker covered bribery allegations made by Montgomery against Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons back in 2007. The FBI ultimately cleared the governor of wrongdoing.
© 2009 TPM Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Blunder on the Mountain

Maureen Dowd
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
December 20, 2009

Flying over the waves of snow-covered mountains that make Afghanistan a natural fortress and a sinkhole for empires, it’s impossible not to think of Osama’s escaping from Tora Bora as one of the greatest bungled opportunities in history.

Unlike the Bushies, who tried to play down Osama’s importance the longer he was on the lam, Gen. Stanley McChrystal acknowledged in recent Congressional hearings that “he is an iconic figure.”

“It would not defeat Al Qaeda to have him captured or killed,” he said, “but I don’t think that we can finally defeat Al Qaeda until he is captured or killed.”

I asked Bob Gates, as we flew over the notorious terrain, if he had any insights into why such a bellicose team as W., Cheney and Rummy flinched at the very moment they could have captured our mortal enemy. Gates, who said there hasn’t been any good intelligence on Osama’s whereabouts in years, said “it’s just hard to find somebody who has a sympathetic network and local support.”

(It seems hard to believe the C.I.A. can’t infiltrate terrorist networks, given all the Americans who keep popping up as wannabe jihadis.)

During the climactic showdown at Tora Bora, Rummy distracted Gen. Tommy Franks by demanding that he freshen up an Iraq invasion plan. The insufficient number of troops at Tora Bora was a harbinger of things to come in Afghanistan, as the Bush administration heedlessly moved on to Iraq.

“Afghanistan was a vastly underresourced operation because, as some of the generals say in the Pentagon, we were just out of Schlitz,” Gates said. “We didn’t have any more troops to send.”

Noting that the dad of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a Hollywood publicist whose clients included Julie Andrews, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett and Anthony Quinn, and his mom was an assistant for a time to Jimmy Durante, I said that if this were a movie, an elite Rambo team would have gone into the Pakistan border area long ago to fulfill W.’s empty threat to get Osama “dead or alive.”

I wondered why Bush and Obama officials went along with the mythological geological alibi of “impassable” mountains. Health care has often seemed impassable. Lots of things are difficult. But in America, given all our resources, we pride ourselves on achieving the difficult.

Gates told U.S. soldiers in Kirkuk that, in essence, we went to war twice in Afghanistan: a brief one in 2001 that America won, and one that started at the end of 2005 when the Taliban regenerated.

“What we didn’t realize,” he said, “was that, particularly beginning toward the end of 2005, the deals that the Pakistanis cut with the tribes to back off and leave them alone created the space in which the Taliban were able to come back.”

The Bush administration may not have realized that, but common sense told you the deal was lousy, giving those who hated us a sanctuary in which to rejuvenate.

In a compelling cover story in the current New Republic called “The Battle for Tora Bora,” Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, reconstructs the debacle, calling it “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.” He reports that Tommy Franks rebuffed the C.I.A. request for 800 Army Rangers from nearby bases to assault the complex of caves where Osama was hiding and block his escape. In the end, Bergen notes, there were more journalists there than Western soldiers.

General Franks told the C.I.A. he wanted to keep a light-footprint approach.

(Curiously, Gates — who is known in the Obama administration as “the man who leaves no footprints” — decided to support the heavy-footprint surge after McChrystal made the argument that it’s not the size of the footprint, but how hard the foot comes down.)

Franks and Rummy were risk averse about American troop casualties at the very moment they could have decapitated Al Qaeda. Instead, Osama’s myth grew with his escape as a 15,000-pound Daisy Cutter bomb and a series of 500-pound bombs rained down on the caves.

Bergen writes that bin Laden’s son, Omar, said “bin Laden would routinely hike from Tora Bora into neighboring Pakistan on walks that could take anywhere between seven and 14 hours. ‘My brothers and I all loathed these grueling treks that seemed the most pleasant of outings to our father,’ Omar bin Laden later recalled. Bin Laden told his sons they had to memorize every rock on the routes to Pakistan. ‘We never know when war will strike,’ he instructed them. ‘We must know our way out of the mountains.’ ”

Eight years after Tora Bora, the failure there poses the question at the heart, or Achilles’ heel, of President Obama’s strategy: What if victory over Al Qaeda and other terrorists lies in Pakistan, not Afghanistan?

Are we going to go get them in Pakistan or not? Osama’s evading us and ending up in Pakistan is the perfect humiliating symbol of our failure to deal with that question. 

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Palin's own 'Climate-gate'

Eugene Robinson
Op-Ed Editor
The Washington Post
December 15, 2009

Sarah Palin is such a cold-eyed skeptic about the Copenhagen summit on climate change that it's no surprise she would call on President Obama not to attend. After all, Obama might join other leaders in acknowledging that warming is a "global challenge." He might entertain "opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." He might even explore ways to "participate in carbon-trading markets." 

Oh, wait. Those quotes aren't from some smug Euro-socialist manifesto. They're from an administrative order Palin signed in September 2007, as governor of Alaska, establishing a "sub-Cabinet" of top state officials to develop a strategy for dealing with climate change.

Back then, Palin was the governor of a state where "coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans," as she wrote. Faced with that reality, she sensibly formed the high-level working group to chart a course of action.

"Climate change is not just an environmental issue," wrote Palin. "It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans."

Palin mentioned having created the climate change unit in an op-ed she wrote last week for The Post. What she didn't acknowledge was the contrast between what she says about climate change now and what she said -- and did -- about it as governor of our most at-risk state. When she was in office, Palin treated the issue as serious, complex and worthy of urgent attention. Now that she's the iconic leader of a populist movement that reacts with anger at the slightest whiff of pointy-headed, "one world" intellectualism, she writes as if the idea of seeking ways to mitigate climate change is a crock.

"Alaska's climate is warming," Palin wrote to Alaskans in a July 2008 newsletter. "While there have been warming and cooling trends before, climatologists tell us that the current rate of warming is unprecedented within the time of human civilization. Many experts predict that Alaska, along with our northern latitude neighbors, will warm at a faster pace than any other areas, and the warming will continue for decades." 

In her administrative order, Palin instructed the sub-Cabinet group to develop recommendations on "the opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska sources, including the expanded use of alternative fuels, energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy, land use management, and transportation planning." She also instructed the group to look into "carbon-trading markets."

But in her op-ed last week, Palin -- while acknowledging "natural, cyclical environmental trends" and the possibility that human activity might be contributing to warming -- states flatly that "any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs." What she once called "carbon-trading markets" she now denounces as "the Democrats' cap-and-tax proposal."

Palin cites the "Climate-gate" e-mail scandal as reason enough for the president to skip the Copenhagen summit. I've written about those e-mails and why, despite what skeptics say, they do not begin to prove that climate science is fraudulent, politicized or fundamentally flawed. The most compelling evidence for climate change is found in the Arctic, and Palin has seen it firsthand.

In her 2008 newsletter, Palin mentioned one coastal village, Newtok, that would have to be relocated because of flooding due to the effects of warmer temperatures. Since then, relocation plans have been developed for two more towns, Shishmaref and Kivalina. The Army Corps of Engineers has identified more than 160 villages that are threatened, according to a recent newsletter from Palin's successor, Gov. Sean Parnell. At least 31 are judged to be in "imminent" peril.

In case anyone was wondering, Palin's home town of Wasilla sits at an elevation of 333 feet -- high and dry.
The chairman of the Cabinet working group that Palin assembled to develop a climate change strategy, Larry Hartig, is scheduled to deliver a presentation at Copenhagen. Posted in advance on the Internet, the presentation shows that Alaskans aren't just fretting about the abstract possibility of effects from warming. They're dealing with a real, live situation.

I predict we'll see more artful dodges of this kind from Palin. She made any number of pragmatic, reasonable, smart decisions as governor -- and now, it seems, will be obliged to renounce them all. Her tea-party legions have one answer -- a shouted "No!" -- for every question.

Palin knows better, but she has to fiddle her followers' chosen tune -- not while Rome burns, but while Nome melts.
The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

© Copyright 1996- 2009 The Washington Post Company 

Friday, December 11, 2009

Is the public option worth fighting for?

AP/Alex Brandon
President Barack Obama, center, with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., second from left, walks out of the Senate Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009.
Influential liberals have begun arguing a funny kind of liberal Catch-22: The health insurance "public option" is already so diluted, it's no longer worth fighting for. Got it? Because liberal Dems got played by conservative Dems, they should forfeit the entire game.
Crazy as it sounds, it might also be true.
American Prospect co-editor (and Clinton administration health policy advisor) Paul Starr kicked off this line of reasoning in the New York Times Nov. 28. "Liberals should be prepared to give up what is now a mere symbol for changes in the bill that would deliver affordable insurance more effectively and quickly to the millions of Americans who desperately need it," Starr wrote. Starr's preferred changes included moving up the bill's start date from 2014 to asap -- which is practically and politically smart -- and establishing federal "regulatory authority to prevent insurers from engaging in abusive practices and subverting the new rules" that prevent discrimination based on age and preexisting conditions. Those were great ideas but they should have come along with a public option, not instead of one.
But now that a so-called Gang of 10 -- five liberal Senate Dems, five conservative Senate Dems -- has begun meeting to seek a public option compromise, the argument for substance over (public option) symbol is getting real traction. Two "compromise" proposals have been floated: Letting Americans as young as 55 buy into Medicare, and ditching the public option for a proposal to let individuals use their own money, or federal subsidies, to buy into the federal workers' plans administered by the Office of Personnel Management -- the same plans offered to Congress and the president.
Letting older but still Medicare-ineligible people buy into the popular public plan for seniors seems like a clear win. (Although Democrats seem to know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, so without details, it's hard to say that conclusively..) People aged 54 to 65 are the hardest hit by our current system -- they're most likely to be denied care or dropped by insurance carriers for health troubles, all while also being hit hard by layoffs. Plus, adding a big chunk of "younger" folks to Medicare seems like a way to stabilize Medicare as well as -- assuming the experiment is successful -- gradually make a case for "Medicare for all."
The proposal to let the uninsured buy into the same federal programs that Congress uses has political appeal, but even more implementation problems than lowering the age for (possibly self-funded) Medicare eligibility. The biggest problem is that it leaves the private insurance system basically untouched, unless the OPM began negotiating more fiercely.
At any rate, the power of both proposals is in their implementation, so it's too early to declare either of them good or bad. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden told Rachel Maddow Monday night that the liberal Senate negotiators' goal is: "We want to be able to give an ultimatum to the insurance industry: You treat the consumer right or they're going to take their business somewhere else." We'll see.
I'm coming to reluctantly accept the conventional political wisdom that a flawed bill is better than no bill for the Democrats and President Obama, mainly because Democrats have shown no talent for making the GOP pay for its obstructionist tactics. Hard-liners like MSNBC's Ed Schultz -- I was on "The Ed Show" today debating this issue -- seem to think liberal Democrats could make political hay out of the GOP's defeating healthcare reform in 2010. But since they've been unable to make such a case in 2009, I'm not sure why it would work next year.
At any rate, here are a few of the more interesting summaries I read today:
From Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic, on what liberals should demand for compromising on the public option.
Here's Firedoglake Action's Jon Walker on flaws in the plan to open federal workers' coverage to the uninsured.
And here's Talking Points Memo's frequently updating Health Care Wire
Copyright ©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Contradictory Republicans Still Flummoxed By Medicare

Bob Cesca
The Huffington Post
December 9, 2009

If it weren't for the fact that the Washington media establishment is gamed in favor of Republicans, it's very likely that they would have long since been relegated to nothing more than a LaRouche-style crackpot cult, handing out mimeographed pamphlets outside the post office.
How else, other than via the self-conscious deference afforded it by the press, do the Republicans get away with issuing the following two press releases within a single 24 hour span:
Sunday: "Cutting Medicare is not what Americans want."
Monday: "Expanding Medicare a plan for financial ruin."
In case you're wondering, these statements didn't come from one of the many far out wingnuts like Steve King, Michele Bachmann or Virginia Foxx (Medicare recipient). They were, in fact, dispatched from Senate Minority Leader (And Real-Life Albino Sleestak) Mitch McConnell's office. Yes, the highest ranking Republican in Congress wrote-up both headlines, ostensibly proof-read and unapologetically shoved into the public record.
Two press releases that exactly contradict each other. Yet I'm a little disappointed that Mark Halperin and Chuck Todd didn't fire off tweets about how the opposing headlines were "bad news for Obama." After all, every Republican gaffe is somehow "bad news for Obama." And so they get away with it.
As we have observed over the years, this Republican contradiction problem has been a feature of modern Bush Republicanism for a while now, but it's only during the past year that the gap between contradictory statements -- let's call it the Wingnut Gap -- has narrowed down to just 24 hours. Prior to this week, it took several years for, say, the Republicans to contradict their "criticizing the commander-in-chief during wartime undermines the troops"mantra, or for Glenn Beck to accuse the Obama administration of being Maoists then to inexplicably suggest that America needs to be "more like the Chinese."
Say nothing of the contradictions evident in Sarah Palin's America-hating commie Castro headgear:
And don't give her the benefit of the doubt on this, either. She's not smart enough to wear it with deliberate irony.
But this is a dynamic that's most prevalent when the Republicans discuss Medicare. It really flummoxes them. After all, they despise socialized medicine. They despise single-payer health insurance. They despise government-run health care. They voted against the formation of Medicare during the high water mark of LBJ's Great Society. They ultimately would love to privatize (or drown in a bathtub) the whole thing and be done with it.
Yet at the same time, 55 Republican members of Congress are on Medicare. Congressman Weiner wrote up a list that includes Mitch McConnell. I could be wrong, but I also think proxy-Republican and anti-government-run-insurance drama queen Joe Lieberman, at 67 years old, receives Medicare. He's eligible. Additionally, I'm still attempting to ascertain how many Republicans get their primary care from the government-run Office of the Attending Physician. The office won't give me a partisan breakdown of their patients, but we can safely assume that, based on ideology, it's all Democrats, right?
Today, embattled Republican David Vitter spoke in favor of Byron Dorgan's Canadian drug-importation amendment and, in the process, praised the Canadian system -- which is, as you know, single-payer. However, Olympia Snowe said she doesn't support the Gang of 10's Medicare buy-in compromise, but she supports the Canadian importation measure. So she's siding with the rank and file Senate Republicans against single-payer health insurance on the buy-in, but she supports the single-payer system on the drug importation amendment. And it's not just Snowe and Vitter. The congressional Republicans are all toeing this upside-downWe Hate-Slash-Love Medicare position.
No wonder the teabaggers and dittoheads are screeching in gibberish -- steam shooting from their ears. When it comes to Medicare, they have no idea what to support or how to support it. All they know is that President Obama should keep his government hands off their Medicare -- whether or not they understand that the government, in fact, runs Medicare. He just should. So there.
The fact is that if the Republicans really supported Medicare, they should also support the Medicare buy-in proposal for Americans between the ages 55-64. But they won't. Why? Because they hate Medicare. Even though many of them are on it. And even though many of them say they want to protect it from "ruin."
But expecting logic, reason and consistency from the Republicans is wasted time. (See also Fox News Channel's Rasmussen poll analysis showing a total of 94 percent of Americans think climate scientists falsified their evidence, while 26 think they didn't, thus indicating a total of 120 percent.)
The fact remains that the private health insurance system is broken and America is being left behind by the rest of the world as we cling to the decaying wreckage of a failed healthcare system. Medicare is an obvious solution.
If Medicare works for senior citizens, then it can work for everyone else. Expanding the revenue base for Medicare by upwards of 2 million Americans with this buy-in plan, allowing a younger, healthier and, consequently, less costly population to buy into the system by paying the full, unsubsidized premiums, will only help to ameliorate Medicare's fiscal problems. Likewise, widening the buy-in window to include all adults would ultimately stabilize Medicare even further, because we'd ostensibly be adding even younger and healthier people to the pool, allowing chunks of their unused premiums to flow upwards to older, sicker recipients who need it.
And if you, Mr. and Mrs. Republican, are against a Medicare option for everyone, then you have to be against Medicare period. And feel free to be against it. You just can't have it both ways -- no matter how ridiculous and contradictory your congressional leadership is.
Copyright 2009